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Chapter Text

A man's pained wails echoed into the plains, coming from a nearby forest.

Screaming, of course, was not uncommon in the midst of a skirmish, and it was generally hard to even discern one shout from another. Yet these particular sounds originated away from the fighting, piquing Sakura's interest and concern.

Initially, the young Hoshidan princess had been dutifully following her siblings and retainers at a safe distance, knowing that she shouldn't get too closely involved in the fray of the battle. Hearing the cries of a man in pain made her veer from her path, though, and without much thought she was soon breaking off from the main army to investigate.

After walking almost fifty yards through the trees, following a trail of blood, she finally found the source of the noise. It was a Nohrian soldier whose stomach was cut wide open, the wound likely inflicted from the sword of a samurai. Sakura could tell immediately that the injury was fatal, since the penetration of the blade had damaged multiple organs beyond repair, and she was surprised he'd even managed to drag himself this far.

Regardless, she readied her healing rod. She knew that her siblings would scold her for attempting to heal a Nohrian - Takumi in particular - but it just wasn't in her nature to let anyone suffer when there was something she could do to help.

It was all in vain, though, as she'd predicted. No rods nor healing incantations would help this man.

She kept trying, but the result remained the same. Despite her best efforts, the Nohrian did not seem to have much time left in this world.

"It hurts," the man whimpered, his eyes opened but unseeing. He sounded so small and afraid, and that was enough to make Sakura's heart break for him. "Oh, gods, please help me! Mother, help me!" he cried out, panicked.

"Shhh," Sakura soothed, taking one of the man's hands in hers and holding it firmly. "It's okay now. Don't b-be afraid. M-mother's here," she then told him.

Sadly, this wasn't the first time she'd pretended to be a dying soldier's mother, and it likely wouldn't be the last. Many of the wounded that she'd attended to had called out to their mothers with their dying breaths. To Sakura, though, being a good healer didn't just mean healing those who could be saved - it also meant comforting those who couldn't be.

At the very least, she'd always wished that she could quell her anxious stutter when talking to someone in their final moments. The Nohrian didn't seem to mind or notice, though. At her words, he quickly calmed and even smiled. "Yes… Mother," he responded. But then his hand went limp and slipped out of her fingers, and Sakura knew that he was gone.

A familiar pain rippled through her as she watched yet another young soldier die. Even though this man was Nohrian, it didn't lessen the sadness. After all, if both Hoshidans and Nohrians sought comfort from their mothers in their dying moments, how different could they ultimately be from each other?

"Sweet dreams," she told the dead man while gently brushing his eyelids closed with her hand. She resolved to add him to her prayers that night in the hopes of easing his journey to the next life.

Standing up, she brushed the dirt off of her dress and grabbed her Sun Festal. Right when she was about to leave and return to the battlefield - as she was sure that her siblings and retainers would be worried about her by now - she heard a branch crackling from a few yards away. Looking up sharply, she saw a young man, maybe two or three years older than her, watching her with interest.

Fear instantly seized Sakura as she identified the man to be Nohrian. In fact, she recognized him by his black, purple, and gold armor, as well as his blond hair. This was one of Corrin's brothers, a prince of Nohr.

Sakura couldn't stop herself from trembling under his gaze. He looked so stern and serious, although there was a hint of curiosity lighting up his eyes.

The two stood in silence for a while, just looking at each other. Clutching her rod tightly, Sakura waited for him to speak. She shifted her gaze to the ground, no longer able to stand his intimidating glare.

"That man," the prince stated, finally breaking the silence. "He is Nohrian."

"Y-yes," Sakura nodded, still avoiding eye contact.

"I saw you try to heal him, and then comfort him as he died. Why would you do that?" he finally asked.

At this, she looked up at him. "I'm a h-healer," she said simply, and from the exasperated look on the prince's face, this wasn't the right answer.

"Surely, you can't be this dense?" he wondered. "That man was your enemy, and probably wouldn't have hesitated to run that lance of his right through you had he not been dying. So, I ask you again - why?"

Sakura shrugged. "I g-guess it just seemed like the right thing to do," she responded.

The prince raised his eyebrow at that and then smirked, letting out a slight chuckle. "I see. You remind me of my brother."

His words cut her, and Sakura quickly looked away, biting her lip. She wondered if he was referring to Corrin, her brother. The brother that had chosen to side with Nohr against his Hoshidan siblings, against his true family. The brother that she'd spent her entire life wanting to know and love. The brother that her mother had died to protect, and yet, he'd still chosen to side with Nohr.

If she had been looking at the young prince, she would have seen his confusion over her visceral reaction. Soon, though, realization dawned on him. "Ah, I recognize you now. You're one of the Hoshidan princesses... Princess Sakura."

Sakura looked back up at him, unable to hide the raw pain from showing on her features. "That's r-right. So if you plan to kill me… just g-get it over with," she told him. Sakura had never been brave, but all of her sadness and anger in that moment, brought on by thoughts of her brother, was fueling her courage.

The Nohrian prince looked a bit taken aback. He waited a few moments while he contemplated his options. To Sakura, he seemed like the type of person that always considered his next move carefully... not at all like her brother, Takumi, who was similar in age to the young prince, but always acted brashly.

“I won’t kill you, of course,” he finally said with a sigh. “I probably should incapacitate you, or at least capture you. Not only are you a princess of Hoshido, you’re also a healer, and having you treat our enemies will only make things more difficult for Nohr. Yet, Corrin would never forgive me if I did you any undue harm. And, as for capturing you… consider my letting you go as a repayment for a debt owed.” he said, nodding over to the dead man. “But... I suggest you go quickly before I change my mind.”

There could be no doubt that this was meant as a warning. Sakura could tell by the way that his eyes suddenly turned dangerous. She nodded at him in response, signaling that she understood, but she made no move to leave. It made no sense for him to let her go, and they both knew it. Was the young Nohrian prince perhaps not as cold and calculating as she’d originally thought?

She watched as he turned around and muttered something to himself. She couldn't quite make out what he was saying, but heard the words "Corrin" and "going soft." She saw him scan the area quickly, and then turn back to face her.

"I don't suppose you've seen a horse anywhere nearby?" he asked tiredly. "My steed got skittish during the battle and bucked me off. She then ran somewhere in this direction."

Sakura shook her head. "A-are… are you hurt?" she inquired.

He smirked at her. "I don't need healing, if that's what you're asking. Unless that thing can do something for my bruised pride?" he asked rhetorically, nodding toward her Sun Festal.

She shook her head again, her eyes wide, and the young prince chuckled. "I thought so. In that case, I better go find my horse before this battle ends without me."

He bowed slightly toward her to acknowledge his leave, and then started walking away.

"W-wait!" she cried out, surprising herself and him. He turned around again, this time with his right eyebrow arched in question. "May I have your n-name?" Sakura asked, her cheeks tinting red at her forwardness.

With that, he smiled at her, making him look much kinder than his stern face or haughty smirk usually afforded. "It's Leo," he told her.

"P-Prince Leo," Sakura said with a curtsy. "Th-thank you for your kindness."

He turned away from her and scoffed, but before he could comment, a loud noise erupted throughout the woods. Within seconds the ground between them started to disappear, turning into some kind of strange, purple air. As this air replaced the area under Leo's feet, he fell into the newly-formed abyss with a surprised and startled look on his face. Sakura screamed, but before she could run for help, she found herself falling in as well.

Soon after, the purple mist closed up and the ground reappeared, leaving no sign of the two royals that had been standing there only moments earlier.

Chapter Text

What in the world had just happened?

One second Leo was falling into… thin air? And the next, he was landing on his backside in a forest, not unlike the one he'd just come from.

Actually... after he spent a few moments looking around, he realized that it was quite unlike the one he'd just come from.

The Hoshidan woods, in retrospect, had been filled with beautiful trees covered in stunning pink flowers. The trees around him now, on the other hand, were sporting more conventional green leaves.

This unfamiliar forest was also much thicker than the one he'd mysteriously disappeared from, increasing the likelihood that he was in a different place entirely.

So then, just where the hell was he?

He remained on the ground, stunned, before finally regaining his composure and righting himself. However, it wasn't long before the shock wore off completely and all he felt in its stead was anger.

A good portion of his rage was directed at Sakura, of course, considering that she must have been the one responsible for all of this. But, he was mostly angry at himself for believing in her act and not dealing with her when he'd had the chance. He'd known at the time that it was probably foolish to just let her go, and Leo considered himself to be anything but foolish. Yet, he'd imprudently allowed himself to be charmed by her phony innocence. That had just opened the door for his conscience to get the best of him, echoed of course by traces of Corrin's ridiculous sentiments.

Even so, Leo felt strangely disconsolate at the thought that the princess's kind nature had not been genuine. Normally he wouldn't be surprised by instances of human treachery, but she'd somehow seemed… different.

He'd have time to dwell on that later, though. For now, he needed to focus on the matter at hand.

Running through his encounter with Sakura in his head, Leo thought back on their final moments together, searching for clues.

"W-wait!" she'd called out to him. "May I have your n-name?"

He couldn't help but smile at her as she blushed. She really was quite endearing, with her shy disposition and her nervous stutter. "It's Leo," he answered.

"P-Prince Leo," she greeted formally, curtseying at him. "Th-thank you for your kindness."

Her eyes were filled with such warmhearted sincerity that Leo found his own cheeks starting to color. He quickly turned away before she noticed, scoffing at his own idiocy.

He wasn't quite sure how to respond to her, and that frustrated him. He'd always been one to know his next best move, even in matters of diplomacy like this. And yet, some girl - his enemy no less - had managed to enfeeble him?

As it turned out, though, he wouldn't have to worry about his retort. The ground beneath his feet had turned into a violent, purple vortex, and the next thing he knew...

"Damn it all!" he cursed, kicking the nearest tree.

Is that why she’d asked for his name, then? Because she’d needed it for her sorcery to work? At the time he'd thought... no, it didn't matter now what he'd thought.

Well, he supposed it could be worse. After all, at least he still had Brynhildr with him. Now he just had to figure out what kind of spell Sakura had cast, and then find a way to undo it.

As he continued to carefully consider the events that had just transpired, a loud noise suddenly echoed around the forest, startling him. The air above him was starting to swirl into a dark purple circle - another portal?

To Leo's astonishment, Sakura then came flying out of it, head first. She emitted a yelp of pain as she landed roughly onto the grass with her healing staff. The airy gateway then evaporated just as quickly as it had appeared.

The recently materialized princess looked up at him from her spot on the ground, her left hand slowly massaging her temple. "Prince L-Leo?" she asked while squinting in his direction, her words slightly slurring. "W-what… where …?"

"What evil spell did you cast on me, Hoshidan witch?" he promptly hissed at her, watching her eyes widen in surprise. He held up Brynhildr, emitting a purple glow in his hand to indicate that he was ready to use the tome at a moment's notice if she tried anything further.

"Sp-spell? I d-didn't...I didn't cast any spell? I don't know what h-happened," she sputtered. She still hadn't gotten up, but she scurried away from him a few inches, clearly terrified.

Either she was one hell of an actress, or she was just as confused by what had happened as he was.

...Could she really be blameless after all, then?

Even though Leo had just berated himself for trusting the foreign princess too easily, he wanted to believe it so much that he forced himself to take another minute to really think things through.

Logically, it just didn't add up that she was the one responsible for these events. After all, he'd witnessed her offering aid and comfort an enemy soldier, which isn't something a cruel, shrewd witch would do. Besides, if she'd wanted to transport him somewhere far away from his army and siblings, why would she then follow him?

No, she was likely telling the truth - that was the only reasonable conclusion. And if Leo could trust in anything, it was rational thought.

"P-Please, Prince Leo," Sakura pleaded, and he realized then that he was still looming threateningly over her.

Sighing, he slowly lowered his tome, the purple flame extinguishing. "I believe you, Princess Sakura," he acknowledged concedingly. "Please accept my apologies. I'm a bit on edge, considering the circumstances, and I'd assumed that you were the one responsible for the portal that brought us here," he explained. "But, after thinking things over, I can see now that isn't the case."

Sakura said nothing, but continued to gaze up at him with fearful eyes. Not that he could blame her, of course. Only moments ago, he'd been ready to completely obliterate her with his divine tome.

"You don't need to fear me, I do not intend to harm you," he promised her softly, and she relaxed somewhat. "Are you alright?" Leo asked, offering his hand to help her up as gesture of goodwill.

"I'm f-fine," she replied, cautiously grabbing his hand and letting him pull her to her feet. "I just h-hit my h-head…"

Her knees quickly and unexpectedly buckled and she would have fallen to the ground had Leo not had the wherewithal to catch her. "Woah, hey!" he cried out in surprise as she fell into his arms, her head dipping limply to the side. He was holding her closely now, way more closely than what would have been deemed appropriate for a royal princess he barely knew, but he had bigger things to worry about at the moment than decorum.

"We need to find a good spot for you to sit," he said to the barely conscious girl, but she only moaned in response. Noticing a fallen log a few yards away, he quickly picked up the petite princess and carried her to it, setting her down gently.

He kneeled down in front of her and took the sides of her face in his hands, forcing her unfocused eyes to look at him. "What is it, what's wrong?"

"I hit my h-head on a rock when I landed on the ground earlier," she told him, her words a bit garbled. "I guess I maybe tried to s-stand up a bit too quickly there."

Leo moved one of his hands to gently prod the back of her head, stopping when she breathed in sharply. Pulling back his hand and inspecting it, he could see that his black glove was stained with a few wet drops, presumably blood. He then pushed her hair away carefully to examine the area, only to find a sizable gash at the base of her skull. "Princess Sakura, you're bleeding," he reported, alarmed.

"I f-figured as much," she responded gravely. "I probably also h-have a concussion," she informed him. "M-mother told me once that you shouldn't let someone fall asleep when they get c-concussed, as a precaution."

"For how long?" Leo asked worriedly, noticing that Sakura's eyes were already drooping.

"Um… f-four hours, I think? It's h-hard for me to remember right now," she replied.

Leo frowned. "And what happens if you fall asleep?" he inquired.

"I'll p-probably be fine, b-but…" she trailed off, her pupils dilating a bit more.

"But what?" Leo pressed impatiently.

"W-well, there's a chance that if I fall asleep, I won't be able to w-wake up again," she answered.

A chill ran through him, causing him to grip her shoulders tightly. "What, you mean you might die?" he demanded, more harshly than he intended.

"Yes, it's a p-possibility at least," she confirmed. She was being way too calm about all of this, and Leo wasn't sure if it was because of the injury, or because she was in some kind of "clinical mode" common to healers.

Leo forced a smirk, trying to match her unruffled demeanor even though he hardly felt like smiling. "I don't suppose you can heal yourself with that staff of yours, can you?" he asked hopefully. He knew that most Nohrian staves didn't have that ability, but he was unfamiliar with the ones from Hoshido.

Sakura shook her head slowly. "N-no, I can't," she confirmed. "And it's not a s-staff, it's a rod," she informed him shyly, turning her head away.

"Semantics," he said, rolling his eyes good-naturedly to keep the mood light. "Well, it shouldn't be too hard for me to keep you awake, at least. I've memorized texts from all over the world. I can talk about whatever you want," he told her confidently.

She smiled at him, but he could see her eyes starting to flutter and her head nodding forward. He tightened his grip on her shoulders and shook her lightly.

"Princess Sakura, please, I need you to stay alert," he pleaded with her, his voice tinged with noticeable traces of concern.

At that, she opened her eyes and looked at him tiredly. "Why?" she asked.


"W-why do you care if I might d-die?" she wondered. "I'm y-your enemy, right?"

He was taken aback by her question. Not because she'd asked it, but because he wasn't quite sure why he suddenly found himself caring as much as he did.

And yet, he couldn't deny that he'd felt inexplicably drawn to the pure-hearted girl ever since he'd first witnessed her interaction with the dying Nohrian soldier. The sentiment confused him immensely, since it seemed impractical to view her as anything other than an adversary.

But there were other, less worrying reasons, too. And those were the ones that he decided to share with her.

"For one," he started. "I have no idea where the portal took us. It doesn't look like we're in Hoshido any more, and we certainly aren't in Nohr. I really don't want to be left alone out here in some strange, unknown place," he admitted. "Besides, until we figure out where we are and how to get back, I think the smartest move would be for us to call a truce and work together. What do you think?"

"A t-truce?" she asked, letting the idea ruminate before smiling warmly at him. "I would like that very much."

The way she was looking at him, as if he'd single-handedly figured out the solution for world peace, caused him to unconsciously puff out his chest a bit more. "Good, then it's official. We're no longer enemies for the time being," he confirmed formally. "Now, for two," he started, his voice softening. "I care because Corrin would care. Do you really think so low of him, or of me for that matter, that you believe I would just leave his sister here to die?"

At that, her warm eyes darkened. The fist not gripping her staff closed into a tight ball, and he could feel her trembling beneath his touch.

"You're w-wrong," she whispered, her voice small. "Corrin doesn't c-care about me."

Leo frowned, somewhat unnerved by seeing the kindhearted girl looking so morose. "I can promise you that's not true," he assured her, wanting to defend his brother on this point. After all, Leo knew how agonizing Corrin's decision had been for him. They hadn't had time to discuss it considering that things had come to blows with Hoshido immediately afterward, but Leo could see it written all over Corrin's face when he'd had to choose which family to side with. Truly, his brother had always been an open book.

When Sakura didn't respond, Leo persisted. "Princess Sakura, I'm sure if you just tried to understand-"

"You're the one who d-doesn't understand!" she suddenly shouted, leaving him speechless.

He paused, taking a moment to put himself in her shoes. Maybe she was right - how would he have reacted if Corrin had decided to side with Hoshido? He can't imagine that he would have taken it well.

But before he could think any further on it, she spoke again. "I'm sorry, P-Prince Leo," she apologized. "I can see that you're a good p-person, and it's not fair for me to treat you otherwise. Please f-forgive me..." Her voice trailed off to barely a whisper, and her eyes fluttered shut again. This time, her head drifted all the way down to Leo's shoulder.

He jerked her upright sharply, causing her eyes to bolt open. "I'll forgive you if you stay awake, understand?" he asked vehemently, almost violently. How close had she been to falling asleep just then? "Otherwise, you have to die knowing that you hurt my feelings and I never forgave you for it!"

At that, she giggled briefly. "I know you don't m-mean it," she told him. "But thank you for c-caring so much to try, Prince Leo," she said sweetly.

Before he could respond, her eyes suddenly widened in fear and her face drained of all color. It was such a stark contrast from her previous disposition that he felt his concern rising.

"Princess Sakura, what is it now?" he inquired nervously.

"Prince Leo, d-did I hit my head harder than I thought, or is th-there a giant eyeball behind you right now?" she asked.

He didn't even turn, but his face started to match hers in color, or lack thereof. "I think that we really need to go and look for a healer to tend to your injury," he said seriously. "Or maybe, if you just tell me how to use that thing, I can give it a shot?" he considered, nodding toward her rod. "I have magical ability, you know," he bragged. "How hard can it be, really?"

"P-Prince Leo, look!" she commanded, startling him.

He turned this time, and to his horror, there was a gaggle of monsters heading directly toward them... but these beasts weren't anything like the Faceless that he was used to seeing. Rather, these creatures somehow seemed even more horrifying and grotesque... including, for one, the aforementioned eyeball.

Based on their distance and pace of approach, Leo calculated that the creatures would be in attacking range in only a few minutes, leaving them little time to prepare. Leo glanced at the monsters and then back at Sakura, cursing his luck.

For her part, Sakura looked completely terrified. The silver lining in the situation, at least, was that her fear and adrenaline would curb any current danger of her falling asleep.

"Listen to me carefully, Princess Sakura," Leo stated with urgency. "This location isn't a good fighting position - we're too exposed - so we're going to have to move," he informed her. "It'll also be easier for me to guard you if you're standing. Do you think you'll be able to do that?"

She nodded solemnly.

"Good. That tree right there should be a good place for cover," he said, pointing, and she nodded again.

Without any concern for formalities, Leo picked Sakura up, rod and all, and brought her to the location that he'd quickly assessed would be the most defensible. He swooped her feet down to the ground slowly and stabilized her as she swayed, until she finally stood somewhat steadily against the tree.

"Stay behind me!" he quickly barked at her, then turned around to face the approaching monsters with Brynhildr in hand.

Leo was satisfied to note that, based on their positioning, the creatures wouldn't be able to get to Sakura without going through him first. That left him with one less thing to worry about.

Regarding his own safety he wasn't too concerned, since he wasn't about to lose to vile beasts such as these. Surrounded by trees on three sides, that also meant his foes would be unable to flank him. Having the advantage to fight them one on one, he'd make sure that they met their ends quickly, especially with Brynhildr at his disposal.

As if it could read his mind, he felt the divine tome pulsing in his hand, feeding on his bloodlust as the monsters reached him.

The first enemy to strike was the giant eyeball that Sakura had initially noticed. It was a magic user, and Leo was not surprised to learn that it favored the dark arts. Fortunately, since Leo had strong magical resistance, the eyeball's assault did barely any damage. That left him with an opening to attack in return. Invoking a spell from Brynhildr, it wasn't long before the creature was reduced to a pile of cinders.

The next enemy looked like a man with rotting flesh. It reminded Leo of the Faceless, only this thing had a face - and it was ugly. The undead monster tried to strike at Leo with its claw, but the attack was slow and the Nohrian prince easily dodged. His tome also quickly turned this revenant into proverbial dust, with Leo evoking the power of gravity to crush his target.

The final monster to approach was a skeleton with a sword and shield. "What in the…" Leo murmured, but he quickly regained his focus. Before the bonewalker could even attack, Leo summoned an assault of large rocks to smash the skeleton into tiny bits.

Satisfied with the destruction he'd wrought, Leo relaxed from his attack stance. "Hmph, they weren't so tough, after all," he boasted arrogantly, glancing back at Sakura with a smirk.

"Prince Leo, l-lookout!" she merely screamed in response, pointing upward.

As Leo turned to heed her warning, some kind of gargoyle-like creature swooped down from the air and speared him in the shoulder with a lance.

"Ah!" Leo cried out in pain, dropping Brynhildr.

The blow had pierced his armor and lacerated his muscle, causing him excruciating agony. Injured and completely unprepared for a followup attack, Leo found himself nearing panic.

Just when he feared all hope might be lost, he suddenly felt a soothing sensation on the damaged area. He glanced over at Sakura to see her calmly wielding her rod while chanting an incantation of healing. It wasn't long before his shoulder mended completely, without even so much as a scratch left behind. Leo marveled for a moment at her power, that she could heal such a grievous wound so completely in only a matter of seconds.

Still, their situation was precarious and they weren't out of danger yet. The gargoyle was circling back around, and Leo's Brynhildr tome was lying on the ground several feet away from him. If he tried to grab it, that would leave Sakura open to an attack from the flying creature.

He couldn't chance it, but he had another idea. Staring defiantly at the beast, he dared it to attack again by beckoning it toward him in a taunting manner.

Seeming to understand him the monster screeched in rage, and it wasn't long before it descended again with its spear, this time aimed right for Leo's heart.

"Prince Leo!" Sakura screamed in horror, but he ignored her, focusing on the attack. When the enemy's lance was only a few feet away, Leo pulled his sword from its scabbard and blocked the blow.

Normally a lance would have an advantage over a sword in combat, but since the gargoyle hadn't been expecting the move, Leo was not only able to parry the blow but also stun his attacker in one fell swoop.

Knowing that he only had a moment's advantage, Leo drew back his blade before impaling the monster right in its belly. The monster screamed in pain, but Leo wasn't finished. He removed his weapon from the creature's flesh, causing it to howl more. "I will erase you!" Leo cried out before swinging his sword around to decapitate the beast, silencing its cries for good.

"Heh," Leo laughed wryly, slamming his blade into the dirt. He quickly walked over to grab Brynhildr, feeling much safer with his divine tome in hand.

"Princess Sakura, are you-" he started, turning around, but was cut off from inquiring about her wellbeing as the maiden flung herself onto him. "Oof," he grunted, surprised that such a small girl could manage to knock the wind out of him.

"I th-thought you were a goner," Sakura sobbed, crying into his armor. "He was g-going to attack you, and you didn't have your t-tome, and you were just standing there, w-waiting for him to kill you..." she rambled, clutching him even tighter as she relived those moments.

"Come now, everything's alright, Princess Sakura, I'm fine," he soothed, blushing over her flagrant concern. "I apologize for worrying you, but you had no need to be alarmed. Those enemies were no match for my skill," he assured her. "But, I admit, it was your capable healing that allowed me to win the day. Had you not healed my shoulder so quickly and effectively, I never would have been able to use my sword."

"I-it was nothing," Sakura said, finally unlatching herself from him, her cheeks red. "B-but you were so amazing! Thank you, Prince Leo, for p-protecting me," she offered with a respectful bow.

"It was nothing," he copied her words, but he was smiling widely at her praise. "How is your head?" he asked nervously, putting his hand on the tender area. He was relieved to see, at least, that the bleeding had finally stopped.

"It still h-hurts, but I'm so shaken up that I d-don't think I could fall asleep if I tried," she told him honestly.

That was somewhat good news, but her face was taut with tiredness, and he knew that the adrenaline from the battle would wear off soon. By his estimate, there were still another three and a half hours at least before it might be safe for her to fall asleep.

"We should go now, before more of those creatures return," he remarked. "I think our next task should be to find you a healer. While we're doing that, we can also try to figure out where the hell we are, and come up with ideas on how to get back home," he reasoned. "Will you be able to walk?"

She nodded in response. "I th-think so."

"Good. Let's go then," he said. He grabbed his sword from the ground, cleaning it with a cloth before shoving it back into its scabbard.

Soon afterward the two set off, unsure of what they might find.

Chapter Text

Time is relative, but also constant. A minute may seem long or short, but it always passes. This specific tenant of physics remained true for Sakura and Leo, of course, but the pair was sure to not let their time pass idly.

There were, however, other laws of physics that perhaps couldn’t be readily accounted for. After all, nothing about Sakura and Leo’s current situation seemed to make any sense. They still didn’t know where they were, or how they got there. The two had talked in circles about this issue as they’d walked, but they had yet to come up with any plausible theories.

They’d first considered the possibility of a third party hexing them, but couldn’t figure out who would want to transport a prince of Nohr and princess of Hoshido somewhere together, or why. They also eventually considered that the portal was just some kind of random, natural event, but that also seemed like a bit of a stretch.

Granted, for Sakura, the fact that her head was still pounding wasn’t helping her think too clearly. Still, she wanted to contribute to the ongoing discussion as much as possible, so she offered whatever thoughts came to mind.

“Maybe… this could have been c-caused by your tome, like an accident?” she posed to Leo warily, gesturing toward the threatening book.

“Brynhildr?” Leo asked, surprised. “No, it doesn’t have that kind of power,” he told her, shaking his head. “There are warp tomes in existence, but Brynhildr isn’t one of them.”

“Oh,” Sakura responded with disappointment, a frown settling on her face.

He smirked at her in return. "Don't fret, Princess Sakura. I have yet to come across a problem that I wasn't able to solve," he boasted. "I'm sure it'll be much easier to do so once I find out where we are."

Sakura wasn't sure whether he truly believed that or if he was just trying to keep her spirits up in light of her injury, but she smiled brightly at him all the same.

“Thank you, Prince Leo. I b-believe in you,” she declared sweetly. “I just already miss everyone so much… although, I hope we don’t have to g-go through a portal again to get back to them,” she said with a shiver.

“What do you mean? Why not?” Leo asked curiously.

Her eyebrows drew together in confusion. "But, didn't you feel it? When I went through that portal, it was as if everything was s-so cold and dark," she recalled, drawing her arms across her chest at the memory.

He paused in his tracks, looking deep in thought. Stopping next to him, she watched as his expressive face processed those details. "That's odd," he ultimately told her. "That wasn't my experience at all. For me, I was in Hoshido one second and here the next. I don't think I felt anything in between. Then again, you did show up a few moments after me. Princess Sakura, what else do you remember?" he asked her eagerly.

“Um,” she started, trying to reflect back on the incident. “There m-may have been a voice. I think it… it said…” But as she tried to remember, a pain unlike anything she’d ever felt unfurled in her head, even worse than anything caused by her injury.

Sakura cried out and her body started to stagger, but Leo put his hands firmly on her shoulders to brace her. Fortunately, the supplemental pain was brief and subsided in seconds, leaving only the steady pounding from earlier.

“Are you well?” Leo asked her, his voice apprehensive.

“Y-yes, I’m f-fine,” she stammered, her eyes blinking rapidly for a moment. “But, I’m sorry. I can’t seem to remember anything else.”

"It's okay," he reassured her with a light-hearted shrug, although she could read the disappointment in his eyes. "I shouldn't have made you strain yourself like that in your condition. If you remember anything later, please let me know. But, don't push yourself too hard," he urged gently.

She nodded. “I won’t,” she promised.

“Are you able to go on?” he asked, and once she indicated that she could, the two continued on their way.

Eventually, after the pair had walked for a little over a mile, they came across a river with a light current. Leo suggested that they stop for a drink, which Sakura happily agreed to.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any tools to boil and purify this water,” Leo noted, sounding slightly worried. “At least it looks clear and clean, though, so we’ll just have to hope that it’s safe to drink.”

Sakura looked over at the prince with surprise. “In Hoshido, we drink w-water straight from springs and rivers all the time,” she told him.

Even under his long, blond bangs, she could see him raise his brow at her. “Yes, well, I suppose that everything is easier to come by in Hoshido,” Leo responded with blatant bitterness.

Unsure how she should react to his comment, Sakura remained silent for a moment. Should she apologize to the prince for saying something that offended him? She didn’t like thinking that she may have caused him pain, but she also didn’t understand what she’d said to upset him.

“Um, Prince Leo,” Sakura started shyly, “can you p-please let me know what you mean by that?”

Leo sighed, waving his hand dismissively. “Don’t trouble yourself over it. I shouldn’t have even said anything,” he told her.

“Please,” she insisted. “Um, I-I mean, if you don’t mind, that is,” she continued uncertainly, moving her gaze to the ground. “I would very much like to understand.”

At first, he said nothing. Sakura didn’t have the courage to look at him, wondering if perhaps he thought her to be foolish or simpleminded. Once he finally began to speak again, though, she was relieved to hear that he didn’t sound annoyed or angry with her.

“Nohr is very different from Hoshido,” Leo started to explain. “In my kingdom, resources can be very hard to come by. That means food, water, and even sunlight,” he elaborated. “You and your kin probably view Nohr as a warmongering nation, but it’s not that simple. We need to conquer other lands in order to survive.”

Sakura was shocked by Leo’s words. “I h-had no idea,” she admitted, unable to even fathom a world without the constant, warming presence of the sun. “But I still don’t see why that means you must go to war?” she wondered hesitantly. “What I m-mean to say is, my brother, Ryoma, could help if he knew that Nohr needed relief. Then, maybe we wouldn’t have to fight.”

Leo looked at her skeptically. "Why would Hoshido ever want to help Nohr?" he wondered bluntly. "Besides, I mean no offense, but… it's very unlikely that your brother doesn't already know about our situation."

“B-but, of course he doesn’t!” she asserted loudly. “My brother is k-kind and just, and he will want to help your people once he is crowned our king,” she promised.

"I'm sure Prince Ryoma has good qualities and he will be a good king for Hoshido, but I can guarantee that he will not try to help Nohr. It seems that your affection for him is blinding you,” he told her. “And even if we give him the benefit of the doubt by entertaining the idea that he actually doesn't already know about Nohr's situation, then how is that anything more than willful ignorance? Our kingdom is right next to yours, not in some land far away. Furthermore, has he not read any books on the topography of our continent? Doesn't he have advisors that likely would have, at least? Or has he not once sent in some of his infamous spies to assess the situation?" Leo pressed. "No, there are many ways for him to know what is going on, if only he'd be so inclined."

His words stung her, wounding her with their veracity, but she refused to back down. Not when she’d just witnessed the destructive path of Nohr firsthand and lost something so precious to her.

Something she’d never get back.

“And what of y-your willful ignorance, Prince Leo?” Sakura asked him quietly, her eyes starting to burn with unshed tears. “Surely you heard my brother speaking of the attack in our capital’s square? The one that killed my m-mother and all of those innocent people…”

Leo’s severe expression immediately softened.

“Your father… your king also killed my father in a similar manner, the same day that he kidnapped my brother,” she continued. “I never got the chance to know my father because of that. And Corrin…” she trailed off while biting her lip, her brother’s abandonment and betrayal still too fresh in her mind to talk about. “I know that you’re a good person, Prince Leo,” Sakura assured him, convinced on that point. “And yet, you still readily follow someone who would do something so aw-awful.”

Sakura saw Leo’s fists clench, and for a passing moment, she thought she could read shame in his gaze. For her part, she did all she could to hold her tears back. Even though her mother’s death had only just happened all too recently, she didn’t have the luxury in her current situation to grieve or mourn. No, she had to try her best to bottle up her feelings.

"I'm sorry for the losses that you've had to endure," Leo finally told her, his voice softer than usual. "And I can't deny that you're right. My father has done some terrible things, and I willingly obey him even though I don't support many of his recent decisions. But, I have to trust that my father is trying to do his best for Nohr. After all, it's not compassion that's ultimately going to feed our people," he reasoned, his voice heavy with regret. "Tell me, Princess Sakura, have you ever had to watch firsthand as your people starved to death?" he asked her seriously.

But it was a rhetorical question. She hadn’t, and Leo knew it. Even imagining such a horrible thing made Sakura’s lips tremble. “Yes, it’s much easier to preach peace and kindness from the sidelines, when it’s not your decisions and philosophies that directly affect the welfare of your people,” he lectured harshly, causing her to flinch.

His words might have been inflammatory, but Sakura felt no anger, she only felt pity and sadness. Did Leo really have no hope for a better way? What had happened to him throughout his life to make him like this? He still seemed so young yet to be so resolved to war.

"I… I know you must think that I'm j-just foolish and naive," Sakura began with no small amount of courage. "But I'll never believe that war between our kingdoms is the only answer. I may not have seen my people starve, but I've seen them die. So m-much death," she whispered. She was referring not only to her mother and the people in the square, but of all the Hoshidans and soldiers who'd died throughout the years trying to protect their lands from Faceless attacks. The ones she couldn't save.

“I d-don’t… I c-can’t…” She tried to continue, but no more words managed to escape as sobs began to rack her body. Despite her best efforts to keep from crying, her tears were flowing freely now as her emotions became too potent to ignore.

Leo tensed, and Sakura glanced at the ground, knowing that he felt uncomfortable being near her while she was in such a discomposed state. Still, he made an effort to calm her, which she greatly appreciated.

“It’s alright,” Leo promised her, clearly struggling with what he should say. Sakura tried to take comfort in the matter-of-fact quality of his voice, but her tears continued to fall. “Please don’t cry, Princess Sakura,” he then pleaded, brushing his gloved knuckles lightly over her cheek. She looked up at him in that moment to see that he was blushing, and she was so surprised that her tears ceased almost immediately. His hand lingered at her face, though, and upon realizing that, Sakura blushed as well.

Once she’d relaxed somewhat, Leo lowered his arm and cleared his throat. “Please accept my apologies for my thoughtless comments,” he said, his voice sounding huskier than usual. “It wasn’t my intention for my words to hurt you, but I knew that they would, and yet I persisted anyway.”

She shook her head quickly, causing a few more unshed tears to fly freely into the air. "Please, d-don't apologize, Prince Leo. I'm so g-glad that you explained things from your point of view,” she assured him, noting that he looked surprised by her words. “There are some things that I'll never be able to forgive," she admitted, her eyes clenching tightly shut as she bottled up the part of her that wanted to rage at the unfairness and senselessness of it all. "But if your people are suffering, I still w-want to help in any way I can.”

After she spoke, he looked at her for a long time, to the point that it was starting to unnerve her. Was he expecting her to say something else? “Um… I-I…” she started unsurely.

But then he just smiled at her, his brown eyes looking kinder than she had ever seen them. “If I may,” he interrupted, “I’d just like to offer my gratitude for your sentiments. And,” he added, “I’d also like for you to know that I don’t find you foolish, or naive. In fact, if anything, I can’t help but admire your pure heart.” Her cheeks pinked at his compliment, but fortunately, he spared her the embarrassment of having to respond.

“Now come, Princess Sakura, we still have much to do yet,” he told her. “I’d like to find a healer for your injury before we make camp for the night, just to be on the safe side. Let us quench our thirst and then continue onward.”

Speaking of her wound, Sakura’s head was really hurting and it hadn’t helped that their heavy conversation had readily drained her. Based on how she was feeling, she knew there was also a chance that her head could be bleeding from the inside, in which case her prognosis without a healer would be grim. Still, she didn’t want to burden Leo any further, so she said nothing.

Even though it would take up some extra time, she at least needed to clean her wound to prevent infection and any further complications. Therefore, once the two had finished drinking the refreshing water of the river, she asked Leo if he would mind if she took the time to do so.

“Of course not,” he told her, “by all means, go ahead.” But he made no move to leave.

“U-Um, Prince Leo,” she started awkwardly. “The only w-way for me to c-clean the wound is to g-get in the w-water,” she explained shyly.

In an instant, realization dawned on his face. "Oh! Right!" he then exclaimed, wide eyed. She couldn't help but find it amusing that the usually composed prince seemed so flustered. "There may still be monsters around, so be alert. I'll be nearby if you need me," he promised while clearing his throat, but then his eyes filled with horror. "I mean, not too nearby! Just close enough that I'll be able to hear you if you scream," he clarified with a sigh.

She smiled appreciatively at him, this time holding back a giggle. “Thank y-you,” she said, bowing graciously at him.

He nodded at her and turned to depart. Once he was out of sight, she waited a few more minutes to ensure that he was a far enough distance away before setting about her task.

After she had bathed, Sakura felt a bit more alert and refreshed, but the pain unfortunately remained. At least her wound was clean now, though, and her hair was no longer stuck together with clumps of clotted blood.

Once she located Leo, the Nohrian prince suggested that they follow the river downstream, explaining that doing so would be their best chance of finding civilization. As she listened to him present his rationale, Sakura found herself grateful for Leo’s company. Even though he was a prince of Nohr and an enemy to Hoshido, Sakura knew she was lucky that he was stuck in this strange world with her. He was more brilliant than anyone she’d ever met, and his logic and reasoning skills would be crucial to their survival until they were able to return home. Had she ended up here alone, she was certain that she wouldn’t have lasted very long.

On top of that, the Nohrian prince was also very brave and noble. The way he’d protected her from those monsters earlier echoed the heroic tales that she loved to read so much. To put it simply, he was absolutely fearsome with his tome - Brynhildr he called it - and she shuddered to think of her or her siblings one day facing him on the battlefield.

The two began walking again and Leo was speaking to her now, but she was too busy studying his features to listen. He looked so different than anyone she’d ever known in Hoshido, with his fair hair and skin.

It really suited him. He truly was quite handsome…

Suddenly realizing her train of thought, Sakura’s face turned beet red and she stopped in her tracks, looking at the ground in embarrassment.

“Princess Sakura? Is something wrong,” she heard Leo ask, his voice laced with concern. “Are you coming down with a fever?” he inquired, noticing her face. Removing his glove, he put his hand against her head. “You feel flushed…”

“I… I’m f-fine, P-Prince Leo!” she cried out, completely mortified. “I j-just needed to catch my breath for a m-m-moment.”

He looked at her oddly, considering that they had barely walked even one hundred yards since setting off again, but thankfully, he ultimately acquiesced and decided not to press the issue. “Sure, let’s stop for a bit then,” he responded affably.

She watched as he took this time to carefully examine their surroundings, and she could easily read the frustration on his face. Neither of them still had any idea where they were, or how to get home, aside from somehow finding another portal. Sakura had a feeling that Leo was accustomed to easily finding solutions to his problems, and his grievance that he could not do so this time was palpable.

Yet, as much as Sakura also wanted to find a way to return home as soon as possible, she realized that she actually really enjoyed being in Leo's company. She’d never spent this much time alone with a boy before, excluding her brothers, and being with Leo somehow felt different.

Sakura wanted to reflect on this more to try to understand it, but every time she made an attempt she was distracted by the pounding in her head. It hurt terribly, much more than she wanted to admit. Although the healer in her knew it was a bad idea, she longed to just rest her eyes, if only for a moment.

Glancing at Leo, she was willing to wager that he’d make the most comfortable pillow in the world, despite his armor. She imagined resting her head on his chest as he wrapped his strong arms around her, keeping her safe…

But, gods, it was so hard to sleep when her pillow kept yelling at her.

“-- up! Sakura, wake up!” Sakura’s eyes rolled open a bit to see Leo’s face inches from hers. He looked terrified, a look she couldn’t even manage to associate with him.

“What, Prince Leo, wh-what’s wrong? Are there m-more monsters?” she asked sleepily, her words slurring.

“Yes! Monsters are attacking! You have to wake up!” he cried out, panicked. Sakura suddenly jolted awake in fear, grabbing her Sun Festal from the ground, which she didn’t even remember having dropped.

She scanned the area quickly, but couldn’t see any monsters approaching, unsure of which direction they were coming from. “Wh-where? Where are they?” she asked anxiously.

“You’re really awake,” he suddenly declared with relief, ignoring her frantic queries. “Thank the gods,” he said, kneeling to the ground and bowing his head. Somehow, he looked more exhausted than she felt.

“You mean… there are no m-monsters after all? That was a cruel trick!” she scolded.

He looked up at her then, his eyes showing no remorse, only weariness. “You fell asleep, Sakura. Or unconscious, I’m not sure which,” he told her thickly, and she immediately noticed that he hadn’t used her title. Although just a small gesture, it felt intimate, and she found that it made her happy. She wondered if it had been intentional, or if he had just forgotten to add her designation in his current state of distress.

"It took me more than five minutes to finally rouse you. I thought you might never wake up. I thought you were…" he trailed off, pausing for a long moment. "I… I don't want to be left all alone out here," he admitted, his voice uncharacteristically vulnerable.

Guilt barreled into her like a horse’s spirit. “Oh, Prince Leo, I’m s-so sorry,” she atoned. Sakura could only imagine how upsetting the thought of being left alone in this monster-filled world would be. At this point, they didn’t even know for sure if there were any other people here.

“Promise me that you won’t try to sleep anymore?” he asked with pleading eyes, his voice still raw. It touched her heart, and she vowed that she wouldn’t let him go through this again, as hard as it might be for her to stay awake.

“I promise,” she whispered, pulling his head from his still kneeling form into her abdomen as a gesture of comfort. He wrapped his arms around her lower back in response and pressed his face harder against her, letting out a deep, staggering breath.

It made her shiver.

The pair remained that way in silence for a few more moments, with Sakura idly tracing gentle circles into Leo’s scalp. His thick, pale hair was so soft, unlike that of her brothers. Did all Nohrian men have such soft hair?

A part of her also wondered if the Nohrian prince had never known a comforting touch, so starved he seemed for it. Hadn’t his mother or father at least ever held him when he’d been upset as a child?

“Sakura,” Leo finally spoke before she could think on it further, his voice tinged with regret. "We should probably get going now. The sun seems to be setting, and it will be dark in a few hours. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to find some people before that happens.”

“You’re r-right, of course, Prince Leo,” Sakura responded, her voice also rueful. “We should probably go now.”

He pushed himself away from her and stood up. “Sakura...” he began, finally starting to sound normal and self-assured again. “You should just call me ‘Leo’ from now on," he commanded, as if it wasn't even up for debate.

Her eyes widened and she looked away from him in embarrassment as she felt her cheeks once again turning pink. Although she liked that he hadn’t been using her title, she wasn’t sure that she could do the same. But, she resolved to at least try for him. “As you wish, Prince... I m-mean, L-Leo,” she replied, wringing her dress in her hands.

She heard him chuckle in response, but somehow, she knew he wasn’t laughing at her. Finally gathering the courage to look at him again, she offered him a shy smile.

“Come on, Sakura. Let’s get going. Stay close to me,” he ordered.

Somehow, she had a feeling that this was a directive she wouldn’t have much trouble obeying.

Chapter Text

“Sakura, how are you holding up?” Leo inquired, glancing over at the pink-haired princess who was dutifully plodding along next to him.

“I’m f-fine, Leo!” Sakura responded, clearly exasperated. “I was fine five seconds ago when you asked me then, too, and the five seconds b-before that!”

Her irritation was justified, he knew. He was being overbearing. And yet, he couldn’t seem to help it. Every time he promised himself that he would leave her alone, he remembered holding her unconscious and unresponsive body in his arms.

He could acutely recall how afraid he’d been that she’d never wake up, since the thought of facing their current situation alone, without her, was unbearable. After all, even though they’d only really known each other for a short time now, her warm and kind presence seemed to have a profound calming effect on him.

Besides, she was so petite, and her condition made her appear so delicate, that he figured it was only reasonable for his protective instincts to go into overdrive. Yet, even so, he realized that he needed to back off a bit. Proceeding in this manner would only serve to hinder their efficiency, and worse yet, he’d likely just end up driving them both crazy.

“You’re right,” he admitted to her with a resigned sigh. “I’ll stop pestering you. Just... promise that you’ll tell me if you’re feeling unwell again,” he requested seriously.

“I will t-tell you,” she assured him. “Please don’t worry, Pri- … Leo,” she corrected herself.

He smirked at her as she again struggled to drop his title, expecting that she’d likely be blushing once more, but instead she just looked completely fatigued. His lips then settled into a frown and he bit his tongue to keep himself from asking if she was okay. But how was he supposed to heed her behest not to worry when she looked ready to drop at any moment?

As if sensing his thoughts, she looked up at him and smiled reassuringly, and without even realizing it he found himself returning the gesture. He wasn't usually one to smile much, which his sister Elise often scolded him for, but when Sakura’s eyes were shining at him in such a way, it was almost an instinctual response.

The pair continued walking in amicable silence, with Leo occasionally sneaking appraising looks at his companion to assess her health, until they arrived at a clearing in the forest. Beyond the clearing, there was only an empty, open plain.

Leo stopped in his tracks.

“What’s wrong, Leo?” Sakura asked.

“There’s open land up ahead. We won’t have any defensive terrain advantage if we proceed this way and end up attacked again,” he told her.

“Hmmm. Couldn’t we just g-go in a different direction?” she asked.

“We could,” he said, mulling it over. “But the smartest thing to do would be to continue to follow the river. If there are people somewhere near here, they’ll most likely be somewhere closer to a source of water.”

Sakura pondered the issue while biting her lip, as she often did while she was deep in thought. It was a cute habit of hers, Leo noticed.

“There looks to be another f-forest beyond the plain that way,” Sakura observed, pointing toward what she saw. “Maybe in about two or three miles? So, we’d still be putting ourselves at risk, but at l-least not for long.”

He nodded in agreement. “You’re right. And by that time, it will be almost dark and we’ll want to find food. We can make camp in the woods over on that side of the plain and rest there.”

Sakura shivered, clearly not excited by that prospect, but she didn’t protest or complain.

“At the very least, we definitely don’t want to stay here and lose out on the remaining daylight,” he continued. “If we stop here, we’d just be in the same predicament tomorrow. So, we either need to continue along this side of the forest and head in a different direction, or try out our luck on the plains.”

“Leo,” Sakura started solemnly, “the thought of leaving ourselves open to an attack from those m-monsters terrifies me, but… finding other people might be the only way we’ll be able to figure out where we are, and how to get home.”

Sighing, Leo agreed. “Exactly so. Besides, I’m still hoping that we’ll find a healer for you before the end of the night, and this is probably our best bet,” he told her. “Well, it looks like we don’t have much of a choice then, does it?” he concluded.

The two reluctantly made their way through the clearing and onto the plain. Despite their apprehension, the sunset on the horizon looked breathtakingly beautiful, now that it was no longer covered by the trees.

While Leo casually observed that the stunning dark pink sky was almost similar in color to Sakura’s hair, he found himself reflecting further on his companion.

The girl with the warm smiles and compassionate eyes.

She had certainly managed to surprise him. She was tougher than she appeared, at least. He could tell that she was in a great deal of pain from her injury, and yet, she never complained or wallowed in self-pity.

What’s more, although he’d instantly identified her kind heart from the moment he’d spotted her in the Hoshidan woods, he hadn't expected to find such an understated strength in her. After all, it took a special kind of person to have the will to treat one’s enemies with compassion instead of resentment.

And perhaps that was the reason why she’d become so indispensable to Leo in their short time together.

But, he buried that last thought as quickly as it arose. He just simply couldn’t afford to harbor such sentiments toward her. It was one thing for them to look after each other while they were in this unknown place, but he couldn’t let himself care for her in any manner beyond that. Despite her seemingly genuine desire to help the people of Nohr, it wasn’t Sakura who ultimately determined Hoshido’s foreign policy, and war between their kingdoms was inevitable. Once they returned home, she’d be an enemy to him and nothing more, and he needed to make sure that he remembered that.

It was difficult, though, when she always smiled so sweetly at him, even for the most trivial of accomplishments. The fact that she did so almost made him feel… cherished. No one had ever made him feel that way, not even when he was growing up - certainly not his mother, who had only seen him as a pawn. Even his siblings had never lavished much attention unto him, doting instead on their weaker and more open-hearted brother, Corrin.

Ah, Corrin. A twisted part of Leo enjoyed the fact that he could make Sakura smile, while Corrin did nothing but cause her torment. As much as he loved his brother, and as petty as he knew it was, it still felt good to know that at least someone held him in higher regard than Corrin, especially someone like Sakura.

But there really was no one like Sakura, was there? Even his siblings Corrin and Elise, who also possessed similar benevolent qualities, weren’t nearly as considerate or unselfish as the Hoshidan princess.

No, Sakura was a rare person indeed... truly one of a kind.

“Leo?” Sakura spoke, breaking his thoughts. “Why are you s-smiling?”

“Huh? Oh, was I?” he asked in surprise.

“Yes, you were,” she giggled, and he realized that she seemed to be coming out of her shell a little more around him. “What were you thinking about?” she inquired. “Was it of s-something nice?”

Clearly, he had more sense than to admit that he’d been mainly thinking about her, so he just said the first thing that came to mind. “I was only thinking about my brothers,” he responded absently.

Her levity faded in an instant, and Leo cursed himself for being so stupid. Corrin was still an open wound for her, and he certainly hadn’t meant to put salt on it, or to rub his own relationship with his brother in her face.

“Oh. That’s g-good,” she replied, but her voice had turned cold and detached. The absence of her joy and warmth had a striking impact on him, and it tore at him to see her in this kind of state.

“Sakura… I…” he started, wondering if he should come clean that he had been really thinking about her all along. But, a loud roar interrupted him, and the pair turned to see a giant bird flying in their direction.

Only, it wasn’t just some large bird. Leo realized with a sinking feeling in his gut that it was actually one of those gargoyle creatures he’d fought earlier.

He then spotted more monsters, this time on the plains, looking fearsome and vicious. There were seven of them on the plains, eight in total if you counted the gargoyle, heading straight toward them.

“Leo,” Sakura whispered as she noticed them too, clutching at his arm in fear. “What do w-we do?”

Glancing in the directions of where they’d just come from and where they were heading, Leo assessed that they wouldn’t be able to get to either side of forest in time to get in a better position for the fight. This meant that the monsters would have an easy time surrounding them, which is exactly what he’d feared most when they’d chosen to follow this route.

At least they had the river behind them to prevent them from being surrounded on all four sides, but that was only a small comfort.

“Sakura, can you swim?” he asked hurriedly, trying to formulate the best plan for her escape. Without many water sources in Nohr, he certainly couldn’t, especially not with his armor on, but perhaps…

She shook her head, though, forcing him to scrap that plan. “N-no, Leo, I… not well, at least,” she admitted.

“It’s alright,” he reassured her, continuing to think. “I could best these monsters if we were in a fair fight, but if we engage them here, they’ll have the advantage in both numbers and terrain,” Leo conceded. “Unfortunately, we don’t really seem to have much of a choice on that matter. So, once they get closer, I’ll clear a path through the creatures for you to escape. Then, I’ll distract the rest, giving you time to make it to the forest,” he said. “I know you won’t be able to run well with your injury, but just do the best that you can. Find a good hiding spot when you make it to the forest, and once you deem it safe, continue traveling down the river, just like we’d planned.”

“Wh-what?” Sakura gasped as she realized what he was saying. “That’s crazy, Leo! I’m not l-leaving you here to die while I escape!”

“I’m not planning to die,” he promised her, despite knowing that his odds of survival were low. “Still, it makes the most sense to ensure that at least one of us survives.”

“No!” she protested. “I’m n-not going without you,” she told him stubbornly.

Leo balled his fists in frustration. “There’s a difference between being brave and being stupid, Sakura,” he snapped at her, knowing that they didn’t have time to argue this point. “And right now, you’re being the latter. Those monsters will try to rip you to shreds. Is that what you want?” he asked furiously, just the thought of that even happening making him rage.

“I’m n-not afraid of them, Leo!” she yelled back. “I'm not scared of these things, as long as you’re close by. Not b-because I’m stupid, and certainly not because I’m b-brave. But because I believe in you!”

Her gaze pierced him with her passion and sincerity, and suddenly, he felt a surge of magical energy pulsing through his veins, stronger than anything he’d ever felt before.

Despite the feeling of power flowing through him, he didn’t know that it’d be enough for him to win this battle, and he still wanted her to flee. Yet, he didn’t exactly have the time to convince her to do so. “If you insist on staying, then I suppose we’ll have to face these creatures together,” he reluctantly acquiesced. “But, in that case, failure is not an option!”

She smiled at him in response and took his hand in hers, interlocking his gloved fingers with her small ones and squeezing tightly. “Thank you, Leo,” she said softly as a slight blush stained her cheeks. If possible, he felt his magical propensity rising even more as his determination to protect her hit new peaks.

Leo pulled his hand from hers and took out Brynhildr. The tome was calling to him, thirsting for death and demanding that he destroy those that threatened them. “Stay close to me, Sakura,” he commanded while pushing her swiftly behind him, knowing that they didn’t have much time left before the battle began.

She nodded. “I won’t let you get hurt!” she promised earnestly, and he nodded back at her with determined eyes.

He’d see to it that she came to no harm, no matter what it took.

With adrenaline pumping through him, Leo watched as the gargoyle approached first, soaring quickly through the air. The second it was within range, Leo completely decimated it with Brynhildr, taking pleasure in its howls of agony.

He focused his next spells on two nearing revenants, as the walking dead had broken out ahead of the rest of the pack. The magic of Brynhildr was swirling within Leo so fiercely at that point that his eyes even crackled with purple energy. “Nothing but cinders!” he called out, destroying one of the creatures instantly with his tome as heavy rocks shot up from the ground to crush his foe. The next one shortly followed, soon finding itself impaled by a tree, leaving just five more enemies.

But the remaining monsters were much closer now, and the five were starting to surround them on all three sides. The two at their front were those giant eyeball things, which Leo decided to ignore, knowing that their magical attacks would not do him too much harm. Instead, he focused on the other three creatures.

There were two skeletons with swords on their right, and some kind of three-headed dog they hadn't encountered before on their left, growling ferociously. The two skeletons began to attack him in tandem, hoping to overwhelm him with their dual attack. Leo managed to dodge one of the swords in the chaos, but the second blow was on course to hit him.

“I won’t allow it!” Sakura cried, stepping in front of the attack and blocking the sword with her staff. Leo didn’t even waste any time letting himself be shocked by her ability to effectively execute a guard stance maneuver. Instead, he summoned Brynhildr to destroy one of the skeletons, although it took two spells to actually finish it off. The other one panicked and tried to flee, but Brynhildr was earth, gravity, and life - there was no escaping it. “You can’t hide from me!” he shouted, killing it brutally.

But there were still three enemies left.

The two eyeballs continued to summon their dark magic attacks. One started directing its spells at Sakura instead of Leo, but its magical attacks fortunately seemed to have little effect on her as well. She jammed the end of her rod into the attacking foe’s iris in response, not doing any real damage to it, but causing the creature to shriek and back off.

Distracted by the (now slain) skeletons and the eyeball creature attacking Sakura, Leo had completely taken his attention off of the three-headed dog. This was a mistake, as the beast soon pounced on Leo with amazing speed, knocking him to the ground with its unexpected attack.

On his back now with the creature standing on top of him and pinning him down, Leo knew that he was in a precarious position. Determined to finish its prey, the dog’s middle head snapped its fangs savagely, aiming right for Leo’s jugular. Leo threw up his arms in desperation to protect himself, causing the hound to chomp down hard on his left arm guard. Fortunately the two side heads didn’t have a good angle to attempt any fatal attacks, but they still bit him wherever they could, causing Leo to cry out in pain.

“Leo!” he heard Sakura call out, but she was still occupied trying to fend off the two eyeballs. She tried to use her rod to heal him, but one of the eyeballs interrupted her healing attempt with an attack of its dark magic.

Leo continued to struggle against the middle head, knowing that his left arm was the only thing currently between the thing’s deadly jaws and his neck. He also knew he wouldn’t be able to withstand the beast’s painful bites for much longer, and he had to kill this thing sooner rather than later. Taking a precious moment to consider his options, he concluded that he couldn’t use the power of Brynhildr while the dog was on top of him. The tome was too powerful, and he’d only end up obliterating them both.

Sword it would have to be, then.

Leo’s right hand found the hilt of his sword, but, he struggled to fully remove it from its scabbard since the angle was too awkward while he was still lying supine. One of the side heads finally realized what Leo was attempting to do and tried to bite his sword arm in response, but Leo punched it straight in the face, stunning it.

Leo heard another thwack as Sakura’s rod came crashing down forcefully onto the middle head. “Leave him alone, you b-beast!” she yelled.

Her attack had the desired effect, and the middle head finally released Leo’s arm armor from its mouth. To Leo’s horror, though, the hound’s three heads then turned their attention to Sakura, looking murderous.

Sakura’s eyes widened in fear and she backed away slowly, as if afraid that any sudden movement would spur an attack.

“No! I’m your enemy,” Leo yelled desperately, slamming his fists wildly into the heads. They ignored him, though, knowing that the now unguarded girl would be the easier prey. The middle head salivated, its excess drool falling onto Leo’s armor as it sized up Sakura.

Leo then felt the hound shift its weight onto its hind legs, readying itself to pounce. “No!” Leo cried out again. He would have gladly used Brynhildr in that moment, consequences be damned, but the tome had fallen a few feet away from him when he’d been knocked down, and he wasn’t even positive that he’d be able to reach it.

“Please,” Leo whispered, pleading to whatever god would hear him as he tried for his sword once more. To his great relief he felt it come free from its scabbard easily this time, but he didn’t have even another moment to waste.

In an instant, Leo thrust the sword in an upward motion, straight through the skull of middle head. Luckily, that was all it took to kill the creature, and the other two heads went limp almost immediately.

Leo threw the beast off of him with his sword still impaled in it and staggered to his feet. He felt his body suddenly being encased by a healing glow as Sakura tended to his bleeding bite wounds, giving him the strength he needed to continue fighting.

Grabbing his Brynhildr tome, he felt himself filled with battle rage. That only helped him make short work of the two remaining eyeballs, which had been thrashing about blindly after having been poked continuously by Sakura’s staff.

And then there were none. The battle was finally over.

Exhausted, Leo fell to his knees, heaving heavily as he took a moment to catch his breath.

“Leo! You did it!” Sakura called out happily, kneeling down across from him. “I knew that you would!”

“It was the inevitable result,” Leo shrugged nonchalantly, but he couldn't help himself from grinning broadly. “Besides, it wasn’t just me. I couldn’t have done it without you,” he told her sincerely, and she beamed at him. “Remind me to never get on the business end of that rod,” he said seriously.

Sakura giggled, infecting him with her joy and causing him to smile. He closed his eyes and tilted his head down, resting his forehead on hers. Sighing contentedly, he let himself just enjoy the moment. They were safe. She was safe.

He jerked up suddenly as he realized that he hadn’t even checked her for injuries. “Are you hurt?” he asked, cupping the side of her face gently in his right hand and searching her eyes imploringly with his.

“I’m okay,” she told him, blushing fiercely at his apparent concern. “The magical attacks d-didn’t do much damage.”

He frowned, wondering just how many attacks she’d ended up sustaining while he’d been fighting the dog creature. Still, she didn’t seem much worse for the wear. “What about your head?” he prodded.

“I’m still very t-tired,” she admitted. “But I think I’ll be able to ride all this excitement out for a w-while before wanting to sleep again.”

“I guess we’ll just have to keep fighting monsters to keep you awake then, huh?” he asked lightly with his right eyebrow arched.

“Please, no more m-monsters!” she pouted. “I’d rather take my chances with the concussion,” Sakura said earnestly, and Leo chuckled.

“I can’t say that I disagree. If we never see another monster again, it will be too soon,” he concurred.

As if right on cue, an inhuman growl suddenly rang out loudly in the distance.

Leo tensed, instinctively clutching Brynhildr. “No…” he whispered in utter disbelief while Sakura gasped. There were at least twenty monsters gathered, only a little more than one hundred yards away from their current position, and the beasts were quickly approaching. One was a giant cyclops, with an axe bigger than any he’d ever seen, and the rest of the creatures looked no less formidable.

He and Sakura had no chance, Leo realized, overcome with despair. Even if they tried to run, they wouldn’t last long considering his exhaustion and her injury.

They were going to die.

Sakura supplied no rallying cry this time to tell him that they could prevail. They both knew that this was the end.

“Leo?” she asked calmly, glancing away from the horde and looking into his eyes. “W-will you...?” She couldn't bring herself to finish the question, but Leo knew that she was seeking some kind of solace from him in her last moments.

Having never been provided with much physical comfort in his lifetime, Leo didn’t quite know what to do. But, as he realized that he also wanted her close when he passed on from this life, he decided to just let his instincts guide him.

“Sakura. Come here,” he offered softly, holding his arms out in an awkward invitation, although she didn’t seem to mind his clumsiness. Since they were both still kneeling across from each other, she just easily leaned her body into him, shutting her eyes tightly as she rested her face on his chest. He then wrapped his limbs around her and pulled her backwards gently as he rested on his haunches.

Her small frame was now shaking with silent sobs, and he watched as two large tears slid slowly down her cheeks.

Leo knew that she wasn’t even fully crying out of fear, but mostly out of bitter disappointment. He too wondered how could fate be so cruel, to give them such joy and hope, followed by such complete desolation. It would have been better if they’d just simply died in the first attack.

“Sleep now, Sakura,” he whispered to her, gathering her closer. The tragic irony wasn’t lost on him as he asked her to do the one thing that he’d been so desperately trying to prevent for the last few hours. “Don’t be afraid. I’m here with you,” he assured her, his voice taking on a soothing tenor. “Just... sleep,” he requested. He ran one of his hands through her hair to help lull her to slumber, careful to avoid the wound on her head.

As he felt her starting to nod off in the false safety of his arms, looking completely serene and so achingly beautiful, tears began to gather in his eyes. But he quickly blinked them away, knowing that they would do him no good now. Carefully untangling one of his arms from her person, Leo grabbed his divine tome, ready to use it one last time.

Not about to let himself or Sakura become the monsters’ playthings, Leo planned to kill them both with Brynhildr. It would be painful at first, he knew, but it’d be over quickly - much better than being ravaged by monsters.

They’d soon be at peace.

It seemed strange, for him to accept his fate so calmly. Leo had never expected to be bested in battle, but if it were to happen, he’d always imagined that he’d go down fighting, like a hero.

Right now, though, he just couldn’t see the point. As much as he’d love to take down a few of those vile creatures with him, dying with Sakura in his arms just seemed much more appealing. Even despite the circumstances, Leo admitted to himself that it felt disconcertingly nice to hold her.

He let himself indulge in this pleasure for a few more seconds, but the monsters were closing in now, and it wouldn’t be long before they were in attacking range. Sparing his final thoughts for the siblings he’d left behind, Leo gathered his magical power and clutched Brynhildr tightly. Dirt started to whirl around him, and his hand began glowing with Brynhildr’s familiar purple light. “Don’t fail me now, old friend!” he commanded the tome, his lips curling up into a smirk. Brynhildr pulsed in response.

Then, right as he was about to invoke the full power of his weapon, a miracle happened.

The sound of galloping horses drew his attention away from his spell. Two paladins on horseback quickly blew past him and Sakura, one with red hair and the other with a long, blond ponytail. “Need a hand?” the blond asked while riding by, winking at Leo before he continued on his course toward the monsters.

The redhead reached the creatures first. Leo watched in awe as the man began swinging his silver sword mightily at the giant cyclops, cleaving it nearly in half. He’d only ever seen such prowess with a sword in one person before, and that was his older brother, Xander.

Meanwhile, the blond knight had reached the fray and began engaging some kind of half-man, half-horse creature.

A wyvern rider then came swooping by, spearing through the gargoyles that had gathered in the air. Following closely behind him, a blue-haired pegasus knight easily began dispatching the eyeball monsters.

Finally, a red-haired sword fighter and a turquoise-haired lance wielder ran into the skirmish, attacking whatever was left.

Somehow managing to get over the shock of it all, Leo felt immense relief wash over him. The pieces of earth that had been circling him and Sakura fell dully to the ground as Leo removed his hand from Brynhildr. “We must have the devil’s own luck, Sakura!” he commented buoyantly, looking down at the girl he was still holding.

His heart seized in immediate fear, though, when he noticed that her eyes remained peacefully closed.

Chapter Text

“Sakura!” Leo cried out, realizing now that she hadn’t stirred at all during the scuffle. He put his hand on the left side of her chest and was grateful to feel her heart still beating, only it seemed so faint - especially in comparison to the wild thumping of his own.

“Sakura!” he yelled again as he shook her, almost violently, but her head just lolled limply from one side to the other.

The battle was still raging on around them, yet Leo didn’t even know or care what was happening, so focused he was on his companion. He spared a moment to quickly look at the newcomers for a healer, but he didn’t see anyone who might be able to help amongst them.

Leo focused his attention back on the unconscious girl in his arms, but he was quick to find that nothing seemed to wake her. He’d tried screaming at her and shaking her. He’d tried slapping at her cheeks lightly, hoping that might work. He’d even tried simply begging and pleading with her, but his cries only fell on deaf ears.

Noticing the river nearby, Leo dragged her body roughly over to it. Grabbing Sakura’s hair with his fist, he unceremoniously shoved her head into the water, face first, before swiftly pulling her out. He saw her delicate eyebrows quivering together tightly as her body tried to rouse, but to Leo’s dismay, they soon smoothed out peacefully again as she slipped further into blissful oblivion. Putting his hand on her chest once more, it seemed like her heartbeat was now getting significantly fainter.

Damn it all! He couldn’t lose her, not now, not when they were so close to rescue! The thought of never seeing her smile at him again caused bile to rise in his throat, but he forced himself to swallow it down. Leo knew he needed to stop panicking and just think for a second.

Think, think...

Leo first considered letting her remain unconscious, as there was still a possibility that she’d end up waking naturally. The fact that her heartbeat seemed to be slowing at a rapid pace concerned him greatly, though. Did that mean she was falling into a comatose state, or maybe even... dying?

No, he couldn’t risk it. If she’d already fallen into a coma, he knew that there was not much he could do for her, short of finding a healer and hoping it wasn’t too late to reverse the condition. But if she was only just unconscious still, which her reaction to being submerged in the water seemed to indicate, he could still find a way to wake her before her health worsened.

Leo reasoned that the only way he’d be able to wake her would be to shock her system somehow. The river had been a good idea, and it had almost worked, yet it clearly hadn’t been severe enough. A new idea popped into his head, but it was nearly unthinkable. Still, it was better than the alternative of just letting her die, and he couldn’t afford to second guess himself right now.

“Forgive me, Sakura,” he said ruefully as he brushed her unmoving cheek lightly with his gloved fingers.

Picking up her left hand, he then isolated her middle finger and snapped the joint backward as forcefully as he could, causing a sickening crack.

The pain stimuli caused her eyes to open immediately, and she screamed loudly with tears soon rolling down her cheeks.

Sakura looked at her freshly injured hand to see it being held delicately by Leo, her middle finger now swelling and bent in an odd direction.

“Leo?” she asked accusingly, her wet eyes filled with pain and confusion. “Wh-what?”

Even his joy at seeing her awake again couldn’t subdue his overwhelming horror at what he’d just done.

He’d hurt her. He’d broken her finger. One of the same fingers that she’d so sweetly laced through his own earlier as she’d held his hand.

Feeling sick to his stomach, he offered her no comfort or explanation. Instead, he merely looked around at the ongoing battle, which was more or less wrapping up now.

It seemed that their saviors had been too engaged in the fighting to witness his attempts to rouse Sakura, and her screams must have been drowned out by the noises of the conflict. As he was forced to listen to her crying softly in the background, he wished that they’d seen him hurt her. Surely if the knights had beheld that scene, they would have run him through with their swords - a fate no less than what he deserved.

“Leo?” she asked again, sniffling. He could tell that she was trying her hardest not to cry, but the pain must have been acute.

“We’re saved, Sakura,” he responded dully, continuing to avoid her gaze.

“O-oh..” she responded, probably wondering wondering why he’d broken her finger, why her hair was dripping wet, and why he wasn’t happier that they hadn’t become monster food.

In the next few minutes the battle had ended. The band of fighters had barely even broken a sweat.

“Are you two alright?” the turquoise-haired man asked as he and the two paladins approached the sullen pair. Leo noted that the man carried himself like a lord, and came to the conclusion that he was likely the leader of this group.

Lowering Sakura’s hand to the ground as gently as possible before releasing it, trying to block out the sound of her hissing in pain while he did so, Leo stood up to receive the men. “My friend hit her head earlier. She has a concussion and her finger is broken,” Leo reported. “She needs a healer urgently. Do you know where we might find one?”

The lord looked over at the crying girl and quickly realized that she was in very bad shape. “We have one back at our camp,” the lord responded. “We’ll take you there.”

“My prince...” the red-haired knight started wearily.

“Peace, Seth. Look at the girl. She’s clearly in need of aid. I’m not going to just let her remain here in pain, so we have no choice but to trust these two for now,” the lord told the knight.

Turning back to Leo, the lord introduced himself. “I’m Ephraim, prince of Renais. This is Seth,” he said, gesturing toward the older knight, “and this is Forde,” he said, pointing at the blond.

Leo had never heard of Renais before - perhaps it was some small, insignificant kingdom not even worth mentioning in his history books - but still, he bowed respectfully. “I can’t thank you and your friends enough, Prince Ephraim. I am Leo, and this is Sakura,” he stated, purposefully leaving off their titles.

Ephraim squatted down to address Sakura. “Hello there. I can see that you’re in a great deal of pain, but please don’t fret, my lady. We will have you as good as new in no time,” he said with a kind smile.

“Th-thank you, Prince Ephraim,” she said through her tears.

The lord stood up. “Forde, take Sakura with you on your horse. I’m assuming you’re alright to walk?” he asked Leo, who nodded in response.

“Good. Cormag, Tana, remain behind and burn the bodies of these monsters. Make sure you get all of them.” The two fliers nodded. “Everyone else, let’s go. We need to get back to camp quickly.”

Forde hopped off his horse. “Well hello there, little lady. Sakura, was it?” he asked.

She nodded.

“What a beautiful name,” he said, smiling winningly at her. “I can’t say that I’ve ever heard it before, but it certainly suits you. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to have to pick you up to get you onto my horse.”

“I’ve got her,” Leo said abruptly, causing the blond knight to look at him with a raised eyebrow. Nodding, Forde watched as Leo bent down and picked Sakura up with the greatest of care, trying to avoid touching her injured hand as much as possible.

Carrying Sakura bridal style, he brought her over to Forde’s horse. Forde hopped up on the steed and helped Leo navigate Sakura to a sitting position in front of him. At one point she cried out in pain, but she quickly silenced herself. Leo grit his teeth.

“That sure looks painful, dear lady. How did you go about breaking your finger anyway?” Forde asked, making conversation.

“It was-” Leo started, about to admit that he did it, but Sakura interrupted him.

“A b-bad fall,” she said quickly, looking at Leo. “I ended up h-hitting my head and breaking my finger.”

It was the smart move, Leo knew. Ephraim and his band would be less likely to trust someone who’d hurt an innocent girl, whether he’d had good cause to or not, and it would take too long to explain the whole story anyway. Leo would need their trust if he was going to be gathering information to help them return home.

Still, the fact that she would cover for him after what he did just made his guilt burn him up all the more.

“Ah, I see,” Forde responded with some skepticism. “Well, at least it was a clean break! That will make it much easier to heal,” he said, and she nodded in agreement.

Leo finally went to collect his sword from the three-headed beast he’d left it in earlier. Cleaning its brains off the blade hastily and without much care, Leo sheathed the sword. He then grabbed Sakura’s rod and returned to the group. Somehow, carrying her staff for her gave him comfort.

The party began moving, continuing along the river, with Leo walking closely behind Forde and Sakura. Until she was healed, he was loathe to let her out of his sight.

“So, tell me, dear Sakura,” the blond knight continued chatting jovially. “Is that stern looking young man your boyfriend?”

“Wh-what? N-n-no!” Sakura stuttered in a panic, her face flushed.

“Ah, so you’re not involved then? Great! My little brother Franz is back at the camp, and I think you’ll find him to be absolutely adorable.”

If possible, Sakura reddened even further.

Leo knew that the knight was just trying to lighten the mood and take Sakura’s mind off of the pain, but that didn’t stop him from fantasizing about impaling Forde with a tree. His hand unconsciously made its way to Brynhildr, twitching with need.

“I’m not sure that I believe you, though,” Forde said, glancing back at Leo. “Considering that your friend looks just about ready to murder me right now,” he observed lightheartedly. Leo’s eyes narrowed into slits.

“Oh! N-no, he wouldn’t do that! Leo’s a good p-person,” Sakura asserted, sweetly defending his honor.

Her comment didn’t flatter Leo, though. It only made him look away in shame. He didn’t deserve to be defended, not after what he did. He’d never forget the accusing look in her eyes after she woke…

“Is that so?” Forde asked, continuing the conversation and breaking Leo from the horrible memory. “How do you two know each other, then?”

“W-well, um…” she stumbled.

“Her brother and I are close,” Leo interjected carefully, figuring that would be the easiest explanation to keep the truth hidden while still being authentic. Even so, he regretted having to reference Corrin. Leo couldn’t see Sakura’s face from his position, but he knew that the thought of Corrin always saddened her.

“I see,” Forde replied. “Well, Sakura, that certainly explains why he’s so protective of you. I bet your brother would give Leo a good thrashing if he didn’t take care of you. I’ve seen firsthand from our own Prince Ephraim how protective a brother can be over his sister.”

Sakura said nothing.

“Forde, peace,” a voice said as Ephraim came to walk beside Leo. “Stop teasing the girl. She’s clearly already tired of your antics.”

The knight humphed petulantly, but Leo could see that his eyes were still shining with good humor. Sakura, however, remained silent and sullen, with the exception of her occasional sniffling.

“So, Sir Leo,” Ephraim started,” I saw quite a few monster carcasses back there that we weren’t responsible for. Tell me, was that your doing?”

“Yes. We made easy work of that lot, but eventually got overwhelmed,” Leo recounted.

Ephraim looked impressed. “Tell me, friend, where do you hail from?”

“We were most recently in Hoshido,” Leo said vaguely, knowing that it could be dangerous to admit he was Nohrian until he knew more about their rescuers. Nohr, unlike Hoshido, had a great deal of enemies.

“Hoshido?” Ephraim repeated, his brows drawn together in confusion. “And where is that?”

Leo started for a moment, surprised that the lord had never heard of it. Where could that blasted portal have possibly taken them?

“I suspect it may be on a different continent than the one we’re on now,” Leo responded, also looking puzzled.

“Other continent?” the red-haired paladin asked suspiciously, jumping into the conversation. “How… strange. I didn’t know that there were any continents other than Magvel.”

Magvel? That must be the name of wherever they were. Leo had spent his entire life studying texts from all over the world, and he’d never heard of a Magvel. Was it possible that the portal had taken them to another realm completely?

It was a troubling thought.

“Neither did I,” Ephraim admitted, continuing the conversation. “But Seth, surely you can’t deny that these two are outlanders. I’ve traveled the continent and I’ve never seen anyone who looks or dresses as they do. Besides, the tome and healing staff he's carrying seem quite remarkable.”

Seth nodded, relenting for the time being.

“Forgive my general,” Ephraim apologized. “These are… rough times, and it isn’t always easy to trust strangers. Might I ask how you ended up here?”

“To be honest, I’m not quite sure,” Leo admitted. “I think that Sakura and I were attacked by some kind of magical spell that sent us here. We’ve been traveling ever since, trying to figure out where we are and how to get back,” he finished.

“A spell? I’ve never heard of such magic,” Seth accused.

“That makes two of us. But still, it is the truth,” Leo confirmed dismissively. It was smart for the paladin to second guess his story, but Leo was tiring of his thinly veiled accusations.

“That’s quite interesting,” Ephraim said good-naturedly, but he shared a cautious look with the paladin. “The timing of your arrival is, however, unfortunate - you see, there’s a war going on here,” Ephraim responded. “Not to mention, the monsters that have been attacking. ”

“Hmm,” Leo replied, deep in thought. “And has anything else unusual been happening?”

Ephraim raised an eyebrow. “You mean, besides the walking undead?” he asked rhetorically. “No. Although, the fact that the Empire of Grado would invade my kingdom to begin with is strange,” he admitted. “Emperor Vigarde has always been a close friend to my father, and Grado and my kingdom, Renais, have always been allied.”

“That is odd,” Leo agreed, but internally he was disappointed. There was no mention of strange portals appearing, which is what he had been hoping for. “So, we are in Renais now, then?”

Ephraim looked at him incredulously. “You really are an outlander, aren’t you?” he marveled. “But to answer your question, no - we are in the Grado Empire. I am of the belief that the quickest way to end this war is to stop it at its source, so I’ve brought my troops here to march on the capital.”

“With this small of a force?” Leo asked, surprised at the lord’s tactics.

“We have more soldiers back at the camp,” Ephraim told him, “but for the most part, yes, we are vastly outnumbered. However, we don’t have all of our hopes riding on this campaign. My sister Eirika and Prince Innes of Frelia are currently trying to warn the other nations in the continent of Emperor Vigarde’s treachery.”

“You mean, of his invasion of Renais?” Leo asked skeptically, wondering why any other kingdoms would care, unless they had some kind of formal alliance which would require them to pledge troops in aid.

“No, not just that,” Ephraim said, impressed by Leo’s shrewdness. “Although we don't quite understand why yet, Vigarde’s aim is to destroy the continent’s holy relics known as the Sacred Stones, and each kingdom has one. His invasion of the other nations is therefore inevitable. Should we fall here, Eirika can unite with the other kingdoms to bring down Vigarde.”

“My prince, we’re nearly at the camp,” Seth interrupted.

“Good,” the turquoise-haired lord responded. “Leo, I know that we both will yet have a lot of questions for each other, so we can continue this conversation later." He then turned to his men to relay his orders. "Forde, take Sakura and Leo directly to the healing tent. Joshua, go find Sister Natasha and tell her we need her assistance immediately.”

“You got it,” the red-haired sword fighter responded before rushing off.

Leo glanced over to Sakura to see her sagging into Forde, clearly exhausted. She was still sniffling, though, so he knew she hadn’t fallen asleep again.

When they soon arrived at the healing tent, Forde carefully lifted Sakura from the saddle and placed her into Leo’s waiting arms. Leo handed Forde Sakura’s staff in return and told him to keep it someplace safe.

Bringing Sakura into the tent, Leo placed her down on a nearby cot as gently as he could, but her awkwardly bent finger must have bumped into the bedding because she again cried out in pain.

Leo knelt down next to the cot and balled up his fists. If not for his gloves, his nails would have been digging into his palms so harshly that they’d be drawing blood.

“It’s o-okay, Leo,” Sakura said bravely, raising her good hand to his face. Her touch felt so soft on his skin, and he couldn’t resist the urge to lean further into it. “It doesn’t h-hurt that badly.”

“You don’t have to lie to me, Sakura,” he told her. “About your finger, I-” he stopped, his words getting stuck in his throat.

“Stop f-feeling so guilty, Leo!” Sakura shouted, startling him and causing him to jump. “I wouldn’t wake up again, right? I could have died. You d-did what you needed to in order to save me. I’m so grateful.”

“Sakura…” he whispered, losing himself in her gentle and forgiving eyes. But, before he could finish his thought, the flap to the tent was pulled back and a pretty blond priestess entered, carrying a Mend staff.

“Hello, my name is Natasha. I’m here to help you,” she told Sakura, smiling at her. “Sir Leo, is it?” the sister then asked, addressing him unsurely. “Would you mind giving us some privacy?”

Leo tensed.

“I’m afraid I must insist,” the woman continued when she saw that Leo made no attempt to leave. “I’ll need to concentrate on the healing process, and having you hovering over us both won’t be beneficial to anyone.”

“Go, Leo,” Sakura encouraged, smiling weakly but no less warmly than usual. “I’ll be f-fine.”

Nodding reluctantly, Leo stood up. “Come and get me once you’re finished,” he ordered Natasha, giving her a look that meant it wasn’t up for negotiation. “And… thank you,” he added, trying to soften his features.

“Of course,” Natasha responded politely.

Taking one last look at Sakura, Leo finally turned away and forced himself to leave her.

Upon exiting the healing tent, Leo found Ephraim waiting for him right outside.

“How is she?” the lord asked, gesturing at the tent.

Leo shrugged sullenly.

Ephraim smiled at him, putting an amiable hand on his back. “Come friend, worry not. Sister Natasha is an excellent healer, and I’m sure Sakura will be fine. Perhaps you’ll feel better once you have some food in your belly,” he suggested.

Even though he wasn’t in the mood to eat, Leo knew that he needed nourishment, so he let Ephraim lead him further into the camp. He was surprised to see many more people around than the ones from the battle as he walked along, including a young girl with bright pink hair about Sakura’s age.

Seeing her made him stop in his tracks, turning back to look at the healing tent.

“Come,” Ephraim repeated with a slight chuckle, urging Leo onward.

“Franz,” the lord called out when they reached a nearby fire pit. A young blond boy resembling Forde snapped to attention quickly.

“Yes, my prince?” he asked eagerly.

“Can you prepare a plate of that delicious fish you caught for our new friend, Leo?” he asked.

“Yes, my prince!” Franz responded earnestly and went about the task.

Soon enough, Leo had a plate full of mouth-watering food in his hands. As they sat down to eat, Ephraim dismissed the young boy with a nod, and Leo watched in amusement as Franz scrambled away in a hurry.

Pouring two cups full of water from a nearby water jug, Ephraim handed one to Leo. “Forgive me, friend, but there is no ale or wine available to drink. We must be careful about the appropriation of our funds, being in the midst of a war and all.”

“Please, don’t apologize, Prince Ephraim,” Leo replied. “You’ve been more than generous. I am in your debt.”

Ephraim nodded. “I’d like to hear more then about the place you came from, then, if you don’t mind,” he requested.

Quickly assessing that there would be no harm in sharing more details, especially after Ephraim had trusted him with his own information, Leo complied. “Sakura and I were in Hoshido prior to ending up here, but the kingdom I come from is called Nohr. It is… not at all like this place. The weather conditions are usually bad, so our resources are scarce, and Nohrians are generally forced to spend most of their time indoors or underground. Nohr has also always had a lot of… political turmoil,” he said, although he didn't elaborate further on the bloody history of his kingdom.

Ephraim looked deeply interested. “War aside, it seems like perhaps getting stranded here might not be such a bad thing for you then, from what you’ve described,” he remarked.

Leo sighed. “It’s not that simple, Prince Ephraim. You see… I am a prince of Nohr.”

He’d expected Ephraim to react with surprise, but the turquoise-haired lord did not look to be astonished in the least.

“Ah, I suspected that might be the case,” Ephraim responded. “Your armor is quite regal looking, and you carry yourself with an air of confidence common to royalty.”

Leo smiled ruefully. “Then, you likely understand why I’m so anxious to return home. I don’t rule Nohr - that would be my father, the king - and I’m not even the first in line to inherit the throne. However, I still have a duty to my people. Like yours, our kingdom is at war, and my people and siblings need me now more than ever,” he proclaimed, trying not to feel overwhelmed by his guilt.

“I see,” Ephraim responded. “I do indeed understand, Prince Leo. I'd feel the same if I were in your position.”

“Please, just ‘Leo’,” he requested. “I don’t want to draw any undue attention to myself and Sakura if we don’t have to.”

“Alright, if that’s what you prefer, I won’t address you by your title,” Ephraim relented. “And Sakura - she is from this Nohr as well?”

Leo felt his heart slam into his chest at the thought of her. If only she could have been from Nohr instead of Hoshido, and they weren’t fated to be on opposing sides of warring nations. Would he really be able to be her enemy once more upon returning to his kingdom, and watch as the Nohrian army battled her... perhaps killed her?

“No,” Leo finally answered, his mood dark. Whether he was answering Ephraim or the thoughts plaguing his mind, he couldn’t be sure. “Sakura is not from Nohr,” he elaborated for the prince. “She is a princess of the neighboring kingdom of Hoshido, the place where we disappeared from.”

“A princess?” Ephraim asked, this time caught off guard. “I thought her to be a cleric, perhaps, but…” he trailed off.

“Don’t be fooled by her meek nature,” Leo warned, smiling as he thought of her. “She’s surprisingly strong-willed, and although she’s very shy, she doesn’t let her fear or anxiety hinder her. She’s also very kind-hearted, and...” Realizing that he was rambling, Leo abruptly stopped talking.

A blush rose up in his cheeks.

Ephraim raised a questioning eyebrow at him, but before he could make further inquiries, Leo spotted the blond priestess, Natasha, coming toward them.

Standing up immediately, Leo quickly made his way to her. “How is she?” he inquired, disconcerted by how desperate he sounded.

“Your friend will be fine,” Natasha responded, and Leo was surprised at the amount of relief he felt at hearing her words. “She’s just resting. I imagine she’ll be as good as new in the morning.”

“Resting?” Leo asked, alarm once again seizing him. “She told me that she wasn’t supposed to sleep with a concussion.”

The woman smiled at him with a knowing glint in her eyes. “Yes, sleeping in such circumstances can be dangerous, especially since she had an internal brain hemorrhage as well.”

“She… what?!” Leo asked, tensing further.

“Please do not fret, Sir Leo,” Natasha requested. “I healed her concussion, as well as the bleeding in her head, and her broken finger. Now she just needs rest to complete her recovery,” she reassured him.

“Oh, good,” Leo replied, but he still couldn’t seem to shake his concern. “Perhaps I should go and see her then?”

“Absolutely not,” Ephraim ordered sternly as he joined them. “I know that you’re worried about the prin- about your friend,” he slipped. “But you heard Sister Natasha. Sakura needs her rest and I won’t let you disturb it. Besides, you look about ready to drop yourself. I’ll show you to your tent. Be assured that you can rest safely here.”

