Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to Fire Emblem.

Chapter thirty-three: Final Vows

Corrin sat in a small, sad room off the infirmary. It reminded her of a closet, for there was only enough floorspace for a bed and a chair. The walls had been wallpapered at some point, but it was so long ago, the design had since faded into obscurity. A single window was the only source of light and comfort in that little room, and Corrin clung to its view of the kitchen gardens as a lifeline between reason and despair.

I shouldn't have been so naive, she thought, trying to keep her eyes on the shining afternoon outside. I shouldn't have been so selfish.

Inevitably, her gaze was pulled back to Niles. He lay unconscious in the bed, feverish and uncomfortable, a heavy bandage wrapped around his bare torso. His face was grey. Corrin couldn't stand to stare too long, for her own tired mind was apt to play tricks on her; though she knew they were safe in this room, Corrin sometimes saw Niles still lying in the pool of blood she had found him in.

An hour ago, panic let me run and search this entire castle to find him, she recalled, her nails digging into her forearms as she drew into a tighter ball on the chair. Now I feel as though it could kill me at any moment.

Another memory soon surfaced. "The fool shouldn't have left his bed,"Jakob had spat as he re-dressed Niles' wound. "If he hadn't ripped my original stitches, he could have been up and about in a few days. Now, not only has he wasted all of my work, he's aggravated the injury — but worse still, his disappearing act has hurt you, Lady Corrin! As soon as he's on his feet again, I look forward to knocking him down…"

At the time, Jakob's threats had unnerved; she had felt defensive for Niles' sake, and a fool for not being able to give a rational reason for his leaving. After sitting and stewing for so long, trying to ignore the pain in her own injured shoulder, Corrin was exhausted. Jakob's threats rang anew in her mind as hopeful promises, and she laughed weakly.

Everyone is always looking out for me. My family, my friends — they're all so good to me, far better than I deserve. I should have handled this situation better. I've disappointed every single person I love. Niles was right: Life would have been easier if I wasn't so dependent on other people.

A hoarse croak interrupted her thoughts. "Corrin?" Niles murmured, and she shot out of her dreams, wide awake. She leaned over the bed, relief flooding her emotions of self-pity out of her mind, allowing her to smile for him. He still looked pale, but seeing her elated expression made Niles laugh. "Still happy to see me?"

"I could never be unhappy," she answered breathlessly. "Niles, what happened? No wait, don't answer yet. I don't want to overwhelm you. I was just so worried — we all were! I'm not telling you this to make you feel guilty, of course. I just want you to know that everyone pulled together to help me look for you! Sorry, does that make you self-conscious?"

Niles scoffed once more, followed quickly by a grimace of pain. He put a hand to his side. "People helped you because they like you, not me. Sorry to get your hopes up, but one waltz and a near-death experience isn't going to make me everybody's best friend. Now, where the hell am I?"

"In the infirmary — or, really in a room off the infirmary. Arthur and Silas carried you here after we found you…" she hesitated, "outside Iago's rooms."

"Ah!" Niles grinned. "I'm sure they had a lot to say about that. Did they search me for coins or jewels before they agreed to carry me here?"

"Don't be cruel," Corrin murmured, feeling personally hurt by Niles' coldness. "They were so helpful, and honestly concerned for you! You had lost so much blood."

"But they must have wondered why I dragged myself out of my sickbed to see Iago. Even your sainted brothers must have felt a little curious at my actions."

Corrin flinched. She felt as though Niles had struck out and slapped her. "What's wrong with you?"

She hadn't meant to shout. Her voice had raised in exasperation and self-defense; Niles' indifference frightened her, and the bitterness he so shallowly hid seemed intended for her. But Corrin's exclamation startled Niles as much as it startled herself. His expression turned suddenly grave, and the energy anger had given his voice fell away in a moment.

"… Am I a good man?" he whispered.

Corrin had to repeat the question silently to herself before she could answer. After a noticeable pause, she answered with a feeble laugh. "That's what's bothering you? Of course you're good!"

"Don't smile," he murmured with the low ferocity of a wind bringing in a storm, "I'm not apologizing for what I said about Silas and Arthur. Of course they questioned my intentions — that's all anyone has done these past few weeks! Despite that, I've nearly killed myself trying to be 'good' for you. But I'm done. Got it, Corrin? I can't go any further without losing my head, and what's the point of dying just trying to please you?"

"I…" Corrin couldn't think. She could barely speak. "I don't want you to work so hard to please me. You don't have to."

"I know," he said, speaking more gently, "and I do love you — but as hard as it is for your damn family to believe, I've got some pride. If I'm going to die for you, it's going to be some horrifying, gory death on a battlefield. I'm not licking anymore boots, begging to marry you, when I really don't care if we get married at all!"

"You… don't want to be married?"

