Winter found the Castle in full occupation, with all eleven members of the Organization in residence. Despite the temptation to abandon the City and wait out the months on some tropical world in luxury, most of the Nobodies stayed close to home, tied down by work. Pinned up together, restlessness soon made itself known. Attempts at entertainment soon cluttered the halls. Music trickled out of spare rooms that Demyx had left idle, neglected instruments whispering endlessly to the air. Zexion's chess set gained and lost pieces at an incomprehensible rate. Dragoons and Snipers fought for space in the practice yards, teaming up to bully the Berserkers that lumbered past. Charts and maps spread out across the tables of the central library, spelling out three fronts in the ongoing campaign: Light, Darkness, and the Organization. The Light had been winning for several weeks, but not by much.
In the frosty mornings, breakfasts ran long. As snow slowly coated the City, all of the Organization members took to spending more time around the dining table, loathe to wander too much in the unpleasant conditions. The halls of the Castle were drafty. Most of them bundled up. Even Vexen, who had finally been lured back to the mealtable by Zexion, found the degree of chill unreasonable. Though he could ignore external temperatures through careful application of magic, having to endure them for too long created a slow drain of energy and wasted concentration that could have gone to more valuable affairs.
By contrast, the rooms most used for social affairs seemed all the more welcoming, with fires burning in all the hearths and the odor of soups drifting in lazy, savory clouds. Luxord's Gamblers had successfully staked out a professional restaurant on a world where the stewpot had been raised to a cultural art form. Vexen didn't care why the world treasured its sailors and avoided the artificial storms; what mattered was that he was able to benefit from their generations of perfectionist chefs. There appeared to be endless kitchens that could be stolen from. The Dusks brought back cauldron after cauldron of broths so rich that Vexen swore he could taste the salt simply by standing in the hallways, and taking a deep breath.
One morning in the middle of winter, the Dusks hauled out a meat and vegetable stock, coupled with a few heels of thick wheat bread. Grease shimmered on the surface of Vexen's soup, clinging to the curve of his spoon. The combination would be good for the day: filling for the appetite, yet providing enough energy to remain productive through long hours of work. Though escape to a summer beach would be as simple as opening a gateway, Vexen could not similarly teleport all his laboratory supplies with a snap of his fingers. Even if he could, the delicacy of several of the experiments resisted easy transportation. Like the rest of the Organization, he was trapped indoors to wait out the season.
He swallowed another spoonful of breakfast, and dabbled at the tiny chunks of carrot floating in his bowl.
The conversation around the dining table was saturated with rumors. After Marluxia had finished settling in - his presence changing from novelty into yet another fixture of the City - Xemnas had directed more of the Organization's effort towards fueling their army of Dusks. The only reliable method remained cooperation with the Darkness, and that gave poor odds. For every ten cities fed to the Shadows, barely enough Dusks to fill one village were created; for every hundred nations, the Organization was lucky to gather two. The different populations were becoming dangerously lopsided. But even though the Darkness benefited equally whenever an entity was consumed, there was no other way to generate a Dusk. Vexen's best efforts only reshaped the wriggling creatures, but could not birth one from scratch.
The failure was temporary, or so he kept reminding himself. In the meantime, the current model sufficed. Most of the Heartless seemed willing enough to obey the commands of the Organization - so long as there was not a stronger Heartless around. Fleshing out the rest of their forces were the cast-off Nobody shells, which were useful regardless of whether they became common Dusks or joined the specialized ranks.
Slowly, the City was filling up. White clashed and intermingled with black. The symbol of the Nobodies danced among the Emblems, until the Castle buzzed with monochrome. Even Demyx had Dusks that chose to follow him, wrapping their bodies in heavy caps and billowing pants, prancing along to unheard music behind their master.
