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Daybreak

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Xion stood to Isa's left, a step down from the throne's dias. It really had come to this. Daybreak, the mighty Empire from the southeast, had come. Her people weren't well enough off to mount any kind of defense, between famine and the ogre hordes to the west. She wanted to sit down, to take some sort of comfortable position, but they needed to look strong for these negotiations. They needed to present a unified front and get as much help as they could while still retaining their autonomy.

Xigbar smirked from across the room and said, "Let's get started, shall we?"

"How many negotiators does one Empire need?" asked the King.

The Empire had brought with them enough troops to shut down any thought of retaliation, but it was just for show. It was poor form to approach peace talks with anything less than peaceful intentions. As such, it was safe for Xigbar, the King's Regent, to be accompanied by two of the King's sons, Ansem and Kishi.

The younger of which, Kishi, held back behind his older brother, keeping his helmet on and his body language noble but relaxed.

Ansem dripped with authority. His back was ramrod straight but not stiff. His arms were crossed but not tense. And his smirk and amber eyes rivaled Xigbar's. A glittering bronze diadem was draped over his long white hair and the deep olive of his forehead. The Terminus royals had a unique crown forged for each king or queen, and the rest of the family wore only their military rank insignias instead. Xion had seen much more impressive silver working in her time. She'd done better.

"Oh, only enough to get a point across," Xigbar answered.

Indeed, Xion thought. This wasn't a peaceful talk. This was Terminus trying to avoid a war that they would surely lose. The battalion outside wasn't there to negotiate. They were a reminder of a threat. She spared no look for the princes yet, instead staring down the rude man with the eye patch and long, salt and pepper hair.

"So," Xigbar continued, posture lax not out of naivete but out of disrespect, "should we have a table brought up?"

King Yen Sid stroked his beard. He was a proud man but wise and old enough to have been made so via experience. He didn't want to anger the man but there was a need for mutual respect. He waved over a servant and requested a table.

A short brown-haired boy and tall redheaded man helped bring one over before disappearing, seemingly through the walls. Xion hoped Sora and Lea would be staying nearby.

Xigbar came to stand by it.

"I understand your crop situation isn't ideal, so your annual tithe will be in ores instead."

"Regent," the elder Prince said from behind Xigbar, "allow me this chance to negotiate on behalf of my father. Your wisdom in these dealings is unparalleled, I would benefit greatly from your oversight should I be allowed to lead."

Xigbar seemed to think for a moment, making a show of touching his chin before responding, "Highness, if you think this is a good educational opportunity, I think your brother needs it more. Make sure to be a good example."

Xion's eyes finally flicked over to the other men. She couldn't see much of the shorter, but the taller one held himself with all of the confidence and none of the humility required to rule.

Ansem's smirk widened with triumph, and he stepped past Xigbar. The younger brother didn't move but lowered his eyes at the pointed comment.

"I believe it only fair that the Kingdom of Terminus offer 70% of their ore in tithing to the Emperor Xehanort to be collected quarterly one week before each changing of the season," he said.

Xion knew that would still leave them with enough to get by, but 70% would be gutting to their finances.

"We do have quite a need for iron and other industrial ores. I would offer 80% of our gold and silver, and 20% of other ores and reduced prices on more, should they be required. Additionally, the east pass becomes impassible in the winter, so I would recommend the shipments be biannual, in the spring and autumn," the King said. That sounded like a better deal for the Daybreak Empire. But Xion knew the reasoning behind it. They needed iron to make weapons to keep the ogre hordes at bay without relying more on Daybreak than they needed to.

"How generous to offer that 80% on top of the 70% of the ore we will be collecting," Ansem praised, "as to transportation, I am sure your people will find a way to deliver all four shipments on time."

This elder prince was cocky and Xion didn't like him.

Yen Sid stood up to his full, very intimidating height to say, "You misunderstand. The pass that would allow carts through becomes impassible, even for our gryphons. Ores are too heavy for flight and will not make it through twenty feet of snow covering the road. You must have travelled through it; you know how narrow the pass is. It is the only safe route between our kingdom and your empire. This is to be negotiations, not demands. Perhaps your country would benefit from aerial modes of transportation.  I can offer some of our beasts yearly in the place of industrial ores."

"I am certain you will find a way," Ansem mused, clearly unwilling to budge, and obviously aware of his unreasonable demands, "such leniency that you seek is offered only to those allies with familial ties." His gaze settled on Xion.

Ugh. She already wanted a bath, his gaze made her feel slimy but she kept her stony expression on better than her brother. His face didn't slip, but she could hear the fabric of his gloves strain as he clenched his fists beside her. Xion was a princess. She always knew her marriage would be a political move. She just hoped this prince wasn't suggesting himself.

"You speak of my granddaughter?" Yen Sid asked for clarification.

"I do," Ansem said, still looking her over, "I would have no qualms speaking to my father about a much, much smaller tithe from the family of my wife."

"Our rules are strict about the King or Queen only having one spouse. Xion is second in line for the throne. If you were to ask for her hand, it would have to be quite the offer."

She had no doubts that her grandfather would do his research but she should have done her own. Maybe this wouldn't hit so hard if she did. She didn't realize Daybreak practiced polygamy. She hadn't expected to be on equal footing with a husband. But she thought it would be better than this. She kept eye contact with the prince. She was wearing leather flying armor, so there wasn't a lot hidden even if she showed no skin.

"Then keep your traditions," Ansem mused. He waved his hand dismissively. "90% of all your ores and precious metals will be expected every season. Failure to meet this quota will result in a change of management. Xigbar, we're done here."

Xigbar raised an eyebrow and scolded, "You think you're done?"

The Prince stepped up to the Regent and leaned in so the others couldn't hear, "I have seen you do this many times. Give them time to contemplate the hopelessness of their situation and they will be more willing to cave to our demands." Ansem straightened and turned a tad to address the King once more. "Decide for yourself if your tradition is worth the lives of your people. Poverty and a military occupation does not bode well for a country's population."

"Nor do ogre hordes," Xigbar pointed out, surprisingly supportive of the surrendering royal family, "Perhaps you should do more cultural studies before you try negotiations again, Highness." His words had a certain bite to them, like he was talking down to a student. The King sat back down.

"If you intended to mock us perhaps you should have sent someone whose station befitted it. Ninety percent leaves us unable to defend our western border, you come with impossible demands, and ask for one of my remaining heirs to give up her dignity for scraps. We have more pride than that."

Xion could see it. The Daybreak Empire was known for ruthless takeovers. Terminus would not survive. She had seen battle, she had seen the military selections. She knew, even with all their training, they could not fight a war on two fronts.

"... Grandfather, may I speak for myself?" The King looked over to her before slowly nodding. "If Daybreak is willing to take our offer from earlier, and observe some of our other marriage customs, I would be willing to go." Slimy prince or not.

Ansem was too busy fuming. He was visibly very angry with Xigbar with fury written on his face. The younger Prince had to put a mouth up to his mouth to resist a chuckle and his older brother noticed immediately and zeroed in on him. It made the younger one tense up, staying at a more rigid attention.

The seething anger was only partially defused when Xion spoke and Ansem seemed much more likely to get his way. Public shame aside, he was still getting the end result that he wanted.

"It would depend on your customs," he said smoothly, but with a little more venom. He still wasn't happy with how things had gone earlier.

"Both parties present a handmade gift. Until the actual wedding, I would live separately and keep my own schedule. I know not everywhere considers men and women equal in marriage, but if you don't have need of me, I would like to be able to make use of my time for myself," she offered. Xion did her best to keep her tone even and her voice steady. She wanted to keep as many of her freedoms as she could, but knew she wasn't in a position to actually ask for them.

Ansem looked at Xion and then at the King. He seemed caught between irritation and confusion. When it was clear the King was going to let Xion speak for herself and not speak on her behalf, he reluctantly caved and addressed her directly.

"So long as that time is spent on the estate, then those terms are agreeable."

Xion would spend the rest of her life in one place. It was a heavy feeling. Once she'd left, she'd probably never see her home again. She nodded as Yen Sid called up a servant to bring a roll of parchment and a quill. He started penning the agreement himself.

Satisfied, Ansem demonstrated mercy in the agreement as promised. He agreed to biannual deliveries and lowered the tithe to 70% prior to the wedding and 50% after the wedding. King Yen Sid and his family would remain in power so long as they met their quota and stayed in line. An advisor from the capitol would be appointed and a small military unit stationed in the city. Otherwise, they would be left to govern themselves as an extension of the Empire.

Once the agreement had been signed, Yen Sid pressed his seal into the parchment. He used no wax, and instead the ring turned red and burned the seal onto the paper. Xion was used to seeing her grandfather's casual use of magic, but that didn't make it less impressive. She might have stood taller if the weight of her leaving wasn't hanging around her neck.

"You are welcome to stay for dinner, though I doubt it will be to the same standards as you would receive in the Empire," the King offered once he found a scribe to copy the agreement.

Ansem added his own seal as well, though sans the use of magic. He took a glove off to press his ring into the wax. Ultimately, they would need the blessing of the Emperor himself since the contract included a marriage, but for now, it was binding.

"It would be fitting to see what my future in-laws are like," Ansem said with a grin. There was nothing kind in the gesture. "A place to stay the night as well."

"It is too bad Lauriam will be unable to join us then. There are, of course, guest rooms prepared."

The king waved a hand, and the room sprang to life around them as servants resumed their daily work. The brown-haired boy from before and a nearly identical man flanked Xion as she left the hall, and the redhead as well as a tall black-haired girl followed the prince the same way. Xigbar turned to head out back the way they'd come. Xion stopped just out of view to lean against the wall and cover her mouth while she cried.

The youngest Imperial Prince jumped a bit at the magic and reached for a weapon but he was promptly scolded by his passing brother and a swift hit to the back of his head. He stumbled a bit, righted himself, and then followed the Regent and elder Prince.

Sora was the first one to try to hug Xion and she threw herself into it. Vanitas stood nearby tightly gripping his sword, with what looked like tendrils of smoke coming off his hand.

Isa, the Crown Prince, waited patiently for his turn. He stood still in the hallway, facing slightly away from her, flanked by his own retainers.

Sora stood there patting her back for awhile before she straightened up and went to Isa. She didn't look good, face puffy and nose running. He was considerably taller than her, but he bent down to hug her anyway. Gently, he stroked her hair and then kissed her forehead as he straightened.

"What do you need?" he asked her softly, ready to give her the world.

She sniffed before answering, "T-time. To say goodbye. To y-you and Grandfather and-and Lauriam and our parents—" And the staff and people and everything she'd be leaving behind. She dissolved into sobs again, clinging to his armor.

He hugged her again and kept petting her.

"I find it unlikely that they take you with them any time soon. They still need approval from the Emperor and we can easily delay them by keeping the Princes here and entertained," he gently reassured her, "now dry your eyes and go clean up for dinner."

She was still shaking but she nodded and Vanitas put his free hand on her shoulder to lead her away to her room.

Dinner was served at six sharp, and the family had changed into more casual clothes. The cuts were nothing particularly fancy, but all of the beadwork was done in actual gems, making the garments very flashy. Xion was wearing a low-cut green dress with leaves and flowers decorating the skirt. It was one of her nicer dresses. The thought of the Prince's eyes on her skin made her flesh crawl, but the idea of getting the full brunt of that on her wedding night was far, far worse.

The Imperial Princes were a few minutes late. It had taken time for them to settle in and change themselves, though their "casual" was still armored minus helmets, pauldrons, and steel boots.

Ansem carried himself like he owned the place, though he respected the order of seating, placing himself between Xigbar and Kishi, with Xigbar closest to the King. It placed him across from Xion and he studied her like a work of art moreso than as a person.

The younger brother was much less full of himself, though he still carried himself with pride and remained alert. Unlike his brother, he was more willing to look around and was less able to hide his boredom. Kishi had pale skin. His silver-white hair matched his older brother's, as did the harshness of his eyes, but it was evident they had different mothers and were far separated in age. Kishi still looked like he had some filling out to do and the shadow of recently shed baby fat still lingered in his cheeks. He sat still with his hands folded politely in his lap.

The retainers all ghosted around the walls as a few maids served the meal. There was a roast deer leg, a few different loaves of bread, a salad, and an egg aspic dish. There were just enough servings of each for everyone at the table to have one.

Xion prickled under Ansem's gaze but kept her composure through the prayer before helping distribute the food, filling her brother's plate before he filled the King's, and so on.

Kishi served both Xigbar and Ansem before serving himself, and in that order, much to Ansem's displeasure. The older brother frowned when the first plate passed him by and the expression deepened when he saw the portions. He shot the younger brother a glare that made Kishi wilt a little, but the fire in his teal eyes didn't waver. After a brief sneer in Kishi's direction, Ansem started to eat.

"If you are not due back to the Imperial Capitol in the foreseeable future," Isa began, "you should consider staying here a few nights more. I would be honored to show our new lords the city, our forges, and workshops."

"We are expected back after reasonable negotiations, I think we can spare a week," Xigbar said in his usual cavalier attitude. "Though fiscal reports interest me more than forges. Their Highnesses might enjoy the tour more."

Xion really didn't like the reagent's tone. Sure, they were usually casual around the dining table, but not when they had guests and certainly not during matters of state, like earlier.

"Perhaps I should go on the tour with them, I know the forges almost as well as the master smiths," she said, voice clear and high.

"I would be most comfortable knowing my bride-to-be was safe here in the castle," Ansem said with a little smirk dancing at the corner of his mouth. There was some accusation there that didn't go unnoticed by Saix, whose own mouth curled in the slightest shape of a frown.

"My sister is as safe in the city as she is in the castle and as wild and free here as she would be there," he retorted coldly. Ansem's eyes jerked over to her brother.

"You think I would doubt a magically binding contract?" he accused.

"Only so far as you would imply she try to flee," Saix bit back.

"Trust need not even be an issue, one of the forges is connected to the castle itself, if you'd rather have a demonstration of the process," Xion said almost too cheerfully. This was a double edged sword and she knew it. She fully planned on being the one to make the demonstration, giving her a chance to show off some of her skill and physical power, but it denied her the opportunity to see some of the masters. If she only had a week...she'd like to try to make one last project.

"We will have to teach you manners prior to presenting you before the Empire," Ansem muttered. Saix was getting more irritated and admittedly had issues with his temper.

"I'll not have you speak to the Princess in such a way," he growled.

"I will speak to my fiance as I see fit!"

"I would not be opposed to a demonstration," Kishi said before shoving a roll in his mouth. Ansem and Isa both turned on him. Isa in surprise and Ansem with a cold fury.

"Very well," the older brother conceded through clenched teeth, "then we will begin there on the morrow."

The King looked rather displeased, though that may have been his default expression, while Xigbar was grinning. Free entertainment was the best.

"...what are your other wives like?" she asked tentatively. If they'd be considered part of the same family, she'd want to know more about them.

"Obedient and beautiful," he said slyly, "though perhaps lacking in fire." Ansem’s mood mellowed out and he redirected his attention to her, undressing her with his eyes. Kishi snorted and rolled his eyes.

"I don't doubt that I have enough fire for a lifetime." Xion had picked this dress because it showed off part of her worst scar. She was proud of the scars, but also proud that after seven years of fighting she only had three.

His eyes glittered. "We will see."

Isa was about ten seconds from reaching across the table and strangling this guy. He gently slid his foot over to touch Xion’s to ground himself.

She tapped his foot back with hers. She was battle hardened; they both were. It would take more than a nasty attitude to break her.

"Do you have any children?" The King asked.

Ansem twitched but Kishi didn't hesitate to answer, "No. None of them do. No grandbabies for the Emperor."

That seemed odd, especially if they had many wives but Xion kept that opinion to herself. Xigbar, however, did not.

"Poor guy doesn't get anyone to spoil."

Ansem let the comment slide and relaxed a bit.

"Perhaps you will be a better fit to my home in that regard," he told Xion.

Xion repressed a shiver at the thought. That was the reality of her situation, but it had the same slimy feeling as his gaze.

"My family tends to have many children."

He smiled. "I certainly hope so."

She put her fork down, very suddenly not hungry.

"What kind of hobbies do you enjoy?" she asked.

"Hobbies? Our time is spent serving the crown, whether that be studying or fighting the front lines, or... tending to the needs of our personal households."

"You must have an impressive library, to be studying so often."

"Scala ad Caelum houses the world's largest libraries and leads the world in magical studies."

Xion's eyes flickered to her grandfather, then to the empty seat next to her. She decidedly did not look at Vanitas, already having told him to hide his magic from the Daybreak emissaries.

"You will need not trouble yourself with such matters. Your role in our hierarchy is simple, as are expectations of you," Ansem assured her. He swirled his glass a bit before sipping it delicately.

"But my role here will remain. I will spend my free time studying or training, as I may have need to return," she reminded.

He smirked; an ugly, knowing smirk. "Do as you will, so long as my orders and expectations are met."

"Only once the wedding is done."

"Of course." The smirk never wavered but the discussion shifted. Ansem was carefully engaging her father and Isa in more serious discussions about the resources of their country. He ignored Xion and especially Kishi if they tried to interject, very neatly steering the conversation to exclude them for the rest of dinner.

Xion kept quiet, forcing the rest of the meal down. Her grandfather undercut most of his resource reports, though not enough to cause any problems.

A servant brought out an ice cream dessert, a specialty of the region that they had access to only because of the frequent snow. Ansem and Xigbar talked well after dessert too. So, when they were finally ready to retire, Kishi was nodding off already from sheer boredom.

Xion did not nod off, she didn't ever stop trying to be part of the conversation. But when her grandfather dismissed her, she got up to leave.

"I'll meet you both in the entrance hall at eight in the morning," she said to the princes.

Kishi bowed politely but Ansem didn't and smacked the back of Kishi's head for it before walking out of the hall to head to his room. The younger brother followed, rubbing his head as he went.

Isa scowled more openly with them gone.

"The man is a pig."

"Bold of you to call him a man," Xion added.

Yen Sid scowled at his grandchildren.

"Be that as it may, we are bound to them now." He softened just a little before continuing. "I would not have asked this of you, Xion." Her lip trembled, but she had already cried enough tears today.

"...I know, Grandfather. But I can't watch our kingdom fall."

"Grandfather, arrange for me to accompany her. I will not leave her in subpar conditions to be abused by an animal," Isa demanded.

"That's my job," Vanitas said from his place at the wall.

"Isa, you're the crown prince. You can't leave for that long," Xion said quietly. She wanted him to come, to be there for her, but she couldn't ask him to leave their people.

His fists clenched and he shook as he tried to keep his anger reined in. Rare tears were unshed in his eyes, making them shiny.

She put a hand on his arm and said, "This is what needs to happen so we can survive."

"I don't think I can pay this price."

"You don't have to."

He put his hand over hers and calmed down some.

"If you believe her life is in danger, Vanitas..." Isa started, implying what should be done.

Vanitas nodded solemnly while Sora looked down behind him. He was always the softer brother.

"I think I'm going to go beat on a training dummy until I feel better," Xion said, before turning to go.  Breaking a few pieces of wood wouldn't feel as good as that Prince's nose, but it would be cathartic all the same. Isa let her go, albeit reluctantly, and left to his own room, retainers in tow.

Xion departed not long after, heading through the castle and outside to the training grounds.

"You don't need to go through with this," Vanitas said quietly.

"Careful servant, I may take such a comment as an insult," Ansem said. He was in the hallway, wearing only a long, loose robe. He hadn't even been gone that long so for him to be here like that was notably deliberate.

Van's eyes flashed in the dark, not unlike a cat's, and his hand went to the sword at his side.

"Perhaps you should."

"Vanitas, we don't need more trouble right now. I suggest you cover up, Prince Ansem, it gets quite cold at night." She turned to continue walking.

He smoothly started walking beside her, slowly using his body to guide her to a wall until he could trap her there between his arms. He kept one hand flat on the wall, and the other gently brushed her cheek.
"Then stay the night with me. A good host would see to their guest's needs. I would prefer your warmth and weight over that of a rough blanket or restrictive article of clothing."

She wanted to throw up. Instead, she put on a smile and ducked under his arms.

"Our traditions are very strict. I am not to live with you until after the wedding. That includes sharing a room or tent. As things are, I would like to finish my routine for the night before heading to bed myself."

He grabbed her arm and pulled her more roughly to him.

"A shame, I would have preferred a chance to try you before committing you to me, but I can be patient," Ansem whispered in her ear. He softly bit at the soft skin below her ear and ghosted his hand over her back and side before letting her go with a shudder and a chuckle. He walked leisurely back to his room.

Xion started trembling before she heard his door click closed, but she managed to stay silent a few minutes longer than that, reaching to pull Sora in so any sounds she made would be muffled against him. It wasn't fair that she had to go through this. That she had to tolerate this kind of behavior. But what other choice did she have?

Xion stayed that way for nearly ten minutes before wiping her face and continuing to the training grounds without a word.

Sora had held her until she started walking again, and then he gave her some space to unwind. He only tensed up again and moved in close when they saw the younger brother outside. He too was dressed in a robe but there was long sleeved, high necked shirt on underneath at least, so his chest wasn't exposed to the air, and he was wearing long pants and light shoes, almost slippers.

Vanitas gripped his sword again, and Xion took the time to give him a wide berth.

The Princeling jumped more than any one of them when he noticed her. He straightened up out of his slouch and then politely dipped his head in a bow before opening his mouth to talk and then thinking better of it. He addressed Vanitas instead.

"Pardon, but I have become turned around and need directions back to my chambers." His voice was strained, the politeness was unpracticed.

Xion was more than a little relieved. She didn't know if she could take another bad encounter with a straight face right now. "Your room was next to your brother's, correct?" she asked before Vanitas could snap at him.

"Unless you can find me one that's not," he grumbled. Kishi was avoiding eye contact with her, mostly looking up and away or to the side.

She noticed. "We have plenty of guest rooms, though the ones you occupy now are the best furnished. Is there something wrong with my appearance?"

"Ah, no Princess, it's just, my brother has forbidden me from speaking to you, or looking at you, or really being in the same room..." the more he went on the more irritable and resigned he sounded.

"Well at the moment, I don't find myself in a place where I want to honor his wishes. If you won't tell, I know the way through the servant's quarters so we won't be seen together."

Kishi jumped a little and waved his hands about before bowing again. "Oh nonono, Ansem will definitely find out and he will absolutely take it out on me. P-Please, just a direction to my room, good Princess."

"...up the main stairs, to the left. Yours should be the third door on the right. I don't believe I caught your name earlier?"

"Forgive my rudeness. Prince Kishi Oscura, fourth son of his Imperial Highness."

"You're forgiven. I am Lieutenant Colonel Xion Terminus, third child of the Throne." She bowed with that, fully expecting to have to explain why titles were strange here.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were supposed to include our ranks..." He sweat a little bit and then started hurrying off.

"Vanitas, make sure he doesn't get lost again. And don't be rude!" Vanitas huffed before peeling off to silently track after the young prince.

Sora watched them go. "Night and day," he mused to himself.

"What do you mean by that?" Xion asked sincerely as she continued walking.

"The two Princes. They just seem very different."

"Indeed. Though I'd be quicker to compare them to a cat and mouse."

"Of course," Sora agreed respectfully.

"You don't have to agree with me. Do you want to spar tonight, or just watch?"

"It's up to you." His voice was still cheerful but there was some underlying sad still. This escape didn't feel far enough removed from their reality.

"And I asked your preference, Sora. Though I'd rather break something right now, so it probably shouldn't be you. I'd be sad if I did," she reasoned out.

"The dummies then."

Xion stayed working up a sweat until past midnight.

 

Chapter Text

Xion was up and in the entrance hall at eight sharp, wearing neither finery nor armor but stained, heavy linens that would protect against the heat of the kilns and the forge.

Sora was nearby, but Vanitas was hiding in the walls, where he could sneer at whatever he wanted without fearing potential punishment.

Concerned that he might start an international incident, Isa was absent. The Crown Prince had faith that Xion could handle herself.

Ansem and Kishi were both a little late again. Twice in a row, it no longer felt like an accident and more a deliberate expression of power. It was as if they were saying, time moved for them, and they would define it as they wished. Both were dressed finely with limited armor over the most expensive dyed fabrics with intricate designs depicting fairies in embroidery.

Ansem’s outfit and pauldron continued the summer motif with gold inlay and summer constellations while Kishi’s favored the winter. He wore silver, white, and blues in contrast to his brother's gold, red, and black. It made him seem even more pale but brought out the tropic ocean of his eyes.

Ansem smirked at her at first, but it vanished when he realized she wasn't wearing anything revealing. Kishi kept his eyes straight ahead, seeming more like a retainer to his brother rather than a Prince himself.

"You're both looking fine this morning. Did you find your accommodations to your liking?" she asked mostly out of politeness but also to mildly poke at Ansem.

"I was cold and lonely," Ansem told her back, "thankfully, my dear brother was willing to give me his bedding. I slept well once those arrangements were made. It is good of you to ask."

Xion made up her mind at that moment to have Sora bring some of the nicer bedding to Kishi's room quietly later.

"If you'll follow me, I'll lead the way. What do you two know of smithing, that I may tailor my explanation to your experience level?"

Ansem started following with a more bored expression and acted as though answer her question was a chore, well beneath him, "I am familiar with the entire process in concept, my younger brother has yet to study any of the working-class skills." Said brother was keeping up but maintaining a distance from his brother. Sora was walking next to Xion. He seemed relaxed but was coiled and waiting behind his cheerful smile.

Xion, in turn, acted as though she was speaking to a clueless child. "Theory is all well and nice, but a master smith will always be able to pick the best weapon, you know. Do you have a favorite weapon?"

Kishi visibly flinched as the room darkened.

"Mind your tone," Ansem scolded, "there is no need for this discussion except to waste my time."

"You don't scare me." Xion turned the corner. The forge was built up against the side of the castle, warming the king's quarters and the library behind it. It was always the warmest place on the grounds, and Xion had spent many cold nights talking to the masters and learning the craft. There was no snow within ten meters of the building.

Rather than be angry, Ansem smirked, and followed her a little more closely, which made it harder for Sora to stay near her without feeling crowded.

Xion ducked inside and held the door. "Since Prince Ansem did not answer my question and I did have a reason for asking, Prince Kishi, what is your favored weapon?" she asked much more politely. The inside of the forge was very dark, and there was nowhere to sit. Once both men were in, Xion latched the door closed and slipped a heavy leather apron and gloves on before heading to a shelf to the left of the forge that glowed green.

Kishi opened his mouth to answer but Ansem held out a hand to stop him. "My brother is an observer. Do not address him. Make a sword." He watched for her reaction carefully.

"I will address who I please. You will learn little if you do not ask questions and interact with the process." She didn't look at Kishi, already guessing that this would get him in more trouble. Instead, she pulled the rapier she'd been working on for Lauriam for the last two weeks. It was nearly complete, needing only some straightening out before going to the grindstone. It was going to be ornate, but hardly the nicest thing she'd made. This was a folded sword, an example of Damascus steel, and quite a show of skill for such a narrow blade.

"Can either of you tell me what Damascus steel is?"

Ansem shuddered and his smirk widened when she held her ground. He lowered his hand and just tilted his head, unwilling to answer and validate her as the teacher. He knew what it was and where it came from and how it was produced, but Ansem's focus was on studying her, he didn't care about the craft at all. This type of labor was beneath him.

Xion turned to Kishi when he didn't answer.

This time Ansem didn't scold her or try to stop Kishi from answering but the younger sibling still resisted and stayed quiet. He didn't look timid or scared but he was clearly trying to avoid confrontation.

"Well? Answer her." Kishi's shoulders slumped a little.

"I don't know what Damascus steel is," he admitted out loud. Ansem tsked sadly once and gently pet his brother's head once to fix the long hair that was out of place.

Xion opened the large oven and long green tongues of flame shot from the open door. She didn't flinch, merely grabbed a large shovel and scooped some of the coals out, taking them to the workbench before returning to close the door.

"Damascus steel is poor iron worked to a high quality by repeatedly folding a small amount of good steel into a larger piece of iron, then twisting it. It is also sometimes called water steel, wood steel, pattern welding, or orichalcum. Similar processes are unnecessary for higher quality steels, but Damascus steel is proof of the skill of a blacksmith as well as a prettier blade than standard steel." She placed the sword over the coals to heat, which it did quickly, turning orange as she lifted a hammer to start to beat the metal into place.

Kishi fussed with his brother's hand behind her back, glaring at Ansem who just looked down at the Prince with some air of victory.

"Pay attention, Ki. This trip is proving itself to be more educational than previously intended," he scolded. She paused only occasionally, either to push the bellows or check the trueness of the blade.

"Every weapon has its own techniques for forging, and some even function better when cast instead."

"Such work is hardly a woman's work," Ansem said, somewhat bored. There was a dangerous glint in his eyes all the same.

"A woman's work is to create," Kishi huffed, "which is more than can be said of you."

Sora was trying very hard not to react to the comment but, fortunately, Ansem didn't seem to notice. He glared at the brother for a long moment before letting the anger melt away into his smirk again. Though his harsh comments dwindled down some in light of the comeback.

"Terminus makes no distinction. There are men and women in every way of life." When she was happy with the shape, she quenched the sword in a tall vat of tallow, orange fire licking up and around her gloves. She left the blade on the bench while returning the coals to the kiln.

"Damascus steel only reveals its beauty once it has been ground and steeped in a chloride solution. In many places, river stones or quarry stones are used for grindstones. Master smiths in Terminus mix cement with powdered diamonds. You will find no better edge than one cut like this."

Xion hauled the metal over to the grindstones. There were three, and apprentice smiths kept them turning quickly with a series of gears. Xion knew another factor of the process was the different size of diamond dust—a secret she wouldn't be spilling in front of them. Not that they could do anything with the information. Ansem might have but it was unnecessary now that they controlled this country. It was very unlikely either of the Princes would interact with this field again at all. Kishi was even starting to nod off.

Sparks flew from the blade as she started to grind it sharp. Grinding took most of her concentration, as it was easy to take it too far. After going through all the wheels, Xion brought the blade over for the Princes to inspect.

Ansem had lost interest a long time prior. He took the sword and swung it a bit, surprisingly impressed. He slashed it in Xions direction, expertly cutting into one of the apron straps, and laughed to himself. Xion didn't flinch, just took the blade back. She still had to assemble the hilt and guard and pommel, swinging it around like that was reckless.

"If you damage anything else, you will be asked to leave."

He laughed and left anyway, leaving Kishi standing there awkwardly to rub sleep out of his eyes.

Xion offered the blade to Kishi to inspect.

He was still trying to process that his brother had left and just kind of looked at it in confusion until a firm voice snapped outside.

"Kishi!" Kishi rolled his eyes and sighed.

"It looks really pretty," he offered sincerely and then followed his brother with a frustrated huff.

Xion stayed in the forge to finish the blade, Vanitas materializing seemingly out of nowhere. If Xion didn't know the servant's passages so well, she might have thought that.

"...they aren't very good at being brothers," Xion said softly. What kind of family was she marrying into?

Sora looked over at Van briefly before looking back at Xion. The worry on his face was prominent.

"Their Highnesses seem, um, unaccustomed to women in power," he offered, still trying to be respectful of their new rulers without sacrificing honesty.

"It's not their fault the rest of the world is ass-backwards," Vanitas said, earning a glare from Xion, "the older prince has a shitty attitude, that's his fault, but they can't help the kind of place they were brought up."

"...I hate to admit that you make good points when you use such crass language," Xion said. Vanitas shrugged.

"You're the one who said to treat you like an equal, not a better."

"Still don't have to cuss, Vani," Sora grumbled.

The truth was, they knew from rumors and stories how ruthless the Imperial family was. The Emperor himself was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil for power and Immortality. It was probably embellished but the ruined countries and slaughtered people were not. Daybreak's armies were an unstoppable machine led by the Royal family, often in person. That reputation seemed confirmed in the case of Ansem. Cruel, entitled, and powerful barely seemed to scratch the surface. It didn't seem like the kind of thing to really vocalize, since it was obviously on everyone's minds already.

Xion was being tossed to the wolves. There was no telling what actually waited her in Scala ad Caelum.

"I'll use whatever language I see fit. And I think 'ass' and 'shit' are fitting."

"Well I think you're an ass," Xion said, mood lifting a little as they started teasing.

Sora was notably flustered by the language. He never cussed and was too easy to tease for it.

"Vani does look like one," Sora tried to contribute.

"Nice job, dumbass, we're identical."

Xion actually laughed a little.

Sora blushed when he realized his mistake.

"Th-Thats not!" he couldn't finish between the giggling and the embarrassment.

Xion started working on the guard while the two argued. She'd already finished the silver plating, so it was just the stones to make the vines and roses left. The pommel itself was finished as well and just needed to be attached properly, shaped like a rose in full bloom.

"Hey Sora? Can you bring one of the down blankets by Kishi's room later? And don't get caught doing it," she requested.

"Uh, yeah, he should have plenty though... You don't really think the Prince took all the blankets from his brother do you?" he asked, horrified.

"... given the way he's acted, it wouldn't surprise me," she said somewhat dejectedly.

"But they're kin," Sora whispered, looking to his own brother for reassurance.

"It's not always a guarantee, Sor," Vanitas said with no bite, "Sora, if you were to get married—" Ignoring the impossibility of that, "—would you want your spouse to get along with me?"

Sora was having trouble wrapping his head around the first part but responded, "If I get married... I guess it would be nice if you did."

"Ass-nem's reaction was to forbid his brother from interacting with his fiancé at all. There's a difference between being brothers and having brotherhood."

"That's really sad."

"Maybe they're not all like that," Xion suggested.

Vanitas snorted at the thought. "There's being an optimist, and then there's delusion. That's a delusion."

"I'm sorry, Xion, but Vani's right this time. You should probably be careful of the youngest Prince too," Sora cautioned, "all of them have a reputation for violence and cruelty. It's shocking that the one is deceptively nice. I want to believe one of them is okay, but... Vani what if we did try to fight? So Xion could stay?"

"I'm not going to fight. Don't try to stop this," Xion said, immediately taking an authoritative tone. "Hypothetically, then," Vanitas said, unfazed, "we might be able to take out the younger prince and the battalion in the city. His Majesty would make short work of Ass-nem. I'm not sure about that eye patch guy. He doesn't seem that strong, but I bet he's hiding some kind of talent. The problem would be once word gets back to the empire. They're more than ten times our size and known for their ruthlessness. Once they got in, it would be a bloodbath. Once we started losing, His Majesty would probably order a collapse on all the mines to keep Daybreak from profiting off what's left. They wouldn't spare the royal family, Sor."

"Oh..." Soras mood darkened a bit and wilted a little in response, "I know we're buying time, but I wish they would leave..."

Xion's mood was falling fast as well, no longer in the mood to tease. They'd be leaving soon, and she'd never see Terminus again.

"...I heard the Imperial capital is nice," Sora tried to cheer up.

"Sure, but can you even imagine being so far from the mountains?" she asked.

He wrinkled his nose. "Maybe he will be so busy, you never have to see him."

"I can only hope." Her skin still crawled from his touches last night and despite the heat of the smithy, she shivered.

"You should ask His Majesty to name you the ambassador," Vanitas suggested.

"If they look down on women so much... I mean, it couldn't hurt to ask."

Xion just sighed. Being the Ambassador for Terminus would help her standing, she'd have more of a voice for herself, but getting over the gender barrier seemed impossible.

"I'll bet we're the only ones in their capital who'll know how to ride gryphons," Vanitas said, "the princes couldn't bond with them if they tried."

"Are we going to be allowed to go?" Sora asked quietly and concerned.

"...I should be allowed to take you with me... you're in my service, not my grandfather's, and Ansem has no say in my affairs until the wedding..." Xion reasoned out. As terrifying as this already was, it would be a million times worse without her retainers.

"Is it going to be a big wedding?" Sora asked, "or do you think he'll try to marry you quickly before we leave...?"

"...I don't think we're getting married here. He seems to be the kind of person who wants to put on a show."

"At least we will get to be there for you until then," Sora reassured her, "while you're still ours to care for, we should get you some food, Xion."

"Hey, it hasn't been that long since breakfast, has it?" It was hard to tell time in the forge, it was kept intentionally dark so the smiths could gauge the temperature of the metal.

Sora opened the door. It was well into the afternoon.

"You passionately lost track of time again," he teased.

"...well, shoot." Xion grabbed a generic scabbard off the wall and slid the rapier home before heading out of the forge into the late winter air.

"Princess, I would pay good money to hear you swear more often," Vanitas said.

"All of his money," Sora confirmed.

Xion ignored the comments.

"How angry do you think the cook will be if I eat dinner early as an excuse to not have to see the Prince?" she asked.

"Not half as angry as the Prince."

"Good. Let's do it." Xion wanted to test the sword out anyway before it got to Lauriam. He wasn't a fighter, so the sword had to be easy to handle to make up for that. Vanitas grinned and led the way into the servant's passages once they arrived in the castle. Sora's grin matched his twin. He took up the rearguard as they snuck away to get food and sneak a couple thorns into her future husband's side.

The cook seemed only sad, giving in to Xion's request immediately and putting a bit of a damper on their 'secret mission'. They stayed out at the training grounds until the sun had long set, Xion taking turns with different weapons she'd made after testing Lauriam's sword to her satisfaction.

Sora might've been more exhausted than Xion by the time they were ready to get back to her room. He didn't handle emotional drains very well so when she was ready to head back, he happily went along, accompanying her.

Her very much not empty room. Prince Kishi hadn't notice them arrive. He was looking around her suite at the art and furniture, admiring everything with his hands clasped politely behind his back.

Xion and Vanitas were immediately on edge, with Xion drawing Lauriam's sword and holding a ready position.

"I don't know how you do things in the empire, but in Terminus, a bedroom is considered private."

He jumped, spun around, and then put his hands up in surrender.

"I'm unarmed," he promised, "they can search me."

Vanitas simply nodded and said, "He is."

"What are you doing in my quarters?" Xion asked pointedly, not lowering the sword. Sora still wasn't so sure and stayed tense.

"I didn't know where else to find you. You weren't with the staff doctor, so I figured you'd be in your room."

"Why would I be with the doctor?"

"Your brother said you were..." Kishi nodded a bit like pieces were fitting together. He sighed and lowered his arms. "Look, you have to stop antagonizing my brother."

"Why should I?" She tightened her grip on the sword and lowered it just a bit.

"You're going to be my brother's fifth wife. Of the four before you, only one of them is still alive."

Vanitas started to shake but stayed silent, letting Xion do the talking.

"So, I should let what dignity I have be washed away?"

"I'm saying he gets off on breaking women. The stronger and more fire, the more he wants to drag it out. Every time you act like you're equal to him or question him or make him appear a fool, you're just building your own funeral pyre."

"If I give in, I might as well be dead. If surviving means losing who I am, I don't want it." This was the kind of attitude all children in Terminus were raised on. The country was always trying to kill them. From bitter winters, to the constant threat of the ogre hordes, to the harsh conditions of the mines, to diseases, and now even to famine and the Daybreak Empire. The world was constantly trying to tear them down, so they learned to shore themselves up. Dignity and pride and strength were what she was built on.

Kishi pressed both his hands together and held them to his lips while he thought, studying her with narrowed eyes.

"Maybe you're not hearing me," he tried again, then, slowly, he said, "he is going to torture you and when you fail to get pregnant, he will kill you."

Xion sheathed the sword and said, "I am a soldier. This is just another kind of battle. My father and mother died to ensure our people would be safe. I'm ready to do the same."

"You're an idiot. A delusional ignoramus. You must have missed the part where you belong to the Emperor's house now. You're not a soldier, you're a brood. And I'm not saying you just roll over. I actually think it's fucking hilarious that you're working over my brother, no matter who he lashes out at. I'm only here because it didn't feel fair to not warn you that he's keeping score, and the moment he has you to himself, he will even that score."

"Consider me warned then," she said flatly. She couldn't stop being a soldier. It wasn't a designation or title that defined that. It was a frame of mind.

Kishi stayed locked in the staring contest with her for a few long seconds before he shrugged and walked past her to leave.

"I appreciate the warning, and I'm sorry I can't heed it," she said more softly.

"I don't really care what you do with my words," he admitted, "I'd be a fool to fuss over a corpse." He didn't even bother to close the door the door behind him.

Vanitas slammed it when it was clear and said, "You should run."

"I can't."

"I won't sit back and watch you die. Orders or not," Vanitas threatened.

Sora was a little shaken up. "Please, Xion, run."

"I can't," she repeated, voice wavering slightly, "I signed the agreement, I won't be able to."

"It would hurt our people too if you died..."

"And they will die if I don't go." She went to sit on the side of her bed.

"I will kill him if he lays a hand on you."

"Vanitas—"

"I don't give a damn about protecting the country. I am sworn to protect you."(italics)

"I am very good at cleaning up," Sora offered.

"Neither of you will get involved, and I'll do my best to not break."

Sora tsked but he knew better than to argue.

"We'll let you get some rest," he whispered, shaking.

"Actually, can you find some itching powder before the week is over, Sora?" she asked.

"Xion... No."

"It'll only be a problem for him if he touches me."

Sora visibly slumped with relief and admitted, "I thought you were going to contaminate his bedding."

"Oh no, I'm going to be much meaner than that." She got up to go to her wardrobe. She had one dress that covered everything but was nearly skintight.

"M-Maybe you should take the Prince's advice just a little bit," Sora suggested. He was familiar enough with Xion to know she wasn't very good at behaving, especially when asked to by someone she didn't respect.

"If Ansem is all he says he is, he should recognize a trap."

Sora shuffled nervously. "At least sleep on it please."

"... fine. But still look into getting some." Xion pulled the dark green and white gown out. It was intended to be reminiscent of a snowy forest. The powder would blend right in.

"I don't intend to do it tomorrow, anyway. Lauriam will be arriving and I want my hugs."

Vanitas snorted.

"We'll leave you to rest." Sora motioned with his head to try and communicate to Vanitas that they should give her some privacy. He finally caught on and they headed for the door.

Chapter Text

Xion was up bright and early with Isa to wait for Lauriam's return. She was wearing a fluffy floor-length fur coat that hid everything except her face and hands and she'd told Sora to get the powder.

Sora appeared beside her, passing over a packet as subtly as he could. Isa would of course notice anyway so being sneaky wasn't a priority. The crown prince said nothing if he did notice.

"I fully intend to keep their Imperial Highnesses busy today," he reassured his sister.

"I can handle them tomorrow. If you can, don't let on that our brother isn't our sister."

Xion stowed the packet in an inner pocket of the coat. Isa's facial expression didn't change aside from the slight furrowing of his brow as he tried to process her plans.

"Xion, don't light fires that don't need to be lit," he cautioned when he put it together.

"I won't be doing anything. He'll be lighting this one himself."

"I know the situation isn't ideal but you do represent our country. Please try not to push too far. Standing up for yourself is something I will always encourage, just don't give them a reason to punish the people."

Sora nodded just a little bit. Isa was a prankster himself on good days. He taught Xion several tricks growing up and he wasn't explicitly telling her no.

"I won't do anything he can't blame anyone but himself for," she promised. Isa didn't respond but he seemed pleased.

Within a few minutes, the screech of Elrena's ornery gryphon could be heard. Everyone made room in the courtyard for the three enormous beasts to land. Isa was the first to approach. The gryphons liked him well enough, and he was able to greet his brother in a firm, manly hug. Xion wasn't far behind him, but she waited her turn.

"How was the journey?" he asked when he leaned back and gripped Lauriam's shoulder warmly.

Lauriam was a tall, feminine man with rose pink, long hair, blue eyes, fair skin, and a soft voice. He had a muscular chest, long legs, and gentle demeanor more suited for growing things than taking lives.

"I came as soon as Grandfather sent word. So quick, but tiring. I was able to help plant half of the southern fields. How did the negotiating go?" Lauriam asked, still optimistic.

Isa let his arm drop and looked away to the side.

"Not as well as we might have hoped."

"How much are they taking?" he asked more solemnly. Xion had also dropped her gaze.

"50% of all our earnings and resources, collected biannually... but only if Xion marries one of the Imperial Princes."

Xion checked to make sure Ansem wasn't in the courtyard before speaking, "And Prince Ansem is just terrible."

"Surely he couldn't be that bad..." Lauriam said apprehensively.

"I genuinely believe the man would burn our country to the ground in a tantrum if we had pursued a route of negotiation that did not include Xion," Isa confirmed. Lauriam winced.

"And the way he looks at me..." Xion didn't finish the statement. She really didn't want her brothers to find out about the way he'd touched her, or about the younger brother's warning.

Isa put an arm around her in comfort.

"Come, you should greet grandfather," he said, "he will be glad to see you return."

"Of course." Lauriam wouldn't be able to stay. Even in the depths of winter, seeds had to be prepared for warmer weather. His magic was one of the last defenses keeping the famine at bay.

The trio turned to head inside, and Isa led the way to the King's study. Prior to breakfast, he could oftentimes be found there. Xigbar was with him today, reviewing records. The Crown Prince knocked politely and then let himself in with the others.

Xion stayed by the door as Lauriam and Isa approached their grandfather and Xigbar. Yen Sid merely nodded at their presence.

Isa bowed politely, first to his Grandfather and then to the Regent. Xigbar didn't even acknowledge them. The man was focused on the records and making his own notes.

Lauriam bowed quickly before asking, "Grandfather, is Xion really being married off?"

Yen Sid nodded and said, "By her own choice."

Lauriam gave the reports on the fields to the south before asking leave. He took Xion with him.

"I'd like to get to know this Prince you're marrying. Feel free to watch from the walls." By the walls, of course, he meant the servant's passages. Many had strategic peepholes and thin walls to listen through.

"Both Princes are at the Training Grounds," Sora reported politely, fully supporting this plan.

"I'm going to change out of my travel clothes first."

"Wear some of your really flowery stuff. Oh!" Xion stopped talking for a moment to pull the sword out from under her coat. "This is for you."

Lauriam took the sword delicately, taking a few moments to look it over.

"... thank you. Your workmanship is excellent, as always." The siblings split up, Lauriam going to change and Xion and her retainers sneaking around to the training grounds, itching powder all but forgotten in the excitement of their new cohort in potential crime.

Sora went on ahead this time, checking that they had a good seat before moving for Xion.

Ansem and Kishi were sparring and the difference in skill was comically obvious. They were both shirtless and barefoot with their hair pulled back; Ansem's in a loose ponytail, and Kishi's in a messy bun. They were using real swords rather than training ones so the clinking of metal was loud, echoing around the stone in the chilly winter air. The older brother was more focused on a small book, a grimoire, and just parrying blows as Kishi tried to land a hit. Both of them were lacking in scars, which seemed unrealistic given their reputation for fighting on the front lines themselves. They were lacking body hair too, making them look unnatural. If they held still, they might have looked like they were carved from stone.

Xion watched quietly. As impressive as it was to not have scars, to Xion it meant they had never learned from mistakes and the princes seemed less like family, the way they sparred.

Marluxia arrived on the scene nearly a full twenty minutes in, in a cloak covered in embroidered and beaded roses to match the sword he'd received that morning. His retainers, Elrena and Strelitzia, were similarly dressed, much to Elrena's certain distaste, even if she did not show it in her face. The second child to the throne looked the part of a lady.

Ansem's eyes shifted briefly their direction and Kishi used the opportunity to swoop in for an attack, but Ansem neatly deflected it, pushing the younger brother away. He closed his book and lowered the sword to look Lauriam over with just his eyes. The barest curl of a smirk played at the corners of his lips.

Kishi took took a second to catch his breath, lowering his sword to check out the new people between deep pants. He seemed more confused than Ansem.

"We don't need servicing," the older Prince said in greeting, "though I would appreciate it if one began heating a bath."

"I'm afraid I am not a servant, Your Highness," Lauriam said smoothly, using a slightly higher voice than needed, "However, one of my ladies can make sure a bath is ready." Strelitzia, with her bright orange hair flowing, stood, curtsied, and left.

Ansem rapidly lashed out with sword without turning, stabbing Kishi in the shoulder of his free arm with a jab.

"I was unaware the lord of this house had multiple daughters," Ansem said calmly, as though he hadn't just stabbed his brother. It had happened so fast that Kishi's reaction was somewhat delayed and he wasn't able to cry out. He just staggered with the force of the blow and then widened his stance to compensate for the pain.

"The King only had one daughter. She had three children. I'm the second child."

"I see. Shame on your King hiding members of his own court. Or have you an excuse as to why you were not present to greet your new sovereign?"

Kishi was rushing back in now. He was fast and cleared the gap quickly before feinting to Ansem's other side, but once again, the brother countered without looking or hardly moving and Kishi was pushed back.

Lauriam sat a little straighter to answer, "I had duties in the south, I returned to the castle as soon as I heard of what was happening. I'm curious, why the interest in my sister?" There was a slight predatory tone to his voice, even though it kept its sweet tone.

It didn't go unnoticed and Ansem's shadow of a smirk turned into a toothy grin. The figurative candle flickered to life above his head.

"A political union was the only way to fairly justify a discount for your Kingdom." Kishi came back in with a rapid combo involving a kick and a well-timed punch but each hit was blocked and the point of Ansem's sword left a cut along the teen's side. It might have been worse if not for the quick footwork.

Xion blinked a couple of times. The way they were fighting didn't make sense with their lack of scars.

"Is that so? Please, explain."

Sora had stopped watching. He was too stressed out and sat with his back to the wall.

"Do you not believe that family is deserving of leniency?" the Imperial Prince asked. Ansem's grin never wavered and his definition of leniency was either very wrong, or he was capable of more much more horrifying acts if this was how he treated his baby brother. The way he kept Lauriam's gaze, it was very likely he was implying the latter.

Kishi tsked and started pacing around Ansem more thoughtfully.

"No, I was asking how a foreign Prince would find only one way to make a fair trade," Lauriam said, holding his head up.

"I don't expect a woman to understand foreign policy nor is it appropriate for you to question it."

"I am not a woman."

The grin faded. Kishi made another move in the split second that he saw his brother twitch but half a centimeter from connecting sword to flesh a massive shadow lashed out and Kishi was launched across the grounds, skidding across the stone after bouncing a couple times.

"Then you bring shame on your home for your deception," Ansem growled.

"What deception? I never said anything that wasn't true. I'm not wearing a dress nor have I changed my figure in any way," Lauriam said calmly.

"You are interrupting my training. Leave." Ansem calmly turned around to slowly start walking towards Kishi. This was Lauriam's home. He stayed to watch.

The younger brother was trying very hard to get up, but he was banged all to hell and clearly very sore from being thrown so far.

Ansem towered over Kishi when they were both upright so standing over his brother who was barely on his knees was less than fair. He used the tip of his sword to lift Kishi's chin.

"Are you done already?" Ansem asked with a mocking tilt of his head. Kishi yelled in response and a soft purple and blue fire lit around his fist. One hand smacked the sword out of the way by the flat of his blade and the other lashed out at Ansem. Once again, the elder was too fast, and the point of the blade sunk into the other shoulder.

"Now, I'm done. You can't possibly put up a fight with both your arms useless like that," Ansem grumbled, "at least this time you were able to dodge most of my attacks, when I attacked." The older Prince walked over to grab the sheath for his sword, put the weapon away, and then turned to scowl at Kishi who was struggling to get up.

"Make sure you're presentable before breakfast," Ansem ordered and then left to find his bath.

Once she was sure he was gone, Xion left her hiding place to offer Kishi a hand up.

"Your brother's weak," she said.

Kishi hadn't even noticed that she was there. He ignored her hand and got to his feet on his own.

"My brother is incredibly strong. He is easily worth a hundred men."

She pulled her hand back and said, "Maybe physically, but he'd make a poor leader. He's spiritually weak and both strengths are important."

"His successful conquests disagree." Kishi started slowly limping towards Lauriam and Xion let him go. Cruelty was the mark of a failed leader.

He paused in front of Lauriam and bowed his head briefly, but politely.

"I did not realize you were also a Prince. I would have acknowledged you sooner had I not been engaged, um, previously engaged," Kishi corrected. He still wasn't very good at fancy political speaking. "Please excuse me, I need to wash up."

"I'm not a prince, I don't qualify for the throne. You don't need to apologize." Lauriam bowed back.

Well now Kishi was embarrassed. He mumbled a soft "sorry" and headed out, sheathing his sword as he went. Xion went back to Vanitas and Sora, putting a hand on Sora's shoulder.

"Are you okay?"

Sora was admittedly a little shaken up, but he nodded and stepped out into the training grounds.

"Just a little angry," he admitted.

"Want to hit something?"

"No, I'm okay."

"Let's get ready for breakfast then."

He nodded, hugged Vanitas, and then led the way. Xion changed into a similar coat, trying to keep as much to the imagination as possible. Sora freshened up too and then they headed to breakfast. Ansem was already there with Xigbar but Kishi was late.

Xion sat at her usual seat, with Lauriam to her right. Breakfast was an egg and potato dish with a molasses porridge and some fruit.

Kishi's was cold when he finally showed up. His hair was still damp from the bath and he moved stiffly. "Forgive my lateness," he mumbled and sat down.

"Precision of language, Highness. Tardy is the better term," Xigbar drawled.

"Right... Forgive my tardiness," Kishi corrected and then started scarfing down his food to catch up. Xion had already mostly finished her plate, she was just picking through her huckleberries.

Lauriam cleared his throat to say, "I apologize that I was not here to greet you during your arrival. I am Lauriam Terminus, second child to the throne." He wasn't making his voice unnecessarily high or putting on any airs this time.

"Your apology is appreciated. Fortunately, your presence was not required," Ansem said smoothly. Isa was trying very hard to keep his temper under control while he ate but he twitched a bit at the comment.

Xion kicked Isa's foot lightly under the table and said, "It would have been nice to have him there all the same. It must be terribly hard for you, to be away from your other brothers and wife-s for so long." Xion almost made a blunder. She knew now that Ansem only had one remaining wife, but she hadn't known last time she talked to him. She caught herself before she'd moved on. The mistake was small, perhaps he wouldn't notice. She kept her face straight.

Kishi noticed. He tensed up for a second before making himself eat. If Ansem hadn't have noticed her slip up, he definitely noticed Kishi's. The older Prince very, very slow turned his head enough to give Kishi a sideways glare.

"Indeed, but this is a blink of an eye compared to a military campaign. We are accustomed to not seeing each other for great lengths of time."

"That's somehow sad." No it wasn't. It was comforting. She hoped a big campaign came up that would force him to put off the wedding. "Do you ever see each other during said campaigns? I fought alongside my brother and mother often."

He made a little snort-laugh sound in his throat and said, "No. We do not need assistance to win wars." Ansem stopped talking to her to discuss the day’s events with Xigbar.

"I think the Crown Prince had some plans for us, is that right?" Xigbar asked Isa.

"Assuming your Highness still desires to survey the nearest mines for assessment."

Ansem crossed his arms. He thought a moment then said, "I will accompany you, yes."

"Then you all better get going, the nearest mine is a three-hour ride, either way," Lauriam said.

"We will depart promptly after breakfast has concluded," Isa confirmed. He gently pressed his leg against Xion’s to reassure her.

She smiled softly. She'd probably go flying today.

"Grandfather, may I be excused?" The King nodded, and Xion got up to leave.

Isa was quick to follow with instructions for Xigbar and Ansem to meet him in the courtyard as soon as they were ready to leave. Kishi was determined to finish his food, but Ansem motioned for him to follow and he had to obey. The moment the two brothers were alone in the hall, Ansem was quietly talking to Kishi.

Vanitas stayed nearby, just around the corner, trying to make out what they were saying without looking at them. He motioned for Sora and Xion to continue on.

"...I will know," Ansem hissed, "I'll not have this ruined because of your failings. Understand?"

Kishi mumbled something unintelligible and there was a slapping sound.

"One step. One," Ansem continued, "if you were half the person your brother was, I wouldn't need to remind you." Ansem straightened himself, no longer trying to hiss in low whispers as he started walking.

"Work on your shitty footwork while we're gone. You'll never see the frontline if you can't even dodge a sword." Ansem’s footsteps faded until they were gone. It took another few moments before Kishi’s moved in the opposite direction.

Vanitas scrambled away, footfalls deceptively quiet as he caught up to Sora and Xion. His twin flashed him a questioning look.

"Tell ya later. What are we doing today, Xion?" Vanitas said nonchalantly.

"We're going to go flying. Both of you should armor up."

"I can watch Xion while you armor up first, Vani."

Vanitas disappeared in a blink to the nearest servant's passage.

"This might be the last time we fly over home. Is there anywhere you want to go?" Xion asked.

"Wherever you want to go, Xion," he told her with a smile.

"You don't want to see your home?" Xion had asked this question many times. There was always a different reason for them to say no.

"I want you to spend this time for you."

"...I will." Xion disappeared into her room to change and he dutifully stood guard outside. Xion reemerged wearing her warm riding gear around the same time Vanitas was getting back.

"Meet us at the Aerie, okay Sora?"

He mock saluted and disappeared while Xion and Vanitas headed down to the Aerie, a wooden structure that the castle's gryphons built their nests on. Sora caught up with them there not long after. Xion waved at him as he approached.