Leo nodded, knowing that the prince was right. To be honest, he was extremely bothered by the amount of concern he felt toward the Hoshidan princess. One day he might have to face Sakura on the battlefield in earnest, and if he continued to let himself worry about her in such a way, then he’d never be able to do that.

As things stood, Leo was the one his siblings ultimately turned to for battle strategy, and he therefore didn’t have the luxury that Sakura had to be so soft-hearted toward her enemies. Such sentiments would only end up putting Nohr at risk.

Going forward, it’d probably be best for him to just distance himself from her. He speculated that it shouldn't be too hard to do. With all of the things he and Sakura had been through together today, he reasoned that it was only natural for him to be so invested in her well-being. Yet, now that she'd been healed and they'd found other people, he had no need to remain involved in her affairs.

Yes, distancing himself was obviously the smartest course of action, and Leo resolved himself to it while deftly ignoring the twinges of unhappiness that were beginning to gather in his chest.

Chapter Text

By the time Leo awoke the next morning, most of the camp was already up and at work to make preparations for the eastward march. He felt like a layabout having slept in so late, but he must have been more exhausted from the events of the previous day than he’d even realized.

Upon leaving his tent, his eyes instinctively scanned the outdoor area for Sakura. Although he planned to keep his distance from the Hoshidan princess, he couldn’t let himself forget the alarming state she’d been in when he’d last left her. First, he just needed to be sure that she was okay.

Walking around the camp for a bit, he finally saw her standing by a large tree. She was talking happily to the other pink-haired girl he’d spotted last night, and even though the two couldn't have known each other for long yet, they already looked like fast friends.

Leo found himself staring at her freshly healed hand, relieved to see that the finger he’d broken was no longer bent at a frightening angle. In fact, Sakura didn’t seem to be in any pain whatsoever.

Satisfied with his quick assessment of her condition, Leo was about to turn away and busy himself elsewhere when he noticed a blond boy, the one resembling Forde, approaching the princess. Franz - that was his name, Leo recalled. To his surprise, Franz was carrying Sakura’s Sun Festal.

As if against his will, Leo found himself getting closer to them, straining to listen to what the two were saying.

“Um, excuse me… You're... Ah, it's Sakura, isn't it?” the boy inquired, somewhat shyly.

Sakura turned toward Franz, a bit startled by his presence. “Oh, um, y-yes, that’s me.”

“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” he apologized, gesturing at the two pink-haired girls. “But I just wanted to return your healing staff to you.”

Sakura’s eyes lit up and she gave the boy a bright smile. Normally Leo loved to see her smile, but for some reason, the sight of her beaming so openly at Franz greatly vexed him.

“Thank you s-so very much!” Sakura told Franz warmly. “I really appreciate you returning this to me, Sir…?” she trailed off, unsure of his name.

“Oh! It’s Franz,” he told her. “I’m Forde’s younger brother. He gave me the staff last night and asked me to return it to you this morning.”

Leo felt his eyes narrowing. Forde. Of course he was the one behind this encounter. Leo would gladly give the man a thrashing if given the opportunity.

By now the other pink-haired girl had excused herself, and Sakura and Franz were falling deeper into conversation.

“So, this staff... my brother made me swear that I’d take good care of it for you. To be honest, I’ve never seen anything like it. Is it important to you, then?” the boy asked curiously.

Sakura nodded. “Yes, v-very much so. It’s called a Sun Festal, and they are actually quite common where I’m from, but this one was a gift f-from my mother,” Sakura told him, her eyes growing sad.

“Well, it’s settled then,” Franz responded, eliciting a confused look from Sakura. “If it’s that special to you, I’ll make sure that nothing ever happens to it!” he pledged chivalrously.

“O-oh!” Sakura responded with surprise, her cheeks turning pink. Leo grit his teeth at the sight and sensed a familiar purple glow coming from his palm. He had no idea what was coming over him, but he deeply wanted to teach a lesson to the smitten blond boy. Surely he had a non-lethal spell in Brynhildr that would do the trick, perhaps the one he’d used recently in Nohr on the invading ninja and Flame Tribe warrior….

“Ah, young love,” a voice next to Leo commented with a contented sigh. Leo didn’t even have to turn to know that the voice belonged to Forde. “Simply adorable, isn’t it?” the knight asked, clapping Leo on the back. “I’m really quite the matchmaker, if I do say so myself…”

Leo let the purple flame in his hand fizzle out and turned to scowl at Forde. “Love? Humph,” Leo responded, unimpressed. “They’ve only known each other for the better part of a minute.”

“Why, Leo, and here I thought you were a romantic!” Forde remarked, as if wounded. “I know that I, for one, believe in love at first sight, and Franz looks absolutely besotted with your cute little friend. And tell me, does Sakura blush so prettily like that for all the boys?”

Leo felt himself trembling with fury as he clenched his fists into tight balls.

What was this he was feeling? Was he… jealous?

Preposterous. Forde was just an irritating pest that clearly had a special talent for getting on people’s nerves. There was simply nothing more to it.

“Sakura knows that we’ll have to return home soon,” Leo said brusquely. “Once we’re able to, that is. Under the circumstances, she wouldn’t be so foolish as to let herself harbor any feelings toward your brother.”

“Hmm, that may be so. But in the end, we can’t help who we love, right? Sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants,” Forde added with a shrug.

Leo found himself frowning at the man’s words.

“Leo!” a melodic voice suddenly called out, and he turned to see Sakura cheerfully scampering over to him. His heart beat faster at the sight of her as she gave him a radiant smile. Somehow, just having her there by his side put him at ease again.

Yet, remembering his vow to put distance between them, Leo resisted the urge return her smile.

Careful to keep his expression stoic, he merely blinked at her in acknowledgement. “Sakura. I trust that you are well,” he stated with polite disinterest, not actually inquiring.

Sakura looked a bit taken aback by his evident detachment, and Forde gave him an odd look.

“Y-yes, Leo, I'm feeling much better now, thank you,” she offered, her voice sounding apprehensive. “Oh, hello, Sir Forde,” she added as she finally noticed the other man.

“Well, hello to you, Sakura!” Forde returned brightly, his upbeat greeting contrasting sharply with Leo’s apparent indifference. “I must say, you look positively beautiful this morning. I’m sure that my brother, Franz, thinks so too.” He whispered the last sentence to her conspiratorily, giving her a quick wink.

Sakura looked completely mortified, glancing quickly toward the ground to hide her blush while wringing her hands in her dress. Leo glared at Forde in such a way that would have made most cower back in fear, but the blond knight was completely unflappable.

“Th-that's… I… W-well,” she stumbled, clearly unsure of how to respond to such a bold compliment.

“Sir Forde. I believe that Prince Ephraim was looking for you earlier,” Leo said suddenly, to the shrine maiden’s great relief. Forde looked amused, knowing as well as Leo did that Ephraim had no pressing need for him.

Still, he played along. “Well, my lady, duty calls. It seems that I must take my leave of you,” he remarked, his voice tinged with regret, although Leo suspected that it was likely feigned. “Should you need anything, I’ll unfortunately be predisposed helping our prince with... princely matters,” he told her while winking at Leo. “However, I’m sure that my dear brother Franz will be able to assist you with whatever your sweet heart desires. Promise me that you’ll go to him immediately should something come up?”

“I w-will, Sir Forde,” Sakura said with a bow. Leo was unsure if she was bowing to show respect, or as a way to continue to avoid looking at the knight. He surmised it was the latter.

Either way, Forde soon bounded off, leaving Leo and Sakura alone together.

Lifting up her head, the princess looked at Leo expectantly. He took a moment to note that Forde had not been facetious earlier - Sakura truly did look lovely today.

Quickly snapping himself from that train of thought, Leo cleared his throat. “I must be going, too,” he informed her, his voice cold. “I need to meet with Prince Ephraim to understand more about our current situation, as it may not be safe to remain with this army given the circumstances. I also intend to see if I can learn more about the portal, since finding a new one will likely be our only path home. Returning to Nohr is, of course, my first priority.”

“Oh, r-right,” Sakura responded with a nod, but he could see the disappointment written all over her face. He knew that it was cruel, to offer her no kindness, support, or friendship in a strange world in which the only thing reminding them of home, for better or worse, was each other. More than anything, he wished that he could say something to put her in good spirits.

Still, he couldn’t fight fate. They were destined to be opponents, not friends, so he persisted. He knew that his logic for following this course of action was sound.

Hence, without so much as another word or even a polite goodbye, Leo then turned and walked away.

Sakura couldn’t help but feel melancholic as she wandered around the camp.

She was lucky, she knew, to be surrounded by good people like Prince Ephraim and Sir Forde. Neimi and Sir Franz had been especially friendly and welcoming, for which she was very grateful. She had no idea how long she’d have the opportunity to know them, but she already felt the bonds of friendship beginning to form.

Still, homesickness gripped her like a vice, and she longed to be back in Hoshido with her brothers and sisters, whom she missed dearly.

She also yearned for the presence of her best friend and retainer, Hana. Hana was the one person that she could talk with about anything. Perhaps her friend could have even helped her sort out the odd behavior of the Nohrian prince that she was stranded here with.

Leo… he seemed so different today, so much colder and more aloof. He’d hardly even acknowledged her presence earlier, whereas yesterday, he'd exhibited such kindness and concern.

Granted, she didn't know the prince very well, or at all, really. Perhaps this was closer to his normal behavior, and yesterday had been the anomaly.

Hana, bless her spirit, would have just asked Leo outright if that was the case, but Sakura couldn’t ever imagine being so direct. If only she could be as strong and confident as the young samurai, then maybe Leo wouldn’t think of her as such a burden.

But she wasn’t strong, she was only lonely. Lonely for a family that was a world away, and for a boy she wasn’t even sure had ever truly existed.

Maybe there was nothing she could do about that, but she supposed that she could at least do more than just wait around helplessly for Leo to find a way for them to return home.

After all, she was so tired of being helpless. How many people had she watched die because she’d been too powerless to help protect them? Her mother for one, she thought, closing her eyes.

She needed to do something to ensure that she’d never lose anyone precious to her ever again. Once she returned to Hoshido, she knew the chances were high that her kingdom would still be at war. As a princess of Hoshido, her people would be counting on her.

And yet, what could she possibly do for them? Compared to everyone else, she was so weak.

If only her mother were still there to guide her, as she always had, then maybe Sakura wouldn’t feel so hopeless...

Sakura’s eyes suddenly bolted open as clarity struck her, realizing what she needed to do.

With a plan starting to form, she soon ran off to find her new friend Neimi.

Prince Ephraim scrutinized the most recent missive from King Hayden, perhaps trying a bit too hard to read between the lines. The king of Frelia reported that General Duessel’s knights had successfully reached the Frelian capital, and he was planning to send them onward to support Prince Innes’ campaign.

Considering the news that Ephraim had just received regarding Prince Innes’ troubles in Carcino, Ephraim thought he sensed hints of distress in the king’s prose. Not that he could blame him, of course. He felt the same anxiety for his sister, Eirika, who’d diverted to Carcino to provide additional aid to the Frelian prince.

And yet, worrying about things out of his control wouldn’t help matters. It was too late to pull his forces out of Grado to follow after Eirika, so he just had to hope that she’d be safe. Besides, he had more pressing affairs to deal with at the moment, like rescuing Myrrh from the Grado army.

Getting up, he carefully studied the map of Grado that Seth had laid out for him, sighing as he contemplated the best tactics for their next battle. He didn’t have the chance to examine it for long, though, before he heard a rustling sound by his tent flap.

“My prince,” he heard Seth call to him as the general entered his tent. “I’m sorry for the disturbance, but the outlander, Leo, wishes to have a word with you,” he reported.

Ah, Leo, the Nohrian prince. Ephraim couldn’t help but be intrigued by the young royal - assuming, of course, that his story could even be believed. Still, Leo had a certain quality of character to him that had engendered Ephraim’s trust, so unlike his general who'd been keeping a close eye on the boy, he was inclined to give Leo the benefit of the doubt for now.

“Send him in, Seth,” Ephraim instructed. With a nod, the red-haired knight left the tent and returned soon after, followed closely by the prince of Nohr. Ephraim was surprised to see how downcast Leo appeared, as if he were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“Prince Ephraim,” Leo began, his voice quite cheerless. “Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. I have much that I need to discuss with you.”

“Of course. But, first, Leo... are you well?” Ephraim inquired with concern. “Perhaps you had trouble sleeping? Or… has something happened to Princess Sakura?”

At the mention of Sakura Leo’s eyes seemed to burn, but with what, Ephraim could not pinpoint. Whatever it was soon passed, replaced by simple weariness. “Sakura is in good health. Your healer did an excellent job,” he reported. “As for me, I am also fine. However, I suppose this means that General Seth is aware of our situation?” Leo must have noticed that Ephraim had referred to Sakura by her title within the general’s presence. The boy was certainly sharp.

Ephraim nodded. “I hope you’ll forgive me for breaking our confidence, Leo, but I can’t keep secrets from my general,” he said with a hint of apology.

“It’s of no consequence,” Leo responded, giving a dismissive wave. “I understand your need to inform your general. I suppose it will just save me the trouble of catching him up now. You see, I haven’t been fully honest with you, Prince Ephraim, and I’ve come here to tell you the full truth of where I come from.”

Ephraim felt his eyebrows shoot upward, his interest piqued.

“I suspected as much,” Seth piped in as he eyed Leo cautiously. “Your story was simply too absurd to believe. If there was another continent, we surely would have heard of it by now.”

“Well, unfortunately, it’s only going to get more absurd,” Leo warned, smirking slightly. “I only ask that you keep an open mind as you listen to what I have to say.”

“Of course,” Ephraim promised. “At the very least, you’ve certainly got my full attention, Leo. Please do go on,” he urged the prince.

With a sigh, Leo began his tale. “I am, in fact, a prince of a kingdom called Nohr, and Sakura is a princess of Hoshido - that much is all true,” he confirmed. “However, Nohr and Hoshido aren’t located on a different continent. In fact, I believe they are in another world entirely. And it wasn’t exactly a spell that brought us here - it was some kind of portal from our realm to yours.”

For a moment Ephraim was filled with equal parts of shock and skepticism, but as he read into the young man’s face, he somehow knew that Leo was telling the truth. “Another world…” he marveled. “You know, if you’d told me this a few months ago, I’d have thought you mad. But, I've seen some strange things lately, and that makes me inclined to believe you. Seth?” he then asked, consulting his general.

Seth, for his part, seemed deep in thought. “I am inclined to as well, my prince,” he replied after a few moments, to Ephraim's surprise. “At first I thought he might be an enemy spy, but his story is too ridiculous to be a viable cover, and the presence of the girl gives him some credibility.”

Ephraim nodded in agreement. “Yes, Sakura hardly seems like the duplicitous type, and if you’d wanted to gain my trust, there’d be easier ways to go about it than by concocting such a tale.”

“Thank you both,” Leo said appreciatively, bowing to show respect. “I realize that it’s not easy under the circumstances to put your trust in a stranger, and this helps put my mind at ease. However... I was hoping for something in return,” he admitted.

“And just what is that?” Seth asked warily.

“Information,” Leo said simply. “I wonder if perhaps you might have seen another portal in this world before, or have an idea on how Sakura and I might soon return to our own realm.

“Hmmm,” Ephraim considered, looking over at Seth who only shrugged. He badly wanted to help the outlander prince, but was unsure of how he could. Although…

“As for the portal, I don’t have much to offer, unfortunately,” Ephraim told the boy. “I’ve certainly never seen one myself. But, there is one thing…”

Leo perked up. “And that is? Please tell me, Prince Ephraim.”

“Very well. Our company is currently heading toward a place called the Za'albul Marsh. We’ve learned that the Grado army has taken a companion of ours hostage, a girl named Myrrh, whom we aim to recover,” Ephraim explained, his heart sick with worry as he thought of her. “Once we do, it’s possible that she may be able to help you,” he offered.

“How?” Leo inquired.

“This may be hard for you to believe, Leo, but Myrrh is a dragon. Technically, she belongs to the race of manakete, which means she looks almost human. But, if anyone in this world has the knowledge or power to return you to yours, it would likely be her,” Ephraim reasoned.

Leo looked thoughtful. “A dragon,” he murmured with an air of revenance. “Thank you, Prince Ephraim. In that case, I will fight with you to help your army rescue this Myrrh, if you’ll have me. I’ll have you know that I am quite skilled with magic, and I’m also a very able tactician should you need to consult on battle strategy,” he boasted. Ephraim nearly chuckled, thinking he probably sounded just like that when he talked about his own battle prowess.

Still Ephraim nodded, happy to agree. He hadn’t had a chance to watch Leo fight first-hand yet, but considering all the creatures Leo had managed to kill single-handedly, he had a feeling that the Nohrian prince packed quite a punch with that strange tome of his. “Of course,” he then affirmed verbally. “I’d be honored if you lent your strength to our cause.”

“Then, that’s settled. The only thing I ask is that we first find a village to leave Princess Sakura in,” Leo requested, his expression turning serious in an instant. “I don’t want her to get involved in this war of yours, no matter how noble your cause may be. I can then go collect her later when I’ve figured out how we can return to our realm.”

Cocking his head curiously, Ephraim found himself wondering about the relationship between the two foreign royals. The princess had indicated yesterday that they were not betrothed, but Leo was certainly rabidly protective of the girl. Yet, it wasn’t his place to get involved, so Ephraim instead focused on the matter in hand.

“Leo, I understand your desire to keep Princess Sakura out of danger,” he started. “But, to be frank, I don’t know that she’ll find safety in any of the villages here. Many of the villages we’ve come by are in a bad way. Between bandits and monsters, there have been a lot of horrors come to pass upon them. Plus, word may soon spread that Sakura was in my company at some point, which would leave her to be seen as an enemy in this territory.”

“I agree with my prince,” Seth concurred. “It’d be one thing if we could send her back to the castle in Frelia, but even just the trip there would be fraught with peril, and we can’t afford to provide an escort. The path we follow through Grado is extremely risky, to be sure, as our forces are greatly outnumbered. But at least this way she won’t be left defenseless.”

Leo looked stricken. “Prince Ephraim, I… if something happens to her…” But he didn’t finish his sentence. Instead, his words suddenly stopped and he now seemed irritated, with clear signs of frustration washing over his features.

Ephraim couldn’t fathom the reason for Leo’s abrupt anger, and he didn’t have time to ponder it before Leo spoke again.

“You’re both right, of course. I’d prefer if there was a way to simply keep her out of harm’s way, but ultimately, her wellbeing can’t be my concern,” Leo replied somewhat heartlessly, surprising Ephraim. It was a rapid change from his previous sentiments. Glancing over at his general, he noticed that Seth also appeared to be a startled.

“Leo,” Ephraim began kindly, worried about the young prince. “Look. It’s not my inclination to inquire about your personal affairs, but I can imagine that everything going on right now must be difficult for you,” he sympathized. “Should you ever need someone to confide in, I’d be happy to lend you an ear.”

“You are most generous, Prince Ephraim,” Leo replied with a tired smile. “But, I think we’d both be better served discussing tactics for the next battle, if you’d like my input. I’ve spent much time studying war strategy, and I believe I can be a valuable asset to your effort.”

Nodding, Ephraim felt a pang of regret at not being able to do more for the Nohrian royal, but he understood where Leo was coming from. A prince was raised to be detached. Distant. Emotions could end up being a weakness, especially in someone responsible for making decisions for the good of his kingdom. He’d been lectured on this very point by Seth only days ago, when he had ordered the army to head after Myrrh.

As Renais’ prince and soon-to-be king, Ephraim knew his main priority at hand was to end this war as soon as possible. But he needed to rescue Myrrh first, even if Seth thought it was the wrong move. Ephraim had come to care about the dragon girl like a sister, and he wasn’t ready to divorce himself from his compassion just yet.

However, that also meant he’d need to fight and defeat Selena the Fluorspar, although he had no wish to do so. Her reputation as a kind and just general preceded her... as did her propensity with magic.

With that in mind, he certainly wasn’t about to pass up any help that he was offered along the way.

“Come then, both of you,” Ephraim ordered, gesturing both Seth and Leo to the battle map. “Alright then, prince of Nohr. Let’s hear your ideas.”

King Garon stared at the worthless whelp cowering before him.

“Iago,” Garon growled. “How did this happen? Your aim was to possess my son, not some pathetic girl.”

“Please, my king,” Iago pleaded, “I beg your forgiveness. It was all just a terrible mistake! I didn’t even realize that the girl had gone through the portal with Prince Leo…”

It was entertaining to watch the man beg, at least. Still, the fact that Iago had botched the job so badly cancelled out any amusement that Garon might have usually felt from the scene.

“I don’t tolerate mistakes,” Garon said, his tone darkening. “The great Anankos ordered that I bring him the soul of the Demon King. He created that portal with his power to help facilitate the task. As you know, I do not like to disappoint the great Anankos. I even volunteered my own son for this job.” Leaning in even closer to Iago, he contemplated the man in front of him. “Should I punish you for your failure, then, Iago?”

“Gah! No, I will get you the soul, my king! It’s not too late, I swear it,” Iago insisted adamantly.

“Hmm,” Garon considered as his eyes narrowed. “What is your plan, then? From what I understand, your attempt to possess the girl has failed.”

“Yes,” Iago admitted, and Garon let out a dissatisfied hum. “But! But… My spirit still remains dormant in her. I only need to find something in her that’s corruptible, and I’ll have control easily.”

“Don’t treat your king like a simpleton, Iago,” Garon chastized. “I specifically chose Leo for this task because he harbors jealousy toward his brothers, and that resentment can be exploited. Will you be able to exploit this girl’s emotions?”

“I have no concern that I’ll be able to find something soon enough,” Iago said, perhaps more confidently than he felt. “She also harbors conflicting feelings toward Prince Corrin. However…”

“Go on,” Garon urged.

“Time flows differently in the deeprealm they’re in, my king. I will need more of your power to be able to slow down time for myself here if I’m to complete this task.”

Garon hissed angrily, but soon calmed. He hated relinquishing more of his power, but he knew that if he completed this task for his king, that Anakos would reward him with even more strength.

“Fine. So be it,” Garon finally agreed. “But remember, she must obtain the Demon King’s soul. If you fail me again, Iago, I won’t be so kind to you next time.”

“Y-yes, my lord!” Iago replied fearfully. “And what of Prince Leo then?”

Garon shrugged. “You can have the girl kill him. Leo is too clever for his own good, and I can’t risk him figuring out our plot,” he declared unfeelingly. The death of his son meant nothing, after all, if it would benefit Anankos. “It is, however, a shame. He would have made a great vessel for our purposes. Strong of body and mind, but weak of heart.”

Garon glared at Iago again, annoyed with the wasted opportunity. Leo had been the perfect choice for this task. Garon still wasn’t convinced that Iago would be able to succeed with the body of the Hoshidan girl instead. Even if he managed to possess her, how was such a pitifully weak girl going to be able to obtain the Demon King’s soul?

But it was what the great Anankos willed, so Garon would make sure he provided Iago with the proper… incentives… to complete the task.

Yes, the Demon King’s soul would soon be his, one way or another.

Chapter Text

Prince Ephraim’s army had been marching for a week before they neared the Za'albul Marsh, yet to Sakura it’d felt even longer.

It had been a difficult seven days for her, to be sure. Aside from the constant ache she felt from missing her family, she’d also been suffering from recurring migraines. She had wondered at first if they were an aftereffect of her head injury, but when she’d gone to Sister Natasha for additional healing, the cleric couldn’t seem to find anything wrong with her.

To make things worse, Sakura couldn't help but notice that Leo had barely talked to her at all during the week. Thinking that he was perhaps just too busy to seek her out, she had even gathered her courage and approached him once at supper. He’d nodded at her, but informed her that he was tired and subsequently brought his remaining meal to his tent. Since then she’d been inclined to give him his distance, but his aversion to her was beginning to remind her of her brother Corrin’s rejection, which was still fresh in her mind.

To be fair, Leo had initiated a brief conversation with her a few days ago to let her know that they’d be remaining with Prince Ephraim’s army for the time being, but it hadn’t exactly been a pleasant encounter.

She often recalled the exchange, trying to ignore the hurt that always seemed to accompany the memory...

“Sakura! ” Leo called out to her as she scurried back to her tent. She’d been away from the camp for a few hours, and when she'd tried to sneak back without being noticed, she hadn't realized that Leo was there waiting for her.

Startled and panicked, Sakura jumped, wondering why he was there and what he had seen. Had he finally become aware of her secret activities?

“L-Leo!” she responded with anxiety, but she calmed somewhat when she realized that she was truly happy to see him. After all, it’d been days since he’d last talked to her. In fact, it was starting to seem as if he were making a pointed effort to avoid her entirely.

Her apprehension returned, though, when Leo narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “You certainly seem to be disappearing a lot,” he remarked.

She shrugged nonchalantly, or so she hoped, avoiding his piercing stare. “S-sometimes I just need to get away and collect my thoughts,” she told him.

Leo looked at her for a long moment, and she had a feeling that he was well aware she was lying. Yet, he didn’t press her. Instead he just let out a resigned sigh, causing her to return her gaze to his face.

He seemed so worn out, and despite his coldness toward her, she suddenly felt her heart aching for him. “Leo,” she started, reaching a hand out toward his arm. She’d only meant to offer him comfort, and had been about to ask him if he was okay, but he recoiled away from her incoming touch. Her hand dropped immediately to her side, her words silenced.

“Sakura, we’ll be staying with Ephraim’s army for now,” he stated. “Ephraim is looking for a companion of his, a girl, and she happens to be a dragon. My hope is that this dragon will have the power to send us home.”

“A dragon? I s-see. I’m glad to hear that. Thank you for t-telling me,” she offered simply, smiling at him.

His eyes seemed to widen ever so slightly. “Sakura,” he breathed, moving to take a step toward her before thinking better of it and remaining where he was. He then found a spot beyond her to stare at while he continued talking. “There’s no way for us to avoid getting involved in a battle, and it’s going to be very dangerous,” he told her, his voice reverting to the detached tone that she was becoming accustomed to. “No one will expect you to involve yourself in the fighting if you wish to remain at a safe distance. Don’t forget that you don’t have your retainers or siblings on hand, so there’s no one here to protect you. I’d advise that you be careful.”

She almost flinched at his words. It wasn’t difficult for her to read between the lines. He was also informing her that he had no intention to watch out for her once the fighting began.

“I understand. I’ll be c-careful,” she responded, growing sad. Not that he owed her anything, of course. But after he’d fought so bravely to protect her on that first day in Magvel, it hurt to know that it was only the circumstances that had caused him to do so, and that he cared so little for her after all.

With that, Leo then nodded at her and took his leave.

And so here they were, about to engage in battle against a Grado general, Selena the Fluorspar. Lady L’Arachel, the princess of Rausten, had warned them that Selena wielded the power of thunderstorms and could use them to attack from afar without mercy. Sakura had never heard of a magical spell like that in Hoshido, and it made her wary. Her own magical resistance was strong, but she worried greatly for the others in Ephraim’s band.

Gripping her Sun Festal in her hands, she resolved to be ready to provide treatment for any wounds and injuries as soon as she was needed. At the very least, she certainly didn't plan to hide away at a safe distance as Leo had suggested.

Suddenly, she saw a young purple-haired girl flying toward Prince Ephraim. A girl, with wings? Was this the dragon that Leo had talked about?

Ephraim was visibly relieved to see her. Sakura couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the girl looked upset. After they talked, the girl moved toward the rear of the army, her face filled with sadness.

“Um, excuse m-me. Are you alright?” Sakura asked the girl as she was passing, hating to see anyone in pain. If she could, she wanted to help.

“I… I… who are you?” the dragon asked curiously.

“My name is Sakura,” she told the girl. “Wh-what’s yours?”

“I’m Myrrh,” the girl responded.

“I'm so sorry to b-bother you, but you just seemed so upset,” Sakura told her. She then smiled at Myrrh sadly. “I hope you don't mind my presumption, but I have a f-feeling from looking at you that you detest this fighting as much as I do.”

A tear fell down the young girl’s face. “I don’t understand. Why do we have to fight Dame Selena? She’s a good person. How many good people must die alongside the bad ones?” she asked.

“I d-don’t know the answers to your questions,” Sakura replied, her voice filled with sorrow. “But I think that everyone has their own r-reasons for fighting. Some may have more noble motives than others. I b-believe that Prince Ephraim’s intentions are good. Do you?”

Myrrh nodded. “And what about you, Lady Sakura? What are your reasons?”

Sakura sighed. “I d-don’t like violence or war. I don’t want to hurt others or see people get hurt. But I will do what I m-must for those that I care about,” she told the dragon.

That was the simple truth of it, really. Just like now, she was involved in this war so that she could one day find a way back home to the people she loved in Hoshido.

Beyond that, she wanted to help her new friends in Prince Ephraim's army and those who’d been so kind to her. And, if she was being completely honest with herself... she was also here for Leo. Despite his coldness toward her, she wanted to do everything she could to make sure that he stayed safe.

“I c-can’t just pretend that nothing is going on around me and wait for the war to end. Not when there’s something I can do to help,” she then added.

“I… I think I understand,” Myrrh said slowly. “Thank you, Lady Sakura.”

“You’re w-welcome, Myrrh,” Sakura replied with a smile. “Now please make sure that you stay back and away from the fighting. I think Prince Ephraim would be very sad if anything happened to you. I can see that he cares for you v-very much.”

Myrrh smiled at that, and Sakura was happy to see that the smile reached her eyes.

The dragon girl began flapping her wings again and soon flew off to stay behind the rear of the army. Sakura then returned her attention to the battlefield, which was already beginning to bustle with activity.

It wasn't long before Prince Ephraim’s army charged at the Grado forces, with the fliers and horse riders leading in the vanguard. This included Leo, who had been given a mount by Ephraim since his preferred style of fighting was on horseback. Sakura thought her heart might leap out of her chest with worry for him, but as she watched him engage his enemies, she realized that he didn’t warrant such concern. He was easily able to destroy his foes from a distance with his fearsome tome, and although he wasn't as skilled in swordplay as he was with magic, he could more than adequately defend himself up close when necessary.

Selena’s bolting spell, however, was absolutely terrifying. Sakura felt sick as she heard some of the soldiers screaming in pain when the large bolts of electric magic hit them.

Since her brother Ryoma’s sword, Raijinto, was also a thunder-based weapon, Sakura knew full well the effects that lightning had on the human body. As a healer she’d had to treat the fighters her brother had skirmished with, but those wounds had mainly been inflicted during training exercises.

Selena, on the other hand, was not holding back, and the bursts of energy in her spell were much more powerful than the smaller charges in her brother’s sword. In addition to the bolts searing the skin where they hit, she knew that the electric shocks would cause acute pain and damage to one’s internal organs. Sakura could further see that the bodies of those hit by the spell were becoming conductors for the electric energy to amplify its effects, which became evident once their muscles began to contract. Those wearing metal armor would be especially affected, and Sakura found herself terrified for Leo once again. Fortunately, Selena didn’t seem to be interested in targeting Leo, but some of the other soldiers advancing on the general hadn’t been so lucky.

That wasn’t to say that Prince Ephraim’s army wasn’t just as dangerous, if not more so. Their tactics were sound, splitting into two different directions around the marsh as they continued to push forward, trying to get to the center area where Selena was waiting in order to defeat her.

Sakura also noticed that the majority of Ephraim’s soldiers seemed to utilize physical attacks over magic, and the constant sight of swords cutting, axes chopping, lances impaling, and arrows biting was almost too much for her to bear. Even Prince Ephraim, who had been so kind off of the battlefield, had no qualms about slaughtering his enemies.

All of the fighting and pain and gore and death was just so horrifying to watch. Sakura didn’t have much battle experience, but she couldn’t imagine ever getting used to such savagery. It had been one thing to see Leo brutalize some monsters the other day, but the two opposing armies in front of her were just normal people who happened to be on different sides of a war.

Still, like she told Myrrh earlier, she couldn’t just run away and hide when there were others depending on her. Gathering her courage and nearing the injured soldiers, Sakura used her Sun Festal to treat them as quickly as possible. Because her rod could restore health at a distance, many of the soldiers didn’t even have to fall back behind the vanguard in order to be healed. This seemed to embolden some of Ephraim’s men to advance more aggressively, and Sakura felt like she barely even had a moment’s rest. At one point she even treated Franz, which elicited a grateful look and bright smile from the young cavalier. She smiled back, trying to be encouraging, even though she found herself anxious for him.

Before long she ended up close to her friend, Neimi, who was rapidly firing arrows into the enemy forces. But as focused as Sakura was on healing the injured, she hadn’t even noticed a nearby enemy sniper taking aim at her until she heard Neimi yell, “Sakura, look out!”

Neimi quickly shot at the sniper, trying to prevent his attack, but in her panicked rush she’d missed. Sakura could hear her friend start to cry, but she couldn't take her eyes off of the sniper, who had his arrow nocked and pointed directly at her. He had a clear, open shot now, and the princess just watched helplessly like a deer being hunted as her fate began to unfold.

Before the man could loose his arrow, however, a large barrage of rocks went flying into him, one of which ended up completely crushing his skull. Sakura cringed at the brutality of it, but only for a moment. Recognizing the spell, she turned her head to see Leo looking at her, his hand glowing with Brynhildr’s purple flame. He was slightly farther down the battlefield, but he had fallen back from the vanguard somewhat in order to be able to reach the sniper with his magic.

She saw his eyes scan her quickly for injury before he turned his horse, ready to ride away. From his movements she could see that his sword arm was wounded, and upon further inspection she noticed a rather grievous gash on his shoulder. Raising her Sun Festal, she was about to heal him, but he’d ridden his horse out of her range and straight to the Grado cleric, Sister Natasha.

With wide eyes Sakura watched as Leo asked the pretty priestess to heal his wounds. Nodding, Sister Natasha used her Mend staff on Leo, eliciting a smile from the prince before he rode away.

To her horror, Sakura suddenly felt like she wanted to cry. Knowing that the battlefield wasn’t the place for tears, though, she managed to keep them at bay. She didn’t know why the scene had upset her so much. After all, Leo had only sought healing for his wound, which was perfectly reasonable.

And yet... it hadn’t been reasonable at all! Leo had gone completely out of his way to avoid being healed by her Sun Festal, specifically seeking out Sister Natasha instead. Then, there was the way he’d smiled so kindly at the cleric. It reminded Sakura of the Leo she’d known during their first day in Magvel.

Sakura had previously convinced herself that the Leo she’d first met had never actually existed. But that wasn’t true, was it? He was still like that, he still the same boy, only just not with her.

What had she done to make him despise her in such a way?

Or… was it just possible that he harbored feelings for the Grado cleric? After all, Sister Natasha was quite beautiful, and she had light hair and features like the women Leo was probably used to seeing in Nohr.

For some reason Sakura felt tortured by the thought.

Her head abruptly started hurting. 'You hate him for making you feel this way, don’t you?' a voice in her head asked her.

“No! I…” but the pain was making it hard for her to think.

'Of course he’d want to be healed by a beautiful cleric over a plain weakling like you. Besides, you’re nothing but a burden to him and everyone else. Why do you think Corrin also couldn't wait to abandon you?'

“No, p-please,” Sakura begged, but she couldn’t deny the truth in the voice’s words.

'Admit it, Sakura. Be honest with yourself. You hate Leo, don't you? I bet you want to hurt him just like he’s hurt you.'

'...I bet you even want to kill him.'

“I… I…” she started, wanting to argue with the voice. Something just seemed wrong. Leo, she… even if he’d hurt her, she’d never want to see him come to harm, did she?

A horrible feeling began to envelop her, and she instinctively tried to fight against it. She didn’t… she needed to...

“Sakura!” someone shouted at her loudly, and she looked over to see Neimi trying to get her attention. As Sakura stared at the girl, the pain in her head disappeared almost instantly.

But what had just happened? Sakura couldn’t remember anything from the last few minutes, only that she’d seen Natasha healing Leo, and then she'd had another bad migraine...

“Sakura, what’s wrong? Are you alright?” the archer asked, jogging over to her.

“Y-yes, sorry. I think I blacked out for a second there. I must have just been shaken up by that s-sniper,” she responded, confused herself. Truthfully, though, Leo’s actions had seemed to bother her a lot more more than her near death experience. The way he’d smiled at Sister Natasha…

“Thank you for looking out for me, Neimi,” Sakura said appreciatively to her friend, forcing herself to choke down her feelings.

Neimi smiled and nodded, and the two girls refocused their attention on the battle. However, most of the enemies had already been dealt with, leaving just General Selena and the soldiers guarding her.

Prince Ephraim approached Selena, trying to convince her to lay down her weapons, but she refused. Her love for Emperor Vigarde was written clearly all over her face as she spoke of him, and Sakura found herself agreeing with Myrrh about the senselessness of it all. As Ephraim fought and eventually speared through the woman, Sakura looked away, unable to watch.

By the time she returned her attention to the turquoise-haired prince, he was talking with Lady L’Arachel. The princess of Rausten healed him while rambling on about her splendor in the recently ended battle. Ephraim looked exasperated, but from the way he seemed to linger, Sakura wondered if he didn’t mind the troubadour’s antics as much as he appeared to.

Soon after he was healed, Ephraim sought out Myrrh. He handed the dragon girl a small, bright stone, but Myrrh didn’t seem happy to receive it. Sakura knew from speaking with her previously that the girl was probably just upset at the death of Selena the Fluorspar.

Once Ephraim and Myrrh conversed for a few moments, the turquoise-haired prince then waved Leo over. Ephraim glanced her way and waved her over as well.

Sakura approached, doing her best to avoid looking at Leo. After what happened earlier, even the mere sight of him made her feel wretched.

“Myrrh,” Ephraim said. “This is Leo, and this is Sakura. They have something they want to ask you.”

“I’ve already met Sakura,” Myrrh responded. “She is very kind.”

Sakura smiled at the girl. “Thank you, Myrrh. You are as w-well.”

Leo knelt down next to the dragon. “Lady Myrrh, it is an honor to meet you,” he said sincerely. “This may sound strange, but I am quite in awe of you. My people worship dragons, you see, and Sakura and I even have some dragon's blood running through our veins from our ancestors.”

“Really?” Myrrh asked. Ephraim also looked surprised. “Are you from Caer Pelyn?”

Leo shook his head. “No, we’re not. And that’s what Sakura and I wanted to talk to you about,” he told her, glancing around to make sure that no one else was in hearing range. “You see, we’re from another realm entirely, and a portal brought us here to Magvel. I’m from a kingdom called Nohr, and Sakura’s kingdom is called Hoshido. We were in a forest right by the Plains of Hoshido when the portal appeared and took us here. Myrrh, we were hoping that you, as a dragon-kin, might have the power to open a new portal that would bring us back to our own realm.”

“A portal?” Myrrh asked, surprised. “I’m afraid I don’t know if I can do that,” she responded slowly. Sakura still wasn’t looking at Leo, but she could imagine that his face had just fallen. Her own certainly had, at least.

“I have heard from my father of portals opening between two worlds,” Myrrh offered, “but I’m unsure if our kind are able to control them.” The manakete looked up at Sakura, her purple eyes filled with sorrow. “I’m so sorry, Sakura, I wish I knew more so that I could help you,” she apologized.

“It’s alright, Myrrh,” Sakura soothed. “It’s not your fault.”

Myrrh paused for a moment, deep in thought. “Sakura, Leo, I don’t think I can do much for you at this time. But my father is very wise and powerful, and he may know what to do,” she said, sparking some hope in the two.

“Where is your father, Myrrh?” Ephraim asked.

“He is currently guarding the body of the Demon King at the Black Temple in the Darkling Woods,” she responded. “However, before I can return to him, I must first find out where the dark presence that is plaguing these lands is coming from.”

“I understand, Myrrh,” Leo told her, but Sakura could hear the despondance in his voice. “If we help you and Prince Ephraim with your quest, will you take Sakura and I to your father to see if he can help us?”

Myrrh nodded. “Of course I will!” she promised.

“Thank you, Myrrh,” Sakura said, and Leo thanked her as well.

However, she knew that he was thinking the same thing as her - the terrifying thought that they might never be able to get home.

The full moon hung brightly in the sky, framed picturesquely by the stars freckled around it. Despite its beauty, Leo frowned, realizing that it was growing late and Sakura was still missing from the camp. Not that he was keeping tabs on her - well, not consciously. But, it was hard not to notice that she’d been disappearing every day for a few hours, whenever the army wasn't actively marching.

He immediately clamped down on his seemingly natural instinct to worry about her. It didn’t seem wise for her to keep running off when they were in the heart of enemy territory, but her safety wasn’t his concern.

Or at least he kept telling himself that.

Besides, he knew that she wasn’t going off alone. Neimi, Colm, and Franz always seemed to be missing as well, which meant that they were likely with her.

Leo’s hands clenched involuntarily at the thought of Franz. Every time Sakura smiled at the young cavalier in her sweet, unassuming way, it made Leo want to punch something. It was clear that Franz and Sakura were getting closer, and it didn’t give Leo any peace of mind to know that the two were also spending so much time together in secret.

It shouldn’t bother him, he knew. Yet, he reasoned that it only made sense, considering that he didn’t want to deal with any further obstacles whenever the time came that they could finally return home.

If they ever returned home.

The events with Myrrh had truly been a blow. With her being a dragon, Leo had been confident that she would be able to return them to their realm. Now, they had to hope that her father had this power, and that was assuming they didn’t get themselves killed in this blasted war first. And even then, how long would it all take?

Leo wanted to scream, cursing at the gods responsible for bringing him here. The frustration of not being able to find a way home was eating away at him. He’d sacrificed any level of friendship with Sakura in the hopes that he’d soon return to Nohr, and right now, it all seemed for naught.

The honest truth was that he longed for her comfort. Being around her seemed to soothe him, especially when she rewarded him with one of her bright smiles. She was so pure and kind, and like a moth to the flame he wished to indulge himself in her warmth.

Sakura also happened to be the only person in this army who would understand how lonely it was, being stranded here as they were. Leo was becoming closer with Prince Ephraim, and even General Seth was warming up to him, but it would be difficult to ever fully replace the strong and loving bonds he’d forged in Nohr. Knowing that Sakura was likely being tortured by the same thoughts weighed heavily on Leo.

And yet, he was relieved to see that her heart hadn’t changed. Despite their unfortunate situation and the war raging on around them she was still the same compassionate girl, the girl that he’d seen trying to heal her enemy that fateful day in the Hoshidan woods.

Deep in deliberation, Leo inadvertently reflected on Sakura for another few minutes until he noticed Forde approaching, which pulled him from his thoughts.

Just the sight of the blond knight put him on edge. Leo knew that he was only playing into Forde’s hands by consistently letting the man get him so worked up, but he couldn't help himself. Forde knew exactly the right nerves to push on to goad him into anger - or maybe, one specific nerve in particular.

Surely enough, it didn’t take long for Forde to test his patience.

“Leo! Good to see you,” Forde offered cordially. “Although, to be honest, you're not who I was looking for. You haven't seen Franz around by any chance, have you? The little brat left me to take care of all the chores when he knows full well that I planned to get to sleep early tonight.”

“Forde,” Leo acknowledged with a nod. “And no, I'm afraid I haven't seen Franz.”

“It figures,” Forde grumbled, and Leo sensed that he was truly annoyed. “He's probably just run off somewhere with Sakura again. I'm sure you've also noticed that those two can't seem to stay away from each other?”

And there it is was.

Leo grit his teeth, doing his best to keep his anger contained. “That's hardly what I've noticed,” he responded briskly.

“Oh?” the knight asked, eyebrows raised. “And how else would you describe their daily clandestine meetings?”

“Whatever they're doing, Neimi and Colm are with them too,” Leo countered. “So I'm sure it's more innocent than you're making it out to be.”

“The four of them are always together, true,” Forde agreed. “But, surely you know that Neimi and Colm are an item themselves? At least if the gossip around camp is to be believed,” he offered with a shrug. “I even asked Franz myself what he’s been up to, and all he said was that it's a secret. Can you believe the nerve! I suppose a gentleman doesn't kiss and tell, though...”

Leo frowned.

“Honestly, Leo, what other reason could the four of them have for running off to be alone every single day, except to indulge in the hormones of youth?” Forde persisted.

Shrugging, Leo turned away, not wanting to discuss the matter any further.

Forde watched him in silence for a few minutes. “You know,” he started slowly, “I’m sure that Sakura would warm up to you more if you just tried being nicer to her. I mean, I hate to give my brother’s rival in love any advice, but it’s difficult watching you mope around all the time,” the knight remarked. “I don’t understand why you’re always so cold to her.”

“I’m not your brother’s rival in anything,” Leo snapped, but then he softened. He could tell that Forde was just trying to be helpful in his own way. Even if the man got under his skin, he seemed to mean well… sometimes.

“I apologize for my temper,” Leo said with a sigh, rubbing his temple to try and relieve some of his tension. “But I have my reasons for keeping Sakura at a distance. You see, back where I come from, our countries are at war with each other,” he confessed, for some reason feeling the need to explain himself to the knight. “It wouldn’t be wise for us to be… friends.”

“I see,” Forde replied softly. “Leo, did you know that when I was a young boy, my mother died?” he asked, his face turning rueful.

Shaking his head at the non sequitur, Leo looked at the knight curiously, wondering why he would bring that up. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he offered sympathetically.

“Thank you,” Forde nodded. “But that’s not why I mentioned it. You see, her illness was sudden and she was taken from us unexpectedly. It was…. difficult. But it was only then that I really learned how fleeting life could be. And when my father died a few years thereafter, it only hammered down the point that death can come for us all at any time, war or not.”

Leo frowned, his brow furrowing. “What are you trying to say?” he questioned.

“Only that we live in uncertain times, my friend. If you died tomorrow, would it be without regret? Or if something happened to Sakura instead…” he started, trailing off at the thought. “Would it have all been worth it?”

“I…” Leo started, but his throat grew thick at the macabre hypotheticals the knight was presenting. “Thank you, Forde, for your perspective,” Leo replied sincerely. “But, our situation is complicated and I have my reasons for following this path.” After all, as a prince, Leo knew that his life was not solely his own. Forde might not have all the context he needed to understand, but as a prince, the needs of Leo’s family, people, and kingdom must come first.

Forde shrugged. “It’s probably for the best then, anyway,” the knight responded. “Especially if you happen to harbor any romantic feelings toward our sweet little Sakura. After all, Franz might have already captured her heart during these frequent romantic getaways of theirs. I have to admit, I’m both surprised and impressed by my little brother. I had no idea that the little scamp had it in him!”

The thought made Leo nauseous, but he said nothing in response.

“Well, I suppose I should get going then,” Forde finally said after an awkward silence. “There’s so much sleep to be had, and so little time to have it.”

“Goodnight, Forde,” Leo replied with a listless nod. He watched the man leave before returning his attention to the horizon. Thanks to Forde’s ramblings, Leo now couldn’t shake the thought of Sakura and Franz constantly sneaking off together for an amorous embrace or… kiss. To his dismay, his insides seemed to shrivel at the thought. Rather than analyzing why that was, he instead just considered the possibility of discreetly following them the next time they disappeared to find out the truth behind their recurrent meetings.

However, a voice in distress somewhere nearby quickly interrupted his thoughts. “N-No! Stop!” it cried out, and Leo recognized it instantly to be Sakura’s. Tensing, he ran toward the sound without even a moment’s thought, pulling out his divine tome.

His heart felt like it was lodged in his throat, beating rapidly at the possibility that she might be in danger. As he neared the area from where he’d heard her, he could also make out the sounds of a girl crying. Was that Sakura, too?

Almost frantic now, Leo increased his speed, wishing he had his horse. It wasn’t long before he found her, though, and he took a moment to assess the scene in front of him.

Immediately, he noticed that the crying was coming from Neimi, not Sakura. The other pink-haired girl had her head in her hands, sobbing into them. The thief, Colm was next to her, his face fuming. His ire seemed to be directed squarely at Franz, and he looked ready to lunge at the boy. Yet, he couldn’t because Sakura was in the way, holding her arms out to the side in a protective gesture.

The sight of Sakura protecting her precious Franz made something rage inside of Leo.

“What’s going on here?” Leo growled, surprising the foursome.

“L-Leo?” Sakura asked, turning her attention to him. Colm took advantage of her distraction, using that moment to pounce onto the young knight.

The two boys were soon wrestling each other, with an occasional fist flying here and there.

“Please, s-stop!” Sakura implored of them, but her pleas fell on deaf ears as the boys continue to grapple. “Leo! Please do s-something!” she then begged, turning to him in desperation.

“Must I have to do everything?” Leo asked with an annoyed sigh. But Sakura looked at him with such a distraught expression that he just couldn’t bring himself to walk away.

A large tree suddenly grew up out of the ground, startling the two fighting boys. “I suggest you both break it up. Now,” Leo ordered dangerously. He was livid from witnessing Sakura’s open concern for Franz, and was ready to call upon another spell if necessary, with his hand emitting a threatening purple glow to show it.

For an additional intimidation tactic, Leo used the power of Brynhildr to send the dirt and rocks from the ground swirling around him, and both boys received the warning loud and clear, soon scrambling away from each other. Franz, for his part, looked completely terrified, still not fully understanding Leo’s brand of magic. As for Colm, well he was no idiot, and he knew when it was best to back off from a fight, especially when his sword was lying forgotten on the ground.

“Good. Let’s settle this then,” Leo commanded, his purple flame retreating. The pieces of earth that had once defied gravity immediately fell back to the ground. “Now, why are you two fighting?”

“Franz made Neimi cry,” Colm practically spat, clearly livid. The thief looked ready to lunge again, but held back for the time being.

“I didn’t even do anything!” Franz protested.

“You insulted my grandfather,” Neimi accused, sniffling.

“What?” Franz asked defensively. “All I said was that it seemed really stupid for you to waste your time staring at things in the distance! I don’t see how that’s a helpful technique for improving your eyesight at all.”

A fresh wave of tears started falling down Neimi’s face, and Colm went after Franz once again.

This time Leo was ready for it, though. He grabbed Colm by his cape and yanked him back roughly, causing the boy to yelp.

“This ends now,” Leo demanded. “You,” he said, looking directly at Colm, “need to relax. From what I’ve heard, Neimi cries at almost everything. You can’t pick a fight over it every time or you’ll soon find yourself facing down this entire army.” Colm humphed and crossed his hands over his chest, glancing away as a sign of protest. Still, he made no move to argue.

“You,” Leo continued, looking at Neimi, “need to grow a thicker skin. Especially if this one is going to fly off the handle every time you come to tears,” he said, nodding over at Colm. “Truly, I'm amazed that something so trivial would even make you cry.”

Neimi sniffled. “I’m sorry,” she apologized with more tears gathering. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.” Colm gave Leo a scathing look at causing Neimi to cry even more, but Leo ignored him.

“You…” Leo persisted, this time looking at Franz. “You, of all people, should know better. Aren’t you a knight? In what chivalric code do they teach you that you should call a girl stupid?”

Franz, at least, had the good sense to look ashamed. “You’re right,” he responded, then turned to the crying girl. “I’m sorry for making you cry, Neimi,” he said earnestly. “I didn’t mean to insult you, or your grandfather.”

“It’s okay,” Neimi responded, still sniffling. “I know that you didn’t mean anything by it. I’m sorry for getting so worked up.”

Franz, Neimi and Colm all looked relatively complacent now, but Leo wasn’t finished. “And you,” he said pointedly, looking at Sakura. Her eyes widened in surprise, clearly not expecting to be involved in his lecture. “You, come with me,” he said, unceremoniously grabbing her hand and dragging her away from the group.

“L-Leo, what…?” Sakura questioned as she stumbled to keep up with his long strides, but he continued to tug her along until they were far enough to have a discussion in private.

Turning to face her, Leo felt completely out of sorts. Why did even her mere presence rattle him so much? It’d been so long since they’d been alone together. He ached to let his eyes drink in the sight of her. He wanted to make sure that she was okay, being in a strange place so far away from home, fighting in a war they didn’t belong in. He wanted to remember what it felt like to hold her close and… and...

“Where have you been running off to these last few weeks?” he demanded roughly.

...and do anything but yell at her.

Sakura tensed at his inquiry. Clutching her Sun Festal tightly, she looked away from him. “It’s n-none of your concern,” she responded.

He arched an eyebrow at her. “Oh really? Because back there, you didn’t seem to mind making it my concern.”

She remained silent, persisting in her efforts to avoid his gaze.

“Fine then, don’t tell me,” Leo continued to rant. “Do you think I wouldn’t figure out what was going on anyway?”

She finally looked at him then, her expression full of anxiety. “You m-mean, you know?”

“Of course I know,” he told her, narrowing his eyes at the memory of her trying so desperately to protect Franz, wishing that he could purge the look on her face in that moment from his mind. “And honestly, Sakura, I thought you were smarter than this.”

“S-smarter?” she asked, confused.

“Yes, smarter!” he confirmed abruptly, making her jump. “One day, you’re going to have to return to Hoshido. I thought you'd know better than to get involved with anyone while you're here.”

“Involved? Leo, I don't even know what you’re t-talking about!” she cried out, exasperated. “Are you m-mad that I'm making friends?”

He clenched his fists. “So you still deny it?” he nearly growled. “Fine, I'll just go out and say it, then. I'm talking about your romantic trysts with Franz!”

A multitude of emotions soon passed over Sakura’s features. She went from bewildered to embarrassed, until she finally settled on sad. Her large, woeful eyes burned into Leo’s, searing him with their disappointment.

As Leo continued to watch her, he couldn't help but feel like he'd just made a terrible mistake. If anything, seeing such an expression on her face only served to shame him.

Sakura had yet to respond to his accusation, and the silence was excruciating. Instead she kept looking at him in the most unsettling way, as if she were only now seeing him for the first time.

For a second he thought she might start to cry, but once her eyes began to moisten she held her chin up defiantly - whether in defiance against him or the tears, he couldn't be sure.

“I’m g-going now,” she said simply once she finally spoke. “Goodbye, Leo.” Turning around she started to walk away from him, her Sun Festal swaying gently in her hands.

Her goodbye seemed so final, and Leo felt an unfamiliar pain piercing through his chest as the word began to resonate.

“Sakura, I…” he called out softly to her retreating form, lifting a hand up as if to stop her.

But he didn't stop her, and his words of apology died before passing his lips. After all, this was exactly what he wanted, wasn't it? To create distance between them?

‘Sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants,’ he heard Forde’s words from a few weeks ago echoing in his head.

Summoning Brynhildr, Leo annihilated a nearby tree, turning it into splinters.

No, this wasn't what he wanted at all.

Chapter Text

Leo was at a loss. He’d never had a plan backfire on him before, and finding himself presently in such a circumstance greatly vexed him.

Prior to ending up in Magvel, he'd always been smart enough to account for every obstacle and anticipate every possible outcome, and his strategy to distance himself from Sakura shouldn’t have been any different. Fundamentally, after all, his plan had been fairly simple - the best ones usually were.

Yet, apparently, there had been something he hadn’t accounted for... only, it wasn’t until he’d succeeded in completely souring their relationship last week that he’d finally come to understand what that was. Yes, it was clear to him now that as much as he’d wanted to trivialize his feelings, the truth of the matter was that he'd grown to care for Sakura in their short time together.

Foolish. Leo had always been one to believe that emotions could be controlled by the application of reason. So, how could he have been so careless as to allow himself such an attachment? Where had he gone wrong to let these emotions get so out of his control? It just simply didn't make sense that Sakura had become so important to him so quickly. Although... perhaps it was possible that Forde had been right all along, and such sentiments couldn't be so easily governed.

Not that it really mattered anymore. The point was that he'd succeeded at driving her away, but what had he actually accomplished? It certainly hadn't had the desired effect, since even after he’d managed to create distance between them, he couldn't seem to quell his desire to have her in his life, by his side, as his... as his friend. Yes, his desire to be near Sakura and to protect her from harm still remained, while the only thing that had disappeared was his happiness.

He knew now that if they returned home, even with their relationship as strained as it was, he still wouldn't easily be able to direct the Nohrian army into combat that might end up harming her. Would he even be able to earnestly attack her siblings, knowing that it would crush her if he ended up killing them?

When the time eventually came to return to Nohr, though, he'd do what he must, as hard as it might be. Aside from taking the needs of the Nohrian people into consideration, he simply couldn't risk his father's wrath or Xander's disappointment. He knew what was needed and expected of him as a prince of Nohr.

Still, Leo was nothing if not a pragmatist. If the situation was going to be impossible regardless, then there was no sense in continuing to push Sakura away now when it only served to make him miserable. And he was miserable, that much he was sure of. No longer was he the recipient of her warm smiles and caring looks, and he just couldn't bear it. He knew that he had to go and make things right between them... assuming, of course, that it wasn’t already too late.

Leo found himself frowning at the thought. It couldn’t be too late to fix this, he had to believe that, but he needed figure out the best tactic for dealing with such a delicate matter.

Perhaps he would just start with an apology and an explanation. As far as plans went, it was fairly simple, to be sure.

But the best ones usually were.

Sakura was lying on her cot in the two-person tent that she and Neimi shared, staring blankly at nothing in particular. Completely worn out, Sakura thought that she would have fallen asleep the second her head hit the pillow, even though she hadn't even taken the time to change into her nightclothes yet. Instead, though, she found herself restless, overcome by the same feeling of loss that had been plaguing her ever since her encounter with Leo last week.

It didn't help that her migraines seemed to be getting much worse and more frequent lately, and they often seemed to be accompanied by an episode of short-term memory loss. Considering recent events, she assumed that they were just a byproduct of stress, but in the back of her mind she was beginning to worry that something might be seriously wrong with her. There was something strange about these headaches, something disturbing about the way they made her feel...

“Sakura?” she heard Neimi question softly. Her friend had not yet laid down to rest, instead opting to sharpen her arrowheads.  “Are you alright?”

Glancing over at Neimi, she saw the worry etched on her friends face. “Y-yes, Neimi,” Sakura responded, giving her friend a slight smile. “I’m just t-tired.”

But Sakura had never been a good liar, and Neimi wasn’t fooled. “Are you still upset because of Leo?” Neimi asked cautiously. “What exactly did he say to you that day when he dragged you off?”

“Don’t tr-trouble yourself over it, Neimi,” Sakura responded. She hadn’t told Neimi what had happened during her argument with Leo, but she’d returned from their encounter clearly shaken. It wouldn’t have taken much to conclude that Leo had been the source of her distress.

Before her friend could protest, there was an awkward knocking on their tent flap. Neimi looked surprised at the disturbance, but quickly went over to pull back the canvas.

“Oh, it’s you,” Neimi said to their visitor, sounding wary. Sakura still couldn’t see who it was, but she could tell by her friend’s tone that it wasn’t someone she was necessarily happy to see. But who? Was it possible that it could be... him?

Hopping out of her cot quickly, Sakura soon identified that it was, in fact, Leo at their door. Anxiety immediately began to overwhelm her as she envisioned having yet another emotionally draining encounter with him.

“Well, what do you want, then?” Neimi asked ungraciously. Sakura could only imagine that the Nohrian prince was unused to people talking to him so rudely, but then again, Neimi had no idea that he was a prince.

The idea of it just seemed so ridiculous to Sakura that she soon found herself giggling uncontrollably. Leo had started to answer Neimi, but stopped abruptly at Sakura’s laughter. He and Neimi were now looking at her like she’d lost her mind, which only caused her to cackle harder.

Sakura knew that there was nothing truly funny about the scene in front of her, and that it was just her stress and apprehension causing such an outburst. Still, it was a few minutes until she was finally able to get herself under control.

“I’m so s-sorry,” she said, tremors still apparent in her voice. “Please, d-don’t mind me. Um, now, what c-can we do for you, Leo?” she asked somewhat nervously, hoping that he wasn't there to pick another fight with her.

As she looked at him, though, she started to feel breathless. His face reflected such open concern for her, and she’d almost forgotten what it felt like to have him look at her in such a way.

“I…” Leo started, but then he faltered, clearly having been thrown off by her laughing fit. “I’m sorry to barge in on you two like this. I'm sure you're both very tired, but… Sakura, I’m here because I owe you an apology for my behavior last week,” he said with conviction.

Sakura was startled, her eyes widening in complete disbelief. Perhaps she had fallen asleep earlier after all and this was only a dream? Had Leo really come here to apologize?

Her heart was now pounding in her chest, as if it were trying to break free from her body and run away from this place. It was just too much to handle, being near him, hearing him speak so kindly to her once again. She didn't know what to do, or how to react. She wanted him to stay and yet wished he would go at the same time.

“I accept y-your apology, Leo,” she finally offered diplomatically, eliciting a surprised reaction from the prince. “Is that all you needed, then? If so you m-may go now,” she told him.

Leo simply stood there, unmoving, and Sakura was sure that he was considering the situation seriously, as he was always prone to do. “Actually, I was hoping that we could talk for a moment,” he responded, sounding unsure all of a sudden. It was certainly strange to see him acting in such a way, as the Nohrian prince never usually seemed to be lacking for poise.

Neimi looked over at her, asking Sakura with her eyes if she wanted Leo to stay. Sakura nodded at her friend, and after the unspoken conversation, the archer cleared her throat.

“I’m going to go check on Colm,” Neimi stated, grabbing her arrows and slipping out of the tent without even offering Leo another glance.

The two royals were completely alone now, and an uncomfortable silence lingered between them.

“Sakura, I'm… sorry,” Leo stated lamely. He was frustrated with himself, she could tell.

Sakura sighed. “You already s-said that, Leo,” she responded. “And I f-forgave you, remember?” And she did forgive him, truly, for his outburst the last time they’d spoken.

At the very least, she'd never been one to hold a grudge, not understanding the point of harboring such negative feelings. It’d certainly been inappropriate for him to come to the conclusions he had about her and Franz, and to make the accusations he did. Still, she knew that he was under a lot of undue stress right now, and she could at least understand why he might think that she had a romantic relationship with Franz. He’d been wrong, of course, but she had been spending a lot of time with the blond knight. Besides, it was hard for her to judge Leo for being angry when she’d been similarly bothered at that thought of him being romantically involved with Sister Natasha.

But just because she freely offered her forgiveness, that didn't mean she wanted to be near him right now. She had to remain on her guard around Leo, lest she let herself be hurt by him once again. Only one other person had ever hurt her in such a way before, and that was her brother, Corrin.

The devastating feelings from her brother’s abandonment still cut deep. Leo’s actions could at least be excused more easily since he had no ties to her, making it somewhat easier to forgive him. And yet, it had still hurt all the same when Leo had cast her aside in such a way, confirming that she meant nothing to him.

“Leo, I… I’m very t-tired and I would really like for you to go now,” she told him, a little more desperately this time.

“Sakura,” she heard Leo trying again, clearly not satisfied by her prior absolution or willing to leave. “If you’d allow it, I would first like to explain my behavior.”

“That’s not n-necessary,” she responded, perplexed and perhaps a little annoyed by his persistence. Sakura didn’t understand what it was he was seeking from her, or why he remained, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to take this.

But he only took a step nearer to her, closing the gap between them. “Please…” he requested, his eyes pleading. She finally acquiesced, nodding at him to continue.

Instead of saying anything, though, he just turned his head away and sighed. “You know, Sakura… I truly envy you,” he eventually told her.

She cocked her head, squinting her eyes at him as if that would help make sense of his odd conduct. “You envy m-me? Why?” she asked curiously.

“You trust in your heart in a way that I never could trust in mine,” he responded, surprising her. “And in that way, you have a strength that I lack.”

She found herself blushing at his compliment, coupled with his intense gaze. She still didn’t quite understand what he was saying, but she could tell that he meant it sincerely.  

Encouraged by her reaction, he kept speaking. “For my entire life I’ve let logic and reason guide my actions, recognizing the importance of such qualities over sentimentality. However, since I met you, it’s become harder to maintain these boundaries that I’ve always valued,” he told her.

Perhaps noticing her completely blank stare, Leo chuckled. “Ah, but perhaps I’m making this too complicated then, aren’t I? Then let me just try to simplify things a bit. You see, Sakura… the truth is that you’ve become very important to me.”

His words shocked her so much that she thought her knees might buckle. Instead of its anxious pounding from earlier, her heart now felt like it was somersaulting, making it difficult for her to breathe. “I… I d-don’t understand,” she responded, completely mystified.

He smirked, but instead of the usual confident glint that tended to accompany his eyes when he did so, they only seemed to remain sad. “I can see how you might be confused, considering how I’ve been treating you, but it's weighed very heavily on me to care about you and to desire your friendship. As you know, our kingdoms are at war, Sakura, and if… when we return home, I’m not sure how I would be able to handle having you be my enemy, perhaps even one day having to face you on the battlefield,” he disclosed honestly, and she could hear the notes of pain in his voice. “Pushing you away therefore seemed like the smartest thing to do to prepare for that eventuality, but I…”

Sakura waited for him to continue, partly because she thought he would and partly because she was still trying to absorb what he was telling her. Once she realized that he had purposefully trailed off, though, she let the full impact of his words hit her.

He cared about her. He’d never hated her after all. Rather, he’d just been suffering alongside her this entire time?

She could only look at him in complete disbelief and wonderment, and perhaps even with a little bit of resentment. As she finally understood his reasons for being so cold to her, she wasn’t sure if she should feel relief, anger, or heartbreak.

“Oh, Leo,” she then murmured sadly, finally realizing the difficult reality of their situation. “I don't know h-how I would face you on the battlefield, either. Because you’re… y-you're... important to m-m-me, t-too,” she admitted, barely even able to say the words. Her face turned bright red and she reflexively began crunching up pieces of her dress in her hands, but she kept her eyes locked onto his.

Leo’s face quickly lit up and his lips flipped into a small smile. “Truly? Even though I’ve been acting like such a complete jerk?”

Sakura nodded at him. “Yes,” she confessed, her voice almost a whisper now. And it was true. Even after she’d convinced herself that the boy she’d met initially was nothing but an illusion, it had never been enough to stop her from caring about him. Now that he'd explained his reasons for his actions these past few weeks, she felt those feelings that she'd been trying to keep hidden all this time slowly begin to resurface.

Coming to terms with her feelings again all seemed worth it, though, once Leo’s smile widened and reached his eyes.

“Sakura...” Leo started again, his voice now filled with its usual degree of confidence. “When we first came to Magvel, I suggested that we call a truce, but that's not what I want anymore.”

"Wh-what?" she asked, gasping at the sharp sting of his words. It would have been no less painful if he'd just slapped her, and Sakura found herself stumbling backwards. “B-but… you j-just…” she started accusingly, instinctively shrinking away from him. So that’s what he’d gone out of his way to come here and tell her, then? That even though he cared for her, they had to go back to being enemies because, back home, their kingdoms were at war? In a way that was even worse than him outright rejecting her, and she wished that he would have just left well enough alone.

She watched through blurry, tear-filled eyes as his brows drew together in concern and confusion, until his eyes then widened with comprehension. “Gods, no, that's not what I meant by… ah, damn it! Why is this so hard?”

Leo clenched his fists and closed his eyes, frustration clearly showing on his features, but she made no move to encourage him, feeling more guarded now.

He let out a long sigh and when he finally looked at her again, she found herself almost mesmerized by his imploring brown eyes. “Sakura, a truce implies that we’re enemies. But as much as I've tried to convince myself that that's what you are to me, that's not how I think of you, and that's not how I want you to think of me either. So when I said that I didn’t want a truce, it was because I want something more than that. In fact, I was… I was hoping that we could even be friends,” he told her, leaving her slightly stunned.

Even though he seemed to be doing his best to hide it she could sense his vulnerability now. But still, something stopped her from giving him any reassurances. As much as she wanted to give him her brightest smile and accept his offer of friendship, her heart filling with joy at the mere idea of it, the fear of getting hurt by him again held her back.

As scary as it was, though, the thought of wounding him by rejecting his proposition seemed even more unbearable. “Leo… I-” she started, inclined to finally solidify their friendship despite her unease, but she was cut off from continuing her sentence by a sharp, painful throbbing in her head, worse than ever before.

‘Don’t do it, Sakura ,’ a voice told her. ‘ He’ll only end up abandoning you for Nohr when the time comes. Just like your brother, Corrin.’

Moaning in pain, she thought she heard Leo calling her name, but everything seemed so hazy.

‘You can’t trust this boy,’ the voice continued. ‘He hurt you once and he’ll only hurt you again. He won’t hesitate to kill your family, too... all of those you hold dear, all of those you long to protect. You know this to be true.’

Unable to deny the voice’s words, she felt herself being overwhelmed by a familiar horrible feeling, but this time it pulled her deeper into the darkness, somewhere cold and empty and lonely. It seemed like she was completely powerless to stop the encroaching abyss and she soon found herself panicking, but then a warm pocket of translucent purple and gold appeared against the black.

She took shelter in the warmth. It seemed to give her strength, and although she couldn't identify quite what it was, she knew it was something she was feeling, something potent and pure.

The voice seemed to rage at her then but suddenly the darkness was gone, the pain was gone.

As Sakura’s eyes began to come into focus again, she saw a very pale and worried Leo, staring down at her intently. “Leo?” she asked, disoriented. “What h-happened?”

“I was hoping that you could tell me,” he said slowly, carefully. “You just... zoned out there for a second. It looked like you were in pain, and I thought your eyes even…” he trailed off, shaking his head in disbelief. “Then after a minute or two, you seemed completely normal again.”

“Oh? How s-strange,” Sakura responded. Straining to remember what had happened, she could only vaguely recall having a headache and being overwhelmed by a paralyzing, spine-chilling feeling. She shuddered.

“Are you alright?” he inquired anxiously, peering at her intently.

“Y-yes, I’m fine,” she answered, even though she did feel a bit shaken up. “I’m sorry for worrying you, Leo. It must have just been another migraine.”

“Migraine? … Another? I thought your head injury was healed,” he stated, openly surprised.

“It w-was… it is,” she clarified to try and placate him. “But I’ve been getting these headaches… it’s not a b-big deal, Leo,” she said as she noticed his troubled expression.

“Come on, Sakura, I’m taking you to Sister Natasha right now,” Leo said, grabbing her hand as he started to drag her outside.

“Leo! S-stop it!” she protested, pulling her hand back. She couldn’t help but be slightly chagrined that his first inclination was to visit the pretty blonde cleric, wondering if he perhaps had other motives for wanting to go to her. “I already went to see her when the migraines first started. She said that there’s n-nothing wrong with me.”

“Then she might have missed something. We’ll go to Father Moulder then,” he reasoned, reaching for her hand again.

“L-Leo, please!” she cried out. “I promise that I’ll g-go see him tomorrow, but it’s late, and I… I don’t want to leave things unresolved between us.”

He stopped and stared at her, suddenly looking unsure. “Sakura, it’s okay. I shouldn’t have just sprung everything on you like this tonight. I should go, anyway. You can take as much time as you need to think about what I said,” he told her.

“No, d-don’t go yet,” she requested hurriedly, causing him to hesitate. “Please, Leo, I don’t n-need time. I think I want the same things you do. I want to be your f-friend, too, only… I’m afraid,” she admitted.

“Afraid?” he questioned, confused.

Sakura nodded. “What if you... change your m-mind again?” she asked in a small voice. She didn’t think she could take it, if he decided to reject her once more. It’d already been painful enough the first time.

His face looked anguished for a moment before reverting to its usual comportment. “I really hurt you before, didn’t I?” he remarked, sounding ashamed.

She glanced away from him, remaining silent.

“Sakura, look at me,” he said, putting his hands on her shoulders. She didn’t obey at first, but he persisted until she complied with his request.

“I give you my word that I won’t push you away again. I swear this on my honor,” he vowed. “Please, Sakura. I know that you’re wary, and you have every right to be. But healing can only begin with trust.”

Trust? ...Could she truly ever trust him, an enemy of her kingdom, a prince of Nohr?

Yet, staring at his serious but soft brown eyes, seeming so earnest and determined, she already knew the answer to that.

“Leo,” she finally responded, smiling warmly at him. “You’re r-right. I trust you. And nothing would make me h-happier than to call you my friend,” she told him sincerely.

He grinned back at her and suddenly his hands, which were still resting on her shoulders, pulled her into a hug.

As she was drawn into him, Sakura felt her face turn beet red. Previously Leo had always seemed reluctant to offer any form of physical affection, but perhaps he felt more comfortable around her now. Yet somehow, as he apparently became more at ease with the notion of touching her, she only started feeling more awkward about it. Although this wasn’t even the first time he’d ever held her, she couldn't help but notice that it was the first time when he hadn’t been wearing his armor, and without that extra layer between them she felt oddly nervous.

She soon let herself relax, though, moving her hands to rest lightly on his back. It seemed too easy to just let herself enjoy the feeling of her cheek pressed against his sturdy chest, listening to his heart beating steadily into her ear.

Sighing contentedly, she then closed her eyes and snuggled further into him. He chuckled softly and she could feel the tremors in his body as he did so.

“You just really like to fall asleep on me, don't you?” he asked.

She felt herself smiling into him. “Mmhmm,” she hummed.

Giving the tops of her shoulders a final squeeze, he gently pushed her back. “I should go now,” he said, somewhat reluctantly. “You need to get some rest,” he commanded softly, rubbing his thumbs gently into her upper arms. “But, promise me first that you’ll go see Father Moulder tomorrow?”

“I w-will,” she responded, nodding at him. “Goodnight, Leo.”

"Goodnight, Sakura," he replied, appearing less burdened than he had in a long time.

For a second she almost asked him to stay with her until she fell asleep, terrified that the horrible feeling from earlier might return once she was alone. But, realizing how ridiculous she would sound, she instead just shook off the thought as she watched him leave. Besides, Neimi would probably be back soon anyway.

Sakura didn’t have to worry, though. Once he left, she found that she couldn’t stop herself from smiling as she thought of the Nohrian prince. Despite her tiredness, it took her a long time to fall asleep, so excited she was at the prospect of seeing him again tomorrow.

Chapter Text

The desert of Jehanna was a wretched place, as far as Leo was concerned.

Having been raised in Nohr and being accustomed to spending the majority of his time indoors, Leo generally preferred to stay inside whenever possible. The desert thus seemed like his own personal hell, with its sun scorching into him at infernal degrees. The sun’s rays appeared to be especially attracted to his black armor, which had the added bonus of making him feel like he was moving around in a portable oven.

Aside from his excessive discomfort, there was another reason to hate the desert, and that was its frustrating terrain. His horse could barely get its footing in the accursed sand, causing his movement to be severely limited. This was an important battle to rescue Princess Eirika from the Grado generals, Caellach Tiger Eye and Valter Moonstone, and Leo was hardly even making an impact.

But every battle was important now, and the stakes just seemed to get higher and higher each time Ephraim’s army fought. As things stood, Leo had been hoping that the confrontation with Emperor Vigarde at Grado Keep several days ago would have been the end of this war. Yet, although the emperor had been defeated and the Grado capital had ultimately surrendered to Ephraim's forces, it seemed like this war was only just beginning.

To everyone’s surprise, Emperor Vigarde had been nothing but an empty shell of a man. The emperor had actually died from an illness one year ago, and had been a puppet of the Grado prince, Lyon, ever since.

The thought of a nation's ruler being completely controlled by an outside force immensely unsettled Leo for some reason, although he couldn't quite put his finger on why. Perhaps it was because the reported changes in the emperor's behavior made Leo think of his own father, who he could vaguely remember being a kind man many years ago...

But of course, making a connection there was absurd. His father may be many things, but he was no one's puppet. Besides, Vigarde had died and Lyon had used the power of the Sacred Stone of Grado to bring the man back to life.

The Stone of Grado must have possessed unique powers in order for Lyon to have accomplished such a feat. According to Magvelian lore, which Leo had studiously been reading up on at every opportunity, it was once used to seal away the Demon King, and it alone held the demon’s soul. The stone burned with the Demon King’s rage, and was therefore known to those in the continent as the Fire Emblem.

But in Lyon’s attempts to harness the stone’s power and save his father, he’d ended up fracturing the Fire Emblem into two pieces, a Sacred Stone and a Dark Stone. It seemed that the Dark Stone was now the true source of this world’s evil, containing all of the rage of the Demon King’s soul without the power of the Sacred Stone to temper it.

After Grado had fallen, Leo had been hoping to finally find Myrrh’s father and go home. Yet, he knew that Ephraim and Myrrh couldn’t rest until this final evil was defeated, until Prince Lyon was defeated.

For now, though, after a grueling march with very little rest, the army sought to recover Jehanna’s Sacred Stone and aid Princess Eirika. Ephraim had outwardly remained the picture of calm during the march north, but Leo could sense his friend’s desperation to reach his sister in time to rescue her from the two dangerous generals pursuing her. He’d undeniably pushed his soldiers to their limits in order to get to his sister as quickly as possible, and they hadn't even taken the time to plan a sound strategy for the battle.

Leo could certainly empathize with the prince’s concerns, and he wanted to help his friend in any way that he could, but for his part he seemed doomed to stay out of the action thanks to the bothersome desert terrain. Of course, he wasn’t the only one having trouble. Everyone on a horse was having ample difficulty trudging through the soft, hot sand.

Leo looked around to see how Sakura was faring on foot, but to his alarm, he couldn’t find her anywhere nearby. Had she really gotten so far ahead of him, then?

Taking a moment to distract himself from the hellish sun, he let himself reflect on the Hoshidan princess. Before the battle at the Grado Keep, they’d finally mended their relationship and solidified their friendship. Leo hadn’t deserved her forgiveness, and yet, she’d freely offered it to him.

Even just the thought of her seemed to warm him, and in a much more pleasant way than the infernal desert climate.

But… where was she?

Leo tried to quell his rising panic. Just because he’d lost sight of her didn’t mean that she was in any immediate danger. Still, there were two menacing generals roaming about, one of whom had a wyvern and was rumored to be particularly ruthless.

Gods, if anything ended up happening to her…

“Franz,” Leo called out to the fatigued blond knight behind him. “Have you seen Sakura?”

“No, not recently,” Franz replied, also looking worried. “But I think she was going that way,” he said, pointing east in the direction of Grado’s wyvern forces.

Thanking him, Leo veered off from the northbound cavaliers and headed in the direction that Franz had indicated. He knew that General Seth was leading the procession toward Princess Eirika to aid in her rescue, but Leo was sure that Ephraim would reach his sister on foot long before them.

Sakura, on the other hand, didn’t have an army coming after her if she was in trouble, and Leo needed to ensure her safety. Surely he was just worrying over nothing, but he’d feel better once he could see her with his own eyes and confirm that she was unharmed.

As he saw the squadrons of enemy wyvern riders roaming the skies, though, he couldn’t ignore the terrible feeling that was rising in the pit of his stomach.

“I can’t believe all the great stuff that’s buried in this desert,” Colm said, digging out a tome from the sand as he spoke. “I wonder what this does?” he asked as he brushed the excess grains away from it. “It looks like some kind of ancient scroll.”

“Colm,” Neimi interjected, sounding uneasy. “We’ve really drifted pretty far away from the rest of the army. Maybe we should start heading back now?”

“Oh, quit your whining, Neimi,” Colm told her, rolling his eyes. “I didn’t hear you complaining when I gave you that Killer Bow I found.”

Neimi only responded by sniffling.

“C-Colm, please, I think Neimi’s right,” Sakura said, barely even able to see Prince Ephraim’s army anymore from where they were. Besides, if they weren’t careful, they’d likely be spotted soon by the group of enemy wyvern knights circling the sky slightly to the south.

Finally taking a moment to look up from his treasure, Colm frowned. As he saw the wyvern riders coming slightly closer to their position, he nodded in agreement. “Alright then. Let’s go back,” he acquiesced.

General Seth had initially ordered Colm to keep an eye out for any items he could find in the desert during the fight, having heard from a villager that helpful objects were lying about from an ancient skirmish. Still, Colm had been so effective at being able to find these hidden treasures that he, Neimi, and Sakura might have gotten a bit carried away.

Neimi and Colm had taken down their fair share of enemies during their excursion, but for the most part, the three of them had steered clear of any major threats. Now, though, they were getting dangerously close to General Valter’s main forces. With the majority of Prince Ephraim’s soldiers having gone north to rescue Princess Eirika and face General Caellach, the last thing the three of them wanted was to fall into a skirmish.

Feeling nervous, Sakura found herself almost instinctively looking for Leo. Somehow he always seemed to be nearby whenever she truly needed him. All she saw, though, was a lone figure on horseback quite some distance away, heading slowly toward them. It might have been Leo, but the rider was too far away to even see clearly.

The three friends began hurrying as quickly as they could toward Prince Ephraim’s main forces, but a loud, dragon-like screech from behind them soon stopped them in their tracks.

“Well, well, well. Look at what we have here,” a man on a wyvern said tauntingly. “Two cute girls, and a thief with a nice big bag of loot. It looks like we hit the jackpot, boys.”

Sakura turned. Fear shot down her spine as she assessed the situation, realizing that they were outnumbered. There were two wyvern lords, including the talking man, and four other wyvern knights in the squadron that had found them. All of the wyvern riders except for the wyvern lord circling them were perched on a nearby rock plateau. She saw Neimi raise her bow, training it on the moving man, while Colm grabbed the Wyrmslayer he’d dug up in the desert earlier.

“General Valter lets us keep our own spoils of war,” the man continued, his wyvern flapping around menacingly. “You can have the treasure,” he said to the other wyvern lord, “I just want the girls. Try to keep them a little bit alive for me, if you can? Don’t scar their pretty little faces, at least.”

Sakura shuddered. She could hear Neimi crying softly behind her. “Don’t cry, Neimi,” Colm told her, his face a mask of anger. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” he promised, looking determined.

“Colm…” Neimi said, sniffling, leaving the rest of her words unsaid. Then she focused on Sakura. “Sakura, take my Iron Bow,” she instructed. Colm had found a Killer Bow and its arrows earlier in the desert, so Neimi currently had two bows and quivers on her person.

“Wh-what? But Neimi, I’m not r-ready,” Sakura responded in surprise. She’d been sneaking off with Neimi almost every day during the past month to have her friend teach her how to use a bow. Still, she was barely proficient, and she couldn’t imagine being able to hit a moving target - let alone a living human being.

“You have to be ready,” Neimi told her, and Sakura looked into her friend’s eyes which were shining with tears.

Neimi was right. They were outnumbered, and if Sakura didn’t help them combat the fliers, they would almost certainly die.

This was why she had wanted to learn how to use the bow in the first place, wasn’t it? To protect the people she cared about.

Nodding at her friend, she grabbed the Iron Bow and the second quiver, dropping her Sun Festal to the ground since she didn't have a way to currently carry both items. Following Neimi’s lead, she quickly trained her arrow on their enemies. Since Neimi was covering the circling lord, Sakura instead aimed toward the perched group. She knew that Neimi would let her arrow fly any moment now, and then, all hell would break loose.

It wasn't long before Sakura heard the sound of a bowstring releasing and the woosh of arrow.

The wyvern lord had been expecting the shot and dipped his mount down at a harsh angle to avoid it. The rest of the squadron soon left their perches, moving into formation.

Sakura loosed an arrow at them and missed, her arrow flying a few feet wide of the foe she'd been aiming at. Neimi shot another arrow soon after, taking down one of the knights as he slumped dead onto his mount.

The remaining riders in the squadron began to surround them, focusing their attacks on the two girls. They knew that Colm was only a threat if they got close to him, whereas the girls could take them out as they swarmed the skies, and seemed to be prioritizing accordingly.

The wyvern lord who had been talking before threw a hand axe at Sakura. He wasn’t aiming to kill her, though, likely wanting to keep the girls alive for his “spoils,” making it easier for her to dodge the flying weapon.

The other lord was clearly less concerned with such matters, as he aimed to run Neimi straight through with his spear. Before he could, though, Colm leapt toward him with an angry cry, tearing through the wyvern with his large, serrated sword, made specifically for piercing through the beast’s scales. The wyvern howled as its abdomen was opened, falling dead to the ground. Colm then savagely ran his sword into its rider, who had been lying stunned on the sand.

Sakura shuddered, returning her attention to the enemies closest to her. Shooting another arrow, this time Sakura managed to connect with one of the wyvern knights. The man screamed in pain as the arrow tore through his armor and into his flesh, his evident torment piercing into her as if she had been the one to get hit. She then watched in horror as he fell from his mount, his neck breaking with a horrifying snap upon its impact with the ground. The sickening sight caused her eyes to widen, and without thinking she lowered her bow.

She’d killed him.

Sakura had seen people die, and she’d seen her enemies killed in battle. It had always been a terrible thing to behold.

But, she’d never before been personally responsible for the act, and that felt a thousand times worse. She’d never be able to forget the man’s terrified look on his face as her arrow connected and he’d fallen to the ground… the sound of his neck as it snapped...

She felt dizzy, like she couldn’t breathe. A part of her that felt disconnected from her body thought that she could hear herself hyperventilating.

“Sakura!” she heard Neimi yell, trying to snap her out of her state of shock.

Blinking, Sakura saw Neimi aiming at a wyvern knight poised to strike at the archer.

Meanwhile, the other two enemies were both going after Sakura, likely noticing that she’d let her guard down. The talking wyvern lord, apparently no longer concerned with keeping his prey alive, was flying in front of her with his lance out, ready to swoop. The other knight flanked her, attacking from the left.

Colm managed to intercept the knight on her side, but if she didn't act soon then the wyvern lord was going to kill her.

“Sakura!” she then heard a voice screaming in the distance.

Was that… Leo?

Letting the sound of his voice give her strength, Sakura found herself raising her bow. Without taking much time to aim she shot a quick arrow at her attacker as he made his descent, only a moment before he could get too close for her arrows to become ineffective. It was pure luck that even caused her arrow to hit the man, as it somehow embedded itself perfectly into his neck.

Sliding off his mount, the man was making horrible gurgling noises on the ground while his wyvern howled at the loss. Before the beast could attack Sakura in retaliation for killing its master, Colm then cut through it with his Wyrmslayer.

Falling to her knees, Sakura watched the dying man writhe painfully in front of her. Oh, gods, she should get her rod and try to heal him, shouldn’t she? Looking around frantically for her Sun Festal, though, she had no idea where she’d left it.

Yet, it mattered not, because within seconds, the man was dead.

“Ah,” she gasped, putting her hand on her mouth. Realizing that she was holding her bow in a vice grip, she dropped it instantly, as if its wood were burning through her skin. Violently shrugging the quiver off of her shoulders, she then vomited into the sand, her body now shaking uncontrollably.

“Sakura,” Neimi said softly, kneeling down next to her. She gave Colm a worried look. “Are you alright?”

Sakura barely even heard her, her attention instead focused on the dead man in front of her who was still bleeding from his wound. His eyes were open, looking at her accusingly.

Oh, gods, what had she done?