"I already gave you a ring — did it change anything between us?" he barked. "Do you trust me when I say I'm not with you for your title or money or for a roll in the sack?" Corrin nodded dumbly. "Then why the hell do we need to get married? I know I'm not going to leave you, and you say you know it, too. But you wanted me to prove it to your family, so I tried! Damn it, Corrin! I spent weeks trying to impress them, pretending to be a 'good man' when I don't even know what a good man is! I spent weeks trying to wash off my past and claw my way up to your precious society. But I won't come clean! It was wasted effort."

"But it wasn't wasted!" Corrin exclaimed. She curled her hands into tight fists, struggling to hold herself together. "Xander and Leo, Elise and Camilla, and Azura too — they all trust you now! They know you're a good man, because you are! It wasn't pretend. You don't know what a good man is, and maybe I have no right to say this, but I think a good man is someone who is willing to sacrifice and endure for the ones he loves. You did that, Niles! Just like you said, you tried for me."

Corrin gasped for breath. Niles didn't speak, but stared incredulously at her. She watched as more of his anger dissipated from his face. Slowly, his shock eased into a grin; it wasn't cold or threatening, but that familiar impish expression of reluctant love.

"You have an annoying habit of making me feel better about myself," Niles said accusingly. "It's a lot easier to be pissy when you think yourself trash. Sigh… All right, maybe I am a good man, or at least was. But it doesn't change the fact that I traded our marriage in return for my life. I went to see Iago about the assassination attempt. He threatened to tell King Garon about my contract to kill Elise."

"But that's not fair!" Corrin exclaimed, eliciting a scoff from Niles. "I-I mean, you were coerced into that contract. And nothing came of it! Elise is fine, and you were hurt!"

"What does that matter to the king? Reasoning wasn't going to cut it, so I played Iago's game. I laid down my own offer of blackmail, which only got me as far as a standstill with him. We both had to retreat: He agreed to keep his secrets if I keep his and legally stop existing."

"What does that mean?"

"I'll be declared dead and our engagement will be neatly broken and thrown away. I had to agree. I would have been brought before the king and executed on the spot, otherwise. So, I stopped enduring — what does that make me?"

"Human," Corrin answered. Her head spun, but she managed to whisper, "It's okay, we'll figure something out."

"No! Gods, Corrin," Niles pressed a hand to his head, "I don't want to figure anything else out. For weeks I did things your way, but I'm calling it quits now. I'm usurping the reins in this comical endeavor."

She nodded meekly. "Of course. I'll listen to whatever plan you have."

Niles scoffed. "Look at your face. You're so naive! I'm not talking about yet another strategy to make Daddy like me. I'm asking you to say, 'to hell with my family,' and really be mine, Corrin."

"But…" She hesitated. "What does that mean?"

"We're not getting married. It's just never going to happen! But we still love each other, so we'll be lovers. I don't want you to be punished or cause trouble between you and your siblings, so we'll be secret. That's what I wanted from you in the first place. Shadows and sordid affairs are more my forte anyway — marriage is not."

Corrin's thoughts swirled into chaos in her mind. Did I push Niles into marriage? she thought she couldn't remember. No. No! He asked me. He wanted to respect my family. He tried to for so long, and I did, too. He's not angry with me. He's not! He's just tired of their flaming hoops. I am, too. But…

"… No," she murmured, "I can't. I don't know why, but I was taught that a man and woman can only be truly happy together after being joined in marriage. You weren't brought up that way, so maybe you can't understand, but it's too hard for me to just throw that ideal away. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be married! Since I met you, I've wanted it even more — though I know I can't possible love you anymore than I already do! For all you've been through these past fews weeks, I wish I could say yes. But I promised my siblings, and I'm not willing to betray them, even for you."

Corrin was shaking now, and her lips were contorted into an anxious smirk. Mad. I'm going mad. She couldn't look at Niles. Her chin had sunk to her chest, and she had no strength left to raise it.

"So we've discovered the limits of love," Niles drawled, his tone amused. "Odd, I don't feel any less in love for it. I don't even feel angry. I do feel the slightest tug to murder someone, though."

"I feel disappointed in myself," Corrin admitted. "I feel like I've failed you." Her voice caught, so she continued silently. I feel sad, too. I feel like I'm trapped in one of Elise's damn romance novels, where the ending is just too tragic to be real. Tears pricked her eyes now, but she managed to hold back her emotions.

"So, no marriage and no affair," Niles muttered. "We could go back to courting, but what's the point? After this, your father's probably eager to see you married to an appropriate suitor. The minute this war's over, you might be sold to some nobleman, and our only interactions will be with your brother and husband watching."

"No!" Corrin shouted, her voice raising in excitement. "That's not going to happen. I won't let it! I… I thought of another way." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Before this started, you promised me you would never ask me to leave my family."

