Beta-reader: Tamisin, The Wistful Bloom
Warnings: Long!fic, physical and psychological abuse, misogyny, gender identity issues, sex, character death and other dark themes that I will warn for when the occasion calls for it.
Pairings: Lea/Isa, Axel/Saïx, Xemnas/Saïx, Xemnas/Aqua
A/N: This story was inspired by and is loosely based on the Korean movie "The King and the Clown". There are some quotes used in this story that are not mine. Those quotes will be credited accordingly in the chapters in which they are used.
All Roads Lead Home
The School of Performing Arts was in a secluded clearing up on hill, beneath a majestic mountain that curved around the dense forest in the valley. The birds chirped in the early morning spring and flew from one half-bloomed cherry blossom tree to another, the second group going through their stretching exercises out in the spacious courtyard.
No one from the first group was allowed on this side of the mansion when the second group was outside, but Lea figured that another beating wouldn't make much of a difference. He didn't really care if he was caught now. He wiped off the blood running down his nose with his sleeve as he stepped out on the open porch, hiding behind a fire-red column to watch the stretching exercises.
A soft breeze blew in over the courtyard. Lea's lined and worn pants fluttered in the breeze and he sat down slowly, used to the dull ache from the slowly forming bruises on his arms and legs. Drawing unflattering pictures of his teachers usually got him into enough trouble when he was caught, more so when he had failed to memorize the assigned paragraphs from the Book of a Thousand Cries.
But being the clown made him popular amongst his comrades and it only gave the teachers another reason to beat him up. Besides, being left alone in the room by the courtyard when the second group was outside was worth a bruise or two.
Lea looked for a spot of blue in the group of at least fifty students, and he smiled when he saw what he was looking for in the third line from the front. Number Seven. His real name was unknown to Lea. All he knew was that Number Seven belonged to him, and there was nothing he would want more than to run up to him and become his friend this instant.
To him, Number Seven was a gift from his superiors; a "thank you" for his dedication and progress. He was still oblivious to the politics that would determine his fate and that of his future friend.
The School of Performing Arts was an ancient school with close ties to the Royal Court. They were the providers of entertainment. They raised performers of excellent quality, educated in most art forms: theater, dance, poetry recitation, traditional instruments. Once fully-fledged, they were sold to the Royal Court where they lived until they were deemed worthless.
The school was divided in two parts for their two groups; Group One and Group Two. The students were assigned to a group the second they set foot on the premises. Not a second went to waste when there was so much they had to learn. Most knew no other life than this one.
Poor farmers from neighboring villages came to this school when they had a child they couldn't feed, and for a few coppers the school freed the farmers from their burdens as long as the burden wasn't a girl.
Lea had been written down as a male performer when he had been taken into the custody of the school at the tender age of two. At that moment it was determined what he would be taught and how much he would be considered worth once he was sold to the Royal Court for entertainment.
The school only educated boys, and Lea was considered one of the lucky few. Being assigned to Group One meant that he was raised and treated like a boy should be according to the norms of a society he had yet to see with his own eyes.
Group Two was a bit different.
All reenactments of old classical theater had female characters, but girls were seen as a liability to all theater groups. They were expensive and gave little profit. The boys in Group Two were therefore raised as girls. They were taught certain mannerisms and ways of speaking that would make it difficult to distinguish them from what they really were.
At the age of fifteen, each student from Group One received a "spouse". It hadn't been the term used by the teachers up until recently, but the widespread use of it amongst the students in the first group had made it stick.
The spouses were everything they were told to be. They had been raised to be compliant and obedient, like a proper woman should be. It kept the performers from seeking out the concubines at the castle, and since the former King had prohibited sterilization, this was considered the next best thing.
There were many questionable things behind the gift Lea was so desperately looking forward to, but he was still a child with a naïve mind, and all he wanted was a friend that was his and no one else's.
Lea led a lonely life. He was always surrounded by people, but he never found them interesting. They came to him because he had something to offer. He could make them laugh, he could get them out of trouble: but they couldn't give anything back.
