If Vexen thought the researchers had enough problems to begin with, Axel's appearance worsened the situation tenfold. Rather than wait meekly in the corner for instruction - as was Saix's habit, whenever the diviner was not skulking around muttering about Xemnas's orders - or poke at his surroundings in a haphazard fashion - like Aerlen had always done, and they had rapidly invented safeguards against - Axel settled into his new habitant without any hesitation. Within his first week at the warehouse, he had already learned how the stairways would change without warning and where they would lead to next. Within the second, and he was strolling about as if he'd been in the city for years, a cocky grin shining upon his face.
In rising irritation, Vexen ordered the younger Nobody to fetch supplies from a particularly remote storeroom in the lower floors. It should have taken Axel several days to find his way down there and back again - particularly since that wing of the building had decided to shift itself ninety-degrees around the axis of the warehouse - but before the afternoon was even halfway over, Axel was traipsing into the labs with a triumphant grin and a box in his arms.
It was enough, Vexen decided, to drive a man mad.
Saix was easy to ignore. The diviner always seemed content to accept basic commands, so long as there was no threat to the researchers on the horizon. Annoying, but easily overlooked in the grand scheme of things.
It was impossible to dismiss Axel.
Instead of behaving with proper deference, Axel acted as if becoming a Nobody was little more than a change in vocation. None of his inquiries focused around the nature of their existence, but instead what responsibilities each member had, what roles, what authority. With a surgeon's precision, Axel pointed out each crack in the lack of formal hierarchy between the researchers - or perhaps it was simply his proximity that began to bring the gaps to light, forcing an outsider's perspective on what had formerly been a clump of six childhood apprentices, and two human-shaped pets.
It was enough that Vexen was beginning to dislike being in the warehouse - let alone his labs - never knowing if the next set of feet down the hall would result in Axel tapping on his door, or asking questions that Vexen did not want to answer.
"I understand our limited resources do not allow for much selection, but is the man truly necessary for our goals?" he exclaimed irritably the next time he met with Xemnas, pouring over lists of various Dusk phenotypes.
Xemnas did not seem moved by the protest. His expression had resumed its enigmatic peace once more, serenely bereft of common sense. "Is anyone?" he offered back with a cryptic smile, and then gathered the reports and left.
Vexen stifled his thoughts, and stole the pens off Xemnas's desk for good measure.
The other problem with Axel was how quickly he captured Aerlen's attention. While Vexen was initially pleased with the girl's sudden disappearance from the labs, whenever she did come around, it seemed as if her attitude had breached some new plateau of rebellion. Her challenges were less petty, and focused instead on Vexen's ambitions, on his research, and what might come of it. Her questions were keen to gather information, and her attention had sharpened with them.
Axel, he realized, was not only a disruptive influence, but a corruptive one.
During the man's secondary diagnostics - a procedure which instantly reinforced Vexen's insight that Axel was more trouble than he was worth - several more variables were solved. Xigbar had determined that the chances of Axel suddenly dissolving into a pile of acidic goo were relatively minor, which left the remainder of the newcomer's charts to be filled out in Vexen's labs. All that remained, apart from combat testing, was the realm of magic.
When asked if he retained any trained skills from his previous life, Axel shrugged. He stretched out one long, lanky arm, eyes drooping shut like a marionette's lids gone slack over painted cheeks. There was no other ritual, no motion, until his mouth suddenly curved in a tight smile.
A ripple of heat stroked the air, and power blossomed forth.
Light flared off Axel's fingers. The explosion rippled out in a wave that shaped itself into two artificial wings, beating on either side of a thin neck that reared proudly from the flames: a bird born from heat and light, crackling as it breathed. It shivered like a sentient beast, wrapped around Axel's arm. With a spasm of frantic motion, the spell-summons threw itself forward towards Vexen, beak opening, wings wide - and then vanished, leaving only a rush of blistering wind to caress the scientist's face, driving the smell of the desert into his nose and forcing him to squint.
"Fire Dancer," Axel explained with a gallant bow. "Always had a knack for the hot stuff."
