chlorhexidine: (Aizen - Evil dork)
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“I don't understand, sir.”

There were many things to be said in Lumi's favour, and his particular brand of dull honesty was among them.“Kuja's gala is one of the highlights of the social calendar,” Marluxia explained, “everyone present will be on display.” The truth was, Kuja's annual gala was an affair Marluxia could do without. He'd avoided it the previous year, luck and some careful planning having Marluxia fortunately away on business. He'd sent his profuse apologies, and Kuja had responded with effusive disappointment, and if Kuja believed Marluxia's apologies as wholeheartedly as Marluxia believed Kuja's disappointment, they would at least have mutual suspicions of insincerity.

There was no avoiding it this year, however. A businessman, especially one in the business of trading collars, could ill afford to avoid the gala two years in a row. The event was little more than an excuse for everyone to flaunt their wealth and wares. Kuja's estate would be gloriously decorated in silks and velvets, and his collars would be too. Others would be dressed up in their finery, representing their various estates and interests, and they'd bring their prettiest companions, and finest bodyguards, decked out in as much wealth as could be worn, and primped to perfection.

“Including you,” he finished. To which end, there was the suit, and shoes, and the new collar.

Lumi looked them over again, and then gave the collar's nod, a single bow of the head to signify understanding. “As you wish,” he replied. New clothes were a regular occurrence for Lumi, but they were usually smartly tailored plain suits, and shirts. A whole new outfit, with silk, and mother of pearl fastenings, cufflinks, and pocket square, as well as a new collar, of white leather with gold embossed dahlias, Marluxia's unofficial estate sigil, and more mother of pearl, was highly unusual.

“I expect you to be made up, too,” Marluxia added.

This drew open confusion from Lumi. “Sir?”

“I believe you call it primping,” Marluxia said. Lumi must have undergone it before, since he'd been sold wearing a hint of make up.

There was a flash of recognition at the word, which turned to distaste quickly. It wouldn't be evident to anyone that didn't know Lumi very well, but it was there nonetheless in the way his upper lip quirked, and his nostrils flared. “May I ask why, sir?” Lumi asked, holding Marluxia's gaze. He'd become comfortable doing that, and Marluxia enjoyed it.

Marluxia gave him a benevolent smile for his trouble. “You will be on display,” he repeated, “as an extension of myself, and the estate. Your appearance will be judged against that of companions from other estates, so I will have you looking your best.”

Lumi's expression didn't shift at all. “I'm a bodyguard,” he replied, and added, “sir,” as if it was punctuation and he was being ever so slightly pointed about it, “not a companion.”

“And an exceptionally attractive one,” Marluxia said. “That I possess a collar so exceptional in appearance, and can afford to make use of you only for your bodyguard skills, says rather a lot about the wealth of my estate, wouldn't you agree?” Lumi looked unconvinced. “Wear your hair down, too,” he added.

“Marluxia,” Lumi said, the slight accent on the r being a little more pronounced than usual, “do you recall insisting I tell you if I disliked something?” True, it had been when he was pressing Lumi into the bed and slowly divesting him of his clothes, demonstrating superbly that he did not, in fact, make use of Lumi for only his bodyguard skills for all that Marluxia taking him to his bed wasn't in the interests of making use of him. “I dislike this.”

Marluxia smiled at him, but there was a predator's smirk to it than told Lumi he wasn't going to be allowed off, at all, let alone easily. “That is unfortunate.”

Lumi offered one last note of resistance. “I do not know how to primp, sir.” He was a bodyguard, and primping was for companions. Bodyguards attended their masters, but no one expected or required them to look good while doing it. Companions at events such as this gala were jewellery on their masters arm, and were expected to make themselves look as such.

“Then I will arrange assistance for you,” Marluxia said.

Which was how Lumi came to be sat, unhappily, while Marluxia watched, and the collar that usually primped the bedslaves attended to Lumi's face. “I still don't understand why this is necessary, sir.”

“The idea of make up is to cover flaws and enhance natural beauty,” said Flora. She was past the point of being a saleable companion to all but the most particular of tastes these days, but Marluxia rewarded good service in his collars, and his reward to Flora, once she'd reached an age where she was no longer wanted as a companion, had been the management of the bedslaves. She was in charge of their discipline, their appearance, and their training. It was a better, more comfortable life for her than being sold on to a breeder.

