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INTERMISSION II - The Festival of Heroes

Chapter Text

Upon arriving in Askr, Kiran had been assigned some rather spacious living quarters that rivalled the size of any apartment she'd lived in. Given the logic-defying scale of the Askrian castle, it probably wasn't even a very impressive chamber, but it had still been a very deeply appreciated gesture, something that helped her somewhat accept her role as some kind of "Great Hero" of "prophecy" or whatever it was the Askrains saw her as. Over the last several months, she'd grown rather fond of the place, even hazarded some discreet requests about ways she could personalize it.

She supposed she shouldn't get weepy about giving it up just yet, but her anxiety told her she was done for. No home, no way to get home, and no remaining purpose in Askr. She'd gotten better at shutting down her pointless pessimism, but that didn't mean it had gone entirely silent.

Anna's solemn expression as she entered the chamber didn't help. She joined Sharena in sitting across from Kiran's living room desk, taking a deep breath and sighing it back out very slowly, eventually looking up to meet Kiran's gaze.

"What's the damages," Kiran said dully. It was about all she could do to sound dry, two full layers of irony removed, which was probably two layers too many for Sharena if she was being honest.

"You should know before I say this," Anna said softly, "that King Gustav is not a man to rush to judgment. He can be a bit stubborn, and he won't always make his reasoning apparent, but he's a good king in my eyes."

"That's so very comforting," Kiran hummed.

"The suspension of the Order stands," Anna continued glumly. "The King wants to open an investigation into the vulnerabilities that allowed Veronica to raid Askrian lands, and whether the measures we took were sufficient to prevent it from happening again. A lot of his court suspect either negligence or malice on your part, so he has to look into that too, whether he agrees with it or not."

"I'm being court-martialed," Kiran said bitterly. "Great."

"Court... martialed?" Sharena spoke timidly, struggling to sound out the phrase for some reason. Though, Kiran supposed, maybe that wasn't really a concept here, or at least not the right one.

"It's not a trial," Anna pressed. "It's more of a, er... an audit. The King's claim is - these are his words, not mine - that we were partially negligent in our duty to protect Askr from attack and wants to investigate further before committing to any changes or consequences. Maybe he changes his mind."

Kiran nodded faintly. Her anxiety gleefully swarmed her thoughts, chittering with triumph that she had been right all along, that some foreign fantasy king was going to figure out that she didn't belong here and put her out on the streets of some foreign fantasy kingdom, because that made sense. But she had much more to worry about than her own livelihood, even if it really was at stake; Kiran was far from the only one with nowhere to go. "And the Heroes?" she asked. "What is his plan for them?"

"Well," Anna sighed, "since the Order's being suspended but not terminated, they're still welcome to remain in their accomodations. I imagine the King doesn't care too much one way or another."

Fair enough. "And how long will this investigation take?"

"Hard to say." Anna shrugged. "A few weeks? Two months? Maybe longer?"

"So the Heroes are just supposed to sit around doing nothing," Sharena deadpanned, "while Veronica recovers and builds up her forces for what could be a full-scale assault for all we know?"

"His Majesty is aware that we are leaving ourselves vulnerable," Anna said patiently, "and has already opened a draft for the Askrian citizens to ensure that Veronica doesn't catch us without a standing army."

"A draft," Kiran breathed. "So it's war then? He's just committing to going to war with her, regardless of what happens."

Anna hesitated, midway through forming another word; her face went limp and she sighed heavily, nodding in defeat. "Yes," she murmured, "he's determined that that's necessary."

"Gods." Sharena hung her head. "I'm sorry, Kiran. I feel like I've let you down."

"Like you've let me-" Kiran laughed blankly. "Sharena, you've been nothing but a gem this whole time. I couldn't ask for anything more from you."

"Right," Sharena mumbled, clearly completely unconvinced.

"I'm just sure this doesn't look good for you either," Kiran added, more delicately. "And that's at least partially my fault."

"It's alright." Sharena sighed, then took a deep breath and straightened herself out. She wasn't smiling, and it looked a little strange on her. "I'll just have to face the consequences," she conceded. "This was all my idea, anyway. So I'm sure it'll come down to me."

"That's not true," Anna gasped, and Kiran understood that this was a moment for Sharena to be comforted, rather than Sharena trying to comfort Kiran. She pulled herself together - she could deal with her anxiety on her own, she had a lifetime of practice, but Sharena...

"I don't think you can be faulted for what Alfonse failed to tell you," Kiran agreed, unafraid to make clear her bitter anger towards the prince. Sharena huffed.

"I should have known," the princess muttered. "Alfonse only knew because he had already studied our world's history and the bloodlines so extensively. If I was half the student he was, I'm sure I'd have at least suspected something, but I just..."

"Your strengths lie in different areas," Anna said firmly. "He's more of the martial strategist type, and you're more the charismatic leaderly type." Sharena was already shaking her head, though, smiling faintly to Kiran.

"Not anything like her," Sharena said softly. Kiran almost pointed to herself in shock.

"Your presence goes a long way towards making the Heroes feel welcome!" Anna protested. "It might feel subtle, but it's important! Kiran, don't you think?"

"If it were just me and Alfonse," Kiran added seriously, "the tone of all of our strategy meetings and interviews would be so dry and grim we'd all - I dunno, lose it. People need your energy to know things are alright." Sharena smiled hollowly and nodded, looking down. "Not to mention," Kiran continued, "an army can only move as fast and as efficiently as their quartermaster, and there's nobody here I feel like will ever be better at that than you."

"That's right," Anna said cheerfully. "Best team mom around."

"I guess that's better than nothing," Sharena mumbled, still smiling. "Well, speaking of that, I'm still not really satisfied with just leaving all the Heroes in their room without anything to do while the investigation is going on."

"Aha, now," Anna chirped, "I did not say they'd do nothing! I've already thought this through, so you can just leave it to me. A plan that'll build public support for the Order of Heroes, and help replenish our operating funds, and -- "

"Oh, great," Sharena groaned, "another one of your money-making schemes. Go on, get it over with." Anna froze mid-sentence, staring at her, affronted.

"Listen," Anna said weakly. Kiran snorted, unable to restrain a laugh from spilling out of her.

"Go on," Kiran repeated chidingly. "Do tell how you're going to monetize heroes of myth and legend. Best tell us first so you don't offend anybody with your rough draft."

"Well, now it's going to sound terrible!" Anna protested. "I just thought; we've got a lot of very charismatic people without anything better to do, so some public service work would be good, right? Good publicity, a bit of money on the side, they stay busy without overexerting themselves, everybody wins!"

"How much money exactly is 'a bit', to you?" muttered Sharena.

"What kind of public service work are you doing that makes money?" Kiran added with noted concern.

"Aha! I'm glad you asked." Anna clasped her hands together, and all at once unfurled a roll of paper that most certainly had not been on her person before. Side effects of the powers of her axe, apparently, which did not exactly dissuade Kiran's ongoing suspicion that Anna was some kind of trickster goddess in disguise.

As she splayed the paper flat on the table, Sharena's eyes narrowed. "Where did you get this?" she asked warily.

"So you do recognize it!" Anna seemed delighted by Sharena's question. "This map just shows a piece of property owned by the royal family," she added with a wink to Kiran, and Kiran turned to Sharena with an incredulous expression.

"This is a royal visitation house," Sharena said flatly. "We use it for when we're away on business in the outlying islands for an extended period of time."

"Which is essentially never, since you maintain gates to travel such long distances very quickly," Anna interrupted airily, "so I'm sure it hasn't seen much use in a while, and I've already received permission from your mother to use it - "

"What exactly did you tell her you were using it for!?"

"It's a house?" Kiran was saying. "It's enormous, it looks like a small castle."

"It's a house," Anna assured her. "Just a big house."

"With a marina behind it," Kiran added incredulously. "Is that right?"

"Oh, no, I've added that," Anna said happily.

"You've added a few things!" Sharena objected.

"Okay, so if I'm making sense of this properly," Kiran said sharply, waving her hand, "you've taken over a royal summer home on the ocean front in some island region, to use as... What, exactly?"

"Nothing uncouth," Anna chided. "It's just about the right time to host a summer festival! Beachfront property with royal accomodations, sharing space and interacting with the heroes of other worlds - "

"I am not letting you take over one of our private homes," Sharena growled, "to turn the Heroes of other worlds, MANY OF WHOM ARE FOREIGN ROYALTY, into attractions for your harebrained luxury resort scheme."

"Ohh, Princess Sharena," Anna cried, "don't be like that! Think of all the Heroes in their cute little swimsuits and their big happy smiles, Sharena! Isn't it just darling?! Would you deny such a beautiful thing to the people of Askr?!"

"I - " Sharena flushed red. "That's not the problem!"

"I think you may have gone just a bit far," Kiran murmured, side-eying Anna, who harumphed and folded her arms, looking hurt.

"Fine, maybe a bit far," she scoffed. "Sharena's right, they're foreign dignitaries. We should at least get them a waiver to sign first."

"Commander!" Sharena shouted. Kiran giggled incredulously.

"What more do you want from me?" Anna protested. "If I get their permission, signed in a very official capacity, it's their decision to participate! So what's the problem?"

"She has a point," Kiran observed mildly, unable to keep from smiling at the Princess, who stared at her in dumbfounded horror.

"No," she breathed. "Kiran, no! What are you doing?! Don't give in to her - her - her mercantile wiles!"

"Anna," Kiran hummed, "I expect to review all promotional materials as well as whatever paperwork you're assembling for the Heroes, yes? They're my responsibility, so it falls on me to ensure they're being cared for."

"Oh, naturally," Anna gasped, clearly too taken aback to convince anybody that she felt this was natural. "Naturally, Kiran, of course! I wanted to run the whole thing by you first, it's just with the whole hurrying back to Askr and talking with the King and all that, there wasn't really a good opportunity - "

"You can't be serious!" Sharena whimpered. "You're really going to let her do this?!"

"I'll talk to some of the Heroes about it," Kiran giggled, shushing her, patting her arm calmly. "And I'll be sure to make sure all the Heroes are comfortable, and I'll be happy to have your help with that. But, I don't know, it sounds kind of fun."

"It sounds kind of fun," Sharena repeated, slowly, in utter disbelief. "It sounds kind of fun."

"Kiran's got the spirit of it," Anna cheered, standing with a twirl and clapping Sharena on the back. "I'll get straight to work, Kiran!"

"Everything goes through me first!" Kiran called after her. "If I hear you've gone behind my back on anything I'm throwing you to the wolves, and by the wolves I do mean Sharena's very pointy lance, got it?!" Anna laughed as she stepped out of the chamber, and Kiran sighed, smiling coyly into Sharena's face.

"It sounds kind of fun," Sharena repeated. "After what just happened? Tellius?"

"Here's my thinking," Kiran sighed, leaning back. "The Heroes don't really have any control over this situation, so I don't want them worried about it. The best way not to worry about something you don't control, in my experience, is to focus your attention on something else. Put some distance between you and the problem. You know?"

"I guess so," Sharena agreed, "but doesn't it just seem... I don't know... after everything that's happened..."

"They will probably need some time to process everything," Kiran acknowledged. "Would you rather they do that here, waiting for the results of the investigation, or would you rather they do it somewhere beautiful and peaceful where they can relax, and feel free to socialize with each other rather than just staying quiet? I get that it sounds tonally weird, but the more I think about it, the more I think this is probably the best thing we can do for them."

"You just want to see a beach," Sharena murmured, smiling in spite of herself.

"I do really want to see a beach," Kiran admitted, laughing. "And maybe I want to see everyone in their cute swimsuits. But more than that, I just want to see everybody relaxed and at peace with this. That's my highest motive."

Sharena nodded slowly, sighing. "You are really good at this," she said, under her breath. "Well... Let me know if I can help out at all, okay? I don't want to miss out too much, after all! Just be sure to keep Anna contained, okay?"

"Contained?" Kiran allowed her smile to turn to a toothy grin. "We're just talking about hosting a summer festival, right? You don't think for a second I'm going to let Anna's conniving ruin that, do you?"

"Ahhh," Sharena chuckled, allowing a bit of relief to show, "you're playing a dangerous game, missy. Anna can be very sneaky when she wants to be."

"Believe me, I was born to oppose overly-greedy entrepreneurs," Kiran said calmly. Sharena chuckled again, then stood and bowed gently before rolling up the estate map that Anna had laid out under them.

"But truly," the Princess added softly, "thank you for cheering me up. I really can't tell you how much I appreciate it."

"I'm here anytime," Kiran hummed, inclining her head. Sharena smiled sweetly to her... still hesitating. "Anything else?" Kiran asked.

"Maybe I don't have the right to say," Sharena said softly, "but... please... don't be angry with my brother." Kiran felt her jaw trying to clench, her good humor fading swiftly, and Sharena smiled sadly as she watched. "He lied to you," she whispered, "I understand. To me, too. But... he's a good man, Kiran. He had a good reason to. I'm sure of it."

"We'll see," Kiran said quietly. Sharena nodded, disappointed, but took her leave nonetheless.

Chapter Text

"This is certainly not the kind of castle I expected."

Celica giggled. "I suppose not," she agreed thoughtfully. "But I quite like it." They had proceeded through the foyer and into the main hall now; the hall's far wall was a great triangular window with massive curtains drawn well aside, and on either side of that window were heavy sliding doors that were presently parted to allow in a pleasant ocean breeze. Lachesis had not spent much time near a beach before - Agustria had its shorelines, but they were generally cold and barren - so this was an entirely new experience, and she could already see why it would be so popular.

Which only made her current state more frustrating. As far as she was concerned, she was perfectly mobile! Fully ambulatory. But her three weeks of allotted care had not yet ended, and recovery had apparently gone a bit slower than Priscilla had hoped, so her orders were very firm: STAY IN THE WHEELCHAIR. Celica and Genny enforced this edict with an unnervingly playful conviction, too. Almost like Celica liked pushing her around all over the place. Almost.

Oh well. It was nice to relax, and to be doted on by the scarlet-haired priestess, who - blessedly - had made a nearly full recovery herself. The skin growing in where the necrosis had taken over was considerably paler, leaving her with twisting scars covering most of her body - blessedly subtle at a distance, but rather striking up close. Celica had proven a bit sensitive about them, and that made Lachesis wonder whether her modest choice of clothing today - a long sundress with a quite large shawl draped over and a wide-brimmed hat - was a consequence of that discomfort, or if this was just how she liked to dress.

Lachesis didn't mind any of it, of course. She was positively charming dressed thusly (and had said so many times already, so no need to repeat it again) and her scars were quite beautiful as far as such things were concerned. She wondered if Ayra might even be jealous. Strange one, that Ayra.

"Castles are supposed to be defensible," Lachesis said softly, delicately tenting her fingers, pretending they weren't so stiff that it took considerable effort to hold them straight. "But I suppose that's why they refer to it as a residence, though. In spite of the walls and the grandeur, this place is far from a fortress." Celica hummed in agreement.

"It's a bit gaudy," she admitted. Lachesis chuckled.

"You think so?" She looked up at the priestess, and Celica leaned forward to smile down at her. "It would serve nicely as a venue for a festival, I would think. Though one can't help but wonder what you might change about it?"

"Oh, I don't know," Celica sighed, looking up again, her gaze curious but also very distant. "It's just very large," she said quietly. "I don't know that I care for the size of the place. It feels so empty."

"That is because we are the first to arrive," Lachesis hummed. "A castle ought never feel empty, and if it does, something is terribly wrong."

"What do you mean?"

"Even a residence such as this," Lachesis continued, gesturing broadly as they passed through the great hall, "would normally be quite lively with servants and visitors when in use. One struggles more to find a place of solitude and peace in a castle than to find a place to chat, or at least, such has been my experience."

Celica nodded slowly, and took a deep breath. "I didn't grow up in a castle," she said softly. "So I suppose I wouldn't know."

"You didn't miss much," Lachesis muttered back. Celica hummed noncommittally in response.

 

Celica's friends had joined them as well, of course. Kiran had offered the wounded veterans of the Crimean defense first choice of their accomodations, and the mages of Novis - being early risers, evidently - liked to be the first to things.

Mae and Boey were pacing along the beach, chatting back and forth with one another about something Lachesis couldn't make out. The path down from the main hall was constructed from dark-colored wood, and the sands took several stairs down to reach. Genny was still waiting just outside the hall, leaning against the railing, watching them.

"It looks nice," Genny said softly, as Celica and Lachesis came closer. "Much nicer than Novis."

"Yes," Celica agreed, as they came to rest beside her. Thankfully, the railing was high but merely a frame, so Lachesis could clearly see the beach as well from her lesser height. "The sound of the waves is so nostalgic, though. It reminds me of the evenings we would spend reading at the pier."

"Yes, I agree," Genny sighed, smiling warmly. "It's so peaceful." Lachesis was quiet - imagining Mae, Genny, and Celica, sitting on a pier with their legs dipped in ocean water, reading books together. It was tough to imagine Mae sitting still and reading, actually. She wrinkled her nose, trying not to laugh.

Instead, though, she turned her gaze aside - tracing the path down to the beach herself. "Stairs," she muttered angrily. "Stairs, of course."

"We can help you down if you want," Genny offered hastily.

"No walking," Celica chided. Lachesis glared at her.

"I can and will walk," she snapped. "Priscilla's coddling was humiliating enough, I won't have it from you two as well."

"It's important," Genny protested. "You aren't supposed to strain your muscles until they've fully repaired. We all know you've been doing exercises and that's why you've recovered more slowly, you can't put yourself at any more risk."

Lachesis blinked, caught off guard, and winced as Celica's smile turned softer and sadder. "Don't look at me like that," she muttered. "I'm not a cripple that needs your pity."

"I would like to keep it that way," Celica agreed softly. "But, Genny, I think if we help her down, there won't be any trouble. Just as long as she doesn't exert herself."

"As long as she doesn't," Genny agreed warily. "I'm sorry, Lady Lachesis, I just don't want you to get hurt."

"I know," Lachesis sighed, hanging her head. "But I can't take being confined to this thing for much longer."

"Well, let's get you out for a spell," Celica said, hunkering down and wrapping her arm under Lachesis' arms, behind her back. "Up you get."

"I can stand just fine," Lachesis protested, but she had to admit, her legs felt much less strained with Celica carrying some of her weight. They didn't want to straighten out all the way, and they tended to shake if she put all her weight on them. Like this, she was stable, at least. Gingerly they descended together, step by step - Genny seemed to have decided not to follow, so on their slow walk down, they were briefly alone.

"I know you all mean well," Lachesis mumbled, reaching up to close her hand around Celica's as they walked.

"I understand," Celica whispered back. "We all deal with Mae when she's hurt, don't worry. We get it." Lachesis couldn't help but laugh. "You seem firmer on your feet today. I'm sure you'll be standing on your own again in no time."

"Maybe I should stop doing stretches for a couple days," Lachesis muttered. "See if that speeds things along."

"I'm sure it would," Celica hummed. "You won't atrophy from a few weeks' rest, Lachesis, I can assure you of that at least."

"I know," Lachesis sighed. "But I can't help being afraid of losing my edge."

"Neither can I."

Lachesis glanced over at her, surprised, but Mae shouted Celica's name and bounded over to them before she could ask anything. She beamed at them as Lachesis took her first few delicate steps into the sand - it had a bit of give to it, but not as much as desert sand seemed to; it didn't cost her her balance, at least. "And how are you two lovebirds?" Mae chirped.

Celica turned beet-red; Lachesis glared at her. "Don't joke," she growled.

"Oh, come on," Mae groaned, rolling her eyes. "How long are you gonna keep pretending we can't tell? Besides, it's basically a crime that you don't hold hands in public, you're such a cute couple!!"

"I don't know about that," Celica mumbled.

"Stop harrassing them," Boey shouted, from some distance down the beach.

"Okay, fine," Mae shouted back. "Well, no, really," she added, turning back to the princesses, "you two are cute, that's all. You feeling okay, Lachesis?"

"Stiff," Lachesis grunted.

"Better than on the way back from Tellius," Celica reported, clearing her throat. "But as you can see, rather put out about still being in the wheelchair."

"Totally get it," Mae said emphatically, gently clapping a hand on Lachesis' shoulder. "Broke a leg falling out of a tree once, worse week of my life. Except for - uh - well, okay, second worst." She hazarded a nervous glance at Celica's face, but Celica didn't seem to react. "Anyway, it's good to see you on your feet, even if you need help getting around. You take it easy, though, okay? And I don't mean that in a 'for your health or else you'll die' kind of way, I mean that in a, 'you're super cool and deserve to lounge on a beach sipping cocktails' kinda way."

"I'll keep that in mind," Lachesis hummed, smirking. "Thank you."

"Yeah." Mae grinned. "And, Celica, you're doing good too, right?"

Celica sighed briskly. "Better than it has been," she conceded. "I, um... haven't told Lachesis yet."

"Oh. Ohh." Mae winced. Lachesis blinked, looking back and forth between them; Celica avoided her gaze at first, but then turned to her with a rather serious expression.

"I've told you some of it," she said quietly, "in confidence. But not all of it."

Lachesis nodded - she felt she understood. "One can imagine some of the relief is in my not knowing," she said graciously, "and I have no interest in breaching that sense of comfort."

"Yes, you're right," Celica sighed, smiling with relief. "Thank you so much."

"What's important is that you're feeling better," Mae declared, "so I'm gonna focus on that! So, yeah, good to hear, Celica. And, Lachesis, hey. If she gets kinda mopey or spaces out on you? You bring her to me, okay?"

"Of course," Lachesis agreed. "May we have our walk on the beach now?"

"Yeah, sure," Mae said, "though I'm legally obligated to point out how totally adorable and gay that is." Lachesis rolled her eyes; Celica laughed shyly, and Lachesis was sure they were both blushing. "See? A-dor-a-ble!~ Well, anyway, you two have fun!"

 

Once Mae had scurried away, they approached the waterline together in slow, delicate steps, each matching the other as exactly as they could. Sunlight warmed the sand beneath their bare feet. It was comforting.

The sand was flat where the waves had come to polish it, bending beneath their weight and leaving shallow prints behind that were soon washed away. Lachesis squeaked the first time the water washed over their ankles; it was cool, but not cold. Celica giggled as it drained away, leaving them partially buried in dislodged sand. They walked on, slow and quiet, watching the water splashing over their ankles and then draining away again. The world was full of heat and sound, but it was soft and serene and demanded nothing of them. Lachesis' thoughts steadily grew silent, allowing the song of the sea to fill her mind instead.

How have I earned this peace?

"I've never been on a beach before," Lachesis said quietly. It felt wrong to speak above a whisper.

"I'm glad that I get to be here with you then," Celica whispered back. "It's nice, isn't it?"

"Yes," Lachesis agreed. "It is."

They fell to silence again, but they didn't really need to speak. For a little while, they had everything they wanted. It was enough just to enjoy that together.

Chapter Text

Nino sighed, wiping her forehead briefly before switching to a new bag of uncrushed ice. She took a moment to rest her arms, then laid out her rolling pin and got back to work.

Rebecca came to hover beside her for a moment, watching her crush ice as thoroughly as she could manage. When Kiran had first described the process, it had sounded a lot harder than it actually was; Nino still wasn't very big, but if she put her whole weight into it, she could mash the ice pretty small, and it crumbled into tiny pieces without needing to be re-arranged over and over the same way you have to when you're cutting vegetables. "Looks like you're doing good here," Rebecca said cheerfully, and Nino nodded, smiling at her.

"What flavors have you got?" Nino asked. Rebecca hummed to herself as she returned to the front of their little booth, where she'd prepared a wide variety of fruit juices as flavoring earlier in the day. There was quite a wide variety, as it turned out, thanks to the abundance of seasonal fruit that had been brought in to help them prepare for the festival. This afternoon was something like a trial run - and a sort of group social for the Order, as well. Nino and Rebecca hadn't ever heard of "shaved ice" before, let alone prepared it, so they welcomed the chance to practice and get feedback from their friends before handing it out to the Askrians for real.

"Do you want some?" Rebecca asked, as she finished listing their options. She had turned to face Nino again, so she couldn't see that Kiran and Eirika - who had been chatting a little ways away about something Nino would rather not think about - were now watching them with somewhat morose expressions. It made Nino's heart sink some, but she ignored them because she was sure they wouldn't want her to be upset.

"Let's try one out," Nino agreed. "What have you got the most of?"

"I have a lot of strawberry," Rebecca hummed, pulling out one of her flavoring bottles. Nino dumped her ice shavings into the top-opening icebox they would serve from, and took a healthy scoop of it into one of their little cups and carefully shapped it with her spoon so it would look nice and smooth the way Kiran had described it; then she handed it to Rebecca, who carefully tipped the bottle towards its tip...

You could watch the brilliant red juice soak into the ice around where it was poured in - but it didn't spread very far. Rebecca righted the bottle again, wrinkling her nose at the mostly-unflavored cup. "I don't want to pour too much," she muttered.

"Maybe I should spread it around?" Nino offered, but the thought of disrupting the neat curve was kind of upsetting, and she had a feeling that that probably wasn't right.

"Oh!" But Rebecca seemed to have understood that differently - she poured again, this time carefully but quickly swirling the juice around in a spiral; the ice eagerly absorbed the flavoring as it was offered, and as soon as it was all colored red she lifted the bottle again and grinned, holding the cup aloft proudly. "There we go! I didn't realize it worked that way."

"Ohh!" Nino gasped. "Maybe you could do two flavors then, if you just flavor one half and then the other!"

"Ooh, that's clever," Rebecca giggled. "Give me another one, let's try!"

So that's how they ended up with an orange-and-grape shaved ice, and why they were giggling fitfully about it as Kiran and Eirika paced over towards their booth. It just looked so silly, with a deep purple stripe on one side and a vividly orange one on the other. But it tasted nice! The flavors didn't mix at all - you could just enjoy either flavor, or both, as much as you liked.

"Looks like you've got the hang of it," Kiran observed, smiling gently. Nino beamed at her. "Do you have sugar or cream to go on the top of it?"

"We do," Rebecca replied, straightening at the front of the counter. "Would either of you like to try anything?"

"Oh, that's sweet of you," Eirika cooed, beaming. "I'll take just a little bit of, um... strawberry, I think."

"Cherry and lime," Kiran said softly, "with a good amount of sugar, please."

So, Nino scooped out two helpings - one smaller than the other - and handed them up to Rebecca, and Rebecca flavored all of one with strawberry and the other half and half before topping with sugar. Kiran watched them work with a distant, serene smile on her face. Eirika watched too, at first, but she seemed a little distracted, losing focus until Rebecca offered her ice and returned her to the present with a start. "Oh, thank you," she breathed, accepting it gingerly in both hands, and waiting for Kiran to get hers before taking one of their very tiny wooden spoons and tasting it. "Ah!" She blinked. "It's quite good... it's very cold too, though I'm not sure what else I expected."

"It's flavored ice, after all," Kiran agreed, chuckling. "Thank you, girls, it's great. I thought it'd be harder to get the ice small enough, but you've done really well, Nino."

"Thank you!" Nino gasped, standing at attention, delighted. "It's kind of hard work, but if it's good then it's worth it!"

"The flavoring is really good too," Kiran added lowly, as though surprised. "I guess fresh fruit makes a difference, huh? Good work, Rebecca."

"Thank you, ma'am," Rebecca said, a bit shyly. "Hopefully everyone else likes it as much as you do."

"I'm sure they will," Eirika assured them. "I think I'm going to have Ephraim and Julia try this, in fact. Do you mind if I send them your way if they'd like some?"

"Nope," Rebecca chirped. "Send 'em over! Um, ma'am." Eirika giggled.

"Oh, wait a minute," Nino gasped. "We wanted to take some to a few people first! I'll be back soon, so just wait a bit before anyone else comes, okay?"

 

"A few people" was decidedly an understatement. Nino and Rebecca may have been better served carrying their entire stall over to the docks where Eliwood and his friends were working; they'd been given the task of fixing and extending the docks to reach an area of water where they could potentially moor some boats. Ever since he had married Ninian, Eliwood had taken to the sea with a surprising passion, and he and Ninian sailed together often during peacetimes - bringing Roy along as well once he had joined them, of course. (Nino suspected it had something to do with Ninian's nature as a dragon somehow, but she had no proof.) So they had jumped at the chance to run the fledgling marina for the festival, and of course Lyn and Hector were not about to make the couple do all the work themselves.

It was sweet seeing them all in their beach attire, working together and chatting. Ninian had been frail and even a bit sickly as long as Nino had known her, so it surprised her to see the serene dragon mother all but frolicking in the water, happily swimming to and fro while carrying beams of wood to where they needed to be. It was Ninian who first spotted Nino on the shore, too, yelling her name and beaming, treading water and waving gleefully; all at once everyone stopped what they were doing to face her, happy to see her.

There were two faces with which Nino was not very familiar - one, of course, the red-headed young man that Lyn had introduced as being Roy himself. The resemblence with his father was certainly clear. He hung back a bit, his smile a little more muted than the others'; maybe he didn't trust her? But that would be reasonable if not. The other stranger was harder to place right away, but Hector ferried her in front of him at the earliest opportunity and gestured to her with an unmistakeable pride. "I don't know that you two have met yet," Hector announced, "so just in case - this is my daughter, Lilina!"

"Oh!" Nino gasped, beaming. "Lilina, it's lovely to meet you!"

"It's lovely to meet you too, Nino." Lilina curtsied neatly. "What is that you've got?"

"It's shaved ice!" Nino presented one cup proudly to Eliwood, who accepted his serving with an expression of surprise and curiosity. "It's a little weird at first, but I really like it, and I wanted to bring some to you all now that we've got the hang of making it!"

"We've got some for everyone," Rebecca added loudly, smiling at everyone all together.

Nino handed out all of her cups first before helping Rebecca with the rest. Eliwood's first, of course, then Ninian's and Roy's. "It's wonderful to see you in such good health," Nino said kindly to the dragon, and Ninian smiled brightly back at her.

"It's because of the dragonstone," she replied, as cheerfully as her very soft voice ever managed. "Having an anchor for my power again... I feel wonderful. Better than I've felt in years."

"I feel blessed," Eliwood added, turning to her; the couple smiled sweetly at each other. "To be able to see you at your best is a dream come true, for me."

"Even if it must be under these circumstances," Ninian agreed, "I'm so happy we can all be together like this." Nino thought she might squeal if they were any cuter, so she took her opportunity to move on, though she couldn't help but notice how awkward (but happy) Roy seemed beside them as they made love-eyes at each other.

Next, Lyn and Florina. They made a strange, but lovely couple, too; Florina was less timid with Lyn around, and Lyn spoke more gently with Florina beside her. "Thanks," Lyn said cheerfully, trying to smell her shaved ice first. "Though, why is it green?"

"It's lime flavored!" Nino chirped, grinning. She had no way to know, but lime had sounded right for Lyn, so she was really just hoping she was right, and trying to hide her fear of being wrong.

"It melts in your mouth soon as you put it in," Ninian added, from a pier over. "It's very delicious, Nino!"

"What flavor did you get?" Lyn called, as Florina accepted her own serving (orange-flavored).

"I think mine is some sort of melon," Ninian replied, inspecting her cup curiously. It was already nearly empty somehow! Nino nodded for confirmation. "I will definitely have to try more throughout the festival, Nino! It's very good!"

Nino felt like she couldn't stop smiling if she wanted to. "I'm so glad you like it!" She turned back to Rebecca, who was beaming, too.

Hector and Lilina were last. If Nino remembered right, Lilina's mother was one of Florina's sisters. She hadn't been one to stay at home too much even after everyone got settled down, but Nino imagined that they were still missing her despite. Lilina gave a soft, polite thank-you, then looked pointedly to her father, who coughed and offered a quiet "thanks" of his own.

For a moment, Nino stood back with Rebecca, watching as the Lycian families ate their shave ice and quietly visited with one another. She watched Ninian kick her legs happily in the surf. Florina set her finished cup aside and leaned sideways against Lyn, nuzzling her shoulder. Hector turned to say something to Lyn, a big grin on his face.

"What was that?!" Lyn shouted - Nino flinched, and Lilina groaned. "What did you just say?!"

"Nothing bad," Hector gasped, as innocently as he possibly could. "Just that you look very nice in your - whatever that is."

Lyn narrowed her eyes, flushing red. "Who's looking? Huh?"

"Nobody's looking!" Hector groaned. "I'm just - it's a compliment!"

"Father," Lilina sighed, rolling her eyes and laughing. "I'm sorry, Lady Lyndis, I know how he is..."

"I'm sure you do," Lyn said defensively, curling into her next bite of ice and watching them with a stung expression. "And just Lyn is fine, please."

"Hector," Ninian admonished. "You should know better than to talk about Lyn's appearance by now."

"Why?!" Hector retorted, glaring back at the dragoness, who was giggling mirthfully as though she'd told a joke. "I'm just saying, she looks good! She doesn't need to be ashamed about it or whatever!"

"I'm not some statue for you to be ogling all the time," Lyn protested. Ninian gestured to her pointedly.

"Just because I'm sure you would be totally at peace swimming around with nothing on at all," Ninian hummed - Hector sputtered as Lilina and Lyn both burst into laughter.

"I have SOME shame," Hector snorted, folding his arms. "How dare you," he added to Lilina, glaring at her. "My own daughter betrays me."

"I'm sorry," Lilina giggled, "It was just silly! Though, really, Ninian, aren't you one to talk?"

Ninian turned faintly pink, but looked back at them with the most innocent expression possible. "Me?"

"Oh no you don't, honey," Eliwood warned lowly, patting her shoulder. Ninian pouted at him, kicking her legs.

"Aren't you basically naked anytime you transform anyway?" Hector snorted. "Really, if anyone's shameless here - "

He was interrupted by a great splash of water that swept over him all at once - Lilina yelped and fell backwards to avoid the worst of it, but Hector turned around spitting and red-faced to see Lyn folding her arms and glaring at him, her empty cup set aside.

"It's what you deserved," Lyn said haughtily, "being so tactless."

Hector responded by splashing her back, with a wave probably twice as large - drenching Lyn and Florina both. Within moments the three of them were animatedly throwing water back and forth at one another and yelling, and Lilina soon joined in to even the odds while Ninian watched with impish delight and Eliwood shook his head sadly.

"Look what you did," Eliwood muttered. Ninian grinned at him.

"Aren't you proud of me?" she cooed.

Chapter Text

The night sky was clear and the moon full, its pale light gleaming on the waves; the beachfront basked in it, deceptively well-lit by its reflection. Lucina thought she had chosen a place where they wouldn't be seen around the rocks that littered the beach's far side, but with such beautiful lighting all around them, she couldn't really be sure.

Part of her loved the thrill of the possibility, but...

