-"Suteki da ne"
They first met on Kilika’s docks, him seventeen and her fourteen. He first spotted her waiting for the ship all alone, a rucksack lying at her side, kicking her legs over the water. Her mage robes were white, lined red triangles, hood pulled over her head, but her small stature was painfully reminiscent of Elise.
No, not entirely. From a purely objective standpoint, this girl was nothing like Elise other than their similarly small statures. She was hunched over, looking so defeated. Elise was never like that, even in times of hardship she was one to smile and stay positive.
The girl peered over her shoulder at him, he caught the glimpse of short, pink hair and eyes of maroon before she returned to staring out over the ocean.
The captain of the S.S. Liki showed up an hour or so later. He was surprised to see them and asked why they weren’t at the festivities.
Leo didn't answer. He wasn’t in Kilika for the festivities, just a stop in his aching journey from Bevelle to Guadosalam, passing Moonflow to Djose Temple, over the Mi’ihen Highroad to Luca, his final destination being the island of Besaid, as far, far away from his family’s resting places as possible.
The girl on the other hand did answer. “T-the newest High Summoner is… was m-my big brother.”
Sakura still didn’t really understand why she was the one who was still alive. Ryoma and Hinoka had been Crusaders, Takumi now a High Summoner. All three of them died fighting Sin. All three of them brave and noble and wonderful people who died too early.
And here she was, cowardly and weak, never picked up a weapon in her life. The only magic she knew were Cure and Esuna, and unlike the three of them, who were leaders and warriors, she had only one thing to offer Spira. That one thing was what everyone around her wouldn’t let her give.
She has the talent, a Yevonite priest had said shortly after Hinoka’s death, and Sin has been back for too long. We need a summoner who can defeat it. We need the Calm. They never failed to mention it to either of them when they saw them about, trying to recruit Sakura into becoming an apprentice summoner.
One time too many, and Takumi practically spat in their faces as he told them that if they wanted a summoner, they got one - him.
For what it was worth, Sakura begged him not to (“Please don’t do it big brother. Please don’t leave me like everyone else did…”), but Takumi refused to listen to her. Selfishly, she had hoped that he wouldn’t be able to complete the training, but no, she should have known better. What Takumi lacked in natural talent, he made up for with determination and diligence.
He let her come with him and his two guardians - Oboro, the daughter of a pair of tailors who died when Sin attacked their ship and Hinata, a former player of the Besaid Aurochs, but only as far as Luca, saying it was one of the safest cities in Spira because of the blitzball stadium.
When Sin was defeated, Sakura had been as overjoyed as everyone else.
When she heard the new High Summoner was Takumi of Kilika Port, she spent the rest of the evening sitting in her room in almost a daze.
The day after, she booked a passage back to Kilika, but had no intention of continuing her life there all on her own.
They started talking by chance, standing at the fore of the ship. They talked about many things - magic, Spiran history, their travels - but mostly it was about their families. It started with a few tentative questions about Takumi before she was telling him about Ryoma and Hinoka too.
Hearing her shaky recounts, seeing how she was trying her hardest not to cry, Leo, with some reluctance, opened up to her about Xander, Yevon’s Minister of Military Affairs who refused to leave his men when Sin appeared to attack the Mushroom Rock Road; about Camilla, who took him and Elise out on a trip to see the pyreflies in Moonflow and was killed in the Thunder Plains on the way back, fighting off the Iron Giants that ambushed them so he and Elise could escape; about Elise - sweet, willful Elise - sneaking off to provide assistance to the Warrior Monks fighting off Sinscales in Lake Macalania and was already dead when he appeared at the the site.
He didn’t notice he had been crying until Sakura timidly reached out to wipe a tear off his face with the corner of her cloak.
Besaid Village was small and quiet, nothing like Bevelle. They arrived together, two young people looking to start a new life somewhere else after losing everyone they had. With the constant threat of Sin looming overhead, the villagers needed no further explanation and no further questions are asked.
During the day, their new chores and tasks kept them busy. Leo found himself a place keeping books for a shopkeeper, while Sakura ended up becoming a weaver’s assistant. Everyday was roughly the same routine, but they occasionally venture out to other parts of the island, familiarizing themselves with it, helping gather wild fruit and berries to eat and herbs used to brew potions. Their footprints join the thousand others on the beach. It’s a slow process, but they do manage to build something of a life here.
They end up having to share a tent. It’s small, hastily erected, but they were able to put up a curtain between them to allot themselves some privacy from each other when it was time to sleep.
But that curtain wasn’t enough to isolate themselves from each other completely. When night came, Leo could sometimes hear her sobbing in the middle of the night. He was never able to fall asleep until she stopped.
For some reason, it made him feel guilty. He tried to reassure him himself because he had never been good at comforting people, not like his sisters, not like her, so he refrained from asking if she was alright the morning after, only if she slept well, to which she would always reply, “Fine. Thank you for asking.”
Until the night where he was just managing to drift off to sleep when her voice, a shrill scream, jolted him awake. Stepping around the curtain, Leo knelt by her side. Her eyes were still closed, tears running down her cheeks, so he took her by the shoulders and shook her awake, softly repeating her name.
Her eyes snapped open, glazed. She blinked up at him, eyes clearing as she realized she had been dreaming.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“D-did I wake you?”
“Oh… I’m sorry…”
“It’s… Don’t worry about it.”
She sat up, hugging herself with her head bowed. Leo, not really sure what else to do, returned to his side of the tent to grab his blanket. This, he draped over her shaking shoulders and sat down next to her, waiting for her to calm.
He’s not sure how long that took, maybe an hour or a half, but she looked up at him from under his blanket and murmured a thank you and another apology.
