Set pre-CoM. Related to Magpies.
The one thing they know for sure is that every object in the World that Never Was comes from somewhere else. Clothing, books, food -- even the pavement has a history, and that history is unknown to anyone in the Organization. The Dusks might be able to identify the landmarks, but they only slither voiceless through the streets, cast-off shells for a cast-off world.
Namine likes it better that way. She finds it comforting, even though Axel always calls it creepy and rubs his hands on his arms like he's freezing. But Axel always complains about the cold; he kindles sparks in the empty fireplaces of the Castle and huddles in front of them, digging out bags of sticky marshmallows and holding them between his fingers to toast. He talks loudly about the beaches of his home world, the deserts and dry plains and heat that simmered out of cracks in the earth, temperatures that were unforgettable.
Namine doesn't know if she should think it's cold too. In the World that Never Was, there are two types of objects: those that remember their past, and those that don't.
One evening during dinner, Xigbar waves her aside early. She slides out of her chair and pads along behind him with curiosity. Axel had been assigned to foraging duty that week, so the Organization's larder was flush with overspiced foods and pickles, all the things that the Assassin Dusks had decided looked tasty. Namine can barely stomach half the meals, so she's glad to have an excuse to escape.
Xigbar holds the door to her room open, and lets her walk in first.
There's something on her bed. Blue tissue wrapping nestles on white sheets, like a robin's egg in snow, or a blob of paint. Caution slows Namine's steps -- but Xigbar is not like Larxene, and less prone to playing nasty tricks on her. Still, she hunches her shoulders and pulls herself up onto the spongy mattress, crawling over to the gift so that she can pick apart the outer layers.
What she finds inside surprises her.
There are notebooks filled with cream-colored paper, bound with spiral wire on the side so she can lay them flat while open. An huge pack of crayons come with them -- 256 colors, the box proclaims -- and their points are all crisp and new. A flat tin of watercolors lurks alongside a pencil sharpener and a brush, seven pristine ovals just waiting to be used.
"These are all for me?" she remembers to squeak.
Xigbar gives a nonchalant shrug. "Xaldin and I found 'em while we were out on the town. Figured they might keep you entertained." He grins suddenly and reaches out to ruffle her hair. "At least, it'll keep you out of nicking Vexen's pens, yeah?"
She giggles, twisting away and hugging the supplies to her chest. The pads of paper are several inches thick, promising hours of coloring. She doesn't remember if she had been any good at drawing in her first life, but the pictures she'd left on Vexen's reports all looked okay, even if he hadn't been too happy about them.
"How do you think they came here, Xigbar?"
"Someone didn't want them, kiddo." The gunner always calls her that when he has to babysit her -- a word she hates, she's not a baby, has never been one. "That's how everything shows up around here. Same with you, me, the whole Organization. We're leftovers."
She rolls over onto her stomach. The room is bright, the sky rich with constellations. Axel likes to tell her stories about something called the sun, which is supposed to be a huge star that lights up everything and makes it hot. She's not sure if that's a good thing. The World is warm enough already. It's brilliant from stars and streetlights, and besides, she can't tell how much of what Axel says is just wishful thinking.
She thinks about the sun, and wonders if that will be the first thing she'll draw.
"Tell me a story," she whispers aloud, a feather-light plea that drifts like spun sugar on the air.
The gunner sighs, obeying the customs of the nightly ritual. "Right, right. Where did we leave off last time? Is the hero dead yet?"
They don't trust Dusks as her only guards, but no single member of the Organization will claim her, so Namine gets passed from number to number. Ten, Twelve, Six. She doesn't need to get treated like a little kid, but there's something that always makes her feel younger than the other Nobodies; younger and sometimes afraid. It's probably her lack of memory. The Organization members all like to talk about their first lives, usually to scoff about their Others, but Namine has nothing.
After dinners at the long table -- which are usually broken up by the older members yelling at each other about scientific theory and the younger members getting bored and wandering off -- one of the Organization comes to fetch Namine from her chair at the far end. Some nights, they pull straws or flip one of Luxord's coins. Some nights they ignore her so long that she's afraid they've forgotten about her, afraid or hopeful or both, but someone always comes.
Xemnas is the only one who is completely silent when he beckons her to follow. He tucks her into bed wordlessly, methodically checking the windows and turning off the lights. One of the Dusks wriggles along obediently at his side, picking up any stray socks she might have left lying around, giving them an experimental bite before squirming away to put the clothes away in the hamper.
Once the room has been given a cursory inspection, the Superior pulls up a chair beside the endtable, sitting down and folding his hands in his lap.