But she'd resolved not to think about it, resolved not to break down or shy away from her unspoken commitment to Catria, and besides it was rather hard to do that with Catria lavishing her neck and nape with kisses, pulling Lucina's robe over her shoulder and casting it to the sand beneath them, leaving her in her two-piece swimsuit she had donned only as an excuse to get out of the castle in case she ran in to anyone; even harder as Catria trailed her lips down Lucina's front to her stomach, carefully lowering to her knees to reach even lower than that -

Catria had learned very fast, for someone that had not been sure of her sexuality until recently. It wasn't necessarily that Catria was so good with her tongue and hands - she was, to be fair - it was more just... Catria's attitude, her nature, the way she shyly pretended not to know why Lucina was here, the way she glanced nervously over Lucina's shoulder as the cast-off Exalt approached within intimate distance, the awe and reverence and the faintest reservation in the pegasus knight's eyes as she beheld Lucina's nearly-naked form not just this time but every time... to Catria, Lucina was forbidden fruit, a sinful delight far too sweet to be resisted, and it just made Lucina feel so alive.

It was just such a joy to watch Catria on her knees, pulling her swimsuit bottom to one ankle with the faintest hesitation but a much clearer urgency; who wouldn't swoon over how badly Catria wanted to taste her, to watch Catria's chest heave with long breaths as she wondered maybe if she should stop herself this time, to be something so tempting that your partner can't resist you even if they feel like maybe they should -

Lucina felt bad - she really did feel bad, she didn't want Catria to feel like this was wrong, but - but it kind of was, and besides it just felt so good -

And she had resolved not to think about why it was wrong, because it wasn't Catria's fault and this was as much for Catria's pleasure as her own. She didn't want to ruin this for Catria, after all, so she bit her tongue and bit her lip and just watched in shivering anticipation as Catria teased between her legs with firm kisses and delicate movements of her tongue, tracing along Lucina's lips, indulging herself only slowly at first - before reaching up to pry Lucina further open with two fingers and pressing her lips against Lucina, pushing into her with her tongue...

Lucina groaned and rolled her neck back, already struggling to keep her breathing even. Not to say anything bad about Severa, but Catria was so much more patient and measured, and now Lucina was addicted to that patience. She was addicted to this feeling Catria could drive her to so effortlessly now, of the entire world fading away around her, hazy warmth crawling across her skin as she shivered and twitched trying to contain her tension. She couldn't bring herself to look, but with her hands on Catria's shoulders she could feel Catria's movements, feel her working her with lips and tongue with a sweet contentedness, helping herself to Lucina's pleasure. Lucina's voice was creeping into her breaths now, her shoulders flexing with every whimpering, wanting sigh.

Part of her wanted to just stay like this forever. Let Catria pleasure her until she got tired. There was another feeling she wanted just as much, but it was so hard to convince herself to tell Catria to stop. Just a bit more, she promised herself, pressing herself backwards against the rock she was resting on, arching one leg over Catria's shoulder and settling her fingers into Catria's short hair, pulling on her just barely...

Catria's eyes flicked up briefly, watching Lucina with a falsely innocent, questioning gaze. Lucina moaned shakily in answer, and Catria hummed peacefully and closed her eyes again, digging in just a bit deeper, pressing in just a bit more firmly. For a few moments, Lucina allowed herself to bask in it, trembling and stretching in vain attempts to soothe the fire Catria was stoking in her, but...

But she had to stop, if only so she could pay Catria back as she deserved.

When Lucina's tone changed, when her feeble attempts to push back grew just a bit more earnest, Catria knew to relent; she shifted back slightly, a nervously inquisitive gaze meeting Lucina's as she looked down. Still driven on by aching heat in her muscles Lucina snatched her up at once, lefting by her shoulders and kissing her fervently even as they tangled their legs trying to turn around; now Catria was the one being pressed backwards against the angled rock, as Lucina's hand found purchase between her legs instead.

At first Lucina tried to be slow. She tried to be gentle. Catria responded to that, her eyelids fluttering before she settled on keeping them closed, breathing through parted lips to try to ensure that those breaths were even and stable. Her chest heaved, her hips rolled forward and back timidly. It egged Lucina on. She ached, she burned so badly, she couldn't stop herself from escalating a little; the movements of her wrist were more forceful and her prey was starting to squirm, so Catria hesitantly lifted her leg and Lucina hooked it up and over her shoulder, well aware by now of Catria's flexibility. And then she only was enticed further, she locked her arm and began working her wrist more jaggedly.

It wasn't long before she was tearing airy, withering gasps from Catria's lips, watching Catria writhe against the surface of the rock, arching her back, breathing sharply and jaggedly - and with a display as animated as that, it wasn't long before Lucina dove onto her, working her nape and neck and ears with tongue and teeth alike, pressuring and teasing her in an effort to push her ever further. Catria, it turned out, liked to be overwhelmed. The more of Lucina she got, the more she wanted. She was utterly insatiable. But on a good night, like tonight, she'd get close.

"Oh, gods," Catria whimpered, trembling and unstable, feebly wrapping her arms around Lucina's midsection and clutching weakly at her sides. "Lucina," she whined, "Lucina, fuck, fuck...!" She moaned - and then again, as Lucina pressed into her more, Catria's leg now stretching up almost completely straight as Lucina dragged her tongue up Catria's throat; she gave Catria a moment to moan her sweet little heart out, drinking in the sound, before locking lips and tongues with her to muffle her... though Lucina liked to think of it more as stealing all those sounds for herself.

With their bodies pressed closed together like this, Lucina could feel Catria's heart racing, her body shaking, her hips thrusting eagerly into Lucina's wrist. She could hear Catria's rushed, desperate breathing in between their increasingly haphazard kisses. She could feel how close Catria was...

"Please," Catria was whining whenever she had the room, "please, please, ah, ahh, fuck, Lu- hh- Luci- haah - "

And Lucina shifted back a little, smiling, admiring her. Catria managed to open one eye partway, but the other remained wrenched shut, her lips still frozen in a wide perpetual gasp, moaning on every breath.

"Come for me," Lucina whispered. Catria spasmed, nodding eagerly. "You want to, don't you?"

Catria tried to respond - but what happened instead was she squealed and arched her back suddenly, her body rocking and quivering in the wake of her orgasm. It only lasted a brief, beautiful moment before her breathing started to even out into long, heaving sighs, her shoulders and arms slumping against the rock, completely limp; only now did Lucina realize that Catria had lifted her other leg, trusting her entire weight to Lucina. Not that that was a problem.

"Gods," Catria breathed. "Lucina..."

Lucina waited, still smiling, but Catria couldn't seem to form any more words. So Lucina just leaned in to kiss her again instead.

Chapter Text

During the earlier part of the festival days, when the daylight still held, a section of beach had been open for everyone to use; if you're going to allow people to swim, you need lifeguards, but fortunately Ephraim and Alm had volunteered... and all but dragged Roy along with them.

It had been a fairly uneventful afternoon of chatting and people-watching, and the only bothersome work they had to do all day was comb the beach for trash once everyone had cleared out. They milled about together at the edge of the stall arrangements, watching other members of the Order prepare a fireworks display for the evening, chatting about what they might do with their time left.

"Eirika's going with Julia," Ephraim explained, when Alm asked about her. Alm nodded with an expression of realization. "She seems really happy to take care of her," he added with a shrug. "And Julia probably wouldn't really be able to enjoy it by herself."

"Poor girl," Alm murmured. "I'm glad Eirika's looking after her." Ephraim nodded.

"Between you and me, though," Ephraim added lowly, "I think Eirika's into her."

"What - ?" Alm gasped. "Oh, really?"

"Oh, we're gossipping now," Roy cut in dryly. "Is that what we're doing?"

"It's my own damn sister," Ephraim groaned, "what's the problem with it? Besides, I mean, if it turns out I'm right, then I'm happy for her. Eirika's not really allowed herself any self-care since the war ended back home. She's the kind of girl that will work herself to death if you don't stop her."

"Ah," Alm said lowly, "I, ah... know the feeling." He smiled faintly, as Roy and Ephraim both regarded him with surprise. "It's good that she has more friends to help her, then, I guess."

"Well, there's that," Ephraim agreed hesitantly. "But I mean..." He glanced at Roy, as if asking for help, and Roy squinted back at him at a loss. "There's also just - I don't think Eirika's, like - y'know - let loose, in a while. If you know what I mean."

"I don't," Alm said blankly.

"We're definitely gossipping now," Roy admonished, folding his arms.

"Oh, come on," Ephraim sighed, rolling his eyes. "We're not adult men enough to talk about this kind of thing?"

"About your sister potentially having stress relief sex with a virtually disabled girl?" Roy said incredulously. Alm gasped, eyes growing cartoonishly wide.

"OH," he breathed. "Ohhhh."

"You're only just now - ?" Ephraim did a baffled double-take. "Alm? They told you about all that in the village you grew up in, didn't they?"

"A good deal more than I'd have liked, in fact," Alm snapped, his face now glowing a shade of crimson to match Roy's hair. "I'm not into it. To each their own and all, it's just not my thing."

"Alright, I guess that's fair," Ephraim sighed, shaking his head. "Well, sorry to bring it up, in that case. I've just been glad Eirika's forming relationships and feeling her feelings, is all. Hopefully things go well for her."

"I don't mind you talking about it," Alm corrected hastily, glancing over at Roy. "I mean, maybe it's more normal in other worlds?"

"It's not an especially princely thing to talk about," Roy muttered.

"It isn't," Ephraim agreed, "but, I mean - we're friends, right? Pals? We can talk about some things that aren't kosher without getting all judgmental about it?"

"I didn't mean to come across as judgmental," Roy said quietly, frowning. That was the moment that Sharena rushed into the middle of them, nearly bowling Alm over in the process; she looked out of breath and frantic, and all of them immediately know something was wrong.

"Fae's missing," she gasped, between wheezes. "Can't find her - Tiki fell asleep - "

"Oh, no," Roy breathed, "how long has she been gone?"

"Tiki doesn't know," Sharena whimpered. "We figure she can't have gone too far, but if she got in the water when no one was looking - "

Roy's heart stopped. "She grew up in a desert," Roy gasped, "she doesn't have any idea how to swim, or anything about staying safe at an ocean - "

Ephraim did not need to hear anything else; he took off sprinting down the beach, snatching up a torch from one of its stands nearby to better see by. "I'll check the pier side," Alm offered, "since you're not as comfortable near the water, Roy - anywhere else she might be?"

"There's a pathway out above the bluff too, right?" Roy asked, and Sharena nodded. "She might have tried to climb up or down there, I'll check that out."

"Okay," Sharena sighed, "okay - thank you both, thank you Ephraim!" She gestured back towards the crowd. "We're going to keep looking here - um, Alm, where's Celica, do you know?"

"I think she's in the main hall with Lachesis," Alm offered.

 

Though most of the main course foods were available in the stalls outside, there was a quite extravagant array of snacks and, mostly, drinks in the main hall as well. Opposite them, Caeda and Palla had brought in their pegasi, who were both notably very friendly and happy to meet any Askrians that had never seen one before, which turned out to be quite a few.

But overall the mood of the room was muted and quiet, compared to outside, and that made it comfortable for Lachesis and Celica to be here. Mae, Genny, and Boey were running a stall making dumplings, so Celica and Lachesis were otherwise by themselves for the evening - but Camilla and several of her siblings were here too, and before long the Nohrian princess had invited Lachesis to join them. Lachesis, of course, had already met Hinoka and Corrin before, but she had not met Leo - Camilla's younger brother - or Takumi - who was Hinoka's younger. With introductions out of the way, Hinoka eagerly suggested they play the game Lachesis had taught them nearly two months ago.

"I'll sit this one out," Corrin mumbled as Lachesis retrieved her cards, shuffling with playful glee. "Sorry."

"Oh, don't apologize," Lachesis said easily, continuing to shuffle - she had once been very good at handling cards, but with her fingers aching and stiff like this she had to move a bit slower. Genny and Celica both adamantly maintained that she would regain full dexterity before long, so she did her best not to dwell on it. "I know how parties can be," she continued, "so you don't need to justify yourself."

"Thanks." Corrin smiled faintly, and glanced over Leo. "Besides, I don't really feel up to being humiliated by Leo today."

"Oh, well, no pressure," Leo huffed, catching the cards as Lachesis began to deal. "What are we playing, exactly?"

"Perhaps she'll tell us the name this time," Camilla cooed.

"Yeah, we're abrasive company," Hinoka added, grinning. Lachesis rolled her eyes, glancing up to Celica with arched eyebrows.

"Well, since we aren't all royalty," she hummed, and Celica pressed her lips together with a playfully tense expression in response. "The game is called bullshit. But we usually just said BS."

"Oh," Leo said blankly. Corrin snorted, and Hinoka's grin grew to bursting.

"We?" Camilla said innocently. "Oh, did you use to play with friends?"

Lachesis was quiet, startled by the question - but only for just a moment. "Yes," she said, as evenly as she could, eager to make a graceful recovery. "We usually only played with three or four of us, but it was a fun way to pass time an evening after a march. And, as you have noticed, it's a remarkably silly game when played with alcohol."

"So," Leo murmured, "you have dealt out all the cards... and...?"

"You play cards face-down from your hand and claim that they're all the same number," Corrin explained quietly. "I think Lachesis will probably start at aces, and then it'll go up for each player to twos, threes, through jack-queen-king. If anyone doesn't believe you, they can call you out; if they're right, you take all the cards in the middle, but if you weren't lying the accuser takes all the cards in the middle."

"And first to get rid of their hand wins," Leo finished lowly. "So this is a game about lying very carefully."

"Basically, yes," Corrin agreed.

"Oh," Takumi huffed, "well, here I was upset that Corrin was just assuming you'd be better than me, but if this is a game for liars then maybe that's not a good thing?"

"You only say that because you're so gullible," Leo muttered, without even looking at him. Lachesis arched her eyebrows, but wasn't given a chance to react.

"I'm not the one that washes his hair with tomato sauce," Takumi fired back. Lachesis and Celica blinked at them doe-eyed, Corrin buried her face in her hands, Camilla groaned and Hinoka rolled her eyes.

"First of all, that wasn't a funny prank," Leo growled, using his cards to cover his reddening face, "and secondly that's not even close to the same thing."

"Winning at cards is all about observation," Takumi taunted, drawing himself up. "If you can't even tell when something close to you has been replaced with a fake, how are you going to be able to tell when someone's lying about their cards?"

"Boys," Corrin groaned. "Please."

"Yes, quit being childish," Leo snapped.

"Oh, as if you've never been," Takumi sighed.

"What is that supposed to mean?!"

"To be fair," Hinoka said lowly, "you kinda started it, Takumi."

"Only because he was just talking about how fighting on horseback is inherently better than fighting on foot blah blah," Takumi seethed right back, glaring at Leo at its end, who returned his gaze undeterred.

"How can you contest it?" Leo huffed. "Without building fatigue from merely attempting to manuever, while achiving much greater speed and agility and therefore much greater tactical versatility... if a soldier can be trained to fight on horseback, they should be, I think. And if they can bond with a pegasus or a wyvern, all the better!"

"Or a kinshi," Hinoka added hastily, because if she didn't, Takumi would.

"Or a kinshi," Leo agreed easily.

"Are you agreeing with him?" Takumi cried, turning aghast to Hinoka, who looked only baffled at the accusation.

"I don't even know what you're mad about," Hinoka protested. "But, I mean, I guess I don't really agree - Ryoma is a far better swordsman than - "

"Okay, no, listen," Leo protested angrily, "you can't just -- "

"OKAY," Corrin interrupted loudly, "We are NOT getting into this conversation again." She gestured pointedly to Lachesis and Celica, who wore plastered-on innocence as best they could. "You're humiliating yourselves in front of the Demons of Crimea."

"Oh?" Lachesis blinked. Camilla grinned wickedly, a low chuckle in her throat.

"You weren't there to hear the title," the wyvern princess crooned, "but yes, that's what Embla's forces call us. What a glorious thing to hear your enemy scream as you bear down on them from above."

"Camilla's a bit of a blood knight," Corrin added lowly, "but, well, it's good to be respected by the enemy, I feel."

"After what happened," Celica said softly, "I'm not surprised they think we're demons." Lachesis could not help but laugh hollowly.

"After what happened," she added, "we may very well be, don't you think?" Celica huffed, smiling bitterly to herself as well. Corrin seemed to be unsure what to say, and turning to Camilla, she seemed only more confused by the knowing smile on Camilla's face as well. Lachesis felt just a little bit sick, seeing also the admiration in Camilla's gaze - she still did not feel she deserved that, not as her commander, but... well, as some kind of otherworldly war demon, perhaps that she could stomach somewhat better.

"Ah, um... miss... Celica?"

Celica turned around, surprised, to see Catria behind her. Lachesis was not closely acquainted with her, but it was clear that Celica and Catria had some kind of history together, as Celica lit up at the sight of her. Lachesis found herself wondering how long the girl had been waiting to approach them. "Catria," she gasped, "how are you? Is something the matter? You look pale."

"Yes," Catria replied, "Fae is missing, and Lucina's got us helping her look. She's a very young manakete, so it's like a child is lost, except... that child can also possibly go on a draconic rampage if she gets upset."

"Oh dear," Celica gasped.

"That is a problem," Corrin agreed, her voice low and urgent.

"We haven't been paying close attention in here," Leo said, starting to push himself up, "should we sweep the room?"

"Yeah, if you could help out," Catria gasped, gratitude pouring through her voice. "We don't have anyone looking inside - "

"Celica," Lachesis said promptly, setting down her cards face-down. "Shall we?"

And Celica beamed at her, understanding; this was something Lachesis could most certainly do without needing to get out of her wheelchair. "Yes, Lachesis and I will search the main halls," Celica promised.

"Corrin, Leo," Takumi suggested, any prior vitriol entirely gone from his voice, "we can sweep the far tower if she's not in here, right?" His siblings both nodded.

"She may have found the path through to the western bluff," Corrin murmured, glancing at Camilla, who needed to be told no more; she nodded to Hinoka, and they addressed Catria as well.

"We'll search the western cliffs from the air," Hinoka proclaimed. "Just in case she's found her way over there."

"In all likelihood," Corrin added seriously, "she's probably just wandering around the festival somewhere. That's what my gut tells me, anyway."

"We'll do our best to search there too," Catria promised. "Thank you, everyone, for your help!"

 

Julia needed frequent breaks to sit down, but despite that she seemed to be enjoying the festival a great deal. Even though she'd mentioned a bit of anxiety about the crowds, she just huddled close to Eirika as the princess had instructed, and Eirika with her greater height and presence would guide them through it to safety, and that would be that. Eirika liked to feel like her escort, as though her duty were guarding a priestess of light. Was it so wrong for a princess to fantasize sometimes? She certainly hoped not.

They'd just come from Nino and Rebecca's stall, which was proving very popular, though Eirika was sure that was just as much because of Nino's beautiful smile as it was their sugary icy treats. Nino was a very sweet girl, someone that Eirika was delighted to have worked with in the past, and a friendship she was hoping to foster a bit further - even though Nino seemed very hesitant to carry conversation on her own. It was a problem Eirika was very used to by now. Royalty have a tough time making sincere connections with more common people. Hard for anything to feel sincere when it's simply expected that everyone look up to you, by nature of your birthright.

That was part of what made Julia so special. Honestly - Eirika could not get a read on her nobility at all, but... she kind of liked it that way. As charmed as she was by L'Arachel's overwhelming, ah... 'class'... Julia had a very similar and yet totally opposite feel to her. One could be forgiven for happening upon Julia in the woods by mere chance and bowing down to her simply on instinct. And yet, in word and in action, none Eirika had ever met exuded such overwhelming humility, nor such serene kindness. Except... maybe... except maybe Lyon.

She tried not to dwell too much on the similarities, but she just... couldn't help that that was how she felt. Lyon, Lyon, her greatest failure, her greatest aching regret, the hole torn in her heart by her own negligence and childish ignorance. If only, if only, she had understood the signs earlier, if only she had been there...

"Eirika?"

Right. Right, she was... in the here and now, and mustn't lose her focus. "My apologies," she said graciously, turning and looking down into Julia's smiling face, choosing to push aside her confused grief and instead merely thank the fates for a chance at what might be redemption.

"We can keep going," Julia offered, her legs swaying beneath her as they sat together. But Eirika shook her head. She was actually rather comfortable sitting down, aside from it being easier for her thoughts to drift. "Are you sure?"

"I'm enjoying our break," Eirika replied. "How is your ice?"

"It's very cold!" Julia laughed, turning a little pink. She had only gone through about half of it, and she poked at it playfully with her little spoon as Eirika studied it. She'd gone for a rather peculiar combination of flavors - lime, watermelon, and strawberry - that Eirika thought hardly worked well together at all, but if that was what Julia liked... "It's very sweet," she added, "and I like the flavors..."

"May I ask why you chose those, in particular?" Eirika asked, tilting her head. Julia blinked at her.

"Oh, I've just never had those fruits before," Julia admitted. "They sounded kind of exotic!"

"You've - " Eirika did a double take. "You've never had... a strawberry?"

"No," Julia said shyly, smiling. "I - I take it that's a bit unusual, but... um..."

Eirika hesitated, thinking maybe Julia would continue, but she trailed off and her smile started to fade as she realized Eirika was not going to step in. Eirika, unfortunately, was a bit late to the realization; only as Julia sighed and turned away did she start to realize maybe this was not a comfortable subject for her, but it was too late and Julia was already speaking again:

"I didn't have much time to try new things as a girl," she said quietly. "And... to be honest... my memory is very bad, as I'm sure you've noticed by now. It's entirely possible I've had one of these before and simply don't remember." She sighed, as she held the flavored ice aloft. "I think I was hoping," she continued, "that I would recognize their taste. But I suppose it's fine if they're new, too."

"I'm sorry to cause you stress," Eirika gasped, as soon as she felt she had a chance; Julia smiled gently at her, her gratitude clear.

"You're very sweet," she said. "But you must understand, you are the least stressful part of my life these days."

Now it was Eirika's turn to feel flush. "I- I-I am?"

"Yes!" Julia beamed. "I so deeply enjoy your company, Eirika. I'm so happy you are willing to spend time with me. It's always been hard keeping friends, with my condition and..." She paused, and cleared her throat. "I'm grateful to have such a caring and constant friend as you."

"I-I..." Eirika struggled to find her voice for a moment. Julia's smile was so beautiful! So... so radiant and warm, like... basking in a warm summer sun, and yet also somehow healing in a spiritual way even the Sun could not manage... She had to clear her throat before words would form: "I'll always be here for you," she managed to say, blushing at the intensity of her words and feelings - not meaning to say something so strong, but... not really finding the will in her to deny it. "I feel blessed that you would call me your friend, Julia."

Julia looked sweetly taken aback, too, and that was some comfort to her. "I would say the very same," the girl whispered, her smile growing a bit bashful, fluttering her eyelids sweetly at Eirika, and - oh, gods, Eirika's heart started to race because - was she flirting - ???

At that moment, the very greatest blessing and the most vicious curse, that was when Palla happened upon them, fretting and fidgeting, drawing Julia's attention away first and then Eirika's begrudgingly after, but the anxiety written on the pegasus knight's face was more than enough to shatter the moment and return them to reality. "I'm so sorry to interrupt, your highness," Palla said hastily, bowing, "but - may I ask, have you seen Fae recently?"

"She's missing?" Eirika gasped. Fae had only started fighting with them recently, and even then not very often; she was pacifistic, but also fiercely temperamental, and was prone to ignoring orders when made angry. "Oh, no. We haven't seen her that I can recall - d-do you need help searching?"

"Oh, please," Palla whimpered. "We've searched everywhere, your brother has even started trying to search around the bay and the docks - we're worried about what might happen if she gets scared by herself..."

"She's a dragon," Julia whispered, "isn't she?" The others glanced to her; she had a strange look on her face, calm but somewhat confused, as though she had thought of some inconsistency in what Palla was telling them. Palla nodded, unsure what to make of her reaction. "Eirika... I don't think Fae is lost."

"What - ?" Eirika blinked at her. "What do you mean?"

"Fae may be very old," Julia continued, smiling, "but she is still a child, isn't she? And from what I have seen, a very good child, at that. I don't think she's lost. I think if she was lost, she would have found us by now." She turned to Palla, rising slowly from her bench, her ice set aside. "We will find her," she promised. "Leave it to us."

"Let us know if you do," Palla agreed. "Thank you both so much!" She turned back to the crowd, but Julia took Eirika's wrist and gently led her in the other direction, guiding her back into the festival stalls where the crowds were thickest. Eirika instinctively knew that Julia would be relying on her to keep the crowds clear enough that the smaller girl did not get overwhelmed, so she focused herself on this duty, and let Julia instead lean on her intuition.

 

It didn't take them very long. Julia was not watching the stalls. She was following her nose.

And that led them to a rather large stall manned by Mae, Boey, and Genny, who were shuffling back and forth taking turns at various stages of preparing and selling dumplings. Their treats were very popular, but impressively they were managing to keep up, and even more impressively, Julia was able to spot Fae in the back helping herself to the misshapen rejects and cheerfully learning how to pinch dumpling shells together from Genny, who of course was none the wiser that the girl was missing and shouldn't be here.

Several others joined them shortly after Eirika and Julia first arrived - out-of-breath search party members that had come up from the castle; Takumi had happened upon Setsuna and routinely asked her if she'd seen a pink-haired dragon girl... and of course Setsuna had some vague memory of helping such a person find something tasty to eat. He sourly remarked that it was probably the most helpful Setsuna had ever been.

For a moment they just socialized around the dumpling stall. Boey and Mae chatted with Lachesis and Celica, while Eirika spoke with Corrin, introduced herself to Takumi, and greeted Leo and wished him a happy festival. They had met, of course, but they couldn't talk too much about her lessons here. He had promised to keep them secret for her, and to her relief, he seemed to take that very seriously. Corrin seemed to be a bit tired, but in mostly good health, which lightened Eirika's heart a great deal.

She greeted Lachesis next, who was hobbling about cautiously out of her wheelchair; her recovery was still only coming along slowly, but it seemed she had at last conceded to resting long enough that her body could heal all the way before resuming her normal training regimen. Lachesis invited her to play cards with Corrin's family back at the main hall, and Eirika thought that sounded delightful. So did Julia. Apparently, so did Fae.

So, with Fae on Corrin's shoulders, they paraded around the festival reporting to everyone that had been searching that she was safe and sound, calling Ephraim back to shore (and thanking him very profusely for his enthusiasm), and that was how they all returned to the central hall in a great crowd. That was why they wound up sitting at a great round table with Fae still on Corrin's shoulders, and with a large crowd of Heroes now watching around them, as Lachesis put on a bit of a performance leading their games and allowed herself to bask in the attention and the cheery atmosphere, something she had not experienced in earnest in far too many years and honestly felt now like some kind of a strange dream.

That was how Roy wound up learning to play cards with Corrin, wound up being introduced to Corrin's siblings for the first time - none of whom seemed to realize how he knew her - and how he was introduced to Celica, as well. That was how Lucina and Severa wound up leaning against the back wall to observe, how Severa got her first clear look at Catria, her competition - even if Lucina did not realize she knew yet. That was how Mae and Boey got to learn to play the game, too, which they would then go on to teach virtually everyone in the Order, a pattern that would repeat itself every time Lachesis taught them a new game, of which she knew several. That was how Eirika and Julia just wound up playing with a shared hand again, without really talking about it at all, even though Julia felt clearer of mind and Eirika had firmly chosen not to drink.

And that was how they were all there together to admire the fireworks display, once the news had spread that Fae had been found, and they were safe to continue.

They were quiet throughout it. Even Fae seemed to understand the reverent hush. Some of them were thinking how unexpected and peculiar of a moment this was. To be among strangers from other worlds, to have developed friendships with people that they would never have the chance to meet, and - almost certainly - would never be able to see again, once they all returned home. Some of them were even afraid, because those feelings ran deeper than mere friendship, and begged the question: what would they do when the time to return came?

But in a way that just punctuated this moment ever stronger. Lachesis and Celica held each other close, fingers interlocked, as each of them separately wondered how much they really cared about trying to be princess of a land that no longer needed them. Lucina's grip tightened on Severa's hand, as she began to consider more seriously than ever how she was going to resolve the mess she'd found herself in. Eirika struggled to avoid Julia's gaze, even as Julia snuggled up closer to her in their chairs.

They might not have another moment like this. So they resolved to make the most of it.

Chapter Text

"So," said Clair conversationally. "I see you together often with Florina. Are you friends?"

Lyn smiled. To Clair's eyes, her smile looked kind of tired, or perhaps like she was wincing? For a moment she fretted that she'd offended her new companion; Clair had struggled so much to find other people to socialize with since arriving at the Order, owing to how much more... serious... everyone else seemed to be. It would be regrettable to drive away one of the few people to approach her explicitly to say hello. After a tense pause, though, Lyn answered in a soft voice: "My wife, actually."

"Oh." Clair blinked. "Oh!" And then she beamed. "How adorable! Have you been married long?"

"A good few years," Lyn replied, her smile softening. "But we had been in love for a long time before that. It was just a matter of finding the right time, once we were both of age."

"That's so darling," Clair sighed dreamily. "And so romantic, I should think! Star-crossed lovers, knowing their fate even as girls..." She sighed dreamily, and grinned as Lyn giggled awkwardly in response. "Was she from your homeland, as well? Your, ah, tribe?"

"No," Lyn said, "Florina is from Ilia, an arctic kingdom north of the plains. Most women of Ilia are trained as pegasus knights so that they can serve as mercenaries abroad, and I met Florina on some of her first flights from home to find employment. She's grown to be very talented now, as I'm sure you're aware."

"Oh, am I," Clair cried. "She is soft and gentle in temperament, but relentless on the battlefield. Her experience as a warrior is terribly clear. So, then - you're - a noblewoman, yes? Is it natural for noblewomen to marry mercenaries? I suppose it's not unheard of."

"It wasn't the most natural," Lyn admitted, speaking dismissively, "but I left Caelin once Florina and I were married, and returned to live on the plains. As much as I loved the people of Caelin... the plains have always been my home, and always will be."

"Wow," Clair breathed. "What, ah..."

...oh dear. Could she ask this question without it being, er... offensive? The numerous incidents with the Deliverance had worn down her eagerness to ask, and now - fascinated though she was - she couldn't help but hesitate. But now Lyn was interested, eyebrows raised, and as Clair tried to consider her words Lyn smiled and said, "You wouldn't be the only one to find that confusing."

"I-I'm just so fascinated by it," Clair admitted, laughing nervously. "I - you see, I grew up - well, I was born into a noble family, and spent most of my life well cared for... and then all at once we were at war, and I was surrounded by - " Peasants, nope; lesser folk, nope; commoners? "Commoners," she continued, "and they were just so different from what I had been led to believe."

"To someone who has been cared for all their life," Lyn hummed, "living on the plains seems unthinkable. But I can't imagine living like you have, to be frank. When I was living in Caelin I felt so uncomfortable being doted on every moment of every day."

"I can understand that," Clair admitted. "If nothing else, I'm sure the plains are very - very peaceful. City life must be so chaotic by comparison."

"Yes, it can be," Lyn agreed, smiling. "The best way I've been able to describe it is this: just as you and your kingdom are proud of their military and their riches, the tribes of the Sacae are proud of their many talents, of the work it takes to survive, and their connection with the land. We are not lesser people. We desire a different lifestyle, that's all."

"How fascinating," Clair breathed, beaming again. "Thank you so much for sharing that, Lyn! I feel blessed to have had this conversation with you."

"Oh, it's nothing special," Lyn laughed. "It's nice to have someone so curious and respectful about it." Clair gasped, clasping her hands, delighted to be seen as respectful. "So as a noble of Zofia," Lyn continued, taking another sip of her drink, "did you - were you expected to marry politically?"

"Oh, probably," Clair said, pouting. "Truth be told, I hadn't thought much of it before the war, and then..." She sighed heavily. "Forgive me; I tend to gush, after a few drinks. But I fell in love with the Deliverance's leader, Alm, and... at the end of it all, he became Emperor, and I thought perhaps I would..."

She didn't mean to trail off, but Lyn's smile faded so rapidly that it stunned her, and as she struggled for words, Lyn touched her hand. "I didn't mean to bring up a touchy subject," she said apologetically.

"Oh, it's fine," Clair lied, laughing and clearing her throat. "Truly, I should get over myself; I've learned since then that he would likely have turned down anyone, and he seems perfectly happy on his own, so I suppose I should be happy for him, too. But it's left me without much of a future to look forward to, grim as that may sound. Stout-hearted noblemen are somewhat of a scarcity in Zofia."

Lyn hummed thoughtfully, her eyes narrowing and a smirk touching her lips. "Have you thought much about women, then? Or is that not to your taste?"

"Women," Clair repeated softly, as if testing the sound of the word in her mind. "No, I... suppose I rightfully haven't. I..." She frowned, aware she was blushing, and glanced furtively around the bar. "Promise not to speak of it," she murmured, "should my brother or his fiancee be summoned."

"Oh, of course," Lyn assured her, "your secrets are safe with me."

"Truth be told," Clair sighed, lowering her voice, "my brother has already claimed the most beautiful and noble of all women in Zofia for himself, and I can't help but be terribly jealous of him. Her name is Mathilda, and she's perhaps the greatest warrior of any of us, not to mention her inspiring strength of character, or her beauty bordering on divinity, or..." She sighed dreamily, shaking her head into the distance. "What a lucky man my brother is," she lamented.

"It does sound like you're in a difficult position," Lyn admitted. "But I'm sure the right prospect will come to you, if you're patient. Perhaps it's my uncivilized sensibilities as a woman of the plains, but - I believe love will bring you more happiness than status."

"Be that as it may," Clair hummed, "sometimes sacrificing for power is necessary for a greater good. But, I will maintain hope it does not come to that."

Lyn smiled sweetly again, meeting Clair's gaze directly. "I'm sure you have no shortage of admirers," she cooed.

"Oh, naturally," Clair giggled, waving her hand as though playfully swatting away Lyn's compliment. "But - admiration alone is not enough, you know?"

"That's true," Lyn agreed, nodding slowly, still not turning away from Clair's gaze. "I should think it would be easy for others to think of you as something delicate that needs to be protected, but that's not so. I can feel a warrior's spirit in you."

"A-ah." Clair felt herself blushing. "Can... can you? Pray tell, what does that feel like?"

"Hmm." Lyn smiled faintly. "I can feel it in the way you talk about others, and your obligation to protect them. I can feel it in the way that you push through adversity and shrug off injuries and misfortune."

"O-oh, you're just flattering me now," Clair laughed, trying to wave her hand again, though the motion was much more timid than before. "I'm not that strong. Not compared to others, like Alm or Lady Mathilda, certainly. Or yourself!"

"Strength does come in many forms," Lyn replied, inclining her head. "But it isn't a contest, Clair. You don't need to be stronger than anyone; I can just tell that you're very strong, moreso than you think, and I admire that about you."

