When Clem is very young, she meets Gucci Garantine at a party. They eat too many cupcakes and run through the empty rooms of the palace, hiding from bodyguards and nannys alike, making a fort under the pile of fancy coats in the cloakroom. Clem pronounces them to be best friends, and she and Gucci pinky swear with sugar-sticky fingers.
When she comes down to breakfast the next morning, her mother is already seated at the table. Sovereign Immunity stands a respectful distance behind her, his hands clasped behind his back as he looks out the windows. At first Clem thinks they’re here for her birthday - still a day away, but minor celebrations have already begun.Excitement bubbles inside her chest. Her mother’s never come to visit for her birthday before.
Her nanny's hand on her shoulder stops her from stepping forward to hug her mother, just in time. Clem carefully bows instead.
"I see your etiquette is still being improved upon," says Crysanth, "I hope you pay more attention in your studies in future lessons."
Clem nods, carefully taking a seat. Someone puts her breakfast in front of her, but she feels too nervous to eat it. Her tutor always tells her that she uses the wrong knife for things, and she doesn't want her mother to know.
Crysanth takes a small sip of her coffee, the gentle clink as she sets down the cup echoing through the breakfast room. Clem tries not to fidget, stretching her feet to touch the toes of her polished shoes to the equally polished floor. She looks at Sovereign Immunity, since it feels safer than looking at her mother. He doesn’t look away from the window.
"I have heard that you have made an acquaintance with Gucci Garantine," says Crysanth.
"Yes," says Clem, excited to share her good news, "we are best friends."
Crysanth considers her for a long moment. "I… do not think you are."
Clem stomach twists, a sensation she is only just becoming familiar with around her mother. "But… we said we were."
"You should not have," says Crysanth, "Oh Clementine don't make such a face-"
Clem sits straighter in her chair, and tries not to have any expression at all.
"I'm not saying that you cannot be friendly, after all, one never knows what the diplomatic landscape might look like in the future, but a princess of Kesh cannot have-" she paused, as though the words make a bitter taste in her mouth " best friends. Such a concept is far too childish for someone of your station, and even if it were not so, it would be far more prudent to become close to someone of a… slightly higher standing." She pins Clem with a look. “Do I make myself clear?”
Clem swallows and looks down at her plate. ”Yes, mother.”
"Good," says Crysanth, rising from her chair.
Clem's head snaps up. "Are you- my party is tomorrow."
"Is it?" says Crysanth, "well do be sure to behave yourself."
She leaves without another word, already focussed on the datapad in her hands.
Sovereign Immunity pauses in the doorway. “Happy birthday, your highness.”
Clem nods, her throat too tight to speak.
It's another six months before Clem sees her in person again.
When she sees Gucci at her party, she pretends not to know her. Gucci cries, and the team that had brought her to the party quickly ushers her out of the palace. Clem gets a bad stomach ache and spends most of her seventh birthday party in her room, alone.
She doesn’t ever really get better at hosting birthday parties. Oh, they’re always a hit - she’s a Kesh princess, of course her parties are some of the best the universe has ever seen - but she often finds herself drifting slowly around under the guise of being the social butterfly that her station demands, on the edge of the crowd looking in towards the centre.
Gucci is often at the centre.
People like her. Her family never truly regained the political capital they lost, their fortunes haven’t really grown either, nor have there been any particular tales of her family’s brave exploits in battle. And yet, people like her, and Gucci likes people right back, laughing and leaning in to speak to them, her smile conspiratorial and voice low.
She speaks to Clem like that too, sometimes. Clem will catch her off-guard and Gucci will laugh, her grin brighter than any of the jewels Clem owns, and for just a moment Clem feels like the centre of the entire universe .
And then, of course, the moment passes, and someone else makes Gucci laugh just as bright, and Clem feels herself fading into the edges again, not forgotten, but set aside.
Clem tries not to let the sting of it show. She’s only ever been able to do a middleing job of it, taking herself outside or to an empty room of the palace under the guise of having important royal business . No one has ever asked her what that business is, which is good, because she’s not entirely sure what it would be. For all her the extensive tutoring she’s gone through in her life, the theoretical tomes she studied don’t really seem compatible with the complicated negotiations Clem hears her mother do, catching fragments of trade deals and secret orders through the door.
The slight of being sent on a thinly veiled pilgrimage to Patrizan stings all the more for that. Crysanth makes vague allusions to a task she has for Clem, but doesn’t send any more information than that. Clem knows better than to press her mother for details.