What flaws?” Lumi had bit out, on the edge of a snap.

Marluxia smirked at him, that shark's grin in the deep water. “Oh, you're vain,” he replied, finding the notion extremely amusing. Lumi hadn't shown signs of vanity before, and it was hard to tell if the confidence in his own appearance had stemmed from time with Marluxia, affording him that level of self belief, or whether it had been present anyway. Lumi scowled, as much as Lumi ever did, flashing Marluxia a moment's look that indicated his displeasure before composed neutrality settled back in. “Consider it the amplification of what is already there, then,” he said, with an answering flicker of his own amusement.

Lumi leaned back as Flora brandished a mascara wand. “Not black,” he said, “it stains.”

“Don't worry,” Flora replied, cheerily, “it's clear. We want the gold liner to stand out.”

When she was done, and Lumi was allowed to look in the mirror, he would have grudgingly admit that he did look very striking. The yellow of his eyes stood out even more than usual, and Flora had balanced the colour on his face to make his cheekbones stand out without seeming sharp, and his mouth look soft. Fortunately, Marluxia made no demands of him to admit he looked better like this, and only pressed his clothes into his hands with the instruction to dress.

Marluxia returned, dressed in his own finely tailored suit of deep brunswick green, to find Lumi wearing his inky midnight blue outfit with accoutrements, and his usual collar. “You didn't change it?” He asked, stepping forward and retrieving it from the box. Lumi's normal collar was the same as every other on the estate, simple black leather, but which contained a box that could issue an electric shock if it was tampered with, or at the press of a button. Marluxia despised leashes, and Lumi was no fan either because they hindered a bodyguard's ability to do their job effectively. It could be removed with a key that deactivated the box, allowing a person to safely unfasten the collar without being electrocuted in the neck for their trouble, and of all the collars on the estate, Lumi alone had the key to his own collar. Others had to seek permission from whoever was in charge of them to remove theirs so they could bathe, but Lumi was spared that indignity.

“No,” Lumi answered, adjusting his cuffs. “It is a master's place to change a collar.”

Marluxia had wanted to remove Lumi's collar once before, and the response he'd received had been unexpected. Lumi had not wished his collar removed, not even for the night. He had a certain attachment to the collar, Marluxia remembered, the ceremony of it held significance for him. “Bring me your key,” Marluxia said, softly.

Lumi did, and Marluxia tucked Lumi's hair back while he deactivated the collar, and then unfastened it. He let his fingers trail over a part of Lumi's neck he'd seen exposed all of once in their time together, and then set the old collar aside. He pulled the new one out and slipped it around Lumi's throat, buckling it into place carefully. Lumi breathed.

So did Marluxia, though he hadn't been aware he'd been holding his breath. He ran his fingers over Lumi's hair and sighed, and saying, softly, “Wait there.” Lumi barely moved, a slight shift indicating that he was following Marluxia's movements with his ears as Marluxia went and retrieved the hairbrush.

“Your only role tonight is that of bodyguard,” he said, quietly, as he began to draw the brush through Lumi's hair, carefully and slowly. “You do not have to engage others beyond the dictates of politeness.”

“Yet you dress me up as a showpiece,” Lumi replied, quietly. There was no venom, or real irritation to the statement, it was simply that, a statement.

Marluxia smiled at the back of Lumi's head and continued to brush his hair without a second's hesitation. “Yes,” he answered, “because like it or not you are a showpiece, Lumi. People would pay extraordinary sums of money for you, and you are mine. This gala is for showing off, and I intend to.”

There was a lingering silence from Lumi while Marluxia continued to brush his hair for him, and then he said, simply, “As you wish, sir.”

*


Kuja's estate was formally known as Memoria, and was informally known as the Desert Palace. It had earned the nickname for the seemingly nomadic tribes of collars that would pass through its doors, spend weeks or months dwelling within, and then depart again. Kuja was an aesthete, and he bored quickly. Every collar that came through his doors was stunning to behold, but they were obtained and sold on like trinkets and gewgaws once they'd lost their entertainment value.