The next time it happened, about a couple months later, Sakura didn’t wait for the blanket and instead asked if he could take her to the beach. “I-I can’t sleep… N-not now…”
After a moment, he obliged, hastily putting on his mage robes while she did the same with her’s. Him in black and blue and her in white and red, they discreetly left the village, heading down to the beach together. It’s a quiet journey, wayward fiends easily falling to Leo’s magic, their bodies already dissolving into pyreflies by the time they reached them.
At the waterfalls, Sakura reached out and took his hand as she closed her eyes to enjoy the soft spray of water on her face. That surprised him, but he smiled and let his fingers close around her’s.
A year passed. Sakura’s night terrors became less frequent and less severe. She never needed him to wake her up anymore, but she would still sometimes ask if they could spend some time together on the beach during the evenings. Most of the time, he would agree because he had come to cherish these little moments together.
They talked more about their past lives now. It was almost funny how they started with the difficult parts, but perhaps that had been necessary before speaking of the better days past were possible. It became part of their routine as natural though they had been living on the island since they were born.
Life on Besaid was quiet, peaceful, almost boring.
A year later, Sin returned.
“You want me to be… you want me to be your what?!”
She should have known he wouldn’t have taken the news well. “I-I’m asking you if you could be my guardian,” she repeated. She had thought about this. Sin was back and a summoner would be needed to defeat it to bring a new Calm, so why not her?
Of course, it wasn’t so easy. If she could finish the training and become a full-fledged summoner, she would need at least one guardian to accompany her on her pilgrimage. She hated asking Leo to do this, unroot him from the life he - they - had managed to build together during her brother’s Calm, but there was no one else in the village she trusted more than him.
“You do realize...” Leo said slowly, some of that icy hardness that she thought had melted away returning to his voice, “That your brother chose to become a summoner so you wouldn’t have to. Becoming one now is a terrible way to repay him.”
There was a sharp intake of breath. Bringing up Takumi like that… the fabric of her dress wrinkled as Sakura clenched her fist. She knew her brother wouldn’t approve, nor would Ryoma or Hinoka, but they weren’t here anymore. She could tell that the priests in Besaid temple could see she had the talent as the ones in Kilika did, but none of them ever tried to pressure her into training. This was her choice.
For what it was worth, Leo at least seemed to regret it as well, but he didn’t apologize.
“T-Takumi chose his path to protect me,” Sakura said, “and I am choosing the same path. I… I want to do it. My family is gone, but there are still things that are worth protecting…” She gazed down at the village from the cliff… So calm, so peaceful, but for how long? How long until Sin decided it’s been untouched for too long?
“I’m only here today because of them. I-I’m only alive because of them… That is their gift to me, Leo, and I want to do something with it… I know what the price is and I’m ready to pay it.”
“...And if I refuse?”
“T-then I won’t ask you again, but I… I’m s-still going to train.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, I know I’m asking too much of you, but… You’re important to me, Leo, I don’t want to do this without your blessing regardless of whether or not you become my guardian.”
Leo was silent. “...Give me a couple days to think about it?”
That wasn’t a ‘no.’ Sakura supposed that, with a decision such as this, he was entitled to as time as he needed. “Of course.”
It took longer than a couple days.
As her training became more intense, the realization that Sakura was going to become a summoner no matter what he said finally dawned on him. If not him, she could find others willing to accompany her onto her pilgrimage. Sakura was well-liked in the village for her kindness and reliability in her work, it wouldn’t take much to persuade a Crusader or two into the task.
And that, Leo had to admit, was an idea he disliked greatly. He would be the first to admit that he wasn’t a very social person and he could come off as cold upon first impression. Him being able to open up with Sakura so early in their… relationship, whatever it was now, had been an anomaly, but it was a good anomaly.
The day after he came to the only conclusion he had, Leo went to the Besaid Temple where she was training and requested a word. She came, stepping out into a shaded corner outside and folded her hands together. “Leo?”
“Sakura…” He sounded more raspy than he intended, so he quickly cleared his throat before saying, “I’ll do it. When you finish your training… I will be your guardian.”
She had beamed and hugged him when he told her that he accepted. He had stiffened then, torn between wanting to enjoy having her arms around him and the quiet dismay that she was happy that he just agreed to escort her to her fate.
After that, Leo broke out every book and bestiary in Besaid. He had traveled halfway across Spira on his own before, but he had been alone at the time. If he messed up and died, it wasn’t like there would be anyone who would miss him.
Things would be different this time. He would have Sakura to protect. If he died, not only would she certainly miss him, but he would also be leaving her alone with no one to protect her. If she died… It would be his fault, no matter how it happened. Protect the summoner, even at the cost of one’s life. The Code of the Guardian. His code.
Even though he knew what awaited at the journey’s end… that simply wouldn’t happen. Failure is not an option, Leo told himself, reciting the old mantra, even though he didn’t know what would constitute as a failure in this case.
At long last, Sakura finished her training and she was given authorization to enter the Cloister of Trials. Sakura had replaced the red-on-white dress she had worn when she first arrived for a white oneaccented with gold. Likewise, Leo’s new mage robes had less blue and more black, adorned with dyed chocobo feathers and lined with gold.
The Cloister’s puzzle solved, they took the lift down to the heart of the temple. Sakura held her hands in front of her like a prayer when they heard the first note of the hymn. She was nervous, but then again, why wouldn’t she be?
The lift came to a sudden halt. Sakura looked up towards the door leading to the Chamber of the Fayth. She took a deep breath, lowered her hands to her sides and glanced back at him.
“You can do it,” Leo said. She nodded back once and proceeded to climb up the stairs. Leo watched her until the stone door slid closed behind her and then settled down to wait.