"Vanitas doesn't want to go anywhere specific either. So, I thought we'd visit the sapphire river," she said.

"Excellent choice." He helped them gear up.

Gryphons really were strange to ride. The saddle ran all the way down their back and riders would use a series of hooks to keep themselves in place whilst lying down. Once each of them was in place, the beasts took to the sky, heading north over snowy trees and meadows.

The day passed quickly. They only really landed for lunch, nearby a panning camp. The Sapphire River did not get its name from its color, and was frozen for winter, but they managed to almost make it to the source of the river before they had to turn around for the day and go home. Xion wore her flying armor to dinner.

Sora opened the doors for her, but it was just her family there. Isa still wasn't back yet.

"Um, I'll go see what's up," Sora offered, and then disappeared. Xion sat down to eat quietly.

Sora came back a few minutes later and leaned over to whisper to Xion, "Isa is going to be gone overnight with the Imperial Prince and Regent. He sent word and says to enjoy a low-stress evening with Lauriam and the King."

"...thank you, Sora." Xion held her head just a little higher through the rest of the meal. Sora left to go eat as well, meeting back up with her in the hallway afterwards.

"Will you be going straight to bed then?" he asked.

"Hm...no, I want to see how many flowers Lauriam has already coaxed out in the garden."

"Probably enough to make another cape," Vanitas said.

"Maybe he can make all of us one," Sora suggested, the cheerful tone was back.

"What would you do with a flowery cape?" Xion asked, "better yet, can you imagine Vanitas wearing something that isn't black?"

"I've worn colors!"

"Yes, you wear red when I tell you that you can't wear black to a Midwinter's celebration. Any other times?" Xion asked sweetly. Vanitas just grumbled as they walked.

"I think you'd look very lovely with a pink flower cape, Vani!"

"Piss off. Black is cool and you're both dorks." Xion grinned and gave Vanitas a playful shove. He grumpily stalked ahead.

Sora kept his chuckle sensible as they approached the gardens. His smile wavered though when they saw Kishi. The Prince was wearing casual clothing, the robe again, and was unarmed. He was respectfully roaming the gardens.

"I thought you weren't supposed to be getting back until tomorrow morning," Xion called ahead. He jumped a bit and then bowed his head politely.

“I was not invited to go with them," he explained.

"Your brother feels more and more lame the more I find out about him." Xion approached slowly.

"That wasn't my brother's decision." He held his ground and still held himself like a spoiled Prince but the discomfort of her approach was becoming more clear with each step.

"I'm not that intimidating, am I?"

"You're not."

She stopped about ten feet away to look at the flower beds. Lauriam really did bring spring with him.

"Why do you let him push you around?" she asked.

"Why does it matter to a corpse?"

"I'm not dead yet, am I?"

"Might as well be," he grumbled. Kishi slowly turned to face the flowers as well. Most of them were still buds. Impressive, considering most of them had been nearly dead this morning and they were trying to bloom way too early.

"Well aren't you a ball of sunshine," she mumbled while kneeling to look at the daffodils.

"Being disrespectful to someone who could have you executed is pretty stupid."

"I don't think you'll do that."

His fists clenched.

"You think I'm weak," he growled.

"No. I just don't think you're petty enough to try something like that."

"You don't know anything about me."

"I suppose not."

"Killing you wouldn't be petty,” he insisted, “sometimes, examples have to be made to shut down further ideas of insurrection."

"A poor way to deal with disloyalty."

"If you don't remove the poison the whole body is infected. It's wasteful to try and correct someone who won't be corrected."

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you take good enough care of your citizens, they won't feel the need to rise up."

"That only applies to citizens. You just joined up and haven't given my Empire a chance to take care of you and you're already disrespectful, rude, and you threatened me."

She looked confused and said, "I don't remember threatening you."

"At sword point? When I came to warn you?"

"There was a strange man in my room, I think I was justified "

"There was an olive branch in your room. An olive branch that outranks you."

"... what's an olive?"

He stared at her, trying to determine if she was stupid or messing around.

"It was a peace offering," he said instead, "trying to help you live a little longer to maybe actually be something more than my brother's new toy. If the prevention doesn't work, then a cure is needed."

"I really do appreciate the warning, and I don't want to fight if I don't have to, but your brother has already shamed and insulted me. I don't have a lot, and I am about to lose what I do. I am taking some joy in my last moments free," she told him.

"They wouldn't be if you just did what he said and stopped giving him reasons to want to hurt you."

"The first night he tried to get me in his bed."

"I promise, if he actually wanted that, you would've been."

"I don't care what he actually wanted, that he asked it is insult enough."

Kishi huffed. It was obvious he wanted to argue but he stayed silent instead.

"Why bother trying to save a corpse?" she asked, using his words.

"You'll notice I'm not anymore."

"Why were you trying to stop me then?"

"You weren't a corpse yet."

"I'm still not."

"I'm not going to argue with someone who doesn't have any idea what they're talking about. I really don't give a shit what you do or say. I tried to help you because the longer you live the more I could watch you piss off my brother but watching you struggle when you could've done so much more is just sad." He started walking off.

Xion watched him go quietly. He seemed to be asking for a paradox—piss him off but don't piss him off? She couldn't do both at the same time. Sora shuffled awkwardly beside her, not really sure what to do now.

"Let's go to bed," Xion said flatly before turning to walk to her room. What was she supposed to do about this?

Chapter Text

Sora woke Xion before sunrise and she got up a little shakily.

"What? It's early..."

"The messenger from Scala is here... you're leaving in a few hours," he said softly.

"What—what?!" That couldn't be right. She was supposed to have a week, how could they be leaving already?

"Th-They ran through the nights... We need to help you pack..."

She started to tremble and shake, but she got up to start preparing for the day with a mumbled, "I—I see." Sora pulled her into a tight hug.

"It's going to be okay," he tried to reassure her, "Vani and I are going to do our best to help along the way."

Xion took a shuddering breath before speaking.

"I never doubted that.”

"I need to go help the others, but Vani will be right outside," Sora reassured her. He let her go and headed out, passing Isa, who stepped into Xion's room. She started crying when she saw him. She didn't want to go. She wasn't ready for this.

Isa stepped up and pulled her into a hug and gently pet her hair.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"It's not—not your fault—" she sobbed, "I wanted more time..."

"We didn't get back until after you had gone to bed... Listen, Xion, you are the bravest of us all. You are strong enough. Please, never give up."

"...I won't. Promise." She sniffed before wiping her face and backing up. "You're strong too, okay?"

"I will do my very best," he promised.

"Don't do anything stupid if something happens to me," she warned.

He visibly tightened up and said, "I can't promise that."

"You can't, Isa. Or I will have left for nothing."

He forced himself to relax and then he hugged her again.

"I arranged for Vanitas and Sora to stay with you, but I can't promise they won't be sent away after your wedding. Just, stay alive, we will see one another again."

"I'll do my best, Isa." The words felt like ash in her mouth. At least she'd have Sora and Vanitas at her side.

"They want you to pack light. Only take the things you know you can't be without."

"I can't take you, though."

"Say stuff like that and I will go to war," he said seriously.

"I was teasing." She gave Isa a squeeze before pulling away. "I need to get dressed and ready."

"We'll be out front." He pet her softly and then left.

Xion dressed modestly and warmly, packing a few sets of practical clothes, her flying armor, and a few heirlooms before turning to her wedding gift. Part of her wanted to abandon it, leave it here so the slimy prince could never get his hands on it, but she knew its purpose, and she packed it. It was a truly magnificent sword, forged to a wave, with gold and silver lacy inlay in in the fuller, with a dragon for the hilt, full wings making up the guard and tail curled around the enormous glowing green sapphire. This was a magical weapon. He had better appreciate it.

Lauriam found her in the hallway and walked with her to the courtyard.

The party heading to Scala consisted of four guards, the two princes, the regent, and Xion. All of the horses were massive war beasts, elegantly outfitted aside from one who was somewhat smaller and more delicate. This horse's equipment was all white and gold. A guard came to hand her the reins and take her things to pack on other horses.

She took a moment to look around before asking, "...are we not taking our gryphons?"

Ansem snorted like she told a joke and said, "This will be faster and cleaner."

Sora and Vanitas were being given horses too. Both of them were brown with leather equipment. Poorer in appearance compared to the solid black horses that the royal family were riding. Hell, Xigbar's horse even had its own crown.(italics) The only unifying feature were the horse's hooves. Every horse had bright silver or gold boots on featuring little wings.

No horse is as fast as a gryphon(italics), Xion thought to herself. She looked around for her grandfather and Isa to see her off. Isa was standing nearby but he was trying to look stoic and regal.

"We're wasting time," Ansem growled. One of the guards moved to grab Xion to start helping her onto the white horse. Xion wiggled out of the guard's grip to mount herself. She didn't look back. If she did, she'd start crying again and she couldn't show weakness anymore. Vanitas and Sora rode up to flank her.

The guard let her go to mount up himself. Two guards took the lead, then the Regent was behind them, followed by Ansem who was motioning to Xion.

"You will travel beside me," he ordered. She pushed the horse forward, and Vanitas looped around to the other side.

"Back in line, servant," Ansem snapped. Kishi was behind Ansem and motioned to Vanitas to get behind him. Sora was moving there now. Xion nodded before Vanitas moved.

Two guards took up positions behind the retainers and then they headed out. The horses trotted through the streets, taking a longer route out of the city for the sake of pomp and circumstance. They were leaving behind a sizeable number of troops too, meant to keep things in line for the time being.

It wasn't until they left town that the pace picked up. All the horses broke into a run and the winged shoes on their feet started to glow. It was like the animals were eating the miles now. Every time they blinked, the scenery was dramatically different. Snow capped mountains melted away into a dusty forest path, then farmland, then a sea of grass, mountains again…

Xion held the reigns tightly. This was far different from her grandfather's magic and was yet another blow to her mood. She couldn't even say goodbye properly to the land. The horses didn't slow down until the city could be seen on the horizon. They had made it by mid-morning, shaving a week’s journey down into a spectacular few hours.

Scala ad Caelum was the jewel capital of the Daybreak Empire. It was built almost entirely of stone shipped from the quarries of the first country they conquered and rested on a series of small islands in the middle of a lake. Each district made use of the limited space by building up, creating massive, steep pyramids as viewed from a distance, and more like uneven wedding cakes up close. Each island was connected by a series of cables and sky trolleys and only the biggest one was connected to the lake shore. A wide, flat bridge ran from Scala to a trader's town on the mainland where the bridge connected.

Daybreak Town was the intermediary between the wealthy city beyond, and the rest of the Empire and had seen a lot of growth in the last 50 years as the Empire grew and trade along with it. This early there were still farmers swapping food at the market and traffic along the bridge was consistent but not congested.

It was a lot to take in all at once, but Xion's first thought was about how big the sky was. Without the mountains holding everything up, the sky felt big and close and oppressive. And it was so much warmer here, no snow to be seen. The city looked cold, all white and imposing with strange contraptions everywhere. She pulled her cloak tighter around herself.

It took an additional ten minutes at their slower run to make it close enough to make out more details. While Daybreak Town was more chaotic and unmaintained, the city beyond was more colorful up close than at a distance. White was still the dominant color, and it was nearly blinding in the sun, but up close it was easier to see the colored windmills, bright fabric over verandas, colored carts, and lots and lots of flowers. Trees were sparser and more isolated to courtyards, not visible just yet but the bridge was lined with flags and large pots of well-maintained flowers. They trotted through the market town and people scattered to get out of the way, bowing low and averting their eyes as the procession passed unceremoniously.

Scala beyond was more ready to welcome them. When they reached the middle of the long bridge, distant trumpets followed by soft bells rang out briefly to greet them. They trotted under archways, past ornate benches, across perfectly sculpted stone and tile, and down clean streets as they reached and traversed the main island; easily distinguishable by the massive castle that nestled on top of it, flaring out like the crown of an hourglass.

The architecture was sprawling and interesting, gold banisters lined rooftops, fancy-colored rugs and pennants decorated doorsteps and hung from the tall walls of levels above. Vines crawled down from massive gardens that took up whole 'steps' in the uneven sprawl. It might have been taken for chaos if the base architecture wasn't so consistent. Even the water below was crystal clear and inviting, despite the lack of watercraft and the empty docks that branched from the city like sunbeams.

Scala ad Caelum was a sharp contrast to the rigid military that stemmed from it or the poverty and destruction on the distant fringes of the Empire. It was the center of the world for artisans, craftsman, musicians, artists, and scholars. The center of wealth for the world.

Xion took it all in. The city was indeed beautiful up close. It still felt intimidating, but the personal touches made it feel lived in, at least. The gardens felt too clean, nothing like Lauriam's bursting hedges or the orchards of home. The castle itself, balanced as it was, was nightmare-inducing.

The horses knew the route and they made their way through the winding streets of the city to waving crowds bowing respectfully and offering flowers for the horses to step on as they worked their way to the upper tiers. The top several levels belonged to the royal family, not just the castle above.

It was there at the base of the massive pillar where they dismounted, and their horses were taken from them to be cared for. The castle loomed above them and buildings could be seen on either side with large yards and hedges giving them space from the road. This close it was easier to tell how much higher the castle was, as to not restrict the sunlight on the living spaces for the royal family, but they weren't lingering there.

More winding about on foot and then they were indoors, traveling up the pillar on one of many elevators pulled up by glittering bronze gears, and walking across gorgeous tiles in black and white checkered patterns that turned into colorful designs in the many foyers between sections of the castle. Windows were massive, ceilings were high, and there was color in every corner leaning towards gold and blue and soft creams that carried the sunlight to make rooms glow.

Still the castle felt more like a library or a school than a home. There was light music traveling from a music room they passed, dozens of libraries visible through open doors, study rooms, grand halls, and at the top, a throne room that put them all to shame. It was incredibly open with a ceiling that felt far away, almost too much so as the acoustics were designed for large parties and not small audiences. The Emperor preferred it that way as it kept voices soft as the echo was often alarming.

Two rows of pillars supported a second level balcony on either side of the room as it approached the dais where a single throne rested. The throne itself was plain, carved from stone with a tall back and draped with furs and silver and gold-colored fabrics. Behind it was a huge flag that covered the wall with the Imperial crest: the image of a goat's head with curling horns, framed by the sun, and flanked by a stylized sea dragon and pixie-esque fae.

The Emperor himself was waiting in the throne. He was comfortable, with one arm propped up on the rest so he could lean into his fist and watch the party approach with amusement. His presence filled the room like a weight, and it was difficult to take him in when all attention was drawn to the gold of his eyes. The man himself was void of hair aside from a silver beard isolated to just his chin, very goat-like, and he was wrinkled with pointed ears and a relaxed smile. He was dressed in a dark cloak over a white tunic that matched his long white gloves. He wore dark pants, dark, polished boots, and a silver pauldron and half cape over his left shoulder. His gold crown rested on the arm of the throne rather than on his head.

Ansem and Xigbar approached without hesitation, stopping at the foot of the dais to drop to one knee and bow, waiting to be acknowledged, but Kishi was late. He had stopped briefly at the back of the room, looking at Xion with debate in his eyes, like he wanted to say something, but ended up changing his mind. He went and bowed before his father, also on one knee.

Sora looked to Vanitas and Xion anxiously. The guards had stayed outside the room, and no one had given them verbal instructions.

Xion averted her eyes from the Emperor's, inclining her head. Deep bows like this were rarely done in Terminus, only at coronations and funerals. She slowly bent into a deeper bow, though she never went down to a knee.

"When I sent my sons and my Regent to determine suitable terms of surrender," the Emperor started, "my expectations were made clear. This failing cannot possibly rest on the head of my Regent, whom I know to be a wise and loyal man worthy of the crown himself. Nor could it fall upon my youngest, whose weak-will and inexperience makes him poorly suited for making difficult decisions as he is now."

Ansem hadn't moved but he smiled a little at the jab at Kishi before it returned to a more concerned expression.

"Which means there is no other who could have so foolishly disobeyed than my second son. Rise, all of you, so I may see the truth of this in your eyes."

Kishi and Xigbar stood smoothly, but Ansem took an additional moment. Xion straightened up, taking time to actually look at the Emperor and he too studied them all in turn, only the slight movement of his eyes giving him away.

"I see," the Emperor crooned at Ansem, "your hunger and emotions drive you more than reason."

"Father, I respectfully protest," he said bowing his head a bit as the outburst echoed some, "I determined the proper course of action would be a political union via marriage, to ensure the loyalty of the people."

"The loyalty of the people means nothing when you were sent to secure resources as I instructed my Regent." There was a smirk at the corner of Xigbar's mouth. "Even so, I trust Xigbar to have interceded should your attempt to satisfy personal desires deny progress. As he did not protest to the contract, it is legally binding, but your actions are deserving of punishment. I have indulged your pointless desires four times too many, so I will deny you this one."

Ansem's face hardened, and he struggled to hold back his expression of irritation. On the flipside, Kishi was struggling to not laugh.

Xion took a moment to puzzle that out before panicking internally. If she wasn't going to marry Ansem, what was going to happen? Her grandfather's seal was magically binding, not following through could kill them both. Would he blame her grandfather?

Emperor Xehanort studied them all for a long moment, making a show of contemplating his options, not that it fooled anyone. They knew the Emperor had probably planned out every moment of this conversation before he even sent them to Terminus.

"Failing to honor a contract is a sin," the Emperor continued, "this woman will have to be sworn to one of my sons. Xemnas already has two wives... Riku would be the next to marry..."

Ansem was angry, but he relaxed some when the Emperor said Riku's name. Xehanort must've noticed, his expression didn't change but there was some measure of glee when he saw his son's reaction, like a child getting the toy they asked for.

"The Princess of Terminus will be Prince Kishi's first wife," he finally decided, voice unchanging in volume or passion despite the announcement. Ansem spun to glare at Kishi who was staring dumbfounded at their father. Both sons started to vocally protest at the same time.

Xion had the tiniest bit of irritation, but it was overshadowed by an immense amount of relief. Ansem was slimy, and the thought of being bound to him had made her sick. She didn't like Kishi much, but he didn't treat her like a meal. The outlook on her life was already that much better.

"Why him?" Ansem snarled.

At the same time Kishi squeaked, "Why me?"

The Emperor didn't answer but he did get up and start walking away, motioning for Xigbar to follow. The Regent did so, leaving the two Princes, Xion, and her retainers alone in the massive room. Ansem whirled on Kishi to smack him but held back when Kishi met him in defiance.

Irritated, Ansem stormed out, the sound of his boots on the tile echoed like distant thunder until he slammed the door.

"...Sora, at your earliest convenience, I would like an etiquette guide," Xion nearly whispered.

"I, um, I think we might need to be taught some stuff too," Sora admitted, afraid to speak too loudly either. Kishi turned just enough to glare at her. She held his gaze, refusing to glare but not turning away.

He took a deep breath and then started to walk out.

"Well, come on," he grumbled.

Xion took long steps to catch up, with Vanitas staying on her heels. Sora stayed behind Van, still very overwhelmed.

Kishi didn't say anything as he walked, leading the way out of the castle through the pillar once more and down to the series of buildings that she had seen from the road. The villa he led her to was adjacent to the road sort of. The big yard in the way gave them a little privacy but the front door was visible.

The inside felt much more like a palace home for royalty. The complex itself was designed in such a way as to give each Prince their own space without having to run into each other. They each had their own large homes that connected to the pillar and sprawled out across the top of the cake with their own yards and partial walls.

Kishi's home was the smallest but still had a private bathing facility, parlor, study hall/library, and servant's access on the ground floor. A spiral staircase led to a second and third floor. He led them up to the second floor which was almost entirely his huge bedroom with a massive open-air balcony. The entire wall separating the balcony from the bedroom slid into itself, leaving the space open to the sun and breeze with a view of the lake and shore. His bed was huge too, way too big for even two people, and lavish, piled high with pillows and silk blankets and partially covered by silk netting. To one side his huge closet door was open, it was about half the size as his room, many times bigger than her bedroom in Terminus, and on a first glance was obviously packed with more than just clothes. He kept his armor and horse equipment in there too.

Connected to his bedroom by a small, narrow, lockable door was another suite, set up almost like another bedroom except perhaps lower quality. There were several beds in there, a couple vanities with big mirrors, and shelves with perfume and brushes and other things geared towards feminine care. There were bathing options attached to this room too, though it was small with a ceramic bathtub that only would fit one. The windows were notably smaller and had gold bars on them. There was a closet full of dresses and fine clothing too, almost entirely for women and admittedly not very modest.

"Make yourself at home I guess," he said as he gestured to the room.

It wasn't...tacky, but it was far more opulent than she was used to.

"...am I to spend all my time here?" she asked.

"I don't exactly have anywhere else to put you."

"I understand that this is where I'll be sleeping. I'm asking if this is the only place I'm allowed to be."

"Are you going to try to murder me in my sleep?"

"Why would I endanger my people like that?"

Kishi looked between her and her men before pointing at Vanitas and asking, "Is he(italics) going to murder me in my sleep?"

Vanitas just grinned. There was a certain level of malice to it.

"So long as my Lady is safe, so are you."

Kishi just kind of stared for a moment, processing how much he didn't like this guy. A commotion in the hall snapped him out of it and a blonde-haired guy maybe a couple years older than Kishi stuck his head around the corner.

"You're back!" the cheerful was almost Sora levels.

A second, identical blonde followed the first into the room with a more laid-back, "Yo." He looked Vanitas and Sora up and down, unable to see Xion behind them.

"...I mean, we always thought you were gay, Highness, but it's nice to be validated."

Kishi deadpanned and said, "suggest that again and I'll cut out your tongue."

"Don't threaten me with a good time, sir."

Xion covered her mouth to hide her grin while Vanitas backed up a bit. This first guy was way too cheerful, and Sora was the people person. Sora, when faced with the overwhelming positivity of the first man, seemed to soak it up and his smile could beat out the sun.

"Is this her?" the cheerful one asked. He was wearing black and white colors but there were green tassles on his long, short sleeved coat.

"Wow, she's really pretty!"

The more laid-back one tsked. He was wearing the same outfit as the other, some sort of uniform, but he had blue accents instead.

"Damn, Highness, you really went out of town to kidnap another country's child princess? If you were really that hard up, we could've found you a nice man-" Kishi tackled blue to cut him off and they went down squabbling while green kept fawning over Xion. He took her hand and gently guided her out of the narrow doorway and into the wide-open space of the bedroom so he could twirl her around and really look at her.

"You look really strong too!" he praised.

Xion... didn't really know how to handle that. Vanitas followed her tightly, Sora more loosely. She wasn't in any harm. She took her hand back.

"I was a soldier. I have to be strong."

"Oh!" He let go of her so he could step back, somewhat put off by her guards. "But then why do you need guards?"

"She's older than Lord Ansem's last wife," blue said from the ground, cutting off her answer. Kishi had him pinned on the ground now. "Why did you get her then?"

Kishi sat back, letting the servant up.

"Ansem," he explained, "Father is punishing him by giving her to me and since she's my first..."

"Wedding collection," they said in tandem as though suddenly everything made sense. All three of the young men nodded solemnly in tandem.

"What's that?" Xion asked, worried more by the shift in tone than the term itself. Sora and Vanitas both went back on edge at the mood change.

"We only really do big weddings for first wives," Kishi explained, "any wife after that just kind of joins the harem and is a glorified concubine. Whenever there is a big wedding, it's a good excuse for the family to get lots of stuff equivalent to their station. There’s a huge party and an exhibition."

"It's just an excuse to make the countries we've conquered send a stupid obscene bonus," blue finished.

"Do you think Xigbar knew?" green asked Kishi.

"My old man and that snake definitely knew. They specifically requested Ansem go. I'm sure he was banking on Ansem butchering negotiations and Xigbar never got in the way and didn't fix the contract."

Xion was sure Terminus could make such gifts. A commission for the master smiths and tailors tended to be good for the economy, as they bought from sources for such projects instead of merchants.

"...how long will such a wedding take?" she asked.

"Um... I don't know, Ansem's was what, a week of partying? A couple months of planning?" Kishi asked his servants but both of them just shrugged.

Xion couldn't imagine partying for a whole week. Most of the festivities at home were unlikely to last a whole day. Midwinter and First Harvest were the only ones she could think of. But the couple months but was a relief. She'd have some time to find her feet here.

"What's to be expected of me until the wedding?"

"Uh..."

"You'll have to forgive him. He's never had a woman in here before." Blue went down again as Kishi physically started to strangle him. It was mostly in good fun. Mostly.

"I think he will have to get back to you on that," green admitted, unbothered by the fighting, "the other lords had different things in mind. I know Ansem just started treating his wives as concubines as soon as they arrived, regardless of the wedding date. Mm, I think the only really big thing for now is maybe don't try to run away?"

"I won't risk my people being hurt for it. How should I address you and Blue?"

“I'm so sorry, ma'am, my name is Ventus, you can call me Ven, and that's my twin brother Roxas." He bowed politely.

"Funny that your retainers should be twins as well," Xion remarked. Both Sora and Vanitas looked a little more interested, though they were far more used to only conversing in private.

Ven tilted his head in confusion at her comment.

"They're not my retainers," Kishi corrected. He got up and started towards his closet, stripping as he went. "They're House squires. We don't have personal retainers or anything like that. The Emperor demands we be strong enough and self-reliant enough to not need them."

Again, it made Xion feel sad. Terminus considered strength to be one of the best attributes a person could have, but there were also many kinds of strength.

"I see."

"I don't care if they hang around but if they're going to stay long term, they should probably join the house staff," Kishi said as he loosely motioned to her boys. Vanitas was the one who nodded this time.

"Until the wedding, I think they're still under my personal employ," Xion said.

"Only if I say so and I'm pretty sure you've been mean to me and combative since we met." He started throwing clothing out of his closet onto the bed and then wandered out wearing nothing but silk underwear. He was completely unashamed and once again was lacking in scars despite the training from yesterday morning.

"I'm pretty sure that the agreement outlined three of my people's traditions would be followed, one of which was my living separately and keeping my own person until the wedding," Xion said, face going blank and voice flat.

"Oh right. I forgot about that first one. Rox, Ven, will you clear a spot in the alley for her? We keep the waste bins there so you should have plenty of food."

Xion had stayed in worse conditions.

"They can't be sent away."

"I'm not trying to send them away,” Kishi said firmly but it was obvious his mood had changed, “they can stay with you, per your contract. Make sure no one actually catches you stealing from the trash by the way. Theft is a serious crime in Scala, punishable by removal of limbs, although, as you aren’t a citizen, I think that punishment is death.

You better not leave the estate either, as you aren't a citizen there's a chance you get scooped up and thrown out of town which would make honoring your part of the contract awfully difficult." He rambled casually as he got dressed but there was some bite there, a mix of sarcasm and irritation under the calm.

"Make sure no one catches you with iron either. Illegally smuggling iron will get you executed regardless of contracts or status. Just some friendly advice. You are your own person after all. I don't expect you to listen to the runt Prince. In our limited time together you haven't listened to me once. Which means you don't have any idea how to play any sort of long game and unfortunately my father is an avid fan of chess." He used a mirror on the wall to reposition his diadem. "You'll also be held responsible for anything they(italics) do too, so make sure they aren't breaking any laws. Contract or no, you still have to follow the law of the land."

Ven and Rox weren't playing around now. They were waiting patiently for their lord to finish.

"I bet Ansem would put you up. He has a ton of space and that would be contractually acceptable."

Xion hung her head a little and spoke quietly, "I'm sorry."

"Ah! Humility!" he said it like he was getting a breath of fresh air for the first time in weeks. "I didn't think you were capable of it! Unfortunately, you do bring up some good points and there is nothing in this world that my father takes more seriously than contracts. So get out of my house."

He turned and left the room, heading downstairs with stomping footfalls.

Ven and Roxas shuffled awkwardly. Sora looked alarmed.

"Xion—" Van started.

"There's nothing to say. Let's go." Xion turned to leave. Maybe she could find a job somewhere in the city. Better yet, in the trading town. The whole point of the handmade gift was to prove you could provide for a family of things went south, she had the skill to do so. Maybe she could pick up her trunk on the way out and the sword could be buried outside the city.

Ven cut her off and said, "Just give him a few hours to calm down. I'm sure he'll let you stay."

"He gets a lot of shit from his brothers for being soft so just let him throw a tantrum," Roxas added.

Xion took a deep breath before settling herself. She'd want to wait out those hours somewhere else, but there were more pressing matters at the moment.

"...there's a steel sword in my things that was intended to be a wedding gift for my husband. I don't know what to do about it," she admitted.

"Your stuff was searched when you got here. It was probably confiscated," Roxas told her.

"You haven't been arrested though, so they probably let it slide," Ven added cheerfully as a silver lining. That was both a relief, and an annoyance for later.

"Is there somewhere away from here I can stay until he calms down? A library, maybe?"

"There’s a garden on the estate, the stables aren't a bad choice, or the servant's quarters."

"...the garden, please."

Chapter Text

The three Terminus newcomers nodded politely and Ven led the way out of the Prince’s house so Roxas could get back to work. They tip-toed past Kishi who was in his library playing the violin and slipped out the front door.

The Royal Gardens were a level below and almost a whole level unto themselves. Another wealthy country had "donated" it and funded its construction and maintenance, so it was full of exotic trees and flowers. The crowns of said trees could be seen over the wall around the garden.

Ven opened the gate for her. It was a lovely, polished bronze, a work of art itself, and then he left.

The garden beyond had its share of twists and turns, gazebos, ponds full of brightly colored fish, even their own birds, including a pair of elegant black swans, and several parrots and songbirds. The water was kept flowing through lush green grass and over crafted rock decorations to create soft waterfalls. It was its own climate. Even the chill of a mild Scala winter couldn’t be felt here. The walls created a greenhouse effect

Lauriam would have loved it. Xion didn't think she had ever seen grass cut and kept neat like this. In Terminus, almost everything grew for a reason. A lawn like this would have been looked on as a waste of space. But here, they didn't need to worry about what purpose a flower served. They were just there to be pretty, and maybe that was enough. There to bring a little bit of joy, as Lauriam often said about his own garden.

Thinking about her brother again made her eyes sting. He probably thought she was still in Terminus. He and Isa might have been planning to fly out at the end of the week, when they would have normally reached the border. She sat on the grass by the pond, trying to will away the tears that thinking of home brought.

"There are better ways to water the plants," a soft voice said. A short blonde woman and young boy with dark gray hair brushed into his face were passing by on the path. They were both petite, though the woman much more so. They were both wearing dirty pants, short sleeved shirts under sleeveless robes, tall waterproof boots, and carrying gardening supplies.

Xion shot up to attention as soon as she realized she wasn't alone.

"I apologize, I'll get out of your way," Xion said.

"Oh, you're not in the way," she chuckled and nodded to the shrubbery near Xion, "they appreciate the company. Most people linger over the flowers, they're such pretty things, so the grass and green shrubs rarely get the same sort of appreciation. Thank you for giving them that."

The woman started to walk away, nice and slow, just living in the moment. She and her boy weren't going horribly far, just to the far side of the pond. They set their supplies down and both of them got into the water, tenderly cleaning out some rotting wood.

Vanitas watched them coldly while Xion watched more curiously, sitting back on the grass.

"...I don't think the Terminus capital had a gardener other than Lauriam," Sora remarked quietly.

The boy did most of the digging, but the woman wasn't afraid to get dirty herself. The parasol had been set aside and she was knee and elbow deep digging around in one of the pools until she found what she was looking for. She pulled a fish the length of her arm out of the water. It was extremely colorful and very dead, even from here it was clear it had been for a while. It had likely gotten stuck and buried. She reverently put it on the bank and then started replacing the rocks and plants that they had disturbed to extract the fish.

Xion watched the process with guarded curiosity. This was more direct than just ‘gardening.’

She was talking softly to the young man, who seemed more like an assistant now that they were engaging in an activity. As she talked, the woman gently patted and touched the dead fish before stepping aside to let the boy do so as well. She pointed a couple times to it and then he gently traced some sort of pattern into the fish, and it slowly evaporated into a shimmering gold light and disappeared.

Xion marveled at the disappearance of the fish. Ansem had said it was the best place in the world to study magic, hadn't he? Vanitas just went more on edge.

The woman nodded approvingly, patted his arm gently, and then started to motion to the rest of the pond. They both got to work setting up small floating planters with a few of the plants they brought. She organized them, carefully measuring each plant and making them look good, and he set up each floating planter and waded out into the pond to tether them safely to the bottom at carefully measured intervals. He regularly checked with her, maybe even too frequently but she patiently gave her approval every time.

It took them about twenty minutes to get the planters where they wanted them. It was not the most attractive collection of arrangements, but the small white flowers were already starting to change color and the water was that much clearer. Any pollution caused by the dying fish was being absorbed by the arrangements.

She pressed her fingers together and tilted her head, smiling and pleased. The apprentice took a little moment to wiggle in the water, happy himself, before he climbed out and carefully moved to the path to remove his wet boots. She did the same and they sat on the grass to dry. The boy pulled out a notepad and began recording notes as she talked, and she pulled out a sketchpad to draw while they talked.

Xion went back to studying the garden. She didn't want to be rude, staring at them so long. How did they manage to get the water all the way up here? She supposed all the windmills must have something to do with it, most of the ones she'd seen in Terminus were for raising water on farms...

They spent another couple hours there, taking notes and enjoying the sunlight until they completely dried out and then they gathered their things to leave. Once again, the woman pulled out the parasol and they slowly meandered back the way they came. She paused again beside Xion and looked her over warmly.

"It is safe to return to the Prince's home," she told her gently, "his temper is more like a burst of flame rather than a slow burning candle like his brothers'. That impulsiveness is both frustrating and endearing."

That was a little unnerving and Xion got to her feet in response.

"How do you know why I'm here?" she asked. Xion really wished she was armed. Not so she could attack, but her swords at her side always made her stand taller.

"The trees are horrible gossips," she explained simply, completely unbothered by Xion's tenseness nor that of Vanitas and Sora, "but they aren't half as bad as the ivy. I am certain they grow as they do to find the best stories to share with their kin."

...well, shit, there was no way to keep secrets here, was there? Xion backed up a couple of steps.

"I think I'll stay here awhile, if it's all the same." Let the prince think she'd actually left, if Ven and Roxas hadn't already told him.

"I have no power to direct you, nor would I wish for it, but do return for food soon at least. The subtle rumble in your belly has the grass concerned." She started walking again. The boy bowed politely to Xion and then scampered after the woman.

Xion turned to Sora and Vanitas. Sora just looked puzzled, where Vanitas was glaring.

"Calm down before you start an incident," she said to Vanitas. They wandered the garden for another hour before she started to feel hungry.

The garden was otherwise empty but the animals there were acclimated to people and occasionally came to investigate. It was large enough to maintain its own small ecosystem with the largest predator being a pair of foxes and with the high wall, it felt very much like its own isolated bubble away from the city; another world onto itself.

At one point one of the foxes came to investigate and nipped Vanitas' leg. Vanitas probably would have done something rash if Sora hadn't immediately started fawning over them.

"He's so cute! I'm gonna call him Copper."

"Sor, it bit me."

"I'm sure he was just playing around," Sora insisted. Xion grinned a little at the exchange.

Copper sniffed around at their pockets, concluded they didn't have food, and then wandered off. They explored the garden for another hour before she started to feel hungry and they started looking for a way to leave the garden.

Honestly, that probably took her the longest amount of time, but the gate was still unlocked when they found it and finding the way back to the mansion from there was just a matter of moving uphill. Xion debated whether or not to actually go inside before finding a bench to sit on along the road. The strange woman might have said it was safe, but Xion wasn't sure herself.

Roxas was the one to run into her next. He was carrying her stuff up to the house from the stables.

"Oh you're back," he just said kind of monotone and started inside.

"A weird blonde lady said it was safe. Is it?" Sora asked.

"...weird blonde lady? Kinda frail, knows weird intimate stuff about you?"

"That would be the one. Says plants were gossiping," Vanitas said.

"Yeah I know her. She's not wrong. His Highness seems to be over it but tread lightly for a bit anyway," he cautioned. Roxas adjusted his grip on her bag and headed inside and upstairs.

Xion got up to quietly go to inside, keeping her head down. Ven saw her in the hallway and waved.

"Are you hungry? I didn't see you around for lunch."

"... some food would be nice, thank you." 'Lunch' back home was usually a slice of bread with goat cheese spread over it. Just enough to get you to dinner. What kind of lunch did they eat here?

"Okay, what do you want?" Ven asked.

"I... don't know what the options are. Whatever's available, I'm not picky."

He turned to leave but stopped after a second with a confused expression.

"Aren't your guys going to come with me to get it?" he asked her retainers.

"Sora," she said, and he obediently went to follow Ven.

"You can just pick anywhere you want to eat," Ven said before leaving, "sometimes the Prince eats outside, sometimes in the parlor, it really doesn't matter."

Xion just went to the side bedroom. She wasn't all that bothered by where she ate.

She had to go through Kishi's bedroom to get there. When she got about halfway across the room a giant lump of fluff looked up at her and growled. Dire wolves didn't generally do well in warm climates, so he seemed out of place. He got up and padded over to investigate her, all looming gray fur and bared teeth under beady brown eyes. His shoulder came up to her armpit.

Xion went very tense and very still while Vanitas watched. If the wolf made a bad move, he'd probably kill it.

"I'm not going to hurt you. Or anyone here. I'm just trying to get to the next room," she said calmly.

He didn't move, just stayed in attack mode watching her and Vanitas and growling. When Vanitas slowly started moving, the growling turned into a barking snarl until they stopped moving again. Kishi whistled from the balcony and the wolf reluctantly relaxed and trotted over to the Prince on the other side of the room. Kishi looked her and Van over briefly and then walked back out along the balcony around the corner with his pet.

Xion continued to the group bedroom without a word.

It took an hour for food to arrive and by then Ven and Sora were basically best friends. All the food was cooked on the spot, made to order, so while they waited, Ven showed Sora around the servant's house. They didn't have any hyper secret tunnels that Terminus had (although Ven was extremely jealous when Sora told him about them and asked the housekeeper about adding some) but they did have a centrally located hub in the pillar that made for easy access to the school and every house belonging to the members of the royal family. They also had their own home at the edge of the property on the same level as the gardens that all the servants and groundskeepers shared. Any supplies, the kitchens, cleaning facilities, back-end contraptions, and so forth were easily accessible from the servant’s home and central building and Ventus excitedly showed Sora as much as they could in the hour they had.

The number of servants that interacted with the Imperial family directly was very, very limited and only the most trusted, long-term members of the staff were chosen for it. Ven thought Sora "had potential" and was chatty about possible future plans. They carried the tray of food into Kishi's bedroom, Ven still talking about the mysterious head housekeeper that hadn't been around for introductions.

"Aqua really is one of the most amazing people you'll ever meet. She basically raised the young Prince," he was saying as they opened the door to Xion's cell room.

"She sounds like it!" Sora said enthusiastically. Xion was arranging the heirlooms she brought by the mirror next to the bed. Ven wrinkled his nose a bit and squeezed in through the tiny door to put the tray on one of the vanities.

"We can try to find you a better mattress," he offered, "these are designed to be really uncomfortable..."

"...why would they be designed for discomfort?" That was the least sensible thing she'd ever heard.

He shuffled uncomfortably as he tried to think of an appropriate way to say this.

"It encourages the women to work a little harder to be invited to sleep in the nice bed."

It took a minute to sink in. That's right, she was no more than brood here, in the Prince's own words.

"...I can manage for a couple nights, if it's a hassle," she told him.

"No, no hassle! I mean, you brought a couple extra sets of hands so it's not a problem at all! His Highness almost never uses this room anyway, I really don't think he'll mind if we change it a little and update some stuff." Ven went to check the bathing facilities. "Yikes, honestly, it could probably be better in there too. The soaps in there are not nearly as nice as some of the ones we could be getting from town, and um-" he looked at the closet which was really just full of lingerie "-we can probably get a tailor up here too."

"I brought some clothes of my own. Though they're travel clothes, not anything nice."

"You should sleep on something nice, Xion," Sora agreed.

"Fine. Take Vanitas this time, I'm not going anywhere, and he needs to learn the castle too, okay Sora?" Vanitas grumbled something unintelligible while Sora nodded. Ven beamed.

"But really, nicer clothes. If you're going to marry one of our Princes you should still look the part." He ducked out with Vanitas.

Xion just sighed and resumed setting up the vanity. Most of her items weren't big, they were of sentimental value—most were small gold-framed paintings. The largest was of her family. Her whole family, from before her parents died. She set it facedown. She'd cried enough today.

The food at least smelled inviting. It was small, taking into account that dinner would be soon. There was some sort of mashed bean dish dolloped next to a small rack of lamb ribs, only three. They were drizzled in a huckleberry sauce next to fresh bread with a foreign cheese spread and a small, candied apricot half on top. To drink there were two options, crystal clear water and some sort of juice mix, but it was hard to tell what fruits went into it.

Xion ate as cleanly as she could. It was amazing, and the meals in Terminus didn't compare in the slightest. There were spices that she'd never heard of, the cheese wasn’t familiar at all, nor had she had candied anything. Most of the spice gardens had been changed to potatoes to combat the famine when she was seven. There was a certain nostalgia to the depth of flavor that she couldn't quite place.

Evidently the wolf agreed. Before she had finished her meal, his huge nose was wiggling through the door and he laid down just outside to watch her eat, periodically licking his lips. His eyes followed her fork and if she shuffled at all, his ears were forward and alert, just in case.

It was too much for her to consider a lunch. She stripped one of the ribs she hadn't eaten and offered the meat to the wolf.

"I can't eat all this anyway, if you want some."

His tail wagged and he sat up as she approached but he very nearly took her hand off snapping at the treat.

"Maybe be a little more gentle next time." It wasn't too different from trying to give treats to her gryphon. Another sore spot. How many of these was she going to run into today? She wanted the day to be over, or better yet to just wake up at home.

He started sniffing at her looking for more.

"I ate the other two, and I don't know enough about your diet to feed you anything else," she said. Xion did raise a hand as an offer to pet, but she didn't touch him. She was certain if she made the first move there, she'd lose a hand.

He didn't growl though and started searching her for pockets that might have food in them too. The process of pushing and sniffing put her hand on his muzzle anyway. When he didn't find anything, he huffed and went and jumped on Kishi's bed. The sheer size of the bed made the wolf look more normal sized.

It wasn't until later, just before dinner, that Ven, Roxas, and Vanitas returned with a mattress. By that point, Kishi had left so they were less concerned with politeness as they tried to figure out how they were going to squeeze the thing through the narrow door.

"Can't it be folded?" Most mattresses she'd known were stuffed with cotton or black wool and had no real structure to them.

"That's a good idea," Roxas agreed, "hold on, let's get the old mattresses out first." Ven and Sora pulled out the new one from where it was wedged in the door and Rox squeezed in to start pushing out the old ones.

Xion tried to help get the one off the bed while she asked, "So... what's a house squire?"

"Squires that belong to the House. The House being House Oscura, in this case," Roxas answered, "it's a nice way of saying slave."

"It's really not that bad," Ven tried to correct, "more like, indentured servant."

"Yeah but we didn't really get a say in our contracts, so indentured doesn't apply." Roxas grunted the last couple words as he shoved the old mattress through the door. It fell over with a soft whump that made the wolf on the bed answer in kind with his own whuf.

Xion felt her stomach drop and lunch suddenly wasn't sitting so well with her.

"I'm sorry to hear that."

They both looked at each other and then at her.

"...why?" Ven asked.

"...the only people I know in a situation similar to yours are criminals."

"You make it sound like we're in a bad situation."

"Wouldn't you rather be...home? Or at least doing something you chose?"

"What home? Our great-grandparents were given to the Emperor and our family has served him since. The young Prince is every bit my brother as Ven is," Roxas told her. He really emphasized the last bit.

"And we do get to choose a little," Ven added, "our grandparents were allowed to retire as a reward for their excellent service and we're permitted to work towards being knights in the future. Which is what our older brother did. Cloud serves as an officer in the military."

"Almost everyone who serves the Emperor was born into this servitude and we're treated very well. The expectations are incredibly high and failure is punished severely but a path to success is always provided."

"I suppose we come from very different worlds then," Xion said softly. It didn't sound that bad, but not everyone could be as happy with it as these two boys.

"You don't do the same?" Ven asked.

"You can't tell us these guys volunteered," Roxas said, motioning to Van and Sora.

"No, she picked us when we were ten. But we had to agree to it. We had to sign a contract her grandfather drew up of our own volition. But it guaranteed a place to live and food in a time when it was scarce. Why would we turn that down?" Vanitas asked shortly.

"Yeah, that's not that different from us. Choosing anything else seems stupid," Roxas said. He and Ven were folding over the new mattress and shoving it through the door. Xion grabbed the far end to help pull it through.

"We could have gone into the military though. I mean, we eventually did, but there's a lot more honor in serving a child to the throne," Sora explained a bit.

"I agree. Well, nice heirs," Roxas grumbled and Ven smacked his chest.

"...what are the other two princes like?" Xion asked cautiously.

"They're great," Roxas mumbled bitterly with not-so-veiled sarcasm.

"... guess family dinner is going to be tense."

"Family dinner isn't really a thing here," Roxas assured her, "sometimes a brother will eat with another one and occasionally the Emperor will visit or request his sons but almost never all at the same time."

"I know Riku is coming over to eat tonight though," Ven added cheerfully.

Xion sighed. Wonderful, she thought sarcastically.

"I fear I don't have anything appropriate to wear."

"Yeah... we worried about that too. You probably don't have to come down," Roxas said.

"Am I expected to hide away for the rest of my life?" she said a little bitterly, then backtracked, "Apologies, it's been a long day. I probably shouldn't be seeing anyone right now." They shuffled awkwardly and busied themselves setting up the mattress.

"You don't have to stay in here," Ven offered, "his Highness isn't the kind of guy to trap you in here unless he thought you needed to be punished for something."

"I don't know what kind of person he is, but for now I'll take your word for it."

"Honestly, Prince Riku is a good man too," Ven told her, but Roxas rolled his eyes and went to the closet to get linens for her bed.

"I'll make my judgements on the other princes when I meet them." Xion helped set up the bed.

"Of course, ma'am," Ven corrected himself gently, "we'll come by here soon to see what you want to do for dinner."

"I'm really not picky. I'll eat whatever they're making a lot of," she said, "and I don't need a lot."

"Yeah, but, you're part of the Imperial household now. You can have what you want not just what you need."

"...I don't want a lot, either," she said after a while. She still couldn't comprehend that there had been so much for lunch. They left her to get settled.

Sometime later there was noise downstairs followed by several booming barks as the wolf jumped off the bed and went to investigate.

Xion went to the little door to try to listen. There were little happy barks and growls followed by the rapid thudding of a pair of animals with the zoomies. She could hear voices downstairs, but they weren't distinct. She smiled at the sound of the animals but didn't leave her room.

Roxas came by after things settled down.

"I've got dinner."

"Thanks. Who's here?" she asked, making room for the tray.

"His Imperial Highness, Prince Riku, and his pet."

"Does he have a giant wolf too?"

"That obvious huh?"

"I assumed from the barking."

He handed her a covered tray.

"Fancy crab, some soup, bread, and some kind of dessert with a name I can't pronounce."

"Thanks, but... what's a crab?"

He took the lid off. The crab was still mostly intact, enough to get the jist.

"Crab," he said blandly.

"...giant spider. Well, you said it's fancy." How did one even start to eat something like this? She picked up the knife and poked at its shell.

"...oh boy." He took the tray over to the table and put it down, setting the lid aside. "The main body, is already done up, just take the top off and eat all the insides." He took the top half of the body shell off showing the neatly packed and seasoned crab cake inside. "And the legs you snap." He picked up a buttery leg and broke it at the joint to pull the meat out. "Messy meal, mostly comfort food. Prince Kishi asked for it specifically. Thought it might take some of the pressure of being 'proper' off."

That...was surprisingly thoughtful and kind.

"... can you thank him for me, please?" she asked.

"No." He put the tray back on her dinner, smiled briefly, and then turned to leave.

"What, why not?"

"Because I still want to go eat my own dinner and you'll probably see him sooner than I will."

"...yeah, okay. Go on then." Xion moved to the vanity to eat.

"If your servants want to eat, they really should do it in the kitchens with the rest of us."

"...Sora, Vanitas, you should go." Both men followed Roxas, though Vanitas was not pleased leaving her unattended.

The crab was very, very rich. She tried a bit of everything before deciding she liked the legs best, but she was nearly full after just three. The dessert was pleasant, but again she didn't recognize one of the ingredients. It seemed like a pancake with fruit, though, and it wasn't overly sweet.

After about an hour, the door to the bedroom opened and the wolf was back to sniffing at her door but he didn't linger. Kishi was there too and called the animal away from the door sending him outside to lay down and then going to his closet to get dressed.

Xion took a little of the crab cake for the wolf when she went to the little door, though she waited there until he was back. He was trying to get there as sneakily as possible. While Kishi was in the closet the wolf was padding over close and then laying down whenever his master would poke his head out to check on the animal. After a convincing canine yawn, Kishi went back into the closet and the wolf wiggled the last few feet over to Xion, nose going nuts.

She offered the bite on an open palm. He still took it quickly and with flashing teeth, but it was a lot safer for her fingers that way. He started sniffing around for more.

"Nope. That's it." She let him sniff, though.

"How many times have you fed him?" Kishi asked. He was standing behind the wolf now with his arms crossed. He had finished getting changed into comfortable clothing, just a robe.

"...this would be the second, but I haven't given him much. If you want me to stop, I will." She slowly looked up to the side, not directly at him.

"He didn't bite you did he?"

"No, though he came close earlier. What's his name?"

"Fenris when he's in trouble. Goofy when he's not." Kishi grabbed the monster dog's wide, gold collar and pulled him back. "Don't be so nosy, Fen, go back to the bed."

"...I wanted to say thank you. For dinner." She still wasn't looking at him directly.

"Damn, was it really that good? I didn't realize food made you so submissive."

"That's not it," she said, shoulders straighter and voice clearer, "It's just... it's been a long day, and a little kindness where I didn't expect it was nice."

He grunted a little bit and told her, "The servants should be by soon. If you're keeping your boys with you, then keep them in the room until I get up tomorrow. Squires, aids, housekeepers, whoever, aren't supposed to be in the house after bed so make sure if you need anything overnight you ask then because they won't be back til morning."

"I understand." Sora and Vanitas hadn't stayed the night with her since they were kids, but maybe an exception could be made tonight. He studied her a bit and kind of nodded to himself.

"You don't have to stay in there either. I mean, the contract is binding, I don't expect you to jump me in my bed, but I don't care if you wander the house."

"... thanks for telling me." She was sincere, but that wasn't immediately evident in her voice. "Um, what time is breakfast?"

"Whenever you want it as long as it isn't before I eat mine."

The meals didn't have structure. It kind of bothered her, she was used to always having to be on time. She didn't voice these concerns, though.

"I'll keep that in mind."

"There are plenty of books downstairs in the library, the observatory is above us, try to stay warm. It's February, it gets very cold at night."

"I'm aware, I'll manage. Thanks for the warning, though." Library was probably her first stop tomorrow. He grunted a little but felt better about her snapping back.

"The way you talked about standing up to my brother, I thought for sure you would've had just as much fire with me," he observed.

"You aren't disrespecting me, why would I need to?"

"And I don't need to be disrespectful if you're obedient and behave."

"There might be some problems with that, but not right now."

"My brother's wife is a lot like you," he said, starting to walk back towards his bed where his slippers and book were.

"Which one?"

"Xemnas. My oldest brother."

"Why bring it up?" Xemnas was probably the one she knew least about.

"Just thinking out loud." He picked up his book and went over to the balcony settling into a reclining couch to read. Goofy settled down next to him with a grumbling sigh and Kishi rested his free hand on the wolf's side.

Xion waited for Vanitas and Sora to arrive downstairs, picking over the library to try to find an etiquette guide of some sort. There were plenty of them. Kishi's library was packed with everything from grimoires to romance. There was a knock at the library door and Ven poked his head in.

"I'm pretty sure we showed Vanitas and Sora where everything is but just in case, is there anything I can get you before I head out?"

"No, I'll be fine, thank you Ven." She was flipping through pages of a book before memorizing where it was before heading upstairs to bed.

Chapter Text

The good news was that Kishi was up early and he didn't ever eat anything other than a light breakfast, so by the time the light was filtering in Xion's windows, the housekeepers and servants were already up and about. It was still cold in the house by Scala standards and Kishi's balcony was closed off by the sliding windows. The wolf was gone, as was he.

Xion changed into some of her travel clothes, as she still didn't have anything appropriate, then she went looking for Roxas or Ven. She found Ven first.

He was sitting in the parlor talking to a lovely, older woman with short blue hair. She was wearing clothing as nice as the Princes' a formfitting black shirt shirt, comfortable, tighter pants, tall leather boots, and a short-sleeved, hoodless cloak with decorative tassles, patterns, and folds. It was a deep blue with pink colored accents over her black uniform.

The two of them were sipping tea and talking jovially but Xion still stood back a bit when she saw them.

"Uh, Ven? Who's this?" she asked cautiously as Vanitas bristled beside her.

They both looked up at her and rose to their feet politely.

"If I may?" Ven asked her and she nodded so he continued, "Princess Xion of Terminus Kingdom, this is the Imperial Housemaster, Aqua Cascade."

Xion had to hold herself back from correcting him.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," she said instead.

"And you," Aqua responded warmly.

"Mistress Aqua is responsible for all of the staff that serve the Emperor and is the only one of us who is allowed to address the Emperor directly," Ven explained, "she will be in charge of your retainers if they decide to stay permanently."

"We're staying," Vanitas said adamantly.

"Then I will be assuming your contracts," Aqua said gently.

"I'm not sure you can," Xion said.

"Then they will be removed from the property after your wedding.” That was firm but still gentle.

"Um, I'm not sure our contract with Xion can be terminated," Sora said, "but as long as they don't contradict, can't we hold a contract with you too?"

"That would largely depend on your existing contract."

"I'll have to write to my grandfather and ask for a copy, it's been years since I looked at it directly," Xion said, "Um, is there anywhere I can train?"

"What kind of training?"

"Usually with swords, but I'm rather versatile."

"So combat training. Ventus, what were the Prince's orders?" Aqua asked him.

"He doesn't want her to leave the house ma'am."

Aqua nodded and then turned back to Xion to respond, "There is space on the veranda but I can't provide you with any weapons to train."

"Can you find me something heavy to lift?"

"We can look into that. I have some orders to fulfill regarding you as well. Prior to lunch, and just after, you will be meeting with a tailor to have some clothing fitted. You will be eating dinner with the Emperor tonight, so please allow some time to properly bathe after your workout."

"...I think I'll memorize the etiquette book instead of working out today, thanks." Meeting with the Emperor was not what she wanted to hear this early in the morning or in her time here, but she'd be damned if she didn't do her best to be ready for it.

"I will send for your contracts as well," Aqua reassured her, "it's lovely to have another woman in the household."

"I would like to write to my grandfather all the same, if I may."

"All of your letters will need to be reviewed before you may seal them, but that's perfectly acceptable."

"She can write what she wants," Kishi said from the hallway. He was wiping sweat off his hands and face with a rag.

"Prince, she's not a member of this House yet."

"So? What's she going to do? Spill intimate secrets about me that she doesn't know? Describe the house? The impenetrable fortress at the top of one of the most defensible cities in the world? I know you're being safe to protect us Aqua, but it's stuffy enough without extra rules."

Aqua didn't seem to like being scolded herself but she still responded politely, "Of course."

"Ven, draw a bath and tell the chef we'll want lunch right at noon," Kishi ordered, walking off down the hall.

"A busy day for your betrothed does not excuse you from your lessons, Prince," Aqua called after him.

The footsteps in the hall stopped for a second and he called back, "after my bath."

Xion didn't really mind if they read her letters, but it was good to know he defended that.

"I'll probably bathe an hour before dinner. When will that be?" she asked.

"His excellency will expect you at seven," Aqua reported, "...Ventus, your Lord gave you an order." Ven nodded, bowed, and then excused himself in a fluster to go get a bath drawn.

"And remind the Prince that I will not be kept waiting!" she called after him. There was a knock on the wall in response.

"Miss Xion," Aqua continued, "I would like you to know that while I serve this house there are only three who outrank me and four who share my status. You are none of those people, nor are your retainers, but I have seen many women come and go from these halls and I will do everything in my power and with my station to see you thrive here. Those whom I command share this desire. So please, if you need help, call on me."

"...thank you Miss Aqua. Or,is there another title I should use for you?"

"Mistress or Master will do fine. Though, a word of caution, should either of the two eldest Princes, or the Emperor be present, it would be wise to not address me at all."

"Yes Master," Xion replied, "if I may, when I see his Excellence tonight...if there should be one thing I remember above all, what should it be?"

"There is nothing you can do or say that he hasn't already taken into account, so focus less on avoiding mistakes and instead proving why you are indispensable and more than a puppet for his son."

"Prove my uses then." Xion already knew she was worth more than just being a wife.

