Zexion, Axel and 30 phrases from Aishuu. An adaptation of the 30-phrases style.
(7 no beginning, no end)
Zexion dreams in numbers. They are unremarkable. The numerals do not sing or dance, do not build complex equations in his mind that would leave him weeping the next morning, aching for lost formulas. No; the numbers are simple. They're everywhere.
It's the words which have become complex.
(1 two roads)
There are little differences.
He has lost his taste for sour foods. Pickles, certain candies, sauces. In contrast, his love for sweets has increased. His sense of touch is even more delicate, and his hearing has sharpened like an animal's. It makes him cringe when Demyx is around; Zexion hates noise, and the musician is always experimenting with sound.
He has never discovered what happened to his heart. The Dusks bring back no stories. Unlike Xehanort, none of the other researchers have spawned monsters capable of taking over entire universes. The lack could be insulting, if it wasn't such a relief: none of them have to fear a confrontation with their own face.
At times, Zexion wonders how his Heartless is doing. He assumes this is the same curiosity that a parent has with a child, or a twin whose brother has gone off to war. His heart has taken a leave of absence and leaves no trace behind for Zexion to follow, to contact, to seek.
Tin tepid water, going more and more metallic the longer it sits in the pan. That's what he thinks when he sits on the edge of the world.
His legs dangle over the side. The Dusks cluster around him like popcorn. They don't like him sitting so close to the void -- so close to nothingness, technically, which is a thought that graces him with its irony. If he fell, they would catch him. They would launch themselves into empty space and spin wings from the silk of their bodies, diving out to save him.
Tin tepid water. Pour four (4) cups into a cooking pan and let it sit. Eventually, it will taste like the metal it is being contained by: copper, tin, steel. Eventually, you will be able to determine the history of that water just by taking a sip.
The Dusks tug and pull on his arm. Finally, he gets to his feet, goes back to the Castle-That-Isn't, and asks Xemnas for the next Twilight shift.
(4 this child)
Xemnas understands without having to ask. They undergo the formalities anyway. Xemnas wonders aloud if there is enough research material at the Castle to keep Zexion entertained. Zexion waffles for all of three (3) minutes before he says that he might benefit from a change of scenery.
It is the one (1) thing that he has in common with Xemnas that Vexen does not: both of them work in scattered information, able to resurrect answers from dozens of broken pieces. It is their own private communication that Vexen cannot share. Xemnas takes one (1) look at Zexion's tight expression, and gives him a week off, no questions.
What separates them from perfect symmetry is Xemnas's intuition. The other man possesses the ability to move past the need for evidence, to see the truth in nothing at all. It's a trick that used to make Zexion envious; now he's merely cautious around it, knowing how dangerous untamed inspiration can be.
If Zexion had been a little more like Xemnas, he could have performed wonders. Or disasters. Or both, judging from the fantastical Nobodies, and the legions of Heartless combing the worlds.
Twilight Town is an irritant. It is more stable than the World that Never Was. There is always a gold sheen over the Town, a warm haze in the sky. Its inhabitants seem alive and healthy. They are not under attack; they do not question their location in the universe, content with everyday living. Despite the fact that Twilight Town is on the bridge of Darkness and Light, no one has laid claim to it, and the people do not seem threatened.
On one (1) of the meeting rooms of the Castle, there is a chart that outlines assignments per week, in accordance to Twilight-time. One (1) member of the Organization is expected to keep tabs on the town at all times. Zexion's shift doesn't start until the current Number returns. Judging from the schedule, that won't be for a while.
He leaves anyway.
(thursday night 5)
Zexion settles down quickly enough. There is an upper-floor apartment that he can make use of if he so desires; Xaldin was the one (1) who rented it the first time he took a shift, and now the key is passed back and forth as easily as a schoolgirl's heart, providing a home for any of the Organization who has to spend time in Twilight.
Zexion forgot to see if there was a spare before he left; it makes no difference anyway, as he simply walks through the walls.
There's food in the refrigerator -- some simple breads and a half-empty bottle of mustard -- and a bottle of fizzy soda. The towel has been left on the floor of the bathroom. There's a crumpled receipt by the bed, listing two (2) brands of scented hair gel.
"Hello," someone says behind him, and Zexion turns to see the Number whose shift he's hijacking.
