It had begun early for her. In hindsight, Camilla knew it had started the day they first met. It had been different with him and his sister, different than with any of her other siblings, and that difference had planted the tiniest seed of doubt within her head and her heart from the beginning. He had stood small, dishevelled, unassuming and scowling at her father's side, saying nothing and staring straight ahead even as she was brought forward to introduce herself and meet the boy that her father claimed was her newest, and her last, sibling. She had been struck by his eyes, those fiercely glinting crimson eyes that seemed both exotic and frightening despite his youth, despite his size, before she had registered anything else about him. Even those sharply tapered ears, his strange platinum coloured hair and his pale skin that he shared exactly with his twin seemed like nothing in comparison to those sharp crimson eyes.

Then he had been nudged forward none too gently by her father's heavy elbow and with a gruff order to return her introduction. She had expected him to speak, had waited for him to obey, but to her shock, he had remained silent. His eyes flashed and his scowl became more pronounced, and with a deliberate, defiant turn of his chin, he looked completely away from her. There was an angry hiss, and Camilla flinched as she understood the sound and what it meant, and she was not surprised as her father's hand shot out and slammed mercilessly into the right side of her newest brother's face in a fierce and unrelenting backhand.

The young princess knew the power behind that blow, once and only once had she misbehaved openly to earn it for herself, and she knew her father never checked his hand for anyone. The jovial, kindhearted if only a little stern father he had once been was fading into rapidly distant memory behind coldness and cruelty, and the immediate strike in payment of disobedience was no longer a surprise for her. She was only thankful she had learned quickly how to avoid such treatment, and she hoped painfully that the boy in front of her would be as quick a study as she, Marx, and Leon were.

Camilla cringed sympathetically as she watched the boy stagger underneath the strike, but to her surprise, the boy did not go down. He stumbled and fell away from the older and taller man, unable to keep his balance completely after such a wicked and calculating stroke, but he refused to go down completely. He steadied himself on the edge of a nearby table, gripping the wood and stone for balance, but all too quickly he was releasing his grip and finding his feet again. He looked up, momentarily meeting their father's stern and cold gaze as if he was thinking of a second act of open defiance despite his reward, yet then the tension faded from him, and he turned slowly, stiffly, back to her.

The right side of his face was red from the force of the strike that had been delivered on him, proof he would bruise beautifully when the swelling went down, and his lip was split open. Blood trickled in a thin, lazy line down his chin, as crimson as those sharp, sharp eyes of his, and he made absolutely no move to wipe it away. Instead he stiffened his spine and raised his chin, his gaze flickering across her form with a numb sort of interest that made goosebumps erupt across her skin. He remained silent for another heartbeat before he met her eyes, and he held her gaze with fearless ease, showing not an ounce of emotion through that cold shield he erected so easily around him before he spoke for the first time in a quiet, lightly accented and perfectly level voice, "My name is Aidan."

From that day on, she associated that colour, that deep shade of crimson that his eyes and his blood shared exactly, with him. In retrospect it seemed foolish, red and its connotations spoke of violence, of passion, romance, and sexuality, and she couldn't in any fairness say those words described him at all in his earlier days. He was cold and unyielding as the platinum colour of his hair, or as enigmatic and impenetrable as the ebony of his usual attire. He asked nothing and spoke only when spoken to, preferring to keep still and unassuming by a wall or column so he could watch rather than participate. Even little Elise in all her perpetual sunniness and Eve with her unquestioning warmth couldn't coax him into joining the others when they visited him in the fortress, and more than once Leon would question the use when he so infrequently seemed to care for their presence.

Yet, that sharp shade of crimson in those quick eyes of his proved to be a colour she couldn't stop associating with him as the weeks trickled into months. The second time she would see that shade outside of his gaze came upon her in winter, when she had first begun to learn how to care for the wyverns that she would one day learn to ride into battle on. Gunter had been instructing her while Aidan worked on his own drills in swordplay nearby in the snow. Eve was once again locked away in the healing wings with another fit of her illness, as would become customary in the winter, and the great and grizzled knight watched over them both with a precise and stern eye that neither begrudged even in their youth. They knew an accomplished soldier when they saw one, and both had the highest of respect for him that immediately cowed any thoughts of youthful rebellion at his repeated lectures. They worked in silence, one with the great scaled beasts that she had loved from the first moment she'd seen one, and the other never ceasing his continuous swinging of his sword just as he had been taught to do from both Gunter and Marx.

