chlorhexidine: (Aizen - Evil dork)
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Aranea.

Collar names varied. Sometimes they were given names of significance, or meaning. While a master could name a Collar in their possession anything they so desired, it could sometimes be informative to learn what a Collar's original name was. They often indicated the farm a Collar had been born to, or what a Collar had been trained for.

Aranea had been named for spiders. Multi-limbed predators that wove a web and waited. They hunted with patience, and often, devoured their male mates.

It was a disconcerting thing for a Collar to be named for.

She sat too much at her ease by Miss Iris's side on the journey back from Hueco Mundo. Resting back in the car seat, watching the world pass by the window, and occasionally catching Cor's eye in the wing mirror. She kept reaching up to touch the new collar at her throat, a plain black leather band, with small silver studs in the leather, and a small silver half loop in the front for the leash.

Miss Iris chattered away happily, the leash curled into her hands. “She'll have her own room, right, Cor?” she asked, part way through explaining to Aranea about the layout of the house.

“Yes,” he answered, barely turning his head to look into the back seat as he answered. The driver, seated next to him, kept his silence. He was a hired freeman; Collars weren't permitted to be in control of a vehicle. The family had a couple of them, and a couple of cars, but they were used to Cor being in the front seat while the family rode behind.

“Sounds like the lap of luxury,” Aranea said, finding Cor's eyes in the mirror again and flashing him a look he didn't like before she turned towards Iris. “Usually we bodyguards sleep on the floor.”

Iris smiled at her. “We look after our Collars,” she answered, with a touch of pride. “A place with us is a place for life.”

“Assuming,” Cor said, looking through the window at the terrain around; they'd left the city and were in the countryside now, where the roads were long and empty, “that you serve well.” He looked into the wing mirror again and found Aranea raising an eyebrow at him and smirking. “We expect loyalty and obedience at all times.”

“No worries there,” Aranea answered, “my last master gave me a good review on how I followed orders.”

“Why did they sell you?” Cor asked.

“Cor!” Iris sounded affronted.

“He was trading me in for a younger model,” Aranea answered, flashing Cor a significant look in the mirror. They both knew what that meant her primary role had been before. She turned towards Iris then, and gave her a soft smile. “You're the youngest master I've ever had,” she said, “and the first girl.”

“Well,” Iris said, cheerfully, “you're the first Collar I've ever had, so we're even.”

Cor looked up into the rearview mirror to look at Iris, her expression happy as she turned to look at the passing scenery again. “I want to properly assess your fighting ability when we reach the estate,” he said, without bothering to find Aranea in the mirrors. “A drill without an opponent only reveals so much; if you require further training, I'd like to find that out now, not when miss Iris needs you.”

“Cor!” Iris sounded exasperated. “Can't you at least let her settle in, first?”

“It's all right, miss,” Aranea replied. Cor could feel her eyes on him in the mirror but he refused to look, for now. “Are you going to be my opponent?”

“It's the best way for me to judge your ability.”

“How will I know when I've won?” she asked.

Cor let his eyes turn to the wind mirror, where he found Aranea's softly smirking face looking directly at him. “I'll tell you when we're done,” he answered.

Aranea murmured disapprovingly and shook her head. “No, I want a goal to aim for,” she said. “How about we spar to first blood?”

“What?” Iris asked, audibly horrified by the suggestion. “No! Cor, you're not hurting her.”

Cor saw Aranea's eyebrows raise and her eyes flick over towards Iris. “If you can pin me to the mat,” he said, keeping his eyes on her, “you'll have won.”

“A round,” Aranea pressed. “Three times for the win,” she added, holding up three delicate fingers to him in the mirror.

“Deal.”

*****


Iris had insisted, when they'd arrived back at the estate, on taking Aranea on a tour of the premises before anything else. That left Cor to go and announce their return to Clarus, and to fill him in on the details of Iris's choice of bodyguard.

“Is she up to the task?” Clarus asked. Little else concerned him at present.

“There is always room for improvement, sir,” Cor answered, “but I believe so. I will be doing a more comprehensive assessment of her abilities once the young miss has shown her around.”

Clarus seemed satisfied with that. Cor left him with Aranea's profile, and then headed on to make sure everything below stairs had run effectively in his absence. A couple of spats had developed that he would need to sort out, giving the respective individuals a proverbial clip upside the ear, and one of the chocobo bucks had escaped his pen overnight and been found with the females this morning, so they were likely to have some eggs to deal with soon.

