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Another Side, Another Story

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Kishi Oscura had left the Imperial capital a total of three times with this journey being the third. A neighboring Kingdom was surrendering to the Empire today and he had been selected to witness the surrender and negotiations. It might have been a better trip if his older brother, the noble Prince Ansem Oscura hadn’t also gone along. They weren’t exactly buddies.

Even so, the opportunity to leave the white walls of the city was enough to make it all worthwhile and the Imperial Regent, Xigbar, wouldn’t let Ansem get too out of control. Hopefully.

The ride had been spectacular, the city was rustic, and the castle was classic and dramatically different than the bright pinnacle of developed society that Kishi was used to. His first thought was wonder when they rode into the courtyard and then maybe a little disgust when he realized how primitive the kingdom was.

“Remember to keep your mouth shut,” Ansem snapped at him when they dismounted, “it was foolish enough for father to send you. If your inexperience causes any problems…”

“I’m smart enough to know when to speak and when not to,” Kishi snapped back.

“As long as we are here, I am in charge, so mind your tongue.”

Xigbar is in charge.”

“Is he?” Ansem hissed with a grin and Kishi felt a chill run up and down his spine to settle in his belly. It was obnoxious as shit and not true but Kishi knew that it wouldn’t stop Ansem from enforcing his own superiority and if things turned sour, the younger Prince wasn’t likely to be allowed out of the city again.

Ansem was proven. He had military experience, a kill count, surrenders, and wives. Kishi was eighteen, a student, and had thrown up the first time he killed a man as a pre-teen and while Ansem didn’t scare him, their father did. He needed to show his father that he was ready to be trusted as a Prince and a man, and not the weak fourth son that they saw. Submission was the better play in the long game.

“I understand, brother,” Kishi said through clenched teeth while he glared through the slits in his helmet. Anger was still hard to suppress.

Ansem pet Kishi and then walked after Xigbar who was waiting at the door. Kishi followed.

Their boots and armor clinked as they walked. Each of them was dressed grandly. Ansem was wearing his summer colors of gold, bronze, and red while Kishi was wearing the silver, blue, and white of winter. Kishi’s aesthetic better matched their shared white hair color but Ansem’s better matched the olive of his skin and the bright amber of his eyes. Ahead of them, Xigbar wore black and gold under long salt and pepper hair. Despite being the regent, Xigbar didn’t wear a crown. He just felt like he was always wearing one.

The three of them sauntered into the throne room with Kishi at the end of the line. He was careful to measure his steps behind his brother but kept his back straight and his shoulders down. Truthfully, he was grateful for the helmet. Kishi was a little nervous and his eyes darted around with curiosity until they settled on the royal family.

The Kingdom of Terminus was led by an old King with a grand white beard and flowing robes. Yen Sid sat on a throne that was elevated by a wide dais, alone at the highest point in the room. Respectfully, to the side on the King’s right were two others. The first was a tall man, wearing light armor and a military rank that Kishi couldn’t identify. He had long blue hair that was slicked back and resting on his shoulders and his face was marred by a scar in an ‘x’ shape over the bridge of his nose.

The second was where Kishi’s eyes stopped. She had to be the Princess that he knew this Kingdom had but she was also dressed in some sort of armor. It was tight on her, but she was armed and too wore a military rank. She had short black hair at chin length and short bangs that covered most of her forehead but stayed out of her sapphire eyes.

He was somewhat stunned to see her. A woman was standing beside the Prince as an equal with her eyes forward and her hand resting on her sword. It was both revolting and confusing. Something inside Kishi was horribly offended that a woman could stand there and look at them without any semblance of submission but another, much larger part of him was impressed and very, very interested. She wasn’t particularly pretty, maybe a girl next door kind of girl, but her confidence and fire were immensely attractive.

Which means Ansem is going to say something, Kishi huffed to himself.

“Let’s get started, shall we?” Xigbar said up ahead of him and Kishi could hear the smirk in the regent’s voice.

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

Negotiators seemed more polite than just calling them conquerors. Kishi knew they had brought enough troops to cause problems if things didn’t go their way. This hardly felt like a fair negotiation and even Kishi could tell as much. This ragtag Kingdom didn’t stand a chance if they chose to fight.

“Oh, only enough to get a point across,” Xigbar answered, “so, should we have a table brought up?”

The King stroked his beard and then waved his hand, summoning a servant out of thin air. Kishi had to resist the urge to jump when a shorter brown-haired boy and a very tall man with fire red hair brought a table to the edge of the dais and then disappeared into the walls. It was disconcerting and Kishi didn’t like it. But damnit if he didn’t also want to know how they did that. He admittedly zoned out a bit to really focus on the wall behind the King, looking for a nook or cranny that might be bigger than immediately perceived.

“Regent,” Ansem said from behind Xigbar and snapping Kishi out of his curiosity, “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 tapped his chin in thought and Kishi recognized the gesture. That was Xigbar’s ‘I already made up my mind, but I want you on edge’ gesture. No way it would work on Ansem but it set a tone for the Kingdom royalty.

“Highness, if you think this is a good educational opportunity, I think your brother needs it more. Make sure to be a good example,” Xigbar said.

Kishi felt his cheeks heat up and he tried really hard not to visibly be angry or embarrassed aside from lowering his gaze. There was no reason for Xigbar to call him out like that in front of strangers than to shame him for his lack of experience. It was a mean jab at something outside of Kishi’s control and he was admittedly incredibly angry at Xigbar for pouring fuel onto a fire between the two brothers. Reacting to such a jab would be so much worse so Kishi focused on holding very, very still while Ansem stepped past Xigbar to take over negotiations.

Kishi was too focused on calming down to even hear what his brother was saying. No doubt it was needlessly greedy. It was an Imperial strategy to ask for an unreasonable amount and then lower it to create the illusion of mercy.

“How generous to offer that 80% on top of the 70% of the ore we will be collecting,” Ansem was saying when Kishi finally started paying attention again, “as to transportation, I am sure your people will find a way to deliver all four shipments on time.”

The Terminus King stood up and his pressure was felt in the room. Not only was he tall but Kishi felt a weight in the room almost like a humidity that filled his lungs. Magic. Kishi had been training in magic his whole life, so it wasn’t hard to feel it in this man here who wasn’t trying to hide it. This King was overflowing with it.

“You misunderstand. The pass that would allow carts through becomes impassable, even for our gryphons,” the King was telling Ansem, “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 negotiation, 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, “such leniency that you seek is offered only to those allies with familial ties.”

Oh. So Ansem had noticed the Princess. Of course he did. Kishi’s older brother thought more with his dick than he ever did with his actual brain. What a waste. He had probably planned this from the start. Now the unreasonable demands made a lot more sense.

“You speak of my granddaughter?” the King asked.

“I do,” Ansem said as he made a show of looking her over, “I would have no qualms speaking to my father about a much, much smaller tither 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.”

Xion. She had a pretty name too. Kishi caught himself studying her himself too. What a bizarre Kingdom to value a Queen the same as a King. The Daybreak Empire didn’t have queens. Kishi knew his father had taken two wives, but neither were alive today and they were never more than broods to produce heirs. It was a shame, that was all Ansem wanted this girl for and Kishi knew him well enough to know he’d probably burn the country down to make sure he got her.

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

“You think you’re done?” Xigbar asked in a scolding tone.

The Prince stepped in close to the Regent but Kishi overheard him say, “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 himself to tell the King, “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 continued to scold. Ansem’s attempt to maintain authority meant nothing to the Regent who had no qualms publicly humiliating those who deserved it. “Perhaps you should do more cultural studies before you try negotiations again, Highness.”

Ansem took a step back to fume while Kishi resisted the urge to chuckle. It was rare to see his asshole brother get put in his place when he was already sitting on a high horse. This alone was worth it and Kishi raised a hand to his mouth to help hold back the laugh that was waiting on the tip of his tongue. Ansem’s eyes locked on Kishi and he quickly snapped back to attention but that laugh was still there.

"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," King Yen Sid said as he sat back down.

“Grandfather, may I speak for myself?” the Princess asked and the laugh on his tongue melted away. Her voice wasn’t particularly special. There was a softness to it but her words were unwavering and confident and the King’s nod was respectful. He happily gave her the attention of the room.

“If Daybreak is willing to take our offer from earlier, and observe some of our other marriage customs, I would be willing to go,” she said.

Ansem’s seething anger melted beside Kishi into something worse and Kishi felt his own heart sink. Well, that was unfortunate. This confident young woman, who couldn’t have been older than he, was dancing into the mouth of the dragon.

“It would depend on your customs,” Ansem said but Kishi knew he wouldn’t be listening to her answer. He would ignore them the second he had her in his home.

“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. Kishi admired her courage. Her voice never wavered once and it was confusing his brother. Kishi could count on one hand the number of women that would talk to Ansem like that with strong eye contact and firm voices.

The Prince kept looking back and forth between the Princess, Xion, and the King but the King had politely given his granddaughter the ability to negotiate for herself.

“So long as that time is spent on the estate, then those terms are agreeable,” Ansem finally said.

A servant brought a roll of parchment and ink and the King personally penned the agreement. With Ansem satisfied, the King and Regent determined that the deliveries of goods would be biannual and the tithe itself was lowered to 70% prior to the wedding and 50% after the wedding. King Yen Sid and his line would remain in power so long as the quota was met, and they stayed in line. An advisor from the Emperor would be appointed and a small military unit would be stationed in the city. It was to “help provide security and safety” but that was bullshit and every knew it. Otherwise, Terminus would be left to govern themselves as an extension of the Empire.

Once signed, King Yen Sid pressed his signet ring into the parchment, leaving behind the image of his seal with a red glow and a flash of magic. It made Kishi jump in alarm and start reaching for a weapon but his brother scolded him and smacked the back of head. He growled a bit but restrained himself. Let Ansem have his fun, Kishi reasoned, things would be different back home.

“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 as Ansem stepped forward to remove his glove and apply his own seal in wax from the ring on his finger. For now, the contract was binding.

A scribe took the contract and Ansem put the glove back on.
“It would be fitting to see what my future in-laws are like,” he said with a cruel grin, “a place to stay the night as well.”

This was just pleasantries. Even if Kishi hadn’t personally witnessed such interactions, he had practiced them in class and studied them. The King hosting them knew they would be staying. The offer was polite. The acceptance of the offer was also just meant to be polite.

“It is too bad Lauriam will be unable to join us then. There are, of course, guest rooms prepared,” the King added. He waved his hand and the room was suddenly full of servants going about their work and Kishi had to again resist the urge to reach for a weapon.

The Princess and Prince left the room quickly and Kishi found himself caught up in the hassle of being guided along by a servant.

While they had been talking, their things had been moved to guest rooms. Kishi was relieved to find he had his own. The castle had seemed so small that he thought for sure he’d have had to share with his brother.

He checked around the small room. There was a small bed, a big rug, a couple smaller windows that opened with a struggling creak, and sparse décor. Kishi looked for a magical light source but found none. There were a few candelabras strategically placed around the room but unlit while there was still daylight.

“No concubines for the night,” he mumbled to himself, maybe a little disappointed but mostly relieved. He wasn’t sure he was interested in the girls here. Although… that Xion seemed unique.

Kishi waited a few minutes before realizing that servants weren’t going to come help him undress and got started on that himself. He had a few trunks of things brought along including another armor set that was formal but not ‘show off’ formal like what he was currently trying to wiggle out of.

He was barely out of his clothes to get into the new outfit when his door opened and Ansem let himself in.

Kishi went from surprised to annoyed to angry in about three seconds.

“You have your own room,” he snapped.

Ansem’s hand snapped out to grab Kishi by the front of his shirt and he hissed in his little brother’s face, “I know you were looking at her.”

“So what if I was!”

“I forbid you from engaging with her. Don’t look at her, don’t speak to her. She’s mine.”

Kishi huffed and went to pull away, but Ansem’s fingers dug into his chest and he growled to keep from yelping.

“Father isn’t here,” Ansem cautioned, “as long as we are away from Scala you are also mine to do with as I please. If you ever want the opportunity to leave the estate again, you will avoid her like your life depends on it.”

“Relax, brother,” Kishi wheezed, “my actions aren’t controlled by my dick so I think I’m safe.”

Ansem smacked Kishi and he saw stars for a second.

“Alright! I’ll leave her be,” he corrected, more submissive this time. Anything was better than being confined to Scala again and Ansem could hold some solid sway with their father. Keeping him happy was priority.

The older Prince let go and left and Kishi angrily finished getting ready for dinner.

 

Kishi and Ansem were ready for dinner well before it was time but made a point to meet Xigbar outside the dining hall a little late. That was also a strategic play. The Daybreak royalty wanted to make it clear that they were in charge and things started for them and not at any time chosen by the hosts.

They were seated on the King’s right with the King at the head of the table and Xigbar beside him. Then Ansem, then Kishi were seated in a line. The Crown Prince of Terminus, whom Kishi had been told was named Isa, was sitting across from Xigbar and the Princess was sitting across from Ansem. Once again, Kishi was in his own isolated bubble on the awkward end. There were supposed to be three Terminus heirs he thought but the third was absent.

The air was more casual so Kishi was more willing to take it in. The room itself was big but cozy. The ceilings weren’t as high as they were in Scala. The Kingdom’s royalty were wearing fancy clothes with so much beadwork they were hard to look at. It was flashy art draped over each one of them and taking up all the budget. The plateware and silverware were missing a couple forks and cups for a fancy meal and were quality but not rich by his standards. It was the kind of thing that Kishi might’ve expected Ansem to take a jab at if the older brother wasn’t so busy ogling Xion.

Retainers and servants ghosted through the walls as maids served a meal. The primary piece was a roasted leg from some kind of animal, a few loaves of bread, a salad, and an egg aspic dish with a funny texture. Kishi wasn’t really interested in the egg thing. Food that jiggled wasn’t appealing unless it was sweet but it was rude to decline and there wasn’t much of it.

There was a prayer that he shuffled uncomfortably through and then Kishi followed the Princess’s example. She was dishing up food for her higher ranking family members and it looked like he was expected to do so too. Kishi felt awkward doing a servant’s job but it did give him a chance to short Ansem some food and earn a warning glare in response.

"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."

"Perhaps I should go on the tour with them, I know the forges almost as well as the master smiths," the Princess said and both Kishi and Ansem paused a moment when she spoke.

"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 Isa, 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 cheerfully added.

"We will have to teach you manners prior to presenting you before the Empire," Ansem muttered but Kishi was impressed. He had to force himself to look away from her. Fire like that was Ansem’s favorite and Kishi was a little sad that she had so much of it.

"I'll not have you speak to the Princess in such a way," Isa growled. The Prince seemed to have just as much of a temper as Ansem did. Honestly, it was kind of scary how similar they seemed.

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

"I would not be opposed to a demonstration," Kishi finally said to derail the escalating argument. He shoved a piece of bread into his mouth as he did to keep himself from smirking at his brother when both the older Princes turned to look at him with surprise and irritation.

"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?” Xion asked. Her voice was little softer this time.

“Obedient and beautiful,” Ansem crooned, “though perhaps lacking in fire.” His mood mellowed out as he studied her, Isa already forgotten. Kishi rolled his eyes and focused on his meal. Watching Ansem play with his food was already getting old.

“I don’t doubt that I have enough fire for a lifetime,” she responded firmly and again Kishi was impressed.

“We will see.”

“Do you have any children?” the King asked.

Kishi saw Ansem twitched and jumped on the opportunity to embarrass his brother, “No. None of them do. No grandbabies for the Emperor.”

He shoved a forkful of food into his mouth to suppress another smirk as Ansem turned on him but a little bit of a smile still slipped out as Xigbar added, “Poor guy doesn’t get anyone to spoil.”

The comment put Ansem at ease a bit. That was Xigbar all right; still playing both sides and both brothers.

“Perhaps you will be a better fit to my home in that regard,” Ansem told Xion.  

“My family tends to have many children.”

“I certainly hope so.”

Kishi cringed a bit to himself. This poor girl was playing all the right notes and had no idea.

“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."

Kishi was starting to tune them out again. He was admittedly getting bored. This didn’t concern him at all and he wanted to go explore.

"You will need not trouble yourself with such matters. Your role in our hierarchy is simple, as are expectations of you," Ansem was saying. He swirled his glass a bit before sipping it delicately and Kishi almost rolled his eyes again.

"But my role here will remain. I will spend my free time studying or training, as I may have need to return," she reminded him and Kishi grimaced inwardly. This poor Princess seemed to think she had any control here. The second they got back to Scala ad Caelum, she was probably going to be confined to Ansem’s bedroom for the rest of her life. There was no chance of her returning here.

Ansem knew as much. Kishi could see it in his smirk as he undressed her with his eyes.

"Do as you will, so long as my orders and expectations are met."

"Only once the wedding is done," she insisted.

"Of course."

That’s when Ansem stopped entertaining her. She and Kishi just stopped existing to him which was fine with the young Prince. Kishi entertained himself fiddling with his silverware under the table and studying the walls for any explanation for the disappearing servants. Terminus wasn’t supposed to be a magical powerhouse.

Eventually dessert came around and Kishi enjoyed it. Iced cream was hard to get in Scala so he took his time with it until the boredom finally had him nodding off.

"I'll meet you both in the entrance hall at eight in the morning,” Xion told them, snapping Kishi out of his napping trance. He got up when he was pulled up and bowed politely but immediately regretted it when he felt a pop to the back of his head and realized his brother was punishing him for not being more dominant. He huffed and rubbed the spot as he followed Xigbar and Ansem out into the hallway.

It took all of two seconds for Ansem to zoom off, presumably to his room, leaving Xigbar and Kishi alone, which was a terrifying thing in itself.

“Did I do well today?” Kishi asked.

“Do you really want to engage in small talk?”

“No.”

“Then you might as well scurry off,” Xigbar offered. He wasn’t rude or mean about it at all. The guy was as cavalier and unreadable as always.

Kishi huffed but headed back to his room to change into something more comfortable. He slipped on a long-necked, long-sleeved shirt and pants and then a silk robe over those since it was a tad chilly then he flopped on the stiff bed and lay there for a minute to just soak it in.

They were in another country!! And he felt homesick. Going on a trip with the two scariest people in his family without any of his servants was a drag and he didn’t like the judging feeling he was getting from them. This had to be a test. His father had personally ordered Kishi go which meant there was an angle here and Kishi couldn’t see it but then again, trying to see it was the mistake. The Emperor was just a tick shy of being a god himself. There was no way his immortal father could be outsmarted. No doubt Xigbar was in the shadows watching him and at any given moment could be spying for either his father or his brother. The hypervigilance was stressing him out.

Kishi grabbed his slippers from one of the bags and put them on. Screw it. He was going to make the most of this trip. He headed out to explore.

It took him all of a minute to get lost which wasn’t a bad thing. There was an excitement in being in a strange land even if it was just another castle. He had found an open courtyard that felt like a training area. There were dummies off to one side, a shed in a corner, and plenty of space. The stars were different here too and he took a second to count them while they were easy to see when he heard footsteps and jumped.

The Princess was barely a few yards away and trying to move around him. He scrambled a bit to bow politely and started to greet her when he remembered what Ansem had said and the feeling of being watched reined him in. Any wonder and excitement in exploring was gone so instead he addressed her retainer. The brown-haired one was on the far side of her but there was a near identical man close to him. This guy had yellow eyes, black hair, and a scowl plastered on his face but there weren’t a lot of options. Ugh, and if he got caught being informal…

"Pardon, but I have become turned around and need directions back to my chambers," he said with a strained, unpracticed voice.

“Your room was next to your brother’s, correct?” the Princess asked instead. Great. She wasn’t really giving him a choice here.

“Unless you can find me one that’s not,” Kishi grumbled. He didn’t really care that much anymore about being polite as long as he could get out of there fast. He kept his gaze away from her.

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

She was more astute than he gave her credit for. Was it appropriate to respond? She was a she. He didn’t have any obligation to answer her.

“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..." he mumbled. It felt like word vomit and he felt like an idiot.

"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," Xion offered and Kishi was a little dumbfounded. She just openly admitted to being cool with disobeying. How the hell could she be so relaxed about that?

He jumped a bit and held his hands up.

"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," he managed when he finally found his wits.

"...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?"

Well, shoot. What was worse? Pissing off Ansem or pissing off Xigbar?

"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 after she said it and Kishi had to take a second to process that she had included her title.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were supposed to include our ranks..." He stood there awkwardly and became increasingly aware of how badly he had butchered that. Things felt so different outside of his comfort zone and he was expecting Xigbar to appear at any moment, so he walked away. He didn’t want to deal with it, so he walked away from the problem for now.

Her instructions proved true and he found his room. Kishi awkwardly waved off the angry looking servant and locked the door behind him to collapse on the bed facedown. He screamed in his pillow for a second, kicked off his shoes, and then tried to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

The first night in the new climate was a rough one. Maybe an hour into falling asleep he had been rudely woken up by Ansem who spent about ten minutes berating the sleepy younger Prince over…something. Kishi wasn’t really paying attention. He learned a long time ago how to tune out the antics of his despised older brother. Either way, Ansem was mad blah blah blah and then he took all of Kishi’s blankets.

That was enough to wake Kishi up enough to be pissed off but before they could come to blows, Xigbar had just appeared. The Regent was eerily good at that. The man’s natural magic was geared towards illusion and gravity so it wasn’t uncommon for Xigbar to pop out of nowhere with a frustrating knowledge of everything. Xigbar’s presence had broken up any potential fight, but Kishi had to roll over again and it left him cold and miserable in a high elevation at a frigid time of the year.

As a result he felt drained and tired when he got dressed into his outfit, winter themed as usual. Kishi’s family followed the faerie courts and Kishi was born under the sign of Winter so everything he owned under the formal category was generally the same boring combination of colors that made his skin look pasty and gross. He brushed his hair, pulled on his boots, took a few deep breaths to find some composure and then stepped out into the hallway to wait for Ansem.

Ansem who was even pulling the late thing with his brother. So of course they were already at a bad start.

“Do behave today,” Xigbar said and Kishi jerked. No amount of training could prepare him for startling moments like that.

“I’ll behave if he behaves,” Kishi grumbled.

“I would hate to have to tell the Emperor that you made a fool of yourself and the House.”

The Prince shot a glare at Xigbar. The ass was wearing his usual unreadable smirk. Kishi learned at eight years old not to play cards or chess with Xigbar. The Regent had won all his desserts for a year and actually enforced the agreement.

“I get it. He’s in charge.”

Satisfied, the Regent walked off. The exact second that Xigbar turned the corner, Ansem left his room. The older Prince looked as regal and intimidating as ever wearing his black and gold and red, the colors of the Summer sign. He looked down at Kishi with disdain and Kishi matched the glare for about ten seconds before he tsked and looked away first. It sucked submitting to his older brother but it was better to win the points with Xigbar now than to cause problems and give his father an excuse to keep him in Scala.

If Kishi wanted to travel more, he had to prove that he wasn’t going to cause trouble.

He fell into step beside Ansem as they walked to the entrance hall where Xion was waiting with one of her servants. The fact that she had a personal pair of servants was a foreign concept to Kishi. Sure, he had a bunch of his own, but the servant staff served the entire House of Oscura, not individuals.

“You’re both looking fine this morning. Did you find your accommodations to your liking?” she asked. Kishi felt like it wasn’t really directed at him so he stayed quiet.

“I was cold and lonely,” Ansem lamented, “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.”

Ah yes, the morning bullshit.

"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?" she asked. The two brothers fell into step behind her and her retainer, with Kishi at the rear. He felt more on guard than he wanted to be, but he couldn’t tell if the alert paranoia was directed at the way too happy looking brown-haired guy, or wondering where the angrier one was.

“I am familiar with the entire process in concept, my younger brother has yet to study and of the working-class skills,” Ansem was saying. He sounded bored and Kishi recognized the deflection. No way Ansem could just say ‘no I don’t know anything’. That would sound weak.

“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?” Xion asked as though talking to a child.

Oh, Kishi liked her but still flinched a bit as he felt the magic bleed from Ansem. Maybe it was because he was more sensitive to it but neither the retainer nor the Princess seemed to care.

“Mind your tone,” Ansem warned, “there is no need for this discussion except to waste my time.”

“You don’t scare me,” Xion said back. It was damn admirable and incredibly stupid! This woman was holding her ground against against a force of nature.

Kishi really liked her. If nothing else she was fantastic entertainment.

She turned the corner and led them into a forge that was built up against the side of the castle. The design was really clever considering their limited architecture. The forge would probably heat the castle through the wall and was easily accessible and there was no snow around it for nearly ten meters in every direction.

Kishi paused a second to admire it but Ansem was pushing forward. The older brother was getting in very close to her, unphased by her fire.

Xion held the door for them as they stepped inside the dark and warm building. It didn’t look like there was anywhere to sit and there was a lovely green glow that settled on everything from the forge. Green fire like that was rare, really rare. Kishi had only ever seen green fire like that from Ansem’s pet dragon, Maleficent. Green fire meant dragon fire, but dragons had been hunted to near extinction like the pests they were but the Empire. Killing a dragon was how Kishi’s eldest two brothers, Ansem included, had proven themselves men.

Could the Emperor have known they had dragon fire here? More importantly, where did they get it? Was it something they needed to tell Xigbar? Kishi’s head raced with the implications of the discovery so he almost missed her question.

“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 politely as she latched the door closed. She moved to put on heavy leather gloves and a thick leather apron.

Kishi opened his mouth to answer but Ansem’s hand came up to stop him.

“My brother is an observer. Do not address him. Make a sword,” he ordered with a measured, careful tone. If Ansem even noticed the fire, he was ignoring it to focus on his bride to be instead. Kishi knew that tone. He was pushing her buttons and testing reactions.

"I will address who I please. You will learn little if you do not ask questions and interact with the process," she said, still unbothered or perhaps ignorant of Ansem’s intentions but Kishi didn’t miss the shudder and smirk from his brother. It was like watching a cat with a mouse.

She pulled a length of steel from the shelf and held it up. Kishi’s first guess was rapier but it looked unfinished.

“Can either of you tell me what Damascus steel is?” she asked them.

Ansem lowered his hand and tilted his head but stayed quiet. Kishi knew it wasn’t ignorance. Ansem was in his early 30s and had been studying warcraft his whole life. Even if this kind of work was beneath the royal family, they still knew how it was done. This was another power play to reinforce dominance.

On one hand, it was important to learn this kind of thing from his brother. Using body language like this to establish their inherent superiority as the Imperial family was important. Kishi understood that, but seeing it used like this in pursuit of a bedwarmer was kind of pointless. If Ansem was that stressed, they could ask for entertainment later. This flaunting was just gross.

Kishi snapped out of his thoughts when he saw her looking at him and realized he was expected to answer and unfortunately, the truth was, Kishi didn’t know.
“Well? Answer her.”

Kishi’s shoulders slumped despite himself as he admitted, “I don’t know what Damascus steel is.”

Ansem tsked sadly and gently pet Kishi’s head to fix his hair and Kishi had to focus all his energy on not being angry at the blatant shaming that he had been set up for.

If Xion minded, she didn’t let on. She opened the oven and long licks of green flame reached for her but she calmly grabbed a shovel and moved some coals from the fire to the workbench. She closed the door as she continued.

“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."

Kishi irritably smacked at Ansem’s hand when she turned around and glared up despite his efforts to stay calm. The older brother was grinning down at him.

“Pay attention, Ki. This trip is proving itself to be more educational than previously intended.”

The Princess paused a couple times as she worked but kept talking.

“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 with boredom in his voice.

“A woman’s work is to create,” Kishi huffed, “which is more than can be said of you.” Maybe it was too direct but Kishi was tired and patience was never his strong suit. He earned a glare back though which meant he struck a chord but was disappointed when the glare melted back into a smirk and Kishi’s blood ran cold for a second.

“Terminus makes no distinction. There are men and women in every way of life,” Xion told them,

"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."

It wasn’t that she wasn’t interesting to watch. Really, the woman seemed to know her craft, but Kishi was tired. The cold here was sapping his strength and he hadn’t slept well. Even standing up he kept nodding off. Every time his eyes opened, she had jumped to some other step. He didn’t feel the need to really focus until he saw her approaching with the blade in process.

It still needed a hilt from what he could tell but the blade itself all the way through the tang was incredibly beautiful and seemingly very light. His brother took it by the tang and swung it around twice, grinned, and then slashed at Xion. One of her apron straps cut, nearly to the point of breaking, but she didn’t flinch and her sapphire eyes hardened like the gemstone they resembled.

“If you damage anything else, you will be asked to leave,” she said firmly. Ansem laughed and left anyway, leaving the blade in her outstretched hands.

That was the most reckless thing Kishi had seen all day. She was either colossally brave or extremely stupid and Ansem was loving it. He awkwardly rubbed some of the sleep out of his eyes as she twisted to offer the blade to him.

Kishi looked at it, the door, and then back to the blade when he heard Ansem snap sharply outside, “Kishi!”

The asshole with his fate in his hands was calling. He rolled his eyes and sighed but at least offered some praise.

“It looks really pretty,” he told her, and then ran after his brother.

Ansem seemed content to ignore him now that they were away from his new fiancé, which suited Kishi fine. He got another glare, this one more warning than anything else, and then Ansem was walking away with long strides to who knew where, leaving Kishi alone at the edge of the snow.

The weather really was lovely. Snow was rare in Scala. He had overheard some of the guards on the way commenting about how this wasn’t even the snowfall that Terminus was used to. There was usually a lot more this time of year, enough to close the pass to the East. It was only because this year was so dry that they were even able to make it here in the Winter. That and some light weather magic provided by his father’s witch.

He looked around a minute, feeling the chill as the slow falling flakes settled on his hair and immediately blended in.

…yeah that was enough of that. He hurried back to the castle to the warmth of his room where he changed out of the armor at least.

That girl was pretty incredible standing up to his brother like that. Surely the stories of his family had reached this far. The entire world knew about the Daybreak Empire and the viciousness of its royal family. Kishi was the only one of the men in his family who hadn’t personally led a slaughter. All three of his older brothers had led multiple campaigns and reinforced the rumor that the royal family was immortal. The opportunity to prove himself hadn’t been extended yet and Kishi was still anxious about it. Sure, he had killed people before in training but it was different when he was expected to be ruthless in war. Failure wasn’t an option, and his father would punish him severely if he became the first Oscura to mess up on the warfront.

Worse than that, Kishi still wasn’t totally in control of his bloodlust. The rumors of the Emperor selling his soul to the devil weren’t completely embellished. Kishi knew that his father had made a deal, probably several deals, with the faerie Queens. In many ways, Emperor Xehanort was immortal, and he had passed that affinity for magic down to his sons, including a vicious bloodlust. It was like a switch in combat, a mindless need to kill and dominate that stemmed from an unwavering belief that they were gods in this world. Their pursuit of conquest was justified if only these resisting countries could understand they were ruthless only when necessary to bring that light of progress and prosperity to them!

But Kishi had never really been able to touch that bloodlust, not the way his brothers could. It made him the weak son and Kishi was frequently reminded as such. If he could just prove to them all that he had an inner strength on par with his brothers. He just desperately needed that chance to prove his commitment to the throne, his family, and their mission. Hopefully, this trip would win him enough favor with Xigbar to put in a good word with his father and get him a chance to take a tour to the warfront in the South or East.

He flopped on his bed and waited for a long minute before the boredom started to get to him again. Good word or not, he was in another country, and he wanted to explore.

Kishi got up and started feeling along the walls of his room. Magic danced on his fingertips as he used it to search for a false wall or some kind of portal that would explain the way those servants could just appear. It took him a minute but eventually he found an opening where the stone neatly gave way. There was a narrow passage beyond that stretched along the walls.

This was super cool and there was a rush of excitement that sung along his veins as he slipped inside to explore.

Kishi spent the rest of the morning, lunch, and the better part of the afternoon exploring the servant’s tunnels and very, very carefully avoiding people. He was able to spy on Ansem which brought him joy until he realized what Ansem was doing in private and then he was skittering away. He got lost and stuck twice but eventually, he found his room again and got dressed for dinner just before Ansem barged in to ask what was taking him so long.

“I’m just following your example,” Kishi explained, “keeping people waiting is a way to express dominance.”

“Mind your place,” Ansem snapped, “a soft-hearted child like you will never surpass me in any capacity. Do not keep me waiting again.”

Kishi sneered at him and Ansem raised a hand, but Xigbar’s uncanny timing saved the day and he walked up to them with a whistle on his lips.

“As if I would see you two fighting each other on foreign soil,” he said smoothly, “that would be unbecoming, wouldn’t it?”

“Of course,” Kishi said quickly, taking the out before Ansem could, and inwardly relishing at the sound of his brother’s teeth grinding as the man righted himself.

“There’s always a time and place. I’m sure we will find time to train together later should we choose to stay a little longer,” Ansem said.

“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Xigbar added and Kishi felt his heart sink a bit. Great. Nothing like permission to get the shit beat out of him. Well, he wasn’t about to roll over now. Ansem wasn’t the only one who could play the game and Kishi wasn’t as weak as they wanted to believe he was and he was more than able to make his own decisions.

Honestly, the scary part was how calm Ansem was as they started to walk to dinner, but it didn’t click in Kishi’s head why until they arrived and the Princess was absent. The mood shifted immediately and Kishi realized just how focused on Xion the Prince actually was. Ansem was a wolf with a bone when he found something he really wanted and the button pushing all day was adding up.

“You will have to forgive my sister,” the Crown Prince Isa was saying, “she has fallen ill and will not be joining us tonight.”

“A shame,” Ansem said, “perhaps we may wish her well after dinner.”

“I will pass along your concern,” came the testy response.

Dinner was tense and awkward and deathly quiet but Kishi didn’t mind. It was funny watching Ansem and Isa glare at each other and Kishi was sure that the two of them were bonding in that ‘I will kill you first chance I get’ kind of way. It took some pressure off of him to think a little bit and he occasionally glanced at the Princess’s empty seat.

He still wasn’t sure if she was brave or stupid or both, but she had earned some sort of warning in his book, so as soon as he was dismissed, Kishi went looking for the castle doctor. She wasn’t there so he got directions to her room instead.

He let himself in when he realized she wasn’t there. He wouldn’t put it past Xigbar to know he was here, but the chance seemed a little lower with the illusion of privacy in a private room.

She didn’t have a lot of stuff… Her bed was a little bigger and a little softer, but her closet was small and everything in it was either boyish clothing or over the top beaded. She didn’t really have any artwork but the lighting in the room was better. No instruments but she had a lot of loose beads and wire in her desk. He put his hands behind his back to look over what limited stuff he could see when he heard her voice.

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

Maybe it was because he was expecting Xigbar but the sudden voice and the soft sound of leather on steel made him jump like a startled cat and he spun around with his hands up. There was a sword pointed at him with Xion on the other end. Oh, hey, that was the sword she was working on this morning. And she had both her look alike servants now, including the angry one.

“I’m unarmed,” he promised, “they can search me.”

“He is,” the angry man said.

“What are you doing in my quarters?” Xion asked him. There was still a sword pointed at him, so he figured honesty was best.

“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 second. So it was a lie to cover for her so she could avoid dinner with Ansem. Lies were not common place in Scala. Fae couldn’t lie so there was a universal understanding back home that people weren’t ever blatantly lying. Half truths, sure. White lies, of course. But no one straight up lied.

He lowered his arms with a sigh and said, “Look you have to stop antagonizing my brother.”

“Why should I?” The sword lowered just a tad but it quivered slightly from her grip tightening.

“You’re going to be my brother’s fifth wife. Of the four before you, only one of them is still alive,” he stressed. He didn’t want to scare her, but she had to understand what she was getting into. Maybe she could live longer than the others if he made her understand.

“So, I should let what dignity I have be washed away?” she asked.

“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.”

Okay, so she was suicidal on top of stupid. This pride wasn’t admirable. It was foolish. She was Ansem’s preferred flavor for sure.

He pressed both his hands together and held them to his lips while he looked her over. She had that strong pose, determined expression, and steeled eyes. What could he possibly say to get through to her? He was trying to help her see that submitting would keep her alive longer.

“Maybe you’re not hearing me,” he said slowly, “he is going to torture you and when you fail to get pregnant, he will kill you.”

She 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,” he tried to stress. If she played a long game, maybe she could live longer.

“Consider me warned then,” she said flatly, and he locked eyes with her, trying to push the stupidity out of her with his eyes but her stubbornness was obviously keeping her afloat. Fine. He tried. She was just a woman, a woman that was part of a transaction at that. He’d sleep okay knowing that he said something, so he shrugged and headed past her to leave.

“I appreciate the warning, and I’m sorry I can’t heed it,” she said, maybe a little more gently that time.

“I don’t really care what you do with my words,” he admitted honestly, “I’d be a fool to fuss over a corpse.”

Kishi heard the door slam behind him, but paid it no heed as he returned to his room to sleep.

Chapter Text

New blankets had been added to Kishi’s room the night prior and Ansem hadn’t noticed so Kishi slept a lot better. He was still frustrated with Xion as evidenced by his bizarre dreams that replayed the day in snippets ending with her laughing him out of the room. Of course he knew that part was the dream, but it still annoyed him that she didn’t seem to want to take him seriously. No one ever took him seriously.

At the frigid crack of dawn Ansem came barging into his room to wake him up to spar. Kishi entertained the passing thought that this meant the man was clearly very pent up and frustrated. Good. Let the man be away from his concubines for a bit.

But that still meant Kishi was up early with a sword in his hands and the cold stone under his feet with the label ‘punching bag’ plastered somewhere in the air above his head. Kishi was a good fighter. He probably had the personal strength of three or four average men, but Ansem was worth so many more. This wasn’t a fair fight in the slightest.

They had both stripped down to just pants and pulled their long hair back. Ansem’s was in a ponytail and Kishi had managed a sleepy bun. His bare feet didn’t feel great on the cold stone but when they got moving it stopped mattering. The brisk air felt good once the blood was surging through his body and keeping him warm and Kishi would never admit it out loud, but sparring felt good too. This was familiar and helped with the home sickness. Even the losing part.

And Kishi was losing a lot. Ansem was so bored that he was reading with one hand and defending with the other, but Kishi felt like he was personally doing a lot better. Winning had always been out of the question but for the first solid fifteen minutes, Kishi hadn’t been hit once. He hadn’t landed a hit, but not getting hit was the bigger deal, especially as they used their actual swords. The steel that clashed against Kishi’s and sung past his ears had killed a thousand men at Ansem’s side.

Someday he hoped his own weapon would bear that weight of meaningful service.

Somewhere shy of an hour, Kishi started to feel the tiredness of repeated blows. Back home these kinds of fights could stretch out a long time so Kishi took some pride in keeping Ansem entertained. If he was preforming too poorly, the elder brother would get bored and call it quits.

He saw Ansem’s eyes shift and dove on the window of opportunity with a swift slash towards the perfect olive flesh of Ansem’s chest, but the other blade came up to catch his and Kishi stumbled backwards. The book closed and Ansem’s attention shifted to a trio of new people that had just arrived.

Three women from what Kishi could tell. He lowered his sword a little to look them over while he caught his breath. The person in the middle had lovely rose-pink hair that rested on her shoulders, but they were easily the tallest woman Kishi had ever seen and dressed very extravagantly in a long cloak with excessive pink beadwork. On either side were two other young women. One with slicked back blonde hair and a nasty expression and one that seemed so gentle with long orange hair that bounced around her waist.

“We don’t need servicing,” Ansem said, “though I would appreciate it if one began heating a bath.”

“I’m afraid I am not a servant, Your Highness,” the person in the middle said. They had a lower voice than Kishi expected. Maybe height did that to a woman. “However, one of my ladies can make sure a bath is ready.” The orange haired girl curtsied and then left. Maybe this was the Terminus equivalent of Aqua, the Oscura Housemaster who managed all the servants.

Pain lanced through Kishi’s shoulder, and he stumbled as Ansem’s sword slid into his left arm, just above his armpit. Damnit. They hadn’t called an end to the fight, that was Kishi leaving an obvious opening. Ansem pulled the weapon back and Kishi had to adjust his stance to compensate for the pain. Blood started streaming from the wound and he had to resist the urge to cover it with a hand. They were still fighting.

“I was unaware the lord of this house had multiple daughters,” Ansem was saying.

“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?”

His arm still hurt but this was as good of a chance as any and Kishi pushed himself forward with a bit of magic in his feet. It made him fast and hard to track but he still feinted around to the far side to try and improve his chances of landing a hit. Steel met steel again and Kishi was thrown back, thwarted once more.

“I had duties to the south,” the other Princess was saying, “I returned to the castle as soon as I heard of what was happening. I’m curious, why the interest in my sister?”

Ansem’s smirk turned into a grin at the predatory tone in the woman’s voice and Kishi inwardly rolled his eyes again. Thank the queens the contract was already signed or his insatiable brother might have tried to snatch up both of the King’s granddaughters.

“A political union was the only way to fairly justify a discount for your Kingdom.”

Keep talking. The distraction was working in Kishi’s favor. Even if it was insulting to not be taken seriously.

He swooped back in, this time swiping the sword up at Ansem’s back. It was blocked so Kishi spun into a kick and a punch but both were dodged and blocked. Pain again lanced through him as he felt steel on his side and then the warmth of blood but there was some pride in his progress. Kishi had seen the steel that time and danced out of the way enough that the cut was shallow.

“Is that so? Please, explain,” the Princess was asking.

“Do you not believe that family is deserving of leniency?” Ansem asked. The grin never wavered and Kishi knew this was just playing an angle. It wouldn’t do to also be distracted by the distraction, so he backed up and started pacing, choosing openings more carefully.

“No, I was asking how a foreign Prince would find only one way to make a fair trade.”

“I don’t expect a woman to understand foreign policy nor is it appropriate for you to question it,” Ansem mocked.

“I am not a woman.”

Ansem’s grinned faded and Kishi moved at the twitch. He could see the tip of his sword singing through the open space heading for Ansem’s side. His form was perfect despite the pain, the distraction was immaculate, and he felt good about the strike but half a centimeter from connecting, Ansem’s shadow magic lashed out like a massive hand, and he was thrown across the yard.

One… two bounces and he skidded to an angry, sore stop. Ansem had to be mad to use that but now Kishi was mad that the rules hadn’t been clearer and he had to take a second to lay still and count his bruises.

“Then you bring shame on your home for your deception,” Ansem was growling.

“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,” he heard the Prince respond.

“You are interrupting my training. Leave.”

Shit. Kishi could feel the footsteps more than hear them and struggled to get up but his left arm wasn’t happy and his body creaked after being thrown so far against the hard stone. He looked up as Ansem towered over him like a stain on the even gray of the overcast sky and felt the tip of the sword under his chin and jaw.

“Are you done already?” Ansem asked with a mocking tilt of his head and Kishi felt a rush of angry adrenaline. It was bad enough that he was losing but Ansem was toying with him in front of other royalty.

He shouted and channeled his own magic. A purple and blue fire lit in his hands and he smacked the sword away from his face and reached out with the fire in his fist but it was clutzy and telegraphed and Kishi knew the second the sword went into his other shoulder that Ansem had played on Kishi’s temper. It was stupid and he felt the shame with the pain.

“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.”

Kishi heard him walk away and focused instead on getting up and taking deep breaths.

“Make sure you’re presentable before breakfast,” Ansem ordered and then walked away.

The cold air felt good and Kishi stayed on his knees for a second and processed the flowing blood and sweat cooling his chest.

“Your brother’s weak,” he heard someone say much closer than he thought, and he looked up at the Princess. The actual Princess, Xion. Where the hell did she… those tunnels. Damnit had she been watching? He felt angry and shameful suddenly and even more so when she offered him a hand like she thought he needed help. He ignored it and got up on his own, mostly to prove to himself that he had the strength for that much at least.

“My brother is incredibly strong. He is easily worth a hundred men.” Ansem was a dick but he was still a Prince of Daybreak.

“Maybe physically, but he’d make a poor leader. He’s spiritually weak and both strengths are important.”

“His successful conquests disagree,” Kishi huffed and started limping towards the Prince. It would probably be rude to thank the man for his help in the fight and might be taken the wrong way since Kishi couldn’t even take advantage of the openings created.

Instead he politely bowed and said, “I did not realize you were also a Prince. I would have acknowledged you sooner had I not been engaged, um, previously engaged. 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,” the man said. Shoot, Kishi didn’t even ask the guy’s name. Was it too late for that now? Did it matter since this guy just said he wasn’t a Prince. This was embarrassing…

“Sorry,” he mumbled and hurried to get his sword’s sheath and leave.

Kishi kept his head down as he hurried back to his room to get a change of clothes and he kept his head down to ask for directions to the bath which is when he learned that they didn’t really do lots of baths here which was utterly ridiculous. The one they did have was for one person at a time, took a while to fill and heat, and was occupied by Ansem.

Which left Kishi waiting his turn while he bled and ached. He passed Ansem briefly, but the older brother must’ve still been mad about falling for that pink-haired guy’s trick and paid Kishi no mind as the younger brother took his place in the now luke-warm tub.

He let out a sigh and fished through the clothes he had brought for two little jars. One was full of a creamy paste and the other was full of rock salts. The salts got dumped in the bath, the cream was applied to his injuries.

The immortal Imperial family wasn’t really immortal. The Emperor was but his sons had a secret. None of them had scars and it wasn’t because they never got hit. Hell, a bit of blood generally freaked enemies out when they thought they did damage and the next day there was no proof of damage. The secret was in water. Combining the paste and the salts accelerated the healing process with no chance of scarring. That sculpted, inhuman look was part of the ploy.

The cuts on his shoulders and side fizzed in the water and Kishi could feel the energy sapping from him as the magic did its work. These injuries were very minor compared to other training sessions but they still took time to heal. He groaned when he realized he was going to be late to breakfast. Actually late, not ‘I’m better than you all’ late like Ansem liked to be and for a second he contemplated not going at all but the rumble in his belly and the tiny bubbles that popped along the surface of his bathwater got the final say in the end and he pulled himself out with a groan when the gashes were reduced to sore, red spots that would disappear sometime throughout the day.

He got dressed, rung his hair out as best he could, and stiffly made his way to breakfast where everyone was already eating without him.

“Forgive my lateness,” he mumbled politely.

“Precision of language, Highness. Tardy is the better term,” Xigbar drawled as though he hadn’t been humiliated enough today.

“Right… Forgive my tardiness,” he corrected, too tired and unwilling to cause problems with the regent. Food was calling. It was cold but good and he scarfed it down.

The pink-haired man cleared his throat and said, “I apologize that I was not here to greet you during your arrival. I am Lauriam Terminus, second child to the throne.”

“Your apology is appreciated. Fortunately, your presence was not required,” Ansem said smoothly and Kishi saw the Crown Prince’s grip on his fork tighten. Kishi would be lying if he didn’t admit to being amused. All these Terminus people were the anti-Ansem, all pride and defiance. This country would probably be burned down in a year but it they were fun to watch.

“It would have been nice to have him there all the same,” Xion was saying, “It must be terribly hard for you, to be away from your other brothers and wife-s for so long.”

Kishi tensed up. Good fucking grief was she trying to throw him under the carriage? He made himself eat but could feel the hair on the back of his neck raise up as Ansem slowly turned his head to glare at Kishi from the corner of his eye.

“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,” Xion said, but she didn’t sound sad, “do you ever see each other during said campaigns? I fought alongside my brother and mother often.”

Ansem laughed low in his throat and said, “No. We do not need assistance to win wars.” Discussion shifted to exclude Xion and Kishi which was fine with the latter. He was feeling the exhaustion from the bath and it was taking a lot of his energy to stay awake and appear alert.

“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.”

It took Ansem a minute of crossed arm thought before he replied, “I will accompany you, yes.”

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

“We will depart promptly after breakfast has concluded,” Isa confirmed.

“Grandfather, may I be excused?” Xion asked and then got up to leave when the King nodded.

Kishi didn’t think anything of it until he saw the others getting up too. Somehow she had domino effected the whole table and he had to hurry to shove food in his mouth to finish as Isa got up and gave Xigbar and Ansem instructions on where to meet.

The two Imperial guests got up and Kishi saw Ansem motion for Kishi to follow and he reluctantly obeyed. They were barely around a corner when Ansem spun on Kishi and forced him back against the hallway wall to loom over him. Maybe it worked when they were kids but Kishi wasn’t nearly as intimidated anymore.

“Don’t think I missed that stunt at the table,” Ansem hissed, “I know you told her about my wives.”

Kishi stayed quiet.

“If you meet with her again, I will know. I’ll not have this ruined because of your failings. Understand?”

“You’re doing a good enough job of that yourself,” Kishi whispered under his breath and was promptly slapped. It was more startling than painful and Kishi felt the anger in his gut boil.

“One step. One,” Ansem growled, “if you were half the person your brother was, I wouldn’t need to remind you.” He straightened himself and started walking away from Kishi. “Work on your shitty footwork while we’re gone. You’ll never see the frontline if you can’t even dodge a sword.”

Kishi waited irritably until he heard Ansem’s footsteps disappear around a corner and then he stomped off the opposite direction.

A whole lot of good meeting with the bride-to-be was anyway! Part of him wanted to meet with her again solely to piss his brother off more but this trip was proving to be more trap and test than vacation or learning opportunity and now Kishi was tired and angry.

He fumed the entire way to his bedroom, briefly contemplated pissing on Ansem’s bed, and then decided against it in favor of crashing for a nap. He flopped on the bed and rubbed his sore shoulders while the anger bubbled down. Kishi’s temper was a flaw he was aware of. His temper and his softness. It was softness that made him want to warn that girl.

Xion was pretty, bold, confident, and profoundly brave. In a way he was jealous and then ashamed and angry of being jealous of a girl. Part of it was a hatred of Ansem but Kishi wanted to see this Princess come out on top, if not for a little while. She drove his brother mad with want which was a power she didn’t properly appreciate. That confidence, blind as it was, still made her incredibly attractive.

Ugh. He dug a thumb into his shoulder to stop that train of thought. Kishi was still miles away from having his own wife and if he was really that hard up it wasn’t hard to find evening entertainment in Scala. Aqua had a service on call and many of those girls ended up as long term or even permanent concubines. The priority now was proving that he was ready for his own command and the chance to prove himself a man in his father’s eyes. Anything to show them he wasn’t the weak-hearted, soft coward they believed him to be.

He took a deep breath and fell asleep.

Kishi woke up mid-afternoon and requested dinner in bed. He barely paid attention to what he was eating while he tried to wake up properly. The cold and unexpected nap was getting to him and he really didn’t feel awake until Kishi finally made himself get up and get dressed in his comfortable lounge clothes again. He put on his slippers and opted for a walk instead to clear his head. This was probably the best chance to explore the castle as the Prince he was without Ansem there to hold him down.

He wandered until it started to get dark and then he detoured through the garden. In winter like these he was looking for a shortcut but there were little buds trying to pop out of the boxes that had minimal snow. There was a lingering magic there, but it was hard to identify. Honestly, the whole castle thrummed with an incredible magic.

He stood in the garden under an open sky, surrounded by walls and just took a deep breath to focus. When he paid attention to it, the magic was more obvious. The magic clinging to the flowers was unique, the kind of unique that clung to an individual, but there was a grander blanket of power that rested on this castle, holding in the warmth and singing to him caution as an intruder.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to be getting back until tomorrow morning!” Xion called across the garden courtyard and he jumped again.

“I was not invited to go with them,” he explained as he bowed his head.