Camilla wasn't entirely sure, even now, of what had called Gunter away from them that day. All she knew was that by some stroke of chance, he had left the two by themselves, and had given her strict instruction to watch over her younger brother and mind that neither of them entered into any mischief while he was gone. Aidan had acknowledged him with a nod before he returned to his drills, the heavy practise sword in his hands moving in a thrust, a slash, an overhand sweep and then a block before he would start all over again. She watched with mild interest, the sword didn't speak to her nearly as much as the axe or the tome did when it came to weapons of war, but she knew better than to dismiss the art out of boredom. Swords would be her bane when she became a full-fledged soldier, and she would need to learn of its limitations, advantages and weaknesses soon enough if she wished to survive.

Still, soon enough the drills became too little to hold her attention, and she turned back to the wyvern she had been learning to saddle. She heard footsteps in the snow far away, and a cursory glance over her shoulder told her a stablehand was returning from the barracks to continue his duties in the stalls opposite of the ones she occupied. His stumbling gait however caught her attention, and the flush in his cheeks was hotter than the blowing snow and cold weather could warrant for. She tensed unconsciously, there was never any good to be found around any who indulged in ale this early in the day, but she forced her eyes back to her work to better hide her unease. Stiffness would only agitate the creatures she was with, and the last thing she needed was to upset a great scaled beast armed with razor sharp talons and fangs while she was on her own.

The little princess could feel him watching her, his stare was a dagger through her heavy cloak and dress, but she ignored him with all the poise and dignity she had been forced to adapt into second nature. She could hear Aidan continuing his work not a stone's throw away, likewise paying absolutely zero attention to the man nearby, and she was abruptly glad for his presence in a strange way she could not entirely understand. The stablehand's gaze was discomforting even though she wasn't sure why, and she rested a careful hand on the flank of the wyvern as she wondered at the strange feeling of security that the silent boy next to her was giving without realization of it.

Then the man made a loud snort, loud enough that both children froze immediately and instinctively at the sound that was carried away quickly by the wind but was obviously made to capture their attention. The stablehand did it again, the sound bitter and cruelly mirthful, and the sensation of unease that had been tightening in Camilla's stomach suddenly tripled with excruciating force. She understood in a dim, instinctual way that something was about to happen that she should avoid, but her limbs froze up and refused to allow her movement, and she bit on her lower lip before the drunk's voice rang out, speech slurred but the words clear and sharp as the winter air that blew around them, "Little bastard."

Camilla inhaled sharply at the insult, and at once, she felt an angry prickling in her eyes as she simultaneously rebelled against the words even as she accepted them. Young girl though she was, she was not blind to who she truly was and what that meant when her title as crown princess was stripped away. Her father was king, but her mother had been just another of the many concubines that he favoured, and it was only by sheer luck alone that she had survived the bloody business that had left her, Marx, Elise, and Leon alive out of the numerous children Garon had fathered. For all intents and purposes, if her father ever decided that she was unfit for her position, he could claim her with those exact words and she would have no defence against them. She was only legitimate as long as she proved herself worthy of it, and that was knowledge that sat heavy on her slim shoulders ever since she had become old enough to understand it.

A shaky inhale was the only sign she allowed herself to show that she had heard those words and proved they upset her before she steeled her spine again. She was a princess, and all of her lessons, all of her pride, told her that such insults had to be beneath her. She couldn't react outwardly, not unless she wanted to be easily baited, but it didn't make the hurt any less. It was a calculated blow and it went in deep, tugging at the worst of her insecurities and her pains, and she hated herself for being unable to bury it as entirely as she should have even with her lessons reminding her why she had to.

Camilla's sentiments however were not shared by the boy, and she realized that with a start as she heard Aidan drop his sword into the snow. She only had enough time to turn a little to see him dart from his position with inhuman speed, and in moments he had crossed the grounds to the man, and flung himself at him with all the force he could put behind his lithe little body. The shock of the sudden attack froze both her and the drunk into momentary stillness even as the latter was thrown back into the snow, but Aidan proved he was not willing to hesitate even for a second. His fists went to work with terrifying efficiency, slamming once, twice, and a third time in a bid to cause as much damage as he possibly could before the advantage of surprise was lost and his opponent began to fight back.

He managed five consecutive hits before he was struck himself, but the young prince took the blow in his chest without a sound of pain despite the advantage his opponent had on him with his size and weight. In seconds he was fighting not only for his anger but for his life as the stablehand laid into him with a voice made loud and angry with his hurt pride and his broken nose. Camilla didn't remember how long it took before her screams for help brought Gunter back, but she was glad it wasn't any later as that old, scarred man leapt into action and separated the two combatants without a hint of hesitation.