Still. Her mother sent word that soon she will be given her very own mech, which perhaps means that the mysterious task Crysanth has for her is a real carrot instead of an imaginary one. The mech is just a small one, not as impressive-looking as Clem would like, but there were hints in Crysanth’s words that if she could, somehow, prove herself enough, she would give Clem a real mech. Another one of her mother’s little tests, and one Clem very much intends to pass. She overheard Gucci talking about doing tests run in a mech, and if Gucci can do it, how hard could it be?
Very hard, it turns out. She comes out of every practise with lines of bruises from the safety straps, sweaty and exhausted and not feeling even a shed of the glamour or victory she thought she would.
Perhaps an actual battle will be different. Gucci certainly speaks as if they are, although certainly Gucci herself would have no way of knowing. House Brightline can barely offer supplies for the army, they’re hardly about to let one of their high-ranking daughters fly off in a mech. Perhaps she has some kind of secret romance with a lowly mech pilot, getting the thrilling details of battle over pillow talk.
For some reason, the thought burns at Clem, spurring her on through the last hour of training for the day. She doesn’t hit any more of the targets than she normally would have, but the ones she does hit are smoking craters in the ground, and that makes her feel a little better.
Gucci stops attending so many parties, claiming she has pressing business elsewhere, which only gives credence to Clem’s theory about a secret romance. No matter - even when Gucci is not present, Clem feels as though people are constantly speaking of her, giving Gucci a phantom presence in the room. The impression of her trails after Clem through the party, whispering the things Gucci might say in the back of Clem’s mind.
It gives Clem a headache. She goes to lie down in her room, listening to the broadcasts on the latest attack by HORIZON. The newscaster exclaims in surprise at the live footage, and Clem turns slightly, her head throbbing, to see the screen. HORIZON have a new mech with them, arching gracefully through the sky a perfect mix of precision and force. She falls asleep watching the slow-motion replay of it.
Crysanth sends word that she will be visiting Partizan soon, and Clem spends the preceding month intermittently scrambling to feel as though Crutiat as a whole, and the Winter Palace specifically, look as perfect as it possible for a physical world to look, and also throwing elaborate parties, to distract herself from the twisting feeling in her stomach.
Gucci makes a now-rare appearance at one, the sight of her alone causing a stir. Clem scowls into her champagne, turning away to step onto the icy balcony and pulling her fur-lined coat closer around her. Just because someone is rarely seen does not mean people should flock to her. She’s no more special now than when she came to every party Clem threw.
Behind her, the door to the balcony opens and closes. Clem doesn’t turn around.
“I do not require any service, thank you,” says Clem, as polite as she can manage, “I am simply getting some air.”
“Nice night for it,” says Gucci.
Clem wheels around. Gucci’s lips quirk upwards, and Clem tears her eyes away from Gucci’s mouth, something that she decides is irritation flaring in her chest.
“Your servants are dedicated to Kesh, but I think they know better than to bother you when you come out here to sulk,” says Gucci.
“I’m not sulking,” says Clem.
“Brooding, then,” says Gucci.
Clem turns away to hide her frown. Her mother has been telling her not to frown so much. Something about it causing her face to look unbecoming. She takes a breath, consciously smoothing out her face into a neutral expression.
“Why are you here?” says Clem.
“You invited me,” says Gucci.
“You never come anymore anyway.”
“So why keep inviting me?”
Clem pulls her coat tighter around herself. “Protocol. I invite everyone from our set.”
“Keeping up the alliances all the way out here?” says Gucci, crossing her arm.
Clem bites the inside of her cheek bracing herself against the wind as she turns back to Gucci. Gucci’s face is calm, but she’s shivering a little, the fashionable wrap she has around her shoulders little match for the autumn weather of Partizan.
“You should go back inside,” says Clem.
“I will when you will,” says Gucci.
Gucci shrugs. Her breath forms a cloud in front of her as she exhales.
Clem slips one of her arms out of her sleeves, gesturing at Gucci. “Here.”
Gucci blinks. “What?”
“Here,” says Clem, “if you insist on standing out here with me, we’ll share.”
Gucci hesitates. “You don’t want to go back inside? There’s a whole party in there to celebrate Stel Kesh.”
“I spend every day of my life celebrating Stel Kesh,” says Clem, “I think I would prefer to stand out here, just for a little longer.”
Gucci glances back over her shoulder before she looks back at Clem. Inside, Clem can hear music, a sped up version of the Kesh anthem.
Gucci huffs a laugh. “Sure, why not?”