"Very nice," Vexen shot back. He straightened his jacket, pretending that he hadn't flinched. "I'll have to ask the Dusks to install an emergency extinguisher system."
After everything had been properly evaluated and analyzed - sufficient testing determined that Axel had conscious control over his powers, and would not ignite his bedding in his sleep - Vexen finally gave the impatient order for Axel to dress. The redhead shrugged his shirt back on, buttoning up the front. His material possessions consisted of a chain necklace that had two metal tags dangling from the links, a set of canvas pants that had been marked with his family name on the back, and a pair of scuffed boots. All had been passed through superficial examination, and all were less suspicious than the questions Axel carried in his mind to occasionally parcel out at the worst moments.
"You guys do perform important business here, right?" When Vexen didn't answer, Axel prodded at the fresh jacket and pants that were folded up on the end of the table. "Don't you ever get tired of wearing black?"
Vexen skipped confirmation of the test subject's cognitive abilities, leaving a tell-tale blank square instead of initials. "No."
"I'd, uh, imagine that it'd get kind of dull in the morning," Axel continued ruthlessly. "Though everything would match."
"These are the uniforms we have. Black is a simple color, and keeps us from being distinguished when we are out. Wear whatever you wish beneath the jackets - I believe Xaldin may be prone to nothing at all." Flipping back the papers one last time to make certain he had filled out all the necessary statements, Vexen shoved the report into a folder and clipped it shut. "What you wear on your own time is up to you, but try to keep in uniform while performing Organization business. If you'd prefer," he added sharply, unable to resist the jab, "I understand Xigbar has a coat in your size. It has butterflies."
Victory was denied him, however. When Axel leaned too far back while tugging on his new boots, and nearly upended several delicate beakers with various forms of acid, Vexen snapped, "If you don't have an appreciation for science, at least retain an ability to get out of its way, idiot."
"What science tells me," Axel drawled, pulling the metal buckles tight, "is that there's a word for people whose bedroom fantasies depend on blindfolds."
"Amaurophilia. And don't ask me how I know it," Vexen tacked on, seeing a smirk begin to inch its way over Axel's mouth. "You are dismissed."
But the questions did not end there.
The Dusks had taken liberties in rebuilding the warehouse after the assault, and now it seemed as if the cramped hallways were taller. Lights were everywhere, and a soft glow had begun to radiate from the walls themselves. Towers studded the perimeter. The building had taken on enough mass that it had begun to resemble a fortress rather than a humble storehouse, and more Dusks were appearing by the day.
Axel was always early for breakfast, which alone would have made Vexen suspicious of his character; of all the people the scientist had ever known, only Xehanort and Ansem the Wise had ever shown up willingly in the mornings. Both of them had been clinically demented.
The easygoing cheer with which Axel was buttering his toast when Vexen arrived fell distinctly in the category of the insane.
"So, uh. Tell me." Not waiting until Vexen had even finished pouring a cup of coffee, Axel set down his knife and took a lusty bite of his toast. The grease shone on his upper lip as he grinned at the scientist. "How many worlds are you guys planning to rule over? I mean, who decides who gets which countries when it's all done?"
Vexen found his reach for the sugar dish obstructed by wiry knuckles. He shifted, wondering if he could dodge past the cream and snatch a spoon on the way. "We don't."
Axel's fingers were black spiderlegs. They countered the feint, blocking left, then right. "Hey, no, I understand. Don't want to tell the new guy all your secrets too fast. That's cool. I can wait. Maybe we can book some time in the afternoon together, you can let me know then, 'kay?"
"No," Vexen repeated, thwarted into staring up at the other man, making eye contact only from coercion. "There is no conquest. We are not intent on destroying worlds to build an army that will dominate civilizations. We need soldiers, but to defend this city we have now, and protect it from being destroyed by others. That is our goal. The sooner you accept it, the better."
Axel was careful enough to keep any negative expression from crossing his face, though he made a small grunt in his throat, and retreated his arm to his side of the table. "I'm almost disappointed." It was impossible to read any sort of emphasis out of those words; they caught at Vexen's mind like a barbed hook. "When I looked for the cause of all this, I expected to find people who were in control. Instead, this Organization's all about... thinking about things, instead of doing them. Like some kind of weekend getaway."