Number Seven was different. They had yet to meet, but in his dreams, Lea had seen that Number Seven was kind and nurturing. He would play cards with Lea and hold his hand when thunderstorms brewed.
Lea watched carefully when the group froze in one position at the command of their teacher. Number Seven stared straight ahead, holding his position effortlessly until their teacher gave another order. The entire group dropped to the ground onto one knee and stretched their arms gently toward the sky.
Two years left, Lea thought. He could let two years pass without trying to make contact. The time he had to wait was nothing compared to the time they would have together. Lea had already decided that once he got his friend, only death would be a force strong enough to make him let go.
Lea tied a silk belt around his dark blue dress. He took a quick look at the sleeves that were always a little too wide, and he wondered for a second if his teachers would get mad at him if he pulled them up. They were only in the way, and he was sure that wide sleeves would be of little to no meaning to his new friend.
Some of his comrades sat by the wide-open paper door, looking over at the newly-built annex that was the source of the flowery incense that made them all stop for a second to appreciate the sweet fragrance that was foreign in their quarters.
Two years had passed by quickly. Lea had rarely been given much time to sit around and think about it. Most days he was too sore to keep track of time. He'd had moments where he could secretly sit out on the porch behind a wide column to look and admire his friend from afar, but they were rare and far in between.
That was going to change now.
They were going to meet for the first time.
Lea took a deep breath and joined his comrades by the paper door when they saw a teacher light the torches outside the annex. The door was pulled open, just slightly. The cypress columns near the torches were a luminous brown, and once the torches caught fire, they could see dim lights appear inside the annex. The silhouettes of the waiting "spouses" reflected on the paper doors, and even Lea was caught up in the excited whispering around him.
The sound of two wooden blocks being knocked together echoed twice through the spacious court and broke the silence on the hill.
All of the boys scrambled up onto their feet and got into two lines. They didn't start walking down the open porch until they heard the third knock of the wooden blocks. No one said anything. They walked with their heads down, ready to greet their teacher.
Lea's thoughts were racing. His heart was beating fast, and he had to take a deep breath to calm his nerves. The scuffling of their feet against the polished porch helped him focus on something else that wasn't the butterflies in his stomach, at least until they got to the annex.
"Room Four," he heard his teacher say to the boy at the front of the line. He gave him a wooden badge with the number four burnt onto the surface before he was allowed to go inside.
Once it was Lea's turn, Lea quickly reached his hand out to take the badge and run inside Room Seven. He was certain that was the way they had planned it all.
Lea gaped at the teacher who was too busy scribbling down Lea's name into a thick old book. No, that wasn't his number. He was here for Number Seven.
"Sir, I –"
"Get inside, Lea. No one's in the mood for your scenes today."
His hand clenched around the badge tightly when he was pushed into the building. He had no choice but to move down the long hallway made of dark cypress where the scent of the flowery incense lingered. With determined steps, he walked up to the paper door with number thirteen on it and took a deep breath. This wasn't necessarily bad, he told himself. Maybe they had the opportunity to switch "spouses" later.
In a swift move, Lea slid the paper door open to stop himself from running from room to room to look for Number Seven and earn himself the beating of his life.
In the room, wide straps of red and white silk hung from the ceiling and were attached to the wall to form an upside-down tulip. A lantern by the long, narrow window illuminated the room softly, and in the middle of the room sat Number Seven in layers of long silky robes. His face was white. His long blue hair had been tamed into an intricate coiffure that must have taken all day to get right.
Lea bowed quickly and jumped into the room, a small smile playing on his lips as he slid the door closed behind him.
"Hi! I'm Lea. What's your name?"
Number Seven glared at him. His lips had been painted red, and combined with his cold expression he looked like a porcelain doll.
"I was worried that I was going to get someone else. I've been watching you," Lea admitted sheepishly and flopped down onto the braided floor mats, legs crossed. He hadn't thought the wide sleeves would come to good use, but now, when his hands trembled with excitement, he was happy that he had decided against pulling them up.
Number Seven followed his every move with his eyes, like a dog on watch.
"I'm Isa," he said finally, narrowing his eyes when Lea's smile brightened.