The fayth of the aeon Valefor was a young girl, perhaps twelve years old. She sang in a sweet, girlish voice of emptiness and innocence.
Kneeling by the stone engraving, Sakura prayed. Please, lend me your strength.
Please find me worthy despite… despite…
Above her, she heard a voice asking her, “Why do you come here, Summoner?”
Leo was just about to doze off when he heard the Chamber of the Fayth finally, finally open. Sakura slowly walked out, her eyes on the floor, holding onto the wall for support.
...Did she do it?
Regardless of the outcome, she looked utterly exhausted, managing to take only two steps down the stairs before losing her balance. Having been ready for such a thing, his previous sleepiness and boredom vanishing the instant he watched her walk out, Leo managed to catch her in his arms before she could fall.
She stirred, opening her eyes - bright eyes - and smiled through her sweat and exhaustion. “Leo,” she breathed, elated, “Leo... I did it!”
Sakura’s pilgrimage began with a tragedy.
No sooner had she and Leo exited the temple, her still being half-supported by him, did one of the other girls came running into the village. “Fiends killed my mother!” she cried. “She wouldn’t take my hand...”
The crusaders went to retrieve the woman’s body. One of the priests approached Sakura and bowed his head, “If it wouldn’t be too much for you, Lady Summoner…”
“No, it wouldn’t be,” Sakura replied softly, trying to keep her voice study despite her own feelings. She was a full-fledged summoner now. The people of Spira were looking to her for hope. They had to see her as strong, even when she didn’t feel it. “Mozu is my friend and her mother had been kind to me in the past… It would be an honor to perform the Sending for her.”
“Thank you, Lady Summoner!”
A day ago, that priest had been her superior. To hear him defer to her in such a way felt strange, she wasn’t going to deny that.
The sun was setting when Mozu’s mother, enwrapped in a woven shroud, was laid out in the center square of the village. All around, people gathered, but at a respectable distance. The crowd parted for Sakura, allowing her to approach the dead.
Closing her eyes and raising her staff, Sakura began to dance.
The day after, Mozu appeared to send Sakura and Leo off at the docks with a couple of wrapped boxes. “Lunch,” she explained, “a goodbye present. Sakura… We weren’t friends for very long, but I’ll never forget you.”
Her plans in Kilika were simple: arrive, go to the temple, obtain the aeon there and leave. No sidetracks and she would avoid the roads she used to traverse with her siblings, even if it meant taking the long route.
The woods are more welcoming, however. Here, Sakura summoned Valefor properly for the first time. The aeon was beautiful, leathery wings and red feathers that made her impossible to miss against the lush green trees around them. She was a creature that reminded Sakura of the little birds that lived on Besaid and the dragons from stories of her childhood.
She was strong, defeating the fiends in Kilika easily, though Leo pointedly refused to let the aeon do everything. Between Valefor’s talons and Leo’s magic, the fiends fell easily. When someone inevitably got hurt, Sakura was quick to heal. They took longer to reach the temple, but when they came out, they came out a little stronger and a little more confident in their ability to coordinate themselves in a fight.
“The closer we get to Zanarkand, the stronger the fiends will become,” Leo said while taking a break after defeating a Ragora and a pair of Killer Bees. “It’s best that we make our mistakes while they are still weak than later, where a single mistake can cost us our lives.”
Sakura nodded. She knew she was the weak link in their group. With Holy still a little beyond her scope and ability to cast, she had no means to protect herself without her aeon.
But her aeon…
She knew from her training that an aeon drew its strength from its summoner, so no aeon were ever truly the same when they were summoned by different people. Takumi’s Valefor was not the same as Sakura’s, even when they did come from the same fayth.
Up above, Valefor soared. Down below, so did Sakura’s spirits.
The fayth of the aeon Ifrit was a Crusader, his clothes a too-painful reminder of the family she had lost. His voice was an operatic tendor that gave a boisterous laugh when he saw her.
“I remember you, little miss. You didn’t come by often, but I knew you could sense me when you did.”
She swallowed, “I… I’m sorry if I offended you, Blessed One.”
Ifrit laughed again. “Never.”
It wasn’t blitzball season when they arrived in Luca. They didn’t dither long there either, but they took a moment to indulge in the benefits of civilization. There was a shop that sold sweets Sakura wanted to visit before they set off to Djose Temple.
So they spent the day to themselves. Walking down the streets side-by-side, just enjoying each other's company and the sights of Luca, but not quite touching… it was almost like a date.
The fayth of the aeon Ixion was a sailor, a man of the sea who braved storms as fierce and dangerous as the thunder he commanded. He sang in a subdued bass, gentler, but at the same time more intense. He bore down on Sakura as she knelt before him.
“You are much like your brother,” he said, “But… there’s a quiet strength about you that he lacked.”
What was she supposed to say to that? “M-my brother was a great man,” she said. Sixteen. He was only sixteen when he defeated Sin, the youngest High Summoner ever. “A-and a skilled summoner.”
“I never said he wasn’t. Only that you and he are alike, but different.”
Summoners usually passed through Guadosalam on their journeys, but Sakura wanted to visit the Farplane.
Leo was skeptical. “Are you sure?”
“I-I just wanted to talk to them one more time before… before.” Remembering that he had passed through on his journey south, she quickly added, “Y-you don’t have to come. I-I’ll be fine for a few hours on my own.”
“I never said that,” Leo grumbled, “I just wanted to make sure.”
“And besides…” Leo ran a hand through his blond locks, “I think… I think it’s time that I faced my past as well.”
The Farplane was breathtaking. Even restricted on the stone platform and the distance shrouded in a hazy mist, Sakura could see the flower fields and thundering waterfalls in the distance.