“Your brother feels more and more lame the more I find out about him,” she said as he walked his way.

Ansem was lame but he was still a Prince and his brother and Kishi felt himself getting surprisingly protective. He held his ground but still shuffled a little. He didn’t want trouble with said lame brother.

“That wasn’t my brother’s decision,” he defended.

“I’m not that intimidating, am I?”

You’re not.”

She stopped about ten feet away and faced the flower beds.

“Why do you let him push you around?” she asked and he couldn’t tell if she was curious or condescending.

“Why does it matter to a corpse?”

“I’m not dead yet, am I?”

“Might as well be,” he grumbled, the banter lost on him as he turned to face the buds as well.

“Well aren’t you a ball of sunshine,” she mumbled back as she knelt down to be closer.

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

“I don’t think you’ll do that.”

His fists clenched as he felt that surge of anger through his bones. She didn’t think he was capable of making that kind of decision? Didn’t she know who he was? How stupid could she be to really prod him like this when it was his family that cradled her fate in his hands. Or maybe she could see what his father was always so quick to point out, that Kishi was unproven and soft.

“You think I’m weak,” he growled at her.

“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, trying to defend his own self-doubt, “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," she argued.

"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." He tried to keep his temper back. The arguing was bad enough but how could she possibly forget last night already.

"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, dumbfounded. Kishi didn’t get out much, but he was at least educated enough to know what an olive was. Or maybe she was screwing with him, trying to play him the same way his family did.

“It was a peace offering,” he said instead, hoping he read it right and she really didn’t know, “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,” she said, sounding genuine, “and I don’t want to fight if I don’t have to, but your brother already shamed and insulted me. I don’t have a lot, and I’m about to lose what I do. I am taking some joy in my last moments free.”

“They wouldn’t be if you just did what he said and stopped giving him reasons to want to hurt you,” he insisted.

“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."

He huffed. She obviously didn’t understand. Her pride mattered more to her than her life and it felt so short-sighted to him. They were obviously not going to see eye to eye.

“Why bother trying to save a corpse?” she asked.

“You’ll notice I’m not anymore,” he bit.

“Why were you trying to stop me then?”

Because I’m soft, pitied you, and thought you deserved a chance.

“You weren’t a corpse yet,” he answered.

“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 said and started walking away.

Kishi picked up speed when he was out of eyeshot and kept it up until he was back in the safety of his room. No way he could admit to her that he was worried about what would become of her. He was a Prince of Daybreak. What mattered was the strong front. Maybe eventually what he was on the inside would match what he needed to be on the outside.

Chapter Text

Kishi woke up when Xigbar of all people came to get him. It was still dark outside, but Kishi knew better than to question the Regent and sleepily got up and dressed expecting a training exercise that quickly turned into packing to go home. He was a little surprised but not unhappy since his heart still missed the comfort of his house and servants.

He sleepily handed his things to the guards that packed up the horses and mounted up himself to wait. Atlas was a sturdy horse from the same line of champion war horses as the rest of his family’s. They weren’t heavily armored this time, but the animals were built to carry a ton of weight at high speeds for a long time. They were all muscle and lungs and spirit. But they were also sleepy too and didn’t protest as Xigbar himself went around to all the animals and put magic horseshoes on them.

Kishi yawned and started nodding off until he saw the Princess join them in the courtyard. There were four guards, himself, Ansem, Xigbar, and now the Princess that were leaving…wait, she was bringing her men too it looked like. He furrowed his brow a second as he realized he still had no idea what their names were. Not that it mattered. Once they got home, they would likely be disposed of by Ansem.

A guard brought a more delicate white horse over to Xion and handed her the reins so he could take her stuff to pack but she looked confused.

“Are we not taking our gryphons?” she asked.

“This will be faster and cleaner,” Ansem huffed a bit.

Her retainers were also handed reins belonging to a pair of their pack horses. It wouldn’t be appropriate for servants to ride anything as high quality as the royal family or guard.

Kishi watched Xion for a minute and felt that twinge of pity and sympathy as she looked around. She was exceptionally trained and for the most part seemed in control but the way she lingered, looking at her brothers who were standing off to the side, he could see the fear and longing in her eyes. Part of him wanted to say something, offer comfort, or remind her what an honor this was, but her fate wasn’t his concern anymore. He had already tried, she didn’t care, and he wasn’t going to put his neck on the line for her.

“We’re wasting time,” Ansem growled and a guard moved to grab Xion to help her onto her horse but she shoved him off and mounted up herself. If she felt any reservations, she wasn’t showing it now.

The guards mounted up and two moved to the front of the line, then Xigbar, then Ansem who was motioning for Xion to join them. She moved her horse up beside him and her black-haired servant moved up too. That was a mistake.

“Back in line, servant,” Ansem snapped. When the guy didn’t move immediately, Kishi motioned to the spot behind himself where her brown-haired man was. But the guy still didn’t move until Xion nodded at him and Kishi was admittedly a little impressed with the power move. Her people were well trained, or maybe they raised their help like the Empire did. The remaining two guards took up the rearguard and the horses moved out.

Kishi had always felt comfortable on horseback and Atlas had been his for seven years since the horse was just a colt. Getting to travel this way was already a highlight of the trip and easily the best way to see the city. They were taking a longer route for the pomp and circumstance of it all. Let the new citizens get a look at their rulers and Kishi took the time to actually soak up the atmosphere. He didn’t really get the chance to explore beyond the castle in the end.

The procession moved beyond the city and then the miles melted away. The shoes on the horse’s hooves began to glow as they ran and with every stride they jumped ahead on the road until the scenery was flickering by like paintings. The mountains were already gone, forests clicked by, and a seven-day trip was condensed into a few hours. Kishi was used to magic but it still took his breath away and he felt the surge of pride when he saw his city, the capital of the Daybreak Empire, and center of the world’s wealth, Scala ad Caelum.

With the sun overhead it glittered brightly on the sapphire lake. The city itself was made of white stone pulled from quarries a hundred years ago and built to last on a series of islands out on the massive lake. From a distance, they looked like a series of pyramids or piles of salt, but as they approached their shapes were more like uneven cakes with layers built into the city. Each island was connected to each other by a trolley system at various levels that carried enclosed cars along cable over the city and lake. Only the biggest island was connected to the lakeshore by a wide, flat bridge.

Daybreak Town was the scrappy intermediary. It had built up on the shore of the lake by the bridge entrance. The wealthy city beyond was a stark contrast to the rough and tumble of the merchant town. In the last 50 years it had grown significantly and was full of markets for farmers and travelling salesmen. Even mid-morning it was bustling and traffic through town and across the bridge was consistent but not congested.

Kishi kept watching the Princess ahead of him for a reaction, but she didn’t seem impressed. She actually curled in on herself a bit with her cloak pulled in tight. He caught himself slumping a little in disappointment before he realized he wasn’t supposed to care what she thought.

The magic passed and their speed slowed to a gentle lope across the bridge and when the bells and horns announced their return to the city the horses slowed further to a brisk trot. The slower speed made it easier to navigate the maze of the city. It was meant to be beautiful more so than militaristic so Scala was more of a chaotic expression of color splashed on an all-white canvas. Windmills churned around colorful flags, bright flowers, pennants, rugs, veranda covers, and colored carts. Green was splashed everywhere in the form of ivy, trees, gardens, and even a few cultivated forests on various levels. The gears in their rotating elevators were bright gold and bronze and the market town was packed with vendors, artists, and musicians that scattered to get out of the say with averted eyes and low bows. The streets were clean, and they passed under arches along the road, up and up to the higher levels under the shadow of the massive school that perched on the top of the island like the top half of a bottom-heavy hourglass. There was even some blue reflected on the side of the buildings from the crystal-clear lake below. The empty docks and lack of watercraft kept the surface from feeling as cluttered as the streets themselves.

For Kishi, it was home. The castle school was perched over the city by a massive pillar on the top several layers of the city. That’s where the royal estate was. Their houses were built around the pillar’s base but there were also stables, a huge pasture, their own forest, an exotic garden, and all of it was built beneath the castle.

The horses followed the road past gates and checkpoints up a steeper path past the stables, the garden gate, and then levelled out at the base of the pillar. There was no public access here but occasional traffic. As such, the Imperial family’s homes were set back away from the road. Kishi could see his house from here but they still had to meet with the Emperor.

They dismounted and stepped inside the big open elevator in the pillar and rode it up past flashing gears and bright windows to the school above. They crossed over checkered tile, past shining curtains, lecture halls, music rooms, libraries, and Kishi could smell the cafeteria when he focused. All of it paled compared to the top floor where the throne hall was.

It was a disservice to call it a room. It was too big and the ceiling was too far away. There were two rows of pillars holding up a balcony, the windows were tall and huge, and the whole room echoed. It was deliberate. When it was full of people or flowers it wasn’t bad but empty like this… every sound was multiplied. It kept voices low for fear of being heard too harshly.

At the end of the hall was a wide dais and a lone throne. The chair was plain, carved from stone and covered in furs and fabrics for comfort and color. Behind it was the 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 sea dragon and pixie. It was the same ugly goat head on Kishi’s signet ring. The same ugly head on all the Prince’s rings.

The Emperor was waiting for them. He was relaxed with one arm propped up so he could lean into his fist. His expression was amused which made Kishi worried and the second they stepped into the room the weight of his presence was obvious. Kishi could feel it on his shoulders and chest.

The man was older but hard to age with the same dark olive skin that Ansem had and the same silver-white hair in his beard that all his sons had. He had pointed ears, a bald head, and amber eyes that cut through lies and whispers and masked a conniving mind that held the world’s fate. He was wearing his favorite outfit today, a dark cloak over a white tunic that matched white gloves. His pants were a dark brown, nearly black, polished boots, and he wore a silver pauldron over his left shoulder with a half cape. The gold crown, elegant and heavy with power, rested on the arm of the throne rather than on his head and his signet ring glittered on his hand.

Ansem and Xigbar confidently walked to the end of the hall to kneel and wait but Kishi stopped a second and looked at Xion behind him. They didn’t tell her anything. She should be warned right? The Emperor could erase her in a heartbeat if she stepped out of line and they didn’t actually tell her where that line was. It seemed really unfair to make her find it and he opened his mouth for a second to offer words of caution but in front of his father that kind of sympathy would appear weak. So he changed his mind and went to bow before his father.

It took her a second to also approach, with her servants in tow, but they also bowed. Though they didn’t drop to a knee like they were.

"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."

Kishi flinched and he could almost hear Ansem smile.

"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."

Oh good. Kishi wasn’t the real target this time. There was some smug satisfaction there and he stood up with a little more confidence and maybe some excitement now that he knew Ansem was about to be reamed out.

"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 as the outburst echoed, "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."

Oh, the energy it took to avoid laughing out loud at his brother. Kishi almost broke. Really, he almost did. All of that threatening and taunting and he didn’t even get the girl? Kishi knew that meant Riku, the brother between himself and Ansem, was probably going to get her and Riku and Ansem were close. It was likely that Riku would share her but just knowing that Ansem didn’t get what he wanted was so worth it.

The Emperor was studying them for a long moment and Kishi knew his father could sense Kishi’s glee but trying to lie about it would’ve been worse and it wasn’t like it mattered. The man always had things planned several steps ahead, so much so that Kishi would’ve believed his father could see the future. This show of contemplation was a ruse to test them. Whatever he said next was probably determined before they even left for 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..." Kishi saw Ansem relax and knew the man had played into whatever the Emperor was looking for. "The Princess of Terminus will be Prince Kishi's first wife."

It was said so plainly, so casual, like this wasn’t a huge deal for the brothers. Kishi felt his jawdrop for the same half second it took Ansem to spin around and glare at him and then they were both asking for an explanation.

“Why him?” Ansem snarled.

At the same time, Kishi managed to ask, “Why me?

The Emperor didn’t answer and in true cryptic fashion got up and walked away with Xigbar on his heels, leaving Ansem, Kishi, Xion, and her two retainers alone. Ansem whirled around to hit Kishi but he stood his ground. Ansem couldn’t do jack shit to Kishi here. If he tried to be a bully, their father would get involved and it would be a whole show that Ansem couldn’t afford. Any power Ansem had in Terminus, didn’t mean much to Kishi here.

Ansem shook with rage and then stormed out the way they came with thundering stomps and a slam of the door.

"...Sora, at your earliest convenience, I would like an etiquette guide," he heard Xion whisper behind him.

"I, um, I think we might need to be taught some stuff too," brown hair admitted, equally soft.

What the hell kind of test was this? Kishi stood still while he processed what just happened. He turned to glare at her and she met his gaze, keeping them there for a long moment of racing thoughts.

He was confused first, suspicious next, and then angrily resigned. This was supposed to be Ansem’s punishment so it made sense that Kishi would get the toy Ansem lost but this put so much pressure on Kishi that he wasn’t ready for. Riku was supposed to get married next and that was skipped to what? Bother Ansem? Was that all Kishi was?

There was too much to unpack and the worst part was that nothing he felt would matter. Kishi, like all of them, were pawns to the Emperor. This was happening whether he dug heels in or not and while Kishi still wasn’t sure how he felt about Xion specifically, or even what to do with a wife, he did know that he wanted to be home.

He took a deep breath and started walking out with a grumbled, “Well, come on.”

There was always another angle. Kishi started sifting through his memories as they walked for a hint of his father’s plan. Even if the man had three or four reasons for a decision there was always another one or two buried under there somewhere.

He tapped his foot on the elevator and took his time crossing the lawn to his house. The front door was visible from the road. Kishi had the smallest house. There were four of them on this level built around the pillar. Not quite evenly since there needed to be space for the road but there was still plenty of room for a small yard and his personal house was almost half the size of the Terminus castle and still sported a private bath, parlor, study hall, library, and had servant’s access on the ground floor that went straight to the pillar.

He led them upstairs to the second floor that was mostly bedroom. Kishi’s room was huge with a big balcony that went all the way around. The view was spectacular and the wall that separated it from the room was made entirely of glass and folded in on itself in a way that left it open like one big balcony with a mostly covered spot. He had a huge bed that could comfortably sleep seven or eight people with enough pillows and blankets for all of them. Kishi had left his closet door open. It wasn’t quite the same size as the bedroom but was maybe half of it. He kept everything in there from clothes to riding equipment, saddles, and armor.

Connected to his bedroom by a small, narrow, lockable door was another suite that was borderline cell. It was a long bedroom meant for concubines and, well, wives now. Kishi had never really had long term concubines. He got attached to them too easily, so no one was living there now but it was furnished with girl things and a closet full of lingerie and silk clothing so it was something.

“Make yourself at home I guess,” he said and motioned to the room through the tiny door.

“…am I to spend all my time here?” she asked while she looked at it.

“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.”

He twitched irritably at her comment but waved it off. She was stressed.

“Are you going to murder me in my sleep?”

“Why would I endanger my people like that?”

Kishi studied her and then a dark thought crossed his mind, so he pointed at her dark-haired man to ask, “Is he going to murder me in my sleep?”

 “So long as my Lady is safe, so are you,” the man responded with a malicious grin and Kishi felt uneasy and unhappy about having a potential danger in his home. He did not like this guy.

There was a banging in the hallway and Kishi looked up to see a happy, blonde head peek around the corner and immediately Kishi felt the stress melt away.

“You’re back!” Ven said cheerfully and Kishi felt the happy seep into his bones to chase any lingering homesickness away.

“Yo,” added another voice as another blonde, Roxas, joined Ven in the room and once again Kishi felt the happy spread to his chest.

Roxas looked the two retainers up and down and then said, “…I mean, we always thought you were gay, Highness, but it’s nice to be validated.”

Kishi deadpanned and huffed, “suggest that again and I’ll cut out your tongue.”

“Don’t threaten me with a good time, sir.”

And already it felt like home. Roxas was a little shit but he was Kishi’s. Ven and Roxas were Kishi’s favorite servants. They were a little older than he was so they were raised like brothers and frequently bantered. There was still a master and servant relationship, but Kishi tolerated them more since he was so close to the twins.

“Is this her?” Ven asked. The green tassles on his uniform coat swayed as he moved around the retainers to see her better.

“Wow, she’s really pretty!”

Roxas tsked and crossed his arms. The blue tassles on his uniform coat splayed out as they were squished.

“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 him to cut him off, and they went down play wrestling while Ven kept fawning over the girl none of them knew what to do with. It was nice to focus on Roxas for a second.

“You look really strong too!” Ven was saying and Kishi felt Roxas flip them to sit on Kishi.

“I was a soldier. I have to be strong,” Xion answered.

“Oh! But then why do you need guards?” Ven asked while Kishi pulled Roxas down to swap their positions.

“She’s older than Lord Ansem’s last wife,” Roxas said from under Kishi, “why did you get her then?”

The mood was shifting from playful to puzzling and Kishi could tell play wasn’t going to keep cutting it. He leaned back and off Roxas.

“Ansem,” he said, “Father is punishing him by giving her to me and since she’s my first…”

“Wedding collection,” all three of them said in tandem and Kishi was grateful they were on the same page. That was one of his conclusions he had come up with while walking back to the house.

“What’s that?” Xion asked. There was worry in her voice.

“We only really do big weddings for first wives,” Kishi explained. He felt like she earned the right to know. “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,” Roxas added.

“Do you think Xigbar knew?” Ven asked and Kishi immediately knew the answer.

“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.”

The Emperor probably knew that Xion was there and Ansem was predictable with women. They were the two brothers that got along the least so that was easy to count on too. There was a strong chance that Kishi’s father had planned for Xion to end up with Kishi from the start.

“…how long will such a wedding take?” Xion 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.

“What’s to be expected of me until the wedding?”

Kishi hadn’t thought that far. He was as new to this as she was. He wasn’t even sure what his experienced brothers would do.

“Uh…” he managed.

“You’ll have to forgive him. He’s never had a woman in here before.” Kishi felt obliged to tackle Roxas again for a comment like that. It was in good fun of course.

“I think he will have to get back to you on that,” Ven said, “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 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?” she asked.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am, my name is Ventus, you can call me Ven, and that’s my twin brother Roxas,” he said with a bow.

“Funny that your retainers should be twins as well,” Xion was saying and Kishi huffed a bit to himself. He shoved Roxas off to get up.

“They’re not my retainers,” he corrected and headed to his closet to change. Kishi wasn’t shy. He was shown off and on display relatively regularly for his father’s parties and exhibitions so he stripped 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.”

“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 motioned to her boys, whose names he still didn’t know. One of them was Sora right? That sounded right. He didn’t really like them but if they weren’t trouble, it wasn’t a big deal to keep them about. He moved some stuff around in the closet trying to decide what looked comfortable.

“Until the wedding, I think they’re still under my personal employ,” Xion said and Kishi was immediately annoyed. She couldn’t come in here and start barking orders and laying down the law. He was being generous letting them stay in the first place and she had the nerve to bite back like that? This was his house and he needed to be in charge of it… What if this was part of his father’s plan? To make Kishi prove he could take charge of his own home? Or did she see his weakness and assume he could be walked on?

“Only if I say so and I’m pretty sure you've been mean and combative since we met.” He settled on an outfit and started tossing pieces out to the bed to put on.

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,” she said with a blank face and flat voice.

Now Kishi was mad for himself. Screw his father’s hidden plans, this was ridiculous that she thought she had any control here! Fine. If she was gonna be snooty, then she could have her way.

“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.”

“They can’t be sent away,” she insisted and Kishi could feel the anger boiling his blood again. Was she not listening at all? He calmly put on his pants and slippers.

“I’m not trying to send them away. 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 felt like he was laying it on a little bit thick but if she was going to storm in here all prissy then she should at least know what she was getting into, and he was angry enough to not care at all anymore what happened to her.

“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 selected a diadem from his closet and used a mirror to get in place. He didn’t technically have to wear it around the estate. Kishi just wanted to remind her of his authority here. “You’ll also be held responsible for anything they do too, so make sure they aren’t breaking any laws. Contract or no, you still have to follow the law of the land.

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

“I’m sorry,” Xion said quietly and bowed her head. Kishi looked over at her with a little surprise but he was still really damn angry.

“Ah! Humility!” he said, still riding this wave of irritation, “I didn’t think you were capable of it! Unfortunately, you do bring up some good points and there is nothing in this world my father takes more seriously than contracts. So get out of my house.”

He turned and stomped out of the room before he could explode. Kishi felt like he was shaking from the inside out. He had just wanted to be home, maybe borrow a nice girl from Riku, chill with his servants, or brother. At some point he needed to pick up his pet from Riku. This was just way too much! What was his father thinking putting this kind of pressure on him? She was stubborn and obnoxious and defiant. No amount of cute could make up for that!

This felt like a test. All of it did. A test or a trap to prove Kishi was too soft to control a stubborn woman or maybe it was a lesson to see if he was strong enough to maintain order in his home.

He threw a vase from the table next to the stairs down the hall and took a couple deep breaths to process before storming to the library to find his violin. Playing the instrument helped him calm down as he closed his eyes to focus on the bow in his hand and the strings under his fingers.

What the hell was he going to do about this?

Chapter Text

The violin wasn’t the first nor only instrument that Kishi knew how to play but he believed it was the most magical. When he closed his eyes and focused on the music, nothing else mattered. All of that rage and anger that was quick to build in his chest would just melt away like butter on fresh bread and with the same measure of comfort. He remembered resisting learning as a kid. Music was so important to their culture but violin? That was silly and people who played it looked silly. To this day it was the thing he thanked his father for most. Being forced to learn was frustrating then but it was worth it now and Kishi poured his frustrations into the strings until the notes carried them away.

When he finished his piece and the sounds dissipated, he let out his held breath and sat down. A clearer head didn’t mean answers and he felt like his thoughts were still racing away trying to process things he couldn’t possibly understand. Was sending her away the right choice? Right now, probably. Kishi didn’t want to be like Ansem and he knew he had a temper. The last thing he wanted was to lash out at her, but there was still a twinge of guilt.

What he did want, was some semblance of normalcy, and maybe some advice. Xemnas was probably the best one to ask even if Ansem had the most married experience, but no one made him feel better like Riku did.

Kishi put the violin away on its stand with some reverence and then went upstairs to get real shoes. He didn’t bother with the ties as he headed for the door.

“So, day one is going great,” Roxas teased.

“Not in the mood. Go get her stuff when you’re done with the chores,” he ordered.

“What if she doesn’t come back?”

“You’re going to sit there and ask me that after Ven has met her?”

There was a moment of silence as Roxas processed that.

“Fine. I’ll get her stuff.”

“And something nice for dinner.”

“Like dress up nice?”

Kishi had to think about it for a second. She didn’t really have clothes but he didn’t know what she liked.

“Never mind. I’m in the mood for messy not formal. If she comes back before dinner, let her pick what she wants, otherwise crab for her too. Maybe it will help take the edge off of this proper nonsense,” he told Roxas and the servant mock saluted.

“Where are you headed?” the blonde asked.

“Riku’s. I’ll be back for dinner.”

Kishi left. Riku lived across the main road so he was sort of next door but with plenty of space between and a paved path that directed guests around the tall wall of hedges. The older brother’s house was three stories like Kishi’s was but it was a lot bigger with more space and more rooms full of treasures of conquest. Riku had been leading military expeditions since he was fifteen. The man was now twenty-five. He had a lot of stuff.

Kishi knocked on the door once and then let himself in. The knock was a courtesy. He had a standing ‘welcome any time’ invite from his dearly beloved brother. Before the door was even opened all the way, Kishi could hear booming barks echo through the house and the thundering of paws as two massive wolves came skidding around the corner, slipping and sliding on the polished stone floor.

“Heya Goof,” he crooned as his own big gray pup jumped on him. Kishi knew it was coming and had closed the door behind himself so he wouldn’t be knocked over. The dire wolves, two years old each, came up to Kishi’s chest at their shoulders. They were gifted to Riku after a military conquest in the north. The expectation was that they would be raised and trained to carry their masters as the wolves of the north were but Fenris and Fenrir, more affectionally called Goofy and Mickey, ended up as spoiled house pets instead.

There was a patter of slippers on stone and Riku was there to pull the happy animal off.

“Welcome home, Ki.”

“Heya Riku.” Kishi wiped the drool off his face and smiled at his identical older brother. It was like looking in a mirror... A six years older mirror.

“Didn’t expect you back for at least another week,” Riku said. He snapped his fingers and both the wolves pattered off to a den with Riku behind them. Kishi followed too.

“Father wanted us back I guess… Listen, did you hear about what happened?”

“About you being engaged?”

“Yeah… you’re not mad are you?” Kishi asked tentatively.

Riku slid into a big comfy armchair and put his feet up before he said, “No way.”

“I know you should’ve been next…”

“Kishi. I have two beautiful women upstairs to keep me busy. A third would be nice but I’m not really looking for a wife yet, regardless of how much older I am. If father says this Princess is yours, then she’s yours.”

Kishi let out a sigh of relief and slid into a chair next to him. Goofy immediately came to sit down in front of him for pets which were happily given.

“I could actually use your advice about her,” Kishi admitted.

“You’re not already falling in love, are you?”

“No. I don’t think that will be an issue. She’s stubborn, combative, and comes from a culture that values women the same as men.”

“Gross. Beat her a few times and she’ll learn her place,” Riku recommended.

“If it comes to that…” Kishi felt uncomfortable considering that. That was something Ansem would do and it while beatings weren’t something he shied away from as a punishment, he really felt like that was something that should be reserved for just that, punishments.

Riku seemed to notice the hesitation.

“You’re still really soft,” he observed, “it’s not really that bad of a thing to be as long as you can control that weakness.”

“I’m starting to think that’s why father gave her to me.”

Riku huffed then ordered, “let’s move to the table and play some chess while you tell me about your trip.”

“Sure.” They got up to migrate to Riku’s dining room and Riku snagged the chess set from the library.

Scala chess was a complex game of strategy on multiple levels and with many pieces each harboring hidden abilities and unique rules. It was a game that the Emperor insisted his family excel at so they learned how to play at a young age. Cards, dice, and games of chance were frowned upon but strategy was their bread and butter.

As they set up, Kishi told Riku about the journey. He focused a lot on the Princess and Ansem and as they played, he was careful to recount specifics and details about Ansem’s behavior and Xion’s responses. Riku listened patiently the entire time.

“Then I kicked her out,” he finished.

Riku snorted a little as a substitute for laughter.

“I’m sure that this is a punishment for Ansem,” Kishi said as he moved his star piece to a higher step on the board, “but there’s another angle here, I know it.”

“Probably.”

“What if father is using her as a test to see if I can break her?” Kishi asked.

“Then break her.” Riku moved a piece with wings to counter Kishi’s star.

“I don’t doubt myself, Riku, but she’s really damn stubborn. Come over for dinner and meet her and you’ll see.”

“Sure. I’ll tell Kairi to bring my food there,” Riku agreed, “look, his Excellency knows more than we ever will. If there’s another angle here, you’re better off not looking for it. You’ll go crazy under the stress and that would probably be part of his plan too.”

Kishi groaned in response and rubbed his face before moving a piece with a crown on it further from Riku’s pieces.

“Kishi at the end of the day it boils down to this: the Emperor, in his infinite wisdom, decided that you should have this Princess. You’re his son. He cares about seeing you grow into something strong. Trust that, trust him, and be grateful for this gift. She’s yours. Instead of thinking of what father wants, think about what you want for your house.”

“And if it’s a trap?” Kishi asked.

“Then it’s a trap. You cannot predict what he’s thinking. As for your woman troubles, they’re not complicated creatures. If you’re worried, just use animal training tactics, reward the good, punish the bad. Even the most stubborn women can be trained. Check.”

Kishi corrected a move and the game went on while he thought in silence for a minute. Riku was good at silence. It was never awkward and they were able to enjoy each other’s company with minimal fuss.

Xion was an enigma. The only other confident women that Kishi knew were Namine, who wasn’t entirely human, Aqua, who was the Housemaster, and Aerith, Xemnas’ wife, but all of them understood where they fit in the hierarchy and they respected it. Xion was lower than all of them. As a wife she was no more than a servant, a brood, or entertainment, but she acted like she was as good as he was. It was kind of attractive but horribly frustrating.

Kishi had met Ansem’s wives at various points when they were alive, and they were broken into something more like a shell. It was mildly revolting and not Kishi’s style. He didn’t want to put the fire out, he just wanted some control over it.

Kishi was walking the tightrope here and their father’s opinions and plans were important. Maybe not overthinking it levels of important, but important. This was an opportunity to prove that he wasn’t weak or soft. If she acted up, she’d be punished, but carrot first. Kishi was determined to take care of her like any of his other things. Like Riku said, she was his now, that meant care just as much as discipline. Maybe she could be his ticket to a rite of passage with the Emperor. If Kishi could prove that he wasn’t so soft and demonstrate control of his house, then he’d get the chance to be deployed and actually be counted among his brothers as proven Princes of Daybreak.

The pieces moved around the board slowly until it looked like Kishi had made a comeback but at the sure sign of defeat, Riku flipped the board. It always went like that when they played. Kishi had never won against Riku once and it wasn’t from lack of skill.  

They played three more games, well into the afternoon, and through lunch. Kairi, another servant of the House and one of Riku’s favorites, brought food by for both of them. Lamb ribs were one of Kishi’s favorites and compared to the weird gelatin food in Terminus, he was immensely grateful to stuff his face. The passionfruit, pineapple, mango juice was another favorite and Kishi was almost 100% sure Roxas was the one who sent that his way.

The last game was another board flip after two consecutive losses and that’s when Kishi called it. It wasn’t any fun playing if these childish behaviors were going to be consistent.

“Why do you even do that?” Kishi huffed as he got up to go.

“Do what?”

“Flip the board when I’m going to win.”

“There’s no official rule against it right?” Riku asked, “maybe I lost this way, but so did you. It’s not always going to be black and white, win or lose. If you really feel like there’s only two options, make a third.”

Kishi gave him a blank look and then whined, “it’s cheating and you know it.”

Riku grinned a toothy grin and then escorted him to the door. Kishi took Goofy with him, waved goodbye for now, and then started walking back to his own house.

The wolf ran ahead, stopping periodically to sniff and pee on hedges, corners, and poor unsuspecting flowers that would undoubtedly complain to Namine about it. The resident fae witch was fluent in plant and they were eager to talk to her when she stopped to listen and she did seem to spend a lot of time at Riku’s lately…

Kishi stopped to process that, realized he had way too much on his own plate, and kept walking. Goofy took a poop in his regular spot and then Kishi held the door open for the wolf. They went upstairs together where Ven was unpacking Kishi’s things from the trip while Roxas lazed about.

“Did you get her stuff?” Kishi asked.

“Not yet.”

“Go now.”

Roxas pouted but obeyed. He got up and headed out while Kishi pulled back the wall that was separating the balcony from the room.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Ven observed.

“It’s still cold,” Kishi huffed. His mind was still racing.

“The sunlight is better around the corner. Oh, Master Aqua wants to see you at some point,” Ven reported.

“…I’ll go when I’m warm.” Determined to pout a little longer, Kishi went to crash on the balcony. Ven wasn’t wrong. The wrap around balcony had a sunny spot that was out of the wind if he went around the corner. Goofy flopped within eyeshot of Ven. The wolf liked the twins a lot. He also liked the shade and cold so the wolf was happy to stay out of the sunny spot that Kishi had picked.

There was a reclining chair out there already but Kishi pulled it a little more into the sunlight so that his face could be in the shade but the rest of him could warm up.

The best advice he got from Riku today was to simplify things. He didn’t want to dismiss any thoughts about his father’s plan but simplifying was best.

Kishi knew that Xion’s engagement to him was a punishment for Ansem. It was also a chance for a big wedding and corresponding collection. This was also a chance for Kishi to prove that he was burying his weaknesses. But that begged the question, what kind of home did Kishi want?

Ansem kept his wives and concubines locked in his bedroom but Aerith and Tifa, Xemnas’ wives were more like personal servants, confined to the house. They still pleasured Xemnas as far as Kishi knew and they were still alive so something was working for them.

Honestly, Kishi didn’t really know enough about Xion. He wasn’t about to ask. He didn’t want any actions or illusions that would convey any sort of equal footing. She was a servant like Roxas or Ven, he would treat her like Roxas or Ven.

He nodded firmly to himself at the resolved conclusion but his brooding was interrupted when he heard Goofy growling. Kishi ignored it until it turned in snarling and barking and then he got up. He saw Xion and her angry servant there and whistled to call Goofy off. The wolf obeyed and Kishi gave them another lingering look before returning to his seat.

A seat he barely sat in. Now that he knew his fiancé was home, Kishi wasn’t sure he wanted to be. That urge to run was prominent in his chest and he knew it was weakness speaking but it was too much to ignore. Aqua needed to see him anyway.

He got up, ordered Goofy to stay, and headed out again to find the Housemaster.

 

It took Kishi about half an hour to find her and he was grateful for it. In true manly fashion, he refused to ask for directions and ended up wandering all the way up to the school to the top floor. The entire top floor was his father’s suite. The throne room was there of course but behind it was a sprawling living space with a bedroom, private bath, eating area, reception, a couple libraries, an office, and other rooms for less savory experimentation.

While Kishi wasn’t eager to run into his father, he knew this was one of three places that Aqua was likely to be. Aqua was the only servant that was allowed to interact with the Emperor directly so this was a common spot for her. Otherwise she was coordinating the other help or disappearing to the stables to hang out with Terra, the Stablemaster and Trainer. They had a thing that they thought was secret.

“Good afternoon, Prince Kishi,” he heard behind him.

“Oh, Miss Namine, good afternoon.” Kishi bowed politely to a lovely young woman in a white sundress and long white coat. Her blonde hair was glittery and her blue eyes equally so. She had her assistant with her too. Zexion had gray hair that was usually in his face and a fragile demeanor. He was shorter than Kishi and not many men were.

“Miss Aqua should be out shortly,” she said and Kishi didn’t bother asking how she knew, “your Bride to be is very lovely.”

“You met her?” he asked with surprise.

“I did. She was crying in the garden.”

He felt his heart sink a little when he heard that. Namine was a fae. She was incapable of lying and it was hard to interpret that any other way.

“She was?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what about?” he asked.

She just smiled and went inside the back rooms, leaving Zexion and Kishi waiting in the throne room to the side of the dais.

“…so class today?” Kishi started. Unlike with Riku, silence with Zexion was awkward. As Namine’s star pupil and prized assistant, his place in the pecking order was not blatantly obvious and Kishi wasn’t sure if they were on par with each other or if he outranked the man.

“Wild magic,” Zexion offered.

“Ah. …paying off a debt?”

“Yep. Dead fish in the pond was polluting the water.”

“That’s not a bad price to pay,” Kishi mused.

“Nope.”

There was awkward silence again until the door opened and they were both springing to awkward attention. A woman let herself out, fortunately without company and both Zexion and Kishi visibly relaxed.

Aqua was tall, strong, older, and quick as a whip. She was in excellent shape, had excellent taste, and one of the strongest moral compasses that anyone in the castle had. Unlike many of the other servants, Aqua wasn’t born into the life. She was given to the Emperor as a gift and was immediately taken in by the prior Housemaster and trained. The Emperor was so impressed he named her the Housemaster’s successor and she ran the place like a well-oiled machine. She had bright blue eyes, matching blue hair, and a matching blue coat with pink tassles and accents over dark pants and a dark, skin-tight shirt.

Kishi was sure she wore it to tease Ansem. Aqua was very off limits and shared Ansem’s rank.

“Oh good, walk with me, Kishi,” she ordered, paying Zexion no mind. She was distracted with her clipboard as she walked with Kishi on her tail.

“I was told you wanted to see me,” Kishi said.

“How is your fiancé settling in?” she asked.

“Uh, fine.”

“Namine said you kicked her out.”

The room felt cold and Kishi slowed down a little as she glared over her shoulder at him.

“She was being unreasonable!” Kishi protested.

“You don’t have to explain. Run your house as you wish,” Aqua said, “I will be coming by tomorrow morning to have her fitted for new clothes. I want you there to contribute. Consider it a pop quiz for your color theory class.”

He kept his groan to himself and picked up his pace to keep up with her.

“Master Aqua,” he started, “could I actually ask you for some advice?”

“Keep your back straight, don’t drag your sleeves through soup, look people in the eye when you talk, and pick up after your pets,” she answered and he stopped to pout. Aqua looked over her shoulder at him and smiled but he kept pouting.

“I really need help with this one,” he plead.

“Kishi, I appreciate that you want my help, but if it’s about your fiancé, I think you should wait. It hasn’t even been a full day and you’re already stressing out over something beyond your control. You know how things are run around here, follow the rules, be brave, and you’ll be okay.”

That was surprisingly helpful and he already felt a little better. One step at a time.

Aqua checked her watch. “You’re going to be late to your own dinner.”

Kishi stiffened a bit and bowed a little at the hip before saying, “I am so sorry, I have to go.”

“I will be there early tomorrow, Kishi,” Aqua reminded him, “make sure you’re there.”

“I will be!” he called over his shoulder as he raced off. He knew Riku wouldn’t mind if he was tardy but Kishi didn’t want Xion to be alone in the house with him. Riku wasn’t as bad as Ansem but he didn’t want anyone getting any ideas, especially with her retainers lingering around.

They ended up getting to Kishi’s house about the same time. Riku waved from the front door and Mickey bounded over for a couple of gentle kisses before Goofy’s booming barks got the other puppy’s attention and then they were chasing each other through the house like monsters.

“So where is she?” Riku asked and Kishi was at a loss.

“She is upstairs,” Ven reported, “and staying upstairs. She’s afraid of not being presentable since she doesn’t have any nice clothes.”

Kishi was about to storm up there and demand she join anyway. They were eating crab. It was a messy meal meant to lighten the mood. Oh, but she might not have been eating what they were. He did tell Roxas to offer her whatever she wanted. He sighed and let it go.

“Thank you Ven. You can go eat,” he dismissed.

“Not going to make her come down?” Riku asked.

“No, sorry you came out here for nothing.”

“It’s literally a three-minute walk, Kishi, and it’ll be nice to hang out the two of us regardless. I’ll meet her another time.”

Kishi was about to ask if it seemed soft or weak that he wasn’t making her come eat with them but asking as much felt kind of submissive. That lack of surety was a form of soft in and of itself.

For now, he just wanted to enjoy the meal with his brother. No chess.

They didn’t have a lot to chat about and Riku wanted to get back to his girls so they only spent about an hour eating and talking before the older Prince left with Mickey and Kishi was heading upstairs with Goofy to start winding down for the night.

He let the wolf into the bedroom and Goofy immediately went to the little door to sniff which seemed rude. If Xion had been crying, she probably wanted space and not a hairball blocking her door so Kishi snapped his fingers and ordered the animal out to the balcony while he went to his closet to dig around for pajamas. Having options was a sure sign of wealth but it meant Kishi was often at a loss about what to wear.

Kishi heard a shuffle and stuck his head out of the closet. Goofy was laying on the bedroom floor now. The balcony wasn’t comfortable he guessed.

A few more articles of clothing were pushed around before Kishi settled on dark pants and a cream-colored long shirt. There was more shuffling, and he stuck his head out again. Goofy was a whole lot closer to Xion’s door now. The wolf looked at Kishi and yawned before laying back down.

Yeah, that animal was definitely trying to get back to the door. The Prince sighed to himself and hung the clothing back up to settle on a long robe. He took off his day clothes and diadem and put the robe on. He tied the sash as he walked from his closet to Xion’s door. The door was open, Goofy was laying down beside it, and Xion was bending over to let the animal sniff her empty palms. Kishi crossed his arms.

“How many times have you fed him?” he asked.

“…this would be the second, but I haven’t given him much. If you want me to stop, I will.” She wasn’t looking at him. Kishi couldn’t tell if that was a good sign or not. Judging by her tone of voice, it seemed more of a submissive looking away than a defiant one.

“He didn’t bite you did he?” Kishi asked her. He tried to hide the concern. Goofy had almost taken off fingers before.

“No, though he came close earlier. What’s his name?”

“Fenris when he’s in trouble. Goofy when he’s not. Don’t be so nosy, Fen, go back to the bed,” he ordered. Kishi pulled on the wolf’s collar while he was at it. The gold and leather thing was deep in the fur so it took him a second to find it for a good tug.

“…I wanted to say thank you. For dinner,” she said softly and with her gaze pointed down now.

So it was submission. Kishi was a little taken aback.

“Damn, was it really that good? I didn’t realize food made you so submissive.”

“That’s not it,” she said as she straightened herself out and gathered herself up, “It’s just… it’s been a long day, and a little kindness where I didn’t expect it was nice.”

Huh. Well, long day was right and Kishi was feeling it too but this felt like a better start than earlier and that deserved something as long as she still followed the rules.

“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,” he cautioned.

“I understand.”

“You don’t have to stay in here 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.” As long as you don’t break anything.

“…thanks for telling me. Um, what time is breakfast?” she asked.

“Whenever you want it as long as it isn’t before I eat mine.” That was just common courtesy in all the Prince’s homes. The higher ranked you were, the more priority you got. Although, Kishi was sure the servants ate before they came by in the mornings and just didn’t tell him.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Xion was saying.

“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,” she sort of snapped. Kishi felt a surge of irritation followed by relief followed by concern. He didn’t like her dismissing his trying to care but at least it meant she still had her fire. He grunted a bit in response to his displeasure.

“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 thought out loud to test the waters some.

“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,” she admitted. Kishi figured he should at least be grateful for the warning even if he wasn’t super giddy about it.

He studied her for a second as she stood in that little doorway with her eyes avoiding his but not glued to the floor. She still seemed proud somehow. He was worried about her fire going out, but she looked okay. Kishi still felt guilty about making her cry, but it also worked as a lesson. Yeah, he could do this.

She wasn’t all that different from his brother’s wife, Aerith. She was also a political marriage. They had met a few times and Aerith was always so confident but submissive. When she spoke it was strong and kind but he always felt like Aerith was harboring a strength under the surface. Xion had that too. She was like the serpents in the lake and she was his.

“My brother’s wife is a lot like you,” he blurted out as he walked towards the bed. His slippers and book were waiting for him there.

“Which one?”

“Xemnas. My oldest brother.”

“Why bring it up?” she asked and he felt like he was on the spot again.

“Just thinking out loud,” he said to end the topic and she seemed to get the hint. He slipped on the slippers, grabbed his book, and went out to the balcony. It was getting dark and cold but he had a plushy blanket on the reclining couch and a big fluffy wolf settling down beside him with a grumbling sigh. Kishi rested his free hand on Goofy’s side and opened his wild magic textbook to read. Even if his book was dry and the air was too cold, he felt a lot better about the day.

There was a knock on the door behind him and then Roxas was next to him.

“Anything else I can get you before we head home?” he asked.

“No, Rox, I’ll be good til morning.”

“It really is nice to have you home, Ki.”

“I really missed you too.”

Kishi could hear Roxas closing up the balcony wall behind him to hold in the heat, but the servant left the door open for his master and friend. He didn’t even need to ask.

Things were probably going to get a lot harder. Kishi was sure of that but for now he was content to be home.

Yeah, they were going to be okay.

Chapter Text

Getting back to normal felt like the next step for Kishi so when he woke up early the next morning, he got up, got dressed, and flipped the light by his front door to indicate that he was up. The entire estate and most of the city used a form of magical lighting by pouring stored solar energy into translucent and transparent crystals and precious stones. It was an effective way to light their homes and, in this case, signal to the servants that he was awake and ready to be serviced.

He took the opportunity to let Goofy out too. The wolf was shy about doing his business and Kishi had to turn away before he would go. Then they both headed upstairs.

Goofy shook himself out and then play bowed at Kishi but the Prince was distracted watching the closed little door that felt so much more intimidating than the wooden slab it was. Was she awake? Did she sleep in? Were her men taking shifts incase he tried to barge in like Ansem might have? Was she even able to sleep her first night in a strange country? She had been crying yesterday, had she cried more last night while he slept?

He walked over and considered opening the door, but his hand paused an inch from the handle and after a long second he changed his mind and went to his closet instead.

By the time Kishi was back downstairs in workout clothes and some solid shoes, Ven and Roxas were arriving with breakfast. They had brought a lot even though they knew Kishi wouldn’t eat much of it.

“How did it go last night?” Ven asked when Kishi got the door for them.

“Damn it Ven, he’s gay, you know nothing happened last night!” Roxas scolded.

They didn’t slow down as they carried the two trays to his dining room just off the parlor.

“She’s still asleep so keep it down,” Kishi said softly and they quickly turned down the volume.

“There’s fruit and some sausage,” Ven said as he took off the silver cover, but Kishi shook his head.

“I’ll eat when I get back from my run. You guys have my permission to eat if you haven’t already. Her too… and her people. Do they have names?”

“Sora and Vanitas,” Ven reported cheerful but still quiet.

“I see.” Not that he would need to remember that. Aside from giving orders, Kishi didn’t have to interact with them at all.

“I’ll take Goof with me,” Kishi told them, “She’s not to leave the house.”

“Not even a little?”

“No. And Roxas, the library needs dusting.”

Kishi ignored Ven’s pouting and Roxas’ groan and tied his hair up in a bun as he went to the front door. The wolf was already there, more than ready to head out. Early morning in the middle of winter was Goofy’s favorite and the second the door was open enough for him he was trotting down the road. Kishi made sure the door was closed and then jogged after him.

It really was very cold. The kind of cold that left little bites on his skin and his burned his lungs with every breath. But it was quiet and peaceful and clear. Technically, February was Summer Court. At the Winter solstice, the Faerie Queens transition dominion over the earth to the next court and Summer starts the long journey to heating the world and lengthening the days. That lingering transition period created spring but there was still some time to enjoy the crisp of Kishi’s winter sign.

His feet made pat pat sounds as he ran downhill after Goofy and then took the turn towards the stables before getting to the gate. Kishi wasn’t allowed to leave the estate without a special guard and permission. He was keeping Xion confined to the house, but in a way, he was just as much a prisoner as she was and for the same reasons. Safety and control.

It wasn’t safe for Kishi off the estate. Scala was very open and assassins weren’t rare. Xion’s predator was Ansem and Kishi didn’t want to give him any opportunities to lash out. His brother held long grudges and would still be angry about losing a coveted prize.

He and Goofy jogged around the pastures. The wolf detoured to chase the horses but there were only a couple in the fields right now and they couldn’t be bothered to play this morning and Goofy gave up quickly.

Kishi kept running until his mind was clear and the sun was finally showing itself and then they headed back to his house. They barely made it back to their yard when Mickey came padding up and then he and Goofy were racing off to play.

“Morning,” Riku greeted.

“Hey. Don’t you have an early class this morning?” Kishi asked as his brother approached. Riku was dressed nicely in a dark grey, long-sleeved cloak with a heavy hood. The white accents looked orange in the sunrise.

“I can be a little late. Its Namine’s class.”

“…then shouldn’t you be early?”

Riku punched him lightly in the shoulder and hissed, “play it cool, Ki. I don’t want to be that obvious.”

“Playing hard to get is obvious,” Kishi grumbled.

“Why aren’t you getting ready for class?”

“Home study today,” he explained, “on paperwork I’m still in Terminus.”

“Heh,” Riku snorted, “that’s a good loophole to play hooky. You’re growing up so fast.”

“Will you keep Goofy at your place today? Things are still settling in at my house.”

“Oh yeah, how was she?” Riku asked.

“Contractually, she can’t sleep with me until we’re married.”

“Bummer. I mean, she might also be using that as an excuse cause she doesn’t want to.” Kishi’s shoulders slumped and Riku added, “I don’t know why, you are incredibly hot.”

Coming from a brother that was literally identical, the compliment seemed too self-serving but Kishi rewarded it with a half laugh.

“Just send him home before dinner,” Kishi huffed and stomped off back to his house while Riku waved goodbye.

He let himself in quietly, in case she was still sleeping, and heard voices coming from the parlor.

“I will send for your contracts as well,” he heard Aqua say, “it’s lovely to have another woman in the household.”

Kishi grabbed a small towel that Ven or Roxas must have left him on the table by the front door and started patting the sweat off his neck and face. He still wanted to rinse off at least.

“I would like to write to my grandfather all the same, if I may,” Xion said. So she was awake and had met Aqua. He started heading their way to get to the bathroom.  

“All of your letters will need to be reviewed before you may seal them, but that’s perfectly acceptable,” Aqua was telling her.

“She can write what she wants,” he said when he finally could see them from the hallway. Ven was with them too.

“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’s frown made him a little nervous but he was still reeling from the changes himself and it was too early to care.

“Of course,” she said.

“Ven, draw a bath and tell the chef we want lunch right at noon,” he ordered and kept walking.

“A busy day for your betrothed does not excuse you from your lessons, Prince,” Aqua called after him and he almost told her about his loophole but he wasn’t sure he wanted her to twist it back on him somehow.

“After my bath,” he called back after some internal debate.

Kishi fished around in the dark for the spot on the wall that would trip the lights and then suddenly his bathroom was full of magically produced sunlight. Aside from his bedroom, this room probably saw the most attention. It was spacious, well lit, and was as modern as possibly. The plumbing technology that ran through Scala was revolutionary and he was grateful for it every day.

This room had a toilet, a sink, a long vanity with plenty of storage for medical supplies under it, a long bench on top of a bin for dry, warm towels, a couple large jars full of salts and scents, and a big bath that was built into the floor. It could comfortably bathe four people at once though the most Kishi had seen in it was two when he and Riku shared the occasional soak after a workout.

Kishi shrugged out of his shirt and kicked off his shoes as Ven came to get the water started and adjust the temperature.

“Does Aqua like her?” Kishi asked.

“I think so. They seem to be hitting it off but Aqua is being really stiff.”

“She has to be. She’s in charge.”

“Yeah but she was extra stiff after Xion said her servants’ contracts couldn’t be signed over,” Ven explained.

For a second Kishi was annoyed that Xion was being combative again but then he thought it through a little more.

“They use magic for their contracts too,” he remembered, “the Emperor will probably have to adjust the contracts if they stay.”

“I hope they do. I like them a lot and Xion seems really cool.”

“Ven, if there’s anything that comes up when you’re talking to her that you think I should know, you’d tell me right?” Kishi asked with concern.

“Of course.”

“I know you guys have your servants’ secrets and brotherhood.”

“Sir, I wouldn’t keep things like that from you.”

But you would keep things from me.

Kishi finished undressing and slid into the water to start rinsing off. He turned it off himself when it was only about half full and sent Ven away. No matter how close he wished they could be, his servants were still servants. That barrier would always be there.

He soaked as long as he dared, dried off, and then got dressed in comfortable clothes. If he didn’t at least pretend to study Aqua would get on him so Kishi made a point to wander ‘accidently’ through the parlor while he was reading through one of his books on color theory and its use in interior design. Of course, he wasn’t actually reading it, but it was a win if she thought he was and maybe she wouldn’t make good on her pop quiz threat from before if she thought he was studying enough.

He took his tea in the parlor with her until she got up to answer the door for the tailor. Gepetto had immigrated to Scala before Kishi was born and had been tailoring for the royal family for almost the same amount of time. The man had seen Kishi grow up from the safe distance that only comes from the separation of classes.

After the man had gotten his equipment and chests of fabrics up to Kishi’s room, the Prince snagged an apple (finally getting on breakfast) and went upstairs to watch. Xion had been set on a stool in the middle of the room and Gepetto was going over her with a measuring tape.

He flopped onto his bed and moved some pillows around to prop himself up while he ate.

“Something light,” Aqua ordered, “but dark colors.” Probably to go with Xion’s black hair, Kishi guessed.