The gala was an excuse for Kuja to flaunt his possessions. Silk wallpaper and velvet drapes were paired with gold framed artwork, and marble statues. Mosaic floors bore fine, plush furniture, and pretty faced, barely dressed men and women, with leather collars covered in lace and sapphires at their throats, lined the walls and corridors with trays of champagne, or fine wine, and tiny morsels of extremely expensive food. Here and there was a lounging bedslave, chained to furniture with their own collar and ornamental chain. One or two were already being solicited by guests.

Ignis hated every breath he drew in the place. It set his teeth on edge, and the gentle touch of Gladio's hand to the small of his back didn't help. He caught sight of Prompto whispering something into Noct's ear, and Noct's cheeks turning steadily redder, and then Noct's eyes darted to the bedslave lounging near him, who gave him a fluttery little wave and a wink, and he turned redder still.

There were people here he recognised, and others he recognised despite only knowing of them. Sosuke Aizen was easy to spot, brown hair, and brown eyes, broad shoulders and glasses, and a female companion by his side. Her collar covered most of her neck, an intricate thing of chains and emeralds, and that draped partway across her collarbones and led the eye to her extremely ample cleavage. They were talking to Kuja himself, and whether one decided the collar or Kuja was the prettier would depend upon ones own taste in that regard.

“Who's that?” Gladio asked, and Ignis followed his gaze. Ignis had never been more aware of the fact that Gladio was a companion as well as a bodyguard than he was right now. The gentle touch to the small of his back, and the way Gladio stood, at the edge of Ignis's vision so he was there, but not intruding, was extremely welcome. His presence was helping to soothe Ignis's jangling nerves.

The man, or pair, that had caught Gladio's attention was one Ignis knew of. Pink hair and blue eyes, and an exceptionally attractive face would have marked the one as a collar, except he wore none. Behind him, and one step to the left, in the perfect bodyguard position, walked another with white hair and yellow eyes, and this one did wear a collar. “Marluxia Florent, and his companion,” he answered, quietly. Marluxia's collar heritage was an open secret, and the subject of gossip, and Ignis loathed that fact because he knew there were rumours regarding himself. Marluxia, by all accounts, at least the knew the truth of it with regards to himself.

“That one's a bodyguard,” Gladio said, quietly, turning towards Ignis and keeping his voice low in a way that made Ignis's throat tighten even though he was saying nothing exciting. “A companion wouldn't move like that, here.”

Ignis watched the white haired collar carefully. Gladio had a point, he decided. Every other companion here walked respectfully behind their masters, but they did so with an ease and a grace that came with practice. Marluxia's, however, for all the long hair and made up face, held himself as if action was an immediate possibility. He exuded calmness, but it was the calm that settled over a place in the midst of a storm, rather than the practised calm of a companion putting people at ease.

“They wouldn't do that right there, right?” Noct's voice emerged from the left, his cheeks still flaming as he approached Ignis and Gladio.

“No!” Prompto said, looking and sounding positively aghast. “There'll be rooms for that.”

“Rooms for what?” Gladio asked, noting the bright red cheeks of Noctis, and the bright red ears of Prompto.

Noct glanced at Ignis, and then at Gladio before he said, clearly not wanting to speak too loudly in case he was overheard, “Bedslaves.”

Ignis glanced at Noctis and for a moment, he pitied him. Noctis had never been to a function like this before, where bedslaves were put on in much the same manner as the wine and hors d'oeuvres. Their own estate didn't maintain bedslaves, and their concern being technology and industry meant they were excused. The rare events held on the estate were not attended by stunning collars, or meant to impress as these events were. “Access to bedslaves is considered part of the entertainment at events such as these,” he said, quietly. “You are not required to partake of that aspect of our host's hospitality.”

Noctis flushed crimson again, and stammered, awkwardly, “I wasn't gonna!”

“Good,” Ignis replied. “Our host approaches, remember what you represent.”

Kuja walked with the grace and sway of a collar, and Ignis crossed one hand over his chest and bowed. Noctis, looked, taking his cue from Ignis as he did the same. Prompto and Gladio kept position behind their respective masters; they were excused from the formality until they were introduced. “Noctis Lucis Caelum,” Kuja said, offering his hand, daintily, “it is a delight to meet you at last.”