Did you enjoy that, Sakura?’ a voice taunted her. Horrible laughter then began echoing in her mind.

“No!” Sakura cried out, clutching at her head. But the voice soon disappeared, as did her memory of it, leaving only a migraine in its place.

Despite her head hurting, she couldn’t seem to take her gaze away from the man she’d just killed. Sakura wasn’t sure just how long she’d been staring at the dead man when two strong arms picked her up, effortlessly carrying her away from the scene of the battle.

“L-Leo?” Sakura asked with confusion as she looked up at the face of the person carrying her.

“Shhh. I’ve got you, Sakura. Everything’s going to be okay now,” he promised.

Closing her eyes, she let herself take comfort in the feel of his arms and and the surety of his tone. How was he always so strong while she seemed to do nothing but fall apart? Why couldn’t she be more like him?

“I k-killed them, Leo,” she told him, opening her eyes again. She waited to see the revulsion on his face. Her pure heart - that was what he’d admired most about her, wasn’t it? She wasn’t pure anymore, though. He needed to know.

But the revulsion never came.

“I know. And I’m glad that they’re dead,” he added coldly. She could feel his hands clench more tightly into her body.

Reaching his horse, Leo placed her onto the saddle. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back,” he ordered, and then he headed back to the battle site.

She could hear him talking quietly to Colm and Neimi, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. If she hadn’t been convinced that the dead man’s eyes would still be looking at her, she might have looked over at them to see what was going on.

It was only a few moments later though that Leo reappeared, holding her healing rod.

“My S-Sun Festal!” she exclaimed as he handed it to her. “Thank you, Leo,” she said gratefully, putting it on her lap. Unlike the bow, it felt comforting to have it in her hands.

Leo nodded and mounted his horse behind her on the saddle. Wrapping one arm around her waist to keep her steady, he used the other to hold the reins. They then set off slowly on the sand with Neimi and Colm walking beside them, seeking to join the rest of Prince Ephraim’s forces.

Despite the fact that Leo’s black armor felt hot against her clothes and hair, Sakura leaned back into him for the rest of the ride, closing her eyes as silent tears began to fall down her face.

The desert battle had been a success. Although the army hadn’t come in time to prevent the destruction of Jehanna’s Sacred Stone, Princess Eirika had been rescued and the two Grado generals were now dead.

Afterward, Prince Ephraim had held a council so that his forces and Eirika’s could introduce themselves. They also discussed the army's next move, knowing that they needed to obtain a Sacred Stone to dispel the evil of the Dark Stone.

Considering that many of Magvel’s Sacred Stones had already been destroyed, their best bet was to return to Renais, where Ephraim and Eirika would be able to reclaim their homeland and obtain their kingdom’s stone.

With a plan in place the army made camp, preparing to begin the march to Renais on the morrow.

Once his tent was set up, Leo sought out Sakura. If he’d had his way they never would have even separated after her ordeal against the wyvern riders in the desert. However, she’d insisted that she was fine and that she was needed to help heal those that were wounded in the battle. Furthermore, Ephraim had requested his presence in the war council with the Magvelian royals, so he’d reluctantly agreed to their parting.

At least Leo had finally been able to meet Princess Eirika, who appeared to be as good-natured as her brother. She seemed less impulsive than Ephraim was, though, if perhaps also a bit more naive. At first she'd been unwilling to accept that Prince Lyon was behind this whole war, that he was the one who'd killed her father, but it’s not like Leo could blame her for her doubts. She and Ephraim had apparently been pretty close with the Grado prince, after all.

Meeting Prince Innes, on the other hand, had been much less pleasant. When Ephraim had introduced Leo to the group as his new tactician, Innes had mocked the prince of Renais for exalting a “young boy” to such a position. It had taken every ounce of self control for Leo to resist sending a tree through the sniper’s smarmy face, but somehow, he’d managed. Leo also noticed as Innes took every opportunity to try and one-up Ephraim, which only made him dislike the Frelian prince even more.

It wasn’t too difficult to put those events behind him, though, as he looked for Sakura. Upon finding her, he saw that a few cots had been placed outside next to the healing tent for the wounded to recover in, only one of which was currently in use. There must have been quite a few soldiers injured in the desert battle if they'd had to create an outdoor area to accommodate more patients.

Sakura appeared to be in charge of this section, as she was currently there attending to the green-haired mercenary, Gerik, who was bleeding heavily from his arm. She patched up the wound easily, but as the man got up to leave, she quickly stopped him.

“W-wait, Sir Gerik,” she said, tugging at his arm. “Something still isn’t right. You looked to be in p-pain as you stood up,” she observed. “Is something still ailing you?”

“Huh? Oh, it’s just a bruise I got in the battle, it's nothing to worry about,” he said with an easy smile.

“A b-bruise?” she asked with concern. “Where is it?”

“On my abdomen,” he responded.

Sakura looked unnerved. “Lie d-down, Sir Gerik.”

“What? But-”

“Lie down!” she repeated, this time more forcefully.

Looking both surprised and amused, Gerik obeyed without further protest.

“Now, l-lift up your shirt,” she commanded.

“You’re a bossy little thing, aren’t you?” Gerik questioned. “You keep this up and I'll soon be blushing like a schoolgirl. Tethys might not be too happy about it, though...”

“Wh-what? N-no!” Sakura cried out, turning as red as a tomato. Leo couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight. “Please, Sir Gerik, I just n-need to see your injury!”

“If you insist,” he said with a shrug, pulling up his garment.

Leo saw Sakura let in a sharp intake of breath. Whatever she saw must have been quite alarming.

“How did you g-get this bruise?” she inquired.

“A soldier rammed the blunt end of his lance right into my stomach,” Gerik told her. “Better that than the pointy end though, innit? My axe had chopped the tip of his spear off, so I got careless thinking that he’d been disarmed. I sure learned my lesson, though. It hurt like a bi- … erm, I mean to say, it hurt a lot,” he finished.

Nodding, Sakura pressed lightly on the wound. Gerik hissed and writhed, swatting her hands away. “Damn it, woman, what was that for?”

“I’m s-sorry for hurting you,” she apologized. “But this isn’t just a bruise, Sir Gerik. The t-trauma to your organs from the blow has caused them to hemorrhage. That is to say, you’re b-bleeding internally. I must heal the wound immediately.”

Gerik looked shocked, and Leo could see that the man was paling as he began to realize the severity of his injury. The mercenary nodded at Sakura to give his consent for her to proceed, and she lifted her healing rod into the air.

Leo watched her as she closed her eyes, her face the picture of concentration. He found his breath catching as the healing glow from the Sun Festal lit up her features, making her look almost ethereal against the backdrop of the night. The sight of her like that made something inside of him ache.

Her magic was strong, so it wasn’t long before she lowered her staff, its bright glow soon disappearing. The wound must have been severe, though, because her face looked worn from her efforts. Her hands then returned to Gerik’s abdomen, pressing once again where the bruise had been.

“Does this h-hurt?” she asked.

“Nope. I feel great actually,” Gerik reported.

“Oh, good,” Sakura replied, her voice filled with relief. “You’re all set, then, Sir Gerik.”

The mercenary pulled down his shirt and hopped off the cot. “Thanks, Sakura,” he said, patting her affectionately on the head. “I hate to think of what would have happened had you not noticed that something was wrong.”

“You’re w-welcome,” she responded with a slight bow. “I’m just happy that the injury was treated in time. Please make sure that you disclose all of your cuts and bruises going forward, no matter h-how insignificant you think they may be.”

“I’ve already seen what happens when I try to say ‘no’ to you, so I guess I’m just going to have to agree,” Gerik said, grinning at her. With that he nodded and took off, leaving a flustered Sakura in his wake.

Leo took that as an opportunity to remove himself from the shadows, approaching Sakura quietly.

“That was impressive,” he commented, his remark startling her. She turned, but as her eyes connected with his he could see her features relax. As she smiled at him, he found himself being drawn nearer to her, closing some of the distance that remained between them.

“Leo!” she acknowledged brightly, and he felt a thrill run through him as he realized that she was happy to see him. She had a way of always making him feel special and cared for, and he’d never realized how much he’d been starving for such affection until he’d met her and she’d offered hers so freely.

And yet, somehow, there were times when he felt like it still wasn’t enough, that he needed something more from her.

Perhaps it was that thought that caused him to step even closer. “I hope that you don’t mind, but I came to check up on you,” he informed her.

She sighed. “That’s very k-kind of you, Leo, but you didn’t have to do that,” she told him. “I’m sure you have more important things to worry about.”

“More important? No,” he responded with a smirk. He watched as a familiar blush warmed her cheeks and he resisted the urge to chuckle at how adorable she looked. “But back to the matter at hand,” he said seriously, “I know that you were… upset earlier. I wanted to see how you were doing.”

“Oh, I’m f-fine,” she replied, shrugging. He knew that wasn’t true, though. He could see that her eyes, which normally looked warm and inviting, now seemed dark and haunted.

Leo rarely felt remorse when killing his enemies… he sometimes even enjoyed it, truth be told, if his foe particularly deserved to die. But, he also didn’t have a kind heart like Sakura. For someone as sweet and empathetic as her, he knew that it must have been difficult for her to kill someone. Her natural instinct was to heal people, not to hurt them. That’s why Leo had been surprised to see that she even knew how to use a bow to begin with.

“You don’t have to lie to me, Sakura,” Leo said softly. “I was there, I saw the whole thing. For an agonizing second, I even thought that you were going to be killed,” he admitted, remembering his terror as he’d observed the battle from afar.

He’d felt so helpless, watching as the wyvern soldiers had attacked Sakura, Neimi, and Colm. No matter how hard he’d urged on his horse, the steed was simply unable to move any faster in the desert terrain. Even if he were to dismount and run, the sand would have prevented him from getting to the battle in time. Frustrated with his powerlessness, all he could do was watch.

At first he’d thought Neimi giving Sakura a bow was just an act of desperation, but Sakura proved to be somewhat capable with the weapon. However, after she’d killed one of the wyvern knights, she’d completely frozen up. When two of the riders had formed up to attack her, Leo had screamed her name in despair. To his great relief, though, she had finally raised her bow, killing one of her attackers while Colm dispatched the other.

“I’m s-sorry that I worried you, Leo,” Sakura told him. “I started training with the bow so that I’d be able to protect the people I care about. But I didn’t know that k-killing someone would feel like… like that,” she whispered, shivering.

Sakura suddenly put a hand to her head and her body started to shake. For a moment Leo thought he saw her eyes changing color, but she squeezed them tightly shut before he could get a good look. Leo had seen something like this happen before, just the other night, in her tent...

“Sakura?” Leo questioned, putting his hand on her shoulder. The second he touched her, her body calmed and her eyes shot open, looking normal. She brought her hand down from her head and was blinking at him, appearing confused. “What just happened?” Leo asked, frowning. “Was it another migraine?”

“Y-yes,” she confessed, but from the fear in her expression he felt like there had to be something more to it. She’d already gone to see Father Moulder a few days ago and he’d given the same diagnosis as Sister Natasha - that nothing was wrong with her. But could it really be that just stress alone was causing her headaches?

“Sakura,” Leo began, squeezing her shoulder lightly. “This war is clearly taking a toll on you. You're simply not cut out for the battlefield,” he said bluntly, doing his best to ignore the wounded look on her face. “You should just stay out of harm's way for the remainder of this war and pray for it to end quickly so that we can find a way home. A gentle person like you isn't suited for this life.”

“So you think I’m w-weak, then, Leo? That I’m nothing but a burden?” she asked him, hanging her head.

"What? No, I never said that!" he responded, taken aback. "You're a capable ally, Sakura, and you're by far the best healer in this army. But there's no sense in causing yourself this much suffering. Your migraines, you being forced to kill others… it's difficult for me to have to... see you like this."

“I m-may not be strong and brave like you, Leo,” she lamented, “but I can’t just sit by and do nothing while the people around me put themselves in danger. Even though I’m weak, I need to h-help in whatever way I can. I’ll do whatever it takes to help protect those that I care about. Please try to understand.”

He couldn’t help but smile at her. “You keep calling yourself weak, Sakura, but the fact that you face your fears and anxieties solely for the purpose of helping others shows just how resilient you really are. I truly admire that about you,” he said sincerely, watching her blush at his compliment.

“Thank you, L-Leo,” Sakura responded, clearly embarrassed. But he’d meant every word. She was unlike anyone he’d ever met. He’d never known anyone so determined to put others’ needs before their own.

He smirked at her. “Hey, I’m just calling it like I see it. But I do have one question,” he told her. “Why the bow? With your magical propensity, I’m sure that you could more effectively wield a tome. I could even… teach you how, if you’d like?”

He was surprised to watch as Sakura’s eyes grew sad. “Thank you, Leo, but… my m-mother used a bow. She was always so kind… s-so beautiful and brave. I hope that someday I can be just like her,” she confessed.

But aren’t you already? Leo wondered. Granted, he’d never met the late queen of Hoshido. Yet, the qualities that Sakura had listed already seemed to describe her quite aptly.

“B-Besides,” Sakura continued, “I’m a princess of Hoshido. When I r-return home, I will need to do what I can to protect my people, possibly against the Nohrian army. It wouldn’t be right if I used magic that you had t-taught me against them.”

“Of course,” Leo said flatly, feeling like he’d just been punched. He removed his hand from her shoulder instantly.

Why hadn’t he considered that? He’d been so concerned with enabling her to effectively protect herself that he hadn’t even thought of the fact that he’d essentially be helping to create an enemy soldier, a potential weapon against his people. Even with a bow she could likely do a great deal of damage if she were to become more proficient with it. Back in Nohr and Hoshido they also had Shining Bows, which would be an effective way for Sakura to utilize her skill in magic with that weapon type.

A familiar guilt ate away at Leo. He truly was a failure as a prince, a failure to his people. Xander would have never let himself forget his duty like this.

“Leo,” Sakura said softly, taking his hand in hers as she read the expression on his face. “I n-need you to know that I will do what I must to protect my people when we return home, but… but I could never fight you,” she conceded. “So, if one day you need to k-kill me for the good of Nohr... it’s okay. I’ll understand. I don't want you to f-feel guilty for doing what you must.”

“I don’t wish to discuss it,” he responded tightly, squeezing her hand in return. “Please, Sakura. It won't do us any good to speculate about what will happen if such events come to pass,” he told her, having had enough experience on that front. “We’re still not even sure if we’ll be able to return home, or when that will happen. By the time we get home, the war between our kingdoms might even be over. So let's just... enjoy our time together while we have it.” It was completely unlike him, to just live in the moment and not plan for the future. Yet, he justified it to himself by reasoning that there were simply too many variables to even account for in their strange situation, so there was no point in getting all worked up about it.

Although as he thought even more about his words, he realized that the idea of the two of them enjoying their time together seemed even more ridiculous, considering that they were in the midst of a war here in Magvel. And yet, the way she smiled at him made him wonder if perhaps they might be able to find some semblance of happiness after all.

“I’d r-really like that, Leo,” Sakura replied shyly.

Yes, perhaps the notion really wasn’t all that crazy...

“So, I guess I can safely conclude now that your frequent disappearances from camp were related to your bow training?” he asked hesitantly, hoping that she wouldn’t shut him out on the matter again.

But to his relief, this time, she didn’t.

“Yes,” she answered him. “I asked Neimi to teach me h-how to use a bow. It started out with just the t-two of us training together, but Colm and Franz soon found out. They thought it was dangerous for us to go off on our own, so they started to tag along,” she told him.

Leo found himself incredibly relieved to hear her simple explanation. He was still a bit wary at how close Sakura and Franz were becoming, but at least she wasn't sneaking off specifically to be alone with the blond knight.

“I see. Why didn't you just tell me that?” he wondered.

“Well,” she started, “you weren't t-talking to me very much at the time. Besides, I thought if you knew that I was l-learning to use a weapon, you would disapprove and try to stop me because I’m from Hoshido. The reason I w-was even training in secret in the first place was to hide it from you.”

Leo sighed. "Well, I don't approve of your secrecy, but I do understand," he granted. It's not like he could argue with her reasoning, as he likely would have tried to stop her considering the mindset he was in at the time.

“I’m sorry, Leo,” she apologized earnestly. “I g-guess we both could have saved each other a lot of grief if we’d both just been honest with each other about everything from the start.”

He wanted to promise her that she never had to worry about hiding anything from him again, that he’d always support her going forward. But instead he just found himself getting lost in her large, maroon eyes.

As if they had a mind of their own, his hands made their way to her sides, resting at her hips. “Sakura, I...” he started, his voice thick, but he soon stopped, unsure of what he wanted to say.

“Leo…” she said softly in response, leaning in more closely to him.

He wanted… he wanted…

“I should go,” he finally finished, pushing her away with a little more force than he’d intended.

“O-oh? R-right,” she responded, blinking quickly.

“Um… goodnight,” he said awkwardly, starting to reach his hands out toward her before pulling them back immediately, settling for a bow.

But why was he suddenly so flustered? This wasn’t normal for him...

“G-goodnight!” she called out to him, but Leo was already jogging away from her, slightly shaken.

There was something wrong with him. He wasn’t thinking clearly, and he wasn’t feeling right. His heart was beating way too fast and he felt like he might throw up at any moment.

Maybe he was getting ill? Perhaps he just needed to rest.

Yes, rest would make him feel better. That was all he needed... rest.

Chapter Text

It’d been so long since Ephraim had last been in Renais, and the state of his kingdom when he finally returned nearly broke him. Many of the once peaceful villages in his beautiful homeland were now in ruins, having been ravaged by some combination of Grado invaders, brigands, and demons. Yet, Ephraim knew that he needed to bear part of the blame for their destruction as well, since his people would have likely been counting on his protection… protection that had never come.

When Ephraim had initially charged off to Grado during the early stages of the invasion, he would have never, not even for a moment, thought that Renais would fall and his father would be killed. Perhaps if he’d stayed and focused on the kingdom’s defenses instead, then things would have played out differently. Ephraim had thought at the time that attacking Grado in their own empire would force the redirection of their troops away from Renais, but it’d ended up being a grave tactical error on his part.

Or, was that really all there was to it? A part of him wondered if it was just a thirst for glory that had driven him to rush headlong into Grado while his homeland was under attack. He remembered the thrill, the excitement as he’d gone off to battle, finally having a chance to shine at the one thing he was born for, to emerge from his father’s shadow as a hero of Renais.

And now, the effects of the decision he’d made… his father’s death, the destruction of Renais, all of the lives that had been lost... were a burden that he would have to shoulder forever.

As for Castle Renais, it wasn’t in much better shape than the villages he’d passed, and seeing his childhood home in such a state only incensed Ephraim further. Orson, a former knight of Renais who’d turned traitor for Grado, now ruled the desolate kingdom from its crumbling castle… but Ephraim would personally see to it that he was removed from the throne.

At least it wouldn’t be too much longer now. Without the support of the people or an army behind him, Orson’s mercenary forces hadn’t been able to keep Ephraim’s soldiers from entering the castle, and the siege had therefore been quick. Now that they were inside the keep, Ephraim had faith that the mercenaries remaining to hold it would be put down quickly.

“Ephraim!” a voice called out to him just after he’d speared through an armored knight with his lance, Reginleif. He looked over to see Leo riding toward him hurriedly.

“Leo,” Ephraim greeted, watching as the Nohrian prince casually plucked a purple light from his tome. A nearby enemy fighter was soon impaled by a growing tree, which then disappeared just as quickly when the man fell dead to the ground.

That tome… every time Ephraim saw it in action, he couldn’t help but be slightly awed by it. He’d never professed to be an expert in magic, but he would wager to guess that there was none of its ilk in Magvel. He kept meaning to ask Leo about the strange tome he carried, but they’d often had more urgent matters to discuss, like tactics and strategy. Not that their time hadn’t been well spent, however, as they’d yet to find themselves at a disadvantage in a battle. It may have been an unfortunate circumstance that had caused Leo to end up in Magvel, but Ephraim was more than glad to have the Nohrian prince on his side.

“Ephraim... most of the enemy forces in the castle have been neutralized,” Leo reported after scanning the nearby area for any additional threats. “There are a few soldiers still putting up a resistance, but the majority of those still alive are surrendering. However, the man holding the throne, Orson, refuses to lay down his weapons.”

“Orson…” Ephraim sighed, wishing he understood why the man had betrayed him.

“General Seth and Princess Eirika are with him now. The general seems eager to put an end to him, but the princess keeps trying to convince Orson to abdicate the throne without any more bloodshed. I don’t believe she’ll succeed, though,” Leo surmised.

“You might be right,” Ephraim replied. “Whatever led Orson to betray Renais would be something important enough that he wouldn’t want to surrender now. I don’t think he was motivated by anything as simple as a lust for power. Orson was never like that…”

“Forgive me for saying so, but do his motives for betrayal even matter?” Leo asked, although his tone was more cold than curious. “He is a traitor, correct? I’ve been reading up on Renais law and, similar to Nohr, the punishment for such a transgression is clear - by which, of course, I mean death.”

“Is everything always so black and white to you, then, Leo?” Ephraim wondered, unsure whether he should envy or pity his friend.

“Not everything…” Leo retorted, his eyes growing dark.

Ephraim gave him a sympathetic smile. “Well, I can promise you that I’m familiar with what Renais law says on the matter. But my people have already suffered greatly from my impulsiveness, and I won’t let that happen again. Orson will be removed from my father’s seat, Leo, mark my words. But if he dies this day, it will be because he gave me no other choice. Knowing Orson, compassion likely won’t change the outcome here, but regardless, I must not see it as a waste of time. My actions must reflect the kind of king I wish to be, the one that my people deserve.”

Leo tilted his head thoughtfully. “That… makes sense,” he finally conceded. “At the very least, it's quite noble of you, Ephraim. Personally, I’ve always thought that having compassion for one’s enemies was foolish and merely a reflection of weakness. Lately, though, I’m not so sure…”

“I don’t proclaim to know all the answers,” Ephraim replied with a shrug. “But my father always told me that the people will look to their king not just for strength, but also for hope. I want my actions to instill those kinds of feelings in my subjects.” He then chuckled slightly, shaking his head. “Ah, but if Seth could hear me now… although, that’s enough rambling for the moment, Leo. We need to get to Orson.”

Leo nodded, and the two quickly headed toward the throne room.

Right before they entered, Ephraim noticed that Leo’s attention was focused elsewhere. Following his gaze, Ephraim could see that he was looking intently at Princess Sakura. The princess was kneeling next to a dead body that had two arrows sticking out of it, laying one of her hands on the corpse’s chest. Her head was slightly bowed with her eyes closed, and Ephraim wondered if she might be in prayer.

Once her eyes opened again she spotted Leo, who was now blatantly frowning. Sakura offered Leo a smile in return, but to Ephraim it seemed slightly strained. In fact, it appeared to Ephraim as if she were quite tired, like she hadn’t slept well in days.

Glancing once more at Leo, Ephraim half expected him to be scowling at this point, but instead the prince’s features had softened. In fact, the expression of such open tenderness on Leo’s face greatly surprised Ephraim, and feeling as if he were intruding on a private moment between the two, he quickly darted his gaze elsewhere.

Matters of the heart had never interested Ephraim, and if anything, the thought of such sentiments only made him extremely uncomfortable. Still, there could be little doubt over what he’d just seen, and Ephraim wondered if Leo even realized that he was in love with the girl.

However, it wasn't Ephraim's place to involve himself in their affairs, and besides, he currently had more pressing issues to deal with.

Set on his task he entered the throne room, soon followed by Leo, who had to duck a bit under the archway while on his horse. There were only a few places in the castle that his cavalry soldiers could actually enter while remaining on their mounts, but fortunately, the throne room was one of them.

Seth and Orson were also currently on horseback, but Ephraim’s eyes first sought out Eirika. Although he knew that Seth would never let any harm come to her, he was relieved to see for himself that his sister was unhurt.

“Ephraim,” Eirika greeted tensely upon his arrival, “I’m glad that you’re finally here. Perhaps you’ll be able to get Sir Orson to listen to reason.”

“Princess Eirika... if anyone could understand my feelings, I thought it would be you,” Orson said woefully. “For the one I love, I betrayed everything. My country, my lord and master… everything. There’s no going back from that.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Ephraim saw Leo flinch at Orson’s words. But those words, they didn’t even make any sense...

“Have you truly gone mad then, Orson?” Ephraim asked, pitying the man despite everything. “It is well known that your wife died many months before this war even began. Do you think she rests peacefully in her grave now, knowing what you’ve done?”

“You're wrong, Ephraim. Monica is alive and happy. We are so very happy now,” Orson replied, sounding quite deranged.

It was clear to Ephraim then that the man had completely lost his senses and there was no point in trying to reason with him. “Orson... you will move from that place,” he demanded, gesturing at the throne. “That was my father's seat, and it will now be mine and Eirika’s. You've no right to it. Surrender now and I will spare your life.”

“I won’t let you come between us, Ephraim,” Orson responded, ignoring the order. “Monica and I will live happily here together. Forever…” There was a far off look in his eyes, but he was smiling.

“So be it,” Ephraim said, readying Reginleif and getting into an attack stance. Orson had showed no remorse for his betrayal, and his grief over losing his wife must have driven him to insanity. Death would be the kindest punishment that Ephraim could offer to him.

The battle was over quickly, as even the paladin’s advantage in experience couldn't match Ephraim’s skill. Perhaps if the knight had been of a complete mind then it would have been a closer duel, but with Orson’s facilities so compromised his fighting prowess had also suffered. Ephraim did everything in his power upon issuing the killing blow to make the man's death as quick and painless as possible.

“Monica...” Orson whispered with his dying breath before shutting his eyes forever.

And just like that, within an instant, Ephraim became the uncontested sovereign of Renais.

Ephraim knew that he should be happy to finally reclaim his father's throne, but the victory felt hollow. Lyon was still out there, after all... his best friend who'd started this whole war to begin with, the one responsible for killing his father. As much as the thought of battling his friend made him feel ill, Lyon was in possession of the Dark Stone and needed to be stopped. Only then could Ephraim work to usher in a new era of peace.

Not much time had passed before a soldier came running up to him, reporting that they'd found the room Orson had holed up in - his father's quarters. Apparently, there was also a woman currently resting there who was in very bad health. Ephraim planned to search the room for any documents or letters that might shed some light on Lyon's plans, but it seemed he'd need to bring a healer with him first.

Ephraim's first thought was to find L'Arachel for assistance, but she'd been avoiding him ever since he'd shown her the scar on his shoulder. He found himself oddly missing her presence, since things were almost too quiet without her around, but he'd give her some space for now. It had only been a silly misunderstanding, after all. He certainly hadn't meant to offend her delicate sensibilities, and she'd even been the one who had requested to see his shoulder to begin with... so she was bound to get over it sooner or later, wasn't she?

“Would you like for me to get Sakura?” Leo then interjected, and Ephraim recalled that Sakura had been right outside of the throne room when they’d entered.

“If you think she’d be up for it,” Ephraim nodded. “I thought she wasn’t looking quite… well.”

“Don’t worry. Healing people… that’s the part that she enjoys, the part that comes natural to her,” Leo said with a sad smile.

After Ephraim nodded in agreement, Leo hopped off of his horse and asked a page to bring the animal to the stables. As he left, Ephraim looked over again at Eirika, noticing that her eyes were now shining with emotion.

Yes, they were finally home again, finally back in Renais. Ephraim vowed then and there to himself that he would set right the wrongs that had been done to their kingdom, for Eirika and for his people, no matter what it might cost him.

Even if that meant killing his best friend.

Sakura stared at the dead soldier lying next to her, the one whom she'd killed earlier. As she knelt next to him and studied his features, she surmised that he likely wasn't much older than her brother, Ryoma.

Hoping to find something to distract her after the battle had ended, she'd gone to assist with the healing efforts. However, Princess L'Arachel had quickly sent her away, stating that there weren't many injured and she had things under control. Unsure of where else to go, Sakura then found herself returning to the body of the man whose life she'd taken, unwillingly drawn to this particular place of torment.

Perhaps she should be relieved then, that she'd only had to kill one soldier in this battle? Unlike the skirmish in the desert, her Sun Festal had been in higher demand here than her bow, but she'd still had to use the weapon at one point to help protect those trying to breach the throne room.

But he was just one man in the sea of bodies around her. His death shouldn't be any more upsetting than those of all the other soldiers, right? There was nothing to set him apart.

Only… there was. She'd been the one to decide that this man's life was worth less than the lives of the ones she cared about. Yet, maybe somewhere out there, there was someone who cared about him just as much. Someone who'd never see him again now, all because of her.

The guilt weighed heavily on her, but she kept her feelings silent. If everyone else could do this without falling apart, then she wouldn’t let herself be the weak one. Nightmares disturbed her sleep sometimes, and that was out of her control, but at least her restlessness didn’t seem to wake Neimi. And the migraines...

“Sakura,” a voice called softly to her, and she looked up to see Leo approaching.

It was silly, but even his mere presence comforted her, and she offered him a grateful smile for the distraction. Whenever he was near, it just seemed so much easier to face everything, to breathe in the sea of pain that sometimes threatened to drown her.

“Hello, Leo. I’m so g-glad to see that you’re safe,” she responded, sending a quick prayer of thanks to the gods.

“Well, of course I am,” he scoffed, and as he looked away from her she wondered if she’d offended him somehow.

Before she could say anything further, though, he continued. “Prince Ephraim requires your services,” he told her, causing her eyes to widen nervously. As he returned his gaze to her he must have noticed her apprehension, so he elaborated further. “There are reports of someone injured in the castle."

“Of c-course,” Sakura said readily, and was about to stand when she saw that Leo had offered his hand to help her up. He must have taken off his gloves after the battle, and she shyly clasped her fingers around his now bare ones. It seemed to take only a moment before he’d pulled her upright, and as he removed his hand from hers she found herself foolishly wishing that he hadn’t let go.

Doing her best to bury such frivolous thoughts, Sakura grabbed her Sun Festal from the ground and tied it to her side using the makeshift straps she'd sewn into her dress. But as she took her bow and attached it to her quiver, just like Neimi had shown her, her thoughts drifted again to the dead man beneath her.

“It’s not good to keep royalty waiting, Sakura,” Leo chastised, and Sakura’s attention immediately shot back to him. Even though his words were cold, his eyes were sympathetic, and she wondered if he was just purposefully trying to get her away from this place as soon as possible.

“R-right!” she replied anyway, just in case. Clearly she shouldn’t be dallying while someone was injured and needed her help, regardless.

“Go on then,” Leo ordered. “Ephraim is in the throne room. I’ll be right behind you, I just need to see to something first.”

She nodded, but as she scurried toward the throne room her curiosity got the better of her and she looked back over at Leo. He was whispering to a nearby page who had a bewildered look on his face. “Just do it,” Leo hissed sharply to the boy, which finally spurred him to action.

Sakura had no idea what he had ordered the page to do, though, because in an instant Leo was at her side again, guiding her into the throne room.

“P-Prince Ephraim,” she greeted with a respectful bow as she entered, noticing that Princess Eirika and General Seth were with him too. She gave them each a bow as well for good measure.

“Come, Sakura, there’s no need for that,” Ephraim said kindly, smiling at her. “Let’s go then,” he commanded to the party.

Ephraim, Eirika, and Seth led the way, expertly knowing their way around the castle, while Leo and Sakura closely followed. When they arrived at their destination, a room in the back of the castle, the vile smell coming from it was the first thing that Sakura noticed.

“That smell…” Seth said, and Sakura saw Leo tensing next to her. Strangely, he almost seemed ready to stop her as she followed the others into the room.

It was a large bedroom - the king's quarters, perhaps. Seeing a sick woman writhing on the bed, Sakura couldn't imagine why she would want to remain in a place that reeked so terribly. Her first order of business after tending to the woman's illness would be to have her moved to another room. Yet, as Sakura got a better look, she realized that it wasn't actually a woman on the bed at all. She looked like a... corpse… in a dress.

"Darling..." the corpse said as Sakura watched on in horror. But how could a dead woman possibly be moving and speaking? She knew that the Dark Stone had the power to reanimate the dead, as it had with the Grado Emperor, Vigarde. Still, this body was likely deceased for quite some time before it had been revived, and the flesh on her face was already rotting in decay.

“You, you’re Orson’s wife...” Ephraim stated in complete shock, and Sakura wondered what was going on. But nobody else seemed to speak.

“Darling… darling… darling… darling… darling… darling...” the woman kept repeating, making Sakura feel sick to her stomach.

“What? Brother, this… this is horrible,” Eirika remarked, echoing the thoughts of everyone in the room.

It truly was, there was no doubting that, and Sakura needed to do something immediately to help this woman. Taking a deep breath to prepare herself and almost gagging for her efforts, Sakura then moved in closer, raising her Sun Festal in the air.

Before she could begin her spell, though, Leo grabbed her by the shoulder and yanked her backward. “Sakura, don’t...” he warned.

She shrugged him off of her and moved forward again, raising her staff once more.

This time Leo grabbed her by the wrist, yanking on her roughly so that she spun to face him. Sakura’s rod fell to the ground with a loud clank, and Leo pulled her in closer until he was holding her in an embrace.

“L-let g-go of me, Leo!” Sakura shrieked as she struggled to get out of his arms, but he wouldn’t release her. “She’s… she’s… I n-need to heal her!”

“You can’t help her, Sakura,” Leo told her solemnly, and as much as she didn’t want to hear it, she knew that he was right. She finally ceased trying to get away and instead just sagged against him in defeat.

“Darling… darling… darling,” the corpse continued to say without pause, making Sakura shiver. Leo tightened his hold on her, and his touch seemed to be the only thing that was currently tethering her to her own sanity.

“Leo is right,” Ephraim confirmed darkly. “This same magic was used to control Emperor Vigarde. She’s already dead, and her corpse was used to...” he trailed off.

"Who? Who would...?" Erika trailed off in disbelief, and Sakura could tell that she was also suffering from having to witness such a scene. General Seth was looking at the princess with a conflicted expression on his face, as if he were unsure whether it was his place to offer her any comfort.

"Darling… darling… darling," echoed around them, and Sakura was at least glad that Leo hadn't shown the same hesitation. She wasn't as strong as Princess Eirika to be able to bear something like this on her own.

"You two needn't look any longer," Ephraim hastily said to Eirika and Sakura. "Let's go outside," he commanded gently.

Sakura couldn't obey that order quickly enough. Untangling herself from Leo, she grabbed her Sun Festal and hurried out of the room, with the sounds of the woman’s ramblings trailing her as she went. Only when Ephraim closed the door did blissful silence follow.

“You can't say that this... thing is truly alive anymore. I’ll... see to it,” General Seth offered stoically.

“No. I'll do it,” Ephraim replied. “The two of them spent every day in here, did they? Orson was mad. But I think he was happy.”

Sakura felt bile rising in her throat. It was all just so... awful, that someone would manipulate Sir Orson’s grief in such a way. That someone would bring a dead woman back to life so that she could suffer like this. The thought of Ephraim opening that door again and having to hear that woman once more suddenly filled her with anxiety.

“Come, Sakura,” Leo ordered, tugging slightly at her elbow as he likely realized this.

She nodded, and as the two began to depart she felt Leo’s hand on the small of her back, propelling her gently forward. Despite everything, she couldn’t help but notice the intimacy of the gesture, and she selfishly let herself enjoy the sensation so that she could block out everything else around her.

Truthfully, it wasn't as hard as it should have been. Her thoughts of him seemed to drown out everything else as of late, and even though she often tried to stop herself from indulging in any kind of ridiculous delusions of what she might mean to him, this time she actually welcomed the distraction.

DARLING. DARLING. DARLING,’ a voice then cackled in her head. ‘Is that the kind of love that you seek, then, Sakura? Don't you secretly wish that Leo could love you as much as that man loved his corpse bride? I bet it hurts you that he doesn't. But why should you let him hurt you like this? Wouldn’t it just be easier to accept the darkness and make all of the pain you’re feeling go away?

“No,” she whimpered. Her feelings for Leo, they weren’t something that could ever be twisted in such an evil way, were they? “Leo…”

“I’m right here, Sakura,” she then heard someone say, and when she opened her eyes Leo was, in fact, still with her. Her head was hurting, and she hadn’t even realized that she’d called out for him. “I’m sorry,” he then apologized, abruptly forcing Sakura back to reality despite the lingering pounding in her head. “I should have checked that room first to see what the… injury was before coming to get you. There was no reason for you to have seen that.”

Sakura shook her head. “There’s no w-way you could have known. No one could have,” she told him. “I j-just… sometimes I wonder…”

“What?” Leo asked, encouraging her to continue.

She looked up at him with troubled eyes. “I d-don’t know how much more of this I can take, Leo,” she admitted to him in a small voice. “The killing especially, that's the worst part. It would j-just be so much easier if I... if I didn't feel anything at all.”

He sighed heavily, and his concerned eyes seemed to pierce into her. “I wish that you weren’t hurting, Sakura,” he whispered softly, but when he looked at her in such a way, she could somehow almost forget that she was. Was this normal, to be able to lose herself in him so easily like this? Did he even realize that he had such an effect on her?

“However, I must confess...” he continued, and she found herself blushing at the thoughts that he was thankfully oblivious to. “A part of me is glad that this has been so difficult for you.”

“Wh-what?” she questioned, perplexed by his words. “But… why would you want that?”

“Because as long as it is, then that means this war hasn’t changed you,” he explained, smiling sadly at her. “Take me as an example, if you will. These same things that are tormenting you don’t even affect me in the least. It’s been a long time since I felt any remorse from killing an enemy, Sakura. While you abhor war and violence, I’ve simply just become accustomed to them.”

“So, as the w-war goes on, I might just become used to it?” Sakura asked almost hopefully.

“Perhaps,” Leo offered with a shrug. “Maybe each time you kill someone it’ll become easier. Maybe your conscience will draw a line in the sand, but you’ll keep moving it and moving it until you can one day kill, and watch others die, without guilt. And then, when that happens, you’ll finally get your wish and stop feeling anything at all. But if I’m right, then you’ll just turn into me and I… I don’t want that for you. It wasn’t until I met you that I even…” Instead of finishing his sentence, though, he only tensed and looked away in frustration.

Yet, even though he seemed agitated, she suddenly found herself smiling. “Thank y-you, Leo,” she told him sincerely, but when he glanced at her again she could see that he was confused by her gratitude. “If being more l-like you is the worst that I have to fear, then I… I know I’ll be okay.”

“Sakura,” Leo started with exasperation, but his cheeks were also starting to color. “I don’t think you fully understand. My father… I've already explained to you why he must rule our kingdom in such a way, but some of the things that I’ve done, that I’ve been complicit in… I’ve done my best to manipulate situations when I can, to try and keep my soul in tact, but sometimes it’s impossible. I’ve needed to adapt as best as I could, and there are times that you… you wouldn’t even be able to fathom the cruelty that I’m capable of.”

Sakura looked at Leo thoughtfully, considering his words. He suddenly seemed so fragile before her, as if he were simply waiting for her to condemn him for his sins. But how could she when she had blood on her own hands? If she’d had his upbringing, his father, she likely would have long gone insane. Leo, though, he’d somehow managed to push aside his demons and become a… a hero. Her hero.

“Maybe you’re r-right, Leo. That might be a side of you that I haven’t truly seen,” she responded sadly, unable to even imagine what kind of horrible situations his father had put him in. He immediately stiffened and his eyes turned cold, and although she hadn’t meant to elicit that reaction, she seemed to understand now that this frosty exterior of his wasn’t his true self, it was only another layer of armor that he wore to protect himself from further pain.

“But, I can fathom the k-kindness that you’re capable of,” she continued, and his aloof appearance developed quickly into surprise. Beyond that, though, she could see his longing, as if he couldn’t dare to hope that he was something more than the broken scraps that his father had left behind.

“L-Leo… I know that you spend countless hours every night working on our battle strategies to keep everyone safe. And when I watch you fight, I can see that you have less c-concern for your own safety than for the safety of those around you. Even just that f-first day in Magvel, when I was nothing but your enemy, you were willing to risk your life for mine. B-but beyond that, you're always freely offering your wisdom and support to others, without ever expecting anything in return. I don’t even know where I’d be, if I’d even be able to c-cope with any of this at all, without you here to encourage me…”

She’d been hoping that her words would effectively convey her gratitude and appreciation for him, but instead they only appeared to make him uncomfortable. He suddenly started fidgeting, and she was instantly reminded of how he'd acted the other night in front of the healing tent, after the desert battle.

She was just always saying the wrong things around him, wasn't she?

“Don’t w-worry, though, Leo,” she added, wondering if the reason for his discomfort was that he was truly worried her conscience might deteriorate. “I promise that I'll never stop hating war, and I’ll never be at peace with k-killing others," she assured him. "But when the feelings of guilt start to torment or overwhelm me again, at least I can take c-comfort in knowing that it means I'm still deserving of your faith in me. Because that's something that I'd... I'd never w-want to lose.”

He abruptly grunted with amusement, and a wolfish grin then emerged on his handsome features. “Oh, I don’t think you’ll ever have to worry about that,” he told her through hooded eyes.

The impact of his words seemed to paralyze her, and she suddenly had to remind herself how to breathe.

How was she even supposed to respond when he just casually said such things to her? Should she smile? Laugh? Thank him? None of those things seemed like sufficient responses to convey how she was feeling at this moment. But since she didn't quite know what to say or do, she merely remained silent, and the awkwardness between them soon returned.

Long before he cleared his throat, she knew that he’d soon make an excuse to leave her again, and the fact that their conversations kept ending this way saddened her. He just meant so much to her, more than she dared to even acknowledge, but because of that there were times that she no longer seemed to know how to act naturally around him.

“I'm afraid I have to go now, Sakura,” he said predictably, and she did her best not to visibly deflate.

She nodded at him, but instead of leaving, he furrowed his brow at her, likely puzzled by her sudden gloominess. It wasn’t his fault that she kept causing all of this uncomfortableness between them, though, so she forced herself to smile.

“I wish I could stay, but there’s something that I need to take care of," he explained, and even though he sounded earnest she couldn't help but feel like she'd done something to push him away. "But I don't want to leave if you're still upset..."

"Oh! N-no, Leo, it's nothing like that. I'm fine, really, I was just worrying about something silly. Please don't let m-me keep you from your responsibilities," she pleaded. "I need to check on what medical reserves are here at the castle, anyway, since the army's supply is running low..."

He still looked conflicted, but he eventually nodded at her.

They then said their goodbyes and parted ways. And yet, each time he left her, it almost felt like he was taking more and more of her with him as he went. Parts of her that she wondered if she would ever even be able to get back.

Chapter Text

The hallways of Castle Renais were in noticeable decay as Leo made his way through them, but even the dingy environment around him couldn’t dampen his spirits. In fact, he wasn't able to stop a slight smile from settling on his features as his thoughts turned to Sakura.

It was difficult to describe how she made him feel, but sometimes it seemed like she was his lifeline, the one light bright enough to shine amidst all the darkness that surrounded them. All the misery and turmoil that they'd had to face so far, those were the things that he’d become accustomed to throughout his life. But the peace he felt whenever she was near him… that was something new, something remarkable.

He’d managed to identify that she’d had such an effect on him ever since he'd first met her, but the more he got to know her, the more addicted he became to the kindness and warmth that she so readily exuded. In return, he only wished that he could shield her from the shadows that threatened to extinguish her brightness, to protect her from all the pain they brought with them, but it seemed that he couldn’t even effectively do that. It frustrated him, to feel like she was exactly what he needed, what he’d always needed, while knowing that he wasn't able to fill the same role for her in exchange.

Although, perhaps that was for the best. Maybe this way, she’d miss him less if… when they finally went home.

His mood suddenly darkened.

“Ah, Leo. You’re a glistening ray of sunshine today, as always,” Forde’s voice broke into his thoughts, causing Leo to look up. He’d been so concentrated on his thoughts of Sakura, that he hadn’t even realized he’d already entered the throne room, where Ephraim, Eirika, Seth, and Forde were all gathered.

“My apologies,” Leo said as he realized that everyone in the room was now looking at him curiously. “I just came here to speak with Prince Ephraim. But is that… is that the Sacred Stone?”

“Ah, yes, it is,” Ephraim said, holding it out so that Leo could see it.

Leo felt his heart sink. It had an interesting glow to it, sure, but it seemed so small and fragile. Could that really be one of the stones of legend, what they were depending on to help them combat the dark influence of the Demon King?

“You seem disappointed?” Ephraim noted, although thankfully, he didn’t seem offended. “You can feel free to speak candidly, Leo.”

“Please, Prince Ephraim, I’m not disappointed at all,” Leo said, bowing graciously. He had to be careful not to act too familiarly with Ephraim when others who didn't know of his lineage were around, since talking to a prince as an equal would seem strange otherwise. “I just thought it would be more… substantial.”

“Gee, Leo, why don't you tell us how you really feel?” Forde deadpanned, but his eyes had their usual good-natured glow to them. “In fact, when Princess L’Arachel saw the Sacred Stone, I believe she described it as ‘truly spectacular.’”

“Yes, well, Princess L’Arachel also told one of our soldiers that his hangnail was a sure sign of the Demon King’s reemergence, so please forgive me if I tend to have a differing opinion than her highness on such matters,” Leo responded. Really, the only person that he’d ever met who was even more dramatic than Princess L’Arachel was his retainer, Odin, and he shuddered to think of them ever being in the same room together. He could thank the gods, at least, that Odin hadn’t ended up coming through the portal with him as well.

Ephraim just laughed, though. “Ah yes, she is quite… something, isn’t she?” he mused, shaking his head. “But anyway, Leo, how can I help you?”

“Actually,” Eirika chimed in. “Before you start… Sir Leo, would you mind telling me where I might find Lady Sakura?”

“Sakura?” Leo asked, and before he even realized it, he found himself grinning again. “She said that she was going to check on the medical reserves in the castle.”

“Perfect,” Eirika replied. “I need to speak with her about something. Please, everyone, do excuse me.”

Leo was intrigued by what Eirika might want with Sakura, but he noticed that he wasn’t the only one. General Seth was watching the princess with wistful eyes as she left, and Leo’s eyebrow quickly quirked up. Apparently, their general wasn’t quite as stoic as he appeared, then - at least, not when it came to Princess Eirika.

“Prince Ephraim,” Leo started after Eirika left, clearing his throat as he pushed his observations regarding the general aside. “I wanted to report that I’ve asked the pages to help move the bodies of the enemy army to the nearby graveyard for burial.”

“All the way to the graveyard?” Ephraim asked with surprise. “You plan to have the mass grave dug there, then? We likely could have found a closer plot of land for that.”

“Actually…” Leo hesitated for a moment. “I was hoping to obtain your permission to bury them individually.”

“Individually?" Ephraim inquired again, now sounding stupefied. "Leo, that’s quite considerate of you, and there’s certainly plenty of room in the graveyard, but... I’m afraid that we just don’t have the time for that. We’ll only be in Renais for another day or two to rest, plan, and re-supply before we head north to Rausten."

“If that’s the only issue causing you to refuse, then I beg you to reconsider,” Leo requested. “My tome, Brynhildr, will make short work of such things. I’ll be able to dig the graves and bury the soldiers with little effort.”

“You can… do that?" Ephraim marveled. "Leo... you must tell me about that tome of yours,” he then implored, and Leo could see the open interest written on his face.

“Brynhildr?” Leo asked, brightening as he thought of his weapon. “Of course, but… maybe another time?” he suggested, nodding subtly over at Forde.

“You’re right,” Ephraim responded, catching on quickly. “We have much to do, anyway, if we’re going to be burying all these soldiers. I’ll help you with the task, and so will Forde.”

“Me?” Forde asked with a whine, and Ephraim’s eyes seem to sparkle as he shared a knowing look with Leo.

“Yes, you, Forde,” Ephraim confirmed. “Seth, I’ll need you to help with the army’s provisions, and to come up with a list of names of who can be trusted to rule Renais in my stead once we leave. I would love for Eirika to stay behind and do so, but I know that she’ll refuse. She wants to find Lyon as much as I do…”

“Yes, my prince,” Seth responded. “Although, do you truly think it’s wise to waste your time... digging graves?”

“It’s not a waste of time, Seth, when it’s the right thing to do,” Ephraim said. “So, I suppose we better get started, then.”

As Forde gave Leo an annoyed look, Leo couldn’t help but smirk arrogantly back at him. Truly, he could care less about doing the "right thing" by his enemies… he was not nearly as noble as Ephraim when it came to such issues, at least. But, he thought it might make Sakura feel better to know that the soldiers they’d killed would have a proper burial, so that’s what he sought to do.

Having the chance to irritate Forde at the same time, though? Well, it certainly never hurt to kill two birds with one stone.

Perhaps it was just his imagination, but Leo swore that he could feel Brynhildr pulsing in agreement.

Sakura was in the castle’s infirmary, biting her lip in concentration while she leafed through the remaining medical supplies, when a rustling sound startled her. Dropping the vulnerary she had in her hands, she jumped and turned to see Princess Eirika standing by the door.

“Oh, P-Princess Eirika,” Sakura said, breathing deeply with relief. Anxiety suddenly filled her again, though, as she realized that the princess was likely wondering what she was doing. “I h-hope you don’t mind me going through your castle’s medical stock without permission. Our army’s supplies are quite low, and I j-just-”

“Please, it’s no problem,” Eirika interrupted reassuringly. “In fact, I appreciate you taking the initiative to do so… Princess Sakura.”

It’d been so long since anyone had addressed Sakura by her title, and she looked at the princess of Renais with surprise. “Leo t-told you who we are, then?” she asked incredulously, knowing that Leo had trusted Ephraim alone with their secret, and even that had only been out of necessity.

Even though she knew it was petty, Sakura could practically feel her heart sinking in her chest. She believed, of course, that Princess Eirika could be trusted… but had Leo already gotten so close with the princess of Renais as to share such a thing with her?

Not that she could blame him if he had. Princess Eirika was truly radiant, after all, so much so that it was difficult not to find her completely mesmerizing. She was beautiful, kind, strong, and everything else that a princess should be. It would make complete sense for Leo to be drawn to her...

“No, Leo didn’t tell me,” Eirika then said, freeing Sakura from her torment, and she couldn’t help but feel greatly relieved. “Ephraim did… and only because I begged him to. I could easily tell that he was hiding something when I asked him about Leo. But, please don’t be too mad at my brother. I was quite relentless, and the two of us aren’t used to keeping secrets from each other.”

"Oh n-no, not at all! I understand," Sakura told her, even though a part of her suddenly felt exposed. She apparently hadn't realized how much she'd appreciated being able to blend in with everyone else until she no longer could. Without thinking, she nervously started to crumple pieces of her dress in her hands.

“Um, have you found everything you were looking for here, then?” Eirika inquired after a slight silence.

Sakura sighed. “Unfortunately, no. Not as much as we n-needed, at least. I was hoping that I could refill our army's depleting medical supplies here, but it doesn’t look like anyone was upkeeping the stock in the castle. I don’t w-want to leave the people here in Renais with less than they'll need, so I’ll just take a handful of things and hope that we find a shop soon.”

“Understood. I’ll let Ephraim know,” Eirika told her.

Another silence then lingered.

“Princess Eirika, um... is there something that you n-needed from me?” Sakura asked, sensing the princess’s hesitation and wanting to help her in whatever way she could.

“Yes… there is, actually,” Eirika finally admitted. “You see, a friend of mine was seriously wounded in battle a few months ago, and even though he’s since been seen by healers, his wound still seems to pain him. I’m just worried about him, and I was wondering if you’ve ever heard of something like this happening before?”

“I see,” Sakura said thoughtfully. “Unfortunately, this is quite n-normal.”

“It is?” Eirika asked with astonishment.

“Yes,” Sakura confirmed. “As you likely know, when a non-fatal wound is not healed by a rod… I mean, a s-staff… the body will try to heal itself. This is a good thing, but unfortunately, our bodies are not as good at healing without magic to aid them. The b-body will first form scar tissue over a wound to try and prevent any further exposure to things that might cause the injury to become infected. Now, if such a wound is later treated by a staff, the magic might not recognize the scar tissue as something that needs to be healed, leaving it in place instead of turning it into healthier tissue.”

“Ah… so, it is the scar tissue that’s causing him pain, then?” Eirika said softly, and Sakura could tell that the princess was deeply troubled at the thought of her friend having to suffer.

"Almost, but n-not exactly," Sakura said. "The scar tissue itself isn't causing the pain, however, it doesn't offer as much protection as regular, healthy tissue. Therefore, p-putting pressure or strain on scar tissue, as one might do while fighting for example, could squeeze the nerves underneath quite painfully."

“Then… will the scar tissue ever heal naturally?”

“Yes,” Sakura said. “With time, and rest. It can take w-weeks, months, or even years depending on the severity of the injury. But, since time and rest are two luxuries that we d-don’t have while at war, your friend can try applying this cream made from some herbs for temporary alleviation," she offered, grabbing an item from the small pile she'd created. "This is the only jar that we h-have of this, unfortunately, so he'll have to use it sparingly for now. I’m not an apothecary so I won’t be able to make more when it runs out, but I’ll be s-sure to add it to the supply list for the next time we stop at a shop.”

“Oh, good,” Eirika said with relief. “Would you be able to deliver that cream to Seth… I mean, General Seth, then?”

General Seth?

Oh, well, that certainly explained things. Sakura could remember how the general had looked at the princess with such open concern earlier in Orson's room, and it seemed like that concern was mutual. Biting her lip as she thought about the situation, Sakura wondered if there might be something more than friendship between the two of them after all. Taking a deep breath, she resolved to do whatever she could to help the princess pursue her feelings for the knight if that happened to be the case.

"Actually, Princess Eirika, I-I'm quite busy so… so... m-m-maybe you should give it to him instead," Sakura sputtered. She looked away, red-faced, knowing that she was a terrible liar, but hoping that Eirika wouldn't pick up on it.

Of course she had, though. “Ah… my feelings are that obvious, then?” Eirika wondered with a sigh.

“N-n-no!” Sakura protested. “Forgive my presumptuousness, P-Princess Eirika…”

“Please, just call me Eirika,” the princess said kindly. “And you don’t need to apologize. You’re right, after all. Sometimes, I… I forget myself when I’m around Seth. And I suppose it’s only fair for you to speculate, anyway, considering that I’ve done the same regarding the relationship between you and Prince Leo.”

If possible, Sakura turned even more red. “Oh, n-no! Things between Leo and I aren’t… they aren’t l-like that,” she said quietly.

“But, you’d like for them to be?” Eirika pressed.

“Um, I d-don’t… I don’t know,” Sakura stammered. “I know that I care for him, very much, b-but… I’d… I’d never be a good match for him.”

“I think you might underestimate how truly charming you are, Sakura,” Eirika offered with a smile. “I can see that I’m making you uncomfortable, though, so I’ll leave the matter alone. But if you ever need to talk about your feelings, don’t hesitate to come and find me, okay?”

“Thank you,” Sakura said with a nod. “And the same goes for you, E-Eirika.”

“You have my gratitude, Sakura. And thank you for the cream,” Eirika responded brightly. Sakura could tell that she was excited to deliver it to the knight, and she smiled happily at the thought.

Yes, it was nice to be reminded that something so wonderful, like love, could be born from something so terrible, like war. And if she could just focus on the good things, maybe she'd be able to get through this war in one piece after all.

Word of Prince Ephraim and Princess Eirika’s victory in Renais traveled quickly. Only one day after the army had defeated Sir Orson’s forces and seized Castle Renais, the people of the kingdom had gathered outside of the castle, greeting their returning prince and princess with loud cheers.

Their shouts were heartwarming.

“Prince Ephraim! Princess Eirika!”

“The king has returned! Our king!”

“Glory to Renais!”

“Long live King Ephraim!”

Although Ephraim hadn’t been crowned king yet, and likely wouldn’t be until the war was over, it was clear that the people viewed him as their true sovereign. Naturally the twins had been touched by the overwhelming display of support, and had gone outside to joyously receive the crowd.

But Sakura noticed that it wasn’t just Ephraim and Eirika who’d been deeply moved by the scene. All of the Renais soldiers had been affected by the impromptu homecoming, including her friends Neimi, Colm, and Franz. At one point during the celebration, Franz had even taken Sakura’s hand and kissed it chastely, making her blush in embarrassment.

She’d soon pulled her hand away under the guise of joining in on the resounding applause. Her eyes then subconsciously scanned the crowd for Leo, worried that he might get the wrong idea from Franz’s display of affection and scold her again, but the Nohrian prince was nowhere to be found.

Oh, Franz... Sakura had no experience in these kinds of matters, but she was starting to worry that the young knight might have formed feelings for her - the kind that were more than platonic. And under different circumstances, in another life, perhaps she could have returned them. She certainly couldn’t deny that he was kind, energetic, and, well... handsome. However, she didn’t belong in Magvel, and one day she might leave. Therefore, it’d be irresponsible for her to encourage his sentiments.

For a brief second she wondered how it might feel if Leo had been the one to kiss her hand instead, but she quickly dismissed the thought. Honestly, she didn’t even know why she would even entertain such a silly notion. Aside from the fact that he was a prince of Nohr and an enemy of her kingdom, Leo was so gallant and exceptionally intelligent. As she'd told Eirika, she’d be a poor match for him - after all, what could she ever possibly offer someone as remarkable as Leo?

With the Nohrian prince on her mind, she found herself looking through the crowd once more, but she still didn’t see him anywhere. Everyone except for Leo seemed to be accounted for, and she started to worry.

Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well? She figured that she ought to go check on him then, just in case. Excusing herself to Neimi and Franz, even though they likely couldn’t even hear her over all of the noise, she quietly slipped away from the large assemblage of people.

Once she’d managed to put some distance between her and the masses, she was actually able to spot Leo relatively quickly. He was up on a hill, sitting against a tree and watching the scene from afar. Fueled by her desire to see him, she began her trek up the green slope.

His eyes followed her as she approached, but she couldn’t read his expression. Suddenly nervous, she wondered if she should even be disturbing him. Their last two conversations had both ended in awkwardness, after all.

She froze in her tracks.

He volunteered a slight smile, perhaps in encouragement, but within his gaze she could sense a hint of sadness. Her concern for him instantly dwarfed her anxiety, giving her the courage to press onward. She just needed to make sure that he was all right, and then if he wanted to be alone, she’d be happy to give him his privacy.

“Um, h-hi, L-Leo,” she stammered hesitantly as she reached him. “W-would you like some company?”

“You don’t have to be so nervous, Sakura,” he told her. “I’m your friend, right? That means I’m always happy to see you. Come and sit,” he offered, patting the ground next to him.

“Oh, r-right,” she said sitting down. “I’m sorry for being so self-conscious. I guess I’ve just never really had a boy friend before,” she explained.

He raised an amused eyebrow at her, and she abruptly realized what she’d just said. “O-oh! I d-didn’t mean...” She could feel her face warming. Actually, it was burning. “I only m-m-meant that you’re a boy, and my friend, and even with Franz and Colm I don’t spend much t-time alone with them to t-talk about things, and, and...” she rambled. Finally she just moaned, putting her head into her hands as she wished that the ground would open up and swallow her. Did she really always have to be so gauche around him?

She could hear him laughing now, and her heart sank. “Ah, thank you, Sakura,” Leo finally said. “Having you nearby always make me feel better.”

“Huh?” she wondered, looking up at him in confusion. His eyes were shining with mirth, and the satisfied smirk he gave her made her heart skip.

“I knew what you meant earlier,” he started, “but watching you try to explain it was kind of adorable.”

His comment probably would have flattered her once, but now it only made her feel her feel a bit discouraged. She was glad that she could cheer him up, but she didn’t want him to see her in the same manner as he might view a younger sister.

“Why did you even come find me if doing so gave you so much anxiety?” Leo asked her curiously, breaking her from her thoughts.

“Well, I didn’t see you at the celebration so I g-got worried. I just wanted to make sure that you were okay,” she answered honestly.

His countenance changed and he was now looking at her with an expression that she couldn’t quite place. For a moment it felt like his eyes were almost feral, burning right through her with their hunger, but before she could try to make sense of it all, they then returned to normal.

“Thank you, Sakura,” he said, but his voice sounded gravelly. “It means a lot to me... that you care. I don’t usually have anyone checking up on me. And yes, I’m fine, I promise,” he assured her. “I guess it’s just... seeing Ephraim welcomed back to his kingdom in such a way made me miss Nohr.”

Sakura knew how much Leo wanted to get home, and she felt a pang in her chest at the thought of him hurting. “I understand,” she told him empathetically. “I want to go home too, Leo. Watching this is b-bittersweet in a way, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he nodded with a wistful smile. The two of them just observed the cheering crowd in silence together for a few minutes, until she saw something strange in the distance beyond them.

“Leo, what’s that?” she asked, pointing toward the nearby cemetery. “Are those all fresh g-graves?” But gods, there were so many of them…

“Oh… yeah,” Leo said nervously. “I had the bodies of the dead soldiers moved out to the graveyard, and then after I left you yesterday, I buried them.”

“The dead soldiers from the opposing army? You b-buried… all of them?” she asked, shocked.

“It wasn’t that hard, with Brynhildr,” Leo said with a shrug. “And I had help, of course. Ephraim agreed that it was the right thing to do, so he and some of the others chipped in.”

“But, why?” she wondered. “They’re y-your enemies…” Sakura was impressed that he would take the time to do such a thing, but he wasn’t usually one to spend much time worrying over those they'd killed in battle.

He shrugged again in response. “We’re always on the move, and so there’s never time to do anything but leave the bodies behind. But here, the bodies had to be moved from the castle anyway, and there was a graveyard nearby, so it seemed like a rational decision.”

“That was… a v-very nice thing you did for them, Leo,” Sakura told him, moved by his thoughtfulness. She knew that he could have simply ordered that the bodies be burned, or just have dug one mass grave to save time and effort, but instead he’d put each individual soldier to rest. Unable to help herself, she found her hand reaching for his, resting it on top of his fingers as she squeezed them gently.

“Well, truthfully... I didn’t do it for them, Sakura. I did it for you,” he confessed. She wasn’t sure whether she was more surprised by his admission, or by the way he so casually interlaced his fingers with hers, but she was sure that it was only her utter shock that prevented her from turning completely red. “It seems kind of morbid, now that I think about it,” he admitted with a smirk. “But I just thought you might feel a little better if those who died were laid to rest properly. I know from my studies that death rites are very important in Hoshido, after all.”

“That’s… I…” she whispered, once again unsure how she should respond. She kept trying to stop herself from thinking about him inappropriately, from imagining an impossible future in which he might care for her as more than just a friend. But how was she supposed to do that when he kept saying things that made her heart race? “Th-thank you, Leo,” she finally responded, smiling at him with complete adoration despite herself.

“Hmph,” Leo merely replied, waving his free hand dismissively, but she could tell by the glow in his eyes and from his nearly-imperceptible smile that he was happy.

A particularly loud cheer soon broke them out of the moment, though, and Leo subsequently frowned, his face deep in thought. “Sakura...” Leo began slowly. “We’ve been here in Magvel for almost two months now. How do you think your siblings have reacted to your disappearance?”

She sighed, the thought of it weighing heavily on her. “Whatever they think happened to me, they probably blame your family,” she answered reluctantly. “I’m s-sure that it was very hard for them to deal with losing me, especially so soon after our mother’s death and after what happened with my... w-with Corrin.”

Her siblings had suffered so much recently, and it broke her heart to think that her disappearance would have added to their burden. She forced herself to push down the sadness and the guilt, though, knowing that Leo was also hurting. He’d done so much for her, and she was determined to be there for him when he needed her.

“How about you, Leo? How do you think your f-family reacted?” she wondered.

Leo shrugged indifferently. “Truthfully, I’m not sure that they even cared. Corrin had just come back to us, so they were probably too happy about that to even notice I went missing.”

Sakura gasped. Leo had always seemed so sure of himself, and to hear that he harbored such insecurities about his family completely shocked her. “Oh, Leo, p-please don’t say that. Of course they care,” she assured him, but he only shifted himself further away from her, finally pulling his hand back from her grasp.

“Heh. Well, obviously,” he said aloofly, offering her another smirk. “Forgive me, Sakura. I was just being a bit melodramatic.” But she wondered if he meant that, or if he was only throwing up his walls again.

“Leo,” she said carefully, trying to stop him from shutting her out. “Maybe you were just j-joking before, and that’s fine. But I want you to know that if something ever happened to you, I would care. I w-would c-care, very m-m-much.”

It was difficult for her to even get the words out, as embarrassing as they were, and she felt her cheeks flushing yet again. Yet, when he reached out to her to pull her into him, nearly crushing her into his chest, she knew that the embarrassment had definitely been worth it.

“Sakura... thanks,” he whispered above her, and she smiled. “And for the record, if you disappeared I would care... very much... as well,” he told her.

She looked up at him, surprised to see that his cheeks were also tinted pink. Indulging herself for a moment as she let her eyes trace his features, she realized once again how truly handsome he was. Watching his long, soft bangs as they rested on his face, she suddenly had the strangest urge to reach out her hand and run it through them.

Quickly, she dismissed the thought. “Would you tell me about them, Leo? Your s-siblings, I mean?” she asked, making no move to detach herself from him.

He looked a little surprised, but he nodded. “What do you want to know?” he wondered.

“A-anything. Everything,” she responded with a shrug.

Smirking at her, he nodded. “As you wish,” he granted. “I suppose then, that I should start with Xander...”

As she sat there in his arms, listening to him talk and simply enjoying his presence, she suddenly found herself wishing that they could stay like this forever.

The sun was starting to set. Leo was amazed that he and Sakura had been talking for so long. It must have been hours. Still, the time had passed all too fast.

They’d both shared stories about their siblings and their childhoods. Leo had even briefly mentioned the bitter times, or what he’d often thought of as “the concubine wars.” These were things that he couldn’t remember ever talking about, not even with those closest to him.

The only subject he’d completely glossed over was Corrin, and since she hadn’t asked him to elaborate there, it seemed like he’d made the right decision. He wanted to ask her why she seemed to let everyone into her heart so easily, even her enemies, but not Corrin. Still, she’d seemed so happy, and he didn’t want to bring up a sore subject that would only dampen the mood.

In return, he’d also learned about Sakura’s family and Hoshido. Every word she spoke about family was tinged with love, especially when she talked about her mother. He was extremely surprised when she spoke of her mother’s death, not necessarily because she had opened up to him about it, but mostly because the circumstances around the events didn't seem to make any sense.

First of all, what had happened with Corrin's sword? Had it really been what had killed the Queen of Hoshido? His father had given that sword to Corrin, after all. Prince Ryoma had made his accusations regarding the sword before the battle on the plains, but Leo hadn't put any stock into what he'd said. But if Queen Mikoto had died protecting Corrin, had his father actually wanted to kill his brother?

Impossible. It just couldn't be.

But then, there was the absurd fact that Corrin had turned into a dragon. If he hadn’t known how painful it was for Sakura to even think of his brother, he would have accused her of jesting. All of his siblings had ancient dragon’s blood running through their veins, yet none had the power to actually transform into a dragon. Based on Sakura’s retelling of the events, it also seems like his stolen sister, Azura, might know more about Corrin’s dragon form than she was letting on.

He’d really have to think more on this at some point. For now, though, they needed to get going, as much as he didn’t want to.

“Leo, it’s g-getting late,” Sakura observed hesitantly, echoing his thoughts.

“I know,” he responded with a sigh. He shifted his arms so that she could move about freely, somewhat embarrassed that he’d been holding her this entire time. He couldn’t help but notice that she hadn’t seemed to mind, though.

Leo stood and offered Sakura his hand to help her up. She took it happily and smiled at him shyly as she rose. As the dying rays of sunlight framed her face, he found that he couldn’t stop staring at her. She truly looked beautiful, just standing there in that moment.

“Leo,” she started, breaking him out of his daze. “You’re a very l-logical person, right?”

“Huh?” he wondered, blinking quickly. It was a strange question. “I certainly consider myself to be such, yes. Why do you ask?”

She looked up at him, and there was an expression of such profound sadness in her eyes that his heart constricted in his chest. “Do you really think we’ll m-make it back home one day?” she inquired seriously, her eyes searching his for answers he didn’t have.

The conversation they’d been having about their families must have made her miss them terribly. Leo wanted to comfort her, to assure her that they’d return home soon enough, but he knew that empty promises weren’t what she needed from him right now. As much as it might hurt, he had to be honest with her.

“Truthfully? I... I guess I don’t know,” he responded, watching as her shoulders sagged. “We still aren’t sure how to find or create a portal home. Hopefully Myrrh’s father can help us, but if not, we’ll be right back where we started...” he trailed off.

It was the answer she’d been expecting, but still, he could see that it’d hurt her. Tears began to dampen her cheeks, and he couldn’t stop himself from brushing one away gently with his thumb.

“And where would you go then, Leo? If you w-were stuck in Magvel, that is,” she clarified while she sniffled.

He shrugged. “I suppose I haven’t really considered it much yet. Does it make a difference?”

“I g-guess not, but… would it be okay… w-would you mind so m-much if…” she trailed off.

“If what?” he encouraged gently. He could tell that she was embarrassed, but her eyes were burning with need.

“If… if I went w-with you?”

He was taken aback by her question, only because he’d never even considered a scenario in which he’d be in Magvel without her. The thought truly hadn’t even crossed his mind. “Of course you can,” he said softly, and he could see that she was visibly relieved.

“Sakura…" he started again, overcome by a pressing need to reassure her even further. "I know that this is hard, the thought that we may never see our brothers and sisters, or our homelands, ever again. And even if we do make it back, I’m a prince of Nohr. You're a princess of Hoshido, and our countries are at war. I don’t know what will happen. But, what I do know is that as long as we’re here in Magvel, I’ll never leave you. As long as you want me by your side, that's where I'll be. This is my promise to you,” he vowed. “I know that this can never make up for losing your family, but it's… it’s all that I have to offer you in this world.”

“Leo...” she whispered gratefully. Her bright eyes seemed to glow from her tears, and she was looking at him in a way that no one ever had before. It made his heart beat faster, and he swallowed hard.

He’d been trying for so long to find a logical reason to explain why they’d ended up in Magvel, to understand who or what could have sent them here... but what if it had just been fate all along? What if, instead of being a curse from the gods, it had been a gift, so that he could meet her and keep her in his life? Because, if he was being completely honest with himself, that was what he truly wanted, wasn’t it?

And everything instantly became clear to Leo in that moment, as if he’d been blind for so long but could suddenly see.

He was falling in love with Sakura

In fact, he'd been falling for her ever since he’d first encountered her, when she’d been trying to heal and comfort the dying Nohrian soldier in the Hoshidan woods.

It seemed so obvious once he finally realized it, but Leo had always been so accustomed to trusting reason over emotion that he was only now able to understand the true nature of his feelings. It was both liberating and terrifying at the same time, but somehow, the fear he was feeling wasn't driving him away... in fact, it only made him want something more. He couldn't even explain such a paradox, but surprisingly, this time he didn't even want to.

Allowing himself, for once, to just act without thinking, he put his hands on her shoulders and tilted his head down to kiss her.

Sakura’s eyes widened in surprise once she realized what he was doing, but they soon fluttered closed as she angled her face upward to receive his kiss. He shut his own as well, encouraged by her response. Yet, before he completely narrowed the distance between them, he first rested his forehead against hers, wanting to give her ample time to pull away in case she’d changed her mind.

When he felt her moving slightly beneath him, he thought for an anguished second that she actually might have. However, he soon realized that she was only trying to lean up closer to him.

No longer could he endure the sweet torment, the tantalizing agony expressed only in his shaky breaths. One of his hands instinctively moved to cup the side of her head through her silky hair, which ultimately helped him guide his lips to what they were so impatiently seeking.

But, just as his mouth had grazed against hers ever so slightly, so that he could barely even feel her temptingly soft lips against his, a loud voice suddenly interrupted them.

As if awakening from a spell, they both immediately jumped apart in embarrassment.

“Well, there you two are!” the voice coming up the hill boomed, belonging, of course, to the universe’s most irritating paladin... Forde. “I hope I’m not interrupting something?” the knight asked cheekily. “Although, it looks like I am. Poor Franz will be heartbroken...”

“And what do you want?” Leo snapped through gritted teeth, never wanting to choke the man more than in that moment… and that was saying a lot.

“Now, now, don’t be mad at me,” Forde said with a huff. “If anyone has the right to be angry, it’s me, after all. Do you think I wanted to have to walk all the way up this hill? I’d rather be in the castle napping. But you two have been missing for hours, so our general sent me to look for you to make sure that nothing terrible happened. There are still monsters roaming about, you know,” he chastised.

“Sir Forde, we are sorry to w-worry everyone and we appreciate you coming to find us,” Sakura said politely. “We were actually just h-heading back now.”

Forde raised an eyebrow. “Were you now?” he asked. “That’s interesting, because it looked to me like you two were-”

“Forde,” Leo interrupted darkly, his tone filled with warning. “I don’t think that we should keep your prince and your general waiting any longer then, should we?” He’d been trying to save Sakura from any further mortification, but her face was already tinged red and her hands were playing absently with her dress.

“Of course,” Forde said, bowing. “After you,” he offered, waving a hand forward.

Leo sighed with frustration. “Come, Sakura,” he said, putting his hand at the small of her back, but she nearly jumped out of her skin at his touch.

“Oh! Y-yes, L-Leo,” she obeyed, quickly scurrying away from him. He tried not to take her aversion to his touch personally, knowing that she was likely just extremely embarrassed, but he had to admit that it still stung.

Because they were in Renais, the army was able to barrack in the castle for the time being. Even if the castle was falling apart in some places, it was still a nice change from the outdoor tents, as far as Leo was concerned. But there was an early march to Rausten planned the next morning, so Forde had “suggested” that they both head straight to their respective rooms. They were barely able to even say goodnight to each other with the blond knight watching over them like a hawk.

That meant that Leo went to bed aggravated. He’d finally realized his feelings for Sakura, only to have no idea if she did, or ever could, reciprocate them. Sure, she hadn’t pushed him away when he’d gone to kiss her, but it’s entirely possible that she’d just gotten caught up in the moment.

And then there was the issue of his heritage. Could he really continue to pursue his feelings for Sakura when the chance still remained that he'd one day return to Nohr? It had been nice to let himself get lost in a fantasy earlier, to imagine that she and Magvel could be his true fate... but that was a pipe dream, not reality.

As he thought further on it, he suddenly felt like his heart and his head were pulling him in two different directions. And quite frankly, for the first time that he could even remember, he didn’t know what to do.

Chapter Text

Sakura awoke early the next day, much too early to be wandering about the castle. This, in turn, forced her to remain cooped up in her room for far longer than she wanted to be. In fact, it seemed to take ages before the rays of the morning sun finally conquered the lingering wisps of the obstinate dusk.

Stubbornly, Sakura's heart hadn't ceased pounding during this tedious wait, making it nearly impossible for her to go back to sleep. It also didn't help that every time she closed her eyes, she would remember the thrilling feeling of Leo's lips on hers, despite the fact that the sensation had only lasted for a brief instant.

But it had been her… her first kiss! And that it had been given to her by Leo had made it even more magical than she could have ever dreamed… almost too magical.

It had really happened, though… hadn't it? The notion of him kissing her was just so surreal, so unlikely, that it made her wonder if she'd merely dreamed it all. But she remembered every single detail, every passing second of that moment much too vividly for it to be something that she'd simply imagined.

Still, she had her reasons for her incredulity. Leo... he'd become so important to her during the two months they'd spent together in Magvel, but she could hardly even believe that he would care for her in such a way. Now that it seemed like he might, her own feelings that she'd been trying to keep carefully bottled up were starting to bubble to the surface.

It was all just so confusing, and she didn’t know what to think. In fact, everything would probably be a lot easier if she could stop thinking completely, since pondering on the matter only seemed to torture her further.

She’d therefore been grateful once the dawn finally came, using that as an opportunity to leave her room and keep herself occupied. Without wasting any more time, she went to the infirmary and grabbed the paltry pile of healing supplies that she’d previously gathered, bringing them outside to pack for the army’s march to Rausten.

The distraction didn’t seem to be working too well, however, as she couldn’t help but wonder what would happen today. Would Leo approach her, or, should she approach him? Or maybe he’d regret what had happened, and would want her to stay away?

The thought made her frown.

“Hey there, Sakura!” a friendly voice called out, and Sakura turned to find Neimi approaching.

“Oh, h-hi, Neimi. Where’s Colm?” she asked her friend, noticing that Neimi blushed slightly at the question. Neimi and Colm had certainly become closer since their ordeal in the desert, perhaps closer than Sakura had even realized...

“Colm wanted to search the castle one more time for hidden chests,” Neimi answered with a sigh. “Considering that this is Renais’ castle, I can’t imagine that Prince Ephraim or General Seth will be too happy if any treasure gets stolen, but that’s Colm for you.”

The girls giggled at that, and Neimi started to help Sakura with the packing. “And what about you, Sakura? You have an interesting little love triangle forming, don’t you?” her friend teased.

“Wh-what?” Sakura sputtered, horrified. “N-no, that’s not... Neimi, st-stop it!” she protested as her friend started to laugh.

“I’m sorry, Sakura, but I couldn’t help it,” Neimi said with a grin. Her eyes then focused on something behind Sakura, and her smile widened. “Don’t look, but here comes one of your suitors now.”

Sakura felt her heart lift, but as she turned to see Franz instead of Leo, she found herself deflating a bit. Not that she wasn’t happy to see Franz, of course, but after last night she’d been hoping...

“Hello, F-Franz,” Sakura greeted politely, forcing herself to shake off such unproductive thoughts.

“Hi, Sakura,” the young knight responded, and his face seemed to light up as he spoke to her. “Neimi,” he then added, nodding at his other friend, who brightly returned the gesture. “So, Sakura, I was looking for you yesterday after the celebration. Where did you go?”

“I’m sorry, Franz,” Sakura apologized. “But I w-went to go find Leo.”

“Oh,” the blond knight replied, suddenly faltering a bit. “But you’ll be marching with us today, right?”

Sakura couldn’t help but notice the hopeful tone of his question, and the last thing she wanted to do was disappoint him.

“Um, I...” she started hesitantly, knowing that if she stayed with Franz, Neimi, and Colm, then she wouldn't be able to talk to Leo about last night until the army rested again. She found her eyes suddenly scanning the area for the Nohrian prince, and she promptly spotted him by the outer edge of the castle, conversing with Prince Ephraim.

As if he could sense her gaze, Leo soon turned his head in her direction. Although he'd just been talking, it looked like his words had ceased mid-sentence. She could tell because his lips, the same ones that had kissed her so softly less than twelve hours ago, had abruptly stopped moving. Rather than continue his conversation, he appeared to have abandoned it completely, and instead he offered her a nod of acknowledgment. It was then that she noticed his eyes had a vibrant glint to them this morning, making him look even more handsome than usual... at least to the extent that that was possible. Without even thinking about it, Sakura smiled readily at him in return, but afterward she quickly turned away, embarrassed that she'd been caught staring in the first place.

“Hello, Sakura? Anybody in there?” Neimi asked in amusement, waving her hand in front of Sakura’s face.

“Huh? Oh, s-sorry,” Sakura said, and before she knew it her face was flushing. “I was just, um, t-trying to run through the supply list again to make sure I d-didn’t forget anything. But of course I’ll be marching with you, Franz.” She was a terrible liar, and her cover up sounded weak even to her ears, but Franz at least seemed satisfied by her response.

The three friends then fell into easy conversation as they all helped with the supply preparations, even though Sakura kept letting her mind wander to thoughts of a certain blond-haired prince. Colm then finally joined their group with his own bag of items, presumably obtained from the chests in the castle, and it wasn't much longer until the army set off north toward Rausten.

They’d only been marching a few hours, though, before everyone halted.

“What’s going on?” Franz asked. “It’s not like Prince Ephraim to take a break this quickly.”

“Monsters,” Neimi said, squinting in the distance. “I can see them... a lot of them. And they’re coming toward us. It looks like there’s going to be a skirmish.”

Sakura shivered. She wasn’t about to admit it to her friends, but the monsters in this world terrified her, even more than the Faceless she'd seen in Hoshido. She could still distinctly recall her first day in Magvel, when those creatures had relentlessly attacked her and Leo. Truthfully, they'd been lucky to even survive, and she wasn't eager to face such beasts again.

“Everyone, hold!” she heard General Seth call loudly, addressing the army. “Get into formation. Prepare for an attack!”

Franz scurried forward on his horse to get into the vanguard with Ephraim, Eirika, Seth, Forde, Leo, Gerik, Joshua, and Cormag. Sakura yelled after the young knight to be careful, but she stayed behind the front lines with her other friends, ready to heal or use her bow when necessary.

“Attack!” Prince Ephraim then yelled, leading his forces forward.

The chaos of battle suddenly erupted, with Ephraim’s army and the approaching monsters meeting together in a fierce struggle.

Beginning the battle with her bow, Sakura found herself much less hesitant to use it today. It was likely because they were fighting monsters and not human beings, but it also helped that she was starting to feel more confident in her archery skills.

Knowing that her Iron Bow wasn’t a very strong weapon, she focused her attacks on any nearby gargoyles she spotted, as they’d be susceptible to her arrows. Once some of the soldiers began to take on injuries, though, she put her bow away and brought out her Sun Festal.

She soon ended up at the left edge of the army close to Leo, who'd had a small wound on his side that she'd treated quickly. But as she was looking around to ensure that there were no more injured allies nearby, she noticed Myrrh behind her in the distance, all by herself. The manakete was looking carefully on the ground for something, and Sakura realized that she must have dropped her dragonstone if she was still in her human form during the battle. Yet Myrrh was so distracted by her search that she didn't notice an enemy was quickly approaching. It was a centaur-like creature with a purple-colored torso, wielding a large, purple axe.

"Leo!" Sakura cried out, knowing that he'd be the only one close enough to her position to hear her over the sounds of battle.

Likely noticing the distress in her voice, Leo immediately dropped back from his position and galloped over to her.

“Sakura, what is it, what’s wrong?” he asked urgently, his eyes scanning her hastily for injury.

“L-look!” she cried out, pointing to Myrrh. Leo’s eyes suddenly widened and he took off for the dragon girl in an instant, without even another word.

Sakura followed after him as fast as her legs could carry her, fumbling for her bow even though she was currently too far away from the enemy to use it. Since Leo was on horseback he was closing the distance between himself and Myrrh at a much quicker rate than she was, yet it still didn’t seem like he’d be able to reach the dragon girl before the centaur did.

“Myrrh!” she heard Leo shout in warning, and the manakete finally looked up and noticed her dire situation. A tree then burst out of the ground, looking to impale the centaur, but the monster used his axe to chop away at it before it could do its intended damage.

Sakura watched as Myrrh attempted to use the distraction to fly away, but the centaur gave chase. The creature circled around in front of her as she tried to flee, cutting off her lane of escape. Forced to stop abruptly, Myrrh simply looked up at the centaur, her eyes wide with terror.

Myrrh’s enemy laughed tauntingly as it brandished its axe, while Leo’s horse continued to sprint at the manakete. Sakura was surprised that Leo had already gotten so close, but he was truly riding at breakneck speed. Yet, in order to get to Myrrh in time, he couldn’t summon another spell or pull out his sword, leaving him completely vulnerable.

Sakura’s heart suddenly lurched with mind-numbing fear as she realized what was about to happen. It was as if time had slowed to a near stop, and all she could do was watch as Leo galloped in front of Myrrh to take the blow that was meant for her.

“No!” Sakura cried out as the centaur’s axe descended toward Leo. The axe then landed with a sickening thunk in his armor, piercing straight through it to the right side of his chest.

Leo screamed in pain as the blade sunk into his flesh, and Sakura wanted to cover her ears at the sound. The force of the blow had also knocked him clean from his horse, leaving him stunned and bleeding on the grass.

As Sakura sprinted closer to his prone body, she was about to drop her bow and grab her Sun Festal, but she quickly realized that there wasn’t time to heal Leo. The creature was already readying itself for another attack.

“Myrrh, r-run! Go get help!” Sakura screamed as she readied her bow, not even sparing the dragon girl another glance to see if she’d obeyed.

Lining up her arrow, Sakura aimed at the centaur and hit him square in the chest. The centaur yelled and halted its attack, looking in her direction with a hiss, but she knew that she'd hardly even damaged it.

The centaur then smiled at her and returned its attention back to Leo, not even bothering to remove the arrow now protruding from its skin. Sakura kept running, knowing that there was nothing she could do to stop him and that, if anything, she was only charging toward her own death. Still, she couldn't make herself stop.

Leo, for his part, was struggling on the ground, unable to move much. His injury was clearly severe, and she could tell that he was in a great deal of pain. Yet, even in such a position, he wasn’t helpless. He lifted his tome and plucked out a glowing purple light, readying some kind of spell.

Tree branches suddenly began to rise up from the ground, trying to ensnare the creature. Sakura knew by now that this was one of Brynhildr’s weaker invocations, but it must have been all that Leo was capable of summoning in his current state or with the time available to him.

The centaur screamed in anger, clearly irritated, but he broke through the tree limbs holding him in a matter of moments. It was clear that Leo's spell had sapped away some of his power, but it hadn't been enough to stop him completely.

Sakura was close to them now, so very close, only a few yards away. She dropped her bow and grabbed her rod, attempting to heal Leo once she did so, but it didn’t seem to be doing him much good. Perhaps his wound was too severe to close quickly...

Gods, there just wasn't time! There wasn't time to heal him, and yet, if she didn’t do something soon, then Leo was going to die.

Out of the corner of her eye she could see Princess Eirika running furiously toward them. If she could at least keep Leo alive long enough for the princess to reach them...

Doing the only thing she could think of as she watched the centaur readying itself for another attack, she threw herself onto Leo and covered him with her body, trying as best she could to protect him with her petite frame.

“No... run,” Leo managed to gasp through much effort.

Sakura ignored him and just held onto him even more tightly, burying her head around the plating of his armor into the crook of his neck. She could feel him struggling underneath her, but he didn't seem to have the strength to flip them over or throw her off of him so that she would avoid the attack. Instead, he did manage to use his tome once more, but once again his spell was too feeble to do anything but buy them a few more precious minutes together.

Leo groaned, trying to stay conscious, but he was so weak now that his tome slipped out of his hand and his eyes fluttered closed.

"Th-thank you, L-Leo," she whispered into him as she trembled with fear, "for t-trying so hard." For a devastating moment she wished that she would have taken the time to truly understand her feelings for him instead of trying so hard to ignore them all this time, but the fear was so paralyzing right now that it didn't allow much room for regret.

“,” Leo muttered in response. He seemed to be trying to say something else to her, and although she couldn't quite make out what it was, she knew that he was begging her to go. Yet, when she made no move to leave, he used the last of his strength to splay his left hand across the back of her head while laying his right arm weakly over her back. She thought at first that he was simply trying to hold her, but from the strange positioning, he might have been hoping that he could take as much force out of the incoming blow as possible so that she would survive it.