It was a crude means of increasing their numbers. Ultimately, it would be a losing race. Zexion had warned them all about the danger during one of their last meetings, patiently droning on about the disproportionate growth of Shadow to Dusk - finishing with a deft reminder that converting all the worlds to Nobodies was a means to an end, not the final goal. Darkness claiming ascendancy over all the known worlds would only exchange one dominance for another. The Organization had to succeed in charting its third path.
Just as Vexen was sinking into deep contemplation about the possibility of throwing Dusks blindly towards any nearby worlds in hope of a chain explosion, Xemnas cleared his throat.
The noise was almost entirely lost in the din of ongoing conversations. Vexen only caught it by virtue of being two seats away. Zexion, whose perceptions were even sharper than his, broke off mid-sentence with Lexaeus and abandoned his pursuit of the sugar bowl.
When no one else paused to give Xemnas their attention, the man set down his spoon with a precise click, turning it so that the handle lay at an angle from his cup. The metal scraped across glazed ceramic with a rasp. He coughed, louder this time.
"Xigbar," he began, cutting through the awkward hush that finally managed to descend. "How long has Aerlen been staying with us?"
Startled mute by the nature of the question - Xemnas barely acknowledged the girl in the Castle anymore, let alone made her the subject of mealtime conversation - Xigbar threw a quick glance across the table. In her chair, Aerlen was caught frozen. She stared fixedly at her breakfast, skin pale. The silverware in her fingers slid gently out from between her knuckles and slipped into the beef broth.
"Years. At least that long," Xigbar added bluntly, the words coming out like awkward quarrels fired wildly in hopes of hitting the right target. "It's got to have been over a couple. Five? Six? Maybe more?"
Xemnas seemed to absorb the answer placidly, with no outward reaction. His hand covered his spoon again, gentle as a caress. Then he shrugged, and picked it back up. "I'd consider that a reasonably sufficient period of time. Unfortunately, we can't afford to entertain this hobby any longer if it hasn't produced anything useful. After breakfast, we'll terminate you," the man continued, never losing the reasonable, almost affectionate edge to his voice as he nodded towards Aerlen. "Don't worry - there's plenty of time to finish your meal. Have a second helping."
In the silence, Vexen watched Aerlen's throat work around a swallow.
Xigbar recovered first. "We're really getting rid of her?" When Xemnas nodded, the gunner sighed, leaning back against his chair with his shoulders squared. His gaze roved across the triangle of his breakfast, moving from bowl to napkin to coffee cup. Finally he took in a breath to speak.
"Guess that's that, then. Bye," he offered Aerlen, holding up a hand briefly in her direction. Then he bent his attention fully towards his own meal, working his spoon around a particularly large chunk of potato without giving the girl a second glance.
In all this time, Aerlen's composure had held, but Xigbar's flip dismissal snapped something inside her. Eyes wide with disbelief, the girl flushed from white to hot. "You can't - " she protested, and the sound was too strangled to be a wail, too sharp to be a plea. But it sliced through the room as effectively as both, drawing the notice of everyone who had been pretending to look away. "You can't just throw me away like this. I won't allow it!"
Her chair clattered as she stood, upending it. The legs sprawled in the air like the brittle corpse of an insect. The soup bowl went next as Aerlen slammed her hand against the table and clipped the rim. Broth spattered. Her spoon pinwheeled to the carpet. Carrot chunks flecked the sleeve of Marluxia's coat.
Xemnas did not flinch as Aerlen swung her glare towards his end of the table - but whatever the girl saw in his eyes stilled her rage and panic instantly. She lapsed into panting, open-mouthed, spots of color streaking her cheeks as if she'd been struck.
Curious, Vexen twisted his head in Xemnas's direction, but the man had already picked up his coffee cup to take a drink, and his expression was obscured behind a curve of porcelain.
Xaldin was next to say his farewells. He regarded Aerlen for several long moments before gathering himself to his feet, rounding the table with measured, unhurried steps. She drew herself closer to the flimsy support of the table as she saw him approach, shoulders hunching into a defensive huddle that would do nothing to save her from a focused attack.
