A/N: Let's add this to the vast collection of literature titled Metamorphosis, why don't we?
This is an arc from Lethe that sadly no longer has place within the story itself. If you've read at least the first few chapters of Lethe, you should be fine in understanding this fic without getting any spoilers.
It's a really old arc of Lethe's in which Marx and Kirby summon Nova and consquently trap her in order to get a series of wishes from her instead of just one; however I got distracted half way through writing it and I think it took on a completely different plot.
It starts with Marx trying to persuade Nova to grant him wishes by torturing her - if that doesn't sound in any way good to you, this fic is not for you.
"Hey, do we have scissors?"
"No. No way."
Marx sneered, "Do you have a better idea?"
"A-anything! Just... give her time to adjust or something... Maybe she's shy."
"Cute. Get some scissors."
"I.. We uh, we don't have any scissors. We're on a warship."
"Look for them."
No window to escape through, no passage that would take him far enough from this demand. Kirby lowered his head and backed from the room. Immediately, he threw himself into the task of searching... or feigning a search.
All along he prayed he would find nothing of use. Yes, there was that time a few weeks ago when he'd used the kitchen scissors to open a package of ramen but... Kirby began his search in their bedroom. Okay, so there were scissors in the kitchen. Had Marx ever seen them? Oh god, there were knives in the kitchen too, weren't there? And Marx definitely knew about those. Knives or scissors? Neither, he groaned. All the drawers were searched, the counter tops... Frantic, he looked under the bed, dug his fingers under the mattress just in case... Somehow he felt if he stood idle too long Marx would know, but he didn't want to get to the kitchen quite yet - he needed more time to think because the kitchen suddenly seemed full of dangerous items.
In this manner he wandered the various rooms of the ship, his path ever leading him to the room he so wanted to avoid. As it became increasingly clear that he could not escape this eventual fate, half- formed and soon dismissed ideas flitted across his mind; plans of how to sublimate Marx's abrupt and tenacious desire.
Something had to be done, but what? All ideas were far-fetched and ridiculous - even the thought of them working on Marx was laughable. When Marx set his mind on doing something, he did it. Nothing more to it.
Trembling, Kirby opened the kitchen door. He'd already wasted so much time. Marx had to be getting impatient, and impatience heralded trouble.
Somehow, he did not immediately detach to search innocuous places. His feet carried him straight to the drawer - he opened it.
Shuddering, Kirby's fingers encircled the handle. They were dull scissors, not made for cutting through much. It wouldn't make a difference to Marx though. Maybe he could hide them somewhere on the ship - or better yet, just throw them off the deck. But then the knives... and oh hell, anything. Anything could be dangerous. His fingers ran along the dull edge. Giving them to Marx was out of the question... And then a sudden thought, unbidden, sprouted in his mind: I'll fight back. Marx wasn't armed - and anyway, he didn't know how to fight. He only knew cheap tricks.
Kirby staggered. Where were his thoughts going? If he fought back... no, no that was a terrible idea. He'd tried that once and still had deep scars in his heart for it. Fighting back... that wasn't an option; that was never an option. His hands shook. Had things really become so futile? Had his existence really been reduced to-
"Taking your time, I see."
Heart hammering in his chest, he whirled around - holding the scissors behind his back in a failed attempt of subtlety. Marx didn't look the slightest bit surprised: but then, why should he be? He was terribly good at predicting Kirby.
"Did you find them?" he asked, approaching with a leisurely, light gait.
"Uhm, I - that is -"
"Good." His hand snaked around Kirby's stomach and tore the scissors from his grip. "That's very kind of you, Kirby, to get them for me - although, you could've done it quicker." Pivoting on his heel, he marched out of the kitchen with the scissors held behind his back and a hummed tune following him.
On the border of panic, Kirby darted to his side. "Marx, please don't do this, there's no need-"
"There's every need," Marx retorted cheerily. "It's like... an interrogation. Heehee, I sort of feel like those characters in stories... spies or something... Y'know? Where they infiltrate a place and force answers out of people."
Kirby felt ill. Some part of him hardly believed he was having this absurd conversation. "This isn't a story, Marx. This is real life. You're hurting real people."
Faintly annoyed, Marx answered, "I didn't say it was a story; you're getting my words all wrong. Reality is better than a story. You ruin all my fun."
They turned a corner and there was the door to the room where Nova was kept. Kirby grabbed Marx's sleeve and planted his feet. "Don't do this. Please don't make me watch it."
Marx rolled his eyes.
"You're the one who followed me. You don't have to watch."
"No, I mean don't do it at all!"
Marx sighed dramatically. "Oh, fine. You're such a whiner. But if you insist..."
He laughed harshly. "Nope!" Wrenching out of Kirby's grip, he stalked through the door.
"No!" Kirby raced after him. "No, don't-please!"
Marx's thin fingers examined the scissors, determining the best way to proceed. "Is that all you can say?" he sneered.
"What am I supposed to say?" Kirby cried out. "Give me something - anything! - what can I say to stop you?"
Marx shifted the scissors to his left hand. With his right hand, he reached toward Nova's face; his thumb curving to rest at the slope between the inside of her eye and her nose. "I don't know," he said thoughtfully. "I don't think anyone ever has before."
"Has anyone tried?" Kirby said to stall for time while he thought of arguments that would appeal to Marx's 'better' nature.
"Sure," Marx answered, still fascinated by the way his thumb fit so perfectly in that curve. "Aside from the victims, I'm guessing you mean."
"Yeah, aside from them."
"Yes." He traced the violet-black circle under her eye thoughtfully. "I like to have someone watch. So."
Jumping on this, Kirby inquired, "would you still do it if I left?"
"This time, yes." Marx appeared to be getting bored with the conversation, and his words almost sounded disappointed. As if... as if he wanted Kirby to stop him, and some part of him believed he could. Like the lead in to this conversation wasn't just for Marx to play with his emotions, but was said with real intent of being stopped... provided that Kirby supplied a strong enough argument.
A mere flit of a thought - he seized it. "D-don't - don't you know you could stop?"
Pause. Marx took a few seconds to process what he'd said, which Kirby took as a positive sign, until: "Stating the obvious isn't going to make me stop."
"No - h-hear me out, please. You don't have to be this. I know... you're..." Dangerous territory. Lethal territory. "You're not sure how to be something else. But, I've seen glimpses, little hints - and I know they're true, you're just... sca-"
"I'm Marx. That's me." Glacial words. "I'm not anybody else, Kirby."
"Yes - I mean, no, no you're not. Like... like that time in the control deck? We talked about dreams and you wanted to hear every detail of mine - you were curious, Marx, in a good way. That's you too. When you're calm and quiet. And you're happy."
"Did I talk about my dreams?"
No. Now that he brought it up... he'd never mentioned a single dream of his own. But Kirby could tell he should not just walk into that trap. "And when we just talk, Marx, about anything and everything. You don't always need to do things like this. I... I like you anyway."
Pause. Monochrome, "Wow. What an argument." Humorless purple eyes, in a single glance over Marx's shoulder, judged Kirby and found him worthless. "Disappointing." Eyes snapped back to Nova.
A heartbeat later, his thumb plunged into her eye socket. Nova and Kirby screamed at the same time: one with excruciating pain, the other with sheer horror.
Marx twisted his thumb. Blood and other unfavorable substances oozed from the rapidly forming hole. A spasm shuddered through Nova's body; instinctually, she tried to escape the pain, but Marx curled all his fingers and gripped tighter.
Nova's beautiful angelic face contorted, her mouth gaped, her eye clenched shut and spasmodically fluttering against the intrusion.
Kirby could not move. His entire body, coursing with icy consternation, disobeyed any command from his mind, either to run or to save her – as though his body and soul alike were petrified. There was a vast difference between knowing something and seeing it in person. An enormous difference, such that Kirby had to fall in the chasm in between before truly believing what he was seeing.
Marx cruelly wrenched out his thumb; Nova slumped in the chains. The scissors he transferred to his right hand. In a split second, Kirby's reeling thoughts registered that he intended to stab her with it. In another second, his feet ripped off the floor and he was a whirlwind of activity: he rushed to Marx's side, and grabbed his right arm in a death clutch, yanking him hard back.
An animalistic snarl tore from Marx's throat. The scissors, glinting dull silver, slashed far too close to Kirby's eyes. To his own shock, he clung to Marx's arm regardless as he flinched away.
Marx staggered to the side - a surge of hope shot through Kirby's chest, then Marx struck him hard with a closed fist and the scissor blades between his fingers.
Kirby hit the floor painfully; not a moment later, another high-pitched scream assaulted his ears. Crying out himself, he clapped his hands over his ears.
"Beg me to stop," Marx's cold voice carried over the horrific sound.
"I am begging you!" Kirby shrieked, near hysteric.