As breathtaking as the otherworld was, Sakura didn’t come here to admire it. Her siblings were conjured, just as she remembered them. Looking into each of their impassive faces, Sakura wondered if some of their features were lost in the filter of her memories.
“Ryoma… Hinoka… I’ve always looked up to you. You were such brave, incredible warriors… I used to wonder if we were really related…”
“Takumi…” Despite knowing him best, facing him about her chosen path was somehow the most difficult, “I know you sacrificed yourself for me, but… I hope you won’t be angry that I chose to do so anyway…” He didn’t answer. She didn’t even know if he could hear her.
Letting her family fade away, Sakura turned around to where Leo was standing a few paces away. Before him were three people - a tall blond man, a woman with lilac hair who was just as tall, and a young girl with long, blond twintails. Xander, Camilla and Elise. Leo was standing with his weight slightly shifted to one side and his arms folded behind his back. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew better than to think that he was feeling as casual as he looked.
She watched him for a little longer until Leo’s family faded away as well. He turned around and noticed her. “Done?”
Was it just her or did he seem to be amused? Sakura blushed. “I-I just have one more thing I want to do. It won’t take long.”
“Alright. I’ll wait for you outside.”
Leo left the Farplane. Sakura turned around to face her cloudy surroundings again. This time, she tried to beckon Oboro and Hinata. She waited for a while and when they didn’t appear, she sighed and turned to leave. Since her brother’s guardians weren’t in the Farplane with him, she dared hope that maybe they were still alive somewhere.
“Oh…” Sakura covered her mouth with her hand as she gazed up and around, tears in her eyes. “You told me about Macalania Woods before, but I never imagined…”
“Just how beautiful it was?” Leo asked, coming to stand by her side, under the trees, “I think the beauty of Macalania Woods is something one has to see in order to truly appreciate.” He sighed. “Elise, Camilla and I used to spend a lot of time here to get away from Father. To most, the woods are a maze, but we knew every nook and cranny...”
Sakura reached out and took his hand, her smaller one fitting perfectly in his. “Leo…”
His smile as sad as he gently squeezed her hand in return. “The memories still hurt Sakura, but having you here makes it better…”
“Y-you weren't kidding when you said those woods were magical.”
“That's because they are,” Leo replied with a smirk, “Pyreflies harmonize best with water - that's how blitzball players can stay submerged for as long as they do and how summoners like you can walk on water, but the trees Macalania are imbued with pyreflies as well. It leads to…” His eyes slid down to her expression of wonder, the lights of the forest giving her an almost luminous glow about her. “...Quite the sight. Especially when night has fallen.”
“Yes,” Sakura breathed, letting go of his hand to spin a little in the moonlight, her skirt twirling around her as she did, “I know we should make haste with the pilgrimage, but… is it okay if we… if we spent a little time here?”
“I had a feeling you would like this place,” he said, “And thought you might ask.” Sakura blushed. It pleased him to know that he knew her well enough to predict her reaction to these woods. “There’s a spring up ahead, Sakura. I think you would like it.”
At the eastern end of the Highbridge of Bevelle, Sakura asked. “A-are you… w-will you be alright?”
“I… I’ll be fine, Sakura. Come, the temple is in the Palace of Saint Bevelle. This way.”
The fayth of the aeon Bahamut was another child, a young boy with a voice that had yet to lower. Beneath his cowl, he spoke with both the voice of a child and a being who has seen much over one thousand years.
“You seem to have doubts, Summoner.”
When she stumbled out, he asked if if she was okay. She nodded with a forced smile.
“O-one more left.”
“One more left.”
The fayth of the aeon Shiva was a Macalanian priestess. She sang in an operatic soprano a song of ice and snow.
“Dry your tears, child,” the aeon urged, her voice many times warmer than her cavern, “You are not the first summoner to fall in love with her guardian. Even though you know he is simply doing his duty, he makes you feel cherished, doesn’t he?”
Sakura swallowed. “I-it won’t get in the way of my duty to Spira,” she replied, “I swear it...”
“I don’t need your promises, Summoner. Only your faith in yourself and in him.”
The sending was the sacred duty of a summoner. Those that die without accepting death would eventually become fiends. If that person had a particularly strong will or drive to live, he or she may retain the form they took in life, but even then their minds may degenerate and lose all sense of self and rationality.
Sakura has seen plenty of fiends, but she had never seen a corporeal unsent before.
Not until now.
Shrouded in pyreflies, Hinata blinked once when she called his name, but his eyes were glazed and unfocused when he looked her way. “T-Takumi…?”
Sakura shook her head. “N-no… It’s me, Sakura. It’s been… a long time, but d-don’t you recognize me?”
“I…” the former guardian held his head. “No… I failed… They… Oboro, Takumi they both…”
“W-what…” Sakura swallowed, “What happened to my big brother...?”
Hinata was silent for a while, but then he suddenly he cursed, “She tricked us! It wasn’t supposed to end like this!” Swords were drawn - oh gods, he was even quicker than she remembered - and Sakura was just barely about to raise her staff to block his first strike. “It wasn’t supposed to!” Another strike, one that sent Sakura stumbling to the ground, cutting off a few strands of her hair. “It wasn’t supposed to!” Hinata’s sword swung down for the third time, Sakura braced herself for the impact, but it never came.
Opening her eyes, Sakura saw that Hinata was frozen in place by a Stop spell, but she knew it wouldn’t last forever though. Leo yanked her up harshly by her arm and pushed her behind him as they retreated a distance away while Hinata was still paused. “He isn’t the same man you once knew,” he said firmly, eyes narrowed. In his palm was a readied Blizzaga. “Just think! What would the Hinata you knew before want you to do in this situation?”