"The Emperor values usefulness but not desperation. If you try to impress, he will see you as another object of trade, a payment from another Kingdom. Disrespectful and he will be obligated to punish you. This is a balancing act between knowing your place and showing the fire within. His Imperial Excellency always provides a path to success, though sometimes it's a tightrope."

"Be polite but firm, then."

Aqua nodded and then sat back down to finish her tea.

"The Emperor is a master of strategy. He knows everything that happens in this House and will know that I have coached you. In truth, this dinner is likely his way to confirm his deductions of you and solidify your purpose in his mind." She grew a little more solemn. "So far you have served several purposes and been a useful pawn, but I suspect his plan for you is more sinister."

That was, unfortunately, a sobering thought, but she was still in a better position than when she was to marry Ansem.

"I came here by my own choice. I will see through the consequences."

Aqua looked at Xion with pity in her eyes and then continued to sip her tea, done with the conversation. Xion didn't like that look. It felt like Aqua had already given up on her.

"What time can I expect the tailor?"

"He will be here in about an hour," she responded politely.

"Thank you, Master Aqua." Xion made a little bow, not sure what was appropriate and Aqua nodded approvingly and focused on her tea again.

"May I be dismissed?"

"Yes, thank you for asking."

Xion nodded and went to find the etiquette book again.

"You aren't a puppet," Vanitas said vehemently once they were out of earshot.

"I mean, she kinda is," Roxas said from the library as he stepped out with a feathered duster in hand.

"You weren't supposed to be part of the conversation," Vanitas spat back.

"Van, please don't be difficult," Xion said, dragging a hand down her face.

"Yeah, Van, don't be difficult."

Vanitas glared back at the blonde and Xion turned to Roxas with a deadpan look.

"...you can be rude if he's going to be rude back," she said instead. Sora was aghast.

"That wasn't even that rude."

"But you admit that it was," Vanitas said.

"Of course, I can be as rude as I want to people who can't actually retaliate," Roxas continued to tease.

"Fuck off."

Xion smacked Vanitas and scolded, "Not that rude."

"Heh, I can't wait until he starts working here officially. I’d love to see you talk to Ansem that way."

"They don't typically do a lot of talking to anyone other than me," Xion said.

"They will when they belong to the house."

"We'll see," Xion responded.

"Better that than thrown out," Roxas kept pushing.

"That's debatable," Vanitas retorted.

"I'm sure it is."

Xion sighed, "Don't fight right now, I need to concentrate." She started into the library.

"Oh yeah... I wish I could offer advice, but I'm not even allowed in the same room as the Emperor." Roxas sounded a little more genuine now.

"...you two probably won't be able to come with me," she said to Vanitas and Sora, who looked like they wanted to protest but Vanitas settled on grumbling and Sora on a kicked-puppy look.

Roxas studied the three of them for a second before asking, "...do you guys all sleep together?"

"Not typically, no. On the road or in hard times, yeah, we tend to," Sora answered while Xion looked for the book.

"The road is the worst place for that."

"...you didn't mean in the dirty sense, did you? Because on the road it's about staying warm," Sora said a little concerned.

"Yeah, I asked if you guys all fuck." Roxas had to cover his mouth to hide his snicker. "You're just all really close for servants and master."

"We weren't allowed to keep our balls," Vanitas said nonchalantly while Sora choked.

"Please, Vani, please don't phrase it that way," the brother managed to get out.

"You guys too huh?"

"Retainers are all close to their lord or lady. You're supposed to give up everything. Including a chance to have a family of your own. My Lady and my brother are my family," Vanitas said surprisingly gently.

"...wait, you weren't joking about that?" Roxas asked, the rudeness gone from his voice too.

"About what?" he snapped.

"About your stuff." Roxas vaguely motioned to his own crotch in case it wasn’t clear.

Sora grabbed Vanitas and covered his mouth before he could say something crass.

"No, he wasn't," Sora said.

"...oh..." Roxas' entire mood shifted, and he just nodded slowly and started walking away to process that information.

"Good, I can have some quiet," Xion mumbled.

An hour later the tailor arrived and met Aqua at the door, they chatted like old friends for a moment and then the elderly man got started setting up in Kishi's room. It was easily the largest room in the house and Kishi had to get some stuff tailored too so it seemed the best option. Aqua started happily looking through the collection of clothing that the man brought while he started setting up.

Xion had come upstairs at the one-hour mark and was waiting for direction.

When he was ready, the tailor put Xion up on a small stool to go over her with the measuring tape.

Kishi was just getting there too. He was munching on an apple and flopped on his bed, propping up the pillows to watch.

"Something light," Aqua instructed, "but dark colors."

Given the relative heat, Xion wouldn't mind wearing something light. Although she was used to dresses clocking in around the fifty-pound mark, no matter the season.

"What's your favorite color, Xion?" Aqua asked, pulling out a couple articles of clothing.

"Um... typically, it's a bluish violet." The same color as the flower she was named after.

"When were you born?"

"The ninth of the ninth month, nineteen years ago."

"She's Winter Court, Kishi," Aqua said with a light chuckle, "same as you."

"So is half the population," he grumbled from the bed.

"What color do you want her to wear, Prince?"

"I don't know."

"Say that again and you'll take an additional color theory course," Aqua threatened, her voice still light and gentle. He groaned but sat up more, looking her up and down.

"I need you to strip," the tailor instructed, he had a light accent, but it was hard to pinpoint where he was from. Somewhere far away from Scala for sure.

"... does everyone have to be in here for that?" she asked quietly.

"Would you rather your retainers not be here?" Aqua asked gently. Sora and Vanitas were blending into the background by the wall. Xion glanced at the Prince.

"... they're fine. Nevermind," she nearly whispered before she started removing layers.

The tailor only seemed satisfied when she was down to one layer of underwear and then he rambled in another language to Aqua who politely reassured him and then went to open the balcony wall, letting in the fresh air, and with it a wave of warmth.

At night the house had cooled considerably, more what one would expect from February but during the day the white stone reflecting the sunlight into darker rooms helped to warm the city. It didn't hurt that was some magic in play too.

Kishi snapped his fingers and announced, "periwinkle."

"As an accent or a main color?"

He faltered, realizing immediately that this was a test, "accent."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," he said, maybe too quickly.

"Okay, then what do you want for her main color?" He was back on guard again.

"Think on it as we work," Aqua told him, ever-gentle.

Xion held her arms out for the tailor to work. In Terminus, formal wear was seen as a kind of canvas, either painted or embroidered or beaded in its entirety to make a scene. Sometimes all three techniques were used on the same garment. The idea of fine wear being available to wear immediately was both a reminder that she wasn't home and a bit exciting, which combined to leave her with a nauseous optimism.

"Periwinkle for sleepwear," Kishi finally said, "just periwinkle."

"Contemplating your wedding night, Prince?" Aqua teased and he turned bright red.

"N-No! Periwinkle is just soft like nighttime but not g-gloomy!" he protested.

Aqua handed Xion a very out of season sundress to start. It was a light, sky blue that was dyed navy blue along the bottom and allowed to bleed up, creating a gradient along the bottom.

"What is she going to wear to dinner with your father?" Aqua asked, still testing.

Kishi blanked and started fiddling with his apple core while he thought.

Xion slipped it on quickly. It really was light. The tailor started pulling it in around the waist.

"Everything you try on today will be a little big," Aqua told her, “So please tell him when it feels comfortable so he can determine how much to take in." He tugged until it was snug around her waist.

"That's good, sir," she said. Honestly, Xion preferred tight-fitting armor or even just trousers, but dresses weren't bad.

"Well, Ki?" Aqua asked again. The tailor pinned the dress in a couple places and then helped her get it off.

"I don't know, something dark, maybe black... not a dress." Aqua went back to the things the tailor brought and started looking around. She came back with a long, hoodless cloak, just like the one she was wearing, only this one was black. She handed it to Xion.

"Explain your reasoning."

"Because she's not like that. Father hates liars. If she wouldn't normally wear a dress, then he'd be able to tell."

"'Not like that'? Use your words, be more specific in the future, please," Aqua corrected.

"He's right, though," Xion agreed, "Dresses have their place and I don't mind them, but they usually aren't practical. I'd rather wear something I can move in easily."

"I agree," Aqua said, pleased, "let's adhere closely to our traditional look here in Scala, but choose colors that are more fitting of where you are from. Explain my decision, Prince."

"Um, the colors acknowledge her origin, but the conformity shows she's adjusting and not defiant."

"Very good, be more confident."

"Yes, ma'am."

"So what would those colors be?"

"Uh...."

"Your betrothed is from the mountains, Kishi," Aqua offered as a hint and he snorted at the laced condescension.

"I know... Brown? Maybe some green."

"...inspired, Highness. Xion, would you like to correct him?" Aqua offered.

"...the colors of our flag are deep blue and silver, though bright green holds cultural importance and is often worn for special occasions." Couples at weddings wore bright green. "We also wear clothes with silver and gold threads and gem beading."

"I didn't realize I was supposed to know political colors," Kishi grumbled.

"What about the colors of the land?" Aqua prodded.

"Lots of grey, but it is mostly green and brown, like he said. Unless the Wound is open. Then everything's covered in black."

Aqua went over to Kishi's closet instead and started digging through his stuff.

"That's mine!" he whined when she came back out with a long-sleeved, hooded cloak and handed it to Xion to try on. It was a steel-grey color with black and white tassles, ultimately very boring.

Xion pulled it on over the dress, letting the heavy fabric settle. This felt more natural than the light, flowing dress. It was also huge and had faint silver thread woven into it. It smelled different too, not bad, just different, maybe with a hint of mint.  

"Sleeves or no sleeves?" Aqua asked.

"Hey, wait, no, you're not cannibalizing one of my coats," Kishi scolded. He actually got up to protest a little closer.

"Xion, sleeves or no sleeves?"

"...sleeves." It was still February, after all. Aqua reached out and gently pulled the huge sleeves up until they were about an inch below her wrist.

"Here?"

"That works."

Aqua let the tailor take over to pin the sleeves and gave some direction in making the sleeves less baggy. "Hood or no hood?" Aqua asked.

"Um. A hood please."

She gave directions about the hood and then the length. They adjusted how it would fit around her body too.

"It's not going to be this loose," Aqua warned, "do you think this is something you can eat a meal in?"

"...yes, I can eat in it, if there's not anything weird about the meal." She wasn't a toddler. She didn't need a bib.

"Kishi dragged his sleeves through his soup until he was twelve. Sometimes it's tricky to seem normal when we're out of our element and he was in his." The Prince covered his face to hide how upset he was but he couldn't really go after Aqua as much as he wanted to.

"I can manage, I'll take it slow if I'm reaching over my plate."

Aqua kept making little adjustments and then pointed to some of the more decorative bits before talking to the tailor.

"Alright, take it off, dress too," Aqua instructed. Xion took more care with the coat than the dress.

Kishi was a lot closer now and able to look at Xion a little better. He didn't seem bothered at all that she was so on display and he was subtle about looking her over.

The tailor took the two discarded items and Aqua dug out a pair of black pants, the material had a little bit of stretch but not much and was meant to be form fitting. She passed it over.

Xion slipped into the pants. Again, the lack of weight to the fabric was a foreign feeling.

"Do you like how they fit?" Aqua asked.

"I could fight in them if I wasn't afraid they'd tear."

"So you like how they fit."

That went on for a little while until Xion had at least seven regular outfits for day-to-day wear, a couple dresses ("these are for Summer but I just love them~!"), a nice gown, some form-fitting shirts, and two coats sized. Almost everything needed some minor tailoring aside from the coats, but lunch was getting cold in the corner, and Kishi got firm with Aqua, ordering a break. She excused herself to check on the staff and other duties, promising to return within the hour to continue. The tailor also excused himself to begin working in the parlor while they ate lunch in Kishi's room.

Xion was hungry by the time lunch rolled around.

"Did you want to eat together? The way you said things earlier, I wasn't sure."

"Said what things?" Kishi asked. He was already at the cart with their food on it, picking at the grapes.

"Earlier, when you said we'd have lunch at noon. I wasn't sure if I was part of that 'we' or not."

"Oh. Yeah, I guess I did say we."

So he hadn't meant to invite her.

"... I'll go somewhere else, then." She turned to walk away but he stopped her.

"No, it's fine. I'm surprised you'd even want to."

"... we're going to be married. At the very least, I want to try to get along," Xion explained.

"We don't have to get along to be married. You just have to sleep with me at least a few times and then we can avoid each other."

"I think it would be better for both of us if we did, but if it doesn't work, it doesn't work." She wasn't hungry all of a sudden. He looked her up and down and then slowly nodded.

"Alright. There are a couple chairs outside. I think there's food here for your shadows too." Kishi grabbed his plate and drink and headed out onto the balcony.

Xion stopped at the tray to fill her own before following him outside. Her plate looked mostly empty still.

There was a very small table there between two chairs. Kishi had already put his drink there and sat down. The balcony railing wasn't very tall so even sitting down, the view was gorgeous. The next level down was full of greenery and the distance between the balcony and the wall around his yard wasn’t very far, so even beneath them were just perfectly manicured treetops.

Xion looked at the chair a few seconds before sitting down and taking in the view.

"Sun's nice."

"It's bright," he huffed, "but it fuels a lot of the magic so I guess it can stay."

"Your magic seems very different from ours."

"There are like five different kinds here." He was cramming most of the meal between two slices of bread. It was some sort of roast, salad, and cheesy veggies with fruit on the side.

"We have different types of magic, but none of it is studied. You only get magic if you're gifted it,” she explained as she picked at the fruit on her plate.

"That's still a thing here for the most part. Most of the magic in Scala is here in the palace."

"Dragons gift magic. I've only ever seen it twice." She'd seen three dragons. Which was a lot for someone who hadn't hit twenty yet.

He chuckled a bit and said, "That's not possible. My father had dragons hunted to extinction before I was born. The only one left is Ansem's pet, Maleficent. I still don't think it's fair he gets to double-dip."

Pet. Extinction. The words bounced around like a hammer inside her skull, shattering any coherent thought she had. For at least a couple seconds, the careful mask slipped, and she was sure for a moment her horror could be seen. She'd last seen a dragon just two years ago, at her mother's funeral. She'd seen the ones that came for Lauriam and Vanitas. Never could she picture such a thing being kept as a pet. Never could she picture one being hunted.

Dragons were the messengers of the gods themselves. How could they have been killed so easily? There was a greater fear there. That the dragons of Terminus would be discovered, and that her people would lose their connection to the gods. Such a thing would break them.

"You're—you're probably right. Wizards are all old anyway."

Kishi didn't notice her change in behavior, he was too focused on his food.

"Is the forge an heirloom then?" he asked her, still mostly distracted.

"... supposedly, a dragon gifted fire to the first master smith fifteen centuries ago. When you reach that rank, if you have your own forge, you are gifted some. There are eight master smiths in the country, including me, and five dragonsfire forges between them."

"That's pretty cool. There are a few forges here that use dragonsfire too, but they have to apply for a license and keep it up to date, inspections, whole deal. Actually, I think Xemnas can turn into a dragon but he was probably pulling my leg."

Again, she felt sick. Really, truly sick. She was glad she wasn't weak of heart or stomach, as she'd probably do something very regrettable. As it was she was fighting tears.

"That does sound impossible."

Kishi started tossing grapes up to catch in his mouth.

"Most of our magic for the city is fueled by sunlight and the windmills but casting magic and stuff is more controlled. My father is adamant about all sources of magic being monitored so if anyone has the gift, they go to the school and are trained how to use it."

"What if you take over a country with wizards? My brother and grandfather are both gifted."

"Then we either make them pledge fealty to the throne or kill them."

Xion was suddenly very, very glad she'd told Vanitas to keep his magic a secret. Her grandfather had been obvious about his magic use, but had she just doomed her brother?

"... that's horrible. I understand why you do it, but not everyone can control whether they have magic or not. It seems unfair to punish them for something they have no choice over."

"Which is why, if they join up, they get the best possible schooling, care, all their needs met, and so on. They're not prisoners but we can't exactly let them run loose either."

"...if my brother leaves, our country will starve. His magic keeps the famine from touching fields he works on and makes food from any field he helps harvest take longer to spoil. That's it. He's not a threat," she insisted.

"Wait that brother? I thought it was the big scary one with the scar on his face."

"No. It's Lauriam. He wasn't able to complete his military service because he's keeping everyone fed."

"Huh. Well, I'm sure Xigbar knows which means my father knows."

She nodded. She could only hope he would be allowed to stay in Terminus.

"Namine is trying to make magic more accessible. There's a type of wild magic that anyone can do but it's kind of unorthodox so I don't think my father is going to cave," Kishi was telling her.

"I've never heard of wild magic." She didn’t know who he was referring to either.

"It's fae magic that draws on the natural energy of the world. Basically, you ask nature to do something and then you pay for it with service, usually something that rights a wrong in the natural world."

"Your etiquette book said being courteous to fae was important."

"Well, yeah, that should be a given."

"I don't really know anything about fae."

"Does anybody?" he grumbled irritably, "I'm still taking classes about them, and I don't have any idea about half of it."

"I think I've heard the name before, that's it."

"...okay, I at least know more than you. Fae is just a proper name for fairies. They're a race of magical beings like dragons, only more human and intelligent."

"They sound interesting."

"They're dangerous and cutthroat and very, very powerful and they always have crazy demands," Kishi huffed.

"I believe you." He was the expert between them, after all. He gave a slight approving nod and nursed his drink.

"...how old are you?" she asked.

"Nineteen."

"... when's your birthday?"

"November eleventh."

She grinned a little. She was older.

"...what?"

"It's not important, but I'm a couple months older."

"You're right, it's not important. It really doesn't matter how old you are," Kishi huffed defensively.

"It matters a little. Not a lot. Just a tiny bit."

"Heh, maybe to you. The only thing that matters with us is that our union force peace with your country... and that you maybe make a kid at some point."

"I don't think kids will be a problem." She didn't have a guarantee, but the royal family was always big before the famine.

"Have you had babies?"

"No. Just a family thing. There's always a lot of us. I can't tell you how many second cousins I have."

He gave her a coy side-eye and asked, "Do you know how to make babies?"

"Have you ever been in a low-level battalion? I know far more than I ever wanted to."

"Oh. Good. You seem like the type to not know how it works."

Xion took a long drink.

He jostled a bit, a little nervous as he asked, "We don't need a-a dry run, do we?"

"As long as you don't have a problem getting it up, we'll be fine."

Kishi turned red again and then grumbled, "Of course there's no problem."

"Then we're fine," she said matter-of-factly.

"...listen, I didn't want this either. You're allowed to be upset."

"I have been. Several times."

He paused, nodded a bit, and got up.

"I'll send for Aqua, get you finished up," he said a little more softly.

"...can Ansem hear us from here?" Xion asked.

"Um, no?"

"If you want help pranking him, teasing him, making his life harder for any reason, I'm down."

That got him to smile a little at least.

"Trust me, the long game is better against him, and there is literally nothing that we can do to him that's worse than you marrying me."

"Let's make sure he has a good seat, then."

"We'd have to really sell it."

"One of the best tricks I have is the ability to control my face. I can sell a bit."

"Then I guess I will have to practice." He started off again.

When Aqua and the tailor came back upstairs, Kishi did not join them, but the sound of a violin could be heard coming from downstairs.

Xion went in to see the tailor. The old man worked fast too. He had prioritized her coat to wear to dinner and it was about ready. He was finishing up adding some subtle embroidery to the front folds on the cloak. The tassels and buttons were different colored too. He had added pine green and aspen white to the steel gray, but the detailing was in the blue and pink of mountain wildflowers.

"Thank you. What is His Highness playing?" Xion asked.

Aqua started laying out the rest of her outfit, a skin-tight black shirt that covered part of her neck, black pants, knee-high black boots (with a tiny bit of a heel), and a sort of sash and skirt to cover the awkwardness where the pants and shirt met. The coat would go over all of it.

"A piece that he wrote. I don't believe he's named it yet."

"It's very pretty," she said softly before trying to pull on the clothes.

"All of the Princes are required to perform or present artwork at the Summer and Winter Solstice celebrations," Aqua explained.

"Will I be expected to do the same? I do have experience in metalworking."

"No, you will not. You will probably be expected to just look pretty and say nothing."

"... it's somehow disappointing."

"It's... easy, for the most part." Aqua helped her touch up. "Let me get a brush."

"I know there's not a lot to work with," Xion apologized.

"As long as what's there isn't playing host to a family of mice."

Xion gave Aqua a stern look before schooling her expression again.

"There." Aqua stepped back to admire her work. "Are you ready to go?"

"...yes, I am."

Head up. Arms at the sides. Look forward and show no fear.

Chapter Text

Aqua led the way out of the estate and up into the castle above. After what Kishi had said about magically talented people being trained and cared for, the boarding school aesthetic made more sense.

It was also the home for the Emperor himself. Most of the top floor was a living space for his Imperial Highness alongside his throne room, personal study, and other living arrangements that not even the Princes knew of.

The dining hall that Aqua took Xion to was surprisingly cozy. More of a den with normal ceilings, a rectangular table meant for eight, and tasteful, simple decorations. Windows filled one of the walls, looking out over the lake and other islands. From here they had an excellent view of the colors of the setting sun without the direct, blinding sunlight itself.

Aqua gently guided Xion in without her and closed the door. She wasn't the first one there, so Xion wasn't alone. Sitting at one of the windows, sketching away, was the blonde-haired woman from the garden. Her gray-haired young friend was nowhere to be seen but she still seemed cheerful enough without him. She was wearing a light white sundress underneath a long-sleeved coat with silver and gold accents and trim. It made the blue of the woman’s eyes sharper in contrast even if it made her skin seem even paler.

So far there wasn't any food out or ready for them, but sitting on the table, was the sword that Xion had made and brought into the city against the rules.

"...hello again, ma'am," Xion said, staying at the door and staring at the sword on the table. Either she'd be able to get her apology done or this was going to be very unpleasant. It could easily be both.

"Hello, Xion," she greeted. The woman stood up and bowed politely before sitting back down with her sketchbook in her lap. "I am so happy you were able to make up with the young Prince."

Truly, there were no secrets here.

"As am I. Although the garden was quite enjoyable," Xion said politely.

"The garden thought you were nice too. Although Todd was very disappointed that your friend did not bring food."

"Todd?"

"Our fox."

"... maybe next time I'll bring a treat of some sort." Ah, farewell Copper. It was a better name for a dog anyway.

"The view is lovely. Come and see," the woman invited. Xion slowly made her way over to the window.

The sun was going down so the shadows were long, leaving dark shapes on the water. One of the doors opened and a couple young women came to set the table for three. As soon as they were done, food was brought as well to sit, covered, on the table.

Xion turned away from the window as soon as she heard the door open. She had no idea what was under the lids of the dishes, but there were enough there to easily feed five people.

"Will it just be the three of us?" she asked.

"Is that alright?"

"I'm just looking to temper my expectations."

"I see. Yes, I invited myself but no one else is attending aside from his Majesty." Speak of the devil. The door opened and the Emperor let himself into the room. The air instantly felt heavy and oppressive, but the woman was unbothered and greeted the man with a light curtsy and a welcoming smile.

Xion gave the same deep bow she had on arrival. She didn't know if she should wait to be addressed or not, but that was how her grandfather expected her to act in Terminus, so she assumed as much and held there as well. She had to remind herself to breathe.

If the man was displeased, he didn't show it.

"I am blessed to be accompanied by such lovely ladies this evening. Please, sit. Let us eat." He sat down first, then the blonde woman on his right, leaving the place to his left open for Xion.

Xion moved to take a seat, the sword catching her eye again.

"I'm afraid I must start our meeting with an apology and explanation, your Excellency," she said. He motioned for her to continue.

Show no fear.

"I brought a steel weapon into the city, unaware of the laws forbidding it. I did not mean to cause trouble, and had I known the law I would have left it in the care of your regent. However, I still should have asked if there was anything I should have excluded while packing." Xion kept her eyes on the weapon. She'd been told to bring what was necessary, and she thought her wedding gift was.

"What were your instructions when packing?" he asked after a long pause.

"I was told to bring only what I could not go without."

"Why do you believe this sword is something you could not go without?"

"It was never intended for me. One of Terminus' wedding traditions is for the couple to exchange gifts they made themselves. This was one of the traditions outlined in the agreement. I made this sword nearly a year ago for my eventual wedding. I didn't know if I would have access to a forge or workshop here, nor did I know how long it would be until the wedding, so I did not know if I would have time to make a suitable gift, even if I had everything I needed."

Namine looked down while the Emperor studied Xion for a moment. After what felt like an eternity, he began removing lids and selecting what he wanted to eat. Each of the portions was surprisingly small, the focus more on decorative. It also was the sort of meal that would traditionally be brought in courses but the Emperor did not care for traffic during his meals so it was all provided immediately. There were delicate seafood cakes drizzled in a sort of vinegar sauce and resting on a softened cracker, small, thick bites of steak so marbled it nearly fell apart without the use of a knife, salads featuring the greenest leaves and plump strawberries around crumbled bleu cheese, spinach and cream encased delicately with puff pastry, and a warm dessert of tiny chocolate truffle cakes filled with caramel, strawberry preserves, and hazelnut spread.

He served himself while the blonde poured wine and water for all three of them.

"I will allow you to keep the sword for your intended purpose," he said once he had his meal in front of him.

"Thank you, your Excellency," Xion said, inclined her head slightly, "It means a lot to me."

Once again, Xion found herself in awe of the food. There was so much more variety than she was used to seeing. Her eyes went just a little wide.

"Until such time, when its purpose is to be fulfilled, it will remain in the treasury vault."

She simply nodded. Xion had never intended to use the sword, so where it was kept did not matter much to her. She waited for the blonde lady as a cue to begin serving herself.

The woman was gently picking out the things she wanted to eat, selecting fewer things than the Emperor did and sipped at her wine. She was immensely relaxed and confident and continued to smile at Xion reassuringly.

"What do you think of my city?" the Emperor asked as he began to eat, taking small, carefully measured bites.

"I have not seen much of it, but it seems very clean. I'd never seen architecture like this before coming here." Xion tried things one serving at a time, starting with the salad.

"What do you think of my family?" he asked next and she could feel his eyes on her.

"I... have thus far only met Kishi and Ansem. I have mixed feelings about Kishi, but I think at the barest we will get along fine. I will be honest, Ansem's behavior during his time in my home left a strong distaste for him and I was very relieved at your declaration that I would not marry him. Thank you for that."

The Emperor studied her again, face impossible to read. He sipped his wine and let her words hang in the air.

"Have you been dishonest in this short time we have been speaking?"

She set her fork down to answer, "I have not, but I did consider not telling the extent of my feelings about Ansem. I am sure you don't want to hear that someone dislikes one of your children."

His face betrayed amusement even though his voice stayed the same when he asked, "Why did you feel the need to specify that you were being honest when speaking poorly of my second born?"

"I...am not sure. I suppose it felt less rude than saying it without the preface."

"Speaking so poorly about an Imperial Prince is worthy of extreme punishment but I will give you a chance to retract the things you said."

"...I was likely too quick to judge him. I'm sorry for my offensive words," she said, a little tense. This was a half-truth. She had really only had a handful of encounters with Ansem, it was a hasty judgement, but the only thing she was sorry about was that she had made the mistake of voicing it. She was sorry for the words, not the meaning.

The Emperor resumed eating. He finished his dinner in silence and began on dessert before he spoke again.

"Your engagement to my youngest son has yet to be announced and thus, is subject to change. I would like to give you to my son, Riku. How do you feel about that?"

"I would rather stay with Kishi. He has been strict, but he has not been unfair or unkind to me. I cannot disobey if you decide Riku is the better option, but those are my feelings," she told him confidently. Xion finally resumed eating herself.

"And you submit to him?"

She took a second to think before answering, "I have heard that word used here a few times, and it feels different than how I use it in Terminus. Can you explain what connotations that word has here before I answer?"

He smiled a little bit, took a bite of his dessert, took another drink of wine, and then answered, "no."

"Then I will answer as I know the word. To submit is to give up. To surrender, to let your spirit die. I do not plan on breaking, so no, I will not submit, but I have not felt the need to fight your son. I will not be a danger nor an embarrassment to him."

He finished the rest of his dessert in silence with an expression of contentment and then left without excusing himself, leaving the woman and Xion alone to finish eating.

Xion had never stopped breathing, but she took deeper breaths once he was gone.

"You did great," the woman praised, still soft but cheerful.

"Thank you, um, I'm not sure I know your name, ma'am." Xion finally reached for the dessert.

"Oh, I am so sorry, I feel like I have known you for some time so it's easy to forget. My name is Namine." So this was who Kishi was talking about…

"...you seem to know a lot," was all she could think of to say.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, the plants are talkers when they know someone can hear them."

"...I have never known plants to talk..." But Lauriam spoke to his garden.

"All plants talk, there are few who know how to listen," she said, "but don't worry, I don't tell on anyone."

"I think my brother would like you."

Namine blushed a little and sipped her wine. The color in her cheeks stood out strongly against her white ensemble.

"What do you do here?"

"I am the Imperial Court Magician and Envoy to the Summer and Winter Courts," Namine responded gently after she had a chance to finish her bite of food.

"There are different courts?"

"There are two Faerie Courts, yes."

"... I'm afraid I don't know much about the Fae," Xion admitted.

"You know more than you think."

"I'm afraid I don't understand."

"Ogres are a type of fae."

Xion felt her stomach drop out of existence. It was possible all fae were like that, or that her people would be punished for fighting them. Neither thought was comforting.

"Oh dear, the color is draining from your face. Drink some water," Namine instructed.

Xion found herself complying.

"...Fae are considered important here, but my people have been fighting them for our entire history."

"You fear the repercussions of doing so," the magician guessed.

"I also fear what would happen if we were ordered to stop."

"You will not be. Ogres may be fae of the Winter Court, but they are still a species unto themselves. Just as Dryads, Trolls, Centaurs, Elves, Satyrs, Nymphs, and so on are."

There was a sudden weight off her chest.

" ...thank you, Miss Naminé."

"Of course. I think, I am about finished with my meal."

"I should probably be done too." She hadn't tried everything but still managed to feel stuffed.

"Hopefully, this was not too stressful for you."

"I am doing well enough, no need for concern." Xion stood and pushed her chair back into place. "... I'm not sure I know the way back to Prince Kishi's rooms."

"I've been meaning to visit. I can walk with you," she offered. Namine got up and grabbed her sketchbook and charcoal pencil to lead the way out into the school.

"Thanks," Xion said sincerely, following the woman.

Namine wasn't very chatty, but she stopped frequently to say hello to teenagers that were staying at the school. They all bowed politely to her and referred to her as Ma’am or Professor. It wasn’t hard to connect the dots from there. Not only was Namine close to the throne, she was also an active teacher here, helping students of a variety of ages with their budding magical talents.

They rode a platform down to street level and walked over to the estate. By now it was dark but gold lights around the walkways and by doorways made it easy enough to see and filled the street with a warm glow.

It was already starting to feel cold and Namine tightened her cloak around herself. It wasn’t a practiced movement and Xion got the impression it was more for her benefit than an actual desire to retain warmth. The coat matched Xion’s for the most part, minus the hood and more tapered in the back. Despite being white it was very clean. The back was much longer than the front, more like an orchestra conductor's jacket and the sleeves were a little tighter.

"I do hope he doesn't mind my stopping by so late," Namine mused aloud.

"Are you friends?"

"I'm one of his instructors. I taught all of the Princes."

They got to the threshold, but Namine stopped when Xion went in to wait patiently by the door. Not a single part of her was over the invisible line.

"Will you be so kind as to alert him to my presence?" she requested of Xion.

"Of course."

Vanitas and Sora were waiting for her by the door. Vanitas had been pacing, but Xion headed upstairs to find Kishi before addressing either of them.

Kishi was sipping wine and reading in bed with his wolf on his lap. Goofy heard her first and growled until he saw her and then the growling was replaced by tail wagging.

"I'm sorry, Goofy, I didn't bring you any food. Uh, Kishi? Naminé is here and wants to see you."

He made a slight hum of acknowledgement and shuffled out of bed, handing her his unfinished glass and hurrying downstairs despite not being more appropriately dressed for company.

Xion held the wine for a few minutes, trying to see if this would be a long visit or not.

Sounds of talking could be heard down in the parlor but she didn't try to eavesdrop.

He didn't come back up for nearly an hour and by then he had forgotten about his drink. Xion had left it at the table outside, where she was sitting at that point, trying to watch the stars while her retainers stood by. The sky always seemed clear here, no more than a few fluffy clouds at a time.

"The view is better from the crow's nest."

She hadn't been on guard and she jolted when she heard Kishi’s voice.

"...the what?"

He motioned up to the third floor, pointing straight up as he said, "It's the room at the top of the staircase. There's a telescope up there."

"...is that what you meant when you said observatory?"

"Yeah, observatory, crow's nest, same thing. ...so you're still alive."

"Apparently. I have no idea if it went well or not, though," she admitted.

"If you're alive, it went well."

"...then I guess I did well."

"Did you guys talk?" he asked. Kishi seemed wary, more than curious.

"He...asked me some questions, but we didn't really discuss anything."

"What kind of questions?"

"What I thought of the city. What I thought of you and Ansem. How I'd feel if he had me married to Riku instead."

"...you told the truth every time?" he asked.

"I heard you say he hated liars. He didn't like what I thought of Ansem."

"Because you lied to him?"

"No, because I didn't have anything good to say about him," Xion admitted.

"Oh, that kind of thing doesn't bother my father."

"...that wasn't the impression I got, though I suppose he is hard to read."

"Let me guess, he gave you a chance to take it back?"

"...yes, he did."

Kishi tsked and grumbled, "Classic trap. Makes you doubt what you said, to see if you actually stand by it."

"... that's clever."

"It's annoying and manipulative."

"Does he do that often?" she asked.

"Yes." Kishi huffed a bit and then went to the closet for a second. He came back with some fabric draped over his arm. "Here."

It was a periwinkle-colored silk pajama set, with loose pants, a long-sleeved shirt and slippers.

Xion took the clothes gingerly. All the clothing here was light and floaty.

"It's soft," was what she ended up commenting on.

"Consider it a reward."

That made her a little more guarded and she asked, "For what?"

"For not talking back to me for a whole day."

"Day's not over yet, not that I have plans to be a problem."

"Then if you misbehave between now and bed, I'll just take them away and you'll have to sleep naked," he cautioned but there was maybe a hint of playfulness if she squinted.

"If you say that to any future other wives it might encourage them to misbehave. Fair warning."

"It has worked on a couple of my consorts in the past," he mused, "but I know that's not a risk I have to worry about with you."

"It's good to know I have at least a little of your trust," she said sincerely.

"Not trust. It's not hard to deduce that you don't want to sleep with me contract or no. Being naked in front of openly judging eyes after my brother? It's a safe threat." He started heading to the hallway and Xion didn’t try to stop him. His words froze her blood in its tracks. She'd been far too quick to get comfortable.

"Goofy, come on, last potty break," he said from the bedroom door. The wolf wagged his tail and happily bounced to his feet to trot after Kishi.

"I don't want to see them when I get back," he said, motioning to her retainers, "The rest of my evening is studying, and I don't like the way he looks at me."

Xion finally went back in when he said that to dismiss Sora and Vanitas. She just went to the wives' room after, the stars seemed too far away to be much more comfort tonight.

Chapter Text

Xion was up with the sun the next day, moving quietly to exercise on the balcony where it was warmer. Kishi was not up with the sun this time. He was still sleeping comfortably with his hair down and the blankets pulled up to his chest. He made soft sounds with each breath but it wasn't quite enough to mask her sounds from Goofy.

The wolf watched her go with his head on his paws until she opened the first part of the wall to go outside to the balcony and then he was jumping down and padding after her to investigate. The air itself was still very cool from the winter night but the sunlight on the stone was already a pleasant warm and the wolf appreciated the nip of the air more than warm on his paws. He made a soft crying sound, just a faint, low whimper at the back of his throat.

Xion gave him a few firm scritches under his chin before starting pushups.

The whimper got a little more insistent.                                                                        

She stopped before looking at him again. Goofy was nothing like Pluto, but she still defaulted to the same command she'd used with her childhood dog.

"Show me."

The whimpers escalated to soft woofs but he didn't move.

"What's wrong?" She started scratching his ears again. He huffed and shuffled impatiently but gave up and started sniffing around the balcony instead.

Xion resumed her workout until Goofy found a spot and promptly bent his knees to pee on the balcony.

"Fenris, no!" Xion scolded, "Why didn't you just go to the door? I at least would have understood that."

Startled, the wolf stopped peeing but whimpered. With Kishi still sleeping, none of the house staff were in the house yet.

"Good boy. Come on." Xion lead the way back through the bedroom and downstairs before looking for a leash of some sort.

Now that Goofy knew they were going out to pee, he went straight to the front door and started lightly scratching at it. There was no sort of leash to be found. Xion settled for keeping a grip on the wolf's collar.

The moment the door was open he was physically dragging her over to the grass. The yard wrapped around the house and under the balcony as part of the veranda.

She did her best to keep her feet as Goofy dragged her around. She tripped several times. He didn't like it very much so it was taking him an extra long time to do his business with periodic rapid changes of direction as he paced, crouched, changed his mind, and then looked for another spot.

"If I can't get you back inside, I'm staying out here with you for my workout." Xion finally let the overgrown pup go and found a clean patch of grass to do her workout.

He felt better about that. It was obvious he had a preference for a specific corner of the yard, and he happily did his business. Even after dumping half a gallon of urine in Kishi's bedroom, the wolf had a lot left in the tank, and he even took a dump too but was extra shy about that and wouldn't go until Xion turned around.

Once he was done, he shook himself out, stretched, and played bowed a few feet away from Xion, tail wagging.

"I don't have anything to play with right now," she huffed through one-handed push-ups, "and you're a little too big to wrestle with directly."

When he realized, she wasn't going to play he started trotting off down the road to find someone else to play with.

"Hey wait, come back!" Xion stood up and jumped into a half-crouched position with her knees and elbows bent.

He looked over at her and went into a play bow again briefly before running a lap around the yard. He kept a solid eight feet away from her at all times.

Well, endurance training was training too. She jogged after him. If he got too close to the edge of the yard, she stopped and backed up. "We gotta stay here, boy."

He would trot in close and then zoom by her, playing keep away until he stopped and looked up for a second in alert mode before booking it down the stone path and across the yard to the house next to Kishi’s opposite the road.

"Halt! Stop!" Xion couldn't catch the canine, but she could try.

The wolf kept running, slowing down as he rounded a corner to trot onto another veranda. This home wasn't quite opposite Kishi's and from the outside was significantly larger and more elegant, with a traditional feel rather than the modern architecture of Kishi’s house. There were statues and markings on the stone around the yard that were clearly magical in nature but were also decorative.

Goofy paid them no mind and instead went up to the outdoor table and started eating the unsupervised breakfast left there. It smelled strongly of warm bacon and sausage.

"Fenris, no. Stop." Xion grabbed his collar when she caught up. "Bad dog." Not that he was particularly fazed. He chewed faster.

"Bad dog!" She pushed the tray away from him and gave a big yank on his collar.

That was when it became clear the food was no longer unattended. A man stood in the sliding door holding a mug of something warm and wearing a long coat that was unzipped. He wasn't wearing a shirt underneath but was (fortunately) wearing dark pants and slippers. He had long silver hair, messier than Ansem's slicked back style, but equally long. They had the same darker skin tone and bright gold eyes too. The amused expression featuring a sly smirk was the same as well.

Xion turned slowly, still trying to keep hold of the struggling canine.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean for him to get away..." This guy looked like Ansem and it made her uncomfortable.

"Fenris," he crooned, "go home." The wolf immediately spun and booked it the way he came without so much as wuff or protest or even a pant, twisting so fast he broke her grip in the process. Xion had a very firm grip and having it broken meant she fell over in the process.

"I'm sorry, I'll see if I can get someone to bring you more breakfast. You are...?" Please don't be important, please don't be important, please don't be important, she prayed silently.

"Far enough above you where addressing me directly is grounds to order your execution," he said simply. He stepped out onto the veranda and took a seat to sip his drink and watch her get back up in comfort.

Xion immediately dropped her eyes. She didn't stand to her full height. This had to be one of the princes then. The similarities should have clued her in.

"My apologies, Your Highness. I do not know how to correct my mistake."

He took a long sip, letting her stew in her discomfort, and stew she did. It was a whole lot colder over here for multiple reasons. At this time of day and year, this veranda was in the shade, the sun had yet to warm it, and the Winter season was a whole lot more obvious. Plus, the company was terrifyingly cold too.

"Sit," he finally ordered, motioning to the seat across from him and she did so cautiously.

"Are you a new servant?" he asked and flagged down a housekeeper, requesting breakfast for himself and for her.

"...no, I am—" A soldier, a Lieutenant Colonel, a foreigner "—I'm to be the wife of a Prince."

And that was all, now. He nodded like suddenly it all made sense.

"To the weak-willed coward, yes? Kishi."

"That is correct, as far as I am aware," she answered.

"Then you agree he is weak-willed and a coward?"

"Not from what I've seen of him thus far."

A servant brought two plates after a couple agonizing minutes. Both were full of sausage, eggs, warm bread spread with melty cheese, and crisp bacon.

"What have you seen of him thus far?" he asked.

"I have known him less than a week. He has had both good and bad moments." Her definition of good and bad probably didn't line up with his.

"You talk like a diplomat. Formalities are for public engagements. There's no need for such nonsense here. Has he scolded you? Forced himself on you? Does he sleep on the floor and let you have his bed? Maybe he draws your baths for you?"

"He has scolded me, but none of the rest."

"Then what has he done, or not done, that you aren't telling me?" the Prince asked.

He was surprisingly devoid of emotion as he talked. Each word was measured and slow and coming from such a deep and smooth voice was borderline hypnotic if not for the discomfort of the situation. Of all the brothers she had met so far, he was easily the most like Emperor Xehanort.

"...he has made a few threats, but he also requested comfort food when I was stressed. He gave me a warning about what marriage would look like with Ansem, but he rewards me like a dog to be trained. I do not know what to think of him yet."

"You believe your opinion of him will matter?" Another long sip and he began to pick at his food.

"It matters to me. I cannot risk my people by avoiding marriage, but I can do my best to find a bit of happiness in it," Xion told him.

"And what if you can't find happiness being his brood?" The phrasing made the back of her neck prickle.

"That will be my problem. I will not fight it."

"Your food is getting cold."

"... I wasn't aware I was supposed to be eating."

"You thought I was going to eat two plates of food myself? Including the one that was placed in front of you?" he asked with the same emotionless tone.

"... perhaps not my best judgement call." Xion hesitantly went for the bacon.

"You're from Terminus correct? Would you like to go back?"

"I would like to, but not at the risk of my people."

"If you do something for me, I will guarantee your contract is fulfilled and return you to your people safely."

"Much of that would depend on your request."

He took another long sip before saying, "I want you to kill Kishi while he sleeps."

"I already told your father I would not be a danger to him. I can't."

"Because of your word?"

"That, and if I were to kill, I would rather have a fair fight. It would be a coward's choice to take advantage of someone like that. And Kishi has not yet done anything, in my eyes, to be killed over."

"A coward's choice? To be resourceful, measured, and strategic? And per your own admittance you know very little of him at all, whereas I have known him his entire life. You are willing to gamble on your limited knowledge over my own?" Not once did his voice vary in tone or volume.

"There are other ways to be strategic. I will not violate my word or my morals."

"As he reveals more of himself to you, you may wish you had taken my offer." He got up, somehow having finished his food while they talked. "Eat as much as you wish, linger as long as you wish." The Prince started to head back inside, stopping before he closed the door to say, "Good luck, finding your happiness." The door closed and she could see him through the glass go upstairs and disappear from view.

Xion sat at the table for a couple of minutes before slowly getting up and walking away. She didn't start shaking until she was sure she was out of sight of any windows and there were no servants around.

That's when Kishi found her, halfway between the Crown Prince's home and his own and he looked pissed.

"What the hell are you doing out here?"

"I was trying to keep your wolf from running away." She stopped the shaking as soon as she heard him, but her hands were still tightly clenched together, and she didn't look up.

"You let him out?"

"He tried to pee on the balcony."

"He was successful," Kishi hissed, "go back to the house." He looked like he wanted to hit her. His fists were clenched too. She didn't argue.

Kishi stormed after her. He pushed past her in the hall, grabbing Roxas as he went. Aqua was standing there as well, watching things unfold. Ventus, Vanitas, and Sora were in the parlor behind her.

"Well now, I should probably contact the housekeepers about cleaning up when he's done tearing his room apart," she mused to herself.

Xion was making herself very small in the corner. Sora tried to come over but she shook her head and mouthed 'later'.

"Well, at least we found you," Aqua said, "and with good timing too. Do you want breakfast?"

"No thank you," she said quietly.

"The Doctor will be here in about an hour. You and both of your retainers need to bathe before he gets here."

"The Doctor...? For what?" she asked.

"Physical exams."

Xion and her retainers had undergone exams like that for their time in the military. So long as the doctor was professional, and she suspected he would be, she didn't have a problem with it.

"We'll be clean."

"Good, your retainers should know how to fill the bath." She went back into the parlor to sit down and keep reading reports in the meantime. Xion nodded again before heading upstairs, with her retainers following her.

"We can talk later. I need some time to think. Just...get a bath ready." The boys got to work in the wives' bathroom.

It was an hour later when the doctor arrived and Aqua sent for the three of them. They were set up in the library this time as Kishi had angrily trashed his room and then left for classes.

Xion still hadn't talked to Sora and Vanitas, but she didn't look like the mess she had before. She was set on not thinking much at all until this whole thing was over.

The doctor was an older man with hair the color of sun-bleach straw, it might have blonde at some point but now it was pushing cream. It was long, parted down the middle and made his face seem even longer and his sharp jaw even sharper. His eyes were green and trapped in a state of perpetual boredom that didn't quite match the impatience in the cadence of his voice. He started with Xion, asking her to strip. Xion stripped down to her undergarments without complaint and Aqua sat nearby to observe, assist, and take notes.

"All of it, Miss," he corrected, once again impatient.

Ah. So it was going to be one of those exams. She was a little more reluctant to remove those, but she complied.

He moved from the top down, starting with her ears, eyes, and throat and he asked her questions as they went.

"Does your family have any history of medical problems?"

"No. We either die on the battlefield or live to be very old."

The questions were all impersonal and only stopped when he was listening to her heart and lungs, then promptly resumed as he checked her spine. He asked about her exercise routine, military service, extracurricular activities that involved physical strain, and a lot of questions about her sex life. He checked her for lumps, bruises, and disease, and took extra care to be sure nothing could be passed to the Prince before he let her put her underwear back on and had her lightly lift weights while he asked about each scar so Aqua could catalog them.

Xion answered all the questions clinically but put her undergarments on as soon as she was allowed. She had many small nicks that weren't worth mentioning, so she focused on the big three.

"This one here—" she said touching the right side of her chest. The scar was white and stretched from near the breast up over the shoulder. "—came from a talwar and broke my collarbone. Ogre. This one—"She touched the large blotchy scar on her right calf, on the outside. "—is from a club that took too much skin. It wasn't a bad injury. Also from an ogre. And this—" she pointed to the round main scar on her left hip, though red lines streaked away following the path of blood vessels underneath. "—is a manticore sting."

"We'll want to heal those before the wedding," Aqua mumbled, making a note, "the manticore sting might not be erasable..." There was a knock on the door and Naminé entered.

"I'm so sorry I'm late," she said, coming in and settling down next to Aqua.

"... do they have to be healed? Can't the dress cover them?" Xion waved when Naminé entered but the other woman didn’t seem to see.

"You don't want them removed?" Aqua asked.

"No. They were important lessons."

"...we'll leave it up to the Prince." She scribbled away at her note board. "Alright Miss Naminé, you are up." She stood up and went over to Xion, gently taking her hands in hers, and closing her eyes.

"Just breathe normally."

Xion had been breathing normally, but now that she was focused on it, she was taking deeper, longer breaths.

Naminé smiled reassuringly and then reported, "No magic." Aqua scribbled it down and the magician let her go to sit back down.

"Alright, I think you're done for now," she said as she turned the page, "do you want to be here when we review your retainers?"

Xion nodded. She was sure they'd pass any physical exam, but she wanted to be there for the magic one in case they had to take it.

"Okay, go ahead and take a seat then." Aqua stuck her head out into the hallway and called for Sora next, asking him to strip down completely to be examined. Sora stripped quickly, not wasting time.

The Doctor (Dr. Vexen) ran through the same procedure as he had with Xion, taking note of his status as a eunuch and cataloging scars again. So far he had a clean bill of health and Vexen gave him a high score, but Aqua took a few extra notes. Namine got up and gently took both of his hands asking him to breathe normally.

"No potential for magic," she reported, smiling.

"Didn't think so," Sora said cheerily while Xion breathed a sigh of relief.

Aqua called Vanitas in next, instructing him to strip while Sora got dressed.

Vanitas had far more scars than Sora, and he was physically much stronger. Vexen spent extra time with him, even having him do a couple stretches and lift a couple of assorted heavy things to watch his joints move. He made a note of some abnormal wear in his elbows and knees for his age but with Van's military record and the extent of his injuries he didn't believe it to be of sizable concern. However, he did give Aqua a lower number than he gave Sora and they discussed it briefly. What initially seemed like a score or a grade was more apparent now as an age. Sora's range was 65-75 but Van's was 50-55. Aqua recorded accordingly.

"Okay, Naminé." The magician got up and held her hands out for his.

"Take my hands please, I'm going to check you for your potential for magic."

Vanitas did as instructed, mentally trying to suppress what magic he had. Xion was keeping a close watch. Naminé took an extra-long time with him, enough where Aqua was starting to get suspicious.

"Please, breathe normally," Naminé instructed, squeezing his hands reassuringly. She winked at him briefly with her eye facing away from Aqua and the doctor and then let him go.

"No potential for magic," she reported. Aqua took her notes, told Van he could get dressed, and then thanked the doctor for the short notice. She walked him out when he gathered his things and excused herself, leaving Xion, the twins, and Naminé alone in the parlor.

"...you know," Vanitas said after a few moments of silence.

She smiled and said, "Of course I do."

"Why lie for a stranger?" Vanitas was visibly confused.

"I'm fae, I'm not capable of lying." That turned all three heads.

"...thank you," Xion said.

"But I was not overly truthful either. If Aqua finds out, you will likely be taken to the school or killed," she cautioned.

"I can only use it at My Lady's request, or to keep her safe. I don't consider it an issue."

"Keeping your lady safe is very broad. What happens if the young Prince comes down here to punish her for disobeying his order to stay in the house? What if that punishment includes serious physical correction? Would you stay your hand?" Naminé asked.

"I can use other methods. Magic is a last resort."

"Don't misunderstand, I am not advocating resisting the will of the master of this home, but I caution you. Magic, especially that from dragons, is valuable and the Emperor will not allow you to continue in your station if he knows of that value."

"I will keep it hidden," Vanitas vowed.

Naminé smiled once more and then excused herself. "Please give my regards to his Highness."

"Of course," Xion answered and Naminé left.

Sora wrapped Vanitas in a hug. Xion imagined he'd been scared the whole time Naminé was there.

"Aw, am I missing out on post-doc cuddle party?" Roxas asked blandly from the door. Vanitas shoved Sora off when he heard that.

"What do the ages mean?"

"No cuddle for me first?" Roxas taunted.

Sora shrugged and went to hug Roxas. It was clearly unexpected judging by the look on the guy's face and the awkwardness of how he returned the hug.

"Ages, right. It's the age you'd be expected to have to retire. It's how they decide if you're worth the long-term investment."

"We don't get to retire," Vanitas said.

"Oh right, you have to have everything spelled out for you. That's their estimate for when you die, y'know, slave retirement."

"We still don't get to retire," Sora said, "Our spirits are tied to hers, we don't get to move on until she does."

"...well that's ominous. You guys gave us shit and acted all pitiful to us when you got here, and we have more freedom than you guys do."

"We chose this though," Vanitas said defensively.

"Stand down, Van, I really don't want to deal with more fighting right now." Vanitas growled but he turned away.

"Afraid I'll kick his ass?"

"No. I'm just not in the mood," she said, heading upstairs.

"I would kick your ass though," Roxas told him quietly and then left to get back to work. Vanitas flipped the bird to his back.

Goofy saw her from the bed and trotted over to investigate. There was a young woman in the room cleaning the urine off the balcony. It was mostly clean, she was touching up and sanitizing it to help with the smell.

Xion passed straight to the wives' room and started gathering the blankets from the other beds.

The door to the house slammed closed and there were some muffled footsteps before Kishi came upstairs. He was wearing the same coat uniform that everyone seemed to have except he was wearing his diadem crown right now and his hair looked nicer, like he brushed it today.

"Get out here," he ordered, standing in the middle of his room facing the door.

Xion sighed and put the blankets down before heading out. She still wasn't looking at him. Really, she needed some time alone to process and cry, but she didn't want to make anything worse right now.

"This morning. What. Happened?"

"...I went to the balcony to get some exercise, and Goofy started to pee. So I got him to stop and took him outside. And he got away from me, so I chased him. He got into your brother's breakfast."

"Why was he here when I woke up and you weren't?"

"Your brother sent him back and made me stay and talk to him."

"Which brother?"

"He didn't say. He looks like Ansem, though."

"Xemnas." Kishi sighed and sat down on his bed. "Damn, the opportunist."

"...he asked me to kill you."

"Yeah, that tracks."

She chose to keep his offer to herself.

"I told him I couldn't and he told me I could leave. Then you found me."

He rubbed his face "I have to punish you for disobeying me."

"Should I have let your wolf get away?" She wasn't emoting much at all, and she wasn't standing as straight as normal.

"No, you should've woken me up and let me take him out." He didn't seem all that mad anymore either. "I don't think what you did deserves that serious of a punishment, but my family already has me under the microscope, if I let it go, they're going to use it to keep saying I'm soft."

"Go ahead then."

He looked up at her in surprise and confusion and maybe a little bit of terror. His eye darted about too between her, Sora, and Van.

"They won't do anything," she said finally moving to give them a pointed look, "Sora, Vanitas, go downstairs." Sora was crestfallen while Vanitas had bloodlust in his eyes, but the brothers both went below. He stood in front of her, still thinking.

"No dinner tonight," he finally said quietly and then he went downstairs too.

That... didn't seem like a big deal. She'd been expecting something much worse, even if he'd said it wouldn't be a serious punishment. She went back to the wives' room and resumed making the blanket fort. Really, it was childish, and she'd fix the beds when she was done, but she used to make these with her father, after both her brothers had left and she needed something comforting right now.

Kishi didn't come back until very late, and no one bothered her.

Chapter Text

Xion woke up in bed, which was not where she fell asleep. Sora or Vanitas must have removed her from the fort, which was missing a few blankets and pillows now. They weren't here for the day yet. Xion went out to the balcony, doing her best to be quiet in the Prince's room even if there wasn’t anyone there, not even Goofy.

Xion stepped out into the soft fall. It wasn't raining. It was lightly, lightly snowing flakes small enough to be mistaken for stars if the sky was darker. It wasn't unlike the first snow at home, the one that called children to Twilight Town and the castle.

She remembered the year she went. She'd been on the younger end, having just turned ten a month prior. It was the first time she'd been hungry, or less than comfortable. Xion’s father had just died. It was one of the smallest classes ever but she remembered looking out the window, seeing snow like this, just like this, and running to her grandfather's bedroom to tell him the good news. It was one of the few times she'd seen him actually smile. She'd gotten in trouble, of course, for disturbing him, but for a few minutes, she was told how proud he was to see her grow into a soldier.

What would he think of her now?

Kishi opened the door to his bedroom. He was carrying a full plate of some sort of cake covered in berries, bananas, and a sweet sauce. He had an apple in his mouth. He paused a second when he saw her and then went outside, bringing the plate to her. He stood next to Xion, facing the same way, and offered the plate without looking at her.

Xion was on the edge of tears but forced that back when he arrived. She was still in her pajamas.

"...thanks," she said quietly. Her voice was almost hoarse but was steady enough to be excusable as having just woken up. She took the plate.

"Your people should be here soon," he told her and then turned to go back inside. The balcony was closed off for now, until it warmed up. Xion stayed out. The snow was cold, but it was by no means uncomfortable. It was a little part of home.

She took the plate over to the table. Some of the berries she recognized, some she didn't. Whatever the long pale things were, the texture was so strange. She wasn't sure if she liked them but she hadn't eaten the night before. Honestly, the cake was good, really good. It was on par with the dessert she'd had with the Emperor in terms of sweetness. Xion actually finished off the cake. It was the first meal here she hadn't had leftovers from.

Xion could hear the sound of Kishi practicing the violin through the cracked window downstairs. She listened as the snow melted on her skin. It was calming, soothing, easy to lose herself in; to not have to think about where she was for a few minutes. He was pretty damn good too. His mistakes were only noticeable because he would stop and correct them or start over entirely.

The music stopped as Kishi greeted the house staff for the day around the same time the sun started to break through the clouds. There was some soft chatting from downstairs but it was hard to make out the voices and then a minute later Sora and Vanitas were out on the balcony with her.