"And I didn't. I tried to claw my way up in the world; I never wanted to drag you down to my level."

"But I don't consider myself above you! My family did, once — they don't anymore. Regardless, I don't care where we live or what we do! I don't want to hurt my siblings, but I'm not willing to live in pain forever just to please my father. Niles, Xander needs me now — Nohr needs me. But the minute peace is declared, before Iago's poisonous lies can have anymore say in my life, I will renounce my title of princess and run away with you. King Garon won't be able to control me anymore. We can be married! We'll run away and be married and live happily ever after."

"But your siblings?"

"I will always love them and be their sister," Corrin said firmly, more for her own sake than Niles, "and even in running away with you, I won't have betrayed them. You're right, you did prove yourself; and I won't be breaking my promise, because we will be married. After I take off my crown, they will have a choice: They can either stand up to Father and continue to treat me as a sister, or they can cower before him and turn their backs on me. But this time, the path won't be mine to take."

Niles paused, staring at Corrin. "How can you say that so easily now? What's changed?"

Corrin smiled warily. "I don't really know. When you first asked me to marry you, I was terrified of leaving my siblings to begin my own family. But now, I'm not afraid at all. I want to be with you more than anything! You see? These past few weeks really weren't wasted, Niles! We did find out the limits to our love — I won't betray my siblings, even for you — but we also found out that our bond is much stronger than either of us anticipated!"

"… It made me a good man," he muttered.

"… It made me grow up," she agreed.

Niles grinned and took her hand. His thumb twisted the ring she wore on her left hand. "Just so we're clear," he drawled, "we're going to lay-low until after the war. As soon as peace is declared, however, I have your permission to whisk you away in the night and bring you anywhere that will accept us, just as long as we get married there?"

"It's a promise," Corrin said.

"You're insane. I'm insane. But you're on."

"You're both dead!"

Corrin whirled around. The door banged open, revealing Xander's towering, quaking form. His eyes bulged, his face grimaced, and his cheeks burned red. Behind him, peeking at Niles and Corrin with a wide gaze, was Elise. Despite her brother's rage, she giggled conspicuously.

Niles sighed. "How many more times are we going to do this before you learn to knock?"

"Shut up!" Xander shouted, striding into the room. "And Corrin, get that bewildered look off your face. I don't care how flustered or emotional you are right now, nor do I care how drugged you two are for your injuries — if such a plan as I just over heard is ever mentioned again, I will slay one of you and slap the other! Don't say anything! You know who you are…"

"But, Xander," Corrin mumbled, her breathing edging on panic now, "Father won't consent to our marriage. As his royal daughter, I can't disobey him; and as your sister, I can't be Niles' lover. So I shall give up my title!"

"You won't!"

"You can't control me! I must do this!"

"Corrin, you won't!" Xander repeated, his voice screaming now. "You won't, because it isn't necessary! Father has consented to your marriage!"

Corrin opened her mouth to reply, but no words came. Questions buzzed in her mind and throat, clamoring to be asked, but she remained paralyzed and silent.

Eventually, Niles managed to gasp, "H-How?" He took a deep breath and continued more strongly, "This morning, I was to be declared legally dead! What… Did you…?"

Xander nodded solemnly. "Yes, I spoke with him. I pleaded on your behalf, and — for better or for worse — I convinced him. I had to lie to him to succeed, but in that moment, I didn't care." He paused as his narrow gaze drifted onto Corrin, growing more gentle as his eyes met hers. "I just wanted you to be happy, little princess."

Corrin licked her lips, still struggling to speak. "You lied to Father," she repeated meekly, "for us?"

"What did you say?" Niles exclaimed. "Did you promise I was dying?"

Xander grimaced. "Actually, it was more colorful than that. I was going to warn you about it, but after overhearing that appalling conversation about 'lovers' and being a family, I'm beginning to fear you'll fulfill my promise to Father without prompting."

"You're just feeling jealous, Xander," Elise interjected suddenly, glaring up at brother. "You're worried that Niles will usurp your place in Corrin's life as her shoulder-to-cry-on! I read about that in a book the other day."

"No more books!" Xander snapped. "Reading is forbidden to you!"

"Lord Xander," Niles said, grimacing himself now, "whatever story you told the king — I appreciate it. If I may be so bold, sir, I know your feelings towards your father. To lie to him for us…"

Xander waved Niles into silence. "Don't thank me. We're… family now, and we look out for each other." Xander smiled, and Corrin had to grip Niles' hand very hard to keep herself from running to her brother and throwing her arms about him.

"This lie," Elise mused aloud, "is it an especially juicy one? It must have been something if it convinced Father to consent to Corrin's marriage!"