“What’s your favorite color, Xion?” Aqua asked as she went through the fabrics that the tailor had brought.

“Um… typically, it’s a bluish violet.”

“When were you born?”

“The ninth of the ninth month, nineteen years ago,” Xion answered. Great. She was older than him.

“She’s Winter Court, Kishi, same as you,” Aqua chuckled.

“So is half the population,” he huffed back.

“What color do you want her to wear, Prince?” Uh oh. Pop quiz was happening after all.

“I don’t know.”

“Say that again and you’ll take an additional color theory course,” she threatened with her usual soft cheeriness and he groaned his response.

“I need you to strip,” the tailor said.

“…does everyone have to be in here for that?” Xion asked quietly and Kishi immediately noticed her discomfort. Despite her bravado, Xion was a little shy.

“Would you rather your retainer not be here?” Aqua asked gently. Oh shit, Kishi just noticed them chilling in the corner. They were remarkably good at blending into the background.

“…they’re fine. Nevermind,” Xion whispered and then she undressed.

Geppetto let her keep her underwear on and then he was convincing Aqua to open the balcony wall for more light and little more warmth now that the sun was heating the city.

“Periwinkle,” Kishi said with a snap as the color popped into his head.

“As an accent or a main color?” Aqua asked.

“Accent.”

“Are you sure?”

He quickly said, “yes.”

“Okay, then what do you want for her main color?”

So much for skating by with a fancy color name.

“Think on it as we work,” Aqua said, still as patient as ever.

Kishi watched the tailor work and considered getting a little closer to think. He was like that when painting too, getting up close helped sometimes. The soft purple of periwinkle was still a color he wanted to default to, but it was too soft for day wear.

“Periwinkle for sleepwear, just periwinkle.”

“Contemplating your wedding night, Prince?” Aqua teased him and he felt all the color rush to his cheeks and his groin.

“N-No! Periwinkle is just soft like nighttime but not g-gloomy!” he protested in a flustered daze.

“What is she going to wear to dinner with your father?” Aqua asked.

Kishi fiddled with his apple core while he thought. Xion was trying on a sundress now. It was white and blue but otherwise he wasn’t paying attention.

“Everything you try on today will be a little big, so please tell him when it feels comfortable so he can determine how much to take in,” Aqua was telling Xion.

“That’s good, sir.”

“Well, Ki?” Aqua asked and he felt the annoyance in his chest start bubbling.

“I don’t know, something dark, maybe black… not a dress.” Xion didn’t strike him as a girly girl.

Aqua was bringing Xion a coat to try on now. It was just like all of their coats, sort of an unofficial uniform.

“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 him but she still seemed pleased.  

“He’s right thought,” Xion agreed to his surprise, “Dressed 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, “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.” No doubt Aqua was referring to his hesitant ‘um.’

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“So what would those colors be?”

“Uh…”

“Your betrothed is from the mountains, Kishi,” Aqua offered as a hint and he snorted. The condescension was somewhat playful from where he was standing.

“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. We also wear clothes with silver and gold threads and gem beading.”

“I didn’t realize I was supposed to know political colors,” he grumbled as he kept picking at his apple core.

“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."

The Housemaster went over to Kishi’s closet to go through his things and then came back with one of his coats. It was long-sleeved and hooded, with black and white tassles and accents.

“That’s mine!” he whined. Even if he didn’t wear that one very often, he didn’t want to give up his things!

“Sleeves or no sleeves?” Aqua asked.

“Hey, wait, no, you’re not cannibalizing one of my coats,” Kishi scolded. He got up, leaving the apple core on his bed, already forgotten.

“Xion, sleeves of no sleeves?”

“…sleeves.”

Aqua was pulling the sleeves up and adjusting them for the tailor to pin while Kishi fumed behind her.

“Here?”

“That works,” Xion confirmed.

“Hood or no hood?”

“Um. A hood please.”

They adjusted the hood and length and then determined how the rest of the coat would fit Xion, putting the nail in the coffin and determining once and for all that it wasn’t Kishi’s coat any more.

“It’s not going to be this loose. Do you think this is something you can eat a meal in?” Aqua was asking.

“…yes, I can eat in it, if there’s not any thing weird about the meal.” Xion sounded suspicious and insulted and Kishi completely understood that reaction to that question.

“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 red rushed back to Kishi’s cheeks and he found himself turning away to cover his face in embarrassment for a few moments to calm down. It wasn’t fair that she was taking shots at him like this when she knew Kishi couldn’t really punish her for it.

“I can manage, I’ll take it slow if I’m reaching over my plate.”

They made a couple more little adjustments.

“Alright, take it off, dress too,” Aqua ordered.

Now that he was standing up and a lot closer, Kishi was able to get a better look at her. She always wore things that hid most of her and he didn’t want to infringe on her privacy too much but she did belong to him now and he was curious.

She was in great shape, lean, with muscle definition fitting of a soldier but she was marred. Her skin was broken in three place by three hideous scars. There was one on the right side of her chest that went up over her shoulder and down to her breast. Another on her right calf was a mess of knotted blotches and the third was on her left hip. That one was round and relatively small but there were red lines radiating from around it, like the sun.

He should offer to help her have them removed. She was pretty with the scars but she would be prettier without them.

Aqua was passing Xion more clothing and they were talking but he wasn’t paying attention anymore. His focus was on subtly ogling his wife while ignoring the glares from her men and the scummy feeling of want growing in his belly and a little lower. He went back to the bed to sit down and watch as she got dressed in a variety of clothing items ranging from sleepwear to formal to day-to-day. It wouldn’t all be done today of course but some of it would be.

Xion’s charm was becoming more obvious now too. She was obedient with Aqua, mostly behaved overall now that they had found some measure of peace, and her modesty and silent strength was a little endearing. It was obvious she didn’t like being on display which was a foreign concept to Kishi who had been paraded around mostly naked for whole stadiums multiple times in his life. That shyness from her sanded off a lot of the edges he had seen before and now he didn’t see her quite as much as some jagged weapon than as something more multi-faceted.

He looked up as Roxas and Ven pushed a cart into the room with lunch covered on it and then they excused themselves. It smelled good from here but Aqua was still enjoying dress up. He finally got sick of it and firmly asked for a break and she relented to go check on the other staff and to give the tailor a chance to take stock, find food himself, and get to work on a few things downstairs in the parlor.

Kishi gratefully got up and went over to the cart to help himself to a plate. Food was a pulled meat, pork roast by the smell, a plain salad with a rich dressing, roasted squash and eggplant, bread, and then some fruit for dessert.

“Did you want to eat together? The way you said things earlier, I wasn’t sure,” Xion was saying behind him. She had gotten dressed again in her own leather, riding outfit again for comfort.

“Said what things?” he asked as he popped a couple grapes in his mouth.

“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.” He was impressed that she had caught that.

“…I’ll go somewhere else, then.” Xion turned away but he shook his head.

“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 looked really put off all of a sudden and Kishi was suddenly unsure. He figured she was as against this as she had been marrying Ansem. This was just duty, nothing more, but if she wanted to try for some semblance of peace, then he figured he should try too.

“Alright. There are a couple chairs outside. I think there’s food for your shadows too.” Kishi picked up his plate and picked out a glass of juice and then went out to the balcony without checking to see if her men were fed or if she was even coming. He picked his chair, set his drink on the little table, really no more than a stool, and settled in.

It was still a little chilly but the direct sunlight was nice and the view was to die for. Kishi’s balcony hung out over his yard far enough where he couldn’t see his yard below without really getting up to look over the low railing. Sitting down from here the whole city was blocked by the treetops of the garden the level below them. Beyond that was the lake, other islands, and distant shores.

Xion sat down beside him with her nearly empty plate.

“Sun’s nice,” she said.

“It’s bright, but it fuels a lot of the magic so I guess it can stay,” he said, sort of jokingly.

“Your magic seems very different from ours.”

“There are like five different kinds here,” he sort of explained while he tried to make a sandwich out of his meal.

“We have different kinds of magic, but none of it is studied. You only get magic if you’re gifted it.”

“That’s still a thing here for the most part. Most of the magic in Scala is here in the palace.” Well, most part wasn’t quite right. People were born with the predisposition for magic and then the Emperor could waken it in young people.

“Dragons gift magic. I’ve only ever seen it twice.”

He chuckled. She must have dreamed that as a kid.

“That’s not possible,” he said, “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 that he gets to double-dip.”

It was part of what made Ansem so damn strong. He had the magic he was born with, magic from being the Emperor’s son, and then he also had magic that came from Maleficent. Kishi had a theory it was the combined magics that made Ansem so messed up too. Dragons were stupid monsters, but their magic was very sophisticated. According to his classes, dragon magic affected people differently and according to the purpose and strengths of the dragon as an individual. Maleficent was a cranky old dragon and gave Ansem magic to conquer and dominate. It brought out a side of the man that had to express his dominance in every aspect of his life, especially his home life. Add the fae magic and everything got dialed up to a thousand.

All the other dragons were hunted as pests or for sport. Killing dragons as part of a public spectacle were how all three of his older brothers had proven themselves men to their father. There were rumors that some had scattered and escaped the purge but Kishi doubted it. An uncontrolled source of magic like that would never fly with the Emperor.

All of his food kept trying to fall out the other side of his sandwich. He tsked to himself and tried to pack it in there a little better.

"You're—you're probably right. Wizards are all old anyway."

“Is the forge an heirloom then?” he asked. Dragonsfire without dragons? It had to be.

"... 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." It was something the older brother had said in passing when they were training. Xemnas wasn’t one to lie, none of them were, but he probably meant something other than literally turning into a dragon.

“That does sound impossible,” Xion said, but her voice sounded more strained now. He managed a few bites of sandwich before he revisited the grapes. Kishi tossed them up to catch them 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."

"... 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 and Kishi could hear the concern in her voice. This wasn’t really a hypothetical situation anymore he realized.

"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."

If Xigbar hadn’t killed those two or brought them back to Scala, then the Emperor was probably okay with leaving them alone. His father wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t wasteful. A dying country wasn’t as valuable as a healthy but subjugated one. If it was like she said and her brother’s magic was keeping everyone from starving, then it made sense to let him keep doing his thing. As for the King, trying to kill him would probably not sit well with the people. Actually, that might have been yet another reason for Emperor Xehanort to have ordered the conquering of Terminus.

“Namine is trying to make magic more accessible,” he told her to keep the conversation moving, “There’s a type of wild magic that anyone can to but it’s kind of unorthodox so I don’t think my father is going to cave.”

“I’ve never heard of wild magic.”

“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 and picked at his food, “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 cautioned. There were fae living on the estate. She needed to not get sucked in by their allure.

"I believe you."

Kishi nodded his approval and leaned back with his drink.

"...how old are you?" she asked.

"Nineteen."

"... when's your birthday?"

"November eleventh."

She grinned at him and Kishi felt uneasy.

“…what?” he asked.

"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," he bit. He figured this was where it was going when she asked and now he felt inferior, weak, and tiny again.

"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."

Her confidence was unnerving.

"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."

She took a long drink and he nervous 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 felt the blood rush both directions again and he 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."

Oh. Well, yeah, she had been crying. He wasn’t really sure how to handle that and now he was feeling awkward so he nodded and got up to leave.

"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."

He snorted a little through his nose and smiled. She was alright.

"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," Kishi reassured her.

"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."

Yeah... Faking being in love for their wedding. Lunch wasn’t sitting well now and he felt even more like he didn’t want to be there.

"Then I guess I will have to practice," he mumbled and went downstairs.

Aqua was just getting back and was chatting with Geppetto.

“Hey, she’s ready for you guys upstairs,” Kishi told them.

“Alright,” Aqua confirmed. She stood up and straightened her coat to follow the tailor upstairs. “Are you coming?”

“I think I’m going to stay down here and study.”

He ended up playing his violin instead.   

Chapter Text

Kishi was so lost in his music that that he didn’t hear them leave. He was just letting that bad feeling melt away along the strings. He didn’t know why it bothered him so much to hear her suggest that they would be faking it when they got married. Maybe a part of him wanted more than that but he had to remind himself that longing for an emotional connection was a weakness. Having people you were close to was a weakness.

When he finally let the music taper off it was starting to get to be dinner time for himself. He took a deep breath and set the violin down on its stand with its bow beside it and turned around.

Roxas was standing there ominously and it made Kishi jump.

“What the hell? How long have you been standing there?”

“I don’t know, maybe five minutes.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Kishi huffed.

“Maybe I just wanted to enjoy listening to you for a minute.”

“Have you finished your chores?”

“For the most part.”

“Then where’s my dinner?”

“Yeah, about that…” Roxas tapered off and Kishi scowled, “Xemnas wants you to join him for dinner. He told the staff to send your food to his house.”

Immediately Kishi was on guard. The timing here wasn’t great and Xemnas and Kishi didn’t really have a relationship. They were too far removed in age, personality, and personal philosophies. If Xemnas wanted to meet, then there was a reason.

“Did you talk to him?” Kishi asked and Roxas shook his head.

“It feels like a trap though, doesn’t it?” Roxas was smarter than he looked.

“Okay, I’ll get dressed and head over. Where did Sora and Vabitas end up?”

“Vanitas?”

“That’s what I said.”

Roxas chuckled, “no it’s not. They’re in the foyer by the front door. Both of them are so hyper dependent on her.”

“The loyalty is admirable,” Kishi admitted.

“You have no idea. Did you know they cut off their…” Roxas trailed off to motion to his crotch.

It took Kishi a second and then he jerked in disgust and delicately cradled his own groin as though checking he was intact.

“That’s awful.”

“Yeah and they agreed to it,” Roxas said.

That wasn’t loyalty, that was something so much stronger. That was brainwashing or conditioning or… or love maybe. Love could drive someone to that extreme right?

“Scala to Ki. You’re going to be late.”

“Right… Take an early night, Rox. Ah, wait, pick up Goofy from Riku’s and then you can go for the day.”

“You don’t want tea tonight?” Roxas called after him as Kishi hurried upstairs.

“I’ll probably need something stronger after this dinner,” he admitted.

“So raid the Emperor’s wine cabinet, got it.”

“Don’t get caught,” Kishi teased and then he went into his room to pick out an outfit. He stayed simple. Most of Kishi’s closet was dark colors or some shade of blue. It was inevitable with the royal family’s adherence to colors of their Courts. Winter meant blue. Sometimes it was orange and brown, the colors of fall, but that was a special occasion thing. This felt like a special occasion. At minimum he might be able to get a reaction from Xemnas. Orange and gold were colors that went with the Summer Court as well. Showing up to Xemnas’ house wearing his colors could be fun.

Kishi pulled out a dark brown shirt and khaki-colored pants and started to get dressed. The sash was a light tan and the belt over it was a dark brown and then he picked a fall orange coat that went to his knees with a shallow hood and long sleeves. The accents and tassles were a lighter orange and brown so he looked a little like a pile of autumn leaves with frost on top.

He pulled his dark boots on as he left and didn’t bother tying them until he was crossing the yard.

Riku’s house was across the road. Xemnas’ house was the opposite direction. There was a stone paved path around the pillar, but it was faster for Kishi to just leave out the veranda and go along the wall across the yard to Xemnas’ house. Their homes went in order, oldest to youngest around the pillar, which suited Kishi fine. It meant running into Ansem was rare and never a coincidence.

He knocked on the door when he got there and waited patiently until he saw movement behind the frosted windows. Xemnas had a double door front door and a huge, stylish home. It had more of a classic design with a wrap-around porch and carved pillars rather than the slick modern look that Kishi and Riku’s homes had. The man was a traditionalist.

The door opened and a woman stepped aside for him. Tifa was Xemnas’ first wife who lost priority to the younger model, Aerith some time ago. They both still had fire, but Xemnas had conditioned them well and while Tifa held his gaze, she didn’t say anything.

Kishi stepped inside and felt a shimmer of power at the door. He recognized it as a threshold. Riku didn’t have much of one, neither did Ansem, but Xemnas did. Whether it was artificially established by Xemnas, or developed on its own, Kishi didn’t know, what mattered was that it labelled this space as his brother’s and Kishi needed to be on his best behavior.

He walked through the spacious entry and foyer towards the dining room when Kishi heard voices. He came around the corner, puzzled, until he saw who Xemnas was talking to.

“What a coincidence,” Ansem said as he sipped his tea, “I didn’t realize you would be joining us.”

Kishi felt his whole body coil like a spring.

“Yes. What a coincidence,” he managed to grate out before looking to Xemnas for support.

The Crown Prince was nearly identical to Ansem aside from a more rugged look. They shared the same mother, olive skin, amber eyes, and silver hair but Xemnas’ slight smirk was less sinister and his hair was less perfectly kept. Ansem kept his long hair smooth and flat while Xemnas gave it more volume and let it fall more naturally across his shoulders. It ended up standing up on the sides and the back of his head.

Xemnas had a deeper voice than Ansem too. He was older, but not even Kishi really knew by how much, and their personalities were very different. Ansem was more emotive and had a spectrum of emotions, but Xemnas didn’t have any. That perpetual smirk and resting neutral expression were the only two faces Kishi had ever seen the man wear and after years of strange dinners, training sessions, classes, and interactions, Kishi finally found out that Xemnas was lacking in all empathy and emotions of his own. They had been given as a gift to the Emperor.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of an invitation?” Kishi asked, trying to be wary.

Xemnas smiled and motioned to a chair next to him. The two brothers had been playing chess while they waited and Kishi could see that Xemnas was winning.

“Formalities are for public engagements,” he said in that low purr of a voice, “come, sit, enjoy the company of your brothers.”

He was still cautious, but Kishi took a seat. Food was already there waiting for them on silver trays. Aerith, Xemnas’ second wife and personal servant, came by with more drinks. She offered Kishi a welcoming smile and her auburn hair bounced a little in the long braid. She handed him a bowl with a rich beef stew and a couple fluffy rolls with cheese melted on top.  

Kishi liked her. She was never afraid despite her husband and company. There was a faith she had that was admirable, but her confidence never branched into disobedience.

“Okay, then formalities aside, why did you want to see me?” he asked.

“To see how you are doing.”

“You want to know about Xion.”

Ansem smirked and Xemnas smiled while Kishi’s head raced.

“Your first wife is an opportunity to see how you control your house. You have not been able to keep concubines for extended periods of time. We feared a wife would be too much for you,” Xemnas explained as he started to eat.

“We? You’re looking for an excuse to take her,” he said pointedly to Ansem.

“I respect the Emperor’s decision,” Ansem said with a shrug, “I’m more worried about you.”

That was bullshit.

“Xion’s doing fine. She submits to me now,” Kishi reported.

“Good.”

“…actually, she reminds me of Aerith,” Kishi admitted and Xemnas tilted his head.

“How so?”

“Confident, brave. Was Aerith rebellious at first?”

Xemnas took a drink and leaned back before answering, “only briefly.”

“You had to punish her?”

“A good punishment should only have to be enacted no more than thrice to have its desired effect.”

“A severe punishment,” Kishi clarified and Xemnas nodded, “and she’s a personal servant too?”

Again, Xemnas nodded.

“Aerith is a rare case, Kishi,” Ansem weighed in, “you’d be best keeping your first wife close and controlled.”

There was a subtle threat there and Kishi dialed in on it quickly. He took a minute to eat some while the man talked.

“Assuming she stays yours.”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

“Until an official announcement,” Ansem was saying, “his Excellency could choose to change who she will cleave to. If you fail to be an adequate master over her, he may change his mind. No sense losing his youngest son to a battle you’re not ready for. A fire like hers is best tamed by an experienced, proven hand.”

There was a calmness to his voice that Kishi didn’t like. Ansem was being honest and helpful which meant Kishi needed to be suspicious.

“I’m sure father knows what he’s doing,” Kishi responded, “and there is already peace in my home.”

“We are overjoyed to hear as much,” Xemnas said, “we are eager to see what you become at the end of this trial and see your growth through it.”

Message received: they were going to be watching him closely.

“I’m surprised either of you want to help at all,” he admitted to them, “I thought you would still be mad.”

Ansem’s smile was all honey and poison as he responded, “My feelings shouldn’t get in the way of your personal growth.”

“I wasn’t exactly happy to get her either,” Kishi admitted, “but I won’t go against father’s wishes.”

Ansem kept watching Kishi eat with that too interested smile and it made the youngest brother nervous. The double talk and underhanded message here wasn’t lost on him. Ansem was still mad about losing Xion. This wasn’t a peace offering. It was a warning and Ansem was packing all of his jealousy and want down nice and tight to fester.

“If father decides to take her from me,” Kishi said with some bite, “it won’t be because I failed to manage her.”

“There will be shame all the same,” Xemnas said matter-of-factly.

Kishi bristled a bit and focused on his meal. No way that would happen. Xion was his.

It was quiet for a while as they ate and then Aerith and Tifa took their dishes away so that Xemnas and Ansem could finish their game of chess while Kishi stewed.

“Come, Kishi. Your turn,” Xemnas ordered.

“Not in the mood.”

“Get in the mood.”

Kishi huffed and took Ansem’s seat while they played. The first few moves were filled with quiet concentration. Of all the Emperor’s sons, Xemnas was the most like their father. He and Ansem shared a mother who was equally cruel and vicious as Xehanort himself. Kishi and Riku’s mother was the replacement when she passed away. Rumors circulated a lot about her and what she was like, but Kishi never met her. He didn’t think he would’ve liked her much.

“You’re playing defensively,” Xemnas observed.

“Safely,” Kishi corrected.

“Cowardly,” Xemnas corrected once more.

They went a couple more moves of Kishi trying to be a little bolder, but it was a trap and he lost. Xemnas cleared the board and they started again.

“Given the opportunity to prove yourself, Kishi, do you think you’d be able to do so?”

“You mean if I was deployed? I think so. I think I’m more ready than father or you give me credit for.”

Pieces chased each other across the board.

“Despite your softness.”

Kishi felt a twinge of irritation, but he packed it down.

“I’m not soft. I’ve killed my share of men, I’m soon to be married, and I run my household as well as any of you,” he growled.

“Do you think that Xion is telling the Emperor as such?” Xemnas mused aloud, “they are eating together tonight. I imagine she has words to tell him about you.”

“S-She can tell him whatever she wants.”

Xemnas seemed amused but let the conversation die to study Kishi’s game instead. It was like this every time. The Crown Prince always treated Kishi with caution and poked and prodded looking for buttons to push and Kishi felt like a bug being observed before being squished. About a year ago, Kishi got Xemnas to admit to having a special interest in Kishi but he wouldn’t explain why.

The board was cleared again. Xemnas won again. These games weren’t lasting very long at all.  

“Someday you’ll be worthy of my time,” the older brother sighed and Kishi felt angry again.

“Move aside little brother,” Ansem ordered and Kishi was shooed again, left to watch them play until Kishi finally found a window to excuse himself.

He walked home feeling annoyed and stressed. Being watched wasn’t new, but Xion was such a wild card that he was second guessing some his choices. Maybe locking her up was the right call. Ansem was probably planning something, several somethings judging by the way he played chess, and Kishi was starting to feel that surge of protective ownership again.

If Xion was taken away, it would remove a significant stressor, but it might set him back in his father’s eyes and Ansem would undoubtedly hold it over him.

His thoughts drifted back to Xion and her dinner with the Emperor. Was she okay? What kind of awful things was his father doing to her? The psychological damage the man could do…

He let himself back into his house and was almost mobbed by Vanitas and Sora who looked notably disappointed when he wasn’t Xion. Kishi just shrugged past them and went upstairs to get changed. Goofy greeted him with a whuff from the bed and Kishi joined him after changing into some loose pajamas and getting his history book to study for an exam.

“Son of a bitch,” he said happily when he found the glass and bottle of wine on the bedside table. Roxas pulled through. Alcohol wasn’t common on the estate. They were taught not to drink or engage in activities that clouded their judgement but after the stress of sharing a room with his brothers, Kishi was ready to make the exception.

He poured a glass and settled in to sip it while he read. Goofy put his head in Kishi’s lap while he did so.

Only a few pages in, the wolf started to growl and Kishi looked up to see Xion standing in the doorway. Goofy wagged his tail when he recognized her.

“I’m sorry, Goofy, I didn’t bring you any food. Uh, Kishi? Naminé is here and wants to see you.”

She needed the invite across the threshold. He hummed and shuffled out of bed. Kishi handed Xion the glass of wine and hurried downstairs to the door.

“Evening,” he greeted, “would you like to come in?”

“Please,” she said happily and then stepped inside the foyer. He got the door behind her and then joined her in the parlor.

“Forgive the hour,” she said.

“No, it’s always an honor. Did you need something?”

“I wanted to visit,” she said fondly, “I heard that Xemnas and Ansem invited you to dinner.”

Kishi’s mood darkened.

“So, it went poorly.”

He sighed and relayed to her what happened. It was stuff she probably already knew but telling her about it helped him all the same and while he didn’t trust Naminé, she generally had good insight if she was willing to offer it.

“Oh my. You are certainly under a lot of pressure,” she acknowledged.

“Yeah. Any advice?”

“Mm. Follow the rules but do what feels right.”

That was not helpful.

She got up and said, “there’s a strength in you Kishi, it will reveal itself in time. I think Xion will be able to help you with that.”

“Um, thanks,” he tried as he escorted her to the door. They waved goodbye and Kishi locked the door to head back upstairs. Namine wasn’t wrong. Xion was an opportunity.

Speaking of Xion, Kishi saw her out on the balcony when he got upstairs. She was looking at the sky with a forlorn expression.

“The view is better from the crow’s nest.”

She jumped and he felt a little bad for startling her.

“…the what?”

He pointed to the floor above them.

“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." He was a little worried about what kind of things she and his father talked about.

"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 warily, still playing chess.

"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."

Kishi felt a wave of panic pass by him. Xemnas might end up being right about that.

"...you told the truth every time?"

"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." But it was really damn funny that she told him.

"...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 thought a moment to himself and then went to his closet to get the periwinkle silk pajamas that the tailor had finished for her. “Here.”

“It’s soft.”

“Consider it a reward,” he said and she tensed up.

“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 with a dab of playfulness.

"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, relaxing. Well, Kishi still wasn’t sure he trusted her.

"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 headed back to the door of his bedroom.

“Goofy, come on, last potty break.” Goofy happily bounced after him and headed down the stairs. Kishi looked up at Xion, still standing on the balcony, and then at her men.

"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."

He didn’t wait to see if she obeyed. The wolf had to pee and he wanted to sleep soon. Maybe the threat wasn’t necessary. Kishi had been partially joking but laying down the law early was important and judging by what she had talked about with the Emperor, they were both being watched carefully.

He needed to play this game right. For both their sakes.

Chapter Text

Kishi never drank enough alcohol to experience serious hangovers. The rare occasion that they had wine at all they never drank much and it wasn’t strong but he did have trouble waking up the following mornings. He always slept a little heavier and little longer so when he did wake up the sun was already shining and servants were already there downstairs working on chores and chatting.

He stumbled to the stairs with a groggy expression but stopped halfway down when he heard Aqua’s voice and decided that getting dressed first would probably save him a headache and a lecture. He had barely made it to the closet when the smell hit him and he went from sleepy to awake in an instant. Wolf urine was unmistakable and Goofy was avoiding eye contact so the animal definitely had an accident somewhere.

With a growl Kishi checked the room and then it turned into an irritated huff when he found the spreading puddle on the balcony, highlighted by the morning sunlight.

“Damn it Goof.”

Kishi huffed through getting dressed and then stomped downstairs.

“Good morning,” Aqua greeted. She was sipping tea in the parlor when he stormed in.

“My damn animal peed on the balcony.”

Aqua barely reacted to his irritation but adjusted her clipboard on her lap to make a note.

“I will have someone come to clean it,” she reassured him and he defused a little, at least until he noticed Sora and Vanitas. Vanitas was pacing a little and Sora looked worried.

“…where is Xion?” he asked.

“She took Goofy out,” Sora said politely. The wolf stuck his head into the room and then wagged his tail when he saw Ventus with a sausage from breakfast.

“Goofy is…” Kishi started but he felt a surge of fear in his chest. No way. No fucking way Ansem would make a move on her one day after a veiled threat. He growled and stomped off towards the door. The fear in his chest was most easily buried by anger. Fear was hard, anger was easy. So Kishi didn’t stop himself from being extremely angry as he left the house to find her.

It took less than a minute.

He could see her walking down the path from the direction of Xemnas’ house. The first thing he felt was relief, then suspicion, and then anger again. Xion looked uninjured and she wasn’t kidnapped which meant she left on her own when Kishi had told her not to leave the house. Xion had disobeyed and put herself and him in danger as a result. Of all the irresponsible things for her to do, this was up there.

They were being watched so closely! A single slip up like this would never go unnoticed by his family! It was literally last night that he and his brothers had discussed his ability to control her and now here she was wandering around!

He caught himself shaking as he stalked towards her with clenched fists.

“What the hell are you doing out here?” he growled.

“I was trying to keep your wolf from running away.” She was looking down.

“You let him out?”

"He tried to pee on the balcony."

"He was successful," Kishi hissed, "go back to the house."

She obeyed, walking past him to head inside while he followed. His temper was getting the better of him and Kishi could tell so he didn’t bother to wait and see what would happen in his foyer. He pushed past her and grabbed Roxas. The servant was good breaking things company.

“….so, wrong side of the bed?” Roxas asked when they got to Kishi’s bedroom.

Kishi was already angrily throwing pillows and furniture to let off some steam. It was a violent habit encouraged at a young age. So far Kishi had been good about directing that anger and violence at inanimate objects rather than people.

“Does she have any idea how dangerous it is to be wandering around out there?” Kishi snarled, voice low despite his desire to screech with frustration. The side table went flying into the wall to break into pieces.

“And after you told her to stay home too,” Roxas agreed. The blonde handed Kishi a large piece of table that hadn’t finished falling apart and Kishi threw it on the floor to properly shatter it. Kishi picked up some pieces to throw them again when Xion and her two goons entered the room. He and Roxas watched them slink off to the harem room and close the door.

He still wanted to rage but it was going to be a lot harder with them right next door. Kishi threw another pillow and then straightened up.

“I am not sure I like her,” Roxas admitted with a huff, keeping his voice down.

“You don’t have to,” Kishi snapped and the servant put his hands up a bit. The Prince went to the closet to get his diadem and a brush.

“It’s just rude of her to come in here and cause you all these problems,” he explained and Kishi relaxed a little. He finished brushing his hair and then tossed the brush on the bed.

“I need to go to class.”

“Early?”

Kishi glared at Xion’s door and Roxas understood. Kishi never had an issue picking fights, but he wasn’t very good at finishing them. At the end of the day, Roxas knew that Kishi just wanted to get out of there.

“I can man the fort for you,” Roxas reassured him and the Prince left for the day.

The entire ride up to the school and walk through the halls Kishi stewed in his anger and fear. What the hell was she thinking today? And he couldn’t let her get away with it. If anyone found out that she was allowed to disobey and get off without a punishment, then he’d be in the hot seat, and she would probably be given to someone else. For some reason that thought bothered him.

If Riku had her then Ansem would probably hurt her. If Ansem got her then she would definitely be hurt and if Xemnas got her then she would be hurt and then broken. Kishi was the best option for her. He thought he was alright but he was only the best option for her because he was so soft. Damnit, what she thought shouldn’t even matter.

He shook his head and tried harder to hold onto the ‘she’s mine’ thought to try and get his priorities straight as he walked into the empty classroom and took a seat with his book.

This was going to be the longest damn marriage.

Xaldin was one of maybe four professors that Kishi had. Because of his status as a Prince, Kishi’s classes were small and screened and very advanced. Most kids who went to the school were done by Kishi’s age or went to advanced classes as young adults for training in very specialized careers. Some of those classes were held here but most of the students were here for magic and not entirely by choice.

The Emperor cultivated young magical minds here to prepare them for his army as magicians or as technicians for the city since so much of their lifestyle hinged on the marriage of technological advancements and magic. As a result, most of Kishi’s classes were either with a private tutor to prepare him for politics, were magic, or were physical training so he could one day lead his own campaign.

Xaldin had a unique blend of qualifications. The big man with dark hair, dark eyes, and a quiet but firm voice was primarily an elemental magician but he taught fantastic classes in botany and flower arrangement. Today was about the former which suited Kishi well. His own magic was a combination of darkness and fire. He had also been working on it for years so it was an easy class to tune out.  

When Xaldin dismissed the three students and left himself, Kishi was left looking out the window over the lake and wondering what to do with the little information he had. No matter what, she needed to be punished and scolded, and sooner rather than later.

Kishi got up and headed back to house getting steadily angrier as he headed back. He slammed the door behind him and then then stomped up the stairs to stand in the middle of his room.

“Get out here,” he ordered.

It took a second and he wasn’t sure she heard him at first but then the door opened, and she shuffled out with her head down and her shoulders slumped. He felt a part of his anger fizzle a little when he saw how dejected she looked and he had to fight to stay strong and in charge.

"This morning. What. Happened?" he asked.

"...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. Damn, the opportunist." Kishi sighed and sat down on his bed. At least it wasn’t Ansem but damn his brother was several steps ahead. There was no way he could’ve known that Xion would wander onto his property… Except that Kishi always slept late after drinks and Goofy would’ve had to be taken out and Xemnas eating outside on a winter morning was unusual and the cook made food to requests so Xemnas had smelly, wolf-loved sausage made… It was too many coincidences to be a coincidence.

Even if it was a coincidence, Xemnas would never pass on an opportunity, so he probably asked her for something.

"...he asked me to kill you," she said, completing his train of thought.

"Yeah, that tracks," Kishi admitted.

"I told him I couldn't and he told me I could leave. Then you found me."

Kishi rubbed his face. This was a win win for the Crown Prince. He could cause a shit ton of trouble with a request like that and Kishi couldn’t tattle on him. They were expected to handle their own problems to some degree and going to the Emperor could result in backlash that was worse than what Xemnas had said.

It wasn’t weird for the brothers to try to kill each other from time to time either. There was an unspoken rule that they couldn’t attack each other directly outside of exhibitions or training but indirect methods were okay and pushed as a form of “training” or a test of cunning. The first assassin that Kishi personally dealt with snuck into his room when he was just thirteen years old.  

"I have to punish you for disobeying me," Kishi said after a minute.

"Should I have let your wolf get away?" Xion asked and Kishi might have thought she was arguing against a punishment if it wasn’t for how dead she seemed. A little more of his anger fizzled out and fanning the flames wasn’t helping much either.

"No, you should've woken me up and let me take him out. I don't think what you did deserves that serious of a punishment,” he admitted, “but my family is watching me closely, if I let it go, they're going to use it to keep saying I'm soft." She deserved to know what kind of pressure they were both under even if he wasn’t obligated to explain himself to her.  

"Go ahead then," she said.

He looked at her with some surprise. No protests at all? Maybe she was finally understanding. Relief was replacing the anger in his belly but he was still worried about her retainers. Kishi looked over at her two shadows, who were lingering behind her.

“They won’t do anything,” she reassured him and then turned to her boys to say, “Sora, Vanitas, go downstairs.”

Kishi wasn’t expecting that and now he wasn’t sure how to punish her. He would still have to. She still disobeyed but it wasn’t malicious and she had even been honest with him about her interaction with Xemnas. There was some loyalty building there and he didn’t want to shut that down. It was kind of cute.

“No dinner tonight,” he settled on with a quiet mumble and then he went downstairs to give her space again.

Without thinking about it, he wandered towards the library to get his violin but her shadows were there and he was much less okay being on the same floor as the angry guy who was still glaring daggers at him.

“How was class?” Roxas asked from the parlor. He tossed the duster into a bucket by the door and then leaned against the frame.

Kishi didn’t answer. He was looking between Roxas and the library entrance. There was an angry aura radiating from there that he didn’t like so he grabbed Roxas by the shirt and dragged him off for the second time today.

“Goofy! You too!” he called and the wolf came bounding from the top floor, skipped the stairs in one leap, and then raced out the open door ahead of the pair. Kishi let go when they got to the road and Roxas fell into step beside him.

“Don’t you have afternoon classes?”

“Play hooky with me. That’s an order.”

“Ki,” Roxas stopped and said with a deep breath, “are you seriously asking me to shrug off my sworn duty, nay the very purpose of my birth to clean the noble House Oscura because you are having a bad day?”

Kishi stopped in the road to look up the hill at him.  

“No, I’m ordering you to.”

“Oh, cool, yeah, I’m down.”

They walked together to the stables.

The royal stables made up most of the bottom ring of the estate. It was a series of pastures and dirt corrals around big pillars that held up the foundation of the garden above them. It was a massive open area like a big bite taken out of the Scala ‘cake’ to create a big open cave mouth minus the cave. Kishi had two horses here. He got both their saddles out and handed one to Roxas who shouldered the tack with practiced ease and followed his master to the stables to get the two beasts.

“So how are you punishing her?” Roxas asked.

“No dinner.”

“For a week? A month?”

“Just tonight.”

He tied Atlas to the rail and tossed a couple brushes to Roxas.

“Yo, aren’t you supposed to be in class?” Riku asked from behind them. Mickey came barreling around the corner to tackle Goofy and the two wolves took off across the pasture chasing each other. Roxas bowed politely and then focused on brushing.

“Shouldn’t you?” Kishi countered blandly.

“Don’t have classes today but figured I’d still come down for a ride anyway.”

“I’m not catching your horse.”

“Imagine still having to catch your animals,” Riku teased. His own black stallion was in his own pen munching away and was easily caught while Kishi had to go out to the pasture to get Saladin, his blue roan gelding.

Roxas mounted up on Atlas and Kishi rode the more temperamental blue. Saladin was a special horse as in a special piece of work with an independent attitude. He only listened to two people, Kishi and Terra, the stablemaster, and that was it.

“It’s been a couple days,” Riku said as he got started on brushing, “have things improved?” Roxas snorted and Riku raised an eyebrow, looking to Kishi for an explanation.

“…Kind of.”

“Roxas?” Riku asked.

“They’re worse,” the servant reported and Kishi glared but the fire wasn’t ready to flare up again after burning out not long ago.

Kishi sighed and told Riku everything starting with the dinner he had with their brothers and how cryptic Xemnas and Ansem had been. Then he told Riku about the morning and Xion’s disobedience, but he kept Xemnas’s request to himself. They got the horses tacked and mounted up by the time Kishi finished.

“Damn,” Riku said.

“That’s it?”

“Well, what do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know… Do you think Ansem is going to back off?” Kishi asked. Riku started leading them out to the trail around the pastures. The brothers rode side beside and Roxas followed.

“I don’t. Ansem doesn’t back off when he wants anything and Xemnas doesn’t care about your girl, he’s worried about you,” Riku said, “and before you ask, I don’t know why. He’s just been weird about you for as long as I can remember. I’m sure he’s messing with you by talking to your girl and you shouldn’t let it worry you too much for now.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re right about nothing being official yet. They won’t try anything serious until an announcement goes public and the Emperor can’t back out of the decision.”

“…I want it to be official,” Kishi admitted.

“The other night you sounded like you didn’t want her.”

“Maybe I changed my mind.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is important, Ki,” Riku stressed, “why do you want her?”

Kishi had to think a little harder but he didn’t have a good answer for Riku.

“Why do you want her Ki?”

“I don’t know!” he snapped, “I shouldn’t want her! She’s a damn bomb. Everything about her is so rebellious and annoying. She barely interacts and when she does she’s causing problems. Her two men follow her everywhere and I can’t send them away because of some creepy contract and having her around puts a target on my back that is so much worse than the target that was already there.

I was already stressed out trying to convince father that I’m ready to lead my own campaign and be proven and then he dumps her on me like a pop quiz. I’m better off juggling snakes at this point since that almost seems safer! Ansem and I never got along but now he’s making veiled threats against her that make me want to cave and just share her like you do but just thinking about that makes me so angry!

I don’t want to hurt her or invite harm on her because she’s mine and I want to do right by both of us! I see you wanting to correct me and say that’s weak, and I get it but why can’t I have both? Why can’t we both be happy? I can keep her happy while keeping her under control and being the master of my house!

Hell, we might be if she wasn’t such a disobedient, self-absorbent basket case with zero understanding of the hot water we’re in!” Kishi huffed. He panted a bit as he tried to catch his breath.

Riku and Roxas stayed quiet to let him finish.

It took Kishi a second of fuming before he continued, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me Riku. She’s everything bad right now. The worst thing that could happen to me and I’m going crazy trying to play this game that we’ve been raised and trained to play. I’m so stressed out about it and it’s not even official yet but damn it you should have seen her today.

When I found her and then later when I punished her, she was submissive all of a sudden.”

“…That’s not a good thing?” Riku asked, “you’re complaining about her not being that way and now you’re mad that she is?”

“No, I just… I couldn’t be mad at her. She looked so defeated and repentant and it made me feel bad. Like I wanted to cheer her up or let her off the hook. The rebellious part of her is frustrating but it’s better than this mess. Naminé said Xion was crying on the first day and it makes me feel guilty to think that I did that to her.”

Riku sighed for a second and then opened his mouth like he wanted to say something but Kishi must have looked terrible because the older Prince closed his mouth and they rode in silence for a long few minutes as Kishi slumped more and more in the saddle.

“You’ve known her for less than a week and you sound like you’re falling in love with her, Ki,” Riku finally said, somewhat gently.

“I didn’t say anything like that!” Kishi growled.

“You don’t have to and it’s not a bad thing.”

“Of course it is,” he grumbled.

“Listen to me. Empathy, sympathy, cruelty, cunning, love… they’re all tools in the same toolbox.”

“But Xemnas-“

“Xemnas gave his empathy to the Emperor as a gift when he became a proven man,” Riku interrupted.

“Ansem-“

“Ansem doesn’t know what love feels like and he never will. Love is a driving motivator. The strongest enemies I have ever faced were mothers defending their children out of love. It is a tool, not a weakness,” Riku insisted, “I don’t want you to think I’m calling you weak by saying you’ve falling in love. You get too defensive about things sometimes and then you overthink it into oblivion. When I say you sound like you’re falling in love I am stating my neutral opinion based on the way you talk about her.”

Kishi fumed a little bit and kept his eyes forward.

“Kishi, you are not wrong to assume that our family is playing the long game and Xemnas and our father have been playing it so long that there is a strong chance they already know how the future is going to unfold but you cannot play into their hands by driving yourself crazy trying to beat them.

Right now I want you to just clear your mind.”

“Riku that-“

“No. Stop. Do as I say,” Riku scolded.

Kishi took a deep breath. Clearing his head without his violin was borderline impossible. Even thinking of nothing felt like thinking of something and his mind would just wander off without him to explore out of reach horizons.  

Riku could tell too and they rode in silence for another hour of forced meditation before they finally stopped their horses to watch the city lights turn on. It was still afternoon, but the long shadows meant an early night for the east side of the city, and it was neat to see the lights flicker to life. Kishi felt his stomach growl and they took it as a sign to turn back.

“Kishi,” Riku finally said when they were getting close to the end of their ride, “right now, I don’t want you to think with your head. I want you to dig deep, to wherever you keep all those pent up desires, whether that’s your heart, your belly, your bones, whatever part of you blurted out that you wanted her, and tell me what the core of you really, really wants.”

Kishi took a breath of the cold air through his nose and closed his eyes to just listen. The sounds of the city were muffled but he could hear his horse breathing deep beneath him and the hoofbeats. Distantly he could hear Goofy and Mickey panting. The wolves were staying close but wandering frequently to play and explore. He could feel Saladin’s muscles moving beneath the saddle and the bite of the wind on his face. Beneath it all he could feel his own heartbeat pounding in his chest.

“I want to be happy and free,” he said.

“And what do you want for Xion?” Riku asked, softly.

Again, Kishi listened to that voice that he now knew was coming from that rhythmic heartbeat.

“I want her to be happy too,” he said.

“We live in a complicated world, Ki,” Riku said, “it’s not always winners and losers, sometimes you’re going to have to sacrifice, sometimes you’re going to have to compromise but your heart is what you are. It knows what it wants and it’s okay to play two games at once. One in pursuit of that goal for you and your girl and one with our father. Duty and desire aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be in love with her, want what’s best for her, and still be a man that our father will have to respect. It might take years but someday you’re going to show him that he shouldn’t be underestimating you.

I’ll be honest little brother; I am relieved that father didn’t give her to me. I don’t envy the danger you’re in and I do treasure my relationship with Ansem. She brings a lot of change with her, I can feel it, but the world doesn’t stop turning, the seasons keep changing. I think she’s a great opportunity for you and I think you should welcome it, confusing feelings and all.”

Kishi rode in silence the rest of the way while Riku’s words bounced around in his head. It couldn’t possibly be as simple as that and Kishi wouldn’t be able to accept all of it overnight, but it was nice to not be shut down for how he felt. Love felt like a stretch, but he did want to protect Xion, and he didn’t want to make her hurt again, not unless he had to. The long game was still something he had to play but he wasn’t as scared to let his feelings loose a little, at least until he was sure.

Roxas stayed with Kishi as they took care of the horses. They groomed them, fed them, and got them set up in their stables for the night. Riku and Mickey left early, leaving behind a tired Goofy who napped while the two young men finished their chores.

By the time Kishi and Roxas parted, it was getting late, but Kishi still wandered a bit in the frigid air, letting his mind stay clear with his heartbeat drumming a song of wants and wishes all the way home.

He crashed in bed without changing and without eating dinner.

Chapter Text

Kishi woke up early with a renewed vigor. He knew that his last interaction with Xion had been… mixed. His temper had flared up but he felt like there had been restraint in his punishment so he figured she couldn’t be too upset.

Just in case, he wanted to make sure her morning started out right. He got dressed but omitted his diadem or any official royal garb aside from the signet ring he never took off. Then he headed out with Goofy, hood up, to drop the wolf off at Riku’s and then talk to the cook himself.

It was not common practice for the Princes to interact with the background staff. Ansem and Xemnas almost never did and Riku had stopped when he was a teenager, but Kishi had been raised by the House, Aqua and Terra especially and he saw them as a form of extended family. Well, extended family that he owned. The master and slave dynamic would always be there, which is why Kishi was sneaky as he slipped into the pillar and made his way through the tunnels to the kitchens.

Roxas still noticed him almost immediately.

“You shouldn’t be awake,” he observed out loud with half a bagel in his mouth.

The kitchen was a big open space with plenty of ventilation, several islands, and a small dining area. There was a big cold room and two large pantries that closed up tight to preserve food and keep out pests. Several ovens were going full blast and ingredients were being loaded into a cart to get the meals started for the day.

“Yeah, well, I wanted to put in a request,” Kishi said as he let the hood drop.

“You could’ve just told me when I got to your place.”

“Kinda wanted to deliver it myself too…”

Roxas tilted his head, puzzled, then the realization dawned on him and he frowned.

“Are you bringing Xion food?” he asked.

“I just want to make sure we’re on the right foot. Hey Remy!” Kishi called to the chef as he put on an apron, “can I get a plate of something really sweet for breakfast? Maybe fruity too?”

The chef snapped out of his startled expression and then flashed him a thumbs up before going back to the pantry for new ingredients.

“Ki, Prince, that’s a servant’s job. You don’t deliver food, honestly, you should be here. What if your father finds out?”

“Well, don’t tell him then.”

Roxas looked a bit perturbed but he sighed and sat in a chair next to where Kishi was standing to finish eating. Most of the staff seemed startled by Kishi and worked nervously but Aqua arriving to get her own breakfast eased a lot of the tension in the room. She looked up from her clipboard at the Prince, back down, and then slowly back up with a neutral expression.

“What are you doing here, Kishi?” she asked.

“Breakfast.”

“We bring you breakfast.”

“Not for me…” he mumbled and scratched the back of his head. Chef Remy was putting a couple fluffy cakes on a plate and drizzling it with a warm berry sauce while an assistant cut up bananas and put them on top.

Aqua put it together faster than Roxas did and was much more delighted by the idea.

“Make sure to hurry back before it gets soggy,” she suggested and Kishi nodded politely. He took the plate and grabbed an apple on his way out as an afterthought.

It had been snowing when he left the house but it was coming down harder now and Kishi was eager to get home so he could maybe start a fire in the stove or bury himself in blankets. It was still a toss up when he went inside and headed upstairs. He put the apple in his mouth to open the door and then stood there.

Xion was already awake and standing out on the balcony in the cold. She was slumped a little and her men weren’t here. She must have sent them all the way away last night like the other servants. Maybe things were worse than he thought…

Kishi went out to her and stood beside her, still facing away. He didn’t want to be super confrontational and he was feeling a bit awkward between his discussion with Riku last night and how down she seemed. He offered the plate and was relieved when he felt her take it.

“…thanks,” she said quietly with a strained voice. She didn’t sound like she slept well.

“Your people should be here soon,” he offered, assuming they’d be along when Roxas and Ven caught up. Kishi hovered for a second and then went inside to give her space. His heart hurt a little seeing her like that, and he pushed it away. He still had to be strong, but he found himself wandering to the library anyway to play his violin.

Kishi lost himself in his music until he heard the door open. He stopped with a jerk of the strings and went to the hallway to greet them. Vanitas and Sora walked by first. The dark-haired guy glared at Kishi and walked upstairs without saying anything. Sora stayed to bow politely and mumble a good morning before hurrying upstairs himself, leaving behind Roxas, Ventus, and the Prince.

“What’s Vantitus’s problem?” Kishi asked.

“Vanitas,” Roxas corrected.

“They were really worried all last night,” Ventus explained, “they weren’t sure what kind of punishment you had in mind and they were scared you hurt her.”

Kishi huffed, “I’m not that mean.”

“They don’t know that,” Roxas huffed back, mocking him. Kishi slugged him and Roxas slugged back. It was playful, no power in the punches.

“They really thought I hurt her?” Kishi asked more seriously.

“So what if they did?” Roxas snapped before Ven could answer and the mood in the room changed, “and so what if you did! She’s a servant like we are, she doesn’t need special treatment.”

Kishi frowned. Roxas was right but his tone and attitude were pushing it.

“Like the special treatment I give you two?” Kishi growled and he could see on Roxas’ face that the man knew he made a mistake.

Ven put a hand on Kishi’s arm and the other on Roxas’s shoulder and said, “there’s a difference between special treatment and kindness.”

Kishi and Roxas stayed glaring at each other for a few more moments until Roxas looked away.
“Sorry, sir,” he relented and Kishi took a deep breath.
“Just go do your chores, I have to study.”

Ven let go of both of them and Kishi stomped off to the parlor to stew in front of the fireplace with his book.

 

The following week started tense but eventually settled into something more normal and familiar. Kishi’s classes started up again and he was away from his house for most of the day. He barely saw Xion at all as she kept to herself, and people gave her space to respect that. Periodically Kishi would stand outside her door, thinking of the best way to get her to come out but he figured maybe this was best. This was where she was expected to be, so he accepted it as her choosing to adapt to their way of life and focused on his schoolwork.

Ventus and Roxas were coping better too. Roxas and Kishi went back to normal and the servant seemed more content with Xion keeping to herself. He kept taking shots at Vanitas where he could, learning buttons and being a general annoyance for the sake of teasing.

Ventus was helping both other servants settle in. While Xion’s men typically stayed near her, they spent a lot of time with the House staff as well and Ven was overjoyed to have help. He and Sora were very similar and brought an exhausting amount of energy with them into the house. It made studying hard and Kishi lost patience with them both a couple times but neither seemed to care and it rolled off them as harmless as water across the backs of their garden swans.