Axel is wearing clothes that make no sense. He's chosen white and green today, possibly in contrast to his hair, which reeks of strawberries. And the buckles -- so many buckles, interlaced with zippers and fanciful straps. Axel resembles something out of a bad costume party.
But once he's in motion, he looks less gawky and more fluid: a caged beast who wears his restraints openly, just in case he needs to be locked down.
Zexion isn't impressed. "You shouldn't let Xemnas catch you out of uniform."
"I humbly accept the Superior's wishes." The redhead folds his hand over his chest and bows, mock submission. "But a black coat's gonna attract more attention in a town like this than I think he wants me to. This is the new fashion." A tilt of his head, parlor-chatter gone. "So what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? Does the Superior wants a report right away? I thought it was punishment enough that I got booked for two shifts in a row."
Zexion shakes his head, a simple reassurance. "I came early."
"A day early."
"You know how time gets confused."
They enter into an uneasy silence, punctuated by the occasional rattle of Axel's buckles.
"I'll stay somewhere different." Zexion moves first, turning away from the bedroom and already thinking about a hill that overlooks the sea. He spends more than half his time there when it's his turn to watch the Town, just sitting and listening. It's convenient enough if he spends all his days like that, only visiting the apartment to wash up briefly.
Axel says something else, but Zexion is already gone.
(11 midnight is a place)
The nights are warm enough in Twilight Town that Zexion has no hesitations about sleeping outdoors. It is temperate all year round on the edge of Light and Dark. There is occasional snow, but it melts away quickly, and the sun is too gentle to burn. Twilight Town is between noon and dawn; it is kind to its inhabitants, and even the Heartless seem content to pass it by.
For some, this limbo would be paradise.
(27 tastes like chicken)
Twilight has not changed. At first, Zexion observes the town from a distance, but Axel is -- unfortunately -- correct, and Zexion knows the uniform of the Organization will stand out too much on the streets. Still, he has no reason to mingle with the inhabitants, and the silence is calming.
He sends a few of his Dusks to steal dinner. They come back with fried meat dumplings. The carton's label shows a giant yellow bird, proudly exclaiming the nutritional value of its Chocobo Tots. When he's done eating, his fingers are coated with grease. They gleam in the setting sun, and he walks down to the beach to rinse them in the salt of the ocean.
(the 23 man who came to dinner)
Axel seeks him out, which is unsurprising. The redhead has always been a glutton for company, even though he dances on the edges of social conversation, involving himself while attempting to appear unattainable.
Zexion has been watching the cloud formations over the sea when Axel appears. The redhead sits down on the other side of the bench, cradling a paper plate which has a swirl of freshly-spun dough that has been dusted with powdered sugar.
"This month, I'm pretending to be a businessman from out of town. I have investments in textile manufacturing." He grins, like that explains the clothes, the arrogance. "Just my luck that all the shopkeepers want to keep me fed in exchange for telling them about the latest styles."
"There is no town. I mean," Zexion fumbles his words, finding it hard to ignore the smell of sweet flour, "there are no towns nearby. Twilight is not large enough to be its own world."
"Yeah, that's the part that confuses me too." Sugar coats Axel's fingers. He pauses mid-bite to lick them clean; his tongue is a dot of pink mischief. "But no one seems to notice."
"Last time," Axel confides, "I told them I was an artist. Some of 'em even made me promise that I'd bring them some of my paintings when I next visited. But they never remember me. Maybe it's because they're so close to Darkness, it does something to their minds. Makes it easier for them to forget."
"Or perhaps it's because we're Nobodies."
"Man, that's so bleak." He takes another bite of his sandwich. It's technically the first (1) day of Zexion's shift, and Axel hasn't left for the Castle yet. He plays hooky with the excuse that he's remembering to bring Zexion meals; a valuable service, considering how the smaller man forgets while working. "Look on the bright side. At least they'll believe anything you say."
(9 past tense)
The sun is setting again, as it has been for the last twelve (12) hours, and again Zexion's marveling at how time bends this close to the edge of Nothingness.
The long shadow that crawls across his feet is the only warning; then Axel is there, arms folded. "You borrowed," he says, and there is a hint of reproach in his gravely, nasal voice, "my Assassins."
"The scouted world killed my Watchers." Small, wisp-like beings talented in hiding, in misdirection and concealment. They had gravitated to him naturally: Dusks who did not like conflict, who seemed lost and misplaced in their new lives. Zexion had not asked them to fight. He only wanted them to listen and see and remember. All easy tasks. Nothing painful.