A glance around the table revealed that none of the other researchers seemed inclined to speak up in their own defense. Xigbar had folded his arms and was regarding the standoff with an expectant smirk. Lexaeus was taking exactingly careful bites of his waffles and refusing to meet anyone's eyes. Only Saix had lifted his head in a dangerous flash of attention - but he remained mute, mute and obedient.
"Memory." The word brought back a sudden flash of Zexion's voice in Vexen's head, so clean that at first, the scientist did not realize it was his own throat that had given the answer. He thought of Ienzo, of Melinda, and lilac flowers. "There's little point in building a world as to live on if we forget who we are in the process, after all."
The revelation held less meaning for Axel, judging from how blithely the redhead shrugged. His spider-fingers toyed with the jam. "Maybe I don't see the use in having that world if you're not going to do anything with it, either. Why aren't we more active?" he pressed. "You said we have enemies, but there are still plenty of worlds out there to claim. I'm betting we could just... sorta, take what's on the fringes. As long as we were careful, who'd notice?"
Disgust coated Vexen's lips, twisting them into a sour grimace; even for the illusion of emotion, it was effective enough. He picked up his spoon and sliced off the top of his boiled egg. The yolk inside leaked the smell of sulfur. "I think you still don't comprehend the situation, Axel. We are not here to lay waste to nations. We just want a place to safely exist."
"It's only the fact that we remember we were once friends that helps keep us working together," Zexion chimed in at last. As calm as if the conversation was happening worlds away, he scooped a chunk of melon out from its rind, and balanced it with expectant relish on his knife. "Without retaining those memories, we also would not remember the reasons we have to keep from killing each other indiscriminately."
From the sudden recoil in Axel's posture, Vexen realized that the redhead did not know if the claim was a joke or not.
Relief came in the form of Xemnas clearing his throat. "I see we should establish at least one guideline early," the man stated softly, setting down his fork with a delicate, metal click on his plate. "Violence is not the rule here, Axel."
"Then what is?"
A brief hint of a smile, and Xemnas reached across the table for the syrup. "Me."
The clatter of sticks played percussion on the air; a yelp broke the rhythm of combat, followed by a stern command.
All the researchers had turned up to watch Axel being matched against Xaldin on the field. The official sparring yard had resumed use, despite being located snugly against the testing wing of the warehouse. There was no potential security breach at risk. The experiment cells all sat empty, depleted of living resources; most of the Dusks had been too occupied to capture more victims, and no one had assigned them otherwise.
Not only Axel had to endure physical testing. Beside them on the field, Aerlen was being put similarly through her paces. Xaldin had not discussed the mental or emotional status of the girl; the other researchers left a slew of disorganized notes on his shelf in the library, and the lancer had ignored it all. He kept her busy instead by assigning training exercises. The change in physical activity seemed to benefit everyone involved: since Aerlen was too tired at the end of each day to cause trouble, the warehouse was markedly calmer without her mischief to taint it, and even Axel's arrogance seemed dimmed.
That particular morning found Aerlen in the middle of tumbling practice while Axel caught his breath from the match; bruises dotted his bare torso, deep stains that were already mottling a sickly purple. Xaldin seemed tireless as he demanded Aerlen to perform cartwheel after cartwheel, unrelenting with his demands. At times, he would pause, stepping forward to place his hands on her shoulder and back, supporting her through another flip whenever she stumbled.
"Here is life at the end of the world," Vexen announced over Aerlen's faint protests, narrating his own ill temper as blandly as a biology documentary. "This is existence as a Nobody. From what I've been able to determine, that condition involves occasional disasters, interspersed with long stretches of endlessly cycling boredom."
No one responded.
The sound of hands on concrete was giving him a headache; slaps of flesh and the occasional grunt as Xaldin corrected Aerlen's footwork. Now that their main source of entertainment seemed to be over - namely, watching Axel being hit by a variety of sticks - the balcony had lapsed into knots of private contemplation. Zexion did not look up from the book he had brought with him. Xemnas was engaged in some sort of mute argument with Xigbar further down the landing, silently handing a gun back and forth.