The studying and return to a normal routine had Kishi trapped in a state of limbo waiting for news from his father. There still hadn’t been an official announcement about the engagement and it was causing a lot of stress. The ‘not knowing’ was worse than either decision but this was a common occurrence with the Emperor. A man that was going to live forever was never in a rush. He took his time to think through every angle. That patience was not something that Kishi inherited.

In the meantime, Kishi was trying to operate under the assumption that Xion would be staying with him with a distant buffer just in case. He didn’t want to get too attached if his father changed his mind and Xion was moved.

“Kishi?”

“Huh?” he mumbled as he snapped out of his daydream. Naminé was smiling at him from the chalkboard.

“I asked if the clouds were helping you cheat on your exam,” she said nicely.

He sighed, “no, they aren’t.”

Kishi looked back down at his paper. She was writing down questions on the board and he was supposed to be writing down his answers, but he was having a hard time concentrating. Naminé had swapped his curriculum in the last couple days. Today was a pop quiz on dragon magic and its role in the establishment of countries in the North. The witch loved to push topics together to emphasize the versatility of magic.

He doodled dragons in the margins instead of focusing on what he was learning.

“Prince,” Naminé said to get his attention and he looked up at her with glossy eyes, “learning has stopped today.”

“Yeah, sorry, I just have a lot on my mind.”

She put the chalk down and wiped her fingers on a rag before pulling up a chair beside him.  

“Are things going well in your home?” she asked.

“Yeah, of course, it’s just quiet.” There was no sense lying to her. She’d be able to tell if he did.

“Would you rather it not be?”

“The peace is nice. Xion is behaving, which is good, it’s just not what I expected,” Kishi admitted.

“What did you expect?”

“I don’t know what I was expecting. I just know it wasn’t this. She had more fire before but now she’s sad all the time. I want her to behave but I didn’t want to break her.”

The fae witch smiled and said, “I think you should give her more credit.”

“…if you could see the future, would you tell me?”

“Only if telling you led to the future shown to me.”

Kishi shuffled uncomfortably and she smiled cryptically.

“If you are unable to learn more today on my time, then you best be learning on yours,” Namine said as she got up and went to get her textbook. She flipped through the pages to find what she was looking for and then put a leaf bookmark in between a couple pages.

“Read the chapter beginning on page 72 and be ready for a test next we meet,” she instructed. He took a deep breath, scribbled the instructions down on a piece of paper, and then used that paper as a bookmark.

“You have sparring this afternoon,” she continued, it felt like a question the way she said it.

“Yeah, with my brothers today,” Kishi confirmed. He got up and straightened his coat, then grabbed his book to leave. The chair squeaked in protest as it was pushed in close to the desk.

“All of your brothers?”

“I think Xemnas opted out.” If Xemnas came to spar it was purely for the joy of beating up his younger brothers. The Crown Prince didn’t need it at all.

“I think I will accompany you today then,” she said.

“You can just ask Riku to dinner you know.”

She blushed a little and looked away to get her messenger back full of art supplies.

“I am afraid things are not so simple,” she said but the woman seemed to relish the thought all the same.

“If it ever does, I’m sure Riku would say yes. He’s over the moon about you,” Kishi told her as they started walking. The training halls were a floor down but still a part of the school.

“He would be upset if he knew you told me as much.”

“The garden didn’t tattle on him first?”

“There are a few irate flowers that are lacking in petals from his confused brooding,” Naminé admitted, “I have known for some time, but the heart is a strange creature and we have many years ahead of us to see if our roads will join.”

That sounded nice, just being able to fall in love and choose that person. Kishi really did like Naminé and Riku as a couple in his head but with her being a fae and Riku the son of the Emperor, it was a stretch to assume the stars would align for them. He had to admire their patience even if they had forever.

As long as the Emperor reigned, his family was immortal. The Emperor himself was well over a hundred years old and Kishi wasn’t completely sure about his eldest brother. Xemnas was content to let the Kingdom forget his age so the stories and embellishments would claim he was older than he was. It fueled the fear that kept the Empire in relative peace and inspired surrenders in targeted countries.

That immortality only applied to aging, but the Empire didn’t know that. They just thought the Princes were immortal no matter what. It was a belief that was carefully cultivated and maintained. It was also what kept them from having kids. All of the Emperor’s children were infertile. Their dynasty began with Emperor Xehanort and it would remain with him until the world met its end, or so the propaganda went. All the evidence supported it, and no one was stupid enough to test it.

They parted ways when Kishi got to the locker room beside the training halls. He found his cubby at the end of a row and put his book in there so he could have both his hands to change into more appropriate sparring attire.

“And a good afternoon to you little brother,” Riku greeted. Their lockers were right next to each other. “Ready for me to kick your ass?”

“No way Terra gives you permission to go all out.”

“How are you going to learn if you don’t bleed a little?”

“Remember you said that when I win,” Kishi huffed.

“Cocky brat. Your banter feels less playful than usual.”

“I’m just tired. I’ve had a lot of homework.” Riku didn’t look like he believed Kishi, but he didn’t push which was a relief. They already had their heart to heart for the year. It wasn’t very manly to talk about feelings all the time.

“Well gear up, grab your sword, see you in a couple minutes.”

“Wait, sword? We’re sword training today?” Kishi asked.

“Yeah, wake up Ki or you’re going to get cut up.” Riku headed out, leaving Kishi alone in the locker room to process that.

He took a couple deep breaths, changed, and then went to the sink to splash water on his face. Riku wasn’t lying about getting cut up, especially if Ansem was here, which, he probably was. Nothing else mattered right this moment except getting in the zone. It took an additional couple minutes and then Kishi was joining them in the training hall.

Terra was a tall man with a firm but lean frame. He was evenly muscled and very attractive with a thoughtful expression, long brown hair, warm, chocolate eyes, and a very ‘dad’ attitude that Riku and Kishi had endured most of their lives. Like the other members of the staff, Terra was a slave born into service who had taken to it well enough to be promoted all the way to Stablemaster at twenty-five years old. He managed all the horses and all the soldiers and personally oversaw the training of the youngest two Princes. He and Aqua were also very close so he had been around a lot and filled an older brother role that Xemnas or Ansem never had for Kishi.

They were all wearing formfitting pants and no tops or shoes, with the exception of Terra who was wearing a form-fitting shirt and baggy pants and bouncing a little bit on the hard mat on the floor. Ansem was waiting, eerily patient, with his sword in hand. He was chatting with Riku quietly who was distracted by their single spectator and only partly paying attention.

Kishi was grateful that Riku was there, Ansem was generally better behaved when Riku was around.

Terra worked through them some warm up exercises, stretching and forms and such. Kishi borrowed Terra’s sword for the day, so he was a little off balance but after about half an hour of warmups, Kishi was confident in his use of the weapon.

Terra did a lot of correcting and acted as a referee for their sparring but didn’t fight himself. He mostly paired Ansem and Riku while Kishi watched and then Riku with Kishi while Ansem watched but something didn’t feel right today with Ansem and everyone could feel it. Terra was being extra careful to keep Ansem and Kishi from sparring with each other as a result but inevitably…

“Riku, please, allow me,” Ansem said to interrupt their fight training and Naminé excused herself.

Kishi felt his stomach drop as Ansem stepped up to fight and he steeled himself. So far, Kishi had avoided injury but that was likely to change.

“Little brother,” Ansem was saying, “you’re moving too flat-footed. Stay on your toes, focus on your footwork.”

The first slash was fast and Kishi barely blocked in time. Immediately, he was on the defensive and Ansem was pushing in close. The younger was able to block most of the hits but the longer they fought, the faster Ansem got, and he wasn’t trying to lecture anymore. They had already been at it for about two hours and Kishi was tired so it didn’t take very long for Ansem to land a hit.

“Enough,” Terra said and the older brother retreated. A bead of sweat ran down Ansem’s face but Kishi was panting, and blood dripped from his arm. A long cut stretched across Kishi’s chest and arm, just under his right shoulder. It could have been a lot worse. Terra’s timing was immaculate and Ansem was obviously frustrated. Kishi could see the fury in his eyes before Ansem tsked and stalked away.

“Hold still, Kishi,” Terra ordered, “…it’s not deep but you should probably take a bath anyway.”

Kishi held still through the inspection and focused on catching his breath.
“Told ya you’d bleed,” Riku teased and Kishi just wasn’t in the mood.

“Can I bathe at home?” Kishi asked.

“Yeah, you should be fine until then.”

Kishi didn’t wait for any more comments. He gave Terra the sword back and then went to get dressed. His arm was aching, but it wasn’t excruciating so he was able to ignore it. He huffed his whole way home. The snow was coming down harder and starting to stick to his hair and coat, so he hurried to get inside.

The food in the dining room smelled good. He wandered that way on instinct. Roxas was getting food set out for him and Xion, who was standing there… and not in her room…

“Welcome back,” she greeted, and he immediately was suspicious.

“…what do you want?” he asked. No doubt she was being friendly to soften him up before asking for something.

"To eat. And to get out a little.”

He was right. Kishi grunted as he shrugged his coat off. The injury had bled through his shirt.

“…are you okay?” she asked.

“Training gets rough,” Kishi explained. He went over to check the food. If it was something cold, he could bathe first… nope, it was soup, really best warm.

“Rox, will you get the med kit from the bathroom please,” he mumbled but Roxas was already heading that way. “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."

"You can get started," he said. Kishi worked the other lays off and wiggled out of his shirt. Xion wasn’t eating yet and he tried really hard to not be self-conscious about her watching him dress the wound with Roxas’ help. They tied a clean rag to his shoulder to keep it from bleeding more and Kishi put his coat back on, so he wasn’t so cold and exposed.

"What kind of training leaves you with a wound like that?" she asked with distaste, and he wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.

“Sword… training?”

"Why are you using actual weapons?" Xion asked.

"Why wouldn't we? I don't want to build expectations or habits with a fake sword just to realize my sword feels different." She didn’t need to know he wasn’t even using his own sword today.

"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."

"It simulates a real-world scenario. If I'm slow enough to get hit, then I should know how to fight effectively through pain," he said with a frown. He wasn’t happy that she was arguing with him after a bad day, but a part of him was relieved she seemed to be acting more like herself again.

"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." Two hours of fighting different people but this sounded better.

She sighed and responded quietly, "Sorry, I guess it's not my place to say here."

It really wasn’t but he still wanted her to understand where they were coming from. The royal family were magic and had magic. They were special, training like this wasn’t a big deal but how to convey that properly...

"Getting hurt is a big deal for... lesser people," he said, still not happy with the word choice, "after my bath, this will be healed and won't even scar."

"You must have an amazing healing magic, then," Xion said, and he was relieved that she understood.

"Yep."

"Lucky you. Though it's a little sad that you don't scar."

"Scars are shameful," Kishi told her around a bite of soup.

"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. It had been a long day and he didn’t want to argue with stupid when he had other things on his mind. Maybe she hadn’t adjusted as much as he thought she had. He focused on eating.

"Sorry. Things are different here," she said, breaking the glare to look down. They ate in silence for a little bit until Kishi felt sated but not full.

"I'm going to be up late studying for an exam. Please be in your room before I go to bed," he told her.

"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?" That was not what he meant to say. Kishi’s patience had expired and now he was being mean for no reason.

"... nevermind."

"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. Damn that was a tall order. No wives left the house like that and Ansem was around and after her. Never mind what it told everyone else if they saw her loose and out of control without him.

However, she had been good the last week and he did want peace and contentment in his home. This is where he came to escape from his family. This house was Kishi’s only safe space that was just his. No one else’s orders superseded his in this house aside from the Emperor himself. She deserved the reward and he deserved a happy home.

"Fine. You can leave the House but stay on the estate property," he grumbled.

"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..." Just thinking about that made Kishi irrationally angry and protective. It startled him a little bit. "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 still felt very unsure.

"...and not everyday."

"I would have been happy with once a week."

"Once a week then."

"Do you need someone to show you the extent of the estate? So, you don't accidentally go where you shouldn't?" Kishi asked. He was trying to cover all the things that could go wrong ahead of time.

"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 at his drink. Any energy he had left for socializing was gone.

"...is there a way I can make this easier for you?" she asked as they were finishing up.

"...make what easier?" Kishi asked for clarification.

"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." Immediately, Kishi realized how rude that was to say and followed up with, "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."

"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," Kishi reminded her.

"...you aren't close with your father, are you."

He shuffled uncomfortably. It was bad luck to speak ill of the Emperor.

“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?" Xion asked.

"No, they're locked up in their rooms and rarely allowed out."

"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 said as he got up.

That bath was calling his name and it was going to be a late night. Homework was the worst.  

Chapter Text

Animal alarm clocks were hit or miss and whether or not they were welcome hinged on the events of the prior night, if there was company in bed, or if it was a day off. Kishi was determined to sleep in. It was cold, he didn’t have class or training, and he was studied out and ready for a day of being lazy but Goofy had other plans and a pair of booming barks shook the whole house. Suddenly, the Prince was sitting up in a hazy daze trying to remember what year it was while the sleepy fog rolled around his brain and threatened to dissipate entirely.

"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 was saying.

Kishi only registered every other word and was trying to figure out the last few when he gave up entirely and managed a doofy, “huh?”

"Goofy's just excited to be getting some exercise. Roxas is showing me around today," she repeated.

He rubbed his face to try and work some life back into his sleepy eyes when the cold found him, and a chill raced up and down his exposed arms. With a miserable shiver he fumbled to get a blanket back over his shoulders.

“You’re going out today?” he asked. Kishi vaguely remembered giving her permission to leave the house once in a while but that was only a couple days prior to this chilly winter morning.

"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." Anything to make the conversation stop so he could go back to bed. Kishi flopped back over and wiggled his way back under the covers to hide from the morning chill.

He was barely there for half an hour before Ven was gently shaking him.

“Good morning Prince Kishi,” he was saying softly, “breakfast is here.”

Kishi groaned irritably in response, but Ven’s cheerfulness didn’t waver and the servant slowly began peeling back layers to find the tell tale silver hair peeking out from the bedding. He started there and slowly excavated the Prince who stubbornly refused to move.

“Breakfast is going to get cold!” Ven scolded when the last layer of blankets stayed glued to his liege.

“I’m not leaving until it’s as warm out there as it is in here!”

“This is childish, sir!”

“Then I’m a child! There’s no class today and my bed needs more attention!”

“Do you need me to order you a concubine?” Ven asked with a tint of mischief over his words that made Kishi wonder if he was serious or trying to make things awkward. That suspicion was holding the other end of the idea rope playing tug of war with his carnal desires. It had been a long time since Kishi had any attention down there but what the hell would Xion think? He didn’t want to make her uncomfortable whether he was entitled to or not.

“…just bring my food here,” Kishi finally settled on.

“And what happens if you make a mess?”

“Then I make you clean it up.”

Ven tsked, “Sir, just because you don’t have classes doesn’t mean you can shirk all of your responsibilities and it’s hard for me to make the bed when you’re still in it.”

“That’s your most compelling argument yet,” Kishi grumbled.

“Food wasn’t enough huh? You needed the guilt trip too?”

“Apparently.”

“Are you getting up then?”

“Yeah, yeah, find me a robe and my slippers and I’ll get up,” the Prince finally relented.

Ven beamed at him for a few long seconds and then went to the closet to find one of Kishi’s heavier winter robes and a pair of fluffy slippers with soft bottoms. He came back with a navy-blue robe and matching slippers which he put on the floor so he could hold the robe open for Kishi. The Prince sighed and groaned as he forced himself out of the comfort of the covers and into the robe. Ven put the slippers on for him and then caught the Prince as Kishi tried to flop over again anyway.

“Alright, alright, I’m up.”

Kishi took a deep breath, stretched, and then wandered downstairs to see what was on the menu anyway. He shuffled into the dining room and over to the table to move the silver lid. Oatmeal didn’t smell very strongly on its own but the brown sugar and cinnamon mixed in certainly did. He grabbed his bowl, buried it in berries and whipped cream and then went to the parlor to flop over in one of his favorite armchairs.

There was a fireplace here that was burning gently. It wasn’t a big fireplace, and it was hidden a lot of the time by a panel but with the Spring taking its sweet time to show up outside, he appreciated the extra warmth while he ate.

It was incredibly quiet in the house without Goofy. Actually, it was a little unnerving. There was a distinct presence that made Kishi uncomfortable. He toyed with his food for a second and then put the bowl down on the coffee table to shuffle out into the foyer and down the hall to the library.

Kishi poked his head around the corner and saw Vanitas and Sora anxiously waiting for their lady to come back like a pair of helpless sycophants. If they noticed him, they weren’t showing it. Vanitas was flipping mindlessly through a book, turning pages faster than he could read them, and Sora was pacing.

Sora wasn’t so bad from what Kishi could tell but Vanitas was not comfortable to be around. Something was just bleeding from him, like a bad aura. If Naminé hadn’t confirmed in their physicals that the servants lacked the potential to learn magic, Kishi would’ve believed in a heartbeat that the guy had the gift. He just dripped with it. It felt a little bit like Ansem’s magic which made him naturally hate the guy. How Xion could stand that aura was beyond the Prince. The second he was able to dump these two, Kishi planned on it.

He backed away before one of them could notice him and went upstairs to find Ven. The blonde was happily making the bed in practiced motions while he whistled to himself. By this point it was almost muscle memory for the servant. He fluffed the last pillow, placed it neatly on the others, and then got started on the floors.

“Ven, I don’t like them,” Kishi announced after a minute of Ven ignoring him.

“Who?”

“Banitus and Sora.”

“Vanitas?”

“Whatever his name is, I don’t like him.”

Ven laughed, “Prince, they are fantastic servants, and very devoted. I think they’ll make a good addition to the House.”

“Whose house? The House?”

“Of course.”

Why do you want them to stay??”

Ven neatly hung up Kishi’s uniform from yesterday and pulled out the dirty articles to send to the wash.

“Because they’re smart, talented, and fun,” he explained and Kishi huffed irritably.

“Well, they’re stressing me out loitering in the library like that. At least put them to work.”

“Isn’t that Aqua’s call?” Ven asked.

Kishi fumed in the doorway for a minute while he processed that and then stormed to his closet to change. He undid half of Ven’s work in the process as he tried to decide what to wear that would be warm enough, but obnoxiously regal enough to properly convey his displeasure to the woman that was essentially his mother replacement.

He settled on a deep, forest green coat with billowy long sleeves and a white fur-lined hood. The accents and trim were also white with gold buttons. Dark pants, dark boots, and his diadem and Kishi was much happier leaving the house in the same whirlwind that got him dressed and thank goodness for that drive because the chill in the air almost chased him back upstairs to the safety of his pillows. There wasn’t any snow on the ground, that much had faded away, but it was overcast and the wind was chilly to a fault.

He huffed the entire way to the pillar and almost slammed the door behind him. The warmth from the kitchens filled the space even this far down the hall and suddenly the heavy overcoat wasn’t that great of an idea anymore. He fluffed it a bit to let the air in closer to his shirt and then trekked to the kitchens where more than the usual crew were milling about and cleaning up a mess. Aqua was there herself which saved him the trouble of having to look for her, but she wasn’t in a good mood and his own irritation was dwindling in the face of her anger.

“Uh… what happened here?” he asked by way of announcement and the kitchen staff all stopped to bow politely for a minute before Aqua waved them off and back to work.

“Your monster animal happened,” she said and the gentle in her voice was gone.

“Wait, Goofy?”

“Do you have any other animals I should know about?”

He shook his head quickly and said, “I don’t know what he was doing here. He’s supposed to be out with Roxas and Xion.”

Out with them?”

Suddenly the free rein he was giving Xion felt like a mistake. Failing to alert Aqua was absolutely one.

“She wanted some fresh air,” he started to explain but Aqua held a hand up and Kishi found himself involuntarily quieting.

“This mess sets everyone’s meals back. We don’t have the hands to clean this up in any timely manner!” she complained irritably, “did you at least give her some rules to follow?”

“Of course I did! I’m not an idiot!” he snapped defensively, “and if you want extra help those two retainers of hers have been lounging about my library all morning.”

They both sat there for a second as they realized the same solution fit both their problems. Aqua didn’t even say anything about it. If Kishi couldn’t put that much together then he was in serious trouble. She turned and headed out past him and he fell into step behind her, at least until they got outside.

The second the cold air hit his face, Kishi stopped to contemplate his options. Aqua was on a warpath headed towards his house, his pet was out somewhere with his bride-to-be, his best friends were busy, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to go prod any brothers for entertainment.

Days off shouldn’t be this hard.

For a second he thought about visiting Namine, maybe bring her a gift to stay on her good side. Fae were powerful allies but even she had some direction today with her own chores and planning for the following week of classes. Visiting Terra would undoubtedly get him roped into chores himself which defeated the point of a day off but at this point what else was he to do?

Sitting around doing nothing was just giving his mind the free rein to wander into the rabbit hole of real life chess and Kishi’s stress was already at a peak. There still hadn’t been an official announcement as to who Xion would officially belong to and the limbo feeling persisted.

His nose tickled and interrupted his train of thought. Kishi was still standing awkwardly in the doorway of the pillar and the frosty air was freezing his boogers. He resisted a sneeze and lost. The little achoo echoed in the empty hallway behind him and he sniffled a bit.

The first step was getting out of this chill. Kishi sighed and started back to his house. He was halfway there when the door banged open and a confused and irritated pair of foreign retainers were half-chased and half-dragged out of his home by Aqua.

Kishi would be lying if it didn’t give him some measure of pleasure to see them forcibly removed from his home. It wouldn’t last but for now he finally had his own place back to himself. He slipped past them and closed the door on the Winter bite.

“I thought you might have stayed out a little longer,” Ven admitted. The blonde was passing from the bathroom to the library with a bucket of cleaning supplies. So, the house wasn’t quiet as empty as he might have liked. Ven was a good person. He could stay.

“It’s too cold.”

“For a child of the Winter Court, you’re awful sensitive to the gloomy weather,” Ven observed aloud and Kishi scowled.

“I don’t care for overly hot days either. Y’know, like a normal person.”

The Prince kicked off his boots and left them in the hallway nowhere near each other. Ventus immediately detoured to pick them and take them to the closet, following Kishi up the stairs to his bedroom. The boots went back on their shelf and Kishi flopped facedown on the bed with a groan.

“What do you do on your days off?” Kishi asked.

“Oh, I do my own chores,” Ven said, “laundry and such.”

That wasn’t an option. All of that was covered by the house staff which left Kishi back in the awkward position of not having anything to do. He coughed once to alleviate the tickle in his throat and then got up to get a book. A head start on studying wasn’t his favorite thing, but the sooner Kishi got through his classes the sooner he could get out into the world.

Ven was already on top of it and offered him a textbook that had been unceremoniously dumped on the floor before the dutiful servant and picked it up and dusted it off. He offered the book to the Prince and Kishi took it. He thumbed through the pages for a minute before finding the chapter he was supposed to be on.

Xaldin had him studying alternate applications of his fire magic. It was a lot of theory but magic was more entertaining to learn about than the math and game theory his father was pushing.

Kishi took the book downstairs and settled in by the diminishing embers of his fireplace fire and started to read but each paragraph danced on the page, and he found himself reading everything thrice to get it to stick until he finally gave up and watched the fire instead. His mind drifted to other parts of town and for a second Kishi got the urge to sneak out.

It wasn’t something he did often. Disobeying express orders was incredibly dangerous and Kishi was held to a much higher standard than others, but on occasion, Kishi would disguise himself as a nomad and sneak out of the estate. With his hair wrapped up, eyepatch, dirt, and scruffier clothing, Kishi was able to sneak around town for a bit and there was a lovely bar at the docks that he liked. Not for the drinks or the women but because of the gambling and the music. The man who owned the place also ran one of the few cargo ships that was licensed to go out on the lake. Kishi might have played a role in expediting the paperwork years ago, but Luxord didn’t know that wanderlust-stricken Dag was actually the Prince in disguise.

That alter ego had a couple close friends down there, but they were just that, friends of an alter ego. Sneaking out right this moment would be an unnecessary risk born of boredom. Not even homework was enough to push him out the door just yet. So he stayed and daydreamed over dusty books of spring days, sailor shanties, and card games sprinkled with dice.

He must have fallen asleep at some point because Kishi woke up a little while later with the book on the table and a fur blanket over his lap, courtesy of Ventus no doubt. The servant had cleared out to help with other chores, so Kishi was comfortably alone. It dawned on him briefly that this might be one of the last times he would get to be alone especially if Xion really did become his.

He grunted a bit and got up, wandering to the library to put the book on his desk and trade it for his violin. Kishi wandered about the foyer for a bit while he tuned the instrument and then settled down in the library to play shanties by himself. They weren’t nearly as lively without the other parts but it brought a little of the freedom of the Scala docks into his gilded cage and put him in a decent mood.

Eventually he shifted into more serious music to practice and lost himself in the notes that swirled around the room. Kishi closed his eyes to focus on the sound as he tended to do. He put a little more emphasis on the parts he liked and replayed the parts he didn’t until he finally brought the song to a close with a touch of vibrato.

He let out his breath and opened his eyes.

Xion was sitting right in front of him. It startled the shit out of the Prince and his whole body tensed and jumped as his heart ramped up and tried to leap out of his throat.

"When did you get back?" he asked.

"About twenty minutes ago."

"I thought for sure you'd be out til dinner.” Kishi started putting the violin away to give his hands something to do. Had she really been sitting there for twenty minutes?? How did he really get so lost in the sound that he missed her coming in?

"I ran into something upsetting and decided I didn't want to be out anymore."

He tensed up and asked, "What happened?" Immediately, his thoughts shifted to Ansem.

"I was reminded of how different it is here from home."

 Oh, thank the queens. That was not nearly as bad as it could have been.

“Well, what did you expect?”

"I don't know. It was a miscommunication between me and Roxas was all."

"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 straightened out the papers on his desk and sat down. Kishi really, really didn’t want to punish Roxas, so he hoped whatever had happened wasn’t a very big deal.

"He didn't tell me where the edge of the estate was and let me cross it,” she said, “I assumed that he would, so I didn't realize until I was out."

Kishi felt his blood run cold. That was a big deal. That was a very big deal. Maybe he had misheard.

“You left the estate?” he asked for clarification.

"Not on purpose. I went about thirty feet out of the gate."

She wasn’t really looking at him. That submissive side of her was showing and Kishi knew she was telling the truth. That should’ve made him feel better and the honesty was worth something but there was still a surge of anger that welled up in his chest all the same. Those rules were there for a reason and her first day out, a day out that Kishi shouldn’t’ve allowed in the first place, and she was breaking rules that he had!

He reined the anger in when it looked like she was on the brink of tears.

"...How did you get back in?" he asked, genuinely curious. The guards at the gate were extremely good at their jobs.

"Miss Naminé happened to come back."

Kishi studied her closely. Her hair was a bit out of place and there was some wolf fur stuck to her chin. Her blue eyes were shiny with unshed tears and her cute nose was a little red, whether from crying or cold, he couldn’t tell. Xion’s hands were clasped in her lap and there was a quiver in her closed fists.

She was expecting a punishment, as she should.  Whether intentional or not, Xion broke the rules. If Kishi didn’t punish her, he could expect punishment himself, and he couldn’t lie about it and say he did but let her off the hook. She hadn’t lied in her retelling though and this wasn’t entirely her fault. Roxas had been given instruction to take care of her, that included keeping her from potential harm and keeping her within the estate. Roxas was more at fault here than she was.

The anger bubbled up again as he thought about that. Roxas was like a brother to Kishi, he was a trustworthy servant, such rebellious behavior was expected but never with something this important.

He got up and walked around the desk to her to bop her lightly on the head with his fist.

“Don’t do it again,” he ordered with a level voice that he was surprised he managed to maintain.

“I won’t. Sorry it happened at all,” she responded.

Kishi left her in the library and stormed out of the house on a mission. He grabbed his boots as he went and tugged them on in the road. The cold on his skin barely even registered as the pit of anger came to a boil. He stomped down the road to the second level. One way was the garden that took up the bulk of that layer, but the other way led to the servant’s quarters. It wasn’t ‘off-limits’ to the royal family but it wasn’t somewhere that they frequented. There was rarely a reason to.

The collection of buildings was set up similar to a dorm system. They had their own common space with a kitchen system, big public bath, and lounge area and then there were personal bedrooms for each servant down a hallway that branched out. There were a few smaller homes in the complex as well for married couples, child-raising couples, Aqua, and Terra.
Several returning servants scattered when they saw the Prince coming towards them and scrambled to bow. Ven bowed briefly from the courtyard between buildings as he headed to his own bedroom. He tilted his head, puzzled, and followed after Kishi with some confusion.

“Sir? Is there something I can help you with?” he asked and Kishi whirled on him.

“Where the hell is Roxas?”

Ven shrunk under Kishi’s unbridled anger and stayed quiet for a minute. Kishi could see Ven trying to put pieces together, guessing what to do and whether or not it was safe for his twin to be brought into the warpath but it didn’t matter.

“I’m right here,” Roxas said from behind him, “what’s up?”

The offending man had a towel over his shoulders and was heading towards the baths. Kishi spun on him, grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pulled him in close. Magic seeped from him and many of the servants tried to slip away. No one wanted to be caught in the crossfire.

“You let her leave,” Kishi growled.

Roxas’ facial expression flickered between surprise, fear, and then finally settled on indifference.

“Yeah, I did,” he admitted and Kishi gave him a firm shake to knock some of the sass out of him.

“I gave you orders and you disobeyed.”

“I did what I was supposed to!” Roxas protested, “I guided her, answered her questions, and stayed with her all day! It is not my fault that she didn’t listen to me!”

“Did you tell her she was leaving?”

“Ki, she’s not one of us!”

Did you tell her she was leaving?” he repeated, lower and with more caution in his voice. Kishi’s grip on Roxas’ shirt tightened with a creak of twisting fabric.

“Why is she so much more important than us all of sudden?” Roxas growled back, “she isn’t a servant like we are! All she does is cause problems for you and stress you out and she’s okay with that! She doesn’t give two shits about any of us, and we shouldn’t give her any either! You’re giving her special treatment, letting her wander around to do whatever she wants! What did you expect would happen?”

Kishi punched him and he heard Ven make a little strangled gasping noise behind him.

What the hell are you doing to my staff?” Aqua asked as she hurried over and Kishi shot her a look. Technically, Aqua was the same rank as Kishi within the House but he must have looked terrifying because she backed off.

“Answer the question, Roxas, that’s an order!” Kishi snarled.

“No, I didn’t tell her she was leaving,” Roxas mumbled.

“Why not?”

“Because when I tried to be friends with her, she drew the line. It wasn’t personal. I didn’t have to watch her back when I knew she didn’t have mine or yours.”

Kishi shook him again and growled, “but you did, Roxas. I ordered you to take care of her and you disobeyed me.” The servant wouldn’t look at his master and Kishi felt a twinge of guilt lance through the anger. This was one of his oldest friends and most loyal companions. It felt a lot like a betrayal that Roxas didn’t obey but it felt like a betrayal here too, not giving Roxas the benefit of the doubt.


“She’s important to me now too,” Kishi said, still angry but calming down some, “that means she’s important to you. Don’t you ever treat her like she’s anything less than that again.”

“What happened?” Aqua asked, a little more carefully this time.

“Roxas was supposed to be escorting Xion around the estate today,” Kishi said, “but he let her leave the estate entirely.”

There were a few long moments of silence before Aqua spoke again, “how would you like him punished?”

This was the awful part of their positions. Sometimes Kishi wondered if this was why his father didn’t let anyone but Aqua serve him, why Ansem was so cruel, or why Riku stayed aloof. This attachment, this concern, no, this love for the servant in his grip was a weakness. Roxas had deliberately let Xion break a rule, probably to get her in trouble and breaking orders himself. That kind of behavior needed to be punished, especially here in front of the rest of the House staff.

But Kishi couldn’t do it. If anything, Kishi was a little mortified that he had, without a second thought, been willing to put a woman he barely knew above one of his most loyal companions and friends. Naminé had told him to follow the rules but do what felt right.

Kishi let go and Roxas stood still with his head bowed, waiting for his punishment.

“No dinner tonight,” Kishi ordered and the relief in the compound could be felt. It was barely a slap on the wrist for a serious infraction and they knew it. It made Kishi appear very weak, and there was some lingering fear that it would get back to his family.

“I will not be so lenient the next time,” the Prince cautioned. He couldn’t be. Letting something slide for old times sake, for love towards his people, was fine occasionally, but it was playing with fire. He desperately prayed that Roxas understood that. Even a minor thing in the future would have to be severely punished to make up for how light this punishment was.

Kishi huffed and turned to head back home, leaving them behind for the night. He shivered in the chill and felt the cold sap away the rest of the anger and leave him feeling sniffly, tired, and worried.

He couldn’t help feeling like he had made the wrong move in the dangerous game they were playing.

Chapter Text

Kishi’s thoughts were a puddle of mush. He couldn’t process words or coherent thoughts at all. Everything was the most basic of instincts and dim recognition of external stimulus. He was cold and tired first and foremost and, much more distantly, there were people talking and touching. He thought he could make out some of what they were saying but his focus was on the swelling in his sinuses, the turning of his stomach, and the spin in his brain that couldn’t quite make the 360 degrees turn but kept stopping in the 180 range.

It was the light smacking on his cheeks that finally brought him around and then there was a light in his eyes, hands on his neck and forehead, and more talking. Dimly he recognized Vexen, the on-call doctor, but it was a fleeting thought lasting about two seconds.

Kishi pushed at them and tried to roll over to go back to sleep but a firm grip kept him upright and he growled irritably in response. The longer he stayed up the more things were clicking into place and the discomfort was becoming more apparent. His head hurt, his nose hurt, his body ached, and he was uncomfortably cold.

No doubt about it, the Prince was sick.

He blinked a few times to try and wake up a little more. Aqua was talking to Ven who was watching him with worry. They left together and it was quiet for what felt like an eternity in which time Kishi went from feeling cold to feeling incredibly hot, too hot. He started kicking the covers off.

“Keep this one on, okay?” Xion was saying as she pulled the sheet back up to cover him. He blinked a bit. She had just come out of nowhere and he was trying to process that for a second before he gave up entirely and resumed kicking it off with a whine.

"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 have the strength to resist.

"I know, I know, but... let's get you some fruit, okay?"

Kishi tried to sit up better. Food didn’t sound amazing but maybe it would help his upset stomach some. He really thought he was upright, but Xion disagreed. He felt the bed shift a little as she sat next to him and put an arm around his shoulders. She pulled him up a little farther and help him steady while he struggled to get a couple berries down.

She’s really warm, he thought to himself. He closed his eyes to fall asleep leaning against her, but Xion moved out from under him and started laying him back down. Kishi whined his protest and held on tightly. That was the last thing he remembered.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It could’ve been days, it could’ve been hours, but it felt like a few minutes. He had weird dreams when he was sick, always nightmares. The latest was a recurring one and he never got to see the end. He was fighting Xemnas on a battlefield that was full of bodies and eerily quiet. Before he could see who won, a coughing fit woke him up and he was back to misery. Apparently, cold was the temperature of the next few minutes. He shivered.

"It'll help cool you down before Sora comes with the next round of tea," he heard Xion say. She was holding a cup out towards him, and he looked at it with some confusion before reaching to take it from her.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. It was hard to believe that of all people, she would be the one by his bedside. He expected Roxas or Ven to be here. There was a confused squeezing in his chest as his sick brain awaited her answer.

"What do you mean? I kinda can't leave,” she responded.

"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." The squeezing tightened.

"You've told me yourself that you didn't want this."

"It still only happened because of me..." The tightness in his chest was unbearable and he felt his body wretch a little. It happened from time to time. It was as though his body was trying to cry but physically couldn’t. The alternative was an ugly chuffing sound that rapidly deteriorated 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. That answer surprised him, and he wished he could think that through a little more deeply.

"You're loved that much?" he asked, boiling his thoughts down to one question.

"Yes. My family is more important than anything."

"No, like, they love you so much they would go to war?"

"Yes."

"Oh." The squeeze on his chest was back. It made him cough. What was that like? To be loved so deeply?

"Lunch should be here soon, do you need more water?"

He nodded and sniffled a little. His nose was all stuffy and runny.

Xion got up and left the room and he focused on propping himself up a little better. There was no shortage of pillows and his loyal pet had finally noticed he was more awake and got up to investigate. The wolf started licking him and kept it up until Xion returned. He felt her stacking more pillows behind his back to keep him upright.

"Goofy, be good," she said quietly but firmly.

The wolf’s definition of good wasn’t the same as theirs. His fluffy ass and pointy hips plopped down on Kishi’s lap and he groaned on impulse.

“Sit there,” he heard Xion say and Goofy got up, offering a little relief. “Good boy.”

A teacup was handed his direction with a gentle warning, “Might be a little cold.”

He grimaced as the leaf water, since it would be criminal to call this tea at this temperature, worked its way to his upset stomach.

“This doesn’t taste good…” he informed her.

“It’s medicine, it’s not supposed to taste good.” For a brief second Kishi wanted to be angry with her for talking back but his head spun, and his level of maturity plummeted. Instead of a manly, coherent, in-charge response, he just whined like a small 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?"

Actually, yes. He nodded with a pout and sniffed to clear his nose. She left, presumably downstairs. Kishi didn’t have a full kitchen in the house. He could have but what use did he have for a kitchen that he didn’t know how to use? Cooking was slave work. It was beneath him. That said, sometimes he got munchy in the night, so he did have a pantry and a stove tucked into a room on the ground floor. That’s where the tea was kept too.

D-Did she get lost? It felt like she was taking forever. Kishi played with the mug in his hand and tried to keep his panic reined in but it was getting out of control and what if she wandered out again and left him all alone while he was vulnerable??

She came back and his train of thought jumped the rail and off a cliff as he was handed the honey and he immediately felt better. He added a little spoon of honey to the tea, gave it a sip, and nodded happily to himself to acknowledge the success of his correction.

"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?"

"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." It wasn’t often but sometimes he felt like he could hear her at night. Ven had told him that she cried to herself periodically but whether or not his servant had personally witnessed as much, Kishi couldn’t be sure. Making her take care of him on top of this awful situation she was in… it just felt like a lot to hang on her.  

"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. It wasn’t really what he wanted, but he had already decided her happiness was the priority.

He was getting ahead of himself, there was no way his father would allow that, not after she had the opportunity to see the estate. She was a security risk now.

But if it was an option, it would fix a lot of problems.

"Is that so?"

"Mm, yeah," he mumbled, "I don't have any idea what to do with a wife." The tea was making him sleepy but if it was supposed to alleviate other symptoms, it was taking its sweet time to do so.

"You don't have stories to fall back on?"

"Not good ones."

"Do you want me to share some of mine?" Xion asked. He thought maybe he heard some eager there, but he might have imagined it.

Kishi wiggled a little to get comfortable. The mug in his hands was still a little warm and he held it close to his chest. There was a brief cooling sensation on his head as the rag slipped off his forehead in the pursuit of comfort.

“Yeah, okay,” he invited. Stories were good. Stories while sick were even better.

Xion fixed the rag on his head while she started her tale, "My favorite was a rather long one, the tale of the Count and the baker..."

He fell asleep to the music of her voice.

Once again the nightmares settled in. Kishi’s recurring adventure was still the highlight. Every time he fought Xemnas in his dream, he thought he could make out further details but the dreams were semi-lucid and any time Kishi tried to alter the script too far, the dream would reset him. He was sure there was mud under his feet and distant firelight of a camping army but beyond that, it was hard to tell.

Once again, the dream ended before he got to see who won. This time the offending alarm clock was his bladder. It was hard to argue with that one.

The tea was doing its job and Kishi was feeling well enough to get out of bed to take himself to the bathroom. He wasn’t vomiting and he wasn’t tired, but the cough was still bad, and his head felt like it was twice its normal size. If his sinuses got anymore swollen, he was certain brain matter would start leaking out his ears.

Xion was there when he woke and there when he settled back into bed. He studied her a bit as he got back under the covers. Why was she doing this? Was it a boredom thing? Maybe she was coming around to her job as a servant.

He wiggled uncomfortably. It was starting to get dark outside so his brain felt like he should be getting tired, but his body was sick of resting and the internal struggle was a frustrating tug of war.

The door opened downstairs and Kishi heard people come up to his room. It was Ven and Roxas arriving with dinner. Admittedly some of the wiggling was now out of happiness seeing them.

“I brought a big pot for everyone,” Roxas said as he put a huge cooking pot on the side table. There was some steam sneaking out around the lid and Kishi had never missed his sense of smell more.

Ven had an armful of bowls and spoons that he set next to the food and Soba…er, Sora was arriving with more tea.

“Is everyone going to eat in here?” Kishi asked. There wasn’t a lot of space, but the company would be nice.

“Unless you want to eat alone,” Xion offered.

“No. Stay,” he ordered quickly. Roxas and Ven got the hint and started handing out food. Xion personally got Kishi’s for him and handed it over as she settled down in her chair next to his bed. He was grateful, but still confused by her sudden willingness to care for him.

“I’ll get Vani,” Sora said, and the retainer disappeared downstairs.

Oh, it was soup. Kishi sipped at it and immediately burned his tongue, but he didn’t care. Chicken soup always tasted the best when one was sick.

The bed shifted as Roxas climbed up to sit next to Kishi. Goofy didn’t budge at all so he had to climb over the animal. Ven sat on the end of the bed where there was still plenty of space.

"Apparently I made an error in storytelling earlier," Xion said in the quiet.

Kishi felt Roxas go rigid beside him. That alone made Kishi nervous and suspicious.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

"...I've been told you prefer to be read to."

"Um, I mean, yeah, I like being read to..." Kishi could feel his face getting warmer with shame. She didn’t think he was a child, did she? He was too old to be read to, sick or not, what if she thought less of him? "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." The shame faded just a tad.

"We're both nineteen. Neither of us are children."

Her two retainers finally caught up and Ven waved to them. They settled in at the end of the bed with their own food and Kishi had to take a second to appreciate the sheer quantity of people. He had never had this many people in his bedroom at once before, much less to eat a meal together. Hell, this was the most intimate big dinner ever seen under this roof at all. What a motley crew. They had himself, the master of the house, his bride-to-be (maybe), and four servants, two of which weren’t even his.

He sipped his soup again and the contentment of a family dinner faded back into self-conscious judgement.

“And I can read,” he defensively reminded everyone there.

"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."

Where the hell did that hostility come from? Kishi blinked a little in surprise. The air felt heavy all of a sudden and there was a tension there that he couldn’t quite place.

"I wasn't trying to be."

Vanitas glared at Roxas while Ven and Sora tried to pretend they didn’t notice the confrontation.

"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."

…did he miss something somewhere? Oh queens, how long had he been sleeping?

"Please, sir, enjoy your soup," Ven provided, neatly changing the subject.

Kishi watched them all carefully and with some poorly concealed confusion. Sora and Vanitas were exchanging looks that made him uncomfortable, Roxas looked like he was going to throw his soup at Xion who was eating like nothing happened, and Ven had that strangled distressed look like a puppy dog trying to hide an accident. This felt like something he wanted to deal with when he was feeling less sick, so he just ate in silence until the soup turned to tea and the servants were cleaning up.

"I want to hear the rest of the story," he told Xion as he started settling in again. His mind felt less foggy now, so it was the best time to hear more.

"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.

"I want to know what happens," Kishi responded dismissively. Why was Roxas being so pushy?

"The girl and the second son were deployed near each other as the battle began..." Xion continued.

It was an interesting story to say the least. It felt like a slow love story at first and it probably was at its core, but Kishi enjoyed the world that she was painting for him most, and it was easy to get caught in the narrative and the sound of her voice. It pained him to keep interrupting her with his coughing, but she was unwaveringly patient with him even when the coughing sapped his energy and he found himself struggling to stay awake.

“Sir, maybe it’s time for you to go to sleep,” Roxas told him. The servant had stayed behind to watch over him but was eerily close and anxious.

“I’m fine.”

“You’re falling asleep, Ki. Let me tuck you in-“

“Roxas, I said I’m fine,” Kishi snapped, patience was at its limit too, “you’re dismissed for the night.”

“You’re sick, Ki, just let me-“

Don’t make me repeat myself.”

Roxas shot Xion a glare but nodded and excused himself regardless.

"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," Xion offered. Kishi huffed irritably. He didn’t like having to get forceful with Roxas. Kishi knew that the servant didn’t like Xion but after their confrontation, Kishi was sure that Roxas had gotten the message. They needed to be getting along.

“Continue,” he ordered.

"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..."

Kishi fell asleep on another cliffhanger.

It was another coughing fit that woke him up, but the medicine had done its job well enough and he immediately recognized the dull light and early Spring chill of an overcast morning.

“Good morning,” Xion greeted.

“Morning,” he managed to wheeze, “were you here all night?”

He saw her nod out of the corner of his eye and grunted as he made himself sit up.

“Did you sleep?” he asked.

"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. Why the hell would she stay up all night to watch over him?

"...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?" she countered.

He felt a surge of irritation at her cutting him off to argue but getting angry with her after she had just done something kind seemed inappropriate. This one could slide.

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

"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. Was she even listening?

"So...like hot flashes?"

"Yeah." He started coughing.

"Water?" she offered but he wasn’t thirsty.

"I want to know how the story ends,” he requested instead.

She took a deep breath and began again, “The Lions of Fearghus were camped outside of the Empire capital..."

Roxas arrived with breakfast as her story came to a close. He felt like there might have been more to it, the ending was satisfying but open-ended, like there were plans for a sequel or spin-off. Kishi took the offered plate from Roxas and started picking at the warm muffin there while Xion made a short bow. He had no idea why she did that.

"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 retired to her room. Both Roxas and Kishi watched the door close behind her in silence.

“How long have I been sick?”

“Since yesterday morning,” Roxas answered. He poured Kishi some more tea.

“And she’s been by my side the entire time?”

“I guess so,” the servant grumbled.

“…is there a problem Roxas? You looked like you were going to hit her last night.”

“No, sir, I would just like to be doing my own job.”

Kishi sighed and said, “there’s plenty to do without her, you could use the help.”

“But I read to you when you’re sick and none of these ridiculous tales that she’s making up on the spot!”

“Enough,” the Prince growled, “she’s a part of this house now, Rox. I don’t like having to repeat myself because you want to be upset! I have my breakfast; your work is done.”

Roxas seemed to get the hint and took a mental step back.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I would prefer to not leave you alone.”

Kishi was already getting out of bed. His head still hurt, and his nose was swollen and runny, but he didn’t feel as weak as before and was starting to feel antsy. The Prince went to his closet for a warmer robe and heavy slippers.

“Let me get those,” Roxas offered but Kishi ignored him and got it all himself while the blonde shuffled awkwardly behind him. Goofy wagged his tail from the bed and sneakily finished what Kishi didn’t eat of his muffin.

“Is the fire going in the den?” Kishi asked.

“Yes, sir.”

He headed downstairs with Roxas behind him, hovering quietly in case he was needed. Good. Kishi didn’t want to argue right now, and he was still angry that Roxas was trying to pick a fight with Xion still. Maybe if he had punished Roxas appropriately, this wouldn’t be happening, but it was a stretch to assume they would automatically get along. For now, maybe Roxas needed to be assigned to one of Kishi’s brothers. Some distance from Xion would hopefully help the man cool down.

There were already a few books pulled out and sitting on the table. Kishi recognized the worn covers from when he was a kid. These were his old favorites to hear and Roxas’ favorite to read. The servant probably pulled them out yesterday in anticipation of needing them.

Kishi pulled out a book from the middle of the stack. It was a tale of daring knights and a trapped Princess. The climax of the book was a daring fight between the underdog knight and a vicious guard dragon. Kishi and Riku used to play pretend where Kishi played the knight and Riku was the dragon. As they got older Kishi remembered being jealous that Riku got to act out their childhood story in person. They had gotten into a fight about it and Riku promised to help Kishi get the chance to live out his dream someday. The promise was empty now with the dragons presumed extinct but it had cleared the air between them at the time.

He sat down to read and the book unfolded with its twists, turns, and excitement but, somehow, the tale wasn’t quite as inspiring as he remembered.

Chapter Text

Kishi finished the book around the time Ventus came by with dinner. It was still a kind of soup but leaning more towards a hearty stew this time. The vegetables were soft, and the beef was tender, so Kishi was happy with it. Spending the afternoon by the fire and then following up with a good meal had the Prince feeling better already.

This was a yearly sickness for him so he knew it wouldn’t last long. The first 24 hours would suck and then there was about a week or so of sniffling and rough nights, but his days could go back to clear headedness and some relaxing rest.

He used a soft roll to mop up the rest of the broth and then handed his bowl off to Roxas who was still lingering nearby. There wasn’t any sign of Xion yet, which surprised Kishi a little bit since her men had gone upstairs before dinner to wake her. The Prince watched the fire for a minute and listened but he couldn’t hear her moving about either.

Curiosity and concern got the best of him, and he went upstairs to check on her himself.

Sora and Vanitas were both in her room fussing over her with concern. Sora was trying to get her to come around and Vanitas was bringing more blankets over to tuck her in. Xion was ghostly pale and the sweat on her face glimmered in the dim light of her room. She was shivering and mumbling nonsense words to herself.

Immediately Kishi felt guilty. It made sense that she would get sick after being in such close proximity to him for the worst of it and her immune system hadn’t adjusted to Scala yet. However this usually hit him, it was likely to hit her a lot harder.

He stood awkwardly in the doorway until Vanitas noticed him. The aura in the room changed dramatically and Kishi felt his own magic churn in discomfort within him. It was hard to tell why this servant had that effect. Maybe it was sheer emotional drive. For as stone-faced and quiet as the man was, he had some powerful emotions bottled up inside him and these ones were not positive.

If looks could kill.

Kishi returned the glare with one of his own and the guilty feeling went away. The disrespect from her men was obnoxious and inappropriate but it didn’t make Xion any less sick. They held each other’s gaze for a long moment while Kishi tried to decide if he should concern himself with her. She was part of his house now and she had been kind to him while he was sick. Even if it was just doing her duty, he had a duty to her too.

“Move her to my bed,” he ordered.

Sora looked up at him with confusion. The brunette was too worried about Xion to glare at the Prince. There wasn’t enough energy to be mad at him right now.

“Why?” Vanitas hissed through clenched teeth. The wariness wasn’t lost on Kishi, and he couldn’t really blame them for that one. Considering his brothers and Scala culture, asking to have a vulnerable woman moved to his bed was inviting rumors.

“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Kishi hissed back. Sketchiness of the request aside, the man was still a servant, and the contract should’ve waived any concern. “Move her or none of you eat tonight.”

Vanitas shook with barely concealed rage, but he didn’t argue any farther.

“Come on, Sor.”

Sora anxiously pulled the covers off Xion and scooped her up to carry her to the Prince’s bed.

“Tuck her in, make sure she’s comfortable,” Kishi ordered further and then excused himself to head downstairs. Ven and Roxas were finishing up their own food.

“She stand you up?” Roxas asked.

“She’s sick. Have blankets and pillows brought to the parlor. I’ll sleep in my armchair until she’s well.”

Ven and Roxas both jerked a little and looked between each other with alarm.

“Sir?” Ven started, “I might have misheard…?”

“No, you didn’t mishear. She’s staying in my bed until she feels better.”

Why?” 

“Because she took care of me so now, we’re taking care of her.”

Roxas opened his mouth to argue, took a deep breath instead, and then stormed upstairs to obey.