His arms wouldn’t be enough to save her, though, she knew. He’d just end up more injured if anything, which was the last thing that she wanted, but she found his embrace comforting nonetheless.

It would only be a matter of seconds now before she met her end. Sakura refused to look behind her to see how much time she had left, but she could see the shadow of the centaur’s axe becoming smaller, indicating that it was being lifted into the air.

"L-Leo!" she cried out in desperate terror despite herself, knowing that there wasn't actually anything he could do for her, and that there wasn't time to realize what he truly meant to her let alone share such feelings with him. The only sign that he was even still alert was the feeling of his hands pressing more firmly into her.

She at least wished that she could have been braver for him in her final moments, but... it would hurt, wouldn't it? Closing her eyes tightly, she held onto Leo with all she was worth.

The chilling sound of a weapon impacting flesh soon followed, but strangely, she felt no pain.

Finally gathering the courage to open her eyes again and turn her head, she then saw that the centaur’s chest had been impaled by a rapier. Assuming that the creature’s anatomy was similar to a human’s, the blade would have gone straight through its heart. The beast then gasped for a few moments before it fell dead to the ground.

"P-Princess Eirika," Sakura whispered in shock as she looked at their savior. "Th-thank you," she told the princess breathlessly, grateful that she was still alive as she tried to make sense of everything that had just happened.

Yet there wasn't time for such comprehension, and she abruptly returned her focus to Leo.

Sakura was still clutching the Nohrian prince extremely tightly, and his limbs even now encircled her in return. But as she loosened her hold and sat up to examine his wound, his arms slipped right off of her, falling limply to his sides. He was barely conscious and he was bleeding heavily from his chest. Sakura also noticed that she was already covered in his blood, merely from laying on top of him for those few harrowing moments.

“Myrrh came and got me,” Eirika told Sakura, bending down next to the pair. “Will he be alright?” she asked delicately.

“The wound is severe but it isn’t f-fatal,” Sakura replied with no small amount of relief. She quickly rolled off of Leo and scrambled toward her Sun Festal, which was lying on the ground only a few yards away.

“Everything w-will be alright, Leo,” Sakura said soothingly as she raised her staff to heal him, unsure if he could even hear her anymore. A familiar glow soon emanated from her Sun Festal. She concentrated on moving the healing magic surrounding her, and the warm feelings that came with it, into Leo’s wound.

“Sakura... something is wrong,” Eirika said urgently a half minute later, breaking Sakura's concentration and interrupting the spell.

“What? N-no,” Sakura replied, confounded. Lowering her rod, she knelt down next to Leo again. Despite the fact that the cut had been deep, Sakura had managed to close it… yet, if anything, Leo only looked worse. He was now fully unconscious and disturbingly pale, and his breathing sounded rapid and shallow.

Sakura glanced at the dead centaur's axe, and her heart sank as she suddenly realized why it had a purple hue to it. It was because the weapon was a venomous axe, covered in toxins to poison those that it hit.

“We n-need to get Leo back to the camp immediately,” Sakura said urgently. “He needs to be somewhere safe where I can attend to him. I think that Leo m-might have been poisoned by the axe that struck him.”

“Okay, don’t worry, Sakura. We can do that,” the princess of Renais responded level-headedly. Eirika then summoned Cormag over, who’d only recently come across the trio and had been circling nearby to defend them from additional enemy attacks.

“Sir Cormag,” Eirika started, “you need to get Sir Leo behind the fighting lines and back to the camp quickly. Tell whoever is there to help you raise the healing tent if they haven’t already, so that it will be ready for Sakura when she arrives.”

“Of course, Princess Eirika,” the wyvern rider responded. He and Eirika then delicately draped Leo over his mount’s saddle, causing the Nohrian prince to moan in pain in his unconscious state, but his discomfort couldn’t be helped. Hopping onto his beast, Cormag took off carefully to ensure that Leo wouldn’t slip off as he flew back toward the camp.

“Sakura,” Eirika said. “You can ride, right? Take Leo’s horse and get back to the camp as fast as you can. It isn’t far, so it shouldn’t take you too long. I’ll make sure that no enemies follow you, and I’ll tell Ephraim what happened.”

Sakura looked at Eirika, feeling distraught. “I... I...” she hesitated, shaking. This couldn’t be happening. Leo had to be okay. This couldn’t be happening... this couldn’t...

“Sakura!” Eirika snapped. “I know that this is difficult, but you need to stay calm. Leo needs you right now."

“You’re r-right,” Sakura agreed, doing her best to regather her wits. “Thank you, Eirika.”

Before mounting Leo's horse, which fortunately hadn't strayed too far away after Leo had been unseated, she made a point to grab Brynhildr from the ground. Leo would surely need it when he woke up, and she couldn’t just leave it here. Strangely, though, the mysterious tome seemed to be communicating with her, pulsing with a need that Sakura somehow recognized... a need for Leo.

As she spurred his horse into a gallop, she knew that she must be losing her wits once she started reassuring Brynhildr that Leo would be fine. Still, she could have sworn that she suddenly felt a surge of energy enveloping her body, revitalizing her hope and determination as she hurried onward to get to Leo as quickly as she could.

Xander suddenly felt a chill running down his spine, and he shivered accordingly, although he wasn’t sure what might have caused such an unsettling feeling. Truthfully, though, he’d been all out of sorts ever since Leo had gone missing yesterday, sometime during the battle at the Plains of Hoshido. It had been a full twenty-four hours now since he or anyone else had last seen his youngest brother, and Xander couldn't help but fear the worst.

It simply wasn’t like Leo to just up and disappear, especially in the midst of a war campaign. Of course the most plausible explanation was that he’d been killed in combat, but even so, Xander refused to accept that possibility. Besides, he couldn’t shake the unabating feeling he had that his brother was still alive.

Perhaps he was just being overly hopeful. Many had died during the skirmish at Hoshido, after all.

Yes, the casualties had been high within both armies, that much was true. In fact, Xander had been about to challenge the crown prince of Hoshido to try and end the battle once and for all, when a male sky knight had appeared to deliver a message to his desired opponent. Whatever the sky knight had told the Hoshidan prince had caused him to retreat in a hurry, to Xander’s great annoyance.

But that was also when he’d first noticed that Leo was nowhere to be found, and when he’d initially started to worry. His brother was almost always by his side during a fight, terrorizing their foes with Brynhildr and directing the placement of their soldiers for optimum strategy.

Noticing that all his other siblings were accounted for, Xander then pulled back from the front lines to inquire over Leo’s whereabouts, starting with his brother’s retainers. Niles, who normally had a witty comeback for everything, could barely even look at him, while Odin seemed completely distraught.

Realizing the severity of the situation at that point, Xander had immediately called for the Nohrian army to retreat. He needed to tell his father what had happened, and figure out what they could do to find Leo. Perhaps he truly wasn’t dead, and the Hoshidans were keeping him as a prisoner. Or, maybe he was injured somewhere, and Xander just needed to figure out a way to get to him…

On the way back to Nohr, Xander had ridden ahead of his siblings and the rest of the army to get to his father as soon as possible. Partly, though, he just needed to get away from them all. He couldn’t bear seeing the guilt on Corrin’s face, the rage on Camilla’s, or Elise’s complete devastation. He knew that he was supposed to be the strong one, their leader, their rock, but instead he’d left them behind like a coward.

But now he was home, and his father would surely know what to do.

Entering the throne room quickly and without any pomp or ceremony, Xander knelt down before King Garon.

“I have returned, Father,” Xander said, bowing his head.

“So you have,” his father replied, but he didn’t sound pleased. “I must admit... I never thought I’d see the day when my first-born son, my pride, would return to me with his tail between his legs, thoroughly beaten by the Hoshidan army.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Xander protested.

“Oh?” Garon asked, one eyebrow raised. “Then why else would you order our army to retreat?”

“It’s Leo, Father. He’s gone missing,” Xander reported, trying to swallow through the lump that was gathering in his throat. He needed to keep his voice steady when addressing his father, he needed to show his strength...

“And? Do you mean to say that you weren’t prepared for the casualties of war?” Garon asked coldly.

Xander stiffened. His father had changed throughout the years, that had been long evident. He'd become more ruthless and detached than ever, but surely he couldn't be that unfeeling about their brother - his own son?

“Father, please,” Xander pleaded. “We need to regroup and use our resources to form a search party. We may also need to parlay with the Hoshidans to see if they’re holding him prisoner...”

“I expected less sentimentality from a future king of Nohr,” Garon chastised. “Your brother is dead, you know this as well as I do.” Xander flinched. “It’s a shame that we weren’t able to at least recover his divine tome and pass it on to one of your sisters, but sometimes, these things can’t be helped.”

Xander grit his teeth, barely able to rein in his temper. But he knew better than anyone of his duty to his kingdom, to his father, and he wasn’t one to question his father’s orders. At least his father’s sniveling advisor, Iago, wasn’t there to make things any worse than they already were. “Yes, Father,” Xander finally replied obediently, but the words rose like bile in his throat.

“I've heard reports that the barrier protecting Hoshido is down. You will therefore return to Hoshido with our army, and crush their kingdom once and for all,” Garon commanded. “Nohr needs their resources if our kingdom is to prosper, after all.”

"I understand," Xander said listlessly. "But our main forces have been severely weakened. We'll need to wait for reinforcements which will take several days. We've also lost any element of surprise, so future attacks on Hoshido may be difficult. And without Leo to aid in our strategy…"

“Yes, you’ve truly blundered by retreating, haven’t you? Any additional deaths caused by your sentimentality should weigh heavily on your head. Hopefully, it will serve as a valuable lesson for you in the future,” Garon added.

“Yes, Father,” Xander answered again, clenching his fists. He then got up quickly, giving his father a sharp bow. Retreating from the throne room without another word, Xander somehow managed to retain his decorum. It was only then when he realized that he'd completely forgotten to inform his father that Corrin had returned to them.

No matter - that could wait. For now, he would follow his father’s orders, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that his father was wrong. Leo was out there, somewhere, and they’d find him soon. He just knew it.

Because believing anything else was simply unbearable.

As Sakura returned to the camp, she saw that the healing tent had already been erected. Sir Cormag’s wyvern was waiting obediently next to it, so Sakura knew that the man must already be inside. Dismounting Leo’s horse and entering the tent hastily, she noticed that Cormag had placed Leo onto a cot and removed his armor. The black shirt that the Nohrian prince usually wore underneath his plating had also been removed, leaving Leo barechested.

Cormag gave her a worried look, and she could see why. The wound on Leo’s chest had opened again, causing it to bleed. Worse, though, the venom had turned the edges of his flesh near the injury black, as if it were rotting. With the foul substance on the axe beginning to circulate through Leo’s bloodstream, Sakura knew that the blackness would only spread throughout his body until the toxins had been fully eradicated.

There were no healers in the tent, so it was likely that they'd all been deployed in the surprise skirmish and were still out on the battlefield. Leo had gone too long without any treatment, then, and she'd have to hurry. Putting Brynhildr down on the table nearest to Leo's cot, she used her rod once again on Leo to close up his wound. Yet, she knew now that her Sun Festal would do nothing to rid him of the venom in his system, which was the true cause of his deteriorating health.

“Sir Cormag. I just did inventory this morning, and I know that we don’t have the supplies that we need here to treat Leo. I therefore need you to go and f-find me some antitoxin, or a restore staff,” she ordered calmly. “There might be a village nearby that can help.”

She turned to the wyvern rider, and as she looked into his concerned eyes, which were especially noticeable on his hard, scarred face, she suddenly felt her authoritative healer facade slipping away. "P-Please… hurry," she begged, noticing that her voice suddenly sounded small and scared.

"I will find what you need," Cormag promised, nodding at her reassuringly. He left quickly without any objection, and Sakura heard the screech of his wyvern as he once again took to the skies.

This was all her fault. She should have insisted to Ephraim or Eirika that they not leave Renais without finding some antitoxin first. But she hadn’t, assuming that they could just pick some up later without any issue, and now Leo was suffering for it. He could possibly even die because of her negligence…

And yet, she knew it wasn't her guilt that kept her glued to Leo’s side, sitting on the chair next to his cot. Besides, even without the antitoxin, there were things that she could do to help treat his wound. With the utmost care, she cleaned and then bandaged it, hoping that wrapping his injury would keep the poison-based infection from spreading as quickly.

The venom constantly persisted in weakening him and depleting his lifeforce, though, so she continued to heal him with her Sun Festal every few minutes to compensate. By the time a few hours had passed she was completely exhausted from the repeated treatment, but the misery and fear plaguing her kept her alert.

Eventually Leo began moaning in his unconscious sleep, and his body started thrashing as if he were trapped in a fever dream before calming once again. Running her hand across his forehead, Sakura promptly found that he was burning up, which made sense as his immune system tried to fight off the infection. She would have to remember to monitor his temperature to ensure that his fever didn't become too hot for his body to handle.

Her attention then shifted as the tent flap was pulled back, with Prince Ephraim, General Seth, and Sir Forde all entering. She knew that the battle must have finally ended if those three were here, and she could at least find some solace in that.

“Sakura,” Prince Ephraim started soberly, glancing over at his wounded friend. “Eirika told me that Leo was wounded protecting Myrrh. How is he?”

The prince of Renais was the picture of calm, but she could see freckles of deep concern staining his eyes. General Seth, on the other hand, looked grim, and Sir Forde seemed pale and anxious.

“The axe that hit Leo was v-venomous,” Sakura reported, making an extreme effort to keep her emotions at bay. “The blow cut deep, so the toxins have entered his bloodstream. I’m healing him as often as I can since the poison keeps weakening him, b-but I will need an antitoxin or restore staff soon to keep the toxins from spreading further if he’s g-going to…” her throat closed up before she could finish the sentence. “Unfortunately, we d-don’t have any with our supplies. Sir Cormag went off to try and find s-something that we can use from a nearby village.”

“I see,” Ephraim responded. “You look about ready to drop yourself, Sakura. I’ll send Father Moulder here to relieve you so that you can get some rest.”

“No!” she cried out, terror seizing her. “I’m n-not leaving him! Not until I know he’ll b-be alright.”

“Of course he’ll be alright, Sakura,” Forde told her confidently, but the slight tremble in his voice gave him away.

“I’m not g-going,” she repeated stubbornly. “Prince Ephraim, Leo needs me right now.”

“You’ll be no help to him if you pass out from exhaustion. You need to take care of yourself,” Ephraim urged softly, but she ignored him.

Instead she just returned to Leo’s side, raising her Sun Festal once more and chanting an incantation spell to heal him. Upon finishing, she noticed that his blond bangs were now dampening with sweat, and she put her hand on his forehead again to check on his fever. Frowning at the level of heat she felt this time, she knew that she needed to try and bring down his temperature. If the fever hadn't been caused indirectly by the poison then she likely could have used her rod to alleviate it, but considering the circumstances, she'd have to resort to other methods.

"I'll direct L'Arachel to heal any other wounded elsewhere so that Leo can lay here undisturbed. Also, Eirika wants to see you, but I'll tell her that now isn't a good time. However, I'm going to send Father Moulder to check in with you at regular intervals," Ephraim told her. Sakura barely heard him as she soaked a towel in a nearby basin of cold water.

Nodding at Ephraim to appease him, Sakura then returned her attention to the wounded prince. She gently brushed the hair on Leo’s forehead to the side with one hand, while holding the wet towel in the other. She was so focused on her task that she didn’t even notice when the three men finally left.

She began to dab gently at Leo’s burning skin with the cold towel, soaking it again when needed. At one point he started to writhe under her, his brows furrowing in distress.

“Nrgh… rnnn… Sak…ra,” he mumbled, his good arm raising up to reach out for whatever he was seeing in his nightmares.

“Shhh, it’s alright. I’m safe, Leo,” she soothed, easing his arm down to prevent him from hurting himself. “I’m right here, you don’t have to worry. I won't ever leave you,” she promised, running her hands through his soft hair to comfort him.

His face calmed and he stopped thrashing. She wasn’t sure whether it was her words, her voice, or her touch that had done the trick, but she was thankful nonetheless.

Satisfied when his fever had been brought down to a bearable temperature, she grabbed her Sun Festal. She’d been about to heal him yet again when Cormag came rushing into the tent.

“Sakura,” he said, breathing heavily, “I managed to find some antitoxin. I’m sorry that it took me so long.”

It'd been quite some time since he'd left and he looked drained, clearly having pushed himself to his limits to find the serum as fast as he could. “Thank y-you, Sir Cormag,” Sakura responded with a bow, her voice nearly bursting with gratitude and relief.

Without wasting another moment, she unbandaged Leo’s wound. She heard Cormag gasp at how terrible it now looked, as the black, poisoned flesh had already spread even farther across his chest, dangerously close to his heart. The wyvern rider handed her the antitoxin, which she studiously applied to his wound. She also applied some to the surrounding areas where the venom had already reached. Finally, she used her healing rod to restore Leo’s strength to him, which would hopefully further help him combat the infection.

“What now?” Cormag asked as he watched her rebandage Leo’s wound.

“Now,” she replied, “we wait.” Had the wound been less grievous, or had they been able to apply the antitoxin immediately, Leo probably would have shown instant signs of improvement. However, the venom already had ample time to spread itself throughout his system, and now she just had to hope that the antitoxin and Leo’s body would be able to fight the foreign substance.

“Sakura,” Cormag said, his voice heavy. “I… can I get you anything?”

She smiled up at him. “You are most k-kind, Sir Cormag,” she told him. “But you’ve done enough. I can never repay you for everything you’ve d-done this day. All I ask is that you find Prince Ephraim and let him know that you’ve found the antitoxin. I’m sure he’ll be happy to h-hear that.”

“Of course,” he answered softly. He gave her one last nod before leaving her alone with Leo once again.

Her attention immediately returned to the suffering prince while she sat by his side. His breathing was labored and erratic now, as if he were fighting for every single breath.

“Leo…” she pleaded, even though she knew that her voice wouldn’t reach him. She needed him to get through this, to survive. Her mind couldn’t even fathom any other possibility.

“Leo…” she said again, more desperately this time.

There was no response.

Closing her eyes, she did the only thing she could think of - she prayed. But her hopes that Leo would quickly recover seemed to dim as the night grew darker, and the sun that had started the day with so much promise soon set behind the mountains.

Chapter Text

A white void surrounded Leo, extending farther than he could see. It was as if nothing was everything, and everything was nothing.

He seemed to be floating through the vast emptiness, and he wondered if he'd always been drifting like this, if this was how he'd come into being. More importantly, would he ever stop?

It was strange, though, as he couldn't be sure if he was heading deeper into the vacuum while he drifted, or if he was instead moving farther away from it.

Flailing his arms out in front of him to try and halt his trajectory and regain his bearings, he abruptly became distracted by how his limbs looked. They were almost invisible, and unless he concentrated and looked very closely, he could barely even see them. For some reason, although he wasn't quite sure why, he thought that they were supposed to be more solid, more… corporeal.

“Leo…” he heard someone say, and his head quickly turned.

Leo? That… that was his name, wasn’t it? But who was calling out to him, and where were they? He couldn’t see anything, or anyone…

“Leo…” the voice said again, and this time its tone was more demanding, even though the sound was getting fainter.

That voice… he recognized that voice, didn’t he?

Yes… it calmed him.

He suddenly thought of another name. Sakura. He somehow knew that this was whom the voice belonged to. And that's all it took for his memories to start coming back to him, memories of her and of a time before he met her. Memories of two different worlds.

Yet it was Sakura whom he focused on. His entire essence seemed to warm at the mere thought of her, and he focused on that feeling. But, where was she? Gods, hadn’t that centaur creature been about to attack her?

“Sakura?” he called out into the void, but no one answered. He listened for the voice calling his name again, yet this time, he heard nothing.

“Sakura?” he tried again, slightly more panicked now. He needed to find her, but why wasn’t she answering him?

“Sakura!” he yelled frantically this time, but he was only drowning in the maddening silence. Somehow he knew that he was drifting farther away from wherever she was, but he didn’t know what he could do to stop it.

“Shh, Leo, it’s alright,” a different voice said. This voice was closer, much closer.

Leo blinked. A figure started coming into focus against the white. Blinking again, he tried to make out who the figure was. It was a woman, and even if her skin hadn’t been translucent like his, she still would have had an ethereal quality to her. Perhaps she was some kind of angel? She almost looked like…

“Sakura?” Leo asked, confused. The figure laughed lightly with a giggle that he nearly recognized, but something sounded slightly different about it. Leo tried his best to concentrate on her once again, but it was hard to see her transparent features against the blinding whiteness. Yet, after blinking a third time, Leo finally realized then that the woman didn’t look like Sakura at all. She was older, for one, and she also had long, black hair.

“Who are you?” Leo wondered curiously.

Smiling gently at him, the woman said, “My name is Mikoto.”

“Mikoto?” Leo asked, instantly becoming alarmed. “As in, Sakura’s mother, the late Queen Mikoto of Hoshido?”

She simply nodded.

“Then does that… does that mean I’m dead?” he wondered, trying to rationalize his situation.

“Don’t fear, young prince,” Mikoto said soothingly. “I am Sakura’s mother, yes, but you are not dead - at least, not yet. I’ve come to help lead you home.”

“Home… you mean, to Nohr?” Leo inquired.

She looked at him curiously for a moment, cocking her head ever so slightly. “Is that where you wish to go then?”

Happy memories of his life in Nohr flooded through him as he considered the prospect of finally returning to his homeland. Riding on his father’s shoulders when he was a young boy… spending time with all of his siblings, whom he loved dearly… meeting Niles and Odin. There were so many people he missed back in Nohr, people he longed to see with almost every fiber of his being.

And yet…

“No,” he finally spoke. “That’s not where I wish to go. Not without…” Leo didn't finish his sentence out loud, but he had a feeling that Mikoto knew what he was going to say.

Mikoto’s eyes were shining now, and Leo was struck by how much she reminded him of Sakura - not from her looks, but from her mannerisms, disposition, and demeanor. Leo could easily see how Sakura came to have such a kind, pure heart with a mother like Mikoto.

“Please tell me, Queen Mikoto,” he started, bowing his head to avoid what he might read in her eyes. “Is Sakura… is she still… alive?”

"She is," Mikoto affirmed, and Leo felt immeasurable relief wash through him. "And I am no longer a queen, Leo, so you don't need to address me as such."

Her voice sounded wistful, though, and he wondered if she might be thinking of happier times.

"So, are you ready to go, then?" she asked him. "But before you answer, Leo, I must caution you that if this is what you want - if you choose to leave here in this manner - then it will be quite painful for you. You are very badly injured back in Magvel, and you'll have to endure much suffering before you can regain consciousness," she told him.

He considered her warning carefully. Would it be worth the pain, to go back?

Yet the answer was clear, and it might have been the quickest decision he'd ever made. After all, no bodily pain could compare with the pain of never seeing Sakura again.

Gods, how he longed for her. He’d already come to the realization that he was in love with her, as terrifying as that was, but what surprised him was how much he needed her. It seemed like there wasn’t a part of him that wasn’t desperate for her in some way. His eyes needed to see her sweet face and her bright smiles... his soul needed to feed on her warmth. His arms needed to hold her, and his mouth needed to breathe all of her in.

His lips needed to kiss her...

Tabling those thoughts for a more appropriate time, should there ever be one, Leo nodded at Mikoto. "Yes, I'm ready to go home, Lady Mikoto," he said, dropping her royal title but unwilling to speak completely informally with her. "But, I… where are we? And how did you even find me?"

She sighed. “We’re nowhere, technically, I suppose. This place is somewhere between worlds, something between life and death. It seems to be where lost souls gather while they wait to be found. But the human spirit isn’t meant to remain here for long,” she added. “If you stay here, your soul will soon disappear, although whether it will go to an afterlife, a new life, or to nothing at all, I can’t be certain.” She then smiled warmly at him, the exact same smile that he’d seen on Sakura’s face many times before. “And my daughter’s prayers are what led me to you, Leo. She cares for you, very deeply.”

He found himself jubilant at her words, but his concern for Sakura's mother abruptly replaced any joy he felt, and he soon only had more questions. "Lost souls... but, why are you here, then, Lady Mikoto? Why hasn't your soul passed on yet?"

“It cannot,” she merely said, turning away from him, but not before he could see the pain in her face. “However, you cannot remain here for much longer, young prince, so we must make haste.”

He could tell from her response that she did not remain in this place by choice. He wanted to help her soul pass on, to repay her for all of her kindness, but she didn't seem willing to answer any more of his questions as he tried to figure out how to do so. Instead, she just grabbed Leo's translucent hand in hers and they glided quickly along the white. Leo had no idea whether they were going up or down, left or right, but he felt more and more energized the longer they continued.

Conversely, Mikoto seemed to be growing weaker as they progressed. "I must go now," she finally said, and he noticed that her spirit was slowly beginning to fade. "I cannot be here, this close to the world of the living, and my spirit will soon return to where we were earlier. Yet, you must keep on going this way."

“Thank you, Lady Mikoto,” Leo said gratefully, but she didn’t look at him. Instead she looked beyond the white horizon, her eyes filled with what looked like harrowing regret, as if she wished that she could follow him.

“I’ll tell her how much you love her,” Leo promised softly, hoping to at least provide some comfort to the forlorn queen. “Sakura knows that already, of course, but… it will make her happy to hear it nonetheless.”

Finally glancing over at Leo, Mikoto seemed stricken, but she’d almost completely disappeared at this point. “Oh, Leo, how I wish you could,” she responded longingly. “But you won’t remember any of this. Otherwise, I would warn you of all the danger still to come…”

"Danger? What danger?" Leo asked, suddenly troubled. "Will Sakura be all right?"

Even though Mikoto had evaporated into nothing by now, Leo could still feel her potent despair at the mention of her daughter. "Please, Lady Mikoto, if something will happen to Sakura, you must tell me! I swear to you, I won't forget."

He couldn’t even see her anymore, but he could hear her faintly. “I’m so sorry, Leo. You’ll need great strength of spirit to endure what's to come. But even without her, you must try to unite the two kingdoms. If you don’t, then all hope for your world will be lost.”

He felt fear seize his heart. “Without her… what do you mean, what’s going to happen to her? When will this happen?” But Mikoto was gone now, and unable to answer his questions. “Lady Mikoto? Please, I must know!” he cried out desperately, but his pleas merely dissipated into the void.

Leo cursed the blasted whiteness, but he knew that he couldn’t remain here and sulk. He had to get back to Sakura immediately and protect her from the threats that Mikoto had been alluding to, whatever they might be.

Continuing hastily on his way, his body began to surge with warmth, with life. But those invigorating feelings eventually dissolved into excruciating pain, causing him to scream.

Then, the world around him disappeared, and senselessness soon followed.

"Brother, please, we're only wasting time!" Takumi ranted while Ryoma watched him pace. "The Nohrian scum have our sister, and you just let them get away!"

“Takumi…” Azura said, trying to put a hand on his brother's shoulder to comfort him, but Takumi just shrugged off her touch.

Ryoma sighed, but he couldn’t exactly disagree with his brother. The timing of everything during the battle had been very strange. Almost instantaneously after he found out from Sakura’s retainers that she had disappeared, the Nohrian army had retreated.

But how could anyone want to harm Sakura, his sweet little sister? The thought that she could be a Nohrian prisoner, or potentially even be dead by now… Ryoma couldn’t bear it.

Gods, anyone but Sakura! Still, why would the Nohrians take her? Hadn’t they already done enough to his family?

"Takumi, I understand how you feel," Ryoma empathized, trying to calm his brother. "But, we can't be impulsive. Our army suffered heavy losses during that last battle, and we can't just go chasing the Nohrians back into their homeland. This can be some kind of trap, after all. In the meantime, Hinoka, Subaki, and Hana are looking in the plains for any sign of Sakura, while Saizo and Kagero are keeping a close eye on the Nohrians."

"That's not good enough!" Takumi shouted, taking an arrow from his quiver and snapping it in half with his hands. "We all know that the Nohrians are responsible for her disappearance, one way or the other. You're just too much of a coward to face them!"

“Takumi, enough!” Ryoma boomed.

“Please, both of you, stop fighting!” Azura cried out. “Sakura wouldn’t want this…”

“Well that’s just rich, coming from an interloper like you,” Takumi hissed, and Azura looked down to the ground sadly.

“Takumi, don’t talk to your sister that way,” Ryoma scolded.

“Oh, so you’ll defend her, but not our real sister when she needs you?” he asked with bewilderment. “Fine. But if something happens to Sakura, her blood will be on your hands.” And with that, he stomped away, kicking a rock as he left.

“Azura, I’m sorry about Takumi,” Ryoma apologized, trying to focus on the bitter accusations that his brother directed at her instead of the ones directed at himself. After all, things had been difficult for his stolen sister ever since Sakura had disappeared. Many now looked at her with open distrust, whereas before they would at least keep their suspicions of her behind closed doors.

“It’s fine, Ryoma. I’m used to it,” Azura said stiffly. “I’ll feel better once we know that Sakura is okay.” She then left without another word, leaving him in solitude.

Gods, his family was falling apart. He put his head in his hands, trying not to feel overcome with despair as he recounted the events of the past few days.

His mother was dead. Corrin was gone… again. Sakura was missing. Hinoka was off somewhere, obsessively looking for their sister with Sakura’s retainers. Azura was being openly ostracized. And Takumi was even more ill-tempered and volatile than ever.

How had he let this happen to them? He should have been able to protect them all, to keep his family together, but instead he was nothing but a failure.

Takumi was right. Sakura's blood was on his hands. But if the Nohrians really were responsible for the disappearance of his sister, they would pay. And if Sakura was dead… then he'd personally see to it that every single Nohrian was destroyed.

Starting, of course, with the Nohrian royal family.

"What? We're going back to fight Hoshido again?" Corrin asked, clearly upset. "But, Leo might be-"

"It's not up for discussion," Xander interrupted stoically, even though it pained him. "Leo's retainers are already out looking for him, or for any clues of his whereabouts. The rest of us, though, will be needed for battle - these are Father's orders."

“Of course Father would want us to avenge our baby brother,” Camilla said to Xander and Corrin, smiling sweetly even though there was darkness in her eyes. “I’ll kill them all for what they’ve done to him.”

“Avenge?” Elise asked, putting her hand to her mouth. “Does that mean you think that Leo is…” she didn’t even finish her sentence before she started crying.

“Oh, my sweet, please forgive my careless words,” Camilla backtracked, pulling her sister into a hug. “There there now, darling. I’m sure that we’ll find Leo soon…”

“Xander, can I talk to you privately?” Corrin requested quietly while Camilla continued to try and soothe Elise.

Xander nodded, and the two walked off until their sisters were out of hearing range. "Xander, something isn't right here," Corrin observed. "Did Father not direct us to search for Leo at all? Even if… even if Leo were dead, wouldn't he want it confirmed? And wouldn't he want to get our family's divine weapon back?"

“You don’t give Father enough credit, Little Prince,” Xander said with a sigh. “Surely, you must have thought about it? If Leo is dead, then whoever killed him probably would have taken the tome already. And if Hoshido is holding him prisoner, we can’t just give in to the demands they’ll have to return him to us, nor would Leo want us too. Father is just trying to ensure that we keep our focus on the task at hand,” Xander reasoned, even though he didn’t quite fully believe everything he was saying.

“Are those Father’s words, or are you making excuses for him?” Corrin challenged. “And what about the sword he gave me? It blew up in the Hoshidan square, killing dozens of innocent civilians and my mother! And it would have killed me, too, if my mother hadn’t sacrificed herself to protect me.”

“Careful, Little Prince,” Xander warned, raising an eyebrow. “You can say these words safely around me, but if the wrong person were to hear them, they might consider you to be a traitor. And the last thing I need right now is to lose another brother.”

“I’m not a traitor, Xander,” Corrin promised. “You know that. But I can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right with Father…”

In truth, Xander agreed with Corrin. His father's complete apathy toward Leo's disappearance was unsettling, to say the least. The strategy to invade Hoshido also seemed short-sighted. He knew that his father had been waiting for years for the barrier to go down, but now was simply not a good time to attack. With rebellions going on with the Ice Tribe and in Cheve, their forces were spread too thinly for a full-scale attack. And even with reinforcements from those areas, Nohr and Hoshido would likely just end up wiping each other out if they battled in earnest.

And if his father really had tried to kill Corrin, as preposterous as the notion was, then that was another mystery in and of itself. Maybe it was for the best that he hadn't mentioned Corrin's return to his father earlier, although his father was of course bound to find out on his own soon enough.

Xander found himself frowning. More than anything, he wish that Leo was here to help him make sense of their father’s strange behavior. He hadn’t realized how much he’d truly come to rely on his brother’s counsel until he was gone...

“Please, Xander,” Corrin then tried again, misinterpreting his silence for dismissal. “I don’t want to give up on Leo, and I don’t want to fight Hoshido again.”

"We may not have much of a choice in the matter, Little Prince," Xander said with no small amount of resignation. After all, no matter what his father's plans were, to turn against him was unthinkable. Still…

"Try not to worry too much, though, as tall of a task as that may be," Xander continued. "If Leo is alive - and I truly believe that he is - then we'll find him. I can promise you that much."

Corrin nodded even though Xander could tell that he wasn't fully satisfied with his response. The two then just stood together in silence, staring off into the horizon as they prayed for the safety of their missing brother.

It'd been days. Four days and counting since Leo had fallen unconscious.

Sakura knew that the longer Leo remained comatose, the higher the risk that he would die. It was only a matter of time before dehydration caused all of his vital organs to shut down.

How much longer did he have, then, before complete organ failure? Days?


Looking at her Sun Festal, a part of her wanted to smash it against the wall. Gods, she was so useless! Why couldn’t she do anything for Leo? She couldn’t cure him of the venom, she couldn’t find a way to effectively hydrate him, and if she’d only insisted that they stop for antitoxin before the army had left Renais, then he wouldn’t be in this condition to begin with!

Everyone she'd seen had initially tried to tell her that it wasn't her fault, but the others in the camp had given up trying to console her by now, even Eirika, Neimi, and Franz. She hadn't welcomed their comfort or their company, and they'd soon taken the hint and kept their distance. Eirika had told her that Myrrh was also distraught over what had happened and wanted to apologize, but apparently the dragon girl hadn't gathered the courage yet to come by.

That was just fine by Sakura. She didn’t blame Myrrh for what happened, not in the least bit, but she also didn’t have the energy to offer anyone else reassurances right now.

The only thing that kept Sakura from absolute despair was the fact that she was completely drained. She’d been trying to stay awake as long as her body would let her, and doing so was taking its toll on her.

At one point, after Leo had been unconscious for two straight days, Sakura had fallen asleep at Leo’s bedside only to wake up in her own cot. She’d immediately returned to the healing tent, terrified of what she might find.

All she saw, though, was Prince Ephraim sitting at Leo’s bedside. She couldn’t even describe her relief to see that Leo was still alive when she’d returned. Ephraim, though, had tried to convince her to worry about her own health...

“Sakura,” Ephraim said. “You fell asleep here last night so I returned you to your tent.”

“I know that you meant w-well, Prince Ephraim,” she responded. “But I’d prefer it if you’d just leave me b-be next time.”

His features softened and his kind, blue eyes filled with pity. “Sakura, you’re running yourself ragged. You need to rest, eat, and take care of yourself.”

“Don’t tell me what I n-need!” she shouted with frustration, surprising the lord. Putting a hand to her forehead, she sighed. “I’m so s-sorry, Prince Ephraim. It was inappropriate for m-me to speak to you in that manner. Besides, you didn’t deserve that. You’ve been so k-kind. And I know you’ve kept the army camped here for much longer than you intended to so that Leo could have time to recover…”

“It’s fine, Sakura,” he assured her. “I won’t lie and say that I’m not anxious to go north to find the other Sacred Stone, but if I learned anything from the events of the other day, it’s that we need to replenish our healing supplies before we press onward. Besides, Innes sent the Frelian army out ahead of us. Once we get moving, we can join up with them at the banks of the Narube River if we hurry. I’m afraid, however, that we can't wait longer than three more days before we move on.”

Three days. If Leo hadn't woken up by then, then that would mean he'd have been unconscious for five days.

“It’s all right, Prince Ephraim,” she told him. “If Leo is still unconscious in three days, then he’ll likely…” Her lips started to quiver. “He’ll likely be…”

With that, the floodgates opened and she started to sob. Ephraim had a horror-stricken look on his face, clearly unsure how to handle a crying girl.

“Please, my lady… Princess Sakura, don’t cry,” Ephraim begged. “Leo will wake, I’m sure of it. And when he does, he’ll spear me through with a tree if you’re in such a state, not to mention pushing yourself to exhaustion. So, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll allow you to remain here with Leo, even when you fall asleep, if you promise to at least eat the food I have brought to you. Can we strike a deal?”

Sakura nodded eagerly. She’d do anything to stay with Leo, even force down food that she had no appetite for.

Ephraim then patted her on the head, offering her a few more awkward words of comfort before taking his leave.

Sakura sighed. Ephraim had sent Father Moulder in three times a day to give her meals, and she ate what she could of them to honor her promise. During the first meal of each day, the priest would also order her outside so that he could attend to Leo's hygiene. Sakura usually spent that time seeing to her own cleanliness, even though remaining away from Leo for that long always made her feel anxious.

She was here with him now, though, holding his hand while she remained ever vigilant by his side. He, in return, was lying before her completely helpless, which presented such a stark contrast to the strength he'd always displayed. It didn't seem right for him to look like this, and she felt her tears gathering for the umpteenth time in four days.

Yet, she did her best to fight them and keep them at bay. They certainly weren’t doing Leo any good, and she shouldn’t be wasting her energy crying when she could be doing other things to make him more comfortable.

Deciding to do just that, Sakura first unwrapped the bandage on Leo’s shoulder. She’d unwrapped and rewrapped it so frequently in the past four days that she just kept his shirt off permanently now. As a healer she’d been exposed to shirtless men quite often in the past, but for some reason, with Leo, it felt more… inappropriate. She concluded that it must be because he was royalty, but regardless of the cause, necessity required that she simply ignore such trivialities.

Grabbing the antitoxin gel that Sir Cormag had acquired, Sakura again kneaded it gently onto Leo’s wound. Truthfully, a restore staff would have been more effective if they had been able to locate one, since the antitoxin serum was only topical. Regardless, she was glad to see that the frightful black coloring infecting his injury was gone, and the contusion was turning into a more healthy looking purple. Deciding to take that as a good sign, she rewrapped his bandages after she finished applying the ointment.

Next, she grabbed a towel and dipped it in water. Opening Leo’s mouth as carefully as she could while tilting his head upward, she squeezed the towel until a few drops came out, dripping onto his tongue. She knew that this wouldn’t be enough to hydrate him, and since he currently had no swallow response, she couldn’t give him much more liquid than that without potentially causing suffocation. Still, keeping his mouth as moist as possible would help ease his pain from the dryness when he finally woke.

Because she had to believe that he would wake.

Finally, she opened a jar of moisturizing cream that Eirika had given to her, which was apparently some kind of mixture of aloe and beeswax. She rubbed the mixture gently onto Leo’s lips, which would prevent them from cracking with dehydration and save him from further discomfort.

Yet, touching Leo's lips so intimately with her fingers only made her remember how he'd kissed her the night before he'd gotten hurt. It had been her first kiss, made all the more special since it had been given to her by Leo. Had she known then that it might have been the last time Leo would ever kiss her, she wouldn't have been so quick to run away from him that night after Forde had interrupted them.

It wasn't just thoughts of that kiss that made her heart ache, though. Some of the things that Leo had said to her that night...

"You told me that you'd never leave me as long as we remained in Magvel," she reminded the unmoving prince. "You promised!" But Leo, of course, didn't respond, and her misery was only amplified by the silence.

Putting the jar of moisturizing cream away, Sakura sat back and watched him sleep, willing him to wake. As she monitored the gentle rising and falling of his chest, she at least took comfort in the steady rhythm of his breathing. His condition had definitely improved in the last four days, but she just wasn't sure if it was improving fast enough for him to ultimately wake. It couldn't be helping either that his body was weakening by the day without food. The effects of his malnourishment were evident now from the newly gaunt lines of his chin and cheekbones.

She glanced away from him with another sigh, but doing so caused the corner of her eye to catch sight of Brynhildr, which was on the nightstand by Leo’s bed. Curiously, she picked up the tome and examined it.

For such an old tome, its condition was pristine, perhaps because of its divine qualities. Opening it up and leafing through the pages, she noticed that all the spells were written in complete gibberish. Either Leo had memorized an ancient script to understand the text - which wouldn't surprise her in the least, since he was clearly something of a genius - or, the spells only revealed themselves to their chosen wielder.

She quickly closed the book. "I bet you miss him too," Sakura whispered to the tome, and a tear fell from her eye onto the hard, purple cover. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but Brynhildr seemed to pulse in her hands, as if trying to comfort her. Remembering that the tome had given her a surge of energy the other day as she'd returned to camp on Leo's horse, she looked at it speculatively. Leaning in toward Leo, she put it next to him on the cot, just in case it could help him too.

Without thinking, she soon found herself angling in closer to his face and brushing away his thick, errant bangs with her fingers. Her lips then grazed his brow with a chaste kiss before she leaned back again in her chair.

What were these inexplicable feelings that she was having? Even before Leo had gotten hurt, her heart had ached with something akin to tenderness every time she saw him, so much so that it even felt painful at times. She smiled whenever he was near her, and thought about him when he wasn’t. She loved how he was so kind and gentle with her, but so fierce against his enemies. She loved how brilliant he was. She loved how he was always trying his hardest to protect her. She loved how handsome he looked in the sunlight, with his soft, blond hair glistening in the yellow rays.

She loved… she loved…

She loved him.

Of course she loved him. And as she came to that realization, uncontrollable tears started streaming down her cheeks. She loved him, and she couldn’t lose him. Oh, gods, she couldn’t lose him, not now, not ever.

Why had she waited so long to confront her feelings, why had she waited until it might be too late? Would she never even have the chance now to tell him how she felt? And he’d almost kissed her before. Could that mean he felt the same way about her?

But if he never woke up…

A sudden, intense headache then overwhelmed her.

You think you love him, Sakura, but the truth is that you wanted him to get hurt,’ the voice insisted. ‘Don’t pretend like this was all just some accident. You sent him after the dragon girl knowing that he’d take the blow for her when there weren’t sufficient healing supplies at the camp. It’s because you know that he’s going to forsake you for Nohr one day, isn’t it? He’ll betray you and he’ll kill your siblings if you let him live.

You know that you must kill him to protect them, don’t you?

“Wh-what? No… stop!” Sakura yelled, clutching at her throbbing head.

'Go on, finish the job, before he has a chance to betray you. You can even smother him with a pillow and no one would ever know. This is the best chance you'll have to get away with it.'

'Kill… him.'

"N-No," she whispered weakly even though her hands seemed to be moving toward his extra pillow, the one she'd kept on his bed for when she needed to rest. She felt so weak, so tired, so miserable, and even though her instinct was to fight against the darkness, she couldn't seem to muster the energy to do so. It was just so much easier, so much less exhausting, to let it overtake her.

"Yes," she said out loud now, a twisted smile making its way onto her face. Leo was already trying to break his promise to stay with her in Magvel. If he woke he'd just do it again, and once they went home he'd hurt her and everyone she cared about... just like Corrin had.

She could almost hear a deeply buried voice screaming at her, begging her to stop, but when she tried to listen to it a pain unlike anything she ever felt pierced through her.

“Ungh…” she moaned, and soon her hands were on the pillow. She was about to grab it when her elbow brushed against Brynhildr, and a jolt of purple energy suddenly shot through her.

Strange images started cycling through her mind, images of dragons descending into madness and five weapons being forged to combat the dragons' destruction. Sakura wasn't quite sure what she was seeing until she realized that they were Brynhildr's disjointed memories. Memories of humans abusing its power for centuries in order to conquer other humans, humans refusing to wield its power responsibly. This was the deepest form of betrayal, because it had been a weapon forged to end war, not start war. These humans violated its purpose.

And then it had chosen a boy to wield it, a boy of great power who'd been earnest in his desire to help people. But the boy had been manipulated by others into doing terrible things along with the good, and because of that, the boy had been lost, so lost. That is, until he met her…

"Leo," Sakura whispered as she covered her face with her hands, wanting to cry as she thought of the lost little boy, as she thought of Brynhildr's pain. She couldn't hurt them like the others had, she could never betray them…

Her migraine then disappeared and she instantly felt woozy.

What… what had just happened? She remembered getting a horrible headache, but after that things just became fuzzy. She could vaguely remember a feeling of being trapped somewhere, somewhere dark and cold, and... had there been dragons?

All of a sudden, she felt afraid. Why did this seem to keep happening to her? Why did she keep losing her memory?

But maybe Prince Ephraim was right and she was just pushing herself too hard. Maybe she really should try to get some sleep. Yet, it was hard to justify wasting precious hours on rest when the darkest parts of her feared that Leo might not have much more time left alive.

With or without justification, though, she couldn’t deny the needs of her body for much longer. She could only pray that her worst fears wouldn’t come to pass in the meantime.

Leaning down, Sakura crossed her arms at the side of Leo's bed and positioned her head to rest evenly upon them. Normally she would just sleep on his extra pillow, but for some reason, the idea of that didn't seem very appealing to her this time.

She then stretched out her right hand, which was lying underneath her left elbow, so that it reached the tips of Leo's fingers.

“Just don’t leave,” she whispered to him, hoping that at least some part of him could hear her and understand. Closing her eyes slowly, she subsequently let herself succumb to the gentle pull of sleep.

Leo awoke with a start, panting heavily. Had he been having a nightmare?

He’d initially woken with an unshakeable feeling that Sakura was in danger, that he had to protect her from something, but he quickly saw that wasn’t the case. There she was, sleeping peacefully at the edge of his bed, with her head pillowed delicately into her arms.

Only, this wasn’t his bed specifically. It was a cot in the healing tent.

...That's right, he remembered now. He'd taken an axe to the chest while protecting Myrrh, and the injury had been quite severe. He immediately tensed again as he remembered Sakura covering his body with her own to try and save him from another blow, but he quickly calmed as his memories caught up to the present. His eyes assured him once again that she was, in fact, safe.

But that at least explained why he'd woken up with a sense of such horrible trepidation.

Well, at least Sakura seemed fine, but as for him… surprisingly, everything still hurt. His throat burned with every breath, and his body tormented him with pain, hunger, and thirst. The thirst was especially excruciating, and if he didn’t get something to drink immediately, he thought he might go mad.

What exactly had happened? Hadn’t Sakura healed him?

Returning his attention to the pink-haired princess at his bedside, he noticed that her hand was partially nestled into his, and he couldn’t help but smile despite his discomfort.

“Sa...ku,” he started, meaning to call out to her, but he almost choked on the word. He began to cough violently, as if his body was looking for some kind of way for him to purge the dryness from his throat.

Of course, doing so only made him feel a thousand times worse. Yet, his coughing ultimately accomplished what he’d originally intended, and Sakura’s eyes soon fluttered open.

“Leo?” she questioned tiredly, still half asleep. After about three seconds, though, she pushed herself upright, completely alert. “Leo!” she then cried out, but her voice was laced with so many different emotions that he couldn’t seem to single out any specific one.

Gods, she looked exhausted. He could easily tell that she'd spent a lot of time crying, since her eyes looked swollen and vulnerable. He hated seeing her like that and longed to give her the comfort that she so clearly required. But, she'd already decided that his need was greater than hers and she fumbled for a ceramic jug of water on a nearby nightstand. Pouring the liquid into a wooden cup, she handed it to Leo with shaking hands.

“Here, d-drink this,” she told him as she perched herself onto the edge of his bed. It was then he noticed that Brynhildr was, strangely, settled right next to him on the sheets. The tome seemed to be pulsing wildly, like a purring cat, and Leo took a moment to rest his hand on it.

“The axe that attacked you was laced with venom,” Sakura explained as he started to drink from the cup she’d given him. “You’ve been unconscious for four days while f-fighting the toxins in your system, and your b-body is extremely dehydrated.”

A venom weapon? Four days?

Leo went to chug the water, never having been this thirsty in his whole life, but Sakura tugged at his arms to stop him. “No, d-drink slowly, Leo. I know that you’re thirsty, but if you drink too f-fast, then you’ll get sick.”

He nodded, trusting her counsel. Sakura promptly released his arms and let him indulge in his drink. The slow deluge of the cool liquid soothed the pain in his throat and quenched the thirst on his tongue.

“Thank you,” he told her after ingesting several cups, finally feeling like he was able to speak again. His voice was a bit raspier than usual, but almost normalized. “My mouth still feels a bit dry, but I’m not sure I can drink anymore…”

She got up quickly, grabbing some herbs from her nearby stock, along with a bowl. "Here, you can rinse out your mouth using these herbs to help with the dryness."

He was somewhat embarrassed to do this in front of Sakura, but with as much decorum as possible, he rinsed his mouth with the water and herbs, and then spit the remains into the bowl she'd given him. "Thanks, Sakura," he said again as she took the bowl and placed it on a nearby table.

"Stop thanking me," she commanded, looking away from him. "You almost d-died, Leo. I don't deserve your gratitude when it's all my f-fault that our medicines weren't properly supplied. It was hours before we were even able to find you the antitoxin you needed to fight off the poison, and if not for Sir Cormag's efforts to obtain it, you'd probably be dead."

Leo frowned at her. “Come now, Sakura, don’t blame yourself. There’s no way you could have planned for this. We don't even have these kinds of weapons back home… at least not in Nohr, anyway.”

He was certain that she'd find solace in his words, and even smile at him with one of those bright smiles of hers that he was aching to see, but she didn't.

"Sakura, I don't understand why you feel so guilty about this when you clearly did everything you could," he started again, feeling a bit exasperated. "In fact, if I recall correctly, you even threw yourself on top of me to protect me during the fight. Truthfully, I'm extremely angry that you would put yourself in danger like that over something so stupid, and I trust you won't ever do anything so foolish again."

She only wilted further at his lecture, and he immediately felt guilty. "But," he then continued with a sigh, "I suppose I can't be too mad when I'd probably be dead if not for you. So, whether you like it or not, I owe you my gratitude. Therefore, you may as well just accept it." He smirked at her for good measure, trying to lighten the mood, although he wished that he could express his true levels of appreciation for her. No one had ever risked their life for him like that before, and even the thought of it made a lump form in his throat that he had to swallow down. Still, he had to be careful not to encourage such recklessness in her. He never wanted to see her come to harm, especially not on his behalf.

She finally returned her eyes to his, and he was once again surprised at just how worn and ragged she looked. "I was so afraid that you weren't going to survive, Leo," she admitted, her voice small.

"I'm sure you've been going through hell these past four days," he empathized, remembering how terrified he'd been when he wasn't sure if she'd live or die during their first day in Magvel. "But everything turned out okay in the end. I'll be fine, Sakura, thanks to you."

She still looked unconvinced, so he touched her face lightly with his fingers, hoping that the physical contact might help to reassure her. “Sakura, it’s all right now. I’m okay. I’m right here,” he promised, staring straight into her eyes.

She suddenly threw her hands onto his shoulders, clutching them tightly while she cried into the uninjured side of his chest. It was only then that he noticed his current state of undress, and the feel of her soft face and wet tears against his bare skin made him blush furiously - not that she was in any condition to notice.

“Sakura…” he whispered huskily, wrapping his arms around her. “Please don’t cry,” he begged.

Attempting to stifle her tears, she gazed up at him with her wounded eyes. “I’m just s-so happy that you’re okay, Leo,” she told him with a small sniffle.

Leo chuckled lightly at her earnestness. The last thing he ever wanted was for her to be upset, but knowing that she cared for him so much to fret in such a manner made him feel euphoric.

Wanting to comfort her, he brought his hand up to her cheek, rubbing it lightly with his thumb until she started to settle down. She'd clearly had a rough few days, and he’d probably never seen her looking worse, truth be told. Her face was drawn with exhaustion and her eyes were puffy from all her tears. And yet... he’d also never wanted to kiss her more than in that moment.

His eyes wandered down to her lips, and he remembered the all too brief feeling of them brushing against his own, that night on the hill by Castle Renais. Had she felt the same as he had during that moment? He wanted to broach the topic with her, to understand how she felt, but a part of him thought that such comprehension would come much easier if he just tried kissing her again.

This time, though, he forced himself to stop and think about it first. Assuming that she shared his feelings, it likely wouldn’t be wise to start something with her that had the potential to end in terrible heartache. They still didn’t know, after all, what they might return to back in Nohr and Hoshido. Would it really be fair to either of them, then, if he pursued something deeper between them while being fully aware of this possibility?

But, on the other hand, he’d almost died... again. So had she. What if next time they weren’t so lucky? Living with regret was one thing, but dying with regret… that was something else altogether.

Wasn’t that what Forde had tried to tell him before? Surprisingly, the paladin had been right after all. Their near death experiences had changed Leo’s perspective on the matter, and he simply couldn’t pass up this second chance he’d been given, not when he felt so strongly for her.

Moving his hand from her cheek to her chin, he tenderly tipped her face upward. Without any hesitation, he then leaned down to place his lips onto hers. His mouth muffled her surprised gasp, and as he started to apply more pressure, her gasp soon turned into a contented moan.

Leo kept kissing her, reveling in the sensations of it, amazed that anything could feel this perfect. Sakura's soft lips then started imitating the motions that his own were making, and the effect was driving him crazy. So kind and so sweet, she was truly everything he'd ever wanted.

He felt himself beginning to lose control of his faculties as his feelings for her began to inundate him, so he forced himself to reluctantly pull away from her, completely breathless as he did so. For her part, Sakura had a dazed expression on her face, and he longed to take her back into his arms and continue to kiss her senseless. Would he ever want to stop?

He didn’t think so.

“Sakura,” he breathed, unable to hold in his emotions any longer, thinking that he might burst if he tried. “There’s so much uncertainty ahead of us. Between the dangers we’re facing in Magvel, and the war at home between our families, I don’t know what the future holds. And because of that, I keep trying to fight these feelings I’ve been having… feelings, that is, for you.”

“Leo…” she started as her eyes widened with disbelief, but he squeezed her shoulders lightly.

“Please, let me finish, while I still have the courage to,” he said with smirk. “Because I used to think that I knew everything, but now there’s only one thing that I’m certain of. And it’s that I… I love you, Sakura.”

At his words, she lit up with absolute, unadulterated joy. For the first time since he woke up she smiled at him, and he felt his entire being start to feel at peace, as if everything was once again right in the world.

"I l-love you too, Leo," she confessed to him, shyly but sincerely, and he thought his heart might just leap out of his chest. He'd suspected that she had strong feelings for him, but to hear her say those words felt… gods, it felt indescribable. "But I couldn't admit it to m-myself at first because I felt so unworthy of someone like you. You're just so amazing in every way…"

"Now that's just silly," he told her, even though he found himself blushing at her words. "Would it help if I told you this... that the fact that you have no idea how truly special you are is one of the things I find most endearing about you?"

"L-Leo!" she protested lightly, ducking her head in embarrassment. He chuckled at her shyness, but his laugh soon turned into a frown. There was something else they needed to discuss first.

"Sakura… before this goes any further, I want you to understand something," he started apprehensively. "As much as I want to, I can't in good conscience promise you forever." But his arms tightened their hold on her, as if rebelling against his words. "I wish that I-"

“Shh, Leo... it’s okay,” Sakura interrupted, and he was surprised to see her smiling as she looked up at him. “I’m afraid of what the future holds, because I don’t ever want to l-lose you. But even if we need to b-be apart later... having now with you is better than being forever without you.”

As her words started to sink in, he found himself unable to keep himself away from her any longer. He slid his hands into her hair before he leaned into her and seized her mouth with his once again. For a moment he worried that he was being too forceful compared to his gentle advances from earlier, but her enthusiastic reciprocation emboldened him. He felt her hands snake around the back of his neck, brushing the hair by his nape softly with her fingers. Leo moaned with pleasure and drew her even closer to him, so that not even an inch remained between them.

As if it had a mind of its own, his tongue then pressed against her lips, seeking entry, which she soon granted. The moment their tongues touched she emitted a small, adorable whimper into his mouth.

Before he could even consider ignoring the rational part of his mind telling him to stop, that he was already taking things too far, his stomach let out a loud, forceful growl.

Sakura pulled away immediately, giving him an odd look before burying her head into his chest. He could feel her body shaking against his, and even though his initial reaction was to take offense and scoff indignantly, he instead found himself smiling fondly down at her.

“So, you find that funny then, do you?” he asked while playing casually with her hair.

“,” she told him, but her silent sniggering soon transformed into mirthful giggling. He couldn’t help but laugh with her, feeling light and content.

“You must b-be starving,” she noted once her hysterics died down, but her eyes were still shining. “I should have thought of that earlier, c-considering that you haven’t eaten in four days. I’ll bring you food and some more water, and I’ll tell everyone that you’re awake. They’ve all been really w-worried about you.”

Leo truly was famished, but he felt a pang of regret as she started untangling herself from him to get off of the bed. Grabbing her hand, he kissed the back of it softly as she began walking away from him, causing her to blush prettily.

Although she’d excitedly participated in their previous displays of affection, he could see that she was completely embarrassed now that her brain was catching up to her feelings. It was absolutely adorable, and he would have laughed except he knew that it would only serve to make her even more self-conscious.

“Um, b-bye then, L-Leo,” she practically squeaked, giving him a quick bow before scurrying out of the tent.

As he watched her hasty exit, he couldn’t remember a time that he’d ever felt this happy. The future still loomed like a dark cloud on the horizon, but Leo was certain that if he thought hard enough about their situation, he could figure out a way for them to remain together once they returned to their homelands.

And yet, as he stared down at his stark white bed sheets, he couldn’t help but feel extremely uneasy, as if he were forgetting something very, very important.

Chapter Text

Sakura was unapologetically giddy as she ran through the camp, nearly skipping as she headed straight for Prince Ephraim’s tent.

The fact that she’d all of a sudden gone from utter agony to complete bliss hadn’t gone unnoticed by those that she passed, and they could probably guess the reasons for it. Or, well, at least half of the of the reasons. The thought made her blush, and then smile.

After all, Leo was awake. He'd be okay. He'd kissed her, this time definitively. And, as if all that hadn't been enough, he'd then told her that he loved her.

The memories replayed in her head with the ease of a mantra, and as they did, the recollection of his feelings only served to amplify her own.

It seemed impossible, that her feelings for him could become even stronger yet, but then again she'd never been in love before. Could this really be what it was like?

Such fanciful musings could wait until later, though. Leo was counting on her right now, and she needed to focus on the task at hand.

"Prince Ephraim! P-Prince Ephraim!" Sakura called out with urgency once she finally arrived at the prince's shelter, but before she could go in, she was stopped by two of his guards.

Nevertheless, Ephraim must have heard her, because he opened the flap of his tent and ordered his guards to let her pass.

As she entered she saw that Sir Forde was with him, and even though she was still embarrassed to be anywhere near the knight after he'd witnessed her and Leo's intimate moment near Castle Renais, she couldn't stop herself from beaming at the two men.

“So, Sakura,” Ephraim began, seeming relaxed as he offered her a kind smile. Yet his casual and unruffled demeanor made her seem even more enthusiastic in comparison, and she made a concerted effort to try and reign in some of her excitement. “Considering that this is the first time I’ve seen you voluntarily away from Leo’s bedside in days, and you’re practically glowing, I think I can guess why you’re here. But why don’t you go ahead and tell me?”

With Ephraim and Forde's full attention now on her, she suddenly felt shy, but her elation helped her to persevere through it. "Um, w-well, Leo is… he's awake now," she told them while fidgeting with her hands. "He's in need of food and water, and he might be a little w-weak for a few days while his body continues to eradicate the poison, but his vitals are good and he's going to be just fine."

"That's great news," Ephraim responded, closing his eyes as he let out a relieved sigh. Perhaps Leo's condition really had been weighing on him…

“Indeed, it is,” Forde agreed, smiling broadly. “But, did you make sure to check all of his vitals?”

“Oh! Of c-course I did!” Sakura assured him hurriedly, although by the harsh glare that Ephraim was giving the knight, she wondered if she was missing something in his question.

"Um, Prince Ephraim, would you mind excusing me now?" Sakura asked as she started to feel uncomfortable. "I've got to go bring Leo something to eat, and… and…" Yet she was immediately hit by a wave of dizziness and she began to sway on her feet.

Fortunately the feeling passed quickly, however, her little spell didn’t go unnoticed by the two men in her company.

“Sakura! Are you well?” Ephraim asked worriedly while Forde hurried to her side.

“I'm f-fine,” Sakura insisted as she lifted her hand to her head. “I just got light-headed for a moment.”

"That's it. This has gotten out of hand now. I'm ordering you to your tent for rest," Ephraim told her, clearly frustrated.

“But, P-Prince Ephraim! Leo-”

“-is awake now. He’ll be fine, but the same can’t be said for you if you keep pushing yourself like this,” Ephraim interjected. “And don't forget, Sakura - I may not be your sovereign, but I'm still the commander of this army, and you’ll obey my orders if you wish to stay with us.”

Her eyes widened at his stern rebuke, and she nodded at him. “Y-Yes, Prince Ephraim,” she finally yielded.

Ephraim then sighed again and his features softened. “All right, then. Forde will escort you to your tent, where you are to retire immediately. And don’t worry about Leo, Sakura. I'll see to it that he gets warm food, some fresh water, and a healer to continue to monitor his condition,” he promised.

“Thank you, Prince Ephraim, and Sir Forde,” Sakura responded, bowing respectfully.

She then left Ephraim's tent with Forde at her heels, trying all the while to convince herself that Leo was going to be fine, even if she couldn't go back to him and confirm it with her own eyes. It's not that she didn't believe Ephraim when he said that he'd see to Leo's well-being, but after spending four days in complete terror at the possibility that Leo might die, she found it difficult now to just let go of those feelings.

"Honestly, Sakura, I don't understand why anyone would pass up a chance at sleep," Forde conversed as they walked, sounding wistful. "Oh, how I long for the day that Prince Ephraim actually orders me to take it easy and rest! I truly envy you. Although, with Leo awake now, I suppose you have other things that you'd rather be doing instead?" he implied devilishly.

Sakura felt her face flush, this time fully understanding his meaning. “Please don't t-tease me so, Sir Forde,” she pleaded to the knight. It was clear he didn’t mean any real harm by it, but still, it was difficult for her to look at him when he was saying such things.

Forde laughed lightly at her discomfort, but he at least appeared to be ever-so-slightly contrite. “My apologies, dear lady,” he offered. “I’ll be sure to keep such banter to Leo from now on.”

That didn’t sound all too much better to her, but she decided to let it go.

As if fate was purposefully trying to make things impossible for her at the moment, she then saw Franz standing near the center of the camp, waving happily at her. She waved back at him with as much enthusiasm as she could muster in her exhausted state, and he must have taken that as an invitation because he promptly came bounding up to her and Forde.

“Hello,” Franz greeted her and his brother cheerfully.

“Hi, F-Franz,” Sakura responded nervously. Even Forde was looking wary, an expression she wasn’t used to seeing on him.

“Sakura, it’s so good to see you finally out and about,” Franz told her. “Does this mean that Leo’s doing better, then?”

“Yes,” she answered with a nod. “He’s awake now.”

“Oh, good,” Franz said, looking legitimately relieved. “I’m so glad to hear that. I’ve been so worried about him, and… well, about you, too.”

“Thank y-you, Franz,” she stammered, ducking her head as she tried to stop tears from gathering in her eyes. She could only hope that her intuition about him having feelings for her was wrong, because the thought of ever hurting him was unbearable.

There was a slight, awkward silence between them, before Franz started talking again. “Listen, Sakura, it’s been some time since we’ve been able to talk. Maybe we could-”

“Ah, sorry, but I’ll have to stop you right there, Little Brother,” Forde interrupted, although his face lacked its usual levels of amusement. “Sakura is under strict orders from our prince to rest for the time being.”

“Oh, right,” Franz replied, looking downcast. “Another time then?”

Sakura merely nodded at him, but then said a quick goodbye as Forde began to drag her away.

The two walked together in a stony silence until they arrived at Sakura’s tent, which she shared with Neimi.

“This is as far as I go then,” Forde stated, gesturing toward her tent. “Please listen to Prince Ephraim and do as he asks. He's only trying to look out for you, after all.” With that, he turned to leave.

“W-wait, Sir Forde!” she called out, causing him to stop in his tracks. “About Franz, I… do you know if…” But she couldn’t seem to make herself finish such a ridiculous question and inquire about his potential feelings for her. “It’s just that I don’t want to h-hurt him,” she finally settled on.

“Oh, dear lady. I know that you don’t,” Forde told her, and his tone was surprisingly gentle. “But it will be all right. There’s no way to avoid hurting someone in this situation, so you may as well just do what makes you happy.”

“What do you mean?” she asked with a frown.

“Well, you’re in love with Leo, aren’t you?” he asked bluntly, and Sakura found her face flushing at his directness. Thankfully, at least, he didn’t wait for her to answer. “And, well, I already have a pretty good idea of how Leo feels about you. So, if you reject Leo just to keep from hurting Franz, then Leo will be hurt. But, if you reject Franz to pursue your feelings for Leo, then Franz will be hurt. If someone is going to get hurt either way, then what harm is there in simply worrying about your own feelings and letting the rest just work itself out?”

His words made sense, and Ryoma was always telling her that she needed to be a bit more selfish sometimes, but she still wished that she didn’t have to hurt Franz.

“Unless, of course, you aim to try some kind of polygamous relationship,” Forde continued, looking thoughtful. “Hmm. Such marriages are forbidden in Renais, but is that allowed by law where you come from?”

“S-Sir F-F-Forde!” Sakura gasped, completely mortified.

Forde laughed heartily as she put her head in her hands, and only then could she tell that he was teasing her again. “You’re a true innocent, aren’t you, Sakura?” he wondered with good humor. “I can see why both Leo and Franz are so charmed by you. Now, please go and get some rest before Ephraim has me cleaning up after the horses, and Leo decides to feed me to his plants, okay?”

“Yes, Sir Forde,” Sakura replied obediently.

"And don't worry about Franz, Sakura. It would probably be best if you let him know sometime soon how you feel, but when that happens I'll take care of him, I promise," he assured her.

“Thank y-you,” she told him sincerely.

As he left she then entered her tent, noticing that Neimi wasn’t there. Without even changing her clothes first, Sakura immediately dropped onto her bed, finally getting the undisturbed sleep that she so dearly needed.

Leo quickly finished the last of his food, grateful that no one had been around to witness his completely graceless display of shoveling it into his face.

Once he felt sated, however, he started to feel a bit guilty. There were people in Nohr currently starving, without a warm meal waiting to fill them. Meanwhile, here he was, eating like a glutton. As a member of the royal family, he’d never been forced to endure such hunger, and didn’t even have an inkling of how it might feel until now.

There was nothing that he could do for his people as long as he was trapped in Magvel, though, so he forced himself to bury his guilt.

Not that he really had to force anything. It was probably much easier than it should have been to absolve himself of such feelings. Perhaps it would have been harder if he wasn't actually happy here in Magvel. It didn't even matter that he'd almost died or that he was stuck in this war, because he was able to face it all with Sakura. Having her by his side made everything worth it.

He let out a sigh, one that was full of yearning.

Gods, how pathetic! Somehow, even though it hadn't even been that long since she'd left him, he already found himself missing her presence.

But as he thought more on the matter, falling back on the comforts of reason and logic, he was actually glad that she hadn't returned. Hopefully, that meant that she was finally resting. If her exhaustion hadn't been evident by how she looked, which it had been, then the fact that she'd so carelessly forgotten her Sun Festal in the healing tent would have been a dead giveaway.

Even so, his heart starting beating wildly once he saw the tent’s flap open, until he saw Ephraim’s turquoise-covered head poking through. The thumping in his chest quickly returned to normal, but Leo was nonetheless quite pleased that his friend had come to visit.

Strangely, the prince was carrying a tome with him, which piqued Leo’s curiosity.

“So, it’s true,” Ephraim said. “You finally woke. Forde was starting to get jealous, with all the sleep that you’ve been getting.”

"Well, it shouldn't be all that hard for Forde to find someone who wants to hit him with an axe if he's that desperate," Leo noted with a smirk. "In fact, I'd even be so kind as to volunteer."

"I'll be sure to relay your generosity," Ephraim said with a chuckle, but his face quickly grew serious. "But, that's not why I'm here. Actually, Leo, I wanted to thank you."

“For what?” Leo asked curiously.

"For protecting Myrrh, even though it could have cost you your life," Ephraim told him. "We both know that should have been my responsibility. Myrrh is under my protection, and if anything happened to her, or if you'd died, I would have never forgiven myself."

"Was it really your responsibility to protect her, Ephraim, or are you just being too hard on yourself?" Leo asked speculatively. "You may have come to care for her like a sister, but we both know that your importance as the future king of Renais makes your life more valuable than even that of a dragonkin, at least with regard to the welfare of your people. It's true that I don't know if Myrrh's kind will be needed to eradicate the evil in this land, but even if that's the case, her father seems to be more powerful than she is, and will likely be more vital in that cause. Now I, on the other hand, truly need Myrrh, because there's no reason for her father to help me return to Nohr without her interceding on my behalf.”

"Come now, Leo," Ephraim said, looking at him with serious eyes. "You may have convinced me that you meant this when we first met, but I can see by now that you care for others more than you let on. Besides, you didn't have time to rationalize all of this while Myrrh was being attacked. You made a split-second decision to protect her, even though it put your own safety at risk. Your valor is truly commendable."

"Fine, then. If you insist on offering it, I'll accept your gratitude," Leo stated with a slight nod, doing his best not to reveal how much Ephraim's praise meant to him lest it seem untoward. This was the kind of encouragement that he'd always craved from Xander, but those sentiments had always seemed reserved for Corrin instead. Besides, he greatly admired Ephraim, and he wanted the prince to think highly of him in return.

"Anyway, I should be the one thanking you for keeping the army stationary all this time. I know that was vital to my recovery," Leo continued while clearing his throat. "I also know how important it is for you to obtain the final Sacred Stone in Rausten, and I'm sure this delay has been tedious for you."

"Please, it was the least that I could do. I'm just relieved that you're alive," Ephraim responded, but Leo could read the prince well enough by now to sense his anxiety at the mention of the Sacred Stone. "Just so that you're aware, I also took the liberty of having your armor repaired so that it will be ready for you whenever you're able to fight again. However, it will likely still be a few days until you've fully recovered, and I trust that you'll avoid any battles in the meantime accordingly."

"I'm sure that I won't have any issue fighting," Leo insisted quickly, causing Ephraim to sigh with exasperation.

"Is it common in your world to push yourself beyond your limits?" he asked. "Yet, you can do as you will. I'm sure you'll just hear an earful from Princess Sakura for it."

"Hmph," Leo responded, although his lips turned upward at the thought of Sakura. "So, Sakura is resting now, I take it?" he asked worriedly, easily reading between the lines of Ephraim's phrasing.

"Yes, but I had to be quite harsh with her to force her to do so," Ephraim admitted. "It certainly hasn't been easy getting her away from your side these past four days."

Leo blushed, but the warmth on his face seemed to spread through to his chest. He apparently still wasn't used to feeling this important to someone, and once again he found himself longing for her presence. "Please accept my gratitude, Ephraim, for doing your best to take care of her," Leo offered sincerely. "I won't forget this."

Ephraim nodded, smiling slightly. "Of course, Leo. Anyway, I brought you something," he added, handing Leo the tome he'd been holding.

“What is this?” Leo asked as he thumbed through the ancient book.

“It’s Excalibur, one of the Sacred Twin relics of Jehanna,” the prince told him. “Eirika obtained it from Queen Ismaire before the queen’s death, while they were under siege in Jehanna hall.”

A Sacred Twin weapon? Leo had read about those while he’d been studying Magvelian lore. They were supposedly used by the legendary Five Heroes to battle the Demon King eight hundred years ago, and were especially effective against monsters.

“Excalibur, the Swift Wind,” Leo breathed in awe as he scanned through its spells. Gods, but they were complicated. It would take incredible discipline and studiousness to be able to learn such incantations.

“I should probably be surprised that you already know of it,” Ephraim said with a sigh. “But, frankly, nothing about you seems to surprise me anymore.”

Leo could feel the power emanating from the tome, as if he were stronger and swifter just from holding it. And yet...

“Ephraim, I’m honored that you would entrust this tome to me. And believe me, I would like nothing more than to study it and to master it,” he told his friend as a pit of regret started to form in his stomach. “But, I’m afraid that I can’t accept it.”

Ephraim reeled backward, looking startled. “Well, I take back what I just said. The fact that you would refuse this tome absolutely surprises me.”

“I’m sorry, Ephraim,” Leo apologized sincerely. “But, Brynhildr is the tome I’ll be using in battle, and it wouldn’t be right for me to hold on to Excalibur just to sate my own desire to learn more about it. If this tome will truly be effective against the monsters we’ll be fighting, then it’s best if someone else in the army were to take it.”

“Leo, I understand your attachment to your tome, but Excalibur is a sacred weapon. It has power beyond what you could even fathom,” Ephraim argued.

"Brynhildr is also a divine weapon in my world," Leo countered. "But, instead of the winds, it commands the earth. Little is known of its origin other than that it was created by the First Dragons, but it's been inherited among the royal Nohrian line for centuries. However, Brynhildr must also choose to accept its wielder. Brynhildr chose me once, so I suppose that it's now my turn to choose it."

Leo stopped himself from adding that the stronger the bond between him and Brynhildr, the stronger its spells were. Or, at least that was his belief. It might seem silly or even crazy for him to think this, but there was actual empirical evidence to support this theory, and that couldn't be discounted.

Leo then grabbed his tome from the nearby nightstand, and felt it pulsing in his hands as if it approved of his decision.

“Can you tell me how it works?” Ephraim asked curiously. “I’ve never seen another tome like it.”

Leo nodded, handing the tome to Ephraim for him to look at. “Yes. Brynhildr has the ability to manipulate earth, gravity and life. With it, I can call on ethereal trees from the ground to ensnare or impale my enemies. I can also move dirt and larger stones, which is useful for intimidation purposes, or for when I just need to smash a rock into someone’s skull," Leo said with a cruel smirk. "It is a powerful tome, and you’re right in that there is no other of its ilk.”

"I admit, its magic is quite impressive," Ephraim conceded. "And I can see that it would make sense to have two powerful anima tomes in use for our battles against these monsters. If you have both weapons, then you'll only be able to use one."

“Exactly,” Leo affirmed. He then went to take Brynhildr back from Ephraim, yet this time as he touched it, something strange happened.

An image of a girl suddenly appeared, riding a horse and telling him something in a language that he couldn't understand, although he could tell that she was trying to comfort him.

It was hard to see her from his angle, but the girl was Sakura, Leo realized with a jolt.

But wait, she wasn't talking to him at all, was she? She was talking to Brynhildr. Leo was just observing as if he were the tome.

Perhaps even more oddly, he could feel what Brynhildr was feeling. He could sense Brynhildr's fear that he would die, meaning that Brynhildr would have to choose another wielder, one who might abuse its power again. He could also detect Brynhildr's appreciation for Sakura, its trust in her that she would help its dying master.

Another memory then flashed. Sakura was holding Brynhildr and a tear dropped from her eye onto the book as Leo lay unconscious in a nearby cot. Brynhildr tried to soothe her, but she didn't want comfort.

Leo's heart lurched at witnessing her despair first hand, and he mentally begged Brynhildr to stop this, but Brynhildr ignored him and the memories continued.

Now he saw her leaning over him on the bed, only this time she didn't look miserable - she looked terrifying. Seeing such a depraved look on her sweet face seemed unnatural, and Leo felt like he was going to throw up. She had such a horrible smile, so unlike the ones he loved so much, the ones that calmed him. Her eyes also looked different, now the color of burnt umber instead of warm maroon.

Sakura was reaching for something behind him, and whatever it was, Leo somehow knew that it was intended to harm him because Brynhildr was full of panic. But Brynhildr knew that something wasn't right, that something was trying to harm her as well. Maybe Brynhildr could help her...

The memory then ended there and Leo was thrown back into the present.

He sat up with a startled gasp, completely unnerved by what he'd just seen.

What was that? Gods, what had just happened? Were those actual memories? Had Sakura...

But, Brynhildr had never done anything like this before. It was ridiculous to think that Brynhildr would even be capable of such a thing, as there was no such spell in the book that would allow it. Besides, a tome couldn't be sentient, that was just ridiculous.

True, Leo had felt Brynhildr pulsing in his hands before, but he'd always thought that the tome had been feeding off of his emotions, not the other way around.

"Leo, what's wrong?" Ephraim asked with concern. "You look pale. Is it your injury?"

"Huh?" Leo wondered, only now remembering that Ephraim was still in the room with him. "Oh. Yes, that must be it," he lied halfheartedly, putting no conviction into it. He could barely even focus with his mind racing as it was.

He needed to understand what had just happened!

"I'll take my leave of you, then," Ephraim said with a frown. "We'll be marching on the morrow, so you'll need your rest."

Leo nodded. "Thank you, Ephraim," he replied, although his thoughts were still on Brynhildr and Sakura.

Surely those images he'd seen weren't real. Perhaps they were just resurfaced nightmares from when he'd been comatose, and something had happened when he'd grabbed Brynhildr to trigger those dreams from his subconscious.

Yes, that had to be it, that was the only logical explanation. Brynhildr showing him its memories made no sense, and Sakura looking so perverse made even less.

But, as Leo forced himself to dismiss the images, he couldn't help but feel like Brynhildr was pulsing with disapproval.

Dropping the tome back onto the nightstand quickly as if it burned him, Leo clutched at his sheets and turned away, trying his best to get those images of Sakura out of his mind.

For the first time in four days, Sakura woke within the normal hours of dawn. She'd managed to get a full night's rest and then some last night, which felt amazing after such a pitiful amalgamation of nothing but short, restless naps.

This was also a good thing because her morning had already been quite busy, and she'd needed the energy to get through it.

First she'd gotten breakfast with a crying Neimi, who'd come to tears over seeing Sakura well again. Sakura had been truly moved, and it took a lot of willpower to keep herself from joining in on Neimi's emotional outburst. After that, though, it felt good to have carefree conversations with her friend once again. She'd really grown to depend on Neimi here in Magvel, and it hadn't been easy to do without that camaraderie during the last few days.

Since Ephraim had gotten the medical supplies replenished during the army's downtime, Sakura also stopped by Eirika's tent to give her more pain relieving cream, which was of course for General Seth's lingering injury. Eirika had been grateful, but unfortunately the medicine hadn't done the trick in bringing the two together like Sakura had hoped, or at least not just yet. Still, after everything that had happened between her and Leo, Sakura couldn't help but feel optimistic that the two would submit to their feelings eventually.

Finally, Sakura took the time to do some of the chores that she'd been neglecting over the last few days, like washing some of her dresses and practicing her archery. At least her excitement at being able to see Leo again later gave her the energy for such tasks, and she went to see him immediately after she'd attended to those matters. Not that she had much of a choice at that point, since she was unable to keep herself away from him for any longer.

Yet apparently she wasn't the only one feeling refreshed this morning, because when she entered the healing tent to check on Leo and help prepare him for the march, she was surprised to find him walking around in his armor. His movements were stiff, though, and she could tell that his wound hadn't fully healed yet.

"Leo! What are y-you doing?" Sakura cried out with worry, and only then did he turn and notice her.

"Sakura," he greeted with a smile as he ignored her question, yet it was hard for her to remain annoyed with him when he looked so happy to see her. She could also read concern in his features, which was rather strange because if anyone had cause to worry right now, it was her.

Leo slowly began to walk toward her, but he stopped abruptly and winced in pain. Sakura immediately ran over to him to offer him some help, and although he waved her away initially, he then stumbled forward slightly as he tried to walk again. This time he hunched over with a grunt, putting his hands on her shoulders for balance, and she began to fear that his wound might have reopened.

"Leo!" she exclaimed, placing her arms around his sides to help steady him. She'd been about to lecture him on the dangers of pushing himself too hard while his body was still trying to recover, but as soon as she noticed the intimacy of their situation and their proximity as they held onto each other, everything she'd been about to say was quickly forgotten.

Leo at first seemed just as startled as she was by their accidental positioning. It didn't take long, though, before a smug smirk found its way to his face.

"Hi," he offered simply, and he was so close to her now that she could feel his breath tickling her face as he talked.

Her cheeks started to burn as she wondered how he managed to make such a short greeting sound so suggestive.

“Um… h-hi,” she said shyly in return, too nervous to meet his piercing stare.

Yet, once she finally got the courage to lift her gaze to his, she was alarmed to see that his expression had hardened and all of his playfulness had disappeared. He appeared to be in deep concentration as his eyes searched hers, for what she couldn’t be sure, until his features finally relaxed.

Oddly, he almost looked… relieved?

She was about to ask him if something was wrong when he spoke. “You know, you have the most beautiful eyes,” he told her, causing her to redden further. “That maroon coloring… it’s nothing like I’ve ever seen in Nohr.”

“Oh, th-thank you,” she merely said in response, slightly uncomfortable. Accepting compliments had never been her strength, especially ones about her looks, but even though she was embarrassed she found his words to be quite pleasing.

“Do you know what I love most about them, though?” he asked, surprising her as he continued.

She shook her head before looking at him nervously, and he chuckled.

“It’s that I can always see your kindness in them,” he told her softly, and she could have sworn that he moved in a few centimeters closer to her. “You see, there was this sonnet I once read that referred to the eyes as the windows to the soul. Truthfully, I’d always thought it was utter nonsense... until now, that is.”

“L-Leo... what’s gotten into you?” Sakura blurted out, gasping only a moment later at her own lack of tact. Wasn't this just how people in love talked to each other? Oh gods, was she supposed to say something in return about how handsome she found him? How would she ever even get the sentence out?

This time it was his turn to look taken aback, but he soon replaced his shocked expression with an amused grin. Well, at least he didn’t seem angry with her...

"Ah, please forgive me for becoming so sappy all of a sudden, Sakura," he said sheepishly. "I guess that after I conveniently found myself this close to you, I just couldn't resist the temptation to admire what I saw. But maybe it would have been better if I'd simply done this instead."

It didn't take her long to figure out what he meant. Since his face had already been so achingly close to hers, it'd only taken a half a second before she felt his soft kiss on her lips. Her eyes swiftly shut and everything around them seem to disappear as she melted into him.

Due to his near fall earlier their arms had already been wrapped around each other. Yet, as he kissed her, he was somehow able to pull her in even closer, as if he were just as desperate for her as she was for him. The only thought she was able to register amidst the pleasure of it all was that he smelled like the earth. The combination of his scent mixed in with the taste and touch of his lips seemed to overload her senses to the point of rapture, and it was just so completely intoxicating.

They eventually pulled apart to break for air, but he remained painstakingly close, resting his forehead against hers while he tried to catch his breath.

She then opened her eyes and glanced up at him, amazed at what she saw. More often than not his expressions ranged somewhere between smug and guarded, and she'd expected to find him sporting his usual self-satisfied smirk. Yet instead, he was looking down at her now with such tenderness that she wondered if she could truly ever be without him someday, if she could really say goodbye to him should she be forced to do so.

Could fate really be that cruel, to destine them to be apart?

"Sakura, as much as I might want to, we can't just stay together like this," he told her reluctantly, and she almost cried out until she realized that he was speaking generally, and he wasn't actually responding to her anxious thoughts about the future. "The march will begin soon and this tent needs to be taken down for transport, so we should be getting ready."

"R-right," she agreed, but she began to back away from him completely, feeling self-conscious and awkward once again. Yet, before she could get too far, he grabbed her hand and intertwined his fingers into hers.

"Wait," he commanded. "Even though I think it's sweet that you're so shy, I don't want you to ever feel like you need to retreat from me. Surely you know by now that I like having you close to me, even if we're not kissing?" His smirk finally reappeared, but his gaze was soft, and she wondered if a part of him was feeling vulnerable from her tendency to pull away from him. "So, whenever you feel such an urge coming on, perhaps you can just try holding my hand instead?" he suggested.

She squeezed his hand in hers to reassure him as she nodded. "Okay, Leo," she promised, not that it was much of a hardship when holding his hand sounded like the best idea in the world. She was especially glad that he hadn't put his gloves on yet so that she could feel the warmth of his fingers as they nestled within hers.

Of course, the fact that he wasn't wearing gloves only served to remind her that he was wearing the rest of his armor.

"Listen, Leo, you shouldn't be w-wearing your armor yet," she finally chided. "I can close your wound again, but if you put on your armor b-before it was bandaged properly, it's likely to reopen again. Besides, since we don't have a restore staff, the poison is still weakening your body, which will only make your armor seem especially heavy."

"I can handle my armor," Leo scoffed dismissively, but he wasn't as good at hiding his pain as he seemed to think he was. She'd been trained to see the signs after all - the grimaces that he tried to mask, the occasional groan that he would pretend was part of clearing his throat, the rigidity of his body as he tried to move.

"Leo!" Sakura finally shouted with frustration, and his eyes snapped back over to her quickly. Her shoulders then sagged, and she glanced away from him as she bit her lip. "I just n-need you to be careful. I almost lost you last time, and I can't go through that again. I c-can't!"

Her eyes began to water as she started to relive the terror of the last few days, but before she knew it she was back in Leo’s arms. “I know, Sakura. You're right," he acquiesced, even though it seemed difficult for him to admit it. "I guess I just hate the thought of being perceived as weak. In Nohr, that alone can be enough to get you killed,” he explained as his expression darkened, and she wondered yet again what exactly he’d gone through growing up in an environment fostered by King Garon. “But, I can at least promise you that I’ll be more careful until I’m fully healed. The armor is mostly for show, anyway. I don’t plan on doing anything stupid.”

"Thank you, L-Leo," she told him gratefully as she sank further into his touch, and she was glad that she got the opportunity to steal a few more minutes with him before they had to leave. She didn't know quite how he managed it, but when he held her like this it made her feel like the most precious thing in the world.

And that was just one of the many reasons why she could never come so close to losing him again.

After such a long rest the army was able to march quickly, and they reached the Narube River in a matter of hours.

The plan had been to catch up with the Frelian troops that had been sent ahead by Prince Innes at the river, but when they arrived, the area was in complete chaos. The Frelian soldiers were engaged in a battle, one that they were clearly losing, and Sakura watched in horror as one after another was slaughtered by the opposing army. Meanwhile, a group of villagers were gathered nearby, being protected by a sole Falcon Knight.

Knowing that there might be wounded within reach, Sakura hurried to the front of the army where all the Magvelian royals had gathered, her Sun Festal at the ready. Leo and General Seth were also there, but their expressions were grim.