His Watchers fled from the strange, mutating humans, but had been hunted down, one (1) by one (1), regardless of where they had hidden. Zexion had listened to them die. In the end, the Assassins had been better suited for exploring the hostile environment; they had reported a plague infecting the humanoid populace, and Zexion regretfully chalked off that world as useless.
"I needed the extra resources. I'll call more from the Castle so that it won't continue to drain your ranks."
"Hey, no skin off my back as long as you return most of 'em intact." Axel spreads his hands. "They're just Nobodies, right?"
Zexion replenishes his ranks differently than the others. Vexen demands laboratory tests before he will accept any Dusks. Xigbar lines them up and marches past the figures, picking out the ones who seem the most alert. Xaldin uses the process of elimination.
Xemnas is lazier; he walks among the Dusks, and Sorcerers result.
But Zexion sits and waits for them to come to him, soft and hesitant, so meek that even the sharp points of their bodies have gone flaccid. They are like wild animals. Sudden movements startle them; they are uncertain of their own power, and would prefer not to be forced into using it.
He remembers touching a Dusk the first time and watching it reshape its own body, warping around his fingers until it became something with rounded edges and long, disc-like wings. It was his influence that changed it, unconsciously exerted. The transformation made him realize something: he was a being as exotic as a Heartless now, connected to something that was disconnected from everything else.
Terrible and mysterious, but so very fragile when seen from the other side.
(an invitation from hell 26)
He has a dozen (12) new Watchers formed by the time that Axel shows up for lunch. The redhead carries two (2) plastic bags and a headache; Axel's face is scrunched up as he plods up the path, dumping the cartons on the bench. The intrusion startles the Watchers, and they take flight like a flock of sparrows, clustering together for protection while they seek refuge in the nearby trees.
"I could hear you calling all the way down the block." Throwing up his arms in an exaggerated sigh, Axel flops down on the bench and fishes a plastic fork out of a pocket. "I had to send my Assassins away."
"I didn't realize I was that loud." The food smells good: meat and potatoes, fresh bread with butter. Zexion's hands neatly sort through the closest bag, and come up with a napkin.
"You weren't." Axel's mouth twists, an unhappy, uncertain smirk. "You just make serving you sound really good."
(15 should've known better)
Vexen sends a Dusk on the third (3) day of Zexion's shift. The message is short: What are you doing out there with Axel?
Zexion considers a myriad of answers, most of them designed to annoy the other man. Vexen likes structure; he's fond of order, and that is a remarkably uncommon trait among the Organization. Few of the original researchers were particularly obsessed with tidiness. Zexion used to enjoy this difference, particularly during classes when Vexen tried to steal his notes. He invented new forms of shorthand just to see Vexen twitch. Sometimes, he'd write the wrong way across the lines.
The Dusk hovers and twitches and squirms at his elbow. Finally Zexion gives a reply for the creature to ferry home.
You could come and find out.
As expected, he doesn't hear anything back.
(17 fahrenheit four-fifty-one)
"Boo." Axel's voice is hot lava in his ear, and Zexion takes a sharp breath to resist the urge to jump. Axel seems to take the noise as a sign of something else; he leans his chin on Zexion's shoulder, as if surprise was an invitation for intimacy.
Zexion's legs are stiff. He'd been standing for hours on the crest of the hill, avoiding the bench for once as he paced back and forth. At some point, he must have stopped walking; his knees ache from being locked in position. Axel, leaning against him, feels like a warm block of support.
It would be easy to sink back into the other man. Instead, Zexion tries to ignore the smell of melon hair-gel. Axel must have run out of the strawberry brand.
"So how is the textile business working out?"
Axel shrugs; the gesture shifts muscles against Zexion's back, and he's suddenly keenly aware of how Axel's fingers are resting on his hips. "I think I'll be going into books next. They burn faster."
(the burial of the 14 dead)
It was Lexaeus who thought up the ceremony. Before Axel was recruited -- before Saix, when there were only six (6) members of the Organization and they hadn't even named it that yet. Lexaeus had outlined small squares of dirt in one (1) of the gardens, blocks of soil that had been stripped of all grass. No names were assigned. Once he was finished, Lexaeus simply picked one (1) at random and left a single candle on the surface for memorial.