“Ki, you’re still sick too,” Ven tried to reason, “and you are more important than her. Let her stay down here and you stay in your own bed.”

Kishi shook his head and said, “Ven, I feel better and she’s taking it a lot harder than I did. It’s warmer down here by the fireplace anyway.”

The Prince picked out a different book and grabbed his tea to relax. He settled in by the fire and was barely to page two when a ruckus upstairs had Goofy slinking into the parlor with his tail between his legs. Kishi couldn’t make out words in the sharp yells, but it was evident that there was something going on in his room. Ven cleared out fast to go deal with it and the shouting stopped but any relaxing evening was effectively ruined by Ven pushing Roxas and Vanitas through the house to throw them out the front door.

“Do I want to know?” Kishi asked blandly when Ven returned.

“Just the squabbles of the staff, sir.”

He grunted and settled in for the night.

The next morning started with a potty break for Goofy and then a sleepy check on the fiancé. Kishi was pleased to see that Ven had stayed the night as had Sora so any of the gross sick stuff wasn’t his concern. He was less pleased to see that Xion had barely moved, and her condition had worsened. Her retainer was asleep in the chair beside her bed. It must’ve been a late night.

Kishi put his hand on Xion’s forehead and then fixed her blankets. The fever was worse. If she didn’t improve in the first 24 hours, he was going to insist on getting her a doctor.

He went downstairs when he heard the door open. Vanitas snuck past him and a minute later Roxas showed up with some warm, fresh bread and a porridge made of rice and who knew what else. Kishi wrinkled his nose up at it, but Roxas shoved it his direction anyway.

“Yeah, it’s as gross as it smells,” he confirmed, “but it should help you feel better.”

Kishi grunted and took it to his armchair. Goofy moved to make space for him before settling down under his master’s feet.

“Want to tell me about last night?”

Roxas looked away and steeled himself and Kishi narrowed his eyes.

“Ven was trying to cover for you so it must have been something.”

“Her bastard retainer was snapping about you getting her sick. He made it sound like you did it maliciously, so I snapped back,” Roxas explained, “it’s just a servant-to-servant thing, Ki. You really don’t have to worry about it.”

Kishi glared at him a second. Roxas was on thin ice as it was, but Kishi was willing to look the other way since nothing went further than yelling as far as he knew. This way he had some plausible deniability as long as no one called them out on it.

Roxas and Ven went about their chores, Kishi napped and then read books, and all the while Xion slept upstairs. Periodically, he wandered that way to check on her, but Vanitas’ presence was unwelcome, and Sora seemed to know what he was doing for the most part. Even so, as the hours ticked by, Kishi became increasingly nervous that she did not seem to want to wake up.

Around lunchtime, there was a knock at the door and Ven let Aqua in. She was holding a handkerchief to her nose and mouth when she came into the parlor.

“You look better than I thought you would,” she observed.

Kishi groaned at her and tried to look even more sick.

“Don’t give me that. You still have to study even if you aren’t in class.”

Well damn, so much for that. He huffed.

“Yeah, whatever, can we get the doctor here?” Kishi asked.

“You don’t need to see the doctor again.”

“Not for me.”

Aqua lifted an eyebrow.

“Xion is sick,” he explained.

She drummed her fingers on her clipboard thoughtfully before she said, “Kishi, she’s a servant.”

“And we take care of our own,” he countered.

“Don’t get snappy with me, Prince. I’m saying it’s a little harder. I will see if he has some time, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”

He irritably threw his book past her. Aqua didn’t even flinch or blink.

“A temper tantrum isn’t going to work,” she cautioned.

“Sure it will.”

“I’m sure your father would like to know why the doctor is making house calls for a slave.”

Kishi felt ice in his veins at the idea of his father being involved in any of this, but he was also still sick himself and damnit if Xion wasn’t his and he didn’t like that she wasn’t feeling well and Xion hadn’t even woken up today. She needed the doctor more than he had and he was the Prince and should get what he wanted.

“He won’t get anything he wants either if she dies from a fever,” Kishi snapped back. He and Aqua glared at each other for a minute before she got up.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she reassured him and then excused herself. Kishi listened to her leave and held still in the quiet that followed until he felt safe enough to resume reading.

He was dozing off after an early dinner with a book open on his chest when he heard chatter in the hallway. Sora was talking to Ven.

“…yeah, she woke up for a few minutes, but she’s gone back to sleep,” Sora was saying.

“Is the water cold enough?” Ven asked.

“Yeah, it’s helping a little bit.”

“She should eat something if she can.”

“We got her a little bit of bread.”

“I’ll go heat her up some soup,” Ven offered.

“No,” came Roxas’ voice, “I’ll get it.”

Kishi kept his eyes closed but he was pleased and maybe a little suspicious. He hadn’t expected Roxas to come around that fast but offering to help with Xion’s care was a good step in the right direction… or maybe it was just because the Prince didn’t need immediate attention. Guess the doctor still hadn’t come by either.

Goofy got up to make his rounds as well. The loyal animal was concerned too. Just as Kishi had been checking on her, Goof had been too. The wolf was taking his turn now to keep watch over her.

Kishi stretched out the sleep from his limbs, read another couple chapters and then got up when he saw Roxas making tea and heading upstairs with a warm bowl of soup. He dropped the book onto his blankets, blew his nose, and then headed that direction.

“She’s awake,” Roxas said gently as they passed on the stairs, “tea is almost ready. Hurry back down.”

“She’s okay?”

“She’s awake,” the blonde repeated with a shrug and went downstairs while Kishi went up. He pushed the door open quietly and stood in the doorway.

“…fault either. Move, you dumb dog. You’re overheating me,” Xion was telling Goofy as she scratched his ears. The wolf was wagging his tail and refusing to budge even when the scratches turned into shoves.

“Goofy, outside,” Kishi said, and the wolf obeyed. He grumbled the whole way, but the animal settled down by the balcony door to wait for someone with the thumbs to open it. Kishi turned his head to cough for a second and then went to stand by her.

“You look awful,” he said.

"Gotta look the part," Xion said.

"Roxas has tea. I'll tell him to bring some up."

"Tea sounds good."

A tickle in his throat had him coughing. Maybe Kishi needed tea too.

"You, go let the wolf out," Kishi ordered, motioning to Vanitas, "I'll tell Rox to bring up the tea."

Speak of the devil. Roxas had wandered up looking for the Prince.

"Ki, you really need to get off your feet."

"Rox, go get tea for Xion," he ordered.

"...I really need to prioritize you. Let's get you back downstairs."

"No. You need to obey. Go get tea," Kishi repeated. The irritated bubble was back. Roxas took a deep breath and held it, steeling himself, but he didn’t argue and turned to go 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." Kishi almost involuntarily took a step forward to stop her as she started to get up, but he saw her hesitation as the cooler air settled on her.

"No, stay. I'm comfortable in the parlor," he insisted.

"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," Kishi half-joked. She pulled the blankets back up and started to settle back in.

“Okay,” Xion mumbled.

"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,” Kishi caught himself before he said, ‘a slave,’ “He's just busy. 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 affectionately, “and you did the same for me."

She studied him briefly and then turned pale with a muttered, "I need a bucket—"

Kishi dove on the closest one he could find and passed it to her so she could vomit.

"Sorry."

"Don't apologize. Illness doesn't discriminate."

"Still gross," she said. Yeah, it really, really was. He felt his own stomach turn at the smell, but he held himself together.

“Rest,” he instructed and then hurried out of there before he could be sick himself.

The next morning a coughing fit had Kishi waking up earlier than he wanted to be, but it gave him a chance to bundle up, let the wolf out, and use the bathroom himself. He yawned and shuffled to the dining room table to see about tea to calm down his aching throat and help clear up the congestion. The pot was still there, and the tea was cold.

Kishi threw out the old stuff and started going about heating up the stove to get a fresh pot going. Making tea was a servant’s job but Kishi still knew how to do it. Making and serving tea was a big deal for some of the other cultures that had been taken over by the Empire. In the off chance Kishi was expected to visit those allies, he needed to have basic etiquette down. He moved the pot to the table to steep and sat down to wait.

He opened his book but stopped a second when he realized there were too many teacups. Kishi frowned. There was only one dirty cup, and the rest of the fine set was still here. He stared at it with an irritated feeling spreading in his chest.

The front door opened with a soft click and Kishi heard footsteps.

“Roxas,” the Prince growled, and the footsteps stopped in the doorway, “did you bring Xion her tea last night?”

There was an awkward silence and Kishi got up so he could properly lord over the servant.

“Answer me,” he ordered.

“No,” Roxas said quietly.

“Did you forget?”

“…No.”

The irritation turned to rage and Kishi felt himself shaking. At this point it didn’t even matter why Roxas had blatantly disobeyed. Just that he did. All the shots taken at Xion, letting her leave the estate to get her in trouble, fighting with her retainers, arguing with Kishi, this blatant disobedience…

“Sir, let me take care of her today,” Roxas said, whether by way of redemption or for other intent, Kishi wasn’t sure, but he was way too angry to say yes.

That won’t get you out of this,” Kishi hissed.

Ven cleared his throat anxiously and mumbled, “Um, Highness, we have guests this morning.”

“Trouble in paradise?” crooned the Regent. Of all people, Xigbar and Xemnas were standing in Kishi’s foyer. They seemed so awkward, like unordered placeholder décor.

For a second, Kishi wasn’t sure how to react. There was zero reason for them to be here unless Aqua had made good on her threat, but Kishi was so mad and still sick, and he resisted the urge to cough away the tickle in his throat as he snapped at them.

“What are you two doing here?”

“We heard the baby in the family wasn’t feeling well,” Xigbar explained, “and came by to offer our well wishes.”

“What terrible timing,” Xemnas lamented, “we would have delayed our arrival had we known your house was in such disarray.”

Damn it. Damn them. This timing was horrible. Roxas was standing still with his head bowed but this close Kishi could tell that Roxas was shaking. It wasn’t the same white-knuckled, angry shaking that Kishi had going on. This was fear.

“Isn’t this the same slave that talked back to you in front of the staff the other night?” Xigbar asked.

“The slave that you let off with a warning? There was a rumor last night that the very same was starting fights,” Xemnas added. Both of them had awful grins on their faces and Kishi was starting to wonder if they hadn’t planned this in some way. Damnit, Kishi knew that they were being watched. He knew that they were playing with fire. What happened if they found out that Xion was sleeping in his bed on top of the dissent from Roxas?

“What happened now?” the regent inquired with a playful drawl.

Something told Kishi that they already knew. If Kishi lied now, or let Roxas off the hook now, they would know in a heartbeat and use it against them. Xigbar might even be the one holding up the doctor for Xion. This was another test, another step in the game. They just took their turn, now it was Kishi’s move.

“Roxas disobeyed me again,” Kishi told them, and he saw Roxas flinch ever so slightly under the measured words. Kishi was trying to keep his voice monotone and measured.

“Surely you’ll just let him off with another slap on the wrist,” Xigbar tsked, disappointed.

“…no, not this time,” Kishi growled, “the constant disobedience cannot be tolerated.”

The Prince reached out and grabbed Roxas by his shirt and started dragging him towards the door. They were moving fast enough and at such an angle that Roxas was having a hard time keeping his footing and had to stumble along past the Regent and Crown Prince. For a second it looked like Ven was going to follow but Kishi stopped him with a pointed glare. He didn’t want Ven to have to see this.

Kishi was still bundled up tight and wearing his heavy-duty slippers, so he looked awkward leading the train down to the servant’s quarters. Xigbar and Xemnas were following at a leisurely pace, periodically offering words of praise and encouragement to Kishi as they stormed into the servant’s courtyard.

Off to one side of the courtyard were a series of three poles with a looped rope and a bamboo rod hanging from each of them. They were rarely used. Their presence was meant to be more of a threat than the use of them. Kishi knew in the early days of his father’s reign, servants were more regularly punished here. It was to set that precedent, that cautious warning that was so severe that it echoed through generations of the staff.

This wasn’t what Kishi wanted to do, and he nearly faltered when he felt Roxas dig his heels in a little bit when he realized where they were going, but they were backed into a corner, and maybe, maybe Kishi had been too lenient to this point. If Kishi had been a better master, more focused on discipline and order under his roof… It was too late for that now.

He threw Roxas on the ground in front of the pole.

“Take your shirt off,” Kishi ordered.

Roxas shook a bit and Kishi tried desperately to convey with his eyes the disappointment, regret, and fear in his own heart. They looked at each other for a moment and Kishi saw Roxas’ eyes flicker to Xemnas and Xigbar behind Kishi. The servant wasn’t stupid. He must have understood. Shakily, Roxas obeyed. He took his shirt off, folded it, and set it aside before turning to face the pole. He took a deep breath and reached up to hold onto the looped rope.

By now a crowd was gathering. No sign of Aqua or Terra, which Kishi counted as a blessing. He didn’t want Aqua to know he was doing this just yet.

“Little brother,” Xemnas said, “allow me. You’re still unwell.”

Kishi spun and bore his teeth at his brother with a snapped, “No. This is my servant. I’ll handle it.”

The little smile on his brother’s face made his stomach churn more than Xion’s vomit had but Kishi knew he had to do this himself. Xemnas would’ve killed Roxas.

Kishi beat Roxas with the bamboo rod twenty times. He didn’t falter, flinch, or slow down, not even when Roxas screamed or when Xigbar tried to offer advice to make the pain last. Going fast meant it would be over more quickly and the cuts wouldn’t be quite so deep. Even so, blood speckled the courtyard and Kishi’s hands and robe. By the fifth swing, Kishi felt so numb it was just the motions. He didn’t find joy in it, like Xemnas or Ansem might have, but he couldn’t show weakness either so when Roxas finally slumped to his knees, Kishi didn’t move to help him.

He tossed the rod on the ground and said, “I don’t care what you think of Xion. You will not disobey me again.”

Kishi turned away and walked up to Xigbar.

“Xion needs to see a doctor,” he growled, “I expect to see him at my door before lunch.”

“Of course, Prince Kishi,” Xigbar said with his signature smirk and that wild, pleased look in his eye.

Kishi gave Xemnas a firm glare, a challenge even, and then walked past them to head back up the hill. He kept his pace slow despite the blood drying on his robe and hands. He was disgusted with himself but maybe he bought them some time and, hopefully, Roxas actually learned his lesson.

The Prince hurried to the bathroom the moment he was home, avoiding Ven as he frantically cleaned up.

“Kishi? Are you okay? Where’s Roxas?” Ven asked through the door.

“He has the rest of the day off,” Kishi said. Ven would find out eventually, but Xion needed to be a priority and he couldn’t have Ven out of commission too. “He needs to cool his head and I need your help today. The doctor should be here before lunch. Bring me a change of clothes too please.”

“…okay.”

Once Kishi was changed and clean, he took a breath and tried to get his composure back. A part of him was still shaking. He hadn’t forbidden Roxas from bathing. He hoped they got him healed up. He went upstairs with a book to wait for Xion to wake.  

She came around a couple awkward hours later. Vanitas had been in the room with Kishi the whole time and he had never made it past the next page of his book. Kishi’s thoughts were elsewhere.

"Good morning," the Prince said when she slowly came around and started the arduous process of working the sleep out of her eyes.

She moaned and greedily took the water he offered her to chug it.

"...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 wrinkled her face at him. It was lopsided and kind of cute. The weight on his chest felt a little bit lighter.

"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."

That was a good point, and he didn’t have a good reason.

"Integration?" he offered as an answer but realized maybe she was asking that only her people care for her. Suddenly he felt a little less welcome.

He closed his book and got up as he said, "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. It just sort of slipped out. He felt like a damn hypocrite saying that after this morning.

"That's always the goal."

He snorted and turned to leave with a mumbled, "I'll let your people care for you."

"Be strong so you can be kind," Xion said to his back.

Fuck. The weight on his chest nearly doubled. What kind of fairy tale did she come from where that was what leadership could be? Strength was strength. Power was power. It was as simple as that, and his family was power. They were expected to be feared and kindness was an exploitable weakness. It was a threat to the Imperial family’s utopian reign and immortality.

He had been kind to Roxas before. If he hadn’t had been, maybe Kishi wouldn’t have felt like such an extreme punishment was necessary. Maybe Xigbar and Xemnas wouldn’t have shown up under false pretenses to apply that non-verbal pressure. Damnit, he wanted to race back there and check on his friend, but that kindness too would be punished.

"I'll check on you later." He left.

True to his word, Kishi returned after an hour or so.

"...she okay?" he asked.

"The fever's just getting worse and she's talking to a ghost. Does she look okay?" Vanitas snapped at him.

"Watch yourself," Kishi scolded, "or you'll be punished too. I'll put more of a push on getting a doctor."

Again, Kishi left. After another two hours of waiting in silence, he went looking for the doctor and was relieved to see Vexen walking up the hill with fury in his eyes. He led the way for the disgruntled doctor and stood by awkwardly through the exam.

He was numb as Xion was poked and prodded. He was numb as she talked to people that weren’t there. He barely heard her retainers pleading with her to come back to them. He barely noticed as the doctor shrugged past him to leave. Kishi shuffled awkwardly as he watched Vanitas with her, and his thoughts went back to the blood on his hands and his own servant on his knees in the courtyard just across the estate.

Right now, he envied her more than he could ever admit out loud.

Kishi didn’t feel well enough to check on her again until after he ate. Ven had left to go get the food and Kishi had been clear about no detours. They had potato pancakes which were starchy and gross but mostly for Xion.

He knocked on the door lightly and 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?" she asked, and he wanted to say no.

"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 went back downstairs, content that at least one good thing came out of today.

Chapter Text

Kishi’s next few days were a return to normalcy. Xion had felt well enough to return to her own bed and the House went back to a proper order and wellness. It was early that morning that Roxas and Ven showed up with breakfast to wake him.

Despite the beating a few days prior, Ven and Roxas continued to serve him. The day after the punishment, things had been rough between Kishi and Ven but the servant was dutiful and professional and kept his words to himself. Roxas had been given a bath and healed but his mood had changed to be more submissive. The punishment had served its purpose and both servants seemed to understand why Kishi had to go to such lengths, but the Prince still felt a knot of guilt fading in his belly.

“Morning Prince,” Ven greeted cheerfully as he gently shook Kishi’s shoulder to wake him.

Kishi groaned in response.

“I know you’re working on your bed head, but we’ve got something you’re gonna want to hear,” Roxas added. The joke helped ease any lingering tension, reminding them that they were getting back to normal.

“Is it good news?” the Prince mumbled from under his covers.

“I mean, it’s news.”

Kishi poked his head out and blinked in the dim dawn light. There was a pleasant fresh bread and eggs smell coming from the covered tray in Ven’s arms.

“Aqua told us to tell you that the Emperor is expecting you and Xion this morning.”

Any sleep that still clouded his mind instantly evaporated and Kishi was sitting up with a hasty, “when?”

“Few hours. Around nine.”

Around? Or at nine?” he asked.

“At nine,” Ven confirmed. He passed the tray over to Kishi.

Okay, there was some time. Not enough to think through all the possibilities, but enough to properly get ready, compose himself, and stress out.

“Will you need help getting ready?” Ven asked.

“No, you two are excused.”

Ven smiled and bowed politely but Roxas stayed put for a second.

“Try to worry too much, sir,” Roxas told him after a moment of thought, “you can take whatever he has to say.”

“…Thanks Rox.”

The servant nodded firmly and then left with his twin.

Kishi choked on some bread for a few moments when Goofy’s ears moved. He noticed the subtle movement and looked up to see Xion trying to sneak out of her room to start her morning routine. He waved a hand to get her attention and motioned for her to sit by him.

“Eat,” he managed to force out around a mouthful of bread.

"...I normally work out first, but okay." She came over to sit on a chair near his bedside and helped herself.

"We're going to see my father this morning."

She paused in her buttering and took a second to compose herself before asking, "Should I dress up?"

"Absolutely." Was his stress showing?

"I'll put in the effort, then. Do you know why he wants to see us?"

"It's probably about the engagement," Kishi guessed but really it could be anything.

"...that makes sense. When this morning?" She shoved her bread into her mouth with unladylike speed and Kishi was mildly impressed.

"Couple hours."

"I'll be ready,” she promised.

Kishi rubbed his face to try and focus less on her and more on his own food. He nearly matched her speed on the eggs.

"We need to be there early," he mumbled, mostly to himself.

"How early?"

"I don't know, fifteen minutes? I want to beat my brothers."

"Let's make it thirty, then," she suggested and then turned to go downstairs to bathe. Good call. Too early and the stress would show, not early enough and he wouldn’t hear the end of it.

Kishi got dressed and cleaned up while she was bathing. He was wearing one of his formal coats, going with a deep chocolate brown this time with white and silver accents and was pacing his room while Ven followed him around with a hairbrush. Despite being sent away, Ven still wanted to help and Kishi generally needed it with his diadem anyway.

Xion passed them briefly to her own room and Kishi paced a little faster until she finally appeared again. She was wearing the same uniform coat that he was, but with neater sleeves and a hood. Hers was a little darker too. Oh, her hair looked terrible. D-Did she brush it at all?

He took the brush from Ven and stepped in close to her to fuss with her hair.

"It's not really long enough to do anything with."

"I'm just trying to make it less messy," he huffed.

"Feel free to try whatever you want."

Oh, he definitely tried but it stayed flat, clumpy, and uneven. It was a little cute but it wasn’t regal and Kishi was determined to make her look… well, not like this.

He barely even noticed Aqua in the doorway until she said something.

"Good morning." He grunted an acknowledgement.

"Good morning, Master Aqua," Xion replied cordially.

"You both look nice," she praised, "Are you ready to go?"

No, but they never would be, so he just took a deep breath and nodded.

"Okay, let's go," Xion said.

Aqua led the way which was normal and Kishi was grateful for it. He wanted to spend the walk ignoring everything and focusing on his frame of mind. He had thought about it all morning and was determined to be as prepared as possible to control his reactions.

They should’ve left earlier. Ansem beat them there after all. Xigbar was smiling like a snake near the throne from where his father watched them approach. Naminé was off to the side next to a little man with a stack of paper and a pen and Terra was standing just behind her. Aqua went to stand next to him, leaving Kishi to stand next to Ansem in front of the dais. Ansem was surprisingly relaxed and hardly reacted until Riku and Xemnas arrived together. They both turned to bow their heads to the Crown Prince and then lined up in front of their father.

Xion stayed behind Kishi and off to the side, out of the way. Lining up like this, oldest to youngest, gave her a bit of a buffer from Ansem.

"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," the Emperor announced firmly and the little scribe furiously recorded his words.

Kishi felt his breath catch and had to take a second to mask how he felt. The heavy feeling of the unknown was lifting but it was replaced with an even heavier weight of responsibility and pressure. He could almost feel Ansem fuming down the line, but didn’t want to move to check.

"Father, why was it necessary for all of us to be present for such trivial news?" Ansem asked, irritated. That confirmed it.

"You are all dismissed now that you have borne witness," Xehanort ignored the question to say instead.

The room relaxed and Ansem spun on his heel to leave, moving as swiftly as he dared. He felt Riku’s hand on his shoulder and turned to smile a little bit at him and get one mirrored back at him.

“Congrats Ki,” Riku said softly to avoid the room’s natural echo. They clasped hands warmly and then Riku stepped back so that Xemnas could also shake Kishi’s hand.

“Many well wishes to you and your House,” the Crown Prince said as they clasped hands.

Kishi bowed his head politely in thanks and Xemnas leaned down to whisper near his ear, “Your use as a political pawn does not make you a man. You are yet unproven.”

A shiver of anger raced down Kishi’s spine and then back up to settle in his skull. He could feel his father watching them and tempered his reaction, but he couldn’t find words to snap back before Xemnas and Riku were walking away. The weight got a lot heavier and Kishi could feel that uncontrollable temper in the back of his mind and building in his gut. It made him want to get out of there now but the Emperor was still watching them so he bit it back for now.

"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." A gift? What gift? Did they talk about a gift before?

"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."

He took a breath to maintain the dam and then turned to leave. He kept walking, kept focusing on holding himself together until he could see his front door. That’s when he heard Xion behind him and the fragile dam snapped.

"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.”

"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."

Looking at her he was realizing maybe she wasn’t trying to point out his flaws 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." Or at least he hoped he could have some say at least.

"...sorry."

He stopped in front of his door… wait, their door now… ugh. Kishi rubbed his face and looked over his shoulder at her, turning ever so slightly to study her better.

There had been a chance that she went to one of his brothers and took all those problems with her, but it was official now. They were engaged and the entire Empire was going to know it. By the word of the most powerful man in the world, she was his to have for whatever he deemed fit. Kishi officially owned her, and he was afraid.

This was what he wanted, problems and all, but Xemnas was right. She was marrying a boy. She had more military experience and titles than he did. What if he wasn’t good enough for her? That thought shook loose as fast as it popped in. He was still a Prince of Daybreak, by blood he was greater than any mortal man, but looking at the ocean in her eyes and the pink in her cheeks he wondered what kind of life they could have now that he felt like he was allowed to explore those thoughts.

Very gently, experimentally, he reached out and tucked some loose hair behind her ear, and let his fingers rest in the soft space in front of her ear. She held still for a moment and then leaned into his hand.

The returned intimacy made him recoil. He hadn’t expected her to react like that. Kishi shook his head rapidly for a second to clear his head and then went inside and upstairs to change into comfortable clothing.

He didn’t wait to see where she went or ended up. That desire to run, to just leave, was still there and he wanted to get away for a bit. So, he left his house as quickly as they had arrived. Goofy tagged along and led the way to Riku’s home.

Mickey tackled the wolf before they made it around the corner and then they were tearing through the yard and around the house while Kishi went up to the door to knock.

“It’s open!” he heard Riku call and Kishi took it as the invitation it was and let himself in.

Riku was still formally dressed and standing in the big foyer away from the door. He was talking to Xigbar, who waved politely. Kishi froze.

“I didn’t realize you had company,” he said and turned to leave but Xigbar raised a hand and the Prince stopped moving, whether compelled to by magic or out of some instinct to avoid offense, it was hard to tell.

“Don’t let me chase you off,” Xigbar teased.

“What’s up, Ki?”

“I was just trying to get out of the house,” Kishi said, “maybe get some advice.” No sense holding back now. Xigbar had a nose for liars that rivalled the Emperor’s.

“Advice about what?” Riku asked, “Are you worried about the announcement?”

“I’m not worried about anything…” Kishi huffed, defensive again. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it. “I’m just weighing my options.”

“Smart,” Xigbar praised and Kishi had to resist the urge to squirm at the compliment, “if you want my advice, you’ll keep her locked up, treat her as a concubine while you focus on getting control over the rest of your House.”

“Ansem would say the same,” Riku agreed.

Kishi frowned at the implications.

“If you’re referring to Roxas, that’s been dealt with,” Kishi growled.

“Has it now?” Xigbar teased and the slimy feeling was replaced with a paranoid fear. …which was probably what Xigbar had wanted in the first place. Kishi sighed. The mind games were getting old already. A potential eternity of this didn’t appeal to him.

“Yes. It has. I want to speak to my brother about this in private, your Highness, if you will forgive my brazenness.”

Xigbar’s sneer never faltered but he shrugged and excused himself without a fuss. He didn’t leave, but at least they had the room to themselves.

“Why is he even here?” Kishi hissed, keeping his voice soft.

“He checks in periodically,” Riku responded with a shrug, “for real though, do you know what you want to do about your fiancé?”

“No. I don’t.”

They stood there for a second in the awkwardness processing the unspoken feelings here. Riku wanted to help, but Xigbar’s looming presence wasn’t great. Kishi wanted advice, but this was uncharted territory for Riku too.

“Look, Ki, I don’t know what to say,” Riku admitted, “you’ve always been… different from us. So, I think you should do things different here too. I mean, if you’re really worried about the peace in your home, maybe you should talk about this with her.”

“…what?” Kishi asked with a surprised tilt of his head.

“We both know you’re not going to lock her away. So do what you said you were doing, weigh your options. She might have some too.”

“You’re just trying to get me to leave, aren’t you?”

“And they say you’re the slow one in the family.”

Kishi sighed.

“Another time, Ki,” Riku promised and let Kishi out. The door clicked softly behind him and Kishi sat down on the front step.

It was surprisingly sage advice, even it was just a hasty comment to make him leave. He didn’t have to listen to her if he didn’t like what she had to say, but Xion was trapped in this gilded cage with him. She probably had an opinion to share too.

And who knew, maybe she had the answer he was looking for all along.

Chapter Text

He was up early that morning taking Goofy out for a run to visit Mickey and loosely studying. Loosely being the keyword. Kishi was having a hard time absorbing information as he thought about how best to approach the topic with his now official fiancé.

Eventually, he got up to knock on her door. She answered almost immediately.
"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?"

"No, I just want to eat lunch with you," he said. Food was a good conversation starter, but he was still nervous.

"Okay. Should I do anything special?"

"Nope, just be available for lunch." He left before he could change his mind and headed straight to the kitchen to flop in a chair and sulk over this hole he was digging for himself.
“Uh, you’re not supposed to be here,” Ven hissed. Kishi looked over at where the house staff were eating breakfast while they prepared the Princes’ food. Most of them had startled animal eyes and were trying to move more slowly. Royalty in servant’s quarters wasn’t a common occurrence.
“What is taking all of you so long?” Aqua asked and they all scattered to get to their chores, “Prince Kishi. Why are you here distracting my staff?”
“I wanted to use the kitchen,” he explained and once again everyone froze to process that before Aqua had them all scrambling again.
“If you have a request, you can ask me and then I tell Remy.”

“No, no, this is for lunch. I wanted to make something for Xion.”

Aqua paused this time. She looked over at Ven who shrugged and then back to Kishi.

“You wanted to make it?”

“It just feels more meaningful… and it’s a guilt trip I can use,” he admitted.

Her expression dropped from happy romantic to disappointed but not surprised as she mumbled, “what an Oscura thing to say.”

Kishi scratched the back of his head but Aqua still went about moving the staff around to give him space to make what he wanted. He settled on vegetables and sandwiches because that was the hardest thing to mess up and he still needed some help from the resident chefs.

Once Remy was satisfied with the meal and presentation, Kishi headed out with the basket under his arm. What felt like an easy meal took most of the morning to make and he missed breakfast so this early lunch couldn’t have been better timed.

He changed into something light, the garden was always warm, and found her in the library with the basket under his arm.
“Ready?” he asked her. She put her book down and got up.

"I don't know what for, but yes."

"Lunch," he said simply with a neutral, guarded tone.
He led the way down the road to the estate’s Royal Garden. It was a sprawling collection of trees, plants, gazebos, paths, fountains, ponds, flora, and fauna with its own ecosystem that always felt independent of the weather. If it was early Spring out there in Scala, then it felt nearly like Summer in here beyond the narrow golden gate. The flowers were starting to bloom and there were faint sounds of buzzing insects. Kishi knew they kept bees and other pollinators here.

“It’s nice out today,” Xion said from the path ahead of him. He closed the gate and latched it to keep the wildlife in.

“It’s spring,” he answered. The first week of March counted as Spring.

He led the way down the paths to a clearing that was deep enough in the trees to hide the walls and mute the sounds of the city. Kishi spread out a big blanket that he had brought for this picnic and then set the basket down on it.
"...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 said as she sat down across from him.  

"Well, we needed to talk." Even with the plants around.

"We do?"

Kishi clarified, "Yeah, about how much freedom I should give you when we're married."

"That is pretty important," she agreed. Xion seemed extra guarded now rather than the relaxed but wary she had been.

"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. Kishi watched her reactions carefully to try and properly judge if she was going to take advantage of his weakness in asking for her input.

"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. At least she was honest about her own interests. It didn’t seem like she was trying to tell him what she thought he wanted to hear.

"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."

He thought about that for a minute. She was a wild spirit still. Even if she seemed behaved now and had been behaving at home, the fire in her eyes was impossible to hide. Freedom would go a long way and she could be a very good servant but that meant other requirements.

"Would you be willing to be tattooed?" he asked her.

"...that would depend on the tattoo."

"A servant's tag." He tossed a couple cherry tomatoes up and relaxed a bit. The more time he spent with her the less he felt like he needed to be crazy guarded and controlling. Kishi liked that.

"...what are they for?" Xion asked.

"It's a physical mark of ownership."

"... I'd rather not. Maybe if it did something. But isn't that what rings are for?" Did she mean wedding rings? Those were easy enough to steal.

"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," Kishi joked. It wasn’t a very good joke and when Xion didn't say anything right away he wondered if maybe he relaxed a little bit too far.

"I'd like to be able to go out sometimes. A tattoo is worth that," she finally said.

"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 dug out one of the glasses and poured himself some wine. It was closer to juice than anything alcoholic. His sandwich tasted alright, and he dug around for those carrots he knew he packed.

“Not gonna eat?” he asked when he noticed her sitting still.

"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 grinned. Good, she needed the food, and her obedience was a good sign too. He did like that. Maybe some extra freedom for her would be okay.

Kishi flopped happily on the blanket. He may have been a winter sign, but he loved the warmth and while he soaked in the sun, he watched her with a guarded expression. She didn’t seem happy and was eating but not eating like she was just going through the motions like a doll. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking at all.

"...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."

So much for them getting along like a happy little family.

"Fine, then don't eat it," Kishi huffed.

"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."

"You made it?" she asked with genuine surprise, and he was immediately offended.

"Is that so surprising? You think I can't make my own food from time to time?" he growled around that insecure, angry pit in his chest and belly.

"That wasn't what surprised me. I was surprised that you bothered to make something for us," she softly admitted.

Kishi sat up and growled, "Well, clearly I shouldn't have!" Now he was all heated and making that angry feeling go away had always been hard for him.

“I thought it was kind.”

Oh. The pit deflated and the angry wind past and for a second, he felt like he misjudged her but now he was embarrassed for overreacting. He was a Prince! There was no apologizing for his actions!

"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."

He laid back down and rolled over to hide from her kindness. She was trying to make him feel better and now he felt bad putting her in that position at all.

“Yeah, okay,” Kishi mumbled. He could hear her packing up the basket behind him but wasn’t sure what to do or say now. He got her opinion. Their purpose here was over, now it felt like a weird date. Dating wasn’t really a Princely thing… there wasn’t a class on this.

"Y'know, we didn't have places like this in Terminus," Xion 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,” he said a little quickly. It felt like she was criticizing his hideaway.

"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.

Well, no, but… "Being pretty is a use.”

"Not where I'm from."

"Well, you don't have to struggle for that kind of thing anymore," Kishi reminded her. He tried to be gentler than before. Being here was a good thing. He hoped she understood how lucky she was to be marrying him, to be marrying into a life where she would never want again. He turned enough to watch her, but she was still being careful.

“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. No, really, what did she mean? This was ridiculous. She had everything here. Sacrificing some freedoms to him to have an easy life was the best kind of life! He genuinely did not understand why she would think otherwise.

"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," Xion told him.

That wasn’t… that wasn’t what he expected to hear and was trying to glean from it exactly what she wanted.

"...so you want me to make you work?" Kishi asked for clarification.

"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."

So, she did want to be a servant, but she wanted it because she wanted to work? Not just for the freedom?

"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," he reminded. He didn’t realize she wanted a full-blown profession.

"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. I'm the head of my own household," Kishi reminded her around the angry pit again. If she was suggesting they switch places…

"I know," she assured him, and he huffed.

Xion continued, "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?" he asked. Maybe there were strings he could pull for her.

"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."

Kishi vaguely remembered Ven or Roxas saying something about that. He admittedly tuned out his servants sometimes.

"I see. Why do you think being good with kids isn't useful?" he asked.

"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." Well, that was an expectation he couldn’t meet. All of the Emperor’s sons were infertile. He couldn’t make babies if he wanted to.

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," Xion admitted.

"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. He had to know if she felt the same way about him this early into their forced relationship. Kishi didn’t want to be the only one who fell for her under such shallow circumstances.

"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 thought about that carefully. Xion had chosen her words very deliberately, so maybe she was scared to tell him outright. Which meant it probably wasn’t good. She didn’t have any feelings for him yet, if she ever would. She was here for duty and for love her people. It hurt a little, but he had to respect the honor in it. It was a shame she was born a woman. Xion would’ve made a hell of a Prince.

"But I am better than everyone..." he mumbled seriously, "the Imperial family is.” She stayed quiet and he kept thinking through her words.

“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," Xion told him. He snorted irritably and flopped back down, facing away from her again. It bothered him that his chest hurt so much about this.

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," he reminded her, and a part of his heart tweaked with grief.

"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."

Now it felt like she was saying what he wanted to hear. They all said stuff like this when their fear got the better of them. He was raised and taught of his family’s divine nature. They were gods among men, they could never be understood by mortals.

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."

Xion said, "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 responded, "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, ready to be away from this. Kishi just wanted to run. He wanted to run away from this stress and unexpected grief. He wanted to believe her but how could he?

The Prince left behind the blanket and the basket and left the garden to wander slowly back to his home. The conversation had been enlightening, as he had hoped, but not entirely in the way he expected. Xion would likely be best as a servant. He felt like she had earned that much at least and he was content to reward her loyalty even if it was in the interests of herself and her people.

He opened the door was almost immediately nose to nose with her black-haired Vinbeetus or whatever his name was. They glared at each other for a second.
“She’s still alive,” Kishi growled and shoved past him to go study in the library.

Xaldin had him studying applications of his fire magic. It was boring and Kishi caught himself nodding off repeatedly until there was a soft knock on his door. He yawned, stretched, and went to get it.

Standing in the doorway with her flawless white coat and bright blue eyes was Naminé.

“Good afternoon,” he greeted, “what’s-“

“Ansem,” she said simply before he could ask.

It took Kishi maybe three seconds to understand and then he was running down the street. The little pit of anger he had felt earlier was a pebble on the beach compared to the tsunami of rage that washed over him. Kishi’s mind blanked as he ran until he found the blanket and basket scattered across the walk and that rage morphed into something feral.

It wasn’t a feeling that Kishi could recall having before, at least not the same way, and it wasn’t the kind of thing that could be comfortably described. He was caught in the middle of several emotions: rage, fear, and a driving need to protect. The emotions clashed so strongly that they all but stopped until he could barely feel anything but them in a calm, removed way.

Perhaps this was how a wolf felt when it ripped out the throat of a deer. It was survival and instinct funneled into the point of a spear and colored red, enhanced by the magic in his blood and the Emperor’s gift to his sons.

  • Kishi saw them a moment later in the alley between two walls. Even from this distance, Kishi could see them in extraordinary detail. Ansem’s teeth were at her neck, his hand was wrapped around her wrist while the other delicately reached for her throat. His brother’s hips were pressed so tightly to hers that he couldn’t tell how much of her clothing Ansem had managed to pull off.

Instinct took over and Kishi hurtled across the alley to tackle his older brother. They went down in a flurry across the hard stone but between the rough training, the Bloodlust, and the eerie clarity in his heart, Kishi couldn’t think past the mantra in his head: Protect her.

This wasn’t brother fighting brother. This was a fight between two monsters of magical descent. Of course, the poetry of it was lost on Kishi as he rained blows down on Ansem’s face until his fist was caught. The element of surprise was spent, and they rolled until the elder brother had Kishi trapped beneath him with a knee in his gut and a hand on his throat. He calmly took the punch to his face and pressed his fingers to Ansem’s inner arm as he brought his knee up into the man’s thigh.
Shadow magic lanced through his feet and hands and dimly Kishi was aware of the blood. It was exhilarating. He countered with magic and purple-blue flame raced from his hands to Ansem’s chest, slamming the man backwards.
They scrambled to their feet after the short exchange and squared off. Kishi slowly put himself between Ansem and Xion and raised his fists and bared his teeth in a challenge but Ansem tsked and retreated, stepping into shadows to disappear.

He didn’t move. There was a chance that Ansem was still lurking, and the mantra still chanted in Kishi’s head as he watched for movement with an animalistic intensity.

  • “…thank you,” he heard behind him, and he could sense rather than see her moving towards him.

Very, very slowly, he turned to face her so he could gently take her chin in his hands and tilt her head to see the bruise forming on her cheek. The skin had split and the sight of the blood sent a shiver down his spine and he had to resist the urge to taste it. Kishi brushed the beading blood away with his thumb to erase that thought. He didn’t want to hurt her. This power, this hurricane inside him fueled by rage and guided by a calm and emotionless instinct, was for her.

She flinched and a part of him leapt for that weakness. It was the tiniest movement, the kind of thing that he may not have noticed if his entire being wasn’t dialed up so tightly. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like looking at her eyes and seeing the fear there. Her fire was dimmer, no more than embers to the wildfire he saw this morning and the storm inside grew bigger still.

“I’m not hurt badly,” she reassured him, and her voice betrayed the fear he could smell on her skin.

Kishi checked the alley and started pushing her to the street.

“To the house, now,” he ordered and his own voice felt clear and sharp but distant and monotone. He stayed behind her, keeping close as they stepped over the picnic remains and headed to his home and the safety of his threshold.

Naminé was still by his door. She waved briefly as they approached and left, which was just as well. He guided Xion inside and closed the door behind them. The magic of his home was more obvious in this state, and he felt it working on him. It teased the corners of his mind until it could wrap him in a blanket of peace. This storm in him, this latent power, it served its purpose and wasn’t welcome in a peaceful home. He took a breath and started to let it go.

“I can send Sora for a doctor…” Xion was saying behind him. He turned in time to see Roxas stick his head around the corner. His servant was alarmed to say the least and Kishi was starting to understand how he might have looked.

“Bath,” he ordered, and Roxas scrambled down the hall.

“Come on,” he said to Xion. The rage was still burning in him as he thought of his brother and what he had tried to do but the power was dwindling and the control was slipping away, leaving him feeling tired and sore. His hands and feet were pierced and bleeding and Xion, his Xion, was hurt too. He limped inside and started digging around for the ointments and creams he needed to make the healing paste.
“Is it just your face?” he heard Roxas ask behind him.

“…yeah, just that,” Xion responded.

Kishi felt a hand on his arm and had to resist ripping it off.
“You’ll just make it worse,” Roxas told him quietly, “please, sir, you should get in the bath. I can help her.”

The audacity of Roxas to tell an Imperial Prince what to do! Kishi’s lip curled but the man was right. Blood was dripping from his hands and with this power fading, Kishi was tired. The wise decision was to obey. He huffed and started to undress so he could slip into the bath with a content sigh.
He let the water run over his injuries and watched his fingers shake for a moment before he plugged the tub to let the water fill. Despite the shaking, the pain still felt distant and dull. He was dimly aware of the role his training had played in developing that high pain tolerance but now his exhaustion was settling in and his body wanted to focus on healing. The calm control he had dissolved in the water and washed away with the worst of his anger. The bubbling pit in his gut that was left was familiar and recognizable.

Kishi looked over at Roxas and Xion. He had gently rubbed the healing cream into her face and was speaking to her softly. He saw her raise a hand to hide a tear and it started to dawn on him how much pain she was in. It was a different kind of pain, but just as great as his.
"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." She didn’t need her warden right now. She needed the people she cherished and who cherished her.

Roxas got up and put the mortar and pestle next to the tub where Kishi could reach it and then he left.

The Prince waded over to a ceramic barrel on the opposite side of the tub first to add the salts to the water. The lid unlatched and he fished around for the cup. The shaking was getting to him but he still managed to get the salts mixed and the lid latched before waddling over to the ointment.
He saw Xion get up from the bench where she had been sitting and come over to the side of the tub.
"Do—do you want help?" she asked. It was a genuine offer and honestly, he needed it. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, he was having a hard time holding the ceramic.

"Y-Yeah..."
Kishi carefully held his hands out to her with his palms down. His fingers were curled up and the water ran with his blood to drip pink on the tile. It… probably wasn’t as bad as it looked.

She took his hands gently in hers, one at time, to start spreading the ointment over the gashes. Xion was quivering. It was subtle but there. She was barely keeping it together. He could see the tears rolling over her cheeks and nose. One landed on his wrist, but he wasn’t sure if she even noticed.

"You have to push it in there," he softly instructed. Sweat was starting to drip off his nose now and he could see himself shaking. It didn’t feel like he was hurting but maybe the pain was still hiding behind the anger he knew was still there. Seeing her like this made him even more angry.

When the ointment was properly caked inside his wounds, he put them under the water and the rapid healing took over. The water hissed and bubbled, and his hands itched and ached. It made him squirm involuntarily as the pain of healing settled in his palms. Kishi let out his held breath, took a couple shaky ones and sat down to soak.

He only tensed up again when the door whooshed open, and her two retainers poured in unannounced to pull her into a tight hug. Kishi respectfully turned away to give them some perceived privacy.

They didn’t say anything when they saw her. They probably didn’t need to. Sora and Vatinas scooped her up and took her out of the bathroom, leaving Kishi alone for the minute and a half that it took Roxas to return.

It was a hassle but with his friend’s help, Kishi was able to get the cream into his feet as well. They sat in silence for a time, listening to the water fizz as the blood and cream were dissolved by the salts in the water and replaced with fresh sinews and even repaired bones.

“What happened?” Roxas finally asked. He may have whispered the question but the tile in the bathroom made his question louder and more imposing.
Kishi didn’t answer right away. He checked on his injuries, satisfied that the near hour in here had healed them to no more than open sores. Those could be handled with bandages for now.

The water pattered and plinked as it dripped off the Prince. He got out and went to the cabinet for ceramic jar with their soft fabric bandages. Roxas moved to help him and started the process so his liege wouldn’t have to trouble himself.

“Ansem assaulted my fiancé,” Kishi finally told him when his injuries were covered and there was a towel around his waist. He started to limp towards the stairs.

“H-He what?”

“My brother is an entitled prick who can’t take no for an answer. I’m going to beat it into him.”

 Roxas put his arm around Kishi and started to help him up the stairs to his bedroom.

“Please, don’t,” he was saying, “you aren’t in any condition to fight and it’s not safe to fight him in his own home. You should stay and rest.”

The anger that had been in Kishi gut was still burning and the more Kishi thought about what he saw in the alley the more he wanted to do something about it.

“I don’t care. This isn’t about winning and losing, he has to know that what he did was wrong going after my Xion like that,” Kishi hissed, “I should’ve been there to protect her. I knew we were being watched, I thought for sure that the announcement would’ve settled things.”

Roxas had positioned himself between his master and the door, creating that barrier to keep him from leaving. Even Goofy, laying on the bed behind him seemed a little worried but smart enough to not incur Kishi’s wrath himself.

“Get me some clothes. Nothing fancy… Obey me, Roxas.”

The blonde hesitantly went to get him clothes and helped him dress. The Prince was only satisfied with clothing that was flexible but undecorated, training clothing for the wealthy. Roxas tied up his boots and then Kishi was moving again.

“Please, please don’t go,” Roxas said, “what happened was wrong but it won’t be fixed by you running off to fight. Maybe the Emperor-“

Kishi had been getting up to get his sword and head downstairs, but he turned on Roxas to cut him off.

“My father would never trouble himself with a menial dispute. I would be scolded for not being man enough to handle my own grievances and this is a grievance that won’t go unpunished. This can never be allowed to happen again.” They made it to the front door, stepping over Ven who was cleaning the blood off the floor, before Kishi stopped again.

This time it was at Xion’s voice as she asked, “Where are you going?” Her voice was so small.

It took him half a second to decide and then he was leaving, slamming the door behind him.

Kishi spent maybe half an hour wandering the estate in the cold. It was past dinner already and he was hungry. Trying to cool his head was his first step. He still wanted to process the earlier fight.

The Bloodlust was a magically induced state. Kishi had only ever been able to reach it under extreme duress in careful training with his father and never long enough to use it. He knew from Riku that it was this state that gave the Prince’s their strength and drive on the battlefield to appear immortal and be worth a hundred men. Riku also said that it came from a powerful desire or driving need. Xemnas always found it in purpose, serving the throne. For Ansem it was a sadistic hunger for death. Riku found it through his desire to protect his men.

But Kishi had never been able to find something worth potentially losing himself for. Not until now.

His desire to protect Xion from Ansem had been the catalyst to tap that power.

He tried to reach deep and find it again, even replaying what Ansem had done in his head, but the Bloodlust stayed dormant in his veins. It still wasn’t a resource or a power that Kishi could use reliably. It also did nothing to quench the rage he still felt. He wanted revenge against Ansem for this insult. The cold night air did nothing to cool that desire, so he headed for his brother’s house.

Kishi was polite enough to knock. He only knocked once before he let himself in. Ansem’s threshold was comically weak. He still had one. Kishi could feel it pull at him as he stepped inside and left the strongest of his magic behind at the door.

“What are you doing in my home?” Ansem growled from the top of the staircase. Ansem’s grandiose home was wide open with lots of gaudy, self-indulgent décor with crude themes. ‘Artistic nudes’ was a fancy name for what was clearly his publicly displayed pornography.

Kishi was shaking from holding himself back. There was still a long game to be played here. It never stopped being a game.

“You’re going to leave Xion alone. She’s mine now! That’s not going to change,” he snarled.

Ansem slowly started walking down the stairs. He was wearing nothing but an open, loose-fitting robe. Nudity didn’t bother Kishi. They had all seen each other in the buff many times before. This was, however, the first time he considered castrating his brother.

“An appetite needs to be sated,” Ansem said with an eerie calm.

“You have your own wives. Mine is off limits.”

Ansem’s neutral expression curled into a devious smile as he leaned in close to his little brother to say softly, “I’d be willing to negotiate the terms of our game.” He started walking off to his parlor and Kishi followed angrily.

“This isn’t a game anymore!”

“It’s always a game.”

“Xion is NOT a piece in this game, not anymore!” Kishi growled, “I want your binding word, so long as I live, you will never touch her again!” A verbal contract, a binding word, if Ansem were to break it their father would be involved and neither of them wanted that. Even more so, they were both immortal to some degree. Kishi had high hopes this would protect her. If he died in battle, her fate would be up to the Emperor regardless.

  • Ansem sat in a big armchair and motioned for Kishi to sit but the younger brother didn’t want to be here any longer than he had to.

“I will agree,” Ansem said, “but only if you finish what I started.”

Kishi’s blood ran cold, “the engagement contract-“

“Not with her,” he interrupted, “with me.

The young Prince cycled from anger, to confusion, to revolted. Riku and Ansem frequently engaged in orgies with their women but, despite Roxas’ jokes, Kishi was less comfortable sharing his bed with men, much less so this brother and absent of any women.

“I didn’t get what I needed today. You don’t have to, but if you want me to swear your oath, then you will get on your knees,” Ansem ordered.

Kishi shook in his bitterness and his thoughts went back to Xion. He wanted that fire back for her. He wanted it magically binding that Ansem couldn’t touch her. He needed that guarantee that she would be safe.

So, Kishi willing obliged.

It was a humiliating hour that Kishi mostly blocked out. Ansem’s appetites leaned more violent than purely carnal and physical abuse was something Kishi had learned to endure at a young age as part of his training. That wasn’t the part that bothered him. What bothered him, was that he wasn’t more upset with what had happened. Sex and sexual acts were emotionless needs for their family. It was just something that one ‘got out of the way’ when their bodies demanded it. Even with his brother, Kishi felt like this was simply a task, an exchange worth making, but he had his doubt. It felt like he should have been more concerned with his casual acceptance.

“I swear this oath,” Ansem said, “that I will not make any attempts to pursue the woman Xion, so long as you, Kishi Oscura, do still live.”

There was a rush of magic in the air as the oath bound tight and Kishi let out a held breath. It was protections for the future, but not atonement for the past.