Marx drove the scissors into her shoulder with enough force to break the skin. To open the wound further, he wrenched the scissors upwards. More blood seeped over his white knuckles and oozed down his pale wrist. "Beg harder."
Her screams pierced through the hands clutching his ears like they weren't even there. "Stop! Marx, please!" He didn't know how he could do any better but god she was in agony and there was so much blood. His voice leapt an octave. "Please! That's enough! You're killing her! Stop, stop!"
"Marx doesn't think that's good enough." With the scissors deeply embedded under her flesh, he twisted the handle. A fresh bout of screams began: the chorus of hell. Nova was only growing weaker and weaker. Even her screams were becoming hoarse, her face deathly pale. Her body trembled in short, spasm-like shudders which she could clearly not control.
Somehow Kirby managed to get to his knees. He swung his head around. The very sight penetrated into his soul, his heart, and there scalded something once soft, once gentle. Marx, arced over her like a snake, his expression from here obscured - but Kirby could guess it. He could guess it from the breathy, quiet bursts of laughter; an undercurrent to the prevailing screams, heard only when Nova lost her own breath and resorted - if temporarily - to mere whimpering. In his dazed state, shock melded the sounds into one: a melody, calling and answering, calling and answering. Then Nova, writhing before him, her pain driving sweat to her skin to mix with the blood.
And these strained words were meaningless - they weren't stopping him. Not even swaying him. Futile.
The scissors soon tired Marx. They were blunt, weak… oh, he enjoyed it – Kirby could see he enjoyed it – but something about the scissors was not satisfactory. Marx cupped Nova's cheek and grinned sardonically. What raw pleasure, what terrible indulgence. He grasped her trembling pale hands with his own spidery fingers and lovingly traced the lines with blood. His nails skimmed from her inner wrist, her palm…. Nova tried to tug away but he seized her wrist and pointer finger. In one swift motion, he flattened that finger over the back of her hand with a sharp, distinct pop! Silently, Nova yanked her head up. Her single eye widened in a paroxysm of revived panic. Encouraged, Marx tiptoed over her palm a second time and gripped her middle finger.
Pop! He marched over every single finger; Kirby flinched at every crack. Nova never once screamed but blood welled at her mouth, for she had bitten through her lip.
"That doesn't bother you so much?" Marx growled lowly – he seemed to find frustration in her achromic reaction. He approached with such careful, sick grace, but received only masked, mediocre responses. With new, angry fervor, he picked up the slick scissors again. "No point in having either of those pretty eyes if you don't cry for me," he said with brewing irritation.
"S-stop!" Kirby staggered to his feet; somehow he found within him enough dazed resolve for his feet to carry him not further away from the scene but closer. His hands shook so badly, he at first didn't know what to do with them.
Unexpectedly, they closed on Marx's shirt, making a tidy fold in the fabric and clinging to it.
Marx paused. Then, slowly, he straightened and his dark purple eyes closed in on Kirby. In one long gaze, he assessed and judged. He scoured his soul as if in hunt of something, and, in finding it, his lips parted in a lethal grin. "I told you to beg," he uttered. "I don't hear any begging."
"I-I j-just..." Tears welled in his eyes against his will. Oh god how did he get into a situation like this... "I tr-tr-tried. What... what can I do...?"
"Would you do anything to stop me?"
A 'yes' hovered stale on Kirby's tongue, but he stopped the words from releasing. However overloaded and mortified he was, his reasoning could not be thrown out entirely. He knew Marx far too well for that. Instead, he found himself searching Marx's mind right back through his eyes. Hunting for intent.
"What k-kind of anything?" He breathed.
"That's spoiling the deal." Tauntingly spoken, but building frustration rippled under the surface: the question hadn't pleased Marx. He'd anticipated outright acceptance.
Kirby's hands clenched tighter. No longer was he able to meet his gaze. What could he be thinking? What was it he had planned that could potentially be worse than this? It seemed more likely Marx would turn his attention from Nova in favor of Kirby... but that alternative didn't involve Kirby doing much himself, did it?
"I'm getting impatient," hissed Marx. He shifted the scissors. Behind him, Nova was reduced to strained gasping. Surely she couldn't endure much more of this? Marx hadn't even attempted to restrain himself - and if he was now frustrated -
But Marx had gotten sick of the delay. He grabbed Kirby's hands with his own blood-slicked ones and attempted to shove him off. Shuddering at the feel, Kirby nonetheless refused to relinquish.
"Y-yes," he gasped out. "Anything. Anything for you to stop hurting her. And - and let me bandage her injuries."
In a single look, lasting far too long, Marx again hunted for something in Kirby's eyes. What he found or did not find, Kirby had no idea, but whatever it was, he accepted the answer. He stepped away and dropped the scissors; this time Kirby released him - though cautiously, ever wary. The jester studied his own palms and curled his lip in disgust.
"Fine. I'll clean all this off. You fix her." Interesting choice of words.
"Thank you." No time to waste - he rushed straight out of the torture room and to the first aid room, all with a strange sense of deja vu as he scrambled through supplies and piled bandages into his arms. Just like leaving Dreamland... or, almost. He still had no clue what he was doing, at least: only that his purpose in the moment was to tend to another's injuries. He'd been doing a lot of that lately, all shooting in the dark, since he'd never actually learned the trade. Maybe I need to learn. No: I do need to learn.
It didn't quite occur to him that this thought anticipated a need for it - perhaps more than once - in the future. A more permanent need for it, rather than something temporary. Like Nova wouldn't be the last. He didn't have the time to dwell on that; once he'd amassed a hopefully sufficient amount of first aid supplies, he darted back into the torture chamber. Marx was already gone - relieved, Kirby crashed straight to his knees before Nova.
He couldn't quite look at her mutilated eye yet, and so began with an assessment of the other injuries. The strikes overall had been brutal, but uncoordinated. Marx had lashed out senselessly, without any intent of preserving her life. Luckily, the dullness of the scissors had prevented most of the strikes from even breaking skin. The worst was easily the wound directly beneath her shoulder; a deep laceration around six inches long with torn edges.
"Keep breathing," Kirby ordered - miraculously, his voice came out perfectly steady. Such was his surprise that he continued speaking to her as he unraveled a length of bandage, dipped it in antiseptic, and clumsily began wrapping it over her shoulder and across her back. "Whatever you do, keep breathing. Just - you're doing fine. You're going to be fine-" his words stumbled along with his fingers. Clearing his throat, he resumed, "the worst one is this. I'll just get this one fixed up and - the others aren't bad at all-"
Except for your eye. "-it was a good thing those scissors were so dull - they didn't always make it through your skin... most of these are bruises. N-nothing feels broken, right?" aside from every one of your fingers on that hand.
With the last knot messily tied into the bandage and the other minor wounds dabbed with disinfectant, Kirby at last had no choice but to look at Nova's face, and the missing eye. By now, most of the blood and clumps had dried in a stream down her face.
Her eyelid seemed to be so encrusted that it was permanently fixed half-shut, but this at the very least veiled the wound from sight. Her other eye, that angelic blue, appeared far too pure to be so sad, so tormented. Indeed, in that moment, a certain sureness crippled him - that she was more than human; that in fact she was an angel, whom by some divine mistake, some event entirely out of her control, had been dragged from heaven to earth - and, worse, once there had been found by Marx.
Kirby trembled. Without knowing how to handle this revelation, he fell back to what he knew in order to regain some stability and prevent himself from falling apart.
"Nothing feels broken, right? Bones, I mean."
Hesitation, then she wagged her head back and forth.
"Good, that's good." But not much. Though the bandages were doing their job, she'd still lost a lot of blood. How much was too much? Should he be concerned about her immediate life if he'd already stopped the bleeding? More from the need to do something than anything else, Kirby took up a cloth and dipped it into the disinfectant before gently applying it to her cheek. Under his tentative strokes, the crusted liquid rubbed away. He felt afraid for some reason that this simple action would hurt her - ridiculous, after what Marx had done to her. Still, he moved with only the most considerate of movements. Her faltering breath he was fully attuned to. Every slight change he assessed to determine if her condition was improving, or if he should change what he was doing... not that he knew anything else to do.
This done, he rocked back on his heels and let his hands rest on his lap. "Are... are you alright?" An idiotic question, really, but Kirby figured she'd understand what he meant.
"Yes," she murmured. It was the very first time he had ever heard her speak. Her voice, he discovered, matched her appearance. Fluid, angelic. Somehow also miraculously soothing, as though nothing at all wrong had happened or ever could happen.
Yet this pure fluidity possessed a machine-like backbone: the implication of something not entirely organic. She can't be human, Kirby marveled. Is it really possible... that Marx is right?
She fixed her gaze on him. "My eye?"
"I... I can't fix that. I'm sorry."