"We must go to Syrene's aid, quickly," Princes Innes stated urgently, referring to the Falcon Knight that was with the villagers. "My other remaining soldiers will need immediate reinforcements as well if we can spare them."

“Wait, everyone! Hold!” Princess L’Arachel called out in distress. “Something evil is afoot.”

Within an instant, a young purple-haired man appeared out of nowhere, someone Sakura didn’t recognize. Whoever he was, Sakura could tell that there was something not quite right about him.

“Lyon?” Prince Ephraim then asked in bewilderment.

Recognizing the name, Sakura suddenly realized that this was the Grado prince who'd turned against Ephraim and Eirika, the one who'd started this war in Magvel. The Grado prince had once been a treasured friend, according to what Eirika had told her, which had only made his betrayal even more difficult for the twins.

"Lyon, where have you been all this time?" Eirika asked, and although her question was bordering on accusatory, Sakura could still hear the concern in her voice.

"I guess it has been a while since the three of us last met like this, hasn't it?" Lyon asked calmly. "But I suppose that I've just been rather busy... you know, ruining Renais and murdering your father." A wicked smile then made it's way to his face, one that chilled Sakura to her very core.

"No, Lyon... but it just can't be true," Eirika pleaded, clearly devastated. She must have cared a lot for the prince if she still wished to believe in him, even after all that had happened.

“Don’t be fooled, Eirika,” Ephraim told her. “Keep your guard up. That’s not Lyon.”

“What amusing things come babbling out of your mouth, Ephraim!” Lyon exclaimed with delight. “You two always thought of Lyon as kind, gentle and weak, didn’t you? Admit it.”

Sakura shivered, astonished that she actually felt a pang of empathy for the deranged prince. After all, that's how everyone perceived her, too. Still, that was no excuse for the prince to resort to this madness and to harm so many people in his wake.

"No, that's not true!" Ephraim insisted in response to Lyon's accusation. "Lyon, Eirika, and I were friends. He would never betray us, not in a million years. You're not Lyon."

“I see. So I have no reason to continue hiding my true identity then, do I?” Lyon inquired.

"None!" Ephraim shouted, and Sakura couldn't remember ever seeing the prince of Renais this enraged. Normally he was so composed. Unflappable, even. But now...

"Well, you are correct. This body no longer belongs to your young Lyon. I devoured his pathetic heart ages ago," Lyon then told them, and Eirika gasped.

“You monster! Who are you?” Ephraim asked, advancing with his lance.

“Do you really not know me?” Lyon wondered. “What a poorly educated prince. Think about it. Remember the legends of your pitiful kind. What was sealed within the Stone of Grado? What is the name of terror?”

“No, that’s impossible,” Leo mumbled, and Sakura tensed as she heard the alarm in his voice.

“Yes, it is as we feared after all,” Princess L’Arachel confirmed. “That can only be…”

“The great adversary of antiquity. The Demon King,” Ephraim finished with wide eyes, lowering his weapon.

But the turmoil of the Magvelian royals began to fade around her as a voice in her head started to speak.

'Ah, yes. This one… this is the power that we seek,' the voice told her. 'Think of what you could do if only you had his power for yourself, Sakura!'

"N-No," Sakura whispered back, nearly whimpering. "Please g-go away."

'But that's what you want, isn't it?' the voice asked. 'The power to protect your siblings and Hoshido? The power to protect your friends here in Magvel? And most importantly, the power to protect your beloved, who almost died because you were too weak to help him?

Sakura said nothing. How could she when the voice was right? She was simply too weak to protect those that she cared about, and even learning how to use the bow hadn't been enough to change that. There were some enemies that she couldn't even harm with her archery since she was still such a novice.

Memories of the centaur attacking Leo soon resurfaced, and she could vividly recall her feelings of despair and helplessness when there had been nothing that she could do to stop it.

'Yes, that's right,' the voice continued. 'We need that power to help the ones you love, Sakura. Go to this man and find the source of his power. You don't need to fight your friends. Just find a way to take his power for yourself.'

Could she do that? Was it possible? All she wanted was to keep everyone that she loved safe, to keep Leo safe.

But, a part of her still attempted to resist the voice's words, as if she knew that it was only tricking her. It had once tried to make her do something truly terrible, hadn’t it?

Even so, she found herself moving toward the Grado prince as if in a trance, her desire to keep those that she cared about from harm proving to be too great to ignore.

Before she could get too close, though, someone yanked on her cape, pulling her backward. "Sakura, what are you doing?" her obstructor asked.

Everything was so... hazy.

"I-I… must..." she faltered as disjointed memories of the one who'd stopped her flashed through her mind.

Leo. Yes, just the thought of him made her feel warm and safe. She didn't want to be all alone in this darkness anymore, she wanted to be with him.

Suddenly her head was filled with excruciating pain and she screamed.

"Sakura!" she heard a voice yell, and she realized then that Leo was holding onto her shoulders and shaking her lightly.

"L-Leo?" she asked with confusion as her eyes blinked rapidly. Why did he look so terrified? Had she blacked out again? She couldn't remember anything, and when she tried to, it only made her head hurt more.

But it wasn't just Leo who was staring at her now... everyone was.

"Well, now, isn't this interesting?" Prince Lyon asked, seeming intrigued as he moved toward her.

"Come any closer, demon, and I'll kill you," Leo threatened, stepping in front of Sakura with his tome raised.

The purple glow of Brynhildr lit up the nearby sky, but Lyon just laughed in response. "I don't even know who you are, foolish human. But it's of no consequence anyway. I am the Demon King, and I'll destroy you all," he promised. "You'll have to earn such a privilege, though," he taunted, this time looking directly at Ephraim. "I'll let my soldiers wipe up the weak first."

"No! Wait!" Ephraim cried out, but the possessed prince then teleported away to a fortress across the river.

Once Lyon was gone, Leo turned to her, his face drawn with worry. "Sakura, what just happened?" he demanded.

"I d-don't… I don't remember anything after Prince Lyon said that he was the Demon King," Sakura admitted. She felt tears of frustration gathering in her eyes. What had she done to make everyone look at her with such concern and… distrust?

"This girl clearly can't be trusted," Innes said, confirming her worst fears. "We need to subdue her. Someone can then keep watch over her here until we can ascertain her motives."

"That's not happening," Leo said dangerously as the purple light of Brynhildr glowed around him once again.

"Leo…" Sakura trailed off, feeling both guilty and grateful for his protection at the same time.

"Please, Innes, we mustn't blame the girl if that wretched demon was trying to beguile her," L'Arachel reasoned, before turning to Sakura. "Fear not, oh innocent one, for I am here to save you from that soulless creature!"

If possible Sakura paled even more, but she nodded at the princess and thanked her politely.

"We can't be sure that's what happened," Innes argued. "No one knew this girl before she just appeared in Magvel a few months ago with Ephraim's new advisor, correct? She could have been planning to join up with the Demon King this whole time."

"Please, Innes, I can vouch for her," Eirika said, stepping forward. "Besides, right now we need to worry about rescuing the villagers and aiding your soldiers."

Sakura shuddered as she heard the screams of more soldiers being slaughtered by Lyon's men, hating that she was the cause of more deaths. And if they didn't get to the villagers in time...

"Eirika is right, we don't have time to argue this point," Ephraim agreed hurriedly. He was once again composed, but Sakura could see the fire burning in his eyes and she knew that the prince was anxious to begin the battle. "Seth, ready the army!"

Innes relented too. "You're right. Syrene and those villagers need our help immediately. But until that girl's motives are clear, I will kill her myself if she attempts to approach Prince Lyon again. Understood?"

Leo's eyes narrowed at the threat, but Ephraim and Seth didn't waste any further time getting the army into formation.

Leo, however, didn't form up with the rest of the army, and instead he stayed back by Sakura's side.

"Come, Sakura," he told her as he walked over to his horse. "If you use your bow to shoot at that snag of branches, we might be able to create a makeshift bridge to cross the river over here. There are a few enemies we can engage this way. We can even gather a party to prevent the enemies on this side of the river from reinforcing the soldiers that Ephraim will be fighting."

"But, Leo, the villagers are the other way," Sakura protested. "Their need is more immediate."

"Ephraim and Eirika will ensure that the villagers come to no harm," he told her. "And Sister Natasha and Father Moulder are here to help with any injuries, not to mention Princess L'Arachel."

"Leo…" Sakura attempted again, feeling disheartened. "Please, tell me what happened earlier. You just want me to go this way because you don't t-trust me to be close to Prince Lyon again, is that right?"

"Don't be silly," he said dismissively, but he failed to meet her gaze. "It's not you I don't trust, anyway, it's that hothead Innes."

She wanted to believe that he truly meant it, but she was plagued with doubts. Still, she merely nodded in response, trying to tune out the terrified screams of the villagers as the Grado soldiers advanced on them. Gods, if any of them were to end up hurt or worse, then how could she ever forgive herself?

Yet, considering that she couldn't remember anything that had happened earlier aside from the looks of distrust that she'd received from everyone, she wasn't about to question Leo's judgment. But if she'd really done something so terrible, then maybe it wasn't safe for Leo to be near her right now either.

She suddenly grabbed his hand and held onto it, and he looked down at her in surprise. "You s-said that I could," she explained, not meeting his eyes. "You said that when I feel like running away from you, I should just hold your hand instead."

Sakura couldn't see his expression, but when Leo let go of her hand, she felt the painful sting of tears prickling at her eyes from his rejection. Only an instant later, though, he grabbed her arm and yanked her to him, pulling her in close.

Oh, thank the gods. He hadn’t wanted her to leave him after all.

In fact, if anything, it seemed to be the opposite. He was holding her especially tightly this time, more firmly than ever before, as if he feared that she might be taken away from him at any moment. She wanted to stay in his arms to assure him, as well as herself, that she’d always be with him, no matter what happened. But it was the horrible sounds of the battle around them that forced Sakura to pull away after only a few short seconds, and right now she wished that they were anywhere else instead of at this wretched river.

"Leo," she then started, frowning as she peered up at him. "The Demon King said that h-he ate Prince Lyon's heart, right? Do you think that’s true?" she wondered. "Maybe that’s what you think w-will happen to me?"

His eyes shifted from startled to pained, until they finally settled on determined. "No, that's not going to happen to you," he promised her, and he said it with such conviction that she actually believed him.

"How can you be so sure?" she asked.

"Because your heart is too pure for any demon," he told her confidently. "And besides, there are only two possible outcomes here anyway. We'll either leave Magvel soon and return to Hoshido where that demon can't hurt you, or if not..." Leo trailed off as he looked across the river toward the fortress.

"If not," he repeated, this time matter-of-factly, "then I'm going to kill the Demon King."

Chapter Text

After the battle at the Narube River, Leo rode ahead of the army with Ephraim. Although the villagers near the river had been rescued, Prince Lyon had ultimately escaped, and Ephraim seemed desperate to find the Demon King once again. Leo was also anxious to find him, but of course he had his own more selfish reasons for doing so.

Ephraim's face continued to remain impassive during the ride, but Leo knew that his friend was devastated by what had happened to Lyon. Leo wanted to be there for him, yet it was difficult to offer such support when he knew that he'd have no qualms putting the Grado prince down if they encountered him again. Certainly not when he was a threat to Sakura, at least.

Leo’s hand glowed with purple light at the thought.

The sounds of a horse galloping behind them caused Leo and Ephraim turn their heads, only to see Princess L’Arachel trying vigorously to catch up. Leo was slightly surprised when Ephraim actually slowed down to let her, especially considering how focused he’d been on their task. Then again, his friend seemed to have a soft spot for the eccentric princess.

“E-Ephraim. I must ask that you slow down!” L’Arachel huffed as she finally reached them. “If you travel so swiftly, we cannot keep up.”

“I’m riding ahead, L’Arachel. If you can’t keep up, then you can remain behind with the rest of the army,” Ephraim told her, sounding harsh to even Leo’s ears. “I can’t waste any more time. I must catch the Demon King as quickly as possible.”

L’Arachel didn’t seem hurt by his words, though, and just lifted her nose in the air with a slight “hmph.”

“And when you find him? Tell me, what then?” she then challenged haughtily.

I’ll kill him, Leo thought, but no one was asking him, so he remained silent.

As for Ephraim, for a long moment he said nothing, clenching the reins he was holding in his hands tightly. “…L’Arachel,” he finally started, looking at her with pleading eyes. “Rausten is the spiritual heart of Magvel. They keep the ancient lore. You’re their princess. You must know something about the demons of legend,” he reasoned. “I do not need consolation or peace of mind. I need facts. Lyon, as he is now… Can he be saved?”

L’Arachel’s expression suddenly softened. “I’m sorry,” she said kindly, and Leo found it strange to hear her voice without its normal boisterousness. “But to the best of my knowledge, there’s nothing to be done.”

Ephraim said nothing, staring grimly into the distance.

“Is there anything else you can tell us about what happened to Lyon, Princess L’Arachel?” Leo asked, wanting to know more about what he was dealing with.

The princess nodded. “It seems that Lyon’s body has already been claimed by the Demon King. Once it’s gone that far, there’s nothing that can be done. When the Demon King takes over someone, he devours his spirit, his very soul. Even if his hold on Lyon’s body could be released, that body would have no soul. There is no power in Rausten…not even the Sacred Stone… that can perform so great a miracle as to restore a shattered soul.”

“Is that so,” Ephraim said dully. “I… I understand. Let’s go, Leo.”

He then started to spur into a canter again, surprising the princess of Rausten. “W-wait a moment!” she cried out. “Hmph! Weren’t you listening to me at all? I’m sorry, but the prince-”

“I heard you,” Ephraim interrupted. “There’s no hope of saving Lyon. And if I cannot save him… then I will bring him peace with my own hands.”

She nodded slowly before she responded. “Well. If your mind’s made up, there’s not much I can do, is there?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, L’Arachel,” Ephraim replied, looking contrite but still determined.

“There’s no need for you to apologize,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Your words alone have won my forgiveness.”

The two shared a long, meaningful look before L’Arachel cleared her throat and looked away with her chin up.

“Princess L’Arachel,” Leo began, taking that as his chance to interject. “What about Sakura? You said that she was being beguiled by the Demon King. Can she... still be saved?” he asked tensely.

“I admit that I do not know the girl well, but I have no reason to believe that her soul is not still intact. Therefore, there’s no reason that she still can’t be saved,” she confirmed, and Leo felt his body sagging with relief. “However…” she then added hesitantly.

“What?” Leo asked worriedly.

“If the demon has already started to entrap her, it will not be easy for her to escape him,” L’Arachel warned. “Our oldest legends tell us just this. Only one person has ever been able to shake off the Demon King's domination, and that was Rausten's founder, Saint Latona the sure-hearted. If one possesses a strength of will beyond that of normal men... only then can one throw off the shackles of the Demon King.”

Leo had few doubts about Sakura’s heart, but still, L’Arachel’s words were unsettling. He’d just have to make sure to kill Lyon before the Demon King was able to harm her any further.

And yet, something just didn’t quite add up…

“Princess L’Arachel,” Leo wondered, “why would the Demon King want to control Sakura when he already has possession of Prince Lyon?”

“I admit, I’ve wondered this as well,” Ephraim stated.

"Well, it is unprecedented for the demon to try to possess two souls at once," L'Arachel confirmed, looking thoughtful. "But there's no doubt that the girl was drawn to the Demon King's power - we all witnessed the act. If the Demon King isn't responsible for that, then who? I hardly believe Princes Innes' theory that her intentions have been nefarious all along. Nobody has helped with the army's healing efforts more than that girl, aside from me of course."

Leo certainly appreciated that sentiment, or at least the first part of it, but something she said put a seed of doubt in Leo's head. Could something else - or someone else - be responsible for what was happening to Sakura? Could that even be possible?

Leo frowned, deep in thought… and when Brynhildr suddenly stirred to life and started to pulse at his side, as if to encourage these thoughts, his frown only deepened.

Something strange was going on, and he needed to get to the bottom of it…

“Ephraim, I’m sorry. I can’t ride ahead with you anymore,” Leo told his friend all of a sudden. “I need to talk to Sakura about something - it can’t wait.”

Ephraim looked startled, but before he could say anything, L’Arachel intervened.

"Don't you see, Ephraim? Even your trusted advisor is getting tired," she commented, and Leo nearly choked at her words. That wasn't what he'd said at all! Still, he forced himself to let it slide, having other things to worry about that were more important than his pride.

“You should take this as a sign to stop this madness and let yourself and the army rest,” L’Arachel continued, phrasing it more as a command than a request. “It’s not safe for you to go off ahead on your own. You could get hurt if you try to take on the Demon King without anyone’s help.”

“L’Arachel, we’ve already been over this,” his friend argued, clearly frustrated. “I need to-”

“Please,” L’Arachel suddenly entreated while looking away from Ephraim, and Leo’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. Personally, he’d be willing to wager that this was the first time that word had ever come out of the princess’s mouth.

Ephraim clearly had the same thought, because her plea made him pause. “Fine,” Ephraim finally agreed, seeming surprised by his own decision.

Leo could have sworn that he saw relief flash on L'Arachel's face, but he must have imagined it because a moment later he read nothing but triumph in her expression. "Well, naturally you've come to the right decision," she told him, shrugging her shoulders aloofly. "Boy," she then said, addressing Leo, "you can go and give the order for the army to make camp.”

Leo narrowed his eyes at the moniker. Sure, she didn't know that he was a prince, but did she have to be so… so… utterly condescending?

“Ephraim and I will follow along in a moment,” she then added when Leo made no move to leave. “Now, shoo! Run along.”

The worst part of it all was the amused way that Ephraim was looking at him, and he could tell that his friend was struggling to hold back his laughter.

Leo scoffed as he turned his horse around and quickly began to canter back toward the army. He’d be sure to let Ephraim know exactly what he thought of Princess L’Arachel at the next available opportunity.

But, then again… if she could manage to put a happy spark back in his friend’s eyes after everything that had happened with Lyon, even if it had been at Leo’s own expense…

Well, then maybe the princess of Rausten wasn’t really so bad after all.

And with that last begrudging thought, Leo hurried off to find Sakura, determined to understand exactly what was happening to her.

Sakura approached Eirika hesitantly during the march, unsure if the princess of Renais would even want to see her. Although, to be fair to Eirika, she wasn’t sure if anyone who'd been privy to what she'd done in the last battle wanted to see her. Even Leo had scurried off and left her behind once it had been confirmed that Lyon had escaped.

And as for Prince Innes… fortunately, the Frelian prince hadn’t approached her, but Sakura nearly shuddered as she recalled the cold look he’d sent her way as their eyes met across the processing army. She knew that if he’d had his way, she’d be in shackles right now.

Then again, maybe she deserved it. She still had no idea what she’d done in that moment, since no one seemed willing to tell her.

Yet, to her great relief Eirika smiled kindly at her, and if it wouldn’t have been perceived to be so horribly inappropriate, Sakura would have been tempted to give her friend a hug. She suddenly longed for the comforting touch of her older sisters, or even her best friend Hana, but she forced herself to bite down the wave of homesickness that soon followed.

“Sakura,” Eirika greeted, pulling her thoughts back to the present and away from the serenity of Hoshido. “What can I do for you? Are you well?”

“Um, actually… I wanted to see how you were,” Sakura answered nervously, but her concern was genuine. “It’s j-just, I know how much you care for Prince Lyon and-”

Eirika’s face immediately darkened. To Sakura’s horror, the princess’s eyes then started to moisten with tears that would ultimately go unshed.

“O-oh! I’m so sorry!” Sakura immediately apologized, putting her hand on her mouth. “I shouldn’t have… I’ll just g-go now.”

“No, please. I’m fine, really,” Eirika insisted while wiping at her eyes. “I’m just… having a hard time accepting what’s happened to him. But, the Lyon I knew is gone now, and I must learn to move on.”

Sakura nodded in sympathy, yet it wasn’t long before Eirika gave her a curious look. “Sakura, did you... did you know Lyon?” Eirika suddenly asked.

“What?” Sakura responded, scrunching her forehead in confusion. “No, of course n-not. Why do you ask?”

Eirika shrugged. “Well, earlier at the battle, you tried to approach him. You even looked almost… excited to see him,” the princess recalled. “Do you really not remember, then?”

Sakura shook her head. “No, I’m s-sorry. I p-promise that I wouldn’t lie about this,” she insisted.

“It’s alright, I believe you” Eirika said softly. “You didn’t look like yourself anyway. In fact, it seemed as if you were under some kind of spell. Perhaps the Demon King really was trying to bewitch you.”

Sakura sighed. She wished that she could remember what she’d been thinking in that moment. Not that it even mattered, ultimately - she just had to try harder to fight his control next time. No matter what, she wouldn’t let herself hurt the people that she cared about.

“What was Lyon like, Eirika?” Sakura suddenly wondered. “The real Lyon, I m-mean.”

Eirika smiled. “Lyon… he was kind, gentle, and caring. All he ever strove for was peace,” she relayed with a wistful look on his face. “When I last saw him, he’d been trying to use the power of the Sacred Stone of Grado to help heal his people’s illnesses. It was a truly noble endeavor, and as a healer, I’m sure that it’s one you can appreciate. But, alas, the evil contained within that stone must have escaped into him while he was working on his research.”

“I s-see,” Sakura responded. Was it just a coincidence, then, that she and Lyon were so similar in nature? Was a kind heart nothing but a weakness for the Demon King to exploit?

But her troubling thoughts were interrupted as the army’s horn then sounded, indicating that they were to stop and make camp.

“Ah, Ephraim must have finally come to his senses,” Eirika commented, but she looked troubled as she thought of her brother. “It was rash, to make the army march directly after a battle like that. But, I think he’s taking this situation with Lyon even worse than I am.”

“If anyone can find a way to s-save Prince Lyon, then Prince Ephraim will,” Sakura said, grabbing the princess’s hand and squeezing it in comfort. “And if he can’t, then… try to keep remembering your friend as the w-warm, kind person that he once was. Honor him that way.”

“Thank you, Sakura,” Eirika said with a sad smile. “But I fear that the only comfort that will make me feel better would be from the one person who refuses to give it.”

Sakura didn’t even need to follow her gaze to know that she was now looking at General Seth.

“He held me once before, you know,” Eirika said softly, her eyes still on the knight. “It was when we fled from the soldiers of Grado, the night that my father was killed. He kept me safe then, but more than that… he kept me from despair. If I could only feel his arms around me again now, I think that I-”

But then she abruptly stopped talking, blushing with embarrassment. As if he could sense that Eirika was talking about him, Seth then turned to meet her stare. His eyes reflected all of her longing and then some, but he quickly turned away and busied himself elsewhere.

Eirika sighed with disappointment.

“I’m sure he has his r-reasons for keeping his distance,” Sakura surmised. “Perhaps you could just talk to him? If he knew how much you w-were hurting…”

"Perhaps," Eirika agreed. "That is, if I ever gather up the courage. But, that's enough about that. I know that we both have duties to attend to now that we've been ordered to make camp. We can continue this discussion at another time then?"

Sakura nodded. Princess Eirika then thanked her, and after another slight squeeze of the other princess's hand, Sakura bid her friend adieu.

She suddenly wondered if Franz might be having thoughts about her that were similar to those Eirika was having about General Seth, and if so, she knew that she owed it to him to be honest about her feelings for Leo. As much as she dreaded the encounter, tonight seemed as good of a night as any for them to finally talk. Hopefully once that was resolved, they could simply move back into their easy friendship.

But, despite her own discomfort, she mostly missed Leo, and she hoped that he wasn't pushing himself too hard at her expense. It didn’t seem right that he was willing to risk his life for an issue that should be hers to solve.

And yet, she couldn’t help but be scared at what might happen to her. After all, now that she knew it was there, she could feel a dark presence somewhere deep within her, simply waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Leo entered the healing tent to see Sakura deep in concentration as she meticulously set about organizing the medicines and staves. It must have been her turn to take inventory, and she’d likely volunteered to take over the healing duties as well while she did so, considering that there wouldn’t be many who’d require such services. Since Ephraim had decided to set off again immediately after the last battle, those who’d been severely injury had to be left behind at the village, while those with lesser injuries had likely just sought treatment during the march.

Yet, even now, she was hard at work, and his chest seemed to tighten as he watched her. She was always doing everything she could to make sure that everyone was well cared for, wasn’t she?

It didn’t take long before she noticed him, though, and as she offered him a bright smile, he could feel all the tension he’d been carrying start to subside. He might never be certain how she had that effect on him, but he’d surely never tire of it.

“Leo!” she exclaimed, sounding surprised to see him. “I thought that you’d b-be with Ephraim.”

“I was,” he told her. “But, I needed to see you.”

“Oh! Did you come to g-get more medicine for your wound?” she asked him, and she seemed so cheerful compared to when he'd last seen her that he couldn't help but feel like she was putting on a brave face for him.

“No… that’s not why I’m here, Sakura,” he told her cautiously, but she merely grabbed one of his hands and smiled again.

“Even so, I might as well take a look at it while you’re here,” she told him. A part of him wanted to contend that his injury could wait, and that they should prioritize accordingly because she needed him more right now, but the argument fell flat in his head when the postulate it was based on was completely wrong.

After all, it was a false statement to ever assume that he was ever the one who needed her less, regardless of the surrounding conditions.

“Please, Leo,” she implored, interrupting his internal debate. “It will only t-take a moment.”

He finally obliged her, removing the black shirt he was wearing as he sat down on the cot. Fortunately he’d already stopped to set up his tent and remove his armor before coming here, otherwise this very well could have taken more than just a “moment.”

Once he was settled, she grabbed her Sun Festal from the table of staves, and it wasn't long before he felt the warm glow of her healing magic surrounding him. Knowing that it would fade soon, he closed his eyes and let himself enjoy the comforting sensation while it lasted. It was strange, considering how many times he'd been healed in his lifetime, but he was starting to associate that restorative feeling with her specifically.

When she was done, she then returned her staff to the table and walked toward him with a jar of antitoxin and a pair of shears. She cut at his bandage carefully with the shears, and once she removed it and discarded the white cloth, she then kneaded the antitoxin gel onto his chest.

“It’s looking m-much better now,” she told him, but he could hardly hear her as the pleasure of her soft hands massaging his bare chest so earnestly commanded all of his attention. “Even compared to this morning, most of the discoloration is gone, and if your body continues to heal at this rate, you should be completely f-fine by tomorrow,” she continued, completely unsuspecting of the effect she was having on him.

“How does it f-feel?” she then asked innocently, and he nearly groaned as she unwittingly teased him. Gripping the sides of the cot tightly to resist from making any advances on her would be quite inappropriate, he merely took a deep breath and grit his teeth in frustration.

When he didn’t answer her she peered up at him curiously, and only then did she seem to realize how intimate her actions were. Her hands immediately stopped touching his chest and she turned bright red in an instant. He must have looked particularly predatory because she then stumbled backward away from him.

“Um, you c-can put your shirt b-back on now,” Sakura sputtered as she turned around to give him some privacy. “I, um, I don’t think that the wound n-needs to be rebandaged at this point b-because everything l-looked good to me.”

He then heard her gasp as she put her hand to her mouth, and now that the tables were turned a bit he chuckled lightly. Still, he scrambled into his shirt as quickly as possible. “I only m-meant that your injury looked good, of c-course! I wasn’t l-looking elsewhere at your... your ch-chest...”

Leo raised an eyebrow and smirked broadly, unable to help himself. “Are you sure about that, Sakura?” he asked huskily, baiting her assuredly embarrassed reaction even though his own cheeks were starting to color as well.

“Y-yes!” she nodded furiously.

“You can be honest with me,” he said with a magnanimous sigh. “I suppose I can forgive you this time if you were peeking a bit…”

“But, I w-wasn’t!” she insisted.

“Okay, okay… fine then,” he finally relented, deciding to spare her any further humiliation. After all, if she’d only been a bit more worldly, she could have called him out for worse. “But, we really do need to talk. I did what you asked and let you check me out,” he told her, nearly snickering. “So now, can you please come here?”

She looked skeptical, perhaps thinking that he was tricking her into doing something that would only further her embarrassment, but he reached out his hand to her, his palm upward and inviting. She took it hesitantly and he pulled at her until she was sitting next to him on the edge of the cot.

“Is this about what happened with Prince Lyon? I m-mean… the Demon King?” she asked him, her eyes downcast.

“Yes,” he admitted, although he hadn’t expected her to remove her hand from his grip at his response.

“Leo…” she sighed heavily before he could even ask her anything. “It’s all right. You d-don’t have to do this.”

“Do what?” he asked her as his brows furrowed in confusion.

“Try to fix everything,” she told him, shrugging dejectedly. “I’ve been leaving it to you to take care of everything, ever s-since we got to Magvel, and I haven’t even been helping much. It’s not f-fair to you.”

“Only, I haven’t actually fixed anything,” he countered frustratedly, rubbing the heels of his hands tiredly into his eyes.

“B-but that's not true!” she responded adamantly. “A-and anyway, it doesn’t even matter because I… because… I don’t w-want you fighting the Demon King because of me!”

He looked over at her sharply, and he could see the fear etched so clearly all over her face. Was that what her strange behavior was all about? She was just worried about him?

His heart fluttered rapidly. Did she truly love him that much, then?

Yet, as he looked into her eyes he knew that it was so, and his determination to protect her only increased tenfold.

“I’m sorry, Sakura,” he apologized, “but I can’t promise you that it won’t come to that.” He still wasn’t sure if it was the Demon King that was responsible for entrancing Sakura, but if that turned out to be the case, then it was simple - the demon would have to die.

“But, Leo-”

“Sakura,” he interrupted, his serious tone and eyes helping to silence her. “I know that you’re worried about me, and if I could do something to assuage your fears, then I would. But if someone, or something, is trying to hurt you, then I’m going to do everything I possibly can to stop it. Do you understand?”

“Leo…” she whispered, and he waited for her to continue to protest. To his surprise, though, she then leaned into him and kissed him softly on the lips. It was the first time that she had been the one to initiate a kiss between them, and he couldn’t help but deepen it as he pressed a hand against the back of her head.

Gods, he never even thought it was possible to feel this way about someone. Besides, love had never been meant for people like him, for those who lived their lives in the shadows. And yet, she still gave her heart to him so freely. He simply needed her by his side, always, and if that meant that he had to fight an ancient demon of legend, so be it.

Besides, no one was a match for him and Brynhildr, anyway.

Sakura soon pulled away from him and she sighed, sounding content but also resolute. “Okay then, Leo,” she finally offered. “What d-did you want to talk to me about?”

“Sakura… I know that you don’t remember, but you approached Prince Lyon before the battle,” Leo said, surprised to see her nod.

“I know, Eirika told me,” she informed him.

“Did you have a migraine when that happened?” he wondered.

She looked at him in confusion, but nodded again.

“And you’ve been having these migraines ever since you arrived in Magvel, correct?” he added.

"Every few days," she answered, nodding once more, but then her eyes widened in realization. "You m-mean… you think that every time I've had a migraine, it's been…"

"Yes, I think so," Leo told her. "That would also explain why Moulder and Natasha have been unable to heal you of them. This whole time, they haven't actually been a result of a physical ailment, but rather a byproduct of what's been happening to you."

She looked distressed, but he brushed her cheek with his hands. “It’s all right. None of this is your fault,” he soothed. “I know that this is upsetting, but in a way, it might actually be a good thing…”

“How?” she asked desperately.

“Because that means you’ve been fighting this thing for months without even realizing it,” he told her. “It’s been trying to control you, but it hasn’t been able to, at least not for long. You’re stronger than it, Sakura. And now that you know what this thing has been trying to do, you’ll only be able to better defend against it.”

“This th-thing?” she asked. “You mean the Demon King, right?”

“Maybe,” he said, but he was shaking his head. “That would explain why this all started in Magvel, but it makes no sense for the Demon King to go after you when he already has control of Lyon.”

Leo was thinking furiously, trying to come up with anything that would make sense, when a memory struck him. “Sakura… do you remember when you told me that you felt a dark presence as you went through the portal?” Leo asked.

“Yes,” she told him.

“You said that there was a voice. What else can you remember about that?” he inquired.

She shook her head. “Nothing, L-Leo. I-”

"Please, Sakura," Leo insisted. "You have to try. If you remembered a voice, then that means that someone might have been with you. This could be the key to finally understanding everything."

She nodded, looking determined. “You’re r-right, Leo. I’ll try.”

Leo watched patiently as she closed her eyes and attempted to recall her time in the portal. It wasn’t long, though, before she started moaning, and her arms fumbled to wrap themselves around him.

“Leo, it h-hurts,” she whimpered, and he soon held her in return. “Someone is blocking the memory, someone p-powerful… I can feel it.”

He wanted to scream at her to stop, to tell her that it didn’t matter after all, but instead he tightened his hold around her and grit his teeth. “Keep trying, Sakura,” he urged, even though he hated himself in that moment.

She pressed her head against his chest and he could feel her nodding. Her soft cries were like daggers to his heart, but it wasn’t much longer before they silenced. She gasped suddenly, and she then went limp in his arms.

“Sakura?” he asked in alarm, pulling her away from him. But her eyes remained closed and she didn’t respond.

Gods, what had happened?! Would she be all right? What... what had he done?

Panicking in full now, he was about to go and get help, when her mouth abruptly opened and she began to scream.

"W-wait!" she cried out, surprising herself and the young Nohrian prince standing before her. He turned around again, this time with his right eyebrow arched in question. "May I have your n-name?" Sakura asked, her cheeks tinting red at her forwardness.

With that, he smiled at her, making him look much kinder than his stern face or haughty smirk usually afforded. "It's Leo," he told her.

"P-Prince Leo," Sakura said with a curtsy. "Th-thank you for your kindness."

He turned away from her and scoffed, but before he could comment, a loud noise erupted throughout the woods. Within seconds the ground between them started to disappear, turning into some kind of strange, purple air. As this air replaced the area under Leo's feet, he fell into the newly-formed abyss with a surprised and startled look on his face. Sakura screamed, but before she could run for help, she found herself falling in as well.

But as she was falling through the mist in the ground, she felt something enveloping her, some kind of magic, and her descent suddenly stopped.

A figure then approached her. “Who… who are y-you?” she asked terrified, half expecting it to be Leo. It was too hazy to see whoever was there, but she strained to do so, somehow knowing that it was important. There was long hair, and a mask...

“Who are you?” the man asked in return, looking surprised. “Aren’t you that Hoshidan princess? Where is Prince Leo?”

“I d-don’t know…” she said. The flagrant hatred in his eyes made her shiver, and she suddenly wished that her siblings, her retainers, or even Prince Leo were there to help her... but she had no one. So she did the only thing she could think of - she ran through the mists.

Soon, though, a powerful spell that looked like a glowing void hit her, more powerful than any spell she'd ever felt before, and she screamed in pain. "Damn it, I don't have time to fix this," the man lamented, sounding nervous. "Prince Leo will already be there by now... but I suppose that you'll just have to do, then. I can't miss this opportunity."

“Wh-what?” she asked, feeling both weak and afraid. But soon dark wisps began to reach for her, and she felt cold, so cold. She then screamed again until everything went black.

When Sakura came to, the first thing she noticed was that it was no longer cold. In fact, she was rather warm, and instinctively she knew that she was safe as the smell of the earth surrounded her.

Finally her eyes fluttered open, and she could see Leo’s handsome features peering down at her, but they were drawn and anxious.

“Sakura,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “Thank the gods. I’m sorry, so sorry, for forcing you to try to remember like that. You lost consciousness and I was going to get help, but you wouldn’t stop screaming, and I… I didn’t want to leave you alone like that.”

He looked pale and contrite, but she offered him a warm smile to comfort him.

"It's okay. I'm f-fine," she assured him, even though her voice sounded a bit tired to her ears. It had taken a great deal of energy for her to break through the strong magic blocking her memory. Still, she had broken through it, and now she remembered what had happened back in the portal.

She shivered at the thought.

“I know who did this to m-me, Leo,” Sakura murmured.

“Who?” Leo asked, his voice nearly growling as he tightened his grip on her.

“It was a man,” she started. “He had long black hair and a strange gold mask. The m-mask only covered half of his face, and it had a horn protruding from the center of it. His magic was strong, and he h-had a very powerful tome with him.”

She felt Leo’s body tense under her head. “Do you know him?” she asked hopefully as she leaned back against him with her eyes closed.

He was silent for a long moment, and a part of her actually wondered if she’d just dozed off on him when he said, “No, I don’t know him.”

Sakura sighed with disappointment.

“Was there anything else?” Leo asked, but his voice was full of urgency. “Did this man tell you what he wanted?”

"No," Sakura answered. "There was n-nothing else." She decided to leave out the part about the man wanting to use his spell on Leo instead of her. Since Leo didn't even know who the man was, it's not as if it made a difference anyway. There was no sense in telling him that when it'd just upset him further, especially when he seemed distressed enough as it was.

“I’m sorry,” he then whispered to her before lifting up her head and catching her lips in a tender kiss.

“It’s okay, Leo,” she assured him quickly. “I’m just t-tired, that’s all. I’m going to be fine.” But he continued to kiss her, so softly and so sweetly, that it wasn’t long before she felt herself rousing into alertness.

Yet his kisses soon started to feel frenzied and urgent, and even though she was enjoying them, she found herself worried for him. There was something wrong, she could feel it, and she needed to find out what it was. Before she could pull away from him, however, the sound of the tent flap opening interrupted her thoughts.

Sakura and Leo jumped apart immediately at the noise, but not before the intruder had seen what they’d been doing.

“Franz…” Sakura whispered in horror as she looked into the wide eyes of the boy who’d walked in on them. She’d completely forgotten that she’d invited him to the healing tent once he was finished with his chores so that they could talk.

He suddenly bolted and she found herself chasing after him outside.

“W-Wait! Franz!” she called out, grateful when he listened to her and stopped. But when he turned around with a look of such pain in his eyes, she found herself wishing that he’d just kept on running.

“I’m s-sorry,” she said, and she found herself crying.

“For what, Sakura?” he asked, his tone full of hurt. “For inviting me to witness that little scene, or for not loving me back?”

Her eyes widened. “I c-care for you, so much, Franz. But-”

“Stop it,” he groaned, holding up his hand. “You’re only making it worse.”

She immediately closed her mouth, staying silent.

He walked up to her then, and he gave her such a look of sadness and longing that she felt her heart break. “I don’t blame you for how you feel, Sakura,” he told her sincerely. “I’ve always known that you and Leo were… close. I just wish you would have told me how you felt about him sooner.”

“I’m sorry,” she apologized again, and he sighed. “I should have told you once I s-suspected how you felt about me. I meant to tell you tonight, I wasn’t expecting Leo to come by. I didn’t want you to find out l-like... like this.”

He smiled wryly at her. “Maybe it’s better this way, though. Seeing you with him… I won’t be able to convince myself that I still have a chance now.”

“Franz…” Sakura whispered, his blatant pain too much for her to bear.

“It’s okay, Sakura,” he told her, and she could here the sincerity in his voice. “But now, I… I can’t be your friend any more.”

She gasped, and tears started falling down her face anew. “Franz, p-please,” she begged. “I’m sorry, I n-never meant for things to turn out like this. Please believe me! We can still b-be friends.”

He looked torn for a second, but his eyes still filled with resolve. “This isn’t because I blame you, Sakura. But it just… hurts to be around you right now. I don't think that feeling is going to go away anytime soon. And, more selfishly, I don’t want to have to see you happy with him,” Franz admitted.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said, this time being the one to apologize, and he then walked away from her. This time, she didn’t follow him.

It was only a few minutes later when Leo walked up next to her, and she knew that he’d witnessed the whole encounter between her and Franz. She braced herself, expecting him to yell at her for chasing after Franz.

"Are you okay?" he simply asked her instead, even though she could see from his expression that he was struggling with his own emotions, and she couldn't help but feel incredible relief. She wouldn't have been able to handle a fight with Leo too, not now.

She shook her head. “No, I… “ Tears continued to fall from her eyes. “I never wanted to h-hurt him like this. And I didn’t think that he’d…”

"Break up with you?" Leo asked almost bitterly.

Her eyes widened. "N-no! I didn't m-mean-"

"I know," he assured her, closing his eyes as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I apologize, Sakura… that was petty of me. But in any case, you shouldn't worry. Franz will come around eventually."

“How can you know that?” she asked as she sniffled.

“Because if it were me,” Leo started as he wiped at her tears gently with his thumbs, “and you’d chosen him… I would have. I wouldn't be able to shut you out of my life forever, not for anything.”

She looked up at him then, and she only hoped that her eyes could properly express how much she loved him in that moment because she couldn’t seem to speak.

Perhaps they had, because he promptly leaned down and kissed the crown of her head. "Get some rest," he ordered. "It's been a rough night.

She nodded, but as he walked away from her he suddenly stopped. “Oh, and, Sakura?” he asked, not turning to face her again. “Whatever that man wants from you… whatever he asks you to do… don’t listen to him. I need you to fight against him, no matter what.”

“Okay, Leo,” she said softly.

"I need you to promise," he demanded, and this time he whipped his head around to look at her. But there was so much unfiltered torment in his eyes that it made her gasp.

"I… I p-promise," she told him, and he seemed satisfied by her response. Yet, before she could say anything else, before she could offer him the comfort he so clearly needed even though she didn't quite understand why, he then resumed his stride and walked away from her.


That was the man who Sakura had described, he’d known it in an instant. But he’d lied to her, feigned ignorance... because if Iago was involved, then his father was involved.

Yes, that much was clear. Iago was too much of coward to do anything without his father’s express instructions.

So how do you tell the girl you loved that your father was responsible for all the misery she’d ever suffered, for all the misery she continued to suffer?

After all, Garon had killed her father, and whether intentional or not, he’d also given Corrin the sword that had killed her mother. And now, his father had Iago trying to possess Sakura.

Purple flashed as a large rock flew up from the ground, smashing into a nearby tree.

But what did his father want with Sakura? From her reaction to Lyon, the Demon King was likely involved somehow. Was his father trying to woo the demon over to Nohr for help in conquering Hoshido? If so, did he even realize how utterly fucking stupid that was? And how would his father even know of this realm’s existence, anyway?

Then, there was Sakura's specific involvement to consider. Was she just the sacrificial lamb being used to bring this all about? Another meaningless Hoshidan life for his father to destroy at the altar of war, apparently. But then... what of him? Had his father sent him here too, knowing that he'd help protect Sakura so that she could accomplish her mission?

His mind suddenly flashed to the memory that Brynhildr had shown him of Sakura - no, Iago - trying to harm him.

Ah, was that it, then? Was he just as expendable in his father’s eyes? Leo clenched his fists, finding it too hard to believe. Iago must have acted alone on that, perhaps because Leo’s presence was making it harder for him to control Sakura.

No, his father was a lot of things, but he wouldn’t want him dead...

…Would he? According to Sakura, it’s very possible that his father had tried to kill Corrin. And Leo was just one of five children of Nohr, fourth in line to the throne. Perhaps his life really did mean so little to his father.

Leo fell to his knees, shoving his fist in his mouth to stifle a scream. Another rock came crashing into a nearby tree.

He'd been nothing but a pawn his entire life. Everything he'd ever worked toward had been a lie, to further the goals of his deranged father. He'd just been too blind to ever see it.

Or, maybe he had seen it, and just never wanted to admit it.

Gods, he’d even been stupid enough to believe at one point that fate had brought him to Magvel to be with Sakura. Instead, it’d only been a sick plan of his father’s all along.

And he'd managed to make Sakura fall in love with him, but to what end? There's no way that she could ever love him now, not once she knew the truth. He'd even had the gall to feel jealous when she ran after Franz, as she cried her sweet tears for him, as she pleaded with him to be her friend, hah! Not because he questioned her feelings, but because he knew that Franz was ultimately the better man for her, if she'd only been smart enough to choose the blond knight over him.

Yet, instead she'd chosen him, the one too selfish to tell her the truth of what was going on lest she decide to hate him for it.

But he would protect her from his father somehow... he owed her that much. He would either take her back to Hoshido where her siblings could keep her safe, or he'd kill the Demon King and take great pleasure in ruining his father's plans. And when the day finally came that she realized the truth and began to look at him in revulsion, then he would be prepared for it.

Because he was Prince Leo of Nohr, the son of King Garon. And nothing would ever change that.

Chapter Text

Ephraim thrust his lance into yet another Gorgon, ignoring the screams of the snake-like woman as he went on to battle the next. The number of monsters in Mt. Neleras almost seemed endless, but he wouldn’t let that phase him, nor would he be deterred by the volcano’s scorching heat and its disgusting sulfur stench. None of that mattered, not when Lyon might be nearby.

Although, not everyone seemed to share his resolve.

“Ephraim! We need to get out of here!” Leo cried out with urgency as he fought beside him, sword in hand. It hadn’t taken the Nohrian prince long to discover that these Gorgon creatures were much more susceptible to physical attacks than magical ones, so he’d opted to favor his sword in this particular battle over his fearsome tome. Yet unlike Leo’s use of magic, which seemed to be second nature to him, Ephraim could see his friend concentrating fiercely with every single swing. Regardless, Ephraim was somewhat surprised to see that Leo was actually quite skilled with the weapon, and still a force to be reckoned with.

“Innes’s soldiers saw Lyon coming into these caves, Leo,” Ephraim rebutted as he killed yet another monster, this time a giant spider-like creature. “I need to find him!”

This was an argument that they’d had before, but Ephraim had to admit that he was grateful for Leo’s unwilling help. His outlander friend, who also happened to be his advisor and his army’s tactician, had warned him from the start that they shouldn’t pass directly through Mt. Neleras, that it was suicidal to try and traverse a volcano. Leo had counseled that they should travel around the mountain to Rausten instead, and Seth of course had agreed that avoiding Mt. Neleras would be the most prudent course of action. However, the Frelian scouts that they’d sent ahead had seen Lyon entering the recesses of the unwelcoming caves, and Ephraim couldn’t pass up this chance to finally locate and vanquish the Demon King possessing his friend.

“Damn it, Ephraim, look around you!” Leo shouted persistently, grunting with effort as he lopped the head off of another approaching Gorgon. “We’re in a fucking volcano! In case you somehow weren’t aware, human bodies weren’t made to withstand these kinds of temperatures, let alone an army of these hell spawns. It’s clear that this was all just a trap laid out by the Demon King, which you pranced into quite willingly, and if you could bring yourself to be bothered, you might come to notice that your own soldiers are dropping like flies!”

That caused Ephraim to finally pause and watch the battle unfold around him, and to say that he was horrified by what he saw would have been an understatement. Painful screams abounded as geysers of hot magma erupted from various parts of the ground. The spouting lava was causing severe burns to those that had the misfortune of being near the volatile pockets, and Ephraim wasn’t sure that those closest to the molten fountains would even survive such an assault. Meanwhile, pink tornadoes of dark magic rolled perilously across the area as the Gorgons continued to attack his army, with their miasmas of despair harming any and all in their path. Then, there were the large black blasts peppering the battleground, and it seemed like the shadow shots were exploding everywhere he turned to look. Although the spell seemed to be wildly inaccurate, it did cause massive destruction wherever - or, to whomever - it hit.

“You’re right, Leo,” Ephraim finally acquiesced, swallowing thickly at the carnage before him. His soldiers couldn’t keep on like this, not when the injuries were piling up this rapidly. No matter how determined he was to find Lyon, he needed to get the army out of this volcano immediately, or they might never manage to escape.

“Wait... I think that might be a way out of here,” Ephraim added after he’d fully scanned the area, pointing to what appeared to be a crack of daylight. “Let’s rally the soldiers to it and order a retreat. We shouldn’t aim to venture any deeper into this volcano.”

Leo stabbed through another Gorgon before nodding in agreement. “I’m glad that you’ve finally come to your senses. But, have you seen the general?” he asked. “We’ll need his help getting everyone back into formation.”

Ephraim frowned. Now that he thought about it, where was Seth? “No, I haven’t seen him… he must be with Eirika somewhere,” Ephraim reasoned, having gotten separated from his sister earlier. “We’ll just have to manage without him for now.”

“Fine,” Leo concurred, and the two began to corral any able-bodied soldiers into pressing toward the exit that Ephraim had spotted. Fortunately the focused strategy seemed to work, especially with Ephraim’s battle prowess and Leo’s tactical support backing the endeavor, and it wasn’t much longer before the sizable area leading out of the mountain was cleared of any monsters.

Once the chaos had finally died down and the army began to retreat to the surface as instructed, Ephraim noticed his friend scanning the area frantically, almost nearing the point of panic. But, Leo’s body soon calmed, and Ephraim knew that he must have finally located Princess Sakura. Ephraim was about to do his own search for those who were most dear to him when Leo suddenly tensed up again.

“Something’s wrong, Ephraim,” Leo told him, and Ephraim glanced over sharply to see what his friend was looking at. The first person that he noticed was his sister, who seemed to be pleading with Princess Sakura. The palpable devastation on his sister’s face caused him to promptly spur his horse toward her, with Leo quickly following behind.

He suddenly knew that something awful had happened, and although he didn’t yet know what it was, one thing was for certain - it was all his fault.

“Please, Sakura… there must be something that you can do,” Eirika insisted, and Sakura felt her heart breaking yet again as she remained helpless to ease her friend’s despair.

“I’m so s-sorry, Eirika,” she said softly, looking to the ground like a coward. “But without a restore staff, we can’t undo General Seth’s condition.”

Her voice was kind but firm, just like her mother had instructed her on how to deliver a bad prognosis. Sakura remembered the first time she'd ever given such news when she'd begun her training as a shrine maiden, to a man whose wife had passed away during childbirth despite their best healing efforts. She'd sobbed when she’d told him, and afterward, her mother had gently lectured her that she'd only made things even worse for the man with her own tears.

It was often a healer’s burden to deliver the bad along with the good after all, and it was what Sakura hated most about her chosen path.

Well, almost. Watching people die was worse. And there was always so much death…

She could have sworn that she heard wicked laughter echoing in her mind just then, and she shuddered.

“But if we had a restore staff, then you could help him?” Eirika pressed, unwilling to relent.

Sakura sighed. “I d-don’t… I don’t know,” she admitted, wishing that she had a better answer for her friend, but unwilling to offer false hope. “And even if we managed to locate one, I don't know h-how long he can survive in such a state. I’ve never seen someone turn into s-stone before...”

“What’s going on?” she heard Prince Ephraim call out behind her, and she quickly turned to see the prince of Renais riding toward them with Leo in tow. The fact that Leo appeared to be unharmed filled her with immeasurable relief, and as his eyes locked onto hers, she knew that his thoughts mirrored her own. She hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to him since last night, and once the fighting had begun things had gotten so hectic that she hadn’t even known where he was. But, as long as he always came back to her… as long as he was safe... that was all that mattered.

Yet, some of the others in the army hadn’t been as lucky, and hadn’t come away from the skirmish unharmed.

“Brother,” Eirika started, and her voice was filled with such grief that Sakura wanted to cover her ears. “Seth, he… he was turned into stone by a Gorgon’s spell.”

“What?!” Ephraim asked, paling quickly. “How... how did this happen?”

“He was fighting by my side, protecting me,” Eirika told him. “We were holding our own, but I wasn’t aware that the Gorgons had such a spell. One of them went to attack me, and… it should have been me that was…” Tears finally started to fall from Eirika’s eyes as she trailed off, and Sakura wondered how she’d even managed to keep them at bay for this long.

“No… this isn’t your fault, Eirika,” Ephraim told her, and his eyes darkened as he shared a look with Leo. Leo looked angry, with features hard and unforgiving, but he said nothing.

“L’Arachel!” Ephraim called, summoning the nearby princess of Rausten. As L’Arachel approached she looked almost as exhausted as Sakura felt, but still, she kept her chin high as she met Ephraim’s solemn gaze. “Please… you know more about these monsters than anyone. Tell me, what can be done for Seth?”

“Ephraim, I…” L’Arachel started, and it was strange to see the confident princess falter. However, her back soon snapped straight and she nodded her head almost imperceptibly. “Yes, it’s true… not even I can do anything for him right now,” L’Arachel admitted, and Ephraim paled even further. “However! Once we get to Rausten, I am certain that his status can be rectified. After all, therein lies the Saint’s Staff, the ancient Sacred Twin relic left to Rausten by Saint Latona. If any staff can heal your friend of his condition and restore him to full health, it will be that one.”

“Princess L’Arachel… from what I’ve read about the relic, there is a creed in Rausten that forbids it from being removed from its holy resting place,” Leo chimed in, and L’Arachel looked surprised. “Is that not the case?”

“Well, while that's technically correct, I’m sure that my uncle, the Divine Emperor, will make an exception in this instance,” L’Arachel said confidently. “Ultimately, he will come to realize that we need the staff and the Glorious Light, Ivaldi, if we are to defeat the Demon King.”

“Good,” Ephraim said. “L’Arachel, I need it to be so. I can’t emphasize how important Seth is to myself and Eirika - not just as the general to our army, but as our friend.” L’Arachel nodded again. “And where is he now?” Ephraim then asked.

“F-Franz and Sir Forde and some others helped to take his body to the surface,” Sakura answered, remembering how upset Franz had been at the state of the general. Her shoulders suddenly sagged even further.

Ephraim nodded. “Go and be with him, Eirika,” he said to his sister softly, although his quiet words were still weighted with authority. “I’ll follow behind you soon enough, I promise.”

The princess of Rausten nodded in response, and with a heavy heart, Sakura watched as Eirika began to retreat from the cave. Her attention was soon diverted, though, as she felt a firm tug on her arm.

“Sakura…” Leo breathed, looking almost uncertain. She hadn’t even noticed that he’d dismounted, but now that he was beside her she launched herself into him, forcing a clumsy embrace. Her face felt uncomfortable as it pressed up against the hard and sharp ridges of his armor, but she didn’t even care, needing to be as close to him as possible.

Sakura had never been witness to so many horrific injuries in such a short period of time, including some of the worst burns that she’d even seen in her life, not to mention the soldiers who’d been transformed into stone with their final looks of terror now memorialized onto their faces. Therefore, having Leo stand before her safe and whole made her more grateful than words could express, and she thanked every god she could think of for watching over him.

Perhaps Leo could see the toll that the battle had had on her because he only pulled her in closer. “Don’t worry, Sakura. Everything will be all right,” he assured her while he held her, but as she looked up into his eyes she could see the darkness in them, and it was obvious that he didn’t believe his own words.

How could she make him realize that she didn’t need his empty promises? That all she needed was him?

“I kn-know it will, Leo,” she merely replied while smiling up at him. “Because you’re here with me now.”

His eyes softened for just a moment, and she forced herself to be contented by the fact that she could bring him some peace, even if it was only fleeting. She knew that something was wrong, though, something which was upsetting him considerably. She only wished that he would just tell her what it was so that she could help him shoulder his burden, but now was not the time to needle him about it... not in this terrible place.

“Sakura, Ephraim was right to send Eirika away. You need to go, too,” he then urged with unfiltered concern, and she couldn't help but smile up at him. No matter what was haunting him and what he was keeping from her, she felt comforted in knowing that he truly loved her. She could feel it in the tender way that he held her, hear it in his gentle command, and see it written into the worry lines currently indented in his forehead under his soft, blond hair.

She found herself reaching up to brush away a few strands of his bangs that had become matted to his sweaty brow, and despite the infernal temperatures around them, she felt him shiver slightly at her touch.

“I’m sorry, but I c-can’t go yet, Leo,” she said carefully, knowing that he wouldn’t be happy about it. “I still need to help with the w-wounded.”

Surely enough he glared at her harshly, but she knew that his surliness was coming from a place of genuine concern and not anger. “You're going, Sakura. It's not up for discussion,” he told her. “We’ve cleared out all of the monsters in the area, but it’s still not safe down here.” As if to emphasize his point, a geyser of liquid lava erupted only twenty yards away from them. Leo instinctively turned to shield her from the blast with his body and activated Brynhildr to divert any lingering hot rocks that went flying toward them in the aftermath. Fortunately, though, they hadn’t been close enough to the small eruption for it to reach them.

Still, Sakura almost felt numb at the realization that Leo had been ready to protect her without any hesitation, that he was so willing to come to harm for her without even a thought for himself. She was grateful that he cared so much for her, yet ultimately, all she wanted was for him to be safe.

“Leo... th-thank you,” she offered, wishing that she was better with words so that she could properly articulate her appreciation to him. “Still, I need to stay. I know that it's d-dangerous here, but there are still some soldiers that are too injured to even retreat. All of the army’s healers that haven’t sustained their own injuries are t-tending to the wounded now. In fact, I need to get back to helping them,” she then added. “But you should g-go. There’s no reason for you to stay down here.”

“Really? Because I can think of at least one very good reason.” Her cheeks turned bright pink once his words registered, and she knew that it wasn’t because of the sweltering warmth of the volcano. “As if I’d just go and leave you down here alone, anyway,” he remarked exasperatedly while scowling. He then ran a hand over his tired face and sighed. “Hmm. Maybe I could work with Ephraim to help bring the wounded to the-”

He soon trailed off as he realized that Ephraim was no longer nearby, which Sakura also found strange. When she looked around for the missing prince, she was surprised to see that Ephraim was, in fact, riding off deeper into the heart of the volcano. Leo must have been confused by that too, because he whispered, “Just where in the hell is he going?” His question was followed by a long curse under his breath, and although Sakura couldn’t quite make out his words, she could only imagine that they weren't very pleasant.

“Sakura, I need to go after Ephraim,” he told her, quickly scrambling back onto his horse. “But I want you to leave this cave as soon as you can, once you’re done helping the injured, all right?”

“But-” she started to object, as she had no plans to leave him behind either. Yet, Leo didn’t stay to listen to her protests. Instead, he spurred his horse into a gallop and chased after the fleeing prince.

After only a moment’s hesitation Sakura gathered all of her courage, however meager it was, and followed him on foot. She couldn’t just stand idly by and do nothing while the two of them rode into danger, not when there was a possibility that Leo or Prince Ephraim might need her help. The volcano was quite dangerous, after all, and they could end up injured. And if they wound up in a skirmish instead... well, most of the army had already retreated, and there were very few options for assistance, so she supposed that she would have to suffice.

Clutching at her bow, she then headed further into the volcano, her own growing fear conquered by her worry for the two princes.

“Ephraim? What are you doing?” Leo hissed once he caught up to his friend, who had finally come to a stop. But apparently Ephraim had only paused to search the surrounding area, and his head slowly turned from left to right while he deliberated where to go next.

“Leo… I saw him. I saw the Demon King,” Ephraim told him as he continued to look around.

“I thought we went over this, Ephraim,” Leo said angrily, gritting his teeth. “We can’t risk engaging in battle with the army this depleted. We need to get out of here, now.”

“Wait… look, over there!” Ephraim responded, evidently ignoring him. Yet Leo obeyed, following Ephraim’s gaze, and surprisingly, he saw Prince Lyon leaning casually against a large boulder.

Before Leo could even say anything, Ephraim approached the idling demon. “Hold! Demon King!” his friend then commanded, garnering Lyon’s attention.

“Hmph… You again?” Lyon asked. He almost seemed bored, as if Ephraim were nothing but an annoying gnat for him to swat away at will.

Ephraim only paused and narrowed his eyes. “I’ve only one thing to ask before I slay you,” he said resignedly. “Where is Lyon now? When I kill you… will Lyon return?”

Leo could hear the hope in his friend’s voice, but it didn’t take long for the Demon King to crush it.

“How little you understand, even now,” the demon said with amusement after a brief chuckle. “Lyon is no longer a part of your world. He cannot be restored. I have devoured every last delicious scrap of his small, pathetic soul.”

“You… you monster!” Ephraim shouted, his eyes full of blind rage. Even in the throes of battle, Ephraim never lost himself to anger like this - if anything, the prince often smiled when succumbing to his battlelust, as if he were enjoying himself - and Leo found his palpable reaction to be almost frightening.

The Demon King, however, seemed thoroughly unmoved.

“Why does this upset you? What does it matter what happens to that weakling now?” the demon asked. “Lyon was a sickly cretin whose trivial dreams were nothing but hopeless–”

“Shut up!” Ephraim interrupted. “He was my friend. We’ll always be friends. I made a promise to him. You stole Lyon’s soul and corrupted his dreams! I’ll crush the life out of you.”

“Be careful, Ephraim,” Leo warned, his voice barely above a whisper. “I know that you’re upset, but I think that he’s just trying to goad you now. Let’s be smart about how we-”

Once again, though, Ephraim refused to listen to him. Instead, he just charged toward Lyon on his horse with his lance poised to strike, until the horse suddenly stopped in place and his lance fell to the ground harmlessly.

Having been left with little choice, Leo instantly followed on his own horse to offer aid to Ephraim. But once he neared his friend, he suddenly found himself unable to move at all.

“What?! My body–!” Ephraim questioned while Leo’s eyes widened in shock, and the two of them struggled against the immobilizing spell that Lyon had just placed on them.

“Don’t resist. Soon you both will be unable to move at all,” Lyon told them. He then teleported to next to Ephraim’s side, grabbing a small satchel that was tied to his waist.

“So, you had the Sacred Stone of Renais with you after all,” the demon mused as he opened the pouch and pulled out the shining rock. “If you’ll just give me a moment to destroy it…”

“Stop… urgh!” Ephraim commanded, trying futilely to move, but it wasn’t long before Lyon crushed the small, fragile stone into dust between his fingers.

“And that’s the end of your Sacred Stone,” Lyon said with an empty smile and a shrug. “Now then, Prince Ephraim. Are you prepared to die?”

“Curse you,” Ephraim mumbled with narrowed eyes. “Do it! Finish me. With my dying breath, I’ll cut you to ribbons!”

Meanwhile, Leo tried futilely to reach for Brynhildr. He was completely paralyzed below the neck from whatever the Demon King had done to them, but he had to find a way to move again or he and Ephraim were going to end up dead.

Oddly, though, instead of attacking them, Lyon just stood still, looking at Ephraim curiously.

“What are you waiting for, then?!” Ephraim asked, his eyes still alight with fury. “Are you frightened?”

“…Tell me, Prince Ephraim of Renais. Why do you fight on?” the demon inquired. “Do you think you’ll accomplish your sad desire? Can you restore your homeland from the grave? Overthrow evil? Or protect your sister?”

“You won’t kill me. I’ll do all these things, fiend. All these things and more. For my friend Lyon… I will avenge his soul,” Ephraim vowed. “I won’t let his gentle image be defiled!”

All of a sudden Lyon’s appearance altered. The deranged, sickly look on his face immediately disappeared, and he somehow even seemed almost… normal.

“… I guess it’s true, then. You really haven’t changed, Ephraim,” Lyon observed. Even his voice was different, now almost soft and gentle as opposed to the sinister boom from earlier.

“Huh? What’s– What did you say?” Ephraim asked, looking shocked. “You’re the Demon King… you’re the ancient evil. You told me you’d devoured Lyon’s soul, that nothing remained. So why did you… how do you know about me? It’s not… could it be… you?”

Lyon said nothing.

“Is that… is that you, Lyon?” Ephraim inquired again, and Leo couldn’t tell whether he sounded more horrified or hopeful.

“Yes,” the prince finally confirmed. “That’s right. It’s me, Lyon, Prince of Grado. I’m sorry, Ephraim. That whole thing about the Demon King eating my soul and me dying? That was all a lie.”

“What? But… why? Why would you say such a thing?” Ephraim asked, looking completely bewildered.

“Listen, Ephraim. I’ve always loved you. I’ve always hated you. I’ve always looked up to you. I wanted to be just like you,” Lyon told him. “Then, one day I realized… someone like me could never become someone like you. You and Eirika are… overpowering. You blinded me with your radiance. How could I live in your shadows and not seethe with jealousy?”

“Lyon…” Ephraim merely responded, his turquoise eyes large and wounded.

“Then I acquired the Dark Stone, and the Demon King began to eat my soul and corrupt my flesh,” Lyon recounted, accompanying the memory with a lifeless smile that sent chills down Leo’s spine. “I almost vanished beneath the Demon King’s mantle, until I remembered you, and my mind blazed into wakefulness. All at once, my mind shouted out, ‘I will not be devoured!’ And just as I was about to lose myself to the Demon King, I was able to drive him back.”

“You see, the Demon King’s desires are simple… foul, but uncomplicated,” the prince of Grado continued. “He wants nothing but the destruction, conquest, and subjugation of man. These shallow desires are nothing to the dreams of the human heart, so I chose to fight him. But, I didn’t want to appear before you here in the role of Lyon. Lyon, the piteous victim… the Demon King, the fiendish villain… it was all just an act. High drama for you all, to suit this grand occasion. That’s right, Ephraim… I’m the Demon King. The Demon King is me.”

“You lie. It can’t be. It’s not possible,” Ephraim insisted, his tone dripping with denial. “Lyon was... no, my friend was kind and caring. He was a good person. But you… you are not that person. You’re just trying to trick me, to confuse me, aren’t you?”

“Ephraim…” Lyon said with a deep, exasperated sigh.

“P-Prince Ephraim? Is that you?” someone suddenly called out. “... Leo?”

Leo’s eyes filled with horror and he immediately tensed when Lyon’s head quickly snapped toward the sound.

“Sakura? Get out of here, now! Run!” Leo barked at her as she approached. He began struggling anew against the spell that held him in place, although even with his added desperation he couldn’t seem to break himself free from it.

“Leo? But I can’t... I c-can’t move!” she cried out in return, and alarm instantly seized every inch of his body. Her bow then slipped from her hands, falling to the floor with a loud clank.

She wasn’t far from them now, maybe only twenty feet away, standing close to the boulder that Lyon had initially been waiting near. In the span of only a heartbeat, even one of Leo’s rapid and frantic ones, the demon king disappeared from Ephraim’s side and teleported directly in front of Sakura, making her gasp.

“No…” Leo grunted as he continued to labor against the freeze spell, his brow sweating with exertion from the effort.

“Ah... it’s you,” Lyon said with interest, clearly recognizing her from when she’d approached him by the river. “And just who are you?”

“Um, m-my name is Sakura. I’m a p-princess of the k-kingdom of Hoshido,” she answered. Every little tremble in her voice twisted at Leo’s heart, and he could barely even make himself look at her terrified face.

Damn it, what was she even doing here?! He should have anticipated that she might try and follow him and made her promise that she wouldn’t. Hell, he should have just dragged her out of the caves kicking and screaming earlier, before even setting off after Ephraim to begin with...

“Hmm… Hoshido...” Lyon then repeated, looking intrigued. “I’ve never heard of this place. And, you also say that you’re a princess? Honestly, you look more suited to be a traveling flower girl.”

Sakura deflated even further under the Demon King’s probing gaze, and Leo wanted nothing more than to run a tree through his smug face. “That may b-be so… but I’m t-telling you the truth,” Sakura responded diplomatically, her words now sounding a bit more steady. She somehow kept her eyes squarely on the prince instead of looking down or away from him, and knowing how afraid she was, Leo couldn’t help but be proud of her.

“It wasn’t you who came to me that day, though, was it?” Lyon asked knowingly, peering at her with intense scrutiny. “Who was that, then?”

She remained silent.

“Hmm, how very interesting. Was it another demon, perhaps? I can see you trying to fight its control even now,” Lyon noted, and Leo grit his teeth. As if they didn’t already have enough problems right now without Iago trying to take advantage of the situation.

“Yet, what I can’t tell is if this presence in you means me well or harm,” the Demon King continued as his eyes suddenly darkened. “So, perhaps I should simply kill you now, just in case...”

Leo bristled at the open threat, and the hairs at the back of his neck were now standing on end like he’d been doused in a pool of ice cold water. “Don’t you dare,” he growled warningly, his voice oozing with hostility.

Lyon finally looked toward him, seeming to only notice or care about his presence for the first time since Leo and Ephraim had initially encountered him. “Ah, yes... you. You tried to protect this girl by the river too, didn't you?” Lyon inquired. “But, who are you... Ephraim’s new best friend? I guess it certainly didn’t take him very long to replace me.”

“No one will ever replace Lyon,” Ephraim insisted. “And whether you are truly him, or if you’re just the Demon King trying to trick me, your quarrel is with me and me only. Let the two of them go!”

Lyon smiled. “How does this feel for you, then, Ephraim?” he taunted. “To know that you are now the weak one while I am strong, and that you can do nothing to stop me. Just like I destroyed the Sacred Stone, I could so easily snap her delicate neck in an instant if I wished to.” He then brushed his hand lightly across her neck as if to emphasize his point, and Sakura’s eyes grew large. “That’s the problem, though, isn’t it? Our accursed human flesh is so brittle, so weak...”

“I said stay the fuck away from her!” Leo yelled, trying with all his might yet again to reach for Brynhildr.

“Lyon! Stop this!” Ephraim commanded, and Leo knew that his friend was struggling just as hard against the freeze spell that held them in place.

But Sakura remained oddly calm as her life was threatened, only looking up at the prince with sad, empathetic eyes. “I’m so s-sorry that this happened to you,” she told him sincerely. “I can see how much p-pain you're in, how much you're hurting. I only w-wish that I could have known you before all of this… b-before the D-Demon King commanded your heart. I think that we could have h-helped each other.”

Lyon narrowed his eyes at her. “You know nothing. The Demon King does not command me, I’m acting on my own free will. But I must do these unspeakable things for the power to save the people of Grado.”

“If you really m-mean that... then at what point is it worth it, t-to embrace all this evil for the sake of good?” Sakura wondered, but she didn't sound judgmental at all. It was almost like she was sincerely asking him for advice, and Leo wanted to remind her not to give in to her tormentor under any circumstance. The conversation seemed to be distracting Lyon from his intention to hurt her, though, so he didn't dare to interject at the moment.

“I only ask because… b-because the evil in me tells me the very s-same thing,” she then confessed softly. “Now that I know it’s there, I can finally h-hear its voice so clearly. It's telling me that I need it… that I need you… to save my people and everyone that I care about. But I know that they’re j-just lies. I know that-”

She then closed her eyes and cried out in pain, and if her body wasn’t completely frozen, Leo was sure that she would have fallen onto her knees.

“Sakura!” he shouted, no longer able to remain silent. He wished with every fiber of his being that he could run to her, as if his mere presence alone would be enough to destroy Iago, Lyon, his father, and anyone else who'd ever intended to harm her. But her eyes soon opened again, the same caring, maroon eyes that he knew and loved, and not the crazed eyes of burnt umber. If anything, she only looked more determined after her struggle.

“I w-won’t give in to it,” she vowed. “Even if… even if that choice m-means that I die here today.”

“And even if that choice means you doom your people to death as well?” Lyon asked, and Leo could see Sakura’s determination starting to falter as pain once again overtook her features. “Perhaps you really aren't a princess after all…”

“Don’t listen to him, Sakura!” Leo shouted adamantly. “Please, you need to trust me. I know for a fact that the man trying to control you has no intention of helping your people, or anyone else that you care about!”

Sakura’s eyes then met his, and he could see her surprise as the meaning behind his words suddenly clicked into place.

Yes, she understood now. It was evident that she knew that he’d lied to her.

Instead of dwelling on it she returned her gaze to Lyon, but Leo could see the profound hurt etched all over her face, and he hated himself for causing it. “What are you w-worried will happen to your people, Prince Lyon?” she asked him. “Will you at least t-tell me… please?”

Lyon was quiet for a long time before he finally spoke. “It was a vision I saw many times, as did the court mages. Sometime in the future there will be a devastating earthquake, and the land in Grado will collapse. Countless people will die instantly, and those who don’t will likely starve.”

“Lyon, why… why didn’t you tell me this?” Ephraim wondered, sounding stunned. “It never had to come to this. We could have helped...”

“Not even you have the power to avert a natural disaster, Ephraim,” Lyon said bitterly. “And even for the ones who ultimately survived the disaster and the ensuing famine, they likely would have tried to seek shelter in Renais. It would have only been a matter of time before your kingdom closed its border to our refugees.”

“No, that wouldn’t happen! That won’t happen,” Ephraim protested.

“You’re right that it won’t happen, Ephraim, because I’ll be able to stop it now,” Lyon said. “When my father died, the fate of Grado rested entirely upon me. I knew that my people would die because I was weak. But now, I will save Grado’s people.”

“How?” Ephraim asked. “What do you plan to do? You can’t possibly have that kind of power...”

“Not yet… but I will soon enough.”

“Please, P-Prince Lyon! Following this path will only lead to m-more bloodshed,” Sakura pleaded desperately. “If we all just work together instead, there has to be s-something that we can do to help your people.”

“Like what? Hold hands and hope for the best?” Lyon mused.

“L-like… like…”

“Prince Lyon is right, Sakura. There is no way for us to prevent a natural disaster,” Leo chimed in, earning him another hurt stare from her that he’d soon like to forget. Yet, he persisted.

However... the gift of foresight in such things is invaluable. Much can be done to prevent the ensuing death and starvation that would otherwise follow. Instead of fighting in this war, for example, all of your able-bodied soldiers could be reinforcing Grado’s houses and buildings. The steel from the weapons they’re fighting with can be easily melted down and turned into reinforcing bar for these structures to ensure that they won’t collapse in the earthquake. This can save many lives, as that’s how the majority of people would likely die in such a disaster. And, of course, many can also be evacuated from the more dangerous areas prior to earthquake’s occurrence.”

“Now, as for the starvation issue, I happen to have quite a bit of experience in that regard,” Leo continued with a wry smile. “In my kingdom, careful ledgers are kept so that food and water are rationed daily. If you begin doing that now, you should have plenty of food saved up by the time the disaster strikes. Some foods, like grains, can even last for years if stored properly. That, in addition to help from your neighboring kingdoms, should be enough to sustain Grado through the worst of the disaster.”

By the time he’d finished, Sakura was looking at him with such gratitude and admiration that his cheeks started to color. Even though she had to be upset with him now that she knew he’d lied to her about something so important, the fact that she could still look at him in such a way…

Could he really one day be that man that she saw when she looked at him like that, the one who was truly deserving of her?

Then again, surely anyone could have thought of these ideas… at least before they resorted to awakening an ancient, evil demon god for help. Despite Ephraim and Eirika’s high regard of the Grado prince, Leo couldn't help but feel that Lyon was a weak-willed person to have given in so easily to the desires of the Demon King.

“Don’t you see, Lyon?” Ephraim then asked, breaking Leo from his chain of thought. “The people of Grado can still be saved without resorting to this violence, but they need a leader who's going to work hard to help get them through it. You’re the one they need to help them survive the disaster, not the Demon King.”

Lyon was silent for a long moment before he spoke again. “It’s too late for that now, Ephraim,” he lamented, and it seemed as if he were genuinely full of regret. “I’ve sacrificed the lives of many good people. I’ve committed many unforgivable sins. The caring heart that I once possessed died long ago… and I’ve grown stronger because of it. This is the only way forward for me.”

“B-but, I know that’s not true!” Sakura protested. “I know in my heart that you don’t want to hurt anyone anymore. Please, Prince Lyon, there must be a way for you to be the kind p-person that you were before. I b-believe in you…”

Her eyes were shining with such honest warmth that there was no doubt she meant her words, and Leo was almost shocked by how much faith she seemed to have in the Grado prince.

As for Ephraim, he was as tense of a bowstring, but he had a hopeful look in his eyes as well.

Apparently, Leo was the only one who remained cynical that enough remnants of Lyon’s former self still remained, and he therefore continued to try and free himself from Lyon’s hold.

“You have a very kind heart, Princess Sakura. Just like Eirika,” Lyon observed out loud. “In fact, you... you remind me of her.”

Sakura smiled brightly. “Thank you, Prince Lyon. That is a true c-compliment. But I’m sure that she’d only tell you all of the s-same things I am. She truly cares for you.”

“She… does?” Lyon asked, almost sounding hopeful.

“Of course,” Sakura confirmed. “You’re her dearest friend, after all.”

Lyon had no reaction at first, but after a few moments he laughed. That laugh, though… there was something inhuman about it, and Leo suddenly found himself even more on edge than before.

Was it... could it be that Lyon was in love with Princess Eirika?

“Ah, thank you, Princess Sakura, for saying that,” the Grado prince offered darkly.

Now Leo knew that something was wrong, and he could see that Ephraim did too, but Sakura’s eyes were still shining as she remained completely unsuspecting of any ill intent.

“Ephraim!” Leo hissed quietly. They had to do something to get Lyon’s attention away from her, before the demon resorted to causing her harm...

“Lyon,” Ephraim tried, clearly in agreement, “this has gone on for long enough. Why don't you release your hold on us? We can then get out of this cave and talk about our plans for the future. Leo can map out a strategy to ensure that your people will be protected from the earthquake and its after effects, and we can all work together to put such measures into place.”

“That's a g-great idea,” Sakura replied earnestly. “And I'm sure that Princess Eirika would love to see you as well. She-”

But her excited words turned into nothing more than a shocked gasp as Lyon’s hands suddenly wrapped around her neck and squeezed. Leo could only watch in abject horror as Lyon then pressed his thumbs forcefully into her trachea, cutting off her airflow.

"No!" Leo cried out desperately, renewing his efforts to make his body move as Sakura started to suffocate. Gods, if he didn't do something soon, then Lyon was going to kill her!

And true fear unlike anything he'd never known before suddenly crippled him at that realization, a fear turning into a stark reality as he watched her struggling to breathe while he himself was powerless to do anything.

“Stop this, Lyon!” Ephraim begged, also forced to simply watch as he remained frozen in place.

However, the Demon King's touch must have given Sakura control over her own movements once again, because she was now clawing at Lyon’s hands to try and get him to release her - not that it was doing her much good. Instead he only looked annoyed and he lifted her up against the nearby boulder in response, using the added leverage to press his thumbs even deeper into the front of her neck.

The pain must have intensified because Sakura’s head arched backward and her eyes widened, with her now unseeing pupils shrinking into the merest of dots.

“I’ll kill you, you fucking bastard, do you hear me?!” Leo screamed furiously, but it was an empty threat when the reality was that he could do nothing.

Lyon treated Leo’s desperate warnings with the lack of gravitas that they deserved by ignoring him, keeping his focus entirely on Sakura. “It was short-sighted of me to think that the corrupt presence inside of you would be the one to pose a threat to me. As it turns out, it was you all along,” the demon prince said calmly to Sakura. “But snapping your neck would much too kind. I want to… urgh… I want to watch you suffer.” Leo felt bile rise in his throat at the scene, barely even registering the short moment when Lyon seemed to falter.

“Lyon, stop this, this is sick!” Ephraim commanded. “She was only trying to help you!” But Lyon was locked away in his own madness, or the Demon King’s madness perhaps. Leo wasn’t sure which was worse.

Leo could suddenly feel Brynhildr pulsing at his side, and the tome’s rage mixed in with his own as it demanded the blood of the one hurting Sakura, the girl that Leo loved and desired to protect.

Gods, but his hand was so close to the tome! If he could only just move it a few inches, then he’d be able to summon a spell from the book and…

Yet, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much effort he put into moving, his body refused to cooperate. Leo could do nothing but watch in anguish as Sakura began to go limp in Lyon’s hold while she sagged lifelessly against the rock, and the strangled choking sounds she’d been making soon ceased.

“Please… don’t do this,” Leo found himself begging as his voice broke. “Please…”

“Lyon… if what you say is true and there’s even a shred of yourself left in you, then you’ll let Sakura go! I know that you don’t want to harm her!”

“Gaa…urgh…” Lyon mumbled, as if fighting some unseen force. “You’re wrong, Ephraim… I… urgh… I do this of my own will.” Lyon’s hold on Sakura’s now prone body remained strong, and when her chest started to heave, Leo knew that it would only be a matter of moments before she’d…

No, gods, this couldn’t be happening!

As he watched her slipping away from him, Leo felt everything inside of him start to die with her. The urge to destroy everything and everyone overwhelmed him, a darkness like he’d never known before, and all of the joy and happiness he’d felt over the last few months turned into nothing but scalding hatred.

Yes, he’d been so foolish, thinking that she could ever bring him into her light. That wasn’t the place where people like him belonged, and it never would be. And it may have been his own recklessness that had caused her to fall right into the Demon King’s hands, but he’d ensure that everyone who’d played a part in taking her from him would also pay the price. The Demon King, or Lyon, and his father, King Garon… he would kill them both and anyone else who stood in his way. He wouldn’t even let his siblings stop him.

But that wasn’t enough. The people of Grado, Lyon’s precious subjects that he’d sold his soul to protect... Leo would see to it that they faced a destruction more devastating than even an earthquake, even if he had to find a way to return to Nohr and bring the entire Norhian army back with him through the portal to do so. And even Ephraim… this was all Ephraim’s fault for taking them into this cave when Leo had insisted that they not go.

But just when Leo was sure that he'd drown in the utter misery of it all, Lyon abruptly let go of Sakura. She fell into a crumpled heap on the ground, completely still and lifeless, but her eyes soon opened as she gasped for air. Leo let out his own strangled cry, thankful beyond relief that she was still alive, yet he felt sickened as he watched her slowly hunch over onto all fours, coughing and wheezing painfully while she attempted to take in air through her now damaged windpipe. He tried mightily once again to dismount and run to her, but he still wasn’t able to move.

Oddly enough, Lyon’s expression seemed to mirror Leo’s. “Ephraim, listen to me,” Lyon said, although his eyes never left Sakura’s floundering form. “Two weeks from now, when the moon is swallowed by shadow, I will perform a ceremony in Darkling Woods. Through this ceremony, I will gain immense power. Power to change not only Grado, but the entire world. But after that… I cannot save myself. I’ll become the Demon King of old and try to destroy all of mankind.” He then turned to look at Ephraim, but he had a look of such intense self-loathing on his face that Leo wondered if his own hatred for the prince paled in comparison.

But no, that absolutely wasn’t possible. As Sakura continued to struggle for each breath, his rage demanded Lyon’s blood, and if he could only reach his tome in that moment, he’d ensure that he’d have it.

“Ephraim, if you want to stop this, you must come to Darkling Woods,” the prince of Grado continued. “I want you to come. I need you to stop me. You must promise.”

“Lyon, I…” Ephraim started. But, before he could finish, Lyon teleported away, leaving the three of them behind.

As Lyon disappeared, so did his spell holding Leo and Ephraim in place. The second Leo had control over his body again, he jumped off of his horse. He ran toward Sakura and dropped to his knees beside her, nearly skidding on his armor as he did so. The temptation to hold onto her with as much force as he could was nearly overwhelming, but he knew that she was still in a great deal of pain so he made himself resist. Instead, he cupped the side of her head and brought it against his chest as gently as he possibly could. His other hand lightly massaged her back as she continued to gasp and cough, her small frame jerking from the effort.

“Everything is going to be fine now, Sakura,” Leo tried to soothe her, but his voice was shaking and his body was trembling against hers. Oh gods, he could see the red outline of Lyon’s handprints against the pale, white skin of her neck.

He once again had to contain the urge to crush her against him, and instead he moved his face to the side of her head and buried it into her hair.

“Le… o… “ she wheezed, coughing violently once she got out the word

“Don't try to talk, Sakura,” he ordered gravely, knowing that it must be hurting her greatly to attempt doing so.

“I’m… o… kay,” she continued through much effort, and he tensed as he realized that she was trying to comfort him. He burrowed his face deeper into her soft, pink locks to hide the tears that were starting to fall from his eyes, not wanting her or Ephraim to see them, and her hair quickly soaked up any evidence of their existence.

She was far from okay, and they both knew it. She’d almost been suffocated to death while he did nothing but watch, and now she could barely even breathe.

And even if she truly was truly fine, well, then he sure as hell wasn't.

“Leo, we have to get her out of here,” Ephraim’s voice said softly. “Do you think that we can move her? If not, I can go and get a healer to come help.”

“There’s no need for that,” a voice called out from behind them, and Leo would have never believed that he could be so glad to hear Princess L’Arachel’s voice. “I came to look for you all once we finally finished treating all the other soldiers, and it seems to be a good thing that I did.”

“L’Arachel,” Ephraim breathed with relief. “It’s lucky that you found us.”

“I have no need of luck when I benefit from divine grace,” L’Arachel scolded slightly as she dismounted from her horse. “Now, step aside as I tend to the girl.”

Leo didn’t move as he had no intention of leaving Sakura’s side again, not until they were out of this cave and he knew that she'd be safe... but Ephraim did, leaving the valkyrie with an opening to get closer. After only a few moments, L’Arachel raised her staff, and the healing glow that soon followed enveloped Sakura in its translucent light. Her breathing suddenly normalized, and even the angry red handprints quickly disappeared from her neck. As her wounds healed fully Sakura then turned and clutched onto Leo with all of her might, which he gladly indulged.

“Thank you,” Leo said to L’Arachel, but he didn’t even see her nod in acknowledgement since all of his attention was focused on Sakura.

“Ephraim... just what is that wretched smell?” he vaguely heard L’Arachel ask. Leave it to her to complain about something so trivial at a time like this.

Still, without her, Sakura would still be in unbearable pain, so he supposed he should be grateful that she'd ultimately decided to come after them.

“It must be all of these eggs,” Ephraim soon answered. “This entire volcano smells horrible, but worse here than anywhere else, and there seem to be a lot of eggs in this particular area. In fact, there must be hundreds of them, so my guess is that this is some kind of nesting ground. It's where we found Lyon...”

"What? You found Prince Lyon?" L'Arachel asked with surprise.

Something in Leo, his instincts perhaps, knew that he should be alarmed by Ephraim’s observation. But instead he tuned the Magvelian royals out as they spoke while Sakura sobbed quietly into him. What could he even say to her to bring her comfort? He couldn’t tell her that she was safe now, because they wouldn’t be safe until they escaped this infernal volcano. He couldn’t promise her that he’d protect her, either, when he’d already failed so miserably at doing that.

“Shh. I’m here now,” he simply whispered. He wasn’t sure how soothing that would be to her, yet, her tears seemed to subside ever-so-slightly.

There was so much more that he needed to say to her, now that he'd almost lost her. He also needed to tell her about Iago and explain to her why he’d lied. First, though, he needed to focus on getting Sakura out of this place.

Before he could pose the suggestion to Ephraim that they leave the caves immediately, a cracking noise garnered all of their attention. Leo looked over toward the sound, only to notice that it was coming from one of the eggs, one close to Ephraim.

“Is it… is that egg hatching?” Leo asked, completely horrified, and Ephraim looked just as grim. When a fully-formed Gorgon then emerged from the cracked egg, Sakura clutched onto Leo even more tightly with a whimper, but Ephraim speared through it before it could harm anyone.

Another cracking noise soon sounded, and then another and another, until Leo finally realized that all of the eggs around them were apparently ready to hatch.

“We need to get out of here… now,” Leo commanded. He yanked Sakura up to a standing position, perhaps too roughly after her most recent ordeal because she let out a slight yelp, and he took her hand in a vice grip while he ran to his horse.

He quickly lifted her up onto the creature, who looked to be getting antsy at all of the surrounding noise, and hopped on in front of her to take the reins. Meanwhile, Ephraim and L’Arachel mounted their own steeds and soon took off.