Aidan fought like a demon to escape the tight grasp the knight had on his arms, and blood trickled from a gash over his eye and out of his nose even as he spat more out from his mouth. He kicked and struggled to get purchase on the snowy ground even as Gunter hauled him away from the panting and snarling stablehand, proving that even though his opponent had more than twice his height and weight that he wasn't afraid to fight a losing battle in the middle of his rage. He let loose his voice as Gunter shook him, trying to bring sense back to the furious prince he was having a difficult time restraining without injuring further, and from his small body came a roar that shocked the three in the courtyard with the hate and the rage that had spurred him into sudden violence, "Apologize to her!"

It seemed like forever before Gunter let the prince go when he sent the stablehand packing with low and growled threats of his own, and his questions were met only with steely eyes and a defiant silence that both Camilla and the knight seemed to know he would not break. The knight looked to her for answers, and under any other circumstances, the young princess would have been willing to speak. However, she stood shaken and silent, staring with wide, tear-filled wine-coloured eyes at the platinum-haired youth who had leapt to her defence, unable to think past the shock of what she had just seen.

She only faintly recalled Gunter finally leaving a second time to call for a healer when it was made plain that neither she nor Aidan was willing to speak on what had just happened until there was ample time for breath to return. The knight left in a hurry, not wanting to leave them on their own for even a moment longer than he had to in case something else happened again, but she paid little mind to him. She could only watch as the panting, trembling prince leaned down to pick up his sword and resume his drills as if nothing had interrupted him.

He paid her no mind even though she didn't dare to look away, returning to his swordplay and refusing to look at her, but she was sharply aware that it would never be the same between the two of them again. The boy she had acknowledged as her brother even as he held her and the rest of the world at arm's length had brutally upset every former notion she'd entertained of his character with one explosion of a moment, and though she was taken aback, was a little bit frightened of him, she admired him all the same for his instinctive leap to her defence. Her heart gave a foreign but not at all unpleasant clench inside of her chest, and a heat that had nothing to do with shame burnt into her already reddened cheeks before she was whispering softly, hoarsely to him in gratitude, "Th... Thank you..."

Aidan didn't acknowledge her words with speech of his own at first. He merely looked to meet her eyes for a moment, and in that crimson stare that had never yielded once to anyone, she realized with a start that for the first time he was making no attempt to hide his emotions. There was no return of her thanks, no pride or satisfaction for what he'd done, but he showed acceptance even as rebellion smoldered heavy and thick in his expression. He turned away from her just as quickly, his hands tightening momentarily on his sword before he answered her gruffly, "It's not true. You are a princess. Don't doubt that. Ever."

The third time Camilla saw that shade of crimson on him would not come for years after that day in the snow, though she would learn all too quickly that he had been shedding blood for her, for them all, long before she had come to know it. The days of youth went by quickly, and the small, scowling little boy turned into a silent, stoic teenager without her notice. Despite his growth nothing else seemed to change within him, he was isolated in his fortress and so he kept the world at bay despite the attempts it made to close, but she pretended not to mind. She had proof he cared far more than he was willing to let on with speech or action alone, that snowy day remained dear to her heart even though the years had slid by, and she thought herself content to wait as long as it took before his shell would crack.

The only thing she hadn't expected was how she would see to his core when the shell did break apart to allow her a glimpse, and that first anguish-filled night she spent at his bedside was not ever how she had hoped for it to happen. In the grips of a fever with his back laid open by Iago's whip, Camilla had nursed him for hours as she tried to swallow the fact that for years, long, long years, he had been abused so and never once had let anyone catch on. His hands curled into fists as he forced his lean body to relax underneath her clumsy efforts to patch his wounds, and she had whispered apology after apology for her lack of knowledge in the stave. His ferocious denials when she had dared to suggest to call for a proper healer had shocked her into submission, he hadn't had to raise his voice to tell her of his fury at the thought of Elise somehow finding out about his wounds, and so she had been forced to do what little she could for him in the interim.

Beneath the open and oozing gashes she had seen older scar tissue, angry red, fading pink and old and white marks that spoke of past beatings that crisscrossed their way cruelly around and about his back. He lay panting on his stomach on his bed, body stretched out and trembling uncontrollably from pain and fever, and unable to help it, she reached out to run a soothing, calming hand through the tangled mess of platinum curls on his head. He stiffened under her caress, the reason why he avoided and endured physical contact in suffering silence now stark and bare before her eyes, and she withdrew her touch at once with another murmured apology. It had never been personal, and the realization that he had been conditioned to fear another's hand because of such abuse made her sick to her stomach, and her teeth grit down audibly in fury.