Nova nodded, silencing him. Now that the ordeal was over, she demonstrated a startling lack of fear or shock. Perhaps Kirby was merely a bad judge of such things, or perhaps she was simply exhausted... but the way she leaned into the chains along with her oddly serene expression suggested that she was more relaxed than anything. Should he be so bewildered? Was this typical?
Noticing his confusion, she gave a small, cryptic smile. Strained, but still a smile.
The door slammed open; instinctively, Kirby recoiled. Excuses for his presence in the torture chamber rose up his throat only to die away unused upon remembering that he actually had been given explicit permission to remain. Marx, thankfully, had rinsed all the blood from his skin: the only evidence of his activities was the stains on his sleeves and those he didn't seem to have even tried to remove.
"Well?" Marx demanded, "Is she okay?"
Only then did Kirby remember the other half of the deal. In his desperation, he'd been too occupied to consider what Marx would be asking him to do.
"Yes," Kirby uttered weakly. "She's... okay."
"Uhm. What are we going to do now?"
Marx frowned. "I dunno. I think I want waffles. Do we have anything to make waffles?" Kirby blinked. Did Marx at all comprehend what he had just asked? Did he seriously just... "Hey, do we have anything to make waffles?"
Kirby jolted to his feet. "Uh, no... I don't think so."
"Well, what do we have?" Marx snapped impatiently.
Terror unfurled in Kirby's chest. Was he leading up to something? Hunger, lack of the food he wanted - the compromise? Had he found some twisted way to worm around the deal they had just made? To worm around the deal they had made a year ago?
"Stars, you're useless," muttered Marx when Kirby failed to reply. Without another word, he stalked back out of the room.
Or... maybe not? Maybe he was just hungry. Except... Kirby clutched at his hair. Why hadn't Marx outright said what he'd wanted? When he swore not to hurt Nova, what did he want in return? Why wasn't he mentioning it? Rubbing it in Kirby's face? Refusing to reveal something terrible about the deal?
Dazed, Kirby tread back into the Halberd's halls. His feet carried him to the main floor and then the kitchen. Upon arrival, he found Marx digging crispy wafer-like cookies from a box and munching on them with a blissfully innocent expression.
"Want one?" the jester offered upon glimpsing Kirby.
"Um. No thanks, I'm not really hungry." And so he stood awkwardly in silence while Marx crunched away on the cookies. "Um... Marx?"
"You..." he swallowed. Bringing it up was asking for trouble with such a potentially dangerous topic, but he couldn't bear the waiting. "You only stopped because I promised I'd do anything. Erm. What...?"
Marx smiled cordially. "You want to know what the 'anything' is."
"I'm not going to tell you yet."
Not good. Not good at all. "When will you tell me?"
Marx licked his lips and tilted his head back. "Hmm... I'd say, three days."
"Three days?" Kirby gagged. "Why so long?"
"Che - we spend half a year in space and all the sudden three days is too long?"
"Well, I mean - is there a reason for the delay?"
"Of course!" He narrowed his eyes.
"Other than just making me nervous?"
Marx grinned at him. "Surprisingly, yes." But if there were indeed another reason, Marx wouldn't reveal it to him. He became impatient with the topic when Kirby pressed it, resulting in him stalking off to the control deck - leaving Kirby staring anxiously after him.
The task of providing Nova with food and water fell to Kirby - evidently, Marx refused to even enter the torture room after their deal, and certainly wouldn't 'waste his time' with something as menial as feeding their prisoner.
In all honestly, the task didn't bother Kirby at all. He much preferred to do it instead of Marx, since he didn't trust Marx to feed anyone properly. Someone who considered human flesh and cookies as a sufficient meal should not even be allowed to feed themselves.
Plus, he'd gotten... almost attached to Nova since he'd bandaged her wounds. He couldn't claim to know her well, or even be friends with her, but nonetheless her presence was a curious mystery to him. Her voice evinced purity; her presence, redemption and peace. After his initial doubt, Kirby became sure there was something sublime about her - something beyond human. Marx's claims of her divinity must be correct. She seemed to defy corporeal suffering - even in her wretched state, her spirit never seemed to falter. She hardly ever spoke, but neither did she bow her head in defeat or lower her single fierce blue eye.
Again, Kirby observed how unaffected she seemed to be by it all, despite her pain from the torture itself.
In the following days, he found himself talking to her a lot - typically about trivial things. He told her about Nashira. The whole story, even about meeting Khayla and Marx's death sentence. He told her about Dreamland - stories before Marx ever arrived, like hot summers spent by the pond.
He told her that they'd probably let her go once they landed on another planet, and that Marx simply didn't trust her to be released from the chains now. She never answered him, but nonetheless he felt some kind of companionship growing between them. Some kind of friendship, one that did not require her to speak a single word if she did not want to do so.
Her wounds also healed swiftly in these days - much more quickly than a human's would: a fact that inevitably provoked Kirby's already pressing curiosity.
Two days after her torture ceased, after Kirby had brought her lunch and sat down to talk (something which now had become routine), he found the resolution to bring it up.
She gazed at him attentively.
"You're not human, are you?" To someone else, the question might've seemed rude. To Nova, it was perfectly normal.
Nova smiled mildly in return, and shook her head.
He tentatively returned the gesture. "I didn't think so. Marx told me you were some kind of celestial being, but he won't tell me any more than that. I'm not surprised, though. With how quickly you heal... And none of this really seems to bother you." His smile turned wistful. "It's admirable, really."
She tilted her head to the side. Something in her expression evinced a mild confusion. 'I don't quite understand,' she seemed to say, 'but how curious you are.'
Kirby burned to ask more questions, but felt it would be very rude to demand yes and no answers of her. It was different with Marx: Marx could be asked a hundred questions and answer each with a fresh elaborate lie. But Nova, in one single question, produced such honesty that it seemed almost intrusive to ask her any questions at all. How strange, too, when she'd only ever spoken one word to him.
"I'll make sure Marx lets you go," Kirby continued. "I won't let him keep you here much longer. As soon as we land..."
But she responded to his words with such an unconcerned indifference. Did it even matter to her, being in this situation? How could she possibly be so unaffected?
Kirby furrowed his brow. "Do you mind if I talk to you? Do I bother you?" Cryptic smile. She shook her head.
"I think we're only a few weeks away from the next planet. Marx is going somewhere..." He trailed off. Somewhere. Not that Kirby knew where anymore. He knew only that Marx had some destination, and he wasn't telling. Talking mostly to himself, he resumed, "I thought we were going to Nightmare's Fortress. That's where we would find some answers - that's what Marx told me. Because of..." Why was he telling her this? She knew nothing about Kirby's own problems or Meta Knight. Something about her just inspired truth. "Because of Meta Knight. Nightmare's Fortress... he showed me a picture in a book that we got. From the library I told you about. Have you ever been there - to the Fortress? I wouldn't think so."
She remained unresponsive to his question. He kept on, "apparently it's very terrifying. Because your worst nightmares can come to life. It's weird though... Marx said there might be answers there, like signs painted on the walls - whatever that means. But that I'd have to be prepared to face my worst fears. Except, I think I live with my worst fear. That sort've made the thought not so frightening."
Kirby chewed his lip. "Only he's not going there anymore. This Halcandra thing... I think he's trying to meet someone else. I don't know who, but it makes me worried. What kind of friends can Marx have? Are they like him?" Then another thought, somehow even more disturbing, occurred to him. "Are they like me?"
This thought made him uncomfortable on all levels. Not only the idea that there might be others like him - but that he was a certain 'type' of person by being around Marx. That someone could be 'like' him in not such a positive way. Disturbed by his own thoughts, he fell back into familiar territory.
"Are you hungry? Do you want anything to eat?"
Another shake of her head. Nova didn't get very hungry did she? Maybe her situation didn't allow her much of an appetite: she always accepted food, but ate with only polite obligation.
"Okay." Abruptly, Kirby felt that his voice was too intrusive - too noisome. Surely Nova preferred silence, and yet did not want him gone. This was the sort of thought that often occurred to Kirby when he was around Nova; a certainty of what she wanted or did not want, and accompanying that knowledge, a desire of his own to do whatever she wordlessly asked.
Her arms must be sore, he thought, and her wrists raw. Marx wouldn't condone releasing her, but if he just...
Kirby stood and loosened the chains. Like a limp doll, she plopped right down, her feet tucked under her. "Sorry," Kirby yelped. She smiled at him and he got the impression it felt better for her anyway.
"Uhm, do you need anything else?" he added unnecessarily. Nova shrugged unresponsively. Her single eye closed and she sighed deeply. It occurred to Kirby that this was the most comfortable position she'd been in for a good week. Seized with an unexplainable compulsion, he crept behind her, turned around, and sat with his back resting against hers.