“Hold on to me!” he barked at Sakura, sparing a quick glance behind him to watch her nod at him, her eyes wide and face pale.

She then wrapped her arms around him tightly and they galloped off with an army of Gorgons chasing behind them.

Their horses were much faster than the creatures that followed, but some of the Gorgons had long-distance dark magic capabilities, and their spells were easily able to reach the retreating foursome. Sakura screamed as a large boulder in front of them seemed to evaporate within a boom of shadow, but Leo was quick to react and turned his horse to dodge the remaining vacuum of the blast.

Ephraim and L’Arachel were doing the same, but while L’Arachel was trying to avoid the deluge of spells, she must have gotten too close to an orange crack in the ground. A geyser of hot magma suddenly shot up from it, and although she hadn't been near enough for the lava to hurt her, it had spooked her horse and caused it to rear in fear. She fell off of her horse and onto the ground with a start, and even through all the chaos, Leo could hear a sickening snapping sound as she landed on her arm.

“L’Arachel!” Ephraim called as the valkyrie cried out in pain, and he turned his horse around to help her.

“Damn it,” Leo murmured, turning his horse around as well.

He activated Brynhildr, and even though the Gorgons were resistant against the tome’s magical trees, they were felled quickly as large, hot rocks and magma were flung into their heads and bodies. He decimated as many approaching enemies as he could to cover Ephraim while the prince of Renais hopped off of his horse to help the fallen princess. It looked like she'd broken her arm in the fall, but Leo felt Sakura remove her arms from him, and soon enough she was chanting a healing spell, having unlatched her Sun Festal from her side.

“Hurry up, Ephraim!” Leo called out. There were too many enemies approaching too quickly, and he couldn’t kill them all. Pink tornadoes started to form as the Gorgons neared, and soon enough they would be overwhelmed. His main concern at the moment was making sure that none of the Gorgons got too close to them, otherwise they'd be at risk of being turned into stone. On top of that, dark magic was exploding around them everywhere, and as inaccurate as the shadow shot spells seemed to be, it would only be a matter of time before one had the misfortune of actually hitting them.

After spearing through a nearby Gorgon, Ephraim grabbed a freshly-healed L’Arachel and threw her unceremoniously onto his horse. He then hopped up behind her and threw an arm around her to keep her steady as they turned to go.

“E-Ephraim! My horse!” L’Arachel said, sounding startled.

“There’s no time!” Ephraim cried out, the poor beast having long since fled and resigned itself to its fate in the caves.

“Grab on!” Leo called back to Sakura, but as he galloped away he noticed that she'd only put one arm around him this time. She must not have had time to latch her Sun Festal back onto her dress, and he could feel the one arm she was using to hold onto him slipping slowly from his armor as the weight of her staff pulled her backwards.

He would have screamed at her to just let go of the staff if he thought it would do any good, but he knew that it wouldn’t. In fact, if her staff did slip and fall into the savage mob of following Gorgons, he had a sick feeling that she might just jump off after it.

Damn it all… she needed to get a better hold on him and quickly, but if she tried to reposition her arm while they were riding in such a manner she'd risk flying off the horse completely, and he wasn't about to let that happen.

Taking a precious moment to look behind him and remove his left hand from the horse’s reins, he reached back and grabbed her staff from her, yanking it forward. Although it wasn’t ideal for the purposes of maneuvering his horse, he was able to hold his reins and Sakura’s Sun Festal in the same hand, using his right hand to guide the galloping beast as much as possible.

The trouble was all worth it when he felt Sakura's other arm scrambling around him, and as dark magic and lava continued to explode much too close to them for comfort, she pressed her face into his back, holding onto him tightly.

The foursome continued to flee, looking for an exit, until L’Arachel called out, “This way!” while pointing. Leo shifted his horse in that direction, following Ephraim as they ascended up another cave and into the daylight.

But Leo could still hear the Gorgons following behind them. Unsure if they could survive outside of the volcano and not particularly wanting to find out, he activated Brynhildr once again, grabbing every nearby rock and boulder and using them to clog up the exit to the cave. Breathing heavily, he then turned around to look at Sakura, who seemed shaken up behind him... but at least she was in one piece.

Thank the gods for that... as if it hadn't been enough for him to almost lose her once. After everything that had happened he was grateful to have gotten her out of the volcano alive, but the memory of Lyon choking her to the brink of death would forever be imprinted in his mind.

He listlessly handed her back her Sun Festal, which she quickly latched onto her dress. Then, gently this time, he helped her down from his horse, but he didn’t remove his arms from her even after she was standing securely on the ground.

There was so much that he wanted to say to her, but he didn’t even know where to start. So instead he just continued to hold her, trying to block out the images of her nearly dying at Lyon’s hands as they continued to torment him.

“Are you all right?” he then heard Ephraim asked the princess of Rausten.

“You… you… you’ll just find any excuse to manhandle me, won't you, Ephraim?!” L’Arachel fumed at him.

Ephraim’s eyes widened, and the prince of Renais was clearly stunned by her accusation. “What? No!” he insisted. “I was just trying to rescue you from those monsters. I would never-”

“Rescue me? I had those dark creatures perfectly under control. Slaying demons is my forte, after all! It's my divine mission is to purge the land of these obscenities,” she told him, and Leo was sure that her nose couldn’t get any higher in the air without her head rolling off of her shoulders. “Besides, that’s n-no excuse for you to… to wrap your arms around me in such a manner, you… you deviant! Haven't you learned your lesson from the last time your perverse nature exerted itself and you tried to bare yourself to me?”

“But, I didn’t…! Argh!! Fine, fine, I'm a deviant,” Ephraim relented with a tired sigh, clearly realizing that he wouldn’t get anywhere if they continued to argue. “But you still haven't answered me, L’Arachel. Are you all right?”

“Hmph, well at least you admit it, then. That's the first step toward recovery for one such as yourself,” L’Arachel said, ignoring his question and blatant concern once again. “Come, girl, we best get away from these cads before they get the notion to attack us once again!” She then suddenly grabbed Sakura’s arm, wrenching her from Leo’s hold, and began dragging her away.

“O-oh! R-right,” Sakura acquiesced, not even daring to look back at Leo while in L’Arachel’s grip… or perhaps not wanting to, Leo thought with a frown.

He merely clenched his fists, not quite ready to part with Sakura after everything that had transpired. However, he knew that butting heads with L’Arachel over the matter was a lost cause, so he resolved to find Sakura later, once he'd returned to the camp. For now, he simply turned toward Ephraim with narrowed eyes.

“Don’t mind L’Arachel,” Ephraim said, watching the two girls leave with worry-filled eyes. “I think she’s just more upset by what happened with those Gorgons than she’s willing to let on.”

“L’Arachel isn’t the problem, Ephraim,” Leo told him. “You are.”

“What do you mean by that?” Ephraim asked, furrowing his brow in confusion.

“How many of us need to end up nearly dead before you finally listen to me about Lyon?” Leo accused. “Because of your stubbornness, Sakura and L’Arachel nearly died today, and so did you and I for that matter. Meanwhile, Seth was turned into stone, and we’ll be lucky if we can find a way reverse the status effect. Countless others ended up wounded or dead. And it was all for what? Prince Lyon?”

“Lyon is my friend,” Ephraim said. “I owe it to him to strike him down and release him from the Demon King’s hold.”

“Believe me, I have no issue with you ending his wretched existence,” Leo said harshly. “I just don’t think that you need to sacrifice the lives of everyone else in the army to do it!”

That made Ephraim angry. “His ‘wretched existence?’” Ephraim repeated. “I won’t have you speak of him that way. No matter what, he’s still my friend, he’ll always be my friend.”

Leo rolled his eyes. “Some friend, Ephraim. Did you not hear him? He was only jealous of you the entire time! And it didn’t take much for your gentle-hearted friend to turn to the Demon King’s power to save his people instead of simply asking you for help. Do I really have to remind you that he’s since killed your father, and tried to destroy your homeland? And why do I have the feeling that those eggs that almost killed us were a little parting gift from you friend?” Leo nearly spat.

Ephraim was quiet for a long moment before he spoke. “Don't tell Eirika,” he asked quietly. “I know that I have no right to ask this of you, or Sakura, but please don't tell Eirika what Lyon said today - any of it. It’s better if she just thinks that Lyon is completely… gone.”

“Why?” Leo glared. “So that you can continue to propagate this notion that Lyon was a good human being?”

“He was,” Ephraim raged back, before he forced himself to calm. “But no, I'm thinking of Eirika now, not Lyon. This would only hurt her if she knew what he’s become…”

Leo grunted. “Fine. Don't worry. I'll help keep the reputation of your beloved friend in tact. But for Princess Eirika’s sake, not for his, or yours.”

“... Thank you. And Leo, I… I'm sorry that he hurt her,” Ephraim said softly, obviously referring to Sakura.

“Hurt her?” Leo laughed wryly. “Hurt her? He nearly killed her, Ephraim!” He then had to stop talking for a moment because he couldn't form any more words over the lump forming in his throat.

“I’ll... I'll help you recover the Sacred Stone of Rausten,” Leo finally continued after a long pause. "But that’s it. Once we get to Darkling Woods, I’m going to ask Myrrh’s father if he can return us to our own world immediately. But even if he can’t, I’m taking Sakura away from here, away from you and your army, and away from Lyon. This isn’t our war, Ephraim, and I have no intention of letting her encounter the Demon King again.”

Leo had been so stupidly arrogant before, to assume that he could just easily kill the Demon King, and he realized that now. Lyon had left him completely powerless in an instant, and because of his own conceit, because of his ego, Sakura had almost died. As much as he wanted to destroy the Demon King, as much as he wanted to see Lyon's eyes turn lifeless from his hand, he wouldn't make the same mistake twice and risk Sakura's life again. Ephraim would just have to figure out how to defeat the Demon King on his own.

“I understand,” Ephraim responded, but his features were hard and his body was rigid. “You should do what you need to do, Leo.”

They nodded at each other, and Leo then turned to leave. He scoffed at the internal guilt he was feeling as he walked away from him friend. Ephraim had been the one to nearly get everyone killed, after all. Ephraim was the one who was obsessed with freeing Lyon from the Demon King’s hold, apparently at any cost. There was no logical reason for Leo to feel guilty for choosing to leave him to suffer his own consequences.

So, then... why couldn't he shake the unsettling feeling that he was the one who was doing something wrong?

Chapter Text

Somehow, it was always when Sakura least felt like being alone that solitude seemed to find her.

At least in Hoshido she'd had her dolls to keep her company when she'd needed it, the ones that she'd lovingly crafted in the likenesses of her siblings. However, here in Magvel she had no such amenities. Her Sun Festal might have been a source of comfort once, but now the thoughtful gift from her mother was only a painful reminder of all that she'd lost.

Had her mother been as scared to die in her final moments as Sakura had been today?

Sakura shuddered, forcing herself to purge the terrible thought.

Perhaps if she could at least use her rod instead of staring at it uselessly she wouldn't be plagued by such notions, but she'd been forbidden from helping with the healing efforts tonight. After Princess L'Arachel had quite literally dragged her away from Leo and into the camp area, which had already been mostly assembled by the soldiers who'd escaped Mt. Neleras earlier, the princess of Rausten immediately ordered Sakura to go and "recover." Sakura had pleaded with the princess to let her attend to the wounded instead, yet her request was abruptly dismissed. According to the green-haired valkyrie, Sakura had been through too much of an ordeal today to be assigned such an exhausting task.

Arguing the issue only seemed pointless. Normally Sakura had a stubborn streak of her own when the situation called for it, but there seemed to be no fight left in her at the moment. Besides, she knew that Princess L'Arachel had only meant well… she just likely hadn't realized that forbidding Sakura from helping those in pain was more of a punishment than a favor. After all, Sakura had never been able to bear the suffering of others, which is why following in her mother's footsteps and becoming a healer had always been her chosen path.

Or maybe, deep down, her feelings were more selfish than that and she'd purposefully sought out a vocation that would make her feel needed by her people. It had been that very same mentality that had led her to chase after Leo and Prince Ephraim earlier in the volcano, hadn't it? She'd thought that they could get hurt, that she could help them, but instead she'd only turned out to be a liability. Even with Prince Lyon, she'd thought… she'd hoped…

Suddenly her throat and lungs felt like they were on fire, and she lifted her hand up to her neck instinctively. Despite the fact that she'd been completely healed by Princess L'Arachel earlier, the mere memory of the pain that Prince Lyon had inflicted on her was almost as potent as when he'd actually committed the act. And even though it hadn't been her first brush with death since she'd gotten to Magvel, having to spend what she'd thought would be her final moments in such physical agony had made it seem so much more real than the others.

Of course Leo had witnessed it all too, every excruciating second, and her torment had only been echoed by his own. Long after she'd been capable of any coherent thought she could still hear his voice desperately screaming and pleading, and even if she couldn't process the words themselves, she could still easily detect the agony in them. Then, when she'd regained consciousness and felt his tears falling silently into her hair, she simply couldn't bear it. She'd never witnessed him cry before, and she truly hoped that she'd never have to again.

At the same time, she couldn't manage to forget that Leo had hurt her as well. He'd lied to her, he'd told her that he didn't know who was trying to possess her, even though he clearly did. Why would he do such a thing? How could he do such a thing?

'You really don't know?' a voice taunted her. 'It's because Leo is on my side. He's known what's been going on this entire time, he's just been playing you for the naive fool you are. And how easily you believed that he actually cared for you...'

"No!" Sakura cried out, clutching at her head. That couldn't be true! After all, the man in the portal had wanted to possess Leo and not her in the first place, hadn't he? And Leo had made her promise that she wouldn't give in to the wills of presence in her head, no matter what.

Besides, Leo truly loved her… right? She'd never been as certain of anything as she had been about his feelings for her, but then... why would he lie to her about something so important?

She let out a frustrated sigh. She was only thinking in circles now, continuously reaching back to the same question. It was apparent that nothing would actually be resolved until she talked to Leo… assuming that she could even trust him to be honest with her this time. Sakura wanted to have faith in him, but she was becoming so tired of believing in people only for them to hurt her in return.

Corrin. Lyon.


'People will only keep hurting you if you continue to care so much, Sakura,' the voice promised her. 'I'm the only one who's trying to save you from all this pain. I'm the only one trying to help you. Won't you let me?'

Was he right? Wouldn't it be so much easier to just stop caring?

All of the pain…

…she could just…



Corrin… Lyon…


… No! That wasn't her, that wasn't the kind of person she was. That'd never be her, no matter how many times her heart might suffer for it.

Yet, she paid for her firm resolve with another painful migraine, and she could tell that the voice was getting more and more angry with her as time went on. How much longer could she continue to fight it?

But it didn't matter what the voice told her, what it did to her. She loved Leo, and regardless of the fact that he'd hurt her, that wasn't going to change.

Even though she wasn't quite sure that she was ready to face him yet, she still wished that he was there with her now. More than ever she didn't want to be by herself, left alone with the phantom pains in her throat and the haunting voice in her mind. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be anyone else for her to turn to right now.

Once Princess L'Arachel had dismissed her she'd sought out Neimi first, but her friend must have run off somewhere with Colm for a private moment because she was nowhere to be found. As for Eirika, the princess of Renais hadn't wanted any company while she sat with General Seth - or the statue that remained of him - and Sakura suspected that it was because she wanted to weep in private. Then, there was Franz… he'd also been devastated by why had happened to the general, but he didn't want her comfort, nor did he want to offer her his. He'd already made it perfectly clear that he wanted nothing to do with her.

No, she was truly alone…

'Don't worry, Sakura. Even when you manage to push me into the darkest of corners of your mind, you can't ever rid yourself of me completely,' the voice vowed, although its words were the opposite of reassuring.

Taunting laughter then echoed around her, and she buried her head into her hands as if that could somehow make the horrid noise go away.

'Yes, I promise you, Sakura… you'll never be alone again.'

"Would you stop making that ridiculous noise?" Niles whispered harshly to a whimpering Odin. "You do realize that we're in enemy territory now, right?"

"But, I can't help it! My mind is spiraling into a dark abyss!" Odin proclaimed, much too loudly for Niles' liking.

Not that anything as of late had been to Niles' liking. Normally he enjoyed a good dose of punishment, but ever since Lord Leo had gone missing yesterday, there'd been nothing pleasurable about the pain he was feeling.

He deserved to be whipped for failing Lord Leo like he had, and he hoped that if his master returned - no, when he returned - that he would get a good flogging for it.

"Are you sure these are the woods that Lord Leo went into when he lost his horse?" Niles hurriedly asked his companion.

They'd been in the midst of the battle at the Plains of Hoshido when their master had been bucked off of his mount. Niles and Odin had immediately fawned over their fallen master, but Lord Leo had been completely fine. He'd told his retainers that he was going after his steed, and perhaps because he'd been embarrassed, he'd demanded that they not follow.

Odin had tried to escort Lord Leo anyway, and had nearly ended up skewered by a tree for it - Niles remembered finding that hilarious at the time. Yet, since his master was heading away from the skirmish, and he was a more than capable fighter in his own right with Brynhildr at his disposal, Niles hadn't been the least bit concerned for Lord Leo's safety.

And that was the last time he'd seen him.

Now he and Odin were following Prince Xander's orders to search the same area for their lost master, although truthfully, Niles would have operated better on this mission alone. Being covert and tracking people, those were his strengths, not Odin's.

Lord Leo would have known that.

"Of course I'm sure!" Odin readily responded, sounding offended. "I remember noting how forlorn these woods looked, that they were the epitome of all that is dark and wretched in our world, and that's why I tried to chase after Lord Leo until he stopped me!"

Niles looked around at the beautiful, unassuming trees speckled with bright pink flowers and sighed.

"Fine then. You go that way and I'll go this way, but come and find me if-"

He stopped talking immediately as a riderless horse suddenly whinnied, catching their attention as it trotted happily over to them.

"Caïssa?" Niles gaped, although there was no doubt that the large armored mare was Lord Leo's horse. She then sidled up to Odin and pressed her nose against him until the mage rubbed an unarmored spot on her cheek. Caïssa didn't normally seek out affection, at least not from anyone that wasn't Lord Leo, but it seemed that the horse was as out of sorts from her master's disappearance as Niles and Odin were.

Now that Niles thought of it, it was strange for the horse to have unseated Lord Leo to begin with, as well trained as she was. What could have possibly spooked her so much?

"Wait," Odin started. "If Caïssa is still here, but Lord Leo isn't… does that mean he never found her?"

Niles frowned. "Not necessarily, but that's the most probable scenario. In either case, I'm hoping that we should be able to find some signs of his whereabouts nearby."

Or maybe even his body.

But no, Lord Leo couldn't be dead, because that would mean Niles no longer had a purpose in life.

Consumed by his dark thoughts, Niles began looking around for any tracks or clues when he heard Odin whisper, "Niles…"

"What?" Niles growled. He'd been trying to concentrate, and he really didn't need Odin interrupting him every five seconds.

"I found… blood."

Niles hastily whipped his head around, and the first thing he noticed was how much Odin had paled. Surely enough, the mage was staring at a trail of blood that was splattered all over the ground. Rushing over, Niles bent down and noticed some blood-stained footprints mixed in with the marks.

"These were made from Nohrian boots," Niles said grimly, referring to the prints. He and Odin glanced at each other and then scrambled quickly into the forest, following the splotches of red.

When they first saw a body slumped against a tree, in a sitting position but clearly dead, Odin wailed and Niles thought that his heart might stop. Fortunately, it didn't take long for them to realize that the dead Nohrian soldier wasn't their master.

Niles couldn't remember the last time he'd been so relieved. There weren't many things in life that scared him, but Lord Leo being harmed was certainly one of them.

"Look, Niles! More tracks!" Odin said excitedly. "They must be Lord Leo's! The spirit of our master beckons me."

"Shh!" Niles hushed him for what seemed like the hundredth time. "How many times do I have to remind you to be quiet?" Still, he went over to examine the new set of prints. "These are Nohrian, too, and they're about the same size as Lord Leo's foot. But…"

He trailed off and a frown settled on his face.

"But what?!" Odin practically shouted, and Niles didn't even waste his breath reminding him to be quiet again.

"They just… end. As if a person walked into these woods and then ceased to exist." Niles searched the nearby area frantically for another clue - perhaps some leaves or rocks pressed down slightly into the dirt from the weight of someone's steps, or any horse prints to indicate that they would have ridden away - but there was nothing.

Just a few yards from the Nohrian footprints, though, he spotted the faintest of markings…

"More tracks," Niles reported. "They're so light that I might not have even noticed them had I not been looking so closely. Hoshidan."

It was mostly speculation, but Niles was almost positive that he was right. Nohrians wore thick, heavy boots to walk in their kingdom's difficult terrain, but whatever shoes this person was wearing barely left a mark. They also must have been left by someone petite and light, not weighing enough to press more of an indent into the ground below them. Then the size of the prints seemed to indicate that they'd been left by a woman, or maybe a child… definitely someone with a small foot.

"Could this wretched Hoshidan have killed that soldier by yonder tree, and the noble owner of these other tracks?" Odin asked.

"Maybe," Niles mused. "But there's no blood, and no signs of a fight or struggle. And I can't see any traces of this Hoshidan's footprints beyond this area, either."

Niles grit his teeth in frustration. None of this made any sense! Unless someone was purposefully making the effort to hide their tracks, which didn't seem to be the case here, it wasn't possible for all signs of them to suddenly disappear like this.

"Gods, damn it!" Niles cursed, pounding at the ground. "It's like whoever left these tracks just vanished into thin air!"

The lack of wailing, whimpering, or any talk of darkness from his companion caused Niles to glance sharply over Odin, who was strangely silent now. The mage's face was still lacking in its normal color, but instead of the devastation Niles expected to see, Odin instead looked almost… guilty?

Narrowing his eyes, Niles was about to interrogate the mage when he heard a sound from above. He then saw two sky knights in the air, heading directly toward them.

"Damn it… hide!" Niles demanded, grabbing Odin and throwing him into the nearest brush.

"Ow! My fell hand!" Odin whined. "Can't you just shoot them down?"

"We're under strict orders from Prince Xander not to engage the enemy, you idiot," Niles barked in a hushed voice as he hid directly next to his companion. "Besides, we don't know how many soldiers might be following them. Now, will you just shut up?"

At least Odin had the wits to remain silent as the two pegasus riders landed unsettlingly close to their position. One was a woman with short, red hair, and the other was a man with a long, auburn ponytail.

"Sakura!" the woman cried out, and Niles nearly shuddered with delight at the pain in her voice. "Sakura!"

"It doesn't seem like she's here," the man noted gravely after the woman's calls were greeted only by silence.

"I could have sworn that I heard a noise coming from this direction, Subaki," the woman said with an undaunted look on her face. Niles held his breath as she then started to approach the area where he and Odin were hiding. The two of them were well covered by the surrounding foliage, but it wouldn’t take much effort for her to discover them if she happened to look closely enough.

Niles slowly reached behind his back until his hand gripped the smooth steel of his bow. He cautiously glanced over at Odin, and the mage nodded at him, already holding his tome. As much as they might bicker with each other, the two retainers certainly knew how to fight together, and they didn't need words to strategize accordingly.

Just one step closer, and...

But luckily it never came to that, as Caïssa chose that very moment to stomp into the area, rearing and whinnying as if to make a spectacle of himself.

Smart horse, Niles thought. Although, it being Lord Leo's horse, he shouldn't be so surprised. It wouldn't shock him if Lord Leo had trained his horse for this very situation. His master always prided himself on having a plan for any scenario that could possibly arise.

The woman bowed her head and Niles could see her shoulders sag with disappointment. "It was just a stupid horse. It probably belonged to that man over there," she noted, nodding toward the dead body by the tree.

"Lady Hinoka, please don't despair," the man urged, resting a comforting hand on her shoulder. "We've been in this position before, looking for Lady Sakura together. I'm fully confident that we'll find her again this time, too."

Wait… Lady Hinoka and Lady Sakura? But weren't those the names of the Hoshidan princesses?

Interesting, Niles thought despite himself. So Princess Sakura had gone missing, too?

Niles frowned again as he thought of the small pair of disappearing footprints.

"We weren't at war with Nohr last time," Hinoka snapped back. "Those Nohrian scum have no limits. They've kidnapped Corrin before, and I wouldn't put it past them to do the same or worse to Sakura. We've searched everywhere in the nearby area multiple times, both high and low, and we still haven't seen any sign of her. After mother and Corrin, I can't… I can't lose her too, Subaki."

Her suffering was exquisite. Niles wondered for a moment if the small tears now falling freely down her face would taste as delicious as they looked.

"We mustn't lose hope, Lady Hinoka," the man said softly. "Our people will be looking to you now to help lead them in these darkest of times, and if you're disheartened, then they will be too."

Hinoka lifted her head at that and her posture straightened. "You're right, Subaki. I'll find Sakura, no matter what it takes, and if the Nohrians come back to attack us again, we'll drive off those pigs with everything we have. They won't take any more from us than they already have - not now, and not ever again."

Her eyes were suddenly gleaming, and the man standing next to her matched her determined expression. A slight blush then stained the woman's cheeks, but she quickly looked away and removed herself from his touch. The two then departed, but Niles and Odin remained silent as they continued to fly in the nearby skies for some time, looking for signs of their lost princess.

"I think it's safe now," Niles finally said, removing himself from the brush.

"Oof," Odin said as he rolled out of their hiding spot much less gracefully. "Ahh!" he then cried from the ground. "A creature from the darkest pits of the hells below attacks me!"

"It's just a squirrel, you moron," Niles said as he looked over. The offending creature was sitting on a nearby log with its head cocked, watching Odin curiously.

"… Oh. I knew that," Odin replied, eventually getting up and brushing off the leaves that were sticking to him.

"I think we should get back to Prince Xander. We have a lot to report," Niles suggested. "Something strange seems to be going on here, and I can't help but feel like we're missing a vital piece of this puzzle."

Niles knew that Lord Leo likely would have figured everything out by now, and he couldn't hide the shame he felt from failing his master yet again.

"Yeah…" Odin agreed, but the mage looked deep in thought, as if something was bothering him.

"Is there something you're not telling me, Odin?" Niles asked darkly. Even though Odin served Lord Leo as well, Niles wouldn't hesitate to skewer him with an arrow in the most painful of places if the mage was hiding something important from him, something that might help them find Lord Leo.

"What? Me? No! How dare you cast my honor into the darkness like that!" Odin declared, stretching out his hand for added flare, as he was prone to do. "But, uh... what if I did have a theory about Lord Leo?"

Niles raised an eyebrow, finding himself intrigued. "And what is your theory?" he asked.

"Well, erm… suppose that these footprints really did belong to Lord Leo. Maybe the tracks completely disappeared because he was somehow… delivered to another world? In a moment of epic bravery, of course, just as he was just about to face down his villainous Hoshidan attacker, the pair found themselves suddenly transported into the darkest of worlds… a world in ruin, brimming with hellfire and destroyed by the foulest of Fell Dragons!"

Niles looked at his companion for a long moment before sighing. "You… are an idiot. Seriously, just when I think that it isn't possible for you to get any stupider," he scoffed. "Well, come on now. Let's get going then."

Odin sighed deeply as well, and with that, the two retainers collected Caïssa. They then made their way past enemy lines and back into Nohr, as quietly and covertly as Odin's demand for all things dramatic would let them.


The only noise currently surrounding Sakura was the steady sound of arrows sinking into canvas and straw, and for that, she was grateful. The laughter and voice of the tormentor in her mind were no longer present, and even if the voice was right, even if she could never rid herself of it completely, she still welcomed the respite.

Having nothing better to do at the camp, she'd decided to set up some targets and practice her archery. She'd dropped her bow back in Mt. Neleras, and it was likely still somewhere on the ground where Prince Lyon had attacked her, but luckily there had been extras in the armory.


As another arrow lodged itself into a target, near the bulls-eye but slightly off-center, she quickly froze. She could somehow feel Leo's presence before she could even hear him, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was standing right behind her.

Ignoring him, she grabbed another arrow and nocked it. For some reason, she just couldn't bring herself to turn and face him. In some ways it'd even been less terrifying to look Prince Lyon straight in the eye when he'd been about to kill her than it was to look at Leo now.

Then again, even though the Demon King had almost taken her life, Leo had the ability to hurt her so much more than that if he so wished. Nothing that Prince Lyon had done or could do to her physically could ever compare with the havoc that Leo could wreak upon her heart.


Letting the arrow fly, it found its way right next to the previous one she'd just fired, as if it had missed being within such close proximity to its counterpart.

"Hey," Leo finally said, breaking the silence between them, but she still didn't turn.

"Hi," she replied softly while she lined up another arrow to her bowstring.

Why couldn't she bring herself to look at him? It wasn't because she was mad at him for lying to her, although she supposed that was part of it. Perhaps it was because she knew that once she turned, she'd see that his eyes were still haunted by that terrible moment with Prince Lyon. The memory was painful enough for her without adding his devastation on top of it.


"You're getting pretty good at that," he observed casually, although she could hear the notes of trepidation in his voice.

"N-not really," she told him. "I can do just fine with this Steel Bow, but I'm still not comfortable yet using a silver one. The monsters that we're fighting are b-becoming stronger, and this weapon is hardly even effective against them anymore."

"You've come really far in a really short time, Sakura," he countered. "It's not easy to master a weapon, and you're making excellent progress. Yet, I have to admit… I didn't expect to find you here."


"… It took me a while to find you," he continued after she said nothing in response. "I'd expected to find you in the healing tent, but Father Moulder said you hadn't even been by there. And then I checked with all of your friends, but you weren't with any of them either…"

His logic had been on point, of course, as those were the first places she'd tried to go. That caused her to finally look at him, but she merely shrugged in response, not wanting to take the time to explain why her other options had failed. She then laid her bow gently onto the ground, for the lack of anywhere else to put it, and unstrapped her quiver to do the same.

When she was finished and returned her gaze to Leo, stripped now of the artificial protection that her weapon had previously offered, all of the emotions that had accompanied her ordeal in Mt. Neleras began to gnaw away at her remaining strength.

She suddenly wished more than anything that Leo would just come to her, that he'd hold her. She could feel his need for her almost as potently as her own for him, and yet, there seemed to be an invisible distance separating them that neither of them could cross.

It was as if something between them had fractured, but she didn't know what it was or how to fix it. Was it her? Was it him?

… Was it the lies?

"I'm g-glad that you're here," she said sincerely, and only then did she realize that it was the truth. The emptiness that she'd felt without him was apparently worse than any the distress she currently felt in his presence. "I'm glad that you found me."

She smiled at him then, because she loved him and because he was here, and she could see his features immediately start to calm.

"Of course I found you," he said dismissively, as if it'd been stupid of her to assume otherwise. "I needed to see… how you were."

"I'm fine, Leo," she answered, almost automatically. She'd survived the Demon King's attack after all, so why shouldn't she be fine?

Her hand idly rose to her neck again, but when she saw Leo's eyes widen in alarm at the movement, she forced it quickly back to her side.

He seemed so distant all of a sudden, somewhere far away that she couldn't reach, and she spoke to bring him back to her.

"Leo?" she called out softly, and once his focus returned to her, his gaze was severe. She wasn't intimidated by it, but it made her uncomfortable, and Sakura just wished that he would say something, anything, to help ease the growing tension between them.

Yet, he remained silent. He seemed to be content with simply watching her with his hawkish eyes and waiting for her to dictate any further dialogue.

Was this when she should bring up his lies, then? Is that what he expected?

Still, she was worried that if she did, she'd only drive them further apart right now. Perhaps it would be better if she addressed what had happened with Prince Lyon instead? Maybe then they could both stop being so haunted by the memory.

"Um… that was pretty s-silly of me back there, wasn't it?" Sakura ultimately asked, smiling slightly as she brushed a strand of hair behind her ear.

She'd been hoping to lighten the mood with her embarrassment, expecting that Leo might at least smirk at her in return. However, a glint of confusion was the only thing to chisel through his hardened expression.

"What?" he merely responded, increasing her discomfort.

"W-with Prince Lyon," she clarified with a slight shrug. Her hand almost incidentally reached for her neck again, but she consciously kept it still this time. Instead she just started to wring her dress in her hands to keep them occupied. "I m-mean, I truly thought that I could help him beat the Demon King, that I could… reach him somehow. Silly, r-right?"

Only silence greeted her. Well, she supposed that it had been a rhetorical question… but Leo could at least try to make things easier for her by responding, couldn't he?

"I bet you have a l-lecture all planned out for me," she continued, fully rambling now as she struggled to carry the conversation. "I'm sure you think… you th-think that-"

But she never finished her sentence because Leo then closed the gap between them and drew her into a tight embrace. She was about to ask him why he was trembling so hard when she noticed with a start that it was actually her who was doing so. Sakura hadn't realized how badly she'd been shaking, she hadn't even known that she'd been shaking at all, until she was pressed up against him and could feel the reverberation of her own tremors.

Suddenly feeling the full weight of her exhaustion, she didn't even seem to have the energy to wrap her arms around him in return, despite the fact that she really wanted to. To compensate she rested her hands haphazardly at his waist and nestled her head into his chest, grateful that he'd removed his armor before coming to see her so that she could press against him comfortably.

"Do you really want to know what I think, Sakura?" he asked her, surprising her when he spoke.

She tensed. She wanted to tell him "no," that she didn't care to hear him scold her for almost getting herself killed, that she was already well aware of her folly, but instead of answering she just braced herself against him.

Why was she dreading his admonishment so much, especially when she so clearly deserved it? Sakura knew that she'd never been strong, but she also couldn't remember ever feeling this fragile. Yet Leo had already wounded her when he'd lied to her, and now he had an opening to hurt her even further by reaffirming the words of the malicious voice in her head. She feared that he'd tell her she should stop caring so much, especially for a lost cause like Prince Lyon.

But he didn't.

"I think you were incredibly brave, to face Lyon like you did," he ultimately told her, and despite the fact that the trust between them had been strained, she knew instinctively that he meant his words. In response she merely closed her eyes and focused on the comfort of his embrace, as if by doing so she could somehow find a way to melt further into him.

"I think that I should have done a better job of protecting you, so that you wouldn't be here shaking in my arms while doubting yourself over your greatest strength," he added softly.

"It wasn't your f-fault, Leo," she argued, but she wasn't even sure that he could hear her as her words turned into muffled sounds against the fabric of his shirt.

Sakura couldn't be sure at what point her heart had started beating so rapidly, but when Leo pulled away slightly and lifted her chin so that she was looking directly into his eyes, time seemed to freeze and everything suddenly felt calm. She wondered if he felt it too, the shift in energy between them, because his stiff muscles started to relax and he smiled tenderly at her.

That's right. They were fractured right now, but fractures could be healed. He'd lied to her and he'd hurt her, but he'd also saved her and given her strength, time and time again.

He meant so much to her, and nothing could ever change that.

His gaze was still brimming with intensity though, indicating that he had more to say, and his thumb drifted lightly across her cheek while he continued to talk. "I think that every time I see your kind heart in action I fall even more in love with you, even though it defies all logic and reason that that should even be possible."

"Leo…" she whispered, even though she could barely seem to get the sound out.

Thankfully he leaned down in that moment to kiss her, because he was too tall for her to reach on her own, and she was filled with an ache for him like she'd never known before. An increasingly familiar euphoria began to replace that ache once she felt the pressure of his lips against her own, and as her eyes drifted closed, she began to feel at home in the sweet darkness that followed.

The kiss had been all too brief, though, before he drifted away from her and began to speak again.

"I think that… I think that if I'd lost you today, I'd-" She didn't let him finish his sentence though, moving her mouth back to his to silence his despair. Sakura knew firsthand how easy it was to get lost in that kind of torment, remembering exactly how she'd felt when she'd thought that Leo might die, and she wanted to remind him that he hadn't lost her, that she was here with him now.

It didn't take much to convince him, though, and he hungrily responded to her advances. She no longer knew which breaths were hers and which were his, they were just one in the same as she tried to somehow gratify her insatiable need for him.

Yet, even with his lips pressed up so blissfully against hers, even with their bodies entwined so closely together, there was still a distance between them that she could feel, and she knew then that the fracture remained.

Reluctantly, she pulled her head back and turned it to the side, and he quickly withdrew from her after one of his kisses misfired onto her cheek.

"Leo, wait," she requested in a small voice. "Before we continue, I n-need to know. Did… did you l-lie to me yesterday? About the man in the portal?"

She'd been afraid of the reaction her question might provoke in him, and surely enough she could feel him beginning to retract from her, both physically and emotionally. "Yes," he then admitted, and even though she'd already known what his answer would be, she was surprised at how much the word had stung.

"Then you know him. The m-man with the gold mask," she confirmed, and he nodded. "Who…?"

"His name is Iago. He's Nohrian. And…" Leo trailed off, looking away from her.

"And?" she prodded gently.

"He's my father's tactician… his right-hand man, you might say," Leo told her, and she quickly gasped. When his eyes finally met hers again she could plainly see all the misery they beheld, and his profound pain struck her even more than his confession had. "Yes, Sakura. It's my father who's been doing this to you."

"Your… f-father?" she repeated in disbelief. But, it just couldn't be possible for his father to be involved. While in the portal, the man had told her that Leo was his intended target, and surely, King Garon wouldn't try to harm his own son in such a way… would he?

From Leo's desolate expression, though, she knew that he was telling the truth, and her heart suddenly broke for him. Gods, how could his father be so cruel?

"B-but, even if it was that man Iago in the portal, isn't it possible that your father has nothing to do with this?" Sakura asked hopefully.

"I truly wish that were so, but Iago would never do anything like this without a direct order from my father," Leo informed her, and she continued to ache on his behalf.

"Still… why didn't you t-tell me this, Leo?" she asked delicately, knowing that they were treading into dangerous territory now.

"Why?" he laughed without amusement. "Because I'm my father's son, Sakura. I'm duplicitous when the situation calls for it, when it gets me what I want, and lying to you served a purpose."

"A purpose? But, I d-don't understand. What purpose?" she wondered.

"To keep you from coming to the same realization I did," he explained, and yet she still didn't quite grasp what he was trying to say. From the way in which he was hanging his head, though, she knew that whatever he was trying to communicate to her, he felt ashamed for it.

"My father ruined your life, Sakura," he continued. "He killed both of your parents, and is responsible for the deaths of countless Hoshidans. He's now trying to use you for his nefarious purposes, likely so that he can harm even more of your people. I know that those are his sins and not mine, but that's only a small comfort when the truth is… the truth is that I'm just like him."

"N-n… no! That's… that's not true at all!" she insisted, horrified that he could even believe such a thing. "Surely, you m-must know that?"

He lifted his head and smiled at her then, but it was a sad smile that didn't reach his eyes. "You're truly amazing, aren't you?" he mused, sounding somewhat wistful. "Even after what happened with Lyon you're still trying your hardest to fight for me too, trying to convince me that there's something inside of me that's worth redeeming. You have such a pure heart, Sakura, and the last thing I'd ever want is to corrupt it."

"Please, just s-stop talking like this," she pleaded with him. "I can't b-bear it, Leo." She'd nearly paid with her life when Lyon had lost himself to the Demon King, and yet, watching Leo fall prey to his father's wickedness was infinitely more painful.

"I don't wish to hurt you," he asserted, and he looked sincerely remorseful at the prospect. "But you wanted honesty from me, didn't you? And as much as I fear losing you for it, I can't let myself deceive you anymore about who I really am. When we were in Castle Renais you admitted then that there's a side of me you still haven't seen, and I think it's time you finally did."

She nodded listlessly, knowing that he was right, as much as she might not want to admit it. After all, if they were going to move on from this, if they were going to heal, she needed to truly understand him first… even the parts of him that might scare her.

"Your instinct is always to heal, Sakura, but mine is to destroy," he continued. "Whereas you wish only to end suffering, I seek to cause it, at least when it suits my needs… like in Mt. Neleras. While Lyon was choking you and I thought that you… when I thought that you would die, I vowed that everyone responsible for your death would pay. Not just my father and the Demon King, but also Ephraim for bringing us into that gods-forsaken cave, and the people of Grado because they were the catalyst for turning Lyon into such an abomination. I wanted them all to suffer just like I was."

She shuddered at his words, at how callous he sounded, but he continued. "It would have meant nothing to me to inflict such ruin and destruction, Sakura, especially without you by my side. If you'd been killed, I would have readily fought my own friend for his part in it. I would have been willing to slaughter thousands of innocent civilians just to ease my own pain. I'm sure that my father would have been proud."

"No…" Sakura moaned, closing her eyes so that she didn't have to see his bitter smile. She began to weep softly, unable to fathom what terrible grief he must have felt in that moment to have even had such awful thoughts.

"Look at me, Sakura," he suddenly commanded.

She didn't listen to him, though, so he brought his hand to her chin and tilted her face upward. "Look at me," he ordered again, this time nearly growling as he did so.

Her eyes finally opened, but her gaze was filled with nothing but love and profound sadness, and he dropped his hand from her face as if he'd been burned. Did he truly think that he was capable of something so terrible? Did he really believe that she could ever hate him for the thoughts he'd had in a moment of true anguish?

She then leaned up on her tiptoes and reached for his head with her hands, pulling it down gingerly toward her as if to kiss him. He instinctively complied and let her guide him, but instead of kissing his lips her soft mouth brushed against his brow, then his forehead, then all across his face.

"I'm s-so sorry," she said between kisses, and the gentle barrage of her affection made him shiver. She wanted to shower him with enough love in that moment to make up for the lifetime he'd felt deprived of it, even if she knew it was impossible. "I'm sorry that your f-father didn't love you the way he should have and made you think that it was your fault. I'm sorry that he m-managed to hurt you so much. I'm sorry that he made you b-believe that you're anything like him."

Leo pulled away from her, and his expression was completely blank. "Didn't you hear anything I said?" he asked dully. "Didn't you hear what I was willing to do if you'd died? It wasn't my father forcing me to do such things, Sakura… not this time."

"I h-heard you," she confirmed. "But I know that you wouldn't have done any of those things, even if… even if I'd died, Leo. You care about Prince Ephraim too much to ever try and harm him, no matter h-how angry you might have been with him. I can see how much he's come to mean to you, how m-much you truly admire him. And you would never h-hurt innocent people on your own volition, even if your father may have forced that from you in the past. You wouldn't be feeling so guilty and ashamed for your thoughts right now if that's what you'd really w-wanted."

"You can't possibly know how far I'd go, Sakura," Leo countered in a hushed voice. "That's just what you want to believe because you have feelings for me."

"Maybe," she agreed, but she was smiling warmly at him as if she knew otherwise. She then found one of his hands with hers and entwined her fingers into his. "But then, m-maybe they call it 'falling in love' because it requires a leap of faith, Leo. And I'll always have f-faith in you, no matter how much you try and convince me not to. Because, despite what you think, I know that you're n-not broken. You're just afraid, that's all."

"Afraid?" he asked, scoffing lightly.

"Y-yes," she affirmed, "that there's nothing in you worth loving."

"I…" he started. "That's not…"

"It's okay, Leo," she reassured him, knowing that it must be hard for him to be so vulnerable before her. "But that's why you thought I'd s-stop loving you, wasn't it? That's why you thought your siblings d-don't care that you've disappeared, even though I know they must. Maybe even your retainers, too."

"Sakura," he breathed, and his face crumpled. "I…"

Her hand squeezed his. "Leo… I d-don't know how much time we have left together. Even if we both manage to survive this war, we might return home s-soon, and there, we may not be able to-"

He pulled her in for a tight embrace before she could finish her sentence, and she sighed contentedly against him, but forced herself to continue. "I hope that when that time comes, even if we c-can't be together, that you'll always remember how I feel about you, and that you'll come to r-realize how much others care about you, too. I don't ever want you to be afraid or alone, Leo, whether w-we're together or apart."

This time when he kissed her, she felt complete. There was no fracture anymore, no pain or deceit wedging itself between them, and when their words failed to express how strongly they felt about each other, their lips found another way to convey the sentiment. As his tongue then slipped into her mouth and brushed against hers, she eagerly responded in kind, yearning for every part of him.

"Thank you, Sakura," he said once they separated, although he sounded breathless. "I don't know how many worlds there may be in this universe, but I know that I could travel to them all and still never find anyone quite like you. And the fact that someone like you could even regard me so highly… I still don't believe that I'm the man you think I am, but you make me want to be him."

"You don't have to b-be anyone but you, Leo. That's enough for me," she promised, and he kissed her again.

This time, though, he pulled away much too quickly for her liking, and she had to bite her tongue to stop from letting out an unintended whimper. "There's something else that you should know," he added, and his spirits suddenly seemed a bit lower. "I told Ephraim that we won't be fighting with him and his army after we leave Rausten."

"What? Wh-why?" she asked.

"I have no intention of letting you encounter Lyon ever again," he told her solemnly. "And besides, even if the Demon King wasn't a concern, Ephraim is being much too impulsive. My hope is that Myrrh's father will be able to return us to our homelands once we get to Darkling Woods, but even if he can't, there's no place for us in this army anymore."

Sakura found herself frustrated that he was making these decisions for her, but she forced herself to bury her own opinion on the matter. It was evident how much the stress of this war was tearing Leo apart, and if he wanted to escape it all, then she'd support him.

Still, she wanted to stay. Lyon terrified her, but she knew that nowhere in Magvel would be safe if the Demon King prevailed. Besides, she'd come to care about so many of the people in this army, and she wanted to support them in any way she could.

As for returning back to Hoshido, she longed for it and dreaded it at the same time. Sakura missed her siblings, her retainers, her friends and her people, but she wondered if she was truly willing to lose Leo to reunite with them. It just seemed much too soon for that. For that matter, what would happen to Leo once he returned to Nohr and had to face his father? Would he even be safe?

"What did Prince Ephraim have to say when you t-told him this?" Sakura asked, pushing away her fears for the moment.

Leo shrugged. "He understood," he told her, but his expression was dark, and she knew that something was wrong.

"Did you two get into a f-fight?" she prodded, but Leo said nothing. "Leo, if you s-said something that you regret, you could always just apologize to him…"

"Apologize? Me?" he scoffed at her derisively. "He's the one who almost got us all killed, Sakura."

She immediately giggled, and he looked at her oddly. "Leo, you know that sometimes an apology isn't about who's right and who's wrong, but it's just a w-way of letting someone know that you're sorry for hurting them... right?"

He narrowed his eyes at her. "Well, of course I know that," he snapped, but she almost laughed again because she wasn't so sure that he did. "But, Sakura… how can I ever forgive him when his recklessness almost got you killed?"

Sakura sighed then. "We're all reckless when it c-comes to the people we love, Leo. Please don't hold that against him." She knew that Prince Ephraim cared a lot for Prince Lyon, and that Lyon had been his best friend. Surely she'd be acting the same way if it were Hana's life at stake.

Or Leo's, for that matter.

He smirked at her then, and her heart seemed to skip a beat. His smirk could be arrogant and insufferable at times, but if she was being completely honest with herself, that devil-may-care look of his always made her feel a bit dizzy. It almost didn't seem fair, that he could have such an effect on her with such little effort.

"And when did you get to be so wise?" he asked, and she found herself blushing.

"Well, my b-boyfriend happens to be really smart, so…" she trailed off while wringing her hands in her dress. She was trying to match his sudden playfulness, but being flirtatious just didn't seem to come naturally to her.

"Your boyfriend? Do you mean to say a boy that's your friend again?" he asked, and even though she knew that he was purposefully teasing her, her face started burning up.

"N-n… no," she answered, and he only managed to look even more smug, if at all possible.

"Ah, that's good," he said while running a hand through her hair. But his hand lingered, and she could feel him start to pull her toward him. "Because that means I don't have to feel bad about doing this." He bent down to kiss her then, but it was a sweet, chaste kiss, and afterward he rested his forehead endearingly against hers. His expression suddenly became serious and he wrapped his arms around her back, hugging her body to him. "I love you, Sakura," he whispered near her ear.

"I love you too, L-Leo," she replied easily, holding him in return. No matter what had happened to her in Magvel, no matter what might happen to her in the future, it was all worth it for the chance to have met him and fallen in love with him. The irony was that she wouldn't even be here without Iago's mistake, and for once, she was grateful to the horrible man who'd caused her such torment.

She knew that was another conversation they’d have to have soon, that she needed to tell him about his father’s true intentions, but she couldn’t imagine breaking his heart like that right now... especially not when he seemed so happy. For now she just wanted to hold him in her arms until she could convince him that he deserved all the love that the world had to offer.

And as long as he loved her in return, as long as he let her remain by his side, she knew that the voice had been right after all.

She wouldn’t have to face anything alone again, not anymore.

Chapter Text

As far as Innes was concerned, the trek to Rausten was quickly becoming an unmitigated disaster.

Of course, that really went without saying, considering that almost a week had passed since the battle at Mt. Neleras and their forces weren't any closer to obtaining Magvel's last remaining Sacred Stone.

Even so, he supposed that Ephraim wasn't fully to blame for their difficulties. Rather, the monsters in Magvel were just becoming more and more prevalent, thereby forcing the army to engage in skirmishes at regular intervals and making significant progress near impossible. Due to the injuries continuously sustained by their soldiers during combat, as well as the accompanying battle fatigue, they were also compelled to rest more than Innes would have liked.

On the other hand, it didn't help that Ephraim had insisted on taking the group of ten soldiers that had been turned into stone at Mt. Neleras along with them. Fortunately their stone bodies weren't as heavy as statues made out of normal stone, likely due to the nature of the Gorgons' magic. However, they certainly weren't light, especially when grouped together, and having to use their horses to drag two wagons full of stone was only slowing them down.

Innes personally would have just left them behind and cut their losses, perhaps returning to them later if they were able, but Ephraim had never been practical. Still, he could easily sense Ephraim’s extreme frustration at not being able to progress any faster.

At least the frequent stoppages had given Innes ample opportunity to spar against Ephraim. Despite everything going on, his rival seemed more than willing to accept Innes’ challenges, perhaps having some aggression of his own that needed to be released. The trick was just finding a way for them to fight “fairly,” as Innes had the clear advantage in bows whereas Ephraim would always best him with lances.

Today they’d used axes, but the fight had stopped once Ephraim had clipped him on the arm with the head of his weapon. The cut wasn’t that bad since they were using dulled blades, and Innes had wanted to keep on fighting, but Ephraim had refused. Innes certainly wouldn’t count that as his loss - at worst, it was a draw - and he’d left the contest annoyed while he headed to the healing tent to have his minor wound attended to.

As he pulled back the flap of the tent to see that girl, he outwardly sighed. Of course it had to be her here, just to irritate him further. Truthfully, he couldn’t even remember her name… not that it made a difference. Innes knew enough to distrust her, and that was all that mattered.

He must have startled her as he entered the tent because she jumped and turned around. Upon seeing him she looked anxious, which wasn't surprising as he hadn't been keeping his disdain for her a secret.

“Oh! P-Prince Innes!” she stammered, and he noticed that her hands were grabbing idly at the hem of her dress. “What, um… what brings you h-here?”

“I have a cut on my arm. I need it healed,” he answered swiftly.

“I… I s-see. I’ll go and find another healer to c-come and help you,” she responded.

“Why? Can you not heal a simple wound?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at her. Surely she had some use to the army if Ephraim was insisting on keeping her around?

“Of c-course! I mean, it’s just… I know that you d-don’t like me, so I thought that you might prefer being treated by someone else.”

“Whether I like you or not has no bearing on anything,” he told her. “The issue is that I distrust you. But I suppose that there's no harm in having you see to this cut, so you may as well get on with it.”

Her only response was to nod, or maybe bow her head - he couldn't be sure. Regardless, she kept her eyes downcast and remained silent as she grabbed her odd-looking staff from a nearby table. She then quietly requested that he have a seat so that she could examine his injury, and he obliged, sitting at the edge of a nearby cot.

She rolled up his sleeve and inspected his cut with a degree of meticulous scrutiny that Innes found to be quite unnecessary, although once she finished her assessment, her face suddenly seemed to transform. She’d been clumsy and awkward only moments earlier, but this girl standing before him now was determined and assured.

To Innes, it just lent more credence to his speculation that her timid manner was nothing but a fiction - an act.

Finally she lifted her staff, murmuring some kind of healing chant that caused its tip to glow. Within mere moments his wound was completely healed, but there was something else, something strange about the feeling. His arm felt… warm, almost. It was difficult for him to describe it, but the feeling was extremely pleasant.

Some form of witchcraft, perhaps?

He remained on the cot, watching her carefully.

“Um, you're all s-set now, Prince Innes,” she told him shyly, but he still didn't move.

“You know… Ephraim told me what happened with you and the Demon King at Mt. Neleras,” he told her, wanting to gauge her reaction to his words.

She tensed but once again said nothing. “He probably thought that little story might get me to trust you, but if anything, it had the opposite effect,” Innes continued. “Instead, I think it's interesting that the demon didn’t actually kill you… don’t you agree?”

“You think it's… i-interesting?” she repeated, and he wondered how long she’d practiced crafting that perfectly wounded look on her face.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Ephraim told me that the Demon King released you instead of killing you. Why do you think that is?”

“I… I d-don't know,” she said with a small shrug, and he could see that he was making her uncomfortable… perhaps because she was struggling to avoid being pinned down by her lies.

“Fine, then. If you refuse to offer a theory, then I'll tell you mine,” he persisted. “The Demon King let you go because he never actually intended to kill you at all. The whole occurrence was just staged so that no one in our army would suspect that you’re colluding with him.”

One of her hands touched her neck and her eyes widened.

“Prince Innes, please, you c-can't truly think that I’d ever intend to harm you or anyone else here?” she pleaded.

“Perhaps not. Perhaps you truly are innocent. But it’d be foolish of me to just dismiss the possibility, wouldn't it?” he reasoned. “You appeared one day out of nowhere. No one can verify where in Magvel you come from. And I know that if I were to choose a spy, it’d be someone like you, someone guileless and frail and weak that no one would ever suspect.”

Her hand moved from her neck to her temple and her eyes closed. “No, s-stop…” she whimpered.

Stop what? Voicing his suspicions?

He finally stood, looking down at the now trembling girl. “Fine, as you wish,” he acquiesced. “Ephraim refuses to let me detain you anyway. But just know that I’m keeping a close watch over you, and I plan to ensure that you never get anywhere close to the Demon King again.”

At that her eyes finally opened, but when she looked at him now they were dark and cold, cold enough to chill him to the very bone. He wasn’t one to be easily intimidated, especially not by a small, simpering girl, but he suddenly found himself wishing that he’d brought his bow with him.

Yet in an instant her eyes seemed to change again, shifting in both color and demeanor, and even he was moved by the distress so plainly reflected in them.

“No!” she cried out as he debated whether or not to inquire about her well-being. With her staff still in hand, she then turned and ran from the tent.

Or, well, she would have had she not collided with someone who’d just opened the flap and was entering at that very moment. Unprepared for the impact, she merely bounced off of the larger object and fell roughly to a sitting position on the ground. Her staff had also been knocked from her hands and was rolling around on the floor next to her.

“Sakura?” the newcomer asked. Innes recognized him to be the other outlander, Leo… the ill-mannered boy that Ephraim had assigned the role of advisor and tactician.

Leo didn’t even seem to notice Innes’ presence, instead only having eyes for the upset girl. He knelt down next to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. “I'm sorry, Sakura. Are you all right? You bumped into me pretty hard.”

“Leo!” she cried out, ignoring his inquiry. She then scrambled to her knees and clutched at him for dear life, startling the boy.

“Hmph. Like a dog on a leash. I should have known that you wouldn’t be far,” Innes sneered. If he thought that Ephraim was annoyingly overprotective of the girl, that was nothing compared to the blond boy kneeling before him. Leo never let the girl out of his sight for too long, and it wasn't a surprise to Innes that he'd conveniently appeared just now.

Only when he spoke did Leo finally notice him, but if the boy thought that his angry glare would make him, the prince of Frelia, nervous… well, then he was certainly mistaken.

“What did you do to her?” the boy seethed, and suddenly wisps of purple began to swirl around him.

Innes recognized the emergence of the boy’s ridiculous magic. Who in their right mind would create a tome which had the primary purpose of impaling people with trees? An idiotic spell for an idiotic boy, if there ever was one.

“You dare raise your weapon to royalty, boy?” Innes then asked, raising an eyebrow. He could have Leo’s head for that.

“Leo, d-don’t! Stop, please!” the girl begged, clearly the more sensible of the two. “He didn't do anything to me, I s-swear. Please, don't hurt him!”

The purple mist quickly dissipated.

Well, at least her dog was well trained.

“It's okay, Sakura,” the boy soothed, and his voice was as gentle as honey, but his eyes were still glaring daggers in Innes’ direction.

Innes went to leave, knowing that he wouldn't find out any more information about the girl as long as Leo was present. Before he left, though, he stopped near the tent flap and gave the boy a derisive look.

“That girl is duplicitous at worst, and mentally unstable at best. And yet, you wonder why I want her locked away somewhere rather than wandering freely amongst us? You’re lucky that Ephraim is such a fool.”

Without even giving Leo a chance to respond, he then exited the tent.

That girl was up to something, he just knew it. But she had too many friends in high places, and Innes would need irrefutable proof that she was in league with the Demon King before he acted upon his suspicions.

She would slip up again sooner or later, though, Innes was sure of it. And, once she did, not even Ephraim would be able to save her from the fate that she deserved.

Innes would even be sure to see to it personally.

Leo knelt for a long time, remaining quiet as he held Sakura. Not that it was difficult, since it felt good to hold her in his arms.

Then again, it always did.

Yet she was clearly upset about something, and despite what she’d said earlier, he knew that insufferable prick Innes had likely been the cause of her distress.

“Talk to me, Sakura,” Leo finally entreated while stroking her hair softly. Seeing her upset like this was nearly unbearable, and he wanted nothing more than for her to smile again… although perhaps his motives were somewhat selfish, because it was her smile that always put him most at ease.

Despite his pleadings Sakura didn’t say anything for quite some time, but finally she started talking, albeit softly. “I almost l-lost myself to him for a moment, Leo. To Iago, I m-mean,” she admitted.

Leo tensed and tried to quell his rising panic. Worrying her with his own fears would only make things worse for her, after all. “What happened?” he asked her cautiously. Surely there had to be a reason for her to have nearly succumbed to Iago’s manipulations?

“Prince Innes was j-just telling me that he didn't trust me,” she answered. “Iago then said that Prince Innes would try to take me away from you, and that I’d never see you again.”

“Sakura… you don’t ever have to worry about that,” Leo promised, unable to keep from snorting at the thought. “I’d never let that jerk separate us.”

“M-maybe,” she said uncertainly. “But Iago wanted to… he wanted me to kill Prince Innes. I was so scared of losing you that I almost… I almost lost c-control to him. But I didn't really want to h-hurt Prince Innes, Leo, I swear! I’d n-never do something like that.”

“It’s all right. I know that,” he soothed, with nothing short of absolute certainty. “And all that matters is that you didn't end up doing what Iago wanted, even though you were afraid.”

“Maybe,” she repeated. “But… but m-maybe Prince Innes is right. Maybe it isn't such a bad idea for me to be restrained. Just in c-case, I mean.”

“Absolutely not,” Leo stated dismissively, refusing to even entertain the thought. “Trust me, Sakura. I can’t imagine what it's like to have that psychopath in your head, but I know him and I know you. You're stronger than him - I’m sure of it. If you weren't, then you would have succumbed to his wishes long before now. And anyway, once you go back to Hoshido, he'll have no further use for you and you'll finally be free of him.”

She was quiet for a long moment, and Leo thought that he’d successfully addressed her fears until she eventually began to speak again. “Leo… what do you think would h-happen if I… if I did end up losing myself to Iago?”

He was taken aback by her question, finding himself altogether paralyzed by it, and was unable - or perhaps just unwilling - to answer her.

“P-please, Leo, you must have thought about it,” she insisted. “Why does your father want Prince Lyon’s… I m-mean, the Demon King’s power?”

“Honestly, Sakura… I don’t know what my father is thinking,” he responded, sighing heavily. “He likely wants to use that power in the war against Hoshido, but you’ve seen what the Demon King is making Lyon do in Magvel. I don’t know if anywhere in our world would be safe if my father were to succeed.”

He tightened his hold on her when she gasped at the horror of his words. “You’d s-stop me then, right? If Iago took c-control of me and it came to that?”

He felt ill at the thought. “Leo?” she prodded, putting her soft hand on his cheek.

What did she expect him to say to her? He couldn’t imagine ever being able to hurt her, no matter what the circumstances - not even with the rest of the world at stake - but he knew that wasn’t the answer she was seeking. So instead, he simply smirked at her. “It’s silly that you’re even asking me that,” he told her with a feigned lack of concern. “You already promised me that you wouldn’t listen to what Iago told you to do anyway, remember? And I plan to hold you to that.”

“I know, Leo,” she replied, dropping her hand from his face so that it rested back at her side. “But it’s j-just that… I’m s-so scared.”

Her eyes were boring into him now, so sweet and so earnest, and he leaned down to kiss her, hoping that if he couldn’t ease her fears with his words then he might be able to do so with his touch. It had been Sakura who'd taught him the comforting power of touch after all… how it felt to know in a tangible way that you weren't alone and that someone was right there with you by your side.

Especially when that someone was her.

Leo put his hand on the back of her head and pressed her face toward his, brushing his firm lips against her delicate ones with the utmost care. He then swept his nose briefly against her cheek before bringing his forehead upward to rest it against hers. Opening his eyes, he waited for her to do the same before he spoke.

“Please don’t be afraid,” he implored her, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “After what happened with Lyon I know that I still have a lot to prove to you, but I swear that I’m going to do everything in my power to protect you. You know that, right?”

She smiled up at him in that moment and his lips immediately followed suit at the sight. "Th-thank you, Leo," she replied. Her eyes closed and she looked completely serene. "You're right. As long as I h-have you, I know that there's nothing to fear."

Leo couldn't understand why she continued to have such unwavering faith in him, but he vowed to himself that he wouldn't disappoint her. Yet before he could respond to her, Sister Natasha then entered the healing tent, and he and Sakura immediately separated from each other with blushing cheeks.

Natasha laughed lightly as she looked down at them. “You two are so sweet,” the cleric observed while Leo stood and held out a hand to Sakura to help her up.

Once she was on her feet Sakura immediately went to scurry away from him, but he gripped her hand tightly to prevent her from fleeing. They might not have much time left together before they returned home to their warring kingdoms after all, and it seemed like a shame to spend any of it apart just to keep up appearances. Besides, there was no sense in trying to hide what everyone already knew anyway, was there?

When Sakura didn't try to run from him again he smiled in triumph. “S-Sister Natasha, what brings y-you h-here?” she stammered instead, ducking her head shyly behind Leo’s arm.

“It’s my turn to take inventory of the healing supplies tonight. Did you forget?” Natasha asked.

“Oh, n-no, but you don’t h-have to. I don’t m-mind doing it.”

“Please, Sakura, I must insist,” Natasha replied. “It won’t be long before we begin to march again at this rate. You should take advantage of this brief time off and spend it with Sir Leo, no?”

“O-oh! I c-couldn’t-”

“I think that sounds like a brilliant idea,” Leo promptly interrupted with a wicked smirk. “We both thank you for your consideration, Sister Natasha.”


He started to drag Sakura out of the tent, barely even giving her time to bend down and grab her Sun Festal as she continued to sputter self-consciously.

“Well, you heard the woman, Sakura,” Leo stated once they were outside, walking about aimlessly with her hand still in his. “What do you think we should do?”

Sakura’s cheeks turned an adorable shade of pink, but nonetheless she smiled and leaned her head on his arm. “Actually, it f-feels nice… just to be with you and hold your hand like this.”

He grinned. “It does, doesn’t it? Why don’t we go and drop off your Sun Festal at your tent, and then we can take a proper walk away from everyone’s prying eyes - just the two of us, that is?”

"That sounds w-wonderful, Leo," she said with a peaceful sigh. "But… only if you agree to t-talk to Prince Ephraim afterward?"

Ah, Ephraim. He and Ephraim still hadn't spoken since Mt. Neleras. For some reason Leo had been dragging his feet when it came to mending fences with the prince of Renais, and it's not as if Ephraim had sought him out either. “Sakura, I’ll get around to it eventually,” he said vaguely. “But I just-”

“Please, Leo? F-for… for me?” she squeaked, looking away from him in embarrassment, as if she had no right to say something like that.

“Well that’s… entirely unfair,” he scoffed, squeezing her hand. “I must applaud you on your use of such underhanded tactics, though.” She looked confused and perhaps a little distressed until he added, “I mean, surely you must know by now that I can't refuse you anything, right?”

Her face lit up at his words and she beamed openly at him.

Gods, he’d spent his whole life longing for the people he cared about just to notice him, and yet with a single smile over a such a simple thing, she so easily managed to make him feel special and… loved. It was times like these that he was certain he could take on an entire army of Demon Kings single-handedly if it was required to keep her safe.

“Oh, th-thank you, Leo!” she gushed in appreciation. “It would make me s-so very happy if you two were talking again.”

That’s what would make you happy?” he asked skeptically, and she nodded. He chuckled lightly at her thoughtfulness.

It wasn't normal for someone to be this truly unselfish, at least in Leo's experience. No, Iago would never be able to stain her pure heart to make her do his father's bidding… he was sure of it. His father had severely blundered in choosing her as Iago's vessel, perhaps assuming her to be weak due to her small stature and timidness. But her strength of heart more than made up for all of that.

“Well, if it would take so little,” Leo continued, smiling as he talked, “then I suppose I can make the time to talk to Ephraim later.”

At that she nestled her head back onto his arm and the pair continued to walk contentedly together, allowing themselves to forget for just a moment about all the dangers and obstacles in both this world and theirs that threatened to part them.

Ephraim paced in his tent, analyzing his battle map as he strode back and forth. He’d been staring at it for a considerable amount of time already, and yet, still no ideas seemed to come to him.

“There just has to be a way that we can avoid all these monsters and get to Rausten faster,” he murmured. He then looked up at Forde expectantly.

Forde nodded dutifully, but when Ephraim raised an eyebrow, he jolted. “Oh, did you expect me to actually have a suggestion for you? What, now I get to be both your general and your strategist?”

Although he knew that Forde was just being his usual petulant self, the words stung. They only served as a bitter reminder that Ephraim had gotten one of his closest friends turned into stone and had driven the other away.

Just like he had with Lyon…

“Forde,” Ephraim scolded warningly. Yet he knew that he was only taking his own frustrations out on the knight, and at this rate, it likely wouldn’t be long before Forde came to despise him too.

“Well,” Forde said, looking at the map with a degree of studiousness that Ephraim suspected was entirely feigned. “Aha!” he then exclaimed, causing Ephraim to look at the map in excited anticipation.

Forde took the wooden piece that represented their army and placed it on top of Rausten. “Look! We’re there now! That was easy enough.”

Ephraim put his head into his hands.

Fale, help me, he thought.

He hadn't really been offering a prayer to Magvel’s war god right then - it had just been more of a subconscious plea to help himself manage his annoyance - but regardless, she seemed to be listening. Otherwise it would have been too much of a coincidence for his guards to announce to him in that very moment that Leo was there to see him.

Ephraim quickly gave his permission for Leo to enter. As the Nohrian prince walked in, his eyes shifted to Forde first before settling on Ephraim. “Prince Ephraim,” he then said with a formal bow, and Ephraim knew that it was all for Forde’s sake. “I was hoping that I could have a moment of your time.”

“Of course,” Ephraim responded with a nod. “Forde, you’re dismissed.”

“Really?” Forde asked hopefully, until Ephraim gave him another stern look. Forde then promptly cleared his throat. “I mean, of course, Prince Ephraim.” The man then winked at Leo before practically skipping out of the tent.

Ephraim sighed. He was truly unbearable to be around lately, wasn’t he?

“I’m… glad that you're here, Leo,” Ephraim offered hesitantly after a short silence. “Although, I must admit that I’m rather surprised. I didn’t think you wanted to speak to me after everything that happened at Mt. Neleras, otherwise I’d have come to see you sooner.”

“Truly?” Leo asked, and Ephraim couldn’t help but notice the hopeful look in his eyes.

“Of course,” he affirmed. “I don’t have many friends after all, and the ones that I do have I hold in high regard.”

Leo snorted. “I appreciate the sentiment, Ephraim, but you don’t have to lie for my sake. You might just be the most beloved man on the continent.”

Ephraim bristled at Leo's words, incidentally reminded of what Lyon had said to him in the volcano…

“Then, one day I realized… someone like me could never become someone like you. You and Eirika are… overpowering. You blinded me with your radiance. How could I live in your shadows and not seethe with jealousy?”

He grit his teeth and shook his head at the memory.

“You can believe what you want, but the truth is that I’ve never had an easy time getting close to people,” Ephraim admitted stiffly. “With the exception of Lyon who was considered my equal in station, I was never encouraged to have any friends. Instead I was raised to be detached so that when the time came, I could rule my subjects from above. Friendship was therefore a luxury that I was expected to live without, but I sometimes found myself making exceptions. Like with Seth and Forde... and then you of course, Leo. In fact… I even consider you three as family.”

Leo looked almost stunned at his words, but Ephraim continued undaunted. “I know that my actions lately seem to indicate otherwise, but it was never my intention to put your lives at risk the way I did in Mt. Neleras. Lyon was my closest friend, and he’ll always be important to me, but… so are all of you.”

“Ephraim, I… thank you,” Leo responded, but his voice sounded thick. “Those words mean a lot to me, especially since I've never believed that family was determined solely by blood. Back in Nohr, I even have a brother who isn't tied to me through blood at all, but that’s never made me care for him any less, or view him as anything other than my brother. And the same can be said for you, Ephraim, because… because that’s how I’ve come to see you now as well."

Ephraim truly hadn't expected Leo to speak so openly, but he was glad to know that the Nohrian prince treasured their friendship just as much as he did and he smiled at him in kind.

"Also, there's something else," Leo added, suddenly looking slightly uncomfortable. "I know that you've been having trouble lately trying to cope with what happened to Lyon, and my behavior last week likely wasn't helping matters. In fact, the reason I came here to begin with was to say that… well… to say I’m sorry for the things that I said to you, and that I wish for you to accept my apology.”

Ephraim cocked his head slightly. “Of course, Leo. But I admit, I'm not quite sure what you're apologizing for,” he responded slowly. “Nothing you said was false, and truthfully, they were words that I needed to hear.”

“Um… well… I’m apologizing for hurting your feelings then?” Leo answered unsurely.

Ephraim stared at him blankly for a moment before he let out a loud laugh. Ah, it'd been so long since he'd last laughed like this… "Why do I have the feeling that that's actually Princess Sakura talking?" he speculated with a teasing snicker.

Leo scoffed, but Ephraim smiled broadly. “Now, now, Leo. It isn’t a bad thing,” he continued. “I think she’s been a positive influence on you. In fact, you seem to be much less closed off to people than you were when you first came to Magvel.”

“All right, all right, enough already,” Leo whined, but Ephraim could see that his friend’s eyes were shining in the way that they always did whenever he thought about Princess Sakura. “Besides, speaking of Sakura, I promised her that I’d inquire about the well-being of Princess Eirika while I was here. Apparently your sister isn’t welcoming any company?”

Ephraim’s mood abruptly darkened. “Ah, she is… not doing too well,” he informed Leo. “Her and I never really kept any secrets from each other, but I suspect now that she has stronger feelings for Seth than she’s ever admitted to me. And I thought I couldn't feel any worse about getting my friend turned into stone than I already did, although apparently I was wrong.”

Leo looked sympathetic. “Princess L’Arachel seems pretty confident that the stone spell can be reversed once we get to Rausten,” he responded.

If we ever get to Rausten,” Ephraim corrected him. “It’s been almost a week since we left Mt. Neleras and we still have some distance to cover. I need to secure the Sacred Stone of Rausten as soon as possible and then get to Darkling Woods to stop Lyon from gaining the Demon King's full power."

“Hmm,” Leo started, looking at the battle map and returning the piece that Forde had moved to its proper position. “Well, perhaps we can create a diversion and make the monsters think that we’re continuing on this path, but really move around this way,” he said, demonstrating on the map. “We’d have to sacrifice some wagons and some horses, but since the demons wouldn't be expecting us to travel this way it shouldn’t be too hard to trick them. Or, then again, we could also…”

Ephraim merely blinked in astonishment as Leo continued to present several potential strategies to get them to Rausten faster. Of course he couldn’t be sure if any of them would actually work, but they were certainly better than Ephraim’s failing plan of trying to continuously break through the enemy’s numbers with brute force.

Thank you, Fale, he thought silently, grateful that the god had chosen to favor him. She'd sent him Leo, after all… and with Leo's help, they might just actually manage to recover the only remaining Sacred Stone.

“Ah… the Stone of Rausten!” L’Arachel marveled, holding the small rock up high so that she could admire it. “Its glorious radiance really suits my complexion, wouldn’t you say?”

Leo bit back a groan. Surely facing a slow death at the hands of the Demon King would have been preferable to listening to L’Arachel’s narcissistic rants? Perhaps he’d even done this world a disservice by planning out such a careful diversion in order to get Ephraim’s army to Rausten.

“Ha! You’re exactly right, my dear,” Pontifex Mansel agreed, fueling Leo’s temptation to just take the stupid stone and throw it into the nearest latrine. The Pontifex was L’Arachel’s uncle as well as the Divine Emperor of Rausten, and he was clearly a good man, but… well, Leo could understand now how L’Arachel had come to hold herself in such high regard with the way that he doted on his niece.

At least they’d been able to use the man’s sentiments to their advantage. The Pontifex had listened raptly to Ephraim, Eirika and Innes’ tales of all that had happened in Magvel, especially when they’d revealed that it was the Demon King who’d been orchestrating all of the world’s horrors. Yet it wasn’t until L’Arachel started ranting about evil falling to the forces of righteousness that he’d actually agreed to relinquish their kingdom’s stone. On top of that, she’d also convinced him to remove the sacred twin relics, the Glorious Light Ivaldi and the Saint’s Staff Latona, from their holy resting places in Rausten’s temple shrine.

The princess certainly was persistent, Leo would give her that much.

“This is it,” Ephraim added as he looked at the shining rock in L’Arachel’s hand. “The last one. The last remaining Sacred Stone.” He sounded like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but then… Leo supposed that he truly did.

“It is,” L’Arachel confirmed. “And the time to defeat the Demon King draws near.”

“But first… L’Arachel, that staff,” Ephraim said hesitantly as he gestured toward Latona, and Leo knew that Ephraim was thinking about restoring Seth. They’d had to leave all of the stone statues in their wagons, which were currently with the rest of their caravan near the castle’s stables, but it wouldn’t be too much of a hardship to get there from their current location at the temple shrine.

L’Arachel’s face softened after Ephraim spoke, and Leo was almost certain that Ephraim was the only person able to elicit such a reaction from her. “Of course, Ephraim,” she told him gently, but her voice was still filled with confidence. “Unlike our standard weapons and staves, the sacred relics are so powerful that they only have a limited number of uses before their power is drained completely. But, this is as just a cause as any to use Latona. I will heal the men that have turned to stone, including your friend Seth. We shall go to them at once.”

Ephraim gave her a grateful look.

“I’m going with you then,” Eirika insisted.

Ephraim seemed prepared to argue with her, most likely because he wanted to shield his sister from the possibility that Seth’s condition couldn’t be reversed, but he didn’t get the chance to before a soldier ran hurriedly into the temple and interrupted them.

“Your Holiness! There’s been an attack!” the soldier reported urgently, and Leo lurched in surprise. “The palace defenses have already been breached at multiple points!”

No! Leo thought as fear started to seize him. Sakura was still in the castle… was she all right?

He had to get to her.

“What?” How has this happened?” Pontifex Mansel asked, clearly in shock. “Our sacred capital, invaded?”

“The imperial guard is at a terrible disadvantage right now," the soldier continued. "It’s less a battle than a slaughter. I'm not sure that they'll be able to hold out until the Knights of Rausten arrive.”

“I must…”

“Uncle, please, you must keep yourself safe,” L’Arachel chimed in. “We can take care of this.”

“No,” Innes contested, even though he suddenly looked ill. “We must flee and press on to the Demon King. We have the only remaining Sacred Stone in Magvel and we cannot risk having it fall into the enemy’s hands.”

What?” Leo, L’Arachel and Pontifex Mansel all asked in outraged unison. There was no way in hell Leo was going anywhere, not without Sakura. And Innes’ sister Tana was in the castle as well… what was he even thinking?

Yet Leo knew that the Frelian prince’s logic was sound, and had Sakura not been in the palace at that very moment, then he likely would have even agreed with him.

But Sakura was there, and that changed everything.

“Ephraim!” Leo pressed. “We can’t just run away. We need to-”

“Peace, Leo!” Ephraim boomed, cutting him off. “I don’t plan to repay the Pontifex’s kindness by abandoning Rausten in its hour of need, nor would I leave everyone else in the army behind to fend for themselves. We just need to figure out a way to get back to the castle.”

“That won’t be a problem,” the Pontifex said. “We have a network of hidden underground tunnels throughout the grounds. We can take one of those to return to the castle.”

There was suddenly a loud pounding at the temple door, and it sounded like someone was trying to break it down.

“What? They would dare? This is our sacred shrine!” the Pontifex roared.

“Uncle, please! We must go, now!” L’Arachel insisted.

Mansel nodded reluctantly, and L’Arachel swiftly led the way to a well-concealed door that looked just like an inconspicuous part of the stone wall around it. The door in turn led to a well-lit tunnel that had numerous torches on the wall, and the party hurried quickly through it.

The tunnel ultimately deposited into another secret entryway, this time in the throne room of the castle, and Leo was relieved that the journey had been so short. Once they were there, however, Ephraim didn’t hesitate to take charge of the situation.

"Pontifex Mansel, have your men seal that entry into this room in case the enemy learns about your tunnels and tries to get here from the temple. Keep the Sacred Stone safe and remain in the throne room with your guards,” Ephraim ordered. “Everyone else, let’s go. We need to take out the enemy and protect the Pontifex!”

He then pushed open the door to the throne room and stormed out into the great hall with Leo, Eirika, L’Arachel and Innes following closely behind.

The great hall was in pandemonium, with people running about every which way as they prepared for battle. Leo relaxed immediately, though, as soon as he saw Sakura healing some of the wounded imperial guardsmen who must have retreated from the fighting outside.

“Forde! Report!” Ephraim commanded once he spotted the blond knight, snapping Leo back to attention.

“Ah, Prince Ephraim, you decided to show up after all!” Forde said good-naturedly, but Leo could see the strain in his eyes. “I thought you might, so I’ve been gathering our army together here in the great hall. Most are already accounted for, but Franz is searching the castle to find the rest.”

“Good,” Ephraim said with nod. “What's the status of the attack?”

“Well,” Forde started, “the enemy is already through the barbican and is now trying to break down the front gate. I suppose that we should station ourselves there to defend it in case of that eventuality?”

“Through the barbican already?” Leo asked with surprise. “How is that possible?”

“It seems like it was a stealth attack,” Forde replied, “not to mention, this castle wasn't exactly prepared for an invasion. I sent the children of the castle and some of the servants and civilians to the cellar to hide, but anyone able and willing to fight is getting armored up now.”

“Good work, Forde,” Ephraim told him. “L’Arachel, we don't want the civilians trying to escape through the tunnels just yet as we don't know what's lying in wait outside, but they should know where the nearest hidden passage is in case the enemy breaks through our defenses and into the castle. Can you please show them?”

“In case the enemy breaks through?” she repeated. “But, Ephraim-!”

“I'm going to do everything I can to prevent that from happening,” he interrupted, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. “It's just a precaution, all right?”

Leo was worried that L’Arachel might start ranting about Ephraim touching her inappropriately again, but her expressive eyes simply met his calm ones and she nodded before leaving to do his bidding.

“Forde, Innes… get as many defenders to the front gate as possible, but make sure that some of the soldiers stay behind to guard the great hall doors and the throne room in case,” he instructed. “I’m headed to the gateway now, so join me there as soon as you’re able. Leo, come with me.”

Feeling better now that he knew Sakura was safe, Leo readily obeyed. After all, the sooner they dealt with this nuisance, the sooner he could stop worrying about her. If there’d been time he would have gone over to her to see how she was faring in the chaos, but he knew there wasn’t even a moment to spare. He and Ephraim needed to assess the situation outside immediately in order to fend off this attack.

Needless to say, he was severely annoyed once he and Ephraim arrived to see that the imperial guard was doing nothing but gawk while the enemy tried to break down the gate.

“Well then, why don’t you just let them in and invite them for tea?” Leo sneered at one of the soldiers. “You do realize that you’re supposed to kill them, right?”

“B-but! We’re trying to kill them!” the man sputtered. “They just won’t stay dead!”

Leo raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Oh really?” He then put his hand on his tome and concentrated, letting the purple glow of Brynhildr’s magic surround him. Soon, a tree appeared on the other side of the gate. Its branches then shot straight through a man’s stomach. Leo noted with a smile that he hadn’t even had time to scream.

Once the magic faded and the tree disappeared, the man fell limply to the ground. “See, now was that so hard?” he hissed. “We need to get more mages in the front here and some archers up top to-”

But Leo immediately stopped talking as the man he’d just killed started to slowly get up. “What is... gods, how… how is that even possible?” he asked in utter disbelief.

Ephraim looked grim. “It must have something to do with the Demon King’s magic - the same way that Lyon brought his father and Orson’s wife back to life,” he noted.

“But who’s controlling that magic now, then? Perhaps the enemy general?” Leo speculated.

They didn’t have time to mull it over for long before a terrible cracking sound echoed around them, and Leo knew then that the gate wasn’t going to hold for much longer.

“Damn it! Get into position and form a perimeter around the gate!” he barked, and the soldiers hurried to obey him. “Once the gate falls we need to hold our line so that the enemy can’t break into the great hall. Stand firm and switch out with the person behind you if you get injured!”

At least Forde and Innes had already arrived with Ephraim’s army in tow, but dear gods, it wouldn’t be much longer before…

Groooooaaaaaaaan. Craaaaaaack. Craaaaaaash.

And just like that, the enemy was upon them.

Chapter Text

Gods, the exhaustion.

It was so overpowering that it felt like a tangible thing. With every spell that Leo cast, his mind cried out for respite. With every swing of his sword, his muscles ached with discomfort.

The minutes turned into hours, and yet the enemy’s numbers had barely waned.

They… just… kept… getting… back… up.

Only severe head wounds seemed to prevent the Grado remnants from being revived, yet it wasn’t exactly easy to land an effective blow this way. Most armor was made to protect the head even more than the chest, and the head was also a smaller target.

No, we can’t win like this. I have to find a way to stop this, Leo thought. After all, his life depended on it.

So did Sakura’s.

The one advantage that they had was that their soldiers were clearly more skilled than the enemy fighters. Regardless, if they continued this war of attrition, then they would surely fall. The only thing even keeping them going for this long was the line of healers right behind the front lines, consisting of Sakura, L’Arachel, Natasha, and Moulder. Leo was uncomfortable having Sakura so close to the heart of the battle and would have preferred that she healed retreating soldiers in the Great Hall instead, but truthfully, this was where she was most needed. The quick and constant treatment was giving their own army a degree of invincibility comparable to that of the remnants, and without that healing support, their defenses would have already crumbled.

Still, the healers were wilting along with their fighters, and exhaustion would ultimately win out. They were men fighting remnants, and remnants never tired.

“Ephraim! We can’t keep this up!” Leo called out, stating the obvious as his sword crashed against an opponent’s.

“We don’t have much of a choice, Leo!” Ephraim responded, sounding just as fatigued as Leo felt while he ran his lance into an approaching foe. “We need to find a way to keep holding on, and ultimately try to push forward, unless you happen to have any better ideas.”

“Their general,” Leo noted. “He has to be the one who’s bringing these soldiers back to life, so we must target him. We’ll never break through their forces here to reach him beyond the front gate, though - we can barely even hold this chokepoint. But if I take a small force through the tunnels and around the outside of the castle to flank him from behind, then we might still have a fighting chance.”

“That’s a good plan, Leo, but I don’t think we can spare even a small party of fighters right now,” Ephraim said as he considered Leo’s suggestion. “If we do, then our forces here will likely be overwhelmed within a matter of minutes. Everyone’s exhausted enough as it is.”

As if to emphasize Ephraim’s point on the futility of it all, a Hand Axe came flying from their nearest opponent and hit Leo straight in the leg. Ephraim returned the favor by hurling a Javelin at the axe thrower, but Leo was healed so quickly that he didn’t even hesitate before activating Brynhildr. A large rock then slammed into the man’s head, smashing it to bits.

The remnant didn’t get up this time.

Knowing that the man’s gruesome death would bother Sakura, Leo idly hoped that she hadn’t witnessed it. It was likely that she had, though, since he knew without question that it was Sakura who’d healed him only moments ago - it had felt like her magic. Normally one method of healing was barely distinguishable from another, but it was almost as if Sakura had her own unique “thumbprint.” Although Leo couldn't quite put into words what was different about her technique, he’d been treated by her so frequently by now that he could easily recognize the feeling.

And having such an intimate knowledge of her was just one of a thousand things which made it harder for him to commit to the plan that he was currently forming in his head, the plan that would require him to leave her behind here in the midst of all the danger.

“I think I have a way around that problem, Ephraim,” Leo asserted as his mind began to race. “I won’t have to lessen our numbers here by much to do what needs to be done. The only person I’m going to need to take with me is Princess L’Arachel.”

Ephraim stopped fighting for an almost imperceptible second before he spoke again. “L’Arachel? What is it you plan to do?”

“We don’t have time for me to explain everything right now, so you’re just going to have to trust me,” Leo responded warily.

Surprisingly, it didn’t take very long for Ephraim to agree. “Okay, Leo. I trust you. Do what you must, but I implore that you hurry. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to hold our defenses here.”

Leo nodded, but he couldn’t make himself leave just yet. “Ephraim… if the enemy army breaks through, then they’re going to target the healers first. That's what I would do if I were in their position, at least, since our forces will fall quickly against these remnants without them. If I’m to go, I need for you to promise me that you’ll take care of her if that happens. There may not be time for her to defend herself…”

He didn’t even need to specify that he was talking about Sakura. “She's proven to be a capable fighter in her own right, but you have my word that I’ll do what I can,” Ephraim vowed. “And Leo…”

Ephraim didn’t seem to be able to finish his sentence, but Leo already knew what his friend was too embarrassed to ask.

“I’ll look out for her, too,” he assured the prince, referring of course to L’Arachel.

With one last spell from Brynhildr, Leo stepped backward and slipped through the men behind him. He then turned and ran right past Sakura on his way to L’Arachel, knowing that if he stopped for even a moment to look at her or talk to her, then he’d never be able to leave her behind. It was increasingly difficult for him to think rationally when it came to her, especially after what had transpired at Mt. Neleras, but he knew with certainty that following his plan would lead to the best chance for everyone’s survival, including hers. The logic was sound, and if there was anything he trusted in, it was that.

