Perhaps it was the advancing chill of an early autumn night, or the anxious hum of camp seeping into the very ground; Takumi's feet slogged slowly, numbed, as he followed the girl he loved away from the armory. His ankles felt like leaden weights, and he lagged paces behind Corrin as they approached the treehouse.

Even in a worst-case scenario, Takumi hadn't dreamed that professing his love would reduce her to tears.

Her face, contorted with the failed effort of maintaining a smile as the news of her lineage overwhelmed her, etched itself into his memory and knotted his stomach. Even though she'd long since composed herself, Takumi was running damage control as soon as he snapped out of the initial embarrassed panic, trying to staunch the emotional bleeding. His initial efforts were feeble and awkward – a hesitant, hovering hand on her shoulder, a floundering attempt to clean up the training field alone, a mumbled inquiry as to whether she wanted company or solitude. Before he knew it, Corrin had bucked up, shouldered her bow, and retaken the reigns. After they put the weapons away, she'd informed him, he would join her in the treehouse to further discuss the matter.

The climb up the ladder felt like a march to the gallows. An emotional battle between profound regret, grief and extreme embarrassment resulted in a stalemate, and Takumi's mind blanked at the top of the stairs. Corrin overtook her lead and was already fussing at her writing desk when Takumi peeked inside and clumsily made to remove his boots, caked in dirt from the training field.

Incredibly, Corrin smiled as she turned from the desk. "Come in, have a seat," she invited, gesturing to the desk armchair. Takumi complied with a murmured thanks, lacking the resolve to hold too much eye contact as he did so. Instead, he focused on the tin in her hands – he recognized the hammered metal finish and the beach glass top as the borrowed healing salve.

"Sorry if this hurts, but if you're too stubborn to see a healer…" She chided softly, working the lid off and working a pinch of ointment between her fingers.

"I've suffered worse. Listen, Corrin…" He implored to the floor, stomach rolling.


"I'm beyond sorry for dumping all of this on you. Maybe I shouldn't have been the one to tell you," he paused, working the nerve to look her in the eyes. They were puffy and red at the edges, but free of the earlier pain. "But being the selfish boor I am, I couldn't go on pretending to be your brother for the rest of my life… It is shameful, I realize."

Corrin shook her head. "It's alright, Takumi. I'm glad you told me."

An anxious exhale left Takumi, momentarily relieved. Tension immediately shot through the back of his neck as Corrin leaned in to administer the salve, working with a gentle touch as she spread cream over the gash underneath his eye. It wasn't the sting of the wound but the sudden closeness that caught his breath in his throat. Shame kept him from pondering the ivoried dip of her collarbone, lying at eye level. He prayed that she'd overlook the color he could feel leaking across his cheeks.

"So… does this change anything? About your feeling towards us, I mean."

She remained fixed upon her work but smiled, a little sadly. "No. In the short time we've spent together, I feel I've gotten to know you all so well. I care about you. We may not be family, but you are all very precious to me."

"I can't tell you how relieved I am to hear you save that."

It was half true, anyway. Takumi hung his head, letting the relief overcome him so that it might wash out the edge of rejection. He felt the salve begin to drip down the side of his face; Corrin was a touch liberal in her administration.

"Although…" She mused, tilting his chin back up to wipe the running ointment. "There is one change."

When his eyes found hers they were impossibly soft. No draconian fury or anguished pain to be found, only a backlit warmth that flooded her cheekbones.

"My feelings for you are no longer forbidden."

He barely made out his own voice over the kick in his pulse. "What?"

"I love you too, Takumi."

For an endless second the ground fell away as Takumi staggered through the sudden paradigm shift. With jarring speed neurons fired to compute the change – a love that used to be taboo was not only permitted, but reciprocated. The sudden alleviation of his shame in conjunction with heady relief and the enthralling blush across Corrin's cheeks proved too much for him. All at once Takumi was out of the armchair, lips slanted across Corrin's and all sensation narrowed to the searing contact.