“It's a delight to be here,” Noct answered, taking Kuja's hand, and giving the slow up and down motion that did for a shake in this environment. Ignis watched Noct at work, and was half relieved and half impressed that Noct had actually paid that much attention to his lectures on proper decorum on the way here. “May I introduce Ignis Scientia,” Noct said, immediately directing Kuja to Ignis.

Ignis silently cursed him for it as Kuja turned his attention to him and offered his hand in the same way. “Regis' ward,” he said, in acknowledgement, “we've met before, I'm so pleased to see you again.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Ignis replied, echoing Noct's shake of Kuja's gently offered fingers.

“And who are these fetching companions?” Kuja asked, turning back to Noctis with a smile.

Noct glanced at Prompto briefly before he offered their names to Kuja, “This is Prompto,” he said, waving a hand at him, “and Gladio.” Both of them gave their own bows in turn, hands clasped behind their backs, and not making eye contact. Ignis rested one of his own hands behind his back, and Gladio's fingers brushed against his palm as he returned his hand to its position at the small of Ignis's back once more.

“They really are spectacular,” Kuja said, his eyes on Prompto in particular, “a credit to you,” he added magnanimously. “I seem to be remiss in my duties as a host, however,” he said, giving Noctis, and then Ignis a sharp look with his smile, “as none of you has a drink.”

“My apologies,” Ignis said, with a smile, as Kuja's gaze landed on him. “I don't partake.”

“I insist,” Kuja replied, and waved one hand. A collar boy, no older than fifteen at a guess, with a made up face and bright blue eyes appeared bearing a tray of drinks within a second. It was offered up silently, his head bowed, and Kuja swept a glass off the tray and held it towards Ignis. “I would be most offended if you did not avail yourself of my hospitality.”

Gladio's fingers brushed against Ignis's again, and Ignis smiled, nodding his head slightly in apology and maintaining eye contact. “You are a most gracious host,” he said, even though he wished he could say something else, “I will make tonight an exception.”

“Splendid,” Kuja said, as Ignis accepted the glass, “your collars too are subject to my hospitality tonight,” he added, smiling as Noct took a champagne flute for himself, and handed one to Prompto. Ignis, with a shade more reluctance, handed one to Gladio, too.

“I'd heard tales of the grandeur of your galas,” Noct said, and Ignis could have kissed him for the change in subject, “I don't think they quite do you, or your estate justice.”

Kuja's face lit up in a smile again as he turned to Noct once more. “You flatter me,” he said, although his tone of voice strongly suggested he'd be happy for that to continue. “I was disappointed to hear your father wouldn't be in attendance this year.”

“His knee troubles him,” Noct replied, “but I'll tell him he was missed.”

Ignis resisted the temptation to glance at Gladio. A year ago, Noctis would have gone to hide somewhere quiet and out of the way at an event such as this, but he'd blossomed. With Prompto by his side, Noctis was turning into a regular little smooth talker. Ignis was really rather proud.

“Please do,” Kuja said, his smile still evident, “though I must admit your collars are much more pleasing to the eye than your father's bodyguard.”

“My father puts function over form,” Noct agreed.

Kuja's eyes flickered to Ignis for the briefest of moments, and then he said, to Noctis, “Come, you've never been before, I shall introduce you. If you want effective bodyguards while keeping an eye on aesthetics, then you need to meet Sosuke.”

Ignis flashed Noctis a smile as Noct looked back at him and shot him an awkward grimace behind Kuja's back, but followed regardless. Prompto followed in kind, visibly preening at being complimented by someone as obsessed with appearances as Kuja. He, at least, seemed to be enjoying himself.

“You lied,” Gladio said, from behind him, and to the left.

“Extensively,” Ignis agreed, “but which bit do you mean?”

“The bit about not partaking,” Gladio said, moving round slightly so that Ignis could look at him without having to turn. “I've seen you drink.” True, it was wine, and it was all of two glasses over the course of a family meal, but still, he had drunk.

“Rarely,” Ignis pointed out, glancing at Gladio before he looked away again, “and as you may recall, it goes straight to my head.” It had been after Ignis had taken Gladio into his bed, and before he'd done anything else with him there, but Ignis had woken up with his head on Gladio's chest, and his arm coiled around Gladio's waist, and Gladio's arms supporting him around the back. Ignis didn't cuddle, even in his sleep, or hadn't before Gladio had come into his life. Yet, under the influence of even a small amount of alcohol, Ignis had cuddled up to Gladio like he was a favoured teddy bear. Gladio hadn't minded, but that wasn't the point. “I need to keep my wits about me.”