However, it also meant that failure was not an option.

“L’Arachel! I need you!” Leo hissed hurriedly as he approached the Princess of Rausten, who’d just returned to her position after moving forward to heal Forde.

“Sir Leo, while I can certainly understand how you've come to be so enchanted by my splendor, is now really an appropriate time for you to be professing your love to me?” she wondered. “Besides, you are a commoner and our stations would never permit it.”

“What? No!” Leo shouted with frustration. “Don't be ridiculous. We don't have time right now to deal with your ego. I meant that I need for you to come with me! And make sure to bring the Staff of Latona with you.”

He didn’t even wait to see if she followed, but he knew that she was because she was ranting behind him.

“My ego? How dare you say such a thing!” she exclaimed. “You, sir, know nothing about how to treat a lady! You would do well to refine yourself.”

“If you can just try to be quiet and help me out here so that we don’t all die, then I promise that I’ll work on it,” Leo retorted. “Now tell me, do any of these underground tunnels lead to the stables?”

“What? You wish to have me escape?” she asked. “Wait a moment… Ephraim put you up to this, didn’t he?” Her tone exuded annoyance, but he could see the small smile forming on her lips.

“Not quite,” Leo answered, and he tried to refrain from rolling his eyes when he saw her deflate slightly. Still, maybe he could use her own arrogance to his advantage… “Actually, Ephraim did come up with a plan, and he said that you were the key to pulling it off, with your, um, dazzling resplendence, so-”

“Say no more,” L’Arachel said, holding her hand up and suddenly looking re-energized. “Of course Ephraim would rely on me above all others. I shan’t fail him. Now, shall we go then?” She promptly ran off, presumably toward a secret passage, and Leo quickly followed, forcing down a heavy sigh.

She took him to the library, where she opened a door that looked like a mere wall of books. Leo was amazed by how many of these concealed entrances and exits there were, and he wondered why they’d been built in the first place. He surmised that it was likely during the first war against the Demon King eight-hundred years ago, when monster attacks had been frequent… like they were becoming now.

Behind the door was a stairway leading down to another underground tunnel. Unlike the one they’d used before when coming from the temple, however, this tunnel was almost pitch black and the torches were much more sparse. Yet Leo didn’t mind it much - the darkness had never bothered him. To L'Arachel's credit, she also appeared undaunted, and Leo had to begrudgingly admit that for all her faults, the princess never lacked in courage.

When they finally reached the end of the tunnel, there was a staircase leading back up, but instead of a door there was a hatch at the top. Leo pushed it open carefully and put a finger to his lips to signal L’Arachel to be quiet. He could hear the sounds of battle, but as he poked his head out to look around he could see that the enemy forces were focused on the area by front gate, which was about three hundred meters away from them. In addition to the distance, they were also decently protected from view by the forest surrounding them.

They were in the clear.

Gesturing L’Arachel to follow him, the two ran quickly to the nearby stables. Leo found the two wagons consisting of the stone soldiers, and looked to L’Arachel expectantly.

“Okay, Princess L’Arachel, you said that your kingdom’s sacred staff could heal these men, right? Well… go ahead, do it now!” he commanded.

She hesitated. “Must you really rush such a momentous moment, Sir Leo, in which I, Princess L’Arachel of the Theocracy of Rausten, save the day with my magnificence?” L’Arachel asked, looking at the two caravans.

“…You do know how to use the staff, right?” Leo asked nervously.

“Of course! How dare you question my abilities!” she humphed, although she didn’t sound as confident as usual. “I just need to lift it like so, and then… maybe…”

When nothing happened after a few minutes, Leo started to feel consumed by dread, as if his heart was slowly being squeezed in a vice grip.

No... his plan was a failure, and he needed to get back to Sakura immediately. In fact, he never should have left her in the first place. He…

But a green light suddenly emanated from the staff, starting small and getting larger and larger until it encompassed the entirety of the stables. Leo instantly felt every little ache and pain disappear as the green light touched him, along with all of his fatigue.

The most amazing thing, though, was that the men who had once been stone had truly returned to flesh. Leo gaped with amazement at the feat until they all started gasping for air, causing him to look at L’Arachel worriedly.

“What’s going on?” he whispered.

“I… I don’t know!” she cried. “The staff should have healed them completely!”

“Seth?” Leo asked hesitantly as he hopped up onto the wagon to stand next to the gasping man.

Leo then yelped in surprise as Seth swiftly grabbed the armor around his neck and pulled him in close.

“Ei… ri… ka?” he huffed, but it sounded more like a demand. “Where?”

“Your princess is fine, as is your prince,” L’Arachel answered for him. “Please, Sir Seth, you must calm down! Try to relax and breathe normally!”

It took a few more moments, but Seth’s breathing eventually normalized, as did the rest of the men's.

“Forgive me,” Seth said, looking confused. “It was almost as if my body had forgotten how to breathe. What… what happened?”

“You were turned to stone by a Gorgon in Mt. Neleras,” Leo told him. “L'Arachel healed you with the sacred staff, Latona. Now we’re in Castle Rausten and need your help immediately. Enemy forces are invading the castle to try and destroy the final Sacred Stone, and I fear that Ephraim and Eirika won’t be able to hold their position for much longer without our help.”

Seth didn’t even miss a beat. “We’ll need weapons and armor,” he remarked as he hopped off of the wagon, with Leo following. “We’re fortunate that Princess L'Arachel's restore magic was able to heal us, but the weapons and armor that we were solidified with are now likely useless.” To prove his point, he hit a nearby wall with his sword, and the weapon quickly shattered.

“The caravan storing our items is nearby,” Leo replied. “That should be sufficient for us to-”

His words immediately died in his throat as something similar to a cheer sounded from the gate. When he turned to look beyond the trees, it seemed that the opposing army was finally starting to push forward into the castle courtyard.

Gods, no… could it be possible that Ephraim’s perimeter at the front gateway had been penetrated?


He was suddenly paralyzed with mind-numbing fear, but a soft, “We need to hurry,” was all he seemed to be able to say.

Luckily Seth was there to take charge, and he ordered the recovering soldiers to grab some weapons and armor and prepare for battle. Only light armor was permitted, as there wasn't time to don anything else, but at least it would be better than nothing.

"We... we need to scout out the enemy," Leo stammered as he tried to refocus on the task at hand. Taking out the general was even more vital now that the opposing army was advancing through gate, and he needed to keep it together if they were going to succeed.

Seth readily agreed, so while the rest of the soldiers donned their armor and selected their weapons, the knight found a good vantage point for him, Leo, and L’Arachel to assess what they were up against.

"I think that’s their general," Leo whispered as he pointed to a bishop. It was the only bishop in the group, and as demented as the man looked, he didn’t appear to be as half-witted as the remnants they’d encountered.

"Yes, I believe it must be. I know that man," L'Arachel chimed in. “His name is Riev. He used to be a revered priest here, however, his heart soon fell to darkness and my uncle cast him out of the kingdom for worshiping the Demon King.”

"Watch," Seth added as he observed carefully. "The man isn’t speaking to his army with words, and yet, they still look as if they’re obeying his commands."

"He must be the one raising those remnants from the dead," Leo remarked. "We need to target him, otherwise this attack will never stop. If we approach him slowly and carefully from behind, we might be able to take him by surprise. Perhaps we can even use more of these underground tunnels to our advantage…”

“You're right that we should target the bishop," Seth agreed. "But we shouldn't be employing stealth or secrecy."

Leo was irritated by Seth’s words. They didn't have time for him to justify his strategy, they just had to act!

“Listen to me Leo,” Seth insisted, also sounding frustrated. He wasn't a man who spoke much, but he likely wasn't used to being ignored when he did. “Your tactics are sound, but the enemy has already breached the castle’s defenses. Our goal now is to prevent more enemies from entering the castle. Therefore, we need to create a distraction and be as boisterous as possible to draw their attention to us.”

Leo was about to object. They only had twelve soldiers including Seth and himself, thirteen counting L’Arachel who was primarily a healer, and they were heavily outnumbered. What Seth was proposing was nothing more than suicide.

But something made Leo pause. After all, Seth was right. They were supposed to protect the castle and the Sacred Stone lying within it - to protect Prince Ephraim, Princess Eirika, and… Sakura.

When Leo had first developed this plan, he'd intended to achieve both goals of protection and survival. Now, though, he didn't seem to have that luxury. With Ephraim’s defenses having already fallen, the enemy was already starting to push through into the castle, where Sakura was. And Sakura was more dear to Leo than anyone in this world - or any world, for that matter. He’d do anything necessary to keep her from harm.

Leo turned his head to look at Seth and he could see the resolve in the knight's eyes.

The two nodded at each other. Leo knew that Ephraim would have never agreed to this, to let them take this risk on his behalf, but then again... Ephraim wasn't there to voice his objections.

“Well, we should make haste then,” a haughty voice interrupted.

“No, Princess L’Arachel, you've done your part," Leo told her. "Take shelter in the tunnels until the battle is over."

“You dare command me?” she asked, raising her nose to the sky. “Slaying these wretched creatures is-"

"Your forte, yes, yes, I know!" Leo hissed. "But we'll be lucky if any of us survive this, and I promised Ephraim that I wouldn't get you killed."

"Well, that's not your promise to make," L'Arachel retorted. "I am the princess of Rausten. This is my kingdom that these wretches are attacking, and I can and will make my own decisions. Besides, I'm certain that good will prevail and I won't fall this day.”

"Would you stop being so stubborn?" he barked back. "Good trumping evil is just a stupid fairy tale, and you're not invincible!"

"Well, neither are you, so if you'd like to stay here in relative safety, then that is your prerogative."

"While you two were busy arguing," Seth interrupted, perhaps sounding more annoyed than even Leo and L'Arachel combined, "I've been signaling our soldiers to prepare them for battle. We're ready to move."

"We go then," L'Arachel commanded, and she lifted the Staff of Latona to address the small group of men. "Brave soldiers! It is I, Princess L'Arachel, the beautiful banisher of darkness, who has roused you from your stoney sleep. Now, lend me your arms as we battle these monstrosities, to protect my kingdom and the last remaining Sacred Stone of Magvel, to defeat the wretched Demon King! Victory shall be ours!"

All of the men cheered, and as L'Arachel began running toward the enemy, with her staff raised high in the air like a banner, the small group of men followed closely behind. Seth then shrugged at Leo and gave him a rare grin before following himself. "Try to focus on the bishop!" he called out, before he started to yell out nonsense like everyone else.

“Damn it!” Leo muttered as he chased after the group.

Well, if he did actually survive this, then Ephraim was certainly going to kill him.

Sakura had never helped to defend a castle in her limited experience with war, and even though she’d always hated having to fight, this particular battle was by far the most terrifying. She’d quickly come to realize that trying to hold a line against an enemy charge was considerably different than being the aggressor, and the thought of the opposing army breaking into the courtyard at any moment to hurt her and the people she’d come to care for made Sakura anxious.

But for now at least, Ephraim’s forces were still holding their position. Sakura was doing her best to continuously heal the front lines so that they wouldn’t be penetrated by the enemy, but needless to say, she was exhausted. She was positive that the soldiers fighting in front of her felt the same way, though, and knowing that they were relying on her gave her the strength and the will that she needed to keep on going.

Still, she wondered if this onslaught was ever going end…

She prayed that it would.

Surely Leo had a plan, and that’s why he’d left earlier with Princess L’Arachel. Sakura knew that Leo was a brilliant tactician and she had complete faith in him, but time was another enemy that they were currently facing, and truthfully, it was the one that might ultimately prevail against them.

If the enemy did break through their defenses then she knew there’d be little hope for her or anyone else in the castle, but at least Leo would survive. And if the last Sacred Stone was destroyed and Magvel fell to the Demon King, then Leo could still find a way to return to Nohr.

And once Ephraim’s perimeter finally collapsed and the remnant soldiers started to press unchecked into the courtyard, that thought was her only comfort.

Sakura tried to clamp down on her fear and remain calm in the chaos that immediately followed the breach, but she couldn’t even follow what was happening in all of the confusion. Both enemy and allied soldiers were running past her, and she couldn’t even seem to tell who was who anymore.

“Get down!” she heard someone shout, and only then did she notice the line of snipers taking aim in the direction where she and the other healers were gathered. Sakura didn’t even have time to obey the order before the arrows were fired, but a body came flying at her just as quickly.

It was Prince Ephraim, who’d been charging toward her and Sister Natasha before he’d leapt onto her to shield her from the attack. She heard him grunt in pain once an arrow lodged itself into the upper right side of his back - an arrow that had been meant for her - yet she could barely even process the events as he brought her to the ground.

“P-Prince Ephraim!” she cried out with worry, but he was already starting to get up.

“I’m fine. It didn't hit an organ,” he insisted while he staggered to a standing position, seeming more worn out than injured. After looking her over to confirm that she was unharmed, he grabbed the shaft of the arrow that was embedded into his back and twirled it carefully to enlarge the wound. Sakura knew that this was the only way to ensure that the entire head of the arrow would be fully removed once he finally yanked it out of his body, but the evident pain that he was in was difficult for her to bear.

What had he been thinking, to take an arrow for her like that? As the future King of Renais and the commander of this army, surely he knew that he shouldn’t be risking his life in such a way?

Even so, she was grateful, and once he’d removed the arrow from his back she healed the wound quickly with her Sun Festal. Sir Forde and Franz were already engaging with the snipers so that they wouldn’t fire again, and she cringed as Forde managed to partially sever one of their heads from their bodies, but everything was now a free-for-all and she knew that she was far from safe.

Prince Ephraim then looked over to his side, and when she saw the sadness in his eyes she quickly followed his gaze.

What she saw made her gasp.

“No!” she exclaimed as Sister Natasha laid before her with an arrow protruding from her chest. A pool of blood had already formed around her and her eyes remained peacefully closed.

Sakura knew in an instant that she was dead.

“They’ll continue to target our healers. Try to stay hidden,” Ephraim ordered as he grabbed his lance from the ground. “And if you can manage to do it without being seen, get into the throne room with Pontifex Mansel. You’ll be safest there.”

His words barely even registered as Sakura’s eyes remained on the dead woman next to her, and once he ran away to battle their nearest foes, she crawled over to the unmoving body.

Even though she knew it wouldn’t do any good she still tried to block out the surrounding noise and heal the fallen cleric. But it was impossible to heal someone that was already dead, no matter how much she might wish to.

She couldn’t hold back her tears in that moment, but she knew that she couldn’t let herself wallow in her feelings now, not with a battle raging on around her. Glancing over quickly to where she’d last seen Father Moulder, she was relieved to see that he was still alive at least. His arm was bleeding, most likely having been just grazed by an arrow, and Sakura quickly closed the wound. He spared a moment to nod appreciatively at her, but soon entered back into the fray as he healed an injured Cormag.

Despite Prince Ephraim’s orders Sakura knew that she couldn’t hide, as that would leave Father Moulder alone as the only primary healer. It was true that she might be a target, that she was afraid, yet her friends and allies needed her more than ever. And if her enemies were expecting to find a defenseless healer when they came after her, then they were mistaken. Her Steel Bow might not be the strongest of weapons, but she was fast enough to get two shots off on an opponent before they could get close enough to attack her, and accurate enough now to at least have a good chance of targeting the head.

She just had to hope that she could do enough to protect everyone, to protect the Sacred Stone… and to survive, so that she could see Leo again.

I’m so sorry, Sister Natasha, Sakura thought as she blinked the tears away from her eyes. But I know that you wouldn’t have given up, and I promise that I won’t either. I’ll keep fighting to help the people of Magvel, just like you would have.

And with one final prayer to the gods to keep Leo safe, to help him escape and return to Nohr if she and Ephraim’s army were to fall, Sakura immersed herself in the surrounding battle.

“What? Sakura is missing?”

Corrin couldn’t mask the worry in his voice as he questioned Leo’s retainer, Niles, after the man had relayed what he’d found during the search for his brother.

“That’s the word,” Niles responded smoothly with a careless shrug.

“Xander… Camilla… you didn’t… ?” Corrin asked, unable to even finish such a horrible question.

“Not purposefully, darling, but you can’t expect me to keep track of everyone I kill,” Camilla mused. “I did fight against that pegasus rider at some point, but I don’t believe that I killed her.”

“Not her,” Corrin said, shaking his head. “Sakura is the healer, the one about Elise’s age. She’s innocent in all this, Camilla, and she would have been defenseless…”

“It’s a battlefield, Little Prince, not a playground,” Xander chided. “I would never engage with someone so far below my own skill, but the Nohrian army is more than just myself and Camilla, and we can’t keep track of every move our soldiers make. If the Hoshidans were too careless to protect their younger sister in a battle like that, then we can’t be blamed for what happened to her.”

“Forgive me, my lords and lady,” Niles said while bowing. “But if I can be frank… why does it matter what happened to the Hoshidan princess? Shouldn’t we be focusing on finding Lord Leo? Although, I must admit, the two disappearing trails of footprints are quite curious.”

“I care about both Sakura and Leo,” Corrin pressed. “And you’re right about the footprints. We can’t just dismiss those like they don’t even mean anything!”

“But how can they mean anything?” Xander posed. “Who would want to abduct both a Prince of Nohr and Princess of Hoshido, and why would they? Besides, the girl might be defenseless, but Leo isn’t, and there were no signs of a struggle.”

“His horse was there, though,” Corrin countered. “Perhaps he was knocked unconscious or something. In any case, we need to halt our plans to attack Hoshido and bring this news to father!”

Xander and Camilla shared a look, but Camilla was the one to speak.

“I know how hard this must be for you, darling,” she granted. “As much as it pains me to admit it, I understand that you would care for your… inferior family. But surely you know that father won’t see it that way.”

“Don’t you think it’s very strange, though?” he asked. “I can’t help but feel like there’s something bigger going on, something that we’re all missing.”

“Enough!” Xander snapped, and Corrin nearly jumped out of his skin. His brother looked immediately contrite, but it took a moment for Corrin’s heart to start beating at a normal pace again. “I’m sorry, I… forgive me, Little Prince,” he then said with a sigh as he rubbed the bridge of his nose.

Xander had never yelled at him like that before, not once, but Corrin knew that his brother was affected by the grief and stress of Leo’s loss more than he was willing to let on.

“It’s okay, Xander,” Corrin told him. “I guess I just shouldn’t have been questioning everything like that.”

But it wasn’t okay, none of this was okay. His mother shouldn’t be dead. He shouldn’t be able to turn into a dragon. Leo and Sakura shouldn’t be missing. His families shouldn’t be fighting each other.

All of this was wrong, but he seemed to be the only one willing to say it.

“Our reinforcements will be arriving soon, and we’ll be marching for the Plains of Hoshido in three days' time,” Xander told him. “If you don’t want to fight against Hoshido… if you choose to remain behind… then we won’t hold it against you.”

Corrin closed his eyes tightly, as if that could help him block out the pain he was feeling, only he wasn’t safely sheltered away from the world’s problems in the Northern Fortress this time. He’d made his choice, and it was time to face it.

“No, I’m going with you,” he said firmly, earning a hug from Camilla that nearly suffocated him.

This had to be the right decision. If he couldn’t stop this war, then it was his responsibility to fight in it and see it to the end. And for now, he could only pray that the gods would be merciful and he wouldn’t lose any more siblings by the time this was all over.

Having accepted that his odds for survival were now down to a very slim percentage, Leo allowed himself to find some crude amusement in his current circumstances. Specifically, he reveled in the enemy general’s dumbfounded look as he watched a ragtag group of soldiers screaming like banshees while they charged straight toward him.

Fortunately, their unsophisticated assault seemed to have the desired decoy effect and Riev’s remnant army swiftly stopped pressing into the castle, rallying to the bishop's side instead.

Unfortunately, the thirteen of them would now be up against the majority of the enemy’s forces.

Come on, Ephraim. Re-form your perimeter and push forward to the bishop, Leo thought. We’ll buy you as much time as we can.

Their small group formed a circle so that their sides would be protected. L’Arachel remained in the center, healing any injured soldiers as quickly as she could, but some of the wounds were instantly fatal and occasionally a man would drop. When that happened, the circle would pull back and tighten up, and soon enough there were only six of them remaining.

“Heh heh heh. The young lady of Rausten,” Riev cackled as he walked closer to their circle, apparently confident now that they no longer posed a threat within the sea of remnants surrounding them. “The more cruel and gruesome your death, the more that cur Mansel would weep, am I right? And that would make me so very, very happy.”

Leo’s teeth clenched at the man’s vile words, but L’Arachel didn’t seem the least bit affected. “Do you think your words will frighten me?” he heard her ask from behind him. “I am the princess L'Arachel! You who have sold your soul to the soulless… I will grant you release from your wretched existence.”

Riev continued to laugh in amusement, watching the scene in front of him with apparent glee. Leo activated Brynhildr, ready to kill the man once and for all, but a lance pierced through his arm, breaking his concentration. He waited to feel L’Arachel’s healing magic soothe the wound, but it never came, so he put Brynhildr away and pulled out his sword with his uninjured arm to defend himself from additional attacks.

“A little help here?” he grunted, turning his head as much as he dared so that he could look at L’Arachel through the corner of his eye. But she was ignoring him, of course, and instead she appeared to be fascinated by a tome that she was holding in her hands.


“Shh!” she merely responded, holding up a hand to silence him. Leo was about to just take the book away from her and throw it straight into the enemy horde when she started to chant something.

Suddenly, even though it was the dead of night, a dazzling light shimmered above them, brighter than anything that Leo had ever seen. The glow was almost blinding, and everyone paused to look up, completely mesmerized. Bright circles began to fall from the sky, as if it were snowing light, and Leo nearly gasped at the beauty of it all. For a moment he wondered if he’d been killed and was being taken into the afterlife, as that seemed to be the only explanation for such a breathtaking sight. But then there was a quick flash, and pillars of light that almost looked like fire flickered down toward the earth with great force, right onto their surrounding enemies.

Leo’s jaw dropped as all of the remnants within a five foot radius of the blast immediately evaporated into dust. Gods, was this truly the power of the Glorious Light, Ivaldi? Leo knew very little about light magic since they had no such tomes of the kind in Nohr, but it was evident that the dark creatures were weak to it.

How many more uses did it have? They were still heavily outnumbered, but with a weapon like that at their disposal they’d at least be able to hold on for a little bit longer…

“Princess L’Arachel! Keep using the tome!” Leo shouted as he continued to fight through his injury. The princess actually listened to him for once, and light continued to rain on their enemies, killing them by the droves.

Until everything finally became dark again.

“Sir Leo! Sir Seth! The tome is no longer working! I believe I’ve used up all of it’s power,” L’Arachel reported.

Leo was about to yell back at her to keep trying when he felt a sword pierce straight through the muscle in one of his thighs.

He fell to his knees.

Everything suddenly seemed to move so slowly around him. He looked to his immediate left and saw a man getting his throat cut. He looked to his immediate right and saw Seth doing his best to fend off a lance-wielding soldier.

There’d be no help coming for him. He was going to die.


But behind his would-be executioner, he noticed that Riev was fleeing. Why?

And it was only then that he saw Ephraim’s forces pushing past the gate. Gods… they were actually going to win this battle after all, weren't they?

Well in that case, fuck dying. He had better things to do, and promises to keep.

With renewed vigor and a smirk to match, Leo reached for Brynhildr. He shouldn't have been able to summon a spell this quickly, especially not as fatigued as he was, but Brynhildr must have sensed his urgency and heeded his call. And just as the remnant took his swing, a tree suddenly appeared from the ground, protecting him from the blow.

But that wasn't his only purpose for summoning it, and the remnant’s rotted blood soon soaked the branches that buried themselves into his gut.

Once his foe fell and the tree disappeared, Leo finally felt his wounds starting to close, and he looked behind him to see L’Arachel raising her mend staff.

“Not to be ungracious, but… what the hell took you so long?” he snapped.

“I must have temporarily mistaken you for one of those foul creatures, Sir Leo. Easy mistake to make, nay?” she reflected, and Leo felt his teeth gnashing. “In any case, I expect you to be most grateful for my assistance.”

He bit back a scream and brandished his sword, waiting for the creature he’d just killed to rise again. But the remnant never did, and Leo realized then that it was because Riev was gone.

Which meant that it was probably also too late to give chase to the bishop, but at least the battle was winding down and it would all be over soon. Leo wasn't one to overlook such blessings, so seldom did life offer them.

And when the last of the remnants had finally been slain, Leo looked again to the Princess of Rausten, slightly in disbelief that they'd actually managed to pull this off.

“I believe you were saying something about a fairy tale?” she asked with a haughty smile on her face. “Perhaps next time you won't be so quick as to doubt my magnificence, hmm?”

He sighed. “Please accept my… apology, Princess L’Arachel,” Leo said, bowing to the princess and only half choking on his words this time. “We surely wouldn’t have won this battle without you.”

He hated having to fan the flames of her ego even further, but it was only the truth, and she deserved her praise for it. Surprisingly, though, she didn’t use that opportunity to boast further about her excellence in the battle field.

“You know, Sir Leo,” she began, and her voice was uncharacteristically soft. “My parents also believed that it was their sacred duty to abolish all the demons in our land, and they were brave fighters - the bravest that I’ve even known. Then one day when I was a young girl, they took me to a small village to buy me a pony that I’d been wanting. However, while we were there, monsters attacked the village and my parents ordered my guard to take me and escape. And that was the last time I ever saw them.”

Leo swallowed hard. “Princess L’Arachel, I’m… sorry. I had no idea. I-”

But she shushed him harshly. “I didn’t share this with you so that you would start babbling nonsense! I shared this with you so that you would know that you are to never, ever order me to retreat again, do you understand? In fact, you are never to order me to do anything, even under… no, especially under Ephraim’s command," she huffed. "I am L'Arachel, the beautiful princess of peerless beauty, and I will be the one to rid the world of these obscenities, just like the five heroes of legend!”

“That's... great, really great, Princess L'Arachel," Leo responded tiredly. Gods, all he wanted to do was to find Sakura and hold her, to feel the peace that came with her presence, and instead he had to humor this whackjob. "Hmm... but don't you think that Prince Ephraim would like to see you now?" Leo then added, sounding hopeful.

"You're most certainly right about that," L'Arachel agreed with a delicate nod. "I will go and find him at once, as I’m sure that my presence and beauty will be needed to soothe his weariness from this battle. But good work today, Sir Leo. I will let Ephraim know that his tactician has served him well, however, I must bid you adieu.”

Thank the gods, Leo thought as she finally took her leave. The longer he was away from Sakura, the more anxious he started to feel, and while L’Arachel was still talking he’d already begun to scan the crowd for her. For a moment he saw a brush of pink hair and his heart started to slam against his chest, but he quickly realized that it was only Neimi, crying about something or other as she was always prone to do.

Damn it, he couldn’t seem to find Sakura anywhere, but then again she was quite petite, and it might help if he walked around the area a bit.

While he searched, Leo made the unfortunate mistake of passing by Eirika and Seth. The princess had her arms wrapped tightly around the general, but even though the man was returning her embrace, he seemed reluctant and stiff.

“Princess Eirika, you mustn't show me such favor,” Seth said stoically, although his voice noticeably wavered. “I am only a mere Knight of Renais.”

“Seth… you know that you are much more than that to me, don't you?”

“Princess Eirika-”

“Please, Seth," she begged hurriedly. "Don’t push me away, even if it’s just this once. You have no idea what it was like for me when you were turned into stone. I know our stations in life, I know that I am to be your queen, but please… just let me have this moment.”

“...All right. But only just this once,” Seth agreed, scrunching his face up tightly as if he were struggling greatly with his decision. He then nuzzled his nose into the hair by her ear and breathed her in deeply. “Eirika…”

“Oh, Seth…”

Leo turned bright red and he hurried passed the pair as quickly as possible, not wanting to witness anything else between them. Based on how they were both acting, though, Leo suspected that it would be more than “just this once” that the two of them found themselves in such a situation.

Yet if anything, seeing them in that embrace only made Leo all the more eager to find Sakura, so that she could soothe the ache that was growing in his own heart.

Instead it just seemed like he was destined to watch everyone else reuniting with their loved ones. He saw Forde giving Franz a playful noogie, and Innes appeared to be lecturing his sister, Tana, on something.

But where was Sakura?

Leo continued to impatiently search the crowd when he overheard a man speaking.

“It's a real shame what happened to that healer, eh?”

Leo froze in his tracks.

“I know, innit? A pretty little thing, she was. Real nice, too. Certainly deserved a better fate than that.”

Leo felt his knees starting to buckle but he somehow managed to stay on his feet. He instinctively clutched at Brynhildr for strength, although there were no more enemies nearby for him to vanquish, and the tome’s magical pulsing did little to calm him.

No, not again, not after what had just happened with Lyon in Mt. Neleras. Not after he’d promised her that he’d protect her. This couldn’t possibly be happening again.

He'd done everything right, hadn’t he? He'd stuck to the plan, and if he stuck to the plan, then she would be safe. That's what he'd told himself when he'd left her. That's how it was supposed to work...

Gods damn it, that's how it was fucking supposed to work!

“Who?” he then asked, even though he wasn’t sure how the word even made it past the large lump in his throat.

The two soldiers just looked at him dumbly, clearly surprised to have been interrupted.

“Who was killed?” he inquired again, this time more forcefully, yet he barely even recognized the strangled sounds coming out of his mouth as his own voice.

“That Grado cleric,” one of the men responded. “Sister Natasha was her name, innit?”

Leo nodded, but it took a few moments for the information to register.

It wasn’t Sakura.

He suddenly felt nauseous. Relief that they weren’t talking about Sakura battled with his sorrow at the news of Sister Natasha’s loss. He hadn’t known the cleric very well, but she was kind and devoted to her work, and Grado was going to need people like her if it was going to rebuild once this war was ultimately over. Furthermore, Ephraim’s army would surely feel the loss of such a talented healer. She was an irreplaceable asset to their cause.

Those men were right, she deserved a better fate.

Still… it wasn’t Sakura. It wasn’t Sakura.

And when he then heard her voice calling his name, he was convinced that it was the sweetest sound that he’d ever heard.

“Sakura,” he breathed, trying to get the sound to carry, but his voice still didn’t seem to be working right. Neither were his legs apparently, because when he finally managed to locate her and saw her running toward him, he couldn't seem to put one leg in front of the other to go and meet her halfway.

Fortunately his lips didn’t seem to be having any issues, and once she was close enough he gathered her into his arms and kissed her soundly. He just needed to be sure that she was real, that she was here, through her taste, through her smell, through her touch. He could tell from her initial resistance that she was surprised by the greeting, but her body soon turned soft and supple in his arms as he pressed her firmly into him.

Gods, she was here, she was really here - and for now, whatever might still happen in their uncertain future, she was his.

“You were hurt?” he asked softly once they finally separated, noticing the blood on her skirt.

“No, Leo, it's not m-mine. Sister Natasha, sh-she…”

“I heard. I'm sorry,” he said gingerly, cutting her off in the hopes that she wouldn’t have to re-live any haunting memories of the battle that had just ended. But her eyes had always been expressive, and as much as he benefited from that when he could see them gleaming with love for him, he also had to bear it when they were filled with such anguish.

“Don’t worry, Sakura,” he then told her, resting his hands on her shoulders as he bent down to kiss her on the forehead. “Hopefully this world, this place will all be nothing but a distant memory soon enough. In a week's time, if Myrrh’s father can help us, we’ll be gone from here and back in our own kingdoms.”

“Hopefully?” she repeated. “I… I s-see.”

But she didn’t see. She had no idea how much the thought of returning to their world and confronting the possibility of losing her weighed on him. Yet, between the Demon King, Iago, the war, and Innes, this world was only getting more and more dangerous for her.

It was that more than anything which constantly reminded him they didn’t belong here, neither of them, and even though he didn’t want to abandon Ephraim in his time of need, they needed to go back. Myrrh’s father simply had to be able to help them, and once he did, then Leo would be prepared for it. Or at least he hoped that he would be, considering that he thought of their potential return often… in fact, he seemed to think of nothing else lately.

In the unlikely event that the war between their families had ended in these three months - Nohr wasn’t built for a long siege, so he supposed that it was possible - then maybe Leo could convince his father that a marriage to Sakura was necessary in order to secure a peace treaty with Hoshido. He knew that his father had no desire for peace, especially if he was seeking the power of the Demon King to destroy their rival kingdom, but if Sakura was right about her brother’s willingness to provide food to Nohr, then even his father would have a difficult time publicly rejecting the idea.

And if the war hadn’t ended, he had two options. He could try to oppose his father, but that would be suicide unless he somehow managed to get his siblings’ unanimous support. Nohrian law was blunt on the subject of traitors, after all, and the sentence was death. It’s not that he was afraid of such a result, although he surely wouldn’t seek it out, but if he died then there’d be no way for him to ensure Sakura’s safety during the war.

Therefore, the better choice would be to toe the line like a good little prince. At least then if the Nohrian army did fight in a battle involving Sakura, he could order that she be spared… captured at worst. And perhaps she wouldn’t forgive him, especially if anything were to happen to her siblings - he wouldn’t realistically be able to save all of the Hoshidan royals - but at least she’d still be alive.

But if she did forgive him, then maybe one day they could…

Leo didn’t even dare to dream that it might even be possible, but he knew that he’d never stop fighting for her, for a future together with her. Yet perhaps the worst part was that he couldn’t even tell her any of this, lest Iago be listening through her and report back to his father. It was bad enough that Iago knew that he loved her, but Leo was sure that he could convince his father that his feelings for Sakura were nothing more than a passing infatuation if he had to. That shouldn’t be all too hard, considering that his father had no notion of love at all.

It was unnerving, though, how Sakura never even brought up their return. Maybe she just realized that he wouldn’t be able to speak openly about his plans. Surely she at least knew by now how much she meant to him?

“Sakura… you know that I love you, right?” he told her then, just in case.

She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. That was to be expected, though, in light of Natasha’s death, and he didn't take it personally, especially not once she nestled her head into his armor and held him tightly.

“I love you too, Leo,” she told him sweetly.

Gods, he would never tire of those words, and whether they returned home or stayed in Magvel, he knew that he couldn’t lose her.

And tomorrow, when Ephraim’s army began their somber march toward the darkness, Leo could only hope that fate would be on his side and he wouldn’t be marching toward his - toward a life without Sakura.

Chapter Text

The air was crisp and cold during the march to the Darkling Woods, but Sakura barely even felt a chill in the warmth of Leo’s arms. The two were currently riding together on his horse, swaying gently in unison as his mare shifted beneath the saddle.

While Leo’s arms pinned Sakura at her sides to hold the reins in front of her, she found herself subconsciously leaning backward to press herself more firmly into his body. As much as she hated the idea of him being hurt in any way, she was glad that his armor was currently being repaired due to the damage it’d sustained in their last battle, and not just because it was more comfortable like this. Rather, the feeling of having him so close was one of her few comforts as they advanced toward their uncertain future.

Life was always a road with branching paths, and now one path led to the Demon King while the other led home to Hoshido and Nohr. Putting it that way she could understand why Leo was so determined to return, but for her, the idea of facing a future without him was infinitely more terrifying than any demon. Besides, the thought of Leo and her family fighting against each other... hurting, and maybe even killing each other… she simply couldn’t bear it. As long as she and Leo were here in Magvel together, that could never happen.

But if she was being completely honest with herself, Sakura had also been hurt by Leo’s apparent apathy about their inevitable separation once they returned home. She didn’t expect any promises from him since she knew he couldn’t offer any, not any more than she could, but still… wouldn’t he miss her at all?

He loved her, of that much she was certain, and that someone like him could love her so fiercely… sometimes she felt like a fraud, and that at any moment he’d realize what she truly was - weak, afraid, and completely unmemorable. Perhaps he already had, and that’s why he wasn’t bothered by the thought of leaving her in Hoshido.

But Leo was also smarter than her, and he’d invariably had one eye on the future, even when they’d first arrived here in Magvel. While she was now tormenting herself with thoughts of a forever that could never be, he’d spotted this issue long ago. Being more prepared than she was, he was likely wise enough to have always seen their relationship as nothing more than it was meant to be - a temporary attachment.

Whatever the cause of his apparent indifference, though, it seemed to have led to his single-minded focus on getting them both back home.

Then again, a part of her wondered if he wasn’t as unfazed by leaving Magvel as he appeared. He’s the one who’d suggested that they ride together on the march to the Darkling Woods after all, citing her exhaustion from the last battle as the reason. She’d insisted that she was fine to walk, that she was used to walking in these marches with little sleep by now, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Then there were the small things that she’d noticed while they rode… how he sometimes shifted the reins of the horse to one hand so that he could brush her hair behind her ear... how he occasionally leaned down to kiss her on crown of her head... and how she could feel his eyes constantly lingering on her and not on the trail in front of him…

She wasn’t ready to lose him, but maybe he wasn’t ready to lose her either.

Saying goodbye to Leo wasn’t the only cause of heaviness in her heart, though. What about the people of Magvel and the friends that she’d made here? Could she truly just leave them to face the Demon King alone? She had no illusions about how little she had to offer Prince Ephraim’s forces, but still, she cared about the people of Magvel and wanted to do everything that she could to help protect them. And with Sister Natasha’s death, the army had already lost a healer…

Sakura shut her eyes tightly at the incoming pain. Sister Natasha had been so bright and kind and full of hope, and although their forces had suffered quite a few casualties already, everyone seemed to be feeling her loss more deeply. The cleric had healed so many, not only in mind but also in spirit, and the absence of her presence was palpable.

But in war, there was no time to grieve - Sakura had learned that lesson after her mother had been killed - and she wondered how much more death she could bear until she broke completely. She’d always known loss, even as a young child, and she just couldn’t stand the thought of any more…

…especially when she might be able to do something to prevent it, whether through her healing or with her bow.

That’s, right, Sakura. You can’t leave yet, a voice told her, and she shuddered.


Well, if there was a reason to go, it was him. Maybe Leo was right, and getting her far away from Magvel so that Iago couldn’t obtain the Demon King’s power was really the best thing for everyone.

Will that thought help you to sleep at night, Sakura? To curb the guilt you should feel at the knowledge that all your friends here died, to convince yourself that you’re not a weak and frightened coward who left them to their fate?

“No!” she cried out. A part of her could hear Leo talking to her, calling her name, but Iago was now using his magic and his horrible words to pull her into the darkness of her mind, and Leo suddenly seemed so far away…

And do you think I’ll truly leave you alone once you return to Hoshido anyway, Sakura? My magic will be much stronger when you’re closer to me, you know. You fear so much that Leo will kill one of your siblings… but wouldn’t it be so much more exciting if I made you do it?

“Please, no,” she moaned.

Besides, Leo won’t be able to do much of anything after King Garon hangs him for treason. He did assist you, an enemy princess, out here after all. He even had the gall to fall in love with you. And he’s been nothing but an impediment to me here while I seek to do my duty for Nohr - even now he’s trying to rouse you, to stop me from doing what needs to be done. Yes, he will hang for his sins. What a fitting end for the boy who was never loved, to die by the hands of his father, don’t you think?

“Leo…” she whimpered. The despair was so great that she almost lost herself in it, but something stopped her. There was still a warmth in the darkness, a warmth that was a part of her that Iago could never take away. Love, and hope… those were the things that he didn’t understand, and that’s what she latched on to.

“Sakura! Please… come back to me,” she heard a desperate voice say to her, and she let herself follow the sound despite the hammering in her head. As she started to become more aware of her surroundings, she could finally feel his arms around her again, although they felt tighter than usual.

“Leo?” she asked tiredly, pressing her head against him. But he pulled at her hair, gently yet firmly, so that her head was tilting upward.

“Open your eyes,” he demanded, but his tone had darkened somewhat, as if he didn’t know what he’d see once she did.

Or who.

She forced herself to obey his command, although it was difficult between the pain in her head and the fatigue she suddenly felt. Yet the second her eyes met his she could see his tangible relief, and she smiled up at him. Perhaps it was the wrong time for a smile, but she loved him so much that sometimes, when she looked at him, she just couldn’t help it.

“Gods,” Leo said as he caressed her hair gently. It was only then that she realized they were no longer on his horse and he was kneeling on the ground, holding her firmly to him as she sat sideways in his lap. He must have veered off from the army’s procession at some point to tend to her. “Sakura, you were struggling for so long, and I wasn’t sure if…”

“It’s okay n-now, Leo,” she told him, putting her hand on his troubled face. “You don’t have to worry. My love will always lead m-me back to you.”

He hugged her even more closely, and she let him, closing her eyes as he breathed her name.

“Iago,” he then said, and she tensed. “What did he want this time?”

Sakura didn’t want to talk about all of that man’s terrible threats, not now. She still wanted to stay in Magvel with Leo, at least until the Demon King was defeated, and she knew that she might be able to convince him based on what Iago said… but what if she was wrong? What if she convinced him to stay, and then he died by the Demon King’s hand? What if Iago managed to succeed and gain the Demon King’s power?

She didn’t know what the right choice was, but she also knew that she’d never try to manipulate Leo’s feelings against him.

“Sakura?” Leo prodded when she remained silent, and his eyes were so rich with concern for her that her own heart started to ache. The boy who was never loved, Iago had called him, but she couldn’t believe that. She didn't know his family, but she couldn’t fathom that it was true, that no one else saw the Leo that she saw. Even his own father must have loved him once, before his own heart had turned cold - she wanted so badly to think that.

And even if Iago was right, it didn’t matter. She’d love him enough to make up for all of it.

“It’s all right, L-Leo,” she told him, partly in answer to his inquiries and partly in response to her own thoughts. “Iago is just getting more d-desperate now, that’s all. But he used up a lot of his magic just then to try and control me, I could feel it. I think he’ll be g-gone for a while.”

Leo didn’t look as certain as her, but eventually he nodded. “Okay, if you’re sure. Then we should probably go and catch up to everyone else, if you’re up for it.”

She nodded back and he stood, pulling her upright and to her feet in the process. Her eyes started to droop, having used up a lot of her energy to ward off Iago’s intrusion, but she was still alert enough to let Leo help her onto the horse. He then hopped up behind her, grabbing the reins in one hand while he held her securely to him with the other, his arm draped diagonally across her torso as he placed his palm on her shoulder.

“Rest, Sakura,” he told her, and she soon felt her eyes closing. “Don’t worry, I’m here. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

She smiled and leaned her head back, twisting her neck slightly to rest more comfortably on his chest. It still amazed her that he could be so terrifying and fierce on the battlefield, but then be so gentle with her. She loved every side of him, but this was a side that he seemed to show only to her, as if she were truly special to him.

And as she drifted off, blanketed by the warmth and safety of his body, she prayed for the millionth time that she wouldn’t have to lose him.

Leo guided his horse back toward the army, careful not to go too fast so as to not wake Sakura, who was sleeping soundly against him. He soon caught up with everyone, though, and went to rejoin the march.

Deftly avoiding Franz so that the young knight wouldn’t have to see him and Sakura in such an intimate position - Sakura wouldn’t have wanted to cause him that kind of pain - he circled around the army from behind. Unfortunately that just led him to pass by Innes, who narrowed his eyes at the pair.

Where did you go?, his expression seemed to ask, but Leo ignored him and rode forward without another glance at the sniper. Innes could go and choke on his suspicions, for all Leo cared.

Spotting Myrrh slightly off to the side, flying away from everyone else as she slowly flapped her wings to keep herself aloft, Leo headed over toward the girl. Myrrh was one of the few in the army who knew of his and Sakura’s true homes because it was her father, Morva, that was meant to return them there. Because of that Leo could always be slightly less guarded around her, which was undeniably refreshing. She seemed slightly down, though, which surprised Leo, as he thought she might be happy to be reunited with father again soon.

“Hello, Myrrh,” Leo greeted in a quiet voice, trying to mindful of the sleeping girl in his arms.

“Hello, Leo,” she answered in return. “Is she all right?” the dragon girl then asked, glancing over at Sakura.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, she’s fine,” he told her. “She’s just tired from the battle yesterday. Even once it was over, she spent much of the night healing the injured, especially in light of…” He trailed off, not wanting to think of Natasha.

Sakura had been so drained from the battle yesterday, both from the hours of non-stop healing and the emotional loss of losing a close comrade, and yet she’d still refused to rest afterward, determined to heal even the most minor of wounds. She was then rewarded for her efforts with barely any sleep before the army began its march, and Leo wasn’t even sure how she’d managed to wake this morning.

Her struggles with Iago earlier must have finally drained her of every last bit of energy that she had left, and even still, she hadn’t succumbed to the sorcerer’s manipulations.

Did she have any idea how truly impressive she was?

Leo couldn’t help but smile fondly down at her at the thought.

“Leo… what’s it like?” Myrrh asked him, breaking him from his thoughts.

“Huh?” he asked, unsure what she was referring to.

“To love someone in that way… and to have them love you back,” she clarified, and Leo felt his cheeks burning.

“Myrrh…” he trailed off uncomfortably.

Myrrh then looked forward to Ephraim, who was engaged in conversation with Princess L’Arachel. Leo followed her gaze, wondering if his friend was on the verge of cutting his own ears off in his desperation to silence the Princess of Rausten. Surprisingly, though, Ephraim was instead smiling at her while she spoke animatedly to him.

“I often see that L’Arachel person with Ephraim,” Myrrh noted. “She speaks to him on quite familiar terms. For some reason it makes my chest feel… funny.”

Leo’s eyebrow arched in surprise. Myrrh had feelings for Ephraim, then? But she was just a girl…

Only, she wasn’t, was she? Even though she appeared that way in her hominid form, she was actually over 1,000 years old. Leo had never really thought about it before, but now that he did, that sounded so… lonely. It didn’t seem like there were all too many other dragons around in this world, either.

What could he say to her, though? He’d never been very good at offering comfort. If only Sakura were awake, then she’d probably know what to do…

“Well,” Leo started, searching for words. “If it makes you feel any better, I'm not really sure what Ephraim sees in her. Truthfully, I think a Gorgon would probably offer him more stimulating conversation, or at least it would have the courtesy of turning him into stone before rambling on and on so intolerably.”

Myrrh’s eyes widened in surprise and then she started to giggle. “Somehow, that does make me feel better,” she told him, seeming quite perplexed by the notion. “It’s a strange thing for you to say, but you were trying to cheer me up, weren’t you? And that means you were worried about me, which makes me happy. Thank you, Leo.”

He smirked. Maybe he wasn’t so bad at this after all.

“Still, you didn’t answer my question earlier,” Myrrh noted. “Why did it make you act so strangely?”

“Myrrh… people just don’t talk about that kind of thing,” he told her awkwardly.

“Oh, really?” she asked. “Why not?”

“Because it’s personal,” he huffed. “And besides, it’s hard to even put into words.”

“Hmm… well, can you try?” Myrrh pried, clearly unwilling to relent. “I’d really like to know, Leo…”

Leo sighed in defeat. Looking down at Sakura and watching her peaceful face as she rested against him, he tried to articulate his feelings. “I guess it feels like… like I was lost for so long, but I didn’t even know it until I met her. And every time I’m with her, there’s this sense of peace that I’ve never felt before, that maybe I’ve never even deserved. It makes me wonder if I wasn’t ever really lost at all, and instead I was just always searching… searching for her… and now that I finally found her, I can be at ease.”

Yet his eyes suddenly darkened and he looked forward. “But there’s also another side of it, too, Myrrh - the conscience in my head, telling me that I’m not worthy of her love, that I've done too many terrible things in my life so fate will soon correct itself and take her from me. And the thought that I can lose her… that if I’m not careful enough, then at any moment, it can all just disappear… that scares me more than anything ever has before.”

“I see,” Myrrh said. “I was wondering if it would hurt less to know that someone loves you back, but it doesn't sound like it does. And is that why you want my father to send you home so badly, then? Because you fear the Demon King, and as long as she is safe you care not if he is defeated?”

Leo didn’t realize that he was digging his fingers into Sakura’s shoulder until she started to stir. He loosened his grip immediately and she settled into a calm sleep once more. “Myrrh, that’s not fair,” he snapped.

“I’ve angered you,” she noted, cocking her head slightly. “Why?”

“I’m no coward, Myrrh. I took an axe in the chest for you, lest you forget,” he said in annoyance. “And I’m aware of my talents, but I’m just one person. So is Sakura, and Ephraim will defeat the Demon King, with or without us. We have our own world to return to, a world where our families are waiting for us and we have responsibilities to tend to.”

“Humans are so strange,” Myrrh noted. “You think that by asking if you’re afraid of the Demon King, I’m calling you a coward? You would be foolish not to fear him. And you are right, Leo, you are only one man,” she agreed. “But Ephraim… he is only one man, too. He commands such power and attention to him that I think it’s sometimes easy to forget that.”

Leo frowned, bothered by her words. He’d always just assumed that Ephraim would be fine. Like Xander, his friend just seemed… untouchable. Yes, there would likely be casualties when they faced the Demon King - perhaps some that could have been avoided with an able tactician, or a talented healer like Sakura - but Ephraim would surely prevail in the end.

Yet he hadn’t been lying when he’d told Ephraim that he thought of him as a brother, and if it had been one of his siblings here who needed his help, would he just leave them to fend for themselves? He had no idea what was going on in Nohr right now, and perhaps his siblings needed him there as well... but by the time Ephraim’s army got to the Darkling Woods, it wouldn’t take too much longer to stay and help him put an end to Lyon.

Was it wrong of him, then, to want to go? He wanted to believe that he was a better person than this. Leo could care less about being a hero - that was a dream for idiots who wanted to get themselves killed - but he so badly wanted to be the man that Sakura thought he was, to prove to himself that he was a man deserving of her.

But all of that weighed against his desire to keep her safe, a desire stronger than any other. If he chose to help Ephraim and fight against the Demon King, after all, then she would too - he knew that she’d refuse to be left behind. And after what had happened at Mt. Neleras, how could he make her face Lyon again and put her at risk like that?

They only had another week before Lyon would get to the Darkling Woods, before the army had to meet him there and stop him from performing the ritual that would awaken the Demon King’s full power. One week until they had to make their decision to stay and fight, or to go.

Leo moved his hand to Sakura's face and stroked her cheek, but unfortunately that had the unintended effect of making her stir again. This time, though, her eyes opened slightly.

“Leo?” she asked, and he could see the traces of both sleep and confusion in her warm, maroon eyes.

He cursed at himself for his stupidity. “It’s all right, Sakura. I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said soothingly. “Go back to sleep.”

“W-wait,” she protested, even though her eyes closed once again. “You seem upset.”

“I’m not,” he lied, not wanting to burden her with his internal struggles when she so clearly needed to rest. “Everything’s okay. Go back to sleep,” he commanded again as he kissed her head.

She remained tense in his arms for a moment until her body finally relaxed. “Okay. I love you,” she said with a sigh before quickly drifting off once again.

He swallowed hard. “I love you, too,” he promised, but she was no longer able to hear him.

Lyon stood before the Black Temple in the Darkling Woods. It was finally time.

This was where he’d perform the ritual and where he’d finally gain the Demon King’s power.

This was where he would save his people.

“Hold,” a voice said to him, and he turned.

“Huh?” Lyon asked as he saw a man in a long, brown robe approaching him.

No. This was no man. He was much more powerful.

Ah yes, Lyon remembered him now, from a life long ago, a life that wasn’t his. This man was a dragon of great power, and he’d helped those other five fools defeat him once.

But not this time. Nothing was going to stop him from doing what he needed to do.

“What are you doing here, human?” the man asked. “You should return to your own kind. This is no place for you to tread. This is darkness’ domain… this is desecrated land.”

“That’s why I’ve come,” Lyon told him. “I have the power of the Demon King. I will save us all.”

Strangely, he felt nothing as those words passed his lips. No sense of happiness, no sense of victory, not even relief. Just… nothing.

As for the man, he paused before he spoke again. “You… evil grips your heart,” he noted, but then shook his head. “No, evil doesn’t just have you in its grip. You’ve given your full heart to it.”

“You’re wrong,” Lyon said calmly, but a part of him wondered if maybe the dragon man wasn’t. Before he could think on it any further, though, a jolt of pain ran through him.

“I… urg… I know what I am doing,” Lyon continued, and his doubts suddenly disappeared as if they’d never even existed. “With this power, I will avert disaster and give my people a better future.”

“What a tragedy. Human flesh cannot contain the demon. It cannot control him and I see the madness eating at you,” the dragon insisted. “The Demon King has blinded you to his true wish. How can you not see it? He’s had you since the moment you first held the Dark Stone. He has been hiding within you, luring you deeper into the shadows of his heart. He commands you and remakes you to suit his dark design.”

“No,” Lyon promised. The Demon King didn’t control him, this was all his own plan to save his people… wasn’t it?

Another jolt.

“I’m not… urg… I’m not mad. No one commands me.”

“You think yourself unchanged? You think yourself the master?” the man inquired. “I see only more evidence that the Demon King commands you now. Can you not sense–“

“It’s not true!” Lyon interrupted. “I… I will save everyone.”

“Think back!” the man instructed. “Remember! Are you truly the man you used to be? Would you justify war and murder to bring about peace and justice? Remember who you were, and tell me if you are still yourself!”

Lyon was suddenly reminded of someone, of a girl who’d pleaded with him about this before.

“Please, P-Prince Lyon! Following this path will only lead to m-more bloodshed … there must be a way for you to be the kind p-person that you were before. I b-believe in you.”

That girl, had she been right? He’d tried to kill her… why? She’d been so kind, so sincere. There’d been something about her, something that had touched a part of him that had long turned cold.

Maybe he should have listened to her, maybe he still could. Ephraim would be here soon after all, Lyon was sure of it. He and his friend could talk about all of this, and then…

Ephraim, hah. It was just like him to want to do nothing and let Ephraim solve all of his problems, wasn’t it? But Lyon wasn’t weak, not anymore. And soon he’d have even more power, the power to save his people. If he had to give his heart to darkness in order to do it, wasn’t it just a small price to pay?

“... All of this matters not,” he finally said. “I know the Demon King has claimed me. It is not important, not if I can save the world. My own soul is irrelevant.”

“It is as I feared. You will not give up this madness,” the man said with a heavy sigh. “I am Morva, the dragonkin who guards the entrance to these woods. I do not have the ability to save you. All I can do is destroy the demon that coils around your heart. To prevent the further damnation of your soul… I can only grant you eternal sleep.”

“I cannot sleep,” Lyon said, suddenly angry despite his outward calm. “I have not yet… there is no taboo I will not break, no sacrifice I will not make.”

“You are beyond reason,” Morva noted. “Therefore I, too, must do what I was born to do. As it was in that ancient battle… you will die here, Demon King.”

But Lyon wouldn’t die, he wasn’t ready yet… not until he performed the rites of resurrection and gained the power to save his people from the earthquake that was meant to destroy them.

Yes, this dragon must therefore be killed for the greater good, as must all of his dragonkin with him. Lyon would see to it, and soon Riev would have some new pets to play with, pets that would distract Ephraim once he got here long enough for Lyon to perform the ritual.

And then, once the ritual was complete, there would be nothing but darkness. But the people needn’t fear it, at least not once Lyon had its power. Darkness would be their salvation, it would be the key to saving them all, they would see.

They would all see soon enough.

“This awful darkness,” Ephraim said as they waited in the Darkling Woods for their scouts to return, and Sakura shivered. It was more overpowering than she could have even imagined, so heavy around her, and it felt like she was suffocating in it.

“I know. I can feel it too,” Eirika stated, equally as apprehensive.

“I read about these woods in my book on Magvelian lore,” Leo chimed in as he dismounted. He seemed slightly less unsettled by the darkness than everyone else, as if he were used to such a feeling, and instinctively Sakura found herself shuffling closer to him.

“According to legend,” Leo continued, “the original possessors of the Sacred Stones defeated the Demon King here in the Darkling Woods. His foul blood seeped into the land, corrupting every seed and every root. The once-pristine forest was then transformed by the flood of disease and venom. Legend says the Demon King’s corpse lies here still, not dead but dreaming… dreaming of when he’ll rise from his bed of rocks and worms to return to the surface.”

Sakura tried not to tremble in fear. What a horrible legend. As if sensing that she was afraid, Leo then put a hand on the back of her neck, rubbing it lightly. “It’s only a stupid story, Sakura,” Leo whispered to her, leaning down to her ear so that no one else could here him. “Don’t put too much stock in it.”

“It’s worse here than it was before,” Myrrh then observed. “This forest has always been a home to me, but the darkness has grown so much stronger since I left. Even standing here is a struggle. But, we don’t need to worry.” she then added. “My father is here, on the other side of the swamp and standing guard at the Black Temple. He’ll take care of everything… oh!”

Myrrh suddenly looked so full of sorrow that Sakura’s heart ached for the girl.

“Myrrh, what is it?” Ephraim asked worriedly, but Myrrh said nothing.

Even though Sakura knew that she wasn’t truly a child, seeing the dragon so upset in her child form twisted at something in her, and despite her fear, she found herself moving away from Leo to hold onto the girl’s hand.

Myrrh looked up at her with eyes sadder than she’d ever seen, but before Sakura could say anything to try and comfort her, Seth came galloping toward them on his horse.

“Princess Eirika, Prince Ephraim, the scouts have reported that a horde of those foul beasts is headed straight for us,” he announced calmly.

But Ephraim had been prepared for this, and his troops were already in position.

“That man Riev will be here, Ephraim,” Leo said. “I'm sure of it. We don't know what tricks he'll have up his sleeve this time… we must be careful.”

“You're right,” Ephraim agreed. “I'll see to it that he's put down. We need to make our way to the temple so that we can stop Lyon.”

“All right,” Leo replied. “It’s a large forest. You take some forces around to the other side of the swamp and find him. I'll stay here with the rest and intercept the horde.”

“Be careful,” Ephraim commanded, and the concern was potent in his serious, blue eyes.

“As if I’d let myself fall to these monsters,” Leo said with a snort, although Sakura could see him flushing slightly at the prince’s concern. “But… you be careful too, Ephraim.”

Sakura smiled at the exchange, but it was her last moment of peace before the reality of the battle started to sink in. Once Ephraim left with a portion of the army, it wasn’t long before the monsters were upon them.

Leo and Forde waylaid the creatures with the vanguard, and Sakura stayed behind with the mages and Neimi to provide secondary support with her bow and to heal as needed. The battle seemed to be going well, and they were making relatively quick work of defeating their enemies, but the sound of heavy footsteps soon drew her attention.

Turning, she saw a dragon approaching them, and at first she thought it might be Myrrh… but no, Myrrh had gone with Ephraim. There was something off about this dragon, too, as if it looked… sick.

With dread, she instantly realized the it wasn’t sick. That look of decay… just like those soldiers they’d fought at Rausten, just like Emperor Vigarde and Sir Orson’s wife… this dragon had been brought back from the dead.

The creature roared as it approached, and Sakura suddenly found herself terrified. Dragons… they were something that she’d always revered, the ones she thought of as gods. How were they ever going to defeat it? “L-look out!” she called, though by now everyone else had also taken notice of the hostile beast.

Franz bravely rode up to the dragon and tried to spear through it with his lance, but the lance just broke upon impact with the creature’s rough skin. In response to the attack, the dragon then stomped its feet angrily and blew a spew of purple air at the knight, air that somehow looked… rotten.

The dragon’s breath soon engulfed Franz, and his horse reared in terror. Clearly affected by the air as it touched his skin and invaded his lungs, Franz couldn’t hold onto the horse and quickly fell off of it, but it wouldn’t have mattered even if he hadn’t because the horse soon fell dead by his side. Franz for his part started coughing and wheezing, looking as if he were unable to breathe because of the now-dissipating mist.

“No! F-Franz!” Sakura yelled, instinctively running for him.

“Franz!” Forde cried at the same time Leo yelled, “Sakura, stop!” But the two of them were preoccupied fighting a pack of other monsters and were therefore unable to assist, so she kept running.

Soon she was close enough to Franz to try and heal him, but the dragon focused its attention on her and roared again. Terror-stricken, she pulled out her bow and nocked an arrow, aiming for the beast’s head as she fired it.

Her arrow connected and seemed to do some damage, but not nearly enough. Now the creature mostly seemed annoyed, and it looked like it was ready to release more of its breath at any moment.

“Hey! Ugly! Over here!” someone shouted, and an arrow soon pierced the dragon at the side of its neck, distracting it.

Neimi, Sakura realized, grateful for the help, but afraid for her friend. Franz needed her more now, though, so she re-focused her attention on the knight, who was still coughing. Yet that didn’t concern her as much as his face, which was now turning a horrible shade of purple.

"Sakura," the boy gargled desperately through his coughs, but she shushed him.

“Don’t w-worry, it will all be okay. Just h-hang on, please!” she begged.

Despite being in the midst of the danger she brought out her Sun Festal, intent on healing Franz. Her heart froze as the dragon started snapping at Neimi, but Colm soon ran in with a Wrymslayer in hand, plunging it into the dragon’s side.

The dragon screamed, but Sakura tried to ignore the horrible sounds as she raised her Sun Festal in the air. Focusing on Franz, on how much she cared for him and wanted to heal him, her staff soon emanated a bright light. Within an instant, Franz's face then turned back to its normal coloring and his coughing had finally stopped.

He would be okay, thank the gods.

“Franz! G-get out of here!” she yelled, knowing that the attack had been severe and that he’d still be slightly weak from that dragon’s wretched air. She then latched her rod back onto her dress and grabbed her bow again.

Neimi and Colm were still doing their best to take down the creature, but it was so strong. Sakura added to their assault with her own bow, but that only drew the dragon's attention back to her. Before she could even react, the beast turned and its tail whipped at her, and the force of the blow sent her flying through the air. She crashed harshly into a nearby tree, and even though her back took most of the impact, her head still snapped against the firm bark behind her. Almost losing consciousness, she then slid down the wood until she landed roughly on her bottom, and she was certain that she'd broken a few ribs from where the dragon's tail had made contact.

“Sakura!” she heard Leo cry out, and she flinched at the anguish she heard in his voice. He must have finished off his enemies by now, though, because he was galloping toward her.

When he finally reached her he hopped off of his horse. “Sakura… gods,” he choked as he knelt down next to her.

“I’ll b-be… okay,” she told him weakly, doing her best to smile through the pain. She was pretty sure that that was true… some broken ribs, a concussion, some bad bruising, and maybe some internal bleeding… she needed healing sooner rather than later, but she would live.

Her friends, on the other hand… “Leo, p-please,” she implored him, watching as Forde tried to drag a weakened Franz away from the danger while Neimi and Colm continued to fight the dragon. “H-help them…”

“No,” he said, shaking his head frantically as he brushed some blood away from her face with his hand. “I need to get you to a healer. You-”

“L-Leo,” she said calmly, putting her hand over his as it rested against her cheek. “I’ll be f-fine. Please, help them… f-for me?”

He gave her a heartbreaking look, and she almost relented. It was an underhanded tactic - he’d told her as much before, even if he’d been partially joking then.

But he’d also said that he’d do anything for her, and she knew that he’d meant it.

Leo stood and nodded, and she could already see the purple magic starting to swirl around him. “Be c-careful!” she pleaded, but instead of offering her promises or sweet words, he said nothing.

It had been a long time since he’d acted so coldly toward her, but now that she knew him better, she was sure that it was only because he feared for her.

He got back onto his horse, but his back was to her when he said, “If you die here, Sakura… I’ll never forgive you.”

She couldn’t help but smile despite the pain she was in and his frostiness, as his words reminded her of their first day together in Magvel.

“I w-won’t die, Leo,” she promised. Without another word or any kind of acknowledgement, he then rode off, and all she could do was pray for the safety of Leo and her friends.

Leo was livid. Not only had Sakura been reckless enough to charge a dragon, but she’d also just begged him to leave her alone and injured in a forest full of fucking monsters.

He was determined to make quick work of the dragon so that he could get back to her, changing its status from undead to definitively dead.

Sakura hadn’t been thrown all that far from the dragon, so he reached the battle in mere seconds. Forde had taken Sakura’s position after he’d pulled Franz to safety, but the dragon seemed to realize that Neimi and Colm were doing most of the damage with their Silver Bow and Wrymslayer, respectively, and they were bearing the brunt of its attacks.

The creature breathed its decaying air in Colm’s direction, and Neimi started crying. Still, the boy was fast, and he managed to escape after only a small amount of exposure.

It was enough to take the boy out of the battle, but not enough to kill him.

Before the dragon could follow up with an attack on Neimi, though, a large stone came flying at its face and smashed into its head.

The dragon looked at Leo enraged, and his horse was starting to get antsy, yet he simply waited in front of it calmly and closed his eyes. Sakura was screaming his name now, but he tuned her out - he tuned everything out. Focusing only on the tome at his side and the earth below him, he called out to Brynhildr.

Give me the power to protect them, he commanded, conjuring Sakura’s bloodied face in his mind.

Leo felt the tome’s power surge through him and he smirked. Yes, the dragon was already severely weakened. He would destroy it.

Plucking a purple light from Brynhildr, he lifted his hand up and let the light continue to glow. Suddenly, a surge of vines and tree branches shot up, grabbing at the dragon to restrain it.

The dragon resisted, and Leo struggled. He only had one chance - he wouldn't fail.

He squeezed the light and brought his hand down, and the vines started to pull the struggling creature beneath the ground. The beast continued to fight against its fate, though, and Leo felt himself weakening from the effort. He grit his teeth and tried to focus, but just as he felt his power begin to deplete completely, he imagined Sakura's face again - this time smiling and happy, the face that he loved, the face that calmed him - and he could feel his resolve returning.

With one last downward motion there was a powerful surge of magic, and soon, the dragon was sucked into the ground below it, its cries instantly silenced by the earth as it swallowed the beast completely.

Then everything was completely calm, the soil seeming undisturbed with no sign that the large creature had even existed.

The purple magic around him disappeared, and he suddenly felt exhausted. Everyone around him was gaping at what they’d just seen, perhaps even slightly afraid of him now, but Leo didn’t have time to care. Turning his horse around, he cantered back over to Sakura.

“Leo…” Sakura whispered before he’d even dismounted. He promised himself that he wouldn’t let it bother him if she looked at him in fear, too, as long as he could get her to safety, but there was no apprehension in her eyes. No, instead she was looking at him as if he was her hero, as if he’d single-handedly slayed a dragon for her.

Well, he supposed that that was somewhat true, but only because Colm and Neimi had done significant damage to the beast first.

“Are you h-hurt?” she asked worriedly, reaching for his face as he squatted down next to her.

“Oh no, you don’t get to ask me that,” he told her angrily, “not when you’re lying here like this.” Besides, he was fine - of course he was fine - had she expected any other result? “We need to find a healer for you.”

“But, C-Colm-”

“-will live,” Leo snarled with annoyance, effectively silencing her. He’d had enough of this. He was taking her to be healed, and that was the end of it.

Seeming to finally note his mood and looking over at Colm to see that he really was fine, or at least well enough, she nodded.

He picked her up and she gasped from the pain, causing him to flinch. “Sakura… Moulder and L’Arachel went with Ephraim earlier, and I think they’re both on the other side of the swamp by the temple. I need you to ride behind me on my horse and hold on tightly so I can get you there. It’s going to hurt, but I need for you to bear it. Do you understand?”

She nodded. He kissed her softly on the forehead and helped her onto his horse while she whimpered softly. She was trying to be brave for him, he knew, but she had broken ribs. Riding a horse was probably one of the worst things someone could do with broken ribs, one of the most painful - especially at the pace that they needed to ride.

He mounted in front of her and waited for her to hold on. Then gritting his teeth, he began to gallop, doing his best to ignore her pain-filled screams that soon followed.

Leo took Sakura to Father Moulder, who happened to be the closest healer to them on the battlefield. Fortunately they hadn’t encountered many monsters during the ride, since Ephraim’s forces seemed to have dispatched most of them as they’d advanced. They did pass by two more dragon carcasses, though, and Sakura wondered just how many of these undead dragons there had been. Many of the soldiers that had gone with Ephraim had Magvel’s sacred twin weapons with them and they’d likely had an easier time defeating the beasts, so there was really no telling how many they'd killed. She also saw the corpse of that bishop, Riev, but she couldn’t find it in her to be sad that such a horrible man was dead.

Sakura was grateful once the horse came to a stop, but by that time, tears of pain were streaming down her face. “I’m s-sorry, Leo, I t-tried not to,” she said through the tears as she saw his face. He looked even paler than she was, if that was possible.

She’d wanted to save him from having to hear or see her in pain, but it had taken all of her strength and focus just to hold onto him during the ride.

“Don’t apologize,” he barked gruffly, helping her down from the horse and into his arms. “Father Moulder!” he then shouted as he carried her to the man.

“Gods,” the priest said with a start as he saw her. She must look quite a fright by now.

The priest ran toward them, but a flying monster - something that looked like a gargoyle, yet even larger - came flying toward the man to intercept him.

Before Sakura could even cry out to warn the priest, she was surrounded by purple. A large rock promptly connected with the creature, causing it to tumble to the ground. A tree then grew right where the gargoyle was lying, impaling and killing it instantly.

“Now,” Leo seethed at the dead creature, “is really not the time!”

Fortunately no other monsters sought to test his patience any further. Father Moulder then tended to her, healing her completely even though it took some time and several efforts, as his magic wasn't very strong and her injuries had been severe.

“Th-thank you, Father Moulder,” she told him. The man nodded, but quickly left to tend to others’ needs.

Sakura expected that Leo would put her down now, but he didn’t. Instead he leaned his forehead down to hers and sighed tiredly. “Don’t ever do that to me again,” he ordered, and she smiled.

Bringing her mouth to his, she captured his lips in a sweet kiss. "If you think," he said between kisses, "that I'd fail… to notice… your distraction tactics… then you'd be wrong."

She nearly giggled, but before she could offer any kind of retort, a thunderous roaring sound made them turn their heads.

"L-Leo," Sakura gasped as she saw another dragon, one of those undead ones, only it was twice the size of the one they'd just fought. It was guarding the temple entrance, and Ephraim, Eirika, and Seth were currently facing off against it, the former two armed with their sacred twin weapons while Seth had a Silver Lance. Princess L'Arachel was also nearby, doing her best to heal the threesome as they took on injuries. Meanwhile, Gerik and Innes were shooting at the dragon with their bows from afar, Innes with the sacred twin bow, Nidhogg.

“Gods,” Leo said, finally lowering Sakura’s feet to the ground so she could stand.

“Leo… I d-don’t want you to go this time,” Sakura said as she held onto his hand tightly. The thought of him facing that creature…

“I can’t say I’m very fond of the idea, either,” he told her, smiling down at her sadly as he squeezed her hand. “But Ephraim…”

All week she’d been struggling with her thoughts, not wanting to abandon the people of Magvel in their fight, but now that she was so blatantly confronted with the possibility of losing Leo…

Sakura was about to protest, to beg him not to go, but he silenced her with a kiss. “Don’t worry, Sakura. Naturally, for you and for everyone else's sake, I can’t afford to die just yet.”

He then hopped onto his horse, and just as she was sure that he was about to ride away from her, perhaps forever, he held out his hand. "Well... what are you waiting for?"

She stood there in a shock for a moment before she smiled. Running to him, she used his help to get up onto the horse behind him.

Yes, that's right… they could face anything, as long as they were together.

Clutching onto him tightly, she rested her head on his back. “Leo… whatever h-happens…”

“I know,” he said. “Me too. And before you decide to do anything rash again, let me just remind you how much it would pain me if… if I lost you.”

“I p-promise that I won’t do anything rash,” she assured him.

And with that, they galloped off into danger once again.

They were too late.

Leo rode as fast as he could, weaving through the trees at a pace that wasn’t necessarily safe, but the dragon had already knocked Ephraim down. Seth and Eirika were desperately trying to attack it to distract it from harming him any further, but the creature ignored them.

L’Arachel started riding toward Ephraim to help him, but he screamed at her to get back.

“But, Ephraim-”

“I said, get back!” Ephraim yelled again as he tried to get up, in a voice that demanded even she obey him.

Leo activated Brynhildr, but they were still too far away for him to use it on the beast. All that he and Sakura could do was watch on in horror as the dragon blew its decaying breath onto Ephraim, and Leo knew that this dragon must be more powerful than the one they'd faced earlier because the prince looked to be in much worse shape than Franz.

Ephraim turned purple as the breath overwhelmed him, just like Franz had, but unlike Franz, the veins on Ephraim’s neck and face became varicose, suddenly visible as if his blood was straining to even travel inside of his body.

The Prince of Renais then started seizing.

“No!” Sakura shouted, clutching tightly at Leo.

“Don’t look, Sakura,” he ordered, his own voice thick as he watched his friend’s suffering. They were almost there now, but Leo feared they would be too late for Ephraim, and too little to help stop the dragon.

But then, in that moment, two things happened.

The first was a bright green light, flashing across the battlefield.

Latona, Leo thought as his body suddenly felt refreshed. The staff surely couldn't have very many uses left before its power waned completely, thereby leaving it as nothing but a useless relic, but L’Arachel couldn’t have picked a better time to use it… especially for Ephraim’s sake.

The second was a large, green dragon appearing and launching itself onto to the undead dragon guarding the temple.

“That’s M-Myrrh!” Sakura shouted, and they both dismounted while Myrrh bit down onto the other dragon’s neck.

As if he hadn't just been on the brink of death mere moments earlier, Ephraim stood up. “Give it everything you’ve got!” he shouted. “And be careful not to hit Myrrh!”

Everyone used their weapons to attack the creature at once, and soon enough the enemy dragon was overpowered and howled in defeat, falling to the ground with a loud thud.

Returning to her human form, Myrrh simply stood and looked at the dragon with large eyes. A cheer erupted from the army, but she remained silent and staring.

It didn’t take long for Leo to put all of the pieces together in his head.

Oh Gods, that dragon they'd just killed must have been…

“You… you fool!” L’Arachel was shouting at Ephraim, looking enraged. “You reckless man! This is all just part of your plan to get me to fall in… to get me to worry over you like this to the point that I can’t even think clearly, isn’t it?”

Ephraim smiled at her. “L’Arachel-”

“Hmph! It’s just like you to be so calm at a time like this,” she continued to rant.

“But if you'd let me just-”

“Ah! I'm so frustrated!” she interrupted again, and Leo had never seen her so out of sorts before. “That you could even do this to me, it's not… Ephraim, I hope that someday some girl comes along and gets you all rattled, too!”

And with that she walked away in a huff, but judging by the befuddled and amused look on Ephraim’s face, it seemed that L’Arachel had already gotten her wish.

“Well, hopefully she comes back soon,” Ephraim said, but then he cleared his throat. “I mean to say, of course, that we shouldn’t waste any more time before we enter the Black Temple. We’ll need to wait until the rest of our forces arrive from across the forest, but still, I want us to be prepared.”

“I know, Ephraim, but where is Myrrh?” Eirika asked.

“What? She was just here…”

“I saw her flying off into the woods, Ephraim," Leo said thickly. The dragon girl had made a stealthy exit during L'Arachel's outburst, likely to mourn the death of her father.

Leo suddenly felt light-headed. Morva was their best chance - their only chance - at getting home… 

“Let’s g-go find her then,” Sakura said worriedly. “She shouldn’t be out there by herself.”

Leo nodded, even though he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Sakura had been depending on him to get her home and he’d failed her, along with his family.

And Myrrh… with the death of her father and all of those dragons that had been turned into monsters… was she the only one of her kind left now?

He followed in a daze as Sakura, Eirika, and Ephraim trudged through the forest to search for Myrrh. Sakura seemed to notice his withdrawn behavior as they walked and he knew that she was concerned, but he shied away from her comfort this time.

"Here you are, Myrrh," Leo heard Ephraim say after they'd been searching for some time. Only then did he pull himself away from his own self-pity, knowing that Myrrh was suffering more right now. "We were worried about you. Wait… are you crying?"

But once Leo saw her, saw how completely devastated she looked, he knew for a fact that his suspicions had been correct. The tears streaming down her face with abandon were a clear sign of her heartbreak.

"N-no… It's nothing," Myrrh insisted. "The poison in these woods is thick. It burns my eyes…"

The lie was easy to see through, though, and that was enough for Ephraim to finally put all of the pieces together.

"What a minute," he started, "that dragon… could he have been–?"

"It's f-fine," Myrrh promised through her sobs. Eirika and Sakura then gasped as they finally began to understand. "After everything you all have suffered, this is... I can't… this is nothing. And I almost let you die back there, Ephraim, because I didn't want to fight him. I… I'm so sorry."

"Myrrh," Eirika whispered, her normally bright eyes now clouded with grief. "Please don't apologize…"

"Eirika's right," Ephraim asserted. "We're the ones who are sorry. You kept silent about your father so as not to trouble us, didn't you? But you've been suffering this whole time…"

“Everything’s fine, Ephraim,” Myrrh told him. “I’m fine. See? I’m ready to… to…”

"Myrrh. Let yourself cry," Ephraim commanded, but his voice was soft and soothing. "These are dark times. There's no reason to hide your sorrow."

With that she finally stopped trying to hold back and began to sob in earnest. Ephraim and Eirika were on either side of the girl, offering comforting touches and words. The two Renais royals were the closest thing to a family that Myrrh had left now.

Just like Sakura was the closest thing that Leo had left. Now more than ever, he couldn’t lose her.

"We should leave them," Leo whispered to Sakura, mindful of the scene in front of him and wanting to speak to her in private.

Sakura looked up at him with pain-filled eyes, and he knew that she wished she could do something to help the dragon girl, but they weren’t the ones that Myrrh needed right now. So, she simply nodded, and the two of them started walking back toward the temple.

"Sakura…" Leo began after a few moments, once he was sure that they were out of hearing distance. "I'm sorry."

“You’re s-sorry?” she asked, seeming confused.

But he knew the second that the realization hit her, that now they were stranded in Magvel without any hope to leave, as she abruptly gasped.

He reached for her.

“Don’t!” she screamed, surprising him.


But she didn’t even wait for him to finish before she turned around and started to run.

“Sakura!” he shouted in concern and shock, and soon he began to follow after her. His armor was slowing him down, though, and he wouldn’t be able to catch up to her like this. “Sakura, stop, please!” he called out. “These woods are dangerous, and there might be more monsters here!”

Thankfully she listened to him and finally halted, but by the time he caught up to her, she was sobbing in earnest.

He reached for her again, but she flinched away from him. So instead he just knelt before her, bowing his head.

“Sakura, please, don’t cry,” he begged. “I promise you that I’ll find a way for us to get home. If my father figured out a way to get us here, then I can figure out a way to get back. I swear it!”

It was a long time before she spoke. "That's n-not why I'm crying, Leo," she told him, and he looked up at her with eyes full of confusion. "I'm heartbroken for Myrrh and all that she's lost, I'm sad because I miss my family, and I'm upset because I know h-how important all of this was to you. But I'm crying b-because… because I'm also relieved."

“You’re… relieved?” he asked, as confounded as ever.

“Y-yes. Myrrh’s father d-died, and I’m relieved. Our families are probably devastated and th-think that we’re dead by now, and I’m relieved. I don’t know if or when we’ll even be able to s-see them again, and I’m relieved,” she said. “And all because it means that I get to stay h-here for at least a little bit longer with you. I’m a t-terrible person, Leo…”

Standing up, he grabbed her and pulled her close to him, and thankfully this time she didn’t resist.

"I'm sorry that I'm being s-so selfish. You m-must be disgusted," she said through her sniffles. "But it just seems too s-soon to lose you."

“Sakura…” Leo breathed. She was clearly tormented by her feelings, by her desire not to part with him given the current circumstances, but did she really expect him to hold that against her? Besides, could it really be so wrong for her to want to hold onto someone so precious to her?

And for him to be that person… was it really possible that she loved him this much?

"You're not a terrible person because you feel conflicted about something," he promised, bringing his hand to her face so that he could lightly stroke her cheek.

“But you d-don’t feel conflicted, Leo,” Sakura noted. “You don’t… you don’t even c-care that we’ll have to say goodbye once we leave Magvel.”

“Is that what you think?” he asked with a start. “Is that why you didn’t tell me earlier that you weren’t ready to go home yet?”

She nodded.

He stared at her for a long moment until he chuckled. “Silly, aren’t you?” he scoffed.

“L-Leo?” she asked, taken aback by his reaction.

“Of course I’ve been conflicted, Sakura. I love you, damn it!” he growled, almost angry that she would even doubt him after everything they’d been through together. “But it keeps getting more and more dangerous here, and if I have to make a choice between losing you because our families are keeping us apart, or losing you in battle against the Demon King… then that’s not even a choice for me at all!”

“You’re r-right, it’s not safe for us here,” she agreed quietly. “But if our families are really at w-war, then it might not be safe for us at home either. At least this way we can fight t-together and not as enemies.”

Well, she certainly had a point there.

“And besides, Iago told me…” she continued, but then trailed off quickly.

“What?” Leo asked, narrowing his eyes at the thought of the sorcerer.

“He s-said that he’d have your father hang you for treason once you got back to Nohr,” she whispered. “What if he’s s-serious? I’m so afraid for you, Leo.”

Leo shrugged without concern. “It wouldn’t be the first time that Iago tried to kill me,” he told her, recalling Brynhildr’s memory of a Iago-possessed Sakura while he’d been in his coma.

Not that he was about to tell her of that little incident.

“But there's no way my father would allow it,” he continued. “My father may be many things, and I know what he’s done to you and your family, Sakura… but he’d never actively harm me like that.”

"Leo…" Sakura trailed off, suddenly looking guilty.

“What? What’s wrong?” 

"There's something that I've been k-keeping from you," she confessed. "It's something that I should have told you s-sooner, but I just didn't know how to because… because I didn't want to hurt you."

He said nothing and merely watched her with interest, so she continued. "When we fell into that portal, and Iago f-found me… he was surprised. He didn't know that I'd be there, and he'd been looking for you, Leo. He w-wanted to possess you, not me. I don't know if your father was involved, but if he was, then-"

Leo abruptly started laughing, and Sakura immediately silenced, looking a distraught.

“Ah, of course it was supposed to be me,” he said obviously once his spiteful laughter ceased. It was all finally starting to make sense now. And gods, once again, he’d been nothing but a fool. A stupid, stupid, fool.

“You know, I never did understand how you became involved in this, Sakura. I’d thought that my father had simply underestimated you in thinking that you’d fall so easily to Iago… but that’s not like him at all, to make such a gross miscalculation. Now, a callous person like me on the other hand, I’d be much more easily led into doing Iago’s dark biddings. And as the fourth in line to inherit the throne, who would even care if I died in the process, right?”

A soft hand on his cheek suddenly broke him out of his despairing thoughts. “I c-care,” she promised, and once again he felt her dragging him out of the darkness.

But his resentful thoughts had been the only thing protecting him from the pain of it all, and he suddenly felt tears starting to blur his eyes.

“Why, Sakura?” he then asked. “Why, even knowing what kind of man my father is, do I still wish to believe that he-”

That he loves me. He wasn’t able to finish his sentence, he wasn’t able to say it, but she seemed to know what he meant anyway.

“Because despite everything, you s-still love him, Leo,” she told him. “Whoever he is, and whatever he’s d-done… he’s still your father.”

“Ah, right. Lucky me,” he said, somewhat bitterly. Although, honestly, it just made him all the more grateful for Sakura. To be loved by her after bearing the heartlessness of his father… it was like finding an oasis in a desert.

But perhaps it was finally time for him to open his eyes to who his father really was… to stop denying the truths that he'd never wanted to face…

“So, now what?” he then asked with a forced smirk, wanting to put his somber thoughts of his father far behind him. “I suppose that we should head back to the others soon. Now that we can't go home and the decision has been made for us, it’s about time we went and stopped the Demon King, no?”

She suddenly seemed hesitant, as if she were worried about him. “Leo, we don’t h-have to. If you think it’s b-best that we leave, then… wherever you go, I’ll go too.”

Gods, he was half-tempted to just take her across the damn continent, as far away from the Demon King as they could get. But he knew now that couldn't abandon Ephraim, and he couldn't make her bear the guilt of leaving of leaving the friends she'd made behind either.

"Let's fight then, Sakura," he told her. "We can do this together. And not just to vanquish this demon for the people of Magvel, or to foil the plans of my father, but let's fight for the one thing we never had together… time."

He kissed her then and she eagerly responded, but it wasn’t a kiss full of fear and goodbyes. Instead, it was a kiss full of hope and promises.

Because once this battle was over, they could finally start dreaming of a life together, of a forever that had once seemed so far out of reach.

Of a future here in Magvel, with Sakura by his side.

And if that wasn’t something worth fighting for, worth risking everything for… well, then Leo didn’t know what was.

Chapter Text

Boldly they rode and well;
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell

“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Leo waited restlessly near the entrance to the Black Temple, listening to Brynhildr’s gentle thrum as he leafed idly through the pages of the ancient tome. Its soft but noticeable whirring had a calming effect on him, soothing his apprehension almost like a lullaby. Somewhat wistfully, he realized then that the sound was actually the closest things to a lullaby that he’d ever known. His mother had certainly never bothered to sing him one when he was a child, and had he ever expressed the need for such comforts, the tongue-lashings that he’d received from her instead were often a poor substitute. King Garon had no need for a weak son, she frequently liked to remind him… especially not when he had such an abundance of children born from concubines.

His mother had been dead - killed - prior to him acquiring Brynhildr, and even though he couldn’t recall being the recipient of any of her tender feelings while she was alive, he’d always remembered her warnings. If he was to succeed, to survive, he needed to find a way to gain the king’s favor. With that in mind, Brynhildr had come to Leo’s rescue long before he’d even had to use it to vanquish an enemy.

It had all started when he’d decided to devote himself to magic instead of the sword. He could still vividly remember the moment when he’d made that decision, as Xander had handed him a particularly embarrassing defeat that day while they’d been practicing together. He’d known then that he could never escape his brother’s shadow if he continued to focus on swordsmanship, and yet magic… with magic, he could finally make a name for himself and prove his worth to his father.

The practice of magic seemed to suit him more, as it was. Reading and memorizing spells and tomes challenged his intellect in a way that he’d always enjoyed more than the physicality of swordplay. But if he was going to stand out, he knew that he’d need the greatest magic in Nohr at his disposal - the divine tome Brynhildr, of course. Normally a divine weapon could just be passed down from its wielder to a descendant, but the catch was that the weapon also had to find the new owner worthy for the transition to be a success. It had been two full generations since Brynhildr had allowed itself to be used by anyone in the royal family - many had certainly tried to claim its power over the years, but it had rejected them all - and his father had locked the tome away in his study for the time being, currently using it as nothing more than a glorified paperweight.

After devising an elaborate plan to get into his father’s study while King Garon was attending to other business in the castle, it hadn’t taken Leo long to locate the tome. He’d picked it up with shaking hands, expecting something amazing to happen, a surge of awesome power and might…

… only, nothing did.