"... you're okay," Vanitas stated from the doorway, but it was a question too. She nodded.

Sora opened his arms for a hug. Xion sniffed a couple of times before getting up and barreling into him.

He held her tightly and whispered, "It's going to be fine."

"How can it?" Xion asked softly.

"Just give it time... at least most of the people here seem nice..."

"Yes, Aqua and—" She almost said Naminé, but she wasn't sure since finding out she was a Fae.

"Ven is really nice too."

"Do you think they'll stay that way?" She had thought perhaps Kishi was kind but he wasn't 100% one way or the other.

Sora didn't have a good answer. He was worried about her lack of hope.

"Of course they will."

"...I don't know." She was pretty slack in his arms. The snow that didn't melt immediately stood out starkly against her hair.

"Where's the soldier I know?"

"Far away from her station."

"Behind enemy lines," Sora agreed, "but this is when you have to be the strongest."

"...Sora, there's no hope of going home." His grip on her tightened.

"I know, but that doesn't mean we stop being strong."

"I don't know if I can right now. All I have is you and your brother."

"Are we not enough...?"

"Will you be able to stay?" she asked.

"...I don't know. I heard some of the others talking about how Aqua requested our contracts, but nothing is decided yet."

"... you're enough while I have you."

He just held her then, standing awkwardly just inside Kishi's bedroom. It was slow, when the tears came. They were hot, compared to the cold snowy air.

"Come on, let's get you inside."

Xion nodded slowly. As nice as the snow was, it wasn't worth it to get sick. Vanitas got the door for them. Sora gently led her inside and to her little bedroom.

The blanket fort, though a little droopy, was still up between her bed and the next one. He guided her to there and crawled in first. There really wasn't enough room for three adults but they squeezed in. Sora and Vanitas had been there when she'd made one last so they knew what to expect.

"Three peas in a pod," he said cheerfully.

"Dumbass," Vanitas insulted affectionately.

"Just like your face."

"We share a face."

"...oh yeah," he laughed.

Vanitas socked his shoulder lightly and Xion grinned.

"Well, that's how I know you look like a dumbass," Sora followed up.

"Ooh, is little Sor swearing?" Vanitas asked rhetorically.

"Wh-What? No, that one isn't..." he hid his face, blushing profusely.

"I dunno, Xion, it has ass in it. Isn't that a bad word?" Condescension dripped from his voice like molasses.

"Sorry, Sora," Xion said, voice a little clearer. Sora made a surprised peeping sound and grew increasingly flustered. Xion finally smiled, even if it wasn't much. Maybe, at least until the wedding, she'd be alright.

"Let's stay here today," Sora suggested.

"I don't think we have the choice to go anywhere else," Xion said.

"You heard her Vani, we're staying in the blanket fort all day."

"Yeah, whatever, still better than seeing the blonde bitchboy." It was Xion's turn to hit someone. Someone was Vanitas.

Sora protested too, "I like Roxas!"

"He's an ass! Almost as big of one as me!"

"No one is as big at that as you are."

"What about Elrena?" Xion suggested.

"You're still worse."

"No way. She's such a bitch!" Vanitas argued.

"Just like you!" Sora teased.

"Oh yeah?!" Vanitas grabbed Sora in a headlock before messing up his hair. Xion laughed. Not loud, not hard, but it was there.

"Vaaaaannniiiii!" Sora whined around giggles, "you're proving my point!"

Once his hair was thoroughly out of place, he let Sora go.

"Bite me."

"Xiiioooooon, Vani's being mean again!"

"Move over," Xion asked, crawling between them. Sora hugged her instead. She jolted a little before relaxing.

"...thanks, Sora."

"We might have to take bathroom breaks though."

She nodded and added, "And snack breaks."

"Well, yeah."

"Sweets."

"Please eat something other than sweets," Vanitas insisted.

"Not today."

"Can we get you a bath?"

"Maybe later. It's still early." Xion preferred to bathe in the evenings so she could warm up before bed.

"Can Vani take one? He stinks."

"I do not!"

"I think you do!" Sora teased.

"We all took baths yesterday, if I stink you do too!"

"You always stink more than me!"

"You just have a sensitive nose," accused Vanitas. Xion was slowly leaning more into Sora's hug.

"You tell him, Xion!"

"I think you both stink," she admitted.

"You do a little bit too, Xion," Sora insisted.

"I want the bath later. And I blame the warm weather."

"Maybe we're just smelling like them."

"I miss the smell of pine trees and the forge."

"The servant's house is by the stables so we might still smell like horses," Sora guessed as he smelled his shirt.

"But not gryphons," Vanitas huffed. They rarely rode horses back home.

"How do you think Donald's doing?" Xion asked.

It took Sora a second to respond as he found the right words, "You know Isa is taking care of him."

"...yeah, he is. But do you think Isa's okay?"

"Of course he is. Your brothers are strong," Vanitas said.

"You should write them soon," Sora suggested.

"...yeah, I should. Maybe tomorrow."

"If we brought you stuff, it might make you feel better."

"Stuff like what? My stress relief is kinda hard to move."

"Stuff to write home."

"You mean parchment and stationary stuff, okay… and I said maybe tomorrow."

"Yeah, I just... thought..." Sora trailed off when it was clear she wasn't interested.

"I need time to think of a code Isa will catch that Aqua won't," Xion whispered.

"Oh, gotcha."

"...how far away do you think we actually are from home?" she asked.

"We could probably ask for a map."

"...I bet there's one in the library." He nodded.

"I'll go look," Vanitas said, getting up and leaving the fort. Xion settled a little more heavily into Sora.

"How are the staff quarters here?" she asked him.

"They have a huge bathtub that they all share. They get their own rooms too."

"They're not giving you a hard time, are they?"

"Not at all, Ven is great and Aqua is really cool and organized."

"Is Vanitas giving them a hard time?"

"Everyone except Aqua and the big guy, Terra, I think his name is. Roxas pushes his buttons so much he doesn't have time for anyone else," Sora reported.

She sighed. Vanitas was often a handful and she had to put more work into keeping him in line than anything else.

"You guys talking about me?" Van asked as he slid back into the fort.

"We always have to talk about you."

"Backstabber," Vanitas said with no bite.

"Vaaaaannniiii," he whined and flopped across both of their laps. Xion went on the attack, tickling his ribs. He collapsed under the assault, laughing until he couldn't breathe.

The trio spent the rest of the day in relative peace. Xion did not leave the fort once, and by the time she was falling asleep, she was feeling that much better about being here in Daybreak.

 

The next week passed in much the same way. The House gave her space, even when she was out of her room. She was kept well-fed, and the rest of her wardrobe showed up and was put away too. The only thing that seemed a little odd was the much heavier snow that tried to sneak in at the end of February. The clouds were keeping the sunlight from heating the stone so it was colder than usual and almost everyone from Scala was bundled under several layers or staying buried in bed.

Xion was spending more and more time out on the balcony. The cold was familiar and welcome. She was wearing warmer clothes, but nowhere near the number of layers the native people wore. Vanitas and Sora were in the same boat.

She was reading the etiquette book again on the balcony, by the little table. Goofy was loving it too. He was sitting next to her catching snowflakes with big snaps of his jaw.

"They're just going to melt on your tongue," she said to the wolf. He kept trying anyway.

Xion had made it a personal project to teach the wolf some things. She saved a bite or two from each meal, but Goofy only got it if he was careful and patient. If he tried to snap it up, she'd take it away.

"Dumb mutt. I bet you'd rather be out running in this cold. Me too, you know. I'm gonna go stir-crazy staying here all the time."

He yawned and then started panting, stopping only to snap at particularly large clumps of snow. His wagging tail kept smacking Van's boots. Vanitas got up to sit on the railing instead when he had enough.

"We could sneak out," he offered.

"I don't want to cause problems." At least not yet.

"It's a been a week and you haven't left once, that's got to have earned some good will," Sora agreed with Van. Goofy huffed his agreement too.

"... I'm not sure I want to ask him," she admitted, "Not sure I want a repeat of the pajama thing."

"...so don't ask," Sora suggested.

"Then I'll be making trouble. Is he even here right now?"

"Nope, he left for the school early this morning."

Xion bit her lip. Sneaking out was tempting. Really, really tempting. But the idea of being caught wasn't. She didn't need to give Kishi a reason to dislike her right now and she didn't want to make him angry again. Last time, she'd at least had good intentions. She didn't want to know what that anger would be like if she'd disobeyed like that on purpose. She wondered, not for the first time this week, how she could play the long game with Kishi to get more freedom.

"We can be out and back in like, an hour," prodded Sora.

"What time does school let out?"

"Um, I'm not sure. He doesn't go to classes with the other students."

"I don't want to risk him coming back while we're away. I'll wait to come back and ask him, if he says no, he says no. I can try again later."

Goofy whined and moved to rest his giant head in her lap, looking up at her with begging eyes. She scratched his ears.

"You don't need to pee again, do you?" His tail wagged harder when she said 'pee'.

"Vanitas, take him outside. I'll watch from here."

"Sora, come help. He's too big to handle alone." Vanitas got up and started heading down.

It only took them a minute to get the wolf to the yard and then she could see him trotting around with his nose to the ground looking for a good spot.

"Goofy! Be good!" Xion called from the balcony. That was the call she used in place of Behave.

He looked up at her but didn't stop pacing. His ears relaxed as he sniffed until he finally found a spot and crouched to do his business, no longer looking at any of them.

Xion grabbed a cold sausage from breakfast and went down to the doorway in case Sora and Vanitas needed help getting him back inside. Which, they did. Goofy was playing keep away now, running laps around them.

"Goofy!" she yelled, waving the sausage, "Treat!"

He stopped. The T-word was his favorite. After only a second of thinking, Goofy ran up to her and skidded into a sit, tail swishing back and forth. Xion backed up through the door.

"Be good," she said before holding the treat up. He'd have to come inside to get it. Vanitas stood behind the dog, ready to block the door so he wouldn't go back outside.

Goofy lunged for the treat and she had to snap the hand back. "No. Be good." Vanitas got in and closed the door. The wolf tried sitting again, sniffing at her hand. She gave him the treat and started scratching with both hands now that they were safely back inside.

"Good boy! Good job! Who's a good boy?"

His big tail thunked on the wall, smacking Vanitas in the process. He growled and let Sora inside.

"You wanna go back up to the balcony? Out in the snow?" Xion asked. He huffed happily and started pushing past her to head that way. Xion followed him up, resuming her seat and her place in the book before putting the book back down.

"You're pretty far from home too, huh. I bet you miss it. The cold and snow and other wolves."

He paced a second and then settled down next to her with his head on her lap.

"Me too." She gave him all the scratches he wanted and waited for Kishi to get back.

Roxas got back before Kishi did. He was getting dinner set up and making noise downstairs as he did so.

Xion wandered down when she heard him.

"When's he getting back?" she asked.

"Any minute. I just came ahead to get dinner set up. Are you eating down here or up there?"

"Down here."

"After the Prince or with the Prince?" Roxas asked for clarification.

"With, if he doesn't mind."

"I'll set another place for you."

"Thanks, Roxas." Xion went to put the etiquette book away. He got everything squared away and then got the food on the table. That was about when the front door opened and an exhausted Kishi got home.

Xion waited by the table.

"Welcome back," she greeted.

He was wearing a bunch of heavy clothes and looked unhappy, but it turned into suspicion quickly enough.

"...what do you want?" he asked, assuming her friendliness was in search of figurative 'brownie points.'

"To eat. And to get out a little."

He grunted and started taking his coat off. His shirt underneath was bloody, and he was favoring his left arm.

Well, that was alarming.

"...are you okay?" she asked.

"Training gets rough," he explained simply. He checked the food to see if it needed to be eaten warm or not. It wouldn’t keep through a bath.

"Rox, will you get the med kit from the bathroom please." Roxas was already heading that direction. "Soup was a good choice. Did you pick it or was that the Chef's call?"

"It wasn't mine, but I would have requested something similar." Typically, at the end of winter, she was used to having goat stew but, apparently, they didn't do goat here.

"You can get started," he ordered and went to the other side of the table to work his jacket and shirt off. Xion sat down and prayed but waited for him to eat.

There was a long scratch on his arm, just under his right shoulder. He took the kit from Roxas and covered it with a clean rag that Roxas helped tie in place. Then he put his coat back on. The shirt was too gross to be worn for now, but Kishi didn't want to eat half naked either. He sat down and Roxas helped him get food since he was down an arm.

"What kind of training leaves you with a wound like that?" she asked in mild distaste. The animosity wasn't aimed at him.

"Sword... training?" he answered like it was a trick question and he was concerned he was falling for some sort of joke.

"Why are you using actual weapons?"

"Why wouldn't we? I don't want to build expectations or habits with a fake sword just to realize my sword feels different."

"You use real weapons to train on your own. With sparring, a training weapon means if you get hit you can keep going," she explained.

"We keep going when we're hit with real weapons too."

"That builds bad habits and decreases your ability to train effectively."

He frowned and said, "It simulates a real-world scenario. If I'm slow enough to get hit, then I should know how to fight effectively through pain."

"You aren't learning to not get hit then."

"Oh, trust me, I'm definitely learning how to not get hit. This is one lucky shot that he got in two hours of fighting."

She sighed and stopped. This was a different place, and maybe she shouldn't be advising the prince on training.

"Sorry, I guess it's not my place to say here."

"Getting hurt is a big deal for... lesser people," he said, trying to find the right words, "after my bath, this will be healed and won't even scar." Xion clenched her hands under the table at the term.

"You must have an amazing healing magic, then."

"Yep."

"Lucky you. Though it's a little sad that you don't scar," she said.

"Scars are shameful."

"They're a source of pride."

"They're proof of weakness."

"They're proof you survived. They're lessons you learned. Clean skin is proof that you haven't learned to take risks. I know that's not the case with you, but it is for most people," Xion insisted. He glared at her a bit, wanting to argue but he was too tired so he focused on his food instead, choosing to ignore her.

She broke the eye contact when he glared and said, "Sorry. Things are different here."

He didn't say anything, just kept eating. It was harder left-handed, but he managed. She was quiet after that. She'd ask him about going out later.

"I'm going to be up late studying for an exam. Please be in your room before I go to bed," he ordered.

"I will be. Um, I had a request."

"You're going to sit there and critique my way of life, your new way of life, and then have the nerve to ask me for something?"

"... nevermind." So much for that. Sneaking out sounded better and better but, it still wasn't worth the risk.

"No, no. You started this. Finish it. Tell me."

"I need to get out of here sometime. It doesn't have to be now, and I don't care if it's just to the garden or something. I just need a change in scenery," Xion told him.

"You need it?"

"The same way Goofy needs to go outside to the bathroom. Keeping him inside makes everyone miserable."

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly before relenting with a grumbled, "Fine. You can leave the House but stay on the estate property."

"Thank you," she said, inclining her head.

"And never after dark."

"I'll always be back before dinner."

"And if I order you back, you come back immediately."

"I understand."

"If Aqua orders you back you come back immediately."

"I will."

"You are the bottom of the food chain here," he reminded her, "don't do anything that would put me in a position to have to punish you."

"... I'll wait to go out until I've finished reading the etiquette guide and I will be on my best behavior."

"You're going to be fucking careful. If my brother catches you wandering around he could..." Kishi was getting angry. It was apparent in his voice, "and take Goofy with you whenever you go out."

"I will, and if I see your brothers coming, I will find a place to hide."

He looked very unsure still.

"...and not everyday."

"I would have been happy with once a week."

"Once a week then."

She nodded. It would give her something to look forward to each week and possibly a way to learn the castle better.

"Do you need someone to show you the extent of the estate? So, you don't accidentally go where you shouldn't?" Kishi asked.

"That would probably be wise."

"Take Roxas when you go.... and never leave without telling me first."

"If you're not here, can I send Sora with a message?"

"Yeah that's fine." He used the bread to mop up the last bit of soup.

"Thank you, Kishi."

He grunted and sipped his drink. Xion finished her food quietly.

"...is there a way I can make this easier for you?" she asked as they were finishing up.

"...make what easier?"

"My being here. The fact that we're going to be stuck in a marriage together for the rest of our lives."

"Uh, I don't know."

"If you do come up with something, please tell me."

"Don't be annoying?” he tried, “Don't embarrass me, I guess. I didn't exactly think this would be happening anytime soon."

"Neither did I."

"Riku was supposed to get married before me."

"Is he upset?" she asked.

"Relieved."

"He wasn't ready to get married either?"

"He didn't want you."

Xion didn't say anything in response to that. It didn't hurt much, but it did a little.

"Riku and Ansem are close. Riku might be the only one that can kind of control Ansem aside from our father. He didn't want to jeopardize that by taking you."

"...that makes sense." It never would have been a problem between Lauriam and Isa. As siblings, Xion's family was always so close. Even though Isa was away before she was born. They wrote letters that Xion dictated to her father before she could write herself. Lauriam left when she was four, and all three of them wrote. The visits back home were always enjoyed, even if the reasons for each visit weren't.

"He was relieved that he wasn't put in the same volatile situation that I am currently in."

"I can't do anything to change that bit."

"None of us can. This is my father's doing so it can't be changed."

"...you aren't close with your father, are you."

He shuffled a little bit, looking around as though expecting him to be there but he answered, "Only Xemnas is."

"There's a lot of culture shock going on."

"Yeah, sorry. You're getting a lot more than any of the other wives did."

"Are they from nearer countries?"

"No, they're locked up in their rooms and rarely allowed out."

So the shock they had is just hidden away from everyone, Xion thought.

"I really am grateful that you don't do that to me."

"Yeah well, if I take heat for it, we might both be in an early grave." He started heading to the bath.

She let him go, heading upstairs herself to get ready for bed. She wouldn't mess this up.

"Did you want a bath too?" Roxas asked as she passed.

"That would be nice, thanks."

"Get on that," he told Vanitas, “Your master wants a bath."

"Sora's already on it," Vanitas said cooly. Xion almost always had a bath in the evening when it was snowing.

"Good thing someone is here to cover for you."

"Ignore it, Vanitas," Xion said as they headed to the wives' room.

Chapter Text

It had been a couple days since Xion's request to leave the house. Kishi had been busy those days, but he was home today. It was still snowing and overcast but none of it had stuck to the ground.

Xion was always up with the sun, dedicating the hours before breakfast to staying in shape but, today she took the time to dress neatly in one of the suits provided, along with the coat. Goofy was waiting by her door, laying down facing it.

"Hello boy," she said quietly, petting between his ears, "we might be going on a walk today."

He barked loudly at that, several rapid ones that shook the house. It woke Kishi up with a start and he sat up with a bewildered expression.

"Didn't mean to startle you. I was going to ask Roxas to show me around today, apparently Goofy knows W-A-L-K," Xion explained.

"Huh?" He was still really groggy and confused.

"Goofy's just excited to be getting some exercise. Roxas is showing me around today," she repeated patiently.

He rubbed his face with both hands, shivered, and then fumbled to get a blanket around his shoulders.

"You're going out today?"

"That was the plan. I can wait a couple days if there's something going on."

"...did you already ask me about going out today?"

"No, you were already asleep when I finished the book, but like I said, you can tell me to wait."

"No, no it's fine." He flopped back down and buried himself in bedding. Xion went to the parlor to stretch lightly while she waited for Roxas to show up.

He and Ven both did after about half an hour. They had breakfast on a tray that they put on the table in the corner and Ven went to gently wake Kishi while Roxas went to see Xion.

"You sure you want me to show you around and not your guys?" he asked her.

"You know the place better, they're spending the day studying," Xion said.

"Just us huh?" He took on a little half smirk.

"And Goofy."

"Either way, I get to potentially freak out your boys, so it's a win for me."

"Could you please not? Vanitas might actually strangle you," she cautioned.

"I'd like to see him try. So, where do you want to go?"

"Why don't we start at the kitchens and get breakfast we can eat on the way?"

"Sure. I'm good to go wherever."

"Goofy! Walk!" Xion called upstairs. He bounded down the stairs so fast he basically skipped them. Roxas saluted Ven as they left. Of course, their first step was giving Goofy a chance to pee. Xion was once again reminded of how much she missed Donald, but she didn't say anything.

"Alright, so the estate is the top three donuts of the island," Roxas started explaining, "most of the living space are the mansions that cover the top with the support for the school in the middle. The kitchen, utilities, all of that is in the pillar."

"Pillar...?"

"Yeah, the huge support pillar." He pointed to the giant support that the school above rested on where the elevators were.

"Is it accessible?"

"Well, yeah, I just said that's where the servant's stuff is, and it's the way up to the school too."

"... at home, the servant's passages and quarters aren't open to everyone."

"Oh. I misunderstood your question. No, it's servants only," he confirmed.

"So, I can't just go to the kitchens myself. Good to know."

"Sure you can, you're technically a servant."

"...I am?" That was a sobering thought.

"Yeah, all the wives and concubines are."

At least I can get myself food, she thought.

"Should we get going?" Xion asked aloud.

He led the way through a couple alleys and paths to a side door in the pillar and they went inside. Goofy required some coaxing but he followed them too.

The area inside was rough and unpolished but not dirty or unorganized. It started as just a hallway but eventually opened up. The kitchen was huge and busy, full of underlings cooking, cleaning, and sorting through food that had been brought up for the day. There was a strong smell of baking bread and some sort of seafood on top of subtle soap smells. The air was warm too, even with the cool outside air being pushed through a vent into the room.

Roxas pulled her to the side, out of the way, where a big table was. There was a bunch of food set aside there and a couple of other servants stopped briefly to grab muffins and fruit as they passed by.

Xion turned to give Goofy a stern look.

"Be good," she ordered but the wolf was already excitedly tearing through the kitchen.

"FENRIS! BAD DOG! NO TREAT!" Xion yelled while trying to grab the wolf. The cooks were all yelling at the animal who was ecstatic about exploring a new place. Fur was getting in everything, he took food from everyone, and Roxas was trying so hard not to laugh.

Xion finally grabbed his snout and looked him in the eyes. He whimpered and tried to back up out of her grip. The upset cooks weren't helping much.

"Bad dog. No."

Xion led him out by the muzzle and Roxas grabbed a couple of muffins before following them out.

"Thanks, Roxas. Sorry about that."

"Are you kidding? That was amazing. Aqua is gonna be so pissed."

"I really don't want to be making enemies right now."

"Yeah, but you have to admit, that was pretty funny."

"... maybe if I wasn't so new."

"That doesn't matter at all. New or not, we're all under the same wire. If anything, you get more leeway because you're new," he reassured her.

"I hope so. What areas count as the estate?"

"All of this, any of the Prince's quarters... Honestly, we should go to the stables. Goof can chase the horses and get some energy out."

"I'm guessing the school isn't. Though, sure, let's go spook some poor horses."

"It's not."

He led the way out through some of the servant's tunnels to the street and then down a couple levels. They passed the garden too, going to the biggest ring of the estate. Almost the entire level was pasture, fields to grow hay and oats, and the stables themselves. The fields were largely covered too, stretching in towards the center of the island further than the ring above them. There were a few giant pillars supporting the garden above, so it almost looked like a giant veranda.

Roxas went to the stable barn first. It was huge, able to house maybe sixty horses, but there were only about thirty stalls with names on them and all the stalls were empty. He went past the housing and tack rooms to the office and knocked on the door before letting himself in.

"Heya, Terra, can we let Goof out in the fields?" he asked.

"Yeah that's fine," said a voice from inside.

"Goofy, go ahead and run," Xion told him. This area at least looked somewhat familiar. They didn't have a ton of wheat farms in Terminus, as potatoes were a more stable crop and took less tending to make, but they had enough that the hay fields felt familiar. ... hadn't Sora mentioned a Terra?

The wolf trotted through the barn and out the door.

"Who's Terra?" Xion asked Roxas, looking around at the names on the stable doors.

"Terra is the stablemaster. He was a knight but the Emperor was impressed and put him in charge of all the castle guard, training the young Prince, caring for the horses. He's basically Aqua but for the less homemaker things."

Huh. Well that was interesting.

"Do you house anything other than horses?" she asked.

"Not here." He led the way back through the barn after Goofy and out towards the paddocks. The pastures were rotated regularly but there were a decent number of isolated pens. There were several horses in those, kept isolated but given more room to move than their stalls. Goofy was way ahead of them, trotting down the path to the pastures.

"Do you breed for the solid black color?" All the horses except hers had been black on the way from Terminus.

"Yeah for these ones. The Royal Guard and the Royal family ride black but only if the horses meet a certain standard," he explained as they walked, "there are some other fun colors here in the herd. Aqua and Terra's personal horses aren't black."

"Fun colors?" The most 'fun' horse she'd seen was a paint whose white spots seemed to spell 'horse'.

"Yeah, like bays and buckskins. Kishi's incognito horse is gray with spots all over it that make it look blue."

"That's... really cool. We had a few colors of paints at home, that was really it."

He leaned on the fence to watch Goofy out in the field. The wolf was trying to chase the horses, but these were war horses and they weren't intimidated at all and instead tried to fight him, turning it into Goofy running from a couple of the horses.

Xion laughed at the sight.

The herd here was all mares and geldings. Most of them were black, but there were a couple white, several that were just brown, a few that were light tan with dark manes and tails, and a few that were brown with black manes and tails. Mixed in was one blue roan gelding who was completely unphased by Goofy's taunting.

"That one is Kishi's," Roxas pointed out.

"He's good. Completely calm in the face of a moronic wolf."

"Yeah, cause he knows Goofy. Saladin and Goof have been friends since Kishi got him as a puppy."

"How old is he?"

"Goofy is about two, Saladin is six or seven I think. I'm sure Terra could look it up."

"...is Goofy full-grown?"

"No, he should stop growing when he's about three. He still has to fill out, I think he's got some more up to go too, but not much. He's all leg under that fur, the next year is just his chest dropping and his muscle to fill in."

Xion hummed and watched him run as she said, "He needs to get out more."

"Him and Mickey both," Roxas agreed. There was a whoosh and a black fluff ball ripped past them, slipping under the fence, and rushing Goofy, tackling him at full force. They both went down screeching and snarling and flashing teeth before springing apart, play bowing, and ripping off across the pasture, chasing each other.

"Speak of the devil..." Roxas mumbled. He hopped off the fence and turned to bow politely. Prince Riku was identical to Kishi. The only difference was their age, some personality traits, and haircuts. Riku was lacking in the baby fat where Kishi still carried some in his face and his hair was a little shorter than her betrothed.

Xion had almost called Kishi's name before realizing it wasn't him. She slid down on the other side of the fence, keeping it between them, and started trying to figure out an exit route and excuse. There wasn't exactly a good place to hide.

"Heya Roxas," Riku greeted, "...you know the fence doesn't hide you at all, right?"

Xion wasn't sure if she should answer or not. He was clearly talking to her, but also Kishi really didn't want her to interact with his brothers.

"I'm aware," she finally settled on saying. Even if it didn't hide her, it was an obstacle between them.

Riku seemed puzzled until Roxas said, "Kishi's betrothed."

"Oh. I wondered why a new servant would be so shy. I don't bite."

"...I told Kishi I'd be careful around his brothers."

"And be careful means being disrespectful and ignoring them?"

"Sir, I don't think she meant it like that..." Roxas trailed off when Riku raised a hand to silence him.

"That wasn't my intention. I apologize." Xion did make a bow at that point.

"Thank you for remedying that," Riku said. He climbed up on the fence to sit on it to supervise.

"I'm sure Ki was worried about Ansem," the Prince mused, "but I'm surprised Ki is letting you have so much free rein."

"I'm not allowed to be out alone, and only with his permission. It is not a regular occurrence." Xion stayed on her side of the fence.

"That's still pretty lenient of him. Smart to send someone to protect you. You know I tried to come by and meet you the day you got here but you ended up eating in your room."

"I was still fairly new, and I hadn't even begun to understand etiquette here. I fear I would have insulted everyone at the table and then some."

"That's smart. Look, my brother is a good person. He really needs someone to look out for him."

"I do not intend to hurt him," she said quietly. She'd assumed that was Roxas and Ven's job.

"Thanks. He hasn't been corrupted by our father yet. I want him to stay that way if possible. So aside from the crippling terror of messing up, how are you settling in?" Riku asked her.

"It's... been a process. I cannot say it has been entirely pleasant, but it has not been terrible, either."

"Good, I don't want Ki to turn out like our older brothers, so it makes me happy to hear you say that." He focused on watching the wolves. Since sitting on the fence, he hadn’t looked at her hardly at all.

Xion hesitantly climbed up on the fence.

"...I don't want that either, but aren't you worried Miss Naminé will find out?" she asked.

He laughed, "oh she already knows."

Of course she does, Xion thought.

"You're not worried?" she asked.

"Why would I be worried?"

"...I guess that's a bit of my home peeking through. Nevermind." Xion doubted she could trust someone who held so much sway in a place like this. At home, you trusted who you knew and Xion couldn't picture anyone quite knowing Naminé.

Riku stayed quiet and Roxas shuffled a little bit in the awkward silence.

"Do you come over often?" Xion asked to break the silence.

"To Ki's house? Yeah, all the time."

"Maybe next time I won't hide."

"The way he talked about you... I was surprised you hid the first time."

"It was the end of a long, upsetting day. I didn't really want to snap at anyone."

"Yeah," he said simply in agreement. Xion didn't bring anything else up. They let the wolves run for about an hour before they finally seemed tired and came back to lay down beside each other and watch the horses.

"Do you have one?"

"A horse?" Riku asked for clarification.

"Yeah."

"I have two. One of the big black ones in the pens behind us and that light tan one with the black mane and tail." He pointed to a buckskin mare that was giving another mare a hard time.

"He's a pretty one. Lots of spirit."

"She and she's a problem child."

"Can't be as bad as Donald," Xion countered.

"Who's Donald?" he asked.

"My gryphon. He's...still at home. But he's the most self-important, narcissistic beast in the flock."

"Then my girl probably is not as bad," he agreed, "horses are generally very agreeable."

"We had some, but they aren't great at navigating mountain terrain."

"Need the right horses."

"Not always. The winter always brings heavy snows, and we rely on gryphons to get around then. They can get through most of the passes." They had trouble near the spine for the fumes, and the east pass for the high winds.

"...I see why he's having trouble with you," Riku said, amused.

"...I've overstepped, haven't I?"

"Little bit, but I don't mind."

"But I need to learn how to navigate conversations here better. I mind."

"Aqua is very good at teaching that sort of thing."

"Then I probably need lessons," admitted Xion.

"Only if you're going to be interacting with people."

"I probably will, at least a little."

"Well, if he's letting you out of the house, then yeah, you might be right."

"It's limited, but I am allowed out."

"That is more freedom than any of our women have ever had," Riku reminded.

"So I've been made aware. It's less than anyone at home had."

"Yeah, the transition can be hard."

"Do you see it often?"

"I did have a concubine kill herself once. Most of them just kind of shut down, focus on their job." He remained light-hearted and casual as he said it.

"That's not an option for me."

"Which is why you're Ansem's type, which is probably why he was sent to Terminus, which is why you're Kishi's and not mine, and so on. At the end of the day, the best thing we can do is just be ourselves and try to enjoy the ride we have no control over."

"I'll take what control I can get and enjoy the rest."

"Well, be careful. I don't want my brother to get hurt because of you."

"...I don't want to hurt anyone." Except maybe Ansem.

Riku was unconvinced, "I have a theory that our father brought you here to do something to him. He's important to me. He's probably the best of us."

"...then I am very lucky. And I'll try not to be a pawn."

"There's no way out of being a pawn,"' Riku said sadly, "whatever the Emperor wants... make him work for it." He hopped down. "Mickey, come on, time to go." The wolf looked up and begrudgingly got up to follow his master back down the road.

Xion sat and pondered the whole conversation for a minute. She definitely liked Riku far more than either of the older brothers and it brought up more questions. Riku didn't seem to like his father and he called Kishi 'uncorrupted'. He said he was the only one like that. Did that mean Riku was?

"...you okay?" Roxas asked, "you look like you have to poop."

"I'm fine. Just a lot to think about." And Roxas being so casual was a little unnerving. Vanitas and Sora had to be asked repeatedly to get to that point, but Roxas was practically a stranger.

"That explains the having to poop expression."

She gave him an exasperated look.

"No, not that one, the other one."

"...what are you trying to accomplish?" she asked.

He tilted his head.

"What do you mean?"

"By being crass with me."

"Would you rather I not be?"

"...yes, I would. It's not a personal thing, I just don't know you."

Roxas didn't seem all that impressed and his mood darkened just a tad when he said, "Yeah, well, we're the same rank so I can do whatever I want and talk to you how I want."

"Then why did you ask if I cared?"

"I don't know. It was polite?"

"You're weird."                                                                         

"No weirder than you are," he countered.

"I'm foreign, I have an excuse."

"Imagine looking for an excuse to write off your own behavior rather than embrace it."

Xion didn't acknowledge his comment.

"Where are we going next?" she asked.

"I'm not a tour guide, I'm the leash."

She huffed and walked over to Goofy. "Did you have fun, boy?" His tail wagged but he stayed laying down.

"Do you want to walk some more?" Goofy laid his head down on his paws.

"Did Mickey tire you out?" She sat down to give him scratches. His tail thumped up and down. A couple of the horses were coming over to investigate.

"And to think I was going to give you part of my lunch as a treat..." His ears perked up when he heard the word treat. The horses stopped a safe distance away when they realized the person in their pasture didn't have food.

"You gotta come with us though." He just wagged his tail. Not really understanding her attempts to reason with him.

"Goofy, it's time to go," she said more sternly.

With a grunt and a grumble, he pulled himself to his feet and shook himself out. Xion put a hand on his side and started out of the paddock, looking for stairs. He trotted after her and Roxas followed.

There were some steep stairs along the inside wall, but it wasn't the way they had come. The road led up in a zig-zag like a ramp up and down the mountain. Xion headed down. She wasn't trying to get back.

Roxas followed, avoiding guiding her at all. They passed under several decorative arches and for the first time encountered guards. They nodded at her and Roxas politely as they passed.

"What level does the school start on?" she asked.

"The school is just the big building on the top of the hill."

"...is this not part of the estate?"

"The school? Or where we are right now?"

"Where we are now. I already know the school's not."

"Heh, nope," Roxas mumbled lightly.

Xion turned around to go back but the guards stopped her. Leaving the estate was one thing but entering? That was a whole other beast.

Xion looked to Roxas and said, "...I don't know what to do."

"Well, they don't let anyone in who isn't authorized to go in or isn't accompanied by anyone of the royal family or Terra or Aqua, so I guess we're stuck out here until the Prince realizes you disobeyed."

...damn it, was she going to mess everything? One day out, and she'd already managed to break the rules. She wanted to stay out of trouble. She sniffed and started scratching Goofy behind the ears.

"Sorry I dragged you out here, boy."

Roxas sat down on a bench along the street while Goofy just looked confused. Xion turned her face into Goofy's side when she was afraid she actually might show tears. That was a weakness. You weren't supposed to show this kind of thing to people you didn't trust.

"So. Are you going to keep wandering then? Or hangout around here?" Roxas asked.

"I don't want to get in more trouble."

"So you're staying here." He groaned and laid down on the bench instead.

"...Roxas, what happens when you break the rules?"

"Depends on which rule I broke. Anything from a beating, to no meals, to imprisonment. They get creative."

"Then it was really shitty of you to let me walk out the gate," she said bitterly.

"Now who's being crass?"

"This isn't a joke. I told you I wasn't comfortable with the way you were talking, and you decided it was worth me possibly getting beaten."

"Hey! I did my job. I'm just supposed to keep an eye on you, not keep you out of trouble. It's not personal."

"The whole reason I went out with you instead of Vanitas or Sora was because I needed to be with someone who knew the castle! I said as much when we left! You couldn't have said something then?"

"I was more willing to help you out then when it was personal." He shrugged, unbothered.

"What was personal about it then and what did I do to change that?!"

"You're the one who said it wasn't personal since you don't know me. I figured, you were right, we don't know each other so I don't have to watch your back like I would with other servants. But don't try to blame me for this. You never once asked me if we were leaving the property."

Xion was really glad she had Goofy to hide her face in. She was sure she looked a mess.

"Good to know in the future, I guess," she said, still bitter and stressed. Kishi was never going to let her leave his house again, was he.

"It's a good thing I was already on my way back," Naminé said from behind her. She and her gray-haired assistant were walking up the hill with baskets full of herbs and sweets under their arms.

Xion took a handful of breaths to settle her voice and wiped her face before turning around. Her eyes were still puffy and her face was wet, but there were no obvious tear tracks. She hoped.

She went over to Xion and reached out to gently pat her hand. "You are very far from home," she observed, "let's go back."

"...that would be nice, please," she said quietly. Fae or not, power or not, Naminé had been one of the nicest people she'd met so far.

Roxas scrambled to get up so he could bow, keeping it brief as Naminé went up to the guards to negotiate getting Xion back into the estate. They went through her baskets and then asked to check Roxas and Namine’s assistant.

Rox went first. He pulled a bronze, metal tag out from under his shirt. It was hanging on a chain around his neck. He took it off and handed it to the guard and then shrugged his coat off one arm to roll up his sleeve. The guard compared the tag to a tattoo on the inside of Roxas' arm above the elbow. Satisfied, they handed the tag back and then did the same with her assistant. Naminé scooped her basket up, her friend did the same and the four of them, plus one wolf, went back under the arches and headed up the hill.

"There," Namine said, "no harm done."

"Thank you," Xion said sincerely.

"I still get lost from time to time," she admitted and kept walking along the path to the house. Xion kept heading up as well. She was more than a little done with exploring for the day.

"I can't say that I would be able to help, but if I run into you when you're lost, I'd be happy to at least keep you company," Xion offered. Goofy ran ahead when he recognized where they were, Roxas stayed behind them.

"That would be lovely. I do enjoy being lost," Naminé said happily, "and thank you so much for keeping Riku company today."

"He was surprisingly pleasant to talk to." He wasn't pleasant, but it was pleasant to not feel like she needed to defend herself during a talk.

"I like him very much," she admitted. Naminé stopped outside Kishi's home.

"...I hope whatever you feel is reciprocated."

She blushed ever so lightly and said, "I hope that you feel better." She turned to leave and Roxas shrugged past them to go into the house with Goofy on his heels. Xion wasn't far behind him, heading straight for the library where she was sure she'd find either Vanitas or Sora.

Roxas disappeared into the house. Goofy went upstairs. Neither of her retainers were there but Kishi was in the library, practicing the violin. The sound was better in here, it didn't echo like the parlor did.

Xion found a seat and sat to listen. He really was amazing and listening to him practice had become a favorite pastime of hers in his house.

His eyes were closed, so he didn't see her come in. All of his focus was on the sound, ironing out the parts he didn't like and highlighting the ones he did. He was pretty much done mastering this piece and then he'd be ready to move on to the next one. He slowly brought the song to a close and opened his eyes, jumping when he saw her.

"When did you get back?"

"About twenty minutes ago."

"I thought for sure you'd be out til dinner." He started putting his stuff away.

"I ran into something upsetting and decided I didn't want to be out anymore."

He tensed up and asked, "What happened?"

"I was reminded of how different it is here from home."

He relaxed with relief. "Well, what did you expect?"

"I don't know. It was a miscommunication between me and Roxas was all." That was making a molehill out of a mountain, but it wasn't inaccurate.

"Did he fail to do his job?"

"No. We just had different ideas about what his job was."

"His job was to stay with you and keep an eye on you, so if he didn't do that, then I will have to punish him for being disobedient."

"He didn't tell me where the edge of the estate was and let me cross it. I assumed that he would so I didn't realize until I was out."

Kishi tensed up and asked for clarification, "You left the estate?"

"Not on purpose. I went about thirty feet out of the gate." Her eyes were starting to sting again.

"...How did you get back in?"

"Miss Naminé happened to come back."

He studied her, clearly angry but working through some thoughts. Kishi lightly bopped her on the head with his fist and then started heading out.

"Don't do it again."

"I won't. Sorry it happened at all." For the second time, the punishment was far less extreme than she had made up in her head. It was confusing, if also relieving. She started looking for a book.

Chapter Text

Xion was doing her morning routine of exercises with Goofy. The sun wasn't visible through the heavy clouds, but it was noticeably lighter, probably around breakfast time.

Kishi was sleeping in again. The servants tried to arrive after he woke up, but it got late enough in the day where they eventually caved and came over uninvited with breakfast. Ven knocked on the door lightly and they let themselves in. Sora and Van were with him, helping carry the food.

Xion stopped to get breakfast.

"Goofy, potty then a treat if you're good," she said, holding the door for him.

He obediently went through the door and headed to his patch of grass to pee before coming back to the door. He was getting much better at not defaulting to keep away. Then the animal led the way back upstairs. Xion gave him the treat and some ear scratches as she followed him up. Ven was trying to wake Kishi but struggling to do so.

"...is he that heavy of a sleeper?" she asked.

"No, he isn't a heavy sleeper at all," responded Ven, distraught, "he's really pale and hot too."

Sure enough, the Prince was sweating a lot but shivering and hot to the touch. It was hard to tell if he was awake or not. Xion checked his forehead with the back of her hand.

"He either ate something really bad or he's sick. Either way he should see a doctor." Probably more so if the former. If he was poisoned, he was going to have a much harder time fighting whatever it was than if he was sick.

"I have to go tell Aqua," Ven said, but he was worried and looked like he was afraid to leave.

"... Send Vanitas." Wait, that was her job. "Vanitas, go tell Master Aqua the prince is feverish!"

There was a muffled 'got it' from downstairs.

Ven offered her a look of gratitude and then went to the bath to get a damp washcloth for Kishi’s forehead. Goofy jumped up onto the bed, spinning in circles, before flopping in all the empty space.

It took Aqua half an hour to show up. She let herself in, marched straight up to the Prince, and then immediately sent for the doctor.

"It's that time of the year," Aqua mumbled as she checked Kishi’s pulse and felt his forehead.

"Time of year?" Xion asked.

"The Prince was a sickly child. He was frequently trapped in bed trying to recover from illness. Eventually, he built up a strong enough immune system but once a year, like clockwork, he falls ill again. It's just his way of greeting spring."

Xion almost asked Aqua what she should do to help, before she remembered that the doctor was coming and he was more the expert.

Vexen was as grumpy as always, but he got to work right away, looking Kishi over. It took effort but they managed to bring Kishi around only for him to stare at them blankly and mumble nonsense words. He growled at them when Vexen wouldn't let him go back to sleep right away. He concluded that Kishi had caught an illness, not a poison, and needed to be focused on rest and tea until he felt better. Then he made them a shopping list of herbs to make his tea with to help with the healing. He left shortly after.

"I can't be here every hour to give him this..." Aqua huffed. She was reviewing the doctor’s written instructions.

"I literally can't be anywhere else," Xion offered.

"I can do it too," Ven offered.

"Ventus you have chores... Can you make tea, Xion?"

"It's...leaves steeped in hot water. I can't say I make good tea but I know the basics.”

"She tends to burn tea, I can make it," Sora said.

"Thank you, I need to report this to the Emperor. Ven you're supposed to be tending to Lord Riku today."

"Of course, ma'am." They both left.

Xion went downstairs to read the instructions while Sora went to find a kettle and water to start it boiling. The doctor wanted him sipping tea with the provided herbs every couple hours and trying to sleep in-between. He was not to leave his bed except for bathroom breaks and if he was able to hold down food, he needed to try eating at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Xion grabbed the breakfast tray and brought it upstairs. Kishi was tiredly trying to stay sitting up from his exam, but he was swaying a lot and trying to take his jacket off. By the time she got over to him, Kishi had fallen over again and was kicking the blankets off

Xion pulled the sheet back up. "Keep this one on, okay?"

He made a pitiful fussing sound and tried to push it off all the same.

"Hey, hey, this one's not as heavy but you have to keep the same environment, or your fever will get worse."

"It's hot," he whined, but he didn't resist.

"I know, I know, but... let's get you some fruit, okay?" Xion took the little plate off the tray. She only recognized a few of the fruits—strawberries and apples and peach. They were all sliced already. He tried to sit up but was weak and it took him a lot of effort to do so. She sat on the bed and looped an arm around him to help him sit. Kishi leaned against her heavily but managed to get a couple berries down. His head kept slowly falling onto her shoulder as he started to fall asleep again. Happy that he'd gotten something in him, she laid him back down and tucked the sheet around him.

He fussed the whole way down and reached for her, holding onto her shirt with a weakened grip, for the half minute that it took him to fall back asleep. She didn't try to pull away, being sick sucked and comfort was important.

"Oh shit, sorry, I didn't think anyone was in here," Roxas said from the door. Xion turned and stiffened a little at the sight of Roxas, but she didn't say anything.

"Is he doing okay?"

"He's asleep, and I got him to eat a little."

"Good. Let me know when he wakes up and I'll come read to him."

"Read to him?"

"Yeah, we read to him when he's sick," Roxas told her.

"To keep him from getting bored?"

"I guess, it's just something we've always done for him when he's been sick."

"... yeah, okay, I'll send Sora or Vanitas to find you, but Vexen said he should try to sleep when he's not taking tea."

"Try telling him that when he wakes up cranky and can't sleep."

"I just said I'd send someone to get you."

His eyes narrowed at her a bit and he left.

Sora was prepping the herbs for the next few rounds of tea while Vanitas studied the etiquette guide downstairs. Xion stayed sitting by the bed, though she moved off of it, in case the prince needed something.

Kishi slept for a while. It was fitful, full of feverish nightmares, but he was at least sleeping. He woke around lunch time with a coughing fit and a shiver.

Xion offered him some water and said, "It'll help cool you down before Sora comes with the next round of tea." He reached for it in a daze.

"What are you doing here?"

"What do you mean? I kinda can't leave," she said. The glass was half-full to make it less likely to spill if he was shaky.

"In my room," he wheezed

"Someone's got to keep watch. Your boys were assigned elsewhere today."

"But I ruined your life, you could just put one of your boys on this job."

"You weren't the one who ruined it."

"I helped."

"You've told me yourself that you didn't want this."

"It still only happened because of me..." he started to make dry chuffing sounds which turned into coughing.

"I don't think so. I was the one who agreed to come."

"You didn't have a choice and we both know it."

"I did. My grandfather would have gone to war, Isa would have supported it, and it would not have been an easy war for you. But I think one life for many is a fair trade," Xion told him.

"You're loved that much?"

"Yes. My family is more important than anything."

"No, like, they love you so much they would go to war?"

"Yes."

"Oh." He looked dizzy again and turned away to work through another coughing fit.

"Lunch should be here soon, do you need more water?"

He nodded. Kishi looked anything but noble right now especially when he kept having to sniff to avoid looking like a faucet.

Xion went downstairs to fetch some water.

"Hey Sora? Can you go tell Roxas Kishi's awake and needs a handkerchief?"

"Yeah, the tea is ready too. Actually, it might be a little cold..."

"I'll take it up anyway. If he wants it warmed I can probably do at least that on my own." Or ask Vanitas to. Sora put the cup and teapot on a tray and then left to find Roxas. Xion brought the tray upstairs and settled it next to Kishi on the bed. He was trying to prop himself up with the pillows while Goofy kept trying to lick his face. She helped stack the pillows behind him to make it easier.

"Goofy, be good," she said quietly but firmly.

The wolf settled down with his giant butt on Kishi's lap, making the Prince groan and whimper a bit. Xion pointed to the empty space in the bed.

"Sit there."

Goofy reluctantly moved and settled down on the other side of the bed.

"Good boy." Xion handed Kishi the teacup. "Might be a little cold."

He didn't seem to care. Kishi sipped it with a grimace.

"This doesn't taste good..." he complained.

"It's medicine, it's not supposed to taste good."

He groaned like a child.

"Hey, could be worse. I grew up being forced to eat the herbs straight. I promise you that's worse."

"That doesn't mean this isn't gross."

"...no, it doesn't. Would honey help?"

He nodded with a pout and a sniff. Xion went looking.

There was some downstairs in a small pantry off the parlor, along with some snacks and such. Kishi didn't have a personal full kitchen like the one in the pillar, but he had the means to snack and make mini meals if he had to.

Xion brought the small jar and a spoon upstairs to him. Kishi added maybe half a spoon to his tea and sipped it a little more readily. He nodded a little, mostly to himself, to acknowledge his own satisfaction.

"Thank you," he said politely.

"You're welcome. You're not too cold, are you?"

"No, I feel hot."

Xion took the damp cloth to switch out for a clean one.

"Sorry," he mumbled as she put the clean one on his head.

"For what?" she asked genuinely.

"Being a bother. On top of everything else."

"Family takes care of each other. Even if we aren't yet, we're going to be."

"I hear you crying sometimes, I know you don't want to be here."

"I'm still going to try to make the best of the situation. Going back isn't an option."

"I'll just send you back after the wedding," he mumbled and flopped over, cuddling the empty but still warm mug.

Xion had to really keep herself from hoping. There was a chance his father demanded different. There was a chance he didn't remember this conversation after the fever broke. There was a chance of something else keeping her here that she couldn't predict. The hope of going home was too dangerous but the sentiment was appreciated.

"Is that so?"

"Mm, yeah," he mumbled, "I don't have any idea what to do with a wife."

"You don't have stories to fall back on?"

"Not good ones."

"Do you want me to share some of mine?"

He settled in a bit, still cradling the mug and curling around it. The rag slid off his head as he wiggled a bit to get comfortable.

"Yeah, okay."

Xion fixed it back in place as she talked, "My favorite was a rather long one, the tale of the Count and the baker..."

Kishi fell asleep while she was talking. It wasn't long after that when Roxas let himself into the room with a book.

"...did he fall back asleep?"

Xion nodded and reported, "Not been that long."

He tsked in response. "Damn, I was supposed to read to him."

She just shrugged. "He didn't seem to mind."

"Well, maybe I mind," he grumbled. Roxas came over to check on Kishi. He carefully pulled the mug out of the Prince's grasp and put it on the tray.

Xion rolled her shoulders and stretched.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because I like reading to him."

"Maybe next time, then."

"How did you get him to fall asleep anyway? He's a damn baby when he's sick."

"I was telling a story."

"Oh, you got to read to him," Roxas grumbled irritably.

"I wasn't reading."

"...you're just making stories up?"

"No, it's one my dad used to tell me. An old legend."

He wrinkled his nose and asked, "You're not trying to corrupt the young prince, are you?"

"How is telling a bedtime story supposed to corrupt someone?" she asked with a little irritation in her voice.

"What you tell people when they're vulnerable is important. You can mess with how they think and what they believe."

"That's not what I'm trying to do."

"Well, the Emperor has a list of books that are okay to read to him, so stick to those."

"I'm guessing anything in his library is okay."

"For the most part yeah."

"... I'll pick something else out if he wakes up again." Unless he asked for her to keep telling the story. She wasn't reading it, so she wasn't technically breaking any rules.

He huffed, "Why are you even trying?"

"What are you asking about?"

"To take care of him. That's my job."

"You weren't here."

He opened his mouth to say something, but she had a point and he couldn't argue it.

Xion sighed, "It's going to be my job, isn't it?"

"...I suppose it will be, yes."

Xion closed her eyes for a moment and swallowed. This would be one thing that she expected to be the same, and was. Family took care of each other.

"But it won't just be your job. We take care of him because we love him, not because we have to. No matter what."

"...I hope I can come to that point. I don't think it's going to happen, but I hope it does."

"Well, don't pretend. Ki is like my brother. I know him, and it's not fair to him if he gets attached and you don't."

"Do you think he will, then?" she asked.

"Why do you think he doesn't have concubines? He gets attached, it causes problems, and he's miserable when things can't be the way he wants them to be."

"What do you want me to do about it? I'd rather have a life where I am attached to my husband, or at least his friend."

"You just said that wasn't going to happen."

"I said I didn't think I'd fall in love. Not that I didn't want it."

"...If we could get you back home, would you go?" Roxas asked softly.

"It would depend. On a lot."

"Like?"

"Whether my people will still have the reduced tithe. If we'll have to send someone else in my place. Whether I've built connections here."

He shuffled like he was thinking things through and muttered, "Okay."

"Okay what?"

"Okay, I get what you're saying."

"But I'm guessing you still don't want me here."

"I just want him to be safe."

She didn't say anything at that, just changed the damp cloth out. Kishi fussed a little, but Roxas gently reached out and brushed the hair out of his eyes and then went to clean up breakfast. Xion had eaten minimally, and Sora had everything arranged on the tray ready to go.

The Prince didn't wake up again until dinner and then he was feeling well enough to get himself to the bathroom and back again. No vomiting, but lots of coughing and sniffing. He was now rested out and getting huffy too until Roxas returned with a chicken soup.

"I brought a big pot for everyone," he said as he put it on the side table. Ven was with him, carrying the bowls and spoons. Xion made room at the bedside while Sora got the next round of tea ready.

"Is everyone going to eat in here?" Kishi asked.

"Unless you want to eat alone," Xion said.

"No. Stay." Roxas and Ven started dishing up soup and handing them out. Xion settled in the bedside chair with her soup after handing a bowl to Kishi.

"I'll get Vani," Sora said before heading downstairs.

Kishi sipped the soup gratefully. Roxas got up onto the bed to eat his soup, sitting on Kishi's opposite side and Ven sat on the end of the bed.

"Apparently I made an error in storytelling earlier," Xion said in the quiet.

Roxas froze, Ven looked up curiously, and Kishi looked at her in confusion.

"What do you mean?" the Prince asked.

"...I've been told you prefer to be read to." Not a lie, but not exactly the truth.

"Um, I mean, yeah, I like being read to..." He blushed but it was hard to tell with how sick he was. "Your story was great... a-and I'm not a child or anything for enjoying a story from time to time."

"I didn't say you were. Stories are important to everyone."

"Oh. Good, cause, I'm not."

"We're both nineteen. Neither of us are children."

Sora came upstairs with Vanitas and Ven waved happily to them both. He scooted over to make space and the retainers settled in. Roxas didn't move, it was almost territorial the way he ate his soup, seemingly laid back and relaxed but the same closeness to Kishi as Xion was to him. If the Prince noticed, he didn't react.

"And I can read," Kishi said defensively.

"Why would I think you couldn't read? You have a library."

"Hey, don't be a smartass with him," Roxas scolded, "Sir, she wasn't suggesting you couldn't." Kishi seemed confused by the hostility and just blinked through his surprise.

"I wasn't trying to be."

Vanitas glared at Roxas while Sora looked confused. Ven was in the same boat, confused and wanting to eat his soup in peace.

"Watch your words then," Roxas snapped.

"...what the hell is going on?" Kishi asked.

"It's not important enough for you to worry about right now," Xion said quietly.

"I'm sorry, Highness, I just didn't like how she was talking to you." Kishi was extra confused now. "Please, sir, enjoy your soup," Ven provided, neatly changing the subject. Xion resumed eating silently while Sora and Vanitas exchanged looks. The Prince still looked unsure but he went back to eating between coughs and eventually settled down, taking his tea after dinner while the others cleaned up.

"I want to hear the rest of the story," he told Xion.

"Very well. What was the last part you remember?"

"The monastery was being attacked."

"Prince, are you sure you wouldn't prefer some of your other tales?" Roxas asked hopefully.

"I want to know what happens," Kishi responded dismissively.

Xion took a deep breath. This was a blizzard tale. A legend told to keep the family awake and entertained around the fire while they could not go outside. Xion had heard it every Midwinter's Eve from her father.

"The girl and the second son were deployed near each other as the battle began..." Many such tales existed. They almost always featured a war of some kind. She supposed it didn't surprise her, when so much of their culture was about survival, and one of the more constant threats was the ogre hordes.

Kishi was an attentive listener until the coughing wore him out and he started to slump. That's when Roxas insisted on helping him lay back and settle in, and Kishi got upset with the babying and sent him back to the servant's house.

"He is right though; you do need rest. It's how you fight illness the best. Though I can keep going until you fall asleep," she offered. He huffed irritably, coughed some more, and then settled down.

"Continue," he ordered. She did as she was told.

"The next morning, the two ran into each other in the stables. The second son had been pardoned the previous night, and the title would pass to him, now Count. The Baker's daughter, meanwhile..."

He fell asleep not long after. Goofy whined until Xion scratched the wolf behind the ears.

"I'm not going to leave him unattended." Vanitas and Sora weren't here to argue the point with her. She could stay up one night. Goofy wiggled to put his head in her lap for a few scratches and then he jumped up onto the bed to spread out next to Kishi to sleep himself.

Xion grabbed a blanket. It was starting to feel cold, but she stayed up to watch him.

It was overcast the next morning. The snow was long past, but the early Spring was still chilly. Kishi woke up coughing. It was less violent than it was yesterday, a sure sign of healing.

She blinked thrice and pinched herself under the blanket.

"Good morning."

"Morning," he wheezed, "were you here all night?"

She nodded.

Kishi grunted a bit as he made himself sit up. "Did you sleep?"

"I'm not allowed to sleep in the same room as you. At least not at the same time."

"...why?"

"Because it might lead to naughty things that aren't supposed to start until the wedding."

"No, you staying up," he mumbled.