“And what about earlier,” Kishi said.

Ansem laughed from his chair, “what about it? I did not take her in the alley.”

“You would have.”

“Oh, many times.”

Well, there was a time and place for diplomacy. That much was past. Kishi lit him on fire, for both their sakes. The building emotions in Kishi’s gut weren’t as easily sated as his brother’s disgusting sexual needs. If the man wasn’t going to show any remorse for his actions, then Kishi would make him feel them.

Ansem’s scream was more of surprise than genuine pain. Kishi wasn’t the only one subjected to the worst of their father’s training methods, but Kishi was ready when the shadows lashed out at him. He blocked most of them with his sword as he rushed in to swipe at Ansem. A shadow blocked it and Kishi was thrown back across the room. He rolled with it and landed on his feet.

Ungrateful whelp,” Ansem snarled, “you wouldn’t even know how to properly treat her. I’ll just have to show you.”

The man made a lunge for Kishi as the shadows in the room got smaller, but Kishi was ready and swiped at Ansem with his sword. A shadow grabbed his ankles and held him still, but Kishi’s sword still cut through the gaps in the magic and sank into the meat below Ansem’s shoulder. The brother paused a moment to process it and then laughed.

  • “That hate in your eyes, Kishi,” he said, “maybe there’s hope for you yet. You become more and more like us every day.”

Kishi snarled and pulled the sword back to swipe again as pain lanced through his back. Hlis shirt felt loose. Ansem’s hand lashed out reaching for Kishi’s throat as Kishi’s sword sailed through the air to meet it but metal hit metal and Kishi saw himself between them.

“What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” Riku growled. He kicked Ansem back and pushed with his sword against Kishi to make the two brothers step away from each other.

Riku studied the room, putting pieces together while Kishi found a more comfortable stance to compensate for the sudden dizziness. Kishi’s mirror image was dressed lightly in a robe himself and Kishi started putting pieces together himself. If Riku had arrived a couple hours earlier, Kishi’s engagement with Ansem may have been very different.

Ansem’s lip curled but Riku wasn’t having it.

“Go upstairs brother. I and my concubine will join you in a few minutes,” Riku said, “I need to see our guest out.”

There was a tense moment as Ansem debated his move, but he was an animal at heart. He straightened his robe and left the parlor.

“Riku I-“

“No. You need to leave, Kishi,” Riku said plainly. He didn’t seem angry. The elder of the two gently took Kishi’s arm and started to guide him to the door. Kishi’s back was starting to really hurt now, and he was sure the injury was deep. They stopped outside on the front step.

“How far?” Riku asked.

“I didn’t take any clothes off,” Kishi reassured him.

“Are you okay?”

“Nothing I haven’t talked about with you before.”

“That doesn’t answer my question, Ki.” Riku wasn’t going to let him go without making sure his brother was okay. Kishi could see it in his eyes as he was studied. Never mind the blood running down his back or the bruises he could feel in his shoulders, or even the injuries from the alley, Riku wanted to be sure that Kishi was okay deeper within.

Kishi took a breath to wonder that himself and then he nodded and said, “Yeah, I’m fine. It was worth it to protect her.”

“I’m sorry, I knew he was getting bad. This is the worst I’ve seen him,” Riku admitted, “he was… saving himself pending the announcement.”

Kishi wrinkled his nose and curled his lip in a snarl, “you should’ve let me fight him longer.”

“He would’ve killed you. Ansem is not himself when he’s like this. It’s rare he lets himself go this long and get this bad, but it happens, and you are not strong enough yet to stand in his warpath. Go home, Kishi. I will make sure Ansem finds himself again but give him space for now.”

He didn’t need to be told twice. Kishi needed another bath for more than one reason.
“Oh, hold on,” Riku said. He went back inside and came back with an unlabeled bottle half full of a clear liquid. “Don’t drink all of it.” Riku closed the door behind him, leaving Kishi to wander home on his own.

The adrenaline in his system was still coursing along leaving Kishi in the familiar state of limbo in the cold night air. The rush of the last encounter, the anger from earlier, and the lingering of the passed Bloodlust were powering a body that was struggling to continue. No amount of training he had thus far accounted for the conglomeration of so many factors both physical and emotional.

He unplugged the cork, smelled the strong alcohol immediately and wrinkled his nose. He took a swig to kill the lingering taste on his tongue, grimaced, and then left the bottle on the front step to wander back. Kishi only stopped once more to throw up in Ansem’s bushes before he was letting himself back into his own home.

It was dark in the house but still comforting. The threshold welcomed him home like a hug and he took a deep breath through his nose to take it in again. Warily, shakily, Kishi dragged himself to the bathroom to run his bath and mix the pastes. In the mirror he could see the injury along his spine. The bones were exposed but it didn’t take much depth to reach that state in that location.

The moment he lowered himself into the water, Kishi realized how tired he was. He adjusted the taps to start filling the room with steam, letting the bathroom build in humidity to help him block out the rest of the world to decompress and focus on healing. The weight of the day was heavy on him even if there was limited comfort in knowing Ansem would be held at bay for a time.

There was a knock on the door and Kishi paused. Maybe Roxas hadn’t gone home yet.

“Come in,” he called.

"...hey," Xion said softly as she entered and Kishi jumped a bit when he realized it wasn't Roxas or Ven. He quickly turned away. Now that the anger had passed with his exhaustion, Kishi was finding some measure of shyness.

"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, and he didn’t want her to know what he did for her. He knew from their picnic how she felt towards him. He didn’t want his actions for her to guilt her into forcing further feelings. Besides, he didn’t know how she would handle that information. She was forced into less than he and the fire in her eyes nearly went out. Physical intimacy was more important to her culture. How could he possibly explain to her that what he did meant very little to him when the same to her left scars on her very soul?

"I was trying to- I... really wanted to make sure you knew I was grateful," she told him.

"It was nothing," he said softly. She was talking about the alley. He was talking to all of it.

"It wasn't nothing to me."

"...you're okay then?"

 "... mostly. I'm physically fine. Are you?"

He let out a sigh of relief at her answer and sank into the water up to his chin.

"He shouldn't bother you for awhile," Kishi mumbled. He wanted to reassure her any way he could.

"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. Her concern was nice, but he was naturally suspicious. Was her concern genuine? Or obliged because he saved her? 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."

"Actually," he sounded pained again, "I can't reach my back." There was no helping that one.

"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. The slash across his back was just out of reach. Even in a crazed state, Ansem had decent instincts. 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. 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. It was enough to hide his wince at her words. She didn’t know. She wouldn’t have said that if she had.

"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."

"You're mine," he explained softly. It was more affectionate than possessive this time. She was important to him. No matter how much they wrapped it behind political obligations and contracts to convince him otherwise, she mattered to him. He wouldn’t have felt that Bloodlust or done what he did to protect her if she hadn’t left a deep impression on his heart.

He could feel her hands on his back, gently working in the ointment until he was able to slide back into the water to let the sizzle magic do its work.

"I don't see any scarring," Xion observed.

"Then it's working." The healing process took from his natural energies. The longer it worked the more tired he felt until Kishi could tell he was slumping.

"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.

He waited for another twenty minutes until the exhaustion reached a point of being unbearable. The healing process would be too slow to be effective if he wasn’t awake for the process, so it was time to be done. Any injuries he had accrued during the day were just sores now. They tingled as he climbed out of the bath, too tired to care about his nakedness. She was just another servant to him right now. A treasured servant, but one, nonetheless.

Xion helped him over to the bench so he could open the top and get one of the fluffy towels from the bin beneath it. He towel dried carefully and then wrapped one around his waist for the journey up to his room.

Kishi barely registered that they had made it until he heard her ask, “Do you want pajamas?”

He nodded and slumped into bed, zoning out until he felt her helping him get dressed. The last thing he remembered was his fiancé tucking him in.

Chapter Text

Kishi woke up half too hot and half too cold but all of him covered in sweat. This nightmare was different. His usual battle with Xemnas was replaced with a battle with Ansem. Once again Riku was there and once again he woke before he could see how it ended.

He sat up panting in bed in the dark while Goofy’s fluffy body twitched in the wolf’s sleep. Kishi gently pet the animal, letting the sleeping companion drain the stress of the prior night and his vicious dreams away. Animals were magical like that. Just resting his hand on the wolf’s side, Kishi felt so much better, and Queens knew he needed it.

Despite his original acceptance, Kishi wasn’t feeling great about the prior night. Sitting in the quiet dark, listening to his own soft breaths and the huffing blanket moving sighs of his pet wasn’t helping either. Something inside him just knew what had happened was wrong but he also knew that admitting as much would be construed as weakness. If Kishi couldn’t handle the consequences of his own negotiations, how could he be trusted with an opportunity to prove himself a man in his father’s eyes?

Instead of focusing on his regret, Kishi thought about Xion. She had seemed so much stronger last night. He knew she had to be hurting. If Kishi felt this way about a choice, how did she feel about Ansem taking that from her? Yet she found the strength last night to help Kishi to bed like a dutiful servant or future wife. He was a little jealous of that and very, very impressed.

Kishi studied the little door to her room and absentmindedly played with Goofy’s fur.

Xion was really amazing. The more he thought about her the more he was coming to an appreciation. She talked to him with respect but courage, was honest with him when he asked, she maintained that well-trained composure, and in the face of his monster brother still carried herself with a fire that may have flickered but couldn’t be extinguished. All of it miles from her home. It was… inspiring.

He chewed on the inside of his cheek in thought and then rolled out of bed. He put on a robe and his slippers to combat the cold and quietly padded downstairs to the library. There was a big folder here somewhere…

Oh, the moonlight just wasn’t enough light. He snapped his fingers and a pair of lamps on the walls lit. The flames flickered blue and purple with his magic before settling into the natural warm glow of an average flame. It was enough for him to find the quartz crystal lights. He twisted them and fed them a spark of magic and the library brightened further as though it were midday.

Finding the papers was easy after that.

Kishi’s sheet music varied dramatically but what he was mostly after was at the back where the papers were devoid of notes. There were ledger lines and clefs, but the rest was blank, waiting for that special moment when inspiration would strike as lightning. He fished in his desk for an inkwell and started to record the first hints of a melody that played in his head as he thought of his fiancé and then he tested them softly on his violin. Only a few notes here and there, just enough to get lost in it.

“Late night or early morning?” Roxas asked in a whisper and Kishi nearly jumped out of his skin. Fire appeared briefly in his hand, but he calmed himself enough to dispel it before torching his best friend.

 “Early morning,” Kishi responded, “it’s still dark outside, what are you doing up?”

“Night shift heading to bed saw the light and woke me to check on you.”

The dark bags under Roxas’ eyes were more pointed now and Kishi was a little suspicious of the mini-guilt trip that may have hidden in those words.

“Well, while you’re here you can go check on breakfast. Coffee today, I think I’m going to need it,” Kishi ordered.

“Me too, Prince. Me too.”

Roxas left and Kishi focused on his music once more. Music was one of the ultimate escapes and proof that magic existed in every facet of the world. He started to play his new melody, pouring his soul into it. He wanted it to tell a story, but it had to be perfect so when he tried to boldly change keys and the melody disagreed, Kishi was forced to stop to make note of the failed experiment.

Two things startled him when he opened his eyes.

First, Roxas had already brought part of breakfast and presumably left to get the rest. There was a covered tray on the table.

Second, Xion was awake and listening to him play. She was listening to his very incomplete, super rough draft of music that he was writing after being inspired by her. Oh, this was embarrassing but he was a Daybreak Prince. He couldn’t show it.

"Morning. Where's your entourage?" he asked her to deflect.

"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.

"You can keep playing. I'll be quiet," she invited, and he almost took her up on it. His fingers itched to continue but he didn’t want her to hear it until he was ready.

"N-No, that's alright." Kishi started putting the violin away in its case and then sat down for breakfast. It was the usual high protein eggs, sausage, and warm cakes.

“I like listening to you play,” Xion told him as she sat down as well.

"Maybe another time then. Food is getting cold."

She nodded and asked, "Can I eat with you?"

It was a startling question and not one Kishi heard very often. After what they talked about yesterday at their picnic, he felt like he shouldn’t be surprised that she was trying to share time with him, but he assumed Ansem ruined all of that. Briefly he considered she was manipulating him, but it passed and instead he felt a surge of pride. His fiancé was braving the day, choosing to push forward. He knew she was inspiring, but this just solidified his resolve to show his family that he wasn’t going to be conquered either.

“Please,” he told her.

Kishi served himself first. Just because they had found some common ground didn’t mean she stood at the same height. He passed her a plate next, in time for Roxas to return with drinks. The servant let himself in and brought the second tray to the library. Kishi got the first mug of coffee straight from the pot.

“Coffee?” Roxas offered Xion.

“What is it?”

“It’s…coffee.”

"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."

Roxas started pouring and Kishi immediately passed her the cream and sugar. If she was trying it for the first time, she would need it. He was right.

“Oh, that’s very bitter,” she said and started scooping the additives into the mug.

“But it wakes you up,” Kishi responded as he sipped his black. He didn’t actually like it that way, but it was a point of pride. Xemnas drank it that way.

"I think it's not for me," Xion admitted, despite chugging it a moment later.  

"That's okay," Kishi said softly, "Actually, I wanted to talk to you, Xion. I want you to accompany me to my classes today." It was a new thought but now that he said it out loud, it felt like a good idea.

"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," she said politely. He wasn’t convinced she’d be as excited when he broke the news to her.

"I bring it up because Ansem will be in my Martial Arts class. All of my brothers will be," Kishi warned her. It was the best chance at showing Ansem that his actions the day prior didn’t change anything. They weren’t going to break and Kishi was going to make Xion the finest attending servant the House had ever seen.

She grinned a wide and toothy grin with an evil spark in her eyes that had Kishi wondering if his plan was working a little too well. At least he didn’t have to worry about her breaking in front of his brother.

“So I have a chance of seeing him get punched,” she said with glee.

"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."

"I will be obedient while we're out," Xion agreed. She was calmer now.

He nodded a little bit, still wary of that prior expression and warned her, "We need to leave in 45 minutes."

"Is there a dress code?"

"The way you dressed for dinner with my father will be fine."

Kishi focused on eating now. He still had to get ready to go himself and hurried off to change once he finished. He wore a nicer outfit. Still the regular coat but this one with tighter sleeves and no hood. He was leaning more of a blue-green today with silver accents. His morning classes had other students in them, so Kishi had to wear his diadem too. It settled over his forehead snuggly but messed his hair up, so he had to brush it out again.

He tilted his head a little in the mirror in his closet. Maybe it was getting time for a haircut. It was just a little past his shoulders now. Maybe not, Kishi liked it a bit longer than Riku’s.

Once he was satisfied, Kishi grabbed his books and went downstairs to wait for Xion by the front door. He was only a lot disappointed when the first set of footsteps were her black-haired angry retainer, Varinas.

“May I go with you two today?” he asked Kishi through tight teeth and Kishi got the impression that the politeness was killing the man on the inside.

“No,” the Prince said blandly and the retainer turned without another word and walked away. Xion joined him at the door less than a minute later. He handed her his things to carry, books, pens, ink, the usual, and stretched. He always took a deep breath before heading to class to mentally prepare himself and then they were off.

Xion was good about staying behind him. They quietly went to the pillar, up the elevator inside, and down the shiny hallways to his first, and worst, class.

Economics was held in an office, not a classroom, which made it harder to blend into the background. It was a small class of nine students and the lone Professor. Professor Scrooge supposedly was a big deal entrepreneur back in his younger days. That was probably where half the junk in his office came from. He had odds and ends and artifacts of bygone days all over the place around chalkboards full of notes.

Kishi grabbed Xion a chair and pulled it up next to a desk in the back and took a seat himself. She dug around for his textbook and put it in front of him politely and then kept quiet for a boring lecture.

It started out as a lecture about production and minimizing costs, but Kishi fell asleep early on. So much for that coffee. The Professor never scolded him for nodding off though. Whether it was out of fear of the Emperor or simply because he didn’t care, Kishi never could tell and he didn’t really care.

When that class ended, they moved down the hall to math. This wasn’t a class he could afford to slack off in. This was one of his weaker subjects and they were talking about Game Theory: the mathematics of strategy. It was the kind of thing that Kishi needed to get an edge on his family but by the end his notes were just full of proofs that he barely understood. His eyes felt glassy as he dragged himself out of the classroom and towards his last subject before lunch.

Ethics of Magical Uses was a once-a-week class that was meant to supplement Kishi’s applications of magic classes. It was an informal class held in one of the open library study rooms. It had a high ceiling to compensate for the partial second floor built to accommodate the excessive books crammed into the single room on either side of the colossally tall window. It was bright, warm, and a favorite study room amongst the resident students.

There weren’t any desks, just a single rectangular table running the length of the room that could comfortably sit twelve students and their homework. There were nine chairs filled today, all older teenagers and all exceptionally bright mages. Kishi might have had friends among them if they weren’t cautious of his father. They gave him space.

Xion put his book in front of him and sat down behind him as Kishi slapped his cheeks to wake up. The Professor was late, which wasn’t abnormal, but it wouldn’t do to fall asleep before she got there.

“Forgive my tardiness,” Naminé said as she arrived with her assistant. She settled down in one of the open chairs. “Oh, we have a guest. It’s good to see you, Xion.”

“It’s nice to see you too, Miss Naminé,” Xion responded politely. Kishi might have scolded her for speaking in public, but rules were different with Naminé. It wouldn’t do to insult a fae.

"Today we are continuing our discussion of types of magic and their balance in the natural world," she started.

Kishi liked this class. It was always less lecture and more discussion. Naminé would introduce a concept, provide information, and then the class would discuss. It was an advanced class so there was always a solid, polite discussion.

Today’s topic was less about the way magic was used and more about the impact of the spell or cast. The method of creating or obtaining magical energy was just as important as the application. Naminé got up after an initial opening and started to write on a chalkboard. She listed types of magic and their sources. Then she had the class list the pros and cons of each type with a focus on the lasting environmental impact and the potential cost that others would have to pay rather than just the cost paid by the caster.

"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."

Kishi knew that most of the magic in the city was more pre-stored. It was a magic that drew power from the people, a sort of magical tax that powered basic amenities like the plumbing and the city-wide temperature management. That kind of magic was impactful on a grand scale and for a good cause as opposed to the selfishness of dragon magic which was at its core, corruption. Sure, the magic was contained in the contract between dragon and mage, but Kishi saw what dragon magic had done to Ansem. Maleficent’s magic had been forced from her and it just amplified everything evil in his brother. The long-term impact that magic had on the people around him seemed more expansive to Kishi than how Naminé was describing dragon magic.

"Wouldn't least impactful be the ideal magic to use then?" Hermod asked.

"It does kind of seem like wild magic is the enemy of industry and the cost outweighs the benefit..." Bragi ventured.

The discussion shifted with Namine’s guidance more towards humankind’s role in the natural order. The class split. Kishi knew from experience it was for that devil’s advocate discussion. These students rarely chose dramatic extremes outside of hypothetical discussions. As it was now, half the class was on the side of conservationism, humans were a blight and thus wild magic was ideal since the cost was often to the benefit of the natural world through service. The other half favored imperialism over nature. It was the idea that nature existed to benefit man and should be cultivated as such for the advancement of humanity and society. Thus, high magic, magic that derived natural energy from a populace or individual, or dragon magic, was better because of its defined sources and controlled, quantifiable costs.

Kishi joined the imperialist side of the debate. Scala ran on high magic and elemental magics and was the jewel of the Empire. It was hard to argue with the positive impact of such magic whereas wild magic was impossible to control.

Time caught up to them mid-debate and Naminé gently stopped the discussion.

"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. Kishi shrugged. He was just as much at a loss.

He gathered his things and left the room quickly. The other students weren’t likely to move until he did, and he didn’t want to keep them. Lunch was next. The school cafeteria was just a floor down, so he was heading there.

"What does lunch usually consist of?" Xion asked him.

"It depends on what they're making today."

"Interesting."

"Hopefully they have fish today," he mumbled, mostly to himself. They didn’t. Lunch was beef, broccoli, and rice soaked in a rich dark sauce.

"This is really good,” Xion said softly beside him.

"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," Kishi grumbled. He was trying to squeeze in some reading homework while they ate but caught himself checking the time too frequently to really pay attention.

"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," Kishi offered. He got up, leaving the bowls where they were. It was a servant’s job to come collect them.

The walk down to the stables was pleasant. It was the warmest part of the day and Kishi loved it. Spring was great. Fall was great too. Extreme temperatures on both ends weren’t great.

The stables were one of the many things on the estate that never changed. They were always dusty and smelled like hard work and happy escapes. It was still one of Kishi’s favorite places. The horses were all turned out for the day and servants were mucking stalls. He waved briefly to Terra to get the man’s attention and got a brief one back. The stablemaster was supervising the farrier who was shoeing one of the horses.

“Is that Terra?” Xion asked.

“Yeah, he’s the stablemaster.”

Terra came to 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." Terra was awesome. He and Aqua were close so Terra was almost like a big brother. He was also their martial arts instructor so Kishi would see him later as well. For now, Kishi led the way to the tack room and started pulling out saddles from the rack.

“Will you grab… this one,” he mumbled as he pulled out a regular, worn old saddle to put in her arms. The blanket pad and bridle went on top. Atlas’ tack was bigger and nicer, in black leather with polished silver fastenings. He grabbed that set and a couple lead ropes before heading out of the barn.
His stuff went outside one of the paddocks on the way to the pasture. Kishi stopped briefly to drop it off, so he had free hands to hop the fence to get Saladin. One whistle called his horse and half the herd.

"Is this class normally just you?" Xion 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?" Kishi asked her skeptically.

Xion 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." It was still mind-blowing to him that she had military training, but it was to her benefit with his blue roan. Saladin was a spirited idiot. If she didn’t know what she was doing, he would make it obvious.

He left her there to get ready and then went to get Atlas.

Atlas was a massive all black stallion identical to the rest of the royal family’s public parade herd and he was equally stupid in that too big, I know what I want, kind of way. Kishi had to chase him for a second to get his lead clipped but tacking up from there wasn’t particularly difficult. He had the beast saddled and mounted as Xion approached.

"Is it just going to be riding?" she asked.

"Yep." Sometimes that was all it needed to be. This was Kishi’s favorite part of the week. He did this twice a week as a requirement and more when he needed to get away. They headed off to the trail beside the wall and towards the arena past the pasture, picking up speed as they went.

"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." He maneuvered the horse to open the gate without having to dismount and let them both in before running the horse through some basic exercises. There were some jumps, tight turns, varying speeds, short stops, just generic things that seemed fun in the moment. As long as the horse was moving, it counted, and Kishi liked to move fast, especially on his big horse.

They trotted up beside Xion when he saw her talking to Saladin. He couldn’t make out the whispers but seeing her mouth move in gentle whispers was cute.

“You know, he’s never once answered me,” he said as they pulled up next to her.

"I—I wasn't expecting him to." Oops, he hadn’t meant to startle her.

"He can be a good listener though." The horses started nipping at each other and Kishi had to tug on the reins to get them to stop. Dumb boys always wanting to fight.

"Most animals are. Cats aren't."

"Our barn cats are nice."

"Yeah, but cats judge you," cautioned Xion.

"They definitely do that."

"Even big cats. Donald is the worst."

"You said he's like Goofy," Kishi remembered.

"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."

Kishi felt his heart tug. He couldn’t imagine not having Goofy and seeing her sad made him angry. Not angry at her, angry at whatever made her sad. He didn’t know the best way to fix this one for her.

"...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 and thought that over. Maybe it was insensitive to suggest it at all and now there was an awkward silence in the air. Kishi kicked Atlas into a run to get back to laps to run out the time.

When they were done, the horses were returned to their respective daytime locations, Saladin to the pasture and Atlas to his paddock. Kishi put the tack away, in their correct spots, lest he be scolded, and then they started to head back.

"Don't forget my books," he ordered and then started walking. She caught up as he was heading up the hill.

"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 flashed her a grateful look, but it didn’t feel like the smile really came out. Truth was, he was a little scared. Physical pain was something he had been conditioned to tolerate, that wasn’t the scary part. This would be his first encounter with Ansem after the night prior and for some reason, it made him uneasy. Kishi really hoped that Riku had managed to calm their elder brother down, or better yet, hopefully he wasn’t there at all.

The school had a lot of open gyms outfitted for various sports and contests. The Emperor believed that a sound mind required a sound body and all of his prized students were expected to engage in regular exercise.

Kishi led the way to a room that was covered in woven mats. They were imported, Kishi had no idea what they were made of, but it hurt less to fall on them and that was what mattered. There were more mats stacked in a corner and a couple benches, but the room was otherwise empty. He headed to the locker room first and motioned for Xion to follow. It didn’t matter what the sign said, she was to attend to him regardless of gender restrictions.

They were the only ones there for now and Kishi had her doing regular chores even without anyone to show off for. She put his hair up, got his workout clothes, wrapped his hands, and so on. She actually did a good job and he was once again impressed.

"Yo," Riku greeted. He had just arrived.

"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 grinned at his brother. Riku was really the only family that Kishi saw as family. It was nice to have him here.

Kishi and Xion went out to the mats so he could start stretching and he saw her pick a spot on the far bench to watch. Riku joined him as he was finishing up and then Xemnas arrived, which made Ansem late. Naturally, Ansem didn’t care. Kishi knew him well enough to see the hungover look in his eyes. It must’ve been a late night.

All four of the Princes wore the same thing to work out: no shirts, no shoes, and form fitting pants. It had been like this his whole life. Sometimes they wore even less, even in public exhibitions which were held every couple years here in Scala. The Emperor took pride in his sons and wanted to take every opportunity to remind the populace and their allies that his children were flawless. So flawless that it reinforced the propaganda that the Imperial Royal family was immortal, untouchable, and inhuman.

Riku was chatting with all of them, but Kishi was still uncomfortable and loathe to participate.

“So quiet today,” Ansem jabbed, “long night?”

Kishi bristled, “No, it was more on the short side.”

Ansem’s resting smirk faltered just a tad, but he got it under control well enough. His frequent glances towards Xion didn’t go unnoticed and Kishi was ready to hit the man.

They didn’t start fighting until Terra showed up to provide basic instruction. It was for Kishi’s benefit, maybe Riku’s too. Ansem and Xemnas were experienced fighters with high kill counts. They didn’t need this at all. Riku also didn’t need the instruction, but Kishi appreciated his presence all the same.

Riku and Kishi did most of the sparring. Terra only stopped to correct stances and otherwise let them figure it out. Kishi knew that his brother was holding back a little to keep at Kishi’s level, but it didn’t stop Riku from punishing any weaknesses in the younger’s defense. There were more than Kishi realized.

After several rounds, Terra split them up so Riku could fight with Xemnas and Kishi could spar with Ansem. The variation in opponent was important.

"I'm surprised you're letting your pet run loose," Ansem said after Kishi narrowly avoided a jab. It was a distraction, Kishi knew, and it was taking a lot of effort to not break and get reckless.

"There are predators here that may harm her," he continued.

"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. Aerith is so behaved and satisfies him so well," he explained. There was some unspoken between them too. Kishi knew that Ansem couldn’t assault her anymore, not without breaking his word and risking magical retaliation. No doubt Ansem was realizing Kishi meant to parade her as a show of strength and a ‘look what you can’t have’ sort of brag.

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 and Kishi faltered. He looked up in alarm and took a kick to his gut that dropped him onto the mat. He heard Riku hit the floor too. Oops.

"Don't mind me," the Regent said with a grin but now Kishi and Riku were too distracted. This pressure to perform was heavy. Xigbar might as well have been the Emperor himself and Kishi’s anxiety made it impossible to do well. The rest of the hour passed and Xemnas was the only one who walked away unscathed. The man hadn’t even broken a sweat. How did he do that?

Kishi panted and tried to catalog his bruises but gave up after a minute. He watched Xigbar smile, then leave with Xemnas and the room immediately felt better.

"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 left and Riku leaned in over one of his legs. They were sitting down on the mats with their legs spread to stretch out their sides.

“Ki, are you doing alright?” Riku asked softly when they were alone.

Kishi wasn’t entirely sure how to respond. He pulled his legs in and started to get up.

“I thought I was,” Kishi admitted, “I don’t feel… great.”

“About last night?”

“Yeah, but…” he trailed off but they both understood. There wasn’t any reason to advertise what their father would consider an exploitable weakness.

Riku got up too and they headed into the locker room to get in the bath, stripping once they were behind closed doors.

"Are you sure about your fiancé?" Riku asked as they kicked off those awful tight pants.

"Sure about what?"

"Making her a servant."

"Yeah, I think I am. Xemnas trained his first wife like that." Plus, Xion was a natural and seemed happier with the freedom.

"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, and he had a point. The Emperor preferred his kids handle things between them, but there were some unspoken rules. Direct confrontations, fights and the like, were expected to be more formal. They weren’t supposed to force anything with each other either. If Kishi had declined their deal last night, Ansem wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it because they were both Princes. Lighting Ansem on fire the prior night was breaking one of those rules but if Kishi had lit one of Ansem’s wives on fire, that would’ve been okay.

That their father wasn’t already involved to some degree was kidding themselves but if a conflict got too big, they could expect the Emperor to pull them aside and put a stop to it himself. Kishi didn’t want that, and he knew Ansem didn’t want that.

Riku didn’t soak long. This wasn’t a healing bath since it was publicly accessible and Riku only needed the rinse. He got out and left the youngest Prince to take his time. Kishi only got out when it was just himself and Xion in the room.

"Alright, let's go home," he told her. The whole way back he was on alert. Maybe Xigbar had sat in because of what happened last night. He didn’t want them to be ambushed on the way home.

"Is Aerith Xemnas' wife?" Xion asked as they walked.

"Yeah, she's a lot like you."

"Is that so?" She was adjusting the books in his arms to make them easier to carry.

"Yeah. The couple times I met her she seemed really nice, but she's really submissive with Xemnas."

"...huh. Anything else today?"

"I have a paper to write, some personal study time, I really should practice the violin..." Kishi thought out loud. He really wanted to keep working on that composition from this morning. "You're dismissed for the day. If you leave the house, take someone with you."

"I'll stay in." He tried not to show on the outside how happy that made him on the inside.

The moment they stepped over his threshold Xion was pulled roughly to the side, his books barely made it to the console table as her retainer started to check her over right there in the foyer. Kishi felt the anger in his gut again and he curled his lip irritably.

"Mind your manners, slave," he bit, "you make your distrust too obvious."

Vabbitas opened his mouth to say something, and oh Kishi wanted a reason to fight this guy, but Xion punched him in the shoulder to stop him.

"Given yesterday's event, I'm sure it's paranoia, not distrust. Please don't refer to him that way," she said. So much for the relaxed day of showing everyone she was under control. Maybe she got a little too much freedom today feeling like she could talk back to the master of the house.

"I'll refer to him as I please and you'll not correct me in my own home."

She didn’t answer and instead hurried upstairs with her man.

“Maybe I am soft not punishing either of them for that,” he mumbled out loud to himself, but he really did have a decent day, even with the paranoia of his last class.

Kishi shook his head to clear the irritation lingering there and went to the library to get started on his homework. He still had to puzzle out the mystery of beavers for Naminé’s class.

Kishi gave up on that early to follow the inspiration and keep picking at the sheet music until he heard a light knock on the bookshelf. It was Xion. He motioned for her to enter.

"I wanted to apologize for Vanitas," she said as she sat down in one of the chairs opposite his desk.

He flashed her a skeptical look and then went back to doodling notes.

"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. Taking her people away wasn’t what he wanted for her, but he couldn’t deny his dislike of her murderous looking man with the funny aura.

"I'm working on it. It's not something we're used to."

He grunted in acknowledgment and doodled in the margins of his sheet music between glances at her and his violin. Kishi didn’t want to work on this piece for her when she was in the room but the silence and the awkward were getting bad.

"Hey, Xion, I found some blueber-" her brown-haired retainer, Sora said from the doorway. Kishi could almost kiss the guy for breaking that stress in the room.

Xion sighed and got up to pull her man away, leaving Kishi alone for all of ten minutes before his own man arrived.

“How was school?” Ven asked cheerfully from the doorway. He was carrying his bucket of cleaning stuff.

“It was good, hey Ven,” Kishi started, “I need a favor.”

“Anything, Prince.”

“I want you and Roxas to spy on Xion.”

Ven was obviously confused, “Um, what?”

“I want to know what things she likes, what’s important to her. Ask her men, ask her if you can. I don’t want her to know that I’m asking.”

Ven’s sly grin was unbecoming.

“Are you too shy to ask her yourself?” he teased.

Kishi turned bright red for a second and then he huffed, “away with you before I scold you!”

Ven chuckled the whole way out of the house.

Chapter Text

The following few days were spent in relative peace. School was still boring, Kishi still had way too many classes, way too much homework, and was still the bottom of the Oscura barrel. Xion’s presence alleviated a lot of it and Kishi found himself continuing to procrastinate his homework to write music for her in the mornings. It still didn’t feel quite right to share yet.

Ansem was pleasantly absent. His older brother stopped coming to sparring which was a break for his brain but a little harder on his body. Xemnas may have lacked the malicious, sadism that Ansem sported, but he hit a lot a harder and Xigbar visited more frequently.

The one time they did run into Ansem was between houses on the way home from class. He had been pleasant, relaxed, and greeted Xion respectfully. Ansem was definitely up to something. Kishi felt the chill almost immediately and had hurried them home. The few days after that, his paranoia was peaked and he stopped letting Xion out unless she was with him. He was willing to make time to be available the couple times she insisted on some fresh air.

Kishi didn’t start to relax until he realized the paranoia might have been Ansem’s plan all along. It didn’t help him feel less paranoid but it made the youngest Oscura take a step back and focus on relaxing. It was Ansem’s move. All he could do was wait for it.

Even in mid-March the nights in Scala felt cold. The flowering vines, returning birds, and longer days helped brighten his mood, but he still looked forward to evening tea in bed as he studied. Not because the tea was good. It was absolute garbage ever since he started having Xion make it, but every cup was full of improvement and seeing her relax into her role was worth it. There was peace in his home, even if it wasn’t in his heart.

He tapped his pen on the sheet of paper he had hidden between the pages of his history book. Kishi had started brainstorming ideas for the wedding over the course of the last week. What he had to say mattered very little. Ultimately, professionals and his family would get to organize the wedding for him, but Kishi had a couple things that he knew he wanted for himself, and more importantly for Xion. Ven and Roxas were more clever spies than he gave them credit for, and Sora was a wealth of information when he talked to Ven.

So far, Kishi’s list consisted of two things: Lingon berries and green on Xion’s wedding dress. The berries made sense; she wanted a taste of home. The green didn’t mean anything to him, but it was a nugget of info that Ven had brought the Prince and he claimed it was important to Xion. It was really important.

He put the pen in the spine of the book when he heard footsteps on the stairs and then he focused on the book to avoid arousing suspicion as Xion brough the tray to his bedside table.

She poured him a cup and asked, “Milk or sugar?”

“No, thank you,” he responded. He put the book down to take the cup from her to sip it. No amount of milk or sugar could save this.

“Are they staying the night?” Kishi asked and motioned to Sora. He had been letting her retainers stay overnight. It was a comfort for her, but it was also hard for his friends to learn more about her when the best sources were so attached to her. Being unpleasant about it every night wasn’t helping convince her to part with them either.

"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 and Kishi tried not to wrinkle his nose. The other one, her murder man, make Kishi uncomfortable but Sora was chattier. Roxas said that Vakibas was just an angry, bottled-up statue at the servant’s house.

"Okay, then send the other one to the house and let's get ready for bed," he ordered.

Her man left the room, sending black hair slinking away and out the front door, but Xion stayed to wait for him to finish his tea. She was very good at this servant wife thing and they weren’t even married yet.

"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 and cup 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," he tried to reassure her. The Emperor had high standards but he always provided a route to meet them. Kishi would do the same.

"... it's still nice."

He got up when she left and put the pen and book away. He tucked it under a couple other ones so she couldn’t accidently find his meager list. Then, Kishi went to change. In the Summer he liked to sleep in the buff but with the cold nights he was still bundling up in long, soft pajamas.

Goofy wuffed his approval when Kishi came out of the closet and then the big beast was back to chewing on his bone. Ven brought it back from the city market for him. The butcher in town was generally gruff but Ven was impossible to say no to when the man really turned on the charm. Kishi was out some coin, but the beef femur was enough to keep the animal happy and that made it worth it.

Xion slipped passed him quietly to her own room and Kishi turned off the lights. He felt the bed shift as his pet jumped up onto the bed to cuddle. Abandoning his treat for pets? That was true love right there.

Kishi fell asleep with his arm draped over Goof.

Sora!” Kishi heard. It sounded like Xion’s voice. He wasn’t sure if it was in his dream or not. Xion was in his dream this time. He was fighting Ansem again, Riku was there still, so was Xion and her black-haired murder man.

He distantly felt Goofy get up with a start and jump off the bed to snarl and bark at Xion’s door. It woke Kishi up enough to start putting pieces together. Goofy wasn’t a great guard dog but he was a good attack wolf. If Goof was in attack mode, there was something to attack.

The Prince sprang out of bed and cleared the room in a instant. He shoved Goofy out of the way in time to hear Xion yell again.

“Goofy! Get Kishi!”

He dashed into the room and jumped on the man. There was a glint of metal in the dim starlight and Kishi could see her retainer’s silhouette crumpled on the floor. He wrapped an arm around the assailant’s neck and started to choke the man.

“Sora, light!” Xion ordered but her man wasn’t moving. Kishi could smell blood. One or both of them was hurt and he felt the angry adrenaline hit his veins. This assassin had just gone after his things!

The knife stabbed into Kishi’s arm, but he barely felt it. It came free with a squelch and then hit the floor as Kishi got his hands around the man’s skull and twisted until his neck popped with a loud crack. The assailant went limp.

The shuffling sounds stopped. It was quiet aside from Goofy’s persistent growling.  

“How hurt are you, Sora?” Xion asked.

“I’m okay…” He didn’t sound okay.

“Kishi, are you okay?”

“Yes,” he said blandly. There wasn’t a lot of feeling in his voice. Dimly, Kishi remembered how he sounded when he tapped that Bloodlust. This didn’t feel quite the same. The burning hatred was still there but it hadn’t had time to build into that storm.

He started dragging the body out into his own room where the moonlight was a little brighter. He tossed the body and held a hand out to stop Goofy from pouncing but Xion was on that. She had followed Kishi into the room and was focused on calming his animal.

Kishi started going through the man’s pockets, turning his coat inside out, checking shoes, and anywhere that may have had an identifying mark or insignia, but the man was non-descript, plain, wearing all black, and only carried the knife.

Xion lit a candle behind him, and he was able to look the man over a little more closely. Kishi started stripping the man down. He could feel the stitching in the man’s clothes under his thumb and briefly checked it to be sure. The pattern was unique to their House tailor.

This was one of Xigbar’s men.

Xigbar, the King’s Regent, was also one of the most cunning warriors of the Empire. He rarely took the field himself but personally trained assassins for various purposes. They were usually harder to kill than this unless their purpose was to die. Kishi’s first assassination attempt was when he was twelve. The man had also been one of Xigbar’s and was poorly trained. It was never intended for that man to have succeeded, he was meant to be murdered by a pre-teen Kishi in the name of training.

This one was different. He wasn’t as up to snuff as Xigbar’s elites, but Kishi wasn’t the target either. This unit may have seen Xigbar as their commander, but they could be commanded by any proven member of the Imperial Royal family, anyone except Kishi.

Considering Ansem’s behavior early in the week, he was an obvious suspect, but Kishi wouldn’t put it past Xigbar or even the Emperor himself to have counted on that conclusion in pursuit of another purpose. It would explain the assassin’s ineptitude. There was a message being sent here. It was a stark and glaring reminder that there were more than two people playing this game.

“Thanks for the help,” Xion said behind him.

He didn’t respond. The Prince was too busy stripping the man naked.

"What can I do to help right now?"

"Go start a bath," he ordered. They were both hurt. He could smell and see the blood on her sleeve. He dragged the body out onto the balcony and then let Goofy out there too.

“Goofy, go clean up,” he ordered and then followed Xion downstairs. Her retainer was with them too with a dazed expression. Kishi stopped him on the stairs.

“Send for Aqua.”

“I’m not leaving her,” Sora argued.

“Sora. Do as he says. You can send Vanitas back,” Xion said before Kishi could take out some of his frustrations on the servant.

The man opened his mouth briefly but saw sense and left the house on her order.

The assassin was trouble, the message he sent was unclear, but there were priorities. Kishi stepped up to Xion to pull her into the brighter light of the bathroom. He gently took her arm and held it to the light to check her injury. They had been stabbed in nearly the same place. Her wound was longer and shallower than his so it should heal faster.

“Get in the bath,” he ordered.

"...is Goofy eating him?" Xion asked and started undressing. She paused to ask, "...are you going to watch?"

"Yes and yes. If you're that worried about modesty, then leave your underwear on."

The paste would have to be mixed anew. It didn’t keep very long. He got out the mortar and pestle and the actual herbs, enchanted… stuff, honestly he didn’t want to know what everything was, and started mixing the paste with some of the water from the bath.

He heard her get into the water and started stripping himself. Kishi did not care to have wet underwear and took it all off before he splashed into the half full tub himself. He waded over to the salt bin and added a scoop to mix with his feet.

Hopefully he made enough paste for them both. He didn’t want another unseemly scar on her or himself. Kishi took her arm again to look at the wound and pressed a thumb into it to check the depth. Oh she would be fine. She wasn’t even flinching. Xion wasn’t even half as bothered about the attempt on her life as he was and Kishi was just angry that someone in his family would try such a thing.

He started to rub the paste into the wound.

"...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."

He tilted her head back to check. It would definitely bruise. It was a miracle she was talking normally right now. A miracle or a garbage assassin. He felt angry again at the implications. Kishi pressed on it gently and, to her credit, she didn’t react.

“It doesn’t hurt much, but pushing on it does,” she told him. He put some paste on the bruises just in case.

She tried to take the paste from him after a minute with a soft, “Let me help you now… please.”

He paused to study her before saying, “…when you’re done. Sink in the water. The salts activate the paste.”

He plowed through the thigh deep water to turn off the faucet. They didn’t need a full tub for trivial injuries. The water behind him sizzled and popped so he knew she was obeying.

“How bad is it?” Xion asked behind him. Kishi was just now taking a moment to check his own wound.

"Worse than yours, not bad enough to be a worry."

She had taken the paste from the side of the tub and scooped some out before pulling his arm towards her. The gentle contact was a little strange, but he didn’t resist as she started working it into the gap.

He was still trying to process who might have sent the man. Overthinking it wouldn’t do. Ansem was the obvious choice. Blinding rushing to attack back wasn’t the best response. They would have to plan their next move carefully.

The bathroom door opened so forcefully, Kishi might’ve thought it had been kicked in if it wasn’t still on its hinges. Vaguntus, her angry retainer, was standing in the doorway studying them. The Prince still stood up to be ready for an attack.

“I’m okay, Vanitas. Stand down.”

Both the men glared at each other until Xion got out of the tub to put a hand on her man’s shoulder.

“Stand down, Van.”

The servant lingered an extra second and then turned his back to Kishi to focus on her.

“You’re really okay?”

“I am now.”

He was still angry because of the assassin and because it was this man in particular, Kishi felt particularly pissed at the man’s attitude. He got out to square off, daring the guy to make a move but Xion stepped so she was partially between them.

"None of that right now. Please. It's late, and this was stressful," Xion was saying in her best calming voice.

"If he wants to fight, then let's fight."

"My Lady asked me not to," Vanitas said evenly, back still to the Prince. That was worse.

"Face me when you talk to me, slave."

Xion had to shove him to make him turn and then the servant kept his head down to repeat, “My Lady told me not to fight.”

The energy from this guy was just so… palpable. Kishi studied him. This humility felt forced but his loyalty was undeniable. He tsked and went to get back in the bath. Kishi still needed some more of the paste, and it was hard to reach which added to the frustration.

“I can finish it,” Xion offered. She had followed him across the room.

"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, "his emotional needs are clearly not being met! Do as I say and tend to your mutt!" Maybe he was out of line, but Kishi didn’t like his people being argumentative and arguing with him. It was easy to lash out when he was this tired, angry, and uncomfortable.

She slowly put the jar down and went to Vanitas.

"Are you okay?"

"That's a stupid question. Of course I'm okay." She came right back. Kishi glared at her. That smartass woman. This was malicious compliance.

"May I finish?" asked Xion. He irritably held his arm out and focused on glaring at her man while she finished. Deep wounds like this took longer to heal than shallow ones. She dunked his arm and it sizzled. The itch of healing was obnoxious but not painful.

“Sorry,” Xion said anyway. Kishi leaned back to soak his arm and relax. Healing like this could be draining and he felt the anger and adrenaline go first, leaving him with the post-fight exhaustion. She still hadn’t moved from the edge of the tub where she was sitting.

“…the longer you soak the better it will heal,” he said when it looked like she wouldn’t get back in. He didn’t want her to be uncomfortable or hurting either…

"Do you want me to get back in, then?"

"I don't care when you finish healing," he grumbled and then turned away shyly to hide the pink his cheeks and with it his affection. She didn’t get back in the tub.

The poor bathroom door slammed open again and Aqua blew into the room like a summer storm. She looked disheveled and tired, Sora behind her looked even more so. She was quiet and her voice was so much scarier at that lower volume.

"Explain yourself," she ordered.

"Who?" the Prince asked.

"You."

"Oh."

Kishi looked away, deflating a bit under her gaze.

"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," he explained. It was the simplest explanation. He’d deal with it if things extended beyond that.

"...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." Assassins were a low blow, but they still followed the unspoken rules of passive messing with each other.

"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 answer was no but it needed to be yes.

"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.

"Alright, I'll have Kairi tend to your room in the morning," Aqua said.

"Kairi?" Xion asked.

"Just another servant," Aqua grumbled dismissively. She huffed and left allowing Kishi to 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 and he said, "Well, that explains it."

"How?" asked Xion. She had a mildly puzzled expression. It was cute.

"She was with Terra," Kishi explained.

"Are they close?"

"I know they want to be." They could be if they asked the Emperor, but Kishi knew they wouldn’t. They would rather not ask than risk being told no.

"...so what do we do now?"

"Go to bed, sleep in, go to class in the morning. Nothing has changed," he instructed.

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." Saying it out loud made it a little easier to convince himself and he was a bit more at ease.

"...I suppose that's true. It's not common in Terminus."

"Small Kingdoms don't share the problems of large Empires."

"No, they don't," she agreed.

They sat in silence for a couple minutes while he soaked before the curiosity got the better of him, "Tell me more about your Kingdom."

"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?" he asked, surprised. That kind of education was unnecessary for a brood.

"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 settled in and grunted a tad to assure her he was listening. Kishi was a sucker for a good story, he was okay letting her pick where to start.

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."

This was an interesting legend, even if it was unbelievable. What a barbaric country to need dragons to be their messengers. He resisted a yawn. It was still late, and his energy was sapped by the healing and the soothing sound of her voice.

“Because the dragons are dead?” he ventured a guess at the explanation for their current problems.

"...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..." he mumbled to himself.

"Do you stock bandages?"

"Under the sink."

He got up to sit on the side of the tub while she wrapped his arm.

"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 and he shrugged it off. Kishi got up and grabbed himself a couple towels from the bin; one for his waist, one for his hair.

"Thanks again. For the help."

"You're mine," he said simply. Kishi glared at Vanitas as he said it and then started up the stairs. Let the man glare back.

"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." He wished it. He couldn’t believe it.

"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 without bothering to get dressed.

"Does Goofy need a bath before he comes in?" Xion asked.

"Probably," he mumbled into his pillow.

Kishi was almost, almost asleep not long after flopping over when two giant paws smashed into his back. Both he and the wolf leaped out of bed as Kishi kicked the towel and the animal off of him in a startled panic. He grumbled incoherently when he calmed down and wandered to his closet to change into pajamas while Goofy licked his back. After the second lick, Kishi chased the animal out of the closet, finished getting dressed, and then collapsed haphazardly across his blankets to fall back asleep for real this time.

Chapter Text

Despite Kishi’s words the night prior regarding the assassin, he was very fazed. It was most evident when he once again woke in the early morning hours and was unable to go back to sleep. This move in their game was weighing on him and Kishi was debating how to respond. He told Xion that he wasn’t going to. Life would progress as it always did, but how could it?

Barely a week after making his brother swear to leave her alone and an assassin shows up to kill her? Kishi had to respond, perhaps not in kind, but he had to make a move himself.

He got up and went to his closet to change into nice, informal clothing and then headed out. Goofy followed and Kishi was loathe to tell that sad face no. The wolf peed and then Kishi walked to the kitchens. He briefly instructed the cook to have his breakfast sent to Ansem’s house and then headed that way himself.

The early hour meant a lazier walk. Kishi kept it slow but was sure to arrive before Ansem woke and he didn’t knock or let himself in. Instead, Kishi walked around to the gate and let himself into Ansem’s yard to sit at the table on the patio. It was cold, which was unpleasant, but it was indirectly invasive, which was the point.

Goofy excitedly bounded across the yard to greet Maleficent who was hard to make out from this distance. The dragon was the primary reason why Ansem’s yard was significantly larger than the other Princes’ places. She had her own den nestled between large, dense trees where she was bound.

The wolf’s fur puffed up when she opened an eye to look at him and Kishi could tell even from here that Goofy regreted his decision. He tucked his tail and scampered away from her but she didn’t react any further. She never did. For as long as Kishi could remember the animal never did anything more than eat sleep, and occasionally stretch.

When the pink of dawn started to stretch across the sky, Aqua herself came by with food on a tray. She found Kishi outside and put the food down with grumpy expression.

“I can’t hide behind your knees forever,” Kishi said casually and started serving himself. Aqua sighed and went back inside. The next time the door opened, it was Ansem. If the man was surprised to see Kishi, he didn’t show it.

“Your mutt does not belong in my yard.”

“He disagrees.” Goofy was digging a hole in the far corner and kicking up grass.

Ansem took a seat and started getting his own food together. It was a sweet oatmeal with fruit today.

“Why are you here?” Ansem asked after a minute.

“I had a visitor last night.”

“Oh?”

“He’s dead now.”

“Oh.”

“I killed him and fed him to my mutt.”

“Oh!” Ansem settled on a pleased expression as he sipped his juice.

“Why did you send an uninvited guest to my home?” Kishi asked sweetly.

“Only one?”

Kishi had to work extra hard to keep his reaction off his face.

“So it was you,” he said after a heartbeat pause, “I told you Xion was off limits.”

“Off limits to me. I said nothing about sending anyone to your home and I don’t like your implications.”

“But you have no qualms about implying yourself as the master of potentially multiple assassins.”

Ansem held a finger up, “If I sent anyone to your home, they would not have failed. I know you Kishi. You are not strong enough to defend yourself or your people from a proper attack. I only believe you survived the night because the Queens have a soft spot for the softest son.

The real problem here has not changed from the moment your fiancé was given to you. You are unproven and that will never change if you can’t handle basic tests.”

But what was the test? Kishi killed the man, didn’t he? His house was safe. Xion was safe. If there was another assassin, he would’ve noticed, or the man would’ve made his move. More likely, Ansem was implying a spy. If his encounter last night was observed and reported… No, Kishi handled everything right this time. If there was a test here, it was in what he would do next.

Kishi finished his meal in silence and then stood up.