The Hinata she knew was warm and outgoing. Quick with a blade, but quicker with a joke and a smile. Easily fooled by pretty shopkeepers, but he had been a big brother to her in a way, looking out for her while Takumi was undergoing his apprenticeship. Once, she might have even had a crush on him too.
Holding back a sob, Sakura began casting.
The first time she used Holy, it was to give somebody she loved the peace and mercy that was long overdue.
Backtracking from the Cavern of the Stolen Fayth to the Calm Lands branch of Rin’s Travel Agency essentially wasted their entire day’s worth of progress. That encounter with Hinata had shook her and thus, Leo had decided it would be wise to recuperate here rather than at the base of Mt. Gagazat.
Sitting on one of the beds in their room, Sakura suddenly asked, “Tell me the truth, Leo.”
He tore his eyes away from the window. “The truth?” he repeated, “Of what?”
“Of… of my pilgrimage. D-do you think... if I should continue?” She had to know… The hardest part of the pilgrimage was about to begin. Their encounter with Hinata seemed to have… hammered that into her. They could press on to Zanarkand and complete the pilgrimage, but seeing Hinata reduced to madness and an unsent… she wondered if that was the fate that await Leo at the journey’s end.
“The truth is…” Leo walked closer, “I don’t want you to continue. I never wanted you to.”
Eyes snapping open, Sakura was unable to hide her shock at his candor. She couldn’t look away from his gaze. She’s seen this look from him before, only ever by chance as he would always look away when he saw that she had noticed.
Somehow, she managed to find her voice. “Th-then w-why? I-I don’t understand…”
His lips twisted into something resembling a grimace and a rueful smile. “Because I’m not like you. I was able to keep my feelings for you hidden for so long, but when it comes down to it, I am a selfish man, Sakura. Your kindness, your bravery, your utter selflessness… I want to keep you by my side, always. If I had it my way, you and I would be far away from here, back in Besaid or anywhere Sin cannot touch us. I would tear down the sky to keep you safe, but what can I do when you insist on putting yourself in danger when that was what you believe in your heart is the right thing to do?”
“I love you, Sakura” he said, the weight of those three simple words settling between them, “You were there when my life fell apart and you were there when we built ours back together. I already lost one family, Sakura, I can’t bear the thought of losing you too.”
“I’m sorry,” Sakura whispered, closing her eyes and hugging herself. All this time, he loved me too. “I-I’ve a-already caused you so much pain on this pilgrimage… you deserve better. A-after this is over, y-you should forget about me and find somebody w-who wouldn’t do this to you…”
With a low growl, Leo pushed her onto her back, causing her to land with a dull thump onto the bed. “Don’t.”
Looming over her, he said, “Don’t say that... Don’t ever say that I’m better off without you. You are the best thing that’s happened to me since my family started dying off one after another. I hate the circumstances under which we met, but I was glad to have met you. I would never regret meeting you”
She was just realizing just how closely they were now. They’ve been within close proximity before, but there was something about this instance that felt different. Maybe it was because he was half-straddling her, his hands on either side of her head, effectively trapping her there. Maybe it was the way he was openly allowing himself to look at her like that. Unable to hold his gaze, Sakura turned her head to the side.
And then suddenly, the sensation of his body over her’s was gone. Leo had pushed himself away from the bed, away from her, and stood with his back to her. Seeing his back to her, Sakura finally let out a sob. “Leo, I… I don’t want to die. I want to be with you forever too...”
He turned around. As soon as he saw her crying, his features seemed to soften almost instantly. Taking a seat next to her on the bed, he reached up to touch her face, tracing the tear stains on her cheek with a brush of his thumb. “Does this mean you’ll…?”
It was so tempting to say yes when he sounded so hopeful, but Sakura shook her head. “I-I don’t know… When I became a summoner, I pledged to protect the people of Spira…”
“Summoners have given up on their pilgrimages before.”
“But…” She recoiled away from his touch, “I love you too, Leo, but… If I g-gave up now, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive myself…”
She forced herself to smile, “L-listen to me, I-I’m always a-asking things of you like this… when y-you never ask for anything in return.”
“Then… would it make you feel better if I asked something of you right now?”
“O-of course. A-anything…”
“For tonight, can we just… forget about being summoner and guardian?” he asked, “Can we just be Sakura and Leo, for at least one night?”
Pause. “Of course. I would like nothing better.”
He leaned in again and this time, she was ready.
“I still want to continue.”
“Are you sure?”
“...Ever as you wish, Sakura.”
The climb over Mt. Gagazet was by far the most difficult thing either of them have ever done. They had exchanged their lighter robes for the heavier clothing they had first worn to Lake Macalania, but the cold still broke through. Sakura alternated between Ifrit and Shiva to fight the fiends they encountered, but outside of battle, she kept Ifrit materialized to provide them warmth on their climb.
Sakura wouldn’t be deterred though. She gritted her teeth, despite how much she wanted them to chatter and kept her eyes on the road ahead. Ifrit was able to melt the snow with his ever-burning fires, making it easier to climb and staying close to him migrated the soaking of their clothes as they moved through the slush.
There were sighs of relief from both of them when they reached the mountain caves. Ifrit was dismissed with Sakura’s thanks and Leo helped dry their clothes with a carefully controlled Fire spell.
When they both stopped shivering, Sakura couldn’t stop herself from throwing herself into his arms. Leo grunted softly against the impact, but he returned her gesture readily enough.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “Can we stay like this for a little while?”
The ruins of Zanarkand, the remnants of a city that has been dead for a thousand years. Only a select few have ever laid eyes on this place and Sakura could hardly believe that she and Leo were part of that circle.