"...you sent Roxas away and Ven went home for the night, who else would have done it?"

"You didn't have to do this..."

"What if you got worse during the night?"

He opened his mouth to argue but he changed his mind and just said, "Thanks."

"It's not a big deal. No thanks necessary."

"You should go rest."

"When the others get here with breakfast, I will. Did you sleep alright?"

"I wish my body would pick a temperature."

"How are you feeling now?"

"I wish my body would pick a temperature," he repeated.

"So...like hot flashes?"

"Yeah." He started coughing.

"Water?"

"I want to know how the story ends."

Xion took a deep breath before beginning again, "The Lions of Fearghus were camped outside of the Empire capital..."

By the time she was finishing up, Roxas was showing up with breakfast. He offered Kishi a plate and a warm muffin and the Prince took it gratefully. Xion made a short bow.

"Are you staying long?" she asked Roxas.

"As long as he needs me."

"You should sleep," Kishi told her.

"Can you wake me up before you go, please?" Xion asked Roxas.

"...yeah, I will."

"Thanks." Xion brought her blanket back with her. Even with it, she was starting to feel chilly. She grabbed another from one of the other beds before going to her room for the nap. Sora caught up as she was heading to bed.

"Hey, did you get some food?" he asked her.

"Huh? Oh, no, I was going to bed first. I'll eat when Roxas leaves, okay?" She grabbed a third blanket.

"I don't know if he's going to. He asked Aqua for a day off today. Did something happen?"

"Not overnight."

"With Roxas," Sora clarified.

"I phrased something poorly while I was out."

"And he took it wrong," he finished, nodding slowly. "He's really laid-back at the house but he seems tense the more I talk to him."

Xion sighed, "I really do need a nap."

"Vani and I could've watched him last night...Please let us do it if it comes to that tonight."

"I don't think he'll sleep well with Vanitas watching."

"But you're our priority."

"I'm getting some sleep now. It's not a big deal, Sora, it was just one night."

He stopped arguing with her but couldn't hide the worried look on his face. Xion patted him on the shoulder before heading to bed.

 

Chapter Text

She woke up shivering several times, and only got up to add more blankets to her bed. By evening, she had all of them. Sora came to wake her for dinner, but he quickly became concerned when she was hot to the touch. He shook her gently and she whined a little. It was cold, she didn't want to get up.

"Hey, you're burning up..."

"No, 'm freezing," she said hoarsely.

"I think I need to be making you tea... and you need to be in a warmer room."

"Warmer please." She tried to pull the blankets over her head. Sora tucked her in and then left. He came back twenty minutes later with hot tea. Xion had gone back to sleep.

When she woke up again, she was in Kishi's bed. He wasn't there. She had a brief moment of panic and tried to sit up to look around before the coughing fit took over. She sounded gross and felt worse.

Sora put a hand on her shoulder and said, "Hey, it's okay, I have water for you."

"...Sora?" she croaked.

"Yeah, I'm here."

"Where's here?"

"Um, to your right?" He took her hand.

She shook her head. She knew he was next to her, but she didn't know where they were. Whose room was this? It didn't seem like any at the castle...

"Oh! You're still in the Prince's room."

This didn't look like Isa or Lauriam's room either, but why wouldn't she be in her room?

"Which one?" Xion asked.

"Um, Prince Kishi."

Kishi? She didn't know a... Oh. That's right. She wasn't home. Her expression went from confused to resigned.

"Said you had—" she stopped to cough "—had water?" Sora leaned away to grab the glass and hand it to her.

"Did I catch what he has?" she asked.

"I think so. They said the doctor is busy and can't come to be sure," Sora said, somewhat quietly.

"Don't see what else it could be."

"Me neither. Vani thinks he gave it to you too."

"What's he doing?" She wasn't sure herself which man she was asking about.

"Vani is cooling down at the servant's house. He was really mad at the Prince when I told him you were sick and he and Roxas got into it and it was a whole thing. He'll be back soon though."

"He didn't start a fistfight, did he?"

"No, but it was close."

She groaned and tried to sit up again so it'd be easier to drink.

"The prince?"

"Downstairs in the parlor. There's a wood-burning stove down there and he's got a big fluffy armchair."

"Why move me to his bed, though? How long have I been out?"

"Most of the day. Dinner just got cleaned up, but we can heat up some soup for you. And I don't know. He ordered it."

"I think if I eat it's gonna come back up." This felt like the 'punishments'. It was surprisingly sweet, and she was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Maybe some bread? You need to keep your strength up."

"I'll try."

He got up to get some bread from the tray. It was made that morning, so he broke off the dry end before he gave it to her. Xion slowly nibbled at it before pulling the blankets up. They were extra soft. His bed was just the right balance between soft and firm, offering support without creating bedsore spots. The blankets were heavy too. One of them was weighted and another was full of down, so it was soft and airy but immensely warm and clean. They smelled like him too. Kishi regularly bathed and kept clean with lotions and soaps that smelled like winter, a combination of cool mint, cranberries, and faint traces of pine and dark cocoa.

"Let me get you another rag. Your fever is still high," Sora told her softly. He disappeared for a few long moments and then a damp, cool rag was set across her forehead. Xion made a face. The rag felt far colder than the temperature she knew it was.

"I know, but we have to bring your temperature down," Sora said. He sounded like he was in pain. Sora had always been sensitive to her. If he could literally share her aches and pains, he would in a heartbeat.

"...I know. Thanks for being here."

"Nowhere else I would rather be."

"Home?"

He shook his head and told her, "It's not home if you're not there."

Xion wanted to give him a hug, but she also didn't want to make him sick. He seemed to understand because he put his hand over hers through the blanket.

"Thanks."

"Try to sleep," he gently instructed.

"I'll do my best." She settled back down in the blankets. "...the Prince isn't going to sleep here?"

"I don't think so. It's in the contract that you guys can't share a bed. They might not be good people, but they honor their contracts."

"...yeah, they do." She wasn't sure about Kishi not being a good person.

"I'll be here when you wake up."

"Don't stay up all night. Vanitas can take a watch." Yes, she knew she was a hypocrite.

"I'll be careful."

She nodded and coughed, trying to get comfortable. Sora settled in too. It didn't take long for her to sleep.

When she woke again, it was because Goofy had rolled onto her and was space heating her side of the bed well above comfort levels. Sora wasn't around. He and Vani had swapped places.

She felt really sick.

"Bucket, bucket—" She rolled over and Vanitas shoved a chamber pot under her face.

"Well, I guess you won't be wanting this then," Roxas said from the doorway with a grimace. He was holding a bowl of food. She just groaned.

“Maybe later," Vanitas said with no snap. Roxas put the bowl down on the table and then left. Xion rolled back onto her side.

"Sorry," she mumbled.

"It's not your fault you got sick." That had some bite.

"Not Kishi's fault either." She scratched Goofy's ears. "Move, you dumb dog. You're overheating me.

He huffed and wagged his tail, but otherwise didn't move. She gave him a weak shove, but he still didn't budge.

"Goofy, outside," Kishi said from the door. The wolf moved with a grumble and went to the balcony door to wait to be let out. The Prince was bundled up tightly and still looked sick, but he was at least mobile. He turned his head to cough a bit and then went over to the bedside.

"You look awful," he observed aloud as he looked her over. Vanitas, not wanting to be sent away again, glared at the ground.

"Gotta look the part," Xion said.

"Roxas has tea. I'll tell him to bring some up."

"Tea sounds good." Anything to soothe the ache in her throat sounded good. He took a second to work through a coughing fit.

"You, go let the wolf out," Kishi ordered, motioning to Vanitas, "I'll tell Rox to bring up the tea."

Vanitas got up to take care of Goofy, hands clenched at his side.

"Ki, you really need to off your feet," Roxas said gently as he caught up to the Prince.

"Rox, go get tea for Xion."

"...I really need to prioritize you. Let's get you back downstairs."

"No. You need to obey. Go get tea," Kishi repeated. Roxas steeled his jaw but didn't argue. He went back downstairs.

"Don't gotta be mean to him—are you still sick?" Xion asked.

"Not as bad as you are. I get this every year."

"You still gotta rest then. I'll go back to my bed." Xion had second thoughts as soon as she pushed the blankets back. The room was so, so cold compared to his bed.

"No, stay. I'm comfortable in the parlor."

"I'm not gonna win if I argue this, am I?"

"I never lose arguments. It's a perk of being a Prince."

"Yeah, but I'm stubborn," she insisted.

"And I will punish you if you resist my will."

And there was the moment. The other shoe. This prince was giving her such mixed signals. Most of the time, he seemed kind, but then he'd go and say something like this. She pulled the blankets back up.

"Okay."

"Good. You'll heal a lot faster in my bed. I'm still arguing with Aqua about you seeing the doctor but it's harder to convince him to drop everything for... He's just busy."

She hummed, then coughed again. Illnesses were usually seasonal. She had no doubt that the doctor was busy, and she was a servant. No one important.

"I'm going to keep trying but, in the meantime, tea and sleep," he ordered.

"Why?"

"Because you're sick."

"No, why go to such lengths to help me?"

"Because you're mine," he said, “and you did the same for me." The word choice was possessive, but his tone was more affectionate. That was a confusing statement too. She might have had more time to pick it apart if another wave of nausea hadn't come.

"I need a bucket—"

Kishi rushed to get it for her since Van was by the door. Xion threw up as soon as it was available.

"Sorry."

"Don't apologize. Illness doesn't discriminate."

"Still gross," she said. Vanitas moved to take the bucket out.

"Rest," Kishi instructed and then he started shuffling back downstairs.

Xion laid back. Roxas never did come back with that tea, did he?

It wasn't until late the next morning that anyone came back up to check on her. Kishi still had a cough, but he was obviously feeling better, had bathed, changed, and was reading a book on a chair near her. Of course, Van was there too, but Kishi wasn't paying him any mind.

Xion had trouble opening her eyes and had to rub crusts off her eyelashes to manage it. She was incredibly thirsty, and incredibly tired.

"Good morning," the Prince said. He was ready with water. She just moaned in response. He offered the water. She chugged it, no manners.

"...do you need more?" he asked.

"...might throw up if I do."

"Okay then no."

She sniffed, then coughed, "Feel gross."

"Yeah, you're sicker than I was."

She made a face.

"Roxas offered to take over your care," he said.

"Did you tell him no?"

"For now, yeah. Since he didn't bring you tea last night."

"Why not let mine take care of me? 'S their job."

"Integration?" he offered as an answer, but it took him a second and he didn't have a good reason. He got up and closed his book. "I'll just let them do their job then."

"Don't mind," she mumbled.

"You brought it up."

"Just wanted to know why. You're nice."

"People can be strong and kind at the same time," he huffed, defensive.

"That's always the goal."

He snorted, "I'll let your people care for you." Kishi turned to leave.

"Be strong so you can be kind." Her mom used to say that, right? Thinking was hard.

"I'll check on you later." He left.

Xion watched him go. His hair was almost like snow. It was a little bit of home. Next time he came by Vanitas was pacing while Xion talked to someone who wasn't there.

"...she okay?" he asked.

"The fever's just getting worse and she's talking to a ghost. Does she look okay?"

"Watch yourself," Kishi scolded, "or you'll be punished too. I'll put more of a push on getting a doctor." Vanitas just grunted and changed the damp cloth out.

Kishi left again. It took two hours for them to return with a disgruntled Vexen. He irritably got started checking her out, even making her sit up so he could listen to her wheezing. Xion shied away from the strange touch.

"Papa, who's this?" She swore she could see him talking but she couldn't hear it. Even though he was just at the end of the bed.

"He's gone, Xion," Vanitas mumbled, "come back to now."

Vexen was too annoyed to play along and physically forced her to do stuff. After a brief exam he wrote some stuff down and excused himself. After the rough treatment, Xion just curled into a ball in the sheets and Vanitas had to shake her to get her attention.

"Vani—?!"

"You listen to me now. You didn't come all the way out here to die to some stupid disease. You're stronger than that. Get your ass back to the present so you can focus on resting instead of the dead. We gotta be strong." Xion sniffed a couple of times but nodded.

Kishi shuffled awkwardly in the doorway for a second before he left to give them privacy.

About an hour later, Ven showed up with tea and a lump of something bitter.

"Hey, she needs to swallow this, and drink all of this."

"Got it." Vanitas took the tea and medicine inside to her. Getting her to take it all was a struggle.

"D-Do you need help?" Ven offered. Vanitas was physically holding Xion down and she was putting up a fight.

"Yes," he said calmly.

Ven was much more timid. He came over and awkwardly stood there.

"Um, what do you need me to do?" the blonde asked.

"Just force it in her mouth and hold it closed."

"'M not gonna—" Whatever she was going to say was interrupted by a coughing fit Vanitas turned his face away from. Ven, unfortunately, got the full brunt of it. He grimaced and then took the pill from Vanitas. It took them five minutes of awkward wrestling, but eventually Ven got the thing shoved into her mouth and held it closed until she swallowed.

Xion really did try to spit it out, but finally swallowed it after another five minutes. Then she went lax. Vanitas mumbled something that might have been a thank you or a fuck off. It probably wasn't the rude thing, given the circumstances.

"She still needs the tea," Ven reminded gently.

"That I can get her to take."

"Let me know if you need any more help. The Prince wants her to have the best care."

"So do me and Sora."

"No worries. All the servants get the best care in the world."

"She's not supposed to be a servant."

"All the wives and concubines technically are."

"I don't give a damn. She was a commander before all this."

Ven looked uncomfortable and talked quietly and nervously, "but she's not anymore... I'll just leave you be."

"You don't stop being a soldier," he said as Ven left and mostly to himself, "this is just her next battle."

After taking the tea, Xion slept straight through the afternoon until dinner. Vanitas and Sora switched at mealtime. Ven was still taking care of the house when she woke up. He had dinner with him. Xion was sitting up and drinking water slowly, though she was still sniffing on occasion.

"Oh, you look much better today!" Ven said happily.

"I feel much better, thanks. And, uh, sorry for fighting you yesterday. I wasn't exactly sound of mind."

"I'm surprised you remember that... dinner? I brought potato pancakes."

"Oh, I don't. Sora gave me the details. And that sounds great." Potato anything sounded great. It was familiar. Ven put the tray on the side table and then brought her a plate and utensils. Xion took it and started eating gratefully. She hadn't really eaten all day.

He offered Sora a plate too.

"Thanks, Ven!" Sora said cheerfully. Ven beamed in response and sat down on the bed to eat as well. Goofy was nowhere to be seen so it was safe to eat at wolf level.

"...it tastes like something I'd eat at home," Xion said quietly. Sora nodded in agreement.

"Oh really? We eat potatoes sometimes but not as often as I'd like."

"It's our main staple crop in Terminus. They can survive the cold," Xion said.

"That makes sense. They seem really hardy."

“They are, and there's tons of varieties."

Ven made a grunting sound of acknowledgement around a mouthful of pancake. There was a knock on the door before Kishi let himself in.

"Oh, you look a lot better," the Prince observed.

"I'm feeling better too, thanks."

"Good, I'm glad."

"...thanks for letting me stay here. Are you feeling better?"

"Sore throat, cough, but otherwise, yeah, I am. Stay until you feel better and then you can give me my bed back."

"Might be tonight."

"That would be great." He turned and left. Ven kind of snorted away a chuckle.

"He thinks he's really cool when he exits like that."

"He needs a cape, then."

"Compliment him on it sometime. I know he practiced it in the mirror a lot."

Xion grinned, then sneezed.

"He practices his royal voice too," Ven told her around a giggle. "I found him in his closet once practicing in the mirror."

"Hey, Xion had to practice her stern face," Sora added.

"Sora!"

"Oh! He had to do that too!!" Ven laughed, "royals are so funny sometimes."

Xion grumbled to herself.

"Did the Prince play out court meetings with stuffed animals?" Sora asked.

"Oh yes! They used to play war too. Kishi would mediate the stuffed animals' ceasefire negotiations."

"Or asking her brothers to play the ogres."

"Riku usually played the dragon when Kishi played rescue the Princess with his stuffed horse."

"Why would anyone need to be rescued from a dragon?" Xion asked suddenly.

"It's just like old tales. You know, jealous witches kidnapping Princesses and locking them up and using bloodthirsty dragons to guard them. Or dragons that demand virgin women to eat them in their lairs full of stolen treasure."

Neither Xion nor Sora spoke. Bloodthirsty? Man-eating thieves? Dragons? It really hit Xion hard. No wonder people were led to hunt them, raised on lies like that. How terrible. How cruel.

"So, yeah,” Ven continued, “Kishi would build a huge pillow tower and put his horse in there and convince Riku to play the dragon and they would wrestle and play fight. Riku makes some pretty funny sounds too."

Xion sniffed and started coughing. It sounded cute, what she expected kids to do, but not with dragons. It felt wrong. Sacrilegious.

"Oh shoot, let me get you more tea."

"Thanks, Ven."

He went downstairs to get tea. Sora took a moment to put a hand on her shoulder.

"It's not right, but I don't think we should say anything," he suggested. She nodded. The less Daybreak knew about their dragons, the better.

Ven came back with the teapot and a cup. He poured her some and handed it over. Xion took it and downed half the cup in the first drink.

"What does the Prince usually do for fun now?" Sora asked, ready for the discussion to be about something other than dragons.

"He likes to sneak out and hide in the garden, but we're not supposed to know that."

"Well. I'll keep it a secret."

"He sketches sometimes too, and I know he likes riding his horse a lot."

"The big black one or Saladin?" she asked.

"Saladin," Ven clarified.

"He seems like a good horse."

"Yeah, he's pretty good. Kishi uses him to get through town incognito the couple times his father has let him go."

"...why isn't he allowed out in the town?" Xion asked.

"None of the Princes are. It's not safe."

"It's the capital city."

"And it's open to anyone. The Empire has taken over a large part of the world and anyone can just come in here," he reminded her.

"...yeah, I can see why that would be dangerous."

"The death of one of the 'immortal' royal family would be just," he cut off, clearly unable to find the right word to describe it so he shook his head instead.

"... immortal?"

"Yeah, it's what our enemies call them. Because anytime one of the Imperial Highnesses fights, they are worth ten men and can't be killed. They always return without a scratch. They aren't actually immortal, but it's a perception we use as a military tactic. It scares a lot of military leaders into surrendering without a fight, but it also means some men put more value on killing the Princes."

"... That's interesting. I've seen the healing," she admitted.

"It works really well, but only if the Princes don't get hurt enough to break the illusion or die. So, unless they are travelling in a royal capacity or acting as a general on the front lines, they have to stay on the estate or in the school."

"Do they travel often?"

"Xemnas and Ansem travel a lot. They’re only still in town because of the potential wedding to you. Riku has started being deployed more frequently but Kishi has only left the city a few times."

"Does he miss home when he does?"

"Who? Ki?" Ven asked for clarification.

"Yeah."

"If he does, he hasn't said. We miss him a lot when he's gone."

"You and Roxas are good to him." Sora nodded in agreement.

"He's good to us. We all serve the whole House, but Kishi likes us and requests us. So, we get to prioritize him when we work."

"That's so different, but I guess retainers aren't a thing here."

"Nope. It's really weird for you to have your own servants," Ven pointed out.

"It's tradition there, and a retainer is more than a servant," Sora said.

"How so?"

"We are guards, servants and teachers. Whatever our charge does, we are expected to be competent enough at to help. We are the second family to our charge, which makes our most important job a heavy burden. We are brothers in arms and in spirit."

And, Xion thought, sipping her tea, should a member of the royal family turn their backs on the people, they are assassins. It made the close bond that much more important. In their recorded history, there were four examples of it happening. It kept the royal family humble and prevented deep corruption. It was a mandate from their gods.

"That's a lot of pressure on two people."

"We aren't the only servants, but we're the most trusted. It's not like we do all of that, all the time. Just as needed. Except the second family part, that doesn't ever really go away," Sora told Ven.

Ven started cleaning up while he asked, "You're not worried that they'll be too dependent on you?"

"It's a bit of a balancing act in that regard," Xion said, "but typically they have to take their cues from us. Not the other way around. Sora and Vanitas might be older than me, but I usually function as the older sibling."

"Huh," Ven muttered a bit, "I hope you guys get to stay... It's been nice having more hands around."

"I hope we can stay too." Sora looked down. Xion knew he was thinking about the price of leaving.

"So do I," she said.

"It's really a shame that you guys are missing... um, well, you know, your..." Ven motioned to his own crotch.

"That we're castrated?"

"Yeah. All of the servants here have to be able to reproduce."

"That's definitely weird. They don't tell you who, do they?" Sora asked.

"Tell us who what?"

"To...reproduce with."

"Oh, yeah, that's Aqua's job. She acts as matchmaker. We don't necessarily have to marry our match, but it helps."

"That's...that sounds really sad." Xion empathized with Sora. He couldn't get married, but if he could, she knew he'd hate having to go to someone else's bed.

"It's not so bad. They always find good matches. Roxas and I are super healthy, and we don't have to worry about dating."

"What does health have to do with it?" Xion asked.

"You know, sometimes unhealthy parents make unhealthy babies. This way we know our children will be healthy and live long lives. They're born here and raised to be good servants to the house and there's no need to hire more people," he said cheerfully.

That sounds like something you'd do with a horse herd, not people. But what did she know, really?

"You seem to be happy with it," said Xion.

Ven's mood shifted a little bit as he said, "I mean, what choice do we have?"

"I had to choose this life," Sora said, "choices can be heavy too."

"Yeah, but, I mean, you don't get to have a family," Ven said gently, "I have to. My ability to create future servants is part of my value. Roxas and I are old enough now where Aqua is starting to look for matches for us. I don't even know how much I'll be allowed to help raise any kids I make."

"How old are you?" Sora asked.

"We're twenty-two."

"That seems kinda late..." Xion said.

"It is. With the young Prince, the priority was him, not us."

"I hope you like whoever Master Aqua picks for you," Xion said sincerely.

"I just hope they let me help raise my kid."

"...am I going to be able to raise mine?"

"If you have any. There's a strong chance all the Princes are infertile."

Xion thought that over for a minute. That could be a blessing, but it could also be a curse. If she did end up living with him, she wanted a family. Even if it was adopted. She would no longer be available for the throne if she was unable to continue the bloodline, but Isa was still there so it wasn't an immediate concern.

"... they've never had children?" she asked.

Ven looked around to make sure no one else was there and he lowered his voice anyway.

"I heard that Xemnas had a kid once with his first wife, but it was stillborn, and I heard that Ansem had a similar issue. He impregnated a concubine but both she and the baby died during childbirth. I know all of them have slept around, Ansem more than the others, and no one else has gotten pregnant? It's not official or anything but servants gossip, we think the Princes really can't have kids, like it's a punishment on the Emperor from the fae. He gets to live forever but the line ends with his sons kind of thing."

How awful, she thought.

"I don't think I'd want to live forever,” Xion admitted, “eventually, everything would get boring.”

Ven shuffled uncomfortably. The anxiety was visible on his face, like he was expecting the Emperor himself to materialize in front them and get him in trouble for spreading rumors.

"Yeah... I agree," he said after a few moments, "I need to take this stuff back to the kitchen."

"And I should probably try to sleep off whatever's left of this so Kishi can have his bed back tomorrow," Xion said, putting the empty teacup back on the tray.

"Yeah, I should probably go check on him too," Ven mumbled, a little more rushed, maybe even paranoid. He took the tray from her and scrambled off.

"... people are really afraid of the Emperor," Sora remarked as she settled down to sleep again.

“Or Xigbar,” she added with a yawn.

“Yeah, they’re both equally scary,” he agreed as he tucked her in. It didn’t take her long to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Xion felt better the next morning and was able to return to her own bed. Her fever had broken. The sniffles and cough continued for the next few days, so waking up with clear sinuses was a breath of fresh air when the sickness had run its course. She went to do her morning exercise routine.

Kishi was awake, sitting on his bed and eating breakfast. He motioned to her when he saw her leave her room.

"Eat," he managed to get out around a mouthful of bread.

"...I normally work out first, but okay." Xion pulled up a chair and buttered a piece of bread.

"We're going to see my father this morning."

That woke her up. Already? Did she do something wrong? She didn't think so, but...

"Should I dress up?" She should definitely bathe.

"Absolutely." He was stressed out too.

"I'll put in the effort, then. Do you know why he wants to see us?"

"It's probably about the engagement."

"...that makes sense." She could destress just a little bit. She wolfed down her bread. "When this morning?"

"Couple hours."

That was doable.

"I'll be ready," she assured him. Kishi rubbed his face and then shoved the rest of his eggs into his mouth.

"We need to be there early," he mumbled.

"How early?"

"I don't know, fifteen minutes? I want to beat my brothers."

"Let's make it thirty, then." Xion had a few last bites before heading down to the bath. She didn't care if it was hot, she just needed to be clean.

By the time she was out, Kishi was dressed and pacing while Ven followed him around with a hairbrush.

Xion went straight to getting dressed. She went with one of the more complex suits with the black coat again. She was more comfortable in pants, but the shirt and belt were constricting.

Kishi fussed with her the second she was out of her room. He took the brush from Ven and started on her hair, anxiously trying to get it right, whatever 'it' was.

"It's not really long enough to do anything with." Long hair was easy for enemies to grab so she kept it short.

"I'm just trying to make it less messy," he huffed.

"Feel free to try whatever you want." Her hair would always lay flat, but it liked to clump up. It was never even.

He still tried. Kishi fussed over her for a solid ten minutes until Aqua came by to check on them.

"Good morning," she greeted. Kishi grunted in response, and she ignored him to come over and check them both.

"Good morning, Master Aqua," Xion replied cordially.

"You both look nice," she praised, "Are you ready to go?"

Xion was, but she looked to Kishi for confirmation. He took a deep shuddering breath and then nodded.

"Okay, let's go," she said. Aqua turned and led the way out of the house. Xion stayed just a step behind Kishi, and she let her face fall into courtier neutral. Now was not the time to be giving things away for free.

The school was unchanged as they walked through it and up moving platforms. Students could be seen studying and practicing with magic as they worked their way up to the open throne room.

The Emperor and his Regent were already there with a scribe. Naminé was in attendance too, as was Ansem. Xemnas and Riku hadn't arrived yet. There was another man standing off to the side near Naminé. He was tall, beefy, and had brown hair slicked back on top like a cockatiel.

Xion didn't give Ansem a second glance, but she averted her eyes from the Emperor. She was still mostly going to take her cues from Kishi, though the etiquette guide was hopefully going to be of some use here.

Aqua went to stand next to Naminé and the other man, smiling at them both as she did so. Kishi went to stand next to his brother, making sure to stay at least two steps ahead of Xion at all times. Ansem looked surprisingly neutral. He wasn't even acknowledging the two new arrivals and only reacted when Riku and Xemnas arrived together. Then it was to turn and nod respectfully to the Crown Prince. Kishi did the same, tucking his head a bit until they were all lined up in front of their father.

Emperor Xehanort studied his sons for a moment before he straightened himself.

"I am announcing the engagement of Prince Kishi Oscura and Lieutenant Colonel Xion Terminus. They are to be wed May the fifth, nearly two months from now and I will expect all nations, cities, and territories in the Empire to send tithes and representatives to attend," he announced firmly. The scribe was furiously recording.

Two months. That was hardly any time. She was sure the letter would be delivered by hawk, but even on gryphons, it might be a month and a half. And he'd decided on Kishi. She was relieved to not be given to either of the older brothers, but perhaps the thing that stuck out to her the most was that a representative would attend. Maybe, just maybe, she'd get to see one of her brothers.

There was also a little pride in being called by her rank, not Princess for once.

"Father, why was it necessary for all of us to be present for such trivial news?" Ansem asked, irritated.

"You are all dismissed now that you have borne witness," Xehanort ignored the question to say instead.

Ansem wasted no time in leaving but Xemnas and Riku went to shake Kishi's hand and congratulate him. Though neither of them acknowledged Xion directly. They left but Kishi stayed.

"Father," he started, keeping his eyes down, "may I participate in the wedding planning?"

"Your focus should be on your studies and meeting the contractual requirements of your engagement. You are required to present a gift of your making to your wife to be as well as determine the nature of her role in your household."  

"...of course, sir."

"Aqua, Naminé, and I will handle arrangements," the Emperor confirmed.

Kishi nodded and then said softly, "I will take my leave, thank you for your wisdom and direction."

Xion kept her eyes on Kishi the whole time. That was something else riding on this. Kishi, apparently, would decide how much power she had here.

The young prince took a breath and then turned and walked out of the throne room. He was quiet as they walked back through the school. Xion stayed close, but a step behind him.

Once they were close to the house, she spoke. "Did...did that go well?"

"How the fuck am I supposed to know? We're just pawns, we don't get to see the big picture."

That was a matter of learning your opponent and what pieces they had.

"I just thought you'd know more about this than me."

"I probably do," he snapped defensively.

"I'm not trying to start a fight, I'm just trying to understand as much as I can," she said softly, "I'm not trying to imply anything about you."

His tenseness softened a little bit and he muttered, "I think it went fine."

"Did you want to help plan the wedding? Because you might still be able to affect some things, even if you aren't actually involved in the plans."

"I know I can. I'm not completely out of control here."

"...sorry."

He stopped outside the door of his wing and rubbed his face, clearly very stressed. Then he looked over his shoulder at her, studying her carefully. Slowly, he reached out and tucked some loose hair behind her ear, gently touching her face for a second with an intense expression, deep in thought.

She held still while he did. It was a surprisingly tender motion, though not unwelcome. She leaned into the touch, just a little.

It freaked him out and he recoiled just a bit, shook his head rapidly for a second to clear his head, and then opened the door to go inside. He headed straight upstairs to his closet to change.

Xion headed to the library.

Sora came and found her as soon as he could.

"Hey, are you okay?" he asked.

She nodded and announced, "I'm getting married the fifth of May."

"Spring weddings are nice."

"A wedding in the planting season is said to thrive and produce a large family." There were sayings for the planting season, growing season, harvest time, and snow. None of them were bad. Just different kinds of luck.

"Do you think you could get the tailor to work dragonsfire green into the dress somehow?" she asked.

"I could ask but I don't think they'll listen to me or Vani."

"What about Ven?"

"Maybe... You don't think they'll let you have a say?"

"I think I can't leave this house very often, and I don't even know if the tailor lives in the estate."

"Yeah... Maybe ask Kishi?" Sora suggested.

"Not now, but I will. I need stationary."

"Oh, I did figure out where that is..." Sora moved over to the desk and started going through drawers until he found the box of stationary. He pulled it out and dug around for a new inkwell.

"I've figured out a code," she whispered, "I'd like to write home."

"Do you want me to watch the door?"

"Actually, I don't think it'll be needed, but I'd like you to find me a hot drink."

"You got it. Vani should be here soon too." He left to find a drink.

Xion started writing. The code itself was disguised in a regular letter detailing her situation so far. The code followed a particularly sloppy letter. Calligraphy had never been her strong suit, but it wasn't that bad. The letters following the mistakes spelled the coded message phonetically, not properly.

Keep the dragons secret.

Sora came back with a hot cider. He put the mug on the desk for her and then sat down in one of the armchairs.

Vanitas was back before long as well while Xion sipped at her drink.

"Two months. We have two months to find you two jobs."

Sora looked up at Vani with a worried expression and asked, "W-Will that be enough?"

"We'll either find jobs or live in the city and communicate by letter," Van said, "we know enough to be smithing assistants."

"I, um, what if they don't let us live long enough for that?" Sora asked quietly.

"I won't let that happen," Xion said, but really, she was powerless here. It wasn't something she could guarantee.

"Like you could do anything," Roxas said from the doorway. He looked rundown and tired but there wasn't much bite in his words. This was the first time she had seen him since he had neglected to bring her tea when she was sick.

"What do you guys want for lunch?" he asked. Vanitas gave his best death glare while Xion curled in a bit.

"Whatever they're making today is fine."

"No special requests?" he double-checked. Roxas was avoiding all eye contact.

"I'm not used to picking my meals. If there's something with potato, I guess...are you alright?" she asked.

"Potato, got it. Do you need someone to send your letter?" He motioned to the desk.

"I'm not done writing just yet. I can send Sora when I am."

He nodded, bowed politely, and then left.

"...Sora, did something happen?"

Sora looked down and said, "Y-yeah. The Prince had him beaten for not bringing you tea when he was ordered to."

Xion went wide-eyed at that. The concept of beating people as punishment hadn't quite sunken in except when it applied to her. Punishments at home usually consisted of hard labor or missed meals. Beatings, aside from spanking a child, were rare. The idea that disobeying a single order would result in that...it painted the Prince in a different light.

"He's okay," Sora reassured her.

"He didn't look it."

"He is though. I think, he just doesn't want to mess up again."

"...I should talk to him at some point."

Sora shuffled awkwardly. "Yeah, but, be gentle."

"I will be. Thanks for telling me. Vanitas, don't be mean to him." Vanitas grumbled.

"That's hard for Vani," Sora teased.

"I know it's a stretch," Xion played along.

"I can be nice when people deserve it!" Vanitas defended.

"Roxas is just like you, Vani," Sora observed.

"Which is probably why we don't get along," Vanitas said. Sora chuckled a little bit, but it died off quickly.

Xion finished the letter and sent it along with Sora after lunch came and went and spent most of the rest of the day doing various exercises.

Chapter Text

Kishi knocked on her door in the morning. Xion was always up at the crack of dawn doing strength training, so she got it right away.

"Good morning," she greeted.

"Don't make lunch plans today."

"I wasn't planning on anything, so alright. Do we have some meeting to attend?" she asked.

"No, I just want to eat lunch with you."

"Okay. Should I do anything special?"

"Nope, just be available for lunch." He turned and left.

Xion closed the door and resumed her routine. That was unusual, but not worrying. She joined him sporadically for meals anyway. She was downstairs reading by the time lunch was coming around.

Kishi was dressed lightly and had a basket under his arm when he came to get her.

"Ready?"

"I don't know what for, but yes." She bookmarked her spot with a feather before getting up.

"Lunch," he said simply with a neutral, guarded tone. Kishi led the way outside and walked with her to the big garden. It was the same one she had been to when she got to the city, but it was much more flowery, if that was even possible. Now that it was the first week of March, Spring was starting to work its way into the city. Warm air filled the garden and there was a buzz of insect activity.

He opened the gate for her. She stepped in and sighed. It was very beautiful, and she could smell all the flowers in bloom. It really reminded her of Lauriam, though he smelled specifically like roses.

"It's nice out today," she observed.

"It's spring." At home, it always snowed until April.

The Prince led the way to a clearing deep in the garden surrounded by trees. It was easy to forget they were in a city here. Kishi spread a blanket out on the grass and sat down.

"...are we having a picnic?" she asked him.

"Yeah." He opened the basket and started picking out sandwiches.

"...this is really sweet, thank you." Xion sat across from him.

"Well, we needed to talk."

"We do?" Wouldn't the plants just love to gossip about this?

Kishi clarified, "Yeah, about how much freedom I should give you when we're married."

Xion didn't expect to even be included in the conversation.

"That is pretty important."

"Xigbar and Ansem want me to treat you like a personal concubine. You'd stay in that room or in my bed."

"I don't think either of us would be happy if you did. How much do their opinions matter?"

"Ansem has the most experience with wives and as my older brother, I respect him," he told her thoughtfully.

"You also told me all but one of his wives ended up dead."

"So, you think I shouldn't listen to them."

"In my own interest entirely, no, I don't. I think I'd become something angry and difficult to deal with, not just for you. No one's meant to live in just one room."

"But you're okay with your only purpose being to pleasure me?" he asked carefully.

"Not really, but I'm okay with that being part of it. Being family, to me, means taking care of you and any children we have. It's a partnership. I know things aren't the same here, but it's the kind of life I'd want. I'm not entirely happy with the amount of freedom I have now, but I can live with it. Part of the reason is that it allows me some time for myself."

"Would you be willing to be tattooed?"

"...that would depend on the tattoo."

"A servant's tag." He started tossing up cherry tomatoes to catch in his mouth. His seriousness was starting to fade away a bit.

"...what are they for?"

"It's a physical mark of ownership."

"... I'd rather not. Maybe if it did something. But isn't that what rings are for?"

"The tattoo and matching tag are what let servants back onto the estate if they leave," he explained.

"...if that was the only way back, then I'd be okay with it. I wouldn't like it, but I'd tolerate it."

"I'm just trying to decide if you should be a servant or a bed warmer."

"There aren't other options?"

"I mean, death is always an option."

Xion didn't say anything right away. "I'd like to be able to go out sometimes. A tattoo is worth that."

"You'd only go out on my orders."

"That's still something."

"And you'd have to serve me like the other servants."

"...I can live with that."

"Plus some," Kishi added quickly.

"I'm aware of that."

He focused on his sandwich and the wine he brought. Xion's appetite had 'mysteriously' vanished during the conversation and she just watched.

"Not gonna eat?" he asked as he dug around for the carrots.

"I'm not very hungry right now. I'll eat a little." Xion looked in the basket for something small.

"So, I carried all this extra food for no reason?"

"... I'll eat."

He smirked, triumphant, and then flopped back on the blanket. The sunlight made him look even more pale and his hair shimmered. There was almost a hint of blue in it if one squinted.

Xion ate robotically, not enjoying the meal at all, and she normally would have. It was good food, but the conversation left her feeling like there was a stone in her middle. He was watching her out of the corner of his eye, so Xion was wearing her careful blank face. Not relaxed or happy, but not angry or disappointed.

He was equally guarded, just studying her and closing his eyes whenever he thought she might be turning to look at him. She pointedly did not.

"...is it not good?" he asked after a couple long minutes.

"It's better than anything I had regularly at home," she admitted.

"That's not a yes or no."

"Yes, it's good."

"Why do you look like you're struggling to eat?"

"I told you I wasn't very hungry."

He huffed a bit, irritated, but he didn't scold her or anything. "Fine, then don't eat it."

"I don't mean any offense by it," Xion explained. She slowly put the sandwich down.

"It's not your fault I made too much. I can't punish you for that."

That wasn't at all her issue, but she wasn't about to push it.

"You made it?" she asked with genuine surprise.

He was immediately defensive and aggressive in his response, "Is that so surprising? You think I can't make my own food from time to time?"

"That wasn't what surprised me. I was surprised that you bothered to make something for us."

Kishi sat up and growled, "Well, clearly I shouldn't have!"

"I thought it was kind." A stark contrast to the conversation it was supposed to accompany. He deflated a little bit.

"Yeah, well, you weren't even hungry, so it was a waste of study time."

"Sandwiches make decent leftovers. I can take these back with me and eat them for dinner."

Kishi laid back down and rolled onto his side facing away from her with a mumbled, "Yeah, okay."

Xion packed what was left of the lunch back in the box before turning to admire the garden. She was still struck by how few of the plants had practical uses aside from looking pretty. He just laid there awkwardly and unsure.

"Y'know, we didn't have places like this in Terminus," she told him.

"You had a garden."

"Lauriam had a rose garden. Even then, the flowers were harvested for jams and soaps every year."

"We use this garden for things too." There was that defense again.

"At home, nothing existed just for the sake of beauty. Everything had to have a practical purpose as well."

"This is where we grow all the herbs for the school and for cooking."

"Does every plant have a use?" she asked genuinely.

"Being pretty is a use.”

"Not where I'm from."

"Well, you don't have to struggle for that kind of thing anymore."

She let out a breath. She really didn't have to struggle at all anymore if she didn't want to. She could just be a concubine and let things happen. But she was raised to believe that people were defined by the struggles they overcame, and she wasn't sure she was done growing yet.

He watched her out of the corner of his eye again, studying her reactions to things he said. Any outbursts seemed to be back in control.

She was still wearing the mask that kept her face blank.

“Struggles are important," she finally said.

He sat up again to say, "Yeah, but struggling to eat? It's hard to excel if all your energy is on survival."

"My people have been doing just that for two and a half millennia. The famines come and go, it's not always a struggle to eat, but it's always a struggle to survive."

"So, it's nice to not have to worry about that anymore, yeah?" Kishi prodded.

"...I don't know that I know how to do anything else."

"You've been here a couple weeks now. You haven't wanted for anything, and you still would prefer to struggle to live?"

"I don't know that I haven't wanted for anything, but I don't feel like this is living."

"What do you mean?" he asked seriously.

"Struggles make the reward have substance. I'm not earning this life. It's easy, but there's no satisfaction to it. Even scars, we talk about earning. All the nicks and scratches, those don't matter, but big scars? They're proof that you survived, that you won, that you earned the right to tell those stories in the tavern. I'm finding it hard to find joy in things I don't feel like I've done anything to deserve."

"...so you want me to make you work?"

"Or give me something to work on."

"And if you fail at your tasks?" Kishi asked with his voice extra guarded.

"I don't leave things undone. I'll keep working until they're successful."

"If I give you work then you will have to face the potential for punishment."

"That seems to be the standard. I'm a smith, a metalworker, I'm good with my hands," she offered.

"That's not a woman's job here."

"I'm not going to be a good housewife. I was always expected to be the head of my household growing up."

"Well, that's not how it worked out," he was starting to get aggressive again, "I'm the head of my own household."

"I know."

He huffed irritably.

"I don't expect to be in charge. I'm just setting expectations for the kinds of jobs I can handle."

"What can you do?"

"To a lesser extent than smithing, there's jewelry making. I can hunt, I can fly and fight—though, I can't fly without Donald. I guess I can sing, but I'm not very good at it. I'm not very good in the kitchen, but I can get fires going strong. I'm good with kids, but that's not useful here. Chopping wood, carrying things, if it's strength based, I can probably do it. And I can pick up craftsmanship skills pretty easily."

"What's a Donald?"

"... he's my gryphon. He is to me what Goofy is to you."

"I see. Why do you think being good with kids isn't useful?"

"We don't have kids yet," Xion reminded him.

"You made it sound like you didn't expect any."

"No, I expect lots, but it's not useful for at least a year."

Kishi looked away for a second before saying, "You need to learn some sort of art. Jewelry is good, but you should learn some music."

"I can sing, but I'm not very good right now. I've never studied it or tried to get better."

"Well, I want you to get better," he insisted.

"... it's something for me to work on."

"Good. I like music. I want more of it in the house."

"Your music is beautiful, you know."

"It's the sound of hours and hours of hard work," he said, still a little defensive until he realized she was giving him a genuine compliment, "thank you."

"I can tell. I don't know if musicians do levels like smiths, but I'd guess you'd be a master."

"...when I met you in your country, I thought you'd be a stubborn, argumentative problem all the time," Kishi mused.

"You've been mostly kind to me. I don't have a reason to make it a battle. I'm not entirely happy, but it's still better with you than I expected."

"...what did you expect?"

"I expected to be with Ansem. You painted a very clear picture of what that would have been like," Xion reminded him.

"But how did your expectations change when you were given to me?"

"I didn't really know what to expect. The stories about the Daybreak Empire talk about the four cruel, bloodthirsty princes, so I can't say my expectations were high. They were a little higher than what I expected of Ansem, but not much."

"And now?" he asked as though looking for specific answers.

"I have a really confusing view of you, some of which I'd rather not voice."

"I want to know."

"I'm not sure I can put it all into words. I think you can be sweet, I think you try to be good, but you also think you're better than everyone and take too many comments as an attack on your person. Any time I think I'm getting close to you something comes around and blindsides me. So, I expect, from you, a strange mix of good and bad that I can't quite define," she explained.

He seemed puzzled but thought about what she said carefully.

"But I am better than everyone..." he mumbled seriously, "the Imperial family is."

She didn't react to that. He was wrong but fighting that right now wouldn't help things.

"I'm not acting any different than how I should," he said, defensive again. This time he caught himself and huffed instead of continuing. "Well, if you don't like the way I am, that's fine, we don't have to be close to fulfill our political duties."

"I haven't made up my mind about you. Most of the time I find you pleasant."

He snorted irritably and flopped back down, facing away from her again.

Xion hugged her knees to her chest and said softly, "This is why I said I'd rather not tell you."

"I shouldn't have asked," he grumbled, "it doesn't matter what you think of me. We're still trapped in this."

"You wouldn't rather be trapped and okay with me?"

"It sounds like you're not okay with me. If I'm not okay with you then I can just take my brother's advice."

"You don't have to like everything about someone to be okay with them. And I think I like you. Which is more than I was expecting to do."

"But you have to like me."

"Do I?"

"I'm an Imperial Prince," he grumbled, "I can count on one hand the number of people who like me because they genuinely knew me."

"I'd like to be one of them, someday."

He scowled at her and growled, "You aren't supposed to lie to me. I will punish you if you lie to me."

"I'm not lying."

"You'd say anything to protect your people."

"Sure, but it's true that I want to like you for you. I have to spend the rest of my life with you. Of course I'd like to get along and be friends."

He huffed again and said, "I'm going back to the house. You can stay here if you want."

She didn't get up. "I'll stay awhile."

"Be back before bedtime," he grumbled and got up. He left the basket and blanket behind as he left.

Xion laid back once he was gone and covered her eyes with the back of her arm. Why was this so hard?

She still wanted to be back before dinner but there was time before then. So, she stayed out among the flowers, admiring the leaves and new growths and trying to commit them to memory to try to sketch for Lauriam. She packed the blanket up carefully about an hour before she expected dinner to be ready and headed back. At least this path she knew.

  • As she passed by one of the buildings between the garden and her home, a shadow reached out and locked around her arm, dragging her swiftly into the alley and pinning her between the wall and Prince Ansem. There was wild fury in his amber eyes.

Xion took only a moment to panic before trying to fight the shadows back. Her first thought was of Vanitas, but he wouldn't be so reckless with his magic. He couldn't use it, unless she ordered or was in danger. But when she saw Ansem, her blood ran like ice. She was careful to not show it on her face. “What have I done to earn that look?" she asked. He slapped her across her face.

"How dare you speak to me," he hissed. Ansem barely gave her a second to recover before his lips were crushing hers and his bony fingers were pulling at her sash and groping at her chest.

Xion tried to turn her head to the side and pushed his hands away. This was not okay, and she already felt dirty. She tried to make a break for the street again. She could see the basket and what was left of the picnic scattered about in the open on the street.

He grabbed her tighter and forced her against the wall, pressing his hips tight against hers to keep her restrained.

"As if I would part with you," he was mumbling to himself between long nibbling kisses on her neck, ears, and jaw, "I will ruin you for him. Kishi would never be interested in keeping you around after the wedding if he knew that you slept with me."

"He's better than you and this petty revenge bit won't change that." Xion tried to headbutt him, but the angle was awkward. She still managed to get his nose and he hissed.

"Vengeance? This is taking what's rightfully mine." One of his hands wrapped around her throat and the other moved to her groin. They were both still dressed but he was still trying to feel her through her coat. She bucked and struggled against his grip. If he wasn't so close, she'd have tried to bring a knee up. As it was, she grabbed his long, white hair and yanked as hard as she could. His head jerked back and he snarled. The hand between her legs snatched at her arm and jabbed a thumb into the pressure point there to make her let go. He punched her across the face with his other hand, holding her upright by his grip on her other arm and his hips ground against hers again to keep her against the wall.

There was a flurry of clothing and muted colors in the dimness of the alley and Ansem was no longer against her. There was a slight jerk as she was yanked by his grip on her arm, but he let go as he went down. Kishi had tackled him and was punching his older brother in the face.

Xion fell into a heap on the ground. She was still processing. Her arm throbbed, her face stung, but he wasn't touching her anymore. She looked up in some confusion at the fighting brothers.

Kishi only got two solid hits in before Ansem recovered and caught the third punch. He twisted the younger brother's arm and rolled with him until they hit the alley wall and now Kishi was the one trapped under Ansem. There was a knee in his gut, a hand squeezing his throat, and another raining blows on his face, but Kishi neatly pressed a thumb into Ansem's inner arm at the same time he pulled a knee up against his brother's thigh. Shadows came up under Kishi, stabbing upwards through his feet and hands but he countered with his own magic. A short blast of purple-blue flame shot from Kishi's hand and hit Ansem in the chest, throwing the older brother backwards and off of Kishi, and interrupted the magic.

The shadows retreated and Ansem and Kishi both scrambled to their feet to glare at each other. Ansem had an obvious advantage, was clearly very angry, and Kishi was badly hurt. Even so, the younger brother put himself between Ansem and Xion, fists raised. The older brother tsked and took a step backwards, disappearing into shadow, and leaving them alone.

Xion laid there shaking for a moment before getting up and slowly walking over to him.

"...thank you."

Kishi was still in alert mode. It was animalistic the way he searched the alley. He very slowly turned around and gently took her chin and tilted her head so he could see the bruise forming on her cheekbone a little better. The skin had barely split, and he reached up to brush the beading blood away, unintentionally leaving a smear of his own blood on her cheek from the stab wound through his hand. He was eerily calm and blank despite the fury behind his eyes.

Xion, to her credit, didn't pull away but she did flinch almost imperceptibly.

"I'm not hurt badly," she reassured him in a strained whisper. It was all she could manage right now.

  • He motioned back to the street, still constantly checking behind them in the alley.

"To the house, now," he ordered softly in monotone. She didn't argue, but she did wait at the street to see if he was coming too.

He was just behind her. Kishi stepped over the basket, leaving the spilled remains of the picnic on the street, and herded her back to the house a little more quickly. He kept her in front of him at all times. He was limping and leaving behind bloody footprints, but he stayed focused on guarding their rear and keeping an eye on her.
Naminé was waiting in the doorway with her usual smile. She waved gently as they approached but left before they got close enough to interact. Kishi didn't even bother to see her off, he guided Xion inside, and closed the door behind them.

"I can send Sora for a doctor..." she started to say. With his healing factor, would he even need it? She was still trembling. She hadn't given herself time to absorb in the moment, and it was really hitting her now. What he was trying to do. What he would have done if Kishi hadn't shown up. She was suddenly trying very hard not to cry.

Roxas stuck his head around the corner and very quickly, went from laid-back casual, to suddenly very concerned.

"Bath," Kishi ordered sharply and Roxas rushed down the hall to the big bathroom.

"Come on," he said, voice calm and controlled despite the effort of holding back his own rage. Kishi started limping to the bathroom. She followed quietly. Her skin was crawling, and she wanted to throw up, but she stayed close.

Roxas was adjusting the water temperature and digging out specific soaps and ointments. The big tub wasn't filling up just yet.

"Is it just your face?" Roxas asked her gently.

"...yeah, just that." She didn't think she'd bruised anywhere from his grip. Kishi started digging around for the ointments, but Roxas stopped him.

"You'll just make it worse," the servant said quietly, "please, sir, you should get in the bath. I can help her." The Prince looked irritated at being told what to do but the blood was still dripping from his hands and his feet so he just huffed his usual huff and then backed away to start undressing. Roxas motioned gently to a chair next to the long countertop for Xion.

She was slow, almost dazed. Xion wanted Sora or Vanitas, though they were probably still upstairs with no idea what had happened yet. Her vision was swimming. She really didn't want to cry, not in front of them, but she couldn't just run away.

Roxas was very gentle. He carefully mixed a paste and used his thumb to apply it to the bruise, gently rubbing it into the skin.

"You really should take a bath too. It will help with the healing," he mumbled to her. Kishi was shakily lowering himself into the tub, letting the water run over his hands and feet and rinsing himself off before plugging the water to let the tub start to fill. His bloody clothes were tossed to the side.

"...I will." Her voice was small and shaky, and she hated it. She sounded weak. She did take another look at Kishi, not making a move to leave yet.

He was shaking too and presumably in a lot of pain. The water of the bath was cloudy with some tiny bubbles popping along the surface. They made it easy to see that there was some slight flow to the tub, keeping the dirty water flowing downstream to a drain. Roxas took a rag and soaked it in the bath water to gently wash her cheek, the ointment plus the water created a warm, itchy effect but the bruise was visibly healing.

The first tear fell, and she tried to hide it behind a hand checking where the bruise had been. She couldn't see it healing, but the sensation was similar, and the pain was receding.

"Rox, go get Ven, the hallway needs to be cleaned," Kishi ordered. His voice was strained, and the words were forced.

"You need help too-" the servant started to argue.

"I can handle it," Kishi managed, "go get her people too. She needs them."

Roxas looked at Xion sympathetically and then he got up. He moved the mixed ointment over to the side of the pool/tub and set it down, then left the room.

Kishi swam over to the far side of the tub to where there was a sealed container. It was a small ceramic pot, barrel shaped with a latching lid. He undid the latch and fished around inside for a cup, using it as a scoop to add crystals to the water that made it hiss and bubble. It made him shake, but he managed to reseal the lid and work his way back over to where he could sit down and fumble for the ointment.

Xion got up to move to the side of the bath.

"Do—do you want help?" She was going to say 'need', but that probably would have been insulting.

"Y-Yeah..." he admitted after a long pause. His hands were shaking and bleeding. With the adrenaline wearing off, he was feeling the holes in his hands and feet more, so it was hard to curl his fingers in to hold the little bowl of mixed paste. He carefully laid his hands out, palms down on the floor beside the edge of the tub so she could get to them. The blood was oozing out of the holes and mixing with the water, making it look worse than it was.

Xion had done basic field dressings. She had seen and handled blood, but this was still hard. This felt like when Sora or Vanitas took a blow for her. She carefully worked the ointment over each hand, doing her best to be gentle. She was crying now, but it was silent. She wasn't sobbing or trying to make a fuss.

"You have to push it in there," he instructed. There was sweat dripping off his nose, and he was shaking under her hands. He kept his voice quiet and gentle, but the lingering anger was making the words sound harsher than they were meant.

She got a little more of the stuff and tried to really work it in. She was still trying to be gentle, but considering the requirements, it was difficult.

When the ointment was properly caked in there, he pulled his hands back and submerged them. Kishi didn't cry out, and he didn’t cry, but he squirmed and closed his eyes tight as the healing magic did its work. He took a couple pained breaths and leaned back a little to soak. His feet could wait.

Sora failed to knock he was in such a rush. The door to the bath opened and he and Vanitas rushed in and to Xion's side, immediately wrapping her in a hug.

Xion leaned right into Sora and was finally able to cry freely. She was shaking and sobbing and while it was definitely visible to Kishi, she wasn't putting any voice behind it. She wanted a bath. She wanted to scrub herself until she couldn't feel his hands on her anymore. She wanted to burn the clothes she was wearing so she never had to look at them again. But right now, all she could do was cry.

Sora put a hand on her head and tightened his hug, trying to envelop her in a safety blanket but he also could tell this wasn't something she wanted her betrothed to see. He gently scooped her up and left the bath, carrying her upstairs and away from prying eyes. There was a bath off her room. It wasn't nearly as nice or built into the floor like Kishi's was, but it was enough.

Vanitas got the bath running while Sora carried her.

"...if you're not ready to talk, I won't push you," Van said, "but if you can, you should tell us."

"Not now. I just need to get clean," Xion whispered. Sora rubbed her back and took her to the bathroom. It was considerably smaller and there wasn't room for all three of them in there, so he put her down right outside of it. Xion started stripping while Vanitas double checked that the doors were closed, and Sora went to sit by the door to guard it.

She showed up in her pajamas nearly an hour later. Every inch of her skin was scrubbed raw and red. Xion sat on her bed and pulled the blankets up before patting the bedspread. Vanitas came and sat on one side.

"You're okay?" he asked her.

"Physically."

Sora immediately got in bed on her other side and scooted up close to hold her to ask, "What happened? W-Was it Kishi?"

"No—no, Ansem was waiting for me—"

"I'll kill him," Vanitas said darkly. Sora's mood darkened too.

"What happened?" he asked again, a little lower.

"You can't do anything reckless," Xion ordered first. Vanitas grumbled but didn't argue.

"Xion, what did he do to you?"

"...he didn't. Kishi came and stopped him."

"We should've been there..." Sora wrapped himself more completely around her.

Vanitas wasn't a hugger, but he did put a hand on her shoulder to ask, "What was he trying to do?"

"...he—he was—" Xion looked like she was going to cry again. "...he would have raped me. I couldn't fight him."

Now Sora looked like he was going to murder someone.

"We can't let him get away with this," he hissed.

"I'm gonna kill him," Vanitas repeated with a lot more venom.

"We can't do anything, and I don't want to risk losing you," Xion said in that terrible small voice she hated.

"He can have an accident," Sora suggested, his own voice was low and angry.

"You'll be caught, and he'll be more likely to get away with it if he tries again," Xion pointed out.

"Don't go out without one of us again!"

"I went out with Kishi, initially. And what would you do? I don't want you dying for me."

"It's what we signed up for," Vanitas said nonchalantly.

"You know we wouldn't hesitate," added Sora.

"I can't face this alone. I'll stay with you, but if something happens while we're out, your jobs are to find Aqua or Kishi."

Sora's frown deepened. "I won't leave you at all. If something is happening, I'm not leaving you."

"Aqua or Kishi could do something. Without getting in trouble," she insisted.

"And what if..." he trailed off and shook his head. It didn't matter. She was safe now. They just had to keep it that way.

"What if what?" Xion pushed.

"What if while we're getting help... you're hurt."

"Or Kishi's the one hurting you," Vanitas added. Xion hung her head.

"I can hold my own long enough for you to get help. We can't fight back if the Prince decides to do something."