“I am more than able to defend my own,” he said firmly, “the next threat that comes into my home… I’ll kill him too.” The youngest Prince glared at Ansem as he walked away and Kishi felt the slightest hint of pride at Ansem’s refusal to respond. The balance of respecting his elder here and sending a message was important.

In comparison, Kishi’s move here wasn’t as flashy or bold as an assassin, but it did warn Ansem: I can and will kill intruders, I will defend Xion, and your home is just as accessible as mine.

“Goofy,” Kishi called softly and the wolf happily bounded across the yard to catch up as Kishi let himself out through the gate to walk home. Each step felt exhausting. The lack of sleep was weighing on him along with the feeling of snapping that nameless man’s neck. It wasn’t the first time Kishi had killed someone, but it never seemed to get easier. How his brothers could enjoy this… He shook his head to chase the thought away. It was something Kishi needed to enjoy too if he was ever going to be proven. It put him in a tired, bad mood.

He let himself into his house and went straight to his room to get comfortable. The shoes got kicked off into some random part of the room for Ven to clean later and his coat got dumped on his bed to await the same treatment.

“How was breakfast?” he heard Xion ask from the door to the balcony. Her retainers were out there sparring with broomsticks and she had one in her hand. Kishi didn’t know if he liked them training like that.

“Fine. Oats aren’t my favorite,” he settled on saying instead. He didn’t want to invite the opportunity for her to do something worthy of punishment.

"You had oats over there too?"

"Why is that such a surprise?"

She shrugged and said, "It's not. Just clarifying."

He pulled on his slippers and dug around for a fluffier robe.

"...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." And a nap, maybe two naps.

"...is that a no?"

He looked over to study her for a second. There was a lot less risk if he took her himself, especially after last night.

Kishi sighed and said, “half an hour.”

“Thank you,” he heard her say as he reached for his coat and shoes. Kicking them across the room had already come back to bite him. He went downstairs to wait for her by the door with an excited Goofy. The wolf wasn’t allowed in the garden but Kishi was too tired to care at this point.

“Your people aren’t coming?” he asked when she joined him by the door. She had stopped in the library to grab a pad of paper and a pencil.

"They might shadow, but I asked them to give you space."

He grunted. Good. He didn’t really want them around.

They walked in silence the whole way there while Kishi stewed in his exhausted frustration. He got the gate for her and Goofy and then followed her while she wandered. The wolf had enough happy for both of them. He was so excited he was spronking from bush to bush to sniff and pee and snap at buzzing insects.

“Ven says you draw,” Xion said. She found a bench to sit on under one of the open gazebos. The garden stream ran by here before meeting the pond. It was a good spot.

“Sometimes.” Kishi did not sit. He didn’t want to be here long enough to get comfortable and something didn’t feel right.

"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 felt an angry spark in his belly that fanned into a fire with the exhaustion fuel it was getting.

"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 made himself calm down when it was clearer that she wasn’t questioning his strength.

"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 stomped off in his annoyance to a sunny patch on the other side of the pond. He didn’t want to fight and he didn’t want to deal with this right now. He was fine. The more he thought it and said it, the more it felt like the truth.

Kishi laid there until he noticed that she had left. Goofy was gone too. He sighed. So much for a quick visit. He got up to wander himself. They wouldn’t be impossible to find again. The garden was huge, but it was also hard to miss giant wolf tracks.

The sun felt nice. He sat down on a grassy spot between a few trees. Kishi felt drowsy. That wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was falling asleep.

Once more, Kishi dreamt. Once more, he dreamt of Ansem. It was dark and they were fighting. Riku came to stop them again.

He felt something move on his shoulder and he was awake and panting with his heart beating through his ears. He looked for his sword but only found grass and his fiancé with her hands raised in a gesture of good will. Kishi looked around briefly to remember where they were and then pressed a hand to his chest as though to physically calm his racing heart.

"...you seemed to be having a bad dream."

"I-Im fine." He rubbed his face.

"They were just dreams, yeah?"

He swallowed to find his voice but it had caught in his throat. All of his brothers had talked about having premonitions in the past. Could he…? No, no theses were just dreams.

"We should go back to the house..." he suggested.

"Okay."

Even after saying that he held still and took deep breaths.

"Hey. I'm not gonna hurt you. Nothing will, for now," Xion reassured him and he noticed she had put her hand on his shoulder again. The real world was calling. He got up.

"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."

"Swimming?"

It had been a long time since he had the chance but, "Yeah, I feel better in the water."

He felt a little more awake and alert, enough to find his composure again.

“…let’s go,” he said and took the lead.

"Come on, Goofy. We're going back." The wolf bounded after them at her call.

It was as they walked that Kishi found more clarity. The nap had helped. He was still tired but felt clear-headed. It was enough for him to realize there was a potentially dangerous loose end in his home. He hoped, he prayed he was wrong, but it would be foolish to not be sure.

He stopped just inside the front door to ask Xion, "Was Ventus the only one telling you things about me?"

"...why?"

"Was he the only one putting you up to trying to manipulate me?"

"Yes, but why?" she emphasized again.

"You don't need to know." It was his home and if Ven was somehow being used by Ansem, or worse, Xemnas… Ven wasn’t a personal servant. He belonged to the House, that included his brothers. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

He started searching the rooms while Xion followed.

"Kishi, wait, please don't have him hurt."

He found Ven in the library.

“Ventus,” Kishi said and Ven looked up at him cheerfully before that smile melted away into concern and maybe fear.

"We're going to go see Aqua.”

Ven nodded shakily and put the duster down. Ever obedient he followed Kishi to the front door. The servant was trying to clean himself up a little as they went, wiping his hands on his pants, straightening his shirt, and so on.

Xion blocked the way. She stood firmly in the open front door.

“Move,” Kishi ordered.

"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!”

Please, he begged in his heart, please just go inside.

She would not budge and he felt anger clash with his worry. They were on his front doorstep where anyone could overhear or see. After everything he had done for her so far, how could she not trust him!? Did she think he was off to break Ven? She had no idea the danger she was putting them all in!

"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?"

Anger won. It had to. He couldn’t let her take advantage of his weakness to tell him things he already knew and she was putting him in a position to have to play the villain again.

"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!" he growled.

"The only ones who can see are you, me, and Ventus,” she seemed to start but somewhere in her words she came to her senses and moved. She ran upstairs and Kishi slammed the door behind her.

This time of the day, Aqua was likely at the servant house. It was just before lunch, she might even be tending to the classes or visiting Terra. He stopped only once to ask a passing servant where Aqua was, and then they were headed upstairs to the school.

Ven followed quietly with his head bowed and his hands anxiously playing with the tassels on his coat. Kishi had half a mind to go after Ven now and determine his involvement, but he wanted to do this right. Aqua could mediate properly and if there was a problem with her staff, then she needed to know. She was a powerful ally against his brothers. He needed her and valued her input. It also gave Kishi time to contemplate Xion.

She had to have known the danger. She wasn’t stupid, Kishi knew that much by now, but she was still willing to put herself in harm’s way for Ven.

“Kishi?” Aqua called, “I didn’t think you would come up here for classes today.”

She was just leaving the throne room, no doubt after conferring with the Emperor.

“We need to talk, somewhere in private.”

She seemed to understand and led them to an empty office.

“Did something happen?”

“My servant has been conspiring behind my back,” Kishi said with anger in his voice, “I want to question him.”

Aqua was all business. She took a seat with her clipboard and waited patiently. Ven held still with his head down while Kishi let him sit for a second.

“Did you tell Xion to take me to the garden?” Kishi asked.

“Yes sir,” Ven mumbled. He was shaking with the effort of holding back tears.

“Why?”

“I thought you needed the time to relax after last night.”

“Why would I need to relax?”

Ven broke down, “My Prince, I was worried about the affect killing that man would have on you. I saw how tired you were and I was so worried!”

Kishi didn’t react right away. He was a little annoyed that Ven thought he would be soft enough to be affected by the death of an assassin. Ven was crying now.

“Did my brother’s put you up to this?” he asked with a little more venom and there was a heaviness in the air as Ven looked at him in alarm with wide, bright eyes, shiny with his tears.

“No,” he whispered, and Kishi believed him. Ventus was honest to fault. There was no reason to believe the servant was lying.

“Conspiring with other servants against me…” Kishi mumbled. The anger was gone, but he was disappointed. What else had Ven said behind his back? Even if his motives were pure, what if things he had said had gotten around?

“I appreciate you wanting to help me and care for me, but I don’t want you getting others involved. Working behind my back like this doesn’t help me. It makes things harder. Do you understand?”

Ven nodded and sobbed, “please, sir, punish me for my actions.”

Aqua looked at Kishi expectantly, it was Kishi’s call if this was to be punished. At its core, conceptually, he should punish something like this, but Ven was so earnest and so rarely needed punishing, it didn’t seem necessary. Even more so, Kishi couldn’t stop thinking about Xion, so willing to take that burden herself. Damn. He could overlook Ven. Kishi couldn’t overlook the open defiance. What a mess.

“No. It may have been your idea, but no damage was done. You are a servant. It’s not your place to get involved in the affairs of your betters,” Kishi told him, “And getting Xion involved.”

He felt himself getting angry again. She put him in such an awful spot.

“You have chores to do, Ven,” Kishi said, quieter this time. He looked away to the side, not meeting Ven’s eyes when it looked like the servant was searching him for some reassurances.

“You may go, Ven,” Aqua said and the man slunk off.

Kishi tapped his fingers on the desk.

“Did you intend to punish him at all?” she asked.

“Not unless he was working for Ansem.”

“You couldn’t have punished him for that. I won’t punish obedience to the House.”

The Prince huffed. It was a combination of annoyance and relief.

“Your brother has you on edge more than usual,” she observed.

“Ven and Roxas are mine,” Kishi growled, “I don’t know what I would’ve done if he had been put up to this by Ansem.”

“Put up to taking care of you?”

“I don’t know! They play the long game better than I can!” Kishi growled, “I still have to deal with Xion. Damn it. She had to be combative on the front step!” He picked up one of the chairs and threw it to let off some frustration. Aqua didn’t flinch, her face remained deadpan, almost disappointed herself.

“Get ahead of this Kishi.”

“I don’t know how!”

“Consider asking for help then.”

“That’s weakness.”

“Depends on who you ask for help,” she reminded and got up. That was a good point. Seeking council wasn’t weak. The Emperor did it all the time. He didn’t always heed the advice, but he took as much of it as he could.

“Aqua,” he said, stopping her, “tell my Father I request to eat dinner with him tonight.”

She smiled a little and bowed her head politely, “of course, my Prince.” Aqua left and Kishi took a second to steel himself. He was shaking for other reasons now. Dinner was still a longs way out. That left plenty of time for him to stress about it.

He went to the library to prepare.

No one came for him until the evening and by then Kishi was very hungry, very tired, and very anxious. Studying had done very little for him and trying to find the right mindset by meditating was a good start but it dissolved immediately when he stood in front of the open doors to the throne room. He swallowed but the lump in his throat stayed put and his feet felt like they were one with the stone. Being late wouldn’t do him any good. Kishi forced his feet to take those steps and he hurried through the open hall to the door where his father’s home was.
Aqua greeted him with a reassuring smile and led Kishi to the dining room where the Emperor was already waiting and discussing with his Regent. The Prince felt his heart skip when he saw Xigbar, but it made sense. Kishi wasn’t important enough to warrant a private audience.

He stepped into the room and bowed his head politely to say, “Thank you, your Excellency for allowing me to eat with you tonight.”

“Come, sit,” the man ordered and Kishi took the seat on Emperor Xehanort’s left. There was an awkward silence. The pressure was enormous. Kishi wanted nothing more than to show his father he was brave and worthy of acknowledgment and love, so he kept his head up and waited to be addressed.

“How are your studies?” the Emperor asked after a minute.

“Highest marks, sir.”

“Even though you frequently skip class?”

“Y-Yes, sir.”

“How are things in your home?”

This was a trap. Kishi knew lying would be met with punishment and with Xigbar here there was a strong chance that the Emperor already knew about everything including the events of last night and today.

“That is what I wanted to talk to you about, sir,” Kishi said, “I am in need of council.”

Aqua came into the room with dinner. It took her a couple short trips from the hallway to the table to put down the trays and then she set the table around them. None of the royals paid her any attention.

The Emperor’s smile was unwavering but Kishi could see in those golden-amber eyes a flicker of pleasure at the praise. He motioned with a hand for Kishi to continue.

“My home will go through stretches of peace and control. My servants, even those of my fiancé, obey and respect me, but there are moments of conflict that have me questioning the proper course of action,” Kishi admitted.

“I will not advise you on your dealings with your brother. You will not learn if I do things for you and Ansem’s boredom makes for good training. Your clashes with him bring you closer to your moment of proving.”

Kishi tried not to be obvious about how much he wanted that. He shuffled in his chair.

“Ask, boy,” Xehanort ordered.

“Is that time coming soon?” Kishi asked.

“I would like it to be.”

That wasn’t a yes or no. There was a chance Kishi’s moment was coming but only if he didn’t mess up and worked hard. That meant properly dealing with Xion.

“Father… Sir, today Xion-“

“Tell me of her,” the Emperor instructed. He started to serve himself food. They were having a rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, fresh bread, and a mild wine. Everything was already separated into portions and the Emperor ate each item in courses and while the man ate, Kishi told him everything.

There wasn’t any point in holding back. Kishi did his best to keep his emotions out of his discussion of her, but he also let himself ramble. It made Kishi realize how much he just wanted to tell his dad about his life and how important Xion was and was becoming to him. Was this how normal families worked?

“She told me she wanted to work,” Kishi was saying, “we have this peaceful life here for her and she wants a job! I-I would like to allow her that at some point. I think she is too clever and too strong to simply be a wife. I started training her to be my personal servant.”

“Your decision is resourceful,” the Emperor agreed and Kishi beamed with the praise, “but a servant need still be properly tamed and leashed.”

The Prince’s heart sank again.

“Yeah, she defied me today, even blocked my path. I need to punish her, but I need council on the best way to do so. The way she stood up for her fellow servant was admirable and I want to foster that loyalty to the House but not at the cost of her compliance.”

It was quiet as the Emperor thought to himself. Xigbar had been quiet this entire time. Somehow the Regent kept his smirk while eating.

“When Roxas disobeyed me repeatedly, I beat him,” Kishi continued, eager to fill the silence, “but I don’t think that would do anything to her. I know Ansem would have me break her, but I don’t know what use I would have for a broken servant.”

And I don’t want to do that to her, he thought but Kishi knew being here was a risk. If he asked for the Emperor’s advice and didn’t take it, what kind of message would he be sending? Kishi wasn’t in a position to pick and choose what council he could and couldn’t take. No matter what his father said, he would have to obey.

“I agree with your assessment,” Xehanort said and once more Kishi felt himself bursting with the praise, “Properly controlled, Xion would be an excellent source of council for you, but she must be taught to weigh her council well. To defy you is the purpose of close council, as Xigbar does for me in times I need be defied, but the trust in that council need be earned.”

“If I may council now Excellency,” Xigbar finally said and the Emperor waved his hand for him to continue, “see this as an opportunity, punish her, yeah, but a way that ensures any future outbursts are important enough to warrant a second thought.”

Kishi picked at his food and then guessed, “so something severe?”

The Emperor continued where his Regent left off, “Training a slave in this case must follow the rule of three. Choose something severe enough that it need only be done no more than three times to ensure the rule will not be broken again. Your betrothed is a soldier, they care not for physical pain but are experienced with loss. Taking something from her would be severe but would be unlikely to cripple her.”

Kishi thought about that. What did she even have to lose? He could take one of her retainers from her and it would be awesome to get rid of Vamirtas but that would likely mean killing him. That felt too far. His dad did make the point she was a soldier, her scars were important to her, but it was something she could get over fast.

“Her scars,” Kishi said, “they have value to her, enough where she wants to keep them.”

“Having one taken from her would do the trick,” Xigbar said, “make the Missus think twice before countering you again.”

The Prince felt good about this now. If Xigbar and the Emperor approved of this course of action, then it would probably win some respect. He smiled at his father but the Emperor was focusing on his meal and considering dessert options. Kishi did the same, emulating the man he respected, whose love he desperately craved.

When they were done, the Emperor got to his feet and started to leave, but he stopped in the doorway.

“You still lack composure,” he told his son, “The next time you stand before me, I expect you to not be so obvious with your desperation.”

Kishi bowed his head but his father left before he could respond, if he even knew what to say.

“Oh, don’t look so sad,” Xigbar said, getting up himself, “That’s how you know he loves you. The harder he is on you, the more love he’s demonstrating. After all, he just wants to see you grow strong enough to be like your brothers. Maybe even better than them.”

Kishi stayed sitting with his head bowed for another few moments before he got up as well.

“Excuse me, sir, my home needs tending to, I have to make arrangements,” the Prince said politely and then he left.

Kishi walked out of his father’s apartments and to the throne room where he had to stop and sit on the steps of the dais. His hands were shaking. He hadn’t even realized how much energy it had taken to be in the same room as two magical powerhouses for so long. His father alone radiated so much magical power that the pressure had made his shoulders ache. Even time passed differently in there. It was already getting dark out. The throne room was dim aside from the long stretches of purple and silver light coming from the windows.

He took deep breaths and clasped his hands. With his elbows on his knees, it was easier to rest his head on them that way. It was almost as though he was praying which may have been why it took Aqua so long to announce herself. He could feel her presence in the room for almost a full minute before she softly cleared her throat and then came to sit next to him.

They sat in silence in a room that made them feel small until she finally asked, “Are you okay?”

“Do you think other families are like this?” he whispered. Anything louder would echo.

“No. I think that the weight of the crown requires a tougher hand.”

“I thought he was proud of me.”

“Kishi, your father is proud of you. And your time to shine will come. I promise, someday, you’ll get the chance to prove to everyone that you are so much more than others choose to see now.”

She put an arm around him in a half hug and he found himself leaning into it for a second before it felt weird. Physical demonstrations of affection were… foreign. Aside from his concubines, Kishi never really got anything like this. It felt nice, but strange enough for him to pull away after only a few seconds.

“I, um, need to punish Xion. I’ll need some things.”

He told her about his plan to have one of her scars removed and Aqua jotted some stuff down on her clipboard.

“The sooner the better,” Kishi said, “I want it done so Xion and I can move on quickly. I want things to go back to normal as best they can.”

“I wanted to have these removed before the wedding anyway. This is a fair punishment, maybe even a little mild,” Aqua admitted.

“I really, really don’t want to break her.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning. First Ansem and then the Emperor, you had a long day, try to get a full night’s rest.”

He nodded and left. The walk home was tense. The school was quiet and Kishi used the time to steel himself. The more he thought about it, the more confident he was in his decision, but he wanted to talk with Xion about everything first. Her input was important, even if the decision had been made.

He let Goofy out for a potty break first and then went to her door. He opened it enough to poke his head in.

"Go make some tea," he ordered softly.

She got up and asked, "What kind?"

"Peppermint would be great."

He changed while she was downstairs and got settled into bed. The mood in the house was dark. Her people weren’t here either. Kishi thought for sure she would’ve kept them around but he admired the bravery. She had to know he was upset and she still opted to face this alone.

Xion put the tray on his bedside table.

"Milk or sugar?"

"Neither." Kishi accepted the tea from her, sipped it, and then held it in his lap. It was still awful, almost worthy of punishment itself if she wasn’t still learning. "Speaking out against me the way that you did is unacceptable and there needs to be some sort of punishment. Do you disagree?"

"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." He was trying to keep his voice soft and reassuring but she was still so tense.

"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. This wasn’t exactly what his father had suggested, but seeing how scared she was tonight, Kishi wanted some options to spare her, and he had a feeling letting her people take the punishment would be just as effective.

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."

His heart skipped again and he sipped the tea to hide it. She was still standing in the way of the people she loved. Kishi felt inspired by her all over again and now for the first time since thinking about it, he was regretting his decision to punish her at all.

"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," she told him.

He sipped his tea thoughtfully and then continued, "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. His idea was still the least damaging. He was sure this was light enough where she would be okay, but heavy enough to satisfy his family.

"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," he said.

"...my leg," she said quietly, and he could see the shimmer of tears in her eyes.

"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," he said, hoping that she would understand why this had to be done. This was a learning experience for them both and an important step to staying in this game for both their sakes.

He handed the mug back to her.

"You can go to bed when you're done cleaning up the tea."

She left and Kishi waited a minute for her to come back to wish her good night but considering the weight of the day and what he just told her, maybe it wasn’t a good idea. He still had to be her master, she was still a servant, and what she seemed to want the most was space.

He of all people understood that the most.

Chapter Text

Recurring nightmares had Kishi up early. He spent it on a walk, without Goofy this time. The jog helped clear his head and by the time he was getting home Aqua, Naminé, and Zexion were approaching his front door. He could hear Goofy barking from down the road. Aqua was letting herself in but the fae and her assistant were waiting patiently for Kishi.

It was important that they be invited in to have full range of their magic.

“Morning,” he greeted quietly.

“Good morning, my Prince,” Naminé greeted, “may we enter?”

“You are welcome here. I invite you into my home,” he said. The words didn’t matter, it was the intention behind them. Kishi found being more formal left no room for error with threshold magic, he picked that up from Riku.

“We will set up,” Aqua assured him, “if you want to go get her.”

“Yeah, come on Goof.” The wolf wagged his tail and followed Kishi upstairs. He didn’t have to knock. Her door was open and he could see her from the doorway.

“Let’s get this over with,” he said.

Xion left her room with her head bowed and closed the door on her people. She followed him to the bathroom and Kishi wondered if this was what a funeral procession felt like. It was hard for him to understand why she seemed so much more upset than he thought she would be.

He took a seat on the bench behind her next to Aqua to watch.

"Hey, Xion," Naminé greeted softly.

"Hello Miss Naminé. Master Aqua," Xion was equally soft.

"Have you decided which scar is to be removed?"

"My—my leg."

"Did the Prince tell you how this will work?"

She shook her head.

Zexion, the assistant, was measuring salts and filling up the bath. The young man was very smart and knew just as much about the magical process here as Naminé did. He might have even enchanted some of the lotions and pastes himself.

"The easiest way is to cut out the scar and then heal it as though it were a fresh wound."

Kishi couldn’t see Xion very well from behind like this, but he saw her tense at Namine’s words.

"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," the fae reassured her and Xion started rolling up her pant leg. Kishi saw the scar before when they were having her sized for her clothing. It was wide and knotted, covering a large portion of her leg below the knee.

"Sit by the edge of the tub please," Naminé ordered as she went to the countertop to mix and prepare the lotions. Some stuff kept well, some didn’t. Kishi didn’t completely understand the magic that went into this process.

While Naminé worked, Zexion got undressed down to his undergarments so he could get into the bath. It was easier to mix the salts this way while the bath was filling.

“Zexion, wash her leg please.” He looked up and waded over to take the bowls from her as they were finished being mixed. He helped her set up and then timidly moved to Xion to guide her leg into the water to wash it.

Kishi and Aqua had to get up briefly so Naminé could fetch some towels from the bin and then she joined her assistant in the tub, still staying in her signature white sundress. One of the towels went under Xion’s leg in a roll to prop it up barely out of the water so Naminé could trace it 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."

Kishi could hear the pain in Xion’s voice and his chest got tighter. He was starting to think maybe he made the wrong choice of punishment.

Naminé reverently cared for the scar even before hearing the story. She was extra reverent now. She gently checked the progress of the numbing cream as they waited.

"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."

"I don't think I want to look away," Xion said and Kishi’s heart twisted again. He had horribly failed to grasp how important this was to her.

Naminé offered her a smile and then got to work. For what felt like an eternity, the only sounds were the splashing of the water and Xion’s soft crying. The surgical knife gently peeled away the skin in strips until the scar was replaced with a facsimile of the original wound. The towel soaked with blood until Naminé started to apply another paste. It provided a seal over the wound while the towels were swapped out, crimson for white.

The entire time, Xion wept softly, and Kishi could feel his heart sink lower and lower until it felt like it was being digested. This felt like he broke her, and it made him feel so, so sick. This lack of understanding caused her such intense emotional pain… he wanted to run. He wanted to get away from this guilt that was warping his bones and fueling an inward anger he could only direct at himself.

"You're going to need to spend a few hours with this leg submerged when we put it in the water."

Xion nodded ever so slightly.

Zexion hopped out of the tub at Namine’s instruction and the fae lowered Xion’s leg into the water. The water boiled and hissed as the healing started. Naminé climbed out of the tub herself and dried herself off with another towel.

"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 couldn’t bear to move. He wanted to somehow comfort her but wasn’t sure how. This was his doing after all, but he didn’t want to leave her alone and he felt so strongly that he needed to see this consequence of his decision. No matter how justified he felt it was, he still hated himself for it. He hated Ansem for this twisted game they were playing. He hated his father for reinforcing it, for making his love and respect the reward. Kishi hated the sacrifice he felt pressured to make and that hatred burned bright in his gut as it attacked his own heart with every one of Xion’s sobs.

They sat in silence for half an hour and then there was a knock on the door. Kishi answered it. Both her retainers were looking at him with mixed emotions, pure hate for him and deep concern for her. He stepped aside and held the door for them.

Sora rushed forward and hugged her from behind on his knees.

She cried harder, "Didn't—didn't want you two to see."

Vanitas sat with her next to the bath to say, "We're still mad at you."

"But we love you too much to make you go through this alone," Sora said softly.

Kishi felt his heart break. There was no way he could’ve provided half the comfort they could. Once again he felt like his definition of love was being redefined. How could this be anything but?

He left, closing the door quietly behind him. His presence as the villain wasn’t going to help her.

Kishi went outside to throw up in the bushes.

“Whoa. That bad?” Roxas asked. He was arriving for the day with duster over his shoulder. Kishi didn’t answer right away.

“Aqua said you didn’t look great and I was skeptical when she said not to worry about breakfast, but damn. You look like shit.”

A mouth like that on his servant. Kishi might’ve punished that too but right now, the honesty and camaraderie was welcome. It maybe even felt a little more normal coming from Roxas.

“You don’t have to go in there right now but find out what Xion wants for lunch. Anything she wants,” Kishi ordered as he straightened himself out, “and desserts for dinner. Comfort food.”

Roxas raised an eyebrow and Kishi could tell the man didn’t approve of the special treatment, but he wasn’t about to disobey or counter his master.

“And something to drink for me,” the Prince added.

“What kind of drink?”

“Alcohol. I don’t care what kind.”

Roxas raised the other eyebrow but he went to obey, leaving Kishi to go back inside. The Prince wandered to his room and then to his balcony.

The day was too beautiful, too sunny. He hated it for daring to be cheerful when Xion was downstairs suffering. Goofy whined beside him and Kishi ended up opening the wall anyway. He contemplated going to the library to play music but found himself sitting in the sun to watch the lake instead.

He stayed like that until Roxas returned.

“My Prince,” Roxas said formally and Kishi knew something was wrong, “my lord, Prince Ansem is here to share your company.”

Kishi frowned and got to his feet. Ansem was standing in his bedroom holding a bottle of something dark. Goofy growled and snuck off around the balcony corner to hide from the older Prince.

“Relax brother,” Ansem crooned, “I’ve come to praise you, share a meal and a drink. Word has made its rounds but gossip is unreliable. I want to see for myself that you properly handled your people.”

Kishi studied him for a second and fought the bile in his throat. The mask was back on, and the anger was redirecting once more. He’d be a fool to not take advantage of this opportunity. Ansem’s word was better than gossip and would better prove to the Emperor that Kishi had followed the advice given him.

“Lunch has also arrived, your Hignesses,” Roxas announced.

“We’ll take it on the balcony,” Kishi said.

They pulled up another chair and Ansem settled in happily. He poured two glasses of a strong alcohol for them when Roxas and Ven brought up the cart with lunch on it and they settled in to drink, eat, and, in Ansem’s case, be merry.

Kishi sulked, drinking more than he should’ve. Alcohol was rarely strong in Scala and Kishi’s tolerance was very low. It didn’t take more than a glass for him to start slurring his words but he wasn’t as loose lipped as Ansem may have been hoping. Instead Kishi zoned out while Ansem talked, describing the pride he had in the youngest Oscura, as long as Kishi had actually punished her, of course.

“Stop,” Kishi heard Ansem say, and he realized that his brother was getting to his feet.

"No, you two slaves can go," Ansem added and Kishi looked around in dull confusion. Xion was out of the bath, heading to her room when the elder brother stopped her.

“Come here,” Ansem was ordering with a curl of his finger and Kishi got up. He didn’t want Ansem to hurt her, contract or not, he didn’t want to risk the brother making use of any loopholes he may have found since.

Xion wandered over to him with her head bowed.

“It was on her leg,” Kishi said and his voice sounded funny out loud. Even drunk, he didn’t want Ansem to touch her in the name of searching for proof, so he went and lifted her pant leg himself.

Ansem chuckled when he saw the bandage.

“Good for you little brother. Finally taking charge of your home,” he praised and Kishi felt sick again. He let go of Xion and looked away in shame.

"Your punishment choice seemed too lenient, but I will admit I was mistaken." Ansem’s bony fingers wrapped under Xion’s chin to lift her face for his study. "She broke more easily than I thought she would."

Kishi grabbed Ansem’s wrist to make him let go and shoved his brother back.

"That's enough, you saw what you wanted to see, you can leave now," he insisted. If Ansem stayed, Kishi was sure he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from punching him and adding to their problems.

He studied Kishi with a scowl that slowly morphed into a cruel smile. Ansem finished the last of his drink, handed the glass to Xion, and then left. They stood there near each other until the door closed downstairs.

Xion slowly put the glass down, looked at Kishi and said, "Rest assured that I am not broken.”

His blood ran cold with surprise and some relief, but it wasn’t enough to cool his guilt and anger. He grunted, it was all he could manage, and went to slump in his chair.

"You can eat out here if you want but I get it if you'd rather eat in your room," he mumbled. Kishi hoped she’d stay out here, it would make him feel better, like she forgave him, but he wasn’t surprised when she didn’t. He sat there in silence for a while, waiting until he sobered up a little. The guilt was eating him alive and the alcohol had just made him feel worse. Kishi wanted to run, to get away.

The Prince got up and went to his closet to change. Shoved into the back of a drawer was a set of worn fabric and loose clothing. He grabbed the bundle, a pair of holey boots hidden on a top shelf, and a couple other odds and ends to shove into a backpack. He grabbed a tattered violin case then he slipped out the back door and made his way to the stables.

Kishi was strictly forbidden from leaving the estate. IF he ever left it had to be with good reason and accompanied by a strict guard, but it never stopped him. Once every few months when the stress of palace life would get to him, he would slip out and wander the Scala main island.

He snuck into the barn, changed, and got Saladin’s tack and then went to get the horse. Saladin recognized Kishi better as the nomadic merchant, Dagur. It was the most carefully tailored disguise Kishi had. He was sure that Naminé knew about his alter ego but all of Kishi’s energies and training kept this information from his father and the House. If they knew, they didn’t say anything, and as long as they didn’t know, he wouldn’t be punished for his own rule breaking.

He was dressed head to toe in a tattered cloak that was covered in dust and dirt and sweat. Kishi didn’t wash it to keep it secret and worn. His hair and part of his face got wrapped up to hide his identity and he put a pair of clip-on earrings on the one exposed ear. Dust from the horse pasture went on his face and the exposed roots of his hair to hide their color and he made sure to step in manure on the way out.

He led Saladin out of the pasture while Terra was busy in the office, and they snuck out around the guardhouse. There was a tight alley that was locked, but Kishi kept a key.

Even assuming this alter ego, the guilt still followed him. It bit at his heels as he mounted up and rode his horse through the streets to the crowded market. It tore at his throat as he wandered the docks. It fueled that hatred that kept him warm as the afternoon turned to evening and it drove him to sleep in a public stable next to his asshole horse where he could hear the lap of the water on stone.

Still, all he could think about was Xion.

Chapter Text

“Thinkin’ you could spend the night for free eh?”

Kishi jolted awake as someone kicked his boot and looked around in a frantic panic. He was half in a horse stall next to Saladin who was playing with an old salt block in the corner. His other half was in the walkway in the shadow of a well-built man with short blond hair and a matching goatee. He was a good-looking dude with a lot of ear piercings asymmetrically placed in both ears. He had a tight roll of tobacco between his fingers that he was smoking as he watched Kishi.

Oh right, he had snuck out. Kishi felt his head to check that he was wearing his head wrapping properly and almost snagged his earring. Right, he wasn’t the Prince right now.

“I’d’ve paid ya ‘ventually,” he huffed, trying to find the accent that went with this role he was playing. It was early in the morning. The only light was coming from a lantern by the stall door.

The man snorted.

“When’d you get into town?”

“Las’ night,” Kishi yawned. He started to stretch and then remembered his hasty dressing job and dropped his arms. He was still wearing fancy clothing underneath the cloak. They studied each other for a second and then the man chuckled.

“It’s good to see you, Dag. Leave your mule here as long as you need. Night shift should be gettin’ to the bar soon if you want to greet the crews. They all just got paid yesterday.”

“Plen’y of cash for the takin’,” Kishi mumbled.

“I’m sure they’re eager to drink half of it.”

“I’ll join ya mutts in a shake,” the Prince managed. He was still very tired. The man chuckled again and left.

Kishi groaned and got to his feet. Saladin’s saddlebags were mostly stuffed with parts of his disguise. He took the chance to finish changing and stuffed his other clothes in the bags so they would still look full. When Kishi dressed as Dagur, he tried to adhere to layers. The whole outfit had been modeled to look like what the desert nomads of a neighboring country looked like. He had a long shirt, leather vest, tight pants, tall, worn boots, the big cloak over the top with the huge hood, bracers on his arms, gloves, a knife for his leg, and plenty of ornamentation. His head was wrapped but Kishi adjusted it to put earrings on the other ear as well. He had an eyepatch too. Nothing as plain as a simple cover like Xigbar’s. Kishi preferred a big wide one that covered a lot of his cheek and forehead. It was an excuse to offset his appearance even more dramatically.

He made sure Saladin was properly secured before leaving the stable. It was only three stalls big and tucked into an alley so none of the stalls had doors to conserve space. The other two were empty. Kishi had never seen any other horses or animals kept there.

The bar itself wasn’t technically a bar. It wasn’t labelled on the outside and it didn’t have a name. This close to the water and around the back of the island, the streets smelled like fish and a railing was the only thing keeping people from wandering into the lake. The sea-monster infested lake was home to plenty of fish but only a handful of fishermen were licensed and magically protected enough to fish for the city. It was a blue-collar job in an artisan town and unsightly things like that were kept close to the water, around the back, and tucked in alleyways. Even the ships and fishing boats had their own hideaway garages.

The owner of this bar, Luxord, also owned one of the biggest fishing ships in Scala. Its dock was on the same block as his nameless bar. Nameless because it wasn’t technically a bar. That bore repeating considering the illegal nature of his establishment. Alcohol, drugs, excessive merriment, and especially gambling were considered in poor taste for the up-scale artisan city but there were enough overworked blue collar city keepers that needed a place to unwind so Luxord went ahead and opened a place anyway. He converted the bottom floor of his house on the water into a proper bar with good food, good drink, and good company.

The inside was rundown after years of use that made it feel loved more than pitied. There were knick knacks and odds and ends hanging on the wall from far off places and things caught closer to home. The furniture creaked, there was a semi-permanent stick to the floor, it smelled like fish and sweat but it was always lively and happy. There were maybe ten tables of varying sizes all crammed into the room beside a bar. A corner of floorspace was set aside and raised as a stage. Anyone was allowed to perform there when they wanted, even Kishi.

Before dawn like this, the regulars were fishing folk catching breakfast before they went out on the water. Sometimes there was some overlap with the city night shifts but it was half full of just this crew alone.

Kishi sat down at the bar and put his violin case at his feet. It was a ratty old violin, loved but used, his nice one would’ve attracted attention if he brought it. Not that his presence wasn’t already doing enough of that. A couple men raised a hand in greeting and Kishi returned it.

A drink slid across the polished wood to him and Kishi took a swig without thinking about it. The stronger alcohol had him sputtering. Where did Luxord even get this stuff? He had to be making drinks this strong himself.

“Yer tryin’ to kill me?” he managed around the coughing and Luxord laughed. He was behind the bar tending to it himself.

“You look like you need it.”

Kishi huffed but didn’t drink anymore.

“How’s business?”

“Bet’er than yers.”

Luxord laughed, “then why this misplaced misery?”

“Misplaced? ‘m ‘ere with ya, ain’t I?” The banter was fun, the grammar was cringy. Kishi was a Prince. Trying to deliberately speak poorly was painful and awkward and he wasn’t even that good at it but getting caught was not an option. The consequences for everyone would be severe.

The barkeep moved away to tend to some other friends. Most of these guys would be employees.

The door opened and Kishi could hear some chatter and smell oil and grease then a heavy arm was around his shoulders.
“Hey! When did you get into town?”

“’ello, Dem,” Kishi greeted with a grin.

Demyx was a dock worker/fisherman/cleaner you name it, but he was also a musician and a good one. The man had light brown eyes, sandy colored hair trimmed in mullet, and had the same personality as Goofy. It was something Kishi appreciated. Demyx was probably Dagur’s best friend whereas Luxord was the weird, adopted uncle.

Dem took Kishi’s drink and took a swig himself.

“Yeesh, what happened?”

“How ya figure som’fin’ happened?”

“Nobody drinks like this first thing in the morning. I’ll have what he’s having,” Demyx asked Luxord.

“Then why are you???”

“I just got off work, I can drink what I want!”

Kishi tilted his head a little and his earrings jingled.

“Yer not workin’ the boat?” he asked.

“Ship,” Luxord corrected in passing. He slid a matching drink to Demyx

“I still do when I can,” Demyx admitted, “but costs are goin’ up. Need the second job working the caves.”

Not literal caves. Kishi knew that ‘caves’ was the worker term for the maintenance tunnels. Under the streets of the city were miles and miles of pipes and inner workings. Sure magic powered a lot of the city, but there were some incredible feats of engineering that helped off set the cost of the city-wide spells. Kishi had heard plenty of horror stories of people getting lost and perishing in those tunnels. It paid okay, but it was hard labor with a lot of risk.

They chatted for a bit, just small talk. Demyx was working so hard he could barely find time to play his sitar anymore so when Kishi suggested they play a few for the night shift, he was all over it.

Playing his violin alone was one thing, playing with friends was another. Whole worlds opened up when people joined in and between the clapping of the familiar guests, Dem’s sitar, and Kishi’s violin, it was like nothing else mattered.

Or at least it should’ve been. Even as they played old sea shanties and drinking songs that had people laughing and stomping along, Kishi couldn’t stop thinking about Xion and how hurt she was. For all his training, he couldn’t hide it from Demyx and Luxord. As the night crew headed out to get some rest and the bar reached the midday lull in its regular clientele, the three of them settled in to play some card games.

“So. Do you want to talk about it?” Luxord asked when Kishi lost yet another hand. He was running out of spending cash.

“Talk ‘bout…?”

“Whatever’s eatin’ you, man,” Demyx finished. He tossed a couple of bills into the middle.

“No… I, uh, ‘urt someone,” he admitted after exchanging cards. Kishi could tell from their faces that he had a better hand than both of them. Demyx bounced his leg when he was lying and Luxord moved his tobacco around in his mouth. The Prince made a point of losing when he played with these guys. He had all the money in the world, Demyx was living paycheck to paycheck and Luxord put all of his money into keeping this place alive for the abused workers who needed the escape, Kishi included.

“Did they rip you off?” Demyx joked, “try to swindle you?”

“If the horse kicked them, it can hardly count as you doing the hurting,” Luxord added.

At least Kishi’s reputation as a money-grabbing nomad was still sticking.

“No… it’s a girl,” Luxord added and Kishi didn’t think he reacted, but the old gambler must’ve seen something in his eye.

“Keep talkin’ like that ol’ man and I’ll see ya outside fer a scuffle!”

They laughed a little and changed the subject until Demyx had to go get some rest before his next shift. Kishi excused himself then too. Times like this were the only opportunities he had to wander the city. Even though it was a hassle, he wandered with Saladin. The horse was part of his cover and people gave them more space. The roads and paths were plenty wide for the both of them and no one ever complained. Wandering foreigners were common enough and plenty welcome as long as Kishi played his part.

He found a corner near one of the big open courtyard markets and set up his violin. He left the case open and then started to play. He chose music that was light-hearted but soft. The nearest vendor to him was a florist and he wanted to play music that reminded him of flowers, but the notes moved of their own accord and the melody kept drifting back to the unfinished piece that Xion had inspired.

People seemed to like it and he pulled in some cash, but it still didn’t sound quite right to him. He let his fingers choose what to play while he people watched.

Scala was beautiful, clean, hopeful. It was colorful and bright and full of creation and inspiration. It was also hiding that dark underbelly. The bowels of the city were run by hard-working, underappreciated men while the citizens above remained ignorant or chose not to care. Scala was a picture of wealth supported by the exploited.

Kishi played and his mind wandered some more. Being out all day would worry his servants. In the past he had stayed out for long stretches before and Ven and Roxas had assumed he was hiding in the garden or studying at the school. It was rare for anyone to really go looking for him. Staying out two nights in a row wouldn’t do if he wanted to maintain his cover, and he needed to maintain his cover. The punishments his servants accrued would pale compared to the one he’d receive if the Emperor knew about this blatant rule breaking.

Despite knowing as much, Kishi as Dag still didn’t start heading up until evening and even then he dragged his feet. The Prince wasn’t good at confronting his problems. Sure, he didn’t mind starting a fight but at the end of the day he was best at running. Thinking of Xion… he just couldn’t bear to see her. The way she had sobbed, the looks from her people, the pleasure in Ansem’s honey voice… Kishi didn’t want to go home just yet.

The cash he had on hand instead went to supporting the local businesses. Street food was a guilty love of Kishi’s. They never got anything less than perfect at the palace, even when requested. Remy just could not make anything less than gourmet and the locals always found the best way to do the delicious opposite. Meat pockets, fried doughs, sugary sweets, greasy combinations crammed into paper containers, and who actually knew what was in half of these delectable delights. Even if he did, Kishi didn’t care. He loved the fishy bites the most and filled up on junk food before he wandered the late-night shops.

Pop-up stalls were popular in Scala. There was plenty of space for them and while a lot of them were locals, periodically travelling foreigners would bring goods as well. Spice shops, interesting, crafted items, jewelry artisans, even musical instrument repair.

Kishi stopped at one such stall. The man running it was dressed similarly to him and was selling hand-carved jewelry and ornamentation, including a gorgeous mask. It was carved out of sturdy material, maybe even bone or ivory and was crafted to look like a tiger’s dentition. It was really, really cool.

“How much?” Kishi asked and that started a chain of bartering that reminded Kishi of some of his discussion with his brothers. Good grief this man was the fitting stereotype of a sketchy dealer and Kishi was both elated and startled.

He probably also spent way too much for the mask in the long run, but he did purchase it. Even if the Prince never wore it, he liked to bring back souvenirs to hide in his closet. For fun, he put it on and started heading home.

He and Saladin had to wait for the guard to change to create the tight opening for them to slip back into the estate and then they crept back to the stables. He turned Saladin out to pasture and left the saddle and equipment on the side of the fence. Terra would’ve noticed it was missing at some point in the day. Finding it on the fence would lead him to the conclusion that Kishi had just misplaced it after an afternoon ride and hopefully defuse any suspicion.

The saddlebags went over his shoulder and then Kishi was headed up to the garden. There were some bushes and vines there that he climbed up into his yard and up to the balcony, minimizing the risk of being seen. Hopefully everyone was asleep by now. The moon was high and the shadows long. Past midnight like this, getting back into his room should be easy.

The door didn’t budge. Kishi gave it a firm tug in case it was jammed or stuck, but it did not move. He tried to quietly jiggle it a bit, but it didn’t give. The lock wasn’t particularly hard to get around, it was just annoying. He got out his thin knife from its sheath on his leg and worked it into the gap to find the latch. The knife was mostly for show, it would never hold up in a fight, but it was decent for stuff like this.

He left the door open, it was a nice enough night, and put the knife away. Kishi held still a moment to listen in case Roxas or Ven were downstairs. He couldn’t hear Goofy either, so he was probably in the clear. He let out his held breath and went to his closet to change.

He set aside some clothes to change into but there was a soft hissing sound that shot paranoia into his heart. Was someone here and awake? Kishi stuck his head out of the closet to check and pain exploded behind his eyes.

He was more surprised than anything else, so he wasn’t able to react when another blow hit him right in his middle, stealing his breath mid-yelp. Two bodies piled on top of him, and they went down along with his own confusion. Kishi saw movement in the dark and lashed out to grab the weapon approaching. It was a wooden rod of some sort. He wrenched it from the man and smashed it back into the guy, throwing him into the other dude.

"Sora, go tell the guards there's a thief!" he heard Xion yell, and it made him pause for a second. Long enough to get railed in the diaphragm, which was unfortunate. Breath was important for speaking. More importantly, Kishi could not let them get the guards. If he was found out like this… oh, oh no, he was found out. Maybe if he could escape…

For now he panic grabbed at the slave. His hands latched onto Sora’s feet and the man went down but a fist collided with his nose hard enough to make him let go. The next blow came from a foot and Kishi blacked out.

When Kishi woke up he was in bed. In bed and confused. He was trying to put together the events of the prior night. The Prince didn’t remember putting himself in bed… The last thing he remembered was getting home and picking the lock. He stared into space for a second while he thought. Huh. He must’ve just put himself to bed without a fuss.

He got up and went downstairs to make tea pending Ven and Roxas’ arrival and brought the mug upstairs with a yawn. His textbook was still waiting for him with the ominous aura of postponed homework and he settled down in bed to study with his tea. He barely got the book open when he heard the door open downstairs.

He looked up briefly, then back down, then back up again with a start. One of his bootlaces was sticking out of the closet.

He scrambled to get up. Sure enough, his disguise was sitting out in the middle of his closet for anyone to see. Kishi flailed about shoving things in drawers and onto high shelves. His closet was private but it didn’t stop Ven from cleaning up around it and seeing inside!

He paused briefly when his pants squelched. He didn’t remember them getting wet… Oh no, did he drink last night? Was this even water? How the hell could one man soak his pants this much?? No, wait, it was water.

"Sir? Are you here?" Ven called from downstairs.

"Yeah, Ven! I'm upstairs!"

He’d have to deal with that later. The rest of Dag’s things got yeeted to the back of his closet with a curse at past-Kishi for being so irresponsible while he flew into his bed to resume reading with tea. Ven joined him a minute later with a tray of food.

"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, he was still a little frantic from the scramble.

"Don't worry about it, Ven. Are you staying to eat this morning?"

"Would you like me to, sir?"

"Please," Kishi responded softly. Hopefully company would continue to postpone his worry, but it didn’t stave off his curiosity.

Ven handed him a plate and started dishing up food. It was a potato dish with eggs and peppers and onions mixed in.

“Ven, is Xion alright?” Kishi whispered, “she was okay yesterday, right?”

Ven paused before sitting on the bed next to him.
“I think so, I had a lot of chores yesterday,” he admitted, equally soft, “where were you yesterday? We were worried.”

“I just wanted to get out,” Kishi said, “I have my hiding places.”

“No one saw you at the school.”

“The garden has lots of hiding places so do the horses. Saladin kept me company.”

Ven nodded, satisfied with the answer, “Goofy is at Riku’s. He wasn’t sure when you’d be home, so he took him in for the day.”

“Oh good.” Kishi stopped talking as Vanitas came out of the little room.

"Are we eating today?" Vanitas asked with crossed arms. The question wasn’t half as startling as Xion coming out to smack him. Kishi might’ve been mad if the brazenness hadn’t come out of the blue.

"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 asked. It was a little bit of a demand. Ven must’ve been confused too. He looked to Kishi for approval, and he nodded, prompting the two servants to leave.

He fussed with his blanket a little. Xion physically looked okay. She wouldn’t look at him so maybe she still wasn’t okay on the inside.

"There is still some food, if you want to eat now," Kishi offered quietly. It was an olive branch, an opportunity for her to show that she was ready to move on and forgive him for what he had to do.

"...no, thank you."

"...yeah, okay." He looked down as his heart ached and she left the room, going downstairs.

Kishi got up after a couple minutes to sort his closet out. The neat mask he got went delicately into a drawer with his collection. He had a couple of his own paintings there too, momentos from the bar and the docks. They were little things wishing for a bigger, better, freer, honest life.

The weight on his heart as he thought of Xion and his friends got heavier and heavier as a lingering reminder that escapes were temporary. At the end of the day, they were all still living in gilded cages.  

Chapter Text

Kishi spent the rest of that day and the next three avoiding Xion. He wanted things to go back to normal but running was easier and he was sure she wanted to be free of him. This way, he didn’t have to cause her stress and he didn’t have to look at the source of his. It was making him horribly miserable.

Keeping busy helped him avoid thinking about it and he found himself splitting his time between the school, the garden, and Riku’s house. As much as he wanted to sneak back to Luxord’s place, he didn’t want to risk drawing attention to those guys and getting them in trouble. Besides, there was plenty on the estate to do still.

Classes continued, wedding planning was underway, and Kishi still found himself dedicating his mornings to writing music for the fiancé he barely saw anymore. The inspiration was voracious and he had yet to find that satisfying closure of a piece well-written. Something was still missing. Maybe Dem could help him out next time they played together.

The third morning after Kishi had mysteriously found his pants soaking wet in his closet he was up early to fuss with his outfit. The night prior Aqua had warned him that his father would be eating breakfast with him, at Kishi’s house. He straightened his coat and waited by the door.

There was the polite knock, but Kishi counted to ten before answering it to avoid that appearance of desperation.

“Good morning, my youngest.”

“Your Excellency,” Kishi greeted with a polite bow of his head.

“May we enter?”

“Always, sir.”

Kishi moved to let the Emperor and Aqua into his home. The Emperor was the only person in the world that outranked Kishi in his own home. It was that way for all the Princes.

Xehanort waited patiently to be shown to the library where he sat at one of the smaller tables. Ven and Roxas had brought food by not a moment ago and left out the back when they heard the knock at the door. Aqua took the lid off the food and Xehanort helped himself without ceremony. She poured his tea and then stepped back to wait to be called upon.

It was a tense few moments.

“I’m here for your fiancé,” he told Kishi after a long sip and Kishi’s heart skipped a beat.

“Anything you need, sir,” the Prince responded. He had to bite back the question on his tongue.

The Emperor smiled at Kishi’s displayed blind faith and then said, “you do not need to wake her. We can wait. Play for me. Show me the result of your practice.”

He felt stiff getting his violin to play for his father. Performances didn’t freak Kishi out but playing like this with so much unknown in the air took a lot of passion out of him. There wasn’t any feeling in playing for the Emperor so Kishi stuck to the pieces he knew best. For others, he’d be bolder and try new things, let the violin use him as a mouthpiece but this was just a man pushing some strings together.

Kishi didn’t stop until he was ordered to. Not even when he saw Xion trying to join them and then try to leave just as quickly. He waited until he saw the hand go up and then he stopped on the note and waited.

"The woman I wanted to see," the Emperor said in his usual slow cadence, "your fiancé has kindly agreed to loan you to me today."

"It will be nice to get out of the house, then," Xion responded and Kishi praised her courage.

"Good. Come and eat."