“I'm watching out for you,” Gladio said, in response, a slight smirk on his face.

*


“Well at least someone here is fun,” she said. Marluxia fixed Larxene with a bright and dangerous smile. She offered him her hand, and he bent low to kiss her knuckles.

“Behaving yourself?” He asked, retrieving a glass of champagne from a nearby collar. Lumi hovered near his shoulder, but he didn't offer him a glass just yet. That would be something he'd do later on, when he was ready for Lumi to start getting a little bit inebriated. For now, Lumi was to remain calm, collected, and alert.

“For now,” Larxene replied, tilting her head as she looked past Marluxia to Lumi. “You got your prize all dolled up then,” she said, taking a step to move around Marluxia and examine Lumi more critically.

Marluxia turned slightly, so he could keep Larxene and Lumi in his sights, and smirked. “It would be rude not to, on a night like tonight.”

Larxene gave a lilting, two-note hum of non-committal agreement as she walked up to, and then around Lumi. Lumi regarded her coolly, observing the small blonde woman, with bright aqua eyes, in her dress the colour of thunderstorms as she made her way around him in a small circle. “Did you really kill a man for him?”

Marluxia smiled. “So the rumours say,” he said, giving Larxene a knowing look.

Larxene gave a laugh, sharp, and mean, and delighted. She liked Marluxia. He might be born of a collar spawned bastard, but he didn't let that get in the way. He had a knack for picking pretty ones, and Marluxia had ways of breaking collars in with kind words and harsh actions that Larxene could appreciate. “And are you dicking him?”

“Sometimes, your language leaves a lot to be desired, for a lady,” Marluxia replied, his nose wrinkling.

“There are no ladies here,” Larxene retorted, and peered up at Marluxia, “and that wasn't a no.”

“If I denied it, would you believe me?” Marluxia asked, fixing Larxene with a sly smirk as he glanced down at her.

She considered her options, and then shrugged her shoulders. “No,” she conceded.

“Then I won't waste my breath.”

The conversation shifted then, as Marluxia and Larxene discussed the others in the room. Larxene had come without her own attending collar. She didn't bother to keep one herself, a lot of breakers didn't. She'd have attended with Marius, if he'd bothered to come, but Marius was better known than Larxene, and his reputation more widely feared.

“Honestly,” she said, sipping at a glass of champagne, “it's fun being a breaker at these things. I get to see the pretty little things get jumpy.”

“Why not pick on something less little?” Marluxia asked, with a smirk. Larxene enjoyed her work, and stories of her methods of breaking collars got around. Collars gossiped, extensively, so tales from the breaker's yard got around quickly. Larxene tortured, with electricity, so there weren't any marks left behind. Marius fed untrainable collars to his dogs. Whether those stories were true or not, they both did have something in common; they enjoyed being viewed as intimidating.

“You mean like that mountain of a bodyguard, and his collar-born bastard master?” Larxene asked, flicking her attention to a pair. The bodyguard, dark haired, broad shouldered, and probably the largest person in the room, was talking to the other one. The master, identifiable only by the fact he wasn't wearing a collar, was a pretty faced, slender figure.

Marluxia hadn't seen either of them before. “Being pretty doesn't mean someone has collar ancestry, Larxene.”

Larxene reached up and patted Marluxia on the arm. “Keep telling yourself that,” she told him, confidently. “That collar of his, though,” she said, shaking her head as she watched. The collar spoke, and then reached forward until his fingers brushed over those of his master where he gripped the stem of a champagne flute.

“Not very well behaved, is he?” Marluxia agreed, with a killer's smirk. Larxene had smelled blood, and she liked the big ones best, he knew.

“I'm going to find out what estate he's from,” Larxene said, draining her champagne in a mouthful and pushing it at a nearby collar. “I'll catch up with you later.” The bodyguard straightened up as Larxene made her way over, retrieving another glass of champagne along the way. “I don't believe we've met,” she said, offering her hand out to the pretty stranger.