"Because there's nothing," Xemnas had murmured, tapping a knuckle against his chin while he observed the scene. "No one to mourn us either, should we die a second time. How very like Elaeus. Very clever."
Xemnas had caught on instantly, with that damnable intuition. Vexen had followed close behind. In a rare twist of incomprehension, it had been a while before Zexion understood what Lexaeus was doing: he was allowing the Organization to bury their Others and move on.
There are times when Zexion still thinks about his Heartless anyway. His Other; his heart. They might be considered the two (2) children of the original Ienzo, except that Zexion remembers being a lab student, with all the memories of his past life. That, he believes, makes him the real one (1).
If his Heartless ever feels the same way, he won't know.
(The 13 taste of silence)
Zexion knows that there is more to life than scent, but the air is powerful in Twilight Town, so lush with sea-salt and grasses and soil that he can't help but inhale deeply every time he visits, deep enough that he grows dizzy and has to exhale through his mouth.
Information lies in all five (5) physical senses, and then several more. The Darkness has its own whisper in his mind; minor compared to what it used to be, when he'd had a heart and the Darkness had wanted to devour it. Nothingness exists there too, a tickle of instinct that remains aware of the lesser Dusks. The two (2) pulses beat inside his chest where his heart should be: Nobodies and the Heartless, one (1) refusing, the other non-existent.
Then another hum joins theirs, rich with sly intent.
"You're spacing out again, Zexion. So, are the Dusks telling you anything good?"
(smooth 8 talk)
He rambles until his throat is hoarse. Each Dusk is a thread of information; Zexion tugs and picks at each as he compiles a mental image of the worlds, deciphering meaning from the radio-static of the Nobodies.
He slows down to a halt eventually, reaching the barrier of what he is willing to share and what he is not. The words become erratic. They slip away from connection with themselves, until Zexion is only offering fragmented sentences: the sky, bright noise, music.
There's a rustle of cloth, and then Axel is pulling him close, until Zexion is almost in his lap.
"What are you doing?" He is not worried.
"Relaxing you." Axel's fingers tease the zipper of his coat, and slide inside the leather. They feel like angry sticks: knobby knuckles, hard fingertips. "Keep talking, I'm bored."
(18 twenty-two minutes)
This is not the first (1) time the Flurry of Dancing Flames has visited him like this. They are not lovers, not bedmates or pair-bonded. Axel comes with questions, and Zexion occasionally answers. Axel wants to know, and Zexion respects that. Axel has numerous forms of friendly coercion, and inevitably, Zexion wins if he makes Axel use every single one (1).
Zexion's arms come up. His wrists bow over Axel's shoulders as he laces his hands together against the back of the other man's neck. Axel's hair feels nothing like fire. The strands are cold. But his palms are hot; one (1) hand is pressed against Zexion's stomach, and the other slides up and down in a patient rhythm, coaxing a reaction from the sleepy flesh.
Axel's thumb bumps against bundles of nerves with each stroke. It's a tiny jolt of lightning. "Talk to me," he says, a little impatient, but hiding it well.
Zexion curves his hips automatically and lets himself sigh for an answer.
(sadism, masochism, 10 other –isms)
Axel loses tact faster than expected. The Flurry of Dancing Flames is not particularly impulsive, despite his title; still, Axel prefers keeping in motion, and being restricted by Zexion's slower pace rankles him.
Zexion likes speed. But he enjoys withholding information from Axel more, enjoys playing the game of control, because otherwise there'd be no reason for the two (2) of them to speak. There's something that drives Axel to purpose, and it's the same riddle that keeps the interrogation eternally fresh: each of them wants information from the other, and there are a million ways to go about getting it.
(28 tales of the jade emperor)
There is a dream that Zexion once had, after looking through Namine's drawings. In it, there was a powerful king who had six (6) advisors, one (1) for each direction: north, south, east, west, up, and down. When a threat came to the borders of their nation, the king ordered all six (6) to cast their eyes out in each direction and warn him when danger was coming.
Five (5) of them returned, but the sixth (6) stared for so long that his eyes became lost in the stars, and that was the direction that the enemy army came.
His Watchers grow stronger. They gain confidence with their new limbs, careful to fly in formation only when they're high enough to resemble a flock of seagulls. Several of them enjoy swooping down on the local wildlife; Zexion worries about their vulnerability to cats, until he discovers a half-eaten feline underneath the bench.
After that, he lets them travel unsupervised.