"Oh!" Clair laughed shyly again. "I - you really are just flattering me, aren't you?"

"I'm not lying," Lyn cooed. "But you are cute when you're flustered, if nothing else."

"How wicked." Clair stuck out her tongue. "What is that light in your eyes? Hm? Would a married woman like you truly be scheming to whisk away a poor, innocent girl like me and do something uncouth with her?"

"Innocent?" Lyn tilted her head. "Are you?"

Clair huffed, folding her arms. "W-what sort of question is that?!"

"A well-meaning one," Lyn replied evenly. "And in the interest of retaining your trust; yes, a married woman like me most certainly is scheming."

Clair blinked at her, startled. "You're - what?"

 

So that was - roughly, with tasteful omission - how Clair wound up in the Lycian wing of the castle rooms, sitting on the bed shared by Lyn and Florina of the Lorca tribe, allowing the room's owners to strip her.

"I'm so happy you chose to join us," Florina whispered, running her hands slowly across Clair's stomach, before catching on her bra and making to lift it; Clair timidly raised her arms to allow it to be lifted over her head, before shiffling out of her panties with Lyn's help. "You look very nervous," Florina added kindly, nestling up close, hugging Clair's arm to her (very very soft, very very naked) chest. "How can we help?"

"Yes," Lyn cooed, crawling back up to Clair and cupping her cheek. "We can start slow if you prefer."

Clair laughed shyly, shaking her head. "I-I don't really know what I've gotten into, to be honest," she stammered. She was having a very hard time keeping her eyes off of Lyn's very ample chest, hanging freely below her like that...

"Don't be shy," Lyn giggled, straightening up and wrapping an arm under her breasts to present them. "Do you want to touch?"

"Oh." Clair gulped. "May I?" Lyn nodded, taking Clair's wrist and guiding it to her breast, placing Clair's palm over her nipple; Clair at first slid her hand around it, feeling its curve and marvelling at its weight, her heartrate jumping as she watched it mold around her touch. "It's so soft," she whispered. She turned to glare half-heartedly at Florina. "How did she do it?"

Florina laughed. "She's very lucky, as far as I know."

"You're lucky too," Lyn cooed. "It's one thing to have people ogling at them on the street, but I've invited you here, Clair, and that means - " She spread her arms and placed her hands behind her head, pushing her chest out, smirking at Clair's instinctive recoil and the deepening of her blush. "You're free to indulge in us," she purred, "as much as you like."

So, with another deep breath, Clair resumed carefully exploring Lyn's chest, soon taking back her other arm from Florina to mold her with both hands; Lyn cooed and sighed sweetly to encourage her. They were so warm and heavy; if Clair tried to support them with her hands, she could feel them sinking between her fingers slightly, and she failed to resist temptation to start to clench her fingers through their flesh - drawing harsher gasps and hisses from Lyn, but also a slightly broader smile. "Go on," Lyn purred.

So Clair gulped and lowered her lips to Lyn's chest, kissing just above and between them, then lifting one of Lyn's breasts to her lips and kissing it... they were so smooth, and Clair couldn't resist trying to squeeze them with her lips, pinching and pulling very slightly on her flesh, careful to use only her lips so as not to inflict any kind of pain, but - but they were just so much to play with, and... how could anyone resist? Behind her, Florina wrapped her hands around Clair's stomach, pressing her breasts into Clair's back; she heard Lyn sigh above her, along with soft humming and suction that suggested that they were kissing over top of her.

Why was that - why did she - why did that excite her so much - ?

"I love you too," Lyn cooed, and she and Florina giggled. "Now, let me tend to our guest." She cupped Clair's chin in her hand - Clair yelped and shifted upright, allowing Lyn to guide her upward into a kiss; while Clair was trying to recover enough to kiss back, Lyn's hands ran greedily across Clair's back and over her bottom, before sliding under her thighs as Clair jolted up - allowing her to gently pull Clair's legs apart.

"Ah, okay," Clair gasped - she was very much out of breath - "what would you like me to do?"

"Lay back," Lyn said softly. Clair obeyed, as Lyn spread her legs and shifted forward; she made to straddle one of Clair's legs but then pulled Clair's other leg over hers, allowing her to press their crotches together - Clair gasped and quivered, caught off guard by the sudden spark of pleasure as their nethers ran together; beside her, meanwhile, Florina crouched down on all fours to hover beside Clair, helping her sit partially upright while gently stroking her stomach with her free hand. She and Lyn ground against each other briefly - Florina gently took Clair's hand and guided it up to her own chest, and Clair did her best to massage Florina's breasts just as she had for Lyn before, smaller though they were.

But they only stayed like this for a bit; Florina soon laid Clair all the way down and shifted back, allowing Lyn to move forward; Clair had to bend her leg far up, hooking partway over Lyn's shoulder - like this Lyn had much greater purchase and what had been little sparks of pleasure before now became spine-rocking shocks. Florina laid down beside her, nestling in close enough to tease Clair's ear with her tongue while she toyed with Clair's chest - Clair was allowed one hand to reach up and grope Lyn with, but that was as much to vaguely and desperately steady herself as it was for her own satisfaction.

"You look overwhelmed," Lyn purred, grinning, seemingly barely winded. Clair whimpered at the realization.

"H-How long," Clair panted, "are we- going to - ?"

"As long as you like," Florina whispered. "Lyn can go a long time."

Florina trailed her hand down Clair's stomach, tweaking Clair's clit - Clair yelped and spasmed, turning her head sharply to the side, and suddenly Florina dug her hand into Clair's hair and pulled her into a kiss, fingering her none too shyly; Clair tried to hold her in return, but reverberating pleasure made her movements feeble, as though she were straining against bonds.

From this point on, Clair's awarenes of what was happening became hazy. In general, she was conscious of Florina's and Lyn's presence at all times, hovering around her; Florina was very huggy, gently stroking Clair's body, cupping her breasts, teasing her nethers - she was also very affectionate and loved to kiss at Clair's skin, or her lips. But Lyn was a ferocious pleasure machine from the very beginning, slowing down only rarely. When she'd had her fill of tribadism she flipped Clair over and crawled around to the head of the bed, so Clair was made to pleasure her with her lips and tongue while Florina fingered her from behind. Clair had never tasted a woman before - more than the taste, which she found strange but not especially unpleasant, she was shocked mostly by the scent and the intensity of it. She would later describe it to herself as intoxicating, like a sweet poison, luring her into submission. But she wasn't really equipped to process it in the moment.

At some point, she realized she was laying on her back again; Lyn was sitting on her, and Clair had apparently accepted this readily, her arms wrapped around Lyn's sleek and powerful thighs, pulling her greedily down into Clair's mouth as she drank as much of Lyn's nectar as she could reach. Florina was between her legs, tasting Clair in turn. Clair was moaning in every breath.

And then, in the next moment Clair could remember, she was being drawn up Lyn's body, kissing up her stomach and bosom on her way; she was being lifted off of the bed, with Lyn in front of her holding her legs apart and lavishing her breasts and neck with kisses and delicate nibbles, while Florina steadied her from behind - something was in Florina's hand, something long and round that pushed between Clair's lower lips - she groaned, trembling in their grasp, as Florina gently pumped in and out of her.

Clair hadn't ever expected to do something like this. She had spent much of her life daydreaming about meeting a strong, chivalrous man or a beautiful, statuesque woman that would unite with her in elegance, and she'd raise and defend their house with passion and pride just as Clive had done for hers before her. She had not expected to ever share her intimacy with someone... on a whim, just because, but Lyn's beauty and casual charm had been too much for her, and now...

Now she was here debasing herself, allowing them to gently humiliate her, allowing them to totally control her, and... she... she loved it?

They had been going on for a while when it became too much. Something in Clair's body grew too tired, and suddenly what had been pleasure was all at once painful - she yelped and tried to pull away, and Florina, tending her with their toy, gasped and stopped right away. "Clair?" Florina said, her voice distant but urgent. "Clair, are you okay?"

"Hurts," was all Clair could say at first. She squirmed feebly as Florina carefully withdrew whatever she had been using, then laid flat on the bed and tried to catch her breath, blinking dazedly, clearing her blurry vision. Lyn was beside her, and Florina a moment after on the other side. For a moment, Clair withered at the state of her body - streaked with sweat, marked with fluids on her legs and surely her chin or somewhere else that hadn't been swept away already, her hair almost definitely a mess after being let down...

But beside her was Lyn, breathing heavily, sweating much more than Clair was, her hair damp and clinging to parts of her face or her sides, and beside her was Florina, her face flush and the waves of her hair clashing into one another, and... well, none of them were really all that attractive just then, and yet they were both so very... alluring, and beautiful, and...

No, she thought, she mustn't be self-conscious; she was in good company here, wasn't she?

"Sorry about that," Clair laughed shyly, finding her voice faint but still cheerful. "I... ah... I didn't mean to hamper the mood at all."

"Oh, that's alright," Lyn laughed, clearly relieved. "We really went all out on you."

"You seemed to be having fun," Florina added timidly.

"Fun," Clair repeated softly. "Well... that's certainly a word for it." She slumped back, sighing heavily, closing her eyes. "I'm so tired, but... it's hard to want to stop."

"How was it, overall?" Lyn asked. Florina delicately crossed an arm over Clair's stomach (she could tell it was Florina's because her touch was so gentle and soft), tracing her fingers around Clair's navel. "You wouldn't admit if you'd ever done anything like this before..."

"Like this?" Clair laughed. "No. I - may or may not have gotten a maid of mine to comply in some fondling here and there, but that's about all. But you mustn't tell! You promised my secrets were safe!"

"They are," Florina assured her. "We keep secrets very well."

"You didn't answer my question, though," Lyn cooed.

"How was it," Clair sighed. She opened her eyes, looking Lyn in the face. "How was it? That depends. Am I dreaming, or is this real?"

Lyn chuckled. "It's real."

"Then reality has surpassed my wildest fantasies," Clair announced, closing her eyes again. "I don't know what to think now, except that if I could, I would stay here with you lovely women indefinitely."

"Well, then." Florina giggled. "What do you think, Lyn?"

"Yeah, I think we can invite her back," Lyn purred.

Clair almost jolted upright. "Wait," she cried. "Wait! Would you truly?!" They laughed as she beamed at them both in turn, but shushed her back to laying between them, trapping her in their arms. Not that she had any desire whatsoever to escape them.

Chapter Text

"Corrin?"

Leo pressed his lips together, as Corrin dimly lifted her head to look at him, her blood-colored eyes dulled. He could feel his head aching just looking at her. She was breathing slow and harsh, her arched shoulders rising and falling with each heavy exhale.

"What?" she whispered.

He'd just meant to make sure she was paying attention. Or, rather, that she was feeling well enough to do so. He didn't have a good response to this. Beside him, though, Xander came to his rescue. "Corrin," he said, softly and patiently, but seriously, "are you sure you're well enough to fight?"

"Of course I am," Corrin snapped, interrupting his next thought. "I'm not good for anything else."

"If you die," Leo said, "you won't be good for anything at all."

"Leo," Xander admonished, sounding mortified. "Neither of you should be thinking like that." But Corrin had already scoffed and looked away; her fingers drummed against the table, each as loud as a hammer on stone, and she turned her attention back to their map.

"So," she hissed. "Tell me again."

"On the castle approach," Leo sighed, leaning over the table himself now, "Anankos' revenants are largely clustered around these areas." He tapped two front gates, then traced his finger back towards the castle's rear. "There is an entrance here that our informant has implied is our only chance. But I recommend a frontal attack nonetheless."

Corrin's eyes narrowed. The color sharpened in them, and they flashed as she scanned the map. Before whatever Hoshido had done to her, Corrin had been a brilliant tactical upstudy, eager to learn from her young brother and easily matching his pace. Even now with the apparent migraines and mood swings, there were times where it was clear that her mind had not dulled. "You're afraid that the forces out front will collapse inward when we breach the side gate," she said lowly. "I see."

"The only thing worse than a pincer attack," Leo said darkly, "is a pincer attack you can't see coming. Our forces are large enough that staying together in a large building like this will be very difficult; it would be easy to trap us inside, then attack from multiple angles, giving us no options to bottleneck or control the engagement. As soon as we go inside, we're vulnerable."

"So," Corrin continued, lifting her hand to delicately drag some of their markers into position, "you want to start by taking the valley, and possibly daring our enemy to commit additional forces outside the castle. We can draw them back further if their numbers increase... we'll have terrain advantage here, and..." She trailed off, eyes still tracing the map's features. "This is a good strategy," she said softly, but it sounded like a concession and not an agreement.

"You're unsure?" Leo said, looking up with surprise. Corrin shied away from his gaze.

"Whatever concerns you have are ours, as well," Xander said firmly. "You are one of our best strategists too, Corrin. Leo and I are confident in this strategy, but that doesn't mean our reasoning is flawless."

"It's not a tactical concern," Corrin said quietly. "I just..." She trailed off, and shook her head. "No, it's nothing. We should do this."

"Corrin," Xander said darkly. "Speak your mind."

Corrin sighed angrily, straightening and folding her arms; she glared up at Xander, and Leo thought he could see the prince stiffen, paralyzed. "This approach could draw the battle out far longer than an infiltration," she hissed. "I don't like that idea."

"There's no rush," Leo said quizzically. "Anankos is all but cornered in his castle, and if he shows his face to us, all the more chance to strike him down in a field where we have advantage. In fact, if we were to stall --"

"Leo," Xander cautioned, his voice softer now.

"No, he's right," Corrin snapped, "if we stall, Anankos is forced to act, and since we've already decimated the bulk of his forces near here and picked a favorable position to fortify, he's going to be on the back foot no matter what action he takes. As long as the attack goes well, then even in the worst case scenario we destroy his forces in the open and then infiltrate the castle once we know we won't be collapsed on from the outside. Tactically speaking this is the best option. There's no debate."

"S-So you agree with me, then," Leo stammered.

"Like I said, it's nothing," Corrin growled. "We should do it."

"Corrin," came a fourth voice - everyone knew she was here, but when Camilla spoke Leo still jumped. She insisted on being present for these meetings, probably only because Corrin was, but she almost never raised her voice. Corrin's shoulders slumped, and she closed her eyes, evading their gaze. "Do you want me to say it?" Camilla whispered.

"No," Corrin mumbled. Leo could barely hear her.

"But if you don't..."

"I won't hold us back," Corrin hissed. "Not now, not after all of this, not after how far we've gotten, not after everything all of you have done for me -- "

"Corrin," Leo whispered, his heart sinking. Of course, he of all people would fail to notice. Xander knew, Camilla knew... the Hoshidans, if they were here, probably would have all known too. But unless Corrin gave voice to her thoughts, it didn't matter. "Corrin," he repeated, mournful. "If we're pushing you too hard, you have to say something."

"Forget about me!" Corrin cried, slamming her hands on the table all at once - everyone jumped, and the markers rattled out of place. "What about Elise and Effie, what about Selena and Odin and Laslow, what about Peri, what about Mozu, what about Rinkah and -- "

"They are here to fight," Xander intoned, a command that thundered over Corrin's shouting and silenced it immediately, though it did little to stifle Corrin's simmering anger. "There are here because they and their lieges believe in you, Corrin, and they fight because you are fighting with them."

"And so," Corrin hissed, "if I stop fighting - !"

"If you fight yourself to exhaustion," Xander interrupted, "then all of them will, too. It will not be your sacrifice, Corrin, it will be all of our loss."

Corrin fell quiet at that. She glared at Xander for a moment longer, panting; then she hung her head, braced against the table as though trying to catch her breath. Then she looked up, this time at Leo - something she saw in Leo's face seemed to pain her, and she looked instead to Camilla who was behind him, but whatever she saw there was only more painful still.

"I can't take this," she whispered, shaking her head, turning back to Xander but shying away from him almost immediately. "I can't take... your... your pity. I don't deserve it."

"It's not pity," Leo huffed. "You're our sister. We care about you."

"How can we be sure anymore?" Corrin muttered. Leo blinked, not understanding, his heart growing deeply cold. "No," she murmured, "I don't think... that there's any point in worrying about me." She looked up at Xander, eyes flashing, fingers clenched around the table. "We take the valley," she snapped, "and that's final. I'll hear no more about it."

"Corrin?" Camilla whispered, her voice faint and broken.

"Don't waste your time trying to save me," Corrin said, glaring in her direction. "It won't matter if we can't defeat Anankos. And I don't think there's enough left to be worth saving anyway."

She pushed herself up and turned around all of a sudden, her cape flaring behind her - when she stepped forward, she reached out suddenly for balance, paused... but then stormed out, once she had righted herself. Even in that natural pause no one spoke, and Leo for his part barely breathed until she had left their tent.

 

When a dark mage has a nightmare, it means something. There are no exceptions.

This particular dream, Leo was not sure if it was right to call a nightmare; it followed a memory, and one that was hard to relive but not especially frightening. Even so, it woke him in the middle of the night, so he decided it would be wise for him to pursue it like a lead, and seek out its end.

The Norhian royal family had been assigned one floor of the largest castle turret as their accomodations. Their rooms were a bit small, but given the nature of their stay, he supposed that shouldn't matter much; they were supposed to be spending most of their time outside and in common areas. As he paced down the exterior corridor, he pressed gently on Corrin's door... it opened, and through the moonlight filtering in from outside, he could make out tossed sheets but no one on the bed. They were gone.

'They'. Everyone knew about Corrin and Felicia. Honestly, thank all gods for Felicia, at this point. Corrin may not have retained her sanity during the war, if not for Felicia and Rhajat giving her some kind of anchor to reality, some way to ease whatever it was that fighting did to her.

He noticed, as he continued towards the stairs, that Camilla's door was open too. Beruka was leaning against the rail at the upstairs landing, and glared at Leo sleepily as he passed. Glaring was like a pastime for her. Just downstairs was the common area at the turret's base, and at the table there was Camilla, Corrin, and Felicia, chatting in soft voices - but what seemed like good spirits.

Corrin looked up with a start as one of the floorboards under Leo creaked, her eyes wide with clear shock, but she sighed with heavy relief as she took in Leo's face, a hand over her chest. "Gods," she groaned. "Leo. I know you like to skulk about and all, but would it kill you to announce yourself once in a while?"

"Sorry," Leo said quietly, finishing his descent and sweeping over to stand beside their table. "I had a strange dream," he announced.

"Oh," Corrin said, blinking, because she knew what this meant.

"Do you want to lay down?" Camilla offered, patting her lap. Leo flushed, glaring at her. "It's just an offer," she said defensively, frowning.

"Camilla, I think not that kind of dream," Corrin ventured.

"What kind of dream would that be?!" Leo hissed.

"You did say it was strange," Corrin countered faux-innocently. "What happened?"

"It was about you," Leo sighed, closing his eyes, folding his arms. "During Valla." There was no response; Leo could tell they had tensed up at even just the mention. "I wanted to check on you," he finished, in as gentle a voice as he could manage. It actually came out pretty well; he usually wasn't as good at speaking softly.

"I'm..." Corrin started to give her mechanical I'm fine, which told you nothing at all about her condition except that Corrin did not want to talk about it. Even that was at least some reassurance; however bad she was feeling, it wasn't enough to impede her urgently. But this was even more promising, if not for Corrin's immediate health. Leo opened his eyes to regard her with eager surprise, but she was staring at the table, tracing circles in it, her expression morose.

"Honey," Camilla whispered in despair. "You know you can talk to us about anything. We're here for you."

"You know we're both good for heavy talk any time," Leo agreed. "What's on your mind?"

"Ma'am," Felicia breathed, leaning in to her shoulder. "It's okay if you don't wish to speak, either, I'm sure." Corrin shook her head; she wanted to talk. "Shall I fetch you anything to drink?"

"Tea, maybe," Corrin mumbled.

"I can do that." She rubbed Corrin's back for a moment, smiling, before hopping up to leave. Camilla stopped her with an outstretched arm and gestured her close, asking for something out of Leo's hearing, and Felicia nodded and scurried away again.

"Make two trips," Camilla added urgently. "If you spill any there will be hell to pay!"

"Don't be like that," Corrin grumped. Camilla mumbled an apology, turning her attention back to Corrin, and they waited for to speak.

 

It started with Tellius.

Leo had spent a lot of time trying to theorize about Corrin's "condition". He and Corrin both felt with certainty it was related to her dragon blood, perhaps some kind of curse associated with it, or some affliction that came from a forced first transformation under duress. Leo had wondered often about the chicken-and-egg nature of her situation, too; was her draconic rage and near-berserk ferocity an outcome of her sickness... or a cause? And even more nauseating than anything Leo had ever heard were the rumors of degeneration, scant and mortified whispers in otherworldly texts of a plague of madness that swept across all dragonkind in other worlds... But Leo had not had the chance to study that further, so for now he had to focus on what little he knew.

One thing was certain about Corrin; as eager as she had always been to serve Nohr growing up, and as delighted as she had been to finally receive her first assignment... she was too kind for her own good. No one in the Nohrian court would ever forget the bizarre juxtaposition of the Corrin that had mercilessly defeated the Hoshidan prisoners to prove herself to Garon - followed very suddenly by the adamant Corrin that boldly refused to slay them in cold blood afterward. For all of her martial talent, Corrin was not a soldier at heart. She was an academic, an explorer, and... though she would never believe him if he said it... a fantastic leader.

Corrin's kindness made Tellius - their defeat there, and the revelations that it had brought to them in general - hard to bear. This was true for many of the Heroes, actually; Leo had heard it talked about by almost everyone within the Order. The impromptu study groups he had formed with the other mages spoke about it frequently, debating alternate solutions, different approaches, their risks and assumptions. He and Cecilia had debated it at length more than once, since the conflict's end. So he was well prepared to discuss it quietly with Corrin, to hear her lament and vainly attempt to guess at what could come next. Prepared to assure her that the Order would not give up. Everyone he had spoken to agreed on one thing beyond any doubt: Kiran had meant every word of her ultimatum. Meant it enough to even threaten Alfonse with it.

That wasn't enough to settle Corrin's heart, though. They began to talk about Xander and Ryoma next.

"It's perplexing," Leo agreed. They had laid out a chess game; Camilla was gently painting Corrin's nails as they played, now that Corrin had finished her tea. They were set to talk the night away at this rate, and Leo did not mind that at all. He would rather this than looking pathetic on the beach, frankly. "We know for sure," he continued, "that Veronica's possession of a Hero doesn't mean Kiran can't also summon them. Veronica had a Celica, at the same time that we had a Celica in Crimea." Corrin nodded slowly, chewing her lip. "But that begs the question; why hasn't she summoned Xander yet?"

"Knight to E4," Corrin murmured. Felicia executed the move, taking one of Leo's pawns. A very aggressive option, given the board state. Corrin had been polishing her aggressive tactics lately, and she was quite a bit better at them than Leo was, but Leo had many other tricks up his own sleeve. "He said something that worries me," the dragon princess continued, still frowning. "He claimed not to be my brother, when we fought in Tellius."

"I overheard that," Camilla growled. "He said the same to me in Crimea."

"What?" Leo blinked at her, startled; Corrin raised her eyebrows at her to match his surprise. "Why would he say something like that?"

"I don't know," Camilla muttered. "After everything that happened..." She trailed off, withdrawing her hands for a moment; they were shaking, unsuitable for her delicate task.

"I think he feels guilty," Corrin said softly, addressing Camilla directly. "That was the impression I got, thinking about it afterward. He wanted me to fight him, not because he wants to fight me necessarily, but because... he thinks he deserves it."

"We know now that even if he wants to fight on our side," Leo added, "he can't. Veronica is controlling him." Camilla nodded, hanging her head, taking a deep and shaking breath. "It may be his way of steeling us to face him," he continued. "He's the dramatic sort of person that would take something like that too far."

"Yes, he is," Camilla agreed. A few deep breaths later, she was able to continue. Corrin smiled at her, grateful and relieved. Leo refocused his attention on the chess board. "I'm worried about Sakura and Takumi, though," Camilla added in a softer voice. "I think they're afraid that we may find Ryoma in a similar position... I don't know if they'll take it as well."

"Yeah, I'm worried about that too," Corrin agreed. "I don't know if they'll be able to face him if they have to. Hinoka will probably be okay, right?" Camilla nodded her agreement.

"Hinoka seemed more concerned about me than herself," Camilla grumped. But this was one of those rare moments of Camilla's self-awareness. You could tell because she was blushing through her pouting.

"It's not necessarily better to be unfazed by all this," Corrin said softly. "I think it's right to be angry and sad about it... just as long as we don't lose sight of our goal. We're going to free him, whether he's our Xander or not. He's still our brother."

Camilla nodded slowly. Leo retreated his bishop back to B7, and gestured to Corrin; Corrin nodded absently, staring through the board.

"I wonder if anyone else feels like we do about someone from their world," Corrin whispered. "The empress, Sanaki... do you know her well, Leo?"

"She doesn't study with us, so no." Leo frowned. "I don't know of anyone that's especially close with her, actually. She seemed to be taking it okay, but..."

"That was her world," Camilla sighed mournfully. "That poor girl, doing her best as an Empress to protect her people. It was inspiring at first, I thought... she reminded me so much of you, Corrin."

"Kinda," Corrin mumbled, turning a little red. "If I wasn't a dragon monster."

"I don't know," Leo chuckled, "that spell of hers is pretty monstrous in its own way. Your power just takes a different form than hers, that's all."

Corrin smiled faintly at him, thankful for the gesture; Camilla lifted her hands away, studying Corrin's hands as Corrin lifted them for inspection. "Oh, they're so adorable," Camilla sighed blissfully, gently taking Corrin's palm in her own to angle her fingers better in their scant lighting. "I think in the sunlight that will come out to be a very nice bright blue."

"I like them," Corrin said, softly but happily. "Thank you, Camilla."

"Be sure to let them dry before touching anything," Camilla added, nodding at the chessboard. "The Dark Dragon only knows what Leo would do if you got nail polish on his lovely chess set."

"I would be dismayed," Leo said cautiously, but she and Corrin both giggled.

"I'll be careful," Corrin promised.

"Lady Camilla," Felicia offered, "would you like me to paint yours?"

"Oh, that would be very sweet of you," Camilla cooed, "but first..." She swept around the table and sat next to Leo, smiling at him expectantly; he turned to face her, feigning confusion, before sighing fussing through the small collection of polish colors that Felicia had brought down. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Corrin smiling earnestly.

"Do you think I'll stand out too much with this?" he mumbled, holding up a deep crimson.

"That depends," Camilla hummed, "do you want to stand out?"

"Kind of." He turned to Corrin, who shrugged.

"I think it'd be very striking," she offered. "I say do it."

"Alright, then." He handed it to Camilla. "Let's see what you can do."

Chapter Text

Most of the Heroes' time was focused on the beach on the castle's northwest side, so Lachesis was not surprised at all to find that they were alone in the gardens - completely opposite the beach. On their left side was the keep itself, ivy infesting the hatches against the stone and crawling close to the second-story windows high above; on their right side was the main wall, similarly adorned by some flowering groundcover that Lachesis didn't immediately recognize. She wasn't really one for plants - she had no reason to be here on her own. It was just a guess, but she thought Celica might feel the same way.

It wasn't that the garden wasn't beautiful, to be fair. Hedges scarcely higher than Celica's thighs marked paths through the flowerbeds, and great willow trees afforded a more comfortable, natural shade than the castle could. It had a peaceful and nurturing atmosphere. All in all, it was almost a pleasant enough experience to drive out the thought that Lachesis was only here because she wasn't supposed to be upright.

But only almost.

She sighed before she could stop herself. She could feel the faintest interruption in her chair's pace, indicating that Celica had faltered behind her; with mixed annoyance and resignation, she flung her head back, looking skywards into Celica's shadowered face. Sure enough, the priestess' eyes were dim, a faint frown on her lips. "I'm sorry," she lamented. "Surely you would rather be among your friends at the seaside right now, no?"

"Not really," Celica said quietly.

That hurt a lot more than Lachesis had expected. "Celica," she whispered, despairingly, shaking her head. "It's your scars, isn't it? You're self-conscious about them."

"How can't I be?" Celica closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "But it doesn't matter whether I am or not. All I ever do is bring my friends down anymore. It's better I'm with you elsewhere, out of their minds."

"Mmm." Lachesis straightened up, looking forward again, fidgeting restlessly in her lap. Spirits had been high at the start of summer, but... well, Celica's mood seemed to ebb and flow simply by nature. At times she was cheerful and repentant, adorably eager and grateful for Lachesis' company; other times she became brooding and moody, deeply apologetic but seemingly helpless against her own emptiness. And Lachesis couldn't really hold that against her. She had many similar episodes of her own even after fleeing Agustria. Maybe she hadn't ever really stopped having them. It was easier to see these sorts of patterns in others than yourself.

"I'm looking forward to being well enough to wander the beach with you again," Lachesis offered, instead.

"That would be nice," Celica said quietly. 'Would', rather than 'will', noted Lachesis. "But please don't push yourself."

"I've been good so far, haven't I," Lachesis grumped.

Celica chuckled. "Yes, you have."

They fell quiet again. They passed by a towering column of roses, and the deeper darkness beneath one of the great willows soon passed over them.

"I'd like to get out," Lachesis said quietly.

So, Celica took them over to the base of the tree and knelt beside her, slipping one arm under Lachesis' knees and the other under her shoulders, lifting her with a grunt. Celica was truthfully very strong, much moreso than she looked; Lachesis didn't doubt she could lift Celica in return once her body had healed, but even so Lachesis couldn't help but be impressed, and she would be lying if she were to claim she didn't deeply enjoy resting in Celica's arms. Either way, though, Celica only knelt beside the tree to set Lachesis down, before sitting beside her. Lachesis leaned into her shoulder and closed her eyes.

"Are you tired?" Celica asked, just above a whisper.

"No," Lachesis replied, in kind. "But you're very soft... the sunlight here..."

Celica chuckled again. "It does feel a bit sleepy here," she agreed. "This would be a nice place for a nap."

Lachesis slowly turned her head so that she could refocus her gaze on Celica's. "Would you rest with me?" she asked as sweetly as she could manage. She was rewarded with Celica's delicate smile, elusive on days such as this.

"Yes," Celica whispered, "that sounds... so very nice."

 

For a little while, Lachesis drifted in and out of consciousness, allowing the warm air, the cool breeze, and the comfort of Celica's presence to lull her to into a peaceful half-sleep. She made note of some of the sensations that brought peace or light to her heart, that she might write about them later. Writing - short letters, almost like poems - had been her only real weapon with which to stave off boredom, and she thought she might write a love letter or three for Celica to enjoy on darker days such as this. So what would she call attention to, in reference to today?

Well... Celica's arms, wrapped gently around Lachesis' stomach and back, securing her and ensuring her balance and safety whether she was awake or asleep; the slow, rhythmic rise and fall of Celica's chest, like the sound of a warm breeze to remind you of your Goddess' love. Something like that? She wrinkled her nose; perhaps to reference a goddess would not be kosher for Celica. She seemed touchy about the subject of worship and religion.

No... think specifically of Celica, think of Celica's own beauty and radiance. The gentle rise and fall of her chest, the rhythm of peace itself, each a gentle assurance that all was still well. Each breath a promise of another moment of basking in Celica's love.

Celica stirred. Lachesis lifted her head faintly, surprised. "Ah," Celica breathed, blinking, yawning, stretching. "Ah... I dozed off..."

"Oh," Lachesis gasped, "do we need to move?"

"Mmm... I think not." Celica smiled down at her, tentatively kissing Lachesis' forehead, as it was nearest to reach. "You look very happy to be here."

"I suppose I am," Lachesis hummed, relaxing and closing her eyes again. "Anywhere I am with you, I am happy."

Celica laughed shyly. "You are very romantic," she observed. "The way you talk about me, it's like we've been in love for years."

Lachesis chuckled, too. "I will concede, restraint has never been one of my strong suits. Do I make you uncomfortable?"

"In a way, I suppose." Celica shifted her hips slightly, seeking a better posture. "But I think always to what you said the night before Veronica's return. After all that we'd talked about that night... it seemed so clear to you so suddenly. What is life worth living for, if not for love?"

Lachesis hummed, unsure how to respond. She was known for saying things in the heat of the moment that she maybe didn't think all the way through. But... she supposed Celica's interpretation was not wrong. In the end, it was the ferocity of her desire for Celica, the fervor of her protectiveness, that broke through the darkness and gave her enough light to fight back by.

"One may try to live for many things," Lachesis said softly, still thinking. "But one finds that in the end, love is the greatest driving force of all."

"Perhaps it's premature," Celica continued, "or dangerous of us, to feel without reservation. But I will take this dangerous reason to live over none at all."

"I am honored, then," Lachesis cooed; they exchanged gentle smiles, as Lachesis thought about what to say to that. But wouldn't you know it, Celica's eyes and smile took her breath away, captivated her thoughts and whisked them away into the dark, and she was left with nothing but wordless adoration. She laughed, feeling her cheeks burning red. "F-forgive my awkwardness," she giggled, "you... I-I was caught off guard..."

"O-Oh," Celica gasped, all at once awash with sincere worry. "Did I - I'm sorry, I must have sounded so melodramatic." She sighed heavily, pouting. "Here I've been so absorbed in my own grief," she mumbled irritably. "And you're just so happy to be beside me... It's ungrateful of me to bring the mood down."

"Oh, no," Lachesis gasped, "I don't mind listening and assuring you, however I can! I just - I-I mean, I meant to say something, but... I forgot what it was. You turned to smile at me, and your beauty dazed me."

"O-Oh, please," Celica giggled shyly. "I'm not - I-I'm not..."

Lachesis kissed the cloth over her shoulder. "You are," she whispered. "Your eyes and your lips and your hair are all exquisite, but they alone would be wasted on a lesser woman than you."

"O-oh," Celica breathed, her lips staying parted, her eyes fluttering. Lachesis shifted in closer to her, her hand sliding up Celica's stomach, pausing just beneath her bosom; she felt Celica take in a sharp breath, well aware of the intent behind the movement.

"I am grateful beyond words for any moment I can share with you," Lachesis breathed. "But to see you smile at me with such affection in your eyes is a blessing I do not deserve, one I can only hope to repay by fervent love of my own."

"Don't sell yourself short," Celica murmured. "You - you are beautiful and... powerful, beyond any woman I've met in my life. I could forgive someone for mistaking you for the goddess Mila herself."

Lachesis laughed shyly, blushing brighter still; Celica smiled, eager to have her advantage, turning some to put Lachesis' back to the tree and leaning in closer to her. "T-That isn't fair, I think," Lachesis managed to say. "To compare a sinful, violent woman such as myself to a goddess..."