"Like hell we won't. If he hurts you, we will get you out of here."

"And if I break the contract and don't marry one of them, I'll die."

"Then we get you out as soon as you're married," Vanitas said.

"The night of your wedding, we run," Sora agreed.

"What happens to everyone back home if we do?"

"We can fight them and protect everyone."

"Sora. Do you actually think Terminus stands a chance of coming out on the other side of that fight?"

"I... we won't know unless we try." There was some shuffling in the other room and quiet whispers followed by the heavy whump of Goofy laying down outside her door.

"We won't," Xion said before going to pet Goofy.

He got up when he felt the door open behind him and turned around with his tail wagging to greet her. Behind him, Roxas was helping Kishi into bed. The Prince's hands and feet were wrapped up tightly but the bruises on his face were healed. Neither of them were paying her and Goof any attention, whether they noticed her or not.

She gave him scratches, though she kept her eyes on Kishi. He was talking quietly to Roxas. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but it was clear that Kishi was very angry and was only sitting down in bed at Roxas' coaxing. The servant was very gentle, but his body language was restrictive, keeping Kishi from leaving. After a few moments of discussion, Roxas moved to the closet to get Kishi more to wear than just a towel and some bandages.

Xion waited quietly. It took him about ten minutes to get Kishi dressed since Roxas insisted on helping him every step of the way. He was dressing up in clothing that was loose enough to be flexible, but lacking in any sleeves, decorations, or loose fabric that could get in the way. It was just a tad fancier than something someone would train in. Roxas laced up Kishi's shoes and then the Prince insisted more readily in getting up, grabbing his sword, and heading out with Roxas protesting on his heels.

Xion tried to catch up before they left the house to ask, "Where are you going?"

Kishi stopped for half a second at the door and then left without answering, slamming the door on Roxas and poor Ven who was trying to clean the blood off the floor.

"...sorry."

"This isn't your fault," Ven reassured her from the floor. Sora had caught up too and was nodding his agreement.

"...I need to go do laundry," Roxas grumbled and then stalked off to the bathroom to get the discarded clothes.

"Let's go back upstairs," Sora suggested.

"Dinner should be ready soon too," Ven added.

She really had planned on eating the leftovers from the picnic, but that was all smashed, wasn't it? She slowly made her way back upstairs. Sora helped guide her. Goofy was laying on Kishi's bed but wagged his tail and got up to greet her when they got back.

"Hey boy. I'm not super hungry, you might get a big treat tonight." Xion wasn't sure she could eat at all, honestly. She was still feeling a little sick, though for a different reason than at lunch.

"You should still try to eat, Xion," Sora said gently, "to keep your strength up." He guided her back to her bedroom.

"I'll try. No promises though." Vanitas was reconstructing the blanket fort.

Dinner arrived before Kishi did. It was a chicken curry over rice arriving very late considering the chaos of the afternoon. Ven knocked on her door gently.

She opened it for him. She wasn't crying, but she didn't look happy.

"Thanks. And tell Roxas thanks as well."

"Hey, um, Roxas told me what happened. I'm sorry and I know Kishi isn't going to let it happen again."

"... it's not your fault, you know."

"I know, but I still feel sorry," Ven admitted. He came into her room and put the tray on the table. "I wish I could say this kind of thing was uncommon around here, but women just aren't treated the same."

"...yeah. I've noticed." Xion went to sit on her now-sheetless bed.

"Is there anything else I can get you?" Ven asked.

"I think we've got it Ven," Sora told him and Ven just nodded a little, unsure himself.

"Not unless you can find lingon berries," she said. It was unlikely. They didn't keep well and were a cold-weather plant.

"That doesn't sound familiar, but I can check."

"They're seasonal even in Terminus," Vanitas said.

"I'll still check." He excused himself.

Xion started to pick at the curry. She got a couple bites down before calling Goofy. The wolf very happily obliged.

"I'm staying here tonight," Sora told her as the other servants started heading home. Kishi still hadn't returned but the house was clean now, like nothing had happened.

"Me too," Vanitas said. Xion nodded and fed Goofy the chicken one piece at a time.

It was nearly midnight by the time Kishi got back. He moved quietly, assuming that Xion and Goofy were sleeping. It was only clear that he was home because of the sound of running water downstairs.

Xion carefully slipped out of bed from between her sleeping retainers and crept downstairs quietly, though she didn't enter the bathroom.

Eventually the water stopped running and he could be heard getting into the water. He occasionally made little pained hums, the kind that people make when they're biting their lip or tongue to try not to make noise. The room was plenty humid too, little droplets of water were forming under the door. Since the bathroom was well tiled, and anything that should avoid water damage was sealed in ceramic, the humidity wasn't a problem. The bathroom could easily be used as a sauna. Judging by the temperature of the door and the escaping steam, it was safe to assume that's what Kishi was doing.

Xion hesitantly knocked. The minimal splashing sounds stopped for a second.

"Come in," he called.

Xion took a deep breath before opening the door.

"...hey."

He jumped a bit when he realized it wasn't Roxas or Ven and quickly turned away.

"You have your own bath," he mumbled, flustered, "if you really need this one, you'll have to wait."

"I'm not here for the bath." She turned halfway so she was looking at the wall.

"You should rest," he insisted. It was for the best that it was hard to see with the humid fog and turned from each other. Kishi wasn't in great shape. This bath was not optional.

"I was trying to- I... really wanted to make sure you knew I was grateful."

"It was nothing," he said softly.

"It wasn't nothing to me."

"...you're okay then?"

"... mostly. I'm physically fine. Are you?"

He let out a sigh of relief and sank in the water up to his chin.

"He shouldn't bother you for awhile," Kishi mumbled.

"Thank you. Really, thank you. But you didn't answer my question. Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to help if you're not?" she asked him.

"I'm a Prince of Daybreak. Of course I'm okay," he grumbled. Kishi fumbled to add more salts to the water. There was mixed ointment by the tub too but there wasn't a whole lot left.

"I'm glad." She wasn't sure she quite believed him, but she didn't want to make him angry right now.

"Actually," he sounded pained again, "I can't reach my back."

"I can help with that," she said before heading to the side of the bath. He stood up a little more and waded over so he could sit on the side of the tub with his back to her. There was a slash across his back, just out of reach. The water had already gotten started on the healing process, so the bone wasn't exposed anymore but without the ointment there was evidence of potential scarring.

"...did you fight him?" Xion scooped some of the ointment out and started applying it to the deepest places first.

"I, um, I lit him on fire," Kishi admitted, "then we fought."

"I would have liked to see it." Even the mental image of Ansem on fire was pleasant right now. "Since I can't fight him myself."

He grunted and hissed a bit when the water from his hair mixed with the ointment, creating that burning itch.

"He's sated for now," Kishi managed to get out around deep, shuddering breaths, "that's what matters."

"It means a lot that you were willing to fight for me." Once the deepest places were worked in, she moved on to the rest of the wound.

"You're mine," he said softly. It was more affectionate than possessive this time.

She still didn't know how to react when he said it like that. She tried to be a little gentler with the ointment. He was paler than earlier, and his exhaustion was catching up to him until he was too tired to whimper through the healing pains. Eventually he was able to slide back into the water and there was a sizzle as the ointment reacted.

"I don't see any scarring," Xion observed.

"Then it's working." It was also draining a lot of his energy and he slumped in the tub.

"Do you want help getting to your bed? Or for me to bring your pajamas down?"

"Roxas already left for the night?"

"Yeah. It's just me and mine, though they're asleep."

"...yeah, I need help," he admitted reluctantly. Xion sat down to wait for him to be done with the bath.

He got up shakily after about twenty minutes. The cuts from the day were still red and sore, but they weren't holes or gashes anymore. He also was very unbothered and too tired to care that he was naked in front of her. She was just another servant right now.

She was markedly not looking down, but she stood beside him and wrapped and arm around his back. He put his arm around her shoulder and hobbled/slipped over to a bin with towels. They were big and fluffy and warm. Kishi carefully towel dried and then wrapped it around his waist before putting his arm over her shoulders again. It took a good five minutes to get up the stairs. She was patient and didn't say anything until he was over to the bed.

"Do you want pajamas?"

He nodded and slumped onto the bed with a pained grunt.

Xion went to his closet to look for them. His closet was almost the same size as his room. It was packed with clothes, armor on stands, harnesses and leashes for Goofy, tons of shoes, shelves with various accessories, suits and ties, several diadems in glass cases, slippers, obscure fabrics with unknown purposes, gloves, hats, hoods, belts, a couple locked trunks, a violin case, a shelf full of sheet music and a few leather-bound journals. There were a couple unfinished paintings in the back of the closet, discarded but too far along to warrant trashing them. He also had a small shrine there, basic magic, nothing particularly fancy or overly occult with herbs and ingredients sorted neatly in little jars and boxes. He had a full-length mirror in there too, with a stool tucked away next to it. It was organized but chaotic, so it took a minute to identify any sort of clothing that could've passed as pajamas, but once she found them it became clearer which section was for sleepwear. He had a couple slipper options and a few sets of silk pants with matching shirts. The thickness and length of sleeves varied.

Xion grabbed a set that looked warmer and brought it out to him. He need help getting it on but managed. As soon as he was dressed, he let himself flop over in bed. She tucked him in, staying quiet the whole time. It didn't even take him a minute to fall asleep.

Xion hummed quietly for a few minutes, then whispered, "Sleep well." He was already asleep, but the sentiment was still there as she went back to bed herself.

Chapter Text

The next morning, violin music filled the house around the same time the smell of sausage, eggs, and warm cakes did. Xion was on the balcony, doing sit-ups when she went inside to listen and noticed the smell. She went to sit in the library until he was ready to eat.

That's where he was playing with his eyes closed. For the first time since she got here, Kishi had sheet music out on the table. It was full of scribbled notes and crossed out lines. He hit a funny sharp, tsked, and stopped playing, only just now noticing her. Kishi blinked a couple times to process.

"Morning. Where's your entourage?" he asked.

"Still doing the morning routine. Yours?"

"Getting the rest of the food." He motioned with the violin bow to the covered tray on the table.

She nodded and invited, "You can keep playing. I'll be quiet."

"N-No, that's alright."

He put the violin away and sat down for breakfast.

"I like listening to you play," she said, following him.

"Maybe another time then. Food is getting cold."

She nodded and asked, "Can I eat with you?"

He looked her over a bit, somewhat surprised, a little suspicious, but maybe a tad hopeful, and said, "Please."

Kishi served himself first, as was polite for this environment, and then he dished up a plate and passed it to her. The sound of the door opening and Roxas showing up signaled the arrival of drinks. The servant put the covered tray on the table and then uncovered it to start pouring coffee from a pot into a mug for Kishi, but he paused before serving Xion.

"Coffee?" Roxas asked her.

Xion looked at the pot in curiosity. "What is it?"

"It's coffee," he repeated, concerned that maybe she just didn't hear.

"Terminus has had next to no available trade," she said, "if it's not something we could produce ourselves, we typically didn't have it. I don't know what coffee is."

"It's a bean that we roast, grind up, and soak in hot water. It's just fancy tea," Kishi explained.

"...sure, I'll try some."

He poured her some and Kishi slid the cream and sugar over to her. Xion tried it plain first and her face screwed up.

"Oh, that's very bitter." She took the offered cream and sugar and added a liberal amount.

"But it wakes you up," Kishi said, drinking his black. Xion was about to shoot something back but decided on something more timid.

"I think it's not for me." She was still going to finish this cup. She didn't like not clearing her plate.

"That's okay," Kishi said softly.

She chugged the rest of her coffee, not wanting to have to taste it longer than she had to.

"Actually," Kishi said, "I wanted to talk to you, Xion. I want you to accompany me to my classes today."

"Classes?"

"I attend the school during the weekdays."

"For what? Er, what kind of classes?"

"Today I have Ethics of Magical Use, Economics, and Mathematics in the morning and then Horseback Riding and Martial Arts in the afternoon."

"I think it would be fascinating to attend with you. Thank you." Specifically, Economics and Martial Arts.

"I bring it up because Ansem will be in my Martial Arts class. All of my brothers will be," Kishi said cautiously.

That brought a wicked grin to her face.

"So I have a chance of seeing him get punched."

"I want you to go as my personal attendant, to show him and my brothers that I am able to control you and not the other way around. It's a show of strength for both of us."

That took a little wind out of her sails, but she was still riding the high of seeing Ansem maybe get his ass kicked.

"I will be obedient while we're out," Xion agreed.

He nodded a little bit. "We need to leave in 45 minutes."

"Is there a dress code?" She was already overly clean from last night's bath.

"The way you dressed for dinner with my father will be fine."

Xion silently decided to tie the sash in the back, so it would be hidden by the coat and harder to remove.

Kishi focused on his food now. He ate quickly, excused himself, and went upstairs to change. Roxas started to clean up after his Prince left.

Xion worked similarly to finish, neatly stacking her plates when she was done. She went up and told Sora and Vanitas that she'd be gone for the day while she got dressed.

"Gone? Gone where? Do you need us to go too?" Sora asked quickly.

"Kishi's taking me along to his classes. You'll have to ask him if it's appropriate. Help me tie this?" The sash wasn't designed to be tied the other way. Sora bristled a bit. There was worry in his voice as he helped her.

"Why?? I thought he wanted you to stay home. Especially after yesterday."

"It's posturing. He doesn't want to show Ansem that either of us is afraid."

"Ansem is going to be there?"

"Yes. And there's a chance I get to see him punched. I'm not missing that."

"No way are we staying behind," Vanitas said.

"What if Kishi is just trying to get you away from us to hurt you himself?" Sora asked.

"Sora. He came to my rescue yesterday. I don't think that's his intention."

"Unless he was saving you to hurt you himself..."

"He hasn't been that cruel."

"But we don't know him. He might be," Vanitas said, crossing his arms.

"What if he's trying to earn your trust to hurt you even worse?" Sora piled on.

"Then I will have played the fool. I've already told him I'm going. I don't want Ansem to think I'm afraid of him either." Even if she was now. Just a little.

Sora shuffled anxiously and asked, "Can Vani shadow you? Stay hidden but keep an eye on you?"

"If the Prince says it's okay." Vanitas immediately stalked out to get permission. It was easier than arguing with her.

"Please be safe either way..." Sora said gently.

Xion nodded and slipped the coat on before heading downstairs again. Vanitas met her on the stairs.

"If he does something. Don't be stupid. Get out." She nodded and continued on.

Kishi was waiting by the door with his arms full of notebooks, books, and pens. He handed them to her to carry when she caught up and Xion arranged them by size so they'd be easier to carry.

The Prince took a deep breath, stretched, and then headed out. He led the way to the pillar and inside to the elevator there. They rode it up to the first floor and then down the hallways to a roomy office for Economics. The class size was small, almost intimate, with only nine students, and one professor. They were allowed to sit wherever, and the desks weren't arranged in any particular order. As this was a large office and not just a boring classroom, there were a fair number of odds and ends, books, and chalkboards all over filled with various studies. Kishi took a seat in the back after pulling a chair up for Xion and then got set up for the most boring part of the day. She fished out the right book and notebook up for him and set them neatly on his desk before taking the offered seat.

It was, in fact, horribly boring. Today's class was about minimizing costs and how it related to production decisions. Kishi kept nodding off, even after all that coffee, and it was obvious the professor wanted to scold him for it but was too afraid to do so.

When that class was over, they moved over to Math. It was equally boring, but Kishi was able to stay awake at least. This class focused more on game theory and was notably more advanced. It was a slightly bigger class, eleven students, but equally stuffy. Kishi's notes ended up just full of proofs he barely understood. He was glassy eyed by the time class came to an end and he dragged his feet some as they left the classroom.

Xion had actually paid attention through both classes. At home, all education was handled by a family, with the exception of military education. So it was still fascinating to see classes like this held at all.

The last morning class, Ethics of Magical Uses, was held in a much more open room. There were two levels to it with books lining the wall on both floors and a tall window that let in a lot of golden light. They didn't have desks here, just one big rectangular table with space for about twelve people, although there were only nine present today. The professor was late. Kishi slid into one of the seats and lightly smacked his own cheeks to wake up. Xion found the right book for him again and sat slightly behind him.

Naminé and her assistant showed up a few minutes later.

"Forgive my tardiness," she apologized as she settled down in one of the chairs too, "oh, we have a guest. It's so good to see you, Xion."

"It's nice to see you too, Miss Naminé," Xion said pleasantly.

"Today we are continuing our discussion of types of magic and their balance in the natural world." This class was more discussion than class. Naminé was focused much less on how the magic was used and much more on the impact that the magical act itself caused. The method of creating or obtaining magical energy was just as important as the application to her and was today's topic.

Eventually she got up and started writing on a board, listing types of magic and their sources, then having the class discuss the pros and cons of each type, not how it pertained to the caster, but rather the lasting environmental impact and the potential cost that others would have to pay rather than just that of an individual.

"It's safe to say that magic that comes from dragons has the least amount impact, good or bad, on those outside of the initial bond between a dragon and the recipient of their gift," Naminé was saying as she was numbering the types of magic, "whereas wild magic is the most impactful as the cost is paid in service rather than energy from a magical source or pre-stored in gemstones or crystal."

Xion was going to keep quiet about her observations. Dragon magic radiated out of a person imperceptibly if they didn't have a tight hold on it. Vanitas did, but Lauriam's was harmless, so he didn't bother to contain it. Things just grew faster around him, not just plants, either. Xion knew when Lauriam stayed in a village, there would be a slightly higher birth rate that year. Her grandfather's control of magic was impeccable, she'd never seen him slip.

"Wouldn't least impactful be the ideal magic to use then?" a student asked.

"It does kind of seem like wild magic is the enemy of industry and the cost outweighs the benefit..." another student ventured.

Naminé started lecturing about that next and the discussion shifted more towards humankind's role in the natural order. The class was split. About half leaned towards humans as being a blight on the environment and thus favoring wild magic as it tended to lean more towards conservation of the natural world. The other half leaned towards a more Imperial notion: that the environment existed to benefit humanity and should be cultivated and treated as such. These students thought that high magic, which derived energy from within a person or community, or dragon magic, was better because it had a more defined source and cost rather than the flexibility of wild magic.

Xion was more surprised more people didn't take the middle road. Yes, humans needed to find their fit in nature, but surely that fit would benefit the natural order as well. Animals that destroyed their habitats didn't survive.

As a teacher, Naminé was more like a cattle prod than a guide. She continued to stimulate the discussion but not lead it one direction or another until time expired.

"Thank you all so much for coming. We do not have class for another week, in that time, I would like all of you to think about what we discussed and write a minimum of two pages on how beavers relate to our discussion about humanity's role in our local ecosystems," she said cheerfully, and then focused on erasing the board.

"Beavers?" Xion questioned quietly. That didn't seem related at all. Kishi shrugged in response to her inquiry and handed off his books so he could get up to leave. Lunch was next. There was a cafeteria in the school, so he was heading there.

"What does lunch usually consist of?" she asked him.

"It depends on what they're making today."

Ten-year-olds back home were all boarded, so they had their meals taken care of, but it was almost always the same meal every day for them.

"Interesting."

"Hopefully they have fish today." They didn't. Lunch consisted of beef, broccoli, and rice all soaked in a rich dark sauce. Xion picked at the meal in curiosity before trying it.

"This is really good."

"The vegetables are out of season. They're not really crunching the same way," he complained.

"Is there that much of a difference?"

"I think so," he grumbled. Kishi was reading through one of his textbooks while he ate. Xion cleared her plate but was feeling bloated. This was bigger than her usual lunch.

He kept checking the time. There was a big clock on the far wall.

"We'll have to get going here soon," he mumbled. She gathered his books up.

"Do you need books for horseback riding and martial arts?"

"No, we can leave them in the barn."

"...will I be riding?"

"We can ask Terra."

This was her third time hearing that name, but she'd still never met the man. She nodded and picked his books up.

Kishi got up too, leaving the bowls behind to head out. It was a decently long walk down to the barn. They had to pass by the estate and garden on the way. At least it was a pleasant walk. The sun was shining, and it was a lovely spring warm with fluffy clouds in the bright blue sky. Xion found it very warm and wished her coat didn't have sleeves for the first, but certainly not the last, time.

The stables were the same as when she visited last, dusty and empty. All the horses had been turned out and a couple stable hands were mucking out stalls. Kishi waved briefly to a tall, beefy man with brown cockatiel styled hair. It was the same man from their official announcement. He waved back as they approached.

"Is that Terra?"

"Yeah, he's the stablemaster."

That was what Roxas had told her. For the time being, she waited with Kishi. Terra was finishing up supervising the shoeing of a horse, but he walked over when he saw them.

"Self-guided today. Make sure you work both your horses."

"Can I just put her on one of them?" Kishi asked.

"Yeah, that's fine but make sure you still ride them the full two hours."

"Will do." Kishi started heading to the tack room. Xion found an empty shelf to leave the books on and followed him.

"Will you grab... this one." He handed her a saddle and then put a blanket and bridle on top. She hefted the saddle up so it was partially on her shoulder, taking the blanket and bridle with the other hand.

Kishi grabbed stuff for the second horse and led the way out to the pasture, stopping only to grab a couple lead ropes on the way. He stopped and put his stuff down in front of one of the smaller paddocks where his big black horse was and then led her to the pasture where Saladin was grazing. He whistled and about half the herd came over to investigate.

"Is this class normally just you?" she asked.

"It's not really a class. More like a chore."

"How so?"

"Horses need exercise and I need to be good at riding them." He clipped a lead rope onto Saladin's halter and led him out of the gate to tie him to the fence away from the herd. "Do you know how to tack up a horse?"

She nodded and said, "I haven't ridden as much as I've flown, but it was still part of military training and my family had a few horses."

"Then you're in charge of Saladin." He turned and headed back to the smaller paddock to deal with his other horse.

Xion gave Saladin a couple of pats before tossing the blanket over and working on the saddle. The horse was behaved for the most part but definitely demonstrated a strong personality. He kept tugging on the lead rope and undoing the knot that was keeping him tied to the fence.

"If you keep that up, I'll have to switch out for a harder knot," she said nonchalantly, taking the bridle to him next. He lifted his head up out of reach to play with the lead rope, but she grabbed the rope to bring him back down.

"None of that now, Saladin. I need to get this done in a timely manner or Kishi will be disappointed."

He got bored and started walking off, which wasn't hard with the knot undone. Xion held the rope tight and tied it again, albeit farther down the rope than before. He didn't like that but behaved enough to get the bridle in place. Saladin chewed on the bit and kept making faces with his fluttering upper lip.

She took a moment to adjust the stirrups before untying him and attempting to mount. He sidestepped away from her. Xion gave him a light smack and tried again. He ran into the fence trying to pivot away but held still when he realized this was happening whether he wanted it or not.

Xion finally pulled herself up and asked, "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

He started walking off towards another horse's hay. Xion pulled on the reins to make him walk towards Kishi and his big horse. Saladin tossed his head a couple times to protest but he obeyed.

Kishi was just finishing up with his horse and was mounting up with some assistance from the fence. The black horse had a few hands on Saladin so it was faster to get a boost.

"Is it just going to be riding?"

"Yep." He turned his horse around and started walking towards a trail between the pasture fence and the wall that dropped down into the lower levels of the city. Xion urged Saladin to follow.

They walked for the first bit and then picked up speed after a while, until they were loping along the fence around the level until the barn was out of sight. Then Kishi slowed down and walked them over to a paddock that had a few jumps and barrels in it.

"I don't know how to jump or do any tricks on a horse," she confessed.

"You don't have to do any. Just ride him in circle around the ring while I jump Atlas." Kishi maneuvered the horse to let her in and reposition the gate without dismounting and then trotted off away from her to run his horse through exercises.

Xion tried to lead Saladin around the ring while she talked to him, "I wish I could talk to animals. I'd like to know what you think about him."

Saladin kept trying to stop and eat the grass that was coming in under the fence. Eventually she kicked him up to a trot so he couldn't slow down enough for it. He bucked a couple times to express his displeasure and then obeyed, trotting around the ring while Atlas thundered around over jumps and zoomed around barrels.

"You're a good horse. You're not the best, but you're good. You're a lovely blue boy, aren't you?"

"You know, he's never once answered me," Kishi said as he fell into a trot beside her.

She startled up a bit. "I—I wasn't expecting him to."

"He can be a good listener though." Atlas took a nip at Saladin and Saladin nipped back.

"Most animals are. Cats aren't."

Kishi tugged on the reins to stop them from fighting and reassured her, "Our barn cats are nice."

"Yeah, but cats judge you."

"They definitely do that."

"Even big cats. Donald is the worst."

"You said he's like Goofy," Kishi reminded her.

"He is. He's my pet, but he's also part lion and very rude. He's rude, but he's mine."

"You miss him."

She looked away to say, "...yeah, I do."

"...would you like a horse? Your own horse."

"... I'm fine like this. I don't think I want to replace him so quickly."

He nodded thoughtfully and then broke off to push his horse through the jumps again. Xion kept going around the ring, kicking Saladin to a run for a lap before slowing back down. They kept that up for about an hour before Kishi led them back to the barn to put stuff away. Saladin went back to the pasture and Atlas went to his personal paddock.

"Don't forget my books," he told her as they put the saddles away. She nodded and ran to get them as soon as the tack was put away. He got started walking, going on ahead a little bit so she had to jog to catch up. She didn't mind. Exercise was good.

"Next is Martial Arts, right? The one with all your brothers."

"Yeah, we spar every other day or so when they’re home," said Kishi.

"I'm guessing I won't be allowed to participate."

"We will probably not even acknowledge you."

"...yeah, okay. Get a few good hits in."

"I'm going to get my ass kicked," he huffed.

"I'll cheer for you. Silently, but I'll still be in your corner."

He might have smiled at her if he wasn't so focused on focusing. The rest of the walk was quiet while he got into the zone. The school had a lot of open rooms that were set up like gymnasiums. There was an understanding that physical training was just as important as studying, so all the students engaged in physical games and sports.

One of these rooms had a few mats down and was mostly empty aside from a stack of mats in the corner, a couple benches, and doors that led to locker rooms and baths. Kishi headed to the locker room, motioning for Xion to follow, regardless of the sign on the door indicating this space was only for men.

Xion just kept her eyes down once they were inside. The locker room was mostly empty, but Kishi still had her doing typical attendant chores anyway. She put his hair up, got his workout clothes, helped wrap up his hands, and so on. Xion did a very good job on the hand wrapping. That she knew well. It was a good thing too because Riku showed up before long.

"Yo," he greeted.

"Hey," Kishi returned.

"You're early."

"How do you know you're not late?"

"Xemnas here yet?"

"Not that I've seen."

"Then I'm not late," Riku teased. Kishi flashed his brother a grin and then he and Xion headed back out to the mats so he could stretch. She sat against the wall to watch. Everyone defaulted to those above them, and for the princes, that seemed to be Xemnas.

Kishi finished stretching as Riku got started and Xemnas arrived, officially making Ansem late, which didn't seem to matter to Ansem. When he did arrive, he was unbothered by the awkward social constraints, and he took his time getting ready.

All four of the Princes were shirtless and wearing form fitting pants. They were barefoot with their fists wrapped as well. It was jarring. They were four near perfect specimens. The lack of flaws made them look unnatural, barely human. Riku and Kishi were identical in every way aside from a slight height difference and Ansem and Xemnas were the same aside from subtle differences in their hairstyles. Ansem was more expressive than the crown prince, who still had the same relaxed face as when he interviewed Xion over breakfast. They were ignoring her for the most part too, aside from Ansem's occasional glance her direction.

They chatted amicably for a bit. Riku was obviously the only one who got along with all of them. Xemnas carried himself like everyone was beneath him, especially kin, and Kishi seemed overly submissive and was easily agitated, especially with Ansem.

It wasn't until Terra showed up and gave them basic instruction that they started fighting. It was clear that Ansem and Xemnas were beyond Terra's instruction, so the man focused mostly on the two younger princes, while the elder brothers served as higher skilled opponents.

Xion's attention was split between Kishi and Ansem. She really wanted Kishi to do well, and she really wanted Ansem to not. Whenever the older brother looked at her, she kept her eyes on Kishi, and she suppressed the shiver trying to crawl up her spine.

Riku and Kishi did the most sparring but after a few rounds, Terra had Riku spar with Xemnas and Kishi with Ansem.

"I'm surprised you're letting your pet run loose," Ansem said after Kishi narrowly avoided a jab. The conversation was an obvious ploy to distract the younger brother.

"There are predators here that may harm her."

"She's not a pet," Kishi said simply and came in for a kick that was casually deflected.

"Of course, pets have more value than wives."

"I'm training her to be my personal servant," Kishi told Ansem simply. It got Ansem to falter enough for Kishi to hit him in the ear, but the retaliatory kick left a sizeable bruise on Kishi's ribs.

"Why?"

"I'm following the example of my beloved older brother." Xemnas could clearly hear but didn't react, his focus was on countering Riku's speed.

"Aerith is so behaved and satisfies him so well."

Ansem snorted, "You're young. Eventually, you will learn not to give them such a long leash. They become lazy, fat, and useless."

"All the more reason to make her work," Kishi reasoned, "it's a waste to use a resource for one thing when it can be utilized for more than one."

"Well said," Xigbar praised. Both Riku and Kishi stopped fighting in shock and, of course, they both went down almost immediately as a result. Terra just shook his head, sighed, and then turned to bow to Xigbar.

Xion inclined her head towards Xigbar. She was surprised he showed up as well. She really hadn't seen much of the man and didn't know what to think of him yet. Kishi had called him a snake once, though.

"Don't mind me," he said with a grin. The man certainly looked like a snake. Even his eye patch over his right eye had a scaly texture to it. He went and sat down. Now everyone was on edge except Xemnas. So, of course, Xemnas won every fight from then on.

After an hour of sparring, Xemnas was the only one who walked away unscathed. Ansem had a few bruises forming, but Kishi and Riku looked well tenderized.

"Did it feel like they were going a little harder that time?" Riku asked Kishi while they stretched.

Kishi groaned his response, "I need a bath. Xion, go start the bath in the locker room."

She got up and disappeared into the locker room. A bath shouldn't be too hard to find, right? This bath was big, clearly meant to be communal rather than the one in Kishi's house that would only fit four people. She got the water going and looked for the little crystals that Kishi had used in his bath last night but there weren't any. She could hear Riku and Kishi talking as they came into the room, both of them were starting to strip to get in the bath.

She found a corner to sit in where she couldn't see.

"Are you sure about your fiance?" Riku was asking Kishi.

"Sure about what?"

"Making her a servant."

"Yeah, I think I am. Xemnas trained his first wife like that."

"I mean, maybe a little but she still never leaves the house."

"That's what personal servant means, Riku. Only serves me."

"Then why not just keep her like you would a concubine?"

"Like Ansem does?" Kishi's voice had some bite.

"Just be careful. If you're doing this just to make Ansem mad, you're going to get father involved and he will just remove the problem entirely," Riku cautioned. Their conversation drifted back to the sparring as they critiqued each other's technique.

Xion sat straight. She did want to make Ansem mad, but she didn't want to die. She didn't come all the way out here to die. She held her fists in her lap. This backwards country would not get the better of her.

After a light soak, Riku got out and headed out, while Kishi took his time. He dried off and got dressed when he was sure the locker room was empty aside from him and Xion. Xion went over to drain the bath while he got dressed, then grabbed his books.

"Alright, let's go home," he told her. Kishi was on alert the entire way back.

"Is Aerith Xemnas' wife?"

"Yeah, she's a lot like you."

"Is that so?" Xion hefted the books for an easier grip.

"Yeah. The couple times I met her she seemed really nice, but she's really submissive with Xemnas."

"...huh." Xion didn't ever want to be considered submissive. "Anything else today?"

"I have a paper to write, some personal study time, I really should practice the violin..." Kishi thought out loud. She nodded. That didn't seem like anything she could help with.

"You're dismissed for the day. If you leave the house, take someone with you."

"I'll stay in." She stayed close to him until they got back, when she got immediately pulled away by Vanitas who started checking her over. Kishi's lip curled a little bit at that.

"Mind your manners, slave," he bit, "you make your distrust too obvious."

Vanitas was about to snap something back, but Xion punched him lightly first.

"Given yesterday's event, I'm sure it's paranoia, not distrust. Please don't refer to him that way," she said. Kishi’s gaze hardened. Despite the relaxed nature of the day, it was evident he didn't like being told what to do.

"I'll refer to him as I please and you'll not correct me in my own home."

Xion just pulled Vanitas upstairs.

Kishi let them go without demanding an apology from either of them. He mumbled something about being soft and then disappeared into the library.

Sora was pacing in her bedroom and nearly tackled her when she got there.

"I'm okay, Sora." She absorbed the tackle without falling over.

"Did anything happen? Did he get you lunch? Are you hurt?"

"Yes, yes, and no," Xion said when she'd disentangled herself. It was Sora's turn to go over her, checking for injury.

"What happened?" he asked.

"It... wasn't an event, it was something I overheard," she said before relaying what she'd heard while Kishi and Riku were in the bath.

Sora bristled. "How can they just use you like that?"

"It seems to be the role of all women here."

"It's wrong and they need to know that."

"If they ever want war gryphons, they'll have to acknowledge some women," Xion pointed out.

"We want them to be fair to you," Vanitas growled.

Sora was shaking. "I'm going to go tell him off."

"No you're not," she said, grabbing them both, "he doesn't have to let you back in if he decides he doesn't want you here."

Sora huffed, "He couldn't stop us from being with you..."

"I don't want to make enemies with him."

"We're already enemies with him!"

"No, we're not. I'm enemies with Ansem, not him."

"They share the same blood," Vanitas insisted.

"That doesn't make them cut from the same cloth," Xion argued.

"They were raised the same way," Sora added, taking Van's side.

"And yet Kishi has yet to put his hands on me. I'm not having this argument; I will not make an enemy of my fiancé and you will not do anything to jeopardize it."

Sora's expression was caught between a scowl and concern, but he didn't push the issue further. Vanitas looked downright murderous.

"...I know he's not great. But he could be much, much worse," Xion said quietly.

"We don't have to like him," Sora grumbled.

"I'd rather we all did. I'm going to make an effort to try."

"But does he like you?" Sora asked, still very worried.

"... I'm not sure, yet."

"You're better than he is," he said more softly.

"We're still young. He can grow."

"Look at his role models, Xion. He doesn't have an Isa or Lauriam to teach him that his entire way of life is wrong."

"I'm here, aren't I?"

"Why does it have to be your job?" he whined.

"Because neither of you are going to be good role models. Can you imagine Vanitas trying to be one?"

"Hey!" Vanitas grumbled, "I could definitely be a role model!"

"He's a better role model than Ansem..." Sora admitted.

"But still, we should all model good behavior while we can."

Sora pouted but nodded his agreement. Vanitas grumbled a positive.

"Okay. I'm going to write home again, can you two find snacks that feel homey?"

"Yeah, I can look for something," Sora offered. He left. Vanitas settled in to watch as she wrote. There was no coded message this time. She sent Vanitas to send the letter before going to look for Kishi.

The Prince was in the library, working on sheet music with a pen and ink. She knocked on a bookshelf to get his attention. He looked up for a second and then motioned with his hand for her to enter.

"I wanted to apologize for Vanitas," she said as she found her usual seat. Kishi looked up at her with a skeptical expression and then went back to drawing notes on the music.

"I do mean it. It was wrong of him to be suspicious."

"If you're going to keep them, then you need to have them under better control," he warned her.

"I'm working on it. It's not something we're used to."

He grunted a little bit in acknowledgement. She sat in silence, hoping he'd play a little.

Kishi looked a lot like he wanted to. He kept looking at the violin, his sheet music, and then back at her, but he just kept scribbling away at the sheet music and even doodled in the margins.

"Hey, Xion, I found some blueber-" Sora was saying from the doorway before he realized Kishi was there and promptly closed his mouth.

She sighed before going to Sora to say, "Let's eat on the balcony."

For a second Kishi looked like he was going to be upset but then he focused on what he was doing and ignored them, so Sora pulled her along back upstairs.

"We're not in a hurry. What did you get?" she asked.

"I found blueberries and some granola."

"Thanks." Blueberries were always nice. Sora got her a nice chair and pulled the table over. It was getting chilly now that the sun was going down, but the lingering warm was still clinging to the stone.

"You think I'm trusting him too quickly."

"The Prince?"

She nodded.

"...yeah, I do. We heard the stories, about what they're like as conquerors and as people. Some people don't even think they're human."

"That doesn't change that I'll have to marry one of them. And Kishi and Riku seem to be the better men. We've been here a few weeks, do you think he's biding his time?"

"Biding his time?" Sora asked for clarification.

"To do something bad to me. Because he's had plenty of chances. Including when I was sick. I know you're worried, but he has been mostly kind to me, and I want to make this work."

Sora took his time answering, "I think, Vani and I love you and care about you, and evil takes many forms. We just want to protect you."

"And I want to protect the two of you."

"There isn't as much risk for us here."

"What happens to you after I'm married?" asked Xion.

"Um..."

"You and Vanitas need to play your hand carefully. Because I don't think they'll just let you leave."

"I don't think they'll let us stay as servants though, since we can't reproduce..."

"Then we need to find something only the two of you can do for them."

Sora nodded, still looking worried. Xion popped a few blueberries in her mouth.

"I'm not ready to lose the two of you. So, you need to not make anyone angry who might be able to deny you work here."

"We'll try," he whispered.

"Thank you." She pulled him over for a hug.

Chapter Text

The following few days were spent in relative peace. Kishi kept bringing Xion to class but interactions with Ansem were limited. The older brother was opting out of sparring and sword-fighting and the one time they ran into him between their respective houses, he was eerily pleasant and light-hearted. He even addressed Xion respectfully so naturally, Kishi was a paranoid nutcase and was getting extra possessive. She was required to eat all her meals with Kishi and not leave the house unless it was with Kishi himself and the Prince made time to accompany her places.

It took him a couple more days to relax but he remained wary. Fortunately, the mid-March warmth and flowering vines helped put him at ease and he was more inclined to give her more leash. He finished up dinner first and headed to bed to read, leaving her to prepare tea, one of the duties he had given her, while Roxas cleaned up dinner.

Sora had to help Xion more often than not, but today she was attempting to make it herself. Xion hadn't been appreciating the short leash, but she was tolerating it, and Ansem had her on edge. She did appreciate that Kishi was making time to take her out, though. It gave her space to do a little getting to know him.

She took the fire poker and adjusted the wood in the stove.

"Don't--" Sora started and then remembered she was doing it herself.

She hesitated, then asked, "Am I going to burn it if I make it hotter?"

Sora just shook his head and covered his mouth, looking away. She adjusted the log but didn't add more wood. The teapot slowly started to bubble. Sora was looking away, too stressed out to watch.

Xion moved the teapot off the stove before adding the leaves in a little sachet. It seemed okay. She got the tray ready before bringing the set and teapot upstairs.

Sora followed. Kishi was very focused on his book when Xion came in. His eyes flashed up briefly to confirm it was her but then resumed reading. Xion set the tray on his bedside table before pouring a cup. Kishi typically took his tea plain, but it wouldn't hurt to ask.

"Milk or sugar?"

"No, thank you." He took the cup from her and sipped it.

"Are they still staying the night?" he asked and motioned to Sora, somewhat irritably. Kishi had been letting them stay since the weird moment with Ansem, but he made his displeasure about it known almost every night.

"Only one of them tonight," she said quietly.

"The angry one or the plain one?"

"I was going to let them decide."

"Mm," he grunted, "Well, decide quickly. I'd like to go to bed soon."

"Sora," she said. She was sure he'd been listening. Behind her, Sora straightened a little bit.

"Okay, then send the other one to the house and let's get ready for bed."

She nodded and went to tell Vanitas he was dismissed for the night. He complained quietly but left. Sora took a few minutes to himself to wash up in her bathroom and then changed into his pajamas.

Xion waited in Kishi's room for him to be done with the tea.

"I did it all myself today, how bad is it?"

"You burned it," he said honestly, "but that's okay. You'll get it next time."

"I'm working on it." Xion took the tray to clean up. "It's nice to be believed in, even if it's something minor like this."

"Even if we don't keep our scars, we still believe in mistakes and learning here."

"... it's still nice." She took the tray downstairs.

Kishi had put his book away and was changing into his pajamas when she got back. Goofy was sprawled out on the floor, taking up half the space while he chewed on a big bone that was brought from the kitchen for him.

Xion passed quietly to her room to get ready for bed herself. The lights went out a few minutes later and an air of calm settled on the house. Sora fell asleep quickly and she stayed up about an hour after that.

It was about when she started falling asleep that the sound of the balcony door sliding open drifted softly through the room.

Xion was a fairly light sleeper, but she assumed maybe Kishi was having trouble falling asleep and was looking for some air. She'd need to spend more time falling asleep again, but she didn't get up.

The door to her room opened next, only a little bit and very briefly before closing again. This time she sat up. Nothing moved in the darkness.

"...Sora, you up?" she asked the dark. There was no response. She got up to check the door. Maybe it was wind from the balcony, and she just hadn't shut it properly earlier.

When she turned to get back in bed, a hand came out of nowhere and slapped across her mouth. Another arm wrapped around her neck and pulled her tightly back against a warm body, choking her.

She immediately slammed her head back, trying to break her assailant's nose. He was smarter than that and her head barely grazed his ear. The grip tightened. She bit the hand in front of her and stomped where she assumed their foot would be. They let go with a gasp when she broke the skin.

"Sora!" she yelled before turning on the stranger, aiming a punch of her own.

There was a scuffle in the dark as Sora started to wake up. The stranger deflected her punch and there was a glimmer of something shiny and sharp in the limited light. She kicked before backing up towards the bed.

The stranger moved away from the kick and then pushed forward with the knife. Sora was waiting for him though and placed a well-aimed kick at the man's middle. By now Goofy realized something was up and was barking and snarling at the door, scratching at it to try and see what was going on.

Xion charged and tried to wrestle away the knife. Sora jumped on the other arm, holding it still while the man slashed at Xion. The knife hit her arm, cutting above the elbow. She twisted to get the knife away from her.

"Goofy! Get Kishi!" she yelled.

The man kicked Sora off hard and her retainer crumpled, winded. He advanced on Xion again, lunging with the knife but this time he was grabbed from behind. Kishi had jumped on the guy and was choking him. Xion went for the knife again, not wanting him to stab Kishi either.

"Sora, light!" Sora just made a pained gurgling sound in response.

The scuffling noises intensified and then there was a loud, wet crrrack and then quiet. Xion took a moment to process. Was he dead? He'd stopped struggling.

"How hurt are you, Sora?"

"I'm okay..." he wheezed.

"Kishi, are you okay?" she asked.

"Yes." The Prince’s voice was bland and monotone.

There was a dragging sound underneath the persistent growling from a frustrated Goofy and her door opened again. There was a little more light out there and she could see Kishi's silhouette dragging the body out.

Xion followed him out so she could at least calm Goofy down, then went about finding a candle.

Even in the dark, Kishi was going through the man's pockets, turning his coat inside out, and dumping his shoes. The candle just made things a little faster. The would-be assassin was non-descript, plain, wearing all black with no distinct markings or insignias. The knife was his only weapon. Not that it did him any good, Kishi had snapped his neck.

"Thanks for the help," she said.

He didn't say anything. He was too busy going through the assassin's things and irritably too. There wasn't any way to tell who the guy was or who he was working for as far as Xion could tell. Kishi started stripping the guy of his clothes.

"What can I do to help right now?"

"Go start a bath." Kishi dragged the naked assassin out to the balcony.

"Goofy, go clean up," he ordered and then let the wolf out onto the balcony too.

She wanted to ask questions, but she went downstairs to get the bath ready. Kishi wasn't far behind her. Neither was Sora. The retainer looked a little dazed. He had taken a hard hit to his middle and was sore.

"Send for Aqua," Kishi ordered.

"I'm not leaving her," Sora argued.

"Sora. Do as he says. You can send Vanitas back."

Sora looked like he wanted to argue the point but there was still murder in Kishi's eyes and he couldn't argue with Xion. Reluctantly, he left.

Kishi was all business now. He was mad and concerned but it translated on his face awkwardly and he looked like he wanted to kill someone else. He stepped up to her and gently took her arm, holding it so he could check her injury. He had a similar one on his arm too, where the assailant had stabbed him.

"Get in the bath," he ordered.

"...is Goofy eating him?" Xion asked. She almost lifted her shirt, but she took a moment to look back at him. "...are you going to watch?"

"Yes and yes. If you're that worried about modesty then leave your underwear on." He went to the cabinets and started pulling out ceramic jars and a mortar and pestle.

She slipped out of everything but her underclothes and slid into his bath.

Kishi mixed the contents of some jars together and added a little bit of water from the faucet to turn it into a paste. Then he put the paste by the side of the tub, stripped, and got into the tub with her. He waded across to the far side of the tub and scooped in some of the salt from the bigger container and mixed it with his feet. By that point the tub was only about half full. The Prince was notably less modest.

She finally examined the cut on her arm. It wasn't deep, and the scar likely wouldn't be more than a thin white line.

Kishi came over to her and gently took her arm to check the injury himself. He brushed it with his thumb to check how deep it was and then guided her into sitting down so she could be closer to the water. A quick rinse revealed it wasn't as bad as it looked. The stab he took was worse but he still focused on her first. He reached over her to take some of the paste from the bowl and started to gently rub it into the wound.

Xion closed her eyes and didn't flinch. Really, this wasn't bad.

"...thank you," she said softly.

"Are you hurt anywhere else?"

"My neck's sore but I don't know if his hold was tight enough to bruise." It was red and angry and would definitely be purple in the morning.

He took a second to tilt her head back. The lighting in here was magical and bright, fueled by quartz crystals rather than fire, so it was a lot easier to see how bad it was. Kishi gently pressed on the bruise. She still didn't flinch.

"It doesn't hurt much, but pushing on it does."

He got some more paste and started to rub it into her neck like a lotion. Once he was done, she tried to take the mix.

"Let me help you now." It took her a minute to add, "please."

"...when you're done. Sink in the water. The salts activate the paste."

She dipped the arm in first. It was a lot less pleasant than the time it had been on her cheek, but it wasn't anything worse than stinging with how shallow it was. She submerged down to her neck, and that had the same warm buzzing feel. She came back up and reached for the jar again.

Kishi was turning off the water in the tub. It wasn't quite full, but he didn't intend to soak too long. Any blood that dripped into the water was destroyed by the salt so the water stayed clean if not a little cloudy.

She waded over to ask, "How bad is it?"

He was pressing his fingers into his wound to determine just that.

"Worse than yours, not bad enough to be a worry."

She scooped a little paste out and pulled his arm towards her. Kishi didn't resist. She started working the mix into the cut, taking care to not make it any worse. He was so lost in thought, he barely registered what she was doing, and only snapped out of it when he heard the door open.

Vanitas stormed into the bathroom but had to take a moment to process the scene.

"I'm okay, Vanitas. Stand down."

Kishi stood up when the door opened, still in murder mode. He was ready to attack Vanitas and was seeing him as a threat. Vanitas was in a similar attack mode until Xion slipped out of the bath and went to put a hand on his shoulder.

"Stand down, Van." He nearly snarled but he turned away from Kishi.

"You're really okay?"

"I am now."

Kishi was still itching to fight. He got out of the tub too and squared off with Vanitas, daring him to attack. Xion had to step between them.

"None of that right now. Please. It's late, and this was stressful."

"If he wants to fight, then let's fight," Kishi hissed.

"My Lady asked me not to," Vanitas said evenly, back still to the Prince. Somehow that was worse.

"Face me when you talk to me, slave."

Xion gave Vanitas a hard shove to make him stumble away. He did turn to face him.

"My Lady told me not to fight," he repeated. Kishi tsked but seemed satisfied as he turned to get back in the bath. He was struggling to continue to apply the paste to his injury due to the awkward angle.

Xion followed him back and said, "I can finish it."

"Tend to your guard dog," he snapped back.

"Vanitas isn't hurt. And he isn't going to do anything. You are, and I still need to pay you back for taking care of mine."

"Are you disobeying me?"

"You ordered me to do something that's already done."

"Then you misunderstood my order!" he growled, getting hostile, "his emotional needs are clearly not being met! Do as I say and tend to your mutt!"

She slowly put the jar down and went to Vanitas.

"Are you okay?"

"That's a stupid question. Of course I'm okay." And then she came back. Kishi glared at her.

"May I finish?" asked Xion. He irritably held his arm out.

She was careful with applying the paste still. Gentle, even if he wasn't. It still took a lot of work and a lot of paste. His wound was shorter but deeper and she had to really work it in. Meanwhile, Kishi just kept glaring at Vanitas. The retainer was scowling, but at the ground, not at Kishi.

She carefully lowered his arm into the water when she was done. The Prince barely reacted as the itching burning settled into his arm. The water made a sizzling sound as the paste reacted.

"Sorry,” Xion said, assuming the discomfort. He didn't say anything, just leaned back to soak while the water healed the wound. She stayed at the edge of the tub, folding her hands in her lap.

"...the longer you soak the better it will heal," Kishi invited after a long few moments.

"Do you want me to get back in, then?"

"I don't care when you finish healing," he grumbled and then turned away to hide the pink in his cheeks. She stayed at the side of the bath.

The bathroom door opened again and Aqua entered with a stressed-out Sora. The woman felt like she was on a warpath despite her composure. The woman was scarier when she was quiet.

"Explain yourself," she ordered.

"Who?" the Prince asked.

"You."

"Oh."

Kishi looked away, deflating a bit.

"Well?" Aqua asked.

"Ansem sent an assassin to kill Xion. I killed the assassin. Goofy is eating him. I sent for you to let you know that I need a discreet cleaning crew."

"...we aren't going to make a fuss?" Xion asked quietly.

"No. It's a fight between myself and my brother. It needs to stay between myself and my brother."

"And you woke me up for that?" Aqua hissed.

"Would you rather I not tell you next time??"

She sighed, "Are you sure the assassin was from Ansem?"

"The stitching on his clothing is unique to the tailor we use at the palace. He's the only local with motive," Kishi said casually, like he didn't kill a man with his bare hands that night.

"Alright, I'll have Kairi tend to your room in the morning," Aqua said.

"Kairi?" Xion asked. That wasn't a name she'd heard yet.

"Just another servant," Aqua dismissed. She huffed and stormed out allowing Kishi to better relax despite both of Xion's retainers present now.

"...she's not usually that bitter, even at night," Kishi mumbled.

"Sh-She wasn't in her room tonight," Sora offered by way of explanation, "it took me a little bit to find her in a friend's room."

It took Kishi two seconds to put it together.

"Well, that explains it."

Xion missed the more adult explanation and had to ask, "How?"

"She was with Terra," Kishi explained.

"Are they close?"

"I know they want to be."

Her heart hurt a little at that. "...so what do we do now?"

"Go to bed, sleep in, go to class in the morning. Nothing has changed."

She nodded and added, "Looking unfazed is important."

"We are unfazed. Assassination attempts happen frequently, whether serious or as an exercise, there's no reason to be rattled."

"...I suppose that's true. It's not common in Terminus." Partially because of the retainers' additional duty.

"Small Kingdoms don't share the problems of large Empires."

"No, they don't."

"...tell me more about your Kingdom," Kishi ordered after a moment of silence.

"There's a lot. What do you want to know about? The land? The people? The government, the religion? I had to study all of it growing up."

"Then you were groomed for your throne?"

"If I wasn't needed for the throne, I would have married into and become the head of a noble house. It all would have still been necessary."

He grunted to acknowledge he was listening but didn't say anything to direct her.

She began, "... Terminus has been isolated from the world for our entire recorded history. Which is 2,759 years long. We are old, and we have adapted as we have needed to survive.

We have always lived near the Spine, but our history starts with the first opening of the Wound. Our people have always been in the mountains, but there used to only be one range and two kinds of people.

The Big People and the Little People got along well enough, and their only difference was their size. Terminus was big and prosperous, with the mountains in the northeast and the fertile plains to the south and west, but the Big People found it easy to take positions of power and hurt the Little People. They made unfair laws and as time went by, they became ugly. They prioritized only two of the four main strengths, mind and body."

He motioned for her to continue when she paused.

"Ignoring the strengths of will and heart made them weak, and the Little People, who did not ignore them, slowly became angry. Until one of the Little People started to fight back. His name was Ephemer, and where he led, the Little People followed.

Those who were strong of body fought, those who were strong of mind led, those who were strong of will kept them going, and those who were strong of heart prayed. Ephemer was said to have all four strengths. But the Big People had a minor strength that was hard to overcome: numbers.

Though the Little People fought with everything they had, they could not hold out forever. It came down to a prayer. After ten years of conflict, the gods made dragons to speak to the Little People, and they blessed the great warriors and leaders with dragon's blood, a mix of magic and strength. Those blessed are the sources of our bloodlines. Each came from a different dragon, and Ephemer was the one said to be able to handle the most.

This is when we started having different words for each other. Humans were the Little People, who the gods sided with, and ogres were the Big People, who no longer looked like people.

Using the gifts of the dragons, we pushed the ogres to the plains and the gods took a blade forged by a star and struck the earth. Where it struck, fire erupted from the ground like blood from a wound. The ground swelled and heaved until it was as tall as the Spine. We called these new mountains the Wound, and they still spew fire regularly. They haven't for nearly thirty years. It's what's causing the famine.

When the Wound opens, it rains black ash across the entire country, and the crops are refreshed. Our soil has grown too poor to support us now."

Kishi was getting drowsy between the warmth of the bath, the exhaustion of healing, and the soothing sounds of her voice, but he stayed awake and listened to the entire tale.

"Because the dragons are dead?" he ventured a guess.

"...that could be. The lands around the wound fester. Nothing grows, the ground boils, and the air is foul. No one can get close enough to check."

"Mm. That's sad. Hopefully, we can send relief now that you are part of the Empire."

"... it's part of why we were willing to surrender."

"Mm." He was nodding off in the tub.

"Should you get back to your bed?" she asked. He lifted his arm out of the water to check it. The wound was nearly healed but wasn't quite done.

"This will need to be wrapped..."

"Do you stock bandages?"

"Under the sink."

Xion went to get them, but Vanitas beat her there, handing her the roll. She returned to the bath as he was getting up to sit on the side of the tub. She held his arm up while she wrapped it so she wasn't looking at his crotch.

"Your arm should probably be wrapped too."

"We can take care of that," Sora said quickly.

"It's sealed up. I can manage fine," she said equally quickly with a warning glance to Sora and Vanitas.

Kishi got up with a pained groan and went to grab a towel from the bin. Xion finally got up as well, waiting to get a towel herself. Kishi wrapped one around his waist and put another over his head.

Xion just took the one.

"Thanks again. For the help."

"You're mine," he said simply as they headed upstairs. There was definitely some possessiveness this time and it was obvious at who it was directed at, if his glance over his shoulder at Van was anything to go by. Vanitas' eyes narrowed as he did.

"Those two are mine," Xion said.

"Which makes them mine too," Kishi reminded.

"I'm just trying to point out their perspective. They care for me the way I'm trying to care for you."

He laughed, "Then it's a miracle they stay. You're here because you have to be, they seem to actually like you."

"I said the way I'm trying. I do want to like you genuinely."

"So you said."

"You aren't unlikable. I think you're better than your brothers and I'm glad I ended up with you."

He snorted but was too tired to argue. He went and collapsed on his bed, still just in the towel. Goofy whined from the door, wanting to be let back in.

"Does Goofy need a bath before he comes in?" Xion asked.

"Probably," he mumbled into his pillow. The wolf had a gory muzzle and paws but otherwise seemed clean.

Xion went downstairs for a bowl, a rag, and a towel and went out to clean off the wolf.

Goofy had made an uncomfortable mess out there. He had only eaten about three quarters of the guy so far, prioritizing the meaty bits and insides so there were still some uneaten bones and parts of a head left. He wagged his tail and tried to lick Xion.

She neatly ducked away before setting about cleaning his paws first. He kept trying to take them away from her until it turned into keep-away.

"Goofy. It's getting late. And you need to be clean before we can go inside." Given that he wasn't cooperating with his paws, she switched to his muzzle.

He trotted over to the body and grabbed a leg, bringing it over to share with her.

"No thank you." She took the leg from him and set it aside gently. The body parts she'd handled in the past were what was left of fellow soldiers. It was important for families to have something to bury, so an effort was always made to bring something back. They were treated with respect. She wasn't quite sure what to do with the body of an assassin or whether it deserved her respect. She tried to grab Goofy to get his muzzle clean. He stopped fussing when he realized she didn't want to play but he still pouted.

"I know. But you just had a big meal. And you need to be clean before either of us can go to bed."

His tail wagged a little and he licked his lips and made a couple chuffing sounds followed by a bit of gagging and more lip licking.

"If you throw up, I'm leaving you out here."

He made little awoo noises and then pulled away from her to go back to the door to scratch at it. She followed him after rinsing out the rag. Goofy just kept awoo-ing until he finally escalated to barking at the door.

"Goofy, quiet." She finished with his muzzle and tried his paws again. He kept dancing, escalating further to howling until she grabbed his snout.