A pause. Within seconds, she relaxed against him. Gradually, very gradually, he became aware of her own breathing slowing. She was... falling asleep. Kirby tensed. It was comfort she sought. She relied on him. Someone relied on him. Terrifying, worrisome, stressful. She wanted this single moment of comfort. He couldn't do this. He'd shift and jostle her. He'd cough and bother her. Minutes passed where he hardly breathed. He sat awake, feeling like a sentinel. He pledged that he was not tired.
But fact was fact. He hadn't been getting nearly enough sleep lately, not with all of his worries... Not with Marx like a burning presence in the very same bed. His eyes slipped closed, and then snapped open. He wouldn't sleep. This was his purpose, his job - he needed to be there for you, still as still could be, so he wouldn't disturb her. Nova needed him to stay awake, and so he would... not...
He woke in the cold and dark. Nova had slumped into herself, thankfully no longer against his back, and so he could easily detach himself. He said nothing. He slipped out with a painful sense that he'd done something terribly wrong. He'd never meant to fall asleep, and had no idea how long he'd slept. The ship was completely silent but for the familiar hum of the engines. Now, it hardly comforted him.
Marx hadn't explicitly said he could sleep in that room. He'd never even directly said he could talk to Nova. And although he could not be ignorant of the hours Kirby spent in the torture room, he also never directly condoned the fraternizing.
And evidently... Marx hadn't gone looking for him. Or he had, and merely left him there without a word. The question now stood - where was Marx?
Kirby trailed through his familiar haunts, from the kitchen to the control deck, only to find each eerily deserted. He paused in the threshold of the control deck. So often Marx sat at the Captain's chair that Kirby only now realized he hadn't seen it empty for months. He never came here without Marx.
Could he be sleeping?
He went to bed without me? He hadn't even... Not that Marx was obligated to always go to bed with Kirby, but after all this time Kirby had begun to expect it of him - it was perhaps the one consistent thing he could count on with Marx.
Feeling very much like a dog that had gotten into something very nasty, Kirby slunk towards the bedroom. The door was closed. He pressed his ear to the wood. He could hear nothing over the hum of the Halberd. Although Marx was generally a restless sleeper, Kirby somehow knew his suspicion was correct.
Quietly, he slipped into the darkness of the room and snick shut the door behind him. The ship crooned its single deep note.
Kirby's eyes not yet adjusted, he felt his way over to the bed, along the wall, reaching blinding, brushing covers. He felt deja vu.
Inexplicably, Kirby's heart jolted. He sighed and crawled onto the bed. He wiggled closer to the other presence, but found that for once Marx's back was turned to him. Frowning, he curled his fingers around the back of Marx's shirt.
"What?" he snapped.
"Uhm." Of all the awkward requests... "Can you turn around?"
So no. Kirby wilted into himself.
"You were talking to Nova," said Marx.
Instantly, "I can stop."
"Oh, no... it's fine."
Uneasily, "are you... sure?"
"Of course, Hero of Dreamland." Springs squeaked, the covers shifted. Fingers brushed beneath Kirby's chin and stale breath clung to his lips. "You get lonely, don't you?"
Lonely. It wasn't loneliness that drove him to Nova, was it? He couldn't be lonely: he was never alone. "I have you."
Mocking, "and is that enough? Do you need no one else? Do you want no one else?"
"It's... I..." What was the right answer?
"Are you completely happy? Is this what you wanted to do with your life?"
"Why are you asking all these questions?"
"I'm being your considerate friend, Kirby. I want you to be happy."
Why did Marx do this? Why did he say things that were such outright lies that held just enough truth to make Kirby confused, to make him afraid? When in his life had Marx found the need to speak such backwards words?
"What would make me happy," Kirby dared, "is if we were heading towards Nightmare's Fortress."
"Che. A naive answer. You can't just fly into that fortress."
Kirby jerked his chin away from Marx's fingers. "That's how you made it out to me."
"You assumed we could just fly right in - poof! - and skip off into your nightmares without so much as a hiccup? Oh yes, I'm sure Nightmare would love it. While we're at it, let's ask Zero for tea!"
"Then why did you say we could?" Kirby snarled. His anger felt wrong to have while he lay placidly on his side, so he sat up. In the shroud of space-darkness, he discerned a twisted leer before Marx sat up next to him. "Why did you make me think we could?"
"You wanted hope."
"Not false hope!"
"Any hope you have now is false. I didn't think you distinguished."
"You could have warn-" He halted. "What?"
"What did you just say?"
"Oh, now you're not even listening to me. It's what I get for trying to talk to you."
"I have hope," Kirby protested.
"Yes, congrats Kay, you do."
"It's not false."
"Sure, sure. Of course it's not."
"I'm not arguing with you."
"Why would you say it's false?"
"Hmph." He tilted his own chin up and gazed at Kirby from the corners of his eyes. "Marx tried so hard to protect your little mind, but you insist on the truth. Marx tried so hard to keep you away from that which will destroy you, but you want to touch the fire. You lean over rooftops, you search your nightmares, you shun angels. You want me to tell the truth. Oh, how could I protect someone like that?"
Kirby narrowed his eyes. "I bet you don't even know what I am. Every time I call you out on this, you reveal another bit of information. But everything you've told me is cryptic. You talk in riddles, and I think you're just disguising the fact that you have no better idea than me."
"Kay..." Marx cradled Kirby's face with tenderness entirely out of place. "This entire time, you've believed me to be, to some extent, lying."
"You are," murmured Kirby.
"I have been hiding the truth. But not lying." One arm looped around his neck. His right hand trailed down Kirby's throat, across his shoulder, down his arm. His fingers crawled under his shirt and sought his shoulder blades. They lingered there, slowly stroking up and down as if expecting any moment for something to sprout there. Some metamorphosis to take place.
Their eyes were connected on the same wavelength, a tangible sensation of twisted unity. The tips of his fingers running in invisible traces.
"Why can't I know what you're hiding?" Kirby persisted.
"I'm protecting you."
Kirby closed his eyes tightly. Circles. Conversations always lead in circles. Deft fingers grazed his cheeks and teasingly tickled his ear. Deep sigh. Eyes still closed, he uttered, "tell me."
"You don't want to know."
"Yes I do."
"Kay... do you want to know who you are?"
"What are you expecting to find?"
"I don't know."
"What if you don't like it?"
"I'm still me, no matter what."
"So why does it matter?"
"I want to know."
"You spend a year in space with me on this ship just because you wanted to know?" No answer. "You left Dreamland, just because you wanted to know?"
"You let Fumu die just because you wanted to know?"
Kirby violently recoiled; Marx tightened his grip and refused to give him the option of escape. His voice hissed in his ear, "truth is, you don't have any purpose or meaning that you know of. The idea of finding out where you are from is nothing more than a pretense to stay with me. No one else will take you. You have no home. You do anything I say. You-"
"This isn't my fault! You dragged me into this!"
"You had a choice, hero."
"What was I supposed to choose!"
"Oh, you wonder? The man who practically raised you, or the kid who killed your best friend? You're very illogical."
"I couldn't go back! I wasn't thinking straight, it all happened so quickly-"
"You chose easily enough."
"What was I supposed to go back to! I had nothing - Meta Knight -"
"Yes, what about Meta Knight? Didn't he care about you? Didn't he spend hours training you, hours of his own time? Didn't he try to watch over you so you didn't get hurt?" As Marx's words spat out faster and faster, his clutch tightened to an uncomfortable level.
"Stop it, that hurts-"
"Didn't he look after you all that time you were growing up?"
"He was hardly there!"
"Didn't he stay in that hell-hole Dreamland for sixteen long years when all along he could've flown away in this very warship? Tell me, Kay, did he have any friends? Did he care about anyone else there?"
"No. It was you. He suffered there for you and you betrayed him without a second thought."
"I didn't - he didn't tell me anything-"
"Oh, poor baby, he didn't tell you anything. He couldn't live up to what you wanted so you threw him aside. You never trusted that he might be right. Tell me, is that what you would have done with Fumu too?"
"Shut up!" Kirby clawed at Marx's arms, he twisted away, his legs churned - he needed to get away, needed to -
Marx slithered on top of him. Hands crushed his neck and pinned him onto his back. Marx leaned over him like an animal, fangs bared gleefully.
"You know what I think it is? You want the dark. You were sick of things being so perfect. Things both Meta Knight and I tried to hide from you... the reasons we've done it... It never mattered, did it? Because on your own you're finding the darkness in your own heart."
"What is it?" Kirby whimpered. "What do you hide?"