(kiss and 12 tell)
The Dusks depart on the fifth (5) day of his assignment. Half of the Watchers are sent back to the Castle; the rest are dispersed as scouts through the worlds, with a few kept resident in Twilight Town. They leave with no fanfare.
After a moment, he rolls over. Axel's back is propped against a slope in the hill, and his eyes are lazy with sleep. There's a toothpick hanging from a corner of his mouth.
He blinks when Zexion reaches out to take the splinter of wood away, and then replaces it with his own lips.
It is the first (1) time in all their encounters that they have kissed.
Axel's tongue tastes like lunch. Unpoetic, but fascinating in its own way. There is a mint flavor from the toothpick and a faintly sour tang from what must have been meat. Axel's lips are thin, and his chin is sharp, hard to negotiate. He is difficult to kiss. There is no passion.
All too soon, the redhead squirms and tries to pull away, uncomfortable. He breaks the contact and looks over Zexion's shoulder, his eyes unfocused in sudden denial.
This observation gives Zexion some amusement: what made the man think that he could touch his groin, but not his mouth?
It is the sixth (6) day of Zexion's shift, and Axel still has not left. Zexion is not sure who will be the next Number assigned to watch the town: Larxene, maybe, or Demyx. Demyx is better for Twilight duty; Larxene has a chronic tendency to leave things broken behind her, or dead.
For once, Zexion is not waiting on the hill. Because of this, Axel takes even longer than usual to find him. This gives Zexion plenty of time to discover that Lexaeus has maintained a subscription to a local Environmental Action magazine, and is hiding the issues underneath the apartment's couch.
He's halfway through last summer's double-thick special when Axel stumbles back through the front door, heading automatically for the kitchen before he pauses and notices the person waiting in the living room.
"I want to ask you something," Zexion begins, before Axel can get over the surprise of seeing him there. "What do the Dusks tell you?"
(20 like blood upon snow)
Axel's hair is nothing like fire; this fact has been established. But it's brilliant when spread upon white sheets, untangled from its customary spikes. It feels stiff with gels, and smells like apples.
The bedsprings jerk as Zexion's weight leans into his right elbow. The sheets are white; their bodies are not, and sweat is leaving streaks on the cotton. He keeps getting flipped onto his back while Axel tries to renegotiate his position in search of dominance. At one (1) point, he's afraid of losing completely, that he's already lost, because Axel's hands are holding his knees apart and Axel's hips are pressing against his thighs, and then Zexion promptly kicks him in the face.
It's surreal, and they both know it. Neither speak words. There's only the bed, the squelch of liquid, the sound of gasps on the summer air.
(requiem for the 19 last honest man)
"The past is what gives us our identities, but it's also what holds us back."
Zexion can never remember how the conversation started, only that it involved the Bastion and how the Castle seemed to mimic the same architecture. Curving stairwells, high towers, a complete disregard for gravity.
Even though the grass had long since grown over the funeral dirt, none of the original researchers looked at the garden the same way. It was a strange mirror of their rooms on the higher floors; rows of names and titles clustered together, markers for bodies who will leave none when they die.
"What if we let go of the past completely?"
"Then who's to say we exist at all?" Lexaeus shrugged, dipping his spoon back into his teacup and swishing it through the liquid. "What else would our claim to individuality be?"
(we only play 16 for keeps)
Axel is gone in the morning.
There is half a pot of coffee left steaming in the kitchen. The door key is on the counter, prominently next to an empty cup. Zexion understands what both are for; he leaves the key in an obvious location for the next Number, and pours himself a fresh draught.
The apartment is silent around him. The Watchers have all been assigned to the task of canvassing a new world, and the Assassins left when Axel did.
He thinks about the properties of water, and rinses his mouth clean.
(30 their happily ever after)
Xemnas is there to greet him when Zexion returns home.
"Is there anything new to report, Number Six?"
The numeric is a form of politeness; Zexion appreciates the formality, just as he is glad that Xemnas doesn't care if his vacation was productive. "No."
"I understand that Vexen wasn't happy."
Mention of the fussy researcher pulls something of a smile back on Zexion's face. "He never is."
"And Axel came back late."
"He always does."
Xemnas studies him for a moment, but without condemnation. Then he gives a nod.
They say nothing as they walk to breakfast. By the time they push through the doors to the dining room, Zexion knows that Xemnas has guessed it all anyway.