The clock beside her makes small, clicking noises as they both wait in the darkness. The casing is battered; it has an alarm that consists of two metal bells on top, like a pair of yellow ears on the fat pancake body. Zexion had given it to her when she arrived -- the first thing anyone told her was hers, before even the shoes or the white coat or the bedroom -- and its voice is the only noise in the room.
She falls asleep with his silence watching over her.
Sometimes Xemas brings a book, flipping through the pages leisurely while he reads. She doesn't know how he manages to see the print; the senior members of the Organization are all strange, familiar with the primal Darkness and its mundane cousin, the absence of light. Other times, he simply laces his fingers and waits.
One night, she speaks up.
"I... I can be okay on my own. If you don't like having to do this."
There's a rustle in the shadows. She knows that he's still there; he doesn't breathe loudly, but his presence is like a gravity well, like one of Xigbar's tricks embodied in the shape of a man. Finally, he answers.
"I have a lingering sympathy for amnesiatic orphans." The Superior's voice embodies what she thinks a blood-orange would taste like, bitter and sweet and dripping with its own innards, exactly how Luxord describes it. "I just know the dangers of telling them stories."
She was afraid the first time that Lexaeus stopped by her seat at the long table. It had been only a few days since her arrival in the World that Never Was, and all she knew about Number Five was that he carried an axe that was bigger than she was. He was broad across the shoulders, as strong as a bull, and her first thought when he approached her was that she was about to be punished for getting into trouble.
But he surprised her with his patience, helping her up when she stumbled on the winding stairs, and asking if dinner had bothered her stomach. Later on, he brought her a twig from one of the fruit trees in the gardens outside the Castle, showing her the newly budding leaves that were unfurling in green funnels down the bark.
Lexaeus isn't a the kind of scholar who uses dry, stuffy lecture material. He likes to talk about weather patterns based off cloud density, and the growing cycles of mountain herbs, and about natural things in general. He's the one who brings her picture books stolen from distant libraries, histories of realms that have fallen into Darkness. His stories are never full of powerful heroes, but instead describe the worlds he's visited, the civilizations he's watched decay. There is no structure to his tales. Whatever happens to be the newest discovery of the week is what he brings to her bedside, like a stalwart knight from one of Demyx's stories, laying down the head of a dragon in the form of a poem.
"I think this is a map of a town's water mains," he suggests one evening, pouring over a scroll spread across her bed sheets.
Namine hums while she tilts her head from side to side, as if changing perspectives would suddenly alter the information. The diagrams aren't familiar; the language isn't recognizable, and the architectural layout is not one she's seen before.
"Where's it from?"
"Nowhere, now. The Heartless took this world just a short while ago." He frowns as he straightens out a wrinkle in the scroll. "The natives rode giant birds instead of horses. Their noses were no bigger than a button. I couldn't figure out how they breathed." Paper rustles as he shifts his weight, and accidentally crinkles a page. "I suppose it doesn't matter any longer."
They follow the interlinking blue lines across squares and city blocks, taking sharp turns that spell out strange letters in some new, exotic tongue. Her hand collides with his; he is gracious enough to pick up his fingers until she's passed, her smaller fingers darting along their pursuit.
"Lexaeus?" she asks, after several minutes pass and she's traced around the same loop three times by accident.
"... what's a water main?"
Later he packs up the maps and checks to make sure everything is in order. He is a methodical man; the larger books go to the bottom of the stack, and more fragile parchments above. Lexaeus smoothes the covers of her bed down after that, lining up her shoes by the bedside table, and turning on the alarm of her clock.
"Will you be good, Namine?"
"I will," she promises, and he pulls the drapes closed to let her sleep.
"I don't do fairy tales."
Demyx is the most fun to have watching her, and she always hopes he draws the short straw each night. He's not tough like Xigbar, and not grumpy like Xaldin, so his stories aren't full of battles. Instead, he chooses the path of wonder, flooding the air with hushed gossip of mystical beasts. Griffins spring out of the clouds. Unicorns prance down golden roads. Butterflies made of living crystal flutter through his stories, so vividly that Namine can close her eyes, and see the creatures shining there, untouchable in their grace.
"Back home," he confides in her one evening, playing the part of the mysterious entertainer who has just stolen into the princess's bedchambers for the nefarious purpose of sharing an apple, "one of the theaters that kids would learn was one called Scheherazade. It was about a girl -- not as pretty as you," he adds, tapping her nose with a finger until she giggles, "who told a wicked king a thousand and one tales so that he wouldn't kill her."
The thought of so many stories awes Namine, and she tries to count up how many she remembers off-hand. The tally doesn't even break two dozen. "Did she have to tell them all at once?"