Laughing low to himself, Marx viciously captured his mouth. Kirby tried to protest, but the words were snuffed out. He tried to fight, but Marx held him down. False hope, false purity. He was lying. He always lied. Does it make you hungry? Kirby gagged and shoved Marx uselessly. Darkness, he had no desire for darkness, he wasn't like that, he wasn't- his trembling hands reached up; he entwined his fingers in the greasy locks of hair sticking from Marx's hat. It was easier not to think. Marx was laughing. Kirby's mouth was full of the taste of someone else's mouth.
Morning dawned in darkness, as was natural in the oblivion of space. Kirby simply realized he was awake, and there was nothing more to it. He did not feel particularly well rested, but neither could he fall back asleep.
He squirmed. It was too hot. He shifted to roll onto his back, but Marx's arm clamped around his stomach obstinately.
"Stop moving," Marx mumbled between his shoulder blades.
Kirby sighed. Marx may be most manageable when tired, but he wasn't much of a morning person. The late nights of quiet talking – those moments were what Kirby truly treasured. But now it was warm and it was quiet. He had no immediate pressing needs (naught but a mild ache of hunger). He closed his eyes; it mattered little. Day, night, morning, afternoon, evening…. All artificial light and tireless darkness. All the same.
Although he did not fall asleep again, time skipped ahead of him in uncertain leaps. He lapsed into a comatose state of thinking without acting, browsing thoughts of darkness and circles and perpetuity without ever really lingering on one idea too long.
It must have been some time later before iciness crawled over his spine. His eyes opened.
"Look who's finally up," Marx said mildly.
Kirby closed his eyes and sighed. Watching him sleep? That seemed… not all that surprising, actually.
"It's been three days, you know."
It took Kirby a moment to realize what Marx meant. Warmth crawled up his spine and across his shoulder blades. He swallowed. "It has," his voice hollowly responded. Three days since Kirby had agreed to do 'anything' to stop Marx from torturing Nova. Three days... The day when Marx meant to tell him what that 'anything' was.
"I guess that means it's time for your task."
"What am I doing?"
An ambiguous smile. "Follow."
"I've always been pretty good with fire," Marx said with unrestrained glee. "How about you?"
"If it's to cook something, I guess."
"Ah, but then it's tame. Don't you think it's prettier when it's out of control? You can feel that loss of control, you know - one moment it bends to your will..." Marx twirled his pointer finger over the flame and it spun around like a fiery ghost on a leash, "... the next moment, it rips away from your control." Marx yanked his hand back as the small ghost erupted with a fierce roar before instantly shrinking into an obedient flame once more.
Kirby sat down hard, eyes wide. Marx studied him carefully. A face so normally twisted with vile perfidious expressions now indicated only calmness. He said solemnly, "I'm afraid of it too."
Kirby stared. What. Did Marx just admit...? The odd sensation that he was dreaming passed through his body in wobbly waves. Meanwhile, the jester's attention returned to the flame. His thin fingers prodded it, petted it, danced through it.
"Is this..." Kirby pushed himself into a kneeling position. Now both of them crouched over the flame not unlike aboriginals, united in some primitive way. "Is this safe?"
"We're in space, Marx. If the Halberd caught fire..."
Dazedly, "we'd burn."
"Maybe we should put it out."
"That's the thing with fire, Kirby. It lets you believe you control it, but that entire belief is a lie. Never think you can control fire. It's untamable. To work with fire, you have to be a little afraid of it - otherwise, it'll eat you."
Kirby reached for the candle; Marx easily let him take it, but those thin fingers ensnared his wrists. "Kay... Are you ready for your task?"
"That depends," replied Kirby cautiously. "What is the task?"
"Its nature doesn't matter. You said you would do anything." Sighing, Marx stood. All mysticism and curiosity in his demeanor flat-lined – in standing, he once more resumed the cold, eerie aura he reserved for untold plans. "Bring Nova here."
"Are you deaf? Untie Nova from the rings and bring her here. Keep her shackles on."
Helpless, he obeyed; he unties Nova and led her as Marx had commanded. She followed, docile and unquestioningly, so trusting. How terribly it stung, to think she trusted him when he so readily complied to the very thing that hurt her.
But not anymore. Whatever Marx's purpose in bringing her here, Kirby wouldn't let him hurt her.
When he reached the room, he found Marx bent over the fire, stoking it with a rod of metal whose tip was white-hot. Kirby stiffened.
"What are you doing?"
"Preparing," he answered smoothly.
"Preparing for what?"
Marx turned with a wicked smile. "You're going to do it for me," he purred, holding out the heated metal. "This is your task, Kay. You are going to hurt Nova for me."
Kirby's eyes widened. The bile that rose in his throat was barely suppressed by the tension that took over his entire body. Even his heart shuddered in dread. Marx wouldn't make him - Marx couldn't make him, not that. He shook his head forcefully.
"You promised not to hurt her," he said fiercely. "That was your end of the bargain."
"Very polite of you, Kirby, but you're wrong. I promised not to hurt her, and I wont. Oh no... I won't touch her, Kay, if you do as I say."
Kirby titled his chin up, his eyes horrified. A single step back.
"Yes," answered Marx to Kirby's unspoken refusal: a soft word, filled with dawning realization. The idea of Kirby joining him had been suggested mindlessly: Marx had found it to be amusing, or intriguing, or whatever emotion it was that drove him to say it. Now, having envisioned the idea, he no longer wanted it, but needed it. Dazedly, he smiled. "You'll do it for me, Kirby."
Watching was terrible enough. Intentionally participating... that was something else entirely. At least when he 'supervised,' he could justify that he held Marx back, that he stopped things before they went too far. Even if he had no true control over the situation, the knowledge of at least trying abated his guilt. There was no such redemption - no such excuse - in what Marx was asking him to do.
Marx slunk closer like a grinning hyena. Subconsciously, Kirby backed away. "I thought you'd have wanted to do it... Since, of course, you'd be gentler than me. I'll give you free rein with it - as long as you get it done."
Oh god. He knew him far too well. He knew Kirby would hunt for a moral reason to do it, and he'd just found one. One that made an unfair amount of sense. If he, Kirby, took the brand, he wouldn't be nearly as unmerciful as Marx. Just the opposite: rather than doing everything possible to exacerbate the pain, he'd do everything possible to minimize it. Kirby glanced at Nova. Her sympathetic, pitying look only clawed at his conscious. He wanted to scream at her for not hating him. "I don't want to," he whispered, voice strained.
Marx drawled, "no, of course you don't, but you will, won't you?"
"N-no." He eyed the metal as if Marx planned to use it on him, instead of Nova.
"It'll spare her some pain," Marx urged.
Kirby couldn't bring himself to take the offered weapon. He only stared mutely at it. Marx was right. But that meant he'd have to physically accept the iron brand, and actually... It was inconceivable.
"If you insist," Marx sneered. "I guess our deal meant nothing." Whirling around, he arced over Nova like a predator, the iron brand threateningly close to her face. Nova recoiled, cramming herself into the corner and gazing back at him with eyes that now only evinced terror. Snickering, Marx allowed the iron to hover over her prone form, just close enough that she cringed from the heat. She let out a stifled whimper. The rod traveled by the soles of her feet, causing her to tuck them quickly under her. Marx was just playing, Kirby realized with a sickening lurch.
His heart wasn't into it, though; he glanced back at Kirby to assess his reaction. He didn't care much about torturing Nova at this point. He wanted Kirby to do it.
When Kirby didn't comment, Marx made a pouty face. "Well, fine," he snapped, much like a spoiled child who wasn't getting what he wanted.
Abruptly he thrust the brand forward and dug the white-hot tip into Nova's side. Her reaction was instantaneous: she let out a high-pitched scream and convulsed. Her body instinctively attempted to move away from the pain at all costs, even though that only crammed her further into the corner. Marx granted her no mercy either; he pushed the brand harder on her side to ensure it maintained contact with her sizzling skin.
Suddenly Kirby found himself next to Marx. His hands wrenched the brand away, and threw it across the room. "Stop!" he was screaming, "god damnit, stop!" Then his hands were clutching Marx's collar, shaking him. His own body trembled; he couldn't believe his shaky legs still held him upright, and he certainly couldn't see anything through his tears but he was still screaming, "y- you won't," he gasped, "touch her again, Marx - not again, god, she's..."
Marx's fingers encircled Kirby's wrists, but Kirby ripped away.
"I do what I want," Marx replied petulantly.
"Except this!" Kirby lashed back. Even if he had managed to glimpse the danger in Marx's eyes, he wouldn't have heeded it at this point. He was beyond reason. "Except this," Kirby repeated in a hoarse shriek. "Y-you can do all your t-twisted - just... not this."
Lethal quiet, "Ah. That's really funny, Kirby. For a moment there I thought you were trying to tell me what to do."
"That's exactly what I'm doing," Kirby snarled. "No more... none of this. I won't let you torture anyone!"
Then Kirby's back collided with the wall, and his wrists were pinned above his head, and Marx's stale breath washed over his face.