"I care not for your sin," Celica whispered, cupping Lachesis' cheek, leaning closer still. Lachesis' breath was short and impatient. "Even my goddess was so deeply flawed," she sighed, mournfully, her eyes still fixed on Lachesis - but darker, deeper, like a black hole lit with vicious glowing flame, captivating in an entirely different way now, one that seized Lachesis' heart and clutched her like a vice. "But for all her flaws, I still loved her dearly all the same."

She kissed Lachesis, not at all shyly; Lachesis yelped faintly, surprised to be caught off guard, kissing back timidly but struggling to find the strength in her to do more. Celica was pulling her closer, and Lachesis was stiff and weak and helpless; if she had felt any doubts before, Celica's firm grasp and possessive kisses betrayed no doubt anymore.

Celica's lips trailed to her neck before long, as Lachesis arched her back and rolled back her head to expose herself; Celica's hand trailed down Lachesis' face, tracing with a soft, tantalizing touch down her chin and neck, between the subtle curves of her breasts, down her stomach, between her legs, under her skirt - Lachesis' breath caught and her body shook at Celica's touch, but there was no mistaking Celica's total command of her now, nor any point in pretending that Lachesis was not ready and eager to surrender. She trembled as Celica kissed the sensitive skin at her neck, again and again, she writhed as Celica's fingers found purchase and began to tease and pry, testing Lachesis' readiness. She struggled to speak. Breath and words refused to come to her. She could only clutch at Celica's shoulders. Even if she wanted to scream her consent to the heavens, all that came to her was a faint, quivering moan.

But it was enough. Celica pressed in to her more greedily still. Her fingers dug in deep, mining pleasure from Lachesis' darkest depths; she dragged her tongue along Lachesis' neck and breathed hot desire against Lachesis' ear, now kissing with a feverish desperation delying her composure. Lachesis felt another moan escape her lips. Celica was panting. She wanted to be closer. She tried to pull Celica to her, but she was much too weak; and yet even still, Celica obeyed, diving down under her chin and across her upper chest, hastily pulling down her blouse til it had slipped over Lachesis' shoulders and her breasts were exposed. Again Lachesis moaned, struggling to push herself into Celica's waiting maw. Celica hungered for her and Lachesis was so very eager to feed.

All at once, Celica's fingers wtihdrew, dragging against Lachesis' sensitive skin and drawing another shaky cry out of her - on its way, however, Celica's hand caught against Lachesis' parted panties and she pulled them swiftly down Lachesis' legs to dangle around one ankle. They laid themselves out - Lachesis carefully laying on her back as Celica settled in between her legs, pressing one of Lachesis' legs down with one hand to give herself plenty of room to eat, while her other hand drifted down and out of Lachesis' sight. Lachesis could feel her probing every fold and curve, not just tracing her entrance but probing deep inside. She could hear Celica faintly groaning with desire of her own, muffled into Lachesis' crotch but spreading heat and faint vibrations into her, making quite clear the intensity of her lust.

How long could Lachesis hope to possibly last? She tried to hold on as long as she could. She tried to hold out so that Celica could pleasure herself, afraid that she herself wouldn't be able to repay the priestess at the end - though she would with all her heart try. She tried to hold out so that Celica could sate herself. Because every moment she spent writhing and trembling and struggling to breathe was an unspeakable ecstasy. But there came a moment where Celica's tongue pressed against some hidden switch within her, and the tension and heat was pushed over an edge from which it could not come back.

"Oh - OH!" Lachesis spasmed and cried out in shock, her muscles locking. "Oh!! Celica, Celica...!" She pleaded - without thinking, dignity entirely forgotten, all she could do was beg - "Oh, oh - Celica - h-hhaaa - " Every breath strained, every part of her body stretching at its limit, she was threatening to come apart -

And then at last it happened; her hips shook and she cried out Celica's name one last time, eyes wrenched shut as waves of blissful release rocked through her again and again and again. Celica was nearing climax as well when Lachesis finally came to; she strained to sit up, held back somewhat by Celica's clenched grip into her disheveled blouse - Celica's face was buried into the crook of her arm, but behind her Lachesis saw her hips shaking, rocking forward into her own hand as she finished herself, too.

For a moment, Celica waited to gather herself, before crawling back over to Lachesis again; Lachesis happily rolled into her grasp, and Celica gently sat her in her lap. "There," Celica whispered, smiling, blushing - clearly terribly pleased with herself. Lachesis giggled.

"Had enough?" Lachesis cooed, lidding her eyes.

"For the moment," Celica hummed, returning her expression with a playful smirk. "Believe me, I would love for more, but..."

"I can wait," Lachesis purred, nuzzling into her shoulder again. "Until I've returned to strength. And once that happens... you will be in for more than one sleepless night, I can assure you."

"I'm looking forward to it," Celica giggled. "Don't go back on your promise, now."

Chapter Text

In the absence of her holy guard, Sanaki had been assigned two caretakers from the Order of Heroes' staff. They weren't even close to replacements for Sigrun and Tanith, but that didn't seem to bother them, and they were serviceable enough given the circumstances. One of their advantages over the Holy Guard, in fact, was that if Sanaki ordered them to leave her alone, they would actually do so. That was why she spent a great deal of her leave wandering around the shoreline estate by herself. Well - more that was how; being honest, Sanaki was not especially clear on the why.

She knew that she was not feeling entirely herself. It was difficult to summon the full volume of her voice as she was accustomed to doing. Easy to catch herself staring out at the horizon or watching the waves on the shore, any sense of destination or purpose forgotten.

Begnion was not lost, she often had to remind herself. But it kind of was. Or rather, it may not be, but she certainly was.

She wished she had had the foresight to ask Kiran if she could stay in that foreign world, to remain with the people of her world in solidarity; she suspected Kiran would convince her not to, but she found herself longing for that conversation anyway. What purpose did her presence here really serve, if Veronica still held dominion over a world and a people that were not rightly hers? Or... were they rightly hers?

One morning, a thick cluster of clouds had rolled in and were blocking out the sunrise, leaving the waterfront and its trademark breeze a bit chillier than usual - perfect for Sanaki to foray out of the shade in all of her robes and adornments and actually pace the beach herself. It was so early in the morning that almost no one else was awake, but the Empress was surprised to find a young girl in a sundress and a long robe sitting on the edge of one of the newly-built piers, staring out into the sea.

Sanaki had not been formally introduced - she had not had a chance. But she had seen her before. There had been much she had wished to say then. She strode swiftly out onto the dock; the girl jumped and turned at the sound of Sanaki's footsteps, staring out at her in surprise.

"You are in the presence of the Empress of Begnion," Sanaki recited, because that was how she announced herself always. The girl - Genny - hastily pushed herself up to one knee; Sanaki noted a little book beside her, closed around a pen. Was she drawing, then? "You may be at ease," Sanaki offered, and the girl stood up, fidgeting and watching her with clear anxety.

"I-is something wrong?" she asked, her voice so soft and tiny and gentle that it was nearly inaudible over the waves behind them. Sanaki's heart reacted as though she were speaking to the smallest, softest kitten in the world.

"Oh no," she breathed, sighing with dismay. "I apologize, you may relax. I wished only for a brief audience with you, if you would allow it."

The girl balked. "Me?"

"You are Genny of Novis, are you not?"

Genny nodded slowly. The breeze accelerated some; she squeaked and swiftly secured her hat, though Sanaki doubted it was so light that it would float away so easily. "You can sit with me, if you'd like," she offered, carefully shuffling to the side - she seemed to notice her own book now and hastily snatched it up, hiding it behind her back. Sanaki raised an eyebrow, but didn't question her, and instead nodded serenely.

"I will do that," she announced, and she swept forward and sat on her knees, careful to keep her many layers from settling into the water by mistake. Genny sat down beside her, dipping her bare legs into the water, watching her with a shy but sincere curiosity. The admiration of commoners was always very sweet, Sanaki thought.

 

"I was told that you were vital to the defense of the Crimean world gate," Sanaki said softly.

"Oh," Genny gasped. "Oh! That's right, Begnion - you were from that world..."

"Tellius is my home," Sanaki agreed. "And the empire of Begnion is my responsibility. It is thanks to your efforts we were given the chance to free my people from Veronica, and for that I wished to offer my gratitude and commendation."

"I... u-um..." The girl blushed, but smiled broadly. "I-I'm glad... to have helped," she stammered. Sanaki couldn't help but smile a little, too.

"I wish to also express my admiration for your talent as a sage," Sanaki added. "Your commander was very adamant in her praise of your abilities."

"Huh?" Genny looked taken aback. "L-Lady Lachesis?" Sanaki nodded.

"She said it would be no exaggeration to suggest that if not for your abilities, they would have failed." Sanaki's smile grew just a touch. "From what I have learned of the battle from your other teammates, I am led to believe she is right."

"O-Oh, well..." Genny fidgeted a little, glowing. "I-I just always do my best," she mumbled shyly. "It's my job... to take care of Celica."

Ah. "So you are in service to the crown of Zofia, then," Sanaki observed. Genny's eyes grew wide, and she shook her head hastily.

"Just Celica," she said urgently.

Sanaki frowned, perplexed, but decided not to worry too much about that; she supposed Ike may have a similarly sentimental, and specific, attachment to Elincia herself over the general nobility of Crimea. And... well... Sigrun and Tanith had made their own allegiance very clear, as well. "Perhaps it was presumptuous of me," Sanaki explained, "but I had thought I would offer to appoint you as my prestigious adjutant, in recognition of your talents and your service to Tellius. But I would not want for you to feel a conflict of interest."

"Adjutant?" Genny repeated slowly, bewildered. "That's - like an assistant?"

"In a sense. But, it doesn't matter if you are happy with your current engagement."

"Oh." There was a pause; Genny seemed to feel awkward about turning Sanaki down, but found words before Sanaki decided it would be necessary to encourage her. "I appreciate the offer," she said meekly. "But I think I need to stick with Celica."

"That is admirable," Sanaki agreed. "Don't worry. I understand you must fulfill your previous commitment."

They were quiet together for a moment. The waves were not very loud here; Sanaki could hear a faint rushing of water constantly behind her, but she could also hear it gently lapping against the pier's supports beside them. The sound had... something of a hypnotic quality. Sanaki was normally quite an early riser, but this morning she felt just a bit sleepy... she found herself dozing off somewhat, staring emptily into the horizon, her eyes slipping closed. Still their silence went on. Long enough that Sanaki caught herself, starting awake, but Genny did not seem to see her jump, and only reacted when Sanaki glanced over at her.

"What were you doing out here by yourself so early?" Sanaki asked. Genny blinked, taken by surprise, her shoulders tensing up some.

"Um, well..." She cleared her throat, looking away, kicking her feet slowly in the waves. "I-I... just like being by myself sometimes, I guess..."

"I see." Sanaki nodded knowingly. "I can understand a desire for isolation. Ordinarily, I am attended by the captains of the Begnion Holy Guard, and no less than two squadrons fly with me whenever I am needed abroad."

"Fly?" Genny blinked, her eyes growing wide again. Earnest surprise and curiosity was a very good look for her, Sanaki noted. Very sweet and innocent. "Oh, on a pegasus? I haven't ever seen you flying before!"

"I have not trained to fight airborne," Sanaki clarified, a bit sadly. "Casting magic from the back of a pegasus is not as easy as it may seem."

"I can imagine," Genny agreed, smiling. "But even so, that sounds nice... I have always wanted to learn to fly a pegasus. I've worried that they might not like me, though."

Sanaki tilted her head. "Why not?" she asked honestly. "Pegasi are drawn to humans with fair and gentle hearts, are they not? It would surprise me a great deal to learn you are not the 'fair and gentle' sort, based on our converastion so far."

"W-Well, I guess that much is true," Genny stammered, her smile faltering, her cheeks growing a little red. "I, um... W-Who knows? Maybe it will be easier than I think."

"Perhaps I will be able to arrange for you to learn," Sanaki suggested, a bit more eagerly now. "Would that please you? Consider it an expression of my gratitude for what you have done for Tellius, since an appointment is out of the question."

"Oh!" Genny's blush grew only deeper. "T-that's so sweet of you! I... I'll have to think about it!" But Sanaki could tell from her beaming and the bundling of her hands and shoulders that she was very excited, and that made Sanaki glad.

Just above the waves, someone's shouting voice could be heard; turning back towards the shore they could see a girl with pink hair waving enthusiastically from one of the walkways to the beach. "Oh," Genny gasped, "I'm supposed to help with breakfast today!" She hastily stood, brushing herself off and curtsying for Sanaki. "It was nice talking with you, your highness!"

Sanaki nodded, still smiling. "You as well, hero of Crimea." Genny blushed rather deeply, fidgeting in place of a response, before nodding and turning to sprint away towards the beach again. Her haste seemed to alarm her friend, who hurried down the steps to catch her and guide her back up; Sanaki wondered if she still was not fully recovered from the exertion of the defense. She seemed in good enough health, at least.

She turned her attention towards the sea again, closing her eyes, basking in its soothing melodies. She had never really had anywhere like this in Begnion; perhaps on holidays where she attended rites to Ashera, she might enjoy being serenaded by the choirs singing their hymns. But it wasn't quite like this. She had rather enjoyed sailing, for the brief time she'd been able to do that, but there had been no time then to simply relax by the waves and appreciate the peacefulness of it... especially not with Sigrun and Tanith fussing over her safety as they did.

She liked to complain, but... she really did love them. Just as Sephiran had been... like a father... so had Sigrun and Tanith been her mothers. She hoped they were well and happy, wherever they were. She wondered maybe if she should tell them how much she missed them, when she saw them again. Would it be unprofessional? Maybe it wouldn't matter. They had seen her fairly disheveled before. Of almost anyone Sanaki knew, it was hard to imagine anyone feeling more emotionally safe than her holy guard.

At length, she chose to rise again; no matter how lovely the overcast sea was, one can only relax on one's knees for so long before they begin to ache. As she was standing, however, she nudged something with her foot - she yelped and jumped away from it, startled and worried about knocking it into the sea, and nearly lost her balance herself in the process.

Oh - it was Genny's notebook! Delicately she lifted it from the pier, inspecting it curiously. It was entirely unmarked and not very large nor thick, but the pen was buried quite firmly in the middle of the book, or possibly even closer to its end than beginning. Without thinking she opened it, pressing her thumb against the pen to hold it in place, but as she did so she thought she ought not to look; it was Genny's, after all. She should just take it back to the castle and find her, and then return it.

But as she glanced up towards the castle, of course Genny and her friend were long gone. Others would be waking up soon. Maybe Genny would be too busy for Sanaki to have a chance to return the book just then. (Heeheehee.) Yes, Sanaki wouldn't want to interrupt her if she was busy, nor would she want to occupy any more of Genny's R and R time, would she? That would simply be rude. Perhaps it made sense for Sanaki to hang on to the notebook for a little while. It was safe with her of course, wasn't it?

Smirking devilishly to herself, she looked back down at the pages. No drawings, as she had rather expected; just words. A lot of them. Genny's writing was very small and very tidy, and the notebook seemed to contain some kind of ongoing story, filling most of the pages already. Idly skimming, she saw Celica's name among the prose... as well as Lachesis'...

...and a few other certain words...

...and that was enough for her to snap it shut and hastily tuck it under her arm, scurrying away as swiftly as she could manage, eager not to be seen with such a flush to her face. No, she certainly could not return this to Genny, not just yet. Not until she had wholly devoured its contents. Ohh, how her mothers would scold her if they knew, but little did they realize that only made her mischief taste that much sweeter.

 

- - - - - - - 

 

When Lilina and Roy locked eyes in the castle's study, and it became clear to the both of them that a conversation could not be avoided without being at the very least impolite, Lilina accepted it with a sort of brisk resignation. At this point, frankly, she was surprised they had managed to put it off this long; Roy had always been a bookish little boy, so to see him spending so much time sparring and making trouble with the Order's other princelings - and therefore so little time awkwardly trying not to share library space with Lilina or Cecilia - struck her as somewhat out of character.

As was the norm for them, Lilina took the initiative, sweeping forward with her chosen books in her arms, smiling courteously and inclining her head. "General," she said kindly. "How are you this morning?"

"Well enough," Roy replied, only a bit stiffly. He was doing his best to make his returning smile look sincere. "And you?"

"Well enough," Lilina replied airily. "I'm surprised we haven't seen more of one another. You are keeping busy, it seems!"

"Somehow," Roy agreed, scoffing and looking out the window he was sitting beside. Lilina took the opportunity to steal a glance at the book; a military history codex, by the looks of it. That, too, seemed a little odd to her. "I fell in with a bit of a bad crowd," he explained, turning back to her. "I'm sure you've seen them around."

"They seem nice enough," Lilina said quizzically. "Certainly a bit rowdier than you, but, well. You know our fathers."

Roy chuckled, and then laughed, nodding slowly as he clearly relived the water fight from the other day. "Yes, I guess it is a bit like that, isn't it?" he sighed, smiling up at her. This one did look more sincere! Which also meant it looked exhausted. Lilina couldn't keep her own smile going at the sight of it.

They were quiet now. The momentary facade had fallen apart and they were now both wondering why they'd bothered with this. They knew inevitably where it was going to end.

"Roy," Lilina sighed, fighting and failing to keep the maternal concern out of her voice. "Why did you agree to this?"

"Because it's my responsibility as Marquess," Roy replied tonelessly. Lilina nodded in anguish, hanging her head. "Why did you, then?"

"Because it is my responsibility as Marquess," Lilina muttered. "You know what I mean, Roy."

"I'm afraid I really don't," Roy countered, closing his book around one finger and folding his arms. "I thought we agreed that you didn't have to worry about me anymore."

"That's not how this works," Lilina said quietly. But he was right; technically, she had absolved herself. She just... couldn't leave him alone. He had made clear many times before his desire for space, and Lilina...

"I'm sorry," she sighed, at length, hanging her head. "I care about you, Roy, in spite of everything that's happened. You're still something like family to me, you know?"

"I do," Roy agreed lowly.

"And I can't help but worry about you," Lilina continued wearily, "even if there's nothing I can really do, even though I know it just annoys you in the end to have me breathing down your neck. But Roy... please. Does your mother know? Have you spoken about it with your father at least?"

"Know what? That there's a war on?" Roy frowned, narrowing his eyes. "Yes, Lilina, I would think they're very well aware. This is just what fighting does to me, Lilina. I'm not meant for it, not like our fathers, not even like you are."

"Like me," Lilina gasped, recoiling.

"You're a natural strategist," Roy protested. "And, well, like it or not - you've got the Ostian ferocity showing in you as well. You can burn an entire battlefield clean and then turn around and go straight back to tea." He sighed, turning away from her, arms folded. "I'm not that sturdy," he said quietly. "It weighs on me for a while. But that doesn't make me any less capable than you, and I won't let it stop me from fighting on behalf of my people."

Lilina frowned, pausing to think. Roy had provided her with a good place to stop, pretend to agree with him, and leave. For a moment she wondered if maybe that would be best; she had already heard Roy's side of this argument many times before, and she doubted she was going to learn anything new from making another round of it. But to just leave him like this...

He was just trying to push her away. He wanted to be alone. Last they had spoken, in a fit of rage - brought on by her frustration, but... also some other things, some things that brought a spark of anger to her even now - she had decided, to hell with it; if he wanted her gone, fine! She pursed her lips, feeling a biting retort coming up from her throat like acid, temptation rising to leave him even more miserable than he already was. But there was no point to that. She'd been through that process before already, too, and it led to guilt and anxiety, and... helplessness. No, she stifled her anger, looking down again with a rattling sigh; setting her books down on the table beside Roy, she settled into an armchair opposite him, leaning forward with her hands on her knees.

"Roy," she whispered, "when I lost my father... I was a wreck. Don't you remember? I needed you. On top of everything else, being our leader, all of the..." She sighed, waving her hands. "The intrigue and the drama and all of that pointless political posturing," she muttered angrily, "all of that, while you and I still had to wade through the bloodshed trying to find a solution..."

"I remember very well," Roy said quietly. "You're very strong, Lilina. I'm sure if your father knew what you had been through, he would be proud of you."

Was that an attempted deflection? Lilina narrowed her eyes, but quickly moved past the perceived nettling; more likely Roy was just clueless, and didn't know what she was getting at. "I wouldn't have been able to do it without you," she said seriously, searching his face now. "Knowing that you were going to be there for me during all the fighting kept me going. And you were there for me still during the reconstruction of Ostia, when no one else trusted me, saw me as some weak stand-in to be taken advantage of and usurped. You remember all of that, too. And how horrible that was."

"I do," Roy agreed. "But you did rebuild Ostia, you did earn their trust, you proved yourself a worthy Marquess."

"Because I had you to support me," Lilina cut in. "Because when it got to be too much, I could go cry to you, and you'd take care of me. I would not be Marquess of Ostia, and perhaps not alive at all, without you. I wasn't ever meant to survive all of that alone."

Roy stared her down, his stony expression slowly betraying hints of raw confusion. Lilina could scarely believe it. "That's..." He frowned, shaking his head slowly. "We were betrothed, at the time," he said slowly. "And friends besides that. Isn't it natural to comfort your friend when they need help?"

"Yes!" Lilina groaned, exasperated. "Yes, Roy, but that also means you need to know when to ask your friends for help!"

"Lilina." Roy closed his eyes. Lilina was halfway through her next word, but she stopped, bitterly aware that Roy was no longer listening. "I'm fine," he said firmly. "Just because I cope differently than you doesn't mean - "

Lilina could restrain herself no longer. "How's Shanna?" she muttered.

"I wouldn't know," Roy intoned, his jaw clenching. "I don't understand why you're so angry about her. We've been over it before."

But that one line was already enough to draw plenty of remorse out of Lilina. That had been during the war - before Roy had any responsibility to be faithful to her, or anyone else - and her own hangups aside, Roy's life was his own to live. They had fought this battle, and this one, Lilina had soundly and properly lost. "I'm sorry," she said weakly, pushing herself up and gathering her books from the table again, avoiding his gaze. "You're right, Roy. I'm just..." Words didn't come to her. She sighed and turned to leave, deflated, defeated.

"Wait." Roy's hand latched onto her shoulder - his grasp firm but gentle and yielding as Lilina's momentum pulled her forward. She stopped, turning around, shocked. Roy's expression was morose now, even... kind of guilty. Why had it changed so dramatically?! He looked away, folding his arms again, but forced himself to look her in the eyes again, taking a deep breath.

Lilina stood dumbfounded, her full attention on him. Such an outwardly uncomfortable, emotional display was... very out of character for him. She almost wondered if maybe he had finally taken her words to heart after all.

"I know our relationship hasn't been the best," he said softly. "And I know that that's... mostly, or pretty much entirely my fault."

"That's not true, Roy," Lilina sighed, despairingly, feeling tears building. "You don't respect how much you've been through. You keep acting like you can just tough through it on your own, but you don't see how much it hurts you like I do."

"Be that as it may," Roy continued, "it doesn't excuse the way I treated you when we were engaged, and you were right to call it off. And I'll admit that, as much as I wish we could be closer friends again if nothing else, I haven't been willing to reach out like I should have."

Lilina listened, biting her lip as hard as she dared, desperate to restrain herself. This was tearing her heart open. Poor Roy - the softest, kindest boy in the world, in all worlds maybe... standing before her all but broken. Zephiel's invasion had destroyed many beautiful things, taken away many innocent lives; she could never understate the price that they had paid for their peace. But deep in her heart, the suffering of the Etrurian, Sacaean and even Ostian people could only draw out a fraction of the anger that Lilina felt for how Zephiel had mutilated her best friend. Roy was right; he had never been meant for this. He was not meant to be a General, to lead a war as a child, to drive back Zephiel into his throne room and execute him, to chase down and murder fleeing loyalists for fear of the destruction they could still cause if left alone. Others would see his muscular body, the scars on his shoulders and the keen, piercing light in his blue eyes, and mistake him for a beautiful hero of legend.

But to her... he would always be that soft bookish little boy that she used to play pretend with in the Ostian library, and...

Nope, she was crying now. Not even she was strong enough to stop it.

"Lilina," Roy whispered, clearly taken aback. "I'm sorry, um - "

"I'm sorry," Lilina sobbed back, shaking her head, hiding her face behind her books. "I'm sorry, Roy. I just feel so awful. I wasn't there for you when you needed me."

"You were," Roy promised, his hands on her shoulders. "You were always there doing your best to support me, and I felt it. Maybe I could have chosen some better coping methods, sure, but I knew I could count on you, and I still know I can count on you to be here for me. And I just - I just wanted you to know that I still see you as family. Even after everything that's happened betwen us."

Lilina nodded feebly; Roy pulled her into a hug, and Lilina sighed and leaned into it. "Well," Lilina sniffled, "I'm not going to stop, then, alright? Even though I know you hate it when I nag you..."

"I don't hate it," Roy said softly. "I'm glad you're there for me, even if you can be a little overzealous. I know I can rely on you when I need to."

"Well, good, then," Lilina grumped. "That's... good." She sighed shakily, letting go of her books with one hand to clutch at Roy's side. "I just want you to be happy again, Roy."

Roy was silent, but he hugged her a little tighter, and that was probably all the answer she was going to get. But it was enough. She'd spoken her heart.

After a little while, they let go; Lilina stepped back first, still evading his gaze. "Do you feel better?" Roy asked.

"Yeah," Lilina mumbled. "But - hey, wait!" She stamped her foot, glaring at him puffy-eyed. "I'm supposed to be here worrying about you!" Roy balked, then laughed sheepishly, rubbing his neck. "So," she huffed, "do you feel better?"

"I do, actually," he admitted. "Knowing that you're here for me and - and getting to say all that. It helped." He smiled gratefully. "If you want to stay and read in here with me," he added, "you're welcome to."

Lilina hesitated. Roy sat back down and took up his book once more, smiling up at her hopefully, and she sighed theatrically and took her seat beside him. "For old times' sake," she hummed.

"Yes," Roy agreed softly. "For old times' sake."

Chapter Text

Each of Kiran's footsteps echoed upon themselves against the polished tile of the Askrian throne room. On either side of her were spectators - advisors or military commanders or some other interested parties; Kiran didn't care to meet their eyes to confirm their identity or numbers, content to let her imagination run wild for the moment. For the moment, her focus was upon the man on the throne, and on the pounding of her heart in her throat.

Beside her was Sharena, who gently squeezed her shoulder as they came to stand at the center of the room. "You'll be fine," Sharena promised, her voice just above a breath. Kiran tried to nod; she wasn't sure if she succeeded.

Then she was alone.

The King was silent for a moment, and Kiran's eyes darted around him, unable to help themselves. Alfonse was standing at the King's side, and Sharena came to stand beside him as well; Anna was not in the room as far as Kiran could tell. Opposite from Alfonse, instead, was a sharp-eyed older woman with folded arms and a perpetual sneer. She had already introduced herself during Kiran's house arrest as one of the King's advisors - and therefore, the prosecutor of this "trial", by proxy. No matter how many assurances Kiran received, this looked and felt like a court martial. But for the time being, she was quiet, awaiting the king's order.

"Introduce yourself," Gustav said softly. He spoke very quietly, actually - anyone else in the room could have easily drowned him out at a normal conversational volume. But in the vast emptiness of throne room, crowned by towering arches far above them, his voice managed to carry despite. Kiran found herself wondering if the acoustics of the room had been designed deliberately this way.

She swallowed a knot in her throat, and took in a shaking breath. She could feel herself trembling. She was sure everyone could see it. She reminded herself that she didn't need to look important or impressive. She didn't need to prove she was something she wasn't. She reminded herself of what Eirika told her in Tellius, about how she really did seem like a natural fit for the Order - not because of some tactical genius or her talent as a summoner, but instead, because of what she stood for, and how deep her love and support for the Heroes themselves would reach. Gustav's voice had long since echoed into silence by the time she finally found her voice.

"M-My name is Kiran," she said.

"Kiran," Gustav rumbled, "how did you come to be here?"

Kiran was surprised by the question, but it was not the first time she'd thought about it. "I don't know," she said honestly. "Anna claimed I was summoned by ritual. I don't have any memory of how that came to be, or what happened just before I arrived."

"Where are you from?"

Again Kiran faltered. "Please excuse me, your majesty, if this is impertinent," she said slowly. "But I don't know that it matters where I'm from. I don't think you know anything about my world."

"Try me," said Gustav, tenting his fingers. Kiran's brow arched for a moment, before she nodded.

"The continent is called America," she said. "The country is known as the United States. I lived specifically in a city called Seattle."

Gustav nodded slowly. "Impressively," he said, "I do believe you were correct. Tell me about your world some. Is it peaceful or warlike? What were you doing there?"

Peaceful, or warlike. Kiran bit her lip as she considered her answer. "Our world pretends at peace," she said slowly. She liked that wording a lot, and decided to run with it. "War and prejudice and strife are everywhere, but many of us pretend it isn't happening, or may even be unable to tell. It is very different from the worlds beyond the gates."

"And were you a warrior of any kind? An officer, perhaps?"

"No, I wasn't." Kiran cleared her throat. "I was - I was studying to become a historian, which requires some understanding of military strategy, and I had been trained in the past to... to better understand people, to bridge gaps between communities that don't communicate well." Sure, that's how we'll describe 'being aware since childhood of systematic oppression'. "I hoped to make a difference through peaceful means," she continued, "through education and reform."

"How noble," Gustav offered. Kiran couldn't tell if the kind tone in his voice was chiding or not, and that deeply unsettled her. "The prince claims you are a talented strategist. Would you disagree?"

"No," Kiran said, and this was a question she had actually been rehearsing her answer to for some time. Sharena and Anna had warned her that the King would want to know where she had learned to lead and fight. The answer may have sounded embarrassing to her, with all of its context, but she didn't need to give all the context here. "In our world," she explained, "we play a lot of games. They're a way of communicating ideas, and can be very educational or artistic in nature. Strategy games have always been a passion of mine."

"Strategy games," the King repeated. "Such as chess and its many variants, I take it."

Close enough. "Yes, your highness." Also, you know, Fire Emblem. But there were other things, too. Real-time strategy had been a competitive hobby of hers for years.

"Very interesting." Gustav leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes for a moment. "You don't seem to like talking about yourself, so let's move on. Our investigation has revealed that you deliberately allowed Alfonse to be captured in the World of Radiance. Do you have anything to say about that?"

The observers behind and above Kiran began to murmur; she tensed, flexing her fingers involuntarily. "I made a mistake," she said softly. "I had assumed that Veronica would defer leadership to an experienced tactician that we knew for sure was among her forces, and I planned my strategy around his tendencies. We suspected Veronica herself to be delirious or desperate at the time, and I failed to account for the possibility that she would seize command and sacrifice her own forces to trap ours. But she did, and I had to choose between fighting a losing battle with the few Heroes she had stranded or recalling the majority of my forces and sacrificing Alfonse." She glanced at him; he was looking her way already. "I also believe he gave me his blessing, at the time," she added warily.

Gustav turned to him with raised eyebrows; Alfonse cleared his throat and nodded. "It was the right decision at that moment," he said, calmly and clearly. "I suggested it first, but Kiran did not hesitate to agree and execute. I knew Princess Veronica would not be interested in harming me."

Kiran frowned. How did he know that?

"Next question," Gustav boomed. "You chose to cooperate with Veronica's forces during the final attack."

Kiran blinked, so startled by the accusation that she almost denied it on reflex. But she hesitated, thought it over. "Are you referring to Mist?" she said carefully.

"I don't know the details," he huffed, waving to his advisor, who gleefully stepped forward and folded her arms to glare at Kiran.

"A lone rider ventured forth from Veronica's fortifications," the hawkish woman declared. "After you captured the fortress, she returned, you questioned her, and then chose to follow her. For what reason did you trust an envoy of the enemy?"

Kiran frowned. There were a lot of problems with this accusation, but they were difficult to disprove all at once. She'd have to tackle them one at a time and avoid being sidetracked. "We captured and interrogated her," she said slowly, "to be more precise. Mist was unarmed except for a relic she had retrieved from somewhere in Daein the night before."

"Lehran's Medallion," the advisor agreed. "The Emblem of Radiance, which contained one half of that world's sleeping deity, not to be awoken until the world's end. She came to you and proposed to awaken her."

There was a good reason for that, too, but Kiran hesitated to say so, worried that they'd get off track. She chewed her lip for a moment, nodding slowly to show she was listening. "She did not propose that directly," she said, at length. "She suggested it was part of a plan she'd come up with, by conspiring with others. It's important to note that she was not under Veronica's control at this time, due to the poison that was inflicted by Kagero's dagger earlier in the fighting."

"How did you know she wasn't being controlled by Veronica?"

There was a dangerous pause. Kiran did not have a clear answer to that, but somehow, it didn't feel like she'd neglected to think about it. But in her pause, the advisor chose to press her advantage.

"You knew that the rider had been sent forth the night before," she hissed. "The enemy should have been anticipating your attack. Why would they isolate that rider at such a vulnerable time?"

"We attacked in part because we saw the rider," Kiran sighed. "We didn't want to grant the enemy time to seek reinforcements."

"Regardless," the woman snapped, undeterred, "upon her capture, you elected to trust her when you have no reason to believe that she would or could turn against Veronica. Did you have some way of knowing she was not lying about her motives? That she was not sent by Veronica to disarm you, lure you into her clutches?"

"She didn't do that," Kiran said blankly.

"What's important here is your motivation," the advisor sneered. "Not the results."

"I can't tell what you're accusing me of," Kiran continued - but she caught herself, and shook her head. She couldn't afford to get defensive. "It doesn't matter either way," she said instead. "I think there's been a misunderstanding. Can I describe our meeting with Mist as I recall it?"

The advisor turned back to Gustav, who nodded for Kiran to continue. Kiran closed her eyes, calling to mind the events of the night in Flaguerre, arranging them, deciding on her wording. Her legs were shaking but she was in control now. She was empowered. She could tell what they were afraid of to some degree, and she could better explain her motivation this way. She just reminded herself over and over: she had nothing at all to hide.

"After the capture of Flaguerre," she began, "I gave orders to operate the gate as normal for the rider's return, but to capture her as soon as she passed into the city. So naturally we detained her and took her to one of the houses for safekeeping. However, one of the guards came to fetch me as soon as she was captured, reporting that she was saying something troubling and that I needed to hear her. Before we went, however, he also asked to share something he had experienced with me, that I had not been present for."

She hesitated, turning to glance at Alfonse. Her fingers curled up into fists but she quickly released them. "It is important to note that Empress Sanaki of Begnion was present for this entire process," she added lowly. "Both the story our guard told us, and the subsequent interrogation."

"Father," Sharena interrupted, "I am not sure Kiran realizes she has the authority to call a witness?"

Kiran blinked, startled. "I-In that case," she said hastily, "I would - I would rather have Sanaki herself attest to what happened, if that is acceptable to the court."

"Yes," Gustav agreed, "I would be very interested in the Empress' perspective. Return the relic to the Summoner, and allow her to summon the Empress. Let's hear what she has to say."