“I don't believe we have,” he replied, his accent clipped and classy as he took her fingers, and kissed her knuckles. “Ignis Scientia,” he said, offering his name first, “of the Lucis Caelum estate.”

“Larxene Savage,” she answered. Ladies were not supposed to introduce themselves to men, but Larxene had never held much truck with either the fancy decorum of balls and galas, or the notion that she was a lady. There was no flash of recognition at her name, so she asked, “Have you heard of me?”

“I fear not,” Ignis replied, his expression mild, and his tone polite.

“Ever heard of Foudre?” Larxene asked, a pleasant but dangerous smile on her lips. She saw the bodyguard react first, with a slight tightening of his jaw, but she had to give him his dues; he kept his reaction very muted.

“My apologies,” Ignis replied, “I don't go beyond our estate much.” That much was true, of course, but Ignis had researched nearly every estate expected to be present. He had not, however, heard of Foudre before.

Larxene smiled, generously, and turned her attention to the bodyguard, to whom she hadn't been introduced. “Perhaps you can tell him what you call my estate?” She suggested, enjoying the way this giant of a collar avoided her eyes.

“The Savage Garden,” he said, quietly. His voice was deep, and thrummed, and Larxene saw realisation dawn on the face of the master with glee.

“The breaker's yard,” he said, straightening up a little, and did Larxene notice a tiny shift in his stance so that the bodyguard was stood marginally more behind him before, or was it merely his own discomfort showing through? “Which would make you the proprietor?”

“Well done,” she said, and there was more than a hint of cruelty in her tone. She shifted a step, as if to sidestep Ignis to look at his collar, and Ignis shifted half a heartbeat after her own movement. “And this?”

“Gladio,” Ignis answered, his eyes trained on Larxene, and not on Gladio at the moment. A hand went to the small of his back, a touch of reassurance, but he didn't let the woman get closer. “My bodyguard.”

“He's nice,” Larxene said, looking Gladio up and down. He met her eyes, and then looked away again. Collars were only supposed to meet someone's eyes if they were being directly addressed, but this one wasn't the best behaved she'd ever seen. Marluxia's little pet was much better. “Shame about the face. Did he get that bodyguarding?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Ignis said, curtly. His eyes flicked around the room for a way out of the conversation. His eyes landed on Noct, who seemed to be having troubles of his own at that point.

Noctis was stood in much the same position as Ignis, holding guard between Prompto, and a man wearing richly embroidered clothes that had the effect of looking shabby rather than lush. His hair was dark in the lighting, and fell in soft, messy curls, but when he turned his head his hair seemed to shift from being brown to purple, to hints of reddish pink.

He'd introduced himself as Ardyn Izunia, and Noct, in full schmoozing with the elite mode, had engaged him in conversation. He'd asked after the interests of the estate, and Noctis had explained their main business was industry, mining operations in particular. They surveyed land, bought it where they could, or negotiated mining rights where they could not, and set up mines. Collars and freemen would work inside them of course.

Then Ardyn had explained what he did. “Lineages are of particular interest to me,” he said, graciously. “I can tell you're a figure of good breeding, of course, I have an eye for these things. Though it's a skill that isn't hard to learn, for example,” he said, turning and gesturing across the room expansively, “one can see at a glance every collar in the room, yes because of the item for which they're named, but also,” he turned back to Noctis, and smiled indulgently, “their appearance. We breed companions for their appearance, as well as their behaviour, and the longer lineages produce the more spectacular specimens. For example,” he curled his fingers, and gestured to the female companion with Aizen, briefly, “attractive certainly, but only a few generations of the collar within her, she still has that hint of the freeman in her, and in her behaviour. Whereas,” he turned, and gestured to where a pink haired man was handing a glass of champagne to a white haired collar, and Noct saw a flash of yellow eyes when the collar turned slightly, “such unique colouration has taken many generations to achieve. The master too,” he said, with amusement, “has the touch of the collar in him.”

Noct felt muscles in his back tighten, and he glanced at Prompto, who looked bored, and only slightly uncomfortable while the man prattled on. “Is there something wrong with that?” He asked.