"Who are you to tell me what to do? You, who's let me get away with so much; you, who might as well have signed Fumu's death warrant?" Marx grabbed his hair and forced Kirby to tilt his head back. "Oh, and wasn't it you?" he hissed, "who confessed you loved me? Oh yes, Kirby, your golden soul definitely gives you that right."
"Just shut up!" Kirby bit back, too furious to care that tears now ran freely down his cheeks. "Shut up! This is all you do - act so friendly and then turn around and use it against me, twist it around right in my face." Hissing in pain, Kirby squinted at Marx, at last fixing him with a clear glare, matching the fury in those purple depths perfectly. "I'm not trying to prove how perfect I am, Marx - I know I'm messed up and not okay and bad but - I'm trying to stop you from doing something wrong."
Marx's grip on his hair turned to steel and he wrenched his head back even further, placing a strain on his spinal cord. "I as good as own you, Kirby," he snarled through his bared fangs. "Don't even try to lie to yourself, because you know it's true. You are fucking mine, and you can't tell me to do anything."
Gasping, Kirby scrabbled at Marx's fingers in a fruitless attempt to relieve the torment. His eyes, even clouded by pain, burned with a strengthening fury. "So you expect me to watch you hurt her and do nothing? I'm not property. I'm not about to drop to my knees and give up! And you will not. hurt. her."
Marx's expression twisted into something thoroughly demonic and inhuman - words could no longer define his fury. Kirby had seen this feral animosity only once before... and Fumu's death had resulted.
Kirby wrenched out of Marx's grip - losing a chunk of hair in the process. By pure instinct, he bolted straight for the iron brand. He hadn't made it halfway there before a force jerked him back - his spine collided with Marx's chest - skeletal fingers constricted around his throat. Immediately, Kirby craved the very air he could not have. He threw back his head hard and with a hiss Marx released him. Not wasting a single second he dove, struck the floor, snatched the brand, and scrabbled up to face Marx.
Suddenly, with the brand in his own hands, Kirby saw everything with staggering acuity - but not at all with the clarity of a hero. No, he saw things precisely as they were to him. Futile. Always futile. The seething glare alone - without Marx even having to move - rendered Kirby feeble and hopeless. He swallowed this debilitating emotion. The brand, pointed straight at Marx's heart, kept him at bay for now.
Kirby knew nothing of the future, or the dangers to come. But he didn't think of that. He didn't let himself think of that. This moment... this very moment mattered. He refused to acknowledge the fleeting nature of moments like this, and instead reveled in the knowledge that he was at least doing something right.
His tongue licked his cracked lips. "S-stay away. Get away from me."
Releasing a frustrated hiss, Marx made as if to step closer. Electricity crackling along Kirby's spine, he jerked the brand towards the jester. Voice hoarse, "back off!"
They were reduced to strictly body language. Words failed to encompass their actions. Each entirely in tuned to the slightest movement of the other, down to their blood pounding and their hearts beating.
Marx tilted his chin up. Calm. Why was he so calm? Those sharp purple eyes studied him with a dangerous, calculating look. Silky soft, he murmured, "you're going to regret this, Kirby."
Kirby didn't sleep once that night, nor did he move an inch from the corner he'd wedged himself into. This corner, furthest from the door, gave him a full view of the room. The pressure of the walls on either side provided a weak imitation of comfort. They were preferable to the emptiness of the center of the room, at least, where Kirby felt Marx would somehow be able to sneak up on him.
Kirby also never released his hold on the iron bar. It was the one thing that came between him and Marx's manic anger, and no matter how fanatic the thought was, he wanted to believe it to be a stronger shield than it truly was.
He'd made a terrible mistake by intentionally antagonizing Marx and worse, succeeding in fighting him off. While shivering in the dark clutching a metal rod felt nothing like 'victory' to him, Marx would consider it such - and he hated to lose. Marx's hatred had only been turned upon him a choice few times, but each seared in his memory.
He didn't think Marx had ever been so pissed off, either, which did nothing to soothe his fraying nerves. Every squeak sent his heart thundering in his chest. Sometimes, he could hear Marx's footsteps overhead, and he'd crumble into sleep-deprived bouts of whimpering. Nova tried to speak with him - reassure him, even! - but Kirby was deaf to the attempts. He dreaded the morning as he would his imminent death.
The hours passed unending; time just kept moving and going nowhere. His stomach cried for food that never came. He began to wonder if Marx would not come down after all, and if so, what that might mean - what he would do if it appeared Marx wanted him to starve down here. He fell into a comatose state, eyes always half open, and the brand perpetually locked in his white-knuckled hands.
The click of a lock fractured his monotony. The secluded sound sent him leaping to his feet - numb fingers found again how to wield the bar. The door knob turned; the door opened. In slunk Marx.
Kirby licked his lips. "Stay back."
Marx shot a dirty glare towards him. In one expression, he made obvious how little he cared about the creature that dared stand against him. He approached Nova; instantly, Kirby skittered across the room and braced himself in front of Nova, the brand still held between he and Marx like an enforced wall.
Marx halted. "You don't want our prisoner to be fed?" he said treacherously, and held up a food they'd gotten from Nashira: some potato-based wrap - a surprising amount of food for Marx to allow Nova.
"Is that the only thing you're going to do?" Kirby cautiously asked.
And he expects me to let him...? Kirby's clasp on the bar only intensified.
"Then Nova will starve."
This statement Kirby had reason to doubt. He didn't even know if Nova required food to survive. But would he bet on it? If he forced Marx to back out now, when would he come back? Kirby's hands quavered; this decision seemed to be entirely up to him. It wasn't until now that he perceived how few decisions were his with Marx.
Kirby stooped his head, letting his shoulders slump over the brand. Any wrong move and he'd dart back in. He didn't want a fight, but if he... "Fine," Kirby muttered. With deliberate steps, he backed away, always with the brand pointed straight at Marx.
The jester offered a coy smile, and with hands mockingly above his head, drew near to Nova. Once at her side, he ripped off a small bit of the wrap and held it near her lips. Though her single eye stared straight forward, she cooperatively licked the food from his fingers. The image disturbed Kirby; so many times he had fed Nova, respectfully allowing her to use one hand to feed herself, that spectating upon Marx's and Nova's evident routine unnerved him. His stomach churned and bile aggravated his throat.
Only after Nova had been fed most of the wrap did hunger replace disgust. He himself hadn't eaten since yesterday morning. Despite himself, his hold upon the brand loosened. Marx hadn't brought anything else? Would he save the last bits for Kirby? But this was not to be so, as each torn food- bit disappeared down Nova's throat until he brushed crumbs off his fingers.
Kirby scuffled forward, undeniably curious. He needed food, too, after all...
Marx spared him an annoyed flash of his fangs and, turning his back, strode from the room.
The door slammed. The lock clicked.
Shock, panic. A strangled hiss strained his parched throat. That voice signaled danger and terror and pain. On a primal level, he knew he needed to get up and fight or something terrible would happen.
"Three days," it continued, "that's how long a person can survive without water... Give or take a day, depending on where they are."
With the support of the wall, Kirby tried to drag himself to stand on his thin legs - they wobbled under him, far too unreliable. The effort alone sent dizzying waves of nausea through his head. Standing up, he decided, was much too difficult, and he sat down, back against the wall. His eyes cracked open and gave an appearance to the voice.
Merciless amethyst eyes, a jackal's grin. And... he had a glass of water. Kirby's eyes widened. Wait. What? He had water. Water.
Marx knelt down. Kirby reached blindly for the cup, only for it to be held out of his reach.
"Please," he rasped. Too exhausting to keep his arm up: he let if fall.
"Don't you want it?"
Yes. Stars above, how he wanted that water, even if just a sip... Or all of it; his body craved it. But... this was Marx. This was...
Where had he left the brand? The brand - he needed the brand to ward him off!
But he had water.
"I asked," Marx said slowly, "don't you want it?" He tilted it towards his prisoner. Inevitably, Kirby's eyes followed the clear liquid. Nothing had ever looked so appealing - nothing had ever been more tempting than this single glass of water. In one excruciating moment, Kirby despaired at how much he had taken it for granted in the past.
Marx shook the cup a little, making the water slosh. "C'mon, Kay... I know you're thirsty."
Hating himself, Kirby again reached for the cup. Again, Marx held it out of his reach. Frustrated, Kirby withdrew.
"You have to say it," Marx scolded. "All you have to do is ask. 'Please, Marx, may I have some water?'"
Kirby opened his mouth - the words hovered on the tip of his tongue, not a second from spilling, when he snapped his teeth shut. He'd started this fight with a point, a purpose. A refusal to accept the things Marx did. How could he have...