He had protected her once, and she had made it her silent credo ever since then to return the favour. Not just to him, but to all of her siblings who looked to her with innocence and warmth in their eyes, and the idea that she had failed him so spectacularly only made her entire body shake with rage. Concern for him was the only thing that tied her to his side and stopped her from fetching her axe and carving out her retribution in Iago's head, and she knew that her emotions were written clearly on her face when Aidan turned his own from the pillow he had buried it in to take a look at her while she worked soundlessly. Salve bit into his open wounds and made him grind his teeth in pain, but she was quick even if she was clumsy, her care for him sounding out in every hasty move she made in a desperate attempt to minimize his pain and get him ready for bandaging as quickly as possible.

Aidan spoke first as she applied the gauze she needed to pad his wounds before she reached for the bandaging, breaking the silence that had fallen between them when he had warned her in no uncertain terms that he would never forgive her if she called for a healer to attend to him. His voice was ragged and hoarse from his pain, from his efforts to conceal it before he had collapsed in the hallway and had been found by her like that, but his eyes fixed on her face with a clarity that defied his weakness and sickness when he cautioned her, "You can't speak of this to anyone... Nor can you take your revenge on Iago. You'll only incur Father's wrath by doing so... and there'd be no point to anything I've done thus far if you turn his attention to you."

The words and the heavier meaning behind them were a slap to Camilla's face, and for a moment, her hands froze in her work as the realization of why he had been through all he had been through came into stark relief for her. The twist in her stomach became sharper, like a dagger had been plunged in deep, and her mouth went dry as her throat closed painfully. He continued to hold her eyes, daring her to rebuke him, and she had to fight hard not to speak as she digested it all. For her, for all of them, he had taken up the role of a shield. It had been long years since she or any of her siblings had last faced their father's wrath in terms of physical abuse, and the knowledge that he had been the one responsible, that he had diverted all such outbursts to himself, that he had willingly become an object of focus to spare his siblings, both made her see red and broke her heart simultaneously.

Arguing with him when she had regained her senses had been like arguing with a wall. He simply refused to listen, insisting quietly, calmly, that there were no other options no matter how many she tried to give to him. It had been a secret he had kept ever since his boyhood, and it was one he was determined to continue to keep until he lay dead and cold in his grave. He asked for no help, he had spent this long doctoring himself and refusing to seek professional aid in order to keep his siblings in the dark, and he was happy with the arrangement. When she had stood, too angry to sit and her eyes flashing wine-coloured fire, he had pushed himself from his stomach to meet her, ignoring the ringing pain in his back before his tone sharpened even as his volume dropped to a deadly hiss as he broke her with one simple question she had refused to admit was a very real possibility until that moment.

"Do you want it to be Elise or Eve next, Camilla?"

Camilla felt the strength seep out of her limbs at the cruel stab he made without any hesitations into her heart with his logic, and slowly, grudgingly, she forced herself back down into the chair she had risen out of in her fury. Elise was a gentle soul, but she was also fiercely protective of her siblings, and she would not hesitate to let her voice ring out in defiance if she thought it would do any good for the ones she loved. And Eve was so frail even if her spirit was clad in iron, and there was no doubt that her fragile body would never be able to bear such pain if Iago turned his lash to her. But they both were still young, capable of being shepherded from speaking out too loudly and punished for their behaviour, but there was only so much even they would be allowed to get away with. The elder princess knew that well, just as Aidan knew she did, and she hated herself for admitting it with a weak and tired, "No... No, I don't..."

For the first time since he had snarled at her to leave him be when she had found him huddled against the wall, shaking and bleeding and barely able to see straight, the tightness in his face relaxed, and then softened. He shook his head as he, too, allowed himself to sink back down onto his stomach, but that gentle look she had never seen on his face, at least never once directed towards her, didn't fade. His crimson eyes, usually so sharp and so piercing had become oddly liquid in their warmth, and her heart stopped in her chest when he spoke again in a soft, contrite voice, "I'm sorry for forcing you into this, but it's my decision... You don't need to get any more involved than this. Just forget what happened tonight. It'll be all right. I know how to handle myself, Camilla. Elise and Leon, as well as you and Marx, and Eve... This is what I can do, all I can do, for all of you. It's what I'm good at."

Shaking her head in defiance as angry tears of rebellion leapt into her eyes, Camilla refused to acknowledge it as she forced her hands to resume their work in treating his wounds. Walking away was not an option, no matter how he pressed her. It went against all of her instincts to leave him in pain, and though she could not stop it at the source, not yet, she could at least help with the aftermath and keep further harm from coming to him from different places. That much she could and would do no matter his arguments, and she was prepared to become his shadow if that was the only way to force his acceptance.

It was indeed the only way as she would soon discover, but her will was every bit as iron as his was as she made a point to visit him almost every other day to check in as discretely as she could on his physical condition. It would take days before he stopped arguing, weeks before he would accept her with a placid expression, and months before he began to seek her out rather than waiting for her to come to him, but every day she worked to see him change was a treasure to her. She knew though, as another year passed by since she had first found him so weak and so beaten down, that he wasn't the only one experiencing a change, and the thought both frightened and elated her.