"Isa," Lea repeated quietly to himself. "It's a pretty name. Does it mean anything?"
Isa frowned when Lea chuckled. Lea moved in closer to give Isa a comforting pat on the shoulder. It's what he usually did with his comrades when they seemed offended by something he did or said. It kept things from escalating and turning into fights.
It didn't always work, but even so, Lea hadn't counted on Isa turning against him.
He yelped in surprise when Isa grabbed him by the wrist, pushing Lea's arm up against his back before he could retaliate.
"Ow! Ow! Let go!"
"Don't touch me," Isa said in a low voice, surely to keep the guarding teachers outside from barging in and see that he was anything but what a proper lady should be.
"Hey, you're the only one doing any kind of touching here."
Lea sat back up slowly, while Isa sat back down, his eyes fixated on him. Lea moved his aching wrist around with a sulky look on his face, holding back curses as he returned Isa's stare.
"Careful who you mess with, Isa. Not everyone has the same kind of patience as I do," Lea warned, his pride urging him to get even.
Isa laughed. It was a bitter laugh, and this time Lea frowned, because that wasn't the way his friend should laugh. He had expected joy, sparkling eyes and equal excitement for their meeting, but Isa seemed angry with him for being here. He hadn't hung onto this dream for over two years only to have it burst in front of him like this.
He wanted the friend he had imagined. He wanted the friend he saw reflected in Isa's determined eyes when he stood out on the courtyard, turning the stretching into a slow dance of stamina and grace.
His blood started to boil in his veins at the arrogant look that he was met by, it was a look he had seen many times in his comrades. This was supposed to be different.
The low growl that came out of him would have surprised him if he had been paying attention, but he was too angry to notice, and too focused on his next move to stop and think about he was doing.
He launched himself at Isa, pleased with the look of shock on Isa's face. Lea pinned him to the floor, triumphant. It only lasted for a second. The moment he hit the floor, Isa pushed Lea away. He flew over Isa and did half a somersault in the air, before he landed flat on his back with a muffled groan of pain.
Isa waited for him to make a move, so when Lea attacked again he was ready. Lea was persistent. They tumbled around the room, dodging and delivering punches until Isa pinned Lea against the wall, threatening to push his arm tighter against Lea's throat; until he surrendered.
"Alright," Lea breathed. "Look, we got off on the wrong foot. This is not what I had planned…"
"What had you planned, you pervert?"
"Your mother's a pervert–" Isa pushed his arm harder against his throat, "ugh, alright, alright!" Lea coughed violently. "That was uncalled for. I just wanted to have a chat, maybe play a round or two of Go Fish."
"What?" Isa stepped back, apprehensive, but the look in his eyes wasn't as cold.
Lea smiled and reached for a deck of cards up his sleeve, flopping down onto the floor again. He shuffled the cards and turned to Isa. "C'mon, sit. We can play Go Fish first, and if you have any other game you want to play, we can do that after this round."
Isa sat down in front of him slowly, watching Lea deal out the cards.
"By the way, why are you wearing so many layers? Aren't you warm in all of that? I'm just wearing one layer and I'm about to combust. How do you even move around in that? You weigh like a ton."
"I…dressed up for you…"
"And you had trouble choosing what to wear so you decided to wear everything?" Lea picked up his six cards and arranged them in his hand. "The red one's pretty. It suits you."
Isa crossed his arms. He looked down onto the floor with a soft sigh, seemingly lost in his own thoughts while Lea waited for him to pick up his cards to start the game.
"Turn around," he said as he got up on his feet again. "Don't look until I say so."
Lea rolled his eyes, but obeyed while he heard Isa struggle with his belt and with all the layers he was wearing until he felt decent enough to sit back down again and finally reach for his cards.
"You can turn around now."
Lea didn't say anything about the pile of fabric next to Isa when he turned around, or the awkward look on Isa's face when he tried to discreetly pull his sleeves down as much as possible to not show too much skin. The fight had tussled his hair and ruined his makeup, but he looked better now; he looked alive.
"You got any Queens?" Lea asked, deciding to not say anything about the red robe Isa had decided to leave on either, although he failed to keep a smile off his face.