Dazedly, his eyes traveled to the side - ah, there was the brand, only a foot or so away from him. His fingers scratched at the floor, closer - couldn't be that hard to just - he just barely touched the handle when Marx's hand slammed down on his wrist. Slowly, Kirby met his eyes.
"I was trying to be polite, Kirby, but we can do this the hard way too." Marx shoved the glass against Kirby's teeth. "Drink it. Drink all of it."
Kirby twisted his head away, weakly trying to shove him away. Marx roughly grabbed his chin and his thumbnail dug into Kirby's gums. The moment Kirby opened his mouth to cry out, Marx dumped the cup's contents down his throat. Only then did he release Kirby: the teen threw himself to his hands and knees and gagged on the stale liquid. But inevitably, unavoidably, oh how he hated himself - his tongue sought the drops from his lips, he sucked down the liquid, he gazed enviously at the damp floor.
"Look at you now, Hero of Dreamland! Do you feel important? Noble? Do you think you're doing a good thing? Some hero you make... Every time you try to do something good, you make things worse for you and everyone around you."
Marx knelt beside him. "Look at me." Pause. "I said look at me." He seized Kirby's face and forced him to meet his gaze. He offered one of his sickest grins. "Kay, you are powerless. You can never win. I will destroy everything you fight for. In fact, the more you fight, the more I'll have to destroy. You are no hero. You're a lonely little kid out in space where no one can save you and you can never escape. You aren't a hero, and you never were."
Pause. "Say it, Kay. Tell me how futile it is."
Kirby closed his eyes. Silent tears trailed down from between his closed eyelids. He shook his head. The water... if he could lick some up from the floor before it all evaporated...
He shook his head again. Stars above, he needed water, and sleep, and comfort... but how could he give up like this? Even... even if it was all futile. Though Marx had not repeated his question a third time, Kirby shook his head again. Marx hissed.
"Suit yourself." His hands slid from his face - with nothing to hold him up, Kirby slumped to the floor. Footsteps retreating, the rattle of chains, a soft squeak from Nova. All these sounds he heard as though through a long empty tunnel, distant from him both physically and mentally. His own breathing resounded in his skull, amplified to drown out reality. Even that weaved in and out, until his eyes slipped closed and he was aware of nothing more.
When he woke, he had no concept of time. No idea how long he'd been asleep. He attempted to lick his lips, but his tongue felt swollen and numb. A distant scream tapered off.
Water. He needed water. His lips parted to speak something - a cry for help, a plea, something - but his throat constricted at the attempt, sticking to itself. His body convulsed before his throat opened up and he coughed on dry air.
"Thought you were dead at first."
Kirby's eyes curved to the ceiling; two fierce purple eyes gazed back down at him. He coughed hard.
"I'll get you more water. You spilled the rest of it."
Kirby's attempt to nod looked more like a twitch, and Marx left before he could even muster any energy to fix it. The seconds drew out - they could have been minutes, or hours, or days. Maybe years. All he knew was his thirst. His weakness. Finally, footsteps approached; his tired heart leapt in relief.
Hands pushed towards his face - warmth and water. Water. Relief, heavenly relief. His trembling hands folded over Marx's; he drew the glass closer. Marx had warned him to go slow, but now that he had the water at his leisure, he sucked it down in large gulps. Marx allowed him only a few moments before he wrenched the glass away. "You'll make yourself sick."
Whimpering, Kirby ducked his head and obediently waited. His patience was rewarded by Marx tilting the cup to his lips a second time. Soon, he'd drained the glass.
He refused to meet his eyes. Now fulfilled, he didn't want to admit his desperation... Didn't want to admit how much he'd depended on Marx. How he even clutched his hands to bring the water closer.
"No," he muttered petulantly, though physically speaking this was a blatant lie: the water had returned him from the brink, and satiated his thirst enough that he recalled his hunger.
Even now, disgusted by his weakness, he couldn't help wondering when Marx would bring food as well.
"Some gratitude you show," Marx growled.
"It's your fault I'm like this," Kirby rasped.
"Ff, now, that's no way to speak to me."
That tone... condescending and feigning hurt pride... It made his heart twist. It rendered him weak. The very idea of trying to explain to Marx his side of things suppressed any of his energy. How thoroughly it crushed him, how so surely it drowned him in its futility. How could he even begin such a pointless endeavor? The thought alone proved staggeringly exhausting. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back.
His dry lips parted - and here he was, trying to explain anyway. Trying to make him understand when it was almost certain he wasn't even capable of understanding.
"After everything you've done…" he coughed. "How can you say that... That I should show you respect, or - or gratitude. How can you possibly be mad at me?" Defeated, Kirby searched his eyes. "I... I've given you so many chances. I trusted you, where no one else would. I never stopped trying..." He made no attempt to wipe away the tears streaming silently down his face. "I've only tried to do what I thought was right."
Marx tilted his head thoughtfully. "You don't understand how little sense that makes to me."
"Then tell me what does make sense to you," Kirby pleaded. "Please... why do you do this?"
"It's..." another humorless laugh before his expression turned serious. "It's because you trust me. It's because you always try to do right." A jagged grin. "You've really left an impression on me. The honesty and good in you brings out the lies and worst in me. The more you flash that around, the more I want to ruin it. Ruin you. It's... addicting. I'd even say..." He trailed off, introspective. Startlingly quick, he pressed his hands over Kirby's chest to feel for the heartbeat he craved, and he placed his cheek against Kirby's. "I'd even say I love you."
Tentatively, Kirby looped his arms over Marx's shoulders. Swallowed; his throat constricted and stuck to itself. "If you really loved me, wouldn't you stop this? Wouldn't you...?" Not destroy me.
Fingernails dug into his chest. "I can't do that."
"Isn't there any hope of changing you for the better? In the way I've been hoping? There's... never been any hope?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. There's always a chance, however small, when it comes to you. I did say you leave an impression on me."
"How likely is that chance?" Kirby breathed. With Marx, such a statement could be a complicated confession of a change already taking place, or a mostly fictional statement devised to keep Kirby trailing after a vain hope. He didn't notice Marx's hand slithering down his side until suddenly something cold encircled his wrist. It clicked with an ominous sound, and Marx grinned.
"I think you'll find the answer to that yourself," he murmured into his ear.
Baring his throat, wishing for death; a release from the pain. He had no power or strength to fight back, and even if he did, it would make no difference. This could not be fought. Marx could not be fought. Another current bolted through his body; his spine arced and his muscles convulsed. None of this he could control. His own body merely reacted to the torture. There was no decision in it, no choice. If things were up to him, he'd prefer to merely lay senseless and still. Knives could cut him up, electricity could shock him, and water could drown him, and still he'd lay motionless. This was what he desired... but things were clearly out of his control.
Another shock, another convulsion. He wrenched his jaws apart - a scream seared up his raw throat. The current ceased. Spent, Kirby slumped in the chains.
"Please..." A mere croak of a word, but he could produce nothing more. The next shock did not arrive - only silence. Then footsteps, and stale breath across his face.
"What was that?"
Warm liquid squeezed from between his clenched eyelids. Why did he continue to endure this? There wasn't anyone to save him. He was helpless to save himself. "Please stop," he uttered.
"Please, stop!" he shouted, then whimpered from the strain on his throat.
"Again," Marx said, but softer.
"I said... please... stop."
Two hands cupped his face. Wearily, Kirby's eyes slid up to meet his torturer's. They were still ruthless. Unforgiving nails bit into his cheeks.
"The Hero of Dreamland. You've fought so hard, all this time. You've always tried to make things right. To make them better. You've been... so determined. So relentless. Things that should have broken you - things that should've stopped you - didn't. You're tenacious; I'll give you that. But you know what? I can't trust you because of that. I don't know if I should stop right now."
Marx yanked his head up, forcing his neck at a painful angle - in fact, Kirby was very certain that if he moved Marx could snap his neck. Breathing alone seemed risky, and so he sucked in only the smallest sips of precious air.
"You understand what I mean?" Marx continued, "Maybe, if I stop now, you'll only become determined again when you're not in this position."
"No, I won't," Kirby rasped without hardly moving his lips.
"No, no! I swear!"
"Words spoken in the depths of torture mean very little, don't they?" One hand crept up his cheek. A pointer finger coyly traced the purple beneath his eyes. Instinctively, Kirby closed his eyes. He could've sworn he heard Marx draw in a shuddering breath. "No... you can get someone to say anything. I could get you to swear your soul to me. But it doesn't mean much, does it... Doesn't mean much when you feel better. When scars heal and bruises vanish. You... forget the pain. And you rebel again, Kay."
"I won't fight you. I'll do anything you want. I won't ever fight you again."
"Maybe if you had a reminder." That finger pushed up to the corner of his eye, where the tip wedged into his socket.
Kirby violently flinched to the side. Marx lost his grip and swiftly clutched Kirby's shoulder to hold him in place. When he spoke, his words had gained a breathy, excited tint to them, "hold still."