 

At the Breidablik's call, Sanaki appeared in her imperial gown; she bowed to the court behind before turning to bow to Gustav, as well. Kiran wondered sometimes how the relic seemed to prepare a Hero to be summoned; no one ever seemed caught off guard by it. "King Gustav of Askr," grandly bellowed the Apostle, as she rose from her bow. "I am Sanaki, thirty-seventh Apostle and Empress of Begnion. For what purpose have I been called?"

"The Summoner and leader of the Order of Heroes has offered to have you explain what transpired in the World of Radiance," the King explained, gesturing behind her to Kiran, and Kiran nodded as Sanaki turned back to her. The Empress paled quickly, her lips tight. "Starting from the capture of the Emblian Hero named Mist."

"Mist," Sanaki said firmly, "is of Daein descent, not Emblian, and I will not correct you on the matter a second time."

Gustav's eyebrows rose. The court murmured in surprise. Sanaki did not flinch. Kiran wished with all her heart she could be as cool and collected as the Empress, but... then again, this was Sanaki's very literal job.

"When we were informed of Mist's capture," Sanaki continued, "we were told also of a troubling tale from Alfonse's liberation of the World of - Shadows, I believe it was. Has Kiran already told you of this?" She paused, and no one stopped her. "The knight reported that the defenders of that world had believed Alfonse was there to destroy them, and that Alfonse made no attempt to correct their assumption. He questioned why Alfonse would leave them to their fears in defeat, if our mission was truly to liberate them."

"Liberate them?" Gustav said airily. "Tell me, what was the mission of the Order of Heroes, to your understanding?"

"Kiran made it very clear when I was summoned," Sanaki said patiently. "Alfonse, Sharena, and the Commander were all present as well and did not disagree with her. She told me that Veronica had assumed control of worlds similar to our own, and that were freeing them from said control - removing her outside interference from their worlds. This claim of 'destruction' is very directly at odds with Kiran's mission statement."

"Do you feel that Kiran deceived you?"

"No," Sanaki said firmly. "I am not suspicious of Kiran in the slightest. It is overwhelmingly clear to me that Kiran is not a deceiver, and in fact she was deceived along with us. But in the moment, I did not have such certainty, and I announced to her that I would be terribly angry if the knight's suggestion turned out to be true. Kiran told me at that time she would be just as angry as I, and now I am aware that she was not lying."

"What do you mean by that?"

Sanaki waved her hand, refusing to respond. "We interrogated Mist," she continued. "She was in possession of Lehran's Medallion, an artifact that she had hoped to use to subdue Veronica, since Veronica's control over her had weakened. I asked her why she felt the need to subdue Veronica when we possessed the means to drive her out of Tellius entirely, and she seemed mortified by the very idea. She explained to me that if Veronica left the World of Radiance, it would be destroyed.

"I was already aware at this point that this world was not the same one that I had grown up in, but it matters not to me; Begnion is Begnion, Tellius is Tellius, and all people of the empire are mine to care for, whether or not I share that duty with others bearing my name and lineage. Therefore Mist's claim, if true, amounted to an accusation of treason. I asked Commander Anna if this was true, and she pretended to be unsure. When I challenged her, she asked if I would rather allow Veronica to continue to create false worlds to abuse without opposition. I understood her position, and chose to withdraw my accusation for the moment.

"Mist proposed a new solution - by binding Veronica to the Medallion, it was her hope to contain the Princess without destroying the world she had created, allowing its inhabitants to live in peace without her controlling them. Sharena, Kiran, and Anna all agreed at that time to join forces with Mist and whatever resistance was left against Veronica's dictatorship. This was the plan with which we marched on to Mugill."

"I've heard enough," Gustav said, as Sanaki finished her sentence. Sanaki narrowed her eyes at him. "Anything more to say, before we continue to question the Summoner, Empress?"

"Kiran has earned my trust many times over," she said firmly. "If made to choose between following you or her, I would not hesitate to defend her. I am certain I would not be alone."

 

Sanaki stepped back, nodding to Kiran. "Do not fear them," she said fiercely. "I am here, Tactician." Kiran thought she might tear up.

But she did her best to restrain herself, returning to the center of the floor and turning her gaze back to Gustav. Gustav was stroking his grayed beard, considering his next words carefully before speaking.

"What the Empress has just said," he began, "could be interpreted as a form of threat against Askr. Do you disagree?"

Kiran frowned. Why would he ask this? She supposed - it was a stretch, but she supposed - he was right. Turning back to Sanaki, she could see that Sanaki herself had not flinched, and was glaring defiantly at Gustav in answer of her own. Why?! She almost wanted to say something - to make any kind of threat in this position, at such a sensitive moment, it felt like suicide! But Sanaki was not hesitating, and as she realized Kiran was watching her, she turned that intense gaze to the Summoner instead, as if trying to silently transmit her certainty and ferocity into Kiran herself.

Baffled though Kiran was, she had to accept Sanaki's resolution - if Askr made her choose... she really would choose Kiran. Come hell or high water, parting on good terms or bad, she would...

This was a lot to accept, actually. But at the same time, was it really the first time she'd confronted this? When she ordered Eirika to detain Alfonse, she had not hesitated. When Alfonse had attacked Leanne, Hector was swift to treat him as prisoner, and when he had advanced on Kiran during their heated conversation after, both Eirika and Lyn had been ready at her defense. Not just with words - not with words at all, even: with blades. They meant to draw blood to protect her if they had to.

It was a horrifying thought. Why? Why her? Why did she command such power?

Because she loved them? Was that really all?

But if she did love them, then --

"Repeat the question," Kiran said, turning back to Gustav, doing her best impression of Sanaki's glare.

"Do you feel it appropriate to say Sanaki has made a threat against Askr?" Gustav rumbled. Was he smiling?

"Openly threatened Askr?" Kiran shook her head. "No. She has stated her allegiance, that is all. If you consider that a threat I would find that disconcerting."

Yes, Gustav was definitely smiling now. "Why is that?" Why was he smiling?! Kiran glanced around before answering - and she saw Alfonse. Hiding his face. Pale. Gripping his belt.

He had tried to put this on her, hadn't he. He had tried to claim that Kiran had some ulterior motive that had led her to change her priorities in Tellius, maybe even motivated her to let him be captured. All suspicion was cast on her and on the Heroes - and not on the other royals that had helped her to lead. Alfonse knew he wouldn't be under fire, and he meant to use that to force the Order to focus on just the defense of Askr... no matter the cost.

He really didn't care about the Heroes at all, did he?

"I should think it obvious," Kiran hissed, turning back to Gustav, her glare no longer an impression of anyone else's anger but a shining beacon of her own. "When I was brought here, the Order of Heroes asked me - all but begged for my help, and we have obliged with blood and tears and suffering on your behalf. And so now when we begin to think of our own people and our own interests, it's treated as a threat? That's how you react when your weapon turns against you - not when a trusted ally begins to have doubts."

"Why should you have doubts?" Gustav huffed. "You are aware now the worlds are false. You are not liberating anything from Veronica's control; you are undoing a crime against the Aether itself. There is no cause to be troubled by that."

"When you remove yourself from any responsibility to the people that live in those worlds," Kiran growled, "I'm sure it's easy to say that. But you must understand what I have had to ask the Heroes to do. I ordered Sanaki to attack her friends. I ordered her to attack her own empire. Her own people. She obliged because she believed it would free them. How can I continue to lead her on our mission knowing it will lead to the destruction of that which she holds dear? What does that make me?"

"Her world is fine," Gustav said calmly.

"That IS her world!" Kiran shouted, fists clenched. "You heard her just now, didn't you!? Begnion is Begnion. Tellius is Tellius. Your technicalities and abstractions don't matter to the Heroes; those are their people, their countries, their friends, their family. Just because Veronica created them from nothing doesn't change who they are or cheapen their lives. What Veronica is doing is no different from selling your own children into slavery, or enslaving them yourself. Yes, it's a terrible crime that has to be stopped - but there's something much more important than merely stopping the slaver. Your first priority has to be saving the child."

Kiran's words rang through the room; she could faintly hear murmuring and whispering from onlookers, and at Gustav's side his advisor glanced at him with a surprised and perplexed expression. Gustav, however, did not respond right away. He smiled at Kiran with narrowed eyes, drumming his temple idly with one hand. Kiran thought for a moment perhaps she was neglecting something, but... she'd made her statement, and now she was light-headed and her heart was racing far too fast to really think. She would just have to be satisfied with that.

"That is certainly a chilling accusation," Gustav said, after a moment, his voice low and yet still enough to silence the rest of the room. "Tell me this, Summoner. If the protection of Askr, and the defense and salvation of Veronica's false worlds, are at odds, what course will you choose?"

"You would be destroying worlds to protect yourself," Kiran replied, awestruck, mortified. Her voice was shaking, but she didn't really care anymore. This couldn't be a serious question. She couldn't accept it. "If that was truly your intent, then... we would be enemies, but I really hope that it isn't."

"When said that way," Gustav hummed, smiling knowingly, eerily, smugly - "I can't find fault with such a resolve. Very well then, Summoner. I have no further questions."

 

Sanaki walked out with her. There was a dark delight in the Empress' eyes as they left the throne room.

Kiran nearly collapsed against the nearest pillar. She felt like she'd just sprinted a hundred miles, and her heart was pounding so hard she was afraid she might pass out. She heard Sanaki barking some order - the next moment a guard had approached them to help Kiran stand.

"Get her some water," Sanaki ordered. "Summoner? Are you well?"

"I'm okay," Kiran promised, waving her hand feebly. "I - Just anxiety. Just need a moment to calm down."

"Fear not," Sanaki declared, smiling into her face. "You've done well. Did you see Alfonse before you left? He looked like a man sentenced to the gallows."

"Alfonse," Kiran whispered - she shook her head, pushing the guard back as she found her footing, mumbling thanks to her before she returned to her post. "Sanaki," she breathed, turning back to the Empress, "you don't think Askr will turn against us, do you?"

"They would be fools to," Sanaki huffed. "Besides, Gustav did not challenge you as a man looking for a fight, did he? He wanted the Askrian court to hear your conviction for themselves. I'm certain you've earned their respect now, Kiran. They can't suspect you any longer. Alfonse will have to admit to his deception before long."

"I hope so," Kiran sighed, hiding her eyes behind her hand, trying to force herself to breathe deeply. "I'm - I'm going to send you back now."

"Are you certain?" Sanaki's voice dropped ominously. "Kiran, you don't seem well. I won't be able to relax if I'm worrying over your health."

"Well... that wouldn't be good," Kiran agreed between breaths, smiling weakly, "but... I promise, it's.. just an anxiety attack. It happens. I'll be okay."

"I insist," Sanaki snapped. "Take me to your room. If nothing else, let us talk about the proceedings, and I will report back to the others how things are going here. Many others are worried for you, too, you know."

"Ah." Kiran straightened up, chuckling. "Alright. We can't have that, can we?"

Sanaki grinned. "That's the spirit!"

Chapter Text

Severa had never really been one for staring out longingly into the sea, so she did her best to keep her eyes on the ground in front of her. She paced, waiting far from patiently, until she finally heard approaching footsteps and confirmed their owner with a quick glance. She hadn't been here long, but any time at all felt like too much.

She shouldn't have been so scared. Why was this so scary? It was just - it was just a talk. She had already made her peace with Lucina's answer, no matter what it was. But she knew it wasn't just the answer she was afraid of... it was the reaction. Lucina being forced to tell the truth. She would never believe that Lucina had meant to hurt her, but that only made it harder to imagine what she would do when she realized what had happened.

To her horror, Lucina seemed already aware. She didn't walk over to Severa; she stopped as the rocky stairs ended at the lookout, arms crossed over her chest, her expression guarded and forced neutral, but every other part of her tense as if she were waiting for a chance to run.

Gods. Did she have to do this? Was this...

Yeah. She did.

"Hey," Severa said, as neutrally as she could.

"Good evening," Lucina replied stiffly. "What did you want to talk about?"

Well, no turning back now. She took a deep breath, turning her eyes to the horizon without thinking before swiftly tearing them away and focusing on the sky instead. Her legs moved, resuming her slow pacing as she exhaled; the crunch of her boots in gravel gave her a bit of a rhythm, like a very slow duel, and it helped steady her. "Us," she said simply. "I guess. I mean, we kinda already had a version of this talk back when I first showed up, but I get the feeling there's more you're not telling me."

Lucina was quiet. Her silence struck Severa like a bitter wind.

"You know how scared I was when I learned you were already here?" Severa laughed hollowly. "Some part of me always thought I'd never go home. I should just leave you guys behind - not because I never wanted to see you again, but because I didn't know if I could handle what would happen when I did. Mom would cry her eyes out. You'd probably cry your eyes out, too. You'd both be so mad. It's pathetic, but some part of me... just kinda thought maybe I shouldn't ever own up to it."

"But you did," Lucina whispered.

"Damn straight." Severa turned around to face her, swiftly restraining a spike of anger. Being angry wouldn't do any good here. She tended to get angry easy, she knew that. She'd lash out and say things she didn't mean and hope other people could pick out the real meaning behind her words. But here... Not here. "You know why? It's not just because I decided I missed you more than I was afraid of seeing you again. It's not because I love you, either. Not that simple. I owned up to everything and came to see you because you deserved to know what happened. No matter what had changed between us, you deserved an explanation, and it was up to me to deliver it. So I did."

"I see." Lucina was hiding under her bangs. Her lips were white.

"I'm not in any position to demand anything from you," Severa continued. "But this doesn't feel good, Luci. Knowing something's going on that I'm not supposed to know about. And not knowing what it means for me."

"Yes." Lucina sniffled. "Yes, Severa, I understand. How long have you known?"

Oof. Cutting to the chase. Severa wasn't done, but she decided to come back to that thought after letting Lucina have a turn speaking her mind. "I dunno," she sighed, "I guess I kinda suspected it that very first night. Like... I didn't really know why else you'd hesitate, unless you were seeing somebody else, or something. But, well, I couldn't really keep still about it, you know? I heard a couple rumors about people sneaking off into remote parts of the castle, and with everybody in a smaller space around here, it's not like you can really evade EVERYBODY's notice, right?"

"What have you seen?"

"Why, you gonna kill me if I know too much?"

Lucina began to tremble. "No, Severa," she whispered, her voice broken. Severa winced.

"Ah, uh," she stammered, "that was - I was kidding, Luci. I was joking." (WAS SHE?)

"It doesn't matter," Lucina whispered, and for a moment Severa's heart stopped. "What matters is I've lied to you. I wasn't faithful to you. I confess, Severa. I'm sorry."

 

Severa was quiet for a moment. So was Lucina. The rhythm of the gravel was gone, replaced with the crashing of waves on the rocky bluff below them.

"That's all?" Severa said blankly. Lucina laughed, or sobbed, or both.

"I don't know what else to say," she admitted, looking up at last. Yeah, there were her tears, already running down lines in her cheeks, accompanied with a guilt-ridden smile. "I-I really don't. I feel so horrible about it, but if I was really sorry, I wouldn't have done it in the first place, would I? What right do I have to try to absolve myself?"

"Well, hang on," Severa sighed, "I didn't say I wanted you to crucify yourself or whatever, it's just - I want to talk about us. I want to know what's going on. I told you everything that happened while I was away, but you didn't do the same for me." Lucina hesitated, seemingly dumbstruck, her smile fading and her eyes widening. "So," Severa pressed, "what's happening? Do you love the other girl?"

"N-No," Lucina stammered. "I - well, I don't suppose I've - I've really considered it very far. I like her, Severa. Um, should I... tell you who she is?"

"Catria," Severa said easily. "Blue haired pegasus knight."

"Oh." Lucina withered. "Um, well... yes. But we..."

"So it was just a physical thing?"

"I guess so." Lucina evaded her gaze now. "I wasn't sure if I would ever really see you again. And... and I thought maybe I would... do something more with her, since you and I weren't ever really very close. Maybe it was better that we were just friends. But I didn't get that far."

For a moment, Severa tried to repeat Lucina's words in her head as she said them, trying to trace their meaning, but she quickly gave up. "You don't know what you feel for her," she said instead, and Lucina nodded weakly. "Alright, well, that's something we can talk about then."

"I don't understand what's happening," Lucina said, looking up shakily. "Aren't you... aren't you angry with me?"

"A little," Severa admitted, starting to pace closer, though avoiding a straight-line approach. "It's not like the thought never crossed my mind in Nohr, though. To be honest, your grace, I'm not even sure if it was really loyalty that kept me from getting close to anybody else. I think I was just kind of... I just couldn't do it."

"Severa," Lucina whispered, in awe and sadness. "And you return to me and proclaim your love for me, and..."

"Hey, you're not obligated to return it," Severa said, shrugging. Gods but she was proud of herself for deflecting that so easily! She couldn't let Lucina know just how much her heart hurt, this wasn't about her right now, it was about Lucina. And being angry wouldn't help her get anywhere! Wouldn't help. She had to focus. "Like I said before," she sighed, craning her neck back and looking skyward again. "I knew I was pushing my luck. We're lord and retainer in the first place. I have a higher obligation to serve you, whatever my feelings are, and I might not sound like it but I do take that job very seriously. So it doesn't really matter whether or not I'm angry with you. We've got ourselves a little love triangle to fix, and I'm here to help you fix it."

 

For a moment, Lucina was quiet. Severa wondered if maybe she should say something next instead of waiting for her; she hadn't really asked a question or anything like that. But the silence grew very long, the night sky began to feel deeper and the stars began to feel faint. She looked down again; Lucina had just wiped the tears from her cheeks, but now returning her gaze to Severa she didn't look vulnerable and shattered like before, she looked -

Oh gods she knew that look and it made her panic for just a moment because only once had Lucina ever looked so fiery and resolved like this and it had almost gotten them all killed -

"No," Lucina snapped, "no, no, no! This is wrong! I won't let you do this to yourself, Severa!"

"I'm doing my job," Severa said blankly, quivering with panic.

"And that's it?!" Lucina demanded, stomping forward once. Her fists were clenched, partway extended beneath her. Severa stepped back, quaking. "You've already given up on me," Lucina shouted, "haven't you!? That's why you can just talk like I haven't wronged you and everything's okay, you've just decided all at once I don't care about you and you're okay with that!"

"I mean," Severa stammered, her pitch rising, "that's not - O-of course you care about me, right, Luci? Like - I just -"

"You should be furious with me!" Lucina cried. "Don't you love me?!"

"W-Well, yeah!" Severa cried, backpedaling wildly now. "But that doesn't mean I get to keep you all to myself just because I want to!"

Lucina paused, breathing hotly, still posturing as though ready to lunge at her, and Severa remained frozen and helpless, steeling herself to dodge. But all at once, Lucina's fit of anger broke apart. She sighed, buring her face in her hands.

"What?" Severa didn't know how to react. "What's - what did I do? What should I do?"

"Why did you leave me?" Lucina whimpered, choked voice muffled by her hands. "Why did you have to leave? I wanted to - I wanted to get stronger for you, Severa, I wanted to be strong enough to be honest with you - I-I was going to be the first one to confess, I promised myself I would be, and... and then you..."

"Oh," Severa whispered. A deep chill pierced her, her chest turning numb. "Oh, no, Lucina..."

"And then you left," Lucina sobbed. "You just... disappeared. I didn't know what to do. Was I cursed? Was it me? I thought maybe I just should stay away from anyone I cared about before... anything happened to them... but..."

"Your whole life you kept trying to do things yourself," Severa sighed. "It only got worse when Grima showed up. You've never been good at going it alone, Luci. I..."

Shouldn't have gone.

Lady Camilla was a talented fighter but she wasn't perfect. Beruka was a good assassin but she wasn't an exceptional retainer. Camilla had many close shaves, and she owed her life to Severa several times over. Without Severa, she'd have died trying to save Corrin, and without Camilla, Corrin... who knows what would have happened to her, or the rest of the people that Severa met in Nohr...

"Look," Severa managed - aware she was choking up now too but what the hell was she gonna do about it? Two more steps put her within arm's length of Lucina, and she reached out and clasped her hands, pulling her slowly into an embrace. "Lucina," she whispered, "this isn't all your fault, okay? I left at a bad time, and for all you knew I was dead. I can't hold it against you for having feelings for somebody else when you didn't even know if you were going to see me again. That's why I'm not angry, okay?"

"You feel like it should be your fault," Lucina sniffled. "But it's not. I should have told you right away, like you said. I shouldn't have just left you in the dark to figure things out yourself. I was just so scared to push you away again. I didn't know what to do."

"Well," Severa sighed, "let's figure it out together, now that we're both here, okay?"

"I love you," Lucina whispered, pulling back so she could look Severa in the eyes. "I really do love you, Severa."

With her so close, with her voice so sincere and afraid, Severa choked a moment before composing herself enough to weakly answer her. "I really love you too," she managed, feeling her own tears building, fighting off her instinct to hide or wipe them away. "I want you to be happy. Okay? If that's with me, then - then awesome. If that's not with me, that's okay, I'll do whatever I can to support you, always."

"I don't ever want to be apart from you again," Lucina said more heatedly, her fingers clenching into Severa's sleeves. "I don't know if I can handle the thought of it. But I do... I do really like Catria, too. I guess - " She sighed heavily, hanging her head. "I guess I've always known what I should have done, but..."

"Well, hang on," Severa said slowly, trying to keep her heart from jumping into her throat. "I - okay - okay, listen, uh - " She laughed - all the words she'd rehearsed for this were gone, driven away and ground into dust. "Sorry, um - I'm really sorry if this isn't a - like, an okay thing for me to suggest. I just..."

"No, no," Lucina gasped, looking up again, startled. "What is it?"

"Well, I mean, I knew you liked Catria," Severa admitted, shrugging, "and I figured, maybe you weren't as into me as I thought you were, but - being into somebody isn't really a yes or no question, you know? So I know you like her, and you were even thinking about going a bit further with her - romantically, I guess." Lucina nodded slowly, watching her wide-eyed. "I thought maybe if we talked it out and - and if you didn't really want to choose, then..."

"Oh," Lucina whispered. "Oh, no, Severa. I - we can't."

"Why not?" Severa protested, laughing again. "Catria's cute! I'll admit that outright, I get why you like her! And I mean, we're adults, you know? We can do whatever. It's not like you really have to worry about being Exalt of anything, too, not anymore. If we can just get better at this whole talking about our feelings thing, I bet we can work it out!"

"You're serious," Lucina breathed, shaking her head. "You - you would really be okay with that?"

"I'd be okay with trying," Severa agreed. "And if it doesn't work out, I'll be okay with whoever you choose to give your heart to. Just as long as you're happy in the end, and I know I've done my best."

Lucina sighed heavily, smiling in spite of herself, before pulling Severa into a tight embrace of her own - which Severa enthusiastically returned. "I'm so blessed to have you in my life, Severa," the exalt whispered, kissing below Severa's ear, and Severa chuckled shyly as they separated. "Well," she sniffled, smiling as cheerfully as she could, "we'll have to discuss this all with Catria as well, won't we?"

"That seems fair," Severa agreed, grinning. "So how're we gonna do that?"

 

They didn't stay out too much longer. On her way back to her quarters near Lady Camilla's, however, Severa took a detour that put her in the main hall connecting the Nohrian and Hoshidan's royal quarters with the rest of the great keep. Waiting for her there was a taller, slenderer version of herself, eyes closed as she leaned against the wall as though asleep - but at Severa's approach the woman glanced up, a delicate smile on her face.

"How'd it go?" Cordelia asked.

"Perfect," Severa purred, beaming. "Your advice was spot on, mom. As I would expect from you."

"I'm just glad I was able to help," Cordelia replied, laughing delicately. "You seem wide awake. Would you like to talk about it?"

"Oh, would I," Severa agreed, though mostly just for the excuse to spend time with her again. She would take every chance she got.

Chapter Text

Corrin's health deteriorated very slowly over the course of their summer break. At first she had been doing alright - the occasional dully-accepted nightmare, the usual throbbing but ignorable headaches - but after that one night where she'd wound up staying awake to socialize with Camilla and Leo, her sleep schedule had been thrown entirely out the window, and now her headaches were growing intense and her focus was steadily getting worse. Her family tried to be with her, to comfort and cover for her - and she appreciated that - but it was hard for her to enjoy their company now. She couldn't help but feel like she was dragging them down.

Felicia was more than happy to do her part to help trying to restore order to Corrin's tumultuous spirit, but she hadn't been enough during the war... she wasn't enough now. (Corrin tried not to voice her aching longing for Rhajat. It would only make the pain worse.) And even with that aside, reluctant though she was to admit it, now that she'd started to really understand what was so different about Roy that she'd never felt before, she was kind of starting to crave it.

So, that was why she had timidly crept through the castle's main halls towards Roy's room wearing nothing but her robe and a bikini (as an excuse, since this was technically the way down to the beach) in the earliest hours of morning she could manage. She had not thought through her approach all the way yet; she thought maybe she'd knock quietly, and if he didn't answer she'd just slip in and lay with him, and - well - she'd figure it out from there. Say nothing of how she actually knew where Roy's room was. There was certainly no story there.

When she knocked on Roy's door, though, he did answer - dressed fully (though casually) and smiling warmly with an expectant light that flickered out as soon as he realized who was actually standing before him. As soon as he had processed her, he snatched her by the wrist and pulled her inside, swiftly shutting the door behind her; her heart skipped for a moment, but Roy's expression was one of remorseful panic rather than excitement. "What are you doing here?" he whispered.

"I miss you," Corrin whimpered, bouncing faintly on her heels.

"I - " Roy sighed, wincing terribly. "I'm so sorry, Corrin, but - but I've got to get ready to go, the whole family is going out - "

"No!" Corrin stamped her foot, but she knew she was powerless. She tried to radiate acceptance through her aching nerves but it refused to even go so far down as her throat. "No," she protested again, but feebly. "Tonight...?"

"I can probably do tonight," Roy said agreeably, smiling reassuringly. "Just hold out until then, okay? I'll be excited to see you!"

"Yeah!" Corrin managed to smile too. But in that moment the door burst open again - Roy jumped and both he and Corrin staggered back until they happened to be at something like a normal conversational difference, Corrin hurriedly gathering her robe about herself.

"You ready to go?" said Hector, a man twice Leo's size at least that seemed to need to hunch over to fit through Roy's door, with a smile more than big enough to match. "We're just waiting on you and Florina now, and - " Then his eyes set on Corrin, and his brow jumped a foot. "Who's this?"

"A friend," Roy said hastily, gesturing to her as though to introduce her; Corrin tried her best to put on a formal posture, bowing stiffly to him, but her head hurt and she couldn't form words before Roy had already continued. "This is Princess Corrin, of Nohr. She and I have fought together on several occasions already."

"Oh, yeah," Hector boomed, and he grinned. "I remember you, from the strike team at the gate and all, right? One of the heavy infantry. Man, your dragon form sure is something, isn't it?"

Corrin managed to smile weakly. That was about all she could do.

"Is she okay?" Hector added more lowly, frowning to Roy. "Is something the matter?"

"Oh, well," Roy gasped - turning to Corrin, and Corrin turned to face him, too. At first she thought her expression might have been pleading and desperate, but... she reined herself in. She could rise above her feral needs. She was stronger than this. Go spend time with your family, Corrin tried to say, at least with her eyes if not her voice. "Corrin," Roy said faintly, "was just, uh - she was offering to make plans today. I was just explaining that we were already committed."

"You wanted to spend time with Roy?" Hector asked, as if incredulous. Corrin nodded faintly to him, not really sure how else to answer. "Do you get seasick easily?"

Corrin gulped. "N...No?"

"Great!" All at once his smile had returned, a thousand suns radiant or more. "Roy, why don't you invite her along? We'll have more than enough food for one more! Besides, she looks like a bit of time out at sea might be good for her!"

"Uhh," Roy stammered, turning back to Corrin again in a panic. Corrin realized she couldn't just stare dumbly at him and wait for him to answer again, so she said:

"S-Sure." Then she cleared her throat and tried again. "It sounds... fun."

"Okay!" Roy replied, smiling incredulously. "Uh, then, yeah! I guess you can just come along like that, if you don't mind!"

"We're leaving in five minutes," Hector added, "and you know how Lyn gets when we're behind schedule, so make it snappy!" He ducked out of the room again, though notably did not bother to close the door.

 

Roy introduced her to everyone in his "family" on their walk down to the docks; there was of course himself and his father, Eliwood, as well as his mother Ninian - a gentle and warm-spirited woman Corrin had seen around, but had not yet fought with, so she knew very little about her. Then there was his "aunt" Lyn and her wife Florina, with whom Corrin was at least vaguely acquainted already - anyone with even a passing interest in swordplay knew who Lyn was by now, after all - and there was Hector, Eliwood's best friend, and his daughter Lilina. Corrin tried her best to keep up, mouthing each of their names to herself in an effort to help her remember, but she was sure she gave a strange first impression and she'd just have to accept it.

They'd prepared a fairly sizable sailing ship at one of the outer docks, and to Corrin's surprise almost everyone jumped straight to work helping Eliwood prepare her to leave port. Roy explained that this had been something of a family hobby of theirs following Eliwood's marriage - something they did 'for old times' sake', whatever that meant - so they'd all had to learn to sail together. Corrin tried to ask how to help, but everyone she turned to encouraged her to relax out of the way, and Roy and Lilina seemed mostly content to do the same, so... she just sort of paced aimlessly as the others guided the ship out of the harbor. Eventually she just braced against the starboard railing and watched the waves rushing past them.

If nothing else, it certainly was relaxing. Some of her other friends and siblings had taken poorly to the sea, but Corrin had found it beautiful and soothing. She liked the feeling of the cool wet breeze on her skin, and she liked the playful water frothing around and below them as they went. It was kind of hypnotic to watch. A pattern that was never still, and yet always roughly the same.

 

"She seems to like the sea," Eliwood hummed. "Like your mother."

"I hadn't ever thought of it," Roy admitted - lowly, because he knew Corrin's hearing was very good. She did look more content than usual, just watching the waves, but even so he felt it was rude to talk about her within what could be earshot. "But I guess she and Mother are quite a bit alike."

"Is that so?" Eliwood nodded slowly, stroking his chin, returning his gaze to the ship's bow. "I suppose even her condition reminds me some of your mother's, before arriving here."

Roy nodded faintly. He hadn't thought about that, but Eliwood was actually right. The same vague listlessness and tendency to dissociate, the way her head always seemed to hurt and sometimes even just talking was too exhausting for her - except with Ninian, it had seemed to be caused by genuine physical fatigue, but for Corrin it was... something else. Something like fear, maybe.

"I think she's feeling better now that she's been aboard a while," Florina added softly. "Is she nice, Roy?"

"She can be a bit hotheaded," Roy hummed. "But yes, she's very kind."

"Hotheaded," Lyn huffed. "I suppose so. She's a very fierce fighter."

"Yes, I would believe that," Florina agreed. "I've seen her. But you and Hector have already shown me that even people that can cause terrible destrution, can still be very kind."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Lyn huffed, folding her arms and turning to her. "Comparing me to Hector like that. I wouldn't call what I do 'terrible destruction'."

"You might not," Eliwood said calmly, "but it looks a bit different from the other end of your sword, I think."

"I already knew you were nice," Florina added, apologetically. "I mostly meant Hector."

"Damn right, you mostly meant Hector," Lyn grumbled under her breath, and Florina giggled sweetly. "Well, what do you think? Do you want to introduce yourself?"

"That would be polite, wouldn't it?" Florina nodded to Eliwood. "Just shout if you need me to climb up."

So, the two of them drifted away. Roy watched them approach Corrin, Lyn in front and Florina just faintly behind her, as usual, and he found himself pleased to see Corrin smiling as they initiated conversation. The dragoness still seemed exhausted, but... at least in a more peaceful way, now.

"So," Eliwood said lowly.

Roy stood up involuntarily straight. "Father?"

"I have spoken with Lyn and Hector on the matter," Eliwood continued, his voice somewhat grave. At his mention, Roy looked up for Hector - telling some bombastic story to Lilina up on the ship's bow. "As you're aware... they both died before you and Lilina were engaged, but with your mother and I somehow arriving at a younger age like this I couldn't help but want to ask to be sure. And sure enough, they have no memory at all of it."

"Oh," Roy said faintly. Where was he going with this? He turned back to Eliwood, whose eyes were cast on the horizon as though watching for his destination, or for some sort of obstacles to avoid. "Do you think Lilina realizes?"

"Lilina is a very smart woman," Eliwood said quietly. "I'm certain she's known all along, and if I know her at all, I'm certain she hasn't said anything about it." He flicked his eyes to Roy, his gaze briefly intense before softening. "How are the two of you getting along? Now that you're here together."

"Well enough," Roy said, absolutely relieved to be able to say that that was the honest answer. "We spoke some a few days ago. It would be wrong to say that all wounds have healed, but... I feel that we're good friends again, if nothing else."

"Good friends," Eliwood repeated faintly, and he sighed heavily, his shoulders heaving and his head hanging for just a moment before he looked up with a broad smile. "That's good to hear, Roy," he admitted. "So very good to hear. It was hard to imagine this rift existing between our children that none of the others know about..."

"Yeah, I can see what you mean," Roy agreed. He wondered if that was part of why Lilina had approached him.

Does your mother know? Have you spoken about it with your father at least?

"When we spoke," Roy added, "she, um... she seemed to think there was something I should be discussing with you or mother. I guess it couldn't help to ask if there's anything you feel I could be doing better."

"Oho, anything at all, hm?" Eliwood smirked, but he turned to the horizon again and his expression turned thoughtful, so Roy figured he should let that slide as a joke rather than getting worked up over it. "It's difficult to say," Eliwood admitted, at length. "You've grown into a fine young man in your own right, and for that, I don't have any place to judge you anymore. If something troubles you, I would be happy to advise you, but I trust in your ability to choose your proper course for yourself now."

"Lilina seems not to," Roy sighed, shaking his head, turning towards her again. She was smiling, though he caught her eyes tracking to Corrin now and again. "I don't mind that she's looking out for me," he admitted, "but I don't understand what it is she thinks she needs to save me from."

"Lilina has known you all your life," Eliwood observed. "But you aren't the boy she used to know anymore. It will take her some time to accept that. Believe me... it has taken me some time, too, and your mother is still struggling with it, even if you don't see it as much."

Roy nodded slowly. "I suppose I understand what you mean," he murmured. "I just don't like to think about her suffering on my behalf. It's enough that I carry my own burdens, you know?"

"Huh." Eliwood chuckled. "I have heard that sort of thinking before, but I wouldn't have expected it coming from you, to be frank."

"Huh?" Roy turned back to him, squinting. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing bad," Eliwood said airily, and he wouldn't say any more about it for the rest of the day.

 

"Why do you keep looking at the new girl?" Hector added warily, as Lilina's eyes tracked back to him. Lilina did her best to put on an innocent expression.