Sitting at his bedside night after night, doctoring his wounds and speaking with him in low, careful tones until the morning light began to seep through the windows had begun to bring back old whispers of thoughts and suspicions she had buried in her childhood. She watched him sleep in profile, biting her lower lip as she wondered if it was true, if he really was more than what her father claimed he was, but each and every time she would quash the thought in its tracks and force it back as cruelly as she possibly could manage. She was aware of what was in her heart, she wasn't foolish or naive enough to mistake it as something simple or pure, but to give herself hope was too much for her. It was easier to pretend, to keep the walls firmly up in place between the two of them, than it was to acknowledge the truth and give voice to her wonderings.

Yet, every so often, when he drifted off to sleep next to her, weariness and pain or medicine taking its toll on him, she would linger rather than return to her own chambers as she knew she should. With a carefully gentle hand, she'd reach to run her fingers through his messy platinum curls in a caress she would never dare to give if he was awake and taunt herself with her bravery and her cowardice. He had grown so much since the first time she had seen him shed blood in front of her, and she was aware, oh so painfully aware, of the man he had become since those days. Watching him as he tossed in his sleep, his face relaxed in his dreams and that ever-present mask of stoicism laid down, she murmured the one adjective that had outpaced all of the others when she began to describe him in her thoughts now, "So handsome..."

Aidan was a man now, a soldier in his own right even though he had yet to be tested on the battlefield, and she knew she loved him as one rather than the brother he was meant to be to her. She could see him as nothing else, and he did not help matters with his attitude, though she didn't know if that was intentional or not. He had never tried to act like a sibling beyond using the proper titles in place of her name, and he endured her affections as a child would endure anything else they disliked but had no choice but to do, but she had watched with careful eyes to see this behaviour, this distance, was something meant only for her.

Elise was the only one of them all who could get away with physical overtures of affection, and he treated her like the little girl she was, like the sister she so firmly believed herself to be, rather than anything else. Aidan did not endure Elise's touches as he did hers, though he only ever responded rather than initiated, but Elise never seemed to mind. An awkward but gentle pat on her head in reply to a hug was the world to her, and her beaming smile said so even as her elder brother returned her smile with a small, crooked, but sincere one of his own rather than did anything else that would constitute as "brotherly".

With Leon he shared an odd but still fraternal rapport, they were rivals rather than comrades most days, but it was still Leon that had the honour of being the one who could elicit one of Aidan's rare and quiet chuckles with the most frequency. They sparred and studied and did much together, more often in silence rather than speech, but it was rarely needed between the two. Too often they would be found on the ramparts of the fortress together with books piled about them in neat stacks, and Aidan would be smirking in pride as his little brother refused to believe that he truly could read quicker than he could and still absorb the knowledge fully.

If Leon was his rival, then Camilla knew without a doubt that Marx was his mentor. He was the only elder save for Gunter that Aidan gave way to without hesitation, but Marx, for his part, never failed to treat his little brother like an equal rather than anyone less. Aidan showed himself as an earnest pupil, spending long days training under his elder brother's watchful eye, and though their many sparring matches always ended in his failure, Aidan never showed frustration for his losses. Instead he only pushed himself up from the ground, seized his sword and dove into the fray again, determined to prove himself, determined to earn respect, all the while being blind to the fact that Marx had long since stopped thinking of him as a boy who needed protection and instead as a soldier who now needed a chance to show his superiors the true cut of his mettle.

His relationship with Eve, though nothing like it was when they had been children, was still the strongest of his bonds with anyone, and Camilla was well aware why it had changed so much since the beatings had begun. Aidan was Eve's protector and caretaker, showing a fierce determination in keeping his younger and frailer twin safe, and there was never any question of the trust and love the two shared for one another even if they did not seem as close as they had once been as children. When Eve's long stays in the healing wings wore on her, Aidan was always there, silent but comforting by her side with a book or a meal in hand as he kept her company in the long and otherwise lonely hours. And Eve loved him dearly even if she was no longer allowed close to him, and despite their polar opposite personalities, they functioned as one unit at all times.

It was only with her that he became a different man, and Camilla wondered with equal amounts of hope, self-loathing, and fear, that it meant something more than what she could infer. He had softened around her, had showed her parts of himself that she knew he had never revealed to others before, but what that meant was still as much a mystery to her as everything else was. She had hounded him into allowing her in, it had never been a choice of his to let her get close, and she was sharply aware that had she never found him in such a pathetic state in the first place that he likely would have chosen to keep his distance from her. The knowledge cowed her most days, reminded her that she was looking for meaning where she only wanted to find it, and when she allowed herself to be beaten down... He would slip again, his mask would lower, and her heart would seize and take her back to the beginning before she could stop herself.