They made their way through the broken city, fighting the roaming fiends as they did. At the dome’s entrance, they were greeted by an elderly Yevonite priest. “Journeyer of the long road, name yourself.”
Sakura only stumbled for a moment, mostly due to the fact that the man was an unsent, but she answered, her voice steady. “I am Sakura. I am a summoner from the island of Besaid.
“Your eyes, my dear. Show me the long road you have travelled.” She quivered under his gaze, but held strong. I traveled from Besaid to Zanarkand, protected by my guardian and my aeons, but they alone couldn’t have brought me here if I didn’t have the conviction. “Very good. You have journeyed well. Lady Yunalesca will surely welcome your arrival. Go to her now, and bring your guardians with you. Go.”
“Lady Yunalesca?” Leo muttered when the priest faded away. “She’s still alive?”
“L-Likely as an unsent,” Sakura replied, just as quietly as she led the way into the dome.
Zanarkand Dome reminded Leo of the Farplane. Pyreflies were everywhere, but unlike the Farplane, the pyreflies condensed and dispersed without the prompting of the living. He and Sakura were shown events and memories of the predecessors. The High Summoners were easy to recognize, but the others, their guardians he could only identify based on what he knew about them from his readings.
At one point, they saw the images of three people - two men and one woman. The men Leo knew were Takumi and Hinata, from his statue and their encounter with him in the Calm Lands respectively, but the woman with her long navy-blue hair and lance hanging from a strap on her back was unfamiliar to him.
“Sin killed my parents,” she was saying, “I want to avenge them.”
“That’s Oboro,” Sakura said quietly, holding his hand, “She’s my brother’s other guardian...”
“Do you know what happened to her?”
She shook her head. “N-neither she nor Hinata appeared when I tried beckoning them in the Farplane,” she explained, “I-I thought Hinata was still a-alive, but…”
The mirages of Takumi and his guardians ran off ahead and vanished, showing them the way to the heart of the temple. “Shall we?”
The Spectral Keeper was a formidable enemy, but in the end they were able to prevail. With to a Flare and a Holy, the beast began to convulse, becoming amorphous and bursting into pyreflies. Around them, the otherworldly battlefield returned to normal.
Having taken no shortage of hits during the battle, Leo finally gave in to his exhaustion, physical and mental, letting himself fall to one knee on the Macalanian glyph he had been standing on. Sakura was quick to come to his side however, readying a Curaga to heal him even as a lift bearing the symbol of Yevon appeared in the center, ready to take her to the Chamber of the Fayth.
“We’re… here,” he said, forcing himself to smile. She returned it, all tenderness and gratitude.
“We’re here,” she repeated, “O-only because of you, Leo. You protected me from the very beginning, all on your own. Thank you so very much.”
“Heh… That was nothing.” Even at a time like this, her earnest praise of him still made him feel self-conscious. “Did you ever doubt that I could?”
She giggled. “Never.”
“Well then…” Leo nodded towards the lift. “The Final Aeon waits, Sakura… Go on.”
She didn’t until she made sure he was absolutely okay and helped him take a seat at the stairs under the monitor. When she was satisfied that he was, she held him in her delicate hands and pressed a short kiss against his lips. It was only then did she step onto the lift. She clasped her hands to her front as she descended, as though in prayer. Leo watched until she disappeared from view.
Alone with his thoughts, Leo spared a moment to ponder his options when this was all over. He left Bevelle when his siblings died. Could he return to Besaid and continue his life there, even without Sakura?
All too suddenly, he heard the sound of the lift returning. So soon? Leo opened his eyes and saw Sakura’s frantic expression. That was all he needed to know that something was very wrong.
“Leo! There… there isn’t a fayth.”
There isn’t a fayth, Leo found himself repeating in his thoughts. He was just as confused as she was now. He hurried to join her on the lift and this time it descending with both of them. Leo followed Sakura into the Chamber of the Fayth without any concern for Yevon’s dogmatic traditions.
“Look,” she urged, kneeling next to the convex crystal covering the circular impression in the center of the room, “It’s fayth statue, but there is no fayth...”
Leo was no summoner, but his own inclination for magic would have allowed him to come to the same conclusion even without Sakura’s explanation. “Then…” he said slowly, “Does this mean there is no Final Aeon...?”
“Fear not.” It was the familiar, elderly voice of the gatekeeper. He had entered the chamber from the other side of a glowing barrier opposite of the way Leo and Sakura came. The pyreflies around him marked him as an unsent, making Leo raise his arm, ready to cast a spell just in case. “Lady Yunalesca will show you the path. The Final Aeon will be yours. The summoner and the Final Aeon will join powers. Go to her now. Inside, the lady awaits.” The priest bowed once to Sakura and vanished.
“So that’s it then…”
Sakura stood.“I’m going,” she said and she walked into the next room without waiting for him to respond. Shaking his head thinking that she should’ve let him go in first just to make sure it’s safe, Leo followed her.
The next room was one decorated with many intricate pillars and designs throughout the walls and floor. Across from them at the top of a set of stairs was a woman, tall and slender with long, pale hair. Lady Yunalesca, the daughter of Yu Yevon and the first High Summoner. She died a thousand years ago and yet, here she was as an unsent, awaiting the summoners that managed to follow her footsteps.
“Welcome to Zanarkand,” she said as she began to descend, “I congratulate you, summoner. You have completed your pilgrimage. I will now bestow you with that which you seek. The Final Summoning…will be yours.”
The Final Summoning was what they came here for, but why did that make Leo so uneasy? And why was she looking at him like that?
“There is only one candidate, I see… For whom I must change to become the fayth of the Final Summoning.”
The instant Yunalesca left them alone to get their affairs in order, Sakura rounded on Leo. “I won't let you do it!”