She steps towards Clem, sliding her arm through the empty sleeve. The coat is oversized but they’re still pressed together, especially when Clem clumsily buttons the coat back up. Gucci winces, attempting to cover it with a smile and not quite succeeding.
“I overextended myself swimming the other day,” says Gucci, “The doctors say I’ve sprained my shoulder a little.”
“Oh,” says Clem. She pauses. “Your arm is freezing .”
Gucci laughs. “Well I was standing out on a balcony in Partizan.” She pauses. “What are you even doing here Clementine?”
“I’m on a pilgrimage,” says Clem.
Behind her, raucous laughter burst forth, accompanied by the pop of a fresh bottle of champagne.
“A pilgrimage,” says Gucci.
“Of sorts,” adds Clem.
Gucci pauses for a moment, her expression shuttered. “I heard you mother sent you here.”
“She did,” says Clem, “For the pilgrimage, although…”
“Although…?” prompts Gucci.
Clem sighs. “I don’t know. I think there’s something else to come.” She swallows. “She’s supposed to be here soon. On Partizan.”
“She is?” says Gucci, raising her eyebrows.
“You don’t seem particularly excited,” says Gucci.
“Of course I am,” says Clem, sounding miserable despite her best efforts, “It will be wonderful to see her, as always.”
Gucci stays silent, looking out into the frosted grounds. Clem can feel Gucci’s arm against hers, warming slowly under the protection of the coat. The wind curls around them, tossing Clem’s hair into her eyes. Gucci lifts a hand, tucking the strands back behind Clem’s ear, her fingertips warm against Clem’s cheek. Her eyes meet Clem’s, and Clem’s breath catches in her throat.
“I don’t know what she wants of me,” whispers Clem.
She looks away, her chest tight and stomach twisting, swallowing hard.
Inside the coat, Gucci’s hand finds hers, tanging their fingers together and squeezing. Clem feels her eyes prickle and she tilts her face up, away from Gucci. If the wind makes her cry, she doesn’t want Gucci to see, and she doesn’t want to ruin her makeup. She takes a few deep breaths, getting herself back under control.
“We should get back to the party,” says Clem. “It’s not right for me to be away from it for so long.”
Gucci nods, unbuttoning the coat and slipping out of it. Clem hesitates for a moment before she puts her arm back in the sleeve, stepping through the doorway and back into the party. Gucci follows behind her, staying by her side for the rest of the evening, the force of her attention so strong that Clem forgets about keeping her face still entirely as Gucci twirls them both across the dance floor, utterly ungraceful and laughing.
The smell of Gucci’s perfume lingers in the fabric of her coat, spicy-sweet, even weeks after the party is over, even after Crysanth arrives with a new mech for Clem.
Clem’s too distracted to worry about ordering for a coat to be cleaned. Her new mech is the Panther, the Panther, remodelled but still recognisable.
“I hope you can restrain yourself,” says Crysanth, “you should not show this off under any circumstances. Doing so would make your mission undeniably more difficult.”
Clem’s heart jumps. ”My mission?”
Crysanth arches an eyebrow, and Clem scrambles to think if Crysanth has mentioned such a thing before. Never, surely, only vague hints that Clem was to do something .
“Follow me,” says Crysanth, “We will discuss the details somewhere a little more… secure.”
Clem keeps her hands locked behind her back the entire time Crysanth speaks to stop herself from fidgeting, digging her nails into her palm when she can feel herself start to show too much emotion. Afterwards she walks quickly to her room, locking the door behind her before she lets herself grin, spinning in a circle as something bubbles in her chest. She has control of the Rapid Evening. She’s going to get to do something . Her mother wants her to do something .
Her datapad beeps and she steps to the table to pick it up, wiping a layer of dust from the surface. Files pop up, dozens, hundreds, candidates for her Rapid Evening team. Clem flops down on her bed on her stomach, kicking her feet in the air as she flips through the potential team members.
They hate her, of course. She can hardly trade them for others, to do so would be to admit to Crysanth that she doesn’t have the control required to handle three criminals, and so she puts up with snide words and thinly-veiled escape attempts. Sovereign Immunity, at least, seems to want to follow her. Perhaps he sees something of her mother in her.
Whatever he sees, it isn’t enough to help her defeat the Transgress Oblige, no matter how many times they face off against one another. It’s barely enough for her to escape it with her life , pulled from the fray by Sovereign Immunity before she loses any more than one of her mech’s wings.
At least she got in a few more hits of her own this time, sharp wounds across where she’s sure the cockpit is. Everyone knows the weakest park of the mech is the pilot, after all.