"Go fish. Jacks?"
Lea looked down at his cards and moved them around casually, putting his two Jacks by his Queens. His tendency to cheat was probably the main reason to why the others refused to play with him. He could swear up and down that he wouldn't cheat again, but they wouldn't believe him.
Isa didn't know any better.
"Sevens?" Lea looked up again.
"Go fish. Give me your Queens."
"Wha- but you said that you didn't have any!"
"I didn't. I just picked one up. Give me your Queens."
Lea gaped as he stared from Isa's outstretched hand, demanding the cards, to his solid pokerface. Was he cheating? Lea felt his pride urge him to put a stop to it, but he took a deep breath and decided to wait and see.
His decision led to him losing monumentally with merely one book to show. He stared dumbfounded at the results of the game while Isa piled all of his books together and reached for Lea's cards to shuffle them.
"You're lucky we didn't gamble for money."
"I've never lost before," Lea said with disbelief. The slightly accusing glare he managed to give Isa seemed to unsettle him.
Isa sat back, leaving the deck of cards in the middle, suddenly lowering his gaze to his neatly folded hands on his lap as if he suddenly remembered where he was.
"I'm sorry," he said in a low voice. "You're not going to tell your superiors, are you?"
"No," Lea replied with ease. He could have added a few reassuring words, said that he would never turn to his teachers to resolve conflicts between them, but instead he kept quiet because then he would have to explain that he'd kill whomever dared to lay a hand on the only gift he had ever received. He didn't want to mess this up now.
He got up onto his feet with a small jump and smiled when Isa looked up at him.
"How about you teach me that dance you and your group do out on the yard?"
"It's not a dance," Isa said with the first earnest smile Lea had seen today. "It's stretching."
"It looked like a dance to me, and I'm pretty sure you used one or two dance moves on me when we wrestled. I want in on it too."
The room was small, and they would probably end up hitting arms and legs against one wall or another, but Isa obliged and got up onto his feet to get in stance. He had closed his eyes to take a deep breath, and he peeked through his eyelashes to see if Lea was mirroring his moves.
"You're not gonna learn anything if you just stand there," he said with a laugh when Lea seemed to have been scared out of his thoughts, and it took him more than a second to sort his limbs out and mimic the simple stance.
He never thought that he'd get to witness this routine up close or become part of it. Lea was as trained as Isa was in the art of performing dance, but it didn't seem to have the same meaning to him as it did to Isa.
Isa disappeared into a world of his own where everything made sense to him. The sound of his breathing alone was relaxing. Lea caught a glimpse of the world Isa engulfed himself in; it was a world that not even the sound of the cicadas' chirping could penetrate.
They didn't see each other during nighttime for a long time after that. It was one of the few things that were optional in Lea's schedule. Many of his comrades went to the annex during nighttime. Lea would have gone too if Isa hadn't asked him not to go.
"If you come, I'll ignore you," he had said, clearly forgetting that he really didn't have a say in how things developed, but Lea hadn't questioned it, even if it angered him that he was kept at an arm's length when they were meant to spent eternity together.
They saw each other during daytime when they had chores in the same house, or if they had rehearsal.
It was easy to forget their roles when they were in each other's company. Lea had almost gotten them both in trouble when he let the wrong pronoun slip, or when his boyish way of speaking rubbed off on Isa.
Lea watched two of his comrades pass him by on their way to the annex. They were whispering amongst themselves and didn't even bother to look at Lea when he cleared his throat and propped himself against the wall to get their attention.
"Another night by yourself, huh?" Cain came walking in from a neighboring room with a red ribbon in his mouth, brushing through his long black hair.
"Yeah," Lea pouted.
"Don't tell me you were one of those who cut right to the chase? Can't blame your lady for not wanting to see you at night if you tried to get to the honey without some courting first."
"What are you talking about?" Lea asked annoyed.
"They all expect a bit of romance. Have you learned nothing from all the plays we've rehearsed? What's the first thing the King gives the Dragon Princess?"
"Handpicked flowers, exactly! What did you give your lady on your first date?"
"Nothing, just like the rest of you."