Down on the asphalt of the practice yard, Axel was leaning his practice staves against a bench, grabbing a towel off the rack to wipe himself clean with; Aerlen and Xaldin had moved on to engage in what looked like some sort of reflex game, accompanied by knives.
For lack of anyone to stop him, Vexen continued to speak.
"We've accomplished so very little. Xehanort's decay. Experiments out of hand. How long since the Bastion fell, and what do we have to show for it? Perhaps," he added, twisting out the words despite their taste, "Axel is right after all."
"We're still alive." Lexaeus's deep voice spoke up from the near end of the balcony where he was arranging several trays of plants, carefully marking off wooden sticks whose ends were striped with designation colors. "Don't take that for granted. Away!" This last command was barked as quickly as an explosion, bass-voiced and angry. Xemnas and Xigbar's heads jerked up from their conversation like birds to a gunshot; even Zexion blinked and glanced over, his eyes as impenetrable as an animal's.
Just as Vexen thought to inquire about the outburst, he noticed several inky blots of Darkness slipping over the edge of the landing, scattering like dust motes in a breeze. Deciding this was of more interest than the fruitless monotony of the yard, Vexen leaned back against the rail. "So the Heartless are listening to orders now," he hedged. "Why?"
"They're hungry." Lexaeus's suggestion came with an indifferent shrug, no longer concerned now that the pests had dispersed. He lifted one large rack of herbs, shedding a handful of dirt off the rim. "They're hoping if they listen, we'll restock the test subjects, and feed them."
"They can't hope," Zexion drawled, closing his book to join in the back-and-forth debate. "Nor should they be conscious enough to plan. They're listening because they're naturally pliable when presented with displays of strength."
"So you're saying that we've become powerful enough that they're starting to take notice of us once more? Is that supposed to be encouraging, hmm?"
"Or they could be obeying hunger after all, Vexen - "
"What," Axel said, cutting through the jumble of voices as he exited the balcony stairwell, "are you all talking about?"
They turned as one to face him; instantly, he froze, holding up his hands as if to ward away their attention with the shield of his palms. Then he pulled the towel off his shoulders, wincing as he scrubbed at the bruises on his chest. Exertion had left the crown of his hair in haphazard spikes that were heavy with sweat, and dark as scabbed blood.
"How do you know these things about the Shadows?" he tried again, with a deliberate nonchalance; the act was betrayed by how his eyes kept wandering away from the group before flicking back, as if waiting for an attack that would start as soon as he looked away fully. "You guys must be experts at controlling them by now, right?"
Zexion was the one who caught the challenge, turning the consideration of his gaze upon Axel, his profile shadowed beneath his hair. He made no attempt to push his bangs aside to look at the other man clearly; whatever reason was propelling him to play the game of words did not extend to further hints. "We were apprentices once," he allowed softly, "in magic and in science. We changed the memories of an entire world before, through use of the Darkness. Perhaps by developing our new powers, we could even strip a person of their mind, and turn them into a Dusk."
Axel gave a snorting laugh. Then he sobered. "You can do that?"
"Maybe." Zexion's mouth was a fishhook curve. Then the expression faded away, slipping back into the impenetrable neutrality of his face. "It's been years since we first played with the Darkness. Who knows what we're capable of now?"
Flipping the towel back over his shoulder, Axel held up a hand again in surrender. "I get the point. Great job, making the newcomers feel welcome. Might want to look into that." He ambled over to the main table, taking his time to pour a glass of water before heading back to the railing where Vexen slouched in observation. His shadow draped itself over Vexen's hands. "So, anything new happened lately, oh all-powerful scientist? Something interesting for once?"
The response was a scowl. "Nothing you need to be concerned with, Axel."
"Oh, yeah?" The man's breath was warm as he leaned in. "Try me."
Vexen's shoulders hunched.