She throws a party at her mother’s insistence, something about networking or war bonds. Clem was a little distracted by the throbbing pain in her side. At least it was cold enough now that she could wear a gown thick enough to cover her bandages, although it might make it difficult to dance.
It turns out she needn’t have worried - Gucci is not in attendance. Clem dances - slowly, clumsily - with the dignitaries that Crysanth sends her way, doing her best to charm them and mostly succeeding. Her stomach twists itself into knots over the course of the night, turning into a rolling nausea as the guests begin to leave.
Sovereign Immunity pauses behind her, the others’ coats draped over his arm. Clem tilts her head, still keeping herself mostly facing towards the window.
“Your highness?” says Sovereign Immunity, “Are you… Did you find anything out?”
“Hmm? Oh, no.” Clem pauses. “Oh, well, yes, but that’s… it was nothing significant. I’m sure my mother was able to gather more pertinent information.”
He nods, glancing behind him. Millie and Leap are at the banquet table, gathering uneaten horderves into a cloth napkin. Sovereign Immunity makes a face.
“Leave them,” says Clem, “It would be thrown out anyway. It hardly matters.”
Sovereign Immunity frowns, taking another step towards her. She tilts her head up - even though she’s no longer a child, he still feels as tall to her now as he did then.
“Are you… alright?” says Sovereign Immunity, his voice quiet.
“I’m fine,” says Clem. She pauses. “I suppose I’m just a little… preoccupied.”
Sovereign Immunity nods. “I’m sure they’ll have the Panther repaired soon.”
Clem blinks. “Yes, of course.”
Sovereign Immunity’s frown deepens. “Your highness… Clementine… if there was something else that troubled you… I would like to think that I have proven myself enough to be your counsel.”
Clem presses her lips together. “I-” She cuts off, distracted by the sight of her mother re-entering the room. She stands straighter, wincing at the throb of pain in her side. “It’s nothing. You should leave soon.”
Sovereign Immunity nods, hesitating a moment before he heads towards Millie and Leap, ushering them out of the room on the opposite side to Crysanth.
The Panther is somewhat repaired by the time they’re next sent out for battle. Clem feels a little lopsided as she walks, unbalanced with only the one wing. Apparently they’re still working on building her a replacement, and she can get herself into the air a little with just the one.
Sovereign Immunity looks grim-faced before she climbs inside. She can see him below, talking to Millie and Leap before they climb into their own mech, his face stern. They take point behind her, obviously on his orders. Clem doesn’t press it. It’s probably the best strategy she has at the moment.
It works until HORIZON shows up, the Transgress Oblige heading straight for her. Clem is faster, just, but the Panther’s jerks under her, its balance of it thrown off by the missing wing. She stumbles, the Panther going down on one knee as a golden beam rips through the cockpit.
Clem clings to her controls, fighting against gravity and friction to pull her own weaponry up in time. She launches the Panther forward, and the Oblige staggers back. Clem lunges again, using the Panther’s weight to topple the Oblige over.
She can feel the straps holding her into the cockpit begin to weaken and tear. Part of her mech is almost certainly on fire, heat coming through the cockpit floor. Clem screams, twisting as the Oblige grasps at her mech, scratching deep gashes through the Oblige’s cockpit, the Oblige missing her by inches.
Clem tears at it, the secondary armour layer of the Oblige beginning to crack. The Oblige shudders, its arm grabbing at the Panther. She can feel it as the other wing comes off and she screams again, the sound of it tearing out of her throat. She redoubles her efforts, ignoring the burning in her muscles as she tears off the remaining armour of the Oblige’s cockpit.
Gucci Garantine looks back at her from the bared cockpit.
The battle falls away. She and Gucci hang together, suspended by their mechs, meters from each other. Gucci is bleeding, her face streaked with ash. Clem is sure that she looks no better, the straps of the cockpit tearing into her hand as she tries not to fall. She opens her mouth to speak but nothing comes out.
The Panther shudders around her, the sound of metal cracking under heat and pressure, and the world rushes back.
“You-” says Clem, “You’re-”
Gucci straightens her shoulder. “Yes, I am. Surrender or die, Kesh.”
Clem stomach twists. “I will do neither.”
“Your mech is on fire,” says Gucci, “your companions will not reach here in time. Your mother will not save you.”
“When has she ever,” snaps Clem, struggling to get the Panther to move. “Of course I’m alone, that doesn’t matter, it doesn’t-”
Something in Gucci’s face softens. “Clementine.”
The Panther shudders again. Clem can feel the heat of flames at her back.