That night a few weeks before everything had changed, before Aidan and Eve had taken their tests at Marx's hand and passed it to be brought before their father, had been the night when her hope had been given grounding. She had snuck again into his chambers, he had faced a worse beating than normal three days before and she hadn't been allowed to the fortress until the previous day, but she had been startled to find he wasn't in bed as she had expected for the hour. Instead the doors to his balcony were open, and he was leaning on the stone railing, face turned east and into the wind as he let the breeze wash over his face and heavily bandaged torso. He had tilted his head when he heard her enter but didn't speak, and when she had asked what had brought him up when he should have been resting, his answer had been simple.

"The wind is blowing from the east tonight... Over the mountains, from the lakes... I can smell the water when it blows this way. It doesn't happen often."

The words seemed conversational, but as with everything else he said, she knew there was far more buried deep within them. It wasn't a complaint, he didn't think he was allowed the luxury of complaining, but she heard the longing nonetheless underneath the words as he spoke of sights he had never been allowed to see save from maps and books. He was caged and his wings were clipped, but as she knew with every creature that possessed them, the urge to fly was instinctual even if it had never been experienced before. The man before her was no different even if he gave no confirmation to it, and her heart throbbed painfully with a mixture of sympathy, anger, frustration, and longing for him before she swallowed it down and joined him there with a quiet agreement rather than all the words she wanted to say instead.

They stood together there for a few minutes in silence, savouring the fresh breeze that seemed so foreign after so many days of still air and brooding darkness. To her surprise, he was the one to break the silence, and his voice had dropped to that soft tone she knew he only used when he was lowering his guard and being the young man he was rather than the soldier, rather than the prince or the captive or the brother as he asked her to describe the lakes he knew she had seen to him. She didn't hesitate, closing her eyes as she leaned forward with him, allowing the image to flare in her mind as it so often did whenever she was indulging his so rare requests. She knew he envied her for her winged mount, and she had developed the habit of memorizing all of the strange and wondrous landscapes she had seen in her flights for this exact purpose. It was one of the few things she could do for him, and while it was no substitute for the real thing, living vicariously through her gave him pleasure, and she would never deprive him of it.

Camilla described the lakes, the plains and the mountains to the best of her ability, lingering on the smaller details that she had stored away for him in hopes that she could do all of the sights justice with her words. She had added so many destinations to that map she always carried with her in her pack on her last trip across Nohr, to her secret wishlist that she hoped one day she would be able to show him when this fortress no longer was a cage and he could travel through the skies with her. She wished for the thousandth time that she was capable of true art, that she could put a quill to parchment and sketch out the sights rather than describe them with her words, she wanted to give him images rather than suggestions, but he never seemed to find her stories lacking. He always listened intently to her, eyes closed and his expression thoughtful, and she would hope his imagination would conjure the truth for him as she strived more than ever to give him what little she could to help it along.

Her words ran out long before his curiosity ever could, but Aidan seemed content enough when she faltered, and then quit speaking altogether. His crimson eyes wandered the horizon thoughtfully even though the night had swallowed most of it in darkness, and his hands gripped down errantly on the stone railing before him. She found herself speaking again before she could think about it as she took him his profile again, offering softly that one day, one day, she would take him there when he was permitted to leave the fortress under his own power. The words seemed like ice water to him, stiffening his body and bringing his attention abruptly to her, but this time she had to be the one to look away, unable to take his gaze as her face warmed despite her best efforts not to show her embarrassment. She hadn't meant to speak it aloud, it was fanciful wish of hers and nothing more, but the words were out and she knew he would ask for explanation, for confirmation if she didn't elaborate.

Swallowing down the sudden knot in her throat, and feeling an unbearable heat settling high in her cheeks and down somewhere deep within her middle, Camilla forced herself to keep looking away from him. She didn't want to read his expression, didn't want to see how unguarded he'd appear to her in his surprise, and hastily plowed on ahead in a desperate attempt to recover her wits and not reveal just how close she had been to letting everything else slip out. It was only if he wished for it, she had been too so many places after all, and describing them didn't do any of them justice. Perhaps she could tell him where to go when and if he ever decided to train with a mount of his own, and it was only a suggestion anyway that he didn't need to agree to if it didn't appeal to him.