Cor sighed. There was a letter addressed to Jared, and another addressed to Sorrel waiting to be delivered. The postmarks were stamped Insomnia, and the writing on the envelopes looked to be Ignis's looping hand. He'd have to take those round too. Ignis was coming along well as a Companion, and the stunt he'd pulled in the kitchens over Solstice made Cor just a little bit proud of him. He'd make a fine head housecollar one day, one day far into the future, when it was Cor's turn to retire and sit on the terrace in the sun while Ignis got to run around trying to keep the whims of Gladio's children in line.

He had to send self defence school information on to Ignis and master Gladio, too. That was a task he'd need to attend on the morrow. Gladio didn't wish for a bodyguard, but he and Ignis wouldn't be suited to the same type of self defence, not with their differing builds, and it would be better for both if they played to their different strengths, and compensated for each other's weakness. Regardless of Gladio's high minded sentiment about protecting Ignis, one only had to look at the way Ignis looked at his master to know he'd place himself between Gladio and danger without a second thought.

They'd thought they were being so sneaky, back then. Somehow master Gladio was under the impression that his taking the chef out on late night excursions into the gardens had gone unnoticed by the other Collars, and by Cor in particular. The young Collars were the worst for gossip; Talcott could barely keep his mouth shut, and the young scullery collars had twittered between themselves every time they'd seen Gladio heading down to the kitchens of an evening. It had been different when Gladio and Iris had been young, sneaking off to be treated to cakes and cookies and spoiled by the kitchen collars, but no one was naïve enough to think an eighteen year old Gladio had started visiting the kitchens in the evening to pilfer from the cookie jar. Cor had heard about every evening visit, every late night trip to the gardens. He knew about the coat before Gladio had even handed it over, he even knew, although he'd learned about it the day after, about the trip onto the estate's roof.

He hadn't bothered Clarus with details. He'd simply told him, at the time, that his son seemed to be fond of the kitchen boy. They'd discussed moving Ignis into Gladio's possession before Gladio moving to Insomnia had even been confirmed. Cor had said then that Ignis would need Companion training, but they'd decided to wait, and see if Gladio would ask for Ignis, or whether he'd dither until it was too late.

He'd asked, eventually, and while Gladio's management of Ignis had left a lot to be desired, the pair of them were, now, on the right track. With some defensive training, Cor dared hope he might actually be able to stop worrying about them. Ignis certainly had a good handle on how to manage Gladio, and Gladio had surrendered to common sense, with some persuasion.

That just left Cor with Iris to continue giving him headaches. Iris, and her bodyguard, who was more experienced a Companion than Cor himself.

He didn't like the way she looked at ease and smiled as if it came easily. She was too comfortable in the strange environment. She sat like a spider that was comfortably waiting in the centre of its web, more aware of the goings on around her than she let on.

She wore that same look when he retrieved her from Iris and led her to the ballroom. It wasn't used as such more than a couple of times a year, for a birthday, and the autumnal equinox party, and the wide space and high ceilings were ideal. The floor was hard, of course, and if they were intending to pin each other, it had the potential to get painful and leave bruises, but Cor doubted that would be a problem for someone that had first suggested they spar to first blood.

“Pin for a point,” he reiterated, “first to three wins. If I'm convinced of your ability before that, I'll call an end to it,” he said.

She tilted her head and tossed her hair, giving him a highly sceptical look. “So if I'm kicking your ass too hard, you'll wuss out?” she asked, her voice full of confidence.

Cor looked at her levelly. “That won't happen,” he said, flatly, “but if it takes me more than a few minutes to pin you, you're probably good enough.”

She laughed at that. “Fine,” she said, “but when I win, we break out the weapons next. What do you use, anyway?”

“A sword,” Cor answered.

“How did I know that would be the answer?” she asked.

“Enough stalling,” he said. “Are you ready?”

“As I'll ever be,” she replied, falling into a relaxed stance.

“Good.”

He didn't give her a warning as he launched a kick at her head. He was older than her, and he'd been Clarus's bodyguard for years without any real sparring partner to keep on top of his techniques, but he'd stayed fit, and limber. He could tell his speed surprised her, and she blocked his leg with both of her arms hunched, and then moved swiftly out of the way.