"Whatever do you mean, father?" she placidly asked. Hector was weak for being called father. She knew this. She took liberal advantage. She figured he would expect no less from her.

"Don't get coy with me," Hector puffed, folding his arms. "You're thinking the same as his father and I, then, I take it."

"I don't follow," Lilina lied.

"You do too." Hector snorted, turning around to Roy. He was basically the entire ship's length away, but Hector did not really seem to know what 'conversational distance' was, as a concept. "Roy! Are you going to leave your guest alone like that the whole trip?"

"Oh, Father," Lilina protested, "don't bother him!"

"Corrin's having a perfectly pleasant journey," Florina countered. Lyn, however, locked eyes with Hector, before turning a critical eye to Corrin as the dragoness turned around to face them all.

"I do suppose we should clarify your relation to Roy," Lyn said seriously. "Corrin? What do you have to say for yourself?"

"Nothing?" Corrin said blankly, looking alarmed. "I'm his friend?"

Hector snorted loudly. "Yes, a friend that just shows up in his room in just a swimsuit and a robe, at the earliest hours of the morning. Very friendly."

"L-Listen," Corrin said faintly, hugging herself. "I was - on my way down to the beach already."

"Yeah, okay," Hector said dismissively, "Roy, what's your relation to this girl? Huh? You hiding something?"

"No?!" Roy cried, folding his arms, his face already red. "Leave her alone, she's just here to relax!"

"Was that why she came to see you half naked?" Hector huffed. "To relax?"

"Order in the court," Eliwood called half-heartedly.

"We're a courtroom now?" Lyn laughed. "Shall we have them swear oaths of truth, then?"

"Now, now." Ninian dropped down from one of sails - Lyn jumped as she landed gracefully on the deck, glancing up worriedly and with clear alarm as she realized where Ninian had come from. "Corrin, dear," the elder dragon cooed, "you should feel welcome here! Don't let them get to you. And everyone else - for shame! Whatever Corrin does and doesn't do is her business and hers alone."

"Uh," Lyn said blankly, still somewhat stunned.

"Nini," Hector rumbled, "that's your son on the line here."

"Well, yes," Ninian huffed, turning to Roy and folding her arms, "he's another matter entirely. Come clean, Roy. What've you done to this girl?"

"Mother," Roy protested, "you can't ask me that and protect Corrin's privacy at the same time! We're friends, but even if there was something else going on that'd be between her and me, right?"

"And me," Ninian interrupted, tapping her sandal-clad foot on the deck with a sharp clack. "Don't change the subject."

"I'm not!" Roy cried. Lyn and Hector made to speak, too, but they were interrupted by an unexpected sound, one they had not heard before - a voice that was unfamiliar. It was high and joyful and kind of loud, but endearingly feminine and sincere. It was coming from Corrin. She was laughing.

Not that any of them found this all that strange, except for Roy, who didn't think he'd ever heard Corrin laugh - who wasn't even sure she COULD laugh - except for in the aftermath of one of their 'sessions'. The sound left him speechless. It was so gorgeous and honest and free and he felt blessed just to have heard it at all, let alone... here and now.

"I'm sorry," Corrin was giggling, waving Ninian's momentary concern away. "You're just - I-I was anxious at first, but you're... all an awful lot like my family, too. It's a compliment, I promise."

"Okay, now," Roy huffed, recovering as swiftly as he could, "I've met your brothers, and I question whether or not that's much of a compliment."

"I'm not sure how much I like being compared to your sisters either," Lilina agreed warily. Corrin burst out laughing again!

"I just mean you love each other so much," Corrin said, beaming at the two of them. "It's - it's just fun to listen to, even when you're making fun of each other. I'm sorry for interrupting, really, I was just so... so surprised. I thought you were honestly upset with me at first."

"Oh, no," Ninian gasped. "Lyn! Hector!"

"I absolutely did not mean to sound upset with you," Lyn said honestly, clearly very distressed.

"Yeah, don't take anything I say seriously," Hector grumbled, rolling his eyes. "Nobody else does."

"Now that's not true, and you know it," Eliwood warned.

"Yeah, I'm going to have to step in to agree with Eliwood on that," Lyn added heatedly. "I'm busy feeling bad for Corrin, don't make me feel bad for you, too."

Corrin laughed again. They would continue to make her laugh for most of the afternoon, in fact. But it still struck Roy as shocking and new every time. He was glad that Hector had suggested this after all.

 

They ate light, or at least light compared to what Corrin was used to, but she did her best not to say anything and to just enjoy the food. It was quite delicious and varied, regardless, and she hadn't had most of it before.

Once they'd finished cleaning up, Eliwood returned to the helm and Roy, Hector, and Lyn returned to their stations, as well. But Ninian stripped. It was so casual, so nonchalant, that it struck Corrin as very strange at first - she just removed her robes and her undershirt and pants, revealing no more than wraps underneath, not even a swimsuit of any kind - and just like that, she leapt off the side of the boat and into the water, graceful as a dolphin, as Corrin looked on in horror.

"Uh?" she said blankly.

"Oh," Lilina gasped, "did you not know? That must have looked strange, if you don't know Ninian very well."

"Oh, yeah," Roy laughed, from a bit further up the ship, turning to grin at Corrin. "The whole family likes to sail," he explained, "but we do this mostly for mom. She loves being at sea!"

"She just - ?" Corrin was still very, very lost. "She's overboard? Should we - "

"The boat's not for her," Eliwood said calmly. "Us mere mortals need the boat, but not her."

And right on cue, something launched from the water beside Corrin, showering the deck with a torrential wave - Corrin screamed and flailed through it, only catching a brief glimpse of the starry-scaled behemoth that had caused the deluge before it vanished into the waves again - but it soon returned to the surface, happily lancing through the water and easily keeping pace with the ship. A leviathan of some kind, Corrin thought at first, iridescent teal scales gleaming in the sunlight, finned arms and tail propelling it powerfully through the water without a care in the world. But - arms. Arms and legs? Not mere fins. Not a fish. Not a leviathan.

"That's a dragon," Corrin whispered, and all at once it hit her. She turned to Roy, flabbergasted. "Your mom is a dragon!?"

"I've never seen her dragon form before," Roy admitted - his eyes entirely on the lithe body in the water. "But Father used to take her out like this when she was healthier, I know that."

"Corrin!" Ninian breached to the deck's height again, spinning playfully in the air to catch her eye. "The water is so lovely! Do you want to swim with me?"

"Wha...?"

"Oh, Corrin!" Lyn cried, grinning. "That sounds like fun, don't you think?"

"I've never had another dragon as big as me to play with!" Ninian admitted, breaching again. The boat had caught a strong wind now, and though Ninian was still easily matching their pace, she couldn't easily look up at Corrin at the same time. "Come swim with me!"

Part of Corrin felt it was maybe a little weird to be invited to do this by the mother of the person she's been stress-fucking for months, but the rest of her was overwhelmed at the idea of playing with another dragon. She had never swam in an ocean before. Could she even go that fast? Damned if she wouldn't find out!

So, yes, within moments she had thrown her robe to the deck - Lilina yelping with alarm to gather it before it could blow away - and with the dragonstone clenched in her fist she vaulted over the deck and threw herself as far overboard as she could manage, transforming the moment she hit the water. As a dragon, she had never been immersed in water before - but from the very first touch she felt so safe, like she belonged here completely. She angled the blades on her tail into something like a paddle, tucking her legs in close to her belly and flapping her wings like huge fins, and within moments she was gliding through the water alongside Ninian, who happily swam under her and breached over her, before darting ahead into the hazy depths below and before her. Corrin ducked above water for a quick breath and followed, not one to be outdone.

For hours they played together like this. Corrin and Ninian swirling through the water in patterns, as Corrin learned to match Ninian's speed and deftness by angling her wings in certain ways and whipping her tail about to propel herself. Above and around them, Eliwood kept up; they were surely tracing the dragons' shapes in the water, everyone working in tandem to ensure they could match the dragons' speed. The sun swung high over them, and soon began to dip towards the horizon. Far too soon.

Eventually Roy lowered rigging over one side of the ship and Eliwood guided it to a near standstill, and as it drifted roughly in place Corrin and Ninian approached and returned to human form, climbing back up to the deck to rest. Ninian seemed only somewhat winded, but Corrin was totally drained - though she found it hard to worry much about the difference. She was happy to lay on the upper deck, resting, sunning, basking in the glorious fatigue and letting herself doze off in the chilly seafoam breeze.

 

"How was your swim?"

Ninian shivered, still wringing out her hair, giggling at even just the thought of it. "Blissful," she sighed dreamily, grinning at Roy. "Thank you so much for coming along. I've had such a lovely time."

"So have I," Roy agreed, smiling warmly in return. They were leaning over the port side now, and Eliwood was guiding them smoothly back to the castle's docks by what little sunlight they had left. "I'm so glad you are feeling in good health, mother. I hope it stays like this."

"I do too," Ninian agreed, her smile cooling some but remaining strong and steadfast. "But you know, Roy... I've got to spend time with everyone in my prime, and I've even gotten to see you grown up. Even if my illness was to come back, I don't know if I would have any regrets. I've lived a very wonderful, full life, Roy."

Roy's smile ached at his cheeks but he couldn't really seem to find words to answer with otherwise. Ninian chuckled, looking down at the water again, still gathering locks of dripping hair to try to dry them.

"Corrin seems like a sweet girl," she observed.

"Thank you for swimming with her," Roy gasped. "She seemed to have a really good time."

"I'm glad," Ninian hummed. "I'm glad she was able to enjoy everyone's company today. She seemed a bit out of place, at first."

"Corrin is often like that," Roy explained. "She says she has frequent headaches and has a hard time focusing. Father thought that her condition even seemed to resemble yours, somewhat."

"Oh, did he?" Ninian turned to face him again, wide-eyed. "I hadn't thought about it," she admitted, "but that does seem right... but why would she be feeling that way? She has her dragonstone, and her dragon form seems very healthy to me..."

"Is it something you've heard of before?" Roy gasped.

"Well, that is hard to answer, really." Ninian's expression grew thoughtful. "My illness was caused by the atmosphere of Elibe," she explained softly. "After I chose to stay with your father... the very air of Elibe itself was toxic to me. I survived for many long and wonderful years, enough to fulfill myself as a wife and mother and a friend to those that had saved me, but eventually I grew too sick and..." She frowned. "Well, you know," she mumbled. "It was a hard decision to make, you know. To have you."

"What?"

"I felt guilty," she sighed, "knowing that I would be leaving you alone. Knowing without a trace of doubt that I would die before you came of age. You deserved a mother that was there for you, I thought. But even so... I did my best for you while I could."

"Mother," Roy laughed, shifting closer to hold her arm and back. "Don't ever talk like that, please. I couldn't have asked for a better mother than you."

Ninian smiled faintly, and that grew into a shy, blushing grin, and she had to hide her face. "Roy," she whispered. "Roy, I'm so proud of you. I love you more than life itself. I'm so... I'm so blessed to have this chance to see you again." She looked up and swiftly kissed his cheek - Roy jumped and turned red, but didn't shy away, and Ninian giggled before returning her gaze to the sea. "I was saying, though," she hummed. "This world is plainly safe to dragonkind. Whatever Corrin is suffering, it seems to manifest in a similar way, but... I don't think it could possibly be the same."

Roy nodded slowly, his good cheer dying down slowly. "Do you think she'll die?" he asked lowly.

"I don't know," Ninian admitted. "But I will say this, Roy. I'll do what I can to learn about her condition. I can tell that she means a lot to you."

"W-Well," Roy stammered, taking his turn to go red now. "I - I mean, I do care about her, certainly. But, ah..."

"Roy," Ninian chided, turning to him, giggling again. "Roy," she repeated in a soft voice, "we of dragon blood have quite intense needs compared to humans, I've learned that in my time with your father. You don't need to be shy, dear. I'm not judging you."

"I-I didn't say anything of the sort," Roy huffed.

"You didn't," Ninian agreed cryptically, cooing. "You don't need to. I won't say anything about it to the others - though, you must understand, your father will find out sooner or later whether I tell him or not."

"I just don't want Corrin to feel pressured about it," Roy sighed, shaking his head. "She says it's the only thing that really helps her keep her symptoms in check with all the fighting going on. So... I'm just doing my best to help."

"Is that so," Ninian murmured, more seriously than before. "Well... that's good of you, Roy. I would tell you to treat her well, but... I know you will."

"I do what I can," Roy agreed solemnly.

Chapter Text

No matter how many times Minerva was treated to the sight, she still couldn't help pausing to admire Palla's body.

Presently Palla hung by her wrists, bound tightly together and dangling from a crossbeam; she wore nothing at all, her perky breasts and tight stomach bared without reservation for Minerva. Idly she took Palla's left breast in her palm, fondling with a sort of haphazard possessiveness and smirking when Palla moaned. Sweat ran in rivulets down Palla's chest and neck; her bosom heaved with progressively deeper breaths, her eyes dim but fixed on Minerva's, adoring and attentive, ever in service to her 'liege'.

"Master," Palla panted. "Is everything alright?"

"A lesser lord may be temtped to sell you," Minerva said off-handedly, arching her eyebrows as if considering it. "A pretty little slave like you would fetch quite a price, even with little nicks like these." Her hand traced below Palla's breast to one of her several scars, brushing her thumb tenderly against it.

"No," Palla gasped. "No, Master, please..." She wiggled in her restraints, trying to present herself as even more eager than before. She bit her lip, putting on a softer, huskier voice than before. "Don't I entice you, Master...? Am I not the object of your most sinful desires...?"

"Most certainly you are," Minerva chuckled, snatching her up by her breast and pulling her close - allowing Palla a moment to recover from her shocked gasp before kissing her ferociously, roughly shoving her tongue into Palla's mouth and dragging hers out into the open, taunting it with faint touches that enticed her into letting it hang grotesquely in the air before her as if trying to lick something.

(Minerva had to pause to keep from chuckling. Palla's, ah, enthusiasm was... quite something.)

"Ah ah," she chided, just above a breath. Palla whined pathetically. "Always reaching for what you aren't allowed to have."

"Masterrrr," whimpered Palla, bouncing on her knees on the bed beneath her. Her breasts bounced attractively, and her pout was so unbearably cute. "I want you," she panted, "I want to make you happy, won't you let me serve you...?"

"Hmph." Minerva drifted in close again, gently lifting Palla's chin between her fingers. Palla closed her lips but her eyes pleaded all the louder. Was she tearing up? Oh, sweet, adorable Palla. "Have I ever told you," she whispered, "how unlike a human you are? You're like a needy little puppy in heat."

Palla barked desperately. Minerva couldn't help but laugh, low and gentle, at that - she caught the flash of an earnest grin on Palla's face before she barked a couple more times.

"Breed me, Master," Palla chirped, just a bit too eagerly.

"Would you like that?" Minerva sighed, unsure now if she was still roleplaying. "If I could put an heir into you?"

"Ohh," Palla pined, "what an honor that would be, Master... W-Would you really let a lowly slave take on such a direly important task...? Allow a mere dog like myself to give you an heir...?"

"Perhaps not," Minerva hummed, admittedly a bit disappointed. She hesitated - Palla hesitated, too - and then tried again: "My wife, perhaps, I would be much more inclined to try."

Palla faltered. Minerva had not yet said a safe word, so she was left to assume they were still in scene. So -

"She must be a very fortunate woman," she said sweetly, rocking to and fro on the bed. "W-Would she be angry... if she knew about me?"

"She does know about you," Minerva said matter-of-factly, smirking. "She seems to think my... endearment to you... is endearing itself."

"Oh," Palla gasped, "but that's because you're the kindest, sweetest Master that there ever could be!"

"Posh." Minerva rolled her eyes. Palla's penchant for flattery rarely struck home. Rarely. But Palla was determined.

"Maybe you're a bit harsh on the outside," Palla continued adamantly, pulling against her restraints now in a vain attempt to gesture. "But that makes you beautiful and it makes me feel very lucky that I can see you a little softer and more vulnerable. I would never ever betray any Master, but with you, it's very special... I couldn't imagine ever serving anyone like you. I would give everything for you. Um, Master."

Palla's voice had dropped in pitch. She had been speaking almost normally, before correcting herself, smiling and blushing sheepishly. Minerva wondered if her own cheeks were pink. How... how novel, to think...

Bah.

"Lemon," she murmured. Palla's eyes shot open wide.

"Minerva?" Her voice was alarmed. "Is - did I say - "

Minerva didn't let her finish; she darted in and kissed her very passionately, as if they had not stopped roleplaying at all - waiting for Palla's shocked gasp - and then pushing in even more. She could feel Palla melting. She whimpered... and then she moaned faintly... and then again, more contentedly, returning Minerva's kiss with a sedated calmness before Minerva finally pulled back. No longer did Palla grab greedily at her tongue; they slid away from one another's tips, a little trail dragging out into the air between them before they let it fade. Palla's eyes opened only partway, and she smiled faintly, blushing all the more brightly than before.

"You are talking too much," Minerva grumped, aware of how feeble she sounded.

"Right," Palla whispered, smiling more broadly. "Too romantic for a bitter old slave driver like you."

Minerva tried to say something, but let her breath out in defeat. Palla giggled sweetly.

"I really love you a lot," the pegasus knight whispered. "I really, really do."

Clearing her throat as quietly as she could, Minerva tried her best to gather herself. "I love you too," she said, dutifully but gently. "Deeply and truly. Now; I haven't finished ravaging you. Are you ready to resume?"

"Yes," Palla breathed, biting her lip.

"Good. Lime it is." She cleared her throat; Palla batted her lashes, assuming her slave-persona in all of its adorably innocent enthusiasm. Minerva didn't make another slip of confidence from then on; she guided Palla through foreplay and deep pleasure with as much finesse as ever. But... as recompense, perhaps, for the moment of embarrassment earlier, she felt it left them both far more satisfied than usual.

Chapter Text

"Okay, I'll start," Lilina chirped. Julia and Sanaki leaned in, eager and curious respectively. "Never have I ever... been bitten by an animal."

"Oh," Julia gasped, delighted and for some reason relieved. "Nor I."

They glanced at Sanaki. Sanaki glared at both of them in turn.

"Speak of this and you will know fear," she growled, taking a quick sip of her wine. Lilina giggled.

"Really, it's a matter of me avoiding animals, more than anything," she said soothingly. "What bit you, if I might ask?"

"A pegasus!" Sanaki snapped. "Even my attendants spoke of them as such graceful, beautiful, lovely creatures - but they're so prissy and fussy if they don't get their way." She sighed, shivering and drawing herself up - Julia thought she looked like a puppy drying its fur. "Well, then, I am next."

She paused, thinking; Julia took the moment to glance around the party, taking in the joyful noise. The sun had just set, pink-orange light still receding slowly into the horizon. Eirika was here, but not immediately present, having gone off to socialize; this particular "princess party" was quite a bit larger than the first, and Eirika was determined to greet each new guest personally, despite the daunting number of them. But Julia was happy to rest here and socialize with her friends. (Lilina was her friend now. Sanaki had been a friend for a little while, since they fought together often.)

"Never have I ever," Sanaki announced, "used a staff."

"No." Lilina glared at her, deadpan. Sanaki looked back with faux innocence. "You're joking."

"My attendants are skilled in the use of staves," Sanaki said simply. "I've never needed to learn."

"How rare, for a sage," Julia hummed, obediently taking a sip of her own wine. Lilina groaned and followed suit. "I guess... that brings it to me. Um... l-let's see, here..."

In a way, this was a memory game. What could Julia remember doing (or not doing)? True, Sanaki and Lilina had no way to confirm whatever she said; she could just lie about whatever she couldn't remember and they'd be none the wiser. Lewyn would probably play that way, or encourage her to do so, but... well, it felt kind of wrong, and besides, it didn't sound like any fun. So she tried to focus on her memories - preferably on the good parts, even if they were newer and shallower and hadn't fully set in yet...

Ah!

"Never have I ever willingly rode on a mount," Julia said happily.

"How dreadful," Sanaki lamented, raising her glass with surprising enthusiasm. "Truly, my condolences for your feet." She took a sip, and Lilina again followed along. "You really walk everywhere?"

"Sometimes I will sit on top of our provisions when we are marching long distances," Julia hummed. "But I don't like to ride things. My brother would make me when I was too exhausted to walk, but that's all."

"That seems..." Lilina frowned, trailing off. "It seems like maybe you shouldn't push yourself so hard."

"Maybe," Julia said dismissively. "Your turn."

Lilina pursed her lips, but nodded and withdrew, drumming the table with her fingers. "Let's see. Never have I ever... Hm. This is harder than I expected. Give me a moment."

Yes, it could be difficult, but Julia was glad she had suggested it. It was a silly game, but one she was very glad to have learned, and one she was very glad she had played. It was a way for her connect with other people... a way for her to feel less bad about the life she had led thus far. A way to turn it to her advantage, even if only in a meaningless way. And a way for her to learn to appreciate the things she has done, even if she doesn't always remember them... or remember them fondly.

It was some time before Eirika returned to them, the sun fully set now, the stars twinkling playfully overhead, only partially obscured by dark wispy coulds and the faint smoke from their torches. The princess waited politely as Sanaki finished grumbling and took her drink, and then it was Julia's turn. She turned to Eirika and smiled, and Eirika approached to speak - but that only meant she fell into Julia's so very sinister trap:

"Never have I ever seen a woman so beautiful as Eirika," she cooed.

Eirika froze up, a hot blush crawling up her face within seconds. Lilina arched an eyebrow and smirked; Sanaki all but slammed the table. "How dare," the empress demanded. "Suppose I have, Julia? Hm? Am I to drink and humiliate poor Eirika now?"

"Very smooth," Lilina chuckled. "So very smooth."

"I don't know about that," Julia hiccuped - she'd had a good bit to drink! - but she beamed at Eirika all the same. "I just said what was on my mind. That's all."

"Ah," was all Eirika could manage to say.

"So, then," Lilina pressed. "Have you?"

Sanaki mumbled something under her breath - Julia glanced back in time to see her furtively sip her wine and set it back down. "What?!" She folded her arms and pouted at the empress. "How dare you. You really mean to say -- ?"

"You," Sanaki interrupted, pointing sharply, "have never met a heron laguz. Leanne..." She sighed dreamily, closing her eyes, a hand on her chest. "Princess Leanne of Serenes Forest - a woman could not be any more beautiful. I am not particularly keen on the appraisal of men, but even I can't help but admit they are breathtaking to behold."

"Oh, Leanne," Eirika gasped, and once again her skin rapidly changed color - but this time, from beet red to ashen white.

"H-have you met her?" Sanaki gasped. "I - Oh. Oh, no." Her face fell, too. "I forgot all about - how could I - ?"

"It's alright," Eirika assured her, raising a hand to calm her. "I... for what little time I knew her, I must admit, she seemed a beautiful and strong spirit."

"I pray we that we may find another world in which she has better fortunes," Sanaki sighed. She turned to Julia now, filled with remorse. "I've ruined your moment," she muttered. "I shouldn't have said anything. Please accept my humblest apologies."

"Oh, that's alright," Julia said easily, smiling and reaching out to pat her arm. "We musn't allow the dead to stop us from enjoying what life we have left. That's what father - well, the man who raised me, would always say. I have found it to be wonderful advice."

"Yes," Sanaki murmured, "I suppose you're right." She nodded firmly, drawing herself up. "So, then, are we to continue?"

"I think Eirika should have a turn," Lilina cooed. "Would you like to join us, princess? Just for a few drinks?"

"Oh, yes," Julia gasped, "please do!"

"Are you going to drunkenly flirt with me more?" Eirika murmured accusingly.

"I'm not drunk, so no," Julia cooed.

"You are too."

"I'm not!" Julia huffed. "Well, not that drunk, anyway. Not so much that I might try to sweep you off your feet and carry you away."

"Stop that," Eirika snapped, her face turning red again. Julia recoiled, startled.

"What's this?" Sanaki looked between them in curiosity. "What's this about carrying away?"

"Oh, nothing," Julia assured her. "Just - just poking fun, but..." She turned back to Eirika, bowing faintly. "I didn't mean to - to say something so forward. I'm doing fine, if you were checking in."

"I-I..." Eirika frowned, turning redder still. Julia wondered why. "No, I... er... what I meant was..."

"So?" Lilina prompted, drumming her fingers more sharply now. "Will you join us? Or are you going to leave Julia by herself again?"

"Oh, I'm not lonely," Julia promised, smiling at her friends. "Yes? I'm - we're having fun, aren't we?"

"Yes!" Sanaki agreed blankly, clearly very confused.

"We are," Lilina agreed, "but it'd be more fun with Eirika here."

"I agree!" Julia turned and beamed at her. "I promise I'll stop with my inappropriate jokes. I would just like to get to know you better!"

"N-No," Eirika said faintly, "I... I don't mean any offense, but, I think maybe... it's best I not disrupt you right now."

"What?" Julia deflated almost immediately. "Oh, Eirika, are you sure? I'm truly sorry if I said something out of line. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

"It's not that," Eirika said, though Julia thought she heard Lilina mutter the same thing simultaneously. "It's - I-I just think maybe I'm... maybe I'm a bit too inebriated for now." She laughed shyly, rubbing her face. "You go on and have fun," she said, waving her hand, "and don't worry about me."

"You don't seem drunk," Julia said lowly. "Are you sure?"

Eirika chuckled awkwardly. "We wouldn't want me carrying you off anywhere again, now, would we?" She waved to the others and hastily excused herself before Julia could respond, leaving her bewildered and dismayed. Eventually, though, she did turn back to the table, where Lilina was watching her with keenly narrowed eyes and an impish smirk.

"Never have I ever attempted to flirt with a woman," Lilina cooed.

"Hey!" Julia shouted, pointing. "T-That's not fair! How dare you!"

 

Lucina and Catria had planned on only attending for a little while - to appease Tiki, mostly - but, as they were looking around, Palla darted over to them and dragged Catria away into another conversation, and dutifully Lucina had followed her.

Palla, Lucina knew, was Catria's older sister. She was here as the 'plus-one' for Princess Minerva of Macedon, a stern crimson-haired woman that Lucina had fought with a few times, but didn't know especially well; they, in turn, had been led by Princess Sheena of Gra to speak with a still-chairbound Lachesis (who Lucina DID know) and Celica (who she did not know, and also, whose title she didn't know for sure either). Lucina did not know these names and titles by herself - Lachesis cheerfully introduced her, instead.

"Sheena was just regaling us with stories of her new idol," Minerva intoned, as the introductions ended. Sheena flushed, folding her arms.

"Excuse me for looking for an opportunity to socialize," Sheena retorted. Minerva smiled a tiny, mirthful smile. "I only meant to introduce two of my role models. But if you've something more important to do with your time..."

"Oh," Palla gasped, "I don't think...?"

"No, I did not mean that," Minerva said, clearing her throat. "I find your adoration of Princess Lachesis rather endearing." Lachesis herself, unmistakeably pink, simply nodded in agreement. "But, I've heard many terrible things about you from our enemies. Have you been told they refer to you as a demon, now?"

"I have," Lachesis agreed, a devilish smile cracking her face. "The Demons of Crimea, they say. All the better if Embla is learning to fear us, though I can only wish it came sooner than later."

"Hear hear," Minerva huffed. Lucina watched them speak, feeling as out of place as ever, before turning her gaze to Palla - hanging off of Minerva's arm, watching her converse with a sweet contentment in her eyes. As though she were just happy to be here. But as Lucina glanced at her, she spoke up:

"Catria," she cooed, "I did want to say, I think you look lovely tonight!"

"Sis," Catria muttered, skittering further behind Lucina. Lachesis chuckled; Celica smiled, covering her lips.

"No need to be afraid," Lachesis declared, gesturing for Catria to stand aside some more, so Catria shuffled out from behind Lucina and into full view. She was just wearing a swimsuit that she had picked out earlier in the trip with a coat over it, which was pretty much the dress code - except Lachesis, Celica, and Minerva, it seemed, who were wearing sundresses signifying their decision not to swim. "Yes, I do think you look lovely!"

"Much better than me," Celica added. Catria seemed to stiffen.

"So," Minerva added lowly, "you are Catria's mysterious new paramour, then." Lucina gasped as she realized she was being addressed.

"Yes," Lucina said faintly. "I - I mean, well - I don't - "

Minerva chuckled, smirking again. "Don't let an old woman like me nettle you so easily. My only concern is that the Whitewings are well cared for, and in that regard, even Catria I'm sure can take care of herself."

Lucina faltered again, thinking in nausea of the conversation she would need to have with Catria that evening. But she'd already done her best to prepare Catria and Severa for it, so... best not to dwell on the subject. "I'll do my best," she managed to say instead, "for as long as Catria deems it enough."

"Well said," Palla giggled. "I like that you can make her blush."

"I'm not - " Catria pouted, growling and folding her arms. "I'm not normally this easily flustered!"

"Tsk." Lachesis twirled a skewer in her hands, some leftover from a snack she had been eating earlier on, and jabbed it in Catria's direction. "You need to loosen up! You're much too stiff like this. This is a party that you've been graciously welcomed to, so take advantage! Relax! Have fun! Laugh and be embarrassed about things. Kiss your girlfriend."

"Yes, I'd like to see that last part," Palla chirped.

"Oh, come on," Celica sighed, "don't make them."

"Well, you don't have to do it here," Lachesis agreed, "but - well, you should feel free to, I say. Life is too short for one to worry about how they appear at parties." She raised a glass of wine pointedly. "And if that's hard for you to accept, I've an elixir that will make it easier to swallow. Have plenty."

"Yes!" Palla laughed. "You're a good influence for Catria, I think."

"I can see the semblance with a demon," Minerva observed idly. Lachesis glared; Sheena laughed. (Lucina and Catria chuckled, too.)

After that, though, Lucina diplomatically excused herself, and she and Catria took their leave, and Lucina guided them around the back of some of the tables where fewer people were talking, slowing her steps.

She explained Severa's proposal, as carefully and quietly as she could; Catria was naturally stunned at first, but didn't seem too overwhelmed, and ended the conversation saying she would think about it. "It depends on how I feel about being with you," Catria admitted, as they were returning to the din. "I... never really completely sorted it out. But I will, I promise."

"Okay." Lucina smiled at her with relief. "Take your time."

"Since we're here, though," Catria added, blushing, her voice awkwardly faltering. "Do you wanna... hang out, for a while, I guess?"

 

Corrin's 'illness' was growing more intense, but also less difficult in a strange way; she was settling into the vacation some and allowing herself to relax more, and that meant even on days such as today - when concentrating on anything seemed impossible and a dull headache loomed over every attempted conversation - she just didn't allow it to get to her, and instead focused on enjoying herself. Case in point; the "princess party" may have been interpreted as a prim social gathering for refreshments and conversation or something like that, but instead, Camilla and Hinoka pushed to invite the younger sisters, and the five of them all played in the water together, because -

Because it turned out Corrin loved water. She felt so happy and free and safe immersing herself in it. Sometimes she would transform and let Elise ride her around as she darted to and fro, other times she would use the wings to splash immense waves onto Hinoka and Camilla in a deafening finisher to a splash fight. Or they would throw an inflatable ball to each other and try not to drop it into the water, or just enjoy letting the waves wash over them while trying not to fall over.

Later on, Tiki joined them, and Corrin and Tiki began wrestling in dragon form while her sisters got some rest back on the shore - Corrin wouldn't have taken the very well-to-do dragon priestess as such a playful woman, but especially in dragon form, she seemed to get great bursts of energy and enjoyed taking them out on or with Corrin, whether that meant nipping at one another in lulls between combat in the field or sprinting around a battlefield pretending to hide from Kiran's attempts to unsummon them, or whatever else.

Tiki's bursts of energy, however, were always very short-lived. When she started moving more sluggishly, Corrin leapt to her aid, ensuring she safely reached shore before transforming back and helping Tiki back to Camilla's beach umbrella, laying her out on a towel and sitting beside her with a contented smile. She was tired, too, so a break - a short one - would be welcomed. Tiki sighed blissfully as she stretched and reclined, opening one sleepy eye to smirk at Corrin as she flexed, and Corrin -

Ah -

Corrin hadn't really - seen Tiki in a bikini before -

She looked away hurriedly, flushing terribly bright, as Tiki giggled in triumph. "Corrin?" Camilla gasped. "What's wrong?" Never mind that Corrin has had the same problem looking at Camilla's swimsuit in the past, and Camilla was similarly just as confused. Corrin's 'illness', and whatever it was about it that made her so... sinfully desperate, was never anything short of a constant frustration.

"You're so red," Tiki laughed. "It's nice to see I still have that effect on charming young women like yourself."

Corrin made a strange noise. She hadn't really meant to say anything, she just kind of... vocalized. It came out like "Aaahghghgh." Like a growl, maybe? Either way, Tiki and Camilla both laughed, the latter a bit more nervously.

"Corrin, are you okay?" Camilla giggled.

"Are you bothering my little sister?" Hinoka added seriously. Corrin imagined her half-hearted death glare being thrown Tiki's way, and imagined Tiki winking in response:

"I could bother you instead, if you'd like," the dragonness purred.

"Alright, that's enough," Camilla huffed. "If you insist on making a nuisance of yourself, I might have to take matters into my own hands."

"Oh, Camilla, don't be like that," Tiki protested. Corrin hazarded a glance; Tiki had turned sideways (not that her backside was any less to look at, but Corrin wasn't as immediately embarrassed about being caught staring - Camilla knew better than to make fun) and was kicking her legs sadly as Camilla glowered at her. "I was hoping for another chance to ask for a massage," Tiki lamented. "Is it too late for that now?"

"Don't push your luck," Camilla said dangerously. Tiki flopped back down with a sigh, closing her eyes. (Corrin failed to tear her eyes away from the... motions... of Tiki's chest, as she settled onto her back again.)

"Very well, I know when I'm not wanted," she huffed, and then she yawned. "Corrin," she added, sleepily, "if you see Lucina... wake me up?"

"Luci," Corrin said softly. "Lucina?"

"Mmhmm. We're friends." She yawned more petitely, clasping her hands over her stomach. "I'd like to... chat with her little."

Then she was quiet. Corrin and Camilla both hesitated, before exchanging glances. Corrin felt her face burning again.

"You okay?" Camilla asked softly. Corrin nodded swiftly - nothing was the matter, she was just a hopelessly hormonal mess as always.

"Corrin!" Corrin whirled around sharply at the sound of Elise's voice - nearer the water she spotted the younger siblings, together like always, waving animatedly with a collection of little pails and trowels and other trinkets beside them. "Corrin, come make a sandcastle with us!"