“Clementine, please,” says Gucci, “Just- if you stay in there you’re going to-”
“This isn’t surrendering,” says Clem.
She loosens the straps, letting herself fall into the cockpit of the Oblige, tumbling against the wall. The Oblige shudders, tossing the Panther off it where it lands next to them, a barely-recognisable pile of on-fire metal. Clem looks at it for a long moment, unmoving. She can hear Gucci unclip herself from her own cockpit harness to sit next to Clem.
Clem looks around at the mirrored cockpit, reflections of the two of them staring back at her. Behind Gucci, Clem can see another reflection, themselves but younger, as children. In the back of her throat she can taste sugary-sweet icing.
“This isn’t surrendering,” says Clem, her voice hoarse.
“Then I think it might be kidnapping,” says Gucci.
Clem considers her, taking as deep a breath in as her lungs will allow. “I think it might be.” She looks down at her hands resting in her lap. “Although I don’t know if I’ll be a particularly good bargaining chip.”
“Then what if you weren’t one,” says Gucci.
Clem looks up sharply.
Gucci presses her lips together. “You could…help.”
“Help,” says Clem, making a face.
Gucci huffs a laugh. “Yes, help. I know it’s an unfamiliar concept to Kesh but it’s one I have found value in trying.”
Outside, Old Glory takes a hit from a HORIZON mech, sending Sovereign Immunity sprawling before he pulls himself up, launching back into an attack.
Clem wets her lips. “What about- I have a team.”
Gucci blinks. “What about them?”
“Could they- they’re Kesh prisoners, and I told them- well. It was... implied that they would get something after this, after I-” She lets out a breath. “I don’t know that my mother will hold up our end of the bargain if I am not there to provide victory.”
“We could find a place for them too, if they wanted,” says Gucci, “Or arrange for them to get off-planet. These things aren’t as difficult as certain people have led us to believe.”
Clem swallows, meeting Gucci’s eyes as she holds out her hand, extending her pinkie. Gucci stares at her, her eyes flicking from Clem’s face to her hand then laughs, crooking her pinkie around Clem’s.
“You’d better keep your promise this time, Kesh,” says Gucci.
Her voice is light, but Clem feels her stomach twist. “I- I-”
Gucci blinks, the surprise on her face genuine. “Clem, it’s- that was like a million years ago, you don’t still…”
Clem’s face feels hot as she looks away.
“Mother told me we couldn’t be friends,” she mumbles.
Gucci lowers their joined hands until they rest on their knees, her pinkie loosening its grip to properly tangle the rest of her fingers with Clem’s. “Clementine.”
Clem looks up. Gucci’s expression is more sympathetic than pitying. Something explodes outside the Oblige, bringing back the world around them.
“Forget that,” says Gucci, “you keep your promise this time and we’re square.”
Clem swallows, wincing as she straightens her shoulders. “As long as you keep your promise too.”
“Guess we’ll have to keep each other in check,” says Gucci.
“I suppose we will,” says Clem.
“Partners,” says Gucci.
“Partners,” agrees Clem.
Gucci’s hand lingers in hers as they give the orders to stand down, directing both their groups to a neutral place away from Crysanth’s eyes. The Oblige shudders a little with the effort of pulling the remains of the Panther. Clem steadies herself, where she’s perched on the armrest of Gucci’s chair. Gucci squeezes Clem’s hand, and Clem feels something in her chest loosen, just a little bit.
“Do you think…” says Clem, trailing off. She flushes. “Never mind.”
“This is a partnership of honesty, Kesh,” says Gucci.
“I was just… do you think we would have still been friends, if I hadn’t… if things weren’t so…” Clem waves her free hand, hoping Gucci understands the gesture.
“I don’t know,” says Gucci. She pauses. “We can try being friends now.”
“Oh,” says Clem, “I would like that.”
She leans back, her head resting not on Gucci’s shoulder but on the chair’s backrest just above it, just close enough to feel the warmth of Gucci’s skin. She closes her eyes, the mech’s movements chasing away the twisting in her stomach for the first time in months.
“We’re here,” says Gucci quietly.
Clem opens her eyes. It’s the entrance to a cave, more like a hole in the ground, really. They’re the last to arrive, and she can spot Sovereign Immunity herding Millie, Leap, and AO to one side, their mechs above them, damaged but functioning. She smiles.
“Welcome home, princess,” says Gucci.
“Please,” she says, turning to look at Gucci, “you should call me Clem.”
Gucci smiles back. "Welcome home Clem."