Her ears began to burn with her blush as she realized she was stammering and carrying on like a schoolgirl, and as abruptly as she had begun fumbling, she fell quiet again in embarrassed horror. He likewise held his tongue beside her, seeming to mull over her words, but she didn't dare try to peek out of the corner of her eye to see his expression in case his disapproval, or worse, his pity, was all over his face. She began to think of excuses to leave, kicking herself savagely for letting her thoughts outpace her speech, but he spoke first before she could form a good one to use, his voice quiet, musing, yet somehow warm in a way she was unfamiliar with when he muttered, "I'd like that. Will you take me with you when I'm allowed to go wherever I please?"

The words drew her gaze despite her best efforts, and she cursed herself the moment her eyes slid to his face and saw the smile curling on his lips. It was small and tentative but earnest, boyish almost, and it was a hammer blow to her heart. He hadn't ever looked like that before, not with hope, not with sincere belief, and to know that she had been the one to bring it about with something so simple was more than she was capable of accepting. Whatever his true feelings were, whatever he honestly thought of her as, it didn't change the fact that he trusted her. Despite his shields, despite his natural mistrust due to his hurts, despite what she had been forced to do to get close to him... He trusted her.

For one, mad, brief moment, she wanted to tell him all. To explain her suspicions, to confess her feelings, to tear apart the world he knew on nothing more than an insane and defiant wish that she could not prove. She thought of the courts, of the painful training and cold, cruel lessons that had been burnt into her mind every time she had looked at her mother and remembered that she was only one of many, and the mothers and half-siblings that surrounded her as a child wanted her blood to spill just as badly as she wished to keep it within. He just simply didn't seem to fit into the past she had left behind as the daughter of a concubine, with the violence and the abuse and the cold acknowledgement that she was only her mother's tool to bind her to her father.

The words though would not escape despite her yearning, and she bit them back fiercely until she could taste blood in her mouth. He was already so broken, already so lost and so on edge, and she couldn't in good faith destroy what little stability he had for her own selfish sake. There was still that risk that she was wrong, that she had only built up this lie in her mind to give herself comfort from her sickness, and that risk kept her agonizingly silent. Should her greatest desires come to fruition, should he respond to her the way she craved and the truth was nothing but a desperate desire, what could be done would never be undone. She would never forgive herself. He would never forgive her. No, her greed was great, but her desire for self-preservation was greater. She would not speak. She could not speak.

"Camilla...? What is it?"

Aidan's voice was low and concerned, and Camilla realized with a painful twist in her stomach that she had begun to tremble from the force of her suppressed emotions, and he had noticed. She raised a hand to her mouth, biting back her words, biting back her feelings, as she refused to look over at the younger man beside her. It didn't matter that she was in love with him. It didn't matter that she saw him only as a man. In this time and place he was her brother, a broken a wounded young man, and to love him as she did was wrong. The thought almost brought a broken laugh to her as she thought of her visits to the graves of her half-siblings, of the blood that stained her hands no matter how she washed them... She was already sick and twisted, and falling in love with her younger brother was only one more crime to add to the many she already had committed.

Turning away as she fought down her tears, fought down everything, Camilla forced her stare to her only route of escape from the room that had become both her place of solace and her personal hell. She needed to leave before her control frayed to the point of no return. She could recollect herself once she left, return to the playful and fearless woman she presented herself to the world as, and could pretend that the night had never happened. Hugging her arms tightly about herself, she shook her head as she whispered shakily, "I'm sorry... I... I need to leave..."

Aidan's hand grasped her wrist the moment she stepped away, surprising the both of them greatly at the touch as he held still. The older woman looked at him, confused and startled by the tight but still gentle touch, and she was only further surprised to see the look of wonderment on his face as he stared at his hand like it had moved on its own. His crimson eyes were narrowed and intense, and Camilla faintly recognized that puzzlement deep within his gaze that always signified that he was facing a puzzle he wished to solve. He spoke slowly, deliberately as he gave her wrist an impossibly soft squeeze, "You're crying. Why is that? What's wrong?"

Camilla knew he would not let her go until she either demanded it of him or gave him an answer, and she already knew that to do either was impossible. His callused fingers held her as if she was made of glass, and her skin buzzed underneath his touch and made her stomach twist uncomfortably with a sickening mixture of want and disgust. She couldn't in good faith jerk away even though she knew she should. It was a first time he had ever initiated contact like this with her, and she made the mistake of looking back at him as she fought to decide on her course of action.

The young prince was looking at her with his eyes narrowed and face set in a familiar frown, but there was a softness underneath the expression that threatened to break her into pieces. He was concerned for her and was making no effort whatsoever to hide his emotions as he studied her carefully. Her tears flowed hot and slow down her reddened cheeks, and he watched their progress with a further thinning of his lips as his free hand twitched at his side as if he was fighting the impulse to brush them away for her. It was that twitch that truly shattered her resolve, that instinctive reaction to a desire he clearly had to do more for her, and though she knew she would curse herself for it later, Camilla turned and threw her arms about him in a tight embrace.