"Don't-" Shaking, breath released in little bursts... He held still.
He didn't want to know. Pressure at the corner of his eye. Kirby wondered in a flash of mindless amusement what life would be like with only one eye. Then it started to hurt. An unwitting hiss fled from him; but looking back, he didn't flinch. His body tried to, but something deep deep in his mind stopped the movement right in its tracks. Eventually, he'd look back at his cooperation with pride.
Marx's nail was digging into his eye. Water seeped from that eye. He couldn't stop trembling. The pain intensified; he released a whimper.
Stop drawing it out, he thought darkly, do it. Do it, please. Because once he tore out Kirby's eye, wouldn't he believe Kirby's loyalty?
"You aren't trying to escape," Marx laughed breathily. "Do you realize how rare that is? How… unnatural. Everyone tries to escape. Except you."
Get it over with.
Kirby was ready for the agony. Oh, it was coming, without a doubt, certainly – horrific. But this waiting! It was unendurable torment. The suspension of raking agony. Marx drew it out especially for his torment, and it was working. Of course it was working. Marx plotted this and found everything he could use to his leverage.
"You fight against instinct," Marx purred. "For me. You resist the oh so very human need to flinch, to pull away. For me..."
Do it! If you're going to do it, do it! Please!
Kirby writhed under Marx's hands: a gentle spasm. He couldn't bear this.
"Please," he uttered.
"Please do it."
Marx froze. "What did you say?"
"Khh," Kirby couldn't control the shudders of his body, icy electricity jolting through his veins. "Please do it. Take it. I'll let you. Take it." He choked back a sob. "If it proves to you that I'm loyal... then please, take it."
And Marx did.
"There is no escape," Kirby echoed. "There is no hope."
"That's right," he purred, petting back Kirby's grimy bangs. He closed his eyes.
"There is... no escape. No hope." Having begun, he could not stop. He tasted the terrible finality of the words again and again, for now spoken, he could not run from them. "There is no escape. There is no hope. There is... no hope." Never had he truly understood the meaning of those words - not until now.
"Good." Marx allowed him to loop his arm around his shoulder. His right wrist Marx took in his left hand and he skimmed his lithe fingers over the pale flesh. They traveled to his own hand - and suddenly there was something there in his palm; numbly, his fingers closed over it. Noiselessly Marx slipped away; Kirby gazed down at the materialized object.
A... knife? A lot smaller than he would've thought - he didn't remember seeing this one before. Couldn't have been more than two inches. His vision swam; the opal-colored blade wobbled and rippled and then snap! went back in place like a rubber band. All Kirby's limbs felt like they were made of heavy jell-o: he didn't understand how he was still holding the weapon at all.
"I'm busy. Be patient." Shifting chains, Nova scuffling and whimpering.
"I know, I know. I'll let you eat after this. We gotta start your training first."
"Okay." Many moments later (or so it felt to Kirby, who could think of nothing but the promised food), Marx grabbed his wrist and steered him to Nova. She now faced the wall. The chains lifted her arms high above her bowed head, and her silky white shirt was pinned by the back of her neck, exposing her back. Smooth, pale, flawless.
Marx stepped behind Kirby and looped his arms around his throat. "I'll feed you after this. I'll keep it simple for you too. Write: 'there is no hope.'
Write? What did he mean by wri- His single eye widened. Ah. He wanted him to carve it in.
"I'll help." Marx wrapped his hand around his and clenched tightly, preventing him from dropping or loosening his grip on the knife. Under his guidance, the knife tip focused on a point below her left shoulder blade. Kirby's hands were shaking, but Marx's were steady: the knife tip pressed gently on the flesh. Exerting more force, the tip punctured her skin. A delicate bead of red clung to the silver. To Nova's credit, she did nothing more than twitch - such a prick hardly compared to previous treatments.
"I don't want to do this," whimpered Kirby.
Marx jerked the knife down; now a thin vertical line descended from below her shoulder blade. A second line soon crossed the first, forming an uneven 'T.'
"Do you think that'll make me stop? Has that ever worked, Kirby?"
Three slashes, an 'H.'
"So shut up." And he did.
At letter 'N,' Marx released his hand; Kirby continued on his own, spelling out his own jagged fate in another's flesh and blood. When at last he lowered his hand, the words stood out fresh and sharp against Nova's quivering back:
"Can I eat now?" he whispered.
Routine. How could something like this become routine? Of all the words, why was that the most fitting? Routine implied normal. Regular. Day to day events. A task you did so often that it became second nature. A task you did so often that your mind inevitably wandered while you accomplished it... your mind detached itself and let muscle memory take over.
That's what this was. What it had become. What he'd become. Somehow, bringing him to this terrible moment. A revelation. A dreaded, dreaded realization. In the multitude of times Marx had forced him to do this, in the multitude of ways (with his boundless creativity), it had become routine. Screaming served as a signal, informing him he was doing it right. When it hit just the right pitch, he knew he ought to stop. Marx taught him the finesse - the artistry - in it. Sometimes it could be a very quiet process, sometimes it could be a very slow one. Sometimes he was delicate and precise, sometimes Marx incited him to a dull rage and then he could not be accounted for what he did.
Always, Marx would reward him. Rewards were good. Food, water, those were nice, necessary. If he did really well Marx would reward him with other things. The rewards he liked, but no matter how routine this work would become, no matter how much his ears had dulled to the sound of screaming; his heart to the sight of an angel's broken body; his mind from the atrocious actions he committed - no matter of all these things, he found consolation in one fact. Only this one thing could possibility redeem him, and this thing was the firm knowledge that, unlike Marx, he did not enjoy it. He was numb to it... but he never found pleasure in it. Just hatred, sometimes. To whom, he didn't know: Nova, Marx, or himself.
Here his thoughts calmly stopped. He was reaching the point in the torture session where he was going too far. It was time to leave Nova alone for another night. Marx had taught him many ways to do this without the mess of blood or an immediate threat of her death, so there was no need to tend to wounds. He just had to leave her.
But Marx's judgement presided over his own. Before he could ever leave, he had to ensure Marx agreed with him stopping.
Before relinquishing his hold on the latest weapon, Kirby cast his gaze towards the figure casually reclining against the far wall. He earned a languid grin - approval.
Relief. A temporary break, until he next needed to pick it back up. The weapon slid from his fingers to the floor.
A hypnotized gait carried him to that far wall, where his legs crumbled under him and he collapsed beside Marx. He faced Nova, but did not truly look at her. He never wanted to look at her unless he absolutely had to.
"Are you going to make me feel good again tonight?" he asked dully. "I want you to make me feel good."
"Not yet, Kay."
Marx knelt beside him and his fingers encircled his right wrist; he dug two forefingers into the dent between two bones and gripped tightly. Kirby would have jumped if he hadn't been so accustomed to the process. Marx was feeling his pulse, internally counting beats and comparing to previous measurements.
Kay closed his eyes and ignored him. Already knew what he would find anyway. No need to see the satisfaction in his eyes. This avoidance prompted a quiet laugh from Marx.
"You still don't want to admit it."
"There's nothing to admit."
"Nothing," Marx echoed, savoring the word, "and everything. It doesn't bother you much anymore, does it?"
"Open your eyes." When Kirby failed to obey in time, Marx dug his fingers into his wrist. "I told you to open your eyes."
Lacking any real energy to protest, Kirby obeyed, and Marx forced him to meet his gaze.
"How long, do you think?" Marx murmured, seemingly as though speaking to himself. That strange sick light had appeared in his eyes.
"What?" asked Kay, subdued. Marx grinned. His thin fingertips skimmed along his cheek. Slowly, they trailed down and pressed lightly into his neck. Again with his pulse, as if his expressions and words were no longer enough.
"I wonder," Marx resumed, "how long before you begin to enjoy it too?"
Marx was right. In the end, he was always right. It started subtly. It was getting worse - but he restrained it. He hadn't told Marx yet - but Marx knew.
He finished his work for the night and did not immediately leave the room. Oh yes… he'd been feeling something, deep in his chest. A prickling, but one not entirely unpleasant. He dropped the knife and tilted his head back and breathed heavily. He sought the feeling deep in his chest and let it spread. It eased across his flesh, through his veins; he shivered. Intrusion. Violation. But he let it spread. He let it seep through his flesh and embed itself into his heart.
Marx's hands skimmed along his shoulder blades, over his shoulders, his collarbones. "You like it," he whispered in his ear. "You like hurting her."
"Yes," Kirby admitted. Part of him wanted to cry, but that part was now so little, so insignificant. Marx knew. He always knew.
"It'll fade," Marx murmured, pressing himself closer. "And then nothing else will hurt, Kay. Everything will feel good. Won't you like that?"