"No, Fenris."

The howling cut off with a squeak and he held still with his ears back while she worked on his paws. She toweled him dry when they were done before looking him in the eyes.

"Be good." She slowly opened the door for him. Goofy trotted inside and promptly jumped on Kishi. The Prince scrambled in surprised alarm and kicked off the towel and the wolf with a yelp. Then he irritably stalked to his closet to get dressed with Goofy on his tail trying to lick his back.

Xion winced.

"That wasn't good," she told the wolf as soon as he reappeared, "Bad boy."

Finally dressed, Kishi flopped back on his bed, falling asleep almost immediately on top of his bedding.

Xion took one of the extra blankets from the wives' room and tucked him in before heading to bed herself. Vanitas and Sora were waiting in the room. Waiting stressfully. Sora was pacing.

"I really am okay. Are you?"

"You almost died. Of course I'm not okay!" Sora nearly sobbed.

"I meant your stomach. I did not almost die. I have been far closer to death before." She pointed to her hip and both Vanitas and Sora visibly flinched.

"I'm fine, Xion... I couldn't protect you..."

"We aren't used to fighting in close quarters like this is all."

"He had to... He just... He didn't even try to catch the guy."

"...he killed him."

"But we don't know anything about why he was after you. I know what the Prince said but is it true?"

"About Ansem? Probably. He was acting weird last time I saw him," Xion admitted.

"But why does he want to kill you??"

"He's like a bratty child. He tried to have a toy, but it was given to his sibling. So he tried to take it by force, but that didn't work. What's the next step?"

"... breaking the toy," Vanitas answered. Sora's concerned expression somehow looked more concerned.

"You can't go looking for answers," Xion told them.

"Why not?" Vanitas demanded.

"What if he tries again?" Sora asked.

"I don't go down easily."

"Xion, it's bad enough that you have to be here but they're actively trying to kill you now too?"

"One person is actively trying to kill me. That's not that bad. That person could have been my fiancé."

"Speaking of... Xion, what was going on in the bathroom?" asked Sora.

"Healing. Magic. Not sex."

"I'd be disappointed on your behalf of it was," Vanitas said. Sora was too worried to laugh at the joke.

"He was making sure I was okay. Before he worried about himself."

Sora thought about that and then nodded. "Yeah, I guess that was kind of nice."

"I still don't trust him," Vanitas spat.

"...Are you sure he didn't touch you inappropriately?" asked the other retainer after Van made him nervous again.

"Do you think I'd hide it from you if he did?"

"...no." Sora still stepped up to hug her.

She accepted the hug readily and repeated, "How's your stomach?"

"It will bruise, but I'm okay."

"Okay. Good. If that changes, get help, okay?" Xion squeezed him a little tighter.

"Well, if you keep squeezing me like that I might need to," he teased.

She immediately let go.

"Sorry."

"He was making a joke, don't beat yourself up," Vanitas said.

"She's too busy doing that to me~"

Xion pouted this time.

"Sora, how could you do this, Vanitas is the mean one."

Sora huffed and flopped on the bed to mumble, "He's just that much meaner."

"I'm going to be very mean if we don't all go to bed," Vanitas insisted. Xion went to change into something dry she could sleep in. They were all asleep before long.

Chapter Text

When she woke up the next morning, Goofy and Kishi were gone. Any evidence that there had been an assassin there last night was also gone.

Guess I'm not going out with him today.

Xion went out to stretch on the balcony as the sun rose. Ventus was the one who brought breakfast around the time she was wrapping up her workout.

"No training for me today?" she asked him.

"What do you mean?"

"Classes. Kishi's been taking me lately, but he's already gone."

"He's eating breakfast with his brother."

"Riku?"

"Ansem," Ven clarified. She stiffened only for a moment. She didn't know if she was glad to be left behind or upset.

"Will he be back before classes?"

"I don't know if he's going to classes today," he admitted. Ven started passing out plates, he had enough food for Sora and Vanitas too.

"...he was up late," she mentioned softly as her retainers joined them. Ven grabbed an apple for himself. Everyone else was getting some sort of sweet oatmeal with apples, creamy chocolate milk, and the usual fresh bread. All the Terminus natives ate small meals every time.

"You can eat more, Ven," Xion said.

"I ate before I came over," he admitted. Though he did help himself to more milk.

"What's in that?"

"It's mostly milk but the chef mixes in this powdered bean that we get imported."

She admitted, "It's really good."

"The Prince likes it too. ...So last night..."

Vanitas and Sora both looked up from their meals.

"...we act like nothing happened," Xion said.

"Yeah, but... are you guys okay?"

"Ventus... we were soldiers. That wasn't that bad."

"Speak for yourself," Vanitas said.

"Did the Prince seem okay?"

"...not... exactly. He seemed really angry."

Ven was worried.

"He went right for the kill?" he asked.

"Yes."

Ven rolled his glass in his hands, studying the milk. "Maybe take him riding today? Or to the garden to draw?"

"He draws?"

"Yeah, he paints sometimes too."

"...yeah, I can ask to go to the gardens..." Xion thought aloud.

"Thanks. We just... really don't want Kishi to get the same taste for blood that his brothers have.  Sweeping this under the rug, moving on like it was nothing, shouldn't be normal," Ven explained.

"He needs a quiet moment," she added.

"He needs to know that what he did was only okay because he was saving you."

She nodded.

"... it's weird for anyone to not know that," Vanitas said.

"The Princes were raised to be armies onto themselves. They don't really have the same value for life that most people have. There's the royal family and their people, and everyone else, especially those of enemy states are just animals. Ansem and Xemnas regularly volunteer to lead Daybreak's armies because they enjoy it. Riku sees it as a duty and does as he's ordered, but Kishi hasn't been sent to the front lines yet. When he was a child, the front lines made him sick, so until he demonstrates more of an eagerness and ability, they keep him here so he won't embarrass the reputation Xemnas and Ansem have established."

"... there's a difference between a war and a slaughter."

"Yeah," Ven agreed, "the staff think so too. All the servants were raised to believe that what the Empire is doing is morally sound, but we've seen what Xemnas and Ansem are like. A morality that treats men like that as gods... Kishi is really our best chance for an Empire that doesn't glorify conquering and violence in all its forms. Even if he never sees the throne, he could influence it to be better."

Xion took a moment to think over that. There was potential for good here, but also the chance for it to go very badly. She was in a position, if it went well, to help thousands of people. And again, hurt thousands if not.

"...I do want him to be good."

"He is good," Ven insisted, "we're just trying to keep his family from changing that."

"I'll do my best."

Ven finished his milk and then sulked in his chair.

"Hey Ven?"

He looked up at her.

"Do you think we could get flowers with dinner?" Xion asked.

"Yeah, edible ones?"

"No. Just to be pretty."

"Yeah, I can do that."

"Thanks."

Ven cleaned up breakfast as they finished up and then left. About half an hour after that, Kishi returned with Goofy. The Prince seemed distracted and headed straight to his room to take off his shoes and coat.

Xion and Vanitas were sparring with broom handles on the balcony, but she came inside when she heard him.

"How was breakfast?"

"Fine. Oats aren't my favorite."

"You had oats over there too?"

"Why is that such a surprise?"

She shrugged and said, "It's not. Just clarifying."

He wasn't really looking at her, instead he was focused on his slippers and changing into a more comfortable robe. Goofy was happy to see her though and came up to her wagging his tail and chewing on someone’s femur. She gave him scratches.

"...are you okay, Kishi?" Xion asked.

"Yeah, why?"

"...do you think we can go to the garden today?"

He sighed, "I have a shit ton of homework, Xion."

"...is that a no?"

Kishi looked over at her, sighed again and said, "half an hour."

She nodded. "Thank you."

He begrudgingly reached for his shoes and coat again. She smiled before grabbing her own coat and Kishi headed to the front door to wait. Goofy followed in the chance he'd be allowed to come along. Xion wasn't far behind them, but she had a book and pencil with her.

He didn't question it or ask about it at all.

"Your people aren't coming?" he focused on instead.

"They might shadow, but I asked them to give you space."

He grunted and they left. Kishi didn't say anything the whole way there, but he got the garden gate for her. His expression was neutral, guarded, it was impossible to tell how he was feeling at all.

Goofy on the other hand was ecstatic. He never got to go in the garden and there were so many smells in there! The wolf eagerly sniffed everything and peed on everything.

"Ven says you draw." She found a bench to sit on under one of the smaller gazebos. The garden stream ran past it.

"Sometimes." He wasn't in the mood to sit, so he didn't.

"Can you show me?"

"...okay, what's the deal? Did Ven put you up to this?" Kishi asked warily.

"Maybe. But I think I agree. After something like that, you have to do things with your heart."

Kishi was visibly angry now.

"My servants are conspiring behind my back, and you have the gall to assume what I need? I saved your life. I removed a threat. I sent the message that no one comes into my home without my say so. And you think what? That somehow that makes me sick? Or weak?"

Xion looked down to say, "I don't think it makes you weak. You are strong. But there's more than one kind of strength and keeping things balanced between them is important. I guess...I don't know what you need. I'm grateful, I'm trying to thank you the way I know how."

He slowly calmed down, taking slow breaths.

"There is nothing wrong with me," Kishi said firmly, "and I don't need you to coddle me. You're a servant, nothing more." He huffed and stomped away down the path a bit, staying within eye shot but getting some distance.

Xion moved to sit by the end of the pond instead to watch the swans. She left the book and pen on the seat. Goofy noticed the swans too. He went flying into the water to try and catch them but they turned on him and chased him out of the pond and deeper into the garden while he yelped and they hissed.

She sighed and followed the dog. They'd have to take him home, after all, and she didn't want him getting lost. He wasn't hard to track. The massive monster tore up half the garden running through it and let crushed flowers, flattened grass, muddy pawprints, and broken pots the whole way. Xion was muttering silent apologies the whole way. She hoped Todd and his girlfriend were smart enough to stay hidden.

Eventually she found him crammed into a drainpipe with his rump exposed and being bitten at by swans.

"You're such a dumb mutt, you know that?" Xion pulled up some of the grass' seed pods and offered it to the birds. It distracted them enough from their rampage to forget what they were doing and they waddled off to graze. She set about pulling the sopping wolf out of the water.

"Big dummy. Don't you know swans are snakes in feathers?"

He gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek and then whimpered with little awoos at the sensation of being wet.

"I don't have towels. You're just going to have to deal with being wet."

He wiggled onto dry land and shook himself off so everything was wet. She huffed and found a dry patch of ground a ways away to lay down in and he laid down next to her and wiggled in the grass so now he was wet and muddy.

"You need a leash."

He woofed in agreement. Not that he knew what he was agreeing to.

"Does Kishi ever give you belly rubs?" she asked him. He woofed again and wagged his tail. She sat up and gave his side a push. He was a muddy mess at this point, but so was she. He jumped into a play bow.

"No, no, I'm gonna show you another kind of fun. Lay down." She laid on her side as an example. He stayed in the play bow and started barking at her.

"Nope. I'm not going to chase you around and ruin the garden more."

His back half met his front on the ground, and he stopped panting, ears forward. She sat up enough to try to roll him over again, scratching as she did so. The persistent scratching convinced him and he rolled onto his back. Xion took full advantage and gave him big firm rubs. His whole body wiggled and one of his legs thudded rapidly.

"Yeah? Is that good? Do you like that, boy?" She grinned. His tail wagged so hard it was cutting the grass and thudding into a tree, knocking leaves and new buds loose. They were sitting in a rain of color. She sat back for a moment to admire it before going back to the dog.

Not everyone was happy. A squirrel in the tree chattered irritably and threw nuts at them. She ignored it.

About five minutes later, she laid back down and looked at the sky above. Goofy licked her face with a tongue the size of her face. She wiped away the slobber with a grimace. He just wagged his tail and got up to keep sniffing around the garden and Xion got up again to follow and keep him out of trouble.

He actually behaved for the most part aside from peeing on everything he could.

Xion had circled back around to the entrance by the end of the half hour. She went to get the book back.

It was where she left it but Kishi had wandered off. She and Goofy waited by the gate, and she quietly started to hum.

An hour passed and he still didn't show. Now she went looking. Goofy followed her, still sniffing along.

Eventually she found him. The Prince had fallen asleep on a patch of grass in the sun. Xion sat down not far away and resumed her humming. She didn't want to wake him. He looked peaceful.

Goofy had other ideas and started for Kishi.

"Goofy. Be good," she whispered. The wolf whined a bit and Kishi stirred a little and curled up on his side. She continued humming, slowly getting louder, but she also scratched underneath Goofy's chin. He fussed a little in his sleep and Goofy yawned. The sun’s warmth was getting to him too.

She leaned over and put a hand lightly on Kishi’s shoulder. He jumped and reached for a weapon but was unarmed which left him scrambling for a few moments. Xion just put her hands up.

Kishi looked at her, looked around, checked Goofy, and then put a hand on his chest while he took deep breaths.

"...you seemed to be having a bad dream."

"I-Im fine." He rubbed his face.

"They were just dreams, yeah?"

He swallowed a couple times but didn't move his hand from his chest. "We should go back to the house..."

"Okay."

Kishi didn't move. He was still trying to calm down. She slowly put her hand out to him again. He didn't shy away when she touched his shoulder, but he didn't really acknowledge it either. Kishi was shaky and twitchy under her hand.

"Hey. I'm not gonna hurt you. Nothing will, for now," Xion reassured him. He took another deep breath and finally got up. She joined him.

"What's your favorite meal?" she asked.

"I-I don't know. I don't know if I have one."

"How about just something you like?"

"I like swimming and playing the violin."

She'd meant food but this worked. "Swimming?"

"Yeah, I feel better in the water." He woke up a little more completely and then the mask was back. "...let's go." Kishi took the lead again, heading back to the path to the garden gate.

She nodded and followed. "Come on, Goofy. We're going back."

The wolf followed, veering occasionally to sniff. Kishi didn't talk until right before they entered the house. Then he stopped.

"Was Ventus the only one telling you things about me?" he asked.

She had a bad feeling about where it was going.

"...why?"

"Was he the only one putting you up to trying to manipulate me?"

"Yes, but why?"

"You don't need to know." He went inside.

"Kishi, wait, please don't have him hurt."

He ignored her and went through the house systematically until he found Ven dusting the library.

"Ventus." The servant looked up at Kishi with a smile and then slowly it melted away.

"We're going to go see Aqua," Kishi said.

Ven nodded, starting to shake a bit. He put the duster down and wiped his hands on his pants and then slowly started to walk to the front door with the Prince.

Xion stood in the doorway.

"Move," Kishi said firmly. He was oddly calm.

"He wanted to help you. He doesn't deserve to be punished for that."

"Conspiring behind my back, saying who knows what to an outsider, putting you up to manipulating a Prince. If I tolerate behavior like this... I don't need to explain myself to you! Go upstairs before I have you punished too!" he ordered. She didn't budge.

"He loves you. Do you think he would do something to endanger you? Do you think asking me to make you happy today is manipulation?"

Kishi was fuming.

"Who are you to tell me how to run my own house? To defy me so blatantly where anyone can see? Get out of my way!" Ven was keeping his head down, trying to stay out of the line of fire but he tried to convey some sort of reassurance to Xion with his eyes.

"The only ones who can see are you, me, and Ventus," she said but finally dropped her gaze and went upstairs. Kishi dragged Ven out the door and slammed it behind her and Goofy. Sora was at her side in a heartbeat.

"You were gone longer than half an hour," he said.

"He fell asleep." She started for the wives' room.

"Is everything ok? I heard yelling..."

"... I'm not sure, Sora."

He offered a hug.

"I need some time first, okay? Can you get a bath ready?"

"Yeah." He went to start the bath. She waited at the bed. Vanitas looked up but didn't say anything.

"It's ready," Sora announced, "I'll get you some clean clothes to change into."

She slipped around him to the bathroom and stripped before getting in the water. She was fairly dirty from playing with the muddy wolf, but she needed the time to cry. This was the worst she'd seen from the Prince so far. She hoped, oh she hoped Ven would be alright. But she didn't think it would turn out that way. Gods, she hoped they didn't kill him. That was probably a stretch, but Kishi was angry, and the word manipulation wasn't going to get a light punishment. She felt sick. She should have kept her mouth closed and just enjoyed the time out in the garden.

By the time dinner rolled around, Roxas had come by to get Goofy bathed in the yard, so the balcony smelled like wet wolf. Kishi wasn't back yet either, but the door downstairs still opened and there were sounds downstairs of someone setting out dinner.

Xion really wasn't feeling hungry. She'd come down if Kishi asked her to but if not, she wasn't going to eat tonight.

"I'll, um, go get your food," Sora offered.

She shook her head. "I'm not hungry. You and Vanitas should go eat."

"Well that's bullshit," Vanitas said, "You're stressed, not stuffed."

"... I'm going to go get food for you." Sora got up and headed downstairs.

He came back up with the tray and put it on the desk. There were mashed potatoes with cheese and chives, rotisserie chicken pieces, fresh bread, green beans, and wine to drink. There were fresh cut flowers in a vase on the tray.

"Hey," Sora said, "Ven wanted me to tell you he's alright. Did something happen?"

He was alright, and he was here. An entire ocean of tension bled out of her in an instant.

"I said something I shouldn't have earlier, and Kishi got really mad at him and took him away. I was afraid he was going to be beaten. Or worse."

Sora wasn't entirely sure how to react to that.

"Oh. Well, he's downstairs, finishing up some chores. He seemed worried about you too."

Xion ignored the dinner to go see him. Ven was restocking the pantry downstairs. The tea selection was growing.

"... you're okay? Really?" she asked from the doorway. He jumped, not expecting her.

"Hey... Yeah, I got lectured and a warning but no punishment. Are you okay? He seemed so much angrier with you than with me."

"... Yeah. I'm okay. He's not the scariest thing I've faced."

"He might, um, he might still punish you, for being defiant," Ven cautioned.

"I promise I've been through worse."

"That's... kind of sad."

She shrugged. "Life isn't easy where I'm from."

"I guess that's true," he said more quietly. Ven turned his focus back on the tea with his shoulders slumped and his eyes misty.

"...are you okay emotionally?"

Ven turned his face and sniffed, "I'm sorry, this must seem so silly to you."

"What's silly about it?"

"You're just so strong and resilient to punishment. I wasn't even punished but I just-" his shoulders shook and he seemed a little weaker "-I feel so badly that I upset him so much."

"That's strength of heart. It's not silly."

He sniffled a little more, "He was so disappointed... Like he stopped trusting me."

"He's wrong."

"I just, I feel bad. And I put you in a bad position too..."

"Ven. I shouldn't have said anything to him."

"No, I should've just been more honest with him about my concerns. It wasn't fair to get you involved and put all these hopes and expectations on you."

"... when is he coming back? Do you know?"

"He wanted to eat dinner with the Emperor tonight," Ven said softly after an anxious swallow.

"... oh." Xion couldn't imagine wanting to eat with that man, but he was the Prince's father.

"Said something about needing advice," he mumbled.

Probably about me, she thought with some horror.

"... thanks for telling me. I'm going to go eat now," she said, heading out.

He sniffed a bit to try and get his distress under control.

"Yeah, have a good night," he told her as she departed. Xion went to eat. It had gone cold already, but she ate enough to make it to breakfast without pain.

"Xion, can Vani and I both stay here tonight?"

"...I think it's best if you both go tonight."

"That's—" Xion cut Vanitas off.

"Kishi's angry with me and doesn't like you hanging around. I don't want to make it worse tonight."

Sora jumped a little. "All the more reason for us to stay! What if he tries something with you?"

"Then he tries something. What if he tries something worse because it looks like I'm flaunting what privileges I do have? We can what if this to death. It's not going to change it."

They didn't want to argue with her but damnit if Sora wasn't worried sick.

"We'll come back first thing in the morning," he promised.

"That's fine," she said. Vanitas looked murderous but he grabbed Sora's arm to pull him out. He hugged her quickly and then went with Vanitas to the servant's house.

Xion waited in the wives' room, listening for the door. She was actually afraid of what was coming. Not that she'd show it. But she didn't know what Kishi would do as a punishment after taking advice from the Emperor.

He didn't get back until well after dark and he didn't get up to his room until after Goofy had a last pee of the evening. Kishi didn't bother to knock on her door, just opened it.

"Go make some tea," he ordered softly.

She got up to go downstairs. "What kind?"

"Peppermint would be great."

She nodded and went down to make it. She didn't quite boil the water this time, but she let the leaves steep a little too long. She brought the tea set up, still feeling the stone in her stomach.

"Milk or sugar?"

"Neither." He had changed while she was gone and was settling into bed. He took the tea from her, sipped it, and then held it in his lap. "Speaking out against me the way that you did is unacceptable and there needs to be some sort of punishment. Do you disagree?"

Yes, she thought. "I won't fight it."

"That's not an answer."

"... can I explain my answer, or do you just want a yes or no?"

"I just want a yes or a no."

"Yes."

He took a long sip before saying, "I was taking Ven to Aqua to talk to him about the extent of any conspiracy there might have been. He's honest and earnest so I knew he wouldn't lie or hold anything back. He didn't do anything that couldn't be overlooked. But outward defiance of a master? I had Roxas beaten for disobedience. You disobeyed me, questioned what I was doing, and openly defied me in my own home. Nothing stays secret around here, my family already knows what you did. If I don't punish you then it damages my position."

"I told you I wouldn't fight it."

"I know. What you said on Ven's behalf, did affect my decision to let him go unscathed. In a way, you took any punishment he might have received onto yourself. So, I was thinking of giving your people the chance to do the same for you." He watched her reaction carefully as he sipped the tea.

She looked just a little bit softer as she said, "...I know that they would in a heartbeat. But I already sent them away from the night."

"I could punish them tomorrow. If that's what you want."

"They didn't do anything. I have no problems taking whatever punishment you have."

He paused to sip the tea again. "I don't think beating you is going to do anything, taking away meals obviously didn't do anything because you didn't actually learn your lesson."

"...at home, a punishment is designed to fit the crime. I kept you from leaving your house, the equivalent would not be leaving my room. But I honestly do not think there is a punishment on this earth that will keep me from trying to do the right thing. I will be good, I will be obedient, but I cannot promise that something like this won't happen again."

He sipped his tea thoughtfully.

"I see. Here, punishments are tailored to the individual. You haven't yet earned the right to give me council like you did, so a punishment is still expected, something to make you think twice about doing it again. My brother Ansem would tell me to crush your spirit, but my father disagrees. He thinks you could be a good council given time." Kishi studied his empty mug for a minute, debating in his head. "I would like you to have to give up one of your scars and have it magically erased. As a punishment for what you did."

Her breath caught for a moment. She'd explained what scars meant to her, to her people. He was looking for the punishment to hurt. It wasn't an easy decision, either. She wasn't sure if the sting even could be removed, as Aqua had said. Which left the other two. Her proof of growth and kindness. Neither was something she wanted to get rid of. But of the two of them...

"...my leg," she said quietly, trying to keep tears from pooling.

He didn't seem particularly malicious about this; it was obvious he didn't enjoy it.

"When I was growing up, my father taught me that a punishment should be severe enough that it should only be necessary no more than three times. This will give more weight to your future moments of defiance. Now I will know that if you are countering something I say, then you mean it enough to face such a consequence. We'll deal with it in the morning."

She nodded and waited to be dismissed. His explanation made sense but that didn't lift the weight of what would happen.

He handed the mug back to her.

"You can go to bed when you're done cleaning up the tea."

She took the tray back downstairs and cleaned the tea set robotically, ready to just go to bed.

Nobody bothered her. Even Goofy was sound asleep when she finally made it to her bedroom to turn in for the night.

Chapter Text

Kishi was up early again and wasn't home when she woke up. True to their word, Sora and Vanitas were there the moment he left. Xion was still in her room, pant leg pulled up and tracing the scar on her calf.

Sora knocked but entered immediately and let out a sigh of relief when he saw she was in one piece. She didn't say anything when they came in.

"...Xion?"

She startled up. "...oh. Hey."

"Alright, spill. Something happened and you're clearly upset."

"What did he do?" Sora asked. The rare bubble of anger was in his voice.

"... he's having one of my scars erased."

Sora went wide-eyed. "That's too far. You didn't even do anything wrong!"

"I told him I wouldn't fight it." And she wouldn't tell them that he offered to let them take it. "And...I did. I deliberately spoke out against him and disobeyed an order."

Sora turned to leave.

"Sora. Don't fight him."

"Don't fight him without me," Vanitas hissed.

"Let's go Van," Sora growled.

"No," Xion said firmly, getting up to stand in the door.

"You can't let him do this! Those scars are so important..."

"I know, Sora, I know, but I can't make it worse. Disobeying or fighting it now will. And I don't want to give him a reason to send the two of you away."

"What if we could convince him to do something else?" Sora suggested.

"He offered something else. I'd rather do this."

"...what did he offer?" Vanitas asked suspiciously.

"It doesn't matter," she said, not meeting either of their eyes.

"Xion, what was the other option?" Sora prodded.

"...if I tell you, will you agree to not say anything to him?"

"Absolutely not," Vanitas said.

"We can't make that promise."

"Then I won't say."

Sora looked over at Vanitas to say, "I bet we can make the Prince tell us."

"I bet we can," he said. Xion stayed in the doorway and Sora tried to gently push past her.

"I don't want you to do anything that might get you dismissed today. Please."

"Xion, this is an assault on us too. We were there when you got those, they tell a story about us. We want to defend that too."

"I don't want to see you hurt!" she begged.

"...Xion," Vanitas had hit the calm angry that made him really scary. The shadows around the room seemed that much sharper. "...did he offer to punish us instead? Did you turn that down?"

"Xion... We can handle that! Why won't you let us protect you?"

Goofy started barking and raced downstairs to investigate the front door opening.

"Because I don't have a lot of time left with you. I don't want to miss it because you're hurt. Or feel guilty." Her eyes were watering. Was it going to be Vexen? Or some mage?

Goofy's barking stopped and Kishi came upstairs.

He looked at her from the doorway and said, "Let's get this over with."

Xion closed the door behind her, with Sora and Vanitas still inside. A silent order. She followed Kishi with her head bowed. He led the way down to the bathroom. Aqua, Namine, and Namine's assistant were there. She kept her head down, not wanting to call attention to herself. Kishi sat down in the corner next to Aqua to supervise/witness.

"Hey, Xion," Namine greeted. Her friendliness was a little more muted now.

"Hello Miss Naminé. Master Aqua." She was quiet, and still didn't look up.

"Have you decided which scar is to be removed?"

She'd decided and told Kishi last night. "My—my leg."

"Did the Prince tell you how this will work?"

She just shook her head.

"The easiest way is to cut out the scar and then heal it as though it were a fresh wound." The assistant was testing the bath water, measuring the salt carefully.

She stopped breathing for a moment. This was going to be very, very painful, on top of being shameful and emotionally difficult. Naminé seemed to understand Xion’s expression.

"It won't hurt, I'm going to numb it first so you can't feel it. I need you to take off your clothing, whatever may be in the way."

Xion just rolled her pant leg up over her knee. She wasn't sure if she wanted it numbed, but she didn't want to worry Sora and Vanitas crying out.

"Sit by the edge of the tub please," Naminé instructed. She turned to the counter and started mixing some things in separate bowls. Her assistant was undressing down to a pair of form fitting shorts and climbing into the tub to mix in the salts.

She sat, pulling her knee up to her chest. She was fourteen when she got this scar.

"Zexion," Naminé said to get her assistant's attention. He looked up and then waded over to take the bowls from her. He put them on the side of the tub.

"Wash her leg please," the fae instructed while she went to get fresh, clean towels. Zexion timidly moved over to Xion and gently guided her leg into the water and used a washcloth to make sure it was clean before removing it and drying her leg. He put the damp towel under it and then moved away so Naminé could get into the tub. She was still wearing her white sundress, that somehow managed to maintain its opaqueness despite soaking up the water. Naminé gently traced the scar with her fingers.

"Will you tell me about it?" she asked Xion as she started to gently apply a cream, rubbing it in like a lotion.

"...any soldier's first big scar is called their proof of growth. It's proof that you made a mistake. Not a big enough one to kill, but one that hurt and would take you out of action for a while. Give you time to think, to be afraid. It is growth, then, to return to the fight. This was mine."

Naminé was reverent in how she handled Xion's scar, even before Xion told her the story. Even more so after hearing her speak. After a few long moments, her leg started to feel numb. Naminé occasionally poked her leg but otherwise they were just waiting.

"How did it happen?"

"I was a year into the age to be married, and there was a boy I wanted to impress. I tried to do something that would have looked cool but I messed up my footing, and the ogre's club caught on my leg and ripped the skin off."

"Sounds like an adventure. Okay, I think we're ready. You'll still be able to feel a little bit, but it will be easier for you if you don't watch."

Xion was almost offended but she just shook her head. "I don't think I want to look away."

Naminé just offered a reassuring smile and then got a surgical knife from her tools on the side of the tub. She was right, the pain was dulled but there was a pressure still and the sounds and sights didn't numb everything. She was careful, but quick. The longer this took, the more blood Xion lost, and the towel could only catch so much. Because the scar was wide as well as long, it meant more work. Naminé skinned the area in strips until the scar was gone and her leg looked more like the original injury.

As the stretch of skin disappeared, Xion started to weep. The boy had died a year later in an ambush. She'd spent a week in a tent while her troop fought on because of her stupid stunt. Really, what had she been thinking, trying to jump on the club? But she'd learned. Showing off was never supposed to be a priority. She had made a mistake there. And she learned and grew from it. And it felt like that growth had amounted to nothing.

Then the fae started caking on the familiar paste. It acted similar to a glue this time, stopping the blood as well as covering the injury. Naminé didn't submerge her leg just yet though. She swapped out the blood-soaked towel under her leg for a fresh couple and then waited for a bit.

"You're going to need to spend a few hours with this leg submerged when we put it in the water."

Xion nodded dumbly at Naminé's words.

Naminé motioned for Zexion to get out of the tub and he did so, taking a towel to dry himself off while she stayed to help Xion lower the leg into the water. The bubbling, hissing sounds were a lot louder this time, turning the tub into a near facsimile of champagne. The numbing cream was still working so Xion at least couldn't feel the intense itch that undoubtedly would accompany healing on this level. The fae got out of the tub then and dried herself off.

"She can get out after lunchtime," she reported. Aqua made a few notes on her clipboard, Kishi and Naminé signed it, and then everyone left except Kishi. He stayed seated in the corner.

It wasn't the silent tears she usually had. She was doing her best to be quiet, but she was still sobbing. She still remembered but she couldn't prove it anymore. It was like some of her past, her memory had been stolen.

After about half an hour of silence, there was a knock on the door. Sora and Vanitas were there, wanting to come in. Kishi answered it and then held the door open for them when he realized who it was.

Xion didn't look up when she heard the door.

Sora glared at Kishi for a second and then hurried over to Xion's side. He knelt beside her and hugged her from behind.

She cried harder, "Didn't—didn't want you two to see."

Vanitas just sat with her next to the bath. "We're still mad at you."

"But we love you too much to make you go through this alone," Sora said softly.

Kishi left, closing the door quietly behind him.

She leaned over, tears falling in the bath instead.

"I'm glad you're—you're both o-okay."

"He should be punished for hurting you," Sora whispered to her.

"Sora..."

"He's right," Van agreed.

She sniffled, "You won't, though."

"Let us just beat on him a little..."

"No."

Sora pouted but stopped pushing it. She turned as far as she could while keeping her leg in the water to hug him properly.

The house was quiet until Roxas came by. He knocked on the door politely before letting himself in.

"Hey, do you need a book or something so you're not bored?" he asked.

"N-no thanks," she spluttered out.

"...what do you want for lunch?"

"... I'm not—"

"You didn't eat breakfast, you're not skipping lunch," Vanitas said firmly.

"...hash brown casserole." It was an end-of-the-week meal she ate a lot while out fighting. Leftovers were combined with shredded potatoes and baked, often topped with a hard cheese.

"I'll tell the cooks." He left. That meant she could almost come out of the water. It had gone cold a long time ago.

"...I think I just want to stay in the room today."

"That's okay," Sora said gently He dug out a hairbrush and softly brushed her hair.

"You're not leaving our sight today," Vanitas said.

He doesn't want me to feel alone, she filled in.

"And we're staying the night too," Sora added.

She hesitated a moment there before whispering, "...please."

It was another hour and a half until Roxas came back again with a pleasant, "Hey, I brought you lunch."

She nodded and finally pulled her leg out of the tub. "...hey, Roxas?"

"Yeah?"

"Is Ven okay?"

"He will be," Roxas said quickly, defensive.

"He seemed really upset yesterday."

"He takes what the Prince says and feels to heart," Roxas tried to explain, "Kishi is like our brother. All Ven wants is for him to be happy and he almost never gets in trouble. He's just not used to Kishi being upset with him."

She just nodded.

"Sounds like Sora," Vanitas said. Sora hugged Xion tighter.

"Yeah, well, he's still strong. He'll be okay," stressed Roxas.

That's good, she thought, getting up, "...um...lunch?"

"Xion, hold on," Sora said. Her leg was still a very angry red.

"Oh, you'll have to wrap that," said Roxas, "you might have gotten out a little early." He came into the room more to dig around under the sink for bandages and a different cream. This one kept better so it was in its own jar premade.

"Put some of this on before you bandage it."

Xion passed the jar to Sora. "...thanks."

Sora helped apply it and then bandaged her leg.

"Lunch is in the bedroom," Roxas said. She nodded. She couldn't feel her knee quite right, so she limped a little on her way up.

Roxas stopped them on the stairs to warn, "Um, you should be really careful. The Prince is there... And he has company."

"What company?" Vanitas growled as Xion stopped halfway up the stairs.

"Prince Ansem came by," Roxas said, admittedly a little put off by Vans aggression, "To make sure Kishi actually, you know, punished her."

This was not a good time to have to see him. Xion tried to put on her blank face, but it came off as more tired than anything. Roxas tried to offer an expression of sympathy but his dislike of her wasn't a secret and it didn't really come out right so he gave up and went to get more drinks.

Xion headed up, now on guard. Vanitas shoved ahead of her on the stairs, already assuming the point guard role.

The wall to the balcony had been slid back, so it was open. The sun was shining and the room was bright and airy. The food was on a cart on the balcony near where Kishi and Ansem were sitting on reclining chairs with drinks in their hands.

Xion didn't go to the balcony.

"Sora, can you bring my food to the room?" she asked softly. Sora deviated but Ansem saw them heading to her room and got up.

"Stop," he ordered. She did stop, but she didn't turn to look his way.

"No, you two slaves can go," he corrected, waving off Sora and Vanitas.

"Sora. Vanitas." Vanitas growled but went to the doorway of the wives' room. No further. Sora reluctantly did the same.

Ansem pointed to Xion and curled his finger, motioning for her to come to him.

"Come here." By now Kishi was getting up, but he looked a little dazed. They had been drinking. He stumbled over to Ansem.

Xion kept her eyes glued three feet ahead of her on the floor. She only went to the edge of the balcony.

"It was on her leg," Kishi slurred. He walked up to her and leaned over to pull up her pajama pants so Ansem could see the bandage.

He chuckled, "good for you little brother. Finally taking charge of your home." Kishi let go of her pants and looked away. Xion leaned over to pull the pajamas back down.

Please, let me go to the room.

"Your punishment choice seemed too lenient but I will admit I was mistaken." He reached out and grabbed her chin, tilting her head back so he could study her face. "She broke more easily than I thought she would."

Kishi grabbed Ansem’s wrist and gently pushed his brother back.

"That's enough, you saw what you wanted to see, you can leave now."

Ansem studied Kishi for a minute, irritated that Kishi touched him, but it curled into a cruel smile instead. The older Prince finished the last bit of his drink, handed the glass to Xion, and then left.

Xion waited until she heard the front door close to put the glass down.

"Rest assured that I am not broken," she told the Prince. Resilience wasn't about not getting knocked down. It was about getting back up. And now she needed another bath.

Kishi grunted a bit, avoiding eye contact. He went to slump back into his chair.

"You can eat out here if you want but I get it if you'd rather eat in your room," he mumbled. She took the plate that she assumed was hers and went to the little room. Sora only moved from the door when she was safely inside.

"... I'm okay. But I need a bath."

"I'll get one started for you."

She just nodded. She needed to get Ansem's slimy touch off her. Nothing in this gods-forsaken empire made her angrier than he did. She sat down to pick at the lunch.

Around the time she finished eating, there some shuffling sounds out in Kishi’s room, followed by silence. Goofy could be heard chewing on his bone but otherwise it was quiet. She didn't bother checking it, going to her bath instead.

Sora was snoozing when she finished and the skin around her jaw was pink and irritated.

"You shouldn't scrub that hard," Vanitas said.

"That's what it takes to stop feeling his hands on me."

"Le' us punch 'im," Sora mumbled.

"No. Stop asking. I'm not changing my stance on that."

He made a whining sound and rolled over.

"... Vanitas, how much sleep did you two get last night?" she asked.

"None."

"We didn't know if you were okay or not," Sora mumbled.

"...I wouldn't be dead."

"We thought... We thought maybe he would have forced himself on you. Or cut you up or something."

It was Xion's turn to hug Sora. He was on his belly so he couldn't hug her back but that was fine by him.

"We still have plenty of time before dinner, but I'll admit, I kind of want a nap..." he admitted.

"Go ahead. I'm not going anywhere."

He smiled and went to bed.

Roxas brought dinner by when it was getting late. He knocked on the door. Vanitas answered.

"Dinner," Roxas said simply, "it's basically all dessert if I'm being honest."

Vanitas took the tray.

"...Okay, have a good night, I guess." He left. The rest of the house was still empty and quiet.

"Sora, food's here." He smacked his brother with his free hand. Sora woke up long enough to eat and then crashed again.

It took Xion a lot longer to join them.

Chapter Text

The morning after her punishment was quiet. Kishi wasn't home. Ven brought breakfast by and Riku came to get Goofy so Mickey would have a friend for the night. Roxas brought lunch... and dinner... but Kishi still didn't come home. Roxas didn't have answers but seemed anxious when he left for the evening. Xion had been on edge all day at that point. Most of it was spent practicing sword forms with broom handles on the balcony.

Just after dinner, the door downstairs opened. Xion poked her head around the stairs. It was Riku bringing Goofy back.

"Ki!" he called but didn't get an answer.

"He's not here," Xion announced, "Been out all day."

"Is it okay if I leave Goofy here? Or would you rather I keep him at my place?" Riku asked.

"I don't mind but he doesn't fit in the little room."

Riku tapped his leg before saying, "I'll just keep him for a bit. Mickey will appreciate the company." He left with Goofy.

"...do you think he's going to stay out all night?" Xion asked no one in particular.

"Gods I hope so. I might do something you won't like if I see him right now," Vanitas said.

"When did he leave yesterday?" Sora asked. He had been napping most of the afternoon.

"I didn't see him after the two of you came into the bathroom," Xion answered.

"Wait, we saw him at lunch."

"...oh yeah." Ansem had overshadowed that encounter by a lot.

"Well, another night without him would be great," Sora agreed. He started getting Xion's pajamas out so she could start getting ready for bed.

Xion nodded. "Do you think... nevermind."

Sora tilted his head at her to ask, "Do we think what?"

"Will he mind if we use his bed? Probably, yeah. We shouldn't."

Sora lit up. "That's a great idea. He's not here to tell us no."

"... only if he's still not back in an hour." At that point she'd assume he was staying out. Sora still started surveying the Prince's bed anyway, fluffing pillows, and adding blankets. Vanitas closed the balcony wall and door and locked it.

"How many people did he plan on staying in his bed at once?" Sora asked as he tried to set things up. The bed really was massive.

"There are six beds in the little room," Xion pointed out. Vanitas went to lock the front door.

"...he's not the kind of guy that would have an orgy in here you think?"

"He might be expected to," she said quietly.

Sora wrinkled his nose.

"I assume they keep his bed clean..."

"I think so. It felt clean when I was sick."

He shrugged and jumped on the bed, completely foregoing the one-hour rule. Xion frowned and sat next to the bed while Vanitas came back.

"Go put your pajamas on. What are you waiting for?" Vanitas asked. She got up and changed.

"We should probably change too," Sora suggested.

"Probably, buuut...who cares?"

Sora belly flopped on the giant bed. " 's soft."

Vanitas sat on the edge. "Yeah, but not as fluffy as the downy blankets back home."

"They're necessary there," Xion countered as she rejoined them, "We'd freeze to death without the extra volume."

Sora scooted over to make space, not that it was necessary. There was too much space, even for the three of them. In the end, Xion was sandwiched between her retainers. She was happy to be. Sora blew out the candles and settled in to sleep. He fell asleep faster than the other two. He always did. Xion always took longer than the other two, but in this bed...she slipped under fast.

Around two am, when the moon was high enough in the sky to cast shadows, a figure dressed completely in black moved along the balcony. The glass door jiggled a little.

Xion was also the lightest sleeper. She sat up, not knowing what woke her up. When she saw the shadow, she shook Sora vigorously and barely tapped Vanitas, who woke up first.

"Go get the broomsticks," she whispered. Van didn't hesitate to get out of the bed. Sora yawned and sat up groggily.

There was enough moonlight to highlight the person. They were wearing loose clothing but size alone suggested male. They were wearing a head wrapping and a mask over their mouth and nose shaped like tiger’s teeth. Moonlight glinted off earrings and an eye covering, suggesting he was missing his left eye. The door jiggled some more and then the figure pulled out a thin knife to work at the latching lock.

"Sora. There's an intruder with a knife trying to get in," she whispered. Xion slipped out of the bed to meet Vanitas, who was back with four broomsticks. She passed one to Sora and took two herself, staying in the shadows.

"Stay hidden for now. He probably thinks we're in the little room, we can surprise him," she said quietly.

Sora was still waking up, but he snapped to it when he realized how serious this was. The lock unlatched and the intruder spun the knife and sheathed it on his leg. Then he opened the door and slipped inside, leaving it open. He stood still in the room for a second, listening, before moving to Kishi’s closet.

So this is a thief, she thought, not an assassin.

"As soon as he comes out of there, we strike," she whispered. Vanitas nodded, taking a position behind the door. The shuffling in the closet stopped when she spoke and the thief stuck his head out, looking around to check that he was alone.

Vanitas brought his stick down on the intruder's head and Xion followed up with a jab at his midsection.

The thief crumpled with a garbled yelp that was cut off with a pained wheeze. Xion and Vanitas tackled him, trying to pin him down.

It was not hard at first. The man was effectively stunned by the blow. His clothes were filthy, and he smelled mostly like fish but faintly of mint. His gloves were worn and old and the loose cloak was rough. He was somewhere between Scala Homeless Chic and visiting desert nomad.

Sora got in close to try and help but accidentally opened a window for the man. The broomstick in Sora’s hand was wrench free as the thief grabbed it and then used it to smack Sora into Van.

"Sora, go tell the guards there's a thief!" Xion punched the man in the diaphragm. Vanitas had to roll away, but he didn't stay away long. The blow took the thief's breath away and kept him from speaking. Sora scrambled to his feet but went down immediately when the thief grabbed his feet. She aimed the next punch at his nose.

The copious head wrappings saved him from breaking, but it still elicited a pained yelp and he let go of one of Sora’s legs. A leg that Sora promptly used to kick the intruder in the head and face. The struggling stopped and the thief held still, unconscious.

Xion and Vanitas stayed on him a minute before getting up.

"Van, find something to tie him up with. Sora, light?"

Sora fumbled in the dark for a candle. There were matches around here somewhere... He lit a few candles and came over. The thief was a mess. In the tussle his cloak had gotten all wrinkled, and his scarf was all in his face. The head wrapping was coming undone too and silver-white hair was sticking out of the folds.

It took Xion a moment to notice the hair. Oh. Oh no. She carefully removed the scarf and mask. His face was dirty but without the coverings, Kishi was unmistakable.

"...well, it's a compelling disguise," Sora offered.

"... we're fucked," Vanitas said as he returned with sheets.

"Is he dead?" Sora asked.

"No, he's breathing," Vanitas said. Xion sat back and puzzled for a moment.

"Help me move him to the bed," she finally said.

"Wait, wait, we can't just put him in bed and pretend it didn't happen! Look at him, he's got lumps on his head and a big bruise on his face!"

"We aren't going to pretend it didn't happen. But we can't leave him on the floor," she pointed out.

"We can tie him up and put the mask back on," Vanitas suggested unhelpfully.

"And leave him in the closet," Sora added sarcastically, "come on Van." He lightly slapped Kishi’s face but the Prince was out. "...what if, and hear me out, we use the magic bath to make the injuries go away."

"I don't know what goes in that mix. It has to be made each time."

"I do though. Ven showed me in case we ever needed it and they weren't around. We can heal him up, get him into pajamas, put him to bed, and then never speak of this again. If he asks, we come clean, but if he doesn't, no harm no foul," Sora suggested.

"What if he wakes up in the bath?"

"Then Vani can knock him out again."

Vanitas nodded at the same time Xion shook her head.

"We should just be honest. Does the bath thing have to happen soon after an injury?"

"I don't think so. Come on, Xion, he's pretty out of it..." Sora poked him again. Not even a groan. Kishi might as well have been dead weight. Xion started dragging him to the bed.

"Then we can tell him in the morning."

"Then let's tell him after we fix him! He'll be in a better mood!" He grabbed Kishi’s other side and started dragging him to the stairs.

"Whatever you do, don't tear him in half," Vanitas warned.

"You could help, y'know," Xion scolded.

"Nah, I'm good."

"Come on Vani, help me out," Sora asked, "it won’t take long!"

"...fine," Xion said, switching directions, "But we tell him first thing. And you two are in charge of changing him."

Vanitas groaned but started looking for Kishi's pajamas. Sora grinned triumphantly and grabbed him under his armpits.

"He is deceptively heavy," he squeaked as he shuffled backwards to the stairs. Xion agreed, but she was used to heavy work. Smithing wasn't easy.
"Should I take the front then?"

"No, I got it." About halfway down the stairs, Sora accidentally dropped him. If not for Xion holding his legs, Kishi would've slid down the stairs. He was definitely(italics) not waking up for a while.

"...oops. Maybe you should take the front..."

She carefully put his feet down and moved to his head, carrying him down that way. Legs were easier to carry. They set him down on the bathroom floor and Sora got the bath water running.

"...we shouldn't have to get him in. It's almost all on his head."

"...almost? Where else did he get hit?" the retainer asked.

"I stun punched him and also rammed him with a broomstick in his middle."

He looked at her for a second before saying, "Well, we have to change him into his pajamas anyway." He fumbled around under the sink for the stuff to make the cream and started mixing.

"Just bruises right?" he asked. She lifted his shirt to check. There were so many layers. Under the cloak was a leather vest.

"...I think we're fine with just the head," Xion said, chickening out.

"Hold on." Sora worked the cloak off. The damn thing was like a tent. Then he unbuttoned the vest and pulled his shirt up. There was already a sizeable bruise.

"...just the head huh?" he teased.

"Hey, I didn't know how hard I hit him!" she defended. Sora started working off the vest and shirt. Off came his gloves, bracers, earrings, and head covering too. Xion went to add the salt to the tub.

"He did not want to be recognized," Sora mumbled as he made a pile of discarded clothing.

"What do you think he was doing?"

"I have no idea. What kind of things would warrant dressing up like a vagabond?" He started working on Kishi's shoes.

She shrugged and said, "I really have no idea.”

"Wait, am I undressing him completely or are we going to dunk him?"

"I thought we were dunking him."

"Got it." Sora went to get the paste and started rubbing it into the bruise on his chest. "Ugh, shouldn't you do this? He is your future husband?"

"...sure, let me take over." She sat on the Prince's other side and took the ointment from him.

Sora went to double check the bathwater and then came back to look for the eggs on the back of his head.

"Vani hit him hard."

"I didn't expect differently. Vanitas doesn't go easy in any fight."

"It's a miracle he didn't get knocked out immediately..."

"He's strong," she said simply.

Sora took some the cream to start putting it on the big lump on the back of his head. Xion moved from his chest to his face. At least he was breathing all right. Beat up like this he looked more human. Even with the foot shaped bruise across his face.

"I wish I could send some of this stuff back home," she mumbled.

"But it doesn't let scars form."

"Imagine what it could do with just broken bones, though. You don't have to apply it to the whole injury."

"That's true. It’s not hard to make either. I wonder if there's a step we don't get to see," Sora wondered.

"Getting this much salt for a bath might be hard."

"It is salt right?"

"...I haven't asked."

Sora looked at the container warily and then went back to work.

"Okay, I think that's good. Let's dunk him."

Xion grabbed him by the shoulders again and they shuffled him over to the side of the tub.

"Um, we each grab a leg?" Sora suggested.

"We don't want to drown him."

"Um... We can pinch his nose closed while his head is underwater?"

"That should work."

"Do you want to hold his legs or pinch his nose?"

"I'll get his legs."

Sora wiggled around to his front and positioned his arms in the water for easier dunking. Then he got ready to plug the nose and gave Xion a thumbs up.

Xion lifted and slowly lowered him into the water. He slipped out of her grasp and rolled into the tub like a sea lion lacking in grace and missing a flipper. Water went everywhere. Fortunately, the tub was big enough and Sora’s temporary grip on his nose meant Kishi was floating belly up instead of facedown. He floated awkwardly like a dead star fish, still out cold but soggier than intended. The water sizzled happily as it got to work on the paste.

"Uh," Sora managed.

"...it seems to be working." She reached out and grabbed his arm so he didn't float away.

"Yeah, but now we're all wet too." The weight of Kishi's soggy, heavy pants was making his bottom half slowly sink but his top half wasn't in any danger and the bruises on his chest were already fading from a purple to a yellow.

"It's not that bad."

Sora gently nudged Kishi and he floated to the side, anchored by Xion's grip but still free floating. He gently bonked the side and started drifting back. Once the bruises and bumps seemed gone, Xion started pulling him back up.

"Towel?"

Sora went over to the bin but there was only one towel left. Nowhere near what they needed to mop up the bathroom, dry off themselves, and dry Kishi. He passed it over for use on the Prince.

"Only one left."

"We can use some of the extra sheets from the other beds in the little room," she said, starting to towel him off.

"Why isn't Vani helping?" Sora whined. There was no way Kishi was getting dried off with his pants soaking like that. The retainer grimaced and started working them off. Xion didn't look.

"Because he's being a buttface."

"Why are these pants so tight??? Does he not need the room???" Sora complained as he kept trying to shimmy them off.

"Aesthetic. You have to admit he looks good," Xion said. Sora looked up at her with a sly grin.

"Oh? You think so?"

"At least outwardly, yes." She wasn't looking at him and what he was doing. Sora borrowed the towel to dry off Kishi's lower half and then handed it back.

"We probably should brush his hair or something."

Xion found a comb and started pulling it through his hair.

"I'm going to go see if Vani found any pajamas," Sora said. He got up to head upstairs, leaving Xion with the naked ‘corpse.’

"Here's hoping you don't remember this," she said quietly.

Sora came back with some soft, fleecy pajamas.

"Okay, this is gonna be kind of weird..." Getting pants on a limp person with some serious muscle definition and corresponding weight is hard alone, especially when that person is still a little damp and clammy and is also your ruling overlord who cradles your fate in his hands. No pressure.

Xion helped with the shirt when the pants were on. By then the egg on the back of his head had stopped swelling and was going away and the bruises on his face were almost gone.

"Now we just have to get him back upstairs..."

Xion made sure she had a tight hold this time, wrapping her arms under his arms and around his chest. He was very fit. Sora threw Kishi's legs up over his shoulders to get a better grip. It was an unflattering position but better than risking dropping the guy... again.

Vanitas had the bed ready. They shuffled over and kind of threw him onto it.

"Does he usually sleep to one side? Or right in the middle?" Sora asked thoughtfully as they studied the body.

"He usually flops wherever and Goofy takes up the rest of the room."

Sora kind of rolled him so he was on his back not quite centered but not so close to the edge either. Xion tucked him in.

"Van, since you didn't help, you can clean up downstairs." Vanitas headed downstairs without argument. Sora positioned Kishi's arms over the blankets like a dead body's arms would be. She let it be.

"Let's get ready for bed."

"Oh wait! His stuff!" Sora ran downstairs to get it all.

"Just leave it in his closet!" Xion said.

Sora did so when he got back, leaving the clothing scattered around the closet floor. Then he went to join Xion in her room.

"So. We never talk about this again? Unless he asks?"

"No. I told you we have to come clean."

"But that might make him mad! If he doesn't remember it, then why bring it up??"

"Honesty." Xion was changing into dry pajamas.

"Yeah, but if you tell him then he has to punish us."

"It sets a good precedent. If he finds out some other way, we'll be in more trouble," Xion insisted. Sora huffed but stopped arguing.

"But who's going to tell him?" Vanitas asked.

Sora pointed at Vanitas and then snapped his fingers. "Exactly."

"I still think we should have left him tied up in the closet," Vanitas huffed, sitting on a bed.

"We definitely would have gotten in trouble for that," Xion said.

"Yeah, we probably couldn't keep him hidden forever."

"You two both need to chill. Fine, we won't say anything," she acquiesced.

"Obviously, if he asks, we will come clean," Sora agreed.

Vanitas grumbled but Xion nodded.

"Back to sleep?" she asked. Sora nodded and flopped on his bed. He was always down for more sleep. It took Xion a while, but she went under too.

The next morning they could hear someone shuffling about. Kishi had woken up and was getting himself tea downstairs.

Xion was still wary and they did their daily stretches in the little room. He came back upstairs with a yawn and settled back into bed with his tea and a book. Not long after, the door downstairs opened. Kishi scrambled out of bed into his closet. There were sounds of fabric being wadded up and moved around, some confused silence when some of it squelched, and then more shifting about.

"Sir? Are you here?" Ven called from downstairs.

"Yeah, Ven! I'm upstairs!" Kishi nearly dove into bed and repositioned himself as though he had been there all morning. Xion looked out of the door to watch.

Ven came up with food. He set the tray down on the table.

"I wasn't sure you'd be here..." the servant started.

"Of course I am."

"You weren't here yesterday."

"Oh, right, yeah, I got distracted... studying. Yeah, studying."

"You don't have to tell me, sir, but you're not supposed to lie."

Kishi grimaced, "Don't worry about it, Ven. Are you staying to eat this morning?"

"Would you like me to, sir?"

"Please," Kishi responded softly. Xion pulled back, resuming her sit-ups.

Ven and Kishi talked quietly in the other room, but it was impossible to hear them over Sora's snoring unless she was right by the door.

"Sora, wake up," she ordered quietly.

He snored louder. Xion got up and shook him. He snorted and sat up.

"Wha' I miss?"

"It's time to be up. Don't waste the day, Sora."

"But I'm tired after last night."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she emphasized.

"...OH. Riiiight."

Vanitas rolled his eyes. "Dumbass. You gotta catch up on your exercise now." He groaned but got up to get started on his morning routine.

"Vanitas, get breakfast." The man huffed but went out. Ven and Kishi stopped talking when Van left the room.

"Are we eating today?" Vanitas asked with crossed arms, prompting Xion to come out and smack him. Kishi blinked in alarm at the action.

"Uh... yes?" he responded. Ven waved.

"I'll have to go get more. I didn't expect his Highness to request that I stay and eat with him."

"Take Vanitas before he snaps, please," Xion said. Ven looked to Kishi for orders. The Prince just nodded and Ven got up to leave with Vanitas.

"There is still some food, if you want to eat now," Kishi offered quietly. Between last night's shenanigans and the lingering emotional pain, she couldn't look him in the eye.

"...no, thank you."

"...yeah, okay." He sat there awkwardly, avoiding eye contact himself. Xion took her leave, going downstairs to eat at the table when food arrived.

Chapter Text

Kishi spent the rest of that day, and the next few days after, avoiding his home. Xion wasn't allowed to leave because he couldn't accompany her. Well, wouldn't. He was hiding in his classwork, spending all his free time studying, disappearing for long stretches, and eating meals at his brothers' homes. It had Ven and Roxas on edge too. Every time one of them came by to clean the house they were quieter than usual, lost in their own worry.

The third morning after Kishi had unknowingly been beat up by his bride to be, he was up with the sunrise, playing music in the parlor. He was sticking to pieces of music that he knew well, so there were few, if any, mistakes.

Xion came down to the little dining area to listen. She was getting antsy, but she still did think his music was good.

He wasn't alone. The Emperor was there with Aqua. He was sipping tea and listening to his son play. Xion froze on the stairs when she saw him.

You know what, it's all a nice morning. I'm going to listen from the balcony. She turned to go back but he noticed her and set his tea down, motioning with a finger for her to come to him. It was like a tug on her heart. His power, that commanding presence, compelled obedience.

She was still absolutely on guard. She kept her head down and bowed low when she reached the bottom of the stairs but Xion did not take a knee.

The Emperor held a hand out to Kishi and the music stopped.

"The woman I wanted to see," he said in his usual slow cadence, "your fiancé has kindly agreed to loan you to me today."