"We might not have brought flowers, but I think most had a little something with them. You should surprise her with a bouquet of flowers next time you see her. She'll warm up to you. Remember, it's your job to make it work, or both of you are out." Cain tied the ribbon around his hair to make a ponytail and straightened his robe with a grin. "You have fun now, I'm off."
Flowers. Lea scoffed and shook his head. Isa didn't seem to be the type who would respond well to flowers. The person who was meant to be a constant in his life didn't even want to be touched by him. After years of watching him from afar, he needed more than just a casual conversation every other day. That was not to say that he didn't treasure those moments, because he did, more so than he dared to say. But in the aftermath of those conversations, he ended up feeling emptier than before. He was kept at a distance and he just didn't know how he could get closer.
A week passed, and there wasn't a night that went by that he didn't ponder his situation, until he decided that a bouquet of flowers would at least give him a reason to go over to the annex.
He ran out to the front yard which was a place held exclusively for Group One. A gravel road led to the gates that Lea had only walked through once in his life. He could only see the road disappear into the dense forest outside. The outdoors didn't really capture his attention. He was here on a mission and once he saw the wild flowers that grew right on the other side of the bars, everything else around him disappeared.
Lea picked a bunch of red flowers first. It was a reminder of the color Isa had worn the first time they met, he figured as he arranged yellow flowers around the red ones. When the King had given the Dragon Princess a bouquet of flowers, the colors had symbolized something. Sure, the red and the yellow in the King's bouquet had been a foreshadowing of his decision to burn the Dragon Princess' kingdom to the ground, but Isa had no kingdom and Lea wasn't one to play with fire, not anymore. Last time he got his hands on matches, he had ended up walking around without eyebrows for three weeks.
Once he had the flowers arranged the way he wanted, he put the bouquet down and made three braids out of blades of grass to tie the bouquet together. He gave it one final shake to get rid of any bugs before he looked at his work of art proudly and decided that he was ready to give it to Isa.
This was supposed to be a friendly gesture. He should initiate the conversation with that. He'd say: I don't mean anything with this, I just want to be your friend. And he would stop there. He tried to stop his trail of thoughts there as he rehearsed the phrase quietly to himself, but he wanted to add that he would like Isa to be his friend too, and only his. But that wasn't a very friendly thing to say, he decided as he walked around the annex to get to Isa's room.
If he was stood up, he didn't want the whole annex to know that he had come with flowers and a head held low when he came to see his "spouse".
"Isa!" he half-shouted and half-whispered when he stood outside Isa's window. He waited, patient. If Isa was in there, it would take some effort for him to come to the window if he was wearing as many layers as he had that first night.
Lea didn't have to wait long. Isa pulled the small paper-door covering the window aside with a look that was a mixture of a scowl and surprise at seeing Lea there.
"I thought I made myself clear when I said that we weren't going to meet at night anymore."
"I have something for you."
Isa walked up closer to the window to try to see what it was Lea was hiding behind his back, but it was too dark to see and he didn't want to reach for the small lantern. He didn't want to seem too intrigued.
"Can't you wait until tomorrow?"
"You come inside."
Lea took a deep breath, to allowing Isa's stubbornness get the best of him. He really wanted this to work out.
"You've been sitting there for at least three hours now, and you'll have to sit there until tomorrow morning. You come outside. It won't take long."
"I'm not allowed to step outside."
"Get out of your wardrobe, open the window properly, and jump out. Please."
Isa shot him a glare before he walked back into the room. Lea could hear all of those layers come off and he sighed in relief. He stood there, shuffling gravel gently while he waited for Isa to come to the window and climb out.
The soft breeze was cold. He was starting to feel the tip of his nose go numb, and he could see his breath.
He looked back up when Isa pulled aside the paper-door fully and opened the wooden grid of the window quietly. He jumped over the windowsill and landed shakily on the gravel below. He wasn't wearing any makeup this time, but there were still small smudges of it left down his neckline.
"What is it?" He asked sternly, shivering slightly when another breeze pulled through.