When he was near enough, Xaldin reached out and touched Aerlen's shoulder, tracing a gloved finger along a fold in her coat.
"Keep the jacket," was all he said, and turned away.
Zexion did not go through any similar overtures. He remained seated in his chair, calmly sipping from his cup of tea. When Aerlen looked at him, angry red blotches smeared across her cheeks, Zexion did not look back.
Remembering the kiss that he had caught the two of them in - and the ill-fated attempt at bartering that Aerlen had tried to make for her life - Vexen found himself watching the other man closely, wondering if some master plan would spring to life. But Zexion merely continued with his breakfast, orienting his pieces of toast side by side so that he could butter them, and in the end Aerlen gave up with a sharp curse underneath her breath.
Lexaeus took his time before reacting. Without waiting to be addressed, the man got up from his chair and circled the table until he was facing Aerlen, with nothing between them but the length of the carpet. He approached her carefully, not seeking to avoid her gaze, but not holding it either. She watched him in silence. Her hands clenched tightly enough that they shivered.
When he finally reached her, Lexaeus knelt down, as he had in the past when she was just a child and still following him around in the gardens. He was tall enough on one knee to almost look her in the eye even after how much she'd grown, shooting up in height with the eager legginess of a teenager.
For a moment, he seemed to hesitate, brushing her hair back with the same restrained gentleness that he would use to straighten the errant branches of a tree, or to touch a glasswork too fragile to set his hand upon fully.
"Goodbye, Aerlen," he told her seriously. "It will be better this way."
"Lexaeus," she breathed, almost a whimper, her throat tight enough to make the consonants squeak.
But Lexaeus stood and backed away, a hardness in his mouth that Vexen - despite his years of knowing the other man - found hard to decipher. His lips were tight, bloodless at the edges from where they were pressed together. There was no wavering in his composure. Taking one step and then another, Lexaeus widened the distance between himself and Aerlen until not even the girl's outstretched hand could bridge the gap.
One by one, all the rest of the Organization offered truncated goodbyes, indifferent words coming quickly between the silences as everyone kept to their own thoughts. Aerlen stood there helplessly, her accusatory gaze skipping between their faces. Briefly, she glared at Vexen, but he let his attention slide away from her, focusing instead on a point on the wall just past her shoulder.
Axel attempted a brief jolt of humor, joking something half-formed about rites of age and virginity, but it fell flat quickly and he didn't bother to finish. Demyx looked torn between how he wanted to react, smiling at first, and then going sober in a flash, mixing words and tone asymmetrically. Luxord simply wished her luck.
Of them all, Aerlen looked last to Marluxia. Her mouth opened, as if to plead one final time, but shut before she could make the attempt.
Marluxia held her gaze without giving anything back.
Then, he slowly shook his head.
Aerlen made a sharp, unhappy hiss between her teeth. Her face seemed to collapse into a geometry of sharp lines, closing up into a hatred that she didn't bother to hide. It was the only emotion left showing on her; whatever fear she had harbored had been suppressed by resentment, all hope discarded in favor of aggression. It was an animal's resignation, Vexen thought: an animal's desperate anger against odds so impossible that it had no other choice but to fight against them, even as it smelled its own death on the air.
"If you're all finished," Xemnas's voice interrupted, overriding the quiet scraping as Marluxia patiently ate spoonful after spoonful of broth, "someone needs to take her out and dispose of the matter. If no one's willing to volunteer - "
"I'll do it."
Heads turned like startled cats.
Faced with the gazes of the rest of the Organization upon him, Vexen made a dismissive jerk of his chin. "I've already eaten my fill, and I need more insight with my work," he explained haughtily. "Observing the Shadows feed today would be a useful detour. I could benefit from watching them devour her."