Camilla felt him stiffen the moment she pressed herself into his chest and held on for dear life, and she waited with a breathless sort of pain and hopefulness for his arms to push her away. Even Elise could never cling to him for long, Aidan would only allow a momentary hug before he was gently but firmly releasing himself from her hold, yet he stood still and unresponsive as Camilla held onto him now. He had even stopped breathing, his hands empty but curled at his sides, and Camilla heard herself asking silently as she tucked her face into his neck to hide her tears, 'Why aren't you pushing me away, Aidan...?'

Then his arms moved, a slow rise that Camilla fully expected to push her slowly away from him, but her heart stopped in her ears as they instead wrapped themselves awkwardly about her back. His hold was loose and hesitant, as if he didn't know how to return a hug after so many years of shunning physical contact, but there was an earnestness in him that made the embrace warm her all the same. He didn't pull her more firmly into him, didn't squeeze her closer or nuzzle her hair, but none of that mattered as he cradled her in the only way he seemed to know how and spoke quietly, huskily above her ear, "It's all right. No one will know if you cry tonight. I don't know what's wrong, but you don't need to tell me if you don't want to. You've kept my secret for long enough now... Allow me to return the favour and keep one of yours."

It was a genuine promise, made with such fierce sincerity that Camilla laughed as she sobbed and clutched at him tighter. Aidan steadied himself against her automatically, surprised but showing no displeasure as she pressed her face against his shoulder and clung to him for support and comfort. Her body and her heart ached, throbbing with equal mixture of pain and want and pleasure and disgust, and the warring halves of herself could not find peace. Still, as her fingers grabbed convulsively at his bandaged torso and she let herself feel the release of tears, she decided that for the moment, indulging in this was warranted. She would curse and hate herself for it later, would remember and crave the feeling of his hold in her weaker moments, but for now she needed to be held as she cried.

It would only be for the moment, Camilla decided as she shook and sobbed in Aidan's firm, clumsy, but still so gentle hold. She would never allow for it again. When she parted from him for the night, she would put herself back together so she could be his affectionate and playful and protective older sister again come morning. She would only see him as a brother, would only treat him as a brother, and would forget the hold that made her wish she had met him as a woman in another life. It was the only way she would be able to stay sane and not succumb to the sickness made worse by her desperate wishes and theorizing. She could not love him the way she wanted to, should not love him the way she wanted to, and, she prayed with desperate fervour, would one day never want to love him at all.

"I'm sorry, Aidan... I'm so... so sorry..."

AN:

Before the pitchforks come out... Let me be clear. I have been a huge fan of Camilla/Kamui since I learned I could ship it, and I was actually greatly disappointed by the supports even though it gave me what I wanted. I think my biggest problem with the game was the way it gave us such great, flawed and still beautiful characters and then promptly reduced them to one-trick-pony status and just ruined their conversation options in favour of fanservice and jokes. Camilla, Felicia, Soleil and Eponine all were big victims of this in the game, and I decided that I'd just ignore it and go about things the way I imagined it would probably go, as any fanfiction author usually would.

Of course, me being me, I wanted to avert "Incest is Wincest" HARD, and that's really where the angst came in. -laugh- I guess I imagined it being messy and complicated and so difficult for Camilla before the game actually starts, and I wanted to portray that in the best way I could. I suppose, in the end, I was tired of all of the hentai-douijinshi approaches to incest, and was eager to blow cannonballs into the usual way such a relationship ends up getting looked at... So, for now, I guess I should apologize now for ruining Camilla's "canon" characterization.

Anywho, so, this is Crimson and Wine, which is the last piece I wanted to write for pre-game Fire Emblem: If, and soon I'll be ready to write for the canon pieces of the game. I'm pretty sure I'll be working along chronologically with my fanfiction as I go, just to keep things kind of in-line... but, who knows. If my muse stays with me, I'll do whatever she asks of me to do, because I haven't had a surge like this in writing for ages. XD

And I apologize in advance for the huge departure of my usual modus operandi... For some reason, this fic just wanted to evolve this way, and, well... I liked writing it in this style. Still, I know it might have been too dense, or convoluted for most, and I do apologize for that. I will be returning to my usual style for my next piece, but I thank you nonetheless for continuing to read my work. I love the lot of you for your kindness.

Please drop me a review if you feel so kind, they really are my lifeblood, and I'd like to know if you'd like to see more of my work. Should I keep writing for If, or should I return to Awakening for awhile? Please let me know, and I'll take it into consideration! Thanks for reading, and have a great day, guys!

Mood: Jumpy.

Listening To: "A Thousand Years" - Christina Peri

~ Sky