It warmed his heart to know that she wasn't willing to let him, but at the same time he couldn't help but be vexed by her sense of logic. “So it's okay for you to give your life to save this godforsaken world, but it's not okay for me give mine to help you do it?”
Coming to a stand before her, Leo laid his hands on her shoulders. “Sakura,” he said softly, “I told you before, I’m not like you. Doing something like dying for strangers is something I can’t do, but… I can die for somebody I love.”
Sakura clutched his robes tightly. “This was… This was what happened to Oboro, wasn’t it?” she whispered, “D-did losing both of them like this break Hinata…?”
Leo couldn’t answer. He had wondered about the fallen guardian. “Sakura, I…“ He swallowed, not wanting to shake her faith in Yevon, but he had to tell her. “I just… have this feeling that Yunalesca won’t let me leave this place alive either way.”
“W-what do you mean?”
“It’s just a feeling, a gut instinct if you will, but… this part of the pilgrimage has managed to stay a secret for a thousand years. Over a period of time like that… wouldn’t you think word might have gotten out somehow? Remember what Hinata had said? ‘She tricked us’ and ‘it shouldn’t have ended like this.’ He obviously knew, but he died before he could tell anyone.”
“Are you saying…?” Sakura took a deep breath, “T-that if I told Lady Yunalesca ‘no,’ she would kill you… a-and me? Just to keep this a secret?”
“I can’t say, but I think it’s a possibility.” Seeing her face, Leo smiled gently and leaned forward to kiss her forehead. “It’s not your fault. You chose to become a summoner and I’m choosing this now.”
The fayth of the Final Aeon was a young man of twenty-one years old. A black mage dressed in ornamental robes sewn from fabrics produced in the island of Besaid, who burned too easily on the beach of the same island, the person who was once a clever, bright-eyed little boy who loved books and tomatoes, the child dubbed the prodigy mage of Bevelle at the age of eight. A younger brother who admired and craved the approval of his older brother and sister, an older brother who fondly guided his younger sister from a distance, a cherished friend and steadfast guardian to his lady summoner.
He sang in a rich voice that reminded Sakura of peaceful days, sea salted air in her lungs and white sand beneath her feet. She traced his entombed body, the stone smooth and cold beneath her touch. He was facing away from her like the others, his upper body bare, showing a display of skin and bone and his arms were encased in black and gold. Vines and branches of trees from Besaid to Macalania curled around him, wrapping him in an embrace.
“There must be a bond,” Sakura whispered, repeating Yunalesca’s words to herself. “If that bond is strong enough, its light will conquer Sin. A thousand years ago, Lady Yunalesca made her husband Zaon her fayth. Their bond was true, Leo… is our’s?”
She left Zanarkand alone, climbed up Mt. Gagazet and down, found her way to the travel agency in the Calm Lands. The manager gaped when she entered, recognizing her as the summoner who stayed there previously - or maybe just at the tired, disheveled state she was in. Even though the man was an Al Bhed, the unspoken question was clear: Did you succeed?
“...I have the Final Aeon.”
Those words were enough to get her the best room the agency could offer for free, but Sakura politely asked if the room she and Leo shared during their previous stay was available.
It was and Sakura insisted on paying for it anyway.
The room felt so… empty without him by her side. He was still there, his presence somewhere in the back of her head, but his physical absence left a thorn in her heart. After taking a much-needed bath to soothe her tired muscles and changing into her spare set of robes, Sakura laid down on her side atop the bed where they made love that night.
She couldn’t help but imagine what might’ve happened if Takumi’s Calm had just lasted a year or two longer. Maybe she and Leo would’ve been able to confess their feelings to each other under better circumstances. They could’ve gotten married, maybe they would’ve even had children…
If Sin had returned when she had a child to care for, someone dependent on her instead of vice versa, Sakura wouldn’t have chosen this path. Or maybe she still would have anyway because she would have wanted those children to live in a world without Sin.
She felt a faint pulse in the back of her head. She sighed. Having such thoughts at this stage were pointless. When she thought the success of the pilgrimage was reliant on only her sacrifice, Sakura knew she could have turned back at any moment. She could have been standing right before Zanarkand Ruins, but if she turned around and told Leo she didn’t want to do it, they would have turned around and went back to Besaid, but now… now that Leo had already given himself as a sacrifice, she knew there was no turning back anymore.
Just a little longer…
She could see Sin in the distance. She didn’t know if it somehow knew she was there and was coming to face her or if it was completely arbitrary, but regardless of which, it made things easier for her.
The fiends seemed to have sensed Sin’s approach and was giving her a wide breadth. This, she was also thankful for, as it allowed her to conserve her strength for the battle, the final battle with Sin.
Waiting, watching… so to comfort herself, she began to sing, “Ieyui Nobomeno…”
The Hymn of the Fayth, the song of prayer used to soothe the souls of the dead. Her’s was not yet dead, but it would be, one way or another, by the day’s end. The fayth were fated to sing the hymn for all eternity, their voices echoing off the walls of their chambers. All beautiful, all haunted (Even Leo’s. Especially Leo’s) and a single, fleeting little voice would be her funeral dirge.
Sin had yet to approach, but it fired its spawn ahead to herald its approach. So it begins. Sakura raised her staff and called forth Shiva. The frost-wreathed aeon landed delicately, toes first and tossed her veil aside.
The Sinspawn were relentless. Each time one was killed, it was replaced by another. Shiva fell, as did Bahamut. Ixion followed soon after and it was not until Ifrit set the hoard ablaze with his dying roar did their numbers finally start to disperse.