"It's, it's just a bouquet of flowers," Lea admitted and scratched the back of his head with embarrassment when he reached the bouquet out to Isa. "I picked them myself, and I thought that you might like them. Everyone else must be getting stuff, or that's what I heard. I didn't want you to feel left out or anything. But, as I said, it's just flowers. No big deal, right?" He laughed and tried to remember what the hell it was that he was supposed to say to not make this awkward, but Isa's piercing glare wasn't helpful at all while he stood there, feeling like his throat was about to close up on itself.
"Are you serious?" Isa managed to hiss when Lea failed to find anything else to add to his blabbering.
"What? It's just a gift."
"What are you after, Lea? What do you think I'm going to offer you?"
"Nothing! I just thought that you might like a little something." Lea took a step back when Isa leaned in, his glare so intense with anger that Lea tried to pinpoint where it all had gone wrong.
"I don't want your flowers. I don't want any gifts, and I don't want to see you at nighttime. Understood?" He turned to leave, but Lea grabbed him by his wrist and pulled him back around.
"You know what? I don't understand. You don't call the shots here, I do. You're mine." The words were out before he could stop himself from saying them. He had never said it out loud before. He had just toyed with the thought in his head, maybe even romanticized it a little bit, but hearing it made all the difference in the world, and suddenly, Isa's attitude towards him made sense.
"That's exactly why I don't want anything from you." Isa looked relieved that Lea had slipped. "I'm not a possession. I'm not a whore of a woman who would invite you to bed for flowers."
"Listen, that's not– I didn't mean to say something like that. It's not what I think at all, and if it bothers you to be called a woman or, or be treated as one…I can stop, really…it just came out so wrong…"
"I don't care if you see me as a woman or not. I don't care whether I am a woman or not. That's not the point. You want someone who is what you've been promised. You want someone's who's perfect. Someone who'll laugh at your jokes, who'll serve you and look at you like you're the sun and the moon. It doesn't have to be me. As long as someone fills those requirements, you'll be fine. You're better off not getting attached to me anyway. I'm going to leave as soon as I get the chance."
Lea's grip around Isa's wrist grew tighter when he turned to leave again. He didn't make it easy for Lea to make him stay, but Lea finally managed to get him to stop when he dropped the bouquet.
"Isa, wait, wait– just wait one second. I just want to be your friend. That's all I want. If my jokes are crap, you can say 'Lea, your jokes are crap' and I'll understand because you'll be my friend and friends tell each other the truth. Alright? I'm not looking for a perfect woman in you…I'm not…if the day comes, the day I'd like to be your sun and moon, I'll find a way to earn it. But Go Fish is fine for now. Really. With or without makeup. And if you want to wear your arsenal of clothing while we play, that is completely fine too. Just be my friend. Please..?"
Lea wasn't a stranger to silence. They practiced silence. It would be a great part of their life once they sat in court in the presence of the King, but Lea knew that he would have very little to say with the King nearby. It would be nothing like standing in the presence of Isa when all he wanted was to fix something that they had barely started.
"You're an idiot," Isa said finally with a sigh that washed all of the anger off his face.
"Yeah, that's what I've heard." Lea smiled nervously and shifted his weight from one foot to another impatiently, "Where does that leave us?"
"I guess that…I can be your friend," Isa said slowly, and watched Lea's face brighten up with joy. "But I'm not yours," he added quickly, and Lea both nodded and shook his head in agreement.
"You're right. Of course, you're right. You're a person. People can't be owned. But they can be friends. And you're my friend now. Would you kick me into next week if I gave you a hug? A friendly hug?"
Isa lowered his head, and though they were just about the same size, he looked smaller when he did.
And in the light of what just had been said, Lea realized that it was a gesture that was a part of his training to become a perfect woman. In the presence of a man, a woman's stature was small, and that trail of thought was meant to be a reflex in Isa.
Maybe it was a habit Isa would try to break, but for now, Lea felt that he shouldn't say anything about it. He embraced Isa gently, and it wasn't until Isa returned the hug that Lea noticed that he was wearing the red robe. He smiled. Not because it tickled his ego, but because it was a reminder of the first time they met, and it was nice to know that it had mattered to Isa too.