"I'm going out," he announced suddenly, making the decision in a snap of impulse and logical distaste. Destinations cycled in his head like figures on a wheel; disregarding the urge to explore, Vexen settled on a familiar route. He pushed off from the railing, and left Axel and his endless queries behind.
Xigbar straightened up as he passed. Vexen heard the gunner voice his name in a curious quirk of sound, but Xemnas remained silent, and then the gate opened before Vexen and took him away.
All dignity for his departure vanished within five minutes of Vexen's arrival in Twilight, right upon realizing that he hadn't packed supplies for the trip.
It was a less embarrassing plight than it could have been. Abandoned buildings dotted the outskirts of the Town. One of them - a small villa which curved against a rippling hillside - had already been established as an informal waystation for the researchers, and one which Vexen could take full advantage of as an excuse for his escape. He had only visited briefly during the initial arrangements; Zexion had been the one to handle the details of payment, which largely entailed giving enough munny to the groundskeeper to leave them alone.
The higher plateaus of the town were far enough away from the central train station that little traffic passed through, and what did was slow and meandering, not bothering to stop and ring the doorbell to ask for the time of day, or a cup of sugar, or if the Nobodies cared to donate to the next Struggle tournament. None of the Dusks had reported any repeat visitations of the mysterious Keyblade Master that had first signaled the Town as off-limits. The villagers seemed content enough to leave the black coats alone, whenever they did happen to take note of them; like the half-light that clothed the buildings, the inhabitants of Twilight seemed willing to let events fade away into sleepy memories, laconic and at peace.
For all its virtues, the villa was not entirely perfect. Basic supplies still had to be hauled in: food, water, Dusks. The risks of establishing an official outpost remained high, and Zexion maintained that they should not risk habitation past a few months. Still, Vexen found himself appreciative of the chance for stability, in a place to wait that appeared relatively normal.
He picked out the directions to the safehouse at a leisurely pace. The front door opened under his touch. No landlord bustled up to inquire about his business, though the flicker of a white Dragoon retreating down the hall was enough to know that the building had not been left unprotected.
When Vexen had left the dark city, he half-expected a second portal to open behind him with a demand for an explanation in tow. But then a day went by, and then another, and Xemnas did not send anyone to retrieve him.
Apart from the subtle presence of the Dusks, Vexen remained alone.
Vexen considered this fact with the same cold rationality as observing a chemical reaction, and then stopped wondering when a messenger to show.
Finally, deciding not to hide in the villa any longer like an errant boy awaiting punishment, Vexen chose to take his own initiative. He pulled on his jacket, tightening the zippers and buckles in preparation for exploring the town. Dusks flittered in the corners of his vision as he descended the stairs to the main foyer. No more than a handful of the basic models had been assigned as a safeguard - mostly to provide a distraction for attackers, Vexen assumed, in case of a hasty retreat - but one was never far from his side. It was the single concession that his ego might have accepted; if no one chose to drag him home, at least they did not remove his guards either.
There was a strange resistance against the villa's entry door, as if someone had shoved a wet sack of laundry against the front to keep it from blowing open in the wind. Vexen wiggled the handle back and forth experimentally before finally giving a hard shove; the offending object vanished suddenly, and Vexen stumbled forward into the daylight with a barely-restrained yelp, almost tripping over a slender, mop-haired man who looked just as surprised to see him.
The youth recovered first, staring up at him hopefully with all the professional skill of a hungry panhandler. He jingled the wooden cup at his side. "Spare some change, sir?"
Vexen snorted, picking up his foot to step over the obstruction. An instrument case sprawled nearby like a vagrant's crutch for sympathy. Judging from the boy's tattered clothing and level of poverty, his identity was clear: even at the edge of realities, it seemed that beggars would collect like so much detritus. Doubtless, the boy had run off from his family with an idea of surviving on the musical appreciation of others.
From the look of things, it wasn't working.
As Vexen walked away, he heard the whining twang of strings being plucked behind him. The villa would doubtless be uninhabitable for the rest of the day, until the beggar got weary and left. Locking the door was not a concern. If courage - or desperation - caused the boy to think about robbing the place, he would be shortly terminated by the Dusks.