She stayed on the defensive, moving quickly as he tried another couple of strikes, and then turned to attack herself, her arm coming up to bring a blow alongside his ear. It stung as it landed, but that didn't matter as he turned in towards her body, hooked his leg under hers, and swept one foot out from under her. A simple shove from his shoulder sent her off balance, and he span and brought his other foot around to topple her properly.

She landed on the floor with a grunt. “That's one,” he said, looking down at her.

“That wasn't a pin,” she replied, looking up at him haughtily.

“One,” he repeated, firmly. She made no move to stand, so he stepped forward and offered her his hand.

He realised that was a mistake when she grabbed his arm in both of hers and twisted herself, swinging her legs round to lock around his hips and yank him to the floor. She moved up onto her knee, twisting his arm up his back and pressing his face against the floor while she knelt over him. “This is a pin,” she said. “Now we're square.”

“You fight dirty,” Cor said, when she released him. He got back to his feet and brushed his sleeves off, tugging his shirt straight.

“So do the bad guys,” Aranea replied, giving him a distinctly cocky look. “Fighting with honour does you no favours when you're dead.”

Cor had to try and hide that he was slightly impressed, and he fell into the ready position again. This time she matched him, and when they went at each other, he blocked her blows as often as she blocked his. For all her attitude, she wasn't actually bad. A little too cocky, perhaps, but she learned from her mistakes, too. She didn't let him catch her out by letting her in close to strike again so he could take her legs out from under her; this time when he let her a hit she darted sideways, out of range of his foot.

It didn't do her much good when he managed to grab her wrist and spin her off her feet and bear her down to the floor again. This time he went down with her, her wrist still gripped in his hand, and his other arm pressing against her throat as he knelt on her stomach. The noise she made suggested it hurt, and he only held it for a second before he released her and stood.

“Two,” he said. He didn't repeat his earlier mistake of offering her a hand up either.

She regarded him from the floor with calculating eyes, and then rolled herself over and got to her knees. “I'll give you that one,” she conceded. “What do you weigh, anyway?”

“More than you,” he answered, with a trace of amusement. He hadn't meant to enjoy this, but it was nice to face an actual challenge for once. He might be better than her, and older, and heavier, but she was smaller, and faster, and not beyond dirty moves to score a point. It was better than running drills on his own, and different to sparring with Clarus.

He might actually have to suggest they made this a regular routine. They'd certainly both benefit.

She blocked a kick and moved out of the way of the other leg when it raised to catch her off guard. Cor found himself mentally praising her, and smiling as he tried to catch her off guard again. She was almost entirely on the defensive this time, and he worked to keep her that way, advancing on her with kicks and punches and keeping her dancing out of his way.

He left himself open for her to strike, and she didn't take it, instead backing off further, so that he had to move in to close the distance again. Then she struck, her foot landing in his midsection. He caught it, pulled her in with one hand, and she hopped forward to throw a punch. He dodged that, throwing his head to one side as he pulled her again, trying to force her off balance, her captured left leg held in his left arm as he coiled his arm around the back of her shoulders and span her so he could knock her other leg out from under her by the back of the knee.

She gripped his arm in her hands and threw her head back hard, the crown of her skull connecting with his chin. He cried out, and nearly let her go before he grit his teeth and threw her to the floor, her leg still held in his hand.

She landed gracelessly, and he gave her a moment to hiss and try to push herself up on her hands before he said, “Three.”

His mouth burned and he could taste blood. He brought his hand up, touching his lip gingerly and feeling wetness on his fingertip. When he pulled it away again, he saw the bright red blood. Only then did he let her leg go. “Not bad,” he concluded. “If you'd had your way and we called at first blood, you'd have won.” He pressed the back of his hand to his lip again and stood back as Aranea rolled herself over onto her back.

She huffed, resting back on the floor, her knees bent upwards, and pressed her hand to the back of her head. “If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “you have a surprisingly hard face.”

Cor laughed. It was a brief huff of amusement, but it was accompanied by a smile. “You'll do,” he said. “Though I think we'd both benefit from sparring again.”

Aranea raised her hand towards him, outstretched. He hesitated for a moment before he took her hand, and she held it, looking him in the eyes before they worked together to pull her onto her feet. Once he was sure she was steady he let go again. “You know,” she said, flashing him a sidelong glance and a smirk, “if you want to get me on my back that much, you could just say.”

Cor felt his eyebrows shoot upwards as Aranea winked at him and smiled.
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