He savored the torrent of emotions and the softness of her lips for just a moment, drawing back when she halted as though petrified, eyes wide as dinner plates.

Abashed, he drew back quickly. "I can't believe I just did that. I didn't mean –"

Takumi was cut off as Corrin covered his mouth with hers. Arms snaked around his neck as she arched against him, drawing herself to full height to reach his mouth. Now it was Takumi's turn to freeze in the unexpected heat that burned in Corrin's expression, caught unawares by the confidence in the way her lips moved against his. A private smile played the corners of his mouth as he stumbled to regain his footing.

Not one to be outdone, he worked the nerve to wind one hand around her hip and to bury the other in her tangle of hair, still mussed from the dirt of the fields. Takumi closed his eyes and dove deep with the next kiss, exploring the shape of her lips, taking in the contour of her shape as she leaned heavily against him. Her mouth was delightfully expressive as she let forth a tiny sigh and nipped at his lower lip.

A sudden crash and the slam of the rear door made Takumi jump as though electrocuted. Corrin wheeled around, eyes wide with and hands flying to cover her reddened mouth. Neither moved a muscle, straining to hear beyond the exit. Though no further crashes came, a woman could be heard whimpering quietly as she quickly scooped together the shattered pieces of a fallen teacup. Barely audible was a second voice, a hissed warning:

"… Gods as my witness, Felicia, you will be the end of us both if Lady Corrin sees…"

Abashment and shock warred in Corrin's expression, flushing down to her collarbone. "Oh no."

The room quickly felt devoid of oxygen, Takumi's breath returning shallow and unproductive. Emotional tumult taking its toll, he didn't have it in him to walk the housekeep through their emotional revelation. Corrin's blank panic indicated that she was in no state to confront them.

"Let's… talk outside," she said, swallowing heavily. "We won't be interrupted on the porch."

Desperate for space between himself and his potential social undoing, he followed without complaint through the sliding doors and into the cold evening air. Corrin leaned against the outer wall and slid to the floor with a groan, folding her knees to her chest. Takumi followed, sitting a careful distance away.

"I… don't want to talk to Felicia and Jacob about it. Not yet." Corrin stammered.

Unwilling to say anything regretful, Takumi paused and chose his words with great care. "We have to tell someone eventually. That is," he added a little tersely, "Unless you'd rather pretend this never happened."

She dropped her knees and turned to fully face him, wounded. "No!" With a tentative hand she cupped the side of his face, still slick with salve. "Of course not. I love you, and cannot go on pretending otherwise."

"Then shouldn't we set them straight? If word gets out -"

"It won't." She retrieved her hand and smiled to herself. "You heard Jakob, he would sooner resort to homicide than sully my name."

Takumi grimaced, barely suppressing a shiver as he mentally noted to steer clear of the imposing butler.

"Besides," she continued, drawing herself back into a ball, shuddering for cold or for dread. "We march on Castle Valla tomorrow. My own trivialities should be the farthest thing from everyone's mind. I need to be strong. I have to lead."

He frowned deeply. "A good leader isn't always strength and diligence incarnate." He rose and crossed the porch to a woven loveseat where a heavy quilt lay, no doubt residual evidence of nightly stewing. She probably spent most nights fretting alone on the deck, not unlike his own pacing about the amber spring.

"Ryoma, and even Xander… they're mortal. Even though we'll never see it, they might have their own shortcomings." Takumi addressed himself as much as Corrin, hefting the quilt into his arms and returning to her tiny form. She blinked up at him as he draped the quilt about her shoulders and kneeled before her. "And you, like them, are mortal. And you, like them," he secured the quilt like an imperial cloak about her neck. "Are a talented leader."