That thought was entertaining enough that Vexen almost thought to stay behind and watch.
He steered himself back onto business with a sigh. Two of the Dusks pulled away from the villa to flit along behind him, winding their bodies around fenceposts and trees, diving in and out of folds in space like dolphins pacing a ship.
Vexen refused to be impressed. "If you're supposed to be protecting me," he snapped, pulling up his hood with a leathery snap, "why don't you eliminate distractions like that?"
They stared back at him silently.
He snorted at their ignorance, and descended the slopes into the town.
Lacking more delicate scientific instruments, Vexen found himself resorting to whatever was available, hauling out vegetable jars and cooking pots to help contain his experiments. He began from scratch again, abandoning previous theories in favor of a fresh approach: severing limbs off the Dusks provided him raw material without having to create it from the bottom-up, and he had encountered no success while pursuing the latter. No matter how carefully he had worked to cultivate the proper conditions, the artificial cells dissolved away in curls of black smoke. It was an impossible barrier.
Experience with the ENCOM system had proved that limited artificial intelligence was already within reach - but without a will to bind the body together, it seemed as if the flesh would remain inert, and inevitably decay. Unfortunately, the creation of will - of identity, or memory - was not a secret that could be found among the Heartless, with their ravenous hive-mind appetites. The Dusks did not seem to exhibit any useful qualities, but there must have been something powering them, some wan spark that once remembered it had been human, and this was what Vexen found impossible to capture.
After too many wasted attempts spent peeling away legs and arms, he reversed his efforts. Rather than severing flesh from a Dusk and trying to preserve life in the appendage, he began to separate components strategically from his test subjects, removing joint after joint so that he could estimate how much structural damage could be sustained before the inevitable collapse.
A Dusk did not need both legs. It did not need both arms either, and certainly not all of its torso.
The Dusks themselves did not protest the treatment of their comrades, but their population levels did begin to drop. Eventually, he sent one back to the warehouse with the irritated command to fetch more of its brethren for his experiments.
His beggar-plagued isolation was broken soon enough. One afternoon as he returned from the observation of various insects underwater, he discovered Zexion peering in curiosity at the severed head of one Dusk that had been left simmering on the stove, bubbling alongside a teakettle that had been set on one of the other burners.
Vexen went straight to the refrigerator and shoved another jar inside, lining it up alongside the rest of the amputated torsos. "If you've altered the temperature of the cranium," he warned the other researcher peevishly, "I'll have to start all over again, just so you're aware."
"Dissection isn't my thing." A splash betrayed the claim; Vexen straightened up to watch Zexion stick his finger in his mouth thoughtfully, nursing a burn. "Is this your dinner? I hope not."
The kettle trickled a wan serpent of steam. Vexen scooped it up. "Thankfully, the Dusks liberated the hard labors of a bakery this morning, and relocated it to these cupboards. Not from this world," he added, seeing Zexion start to open his mouth in protest. "Do give me some credit for not causing trouble."
If he thought the matter would end there, he was wrong. Even as Vexen wrenched a mug out of the cupboard and poured what remained of the hot water from the kettle, Zexion was frowning. "The more we steal from populated worlds, the more we'll have a chance of being noticed," he cautioned, drying off his hand and moving to investigate the refrigerator.
"And until Lexaeus can manage to grow more than mutated carrots in his gardens, I'll give your suggestion its proper due. Namely, none at all. Everything that's scavenged from the dark city tastes the same after a while anyway - manufactured from reprocessed Darkness, I'm sure." Vexen shook his head, adding another inch of milk to his cup. The teabag bobbed; one of the corners hadn't been secured properly, and a few of the smaller, shredded leaves began to leak. "So in the meantime - what is that noise?"
What had been a keening wail from the kettle rose into a shriek that was coming from outside the villa's walls. Vexen shoved the window open, only to have his suspicions confirmed: the street performer had moved directly underneath the kitchen and was tuning the strings of a long-necked instrument that looked as if someone had taken a guitar and done very unfortunate things to it at birth.