Xemnas's brow furrowed. Vexen refused to weaken before the other man's curiosity. In truth, he couldn't have explained the impulse. He'd volunteered arbitrarily, before Marluxia could plan anything - or so he told himself as he stared back evenly at Xemnas, easily finding a number of suspicions coming to hand. It wasn't guilt; none of them could feel such an emotion.
It wasn't guilt. He simply wanted to prevent any conspiracy.
Eventually, Xemnas relented. "Very well," he shrugged. "Enjoy. Luxord, if you and Xigbar could meet with me after dinner to go over the supply inventory?"
Pushing away his breakfast dishes, Vexen took advantage of the opportunity to escape before anyone else could question him. He nodded once sharply to Aerlen; she jerked away from the table and her toppled chair, moving with less grace than one of his Glorp prototypes. An escort of Dusks fell in beside them as Vexen made his way out of the dining hall, unwilling to open a portal in the middle of the group and risk someone else's covert influence over the destination.
Despite the opportunity, Aerlen did not bolt in an attempt for freedom. Even if she had, Vexen knew the Shadows would have found her in the City; still, the lack of token rebellion was atypical for her. As a child, she'd run once into the streets, desperately hoping for a way back home. Now she walked obediently alongside him. He lengthened his stride, but Aerlen kept up gamely without lagging behind, quickening her steps so that she could keep pace.
Refusing to be threatened by her silence, he spoke up. "You knew all along that we were going to feed you to the Darkness."
She kept her face turned resolutely forward. "Yes."
"Aren't you afraid?"
Aerlen barked a dry laugh. "Afraid?" The mockery lingered unpleasantly in Vexen's ears. "How can I be? You people would have no mercy either way. If I've learned anything from having a second chance at life, it's that feelings are useless - useless except for the pain you can inflict on anyone unfortunate enough to still have them. I reject my own heart. Maybe those creatures out there will find it tasteless." She tossed her head, the two long bangs hanging free without any hairpins to keep them in place. "I don't think I'll mind losing my heart. That way, I won't need anything ever again."
They rounded a corner in the hallways, the twinned pulse of their heels beating against the thick carpet. Outside, snow was continuing to fall, salting the windows with stray flecks that clung to the glass before being swept away by the stuttering winds. Winter was softening the glare of the streetlights, hazing them out in rainbowed auroras that filtered across the streets. Rather than continue to circle the Castle with no clear destination in mind, Vexen came to a stop and peered outside. It was cold enough that when he set his fingers on the glass of the nearest window, tiny halos of condensation crept around them, blurring together in a single streak.
"You used to try and convince us so often that we had feelings," he began, and halted there, uncertain how to continue.
She stirred beside him. "Do you have to talk about that now?"
"I was wondering if you'd finally realized your mistake."
Aerlen snorted. When Vexen stole a glance in her direction, her profile was tinted with light from the streets: blue, green, crimson lingering over the slug-like lines of drying tears on her face. He'd looked at her too late to catch her in the act of crying. "I'm not wrong. I may not be right, but I'm not wrong either." She held her chin up bravely for a second, and then her face contorted. "I know that sounds stupid. I don't know what to say. You don't care about others, but you still react with emotions. Just... other people can't make you have them. Other people can't make you change."
As she trailed off, her fingers wound the ties of her jacket around her knuckles, around and around until her hands were clenched around the metal counterweights on the ends. Vexen watched the visible skin between the ties turn white, bloodflow cut off by the pressure.
"Come on," he said at last. "The Shadows are waiting."
The nearest balcony was at the end of the hall. The door was metal, marked with a red exit sign: a rare throwback from the Castle's old warehouse days. Vexen only allowed himself to hesitate for a moment before he pushed it open, feeling the crisp winter air rush in to invade the halls.
Outside, the buildings of the City were drawn in jagged silhouette along the horizon line. Vexen reoriented himself against one of the buildings in the distance, opening a portal to bridge the distance between his rooftop and the other. The effort, minor as it was, tired him. A slow ache began to hum in his bones, just enough to make him wonder if a flu had snuck in on the heels of someone's offworld visit. It was a bitter thought. The Organization could ruin civilizations, could walk between worlds with a thought or twist the substance of Darkness itself for their needs, but the simplest infection could still take them low.