He watched her stiffly obey. Her mask was better than his. Kishi always felt like the Emperor read them like books but Xion’s guard was iron-clad.

"Kishi, please, continue."

It was his turn to obey. Kishi resumed playing and tried to get more into the music, but it was the tensest meal he had ever observed and he was grateful he hadn’t eaten yet himself. His stomach was in knots. He played until Xion finished eating and was signaled to stop once more.

"Change into clothing that can get dirty. We will wait for you here," he ordered.

Dirty?! What did he want with her? She went upstairs and Kishi awkwardly put the instrument away.

“She won’t be harmed,” Xehanort said, “she’s too valuable. She may be more valuable than you.”

Kishi went rigid and all his energy went into restraining himself and keeping his emotions in check. An outburst now would set him back and was likely a test itself, to see if his Proving needed to be further postponed.

“Good,” Kishi said instead with his back to his father, “the House could use more valuable servants.”

Xehanort was quiet but he and Aqua left the room to wait by the door. Kishi joined them a moment later. It would be rude to not see them off.

Xion joined them a few minutes later with her eyes down and her face blank.

"Walk with us to the gate," the Emperor told Kishi and the Prince had to run upstairs to pull on his boots. Aqua got the door for them and Xehanort led the way.

Kishi stayed on his father’s left. Despite his royal blood, Aqua outranked him here and walked on the right. Xion stayed behind them.

"Do you believe the punishment you selected was effective?" he asked Kishi as they walked downhill towards the estate gate. Kishi thought briefly of dipping into the garden to run away as they passed it.

"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. He went far enough to be out of sight and then waited. The moment Aqua passed by, he pounced. She jumped a little and held a hand over her heart.

Queens, Kishi. You nearly killed me!” she huffed.

“Where is he taking her?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes you do, you know everything.”

“I’m flattered, Ki, but I really do not know everything and I do not know where he is taking her.”

Kishi immediately turned to start running after them, but she grabbed the hood of his coat and pulled him back.

“As he said, the Emperor sees her value, he won’t dispose of her and they left the estate so she’s out of reach of your brothers. You do not have to worry about Xion.”

But he still was. He was the entire time Aqua pulled him home and the whole time he ate breakfast and the whole time she put work in front of him. Along with his schoolwork, Aqua wanted him for the day to work on wedding planning, not that he had much of a say anyway.

Goofy had almost as much say as Kishi did. The wolf was eating the leftover breakfast on the parlor floor. He might’ve taken a nap if there wasn’t a knock at the door that had him howling, barking, and crashing all the way to the foyer.

Kishi answered it and invited Riku and Mickey in. Immediately the wolves took off ripping through the house to play with each other.

“So what did the Emperor want?” Riku asked as they went back to the parlor to sit down.

“How did you even know?”

“Ven is very anxious.”

“Damn. Roxas who all did he tell?” Kishi called. Roxas stuck his head around the corner and scratched his head with the handle of the duster.

“Uh… it’s Ven so everybody.”

Aqua snapped her fingers.

“I have a lot to do today, and the Queens aren’t slowing time for me. Roxas, work. Kishi, Riku, focus. A lot of your wedding is already planned. The Emperor gets the final say in everything and it’s tradition for your brothers to do a bulk of the planning themselves.”

Riku started helping himself to tea and cookies while she talked.

“So do I even have to be here at all?” Kishi grumbled.

“No, but I wanted to give you the opportunity to provide pointed input this time.”

Up until now Kishi had just been watching them make plans around him. The cake was already ordered, delegates and representatives summoned, decorations in progress, and so on.

“Green,” he said after only a few moments.

“Green is a summer color,” Riku said around a mouthful of cookie, “you have to stick to winter colors or you might upset the fae.”

“It’s not for me, it’s for Xion. Green on her dress. I don’t know why it’s important but it’s really important.”

Aqua smiled at him but Riku scoffed, “come on dude, you want to risk offending our patron deities because she’s got her hand around your di-“

Aqua’s pointed frown cut him off and he shoved a cookie in his mouth and looked away like nothing had been said.

“There has to be green on the dress,” Kishi reiterated, “if there is one single thing I can insist on and decide myself, it’s this.”

“You don’t want to make adjustments to your own look?”

“It’s that gaudy armor right?”

“Yes, it’s ceremonial armor.”

“Father won’t let me change that even if I wanted to,” he pouted, “and I do want to.”

“You have an appointment with the tailor tomorrow morning to get those measurements,” Aqua reminded, “Riku, you and your brothers need to discuss witnesses and Kishi, you have to make a gift.”

He forgot about that.

“Wait, what?”

“Xion’s country’s tradition. You are expected to make a gift to present to her. Right now the plan is to have you present at the reception the night before. Have you been working on that?”

“Uh…”

Riku tried not to laugh, “all this time fussing over her, and you forgot the one contractually binding requirement for the actual ceremony.”

“Well, what counts?” Kishi asked.

“What do you mean what counts?” Aqua countered.

“Ah,” Roxas said from the doorway. He cleared his throat too but stayed quiet in Riku’s presence. Honestly, Roxas and Riku didn’t get along very well. Xemnas was the only other Prince that seemed fond of Roxas besides Kishi.

“Spit it out,” Riku ordered. He knew that was the case.

“Maybe Sora and Vanitas have more insight into that?” Roxas suggested, “and they’re just right upstairs.”

“That’s a good idea,” Riku agreed before Kishi could decline, “fetch them. Or one of them.”

Roxas went upstairs.

“That is not a good idea!” Kishi hissed, “those two only listen to Xion and they hate me!”

“If their information is bad, then punish them for lying to you. You can fact check them with Naminé when you see her in class next.”

Punish them? If he did that, Kishi would never make things right with Xion. Fortunately, the abrasive one, Vafidas, stayed upstairs. Roxas came back with Sora who looked like he was trying to put up a mask, but his worry was evident when he didn’t see Xion in the room with them.

“Relax,” Riku said casually but it didn’t help.

“We were hoping you could better explain your kingdom’s gift giving wedding tradition,” Aqua said.

Sora seemed surprised but he said, “It’s just an exchange between the bride and the groom. Both the gifts have to be handmade. It’s to prove that if times get hard either spouse has the skills to support them.”

“So, a gift that proves I have the skill to support her,” Kishi mumbled to himself out loud. He looked at Riku who was still processing the information, looking for evidence of a lie. He shrugged at the younger brother and Aqua dismissed the servants.  

“You’re a Prince of Daybreak,” Riku reminded, “give her the deed to one of the islands or something.”

“I didn’t make the islands.”

“But you can make the deed.”

“If you aren’t going to provide valuable input, Riku, then you’re excused,” Aqua cautioned.

“But I’m not wrong! How do you prove or make anything that goes with your blood?”

Kishi was still thinking. He fiddled with his empty teacup while he thought. Something he could make… Artisans were prized in Scala. If he wasn’t a Prince he would probably be an artist or a musician.

“I could paint or draw her something,” he thought out loud.

“That’s a good idea,” supported Aqua.

“…would music count? If I wrote it myself?” Kishi was already working on that. He was doing it because he wanted to, not because he felt obligated, but it could count.

“Would you be willing to perform it at the reception?” Aqua asked as she took notes on her clipboard.

“Performing for crowds doesn’t bother me.”

“Then I think that’s an excellent idea.”

That went on his mental to do list. It meant he had to figure out what was bothering him about the melody which meant another risky visit to see Demyx. Dem’s musical insight would be invaluable. Tomorrow would be better for a trip like that.

Aqua checked her watch and stood up.

“Do not forget, tailor tomorrow, and your classwork still needs to be turned in on time. You are supposed to be stretching your magic muscles too,” she reminded him.

It took Kishi a second to realize she meant stretching his magical abilities and not calling his muscles magical.

“When is Xion-“ he started but she held a hand up.

“I don’t know, Kishi. I will find out for you, but she will probably be home before I get the chance.”

He pouted and Riku slapped him on the back.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s go to the backyard and throw fire at each other.”

Riku helped Kishi with his magical applications practice well into the afternoon. Riku’s magic was extremely similar to Kishi’s. They could’ve been clones of each other they had so much in common. It made Riku an invaluable resource with his training and Kishi picked up the occasional trick.

Riku was showing him how to use his fire to lift objects when dinner arrived with a cheerful Ventus. They ate together and then Riku and a tired Mickey left.

Xion still wasn’t home. Kishi could feel the stress of her retainers through the floor.

Equally stressed, Kishi practiced his violin to try and chase those missing notes. He must’ve lost himself in it again because when he came back to reality Roxas was standing there politely.

“Yeah?”

“Xion’s back,” Roxas grumbled.

“I want to talk to her,” he blurted and his stomach churned. The guilt from her punishment still hadn’t gone away but he had to know she was alright.

The servant mock saluted and went upstairs. Kishi absentmindedly played a few scales until she entered. Immediately he felt awkward and worried. She was guarded, her face neutral, and he saw cold fire in her eyes. She was still wary of him, time had done nothing to ease her mistrust after what he did to her.

"What did my father want?" he asked with his own voice guarded to hide the strain.

"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?"

"...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." It bothered him a little bit that he didn’t know but he wanted to obey these rules.

"...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."

Right, there weren’t any forges on the estate, so she had to access the gate. Those guards were notorious for their rule keeping. Even Kishi had to sneak out and back in but there were options. Tattooed or branded servants could get in and out if they had a corresponding pass that matched the numbers on their bodies. Any of the proven Princes, Naminé, or the Emperor himself could let people in and out. There were also guest and test passes. There were only ever three of those issued at a time and as far as Kishi knew there weren’t any in use right now.

"Um... Let me try to get you a pass."

"That would be great," Xion said instead.

"Or a tattoo, or a brand," he offered.

"... 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..." Her tone and persistent countering was making him angry but he didn’t want to lash out at her again. Kishi didn’t want to make things worse or push things into a corner where he’d have to punish her again. So he put his bow down and left. He just walked right out the door and headed up to the school in the purple light of twilight.

He stormed through the halls like a man on a mission. Xigbar’s quarters and security headquarters were on the same floor as the throne room. There were security hubs all over the school, at each gate, and through the city but this was the headquarters for all of the Emperor’s private security for the estate and for Xigbar’s spy network.

Kishi let himself in and the guards there sprang to attention. He ignored them and went down the hall to Xigbar’s office. The man was eating dessert while he reviewed reports. He didn’t look up.

This was where Kishi reined in his temper and focused all his energy into his composure. The Regent was essentially the Emperor in his father’s absence. It wouldn’t do to invite punishment on himself either.

“It’s late,” Xigbar observed, “this office is closed.”

“No it’s not,” Kishi said and Xigbar actually looked up at him with a sly grin.

“Oh?”

“I’m a Prince of Daybreak, I get what I want or I take it.”

Xigbar laughed, “Alright, I’ll bite. What do you want?”

“I need a gate pass for Xion.”

“Need?”

“I want a gate pass for Xion.” Damn. Easy mistake.

The regent got up and went over to a locked drawer. The little key was among several hanging from a thin chain around his neck. He unlocked the drawer, pulled out a gold tag on a thin chain about two fingers wide and three fingers long, relocked the drawer, and then hid the keys back under his shirt.

“You know how this pass works right?”

“Yeah.” Kishi held his hand out for it, but Xigbar kept it out of reach.

“Tell me how it works, Kishi,” the Regent ordered.

“The pass allows for free entry and exit through the estate main gate. Losing it means the holder’s life is forfeit no exceptions.”

“And?”

“…and so is the life of the person who vouched for the pass holder.”

“Who’s vouching for Xion, Kishi?” Xigbar asked with that taunting smirk.

“I am,” Kishi said after a second and then the pass was in his hand.

“No. Exceptions. Don’t lose it, kiddo.”

The Prince didn’t say anything else as he started walking back home with the burning weight of the pass in his pocket. Part of him considered just hanging onto it and using it himself but his father would undoubtedly learn of that, and he’d get in trouble again.

Kishi walked a little slower through the school. Was this too impulsive? He was putting his life on the line for her already, choosing to trust her. Or was this his way of atoning? Maybe it was a bit of both.

The whole trip took him a couple hours, so it was late when he knocked on her door and let himself into her room. Both her retainers switched into attack mode, but Xion didn’t pay them any mind. She was right in the middle of getting ready for bed.

"...yes?"

"Your pass." Kishi held it out and she took it from him to inspect it.

"...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 didn’t need to know about his life on the line too. He wanted to win her affection and trust, not pressure or buy it.

Xion nodded and he took his leave, closing the door behind him. At least now one of them could pretend to be free.

Chapter Text

The rest of the week felt relatively normal. With Xion going to the forge everyday Kishi was back to some sense of his life prior to the engagement, aside from the extra stress, the constantly thinking about her, the extra classes, and the persistent worrying. Ansem had backed off and Riku was supportive which gave Kishi a bit of break, but he still worried about his relationship with his bride to be. On more than one occasion he confided in Aqua and Riku that he though Xion would be happier living apart.

“If she passes whatever test our Father gave her, she might get that choice,” Riku had said and suddenly winning her affection felt so much more important. Kishi was torn between his emotional pain wanting to self-sacrifice for her happiness and the more adult, logical part of him that wanted them to just get along.

Either way, he still worked on his music, he still reminded Aqua about the green on the dress multiple times a day, and he still worked hard on his non-stop pursuit of his Proving. With Xion in his father’s spotlight, Kishi needed to work extra hard to win it back, but the stress was getting to him.

The first Saturday since Xion started working at a forge, Kishi got his first break from classes. He finished his papers, read his chapters, exercised Goofy, and worked out but he couldn’t stop thinking about his gift and about what he could do to make things right by Xion.

“Do you need a massage or a bath or anything?” Ven asked him politely.

“No, no, I’m fine,” he insisted.

“Yeah, cause that’s the face of a man that’s ‘fine’,” Roxas mocked and Kishi glared at him.

“I just… I can’t stop thinking about Xion.”

Both Ven and Roxas sat down in twin tandem.

“Do you need to talk about it?” Ven asked with concern in his voice.

“…No, I need a plan.”

“A plan to what?” Roxas prodded.

“She’s obviously upset with me.”

“Oh yeah, she and her people hate you,” confirmed Roxas and Ven smacked his brother on the shoulder.

“That’s not true! Sir, she just needs more time.”

“Well, we don’t have it,” Kishi grumbled, “the wedding isn’t far off and the Emperor likes her, a lot. At this rate she’ll outrank me by the end of the year and father won’t want me anywhere near her.”

Roxas opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it.

“Say it. Roxas I know where you stand, argue your point, Ven take the other.”

“You’d both be happier with her gone,” Roxas insisted, “her whole crew would be away from you, things could go back to the way things were after the wedding!”

“I just don’t think you can make that kind of decision without her,” Ven disagreed, “you just don’t know enough.”

“They hardly talk anyway.”

“But they should!”

Kishi puzzled through it. More information was best.

“Roxas, get more serious about learning about her from her people. Ven, get her people more integrated with the House. Maybe if they’re happy, it will be easier for her to trust me more and I can start making things better around here,” Kishi ordered.

“I’m on laundry today! That’s the most fun job here,” Ven said excitedly, “I’ll get them to come help me!”

“The Sora guy is chatty, leave him for me,” Roxas thought out loud and then they both hurried to do their new jobs, leaving Kishi with lunch and the song he was struggling with.

He spent the rest of the day getting progressively more frustrated until he took a break to work on homework. When that got too annoying, he played with Goofy and when Goofy finally got sick of him, the Prince sorted through his closet.

He had dried out his Dagur pants and reorganized his disguise to fit more perfectly in the saddlebags. It was easier to sneak out in a hurry that way. With the house to himself he even played with better hiding spots for the bag and found a good spot in the bushes.

Yes, he did beg them to keep the secret. Supposedly juniper bushes and trees were less gossipy than their leafier cousins. Naminé hadn’t ratted him out yet. Maybe she approved of his sneaking out and as long as she wasn’t asked about it, he could avoid getting scolded.

By the time Xion got home Kishi was back in the library trying to get through his history homework. He had to learn about every single country they had taken over that still retained their identity and it was exhausting. Playing the violin while he read the book helped a little, but he kept hitting funny notes trying to trick himself into finding the mistakes in this song.

He would play part of the melody, which seemed to be coming along just fine, and then something would be missing, his thought would derail, the note would sound awful and then he’d get frustrated.

Xion had gone straight upstairs but now that she was home, he didn’t want to work on the music. He didn’t want to spoil it for her but damnit he wanted to see progress and he didn’t like her avoiding him like this and he was just stressed.

He hit a broken chord, played a couple angry notes, and then gave up. Kishi stormed out of the house, slammed the door behind him, and paced in the yard for about a minute before he finally said screw it. He grabbed the saddlebags, hopped the wall, and snuck out again.

He needed the break and more importantly, he needed Demyx. This song was officially too frustrating to not get input on.

It took an hour to get dressed and make his way to the bar in the late evening. The city was very different at night. It was so quiet and eerie and dark but also very beautiful. Moonlight and starlight would glitter on the lake and the reflection would make parts of the city glow.

He didn’t bring Saladin this time, so it was easy to just slip into the bar, cozy up to the bartender for a drink and pick out Demyx. Thank the Queens he didn’t have a double shift tonight.

“Hey!” Dem waved when he spotted Dagur. The young man was setting up with his sitar right now to entertain the folks. Luxord was half a cigar into a poker game, so Kishi didn’t bother to say hi to him. He went right over to Dem instead.

“Thought you left town.”

“I ‘ave workin’s in the city,” Kishi told him, “Can’ spend all a ma time wipin’ yer ass.”

Demyx laughed, “well, are you gonna play tonight? Or just drinkin’?”

“Actually, Dem, I could use your, er, yer help wit a piece,” he admitted. If Demyx noticed the accent slip, he didn’t say anything.

“Sure! Show me what you’ve got!”

Kishi got out his old violin. He loved the old thing for its sound not its looks. It was battered and trashed and constantly needed to be tuned but it had character that his other instruments didn’t have. There were memories in this thing and he trusted it to channel his inspiration.

“Oi! You two gonna play?” someone yelled.

Another person called out a request.

“Keep makin’ demands and you’ll owe us some drinks!” Demyx called cheerfully.

“Get you drunk and you might actually play what we wanna hear!” someone else laughed.

“Ya red-noses hear what ya wanna hear when you’re under!” Kishi teased back.

“Come on music man! Play us a song!”

Kishi gave Demyx a one-eyed glance to ask for permission. Demyx just giggled and started a beat, letting his good buddy Dag pick the drinking song. They had made up as many as they had picked up over the few years Kishi had been visiting. He found a lively one and really focused on the beat, letting himself get lost in it again.

It took an hour of playful songs to get the bar drunk enough to not care if they played more serious music and Luxord sent a couple drinks their way. Kishi only sipped his. He liked feeling loose. He didn’t want to feel buzzed right now.

“Now that the masses are sated,” Demyx was saying, “let’s hear it.”

Kishi played the melody for him, eyes closed and totally lost in the notes until he got to the end of what he had.

“It’s kind of… sad,” Demyx said.

“What? It’s not supposed to be.”

“I mean, I think you were going for thoughtful and that’s there too but there’s a lot of sad in it still.”

“That’s because it’s still missing something,” Kishi insisted. He had abandoned the accent by accident but Demyx was too buzzed to notice.

“Okay, but I can still tell you’re playing from the heart,” Demyx said, “that’s important. But if it’s your heart doing the talking then maybe the problem isn’t the music.”

Kishi rolled his eye, “it’s not just that.”

“Of course not. You play like you’re inspired yeah? The music is just dying to come out right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then maybe you’re trying to tell the story of your heart that’s not finished. Right now, it’s just sad, like your inspiration is a dead bird or something. Try it again, but pick a different key and try to tell more of the story.”

Kishi sighed and closed his eyes. His mind cycled through keys like a windmill until he picked a different one, still in a minor key but a little higher. The music flowed a little more freely this time as it pulled from what he admired about Xion, but it kept taking sad turns, almost forlorn like the sound of someone wishing for more. Maybe Kishi did want more. So instead of trying to jump to the ending, Kishi tried to tell the story where it started.

It was still melancholy but a little better.

“Somthin’s missin’,” he insisted.

“Okay well, what is your muse?” Demyx asked.

How much could Kishi say? He didn’t want to put it out there that he had fallen for a girl. That would make Xion even more of an exploitable weakness than she already was. This was also Demyx and Kishi could be vague.

“It’s a girl huh?”

Kishi jumped a little.

“Uh huh, I thought so.”

“How did you-?”

“Oh come on, Dag,” Dem teased, “many a woman have inspired artisans to creation.”

“Yeah, well, she doesn’t like me.”

“Ouch… then why is she so inspiring? Is she pretty?”

Kishi fiddled with the bow and then his earrings as he fussed a bit to find the words.

“Yeah, she is but she’s not over the top pretty. She’s, I don’t know, her beauty comes from somewhere else.”

Demyx tilted his head a little before guessing, “is she really confident?”

“Extremely.”

“Well, there it is. Confidence is gorgeous.”

“…yeah,” Kishi admitted, “it’s annoying sometimes but she’s got this strength that I just don’t that I wish I had.”

Demyx scratched his chin and said, “play your melody again.”

Kishi tucked the violin under his chin again and started to play. Once more it was melancholy and pulled deep into his soul as he just thought about Xion and what he wanted from them. He thought about that bravery in her eyes, her selflessness towards her servants, the way she stood up for Ven, even as far back as her strength in Terminus standing up to Ansem.

It took him a minute to realize that Demyx was playing now too. The harmony that he added was lighter and on its own maybe have even been its own melody but together the combined sound was nothing short of hopeful. Kishi felt his own heart being pulled upwards and the music brightened. It wasn’t the same beat as a drinking song, but it was strong and ready to face the future.

He had been playing a solo but now he knew the song that had been fighting to be free of his heart was a duet.

~~~~~

They were in the last week of march very near the end of the month when Kishi snuck out again. He told Ven and Roxas he was going to class and then detoured. Xion had already left for the day and her men were helping with House chores again. He was caught up on his schoolwork and writing music in the mornings was going great now that he knew what he wanted from the piece. Sneaking out this time was partly for him but mostly the same old need to get away.

It had been almost two weeks since he had her scar removed and the way they interacted was still tense. He played the master as he needed to, the game never ended after all, but it hurt him to see the mistrust in her eyes. When push came to shove, Kishi was a coward. Instead of talking about it, he ran to his friends.

Sneaking out was harder during the day, especially with Saladin, but the horse was such a big part of his cover. He told Terra they were going for a long ride, Terra scolded him for skipping classes, and then Kishi changed in an alleyway when he got past the guards.

He walked slowly, unmounted, so he could browse. Scala in the daytime was the best. He loved the energy of the crowd, musicians playing on street corners, the smell of food, the click of Saladin’s hooves on the stone, and just all of it. Watching from his balcony was nothing compared to walking the streets.

He parked Saladin in the outer stall as there was another horse in the middle one for once and then went inside with his violin. Demyx and another guy named Sebastian were setting up to play for the night shift. Kishi, as Dag, waved at them and went to talk to Luxord.

“Oh good, I thought maybe you left town without payin’ your tab,” Luxord said before folding on the table. They were playing some game with cards and dice that Kishi didn’t know.

Kishi patted his pockets. There was some money there but constantly being flush with cash wasn’t a good cover.

“Uh…” he feigned.

“Alright, alright, earn your keep,” Luxord motioned to the other musicians and Kishi smiled.

“Earning your meal too?” Demyx teased.

“Not all o’ us are cut out fer them fancy jobs.”

Sebastian waved with the bow of his fiddle and the requests started pouring in.

“Tryin’ out some new stuff,” he said instead after yelling at the guests. It was all in good fun. They passed some crumpled sheet music around and then got started.

For a couple hours Kishi got to ignore his problems with music and then Demyx had to go. He ended up at table with Luxord, playing cards and talking about the fishing season until he realized he needed to get back too. His pair of lies would be found out if he didn’t make an appearance at the estate.

“You still owe me a bit,” Luxord reminded him.

“Ma playin’ not ‘nuff for ye?”

Luxord flashed his cards, a winning hand.

“No, you owe me for this.”

Kishi groaned, waved his hand and left with his violin. He came around the corner, still in a good mood, and froze.

Xion was standing next to Saladin. They stared at each other for a minute and Kishi tried to keep it together. His legs were trying to run away but maybe her being here was a coincidence.

"Oi, yer mixed up ma horse with yer own," he said, playing the role maybe a little too hard, "'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. But I'll keep your secret," Xion said and Kishi couldn’t tell if she was serious or gloating about this weapon she had now. If he got caught…

Fear of his father won. He dropped the case and ran. He didn’t stop running until he was horribly, horribly lost. This secret was a huge weakness for Kishi and now Xion knew. She probably didn’t even know how much power she had knowing and while she said she’d keep it, he didn’t know if she was lying! Damnit, he had lied this morning. This must’ve been the faerie Queens punishing him!

Kishi hid in an alley to calm down and spent the rest of the afternoon stressfully getting his bearings and debating what to do. If he didn’t go back, Ven and Roxas would get suspicious, but now he was too freaked out to go and he knew it was genuine fear because the usual anger wasn’t bubbling up like it usually did.

So he didn’t. He paced the markets and stressed himself out more and more until finally it was getting dark and he knew he didn’t have a choice. If he could sneak back in and get changed, he could play it off like he didn’t know what she was talking about, and if she insisted, he could threaten her. She may have been his father’s new toy, but she was still his fiancé to be controlled and protected. As much as he didn’t want to strain their budding relationship.

He got Saladin put up and headed up to his balcony. Goofy was downstairs and oblivious and he didn’t see Xion. She must’ve been asleep. The door slid open softly and he started for his closet.

“Hey, Dag,” he heard her say. She was standing in the doorway of her room and from here he thought she looked smug. He jumped and his feet made the decision to run back towards the balcony.

"I said I'd keep your secret, but you really should talk to me," Xion said. The fear bubbled up again. Instinct was telling him to get out of here and do damage control later, but he was supposed to be the Prince, in control of his home! He’d never get to his Proving like this and she just kept getting bolder and bolder. It was like all the stress he had been running from caught up at once.

"No. No, I shouldn't!” he snapped at her, but he could feel the tremor in his voice as he lashed out, “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!"

"K-Kishi?" Ven asked from the door. The servant slowly opened it to check on the room and their eyes met. His heart sank. The secret was out now.

"Wh-Whats going on?" Ven asked, slowly putting pieces together.

"Ven, it's not... Please just don't..." Kishi tried to push out, but instinct won and he ran again. He jumped over the balcony and tried to think of possible hiding places on the estate. If he left now, he’d never get back in. He started shrugging off the disguise as he went too but he couldn’t be naked so most of the evidence stayed on his person.

Kishi hadn’t been running for very long when he felt the most awful, icy chill settle on the back of his neck. It felt like eyes following him and he had never felt more like a cornered animal in his life. Not a single interaction with Ansem compared to the terror of being caught breaking one of his father’s biggest rules.

Even worse, Kishi was starting to realize the implications of being caught. What would happen to Luxord? Or Demyx? How could he possible explain to his father why he was running in the first place.  

Kishi jumped over a waist high wall and ran between the houses to find a hiding spot, just to calm down, despite the persistence of that feeling of being watched.

He would get his bearings and then go talk to Ven and Xion. There was still a chance he could salvage this and keep his father out of it if he could get to Ven.

He took a few deep breaths and tried to meditate until his heart calmed down and then he was hurrying through the shadows towards the servant’s quarters.

Kishi never made it. Halfway there a giant ball of fur tackled him. Mickey’s jaws were latched around his arm. Not biting hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to keep him still. The wolf’s eyes were a soft teal, the same color as Riku and Kishi’s eyes. It was a spell that Riku used to hunt with Mickey which meant Riku wasn’t far behind.

Suddenly the hunted feeling made more sense. He used fire to make the wolf let go and started running again but only made a few more steps before a beam of light blocked his path and Xemnas stepped out from behind a fence.

“Give me a reason,” he said coolly and Kishi knew it was over.

Chapter Text

Xemnas and Riku took the captured Kishi to the school and had him kneel before the empty throne. It was the middle of the night but the Emperor never slept. The moment news had gotten around about Kishi’s rule-breaking, he had sent for Xigbar and his dutiful sons to capture his youngest with as little fuss as possible.

Ven could never have known that expressing his worry to Aqua would have led to this and Kishi didn’t blame him. He didn’t blame Aqua either. She was bound by contract and oath to serve the Emperor and his House which meant making the same difficult decisions that Kishi had been making, first with Roxas and then with Xion. The difference was that the Emperor held his sons to a higher standard and so were his admonishments.

Even though the Emperor was awake, he let Kishi stew on his knees for the rest of the night and into the morning. Xemnas, Ansem, and Riku each took shifts watching him to make sure he didn’t run. It was an unnecessary precaution and everyone knew it. The guard was meant more as a message to drive home their lack of faith in him.

Kishi’s knees ached but he didn’t dare complain. The hard marble was hurting his ankles too, but he stayed still with his head bowed to try and keep his punishment from getting worse and the whole time, he stressed. This was the worst possible outcome. The sheer disappointment that he could feel from his father as the Emperor finished his breakfast was staggering and it was made worse having all three of his brothers there to watch.

All of his focus was on keeping his wits about him. If they found about Luxord and Demyx then the Emperor would undoubtedly remove that weakness of Kishi’s by removing them. No matter what happened here, Kishi wanted to protect them.

“Aqua,” the Emperor said and his voice echoed in the natural ambience of the room. It made Kishi flinch.

“Your Excellency.”

“How many times has Kishi been caught disobeying my express command to stay within the estate?”

“Three, sire.”

“Kishi. What is the maximum number of times a severe punishment should be enacted to ensure compliance?”

“Three,” he croaked around the lump in his throat.

“Three times.” Kishi didn’t dare look up, but he heard the Emperor’s boots as he walked down from the dais to stand in front of him.

“My leniency has done you a disservice my boy.”

Kishi jerked when he felt his father’s hand on his head, gently petting. He didn’t mean to shake and knew his father would judge him for his fear but it was involuntary.

“Forgive me,” the Prince begged.

“I will.”

Pain lanced through Kishi from his head to his toes as electricity raced under his skin. He briefly screamed. It was too sudden and awful to not. The Prince collapsed on his side at the Emperor’s feet twitching and convulsing as the spell ran its course, leaving spidery trails of scar tissue under his skin in silver sheens.

The room was quiet save Kishi’s ragged breathing and then the Emperor attacked him again. He didn’t scream this time but he thrashed as the electricity toyed with his nervous system. After the third time, the Emperor walked back to his throne, leaving his son a drooling, twitching mess on the floor.

“My will and the consequences of breaking my will are no mystery,” the Emperor lectured, “you have no one to blame for this pain but yourself. The pain you feel and the pain you cause me, forcing my hand. It is a pain I know you understand.”

Kishi tried to bite back the dry sobs and whimpers and shakily got back on his knees, head still bowed. It was hard with his body trying to find it’s natural working order again around the electric pulses that still remained to wreck havoc on his nerves.

“I would know what compelled you to take such a risk,” the Emperor ordered, “why did you willingly disobey me and leave the estate?”

Kishi’s blood ran cold. He was running because of Xion, because of the stress she caused him, because he wanted to do right by her and make her comfortable. Regardless of the convoluted line of thought between point A and point B the bottom line was that Xion had driven him to that perceived need to run.

Riku had warned Kishi that the Emperor would remove the problem if she became great enough of one to warrant his involvement. Xion couldn’t be killed because of the contract she had to fulfill, and she had value to the Emperor. She could, however, be given to another son. Maybe it wouldn’t be public but, on the estate, Xion would undoubtedly be given to another brother and her life had the potential to become so much worse.

“I will not answer,” he said in a shaky voice and the room felt darker. There was a long silence and Kishi almost looked up. Then he was in pain again. Fire started at his fingertips on his left side and started to eat at his arm. Kishi’s natural element was fire, but this was different. The black and violet flames of his Father’s spell were so much stronger and hotter and controlled. He was skinning his son with fire.

Kishi bit his tongue to avoid crying out, to demonstrate his strength.

“What drove you to disobey?” the Emperor repeated as the fire crept up Kishi’s hand to his wrist.

Lying would do nothing so Kishi just repeated with more panic and pain cracking his voice, “I will not answer!”

The fire jumped to consume his whole arm, destroying the cloak and sleeve of the disguise. He continued to bite his tongue between pained groans and choked sobs.

“I would ask a third time. Think carefully on your words. Why did you disobey your Emperor?”

This pain was worse than the lightning. Kishi had a fear of storms, it made lightning an effective punishment for him, but the lightning was swift and fleeting compared to a persistent, steady burn. It almost made him cave but he needed to protect her. Xion was his, as strange as their relationship was, he loved her.

“I will not answer!” he yelled again through the pain, and it echoed in the room like a nail in a coffin. The fire consumed his body from the neck down, burning away the disguise and then settling on his left side to burn off the skin there. It was calculated carefully. The maximum amount of damage that could be healed in one bath without killing Kishi.

He didn’t know how long he burned but he screamed and thrashed until it faded, leaving him crumpled and broken on the floor. Kishi saw Aqua out of the corner of his eye. She was looking away with her eyes closed. It must’ve been bad.

“I will ask you no further,” the Emperor said and it was relief through Kishi’s bones. His father was smiling at him from the throne. The man hadn’t even moved.

“Your endurance has won you the right to keep your secret,” he was saying, but Kishi was having a hard time hearing him through the pain.

The Emperor stroked his chin in thought and then continued, “This infraction and your stubbornness is telling. Your Proving may yet be approaching faster than I anticipated. Your training will need to begin again in earnest.

Xemnas, Ansem, my strongest sons, I would task you with the proper preparation of my youngest. Prepare him properly for the front lines.”

“At your command,” Xemnas said in that rich, deep voice.

“Three days,” Xehanort said, “you may begin in three days. Until that time, Kishi, I forbid you from healing your wounds. Your defiance is your choice, I would see you contemplate the consequences of that choice thoroughly.
Aqua, have this mess cleaned up.”

The Emperor excused himself and left. Xemnas and Ansem did too, leaving Aqua, Riku, and Kishi alone.

Riku moved first, he hurried to Kishi’s side but didn’t touch him.

“Damnit Kishi,” he mumbled and Kishi could tell from the look on his face, it was bad.

The rest of his day was a blur and the things he remembered were odd sensory moments. He remembered the sound and peeling feeling of being scraped off the marble, the choking sob sound that Ven made when he saw the Prince, the brief smell of Goofy’s breath, and his own voice mumbling. He could tell he had made it home and could sense Roxas and Ven nearby. Every time Kishi came to it was only for a few minutes and he didn’t even open his eyes every time, but he still dreamt.

It was a mix of dreams and what he was coming to feel were premonitions. The battle against Ansem was there, along with Riku’s surprise appearance, as well as the fight against Xemnas. He had nightmares of Xion crying, a twisted version of his memories of her in the bath, holding her leg and mourning the loss of an old friend.

The newest addition was more peaceful and it was almost a relief. Kishi was standing on the roof of the school, the roof of the Empire, as the soft light of sunrise spread across the sky. He could see his father there too, but he was just standing and watching the colors on the lake. It was quiet, like a held breath.

A cold pressure woke Kishi and he took in a deep breath. His chest cracked and ached when he did but this was the most awake he had been since getting home. It was dark outside and quiet in his home. He couldn’t hear anyone downstairs, not even Goofy. It was just Kishi and Ansem.

The older Prince was hovering over Kishi with a malicious grin. Kishi could feel a hand in his hair, gently petting him to put him at ease.

“Where’s Roxas?” Kishi asked, his voice was barely a whisper and his tongue still felt funny.

“All of your slaves are out for the evening,” Ansem told him with equal softness.

“They let you in?”

Ansem didn’t answer and Kishi knew immediately the answer was no. The man had to have forced his way in then and he reeked of malcontent.

“I want to know your secret, little brother,” Ansem crooned as he pet Kishi, helping his brother wake up a little more with the fake comfort.

“Secret?” Kishi mumbled.

“What could possibly be so important that you would willingly suffer like this to keep our father from knowing?” Ansem asked with a gleam in his amber eyes, “Our father who knows everything. Our father who is a god. How could an insignificant speck like you keep a secret from him? You even somehow earned his respect enough to be allowed to keep it. I want to know what it is.”

“Then it wouldn’t be secret.”

Kishi gasped as Ansem put his bare hand on the young Prince’s chest. The skin there was gone and the flesh was rotting. The smell was so much stronger with Ansem pressing on it and breaking the fledgling skin trying so hard to grow back.

“I don’t follow any rule of threes,” Ansem cautioned. He continued to pet Kishi’s hair as he talked, “Decide now if your secret is worth dying for.”

There was another threat in there. Kishi knew his contract with Ansem hinged on Kishi being alive. This was a win-win scenario for Ansem. He either got the secret and took it to the Emperor to have Xion taken away, or Kishi died and he got Xion anyway. What Kishi really needed was for someone, anyone to show up and see what was happening but if everyone had been sent away… Damnit, Ansem had planned for nearly everything.

He whimpered and yelped as the hand pushed down again and Kishi felt blood run down his sides.

“Tell me,” Ansem ordered.

“You aren’t half as scary as our father,” Kishi whispered back and then the hand was pressing again and he was squirming with the pain.

He didn’t know how long they went back and forth before relief arrived.

“I think you need to leave,” Xion said from the doorway and Kishi’s heart sang her praises. Ansem pulled away and wiped his sticky, bloody hand on Kishi’s blankets.

“Bold, but stupid,” Ansem praised but Kishi was waiting for this.

“Xion,” he called, trying to make his voice loud enough for her to hear with his limited energy, "you have my permission to remove this intruder from my home by any means necessary."

He saw Ansem look over with an alarmed expression and Kishi knew he realized it too. Ansem was here without welcome and with intent to harm. Better yet, Xion was a personal servant which meant in Kishi’s home Ansem had no power over her and Xion had to obey. Ansem couldn’t order to her stop, and he couldn’t punish her for that order. Hell, she could be punished for not obeying Kishi but why wouldn’t she? He was asking her to kick Ansem’s ass out the door.

"I'll say it again then. You have a chance to go peacefully. You need to leave, Prince Ansem," Xion warned and Kishi could hear the pleasure in her voice. He thanked the Queens in his heart that she understood the proper etiquette here.

"No woman can make me do anything," Ansem said. Kishi struggled to see. Xion was still a little blurry, but she was holding broomsticks in front of her as weapons.

"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."

Ansem drew his sword, accepting her challenge.

"Come then. Come over here and we can give Kishi a preview of what to expect on his wedding night."

Kishi almost laughed. That idiot Ansem was so misogynistic and overconfident that he gave himself every possible handicap. He felt the tug at his soul and knew that Ansem felt it too.

By declaring his intent to touch Xion inappropriately, Ansem tripped their contract. The magic was binding and it crippled him.

One broomstick came around to whack Ansem’s head while the other jabbed at his middle. He caught the one with his hand and deflected the other with his sword but all of his movements were slow. It wasn’t much of a fight.

Xion stepped in close and her knee slammed up into his crotch with a crunch that made Kishi’s own crotch ache in sympathy. Ansem stumbled with a hiss and held up a hand.

“I yield,” he squeaked out around clenched teeth.

“Then leave,” she repeated.

He stumbled and she followed, leaving Kishi alone for a long moment of respite before she was at his side again.

"What do you need?" she asked him.

"That felt good to watch," Kishi admitted in a whisper. He tried to sit up but his body wasn’t responding well, even if he was waking up a little more with each passing minute.

"It felt amazing to carry out. Don't stress yourself, stay down. How much did he hurt you?"

"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," he told her, ignoring the question. Ansem didn’t do more than was already done but he still laid back to rest.

"Threshold?" she asked.

"Yeah. The threshold of a home. It’s 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." The contract helped a little bit too, but he didn’t want her to know about that so he omitted it.

"... I'm going to find something to clean you up."

"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," he mumbled.

"...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."

He kept mumbling even though he was sure she had left. It just felt good to talk to her, to finally be talking to each other at all.

“That doesn’t matter,” he was saying, “it isn’t controlled that way. It’s the 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," Kishi agreed, "...I'm sorry I ran from you."

She sighed, "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." His chest tightened on the inside now and Kishi felt that awful loss in his gut and heart. The cold water on his burns helped. Xion was gently cleaning him, and he felt even worse needing to be tended to.

"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.

Yes, he thought, but he didn’t want to worry her.

"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, not knowing how else to say it. She looked uncomfortable with the answer too.

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..."

The tightness in his chest officially became unbearable and he covered his face with his hands to hide his dry-eyed crying. It made an ugly chuffing, choking sound when he did.

"...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 told her. How could she not know that?

"You have told me time and again that it doesn't. Directly and indirectly."

No, no no!  That wasn’t it at all! That desire to run was back and he tried to force himself up. He didn’t want to break in front of her any more than he had.

"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."

The irritation and anger were enough fuel to power through the cracking of the scabs and the aches and pains along his body.

"Can I say something?"

He didn’t respond to her and focused on getting 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," she was saying.

"The good news, is that after we're married, you will probably get to move out. Married in name only," he told her with a hiss as the coat settled on the burns.

"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 then hobbled out the door.

Kishi got himself to Riku’s house before he collapsed under the weight of the pain choking his heart.

Chapter Text

Kishi spent the last day of his suffering at Riku’s house and used his brother’s bath to heal himself. Roxas, Ven, and Riku’s favored servant, Kairi, doted on him for that entire last day and helped him with his bath the third morning. Almost immediately, Xemnas and Ansem were at the door to take him to his extended courses.

Because of the healing bath and the energy it drained from him to work, the first day of Kishi’s new regiment was almost entirely book related. Almost. Xemnas and Ansem stripped him down for an assessment with a lot of poking, prodding, note-taking, and hair cutting. They changed his wardrobe ever so slightly to be more professional and out of his own control and added a ton of books from the Emperor’s private libraries.

The following couple days they got into the nitty-gritty of it. Kishi’s mornings started early, very early, with extra classes, extra tests, wedding planning, and then his afternoons were spent in physical training. It was critical that the Princes appear immortal which meant shrugging off and powering through physical pain of all kinds. They would begin with sparring and end the day with physical torture. The methods varied as Xemnas and Ansem wanted him to be able to tolerate any potential torment at the hands of the enemy and their enemies were creative.

It never went far enough where it couldn’t be healed in a single bath. Training did nothing if the subject didn’t survive or was too crippled to continue the following day.

Exactly two weeks since Xion started working at the forge, Kishi was back in those torture chambers behind the throne.

The rooms were plain boxes with sloping drains, completely closed off without windows, and sparsely furnished. Crying out, whimpering, or any reaction that Xemnas or Ansem deemed unbefitting a Daybreak Prince was noted and given to their father for review. So, he hung there by his wrists as he was beaten with a whip while Xemnas read from a textbook discussing the method they were using on him that day. He would be quizzed later on the history, origins, and so on of the technique.

Compared to the skinning from the day prior, this was a cake walk.

It was easy to tune out what was happening to him when he thought about music. Thinking of Xion didn’t bring him as much comfort as it used to.

I don’t know why my happiness suddenly matters, she had said, you have told me time and again that it doesn’t.

It played in his head over and over alongside the guilt of everything he had done thus far. His family’s game was ruining them both but what else could he do? Escape wasn’t an option.

The whip overshot and Kishi felt the flesh under his eye split open and the tickle of blood trickle down his cheek like the tears he couldn’t shed. He barely felt it. He had gone numb an hour ago.

The door opened and the crack of the whip stopped. Xemnas looked up from the book and then bowed his head politely to the Emperor. Kishi would’ve done the same but his toes were barely touching the ground as it was and his head was already hung.

“Carry on,” the Emperor told Ansem and the next lash cut into his side. Xemnas finished the chapter and then Xehanort held up his hand. Both the older Princes stopped and Ansem moved from behind Kishi to the small table to wipe his hands clean.

“Xion came to see me just now,” the Emperor told Kishi. He knew better than to take the bait. Kishi’s reaction would be read too easily so he held still and studied the blood spatters on the floor.

“She exceeded my expectations and thus my plans for her. I had hoped that Xion would have inspired you to be better, to be the son I needed you to be, but her worth has revealed itself in other ways.”

Kishi felt a hand on his cheek and moved his eyes to look at his Father.

“Yet another mortal woman has proven herself more valuable than you.”

The Emperor’s glove was soft. He felt a thumb brush along his cheekbone and Kishi tried not to lean into it. The affection felt wrong coupled with his words.

“Father, would you cancel the wedding?” Ansem asked.

“No. We would be loathe to dishonor the contract we signed. Xion will still wed Kishi but she will serve my House as a Master Smith.”

Kishi heard the scratching of pen on paper and realized that Aqua was there too. She was taking notes on the Emperor’s words.

“Do you understand, Kishi? You are not to punish her again. Any orders you give to her she may choose to follow or not. Xion Terminus has proven her worth to exceed yours. Until you are thus Proven, her rank exceeds you. She belongs to me now.”

The hand on Kishi’s face moved to his chin to firmly grab him and make him look at his Emperor. Those amber eyes were reading his soul, Kishi was sure of it.

“I understand, your Excellency,” he mumbled and Xehanort let him go to slowly walk over to the table. He thumbed through the open books to double check the curriculum.

“You think differently, Kishi,” he said without turning and the Prince flinched.

“No, sir.”

The Emperor slammed his fist on the table and everyone flinched except Xemnas.

“Are you lying, Kishi?”

“No, sir. Xion would thrive best in her own home,” he mumbled with a strained voice, “away from me.”

There was quiet in the room for a few long minutes and then Kishi felt his father’s touch again. It was a gentle and reassuring pet on head, yet Kishi was terrified.

“I do what I do out of love, Kishi,” the man explained, “you have the heart of a conqueror buried beneath weakness that you have invited upon yourself. Taking her from you will spare you untold suffering until you are ready for your Proving. When you are strong enough to shrug off these weaknesses and bask in the glory of battle in service to your Emperor, I will reward you with my trust as I have your brothers.

These lessons, this pain, this is strength we are instilling in you. I’m making you immortal, Kishi. All I ask in return is to see you fill my old bones with pride.”

Kishi didn’t know how to do that. Nothing he did ever seemed enough for his Father.

“Work hard, Kishi,” Xehanort said, as though reading his mind, “work hard, give me your everything, no more distractions, no more cowardice, no more hesitation.”

He let go and Kishi swayed a little. He could smell and hear the drip of his blood running down his back to his toes. Aqua wasn’t looking at him either.

“Tomorrow the first of the delegates will be arriving,” the Emperor said, “all of my sons need to be there to greet them. Your workload will not change despite this.”

Kishi zoned out while Xehanort talked to Xemnas and Ansem. He saw them motion to him a couple times, but he wasn’t listening. He caught enough keywords to know they were discussing his training further.

‘Training’ he reminded himself should be in quotes. This felt like an extension of his punishment. The Emperor’s wrath was great and Kishi was ever the disappointment. Now that Xion was better in the Emperor’s eyes, Kishi knew he wouldn’t see her again. Even if she had the freedom to live with him, why would she take it?

Xion believed in him less than anyone, even his father who still had hope that Kishi could prove himself someday. If he didn’t Kishi wouldn’t be here, getting special attention to prepare him for his chance.

After the wedding, Xion would probably move out and serve the Emperor directly with the same rank as Aqua. She’d get to keep her men and be spoiled with riches for every piece she made for his father.

Kishi would go back to being the disappointing failure of the family to be hidden away lest he embarrass the name Oscura. Nothing would change aside from a hollowness knowing that he was surpassed by the woman he loved and had been expected to control.

The only hope Kishi had now was his Proving and to get there meant training.

“Excellency,” Kishi mumbled and the conversation in the room stopped, “thank you for this opportunity to show you I’m ready. Please, you are keeping my teacher from his work. Pray stay and watch but my training needs continue if I’m to show you what’s in my heart.”

He didn’t look up to see any reactions but the room felt lighter. The Emperor was pleased.

“I have so much hope for you Kishi,” the Emperor said, “I am proud of your ambition.”

The door opened again, and he left with Aqua.

Ansem laughed the second they were alone again, “it’s not going to be that easy. You’re so soft, Kishi, we have to remake you from the ground up.”

“Then get going,” Kishi growled.

Kishi bathed in the Emperor’s bath when they were finally done for the day and as he soaked and felt the energy drain from him he tallied the list of things he still had to do. His homework left little room for him to think about Xion and their relationship which was for the best. The distance would help him let go, eventually, still the duet in his heart was singing.

He walked home with his feet dragging and his arms full of books. It was dark outside and the March evenings were still chilly but the cool air felt good on his fresh skin.

The moment Kishi opened the door and set his things down on the console table Ven was beside him with a worried expression.

The servant had been extra helpful and clingy lately. Kishi was certain it was out of guilt and he had tried to reassure Ventus that he didn’t need to feel that way, but Ven was the ultimate people pleaser.

“You’re home so late,” Ven said, keeping his voice down.

“The Emperor gave me extra classes,” Kishi explained. Ven already knew as much, but the Prince wasn’t sure what other explanation he could offer aside from the obvious.

“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. Music paled as a gift compared to what Xion was giving Kishi. Forging something took way more effort than writing music. It just felt too frivolous and the Emperor would undoubtedly weigh it as laziness if he couldn’t properly compete with his impressive fiancé.

He dragged himself to the library and sat down at his desk with a pained grunt. The bath healed a lot, but he still felt sore.

"Can we set some time aside to talk soon?" Xion asked from the door and he felt his heart seize up in surprise. Kishi hadn’t even noticed her until she said something.

She looked beautiful tonight, like she did every night, but this time there was something else. She had that contentment in her eyes. Her discussion with his father must’ve gone much better than even Xehanort had let on.

"Um, yeah, come on in, sit... or don't, whatever you prefer." Was asking her to sit giving her an order? He hurried to straighten his desk out while she took a seat.

"...why didn't you tell me that you'd die too if I lost my pass?" she asked.

"You didn't ask," he tried to explain but it was a shitty excuse. He scratched a healing itch at the back of his neck and shuffled uncomfortably. Trying to keep up this master-of-the-house appearance didn’t matter all that much anymore. She might as well know the truth.

"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."

The coffee had arrived. Ven handed Kishi the mug and rescued him from his exhausted rambling. He downed the whole mug at once. It burned his mouth and throat but he barely felt it.

"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?" Xion asked and Kishi’s heart jumped.

He had spent all afternoon having that option ripped away from him and she was dangling hope in front of his face. It reminded him of the verbal traps that Ansem employed from time to time. Was she messing with him? After everything he had done to her and everything she believed about him, how could she possibly be serious?

His heart tightened and he realized he didn’t care if it was a trap and her role as his biggest weakness solidified. He was destined for the front lines anyway, at least one of them should be happy.

“Yeah,” he said, trying to use his voice to assure her that it wasn’t a big deal, “of course, anything you want. Anything that’s in season. Lingon berries are damn near impossible to find. Probably will have to have someone plant them for next year." Kishi tried to keep a joking tone but it was hard. His heart hurt now, looking at her, wanting her, and just struggling to find hope.

"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 returned with more coffee and Kishi downed that mug too. He needed that energy for these papers.

"Thank you, Ven, for waiting up for me. You can go," he said gently. Ven looked concerned and for a second really considered disobeying. Kishi almost asked him to but seeking comfort would be further weakness.

"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."

Xion nodded and got up to say, "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 and the spark of hope she gave him. He didn’t make it to bed until three.