She wasn't really sure she'd have anything to contribute, but following a nudge from Camilla she decided to try anyway - and it mostly ended up in her sitting on the beach watching them make a castle and helping out by digging up sand for them or packing it into their buckets, while they did most of the detail work. They both chattered excitedly about the story of their sandcastle as they went, too; Corrin picked up as much of it as she could - it was some place called Whitewater, which was known for the blessed water in the lake behind it (so Corrin dug out a shallow 'lake' behind their moat), and it was ruled by a queen rather than a king because the king had gone off to fight in a war and his wife and daughters said 'forget that we don't need war around here', and...

"And there's a ferocious dragon that lives nearby!" Elise cried, and both she and Sakura turned to Corrin - Corrin blinked, looking back and forth between them, before suddenly glittering with delight and baring her teeth in a theatrical snarl.

"Oh!" Sakura gasped. "But, she's nice, too, isn't she?" And Corrin nodded enthusiastically. "Even though she's scary sometimes," Sakura continued, "she really does care a lot about Whitewater and its people. So the queen decided to invite her to live in the castle."

"Yes!" Elise cheered, beaming. "And!" She started tracing out a line for a new wall near the lake, creating a sort of enclosure behind the castle and up against its shore. "She decided to give the dragon her own part of the castle," Elise cooed. "So she can have plenty of comfortable free space."

So, Corrin crawled over to her free space, staring at it thoughtfully for a bit - Sakura and Elise shifted back expectantly, clearly hoping she'd work on it a little on her own - so, Corrin dashed to the water and brought back a few cupfuls and formed a pond for herself. Then she sat back and admired it, thinking. Then she jumped up and sprinted over to the rocks, far from their part of the beach - she found a few attractively jagged ones and sprinted back, placing them in a corner of her atrium (she had decided it was an atrium now), piling sand under and between them so that they could hold water between like a raised up little pool. She admired that for a bit, too, as Elise and Sakura busied themselves continuing to shape the keep on the castle's inside.

What a nice idea, she thought. To have her own place in a fantasy castle somewhere, where she could run around and swim and play and feel... like a dragon. To have a domain all her own, and still be so close to the people she cared about...

"Corrin?" She glanced up, blinking into Sakura's face. The shrine maiden looked nervous, but smiled a little as Corrin focused on her. "Are you okay? You spaced out a bit."

Corrin nodded again. "I like this," she said, gesturing at her make-believe home. "I like this a lot."

"I thought it was a nice touch," Elise added a bit smugly. "Hey, thank you for building a castle with us! You're really good at packing sand!"

"Yes," Sakura agreed, "thank you for helping us."

Corrin grinned ear to ear. "I had fun!"

Chapter Text

The last day of the festival was the most packed by far, something which perhaps caught the Heroes by surprise - but Anna and Sharena were more than ready. Careful preparation, many layers of redundancy, and multiple able and cheerful helpers - from the watchful eyes of the Whitewings to the enthusiastic messenger-carriers like Nino and Maria - ensured the night proceeded as smoothly as could be expected, and when it began to wind down, there was a sense of accomplishment shared between the two of them, even as they began to consider taking a break.

Kagero was still watching them, naturally. It was just what she did. Ever since being summoned and swept up into service of the King of Askr, this had been her duty. Though easily mistaken as being a scout for the Order - and, yes, she was more than happy to provide that aid, as well - her mission until Ryoma's return was to protect Sharena. Putting aside her own less-than-warm feelings on Gustav's... assumption... of authority over her, she took this mission quite seriously, and even now that Gustav had relinquished said authority she still felt it appropriate to continue as directed until Kiran asked otherwise.

She knew Anna and Sharena were not aware of her presence. This is natural for a ninja. It is natural for a ninja to overhear many things. Even as Kagero's attention was focused on the festival and the princess' immediate surroundings, she was aware of the conversation she shared with Anna, aware of their expressions and movements. They had stepped away and into the darkness underneath the castle to find some quiet, now that everyone else was filtering out and the cleanup effort was beginning; Kagero knew they would return to help out soon enough, but...

"Are you sure you're feeling alright?" Anna said more seriously, more gently. But Sharena still nodded, even as she hid her face behind her hands.

"Just need a moment," Sharena sighed.

"A lot's happened the last few days," Anna continued. "I don't blame you for being off balance. I think you've done a marvelous job all things considered, in fact."

"I'm just doing the best I can," Sharena murmured. She straightened up, taking a deep breath, staring up into the sky - were her eyes sharper, she may have caught a trace of Kagero's silhouette, as she perched on the wall not far above them, carefully positioned in the shadows between several lighted windows. But her gaze was fixed on the stars, instead.

Anna took in a breath. "Are you worried about your brother?"

Slowly, Sharena nodded, smiling wistfully. "Maybe I shouldn't be," she sighed. "He's... he can take care of himself, I know."

"That's not the problem, though, is it?" Anna sighed, too, looking aside and shaking her head. "I'm partially responsible, too. Your father has been very gracious to me in the wake of everything, but... I know I'm not without fault here. I should have told you. I should have known it was wrong to stay quiet."

"You obeyed the Prince," Sharena said tonelessly. "I don't see how you can be faulted for that."

"Yeah." Anna scoffed, but shrugged and looked back at her, apparently satisfied. "But what I meant to say was... you know this isn't what he wanted. Right?"

"I don't know," Sharena muttered, gaze still fixed skyward, "what did he want?"

Anna made to speak, but faltered, her voice fading before it could rise... and then she closed her lips again, receding. The silence drew on.

"He lied to me," Sharena whispered. "He would have just let me... destroy all those worlds. All those people I thought we were saving. I don't understand why he would think that was okay, Anna. But I know that's not something he'd normally do."

"Are you angry with him?"

"I think so, yeah." Sharena bit her lip. "But not... in a normal way. Not like he called me something mean and embarrassed me in front of Father, or anything."

"You're right to be angry," Anna said softly. She approached in slow steps, til she was standing beside Sharena, looking her in the face. Sharena's expression was becoming difficult to read. She was no longer smiling, her eyes fruitlessly searching the heavens.

"I don't want to be," Sharena muttered. "I don't want to be angry."

They were quiet for a moment. Sharena finally closed her eyes, hanging her head, hugging herself. Anna patted her shoulder.

"Even if you are angry," Anna breathed, "that doesn't change that you love him, right?"

"I guess not," Sharena conceded, morose. "It's just hard to process, I guess. Part of me believes he should never have been a part of the Order at all. But part of me is so happy to finally... have a chance to spend time with him. I don't want him to leave." Her voice started to rise, as she limply raised her arms in defeat. "I was so happy to finally fight beside him, to maybe have a chance to prove myself to him - you know, I'm the Princess of Askr! I - I have a duty to this place and I take it seriously! And I was so excited that we could really... we could tackle that together, for once, instead of fighting over it."

Anna looked taken aback. "Did you two fight a lot growing up?"

"Everything felt like such a contest," Sharena sighed angrily. "It always felt like I had to work so much harder to just to keep up with Alfonse, and any time I fell short, I'd just - I'd be ignored. Which of us is the better fighter? Alfonse is, of course, so he'll act as the honorary Commander of the Guard, and because of that he'll need all of this training in history and tactics. Now, which of us conducts themselves better in a formal setting? Alfonse! Sharena, she's too - too loud and annoying, so she'll just sit in her room while Alfonse meets with the councilmen from around Askr and he'll sit in when Father holds court so he can learn to be a good King, oh also, who's better at their arithmetic? Why it's clearly Alfonse, so he'll be the one that learns to manage the finances and what the secretary and royal treasurer do - "

"What did you learn to do growing up?" Anna breathed, blinking at her in surprise. Sharena shrugged.

"Well, it's not as one-sided as I make it sound," Sharena admitted, rubbing her forehead. "It just... it made it so hard to stay motivated when Alfonse was immediately better at everything I ever tried. And yes, he's older, he's a bit smarter and stronger and all, but... it doesn't really make a difference in the end, the fact of the matter is, as long as he tries something, I might as well not bother. So - it's just been this struggle for so long to find some way to make myself useful to Askr."

"You know," Anna said lowly, "just about everyone I know feels the Prince is one of the most motivated and promising figures of royalty in generations. You could do a lot worse than 'just about as good as Alfonse at everything'."

"If only it were everything," Sharena muttered.

"And, besides," Anna added, "would we be in this mess if you had been in charge of the Order and not him?"

"I don't know!" Sharena shrugged theatrically. "I don't know. I wouldn't have wanted to destroy the worlds, but maybe - maybe Alfonse is right that we don't have a choice. Maybe Veronica would have gotten too powerful. I don't know." She sighed again, wilting and shivering as though suddenly cold. "Maybe you're right that it's okay if I'm not as good as him," she admitted. "All I ask is that I can feel like we're working together, and not like I either have to be better than him or else he'll just do everything for me."

She turned partway to look over her shoulder. "We should get back," she added. Anna nodded reluctantly; they turned around and began to walk back. "Thanks for listening," Sharena added, drawing herself back up and resuming the full volume of her voice. "Wow. I got really uh... really moody for a bit there."

"It was kind of a relief, to be honest," Anna laughed. "It's natural you'd be feeling a lot of things over all of this. It's okay to put those feelings out there, you know."

Sharena pouted. "I'm usually the one telling other people that," she grumped. "Well, either way, thanks. Let's just focus on finishing up today and we'll worry about tomorrow when it comes."

"That's a good policy," Anna agreed cheerfully. "Say, do you think Kagero will help us clean up?"

Oh dear, Kagero thought dryly.

"Ooh," Sharena laughed. Kagero was already moving into position to answer their inevitable summons. "Let's find out. Kagero! Were you eavesdropping?!"

Chapter Text

The festival's last day was packed and chaotic; throughout its whole course Lachesis had likened it to a great party, albeit one she couldn't attend, or at least not fully. But the last day was special because finally - finally, on the very last day, the very last chance - she could carry her own weight reliably enough to join in.

Celica had initially suggested that they browse as normal guests, and Lachesis admitted that that sounded fun, but refused to make it the focal point of their evening; Celica herself had seemed a bit wistful and moody of late, so Lachesis insisted they spend time instead with Mae and the others. They, of course, were still committed to their booth in the festival, selling their rotating treats, but Lachesis was not the sort of woman to stay bedridden a second longer than she was forced to.

So it was that she and Celica joined in and learned to help prepare their wares; it was a hectic environment but not as physically demanding as Lachesis might have expected, and most of what she had to do was delicate finger movements that didn't demand a lot of raw strength out of her. So, even though it was somewhat tiring, it didn't strain her too badly. A productive choice, all in all.

It was a bit of a strange feeling. Outwardly, were she asked, Lachesis would say she were putting on her smiles and her cheerful voice. It wasn't natural for her, it wasn't normally what she was like; she would probably say she was doing it out of a desire to please Celica, or to avoid questions from Celica's friends. Sometimes, the ability to pretend to be okay is good enough to be worth celebrating. But... it didn't feel like she was faking. Nothing about her life had really changed; her failures, her sins, hadn't been erased or forgiven. And yet here she was smiling and joking and laughing along, her guilt entirely forgotten.

It was surreal. It was like she wasn't herself, but whatever woman had possessed her, she never wanted to leave.

Eirika and Julia came by to talk for a little bit, as the night began to wind down, but that was only a brief respite; Lachesis found the conversation easy, perhaps the first time she could look Julia in the face without reeling. But after that, it was right back to work again. The first true moment of peace came when announcements rose over the festival that the final fireworks show was about to begin, some time later; everyone was so concerned with finding a suitable place to watch from - even if it was directly in front of the stalls! - and for a little while they weren't being demanded to constantly replace what had just been sold.

Celica's entourage, meanwhile, stood lined up at the stall's front, watching down the road expectantly for the display to start, knowing it would still be a few minutes. It was just... the togetherness of it, almost, that was more important than what they were actually watching. The feeling of being part of the festivities, of having their friends all beside them.

Celica touched her hand. Lachesis smiled and turned it over without looking at her, allowing Celica to thread her fingers through. "I love you," Celica whispered.

"And I you," Lachesis whispered back, turning partway back to her. Celica blushed, her lips breaking apart into a shy, growing smile, before she hid her face with a sheepish laugh. "Wha-? Are you - ?"

"Sorry," Celica giggled. "Sorry, sorry."

"Awww," Mae laughed, "lookitem, they're so ka-yuuuuuute!"

"Don't bully them," Boey muttered.

Mae scoffed. "Yeah, because Celica never made fun of us. Besides, it's a compliment, and I'm right!"

"What do you think?" Lachesis hummed. "Should we make fun of them back?" From behind Celica, Genny leaned out so Lachesis could see her, waving her hands and shaking her head. Lachesis couldn't help but laugh.

"Hey, don't start what you ain't gonna finish," Mae taunted.

"I could say the same to you," retorted Lachesis. Mae stuck her tongue out. Celica laughed now, too, reaching across Lachesis as though trying to shush Mae with her hands (or possibly throttle her).

"Quiet down," she giggled, "the show's supposed to be starting soon!"

"I'll shut up when the explosions start, don't make a fuss over it." Mae waved her hand dismissively. "Or what, do you want me to stop loving and appreciating my Novis sisters? You think you're too good for us now?"

"No!" Celica cried, somewhere between a laugh of concession and earnest distress. "Nonono! Never, Mae."

"I'm sure you've figured out by now," Boey muttered, leaning back behind Mae, "that she just harasses people out of love. Right?"

"Yes," Lachesis agreed, smiling faintly, "I've gathered." She wondered if she should say something, as Mae glanced up at her with an incredulous expression - an impulse rose in her to say something more serious, express her appreciation more sincerely for being included among Mae's friends. But... well, she'd done that already. She rather doubted Mae would appreciate it just then.

Just... another small difference between Mae and Deirdre. It was nice to find them, keep track of them. Maintain some hope that some day Lachesis could stop seeing Deirdre in her.

"Hey, I mean," Mae added hastily, "if I say anything that's, y'know - actually upsetting - you gotta tell me, okay? It makes me all nervous when you get that far-off look in your eyes like that."

"Oh!" Lachesis gasped - Celica and Genny leaned in too, surprised and concerned, but Lachesis hurriedly waved away their concern. "Sorry," she laughed, "I just - one's mind wanders more frequently with age, or so I've found anyway."

Mae made to say something. She hesitated. Struggled for words. But eventually she just smiled, a bit somberly but with relief. She didn't speak, and likely would have turned away, ending the conversation. But Lachesis was ahead of her.

"You remind me of an old friend," she admitted, her voice soft. "That's all."

"I hope it's a good memory, at least," Mae said weakly.

Lachesis sighed, closing her eyes for just a moment. "The parts I tend to remember on my own are not," she replied. "But you remind me of the wonderful times we shared. I hope we can build more positive memories of our own, as well."

"I hope so too." Mae's smile grew a little lopsided. "It was nice spending time with you today, Lachesis."

"Ah, I - hope I'm not interrupting?"

The five of them started, looking straight ahead - directly in front of the stall was Sanaki, looking down the line of them almost as though she were staring down an angry mob. "Can we help you?" Mae asked blankly.

"Is something on your mind?" Genny added; Sanaki relaxed some, apparently finding Genny's voice more gentle on her ears.

"Yes, I..." Sanaki drew herself up - Lachesis became aware that her hands were behind her back, but just as she thought to say something, the empress stepped forward and revealed the journal she had been carrying, which Genny snatched up with a loud gasp. "I found this," Sanaki said stiffly, "and heard you were looking for it."

"Thank you so much!" Genny cried, hugging the journal close. "I was so - I'm so glad you found it!"

"Is that your writing journal?" Celica asked slowly. Lachesis had heard some about this - Genny losing track of a project of hers early in the trip, and being rather lost and distraught without it, but seemingly too skittish to give permission to anyone to look for it. Genny nodded enthusiastically, still holding it tightly to her, as though terrified it might slip away from her again, but as she did a strange look of realization crossed her face, and she turned back to Sanaki with narrowed eyes. Sanaki pursed her lips as though she'd expected this.

"I think I lost this right after I talked with you," she said slowly. "Did - you only just find it? I thought maybe it had been washed away..."

"I also wanted to commend the quality of your writing," Sanaki said evenly. "And if you are seeking an audience for your work, I - might not mind having something on hand to read, when I have a moment to spare."

"Oh dear," Celica murmured. As Lachesis watched, Genny turned beet red, and subsequently Sanaki started to look a little flush, too.

"Oh," Lachesis breathed. "Ohh. I see."

"Wait," Mae gasped, "what's - Genny, that's great, right? I mean, I know how it feels to have somebody go through your stuff when you didn't expect, but she likes your writing!"

"I keep saying," Boey agreed, "if you're so passionate about it, you should look into getting published!"

Sanaki made a strange sound - a little snort? - a quivering smile broke out on her lips, and under strain she managed: "Yes, perhaps you should consider that more seriously."

"Don't make fun of me," Genny mumbled. Lachesis snorted, too, hastily covering her mouth and turning away.

"What? What??" Mae looked between the four of them totally bewildered. "What's going on?"

"Do they know?" Sanaki asked idly. Genny shook her head. "Hm."

"Well, I mean," Celica murmured, "I'm aware of what Genny does in her spare time, if that's what you're asking, but I haven't actually read anything of hers. It doesn't surprise me that it's good, though I admit that I'm surprised it's - to your liking."

"That's good," Sanaki hummed. "Keep it that way."

"Wait, hang on," Boey muttered, "what exactly is Genny writing in there?"

"Bully me all you like," Lachesis huffed, "but you need to leave Genny alone."

"How dare you," Mae huffed, pouting and folding her arms. "Genny's more my friend than yours anyway!"

"It's alright," Genny mumbled, only barely audible. "U-um, thanks again, your highness." Sanaki bowed, and then made herself scarce; Genny hurried over to her bag, stashed under one of the tables, and hid the notebook inside. Celica and Lachesis exchanged glances - Lachesis assumed they both had approximately the same expression on, a firmly forced smile with a devilish laugh boiling just behind the throat - but they managed to stay stifled as they turned away again, even though Celica's smile broke out into a grin.

"Don't make fun of me," Genny repeated faintly, as she returned to the line.

"Of course not," Celica replied, as kindly as she could manage.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Lachesis agreed.

"You know," Celica added, "Lachesis has actually shown me some of her own writing - "

"No," Lachesis snarled, jumping and whirling around, Celica was already laughing - "No, you leave my stories out of this, those are not for public consumption - "

But her protests were lost as Celica's friends broke out in laughter as well, and she allowed herself to trail off, shaking her head and beaming at her love as Celica smiled back in gratitude. All at once Lachesis thought, in that moment, she could better identify the feeling plaguing her that evening; not that she had been possessed by someone else, but perhaps more than she was not used to feeling like she belonged somewhere, and... well, whether she was imagining it or not, she hoped that she could retain this place among Celica's friends.

This time she wouldn't lose them. She wouldn't lose them. Celica smiled into her eyes and Lachesis knew without a trace of doubt. She wouldn't lose them again.

Chapter Text

Lucina wasn't really one for dresses - always had been a bit of a tomboy, even taking the Hero-King's name - but a suit seemed a bit overly formal for the festival, even for its last day, so she wound up settling for a sundress regardless. Her parents assured her she looked stunning, so she tried to focus on that rather than on how... exposed she felt, how easily the sea breeze tickled her skin, but... even so she felt it was only fair to warn Catria not to expect this very often.

Catria was wearing a dress, too. Lucina thought she looked beautiful in it, but could tell at first glance that she was no more comfortable than Lucina was, a realization that came as a relief to the both of them. They waited in the main hall, exchanging awkward pleasantries as they waited for Severa to arrive.

"Do you think Severa will be wearing one too?" Catria said lowly. Lucina managed a strained chuckle, delighted to have something to think about other than her anxiety, even if only for a moment.

"Maybe," she hummed. It was tough to imagine the fiery brat Severa had once been wearing a dress, but... the woman she had grown into seemed better suited to it. "I guess we'll see."

She certainly was wearing something like a dress - a white robe with pink flower print, with long hood-like sleeves and a silk sash tied around the stomach. A yukata, she explained cheerfully - one of her favorite additions to her wardrobe from her new home, something culturally appropriate for a Hoshidan festival from her previous world. "Aren't you from Nohr?" Catria asked blankly, surprised, and Severa pouted at her in response. She'd done her hair differently, too, letting her twin tails drape over her shoulders rather than sticking out childishly at the sides.

"You look beautiful," Lucina offered, rather than pressing her about national allegiance; Severa flushed as she turned to bat her lashes at the Exalt.

"Of course I do," she said sweetly, and Lucina laughed. "You two in your dresses are adorable, too! I'd say we all did a great job. Good work, team." And Catria giggled at that, too. Severa beamed back and forth betwween the two of them, clearly quite pleased with herself.

"So," Catria hummed, "ah, what - what now, that we're all together?" She looked at Lucina. Lucina looked at Severa. Severa grinned.

"Yeah, I'm the organized one here," Severa cooed. Catria nodded numbly. "I've planned the whole evening out! Just sit back and let Severa guide you through the best festival triple-date anyone's ever had."

"That's a high bar to set," Catria said blankly. "M-Maybe? Do people go on triple dates at festivals often?"

"Alright, now it's the best any-date anywhere anyone's ever had," Severa snapped back, sticking her tongue out at the pegasus knight, who couldn't help but laugh.

"Severa isn't exactly a second place kind of girl," Lucina hummed, smiling knowingly at her. Severa puffed herself up with delight.

 

Severa's plan didn't stray very far from Lucina's expectations - which, at first, only made her more nervous. Her retainer had always been a terribly competitive person, so it came as no surprise that most of Severa's chosen activities were games of some kind. First, Owain (Odin. He insisted on being Odin now.) was running a ball-in-cups style observation game, though to his credit he certainly made it more exciting with the addition of "cursed balls" and ghostly cups floating around seemingly on their own to join the puzzle. He drew in a crowd with his theatrics, as had always been his forte, and Lucina found she enjoyed basking in her absurd cousin's presence just as much as playing the game itself.

Then they played a simple game of shooting targets with a small bow - though, for Heroes, there was a much longer target to fire at given that most of them were more likely than average to know what they were doing. Severa was the best archer of all of them by far, and boasted happily about how much she'd learned about archery while in Nohr when Lucina complimented her. Catria, however, pouted and complained that she was much better at throwing, and that if this were a throwing game she'd beat Severa easily. Severa took the bait and adjusted their plan on the fly, taking them to yet another game where they tried to knock down tiny standing targets with bean bags, and Lucina chose to just stand back while the two girls fought to outdo each other.

They were... laughing an awful lot, actually. Catria missed a target completely once; Severa pointed and laughed, Catria flushed and threw a beanbag at her, hitting her square in the nose - Catria gasped and jumped, as Severa stumbled back to recover, and then they both burst out laughing. They were fun to watch. Lucina began to realize that she didn't need to be nervous. She'd thought of them as similar when she first met Catria months ago now, and... well, maybe it made sense that they got along.

One of Severa's Hoshidan friends - Oboro! Lucina had met her before! - was helping to run a 'goldfish scooping' game, which was something Lucina had absolutely never heard of but was quite interested in; it was apparently customary to scoop fish to then take home as pets, but Severa suggested they return the fish they caught and instead consider them good luck charms, and everyone involved seemed pleased with that. The little scoops were rather finnicky to work with and tore rather easily, but even after a few small tears Oboro let them continue until finally they were completely useless and had to be discarded. Catria and Severa both caught several, happily (and carefully) showing them off to one another before returning them to Oboro to be returned to the water for others to catch later. Lucina only got two, but that was luckier than she'd expected to be, and she was happy to consider that a good omen all things considered.

They visited a food vendor stall being run by some of Severa's comrades from Crimea - surprised to find Lachesis and Celica there, as well, cheerfully lending their aid for the busiest day. Then, they strayed out towards the beach but remained apart from others for the most part, eating together in relative quiet, and then Severa announced that now that they'd gotten their good luck, they should get their fortunes told.

"What?" Lucina stared at her blankly. "I - ? Are you sure?"

"Of course," Severa protested, glaring at her, arms folded. "I planned all this out! There's no better time for a fortune-telling than right after you improve your chances of a good fortune with good luck charms. Right?"

"I wouldn't have expected you to be superstitious," Catria said lowly, with a teasing smirk. Severa stuck her tongue out.

"It's only superstition 'til it works," she taunted back. "C'mon, it'll be fun, Luci. You don't have to take it seriously if you don't want, anyhow. If there's anyone that can turn a bad fortune into a good one, it's you, right?"

Lucina managed a forced smile. "I suppose so, yes."

 

The fortune teller was a soft-spoken dark mage that introduced herself as Sophia, and explained in short, disjointed sentences that she had taught herself to read fortunes in a number of ways to help the people of her village, a place named Arcadia that was apparently kept hidden from the outside world. Even if they hadn't known she was a member of the Order, her story might've seemed like an embellishment if not for the very grim tone with which Sophia spoke, and how deliberately she seemed to choose each phrase. Severa remained entirely undampened and offered to go first, so Sophia sat her down to start. She drew a circle of violet dust on the center of the table between them; between her fingertips a small flame jumped to the circle, and all at once it flashed and ignited, quickly burning down to sparkling ashes an a thin, wispy cylinder of smoke that rose perhaps a few centimeters above the surface before dissipating.

For Severa, after asking what it was she wanted to know about her future, Sophia used a set of carved bone tiles marked with runes as a sort of tarot, reading a sequence of five in a row. According to Sophia, Severa's tiles indicated future conflict, in which Severa would display confidence and earn victory. It indicated turmoil within her family, that would be overcome with great unity. All things considered it was a pleasant fortune, Lucina thought, and Severa - never one to shy from a fight - seemed deeply pleased with it as she stood to make way for Catria.

The pegasus knight, on the other hand, silently made clear her feelings as a skeptic; she was subtly brusque with Sophia's instructions and seemed not to treat Sophia's preparations with the sort of gravity the druid was hoping for, waiting almost impatiently as Sophia drew out a new circle in silver dust now. When asked what fortune she wanted, Catria responded noncommittally, so Sophia took her hand and held it over the circle of smoke and clasped her hand, and asked her how her date was going. Catria blinked.

"What do you mean?" she said faintly.

"Your date," Sophia responded, deadpan, humorless. "With these two women... You are here on... a date with them."

Catria didn't respond, evidently speechless. Sophia smiled. Lucina wondered if they were really that easy to see through.

"Even if... your mind is skeptical," Sophia continued, "your spirit... speaks the truth. I can see... you wish to know more... about your love life...?"

"I- " Catria flushed immediately, pulling her hand back and clenching it over her own bosom. "I-I'm okay," she stammered, "uh -"

"Oh, Catria!" Severa gasped. "Why don't you? I mean, we're here already and she knows that much, so what the hell, right?"

Catria, lost, turned to Lucina. She shouldn't have, but Lucina did her best to retain composure for her. "I think you should," she agreed.

"You shouldn't be such a baby, regardless of whatever else," added Severa; Catria pouted at her.

"Fine," the knight grumped, turning back to Sophia, who was smiling pleasantly. "I'll do whatever you suggested."

So, Sophia held her hand over the circle of smoke and gently massaged Catria's palm with her thumbs, explaining in a gentle voice that the circle was a type of dark spell that improved her sensitivity to a person's spiritual responses to their surroundings. She pressed a thumb gently into several parts of Catria's hand and wrist, closing her eyes and focusing on each point, humming affirmatives to herself, before releasing her to explain her findings.

Catria, Sophia claimed, was a woman who struggled to be honest with herself about her feelings, but should also be mindful that she has nothing to fear from them. The druid described great tension and reservation that she felt likely signified fear, and that if she feels afraid of the people she is with, she should either speak with them to soothe herself, or find better friends. She then went on to add that Catria's current infatuations were both strong and true (both! Lucina nearly jumped! And as she glanced at Severa, the girl was half-hiding her face, unable to contain her bashful grin in Lucina's direction!) and that her spirit felt at ease thinking of them, and that she should chase that feeling of comfort and learn to revel in it honestly.

Catria didn't have anything to say. She mumbled thanks to the seer and shuffled out of her chair, pointedly avoiding eye contact as she stood beside Severa again. Severa wrapped an arm around her back and pulled her closer; Catria blushed even brighter, but didn't pull away.

Lucina, meanwhile, looked at Sophia. Sophia smiled back eagerly.

"Allow me... to see your fortune," she whispered. "Even here... I can feel... the strength of your spirit... She has... many things to say..."

Lucina wondered about that. She sat down.

Sophia first drew her hand into a new circle of smoke, this time made from blue dust. She clasped Lucina's hand in both of her own, breathing deeply with her eyes closed. "I can feel your spirit..." She frowned. "Quivering... are you... afraid? No... you are angry?"

"I don't mean to be," Lucina murmured. Sophia smiled. "It's - childish. I'm sorry. A terrible fate befell our world, and once when I was younger, I recalled how many fortune tellers my cousin used to visit, and how none of them had anything to say about it. I'm sure that's not how it works..."

"Sometimes... it can be hard to see... what is coming... even when it affects us all." Sophia's voice and expression were sorrowful. Being another hero herself, Lucina was sure that she had her own version of this story in her world. It must be hard to be a fortune teller, she thought all of a sudden. Flinching from every shadow you see in every fortune you tell, wondering if the apocalypse is around the corner.

"You don't need to take responsibility for it," Lucina promised. "So. Give me - um - something simple. I don't really know how to do this, frankly."

"Your spirit..." Sophia frowned, focusing on Lucina's hand. "I think... I know what you need... Give me a moment..."

She laid out her bone tiles, touching each one at a time and asking Lucina to touch the other end - apparently seeing how they reacted to Lucina's 'spirit'. Lucina didn't notice any obvious reaction, but Sophia certainly grew more animated as they went, soon sweeping most of the tiles into her palm and taking them back, then arranging the others in front of Lucina within the circle for her.

"Feel each tile," Sophia instructed. "Hand me... whichever resonates... most with you."

Lucina nodded, taking each into her hand, one at a time, and closing a fist around it before shutting her eyes. She didn't really think she'd get a reaction, so it surprised her to find that she just instinctively handed Sophia the third tile, without even trying the other two. Sophia inspected it briefly, smiling knowingly, setting down in the circle's center.

"This tile... stands for 'monarch'," she explained. "It represents... who you are... to yourself."

"The Exalt," Severa huffed. "Naturally."

"Monarch," Sophia continued, "as a symbol... means to work alone... to bear responsibility... for and on behalf... of other people. It doesn't just... mean 'ruler', like a king... it can mean many things."

Lucina was silent. She stared at the rune on the tile. Like an evil eye it glared back.

Sophia had her repeat this process, but had her think of something different each time. What resonates with 'family'? A tile meaning 'treasure', but inverted, signifying loss. Sophia stared at the tile in clear sorrow, seeming to struggle for words, before moving on to the next in a strained voice. It felt strange, to have someone else feel sadness for Lucina, when she herself felt so hollow. She could hear Catria and Severa whispering behind her. It wasn't like Severa to talk behind her back, but... well, Catria didn't know about this, so maybe it was good to tell her. Lucina didn't mind that.

Third - Purpose. Lucina was not surprised to hear that the tile she chose, 'foundation', represented her family or closest friends. Sophia nodded slowly at it, again without commenting, and continued to the fourth: Future. To Lucina's surprise, she found the matching tile very quickly, but her surprise faded some as Sophia informed her that the tile represented 'journey', which in this case suggested uncertainty.

Sophia arranged these four tiles in a triangle, with 'monarch' at the center. Lucina stared through them. Sophia cleared her throat. "These tiles represent... your perception... of the world." Lucina nodded numbly. "Yourself as... a sole protector... marching towards... an unknown future."

The druid held out her hand. There was one tile in her palm, and as Lucina gingerly accepted it, she explained. "You chose... five tiles. Your spirit resonated... with these concepts. But this one... you could not place. It represents... what you lack."

Lucina stared at it. It had been a part of Severa's arrangement. Severa was the one to recall its meaning first: "That's - unity, isn't it?"

"Harmony," Sophia agreed, smiling. "Lucina... your spirit desires harmony. Focus upon your foundation... your friends behind you... your family here with you... and seek harmony with them... that your future... may become clear."

 

Lucina held the tile in front of her for a long time, processing this sentence. All around them the festival continued, but somehow it felt deathly quiet just around her. Maybe Sophia really was shielding them from the outside sound somehow, or perhaps protecting their privacy. Or perhaps it was just her imagination. She lingered and wondered. She could feel something crawling over her, a strange wave of warmth followed by a shiver and a chill, as she imagined her father standing before her, no longer smiling, concern on his face. What's wrong, Lucina? Why don't you feel connected with us?

He'd never said that, but... but somehow, she could imagine so very clearly that he felt it. Why didn't she...?

The tile was clenched in her fist, so tightly it left marks as she gasped and released it. "I'm sorry," she said, without thinking, but Sophia touched her hand - drawing up her eyes into a knowing smile.

"I hope I helped," Sophia whispered, and Lucina nodded slowly, frankly in awe.

 

"That was a really good fortune," Severa remarked, as they returned to the beachfront. Things were quieting down - the final fireworks show was set to begin soon. "I was impressed with all of them, really."

"Are you alright?" Catria asked, touching Lucina's shoulder. Lucina nodded, clearing tears from her eyes. She wasn't really... sad, per se, she just... felt a lot. It was strange and somehow new, but not at all bad. "It sounds kinda like she hit home," Catria added, and Lucina nodded again, laughing shyly.

"You know, Lucina," Severa said lowly, "you can count on me for anything, right? You can talk to me about anything at all." And Lucina nodded.

"I know we're not quite that close yet," Catria added, "and, I don't really know how much I'm good for, but - but if you need to talk to somebody that's completely clueless, too, I guess I'm here for that." Lucina laughed again, and nodded again.

"You two are wonderful," Lucina sighed blissfully, smiling at both of them. "I'm blessed to have your company."

"T-The feeling is mutual," Catria giggled shyly.

"I dunno about her," Several grumped, "but you have a lot more than just my company..."

"Well, I," Catria muttered, "listen, I wasn't - "

But Lucina laughed, and then Severa and Catria both laughed. Lucina didn't know when it had happened but they were all holding hands now. She did worry, for a moment, about what others might think if they saw, but... she had no intention of letting go.

Chapter Text

Not everyone was especially cut out for the noise of the festival's last day. The Nohrian and Hoshidan families had taken a freeform approach to every festival night before, so they saw no need to change things now; they had a comfortable spot on the beach to view the sunset by, and as the darkness set in they adjusted to prepare for stargazing, firework viewing, and conversation.

A part of Corrin wanted to explore the festival, but despite that, she spent almost the whole day leaving their arrangement of mats. Between her shaky state of mind and her anxiety over the news that the trial had evidently ended that morning, it would not be difficult for something to upset her or set her off... with the exception of that night with Xander they had avoided any full-on meltdowns, and she intended to keep it that way. Not that that made her feel any better about missing out, watching everyone else have fun instead of her.