Sin was getting closer too. Sakura could sense it. She felt so small, standing by herself in the Calm Lands that seemed to go on forever and facing the monstrosity and bringer of death. “Ie… Ieyui Nobomeno…”
And then, with Valefor’s final shriek, her body landing just feet away from Sakura (“Thank you my dear friend. You were my first aeon. You showed me the power I had inside…”), all the Sinspawn were gone, leaving nothing but thousands upon thousands of pyreflies between Sin and Sakura.
Sin actually seemed to stop, like it was waiting for her to act first, to summon. Taking a deep breath, Sakura began the Final Summoning. She raised her staff and closed her eyes to beckon forth her champion.
Glowing threads of magic shone through the earth below, twisting, turning, intersecting as they drew out the glyphs of the aeon’s seal, with Sakura in the center. She looked around, wondering where he was.
Her question was answered as pyreflies clustered together into pillars to form a shadowy forest all around, the seal becoming a clearing and there - Out of smoke and dark trees, her Final Aeon emerged on the back of a skeletal horse, adorned in armor as black as the night, trimmed with gold, and his face covered in a horned helmet shaped like a bird’s head through which only a pair of glowing red eyes could be seen. As the forest withered and died the pyreflies scattered and gathered around him, coalescing into a cape of feathers over his shoulders. Each of his mount’s six legs sent singing pyreflies aflight with each step it took.
He turned his horse around, facing her. Through the bond, resonating more strongly than any other, she heard his thoughts, felt what he felt. The end of their story was but a step away and he knew she was scared, anxious and a tiny bit excited, but it was okay, because he was with and would be with her.
Exhaling through her nose, Sakura clutched her staff tight. Opening her eyes, they both turned to face Sin. “I’m ready,” she said, “Let’s do this. Sin will die and I will bring the Calm.”
Becoming a fayth had required both him and Sakura to spend hours on their knees drawing the symbols and glyphs that made up the seal of an aeon. Then there was a spell, a transformation that turned his body into stone from the inside out. He had dropped to a prostrating position when there was the burning pain of his back being split open, causing Yunalesca to snap at Sakura to stay back. His heartbeat had staggered, as did his breaths. He thought of his family and of Sakura, finally allowing himself to succumb to the process.
Then there was a period of dreaming, where he resided in the corner of Sakura’s mind with the fayth of the other aeons. Valefor was the only one who talked to him at length, having been with him and Sakura from the very start. The girl was kind and would have reminded him of his own sister if it weren't for the fact that her eyes were that of someone a thousand years old.
It was easy to see through Sakura’s eyes and listen to the general hum of her thoughts. Leo always knew she was strong, but feeling the resolve that dominated her mind on her journey back stirred up so much pride within him. Oh, there had been moments where he feared for her safety, such as with the Behemoth (“Guardian’s instinct,” Valefor had teased lightly), but she fought back instead of running away and made it to the end.
One by one, he watched the older fayth disappear and through Sakura, he watched them fall, felt the pain she felt as they did. Valefor was the last to go. When Sakura called for her, she had hugged him around the middle in a very Elise-like grip and told him his time was coming. “Both of you are so brave, so noble. I’m proud to have known you.”
Finally, finally, it was time for his purpose to be fulfilled. He took on the form of her Final Aeon in the physical world and he’d never felt so powerful. Magic no longer coursed through his veins, but he was made of magic and pyreflies, hopes and dreams, strength that was not just his, but Sakura’s as well. His new form was ghastly, not quite like a Revenant-type fiend, but close enough that he thought Sakura might not be too fond of it if it weren’t for the fact that she knew it was him.
When he finally broke through Sin, he was most unprepared for the sight before him.
He was in Kilika again, in a house with fabrics hanging all around. Sunlight streamed through the windows and there was a woman - dark blue hair, dressed in orange and white. She laid eyes on him for only a moment and then she burst into (crazed, joyous) laughter. -At last. My suffering is at an end-
He recognized her instantly from the visions the pyreflies showed him and Sakura in Zanarkand Ruins. Oboro… Takumi’s Final Aeon. But why-?
Through a cold trickling sensation he found out why. That parasite, that dark purple spectre he saw drifting out with the pyreflies of Sin earlier was crawling above him, coming towards him until it was within him.
He could feel Sakura’s fear. Fear not for her, but for him because at that moment she, like him, understood that there was something else about the Final Summoning that-
And suddenly, Leo couldn’t think anymore. There was something in his mind, invading his thoughts, making it impossible for him to do anything except watch. Memories, twenty-one years and an eternity’s worth of memories and experiences that defined him. Xander’s rare smiles that made him seem a dozen years younger, Camilla’s smothering hugs, Elise looking back over her shoulder as she pulled him along with her down the streets of Bevelle, of his life crashing down. No matter how much having them hurt, they were all his. Experiences and losses that made him the person he was and all those moments are being invaded by Him, by Yu Yevon, in his search-
Sakura… He wanted to tell her something, anything, but what? Running is pointless when the danger to her isn’t something physical. Instead, his thoughts only seemed to redirect the focus of that thing from his family onto her and then - No, no, no… Every moment he spent with her - their meeting on the docks of Kilika Port, their night time talks, every brush against each other, every time he held her hand, every kiss, every touch. Everything was slipping away from him...
-Leo, can you still hear me?-
He could barely think straight, but he could still hear her. Sakura, Sakura, Sakura… If he was going to die, at least her voice was going to be the last thing he would ever hear…
-I’m so, so sorry. Please--
She was cut off by a white-hot jolt of pain in his head, in his heart, everywhere. He screamed and somewhere, somehow, in the cacophony of it all, he realized she did too.
When it was over, when the bond was severed, Leo couldn’t hear Sakura any longer. There was nothing. Nothing except for the distorted singing of an ancient summoner long gone mad.