"Corrin," Xander said firmly, ignoring Elise, "Niles, you are both banished from Krakenburg until after the war. We have received orders to begin marching into Hoshido; however, we must first return to Izumo, where you two are to be quietly by officially wed. Such a ceremony will no doubt be a great morale booster for our people — but most especially so for your very relieved and exhausted family." Xander sighed. "Of course, you may refuse this path and keep to your inane plan of stealing away after the war. Before you decide, however, I must warn you that should you accept my father's generous offer, Niles, you shall have my eternal support as a brother; if you decline, I will hunt you down and murder you in order to bring my sister home."

"Prince Xander," Niles said, smirking, "if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were trying to crack a joke."

"Ridiculous," he muttered, frowning. "I am, as ever, deadly serious. You may have until Izumo to make a decision, if necessary."

"It's not," Niles replied. "As much as I liked the idea of smuggling Corrin away in the dead of night, I think this course of action will be less complicated."

Xander nodded. "A wise decision."

"I think so." Niles meet Xander's gaze. Only a moment passed, and did so in utter silence; yet Corrin was sure that something great had happened. The bond which had been forged through tears and pain in the past few weeks had finally solidified into an unbreakable chain, as strong and beautiful as the band on Corrin's left hand. She didn't need her ring to feel confident in her relationship with Niles; but it was a symbol of Niles' respect for her family, and a symbol of the good faith they now had in him.

These past few weeks… The on-and-off of the ring on my finger… It all meant something. It was all leading to this moment, wasn't it?

"So, do I really have your 'eternal support' as a brother?" Niles asked.

"Ahem." Xander frowned. "Perhaps some sort of contract is in order here. Clarity is the best preventative of misunderstanding."

"Why don't you just say it — you like me!"

"Shut up."

"Envy does not become you, Xander!"

"Elise, enough of your psycho-bable!"

Corrin laughed. She laughed loudly and she laughed for a long time. She had not lost her mind, as she feared; but she had suddenly realized that she had been carrying the weight of her world on her shoulders for weeks, and only now was it finally falling away. Her very heart beat seemed lighter, and her soul swelled with joy and relief that this battle, at least, was over.

I can't stay in my tower forever. I don't want to! I'll win this war, I'll keep my family safe — and I'll marry Niles. And when it's all over, we'll be always be happy like this. Forever.

Two weeks later…

Corrin couldn't sleep. Memories of the night before swirled in her mind, keeping her wide awake. Mere hours ago, she had been married in a ceremony attended only by her friends and family. Such privacy was unheard of for a royal wedding; however, Corrin herself didn't bemoan the lack of a crowd. She was happy it was "over and done with", as Niles himself had whispered to her while Izama read the final rites before declaring them man and wife.

Our trial is finally over. It was a long, hard battle. I should be able to sleep.

Niles suddenly stirred. "The way you're staring at that door, I would say you're thinking of bolting,"

Corrin startled, but soon laughed. "Never," she murmured, shyness causing her to whisper, "I was just thinking."

"Me, too."

"Niles, are you happy?"

Niles sighed. "I didn't say thinking deeply. I was covertly flirting with you."

"But are you happy?"

"Why do you do this to me?" he whined.

"S-sorry. Just answer this one question. Please?"

"Fine. But first, are you happy, Corrin?"

"That's not fair. I asked you first."

"If you want my answer, you're going to have to pay for it in one of two ways. You can answer my question, or you can drop the whole thing and —"

"Okay, okay!" Corrin exclaimed, laughing as she pulled further away from Niles. "I am happy. I'm so happy, and relieved! I would have run away with you when the time came, but I would have been scared for my siblings. I love you, Niles, but I don't want to ever lose them. Is that bad?"

Delicate, orange fingers of light slinked through their bedroom window, casting a glow of warmth on Niles' smirk. He shook his head. "No, it's not bad. Now, this is painfully honest for me, but I envy you to some extent. Growing up, I didn't have anyone to look out for me. You have four overly-protective siblings. They're a pain in my ass, but their loyalty is not something even someone like me would throw away lightly."

Corrin nodded. "I don't think I ever thanked you for understanding that. … Niles, I know this won't change anything in your past, but you do have that loyalty now. From my siblings, and from me."

"… I know." Slowly, the corners of Niles' lips relaxed. The sharp slope of his grin became gentle, gradual. For the first time in her life, Corrin saw Niles smile.

The End

Final note: Thank you to all the people who read this story to the end. Thank you for taking the time to follow this story, for being patient with each update, and thank you in particular for the reviews you wrote to me at the end of every chapter. I read each one, and I re-read them when I need a boost of confidence or a reminder to do better in the future. I hope you were satisfied at this ending, which may have taken some years off my life to write - I'm nervous to hear your feedback. I hope the love story of Niles and Corrin won your own hearts; but I hope even more that the bonds painstakingly built between Niles and the royal siblings touched you. Again, thank you for reading.

- Tsuna 4 Cn4s