“Not at all,” Ardyn replied, as if the idea amused him. “It shows good breeding,” he said, “if for a different purpose. Breeding, you see, is my stock and trade. I take the worn out collars that can still produce offspring, and breed the best with the best.” He gestured to Prompto, his fingers brushing much too close to Prompto's face, “Though they don't have to be worn out.”

Prompto reared back, sharply, a small whimper escaping him as he tucked himself behind Noct. “He's not for sale,” Noct said, his stance widening and his shoulders going back. “Don't touch him.”

“Perhaps a sample, then?” Ardyn asked, “While he's still young and full of vigour. I could give you a fair price.”

Prompto coloured, his cheeks going red. The idea of producing a sample was mortifying enough, without someone offering to pay for it. Noct's own face flushed a little at the thought, but his lips tightened and he said again, “He's not for sale, no bit of him is for sale.”

“A pity,” Ardyn said, “perhaps when you bore of him you'll reconsider?”

“Is everything all right?” Ignis asked, coming to stand by Noct's side. Prompto gladly shuffled himself so that he was entirely guarded by Noctis and Ignis, and Gladio flashed him a brief look that both reassured and questioned.

“Yeah,” Noct said, folding his arms and visibly growing in confidence now he had back up. “This guy was just leaving.”

“Another well bred master, if I'm not mistaken,” Ardyn said, looking Ignis over. “The name's Izunia,” he added, graciously introducing himself. “Ardyn Izunia.”

“The breeder,” Ignis commented, his eyes flicking to Noctis, “I've heard of you.”

“Splendid,” Ardyn said, his attention turning to Gladio, “then perhaps you'll accept my card?” He produced one, between two fingers, and offered it towards Ignis. “I'd pay most handsomely for a sample from your bodyguard, too.”

Gladio shifted his position, a subtle, but intimidating move, and then a hand settled on Ardyn's shoulder. “Perhaps it is a little early in the evening to be soliciting for wares?” A deep, masculine voice said.

“Marluxia,” Ardyn said, indulgently. “How long it has been. Such an evening for a family reunion.”

“I'm sure your rock is around somewhere,” Marluxia said, pleasantly, “why not go and slip back under it?”

“Your manners haven't improved since last we met,” Ardyn said, his eyes falling to Lumi, “though your taste is spectacular as always.”

Ignis flashed a look at Gladio and gave him a brief nod before he tugged on Noct's sleeve, gently, murmuring, “Excuse us,” to Lumi, while his master dealt with the troublemaker.

“Are you all right?” Ignis asked, once they had retreated to safety, the question directed more at Prompto than at Noctis. “Did he touch you?”

“Yeah,” Prompto answered, his blush dying down. “I'm fine, he didn't touch me.”

“He tried,” Noct said, with a small growl, throwing a poisonous look in Ardyn's direction as he finally retreated from his conversation with Marluxia.

“He's one of the foremost breeders of collars in the Empire,” Ignis said, “he must be looking to expand his gene pool.”

“I'll expand his face if he tries to touch Prompto again,” Noctis grumbled.

The man that had intervened approached them, giving a small, polite bow, one hand across his chest as he did. “My apologies for him,” he said, sincerely. “I hope he caused no lasting offence.”

“Friend of yours?” Noctis asked, still too angry to play the social game properly.

“Relative,” Marluxia answered, with a flash of a smile. “A distant relative. Marluxia Florent,” he said, offering his hand out to Noctis, “and this is Lumi.”

“We've had dealings with your estate,” Ignis said, as Noctis grasped the man's hand, and then it was offered to himself in turn. He took it, shook once, and then gestured to Noct, doing the introductions, “Noctis Lucis Caelum, and I am Ignis Scientia.”

“Yes,” Marluxia said, as if memory was dawning, “you bought household collars from us. I trust they're faring well?”

“They perform their duties with excellence,” Ignis said, giving Marluxia a smile. “This is Prompto, and Gladio,” he added, gesturing to the two collars with a relaxed smile.

“Delighted,” Marluxia said, flashing a look at Lumi as he and Gladio looked each other over in that way of bodyguards sizing up someone else's bodyguard. “Should you ever require more, feel free to approach my estate first.”

Ignis looked at Noctis, and Noct looked back, and then inhaled. “Actually,” he said, glancing back at Ignis for encouragement, “we have a new development planned,” he said, and then went on to explain.
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