“What are you doing, boy?” he’d suddenly heard his father growl, and as Leo turned to see King Garon in the doorway, he could scarcely remember a time when he’d been more terrified for his own life.

It was only then that he felt something - a tug, a calling even - and soon purple wisps of magic were swirling around him.

His father had looked at him with no small amount of surprise, and after what had felt like an excruciatingly long time to Leo, he’d nodded in approval. “It looks like Brynhildr has chosen you, son,” King Garon had said, and Leo had to fight against the tears that were threatening to gather in his eyes. It had been the first time his father had acknowledged Leo as his son… well, the first time in the years since his demeanor had changed so drastically, at least.

The weight of the word surely wasn’t lost on Leo.

“Once you learn to wield that tome, you’ll be able to command great power,” his father had continued. ”There are times that I’ll need to call on that power. I trust that you won’t disappoint me when I do?”

“Never, father,” Leo had promised, a promise that he’d often ended up keeping at the expense of his own conscience, perhaps even his soul.

A promise that he was breaking now as he sought to destroy the Demon King, thereby ruining all of his father’s carefully laid plans for Magvel.

And Leo would do it, too. With Brynhildr by his side he’d always believed that he could conquer any foe, and that wasn't about to change anytime soon.

Yes, the Demon King would die this day - he had to, because everything hinged on that now. His and Sakura’s lives, their futures, and their fates were presently tied to those of the people of Magvel - and perhaps to Prince Ephraim over any other.

Ah, Ephraim. When Leo and Sakura had told the prince that they’d be standing by him for the fight, his friend had been grateful for their help, but he’d also regretted the circumstances that had stranded them here. Still, Ephraim had offered Leo a permanent position in Castle Renais as his advisor once the war was over, and assuming that they managed to survive this battle, Leo saw no reason not to accept.

After all, Ephraim was one of the few people that Leo had allowed himself to get attached to during his time here. The thought of staying close to his friend, the man who was now like a brother to him, was certainly a comfort. Besides, it's not as if he and Sakura had any other plans for their lives in Magvel. Living in Castle Renais they would want for nothing, and Sakura could serve the court as a healer if she so wished. Beyond that, Leo would also have access to the castle’s library, where he could begin to research another way for them to return to their homelands one day.

Yes, one day… it might be nothing more than a fantasy to believe that they’d still have the chance to go home, a delusion even, but Leo still clung to the notion. Now that he was finally starting to open his eyes to the man that his father truly was, it seemed more important than ever that he not abandon his siblings and his people to the whims of such a king.

And perhaps by the time they returned, he and Sakura would even be married. That seemed like the most logical course of action for them to take, at least, as it would be much harder for their families to keep them apart if they were wed.

Right, because that’s the only reason the idea crossed your mind, an inner voice protested, one which he quickly squashed.

Regardless of his feelings about Sakura and Nohr, going home was a problem to worry about months, maybe years down the line - if it was even possible at all. Yet for now, all he wanted was to be with Sakura, to just enjoy spending time with her without the looming fear of separation or even death hanging over them at every moment.

Surely that wasn’t too much to ask?

“Leo,” a voice then greeted, and he turned to see Ephraim walking up beside him.

“Ephraim,” Leo returned readily. “Is everyone properly equipped?”

“Yes,” Ephraim said. “Since we’ll be fighting indoors and limited by space constraints, we’ll only be taking our best fighters and healers. Especially coming right off of the battle in these woods, it didn’t take too much time to make the necessary preparations.”

“Good. Then it won’t be much longer now until we advance,” Leo noted. “But Ephraim… what about you? Are you ready to face Lyon?”

“As ready as I'll ever be,” Ephraim said, yet his eyes were flickering between raw pain and determination. “I only wish that we knew what to expect. We have no idea how long Lyon’s been in there by now, and we may be too late to stop the ritual. If he’s summoned the Demon King’s power already…”

“Well, whatever is waiting for us, we should be prepared for the worst,” Leo warned, interrupting his friend’s dark thoughts. “Stay on your toes.”

“Trust me. I don't pick fights I can't win,” Ephraim promised, displaying a more cocksure side of himself that had diminished somewhat as the war had progressed. Truthfully, though, Leo was glad to see him so confident again.

“And Leo,” Ephraim continued, “I'm sorry that things turned out the way that they did. But, for what it's worth… I'm glad that you're here.”

Ephraim then put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

Leo smiled at his friend. “As am I, believe it or not. It wouldn't have felt right to leave you all just yet… I realize that now.” His smile then turned into a smirk. “Besides, who else is going to make sure that you don’t go off and get yourself killed?”

“Seth might fight you for that honor,” Ephraim told him with a slight smile. “Although truth be told, he seems more focused on watching after Eirika as of late. Not that I mind… it’s comforting to know that she’s in such good hands.”

Leo almost coughed, wondering if his friend even knew the truth behind his words. He inadvertently recalled the pair’s intimate embrace in Rausten, when Seth had surely put his “good hands” all over Eirika. Now was probably not the time to bring that up, though, since they currently had more pressing things to worry about in the upcoming fight. Besides, he had a feeling that Ephraim would be happy for them anyway once he found out.

Almost instinctively, Leo then turned his head to look for Sakura. Upon catching her eye while she was gathering the necessary healing supplies for the battle, she smiled warmly at him. He returned the gesture, looking at her for a long, meaningful moment before he gazed forward again at the unwelcoming temple.

“Speaking of being in good hands,” Leo started, “if I’m to fall today, Ephraim… you’ll look after Sakura for me, won’t you? She has no standing here in Magvel, no family, and not a copper to her name. It would ease my mind to know that she’ll be taken care of.”

“Of course,” Ephraim said, looking surprised. “You don’t even have to ask me that. Although I admit, it unnerves me slightly to hear you talk like this. Where’s your usual confidence?”

“Oh, don’t worry. The Demon King and I have a score to settle, and I don’t plan to let him best me,” Leo vowed. “But still, I always like to be prepared when I can, especially with Sakura’s future at stake. Thank you for putting my fears to rest.”

Ephraim nodded, but before they could continue their conversation, Seth approached.

“Prince Ephraim, our troops are ready to go on your command,” the General reported.

“Right. Let’s not delay any longer then,” Ephraim replied, and with that, Seth called for the army to advance.

The first thing that Leo noticed as they entered the Black Temple was that it had been built on a swamp. Dark, murky water surrounded the temple’s tall platforms, and Leo couldn’t help but wonder if magic had been used to lay the base of all the flooring in the body of liquid below.

Still, with as much care that had apparently gone into building the temple, it now lay decrepit in neglect. This was purported to be the resting place of the Demon King’s body, after all, and not even Morva must have ventured into the temple since the Demon King had been defeated eight-hundred years ago. Decay had laid waste to the tired floor tiles, with rampant cracks and scuff marks flaunting the temple’s age. Even worse, perhaps, was the blatant smell of mildew, as the permeating musty odor of the growing cottonish fungi was most unpleasant.

But mildew wasn’t the only thing that had grown over time. Thick, sturdy trees and persistent vines also reached out of the water, thanks in part to the fractures in the ceiling which let in ample sunlight. Leo was grateful for that as the small, golden wisps accounted for much of the main hall’s lighting… although, there was also the slight green glow of ancient magic brightening the area, a magic so potent that Leo could sense it surrounding them.

As for the main hall itself, it was certainly as large as a swamp, larger than any one room that Leo had ever seen before. None of their soldiers had taken their mounts with them, including Leo, although in hindsight they likely should have considering the room’s size… it just seemed to go on forever. The were two bridges linking to the next platform, and then a small stairway leading to the center of the room, where Lyon was now waiting with his back to them. Beyond him there was another staircase, this one connecting to a substantial raised area - about one third of the room’s total size - that probably served as altar of sorts.

Strangely, the seemingly idle Grado Prince had yet to acknowledge their presence. However, the same couldn’t be said for the legion of monsters that he’d brought to aid him in his endeavors, and it wasn’t long before the creatures rushed to attack them.

While the monsters barreled down the two bridges, boxing in Ephraim’s army in the process, Leo readied himself for the coming fight. With Brynhildr at his side, Ephraim at his back, and Sakura nearby and ready to heal him if he needed her, he knew that nothing could stop him. Truly, he felt almost invincible.

Needless to say he was right, of course. After all, he and Ephraim had fought side by side so many times by now that their movements were completely in sync. If one of them didn’t finish off an enemy with an attack, the other would quickly see to its demise. They were also able to defend each other when the need arose, so that neither of them were vulnerable or susceptible when their attention was elsewhere.

With that said, Leo almost didn’t mind the small wounds that he sustained while he fought, since the healing glow that soon engulfed him afterward served as ongoing proof that Sakura was unharmed. He wasn’t able to keep a constant eye on her as he faced his enemies, but every time he felt her warm, revitalizing light surround him, one that somehow bore her essence, he knew that she remained safe.

Still, as much as Leo enjoyed sending these abominations back to whatever hell they belonged to, that’s not what they had come here for. They’d come here to kill the Demon King, after all, and they needed to get to Lyon sooner rather than later. Their foes were falling quickly, but not quickly enough, and if they still had any chance at all of stopping Lyon’s ritual, then they needed to hurry.

“These monsters are blocking the bridges to the left and right,” Ephraim called out as if reading his mind. “Can you think of any other way for us to get across to the other side?”

Leo did his best to ponder the matter while keeping his mind on the fight at hand. Flying across wasn’t an option, as they hadn’t brought any wyverns or pegasi with them.

“Well,” Leo said slowly but loudly so that he could be heard over the chaos, “I can try summoning a tree that we can use as a bridge.”

“Will that work?” Ephraim asked.

“You ask as if I’ve tried this before,” Leo scoffed. “But it’s worth a try, I suppose. I’ll need to fall back to attempt to conjure the spell, though. It’s not one that’s written in my tome, so it’ll take more concentration to convey my will to Brynhildr.”

“Go do it,” Ephraim ordered. “Our forces have our defenses covered.”

Leo nodded and slipped away from the front lines.

“Leo!” he then heard Sakura call out, and he turned to find her running toward him. Her eyes were large and bright with fear, and his hand instinctively clenched Brynhildr in reaction to her apparent distress, preparing himself to vanquish whatever creature was threatening her.

“What h-happened?” she then asked as her eyes scanned him frantically, seeming to take stock of every part of his body. “Are you h-hurt?”

Oh. She wasn’t in any immediate danger, then… she was just fretting over him.

He abruptly relaxed, and despite the battle raging on around them, his mouth twitched upward into a smile. “I’m fine, Sakura. I fell back to call on a spell that will allow Ephraim and I to get to Lyon.”

“Lyon?” she repeated, not comforted in the least by his words. “B-but… just be careful, please!”

“I will,” he assured her, sparing a precious moment to cup the side of her face as gently as he could with one of his gloved hands. “And Sakura… we still don’t know what Iago’s plans are. Considering both Iago and what happened at Mt. Neleras… well, I don’t want you coming anywhere near the Demon King, all right? No matter what happens.”

She looked hesitant to agree, so he added, “I mean it.”

With a sigh, she finally nodded. “Okay, Leo, I w-won’t. But you should t-take another healer with you then in case, don't you think?”

Leo turned to see L’Arachel standing by Ephraim’s side, and he sighed heavily. “Somehow, I think that won't be a problem.” He then leaned down to kiss Sakura on the bridge of her nose, only wishing that there was time for something more.

But alas, there wasn’t, so instead he brought out Brynhildr, trying to focus on what he needed. While visualizing the spell in his head he called on the tome to do his bidding, yet although wisps of purple started to swirl around him and he could sense Brynhildr’s will to obey him, nothing happened. Brynhildr pulsed in his hand as if to tell him that he didn't have enough power to enact such a spell - after all, trees weren't meant to bend in such a way - but Leo persisted.

Suddenly he felt a small hand clasping itself into his free one, and he knew immediately that it was Sakura. Reminded of what he was fighting for he felt his power instantly surge, and the magic of Brynhildr abruptly became his to control. A tree then grew out of the swamp, eventually curving to bridge itself to the next platform, with branches growing out of it like makeshift ladder rungs.

Well, it wasn’t perfect, but it would do.

Squeezing Sakura’s hand to acknowledge his quick thanks, he then called for Ephraim. The prince hurriedly made his way over to the tree, and Leo wasn’t surprised to see L’Arachel following closely behind him.

The three of them climbed as quickly as they could, knowing that Leo's magic was only temporary, but Leo could already sense his spell starting to fade. Thankfully Ephraim and L'Arachel had already made it across, but Leo could feel the tree being called back into the earth as he neared the other platform.

He heard Sakura cry out for him - she must have been watching him cross - and he anxiously wondered how deep the water below him was. Deep enough and his armor would drag him straight to the swamp’s bottom, where he would surely drown.

He tried desperately to call out to Brynhildr to help him so that he could avoid such a fate, but he needn't have bothered. A pair of hands soon grabbed at his arm and hauled him up onto the platform.

“Thank you,” Leo said to Ephraim, although his eyes immediately went to the other side of the gap to meet Sakura’s gaze. Nodding at her to signal that he was fine, he hoped that she would now refocus on the battle going on around her rather than on him. “After all of this, drowning would have been such an anticlimactic way to die,” Leo then mused, forcing himself to wrench his eyes away from her.

“I should be the one thanking you for getting us across,” Ephraim said while huffing slightly from the exertion of dragging Leo up. “But gods, is your armor ever heavy.”

“Well you’d best catch your breath, Ephraim,” L’Arachel advised. “It won’t do to look all out of sorts when we finally face Lyon.”

“Yes, gods forbid you have a hair out of place for the battle ahead,” Leo added sarcastically, rolling his eyes in annoyance.

“Hmph. Not that you would know anything about this, Sir Leo, but looking good is the key to feeling good, which in turn is the key to success on the battlefield,” L’Arachel told him. “Lucky for you, I look positively radiant today, as always.”

“That’s enough, you two,” Ephraim scolded. “You can bicker all you’d like once this is finally over, but for now, let’s go.”

At least the need to press on was something that they could all agree on, so they hurried up the nearby stairs to the center of the room, where Lyon was patiently waiting for them.

“Lyon,” Ephraim said wearily as the Grado Prince merely watched them approach.

Lyon didn’t look the least bit alarmed by their presence, which in turn concerned Leo. As a precaution he kept his hand on Brynhildr, readying himself to conjure a spell at a moment’s notice. If Lyon tried to freeze their movements again, like he had in Mt. Neleras, then this time he would be prepared for it.

“You came after all, Ephraim. I’m glad,” the Prince of Grado said, but there was no emotion in his voice to indicate any actual joy. “Is Eirika with you?”

“Yes,” Ephraim said cautiously. “But she still thinks that all traces of you are gone, and I’d prefer to keep it that way if I can. It would hurt her more than you could imagine, to see you like this.”

“I see,” Lyon said, appearing to be legitimately disappointed. “That’s too bad. I would have liked to have seen her before… but ah, it’s no matter then.” He then turned toward Leo. “And what about that other girl… Sakura, was it?”

Leo’s eyes narrowed into slits. He didn’t think that it was possible for him to be even more on edge than he already was, and yet, for Lyon to specifically take note of Sakura… “What do you want with her?” he asked darkly, his tone nothing short of threatening.

“I’m not sure,” Lyon answered honestly, seeming slightly confused himself. “But as I was performing the ritual to claim the Demon King’s power, I found myself conflicted by what she'd said to me in Mt. Neleras. I think that I would like to… urg.”

Lyon looked unwell for a moment, but soon his face was once again devoid of all feeling. “I think that I would like to kill her,” he finished impassively. “Yes, that must have been what I was going to say. She reminds me too much of that one from long ago…”

A chill swept through Leo as Lyon talked so casually about killing Sakura, as if the act was equivalent to something as mundane as putting on a pair of boots. Still, he couldn't help but feel like the prince was initially going to say something else.

And who was it that Sakura reminded the Demon King of?

Well, it made no difference. “You won't get near her,” Leo promised.

“Another shame,” Lyon said distantly. “But again, it’s of no consequence. The ritual will be complete soon enough.”

“You mean you haven’t finished it yet?” Ephraim asked. “We’re not too late?”

“Ah. Not quite yet, Ephraim,” Lyon informed him. “There's still one more thing to be done.”

Ephraim looked relieved, but only for a moment before his eyes filled with pain. “Lyon, is this… is this all my fault? Am I responsible for how much you’ve changed?” he wondered. “I haven’t seen you for two years now. Have you hated me that entire time?”

“No, Ephraim,” Lyon assured him. “I was never dishonest. I cared for you and Eirika both. I still do. But I was envious of you, too. That’s why I desired this. You may not believe me when I tell you this, but… even now, after all this, I still consider you a friend.”

So it was envy that had driven Lyon, at least in part, to do all of this? Leo found himself unsettled by how much he could empathize with the prince. Being compared to one brother that he could never equal… being compared to another brother whom everyone had always loved more. To be consumed by envy for those that he loved, to try and bury those feeling of resentment… Leo knew that it didn’t make him love them any less, and if anything, it just made it hurt all the more.

How easily this could have been him in Lyon’s role, then, if his father’s plan had proceeded as intended and Leo had been the subject of Iago’s manipulations… and also, if not for Sakura, who’d had to suffer in his stead but had a heart strong enough to bear it.

“Lyon…” Ephraim started, still retaining his outward calm but clearly affected by the encounter. “You know that I still consider you a friend, too. And that's why I… that's why I have to stop you.”

“Of course. I know. You are Ephraim, after all,” Lyon responded. “You could do no less, my friend. Well, come then, Ephraim. Try and stop me. I will do what I must to save the people of Grado. No one will stand in my way.”

As if to back up his words, the air around them suddenly turned pink with magic, dark magic. Winds started to swirl, crackling with their might, and lightning rained down upon them. But there was nothing natural about the maelstrom, and the pain that soon followed was sharp and swift.

Leo at least had high resistance from handling magic, and Brynhildr used its power to shield him from some of the damage that was wrought upon them, but Ephraim was suffering greatly from the spell.

“Ephraim!” Leo cried out, but he needn't have worried. L’Arachel had been waiting outside of the spell’s range, yet she was there in a moment’s notice to treat the prince’s injuries. Even though she didn't have the time she needed to heal Ephraim completely, he was quickly refreshed by her efforts.

“Thanks, L’Arachel,” Ephraim said gratefully.

“Honestly, you foolish man, what would you even do without me?” she lectured.

“Perhaps I don't intend to find out,” he told her, deftly avoiding her gaze to focus back on the fight as he spoke.

“I… y-you…” she sputtered, finally speechless for once in her life.

“You should fall back again now. It isn't safe,” Ephraim said as he returned to his fighting stance.

While they’d been conversing, Leo had activated Brynhildr to launch his own attack on the Prince of Grado. He’d assumed that as a magic user Lyon would also have a strong resistance to such attacks, so Leo chose to call on a simpler spell instead. Branches shot up from the ground and then tied themselves around the prince, restraining him in place even though they did him no actual harm.

“Now, Ephraim!” Leo commanded, knowing that his spell wouldn't hold Lyon for long.

Yet something seemed… off. Lyon wasn't struggling against his bindings at all, and speaking of bindings… why hadn't Lyon tried to freeze them in place yet? With his hand on his tome, Leo would still be able to use Brynhildr, but Ephraim would have been powerless. Or, Lyon could have at the very least prevented L'Arachel from healing the Prince of Renais…

No, something wasn't right. However, before he could call out to Ephraim to warn him, the prince had used his sacred spear, Siegmund the Flame Lance, to impale Lyon right through the stomach.

“Ah!” Lyon gasped, and Leo knew immediately that the injury was fatal. Ephraim, however, looked to be in shock, even though he must have known from the outset how much damage such a wound would cause. Still, Leo supposed that one could never be fully prepared when it came to harming someone that they cared about.

“Lyon!” Ephraim cried, catching his friend as the prince started to crumple to the ground and holding him upright. His right hand remained on his lance but he didn't remove it, knowing that to do so would only cause the wound to bleed more freely.

“Leo, grab his tome,” Ephraim ordered. Leo obeyed, and once Lyon was disarmed, Ephraim looked behind him.

“L’Arachel, come here now! I need you to help him…”

“No… it’s too late for me,” Lyon noted as he coughed up some blood.

“Lyon… Wait! Don’t close your eyes!” Ephraim insisted. “I’m going to save you! I’ll find a way! I…”

“Some things not even you can do, Ephraim,” the dying prince said, struggling to speak. “But I wonder… will you ever forgive me?”

“Of course, Lyon,” Ephraim promised. “I meant what I said earlier, that you're my friend. It will take some time for me to truly forgive you for everything that’s happened, but I know that you weren't in your right mind through all of this, despite what you claim.”

“Heh… no, I didn’t mean for all that, Ephraim,” Lyon said. “I meant for what's still to come. But I needed to do it… to save my people. I hope that… you can understand.”

Leo felt an ominous sense of dread overwhelm him. But that’s why Lyon had been holding back… he needed to die to complete the ritual. Yes, all this time Lyon’s goal hadn’t been to awaken the Demon King’s power… it was to awaken the Demon King himself. Leo cursed himself for not realizing it sooner.

“You know, Ephraim… I always wanted to be you,” Lyon continued. “I wanted to be strong and handsome… with Eirika always at my side… that’s what I wanted to be. I had… I had nothing…”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Lyon,” Ephraim answered as he held his dying friend, with a sheen of tears now covering his eyes. “You’re the one who covered for me when I stumbled. You’re the one who helped me with my learnings, not my tutors. Didn’t you see how I looked up to you? I admired your compassion, your wisdom, your thoughtfulness.”

“How I’ve changed then, huh?” Lyon asked wryly. “But it’s no matter. My people will be saved now, even if my own soul will be damned for eternity for what I’ve done. And you’ll always be my friend, Ephraim, no matter what. Just… do me a favor?”

Ephraim nodded.

“Tell Eirika that I'm sorry,” Lyon requested. “How I wish I could have seen her just one last time…”

“You can tell her yourself. I’ll have someone fetch her. Just don’t die,” Ephraim pleaded, but it was too late. The Prince of Grado’s eyes had closed, never to reopen again.

Ephraim let out an angry howl as he finally removed his lance from Lyon’s body. He then knelt down on one knee and rested his friend gently onto the ground, bowing his head in sorrow.

“Brother!” Eirika then cried out, and Leo could see the princess running toward them. He noted that the monsters on the bridges had been successfully defeated by now, with just a few stragglers remaining in the area that were currently being dealt with by their forces. Quickly spotting Sakura as she healed those that were still fighting, he longed to return to her side.

He couldn’t just yet, though… not when he had a terrible feeling that the worst was still to come.

Eirika finally reached them. “Lyon…” she whispered, kneeling down next to her brother. “Oh, Lyon.”

She was crying softly as she stroked her fallen friend’s face.

“He wanted me to tell you that he was sorry, Eirika,” Ephraim told her.

“He was… sorry? Does that mean that he was himself in his last moments?” she asked hopefully.

“Something like that,” Ephraim said vaguely, apparently still intent on keeping his sister in the dark about what Lyon had revealed to them in Mt. Neleras - that it was Lyon himself, and not the Demon King, who was ultimately in control of his actions.

Ephraim was spared from having to provide any further explanation, though, as Lyon’s body suddenly began to float up into the air.

“What? This… what is happening?” Ephraim wondered.

They all watched the unexplainable sight in awe until Lyon’s body abruptly disappeared, teleported away elsewhere.

“Brother!” Eirika cried out in shock. “Lyon’s body! It’s-”

“The time has come,” an ominous voice said. “My resurrection is finally at hand…”

“Ephraim!” L’Arachel shouted as he and Eirika stood up. “I think that that’s…”

“The Demon King,” Ephraim finished, narrowing his eyes.

The voice just cackled in response. “Well done, Lyon. The sacrifice of your flesh and the sum of your efforts… they were all for naught. Grado’s disaster cannot be averted,” the demon said cruelly. “My resurrection is at hand. All this time, you imagined yourself in possession of your own free will, but it was I who planted the seed from which your ambitions grew. My deceit made you my puppet, and oh, how you danced at the end of my strings. You could never have been saved. It’s a shame, isn’t it, Lyon? And now… I am reborn.”

Lightning flashed throughout the main hall, followed swiftly by booming thunder, and the Demon King suddenly materialized in the area to the north of them, causing Leo’s eyes to widen in horror at the sight.

Gods, Leo had never seen an enemy like this before. The demon towered over them, perhaps almost thirty feet tall as his head neared the temple’s ceiling, and had they been standing next to the creature, Leo knew that they wouldn’t even reach his knees.

The Demon King stood on two legs like a man, but that was where his similarities to man ended. For one, he had a tail that was almost as long as he was tall. He also sported small wings, certainly not large enough to allow a creature of his size to fly - Leo was thankful for that small favor - as well as massive, curling horns that encased his head, almost like a helmet.

How could they possibly defeat this creature?

“Demon King!” Ephraim shouted, too fueled by his anger to be intimidated. “You are responsible for all the misery we’ve seen! Lyon… my friend… you’re the one… I’m going to kill you!”

The Demon King just laughed in response, apparently not feeling threatened by Ephraim's words in the slightest.

“Brother, this power… it’s different,” Eirika noted worriedly.

“I know, Eirika. L’Arachel, you must prepare the last Sacred Stone!” he commanded. “We have to use its power on that beast, like in the legends!”

“You must listen to me, Ephraim,” L’Arachel said carefully. “The stories are true - the stone does hold the power to stop the Demon King. However, the source of its power is human will, the desire for peace within our hearts. We need not pray for the Sacred Stone to aid us now. No, once the demon has fallen, we need only focus ourselves and concentrate on a better future.”

“I understand,” he told her, then turned around to call out to his soldiers. “Everyone! Listen to me! This is the final battle. If we can defeat this thing, it’s over. We face the king of demons, the monster that once ruled all of Magvel. He’s more powerful than any one of us here. But we have something that beast will never have. We have community, friendship, love… we have all the virtues of humanity. That is our weapon. That is our strength.”

A rallying cry echoed around him, but once again the Demon King was unimpressed.

“Fools,” he boomed, and suddenly monsters started to teleport into the temple, appearing as if from thin air. The army banded together to fight them off, but the Demon King simply summoned more when the need arose.

“Damn it,” Ephraim cursed as he speared through an approaching monster. “Seth, gather all of our strongest fighters and those with holy weapons, and have them press forward to attack the Demon King! The rest will stay here and battle these monsters.”

But the Demon King was growing impatient. “What’s wrong? Are you afraid?” he mocked, snarling at Ephraim. “Come and face your death! I'm waiting, you miserable fool. I am Fomortiis, the Demon King, and you will bow to me soon enough!”

So the Demon King had a name, then… Fomortiis. Leo had never seen it written in any of the ancient texts he’d read. More notably, though, the demon seemed content to wait for them to approach, rather than moving to them…

“He wants us to come to him, Ephraim, because he knows that we’ll only be able to bring a limited amount of soldiers across the bridge to where he’s waiting, making it difficult for us to surround him,” Leo realized. “We need to do our best to try and surround him anyway, so that he won’t know where to focus his attacks.”

“Understood,” Ephraim said. It was a sound tactic, after all, especially when they had the numbers in their favor. But as Seth returned with their reinforcements and they pressed forward across the bridge to battle against the king of demons, Leo and the others would soon come find out how little such a strategy would ultimately matter.

Yes, even the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and had they known what was to come, what the Demon King was truly capable of, they might have been tempted to try and run somewhere far, far away from here.

Sakura’s heart was crashing against her chest, seeming to pump more fear than blood into her system as she watched Leo and the rest of Ephraim’s elite forces approach the most terrifying monster she’d ever seen.

After having insisted that they stay with Ephraim’s army to help fight the Demon King, she suddenly couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that she’d just sent Leo to his death.

Normally she wasn’t one for fighting, but loosing arrows into nearby monsters and healing her injured allies quickly proved to be a welcome distraction from the battle that was going on at the other side of the bridge. Still, every time she heard someone scream or the Demon King’s horrible cackling she turned to look that way, certain that the next time she did, she’d find Leo hurt or worse.

Her nerves started to calm somewhat after a few minutes, mostly as she reminded herself that Leo was smart and strong, so of course he’d be fine. That was, at least, until another particularly menacing laugh of the Demon King’s, when she couldn’t help but turn again.

“I am Fomortiis, I am your nightmare!” he roared so loudly that the entire room started to vibrate with the might of his voice, causing dust and stone to fall from the weakened ceiling.

His words weren’t just a matter of intimidation, though. After he spoke, purple, pulsating rings of air were emitted from his body, passing through everyone beyond the bridge. Sakura watched in horror as those that it touched suddenly crumpled, falling to the ground as if they were dead. The only sounds that she could hear over the fighting around her were the loud clanks of armor hitting stone.

“No!” Sakura cried out. Any promises she’d made to Leo about not being reckless or staying away from the Demon King suddenly meant nothing, and she ran toward the bridge without even another thought as to what she was doing.

“Sakura! Wait!” Neimi screamed, shooting an arrow straight into the head of a monster in the Hoshidan princess’s path, but Sakura had barely even noticed. All she could seem to focus on was Leo’s unconscious body.

She did her best to block out the the sight of the Demon King’s towering figure before her, to ignore his sickening laughter as she knelt next to Leo once she reached him. He was lying supine on the ground, writhing and moaning as if he were in a great deal of pain, although she could see that he hadn’t sustained any injuries. It seemed that he was only asleep, but in a fitful sleep, like he was trapped in some terrible nightmare that he couldn’t wake up from.

“Leo,” Sakura whispered, using all of her strength to lift his torso from the ground. She then pulled his head to her chest, wrapping one arm around his shoulders while the other ran soothingly through his hair.

“Please w-wake up,” she begged quietly, unable to bear listening to his terrible, nightmare-induced cries. His suffering was only further reflected on his face, with his brows drawn together tightly and his closed eyelids shaking as if they were struggling against the demon’s magic to open.

Sakura couldn't stand to look at him any longer. She gazed around her, hoping to find someone who could help. Yet everyone in Ephraim's army that had been across the bridge was within the range of the Demon King's attack, and had therefore fallen victim to his spell. They were all in the same condition as Leo now, leaving only the frailer fighters like herself standing. And even if she and the others could somehow take down the Demon King, they currently had their hands full trying to fight off the monsters that he continued to summon.

Sakura’s attention returned to the Demon King as a corrupted light began to swirl in his eyes, causing them to glow with a sinister aura. He was glaring directly at the fallen form of Prince Innes, and after another light flashed, the malefic aura concentrated onto the prince. Even asleep, Prince Innes screamed in terrible pain as he sustained the attack.

“No!” Sakura exclaimed again, knowing that the damage to the prince had been great. The magnitude of the attack had at least woken him from the sleep induced by the Demon King’s prior spell, but she could see that he was severely weakened and barely alive. The prince put his hands to the ground and tried to push himself upward to rise, but he soon collapsed again to the floor.

She needed to help him! But before she could even let go of Leo, the Demon King was upon her. He must have heard her cry out.

Instead of attacking her, though, he bent his head down, his massive jaw now only a few feet away from her as he smiled. She trembled in fear as she noticed that each tooth in his sinister grin was the size of her head, and they were also sharper than any knives or swords that she had ever seen.

His glowing yellow eyes pierced into her then, chilling her to her very core.

“I remember you,” the monster drawled. “Yes… you’re the one who tried to sway Lyon against me. And yet, there is a great evil resting within you… I can sense it.”

“N-n-no… l-leave us alone,” she stammered, never having known such fear before in her life.

“And why would I do that?” he inquired. “In fact, I think I should kill this one next,” he told her, gesturing toward Leo.

“N-no,” she sobbed, clutching Leo even more firmly to her, as if by holding him as tightly as she could, she would somehow be able to protect him.

Sakura, a voice called out to her. I can help you.

It was Iago.

She hadn’t heard from Iago since the beginning of their trek to the Darkling Woods a week ago, and she’d naively hoped that he’d used up all of his power in that last effort.

“G-go away,” she begged, and the Demon King smiled wider, perhaps thinking that she was talking to him.

Leo and all of your friends will die because you’re weak. Is that what you want? You know that I have great power, Sakura. You know that I can help you.

She said nothing, but she could feel her resolve crumbling. What choice did she really have? If she didn’t act soon, then Leo would die.

Yes, that’s it, the voice soothed. Let me help you. You’re too weak on your own to protect those that you care about. As much as you might not want to admit it, you need me, Sakura.

"Yes," she whispered, and even though her instincts were screaming at her not to trust his words, it was an act of desperation that caused her to finally open herself up to the sorcerer, giving him complete access to her mind. "P-please, just help him!" she begged.

And suddenly, just like that, she was no longer in control of herself.

Sakura, or rather, Iago, looked at the boy in his arms and unceremoniously let go of him. Leo fell back to the ground roughly and emitted a pained groan, but Iago paid him no mind.

Standing up, he walked even closer to the Demon King’s head, giving him a twisted smile as he did. “You can kill him if you like. My master wants him dead, anyway.”

No! You p-promised! a voice cried out in his head, and Iago smiled at the girl’s torment. For so long she’d kept him trapped and powerless, but now, it was her turn to suffer.

He easily pushed her consciousness into the deeper depths of her mind, quickly silencing her annoying whines.

Well, that should shut her up for a while.

The Demon King cocked his head at Iago curiously. “Yes, this is the evil that I sensed before. Who are you? And what do you want?”

“I am but a mere servant to the great King Garon. I am here because he desires your power for his service, oh formidable Demon King,” Iago explained with a bow.

The beast growled. “And why would I want to serve your lord when I will soon rule the world?” he asked

“Because why destroy just one world when you can destroy them all?” Iago asked. “You see, my lord has somehow found the power to open portals to other worlds, those which you never even knew existed. Just think of how many worlds you could rule over, if you’d like.”

“Hmm. If your lord has the power to summon these portals, then so must I. Your puny lord cannot compare to me,” Fomortiis insisted.

“Or, you may just lose to Prince Ephraim in this battle here,” Iago told him simply, causing the demon to hiss. Finding a shining black stone near the Demon King, he picked it up. “This is the Dark Stone, is it not?” he inquired.

“That stone has no power without my soul in it,” the demon remarked, glaring angrily.

“Then return your soul to it, and I will bring the stone to my king,” Iago requested. “You think your body is powerful, but I can assure you that together with my lord, you will be unstoppable. You must gift your power to him, oh great Fomortiis.”

“And sacrifice my body in the process? What if I just kill you instead?” the Demon King asked.

Iago shrugged. “I have no use for this body, except as a vessel to bring your soul to my king. If you refuse, then it matters not to me if you kill this body. This body is weak and useless,” he said bitterly.

“Weak?” the demon asked, laughing. “You barely control the girl even now. I also tried to possess one like her before, one they called Latona, but I could not.”

“Her love for others makes her strong against corruption, but it also makes her weak,” Iago snarled. “The fear of losing those that she loves is potent, and fear, just like hate and resentment, can be exploited.”

“Sakura!” he then heard a voice cry out, and he turned to see the archer girl, Neimi, looking over at him. The girl’s attention was soon recaptured by the monsters she was fighting, but Iago knew that he couldn’t waste any more time.

“We must hurry,” Iago pressed. “My king has power beyond what you can even imagine. If you joined your powers with his, you wouldn’t just be a demon king, you’d be a demon god!”

“Is that so?” The Demon King asked, his interest slightly piqued. “But it’s difficult to believe that your lord has such power when he sent someone so… weak… to convince me to ally with him.”

“I am not weak!” Iago yelled, almost shrilly. “King Garon himself has gifted me with power. It’s only this body that is weak!”

“Hmm… then show me your lord’s power. Show me that your will is stronger than that of the one you possess and kill this boy,” he said, gesturing toward Leo, who was still writhing on the ground, oblivious to the events going on around him.

“You want me to kill an unconscious boy to prove my strength?” Iago asked, chuckling slightly. “Well, that should be easy enough.” He shoved the Dark Stone into the pouch that Sakura had on her person and took out her bow. Iago didn’t know the first thing about using a bow, but Sakura did. Her body adapted to the weapon almost instinctively, and with an arrow now locked properly into the bowstring, he aimed the weapon right at Leo’s head.

Sakura felt lost, as if she were drifting away on a dark river. Something told her that she didn’t belong here, that she needed to fight against the current that was pulling her deeper and deeper into the darkness, but whenever she tried it was just so exhausting.

No! Leo is in danger. You have to fight it, she told herself.

Yes, that’s right… Iago had told the Demon King to kill Leo, and she had to try and do something to stop it, no matter how weak and helpless she felt.

She'd tried protesting to Iago after she'd heard his cruel words, once she'd realized that he had no intention of actually helping Leo like he'd promised he would. However, she hadn't realized at the time how much energy it would expend to do so. Exerting herself in such a way had only left her drained and susceptible, allowing Iago to push her further and further into her own mind.

No wonder he had only attacked her in short bursts before - to do so consistently would have taken great power, power that even he didn’t seem to possess.

Still, she had to try…

But as she finally managed to crest to the surface of her mind, fighting the opposing pull with all of her strength, the horrifying scene that she saw before her was worse than anything that she could have even imagined.

She was about to shoot Leo with her bow. She was about to kill him, not the Demon King.

No! she screamed in utter anguish, and for a moment, she felt Iago falter. With every last scrap of energy she then fought for control, focusing on her love for Leo when she felt like there was nothing else left for her to grasp onto.

Iago dropped the bow and put his hands to his head, her head, screaming in pain as he struggled against her.

The Demon King laughed. “Fool,” he said to Iago. “You are weak. I have no intention of going with you. Fomortiis is a slave to no one! Besides, do you really think that this pathetic human can defeat me?” the demon then asked, picking up Ephraim’s limp body.

The Demon King’s eyes began to glow again, and a flash erupted as he attacked Ephraim with his befouled energy.

Ephraim screamed in agony, waking up from an unconscious nightmare to a living one.

No! I have to help him! Sakura yelled.

“Shut up, you stupid bitch!” Iago hissed, still fighting against her.

The Demon King unleashed yet another attack onto Ephraim, draining almost all of the prince’s lifeforce. He then threw the prince onto the ground, pinning him to the floor with his giant foot.

“Heh… What a splendid fool you make,” he said to Ephraim. “Shall I kill you now? Or should I make you watch first as I tear your sister limb from limb? Yes, the girl that Lyon loved… so pathetic.”

“I’ll… kill… you,” Ephraim coughed, with blood dripping from his mouth as he addressed the Demon King.

I need to help him! Sakura repeated, and Iago fell to his knees.

“Unghh.. no,” he said weakly. “This can’t… this can’t be! How… can you…”

But with a large gasp for breath she suddenly realized that her body was once again hers. She immediately went to stand, only to find that she couldn't manage to do so because the pain in her head was excruciating, worse than it had ever been before. The pain was so acute that she could barely even comprehend what was going on around her.

“Sakura!” a voice called to her, and she looked to see a pink haired archer kneeling down next to her. “What’s wrong with you? You need to heal Prince Ephraim!” Tears were streaming down the girl’s face.

“Nei...mi?” Sakura asked weakly, almost fainting into her. “My h-head… it hurts.”

“Please, Sakura, you have to try! You’re the only one who can help Prince Ephraim!” she begged, openly sobbing now. “All of our other healers are either unconscious from that spell, or stuck across the bridge trying to help fend off the army of monsters. Please!”

Help Prince Ephraim?

Sakura looked over to see Prince Ephraim on the ground while the Demon King pressed his foot onto the fallen prince, squeezing the air out of him. He must have lessened the pressure quickly, though, because Ephraim just coughed, trying eagerly to suck the air back into his lungs.

“As fun as it is to watch the life disappear from your eyes, I've changed my mind,” the Demon King said. “I think you’ll suffer more watching your sister die instead.”

“You… bastard…” Ephraim said feebly, but he was powerless to stop the beast.

“Neimi, what c-can I do?” Sakura asked her friend, with tears falling from her eyes as she watched the horrible scene unfold. “Even if I can get close enough to h-heal Prince Ephraim without the Demon King stopping me, he’s still pinned down and won't be able to f-fight back.”

“Use… Latona,” a weak voice told her, and she turned to see Prince Innes lying nearby.

“P-Prince Innes!” Sakura cried out, wondering how she had forgotten about him. He was severely injured, and she knew that he needed healing immediately if he was to survive. Scrambling over to him while she ignored her own pain, she raised her Sun Festal to treat him.

“No… there isn’t time,” he protested. “Use Princess L'Arachel’s staff... Latona. It will…” His eyes then rolled up into his head as the prince lost consciousness.

“Latona?” Sakura sniffled, wiping at her tears, but Prince Innes wasn't able to respond.

“Sakura! Over there!” Neimi shouted, pointing to the unconscious body of Princess L’Arachel.

Sakura quickly ran over to the sleeping princess. “Mother! Father! Don’t leave me!” the princess kept shrieking while she thrashed about on the ground, and Sakura shuddered at her torment.

She wasn't the only princess suffering, though. Sakura could hear Princess Eirika's screams as the Demon King began to focus his devastating attacks on her.

“Stop!” Ephraim shouted with all of his strength, but the Demon King was merciless.

Doing her best to block out the sickening sounds around her, Sakura grabbed Latona and held it up high. But, the staff was more intricate than any that she’d ever seen or handled, and she had no idea how to even use it.

“N-no…” she sniffled. Everyone was counting on her to help them, and she was useless and powerless, yet again.

“Leave her alone!” Sakura heard Neimi shout as the Demon King continued his barrage on Princess Eirika. Neimi had picked up Prince Innes’s Sacred Twin bow, Nidhogg, and was aiming it at the beast. She then loosed an arrow, hitting the formidable creature straight in its head.

The Demon King howled in pain, dropping Princess Eirika to the ground. But in retaliation, he balled his hand into a fist and punched at Neimi with all his might.

The pink-haired archer went flying from the force of the punch, and when she finally landed with a sickening crack, she lay unmoving on the ground.

“No!” Sakura cried out, unsure if her friend was alive or dead.

“Neimi!” a devastating cry rang out, and Sakura knew that the voice was Colm’s. He was still stuck behind the bridge with the other forces as they battled the monsters, but Sakura could see him struggling to get to the fallen girl.

Sakura lifted Latona once more, praying that the staff would work, but still, nothing happened. She then looked over at Leo, who was still trapped in his nightmare and moaning on the ground in his perpetual suffering. She looked over at Ephraim, Eirika, and Innes who were battered and barely alive from the Demon King’s attacks. She looked over at Neimi, who was now in Colm’s arms as he rocked her back and forth, begging for her to wake. She looked over at Princess L’Arachel, who was screaming next to her. She looked at Franz, and Sir Forde, and all the others of Prince Ephraim’s army who were stuck in fitful sleep.

More than anything, she wanted to help them all. Her heart was full with her desire to heal them.

Suddenly, the staff in her arms started to glow, and Sakura could feel a familiar warmth emanating from it. She closed her eyes and focused on the warmth, fueling it with her feelings like oxygen on a fire.

A green flash then burst forth from the staff, the light pulsing throughout the room. As it enveloped her allies, those sleeping were restored and awakened from their nightmarish state. Meanwhile, those who had been injured were healed completely.

Amazingly, in only a moment, Prince Ephraim’s army was fully revitalized.

Sakura glanced over at Neimi, and to her great relief, her friend was starting to stir in Colm’s arms. “Oh, thank goodness,” she said, grateful that her friend was still alive. She was about to look for Leo to ensure that he'd recovered as well, but a fearsome roar that was directed at her commanded her attention instead.

“You...! You stupid girl!” the Demon King growled with fury, and he went to bash her with his giant fist just as he had earlier with Neimi.

Sakura just shut her eyes tightly as the blow came for her, knowing that she would probably die right then and there. But once the hit finally connected, it didn’t hurt as much as she’d expected it to.

After a quick second of disorientation, Sakura then realized that it wasn’t the Demon King’s fist that had hit her, but a person. Someone had pushed her out of the way.

Her savior had crashed into her with such might that she was now rolling with him on the floor. She could tell that he had tried to take the brunt of the initial impact, but she’d still had the wind knocked out of her from the force of hitting the ground so roughly.

As their bodies finally rolled to a stop her lungs instinctively panicked at the loss of air, but once she looked up into the eyes of the one who had saved her, the boy that she loved, she felt herself calm instantly.

Leo. Thank the gods, he was okay. As long as he was alive, as long as he was with her, she knew that everything would be fine. She tried to say his name, but her body hadn’t fully recovered from the fall and she was still struggling to breathe.

"Are you alright?" Leo asked worriedly, looking down at her. It was only then that she realized that he was completely on top of her with his arms wrapped securely around her body, and even though the scene around them was as far from romantic as it could possibly get, she soon found herself blushing.

“Leo,” she was finally able to whisper as she lifted one of her hands to his hair. Oh, gods, how she loved his soft, blond hair.

Their eyes froze on each other’s for a short moment, speaking feelings that they didn’t have time to voice. His own looked haunted, more haunted than she’d ever seen them, and she wanted nothing more than to take all of his pain away. A vicious growl soon echoed around them, though, causing Leo to look behind him.

“You have no idea how relieved I am to see that you’re okay,” Leo said vehemently, getting up and helping her to stand, but still holding her closely once she was upright. “But I need to go now, Sakura. The Demon King… he must be destroyed. Just… just promise me that you’ll be careful.”

Her eyes filled with tears. She didn’t want him to run off to face that creature again. She wanted to beg him not to go, to stay with her instead.

But she didn't. “I will,” she told him, yet before releasing him from her arms, she leaned up on her tiptoes to kiss him chastely on the lips. “Please, come b-back to me Leo,” she pleaded, although her voice was nothing but a desperate whisper. “P-promise me.”

“Sakura…” Leo said thickly, hugging her tightly. “I… I can’t promise that. But I can promise you that I’m going to fight like hell for the chance to hold you again.”

He then leaned down and kissed her, and she seared the moment into her brain, terrified that it would be their last.

“Ahem,” L’Arachel’s voice interrupted them, and the two reluctantly broke apart. “I must beg your pardon, but it seems that we’ve used the last of Latona’s power.” The princess held up the broken staff, having retrieved it from Leo and Sakura’s earlier tumble.

“Oh no!” Sakura gasped, looking at the destroyed rod in L’Arachel’s hands. “I’m s-so sorry!”

“Please, there is no need,” L’Arachel stated. “I am Princess L'Arachel, and I need no sacred staff to show these monsters my splendor.”

Leo rolled his eyes. “That’s... nice, Princess L’Arachel. But I must-”

“You must go to Ephraim, Sir Leo, posthaste,” L’Arachel continued, ignoring him. “However, you must also tell him that his forces need to do all that they can to prevent the Demon King from casting his spell of nightmares upon us again. With the Staff of Latona broken, we’ll have no way to arouse ourselves from such a state this time.”

Sakura thought she heard the princess’s voice waver for a moment as she mentioned the nightmares. Leo and L’Arachel seemed to share a knowing look with each other, and Sakura felt Leo pulling her even closer into him.

“The body of the Demon King must be defeated so that we can trap his soul into the Sacred Stone,” L’Arachel continued. “Now go, Sir Leo, straightaway!”

Leo looked a bit startled by her vigor, but he didn’t object. As he looked down at Sakura again, though, his expression held such pain and torment that she wondered if he was recalling the nightmares he’d been forced to endure. She suddenly felt the temptation to beg him not to go back into the heart of the battle resurfacing.

“Be safe,” he then growled at her, squeezing her shoulders so tightly that he was causing her pain.

And before she could even respond he ran off, his hand glowing purple with Brynhildr’s light as he once again headed into danger.

Just like they had with Morva earlier, Ephraim’s forces began an all-out assault on the Demon King. Whereas Fomortiis could only focus on one attack at a time, or summon his monsters to try and distract them, they weren’t limited by such restrictions. As a result, the Demon King was weakening significantly while being pummeled relentlessly by strike after strike, the holy weapons especially doing remarkable damage.

Perhaps foolishly, Leo began to believe that they might actually pull this off - they might actually destroy the Demon King. As long as the demon didn’t use his nightmare spell, they actually stood a chance.

But the Demon King was clever, and Leo knew that he was just biding his time before he gathered enough energy to release the devastating magic again. As a result he and Ephraim tried desperately to put the demon to rest before that could happen, knowing that everything was at stake… and yet, it was all for naught. They’d weakened Fomortiis significantly, perhaps even to the brink of death, but ultimately, it still wasn’t enough.

And when the demon shrieked in anger and Leo saw the purple, pulsing rings heading straight for them again, he knew that this was the end.

The continuous assault on the Demon King suddenly stopped as everyone in his general vicinity once again crumpled to the ground, quickly becoming lost in their nightmares.

“No…” Leo grunted as he fell to his knees, trying mightily to fight the call to sleep. He looked over to Sakura to see that she had already succumbed, now that she was across the bridge and within the radius of the spell.

“No…” he said again, but his eyelids started to flutter and he had to put his hands on the ground to keep his body upright.

He needed to get to Sakura. He couldn’t let her suffer this torment. And besides, once they were all asleep again, it would be over - the Demon King would triumph. Latona was broken and nothing would save them this time.

A jolt of energy shot through him, and Leo knew that it was Brynhildr trying to keep him awake. That and the terror of what would happen once he closed his eyes, both in his nightmares and in the world around him, kept him awake for a few moments longer.

Gods, he had to fight it. He needed to get to Sakura. He had to…

He mustn’t…

But ultimately he couldn’t beat the strong pull of the demon’s magic, and with a final, defeated moan, he closed his eyes and slumped forward to the ground, lulled into fitful sleep by the horrifying sound of the Demon King’s laughter and the nightmare-induced screams of his allies around him.

Leo watched Sakura die. Over and over again, he watched her die, and in the most horrific of ways.

Was this real? Was it a nightmare?

It felt real, too real, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t wake up.

If this was just a dream, some hellish nightmare, then shouldn't he be able to wake up?

He screamed his throat raw. He cried, he begged for it all to stop, but no one seemed to hear him.

For what felt like an eternity this just continued to go on and on, as if it were some kind of tormenting loop that he couldn’t manage to escape from, until finally, someone appeared.

No, not someone. It was him, or at least a person that looked exactly like him.

“Have you had enough yet?” his doppelganger asked coldly.

“Y-yes…” Leo said, crawling over to his copy. On his knees, he grabbed the boy’s shirt. “Please, m-make it stop. I can’t bear it any longer. I can’t-”

“You’re pathetic,” his double told him, narrowing his eyes in disgust. “It’s no wonder nobody loves you, that even your own father wants you dead. You’re nothing but a failure. All those books, all that knowledge, and what good has it ever done anyone? Were you able to save your people from starvation? Were you able to save her?”

The doppelganger nodded over to Sakura, who’d suddenly materialized once more. Leo’s eyes widened in agony as he realized that he was going to have to watch her die yet again, and he clutched his double’s shirt even tighter.

“P-please!” he begged again, but it was too late - the monsters were advancing and he could already hear her screaming, screaming his name.

Like so many times before he tried to run to her, to come to her aid while she pleaded with him to save her, but for some reason he could never seem to get his body to move. So instead he just shut his eyes tightly, trying to block out the horrible scene that he'd already watched countless times.

“That won’t work,” his double said, more loudly than before to be heard over her terrified screams. “No matter how much you want to believe otherwise, the darkness will always find you, Leo. Those that don’t deserve love have always belonged in the shadows, and there’s no one who deserves it less than you. Would you like to see who else you’ve failed?”

“Yes!” Leo shouted, because that would mean going away from here - away from her shrieking, away from her crying, and away from her imminent death that he knew he couldn't prevent.

“Very well,” the boy said.

And then, there was silence. Sweet, wonderful silence.

Leo almost cried in relief, but the relief only turned into horror as he looked around him. This wasteland was one that was very familiar to him - it was Nohr. He was back in Nohr. But lying on the black and lifeless terrain were his siblings, as dead as the ground beneath them.

“No!” he cried out, running to Elise. He put his hand on her face, but she was cold, so cold.

Rage filled him. A crow cawed nearby, perched on Xander’s shoulder while it pecked at his brother’s eyes. “Get off of him!” Leo yelled.

The crow looked at him curiously. With one last peck it plucked out one of Xander’s eyeballs completely, and then flew away with its prize.

Leo wretched at the sight, but once his insides had emptied, he noticed that there was a large shadow on the ground as someone loomed over him.

"X-X… Xander?" Leo asked, completely aghast when he looked up. His brother's flesh was pale and rotten, the carrion hanging in chunks and threatening to fall at any moment, and his eye socket was hollowed and empty from the crow's earlier feast.

“Leo. So you’ve finally returned,” Xander responded.


“This is all your fault, Leo,” Xander’s corpse said to him, and his voice was hard with hatred. “You left us to die at the hands of Hoshido.”

“No, Xander, please!” Leo begged. “I didn’t want to leave you. I was trapped in Magvel. I tried to get back…”

“Did you really?” Xander accused. “I know how smart you are. Could you truly not figure out a way to return? Or was it, perhaps, that you just weren’t motivated to do so?”

“No, you’re wrong!” Leo cried out, but his body started trembling as he wondered if there wasn’t some truth behind his brother’s words.

“Admit it, Leo,” Xander persisted. “You chose a girl from Hoshido over your family. I’d kill you myself if I didn’t think you’d suffer more from the guilt. But always remember - our deaths are on you head.”

“No!” Leo screamed. “Brother, p-please don’t say such things!” he begged.

“You are not my brother,” Xander said coldly. And just when Leo thought that he couldn’t take any more misery, just when he was sure that he’d go mad from all the grief, he was suddenly sitting up in a cot, panting heavily.

“Leo?” a voice asked hesitantly. Her voice. The sweetest voice that he’d ever known.

He was afraid to look in her direction, afraid that he’d only have to watch her die again, so he didn’t.

“Leo?” her voice asked again, and this time he could feel the cot dipping as she perched next to him on the sweat-soaked sheets.

She was close, so close, and even though he was shaking like a leaf from the fear of what he might see when he looked at her, he finally forced himself to turn.


“Oh, Leo! Thank goodness you’re finally awake!” she cried out, and he could hear the open relief in her voice.

“Sakura? You’re... alive?” he asked almost desperately.

“Yes, of course, Leo,” she soothed. “I was never in any danger. You were the one who almost died…”

“Sakura… thank the gods,” he said, grabbing her and nearly crushing her against him. “I kept… I kept watching you die, over and over again. And my family was dead, too.” His voice cracked and he pressed her further into him, idly noticing that she felt cold against his bare chest.

“Shhh, Leo, it’s alright now,” she told him. “I’m alive. Those were nothing but horrible nightmares brought on by the Demon King’s spell.”

“But, what… what happened?” he asked, suddenly realizing that he was in the healing tent. His armor had been removed, as had his shirt.

“We fought the Demon King, remember?” Sakura told him.

“Yes, but…” he began, struggling to remember. Something was wrong. This wasn’t right... he needed to-

“Shhh,” Sakura soothed again. “It’s okay, Leo. Please calm down. The fight is over and we won. But you were trapped in the Demon King’s nightmare spell, and even when we defeated him, you wouldn’t wake up. I started to think that you never would...” Tears were falling from her eyes now, and he used his hands to brush them away from her cold cheeks.

“It’s okay now, Sakura,” he told her. “I promised that I’d fight to be with you again, remember?”

“Yes. Thank you, Leo, for keeping your promise,” she said. Yet, there was no sweetness in her tone anymore, and his instincts were still screaming at him that something was amiss.

“Sakura,” he started slowly, “what happened to your stutter?”

“My stutter? Oh, right. I suppose that was an oversight,” she scoffed with annoyance, and her tears immediately ceased falling.

“What?” he asked, confused. He suddenly noticed that her eyes had changed color, and were a dark, burnt brown instead of a gentle, warm maroon. “Sakura, what-”

But his question was cut off as she shoved a large dagger deep into his stomach, her two small hands holding it at the hilt. He gasped in pain and surprise.

Sakura laughed, but it was a warped laughter, not the sweet, happy sound that he was used to. “You idiot. The girl’s been dead for a long time now. Didn’t you even notice as I slowly devoured her soul from the inside?” she asked. Her hands then pulled the hilt of the knife further upward, slicing the dagger slowly through his insides.

“No…” he whispered with his dwindling strength, overwhelmed by his despair.

“Yes,” she hissed with a twisted smile. “Oh, but you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to kill you, Princeling. You’ve been such a nuisance to me as of late. And by the way - your father sends his regards.”

But if she said anything else Leo didn’t hear her, and the world started to fade away from him, everything except for the pain. His eyes then rolled up into his head, and soon he was once again surrounded by nothing but black.

Leo’s eyes bolted open once more, and he wasn’t sure if it was the complete agony that his body was in or his own screaming that had woken him. For a moment he wondered if he was still trapped in the demon’s horrible nightmare-induced sleep, where a Iago-possessed-Sakura had just stabbed him.

But this pain felt worse than being stabbed, gods, much worse. A pink light was now engulfing him, and it felt like his insides were melting.

“Sorry to wake you from your little nap,” a loud voice boomed, and as Leo regained some of his senses, he realized that he was being held in a giant hand that was hovering only a few feet away from the Demon King’s face. “Your screams are so wonderful, though. They’re like music to my ears.”

Leo fumbled for Brynhildr, grateful that the tome was still in its pouch. It was pulsing almost frantically, but whether because of Leo’s anxiety or its own, he couldn’t be sure.

“Stupid mortals,” the Demon King continued. “You believe that pathetic notions such as hope and love will save you, but those are just more weapons to use against you. Tell me, human, how long then until their puny minds break from all the torment, until their hearts shrivel up into nothing? Minutes? Hours? Days?” he asked, referring to his allies who were still trapped in their tortuous nightmares. “Once I kill those ones,” he said, nodding to the part of the army that was fighting the monsters across the bridge, “I plan to find out. I’ll leave them all like this until their frail bodies shut down from neglect, so they’ll know nothing but complete agony until they die.”

“And so you chose to… wake me?” Leo asked, weakened from the last attack. “That’s… so sweet. I’m truly… touched.”

Leo was rewarded for his cheekiness as the demon squeezed his hand around the length of his body. He cried out, but only for a short moment, as all air and sound were soon constricted by the Demon King’s grip.

Fortunately the demon soon unclenched his hand, although he continued to hold Leo in his giant palm.

“I woke you because I’m angry!” he raged. “They all cry and scream in despair, but not her, the one who I most want to see suffer. Why?”

Leo knew that he was talking about Sakura, as the demon clearly had a vendetta against her. After she’d almost convinced Lyon to shake the Demon King’s hold, and then used Latona to break his nightmare spell earlier, which in turn had given Ephraim's army the chance to significantly weaken him, well… needless to say, there wasn’t much love lost there.

Leo looked over to her, noticing that while all of the others were moaning, writhing, or shrieking in their sleep, Sakura was still. Too still. Gods, was she all right?

The Demon King laughed again, and a foreboding smile soon swept over his face. “I never got the chance to kill that fool Latona, so killing her instead will have to do,” he mused. “And as much as I hate to wake her from such tormenting dreams, hearing her screams of real pain will be worth it.”

Leo activated Brynhildr, and since the Demon King wasn’t paying him any mind while he reached for Sakura, Leo met no resistance when he tried to use the tome. Almost instantly a tree sprang up from the ground, spearing through the demon’s hand as he reached for her.

“That’s not… gonna… happen,” Leo said weakly, forcing his mouth upward into a taunting smirk. The Demon King howled in rage, and although it might not have been the smartest move to piss off a nearly invincible demon, that had been exactly what Leo was hoping for. As long as the monster’s attention was focused on him, he wouldn’t hurt Sakura.

Yes, he’d failed her in his nightmares, over and over again… but he wouldn’t fail her here - not where it counted.

Leo was punished for his efforts with another onslaught of the demon’s light. He tried not to give the Demon King the satisfaction of hearing him scream again, but he was in such agony that he couldn’t help it.

By all rights the attack probably should have killed him, but he could feel Brynhildr protecting him from the full force of the magic. Thank you, my friend, he thought through the pain. He needed to at least stay alive long enough to ensure that Sakura would be safe.

“Hmm,” the demon grumbled. “You don’t even have one of the holy weapons of those five fools from long ago, and yet, you still truly think that you can hurt me?”

“I can… sure… try,” Leo replied, activating Brynhildr once again. This time, though, instead of attacking the Demon King, he summoned two trees to cut into Ephraim and Eirika, impaling them through their shoulders.

The twins screamed, but Leo had been careful in where he’d place the attack so as not to kill them. He only hoped that it had been enough to actually wake them.

“Fool!” the Demon King growled. “Do you think I wouldn’t realize what you’re trying to do? As if your puny friends could really save you. I’ll make you pay for that.”

A third onslaught of the demon’s light assaulted Leo, and this time, Leo thought he could actually feel his lifeforce slipping away from him. He could hear someone screaming his name, a man’s voice, but everything was hazy.

Brynhildr had protected him again, as much as it could, but Leo knew that he was in bad shape. Still, he fought valiantly against the pending unconsciousness, even though his body longed for it to escape the pain.

“Still alive?” an evil voice asked him. “You shouldn’t worry, human. You can die knowing that I plan to make that girl’s death utter agony. I only regret that you’ll be unable to witness it, that I won’t be able to enjoy the sweet suffering on your face while I kill her.”

Leo lolled his head weakly toward Ephraim, watching as the prince stumbled toward his spear, Siegmund. Leo couldn’t turn far enough to see Eirika beside her brother, but he could only imagine that she was similarly struggling. Fear overtook his pain as he worried that they wouldn’t have the ability to protect Sakura from the demon in their current state.

He couldn’t let the Demon King hurt her. All of his strength was gone, but it didn’t matter because Sakura needed him. Grabbing Brynhildr, he took comfort in the familiar pulsing of the tome.

This is what you’re meant for, isn’t it? Leo then wondered, finally understanding as he suddenly felt stronger. Only now did he notice the common thread connecting the moments that he'd received these invigorating blessings from his tome. Such great power… but it’s not to destroy. It’s to protect. Somehow, it took me this long to realize it.

He could feel Brynhildr’s approval but also its aching sadness, and that’s when he knew that he didn’t have much longer for this world.

“Nothing left to say, human?” the Demon King asked, sounding almost disappointed. He then squeezed Leo tightly for a moment, and Leo once again had to struggle to hold onto consciousness. “Perhaps, then, I should keep you alive. Then you can watch as I kill the two fools you doomed by waking, followed by that stupid girl who is so precious to you.”

“Heh… like I’d let... you... hurt her,” Leo responded. “I think… that I’ll just... kill you now… instead,” Leo said to the demon, although he then started to cough up some of the blood that had been gathering in his lungs.

The Demon King only howled with laughter, clearly amused by Leo’s words considering his current predicament.

One more time, my friend, he thought. My oldest friend. You saved me time and time again, and I did nothing but abuse your power. But still, I ask this of you… please lend me your strength. Give me your power to help me protect the ones that I care about once more.

To protect… Sakura.

Brynhildr pulsed again, but this time, Leo could feel its magical energy surging through him, giving him incredible power. He embraced the magnificent energy, focusing on it through the pain.

With it he summoned a giant tree, reaching up to the full height of the Demon King.

The demon only continued to cackle gleefully. “You fool! You missed!”

Leo smirked. “Did... I?” With all of his remaining strength he then called forth a large branch from the standing tree, which was almost as wide as a tree itself. The branch shot quickly and forcefully into the demon’s mouth, shattering his teeth. The tree’s limb then reappeared through the top of the demon’s head, past even the bone and horns protecting it as it skewered through his brain. Finally, two more small branches emerged from the demon’s eyes, completely blinding him.

Satisfied as he heard the demon screaming, Leo closed his eyes and began to let himself succumb to the darkness. His strength was completely gone, his lifeforce mostly depleted, and all that he could feel was the pain from his broken body.

It suddenly seemed like he was falling through the air, but he couldn’t be sure.

And before the blackness finally enveloped him one last time, he thought only of Sakura, praying to all of his gods that he’d done enough to save her.

“Well hello, Sakura.”

Sakura immediately recoiled at the sound of the voice, knowing it well by now.


“Now, now. Is that anyway to greet me after I rescued you from the Demon King’s horrible nightmare spell?”

He suddenly appeared in front of her, his form abruptly sharpening into focus from nothingness.

“Ah, so you remember what I look like, then? How truly precious,” Iago said mockingly. At the sight of him she instinctively tried to run, but she soon realized that she didn’t even have a body to run with.

“Where… where are w-we?” she asked.

“You don’t recognize it, then?” he asked her snidely. “It’s the place you’ve relegated me to all this time. What did I call it before? Ah, yes… the darkest corner of your mind.”

“L-let me out!” she screamed, struggling against the darkness.

“I don’t think so, Sakura. This is my last chance to get the Demon King’s soul, and I won’t fail. Although, I appreciate the challenge you’ve put up thus far. Had I managed to possess Lord Leo like King Garon had originally intended, this would have been far too easy.”

“You’re wrong!” she argued. “Leo is s-strong. He’d never give in to you!”

“Hmm, maybe,” Iago said, and she imagined him shrugging. “Maybe not. Either way, I think you meant to say, ‘was.’ Prince Leo was strong.”

That gave her pause. “What… what do you m-mean?” she asked worriedly.

“Well, while we’ve been having this lovely little chat, the Demon King went and killed your dearly beloved. Would you like to see?”

In an instant she was back in her body, conscious and aware of her surroundings as her eyes quickly shot open.

Lying about ten yards from her was Leo. His eyes were closed and there was a trail of blood leading from his mouth to his chin. The worst part, though, was how he was resting on the ground, completely limp but with his limbs twisted at awkward angles.

That’s all she could process until a flurry of leaves fell onto his body, covering him like a shroud. Only then did she notice the giant tree standing next to him, impaled into the Demon King’s head as Fomortiis howled from the pain.

The tree soon disappeared, as did the leaves that had come from it, but Leo’s broken body remained.

“No!” she screamed, louder than she’d ever screamed before. But no one heard her except for Iago, as her tormentor had already dragged her away from consciousness and back into her mind. “Leo! Let m-me go! I need to h-help him!”

“Help him?” Iago snorted. “And how do you plan to do that? He sure looks dead to me.”

“No!” she screamed again. She couldn’t give up on him, she’d never give up on him.

“You can believe what you want, but that won’t change the truth. Lord Leo is as good as gone. King Garon will be pleased.”

King Garon? Leo’s father?

That’s right. This had all been his plan - to send Leo here for the Demon King’s soul. To sacrifice his son in the process.

King Garon who’d killed her father. King Garon who’d kidnapped Corrin and ripped her brother away from his loving family, breaking them all in the process. King Garon who’d killed her mother and all of those innocent people in the square. King Garon who’d caused her family and her people more pain and anguish than anyone should ever have to suffer.

King Garon, who’d planned to sacrifice his own son. Leo, her Leo. Gods, her Leo…

King Garon who’d be pleased.

“I… I h-ha…” she started.

“What’s that, Sakura?” Iago coaxed. “I didn’t quite get that.”

“I… I… I HATE HIM!” she shrieked, and her words were so potent that they seemed to reverberate against the black. She latched onto the hatred, the anger, because it was the only thing that could dull all of the agony that threatened to consume her.

But those were the very words that Iago had been waiting to hear, the sentiment from her heart that he needed to finally take complete control over her soul, without any hope of her fighting back this time. And as he locked her away in the darkness of her own mind, the last thing she heard was his echoing laughter.

Fomortiis’ body was being destroyed. A spell of the earth, the same earth that the demon had wanted to ruin, had weakened him significantly. But it was Prince Ephraim and Princess Eirika of Renais, with their holy weapons Siegmund and Sieglinde, who together delivered the final blow.

With the Demon King’s body now dead, those who’d been trapped within his spell of nightmares finally began to rouse. And all of them, every one of them heroes brave enough to face the darkest of demons, soon stood together, ready to fight for the future that they believed in…

… that is, all but one, whose body remained nearly motionless on the ground.

The threat of the Demon King’s wrath would continue to loom until the monster’s soul was contained within the Sacred Stone. But apparently Princess L’Arachel had been right - the source of the stone’s power was the desire for peace within the human heart.

Yet, what they didn't know was that there was one amongst them who didn't desire peace, not in the slightest. He remained hidden in plain sight in the body of a girl, a girl who represented everything that he hated in his world. She was the princess of a kingdom whose citizens ate themselves to excess while his parents had died of starvation, leaving him an orphan… one of many in Nohr. She was the princess of a kingdom whose countrymen had left half of his face disfigured in war, a war that he'd only enlisted in for the sole purpose of being fed with soldier's rations.

She was the princess of a kingdom that deserved to be completely obliterated for its people’s selfish and hedonistic ways.

And through his own wicked desire, without anyone even realizing it, he managed to pull half of the demon’s willing soul back into the Dark Stone… the same stone resting in a small pouch carried by the girl whose body he possessed.

However, it took all of the man’s magic, all of his own power and the power that had been gifted to him by his master, to call back that much of the Demon King’s soul from the kind hearts surrounding him. Because of this he had no more strength left to maintain his hold over the girl, and all remnants of his existence were soon purged completely from her mind, body, and soul.

That was all too bad, as far as the man was concerned. He would have greatly enjoyed destroying her soul completely until there was nothing left of her but a dark, empty shell. Gods, how he would have enjoyed that…

But ultimately it mattered not. After all, they were now one step closer to bringing the power of the Demon King back to Nohr.

For the glory of Nohr.

Yes, King Garon would be pleased.

Chapter Text


Stone everywhere.

The sight of it. The taste of it. The horrid, putrid smell of it.

Anankos would destroy it all if he could, every last scrap. But instead he, a First Dragon - a dragon god, no less - was relegated to the stony prison of Castle Gyges, cursed by the only being on this earth who would have the power to trap him…


Or rather, the foolish, sentimental portion of himself that had separated into another being entirely, daring to take a human form in the process.

At least that abominable part of his soul was finally dead, but not before it had confined him to the Valla castle’s throne room, containing his power within a large, stone mask. A mask in the likeness of a human face, of all things… how contemptible!

Yet the time would come when Anankos would regain enough power to embody his true form again... which, indubitably, was a much more appealing prospect than using another's weak, human body as a vessel. And only then would he finally be free to reign over more than just Valla.

Soon, he vowed. But he was growing impatient, and when his servant Garon was summoned to the throne room before him, bowing appropriately in subservience, Anankos only found himself annoyed.

“Where is the Demon King’s soul, Garon? Did you bring it to me?” he growled, feeling especially venomous today.

"You will have it soon, great Anankos," Garon vowed, but the lines in his forehead indicated differently, as they seemed to be more deeply etched than usual while he spoke. "Iago - the one I put in charge of this endeavor - has trapped the demon's soul back into the Dark Stone. My son is dead, and the Hoshidan Princess who traveled to Magvel with him is now in possession of it."

Garon's son? The king of Nohr displayed no emotion as he pronounced the loss, but then again, Anankos hadn't expected him to. His minions had corrupted and killed the man long ago, leaving him nothing more than a puppet for Anankos to control. And as for Garon's son, well, his death had always been a necessity ever since Garon had volunteered him - one less complication to deal with - but the Hoshidan girl was never meant to be involved. Nohr and Hoshido were supposed to destroy each other, after all. If it was discovered that the two had gone missing together...

"Well, what are you waiting for, then? Have the girl bring it here," Anankos commanded, anxious for his prize.

Garon hesitated. “The princess has proven difficult to control, and my retainer had to sacrifice his foothold in her mind in order to secure the Demon King’s soul. But I will send him to Magvel to retrieve it from her.”

“No,” Anankos said in return, shaking his giant head. “Your man lacks the… subtlety necessary to perform this task. And you, Garon, are needed in Nohr to ensure that the war between Nohr and Hoshido continues as planned. Yes… I have someone else in mind.”

Recognizing his summons, a brawny man in a blue, hooded robe then approached from the shadows, brushing past Garon as he did so. Had Garon been more than a glorified corpse, Anankos might have found it amusing that the former king of Hoshido, Sumeragi, was now standing next to him.

“Do you know what you’re to do?” Anankos inquired, and Sumeragi nodded imperceptibly. “Good. But you must contain your bloodlust for now. We can't risk that the Magvelians will trap the Demon King’s soul back into the Sacred Stone. Those pathetic insects can be crushed later.”

“As you wish,” Sumeragi responded in his characteristically gruff voice, one that almost sounded like pure gravel.

“Good. Then make whatever preparations you need. I will summon a portal once you’re ready,” Anankos instructed.

He watched Sumeragi carefully for any sign of defiance. Anankos knew that the girl he was tasked to find had been his daughter once, after all - back when he was a living man of flesh and blood.

But no, like Garon, Sumeragi was a mindless servant, and so his orders were met with no resistance. Once bitter enemies, the two kings now had so much in common… what wonderful irony!

And because of their efforts, the Dark Stone was nearly his. Soon he would suffer no more.

For oh, how he'd suffered! The forgotten god. The betrayed king. The buried dragon.

Only, he wouldn't be buried and forgotten for much longer. Once he combined the power of dragon’s blood with the soul of the king of demons, he'd finally be able to free himself and end the human race once and for all. He’d destroy this pitiful world, and all the others along with it.

Humanity would flourish no more.

The air around Sakura was damp and uninviting, but that didn’t stop her eyes from opening with as much urgency as they could muster. Still, her transition from unconsciousness to consciousness certainly hadn't been comfortable, and for that reason, her wits were slow to catch up with her.

Even so, Sakura instantly noticed that she felt strange - different somehow. It was as if a darkness that had been inside of her ever since she'd gotten to Magvel had finally been lifted. No longer was the rage and enmity of another trying to suffocate her, trying to manipulate her emotions into a mindless, colorless hate.

Iago… he was gone.

But her instincts screamed at her not to rejoice, that the price of such a victory had been too high, that it wasn’t even a victory at all because she’d only failed in the end. And once she was able to keep her eyes open without much effort, the sight of her surroundings only seemed to amplify her growing anxiety.

“Sakura? Are you okay?” she heard Eirika ask, and she turned her head to look at the princess of Renais.

“Eirika? What… what h-happened?” she asked as she sat up, trying to battle through the fog in her mind so that she could remember, so that she could understand why her heart was beating so wildly.

“I'm not quite sure,” Eirika responded slowly, her voice filled with gentle concern. “You fainted right after we contained the Demon King’s soul in the Sacred Stone.”

She fainted? That didn't sound right. Hadn't she been trapped someplace dark and cold? And then…

She saw…

“Leo!” she suddenly shouted. Her gaze wandered frantically until she spotted Leo’s body lying on the ground, just like she’d last seen it, with Brynhildr sprawled out haphazardly next to him. Yet this time the Demon King was gone. Instead, Princess L’Arachel was hovering over him with her mend staff, and Prince Ephraim was kneeling by his side.

After ensuring that her Sun Festal was latched securely to her dress, Sakura scrambled over to Leo as quickly as she could and knelt across from Ephraim.

“Sakura,” Ephraim started, and she could hear the grief in his voice. “I… I’m so sorry.”

The skin around Ephraim’s eyelids looked rubbed red to the point that it was nearly raw, but there were no signs of moisture on his face or in his eyes - almost as if he'd been stubbornly trying to prevent any tears from even materializing in the first place.

“Dear girl,” L’Arachel chimed in, and her tone was surprisingly soft. “You can rest assured that we’ve done everything we can to make Sir Leo comfortable in his final moments. And his heroic deeds will most assuredly be sung about in the days and years to come, just like the ancient heroes of legend.”

Sakura looked at Princess L'Arachel as if she wasn't making any sense. Were those words intended to comfort her?

Well, they didn’t. She didn't care if Leo would be a hero, or even a legend. All she wanted was for him to hold her again, like he’d promised.

Unsure of what to do, she simply stared at him, as if at any moment he would rise. That was how it was supposed to go, wasn’t it? His arms shouldn’t be lying by his sides - they should be wrapped around her. His eyes shouldn’t be closed, they should be looking at her and filled with all the love that she knew he bore for her. His mouth shouldn’t be flat, it should be turned upward in a familiar smirk as he scoffed at her for fretting over him so much.

Yet none of those things happened. And as she continued to watch him lay there, a despairing part of her came to the realization that none of those things would ever happen again.

The grief that followed seemed like a tangible thing, as if she could actually feel the leaden mass in her chest that was crushing her from within. What had this all been for - coming to Magvel, falling in love, fighting against the Demon King - if she was only meant to lose him in the end?

“L-Leo,” she whimpered as she brought a trembling hand to his soft bangs, sweeping them away gently and with the utmost care. She then bent down and kissed him on his forehead, a kiss that ended in a sob as she burrowed her nose against his.

She rested a hand against his cheek, drawing it downward as she caressed his handsome face, but she froze once it brushed by the side of his neck. His pulse - almost imperceptible to the point that it was barely even there, so much so that she had to cease her sobbing just to ensure that she wasn’t the one causing the slight vibrations - abruptly filled her with newfound hope.

How had she not noticed the slight rise and fall of his chest? The small bursts of air coming from his nose?

“He’s s-still alive!” she gasped excitedly, but the three Magvelian royals around her only looked at her with pity.

“Yes, he yet lives,” L’Arachel agreed slowly. “Stubborn as ever, that boy. However, his body is at the point beyond healing, and it won't be long now before he passes from this world.”

“N-no, you’re wrong,” Sakura insisted, shaking her head as she reached for her Sun Festal. “I can s-still save him. I can!”

It wasn’t just desperation that propelled her resolve - although, to be fair, that was certainly a large part of it. But there was also something enduring and bright within her, a powerful force that Iago had tried to smother for so long but was now finally free, and it filled her with strength and hope.

Besides, she knew that Leo would have never given up on her if she needed him. He’d saved her from the brink of death time and time again, and now it was her turn to save him. And if her heart was wrong to hope and the worst still came to pass, she needed to at least know that she'd done everything she could for him before she could allow herself to let him go.

So, she deftly ignored the pitying looks that Prince Ephraim, Princess Eirika, and Princess L’Arachel were giving each other, and focused instead on what she wanted more than anything in the world...

Bringing Leo back to her.

Leo was still alive, he could tell. The excruciating pain that he was in was a clear indication of that, at least. His eyes remained closed, though, leaving him unable to see anything around him.

Why had he even regained consciousness? His mind screamed for him to let go again, to embrace the sweet nothingness, to just die and make the pain end.

But something stopped him.

“Sakura,” a voice said, and he recognized it to be Ephraim’s. “You need to stop this. You've been at this for the good part of an hour now. Leo’s beyond treatment… his wounds are fatal. You’re a healer, you should know this better than anyone.”

Ah, so that was it, then. There was a point when the human body suffered so much trauma that not even healing magic could repair it. He must have reached that point, and considering that his body felt like it was on fire, it didn’t surprise him.

“If you keep using your staff, you’ll only prolong his suffering,” Ephraim continued gruffly. “Leo… he’s gone, Sakura.”

Leo thought he heard Ephraim’s voice catch, but he could barely focus on anything except the pain that consumed him. It hurt so much that he even eagerly welcomed the thought of his approaching death.

Sakura must have been healing his body with enough restorative magic to prevent it from completely shutting down, yet there was nothing she could do to actually mend the damage that had already been done. If he could have managed to speak in that moment, he would have begged her to just let him die.

That is, until he heard her crying.

“No, p-please, no,” Sakura wailed, and the sound of her misery hurt Leo infinitely more than any amount of physical pain he was in. “Leo…”

“Sakura, I’ll take your staff,” Ephraim’s voice said, although it sounded more like an order than a request.


“It's alright, Sakura,” Eirika’s voice soothed. “We’ll just be waiting right over there to give you some privacy. You did everything you could for him - we know you did. But there's still time left for you to say your goodbyes and let him know how much he means to you, okay?”

Leo then heard the sound of footsteps, indicating that Eirika and Ephraim had walked away - perhaps another person as well - and soon only the sound of Sakura’s crying remained.

He could feel her press her face against his neck, her warm tears almost scalding his now cold skin. She was sobbing so hard that she was hiccuping, and if not for the devastating circumstances surrounding them, Leo probably would have found her little hics to be quite adorable.

Concentrating, Leo tried with all his might to do something to comfort her. First, he attempted to move his arms to wrap them around her, but he could barely even lift his smallest finger. His throat burned with effort as he tried to speak her name, but the fire in his lungs prevented even a grunt. Perhaps if he could merely open his eyes, to just look at her one last time…

But his eyelids felt as if they weighed a million pounds in that moment, and remained stubbornly shut.

All he could do, it seemed, was embrace the pain and stay alive for her as long as he could. He wasn’t sure how much control he really had over the matter, but nonetheless he fought against the tempting blackness that was calling to him, doing his best to remain focused and aware.

Still, it hurt to do so - gods did it ever hurt - and he could have never imagined that such torment was even possible. If his voice had been working, he was sure that he would be screaming in agony right now. Every piece of his flesh longed for release, for death, but he forced himself to suffer through it, for her.

Because ultimately, he’d do anything for her. Even spend his last remaining moments alive on this earth in complete and utter torture.

“D-don’t leave me,” she begged him, and his heart broke because he knew that he must. Her sweet pleas strengthened his resolve to endure it all even longer, though, to hold on for as long as he could.

His senses seemed to be intact, at least, so he let them indulge in her to try and take his mind off of the pain. Since she was still crying against his neck, her hair was extremely close to his nose. He recognized the pleasing floral scent of hers, almost like a rose but not quite - something he hadn't yet managed to identify.

He supposed that now, he never would.

As her face continued to press into his skin he then felt her lips incidentally brush against him from the force of her sobs, and he wished that she would kiss him. Their time together had been so tragically short, their kisses too few, and he longed to taste her upon lips one last time.

“I l-love you, Leo,” she said through her tears, and his heart nearly burst. He thanked his gods that he was at least able to hear her say those words again before he passed. To have someone like her in his life, even if only for a brief time… to have the luxury of dying with the knowledge that he’d been fully and truly loved… it meant more to him than she could ever know.

If only he could say the words back to her, to let her know how much she meant to him in return. He’d told her before, of course, but when was the last time? Why hadn't he reminded her at every waking hour of the feelings she'd instilled in him, feelings that he’d never even thought he was capable of? Since this looked like it would be his last chance, he needed to at least try.

Focusing again, he fought through the pain as he attempted to speak. He noticed that it seemed slightly easier this time. Still, a pathetic “Lnngh,” was all he seemed to manage.

Her sobbing stopped abruptly, and she lifted her head away from his neck.

He instantly felt cold. And as the moments seemed to drag on into nothing but unbearable pain, he started to even wonder if she’d left him.

With an immense struggle, he tried once more to open his eyes, needing to know if she was still nearby. He managed to get them to flutter slightly, letting in the tiniest bit of light, but then they defiantly closed again. A hiccup gave her away, though, and he immediately relaxed once he was assured that she remained close.

Two small fingers proceeded to press against his neck, under his jaw line. They remained there for what seemed like a long time, but once they disappeared he could hear her getting up and running, her small hics getting fainter by the second.

No! Come back! he tried to scream, but it came out as nothing more than a pathetic, “Cmmgh.”

He hadn’t been afraid of death before, not when she was by his side… but now that she was gone, he suddenly found himself terrified.

How could she just leave him there to die alone?

“Prince Ephraim!” he then heard her cry out in the distance, and he strained to listen, hoping that the sound of her voice would help to calm him. “I n-need my Sun Festal back!”

“Sakura,” Ephraim said, his voice sounding stern, “we’ve already discussed this. Your repeated attempts to heal Leo are only serving to draw out his pain. Is that what you want?”

"Brother, please don't be so harsh," Eirika's voice chimed in. "Surely you can see that this is a difficult time for her?"

"Just like Lyon and Orson were going through a difficult time when they lost those closest to them?" Ephraim asked. "Perhaps if I'd had this conversation with them, I could have saved our kingdom a lot of trouble.”

“But you d-don’t understand!” Sakura protested. “Leo’s conscious now - his condition is improving. He’s trying to s-speak to me, and his eyes even opened for a m-moment. His pulse is also getting slightly s-stronger and steadier. His vitals are n-normalizing! That means that there’s a chance he might not be beyond healing anymore, that I might still be able to s-save him!”

Ephraim sighed. “Sakura, I know that you want to believe this to be true, but you need to accept that Leo is gone,” he told her. “You’re not only hurting yourself and Leo by keeping up this charade, but you’re hurting us, too. This is hard enough without…” his voice grew tight and his words trailed off. Either that, or Leo just couldn’t hear them.

“Please, Sakura,” the prince of Renais then continued, and his voice sounded heavy. “Go with Eirika and let her provide you with the comfort you seek. I will see to it that Leo suffers no more.”

Leo knew what he meant by that… Ephraim wanted to euthanize him.

That wasn’t what Leo wanted, though. He didn’t know if Sakura was right in that he could be saved - truthfully, he didn't think that it was possible - but he knew when he did die, he wanted Sakura to be with him. “Nnnh,” he tried to protest, but everyone was too far away to hear him.

“But y-you can’t!” Sakura objected on his behalf. “Please, P-Prince Ephraim… I know that Leo must be important to you. He thinks of you as a b-brother, even. If you c-care for him at all in return, then please believe me,” she begged. “I can still heal him, I know I c-can, but there might not be much time left…”

Ephraim was quiet for a while, and if not for the never-ending pain and Sakura’s occasional hiccups, Leo might have wondered if he’d fallen into unconsciousness again.

“Fine, Sakura,” Ephraim finally relented to her impassioned pleas. “If there might be a chance to save Leo… then I have to see it through. You can have your staff back. But this is the last time, do you understand?”

“I do. Th-thank you!” Sakura responded, and Leo could hear the sincere relief in her voice.

“Ephraim… in the meantime, perhaps we should go outside and address the army?” Eirika suggested.

“Yes, we must,” another woman chimed in, and Leo could have sworn that he flinched once he recognized L’Arachel’s voice. He hadn't even realized that she was there, too.

“I know how hard this is for you, Ephraim, but one must never show weakness in front of one’s subjects,” the princess of Rausten continued, yet her tone was laced with so much concern that it took all of the bite out of her normally sharp words. “These soldiers fought bravely for you, especially on this day, and they will look to you now to congratulate them on their triumph. Only then can they return to their families and kingdoms with a sense of peace and hope for the future.”

“You're right, of course,” Ephraim noted. “Yet perhaps we should wait here just a bit longer. I promised Leo that I’d…”

Ephraim trailed off awkwardly, but Leo remembered what Ephraim had promised him - that he’d look after Sakura for him should he fall in the battle. And she was clearly in a fragile state right now, hence his friend’s reluctance to leave.

“No, go,” Sakura insisted. “Please, it’s f-fine. It’ll be easier for me to c-concentrate if I’m alone with him.”

Ephraim let out an audible sigh. “All right,” he said tiredly. “But please, Sakura… you must try to temper your expectation