Swallowed entirely by the makeshift garb, she hardly looked the part. Royal armor shrouded from view, her eyes reddened, mouth swollen, Corrin could have been any young village girl enduring the throes of her first love. Carefully, Takumi lifted her chin with a light hand and ghosted her lips with his own. Her lips fell open and her eyes looked black in the deepening night that fell around them. Unfolding from her curled position, she came to kneel and spread her arms like an eagle, holding her makeshift cape aloft and enveloping him in a shrouding embrace.

It was so, so warm. Takumi's bones softened as he held the young princess, her head tucked snugly beneath his chin.

"And you," she mused into the side of his neck, "are a shameless flatterer. Kidding!" She added, to answer his indignant snort.

"But mostly, you're one of the strongest people I've ever met. And not just as a soldier, or as a member of the royal family. Up at the crack of dawn, working incessantly to prove yourself and protect the others… and largely by yourself." Corrin nuzzled herself further into his collarbone, her lips brushing his neck as she spoke. "You have this remarkable capacity for selflessness, for empathy, when given the chance." She placed a kiss on his throat, where his pulse raced neared the surface. "I love each of these things, and I love you. And I will always be here for you."

A constricting tightness settled in Takumi's throat and he swallowed thickly. He didn't feel strong.

He felt vulnerable. Hyper-sensitive, overwhelmed. He felt joy and sadness and hunger and relief, dynamic and in greater extremes than he thought possible. The cocktail of sensations left him breathless, each inch of him singing with electricity and alive, passionately and painfully alive.

All due to the tiny mass of blankets that sat in his lap, who came roaring back into his life and settled comfortably, Takumi's permission be damned. Whose small face fit just so in Takumi's palms, eyes overblown and expectant. Whose cold nose grazed past his own as their lips brushed, first cautiously and then urgently. Whose hair tumbled around her face and brushed his forehead as they rolled the to the porch floor, still cocooned together.

Uncaring of the suspicious housekeep or the faint buzz of camp, he relished and explored to his heart's content. With his hands he memorized the camber of her lower back, traced careful shapes along her arms and ventured along her chest. His mouth surveyed hungrily, tracing the planes of her mouth and skirting the edge of her collarbone, glorifying in the low whines Corrin suppressed at the attention.

Each small revelation was met with approval, and she expressed gratitude readily. Small hands deftly worked over Takumi's torso, across his shoulders, around his waist. He heard her exhale contentedly as he writhed under her kiss, a growl building in his throat as she busied herself at his neck and earlobes. All the while she moved sinuously against him, unwilling to allow any loss of contact as their limbs tangled within the quilt.

A thin crescent moon made its slow ascent across the sky, regretfully acknowledged in hushed whispers. Each attempt to part was met with an offhand complaint about the chill outside the confines of the blanket, a drowsy request for five more minutes, or helpful suggested alternative to leaving each other's company. Eventually the eastern sky conceded from black to a deep blue, and Takumi could stall no longer.

"I'd better go," he failed to announce with authority. Corrin's pout, laden with lethargy, weakened his resolve. "Really. I won't forgive myself if something were to happen because you were sleepwalking on the battlefield today."

Reminder of the looming fight sobered her up immediately, a cloud crossing her expression and knitting her eyebrows together. "Maybe you're right," she admitted darkly.

Takumi grabbed ahold of her hands and hoisted her to her feet, replacing the quilt about her shoulders and keep off the chill. "I almost always am," he gloated with a smirk as he tucked stray fringe behind Corrin's ear, who swatted at his hand and begrudgingly giggled. "You're going to be fine."

"We're going to be fine." She amended, slyly leaving a peck on his cheek before ducking back into the treehouse.

And as Takumi descended the ladder and set off into the dawning camp, he couldn't fight the feeling that she was right.

A/N: Phew. This, this was a slog, starting as a two-page archery exercise and gaining momentum in both directions. To those who read and commented, thank you SO much – this first foray into non-academic writing was hard, and your encouragement and feedback was invaluable. Thank you for reading!

~ Preble