The beginnings of a headache beat against his temples. Vexen's breath puffed thunderheads into the night. Aerlen had started to shiver, tiny spasms of her muscles betraying her despite her best self-control. He spent the effort to suppress his own sense of temperature. When the chill subsided into a distant awareness, he steeled the remainder of his concentration and opened the second portal.
He took them both through quickly, exchanging one rooftop for another. Dusks trailed behind them in a strange parade. Some of them chose to tag along through the portals, while others sailed in the distance, flocking together like white birds whose wings had been plucked. Attracted by the activity - and by the fresh heart that Aerlen possessed - Heartless began to congregate as well. Thick gouts of ink peeled away from the crevices of the City's streets, bubbling out like black porridge.
As they picked their way around the rooftop vents of the next building, Aerlen cocked her head. "If I become a Nobody, will I still see you? Will I be that strange, or will you still remember me as Aerlen?"
Vexen scowled. "I will remember you as nothing. The person I'm speaking to now is your heart, remember? When it's gone, what's left behind will be different. I hope your Dusk will be more obedient."
There was a scraping of snow to his right. Aerlen had stopped in place and had turned her face towards the sky, lifting her hands to the speckled blackness as she once had towards thunder and rain. "She won't. I plan to survive," the girl insisted, "even if it's just through my body."
The ladder to the fire escape had been yanked off its rails and thrown onto the rooftop. Vexen frowned at it as he trod across the rungs. "You would have to become a viable Nobody first, and I believe Luxord's odds were ten to one against it, the last time I checked," he retorted. "No. Your time is over, Aerlen. It's enough."
For a moment, Aerlen held her poise; then she dropped her hands. "You're right. I'm done being afraid. This is enough. If I remember anything at all, I swear I'll remember how useless my heart was. My Nobody will find you all again, and you'll wish it hadn't."
"Because we'll have to put up with you a second time?"
She bared her teeth in a grin. "Maybe."
They crossed one rooftop and then another as Vexen opened and closed portals, seeking a building that would be tall enough for his purposes without being encircled too tightly by urban clutter. Despite Aerlen's claim to have accepted the situation, he would be foolish to trust her. The last thing he needed was to allow the girl any opportunity to escape; he did not relish the thought of having to waste time in hunting her down to make certain the Shadows had claimed their prey in the City's twisting streets.
One of the taller apartment buildings gave him a clear view of the roadways. Vexen paused there to check over the side, bracing his foot on the thin slabs of concrete that lined the edge. In terms of safety for any former residents, the railing could barely be called a token effort. The concrete only came up to the tops of his boots. Anyone approaching it was more likely to trip than to catch themselves safely.
It would suffice.
Looking down, Vexen could see that the Heartless had kept on the trail. In the surging void below, a few pairs of yellow eyes glimmered back: pinpricks that peered curiously at the presences on the roof. Then the lights began to move, squirming around the base of the apartment building like fireflies beginning to swarm. A few Heartless were bold enough to start worming their way up the side, but the attendant Dusks swept in to form a boundary between them and Aerlen, constructing an unsteady perimeter around the rooftop as they fenced and stabbed at the Shadows that squirmed in flat ink puddles over the windows.
He felt a tugging on his arm, and glanced over.
Aerlen was there, using him for support as she balanced on the flat railing. Refusing to ignore her fate, the girl had laced her fingers in his jacket and was boldly perched on the edge. He adjusted his gaze down to examine her knuckles instead, relieved for any excuse not to look at her face directly.
She refused to grant him that option. Leaning in towards him, Aerlen tilted her head until she could invade his field of vision. Her mouth was thin and curved. "What would you do if I refused to jump?" she drawled teasingly.