He fumbled for the first thing that came to his hands, seizing the kettle and hurling it out the window in a curving arc that would have made any of the Bastion chefs proud.
Expecting the satisfaction of a pained yelp - or at least the clatter of metal on stone - Vexen returned triumphantly to the stove.
He turned back, frowning out the window.
One of the stray Dusks had darted forward to catch the kettle. By doing so, it had shielded the beggar, who was busy cowering underneath its gangly limbs, clutching his musical apparatus to his body. The boiling water had miraculously spattered in a perfect arc around them both; none of it appeared to have scalded the performer or his instrument, which was an outright tragedy in Vexen's opinion.
"Interesting," Zexion remarked. Pushing past Vexen's elbow, he settled his arms onto the lip of the windowsill like a particularly self-assured cat. "Did you expect that to happen?"
Vexen spared some of his indignance in the other researcher's direction. "Not particularly." Recovering a corner of the window by forcing his weight against Zexion's shoulder, the scientist squinted down at the bizarre tableau. "Dusk," he called out, scowling at the lack of anything better to address the beast with. "I want you to strike that man, not help him."
"No, no," the beggar spoke up hastily. "He really doesn't have to!"
The Dusk wavered, shifting its limbs about like seaweed. Gradually, it began to lower its protective stance, but refused to pull away entirely. No further acknowledgement came; its shoulders bowed like a cowed dog underneath Vexen's glare, and nothing more.
This is what I get for not keeping them as pets, the scientist decided sourly, filing the note away in his thoughts with all the other annoyances of his existence, right behind the reminder to restock his liquid mercury, and alongside the memo to someday understand Xemnas's shorthand. Coaxing Dusks to his labs and then giving them awful nicknames had been something Vexen had wanted to avoid, but being disobeyed was intolerable.
Catching sight of the faint smile tracing Zexion's face, he snapped, "Why are you looking so smug about this?"
"Can't you see?" Zexion's eyelids were heavy with contemplation. He extended one languid finger, pointing directly at the musician who was now crab-crawling away, trying to keep the Dusk between himself and the window. "What else could contradict a Nobody's orders - except for another one?"
They caught the beggar before he managed to escape, cornering him on a ramp leading away from the villa back towards the town. The Dusk had apparently taken it into its head that - even if it could not obey Vexen's direct commands - keeping track of the new Nobody it had protected was sufficient to keep loyalty to them both. It scampered around the musician, herding him carefully along the sidewalk, tripping him up whenever he tried to run.
Eventually, the man must have given up on eluding his escort, because he turned sharply and sat down on the ground.
"I can't believe you didn't notice before," Zexion was laughing as they descended the shallow slope in leisurely pursuit, giving soft chuckles of disbelief. The sun was warm on Vexen's shoulders. It colored Zexion's hair like candy.
"Not all of us have your perceptions," Vexen growled back. "Should I pay attention to every piece of street trash that blows in my direction?"
"The musician." The emphasis made the word into an invocation; Zexion slid his hands into his pockets as he walked. "Not trash. The Dusks don't interact with people normally. But this one responded to him. Don't you find that suspicious?"
Unwilling to concede, Vexen only gave a sniff. "Everything is illogical these days," he declared loftily. "If I put any effort into keeping track of what was normal, I'd have changed projects long ago to something that wasn't a complete waste of time."
When they finally caught up with the beggar, he was hunkered down against the glass windows of an abandoned furniture store. Wooden chairs stared back at his plight dispassionately as he curled his body into a protective ball, legs crouched. The neck of the instrument jutted out from between his arms, cradled to his body like a grossly swollen infant; the case must have been left behind.
He swallowed, spasmodically, and announced in a brave whisper, "Please don't hurt my sitar."
"Stop being an idiot, and we won't have to," Vexen snapped. The beggar seemed no more remarkable now than any of the other dozen times he'd cluttered Twilight's streets. His pants were ragged, and the sashed robe around his chest looked as if it had seen better days, so worn that it seemed more grey than blue. Everything was clean, though threadbare - and not a single significant power had triggered to give any indication of the man's true nature as a Nobody. If it wasn't for Zexion's indication, Vexen would have pinned it all back to coincidence, and returned to the villa to forget the matter forever.