Camilla and Hinoka did their best to occupy her. Hinoka was not exactly... suited... to their usual method of socialization - sitting around prettying themselves up, braiding one another's hair or applying makeup or nail polish while gossipping about who or whatever - but she did an admirable job of playing along, most of the time; tonight, though, with uncertainty weighing heavily on all of them, Hinoka refused to bow to tact and chose simply to tackle the difficult conversations head-on.

Maybe she could tell Corrin was feeling well enough to talk about it. Maybe she thought it would make Corrin feel better. Corrin wasn't sure. She tried not to center everything around her condition, but it was hard not to wonder with her siblings, with how dedicated they had been to her comfort even during the war. She had started wondering more often recently if they weren't quite as skittish with her as she had thought she were.

If so... she was glad. She didn't know if she could make it through Valla a second time.

"Not to sound judgmental or anything," Hinoka was saying - the conversation now had reached the subject of Xander - "but I really feel like he's the kind of guy that would do this to himself without really thinking it through, you know?"

"How do you mean?" warily asked Camilla. But Corrin already had a pretty good idea. They had reached about the same point in the conversation as before, the night Leo had been here instead of Camilla. She remembered Camilla saying that Hinoka didn't seem as concerned about Ryoma, and she wondered with dismay if this was why.

"Well," Hinoka sighed, "Prince Xander's clearly a very driven and loyal person. I wonder if - especially knowing what we know now, about how the worlds work - I wonder if he's latched on to Veronica as a more rightful leader for him. I don't think he's a bad person, Camilla, but I can't help but wonder if he even realizes he has the option of stopping her."

"He did turn against Garon eventually," Corrin murmured. "But Leo tells me it was not easy to convince him."

Camilla made to speak, but faltered. She took a deep breath as the others watched, before continuing. "I wasn't sure it could be done," she admitted, her voice faint. Corrin's eyes grew wide - that was not a tone she wanted to hear, not tonight and not ever. Camilla was avoiding their gazes, but despite that Corrin shifted closer.

"B-but that's what makes it good that you did," Hinoka laughed awkwardly. "I mean, we know that we have the option. It's just a matter of the how."

"He will listen to reason," Corrin assured her, clasping a hand around Camilla's and squeezing. "He will listen to you."

Camilla didn't answer, but nodded feebly. She took another deep breath, and then sighed it back out, very heavily. It was rare for her to be self-aware enough to try to contain her anger and anxiety like this; it was almost more worrying than when she just wore it openly as usual. But after another deep breath or two, she looked up, drying her eyes. "Oh," she gasped. "Ah! Leo!"

Sure enough, Leo was returning from the festival with Cecilia just behind him - by now, Leo had already opened up to Camilla and Corrin about their relationship, but they had yet to be formally introduced and Leo had not yet made it public knowledge, so Corrin proceeded through their 'introductions' while pretending to be surprised by their friendship. Cecilia, it turned out, did not have anywhere else to go during the festival's latter half; she explained that most of her friends were having dates of their own, so she thought she would turn to her 'friendliest peer' for company instead. Camilla jumped into full-hearted welcomes before Hinoka could turn her perplexed expression into a problematic question.

Leo's intent was to play chess while Cecilia socialized with the siblings, so Corrin settled in to participate, but something about her began to worm around in heat and fright that made it difficult for her to sit still. Camilla noticed quickly. Leo, soon after. She didn't want to sit around and wait for Cecilia to notice too. "I'm going to go for a walk," she said instead, smiling as sincerely as she could to Leo, and Leo eagerly nodded to acknowledge her. "I'll be back."

 

The sun had set by now and everyone was left with hanging lanterns or staked torches as their lighting - enough for most things, but dim enough to give a sort of private feel to the area surrounding the festival, particularly the water's edge where Corrin had chosen to walk. She paced back and forth, splashing delicately through each wave's wake, thoughts soon carried far away.

Why here? The water, almost definitely. She stared absently into the darkening horizon, gold leaping from the crest of each wave as it caught what was left of the sunset. She could feel it creeping around her ankles and then receding, and through it somehow she thought she could glimpse the depth and volume of it - stretching into a black abyss far greater than anything she had ever seen, enough to engulf the entirety of the castle behind her, to engulf the Askrian royal castle... Somewhere dark and full and weightless where she would never be found.

Where if she didn't want to be... she would never be seen again.

"Oh, there you are!"

She whirled around startled - as much by the voice's owner as its presence. "Roy!" she gasped, as the redhead approached; he was carrying a pair of sundaes in little bowls, and he offered one to Corrin as he reached arm's distance. "Oh!"

"I caught Takumi on his way back down," Roy explained, "and he mentioned you were sitting the festival out, and I - I just thought maybe you'd appreciate having a visit."

"Well, thank you," Corrin said cheerfully, beaming at him. "I, um - I'm a little surprised, I thought you'd be with your family today."

"Oh, no." Roy shook his head. "Mother and father are on a date, and I imagine their friends are enjoying the privacy too. So I've just been milling around with Ephraim and the others."

Corrin nodded slowly. An idea came to her, and for a moment, she grappled with it, considered restraining it, considered stopping herself. Ultimately, she did not, though whether by choice or accident was not clear.

"You should come hang out with us then," she offered. Roy blinked, and she put on a fanged smile, leaning into the mentality that had brought it on. "As payback."

"Oh, as payback," Roy muttered, raising an eyebrow at her. She couldn't help giggling. "Well, I guess it's only fair. You got dragged into our outing..."

"Yes, yes." Corrin grinned at him. "So? Would you rather have our company or some rude boys' for the firework show?"

"I..." Roy narrowed his eyes at her. "Hang on," he muttered. "That's - are you insinuating something?"

Maybe it was rude of Corrin to juxtapose Roy's friends against herself like that, or to suggest that they were rough-housing troublemakers rather than noble rulers of realms, but honestly she just couldn't bring herself to care. She was having too much fun taunting him, trying to make him laugh in spite of himself. She wasn't sure why she felt so cheerful, but she might as well make the most of it while she was feeling it.

"If you're really that close with them," Corrin continued, her eyes glittering, "I won't be offended."

"What do you mean - ?!" Roy balked. "No, no, no. Don't misunderstand me. I don't really even think they expected me to come back."

"Oh, well, then! You've nowhere else to go, so come on!" Corrin jovially linked arms with him, and all but dragged him off the beach, cheerfully ignoring his token complaints.

 

As they drew near the umbrellas and mats, Camilla called out to them, and Cecilia turned from her chess game to look - gasping as she took them in. "Oh, Roy!"

"Lady Cecilia," Roy replied blankly, blinking. "What a surprise. I didn't realize you, er... that we were both friends of the family, I suppose."

"Oh, I was just introduced to them all myself," Cecilia replied, smiling cordially. "Leo and I have been collaborating in our research the last few weeks."

Oh, so is that what they call it, Corrin thought. Glancing at Camilla, she could see a similar retort glittering in her eyes, only very barely restrained.

Either oblivious or deliberately ignoring the subtle change in mood Cecilia continued undeterred: "What about you?"

"Oh, well, Corrin and I have been friends since I arrived," Roy explained, gesturing broadly. "I heard that she wasn't going to be able to enjoy the festival today, so..."

"Oh?" Cecilia looked at her with worry now. "Why is that?" Corrin stared at her blankly, unprepared to answer. But just before the pause could get awkward --

"Corrin just finds it more relaxing to spend time with her family," Leo cut in, nodding assuredely to Cecilia, who seemed satisfied with that. "Much more interesting, I think - what a coincidence that you two would know each other!"

"I suppose it is," Cecilia agreed calmly, smiling at Roy. "I was Roy's tutor when he was younger."

"Oh!" Leo gasped, in clear surprise, which is good because Corrin had very nearly gasped too, and that would've been much weirder if it had come from her and not him. As subtly as she could she pressed a hand over her heart in hopes of containing her surprise - but she wasn't subtle enough that Roy didn't notice, and she could only respond to his arched brow with a tiny, awkward laugh.

"It just goes to show how very talented you are with magic," Cecilia was saying playfully, "that you're keeping up with a mage at my level of experience."

"I'm not sure that's right," Leo chuckled nervously, "but, I'll just take the compliment."

"Takumi," Hinoka added airily, "why don't you and Corrin teach her friend shogi?"

 

So, Takumi sat them down with his prized shogi board - Corrin wondered with a start if he meant to bring it to play with Corrin specifically, and thinking of that she suggested that she and Takumi play first so Roy could see how the game worked. They explained each of the pieces and their functions; Roy exclaimed partway through it was very much like chess, and Takumi agreed that they were similar games but that he preferred shogi, in his usual passive aggressive way.

Roy absolutely missed it. He instead went on about how he used to enjoy playing chess with Cecilia and Lilina, before they both got better than him and started taking the game very seriously, when he just enjoyed learning and playing games with them. "In retrospect," he mused, "it's no wonder they're such great tacticians compared to me."

"Apparently," Takumi said, "Corrin practiced tactics by playing chess with Leo a lot. So I figure it's my job to teach her what she missed not growing up in Hoshido, you know?"

"I do think this game makes a somewhat better tactical exercise," Roy agreed, and Takumi puffed up with delight. Corrin smiled at the both of them. It was kind of sweet to watch.

Corrin was not nearly as good at shogi as Takumi - she didn't have the same years of practice - so she went into the game expecting to lose, and her expectation was met. But it was a much, much closer game than she might've guessed. Her thoughts were clear and swift, and it felt like no exaggeration to say it was the best shogi she'd ever played, enough to keep Takumi very worried for most of the game's duration. Best of all, she didn't seem to have accumulated a headache or anything after the game ended. She just cheerfully lined the board up for Roy to play against her next, suggesting that the loser play Takumi afterward.

Her senses were unusually keen, too. She could hear Hinoka and Camilla talking idly behind them all about the weather, the clear skies, about a flight they'd taken along the coastline and how they'd like to come back here if they could. She could hear Leo and Cecilia talking idly about Eirika, their dark magic protégé, though they avoided using the princess' name. It was hard for her not to want to listen in more closely, to add her thoughts, and even though she did her best to restrain herself it seemed the others noticed she was listening; the sun's last light faded well over the horizon by the time her game with Roy finished, and by that point, they were all assembled in a broad circle and a group conversation, whose subject had now turned to Roy and Cecilia's history together.

Roy and Cecilia were setting up a chess match while Corrin and Takumi prepared to play shogi again. Cecilia remarked that she had almost forgotten their match record - some absurd number in her favor, of course - and Roy suggested they reset the count, now that they could be considered equals as generals. The thought seemed to amuse her, and she agreed. "So," she hummed, "will you take the first game, or shall I?"

"Have you played chess with him before?" Leo mumbled to Corrin, and she shook her head. Of course, they'd never done much of anything together except - 'stress relief' - in fact, this was one of the only times they'd ever really spent time together doing anything else, now that she thought of it. She'd never really stopped to think how little she actually knew about Roy. Who would have thought that he would enjoy playing strategy games like she used to?

"He learned shogi very fast," she said lowly. "I can tell he knows what he's doing."

"If he's anywhere near as good as Cecilia," Leo muttered, "this is going to be quite a match to watch." He nodded to Takumi. "You might learn a few things."

"I don't know what that's supposed to mean," Takumi growled, but his ire aside, he seemed quite genuinely interested, because he and Corrin didn't get very far in their own game before turning their full attention to watching the guests.

They both had very methodical playstyles, Corrin noticed. Leo. her point of reference, was a very defensive player, choosing particular sections of the board to control and denying access to them to emphasize the strength of certain pieces that he would then form his strategy around. Corrin, by comparison, was very aggressive. She liked to force a wedge or to apply pressure to an expected early opening, take several pieces early, and stifle her opponent's options and end the game as fast as possible. But Cecilia and Roy both played a delicate middle ground, building up their positions like they were merely threatening to threaten each other, rather than actually taking any aggressive action. They played for a few dozen turns before the first piece was taken, but once it happened, the game cascaded rapidly downhill; Corrin could see Cecilia wincing as the exchanges began to play out firmly in Roy's favor.

"This is not the outcome I hoped for," she admitted wearily. She had more pawns, but no rooks, while Roy still had one along with a bishop and knight to pressure her with. It didn't take long before checkmate was called.

"I thought it was a great game," Roy commented, seeming a bit dismayed. But Cecilia smiled gently and nodded.

"You've become quite a bit more wary than I expected," she remarked. "It used to be you would get impatient."

"I have learned much as a strategist," Roy hummed. Maybe it was her imagination, but Corrin thought he seemed rather upset to say so. He didn't look like he was enjoying his victory at all, in fact.

"You and Corrin should play," Leo suggested. "I'm sure the four of us could all benefit from playing together, in fact. And Takumi, too."

"Oh, yes, and poor Takumi," the Hoshidan prince pouted, folding his arms. Corrin frowned. Her head was starting to hurt a little. Was it because they were getting upset? Or - well, this was supposed to be a joke... maybe?

"I actually really enjoyed playing shogi, too," Roy said eagerly. "I'd love to play that just as well."

"Yes, Roy," Cecilia added, "would you or Takumi be willing to teach me?"

"Absolutely," Takumi chirped, brightening right up. "Everyone already knows about chess, but nobody seems to know about shogi! It deserves a wider audience."

 

But Corrin did find herself with a headache after that, growing only more intense as she became more aware of it. She excused herself to sit under Camilla's umbrella, laying back, trying to shut out the noise. But it wouldn't go away. Even though she knew they were several yards away it felt as though the crowd was slowly building around her. She could almost feel their footsteps thudding through the sand, as though it were solid ground. She must be imagining it...

She did feel - hear? - someone coming over to sit on her other side. Dully, she opened her eyes, expecting Takumi or Leo, but it wasn't - it was Roy, in fact, and she wondered dazedly why she was surprised by that. "Hi," she croaked.

"You doing okay?" Roy asked, lowly. He glanced up - Camilla was probably glaring at him? She turned her head lazily to see a bemused smile on her face instead.

"I'm okay," Corrin promised, turning back to him. "Just need to lay down."

"Fireworks are starting soon," Roy said. "Do you mind if I lay down here with you?"

"You want to share the view?" She smiled. "Go ahead."

So, Roy laid down beside her. They were quiet for a little while; Corrin's eyes remained open, waiting for the fireworks that never showed. All that she saw overhead was the dazzling display of the heavens. She remembered Eirika taking her to watch clouds, in Askr - the memory made her smile.

"I take it Felicia is busy," Roy said softly.

"She's helping the little sisters," Corrin replied sleepily. Was she sleepy? As she thought about it, she yawned.

"I hope she's having a good time," Roy hummed. Corrin nodded again.

"I hope you are, too," Corrin added. "After I dragged you away from your friends like that."

"No, it was alright," Roy assured her. "Mother and father, and all of their friends, they're all on dates of their own. So I really didn't have anywhere else to go."

Dates. Hmm. Was this -

...Was this a...?

She wasn't sure what to say to that, so she stayed quiet. Roy did, too. She heard a collective hush coming over the crowd in the distance, a signal that the show was not long to begin. Her insides were squirming. Her heart was beating fast. Why?

"Roy," she said lowly. He gave a wordless acknowledgement. "Can I hold your hand?"

"That's out of nowhere," Roy said blankly.

"Platonically," she promised. What the fuck was she saying? Where had this come from? All at once anxiety built into panic. "I don't know. I just want to. We don't have to, but - I - "

"Are you alright?" Roy rolled slowly to look at her. She felt herself flushing and tried to avoid his gaze. "Oh, I see. Should we - watch from somewhere quieter, maybe?"

Corrin's blush entirely took over her face at the suggestion, but - but at the same time... that... that wasn't what she wanted. Was it? "N-not just yet," she managed. "Just your hand for now."

"Okay." Roy slid his hand over to touch hers, and she snatched it into her grasp, clenching her fingers around it almost greedily. She heard him chuckle and squeeze back - so much her palm ached for a moment, and for some reason that was cathartic, so she clenched her fingers again. Like a little ball you squeeze in your hand to vent a moment of anger. Or something.

Definitely something like that, and not anything else.

Chapter Text

Eirika hadn't yet seen Lachesis since she'd heard that the princess had finally recovered enough to stand on her own, so she and Julia naturally made a point to find her during their tour of the festival - both delighted to find her not only standing, but helping Celica's friends manning their stall, with as much animation and fervor as ever. She beamed as they approached and strode over to greet them with a cheerful hello, which they enthusiastically returned.

"I'm surprised to see you here!" Eirika admitted, smiling in spite. "I hope you are enjoying your time at the festival from back there."

"Fear not," Lachesis laughed. "I've been to many parties and festivals in my time, staying put for this one won't hurt me." She glanced back towards Celica, who waved to them from the other side of the stall - though she seemed preoccupied, and couldn't come over to chat. "I think she could use the time with her friends, anyway," Lachesis admitted, her voice softer.

"They're your friends, too," Julia said. "Aren't they?"

"They are," Lachesis agreed, drawing herself up. "And some of the most trusted among the Demons, at that. But never mind that, Eirika; how are you enjoying the festival?"

"We're having a lovely time," Eirika replied. "Since we've seen just about everything we can see the last two weeks, today we thought we'd go people-spotting, and that's been quite a task in itself."

"People-spotting," Lachesis replied, bemused. "I admit, I'm a bit jealous. So, anything particularly exciting you've discovered today?"

"Oh, I don't know that we should necessarily talk about that," Julia gasped.

"We've seen some things," Eirika agreed - recalling the sight of Lucina walking with two girls hand-in-hand, specifically - "but it won't do to talk about others behind their backs."

"Ah, well." Lachesis' expression stiffened a little. Eirika hoped she hadn't sounded judgmental or anything; that hadn't been her intent. It didn't really surprise her to consider that Lachesis was somewhat of a gossip, and honestly, she might not have minded swapping some innocuous stories with her, but Julia seemed quite distraught by the idea. In fact, thinking of that, Lachesis seemed to be replying more to Julia than her! "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," she promised Julia, smiling wistfully. "Forgive me, I got ahead of myself."

Julia hesitated, her expression a bit shy, before drawing up as much height as she could manage. "Princess Lachesis," she said, "may I ask you something a bit personal?"

"Oh, should I leave?" Eirika asked. But Lachesis shook her head, her smile fading even further.

"I think I know what you wish to ask," Lachesis sighed. "I apologize, Julia. I didn't mean to seem so... so discourteous around you."

"That's not how I felt," Julia gasped. "I - I thought I had done something to offend you! I only hoped to ask if you were truly from Jugdral, but I understand that you don't much like to talk about yourself."

"Yes, like you, I am from Jugdral," Lachesis agreed quietly. "You are... the spitting image of one of my best friends."

"Am I?" Shock spread rapidly across Julia's face, far too much for her to be caught off-guard; this was not the face of someone met with something unexpected, but rather, someone confronted with a fear that had been dismissed as impossible. "T-Then," she stammered, "you - you must have known - m-my mother...?"

Lachesis smiled and nodded. Her fingers wrapped more tightly around the countertop's edge in front of her. "Yes, I did," she said softly. "Deirdre was her name." Julia nodded slowly, covering her lips. "I... take it that she met her end before you came of age."

"She..." Julia faltered. Whatever it was the question brought to mind, it must have been horrible - she shuddered and closed her eyes before answering. "She did," she managed, in the end. "I... didn't ever get to know her."

"That's a shame," Lachesis whispered, sighing in grief. "That truly is. You are every bit as beautiful and awe-inspiring as she was. She was a wonderful woman, Julia."

"I'm so sorry," Julia whimpered. "I - I understand now, I must have reminded you of her, and..."

"Don't apologize." Lachesis laughed, rubbing her eyes. "Ah. No, it's good to have finally said something about it, to be honest. I'm - I am truly honored to fight alongside you."

The princess took a moment afterward to recover herself; Julia seemed a bit relieved, glancing up at Eirika as though for permission to continue. But frankly, Eirika herself felt quite out of place here, and honestly was just glad to bear witness to this moment of reconciliation for the two of them. Ever since the first gathering of princesses, she had wondered about and lamented over whatever history made Lachesis so cold towards Julia, and now not only did she have the answer... it almost seemed that maybe the wound was healing, just a little, in front of her.

"If it isn't any trouble," Julia offered, "um... c-could I... ask you to tell me more about her, sometime?"

"Julia," Lachesis laughed - new tears shining in her eyes all at once. "Julia, nothing would make me happier. But not now!"

"Oh, of course!" Julia cried, all but jumping on the spot. "Oh, that would make me so happy! Thank you, Lachesis! I hope that we can be friends, just as you were with my mother."

"I'm sure that we will be," Lachesis promised her. She smiled at Eirika as well. "Eirika - I'm sorry you had to see that - "

"Oh, no," Eirika gasped, laughing sheepishly, "I'm - I hope I didn't make that awkward for you at all, ah- "

"Don't worry about it," Lachesis said, a firmness coming into her voice that chilled Eirika's blood. "Promise me something, and all will be forgiven."

"Yes," Eirika assured her. "What can I do?"

"Take very good care of Julia," Lachesis said. "Understand I will allow no harm to come to her. None."

"Um," Eirika said, startled.

"Oh," Julia gasped, "a-ah, Lachesis - "

"I don't think you mean any," Lachesis added swiftly. "But I feel I should impress that upon you nonetheless."

So I've been seen through, Eirika thought.

"You have my word," promised Eirika, as seriously and sternly as she could manage. "Whatever comes of it, I will do no harm." Lachesis smiled knowingly.

"Good." She waved them on. "Go, then! Enjoy the festival! I'm sure you have much more people-spotting to do!"

 

The mood between them was a bit different after that. Not negative, no - Julia was glowing, and Eirika was... anxious. But anxious in a vaguely good way. She felt so frightened all else seemed numb, but now with Lachesis' psuedo-blessing...

There was that constant insistence that she'd misinterpreted Julia, but... well, she wouldn't ever know that for sure until she asked. And there was the nagging fear that she was burning a bridge back home, but... Julia herself had said it well: we mustn't let the dead hold us back from enjoying what life we have left. Lyon... was gone. L'Arachel... was a missed opportunity. This was what remained, and if she wanted to learn from her mistakes, then...

Julia did not seem too surprised that Eirika quietly suggested they find somewhere to sit for a little while. The priestess tended not to do well standing for long periods, anyway, so perhaps it was just time for a rest anyway. She guided them up to the wooden balcony that skirted the castle's main floor, some two stories above the beach, and helped Julia to sit on the railing with her legs dangling down in front of her, while Eirika leaned against that railing beside her. From here, they would have a distant view of the fireworks out at sea, but also of everyone watching them.

It seemed preparations were almost finished. Eirika did not have much time. It felt as though her insides were trying to gnaw their way out, but despite that, she gathered her breath to speak.

"There's something I want to ask you," she said, quietly - almost somberly. Julia nodded.

"Please feel free," Julia assured her, smiling at her, inviting and warm and gentle. Eirika tried to center herself in Julia's smile for a moment. It helped some.

"I understand that circumstances here are strange," she murmured. "There are many unanswered questions about our purpose and the meaning of the worlds we've traveled to, and... I can't help but wonder about our own homes and what relation we have to them. I don't know what will come of this experience, if anything."

Julia nodded thoughtfully. "Maybe not," she mused. "But if we don't know anything for sure, we might as well live with what we have for now. That's how I feel."

Eirika nodded, smiling, blushing. "Yes. So... Um..."

She trailed off. Julia's smile faded to surprise. She was blushing. Eirika probably was too, but she couldn't really feel anything.

"I-I've, um..." She cleared her throat, closing her eyes. "I've struggled to... to really connect with anyone for some time, since... some of the things that happened in my world, before I came here. But with you, I feel effortless relief. As though everything has always been as it should be, and nothing can go wrong. I'm comforted and empowered by your presence in a way I thought I wouldn't ever feel again."

Julia was holding her breath. Eirika wondered where she was going with this. Nowhere. Rambling, meandering. Get to the point, Eirika. But what was the point? She opened her eyes, but Julia's gaze - sharp, attentive - it stole her breath away. The gentle violet shine in her eyes, the faintest smile creeping onto Julia's lips, as a teasing breeze lifted her hair from her shoulders for just a moment. Eirika was frozen.

But Julia wasn't.

"Oh, I see," Julia whispered, smiling as though... relieved. As though a great weight had been lifted from her. She cupped Eirika's cheek and leaned down to her, kissing her lips.

Eirika had her answer.

Chapter Text

The worst thing about a long day is knowing that there's something good waiting for you at the end. In your heart, you'll try to look forward to it, try to plan exactly when you'll get to go - like a countdown - and inevitably, you'll skip something. You'll get too optimistic, and you'll have to push that countdown back, again and again. You have to feel your motivation and energy drain away until you're afraid you don't have the strength left for what you were waiting to do. That's just how depression and anxiety are, or at least, that's how Kiran had experienced them in the past, and today wasn't really any exception.

The good news was, everything went seemingly without a hitch. The King gave his final verdict with Kiran in attendance, and it was essentially what she'd come to expect after the trial's last few days. He had already negotiated some of the more controversial parts with her, and all things considered, she felt the Order had come out quite well. Most of the concern that remained came from her own role in what was coming next, but...

But, well, she had all the guidance in the world, didn't she? She just tried to remember that. She was surrounded by people that could help her. People that definitely wouldn't judge her. Just focus on that.

By the end of it all, though, the sun had set when she finally made it through the gate that led to the visitation home that was hosting the Heroes' Festival's last day, and her energy was so deeply drained that she couldn't stand the thought of a sudden dramatic entrance. She snuck through into a guard tower, ascending it to the crenellated walkway surrounding the arched tile roof, and just as she reached the beach-facing edge the final fireworks show began.

They were nice. She liked fireworks. She was pleased to see that they were just as beautiful and joyful as she remembered from home. Even moreso, here, in a way. Everything felt... purer, here, somehow. Like it was really happening, when in her home world everything felt partway removed, even though by all rights it should be the reverse. She wondered often if that feeling was why her anxiety seemed so much worse here.

"Summoner."

The show hadn't ended yet. Kiran didn't turn to face the speaker. She had nothing to say to Alfonse.

"I - may I watch with you?"

For a moment, she thought she might shrug. But passive-aggressiveness would be lost on the people of Askr, she reminded herself, as irritating as that was. She didn't have it in her to say no just then, even if it did sound like Alfonse might actually listen to her if she did. "Fine."

So, Alfonse timidly approached the wall, a few feet to Kiran's left. They watched the fireworks in silence. The show was quite long, actually, with short pauses between each volley - but each volley steadily growing longer and longer. There were patterns and shapes Kiran hadn't seen in fireworks back home. She enjoyed the creativity.

"I imagine you've already heard everything from Father," Alfonse said quietly. "All the details."

Really? Now? Now is when you want to talk about this?

"I'm sorry," he murmured, as if reading her mind. "I'll - "

"No, you started," Kiran muttered, sighing heavily, looking slightly more skyward. "What?"

Alfonse was quiet for a moment. She hazarded a quick glance over at him, enough to clarify he was considering his words, not that he was ignoring her or that he'd given up on whatever he wanted to say.

"I have been very eager to apologize," he admitted, under his breath. "I can't imagine how that looks to you, at this point. I didn't think you would be so..." But he cut himself off even before finishing that thought, and instead said: "I misunderstood a lot of things about the situation."

"Yes, you did," Kiran growled, though she wasn't really sure what she meant by that.

"To put it simply," he murmured, "I saw what Veronica was doing, and chose to favor the safety of the Askrian people over all others, because I thought we were in an emergency. I acted as though we were backed into a corner from the start, but that wasn't true."

Kiran was quiet. This was a reasonable explanation. From Alfonse's perspective, given no alternatives, his decision was correct. The problem was...

"I wasn't willing to put my trust in the Heroes," Alfonse sighed, "or their very wise and talented leader. I wasn't willing to believe that they could do something I could not. I forced myself into a sacrifice that wasn't necessary, nor was it my own sacrifice to make. And, as Father has made very clear... you and the Heroes have every right to treat us, or at least me, as your enemy."

That's right, Kiran thought, though not with as much morbid satisfaction as she might have expected. The fireworks were reaching their conclusion. Alfonse paused, waiting for the show to end. Not that it mattered; Kiran was already so deeply distracted she almost didn't take in what was happening. When at last silence fell and applause rang out from the assembly on the beach, that was when he finally chose to continue.

"In spite of all of that," he said quietly, "I have a request to make."

"You tried to blame it on me," Kiran growled. "You tried to pin everything on me, to make me sound like I'd turned against Askr, to make yourself less the villain."

"I..." Alfonse sighed heavily. "I did do that. I..."

"And, what?" Kiran stood up straight, turning to face him, arms tightly folded. "What exactly were you expecting to accomplish here, Alfonse? Do you think you can just go around throwing people in front of yourself like shields and then expecting them not to get angry when they get hurt in the process?"

"I can't excuse my behavior," Alfonse replied, his voice quivering. He shrunk back, his arms crossed over his stomach. "I can only say that I did so in a panic, without thinking, and I understand that isn't an apology - but, Kiran, please understand my situation. Understand that I fought what I believed to be a mortal enemy to all of our people, and averted what may have been certain disaster had you successfully awakened Ashera, and I came home to Father only to realize... what I had actually caused, what I'm responsible for, was..."

"The destruction of worlds," Kiran muttered, arching her eyebrows. "Not a crime easily forgiven."

"No, it's not," Alfonse agreed. "It's not one easily forgotten, either. Don't you understand, I didn't say anything because I didn't want to inflict that upon you? I could tell you were suffering already, and - and my sister..."

"You would rather have just set us upon the worlds to do it for you," Kiran hissed -

"I thought it was the only thing we could do!" Alfonse interrupted, his voice breaking at last, shouting out of his control. "And I was wrong, Kiran! I know that! Please, gods, don't - don't do this to me again. I know I was wrong, Kiran, but I just... I was trying to protect you, and most of all I was trying to protect Sharena. If I had been right - if destroying those worlds really had been the only way - Sharena wouldn't have been able to take it. I don't think she would have continued to fight with us."

"I don't get it," Kiran sighed, "your point is, you manipulated us into doing what you thought was right, because we wouldn't do it if you didn't?"

"No!" Alfonse cried. "I - "

"What part of that isn't true?"

Alfonse was quiet. He froze in place for a moment, then hung his head. "No part of it," he hissed. "None of it is untrue, Kiran, you're right. I - "

"So tell me," Kiran growled, "what exactly you were 'protecting' your sister from?"

"I know I keep saying you don't understand," Alfonse sighed, sniffling. Kiran blinked. Was he crying? "And I'm almost always wrong, Kiran, but please, hear me out. You don't know what Sharena's been through already. She's so fiercely loyal to her people, but she's never had a chance to show it, never had a chance to prove herself as the princess. People talk about her like she's a mascot, like she's just there to look good, and it hurts her. She deserves better than that and always has." He looked up, arms still crossed, eyes closed, drawing himself up with a deep breath.

"The Order," he continued shakily, "was her idea. When Father and I became afraid that we would need to instate a draft to give ourselves even a chance to defend Askr and the outlying lands, Sharena put her faith in you and the prophecy, and when you arrived..." He shook his head slowly, trailing off, gesturing vaguely towards the festival grounds. "This is her way of fighting for Askr," he said limply. "Enabling and protecting you, showing you around, giving you the space and the resources to work. This was the calling she had been searching for all her life, the chance to prove that she really was a warrior princess of Askr, a defender of the realms. But when we found out what Veronica was doing, and we realized what stopping her would mean... I couldn't ask her to do that. That was... she shouldn't have to."

At last, he opened his eyes, smiling weakly at her. "None of what I've said makes what I did the right thing, but - Kiran, remember, I thought we had no choice. I was wrong, but that was what I honestly believed. I thought there was no other way - and here is my beautiful sister, standing tall and proud, happy beyond belief to finally have the chance to prove herself, and... what was I supposed to do?"

"You stepped in to destroy the worlds on her behalf," Kiran sighed, "so she wouldn't have that on her conscience. Even if that made you a monster in the end."

"And now," Alfonse said, laughing hollowly, "now it's all gone to hell. Everything backfired and blew up in my face. Sharena realizes what she's done and feels horrible about it. You realize you've been lied to. Your Heroes now have to confront what has happened, and on top of it all, you've proven that Veronica's control over her Heroes isn't as absolute as I thought it was, and that there's probably a way to save them that I had just never imagined could exist. I've failed to protect either of you from anything in the end, and the only thing that you really needed saving from was me."

 

Though Kiran could hear the bustle of the closing festival far below, it was a sound so distant and faint as to feel immaterial. A cold wind brushed past them, a sudden and striking chill amid a late summer night.

The anger was gone. Nothing had taken its place; Kiran just felt hollow and cold and bitter.

"So," she muttered, "what's your request?"

"As ridiculous as it may sound," Alfonse sighed, looking down, "it would mean the world to me if I could continue to fight alongside my sister. The Order of Heroes' leadership has officially passed to you; you could deny all of us any right to fight as part of the Order, if you wished, but... if you were willing to keep Sharena, I would ask if you would be willing to allow me to stand with her."

"That doesn't sound ridiculous," Kiran admitted, under her breath. If Alfonse heard her, he didn't react. "I'll consider it. I'd like the evening to myself now."

"Of course," Alfonse agreed, sighing heavily. "Um... if I may, two more things. Firstly - because I don't believe I said it outright. I am sorry, Kiran. I truly am. No apology can make up for what I've done, but I will offer what I can nonetheless."

"I appreciate that," Kiran said dully. "And?"

"And," Alfonse sighed, "you should... go see the others." He smiled faintly. "I know they've been very worried about you. There might be just a bit of life left to the festival, if you wanted to enjoy any of it." He gestured vaguely towards the beach. "You're a member of the Order, too, so... all of this is for you to enjoy just as much as them."

 

She did go downstairs, eventually. She scurried out to the balcony, trying to avoid notice as long as possible, hoping to game her anxiety and sneak into the crowd unnoticed, to give herself time to warm up to it. But on her way down the wood walkways to the beach, Eirika spotted her and shouted her name, and all at once she was mobbed by the Heroes, eager to hug her or shake her hand or congratulate her on keeping the Order instated.

Once they were assured that she was comfortable (or, mostly comfortable), they paraded her around the festival, showing her everything they'd made. Everyone hopped jovially behind their booths to offer what was left of their wares to her, or to explain what they had done. Kiran's energy slowly came back; she sampled their treats and their games, and enjoyed watching the others take one final stab at the festivities, now in her presence, able to share it with her. The Order came together around her, a ball of social excitement and harmony, everyone united in their relief that Kiran was there to see them.

It was exhausting. But it was fun. Everyone seemed to enjoy having her so much, like they were just happy to see her. Just to... see her. Even though she didn't really understand why, they made her happy, too, and she didn't want to leave.

Maybe, just maybe, she wouldn't have to.