Sitar strings twang as Demyx runs his fingers over the instrument's belly. "No. She started one each night and didn't finish until the next day, so he kept putting off her execution in order to hear how it ended. After a thousand and one nights, she asked to be spared, and he granted the request."
"But how did she remember them all?"
"That's uh... that's a good question." He clears his throat. "I don't really know -- it's been years since I heard it. I think she was married to him."
Namine's voice is a tiny pebble hiding in the ocean of the room. "I don't want to meet a king who wants to kill me."
"Oh, man." Demyx palms the side of his head. "I don't think you ever have to worry about something like that."
The first time that Saix pulls duty for her, he sits in the chair by the bed and stares at her in silence, arms folded. Unlike Xemnas, Saix doesn't look relaxed; instead, he watches her like a particularly unpleasant assignment he's been forced to tolerate in order to prove his loyalty to the Organization.
"Um," she starts eventually, wondering if he'll at least turn off the lights. "Maybe Axel could come instead -- "
"Do you know," he interrupts, "what I used to do to small children who would not sleep when they were told?"
She dives under the covers with a squeak, curling up in a tight ball until he goes away.
There is a buzz in the castle one afternoon: another memoryless child? Where?
They send her to her room early. Namine strains on her toes as she tries to peek out the window, glimpsing a slender figure in a black coat engaged in animated discussion with Xemnas. The Superior is arguing in eloquent pantomime. His hands go into the air, then on his hips, then folded across his chest. He tosses his chin. Then he covers his face.
Between them stands a shorter figure: a boy in white, whose hair is an upswing of gold.
Her heart -- or what would be if she had one -- makes a tiny thump inside her chest.
"I think I know that person," she whispers, spreading her fingers like a fan and pressing them against the glass.
Larxene rolls her eyes, joining her at the window. "You don't know anyone," the older girl snaps. Then she goes quiet suddenly, watching the second figure yank down its hood and turn into Vexen. Her hand comes up as well; it brushes against the curtain before clenching into a white-knuckled fist. "Once you lose your heart, you don't know anyone at all."
The weirdest bedtime songs aren't the ones that come from Demyx.
"There once was a woman from Venu -- "
Vexen is okay enough, but always distracted. He's more interested in working on his studies than in entertainment. Every time he's ordered to take care of her, the man shows up with a sheet full of questions and goes through each one in detail. What do you think of when you see this inkblot? Have you noticed any food preferences yet? How much sleep do you prefer each night? Has Lexaeus measured your height recently? Have you had a nightmare yet this week, Namine?
When she finally gets up the courage to ask if Vexen knows any good stories, the researcher sighs, puts his pen aside, and -- with an absolute lack of enthusiasm -- launches into an extended narrative concerning the Adventures of Mr. Blood Vessel and his companion, the Jolly Little Platelet.
"You spoiled little girl," Larxene tells her one day; it had been Vexen's turn to take care of putting Namine to bed two nights in a row, and this seems to rankle on Number Twelve's nerves. "You really don't know what's in store for you, do you?"
Luxord's rules are different.
He makes her play games each night in order to win her stories, games that are decided with the flip of a coin. Unlike Zexion, Luxord does not hide puzzles in each challenge: his evenings are flush with the sounds of game pieces, the crisp click of dice against a wooden board.
She wins just as often as she loses, and when that happens, sometimes Luxord makes her be the storyteller as penalty.
His tales are all about unlikely heroes. He enjoys telling her about rogues most of all -- thieves, gamblers, con artists who outwit their pursuers and make off with the bankroll in the process. She shuffles cards while she listens, spreading them out on her bed like an army fifty-two men large, divided into regiments by symbol. The Diamond Brigade is winning against the Spades; the red king had a quarrel with the black one, and has subverted the Jack of Clubs to spy for him.
Sometimes he puts the dice in her hands and tells her to roll. By counting up the numbers, he says, they can predict the future.
Marluxia is one of the most lenient with fairytales, except that he gets distracted by asking her questions first. Today, he's busy lingering on the balcony outside her room, observing a patrol of Dusks engage in sparring practice with Xaldin. Sometimes that's all he does -- watch people and look smug while she goes to sleep on her own.
Marluxia isn't like Vexen. The older researcher collects whatever data happens to be available, but Marluxia wants to pry it out of her. Vexen is calmer. Vexen rarely smiles when he's working, but Marluxia looks amused all the time, even when Namine has the weird feeling that he shouldn't be.
"So how is my little witch doing today?"
"Not yours," she whispers, but very quietly, under her breath. The tip of the crayon mashes against the paper, leaving a dark ochre mark instead of the gold shade she'd been intending. Distressed, she rubs at the smear with her finger, but it doesn't fade.