But when Vexen reached out towards the musician's chest, vaguely planning to check for any vital signs, the beggar went completely still. He took a deep breath; when he spoke, his voice was as hard as a glacier, as impenetrable as a storm. "I don't want to fight anything."
In the words, Vexen heard warning, and dropped his hand.
"Then you'll die," he announced, equally unyielding, equally cold. "You'll die, because the Light will find you, or the Darkness will, and there's no place to stand between. Without the willingness to protect yourself, you'll be hunted down for sport and killed. It's inevitable."
For all the dire nature of his predicament, the beggar did not cower again. "I'm not a man of violence. On my world... we celebrated life. We didn't destroy it."
"Then I have a suggestion for you," Vexen replied, leaning close, close enough that he could smell the oddly salty tang of the musician's skin, the oil of his rakish hair - and the lack of real fear to cloud the man's sweat, despite all the pretense of terror.
They did not see the musician around the villa after that. Zexion chose not to contest Vexen's decision - chose not to, or found it more interesting to leave the latest Nobody to its own devices, Vexen was not certain. Such a decision was for the best, in the scientist's opinion. Power could not be found in cowardice, and what else could it be but cowardice, choosing to flee knowledge rather than seek it out?
"A musician," he grumbled, extracting a row of jars from the refrigerator and seeing how many Dusk-fingers had already dissolved. "A pacifist."
No messages had come from the warehouse. No inquires for progress reports had appeared either. If Xemnas had deprioritized the creation of new Dusks, Vexen decided mulishly, then it wouldn't make a difference if the scientist took time off from the project, and finished it on his own schedule.
That, and he couldn't afford to let Zexion get away with any new discoveries, either.
He confronted the other researcher after a long afternoon spent watching the collapse of Dusk-body prototypes in one of the study rooms. White flesh congealed like lumps of jam and inevitably broke apart once more, lifeless without an animating force. "You've been coming by quite often, but you haven't explained why," he began, trying to sound indifferent as he filtered another vial of solution clean of offending flesh. "A few nights, and I'd blame it on curiosity, or not having anyone else around to listen to you ramble - except that you've been suspiciously quiet. Then Lexaeus starts to come by. Don't think I haven't noticed him in town," he continued, picking up speed - and turned to discover that Zexion had already left the room, abandoning the conversation halfway.
He caught up to the other researcher in the kitchen, where Zexion had started to make tea. Silverware clattered as fingers that were customarily nimble slid the drawer closed, hard enough that the wood jerked and tried to catch in its socket. Zexion straightened it with an impatient tug.
Vexen snatched the man's spoon and cup away, claiming them for himself. "You're dodging the question. What are the two of you preparing here?"
Bereft of his excuse, Zexion leaned against the counter, staring out at the open window. The smell of tea leaves seeped through the kitchen air. The breeze was replete with the heavy decorations of summer: the rich odor of bakeries, the humidity of fresh grass, stormclouds swimming on the horizon.
Just as Vexen began to give up on any response, Zexion opened his mouth.
"We're going to try looking for home."
The spoon dangled from Vexen's fingers. "Is that even possible?"
A clot of wings swooped close to the windows before shattering into individual birds; the flock settled into the trees, and Zexion remained immobile. "Over the weeks, Lexaeus and I have been able to triangulate the greatest concentration of Darkness we've been able to find so far. That must be where Radiant Garden lies." After a moment, his shoulders finally eased; he folded his arms, but there was no tension in his face when he glanced back. "We... haven't told him."
There was no question of who was being referred to. Vexen set the spoon on the counter. "If he finds out, he'll try to stop you."
"Stop us," Zexion agreed pleasantly, "or insist on going himself. Which do you think is worse?"
Turning off the stove with a click, Vexen stared at the empty cup. "Then there's only one way to keep him from finding out while you're gone," he declared, wondering if the brazen confidence of his voice would have been false, had he still possessed a heart. "You'll have to bring me with you."