He did not smile back. "Would I have to push you?"
Aerlen edged closer. Her feet shifted on the railing as she pressed up against him. Her whisper was hot in his ear. "I should have ordered the Dusks to call you the Frigid Academic instead."
Then she stepped backwards.
Her weight yanked him forward in a sudden jerk, pulling his jacket taut around his shoulders. He stumbled; his boots hit the railing hard, ankles twisting as Aerlen's body dragged him over. His head snapped back, flashing stars and city lights in front of his eyes. Air streaked over his face. Disorientation spun gravity around him; Aerlen was a heavy burr clinging to his chest, knees tucked up against his waist, her hair tangling around his face as he tried to catch his breath.
The hems of their jackets fluttered together like two birds struck down while mating.
Frantic to regain control, Vexen fought to push Aerlen away. Working a hand between them both, he levered an elbow against her chest until she gasped and dropped away a few inches. Through the riot of her hair, he could see the ground approach. Below them hungered the Shadows, clustered together in perpetual silence as they waited for their meal.
She had forced the situation upon him after all. Tangled with her like this, Vexen could not simply look away and wait for her to die. And - to judge by how flippantly Xemnas had dismissed the girl - it was a certainty that Xemnas wouldn't care what happened to Aerlen now. She could disappear to another world and live in hiding for however long it would take until the Organization brought darkness to her once more. If anyone demanded proof, Vexen could simply point at any one of the generic Dusks roaming the City, and claim them to be her.
The choice was his and his alone now: to spare her life or to let it gutter out a second time.
His thoughts swam erratically. Falling from this high up would easily cause her death; either the Heartless would take her, or she would shatter her bones on impact and bleed away in agony. When he closed his eyes in an attempt to straighten his wits, he only found himself remembering how it felt like when his heart had been taken. Being swallowed alive by the Heartless on the floor of the Bastion's laboratories had been a terrifying experience. Armed with an arrogant faith in his own abilities, Vexen had discovered that all his scientific prowess had been useless. He had been seized and devoured like anyone else. Knowing what was happening had only made it worse - and Aerlen was far from ignorant.
When he opened his eyes again, the ground filled his sight.
Vexen made his decision.
His hands came up, finding Aerlen's shoulders, the joints bony even through the padding of her jacket. The shove he made had no martial subtlety to it; he did not care about anything except getting her away from him. The impulse made him rough. Already jostled by his earlier attempt to dislodge her, Aerlen struggled to keep her grip. Her fingers began to loosen, slipping on the leather.
With a final, vicious kick, Vexen ripped Aerlen free. As she tumbled away, spells went into action. Ice blossomed around Vexen, unfolding into intricate crystals that shattered underneath his weight. Residual moisture clumped and froze in long icicles around his body, weaving curls of frost together to catch and halt his descent. One after another, the network of crystals splintered under his boots until it gathered into a platform of of crushed ice and snow, congealed together in cradle that glittered like an aurora in the city lights.
Below him, Aerlen continued to plummet. Her arms remained outstretched towards him, fingers spread. Her mouth was open; her eyes were fixed upon him. But there was no expression on her rapidly-dwindling face, no scream of protest or cry for mercy. No fearful whimper escaped.
The Heartless rose up in a hungry snap, and claimed her before she even hit the ground.
As the black wave collapsed upon itself with its prize, Vexen let himself descend until his feet touched one of the streetlamps. Ice crunched at the contact. The frost that kept him buoyant clustered along the metal and caused the light to haze. It illuminated the squirming mass of Shadows as they feasted, eager to claim the heart that they had been denied for so long.
Gradually, the frantic mass subsided. It divided into distinct creatures once more as the Heartless burrowed back into the alleyways and cul-de-sacs of the City. They left the street empty. The snow, disturbed into erratic eddies by the Shadows, was as white and clean as when it had first drifted from the sky.
With nothing left to keep him there, Vexen opened a portal, and left the darkness behind.