Footsteps are her warning, and then Marluxia is at her side, peering down at the ruined sketch. "Who is this one? He's a bit short for Vexen."
"The boy." Her fingernail isn't helping to scrape off the color. "The boy who was here. I saw him out the window one day."
"Roxas," Marluxia informs her briskly, reaching down and yanking the drawing away. He holds it up for study, pacing away, across the room. "That boy's name is Roxas. I'm surprised you didn't know that already."
Impatient, Namine fidgets and reaches under her pillow. There's a book on grain harvesting hidden there, and while the techniques are mind-numbingly boring, they're better than watching Number Eleven ramble.
Roxas. She's never heard it before. Dimly she recalls the shape of his hair -- like the tassels on a field of wheat, maybe, if you squinted. Bright as the photographs in the farming manual. Roxas.
"Is that one of Lexaeus's?"
She does not have time to answer before her second diversion is snatched away too. Her drawing has disappeared, whisked away to some fate in Number Eleven's pocket; Marluxia grips the book in both hands, flipping through the chapters before leaning his head down to breathe deeply of the pages.
Namine scrunches up her nose at the sight. "I thought only Vexen and Zexion liked smelling books."
"Vexen is an eccentric. Zexion is on the right track." Another inhalation, and Marluxia lowers the manual, his fingers idly stroking the cover. "Scent conveys a world of information. Flowers know that. They say that a familiar smell can help a person remember, because the past is stored in our senses, deeper than what we can scrabble for on the surface of our minds." The bed squeaks as he sits down on the edge. "Have you tried that yet, Namine?"
She squirms back against the headboard, hugging her pillow to her chest. "I can't remember anything today. I tried," she adds, hoping that the news will placate Marluxia's strange intensity, the endless inquiries which circle around her past.
He does not stand up again, only settling his weight on the bed like a particularly hungry cat. "I'll tell you a new story tonight, I think. It's about a princess. A very," his smile is tight, "special princess. Are you ready?"
"And they lived happily ever after," Zexion drones.
Namine watches his eyelids droop nearly shut. "Did they really?"
"No." The man sits up, ennui vanishing in a heartbeat. "Because the prince was actually under an enchantment to perform three separate rituals on the night of every full moon. Each ritual summoned a different creature to threaten his kingdom. Each creature was a different color. During the summer, these colors were -- "
The door creaks open; it's Xigbar. He chooses not to speak, only leaning in long enough to pitch a yellow blur directly at Zexion's face. Number Six doesn't flinch. His hand snaps up to catch the missile, and Namine recognizes the Superior's umbrella.
Zexion promptly drops it on the floor and kicks it under Namine's bed.
They're halfway through the long, convoluted list of demons when the next interruption comes.
The rap on the door halts the riddle being unspun, and then it's the Superior who's stepping in. He glances at Namine briefly; there is no emotion in his face save a mild confusion. "My umbrella's missing. Have you seen it?"
"Go ask Vexen," Zexion replies, without missing a beat. "He's been sulking ever since you told him to relinquish the Roxas project. I wouldn't be surprised if he's stolen it again to make you go find him."
Xemnas sighs and slides back out of the doorway, muttering, "He can't sulk, he doesn't have a heart," over and over under his breath. Namine can hear his voice fading down the hall: can't sulk, no heart, no heart.
She has to cover her sudden smile behind a hand. The Organization is serious, so very serious when they talk about destroying worlds or creating artificial hearts or why Axel jammed half a dozen Dusks into Larxene's closet. Saix still frightens her. Larxene stalks through the castle and argues with Vexen whenever she sees him. The Superior is in a universe all his own, staring into his soup bowl and seeing miracles.
But if they're the only world she's ever meant to know, so far it isn't bad.
"Zexion?" Speaking the man's name captures his attention. He stops in mid-recitation of the six potential means to banish creatures that were summoned during the second month of the third year of the mythical kingdom, and tilts his head, waiting.
She bites her lip, but continues. "What will happen when everyone runs out of fairytales?"
"What do you mean?"
Larxene's teasing sticks in her ears, brittle chimes of scorn that conspire with all of Marluxia's questions. She can't remember if she's heard a thousand and one tales yet, but there's been a lot, and she's not sure if they can go on forever.
"When there's nothing else to tell me at night. Will I be sent away? I'm not, " her courage flounders, and then words are pouring out of her, like watercolors blurring into one big mess. "I mean, I'm not a member of the Organization, I'm a witch, and in all the stories witches end up somewhere bad or bad things happen to them or... "
He does not answer her, standing up suddenly and straightening a fold in her covers. "Good night, Namine. Sleep well. We'll finish the story tomorrow."