Xion didn't like the word 'loan' and without context that had terrible implications. She schooled her face before coming out of the bow. She wasn't sure how to react to his statement, either, so she went with the best positive she could think of at the moment.

"It will be nice to get out of the house, then."

"Good. Come and eat."

She slowly came over to the table and filled her plate with partial servings. At this point she'd learned that full servings here made her stuffed and she'd already put on enough weight for Donald to notice.

"Kishi, please, continue."

The Prince warily started to play again. Aqua poured the Emperor more tea. Xion ate quietly. Kishi's music, though, did put her just a little more at ease. Even so, it was the tensest breakfast, pretty much ever.

When Xion cleared her plate, the Emperor finally set down his teacup.

"Change into clothing that can get dirty. We will wait for you here," he ordered.

Well that absolutely threw her for a loop. What the hell would she and the Emperor be doing that had the potential for dirt? She nodded and went upstairs to change into her old travel clothes.

"Sora. Vanitas. For the love of the gods, do not follow me today."

Sora sat straight up. "Wait, why?"

"I'm ... on loan to the Emperor for the day." Vanitas was about to protest, before sitting back.

"...if he gets upset, he takes it out on Terminus," he summed up.

"What does on loan mean?" Sora asked.

"I don't know. But I won't risk fighting it."

Sora was now very stressed. "The Prince isn't going to do anything?"

"Sora. What could he do?"

Sora opted for sitting there uncomfortably in response. Xion headed back downstairs as soon as she was finished changing. Aqua and the Emperor were by the door, waiting for her. Kishi was politely seeing them out. She kept her eyes down and face blank.

"Walk with us to the gate," the Emperor told his son. Kishi nodded politely and then went to get his boots. He joined them again a few minutes later.

Aqua held the door open for everyone and the Emperor led the way out, heading down rather than up. The old man kept a relaxed pace. This was a guy who had all the time in the world and learned the value of savoring every step. Kishi walked on his left, Aqua on his right, while Xion followed behind.

"Do you believe the punishment you selected was effective?" he asked Kishi.

"Yes, sir."

"Are you still confident with your decision to keep her as personal servant and not just a wife?"

"Yes, sir." He nodded approvingly and they walked in silence for a short while. At the gate, Emperor Xehanort stopped.

"You are dismissed," he told the Prince and Kishi slowly turned around and walked back up the hill.

"Have you further need of me, your Highness?" Aqua asked.

"No, you may return to your duties." The woman bowed politely and then left, following the Prince.

Xion had never been alone with the Emperor before. She'd at least had Naminé there at the dinner. She tried to study the man without seeming threatening.

He really didn't seem to care. He was shockingly laid back in general. They didn't even have guards accompanying them. The Emperor just casually walked out of the gate and into town in royal raiment, unarmed, with his hands clasped behind his back and his body hunched forward. People parted for him, mostly fearful, always respectful and bowing politely when they noticed. He was oil in water, moving smoothly but repelling all at once.

They walked for about twenty minutes up and down and around to one of the middle tiers and around the back of the "cake" that was Scala's main island. They were still a block away when they could hear the unmistakable ringing of metal on metal and the hiss of hot metal in oil. Xion could smell it in the air as they got close; the smoke and sweat and metal and she stood straighter for it.

The Emperor knocked lightly, only to announce his presence, and then entered the open area of the forge. The blacksmith noticed him and promptly got to a good stopping point on his current project so he could bow. Said blacksmith was huge. He was easily seven feet tall and heavily muscled. Even with the heavy leather apron, coat and gloves, that much was apparent. He had wispy auburn hair that supported a pair of goggles and a very square jawline that gave him a perpetual 'locked jaw' appearance.

"When you came to this city, you brought a magical weapon that you claimed to have made," the Emperor said, turning to face Xion as he did so, "I would see you recreate such a weapon."

Xion blinked a couple of times.

"...are you asking for a replica sword, or a magical artifact?"

"Both."

"...Your Excellency, concentrated iron is outlawed in the city and I don't have a magical anchor. Even with those things, the sword was a two-week project."

"Then you have two weeks." He turned and left, leaving Xion with the big blacksmith and his confused expression.

Xion turned to the giant to ask, "Master Smith, may I have use of your forge in lack of my own?"

He nodded, still a little confused, but loathe to argue with the Emperor. He shuffled over to a wall of supplies and started looking for an apron that would fit her. They were all way too big.

The first few hours were spent trying things on. The apron got folded a few times and then sort of tied around her. Head gear would have to wait, the coat was easy with rolled up sleeves, but gloves... The real challenge was finding gloves that fit.

The smith snapped his fingers and then pulled a crate off a high shelf. It was full of discarded equipment and leather working projects. The gloves they found in there didn't quite match and one was slightly bigger than the other, but they worked.

Xion cooperated easily with the large man. He was quiet, and she could appreciate easy company.

"May I see what steel you have?" she asked.

He lumbered through the forge to the back. On a first glance, his workshop seemed small, but it was evident as they moved through it that there was a lot more space than was visible from the anvils and forge itself. He had stuff for woodworking, leather-working, jewelry, saddle making, and a number of other projects.

At the back of everything was a storage room full of metal ingots, everything from bronze to gold to silver and some other ones that were stamped but hard to tell apart otherwise. But the iron, that was kept in a safe the same size as the smith in the furthest corner of the storage room.

The smith took a key from under his apron and opened the safe so she could see her options. The big lumps of steel were all numbered according to percentage of carbon and had brief summaries of composition. There was a large variety of metals mixed in to dilute the iron without compromising the integrity of the metal.

She took a moment to look them over. These were all well-documented, and she found the one with a high iron content compared to the rest to ensure it could hold up to the stress of the wave.

He locked the safe again when she grabbed the steel that she wanted and then took her over to the forge. As the Imperial House Smith, he was one of four smiths in Scala that had permission from the crown to have and maintain a dragonsfire forge.

Xion used a pair of tongs to set the ingot in the coals before returning to the storeroom to find a stone. The closer it stayed to the working metal the easier time the magic would have bonding to it. The Master Smith followed her around to be sure she found everything she needed.

"Where do you keep anchors?"

When he realized she was looking for the gemstone or mineral that would make a weapon magical, he gently guided her back to the storeroom and got a chest from a higher shelf. He put it on the floor and unlocked it for her. The stones in there were already magically charged, sort of. They were predisposed and properly prepared but waiting for a purpose to activate. Most of them were quartz, a popular local conductor for magical energy, but there were a few precious gems too. There were some smaller sapphires, uncut diamonds, an emerald, jade, garnets, lots of opals, and others. They were carefully placed on velvet cushions and stacked in the box.

Xion picked over the gems. She had never used quartz, and it did not react the way the gems did. She was also far more used to raw stones being used, the cut on these changed their natural properties a little. They were sharper, more precise than the raw stones. She had rarely seen opal before, but an orange one had the same feel as the emerald in the sword for her wedding. It warmed up considerably in her hand, though not quite to the point of burning. She took a small strip of cotton, used for polishing, and tied it to the inside of her right wrist before returning to the forge proper to begin working the steel.

The big guy hobbled after her to observe.

With the dragonsfire, it didn't take the ingot long to start to glow. Xion removed the ingot and some coals and took them to a workstation. She found a decent hammer and started to beat.

Satisfied that she knew what she was doing, the man waddled back to his own work at another anvil.

Come the end of the day, she had a long rod. It wasn't sword-shaped, and it looked too long to be a useful sword. But she knew that length would be lost in the curves of the blade.

Her host had made progress too. He had a giant bronze axe that was finally taking shape. He looked at her work, took off his goggles, and gave her a thumbs up.

"You do fine work. I don't believe I caught your name?"

He pointed to his license on the wall. His name was on the top. It read 'Lexeaus.' There was no last name. Xion took a moment to read it.

"Thank you, Lexaeus." She began removing the apron and gloves. She tied the gem to the rod, folding the fabric so they weren't touching.

"Will this need to stay in the vault overnight?"

He nodded and then waddled over to start closing up the forge for the night. Xion headed back to the vault to store the sword. Now, how would she get back to Kishi's house...?

He came in to lock the safe and then took off his apron and other protective gear to set aside. Then he went to wait for her by the door. She followed him out.

They walked quietly through the town. His stomach rumbled when they were about halfway there and he stopped, startled. They had worked so hard, neither of them had grabbed lunch. He motioned to a couple of street food carts.

Xion was moderately hungry but a little surprised that they were stopping for food. The very idea of street food outside of festivals was foreign. She cautiously approached one of the carts.

Lex was pointing to some of the food and the cart owner was happily preparing it. They only made a couple of things at this stop. The main one was fried bread stuffed with a seasoned ground beef mixture. They were small, really more of a snack than a meal. Lex bought three of them and handed one to Xion as he started walking again.

Xion munched happily in silence next to her new friend.

He ate his two and seemed in a much better mood. Maybe, it was hard to tell when the guy never smiled. The closer they got to the gate the more anxious Lex seemed. He kept messing with the front of his shirt and then catching himself and trying to straighten it.

"Is something wrong?" she asked him. He shook his head. They were almost there.

Waiting at the gate was Naminé and her assistant Zexion. Lex lit up like a candle and there was a glimmer of a smile on his hardened face. They got to the gate and Zexion happily jogged over to Lex and they just beamed at each other before clasping hands and heading back towards the Smith's home. Naminé smiled at Xion.

"I hope it's alright that I'm here to get you through the gate," she said.

"I think it's preferable to waiting outside," Xion said with a smile. The witch talked to the guards, and they let Xion in after patting her down for hidden weapons or contraband. She wasn't, and she passed back through the gate with no futher fuss.

"Thank you, Miss Naminé."

"Of course." She turned to start walking back up to the estates.

Xion followed her. She was in a noticeably good mood when she got back to Kishi's house. She still smelled like smoke, metal, and oil.

"Do you need an escort to the forge again tomorrow?" Naminé asked.

"I can find my way there, but it would be nice to walk with you if you have the time."

"I'm not heading that way tomorrow, but I was willing to help you find someone."

"I think I can get there myself, thank you for the offer, though. ...I probably will need help getting back, though."

"You will. Unless you get your tattoo tonight."

"...I didn't know that was an option already." She was under the impression that it wouldn't happen until after the wedding.

"If you talk to the Prince, he could probably make it happen."

"... probably." She wasn't sure she was quite ready to be marked as property.

"Have a good night," Naminé said and then left.

"You as well,” she said to thin air before heading to Kishi's house and knocking on the door.

Roxas answered it with a bland, "Oh. You're back."

"Try not to sound so excited," she said sarcastically. He rolled his eyes and stepped aside so she could enter. Sora tackled her immediately.

"Whoa—Hey Sora, you okay?" She patted him reassuringly.

He had been crying. "We saw the Emperor walk by without you..."

She wiped away the wetness on his face, leaving a black smudge.

"He took me out to work. I'll be going out for the next two weeks."

"It's not enough that they're making you marry a monster, they're also making you work?"

"Sora, in a forge."

"...oh. Well, I guess that's the best possible space for you," he admitted.

"I'm in a good mood, let's not spoil it."

He nodded and sniffed a little. "Okay."

"Now, how far into assassination plans did Vanitas get?" she asked, stepping around him to go upstairs.

"Pretty far. He already had the plan, I think he was being courteous and giving it 24 hours to enact it."

"That's unexpectedly polite of him."

Vanitas was trying to sharpen a broomstick when they came in.

"He figured it's what you would've wanted. Right Vani?"

He looked up and dropped the broom. "... you're not hurt?"

"I'm a little sore from swinging a hammer."

"They're making her work."

"Why?"

"In a forge! I am not complaining!" she countered, pouting at Sora.

"I didn't say it was bad!"

"And the resident smith is really polite!" Vanitas kicked the broom under the bed.

"Maybe you can convince them to let you just do that full time and not get married," Sora suggested.

"I wish," she said, "If only the contract didn't exist."

"Maybe they can change it?"

"Our King wrote it. We can't exactly go back to Terminus to ask him," Vanitas reminded his brother.

"Maybe ask the Prince if you can after you're married."

"...that would be nice. I hope so."

Roxas knocked on the door and said, "Yo. The Prince wants to see you."

Xion stiffened up a little before heading out of the little room. Vanitas glared at Roxas who stayed to glare at Van.

Kishi was in the library with his violin. He wasn't hard to find, she just had to follow the sound. He stopped playing when she entered.

"What did my father want?" he asked with his measured careful voice.

"He asked me to recreate my wedding gift to you."

"Wedding gift?"

"I had something already made for my eventual wedding and brought it with me."

"What thing?"

"Do you want to know before hand?" Xion asked. He tapped his violin bow on his desk in thought.

"Am I not supposed to know?"

She took a deep breath. This wasn't common outside of Terminus, there was no reason to be upset at him for not knowing.

"...most people have a few ideas, because they know their partner's interests, but usually it's not revealed until the wedding," she told him.

"Then I don't want to know." He sounded stressed saying that.

"...he took me out to a blacksmith's forge. I'll have to keep going for the next two weeks to finish what he asked."

"I see. You don't have to say anymore."

"Someone's going to have to come get me in the evenings,” Xion pointed out.

"I can send Roxas or Ven with you."

"I don't need to be escorted, just let back in."

He stayed quiet while he thought for a moment and then said, "Um... Let me try to get you a pass."

They have passes? she thought.

"That would be great," Xion said instead.

"Or a tattoo, or a brand."

The idea of branding made her flinch inside.

"... what's the difference between a tattoo and a brand, aside from the burning?"

"Personal preference?"

"... that's a kind of scar I'd rather not have."

"Well, you're going to have to get a mark like that eventually if you decide to be a servant and not just a wife," Kishi reminded her.

"I understand that. I'm saying I'd rather be tattooed than burned."

"I was just..." he was starting to get agitated, but he bit it back and instead put his violin bow down to leave the room, shrugging past her to head to the door. She didn't say anything, just went back upstairs to get ready for bed.

He came back a couple hours later and let himself into her room. Sora was immediately on guard. Xion was getting ready for bed, already in her pajamas.

"...yes?" Vanitas was giving the brooms a thoughtful look.

"Your pass." He held out a gold tag on a small chain. She took it from him, inspecting it carefully.

"...thank you."

"If you lose it. You pay with your life, no exceptions," Kishi cautioned, "and by accepting it from me you are agreeing to that."

She took a minute to think that over before nodding. If she was less sure of her ability to protect herself, she might not have. He bowed his head and then left.

Chapter Text

Xion did go out to the forge, all day, every day. She kept the pass tucked into her bodice instead of in a pocket or around her neck to prevent it being a target for thieves.

It was the first Saturday of her working the forge that things seemed a little different. The walk over was full of easy up stalls forming pop-up farmer's markets with everything from food to herbs, to jewelry, to bronze work, and so on. But most notably, Lexaeus was happily home (the barn doors to his workshop were open) but his forges were dim and the consistent metal on metal was absent. He had a home off to the side that was decently sized for him but significantly smaller than the estate she was used to. He had his own garden off to the side where he could be seen weeding with none other than Zexion.

Xion stopped outside. She'd seen Miss Naminé's assistant, but she didn't think they'd ever been formally introduced.

"It's... Zexion, right?" she asked.

They both looked up, mid-chuckle.

"Oh, yes, it is," he said shyly.

Xion wondered for a moment if he lived here before shaking her head and moving into the workshop. If the forges were closed, she could work on the guard and hilt. It was a nice day though, so she took her work just outside the doors.

Zexion and Lex kept smiling and putting flowering weeds in each other's hair. Only Zexion seemed to be chatting, but Lex was an exceptional listener.

Xion smiled as she watched them. It almost reminded her of how her parents interacted. Those memories were distant, but they were still there.

After a couple hours, Lex came into the shop to work on saddles. Zexion was with him, sitting on the saddles to test them. It was non-stop flirting from Zexion’s sweet comments and praise to Lex’s returning touches and gentle smiles.

"How long have you two been married?" she finally asked.

They both blushed bright red and were too flustered to talk for a minute.

"It's illegal for us to get married," Zexion explained.

How many weird rules did this Empire have?

"...why not?" she asked.

"We can't procreate."

"... that's what defines a marriage here?"

"A family needs to be able to produce children to be considered a legal marriage and as servants we can be expected to produce children outside of marriage as well."

"...in my home, same-sex couples often find others to have children with, but it's not a requirement for marriage. Those that don't take orphans," Xion explained.

"Marriages here are men with any number of women but there's a stigma against men loving other men."

"Marriages are strictly between two people in Terminus. For a person to look at someone else like that when they are already married brings shame on them both." It was really going to hurt if the Emperor gave Kishi another wife, wasn't it?

"That sounds so nice... We keep hoping things will change here." Zexion put a hand on Lex's.

"I hope they do too," she said earnestly. The hilt was turning out far more snake-like than draconic. Every time she tried to deviate, the opal on her wrist heated painfully. Its magic did not want to be a dragon.

Zexion gently kissed Lex's nose and then hopped down to go to the house. Lex was immediately sad and focused on his work instead.

"You're lucky to have him. I wish you happiness," she said, working on the serpent. Lex nodded and hovered over her to watch for a minute. She was working the fangs of the snake's open mouth, comparing the placement of them to the opal. This would apparently be the setting for the stone.

It wasn't long before Zexion came back with sandwiches and Lex lit up again. She kept working through the lunch break, just enjoying watching them. They gave her a sandwich too but really were lost in each other. Zexion kept tossing up grapes for Lex to catch.

She snuck a couple of bites but with the time crunch she was putting all her focus into the craft. Almost. "So how does a master blacksmith meet a promising young wizard?" Xion asked them.

"Miss Naminé worked with Lex making magical artifacts. She was teaching me and we fell in love."

"How long have you been working with magical artifacts?" she asked Lex while she shaped the snake's belly scales.

He didn't respond just adopted a puzzled expression while he counted on his fingers.

"He's been working on them for ten years," Zexion answered for him. Well, that was far more than her. This was her fifth piece.

"You have been smithing for a long time, then."

He nodded.

"He's very good at smithing but the magic is kind of hard for him," answered Zexion.

Lex hung his head in shame, but Zexion took one of those big hands in both of his own.

"If you were everything the Emperor wanted, I never would have found you."

"Do people like that tend to enter his service?"

"People like what?"

"That fit the Emperor's needs."

"Oh yes, all the time. If there's someone of value somewhere, someone that he can use for any purpose, they tend to fall into his service some way or another."

She hummed and hoped her brother wouldn't be someone he decided he needed.

"He must think highly of you, to give you so much freedom," Zexion noted.

"I am promised as a wife first. It was up to my fiancé."

"It was probably not a coincidence that you were promised to the son he likes the least, who is famous for being weak-willed and soft-hearted," Zexion pointed out thoughtfully, "I don't think the Prince could've said no."

"...I don't understand what you mean by soft hearted."

Zexion nibbled on his sandwich and then sat on a stool next to Lex, who kept working on the saddle.

"It's hard to describe... It's as if Prince Kishi is kind to a fault. He is desperate to be of value to his father but can't possibly live up to expectations without being more bloodthirsty than he is. He feels guilty easily and struggles to be confident in his decisions and would rather run than fight. Does that make sense?"

"We would call that strength of heart. It's just as important as other kinds of strength."

"It's a fault in a Prince here. It means he can't make difficult decisions and he's easy to manipulate."

"...heart is important for decisions," she said quietly.

"Only if you're allowed to make them at all," he said equally quiet but not disagreeing. That was a sobering thought.

"...on a different note, how does this look?" The snake was modeled after one of the brightly colored ones that lived at the edge of The Wound, known for its venomous bite.

"It's beautiful so far!" he praised.

"I'm going to plate it with copper and bronze before I punch in the scales," she said, handing it to Lexaeus for appraisal.

He looked it over and then nodded his approval and handed it back. Xion headed back for the proper materials. Lex was having to do most of his work one-handed as Zexion was holding the other one.

They really were a sweet couple.

"If you are able to make magical artifacts all on your own, you may be able to convince the Emperor to give you more status," Zexion suggested.

"I don't think I'll be able to use the quartz for it, but I can work through the entire process myself, for both weapons and jewelry that use other stones," she said.

"After you're married, you might be able to convince the Emperor to give you your own home and forge like Lex has."

She wondered if Kishi would allow that. Honestly, she could make a happy living that way.

"If you make really high-quality stuff, you might even be able to have your own assistants too."

Her thoughts immediately went to Sora and Vanitas. Maybe that was their ticket out.

"I do. I earned my green coals, I know my craft," Xion told them.

"I earned the right to live here," Zexion said happily.

"How so?"

"As Miss Namine's assistant I earned my choice of perks. I wanted to live here, to help him with his work."

"That's very sweet," she said earnestly.

He beamed at Lex and didn't leave his side at all until the end of the day when it was time to say good-bye to Xion.

"Would you like us to walk you home? Or will you be safe?"

"I don't mind company. It would be nice."

They happily got their coats, cleaned up, and then headed out the door with her. Of course, it took twice as long to get back. Both of them kept getting distracted looking at shops and stalls.

Xion stopped to admire one of the jewelry stalls. These were big, complex pieces, while Terminus tended to feature single stones and work the rest of the item around them. These reminded her more of formal dresses back home.

"These ones are lovely," Zexion praised, "you have a good eye."

"They're very different to what I'm used to." She wondered if, given the precise nature of cut gemstones, she could get multiple to cooperate in a single artifact.

"Do you want to get dinner here? Or wait til you're home?" Zexion asked after Lex patted his arm and motioned to the darkening sky.

"I don't have money," she said.

"Oh. We should get you home to eat then." He hurried her along and they parted ways at the gate.

Xion was in a decently good mood when she got to Kishi's house. She was feeling better and better the longer she spent at the forge, and it showed here. She was more relaxed and smiled more often.

Goofy greeted her happily at the door, as did Sora and Vanitas. Roxas was around too, cleaning up dinner while Kishi stressed out over homework in the library.

Xion grabbed a few leftovers to eat.

"I met the man who should be Lexaeus' husband today," Xion told her retainers.

"We had interesting days too," Sora added softly. He didn't want to be overheard, which was likely considering the way Roxas was watching them.

"I'm pretty tired, let's go upstairs," she suggested. They did. As soon as they were in the safety of her room, Sora flopped on the bed.

"How was your day?" he asked.

"Very nice. I worked on the hilt today. Yours?"

"I did not have a good day," Vanitas growled.

"Vani did laundry and Roxas asked me a ton of questions about you."

"...did he tell you why?" she asked, suddenly a little guarded.

"No, but I got the impression it wasn't for his benefit. He was asking about things you liked, foods, activities, and such."

"...you think he was asking for Kishi?"

"I don't know who else he would be asking for."

Xion sat back. She wasn't sure what to think about that. Whatever comfort she'd had with him was still broken from the scar removal, but she did still want to get along.

"I wouldn't worry about it. It's not like he can do anything with it. You guys never see each other anymore anyway," Sora reassured her.

"Sora, come April I'll be stuck here again," she pointed out.

"...yeah. Maybe he'll be too busy," he said hopefully. There were sounds of broken chords downstairs, followed by some ugly frustrated notes, then some more practiced measures. He was practicing the violin again.

"...I dunno, Sora." She stayed quiet as she got ready for bed to listen.

It didn't last long before there was a frustrated slam of the front door and then quiet. Goofy came upstairs then, sniffing around her door and then settling down for the night outside it.

Xion settled down to sleep for the night too.

~~~~~~

Several days later, as they were getting well into the last week of March, Lex's shop was closed and locked up. There was a note for Xion there, apologizing for not being available for her. He and Zexion were going out of town for the day, and she wasn't supposed to use the forge unsupervised.

Xion began the slow trudge back home. She didn't have permission to be out for other reasons, and it might be nice to catch up with Sora and Vanitas.

It wasn't hard to recognize Saladin, even with the torn-up saddle, full saddlebags, and muddy hooves. Kishi was leading him on foot and wearing the same disguise she had seen before. They had just crossed in front of her and got on one of the moving elevators to go down to another level. He hadn't noticed her.

Xion changed directions to follow him.

The "elevators" here worked like a ferris wheel. Kishi and Saladin were a car ahead of her. So they got off well before she did. They weren't in any rush though and he was easy to find again. He was acting the part of a vagabond. Occasionally stopping to hassle people with a foreign accent. Eventually he stopped outside an old tavern on one of the lower levels of the city and tied Saladin up in a designated spot for horses. He grabbed a case from the saddle and headed inside.

Xion waited until he was inside to peek through the windows.

He met up with a rag tag group. They were all laborers, fishermen, and those who worked the city's plumbing but despite being rough, they seemed to like whoever Kishi was pretending to be. The guy Kishi gravitated to the most was a chiseled, good-looking man with short blonde hair, a goatee, and a lot of ear piercings. He was sitting at a table playing dice games with some other people but pointed Kishi towards a few musicians in the back. The Prince presumably thanked the man and then went over to talk to the musicians. They spent a few minutes going over crumpled sheet music, before Kishi got out a busted up old violin and started tuning it. It didn't take long for others in the bar to start demanding requests and Kishi and the others to flip them off and yell back in a teasing manner.

She watched for a while before going over to the horses. Might as well double check.

"Saladin?"

The horse's ears flicked her direction and he looked over at her before resuming undoing the knot tying him to the railing. She stepped over to fix the knot.

"You're not getting away."

He protested a bit but lost interest when he realized he could reach another horse's hay.

Xion went back to listen to the vagabond Kishi play, standing just outside the door. Everything they were playing was lighthearted and in time to drinking songs and shanties. Kishi played incredibly quickly and expertly and seemed to have won some favor because he was there for a couple hours entertaining the night shift before a bunch of men left for the day to get rest and the tavern settled down more into what one would expect from a tavern.

Kishi had moved to sit with the dice guy. He was playing games with them and chatting. Judging by their expressions it was more serious than the light-hearted playing from before.

When the music stopped, she went to wait by Saladin, petting his face and weaving a braid into his mane.

It was around lunchtime that Kishi left the tavern. He went over to his horse with the battered violin case, froze when he saw her, and took a few long moments of debate to decide what to do.

"Oi, yer mixed up ma horse with yer own," he said, playing the role, "'less yer lookin' fer company t'night. Good lads in the pub, that would take ya up on a offer."

"Oh, this isn't my horse. But he knows his name, and I know him, and I only know one person who plays the violin like that." And she recognized his disguise. "But I'll keep your secret."

He wasn't wearing the mask but he still had the one eye covered and his hair. It was enough exposed to see him trying to process some complex emotions. Apparently, he didn't process them well because he turned and ran, leaving behind the horse and the battered violin case.

She sighed and stayed with the horse. He'd have to come back for him, right?

Apparently not. It wasn't until well into the afternoon that the goatee man stepped outside for a smoke and noticed the horse and Xion.

"Eh? Did he not leave yet?" he asked, "Asshole has the money for a hussy but not enough to pay off his tab eh?"

"He's avoiding an awkward encounter with his bride-to-be. Ran off when he saw me. I'd pay off his bill but I'm afraid I don't have money."

The guy almost choked on his cigarette when he laughed, "Didn't realize Dag was engaged. That explains why he keeps coming back to Scala. I thought it was weird a drifter like him showing up every month or so, figured a girl would have to be involved."

She sighed dramatically. Let him interpret it however he wants.

"I'll get my cash from him whenever. So how long since he proposed? Or did you lose a bet?" he asked.

"It hasn't been that long. Feels a lot longer, though."

He grunted and took another long drag on his cigarette.

"Well, if he's in the doghouse and takes too long to come back, you can put his fat horse up in my stables. I have always have space."

"Thanks in advance, I'm afraid it's likely."

"Well, if I see him before you do, I'll be sure to ream him out for being a poor fiancé." He stomped out the butt and headed inside, leaving her alone with the horse. She waited the rest of the day, telling the man when she left.

Ven answered the door when she got back with a huge grin on his face. It faltered when he saw her, but he forced it back on.

"Hey, Xion."

"Not who you were waiting for?" she asked.

"Um, no, but that's okay, it's good to see you too. Um, dinner is getting cold though. It's in the parlor."

She nodded and went to eat.

Sora caught up with her there.

"How was work?" he asked.

"I'll tell you about it in the little room," she said cryptically, gathering her plate before heading up. He followed curiously. Xion told him what had happened that day once the door was closed.

"...wow. That explains why Ven is so stressed."

She nodded and said, "If you see him, just tell him ...things you lose are usually where you left them."

"...wait, Ven?" There was some shuffling from the balcony as the door opened quietly.

"No. Kishi. But I think that's him," she said, opening the door to the little room. It was indeed him, sneaking back in. Xion closed the door behind her.

"Hey, Dag."

Kishi jumped several feet like a startled cat and started running for the balcony door.

"I said I'd keep your secret, but you really should talk to me," she said. Not loudly, but loud enough. He spun around.

"No. No, I shouldn't! I just have to endure this until we're married and can fulfill that stupid contract. You're not going to tell anyone because if you do, I will have you beaten to within an inch of your life!" His voice was shaky like he was scared.

"K-Kishi?" Ven asked from the door. He had stayed to wait a little longer and come up when he heard talking. Kishi looked like he was going to blow away in a light breeze.

"Wh-Whats going on?" Ven asked, slowly putting pieces together.

Xion said nothing, just looked down. Of course she'd be beaten for disobeying. Of course.

"Ven, it's not... Please just don't..." He panicked and ran outside, escaping out the balcony. Ven just stood there, stunned for a moment as he tried to process what was going on.

"X-Xion what happened? Wait, no, I need to go find him!" Ven scrambled to leave. Xion moved to grab him.

"Ven. I don't think we can help right now."

Ven stopped but looked worried. "I-I need to do something."

"Sometimes what people need most is space."

"Why was he dressed like that? He was yelling... I need to tell Aqua so we can find him. It's not safe for him to be out there not with assassins and kidnappers!"

"In the estate?"

"There was an assassin in this room last month." Ven was very stressed and confused.

"Not for him," she pointed out but he still seemed stressed.

"Why did he run away?" he asked, voice strained like he wanted to cry.

"...I don't know, Ven." She really didn't. He knew he had all the power in this situation, right? Why would he run? ...she shouldn't care.

"What if he's hurt? I-I need to report this. I-I’m so sorry he yelled at you. I don't know what has gotten into him lately. He's been so short and stressed the last couple weeks. I-I'll try to find him tonight and get this straightened out."

"Ven. What part of this needs to be reported?"

"I-I don't know. He's just acting weird and dressed up strange and he's been gone for long stretches of time. What if he's sneaking off the estate? That's-That’s very against the rules."

"I don't think it's something to worry about. He'll be fine. You can ask him about it in the morning."

Ven nodded slowly.

"What if he's not here in the morning?"

"Then you can start worrying about it. But give him until then."

He nodded a little and then shuffled off in a daze.

She returned to the little room and started getting ready for bed. She wanted to cry, but she didn't want to worry Sora more than she already was. She told Sora to keep the secret, but she was tired and wanted to sleep.

But she didn't sleep. She couldn't. She was running out of excuses she could tell herself about Kishi.

Chapter Text

The next morning there was no sign of Kishi. Roxas was there with breakfast, but he was quiet. She was used to that by now. Xion usually ate fairly quickly to get out to the forge, but the pep in her step she'd gained over the last week was back to being gone.

Lex noticed as they worked through the morning. He put a hand on her shoulder around noon and offered her a sandwich and an ear. She took the sandwich.

"Arranged marriage isn't always pleasant," was how she chose to sum up her current emotional mess. He sympathetically patted her arm and ate his food.

While they were taking a break, he showed her some of his work to take her mind off things. Anything magical was of course gone, given to the Emperor, but he had some neat, albeit crudely made, jewelry. It was a skill he was still working on.

"They're very pretty. Do you ever give pieces to Zexion?"

He blushed deeply at the praise and the thought and nodded shyly.

"I'm sure he treasures them. I made things for my brothers."

Lex smiled a little at that, checked the time, and then got back to work. He stayed focused all the way up until closing time.

Xion was likewise occupied, carving into the fuller and melting copper into the grooves to form the lacework. She was distracted. Lex let her work a little late, until it was starting to get dark. He tapped his watch and her shoulder when he realized.

"Oh, I didn't realize it was already that time." She cleaned up her area before heading back to the estate.

"Thank you, Lexaeus," Xion said as she was heading out. He gave her a hug before sending her on her way.

Right away, things felt different approaching the house. Goofy was locked out on the balcony and whining loud enough to be heard from the front door, which was open.

She was on guard coming in. She knocked on the open door as she did. Had it ever been left open before? Sora and Vanitas were downstairs. Sora went to greet her when he heard the knock, but he looked uncomfortable.

"Hey, how was work?" he asked.

"I'm working out some of the finer details before I grind the edge...is everything okay?"

"I... Kind of. Kishi is upstairs with Riku, Roxas, Aqua, and Ven. There's been a lot of traffic to and from the house so we're just down here to be out of the way."

"When did he get back?"

"Well... Um, I don't know all the details, but I guess sometime last night he got caught sneaking out and they took him to the Emperor. He's been back at the house since lunch but he's been really out of it," Sora explained.

Xion looked at the stairs cautiously before proceeding up.

Kishi’s room was solemn. He was on the bed, sleeping or unconscious, it was hard to tell. Half of his chest was covered in a patchwork of burns and the other half was covered in spidery tracks, almost like scars, that ran under his skin.

Roxas was napping holding Kishi’s hand while he knelt on the floor by his bed and Ven was crying quietly while he tried to gently treat the burns. Riku was reading in a chair nearby and Aqua was getting some work done herself, making notes and balancing the budget on her clipboard.

It... wasn't a pretty sight. Xion didn't move or say anything. She wasn't sure what she would say. He looked awful. She wasn't sure what she should do, either.

Riku noticed her first and checked his watch.

"I didn't realize it was so late. I better go," he said quietly. Aqua nodded politely and Riku excused himself. It woke Roxas up and alerted everyone to Xion’s presence.

"Are we in the way?" Aqua asked politely. She got up to move her chair so the way to Xion’s room wasn't blocked.

"...may I ask what happened?" Sora and Vanitas were coming up behind her.

"He broke the rules," Aqua explained, "even Princes have to abide by the rules set by the Emperor and Kishi was forbidden from leaving the estate or the school without permission and escort. This is a repeat offense and his Excellency holds his family to a higher standard, so the Emperor made an example of him to the other Princes. I-I do not believe the punishment would have been as severe but when asked why he felt the need to rebel, Kishi wouldn't say. He continued to refuse the Emperor so this was the price."

She nodded. She'd hoped he wouldn't get caught.

"... Is he not allowed to heal in the bath?" Xion asked.

"Not for three days. One day for each time he refused to answer his father.... I need to go too. Ventus, Roxas, your duties don't stop because of this."

"Please, can we stay the night with him?" Ven begged in a quiet, broken voice. Any fire Roxas may have had was gone too.

"As long as you don't fall behind on your duties." They both nodded and she left. Ven went back to crying and trying to treat the burns.

"This is my fault," he mumbled mostly to himself. Xion didn't dispute that. But she did bring the extra pillows and blankets out for them.

"What kind of tea do you like?"

Roxas shook his head, but Ven managed to stammer out, "c-chamomile."

She went downstairs to make some tea.

"Make sure I don't mess up, 'kay Sora?" Sora nodded.

"Xion, I can do this. You should sleep, you've been working all day."

She thought about arguing but let him work. She was tired, and didn't want to get worse as the days went on so he took over.

"...he deserved it, y'know. For what he did to you."

"I'm disappointed to hear you say that."

Sora looked up in alarm like he'd been stabbed.

"We don't wish harm on others," was all she said before heading up to bed.

She was up early the next day, intent on asking Lexaeus if there was anything in particular, he used on burns.

Kishi’s room reeked of corpse. The burns in question weren’t caused by natural fire and the flesh around it was rotting. Ven was still sleeping holding Kishi’s hand but Roxas was downstairs, scrounging up a meal for everyone.

"...can he not have any treatment?" she asked quietly when she got downstairs.

"He can but what's the point if it won't work?" Roxas answered, equally quiet, "he just has to endure it until he can get a bath. Magical injury, magical cure."

"Relief. It might not heal, but it doesn't have to hurt."

"Yeah, it does,” Roxas said, sure but still in pain as he said it, “the hurting is the whole point. A punishment doesn't work if it doesn't make the offending party think twice about repeating the mistake."

She sighed, grabbed her breakfast, and headed out to the forge. Lex was just unlocking the workshop when she arrived. He waved to her happily and then started getting dressed with that tent of an apron and helmet sized gloves.

"... Lexaeus, what do you typically do about burns here? There's no snow to pack on it."

He lumbered over to a shelf and pulled out two huge jars. They were each about half empty. One had a clear gel the other was more of a pale green. He turned them so she could read the labels.

'For burns.'

'For burns from the dragonsfire forge.'

Both labels had little heart doodles on them and were signed 'love Z.'

"... have you been burned by dragonsfire?"

He nodded shamefully and then put the jars down. He was surprisingly gentle when he picked her up from under her arms and set her on the work bench like a parent would a small child. Lex gently tugged on her sleeves and checked her hands and arms for burns, getting progressively confused by her request when he found none.

"I'm fine, it's someone I know. You don't have to worry about me."

He put a hand over his heart and let out a loud sigh of relief. He tapped both the jars to remind her where he put them, and then got back to work.

She did as well with a genuine, "Thank you."

He flashed her a thumbs up and then the banging of their hammers drowned out any potential for conversation. By the end of the day, all she had left to do was grind the blade, assemble the sword, and fit the stone before she'd have to call the Emperor.

Lex wiped his hands off on a greasy cloth (it did nothing to clean his hands but it satisfied the habit). He came over to see her work and nearly wept it was so beautiful. He gave her two thumbs up this time and helped her lock everything up for the night. She thanked him again as she set off for the estate.

The estate was quiet as she approached. It usually was in the evenings. Xion didn't notice any sounds until she got inside the front door. None of the servants were home. Even Sora and Vanitas had been roped into some urgent chores. From downstairs she could hear Kishi’s whimpering and intermittent sharp yelps and cries.

Xion cautiously made her way into the house and upstairs.

Ansem was leaning over Kishi, one hand stroked his brother's hair and the other rested on his rotting chest. Kishi’s pale hands were wrapped tightly around Ansem’s wrist as he tried to get him to back off. Ansem was whispering in Kishi’s ear and Kishi would occasionally whisper back. It was evident that Ansem wasn’t getting what he wanted because after each exchange he pressed down on the younger Prince's chest making him cry out with the pain.

Xion stood quietly for a moment. She wasn't strong enough to fight Ansem on her own and Kishi was in no shape to fight. For one, terrible second she considered slipping quietly into the little room, and then disgust at the very thought washed over her.

"I think you need to leave," she said clearly, though she kept her eyes on the floor.

Kishi’s whimpering turned into heavy panting as Ansem slowly stood up, withdrawing from his brother. He wiped his sticky, blood hand on Kishi’s blankets and looked her up and down.

"Bold," he praised, "but stupid."

"Xion," Kishi called from the bed. It was taking so much energy to push the air through his lungs.

"You have my permission to remove this intruder from my home by any means necessary."

Ansem frowned and looked back at Kishi with a passing alarmed expression. Fortunately, the etiquette book that Xion had read upon her arrival had discussed tricky situations like this when it was discussing etiquette for servants. Disobedience was considered worse than whatever a master could order, and a servant had to adhere to the highest authority to which they serve.

If Xion had been a servant of the House Oscura, then any order Ansem would give, would overwrite Kishi’s, as Ansem outranked Kishi. However, she was not a servant of the House. She was a bride to be and servant of Kishi’s. Even if an argument could be made against her status, this was Kishi’s home. Ven had once made the point that only the Emperor outranked Kishi in his own home. Ansem’s authority here hinged entirely on Kishi’s choice to respect it here and now he was forcing the boot up his brothers ass rather than kindly tapping him with it.

"I'll say it again then. You have a chance to go peacefully. You need to leave, Prince Ansem," Xion warned more confidently. She crossed to the little room to retrieve a pair of broomsticks. She kept hers by the door.

He sneered, calling her bluff with one of his own.

"No woman can make me do anything."

She slowly stepped into a low stance and crossed the sticks in front of her. These were pretty much only good for stabbing; a slash wouldn't do much. Once she was in a fighting position, she repeated herself.

"Leave, Ansem. Or I'll beat you with a couple sticks and brag to everyone I can. And everyone will know a woman did make you do something."

He smirked and drew his sword.

"Come then. Come over here and we can give Kishi a preview of what to expect on his wedding night."

She stayed low and charged, intent on only showing her hand after he did. He neatly parried her charge and stepped to the side, but he was a lot slower than she remembered.

Xion brought one stick around to whack his head and stabbed at his middle with the other. He caught the stick coming for his head with a hand and the one stabbing at him was deflected by the sword.

Everything he did was sluggish.

She pushed close and brought a knee up to his crotch. It connected with a crunch and he stumbled. In obvious pain but controlling it well. He held up a hand.

"I yield," he hissed through clenched teeth.

"Then leave," she said, pointing a broomstick at the stairs.

He angrily stumbled to the stairs, using his sword for balance as he left. She followed him to the door, locking it once he was through. Then went back upstairs.

"What do you need?"

"That felt good to watch," Kishi admitted in a whisper. He was struggling to sit up.

"It felt amazing to carry out. Don't stress yourself, stay down. How much did he hurt you?" she asked.

He didn't have the strength to argue so he stopped fussing. The burns were more wet than bloody, but he still had dried blood trails from some of the bigger blotches running down his sides.

"I don't know how long he was here. Idiot let himself in here. My threshold got him. I just needed someone here to force him to leave."

"Threshold?" she asked.

"Yeah. The threshold of a home. Its ancient, natural magic. All houses and homes have a threshold to ward off evil spirits and protect those who live there. He forced his way in, he wasn't invited, so the threshold kept his magic and strength at the door."

Xion knew there were sayings like that at home, but it was treated like superstition.

"... I'm going to find something to clean you up."

He was a little slow, numb from the pain still, and rambled in mumbles, "Strongest threshold I ever felt was at your palace in Terminus. I didn't know thresholds could be so strong. There has to be complete, unconditional love for that."

"...no one has magic in Terminus. The closest thing we have knowledge-wise is just a saying. 'A house is just a house, but when a family makes it home, it is part of it.' The idea being that a home will do its part in protecting you. That the cold seeps in more slowly, the dark corners are just soft shadows, and the like."

She did head downstairs to find a rag and get a bucket of water.

He was still mumbling when she got back, "...best kind of magic cause it doesn't get cast. It just exists. It's beautiful. It just sees something beautiful and is like, hell yeah this is great I'm gonna protect it."

"That does sound beautiful."

"Yeah it is," he agreed, "...I'm sorry I ran from you."

She sighed. At least, because of it, she got to pop Ansem in the nuts.

"Do you need me to pick up your horse?"

"I brought him back before I snuck back into the house."

"Did the tavern keep give you an earful?"

"Luxord is a good dude."

"You played well. You always do," she praised.

"They're all good dudes. I'm going to miss them." He might have teared up if he could.

Xion started to clean the burn. The water was cold, but not icy.

"I shouldn't have tried to confront you about it," she admitted.

"It's not your fault. I got careless. Ven probably blames himself but it's not on him."

"Thank you for letting me fight Ansem."

"Thank you for saving me from him. He wouldn't have stopped if you hadn't have gotten here."

"...he would have killed you?"

"Maybe. I wasn't going to give him what he wanted."

"...was it me?" asked Xion.

"He wanted to know what I wouldn't tell our father."

"I'll admit, I'm curious, but I won't pry."

"My father wanted to know why I was running away in the first place."

"So I heard last night. I wouldn't call it running away, I'd call it getting out."

"I was running away. I just... I couldn't be around you," he admitted. She bit her comment back.

Kishi continued, "I knew you'd be happier away from me and my father likes you. I needed to get away from it, from that guilt. I couldn't tell Ansem or my father. If they knew that I was misbehaving because I wasn't able to properly handle you..."

He covered his face with his hands to hide the shameful choking, chuffing sound that he made in place of crying.

"...I don't know what to tell you. I don't know why my happiness suddenly matters, either."

"Suddenly matters? It's always mattered," he grumbled.

"You have told me time and again that it doesn't. Directly and indirectly."

He fussed as he tried to get up.

"I'm trying to balance keeping you happy with expectations that are on my shoulders. And I'm not... I'm not good at it. But don't worry, my father likes you more than me. Things are just going to get better for you from here." Even though the scabs were cracking he forced himself to get up to his feet so he could hobble away.

She followed him to ask, "Can I say something?"

He stumbled to his closet to get a shirt and coat. He didn't say anything, just focused on shakily trying to get dressed.

"...I have never expected a happy marriage. I expected I would have to work at it forever. A marriage is always going to be a series of compromises. I would rather work with you to figure out the best route than fight on everything."

"The good news, is that after we're married, you will probably get to move out. Married in name only."

He bit back his whimper when the heavy coat settled on his injuries and paused a second so the dizzy could pass.

"And if I can't?"

"You will be able to," he assured her, "my father likes you. You're more important to him than I am. If you ask for it, you'll probably get it." He struggled to get his shoes on and she went to her own room to get ready for bed.

Chapter Text

Ven, Roxas, Sora, and Vanitas had returned that night to find Kishi missing again. Sora and Vanitas didn't care of course and celebrated Xion’s treatment of Ansem but Roxas and Ven had stressed the duck out and after a tense discussion between themselves, had left to go find him.

The following few days came and went and Kishi didn't come home. Ven had told Xion that he was staying at Riku’s house for the time being when she asked and then they stopped talking about him. Ven still brought meals by but all of Xion’s focus was able to be placed solidly on the sword she was making.

Xion had to spend the rest of her time grinding the blade. The shape made the process overly complicated, and she didn't have a lot of time to deal with other things.

Lex came up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up from putting the final polish on the blade.

"Yes?"

He held up a pair of leather smithing gloves. They matched, they were her size, and they were brand new. She put the sword aside for a moment to take the gloves.

"... thank you very much, Master Lexaeus." She slipped out of her borrowed gloves to fit the new ones on, and they felt so much better. She grinned and gave the giant a short hug. He hugged her back his too big bearish way.

"Do I get a hug too?" Zexion asked from the doorway. He had those deep-fried warm meat pockets too.

"Would you like one?" she asked when Lexaeus released her. He held his arms out for her, but Lex beat him too it and he laughed.

"I got food for all three of us," he announced.

"Thanks, Zexion." She had all the parts of the sword out on her workbench. It was just polishing and assembly today. She would activate the magic when the Emperor came to inspect it.

He put the food on the workbench and then went to watch while he ate a pocket.

"How did the aloe work?" he asked while he watched.

"The what?"

"The aloe, for burns. Lex told me he gave you both of the jars I made for his first aid kit. He said you had a friend who was burned. Did it work okay?" If Zexion knew it was Kishi needing the treatment, he didn’t let on.

"I... didn't realize that I was supposed to take them."

Lex tilted his head in confusion and then went to check the cabinet. Sure enough, they were still there. He had forgotten that he had put them away and assumed she took them. He blushed, embarrassed by the mistake.

"Oh, Lex, it's alright! I guess that's a good sign if you didn't need them."

He has been healed by now anyway, she thought.

"I suppose. It might have been easier with it, though," she mused.

"Well, I wish your friend the best. Here," he handed over a meat pocket for her.

She removed her right glove to hold it. The opal's glow was visible through the tie, and it vibrated against her skin. They all sat together to eat.

"When do you present it to the Emperor?"

"I... don't know. He didn't say, but two weeks are up. I doubt I can just take it to him."

"Hm. I can ask Miss Naminé tomorrow when I go back to the estate," he offered.

"...I should probably find out today. I might head back early to find out."

"If it's complete, Lex and I can go with you. Lex is allowed to bring things like this to the palace."

"I just need to finish polishing it and activate it," Xion told them.

"We can wait, if you want to finish whatever you have to do here."

"That would be nice, thank you." She was finished with the sword, having it polished, oiled, and put together, a little after two in the afternoon. The opal was still noticeably tied to her.

When Lex and Zexion noticed she was packing up, they too got ready to leave, walking along with her through the city.

"I can't believe you finished a sword like so quickly," Zexion praised.

"I didn't have any other projects running alongside it," she pointed out.

Lex nodded his agreement, he understood what it was like to divide time between projects, but Zexion was undeterred.

"It's still a wonderful achievement." They were stopped at the gate to see their tags. Zexion and Lexaeus both showed their tattoos as well.

Xion pulled her pass out of her clothes. The guards checked it and then waved them through.

"That's still so cool," Zexion marveled mostly to himself and Lex voraciously nodded his agreement.

"I spent a lot of time in the forge as a child. Always the warmest part of the castle."

"No, the pass. You're the only person I know who has been able to get one without also having to tattoo their person."

"I'm told that if I lose it, I'll be killed." What kind of strings had Kishi pulled?

"So will whoever got it for you,” Zexion explained, “generally by the time they trust you enough to leave the city with a pass like that, you're already a servant, so no one else has to put their own life up as collateral."

Lex had started anxiously fussing with his clothes and hair and Zexion turned his attention to his love to help reassure him that the grease stains were, in fact, gone.

She slowed her walk a little. That didn't match the image she'd built of Kishi.

They got pretty far ahead of her before they noticed and then they stopped to let her catch up. The rest of the way up through the school was spent reassuring the anxious Master Smith and checking classrooms for Naminé. When they found her, Zexion went and told her that Xion was done with her task and Naminé came out to greet them. Though she kept a distinct distance from Xion and the sword she held.

"If you're ready, I can go and see if the Emperor is able to see you now."

"I'm ready," she said, voice steady.

Naminé had them wait outside the throne room and then left to check. She came back five minutes later and held the door open for Xion. Lex and Zexion were to stay there. The fae witch led Xion to one of the back rooms beyond the door behind the throne. It was an office library, incredibly spacious with tall windows and all sorts of baubles. The Emperor was standing beside his desk with the sword she had already made resting beside his paperwork.

"My King," Namine greeted, "I have brought you the young smith. She has something to present for your judgement." He looked up from a letter and then set it down before waving for Xion to come forward and present her sword.

She didn't look down this time. She came and set the sword on the desk with confidence.

"I can activate the magic at your request, Your Excellency." The blade itself was a near copy of the dragon sword. It waved at the same angles, had the same length and shine. The lacework was different. Where the dragon sword had gold and silver, the snake had bronze and copper to match the hilt. The guard, instead of wings, was formed by coils of the snake. The head formed the pommel, with its open mouth poised to strike and ready for the opal to be placed.

He picked it up and looked it over, satisfied, he set it back down.

"Proceed."

She took the sword back, running a finger up the edge to the point, where she pricked it. Only then did she turn the sword over and untie the opal. She held it in place with the bloody finger and a line of glowing orange licked up the length from the stone to the droplet left on the tip. It grew brighter, and warmer. The copper turned more vibrant, and the bronze darker. It was over in less than a minute.

The Emperor looked very pleased.

"Would you request a reward? Or accept the one I have for you?" he asked her.

"...I would like to make a request, but if that isn't possible, I will take what it is you would offer."

"I will hear your request."

"I came here with two men in my service, but I have been told that I will not be able to keep them past my wedding. I would like to be able to keep them in some capacity."

He slowly walked around his desk and started going through envelopes. Apparently, he had expected this request because he already had an agreement for it.

"So long as they join the House as servants, this I will permit, regardless of their physical status."

"Thank you, Your Excellency." Xion took a bow.

"My son has told me that you would thrive in a home of your own with its own forge. Is this true?" he asked her.

"...yes, it is."

He leaned over to sign a document and folded it up, tucking it away in an envelope to be revisited later.

"I understand my son punished you for defying him. Should he attempt to punish you again, I would have you send for Aqua."

"I will keep that in mind."

"You may go."

Xion took another bow before heading out.

Naminé walked with her so she wouldn’t get lost. These spaces behind the throne room were misleadingly spacious. There were lot more rooms back here for various purposes, of course this was the living space for the Emperor but there were... darker purposes too. Unpleasant thudding noises were coming from one of the closed doors, but Naminé shuffled her past it quickly and shook her head to discourage asking about it. She led the way back through the throne room to the hallway where Zexion and Lex were pacing.

Xion waved when she saw them, trying to put the disturbing sounds out of her head.

"Did he like it?" Zexion asked for both of them.

"He seemed to, yes."

Lex hugged her tightly and patted her on the head. He was so proud.

"Thanks. And thank you again for the gloves."

He nodded.

"We should probably go," Zexion said politely, "We still have a whole afternoon to make use of."

"And I should head back to my fiancé’s house. Thank you for making me feel welcome in your home."

They both hugged her once more for good measure and then left.

"Do you need help finding your way back to the estate?" Naminé asked.

"I don't need help, but I won't refuse company."

Naminé just smiled and sent her on her way alone.

Xion slowly made her way back to Kishi's house. There wasn't anything off about the place. Ven was there, restocking the bathrooms, dusting, and cleaning, but as Kishi hadn't been there in a while, there wasn't much of a mess to worry about anyway.

Xion went to him first to ask, "If you see Kishi, can you tell him I want to talk to him?"

"Welcome home, and yeah, I think he will be home tonight."

"Thank you." She went upstairs to find Sora and Vanitas. They were sparring on the balcony with the broomsticks.

Xion came outside to announce to them, "It's done."

"The sword?" Sora asked as they stopped, "How did it turn out?"

"Really well. The Emperor gave me a reward."

"A reward?"

"As long as you join the House staff, I'll get to keep you."

Sora hugged her. "Thank the gods."

Vanitas joined the hug as well. An uncharacteristic show of affection.

"...I might be living on my own after the wedding. With my own forge," she added.

Sora's hug tightened and he bounced a little.

"I know this isn't really what we were expecting but this is the best possible scenario! We can probably work for you! It will be just us and you get to do what you love!"

She smiled and said, "I'm still going to try to work things out with Kishi."

Sora grimaced. "You don't have to now..."

"But I want to."

"...just be careful. You don't want him to hurt you just before you can be rid of him."

They roped her into some for-fun sparring until dinnertime. Pork chops with some sort of cheesy crust and some leafy greens that stopped being healthy when they were cooked with animal fat. Roxas brought that and he and Ven sat together and chatted anxiously for a while before Roxas left. Ven stayed to set out pajamas for Kishi, who was considerably late getting home.

Xion sat downstairs to wait.

Kishi didn't get back until about eleven. Ven was immediately there to ask what he needed and fuss over him.

"You're home so late," Ven told him in hushed tones down by the front door.

"The Emperor gave me extra classes," Kishi explained, "will you make some coffee? I have a couple papers due tomorrow."

"Ki, you need to rest."

"After these papers, and I need to rethink my gift..." he mumbled. Kishi dragged himself to the library and sat down at his desk while Ven headed to the parlor to get coffee started.

Xion followed him to the library.

"Can we set some time aside to talk soon?" she asked.

He was just barely noticing her. Something had to have happened in the last few days. Kishi was hollow-eyed, had his hair cut, and had a glassy expression that gave away some measure of fear mixed with exhausted resignation. There were red marks on his face and neck and his hair was still damp, a sure sign of a healing bath.

"Um, yeah, come on in, sit... or don't, whatever you prefer." He motioned to a chair across from his desk and started moving papers around to try and look a little more organized.

She took a seat.

"...why didn't you tell me that you'd die too if I lost my pass?"

"You didn't ask." He scratched the back of his head and shuffled uncomfortably. It was a bad answer and he knew it. "It just, I don't know. I guess I didn't think you'd accept it if I did and it's not really important information. Knowing wouldn't have changed anything and the alternative was the tattoo and I know you didn't want that. And you were just so happy getting to go do the forge stuff. An opportunity at freedom like that? I couldn't get in the way. Oh thank the courts."

Ven had arrived with coffee, saving Kishi from his rambling. The Prince desperately downed the mug, completely ignoring how hot it was and how much it made his stomach rumble.

"Is it too much to ask for more?" he asked Ven.

"Of course not," Ven responded gently. He took the mug back and went to get more.

"That was a show of trust. It's important. I guess... I'm still looking for this to work. We have a month, can we try?"

He just looked so tired when she asked, like it was something he wanted but had lost already, like someone realizing they gave away a winning lotto ticket before they checked the numbers. Any authority or dignity he had, any hope, was just missing.

"Yeah," he said, trying to play it off as no big deal, "of course, anything you want. Anything that's in season," he corrected, forcing his tone to be light, "lingon berries are damn near impossible to find. Probably will have to have someone plant them for next year."

"That's sweet of you. I don't know if you could get them to grow down here, but it's nice that you're willing to try."

Ven came back with the other mug of coffee and Kishi gratefully downed it too.

"Thank you, Ven, for waiting up for me. You can go," he said gently. Ven looked concerned and for a second really considered disobeying, but he knew better and just nodded before turning to leave.

"I really have a lot of work to do," Kishi said, voice cracking a little bit, "you had an eventful day too. You should really go to bed. If you want. That's not really an order. I can't really order you around anymore. So just, never mind, do whatever you want."

She nodded and got up.

"Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to make sure your brother will never have children."

"Thank you for postponing the torture a little longer," he joked back.

Kishi turned all his attention back to his schoolwork. She didn't hear him go to bed until three.