Title: Mission Impossible
Author: Ladya C. Maxine
Summary: see chapter one
Warnings: see chapter one
Disclaimer: I do not own Kingdom Hearts or any of its characters. I am not making any money off of this. I write only to entertain.
Sometimes things simply didn't got according to plan.
Finding himself in an empty Castle That Never Was, Luxord twirled a card between his fingers as he stood alone in the Superior's office, counting to himself just how many things could have happened in his absence that would explain why he'd returned to find, not just Xaldin, but their leader missing as well.
"Massster ... "
In floated one of his Gambler minions.
"And?" Luxord asked. "Have you searched the entire city?"
" ... Yesss."
" ... gone ... nothing."
"Strange," Luxord said, renewing his pacing while his minion slithered and quivered in its place. "Xaldin wouldn't have deserted his post. But if he had, and if the Superior had chosen that crucial moment to come down to survey our progress, only to find us all missing ... Surely, the Superior wouldn't take it upon himself to go out and look for us. Has he gone off on a mission of his own? Would that he'd left a message of any kind."
"Massster!" called a second Gambler nobody, swooping in with one of the Superior's Sorcerers right behind it. The Gambler nobody gestured excitedly to its more powerful kin. "Massster, newsss!"
The Sorcerer, pulsating like the very heart it lacked, gave a stiff, shallow bow before speaking.
"My Massster ... the Dragoon Massster too ... both left."
"The Superior left with Xaldin? When?" Luxord asked.
" ... hasss been hoursss."
"Where did they go?"
" ... know not ... only know ... My Massster ... Dragoon Massster ... same missssion."
"Mission ... You mean Xaldin's next mission." Luxord leaned against the large expanse of glass overlooking the castle turrets and walkways below. "Well, that's some relief: at least neither of them have been kidnapped and whisked away to some faraway world. Now, where did Xaldin say he'd be heading off to next ... ?"
A Corridor opened up right in the middle of the room, almost engulfing the Sorcerer, who, having shared everything it knew, departed as silently as it had arrived. Less stealthily, Demyx staggered out of the Corridor, flustered and nervous.
"Hey, there you are!" he said, now looking extremely relieved that he could unburden his latest problems on someone else. "We've got some good news—"
"Splendid!" Luxord smiled, slapping the Nocturne on the back. "Perfect timing, lads. The Superior and Xaldin are away, abandoning me with all these unfinished missions. So then, have you succeeded in your task?"
"—and some bad news," Demyx hesitantly completed the sentence Luxord had so ungallantly interrupted. He looked back at the Corridor, which he hadn't yet closed. "Succeeded? Er, you could kinda say that ... "
"What? Was Hades unable to find those two?"
"Er ... He's still working on it," Demyx said, reaching an arm back into the portal and feeling about. "There's been a teensy-weensy little bit of a mix up and things got a bit crazy over there, so Xigbar told us to return to base while he, Roxas and Axel stayed behind."
"Us? If Xigbar, Axel and Roxas are still waiting on Hades to find Marluxia and Larxene, then who did you return with?" Luxord asked.
The tip of his tongue sticking out as he searched the Corridor, Demyx caught hold of something and pulled hard, yanking his unenthusiastic companion out.
"Ai! Show some respect, IX!" snapped a very familiar voice from a very familiar sour face.
" ... Oh dear," Luxord muttered to himself before putting on a welcoming smile. "It is good to see you again too, Vexen."
"You just couldn't leave well enough alone," Roxas said, using a low flame to carefully melt away the ice that encased Axel's arm.
"Hey, I was just trying to be friendly," Axel said heatedly, sullenly resting his chin on his other hand. "What's wrong with offering a handshake? He's the one who threw a royal tantrum and attacked me! Geez, talk about holding a grudge. You'd think dying would have helped bury the hatchet. And what's taking you so long? Let me do it. Fire's my speciality anyway."
"Not when you're like this. You'll only end up burning yourself."
" ... would not."
Axel did settle down to allow Roxas to continue his self-assigned work unchallenged.
"Save me! Please, don't send me back down there!"
Roxas sighed sympathetically at the shimmering form struggling in Hades' cold grip. Standing over the pit of nothingness, the Lord of the Underworld leaned aside to allow Xigbar a better view at his latest catch.
"This one of them?" he asked the Freeshooter.
"Nuh-uh," Xigbar said. Lounging in Hades' great stone throne, he poured another goblet of smoking brew. "Man, how can you stand it, listening to these whiners all day long?"
"No! Not back in there! Anywhere but there! Mercy, I beg you!" shrieked the female ghost/spirit as Hades held her back over the pit. "I'll do anything! Just don't send me back down there!"
"Tell me about it," Hades said to Xigbar with a roll of his eyes as he carelessly dropped the woman back into the void. "Every day, all day, 'Save my soul!' this, and 'Give me another chance!' that, and 'Please, stop torturing me!' something-or-the-other. What am I, their counsellor? I've got an entire realm of eternal misery to run: I can't be bothered by all this 'cruel and unusual punishment' and 'abuse of authority' crap! Pass another one. Easy on the worms."
Teleporting a filled goblet, complete with one large worm, into the thirsty god's hand, Xigbar stretched and rose from his seat to join Hades at the edge with a goblet of his own. The two continued to discuss the many things they had in common, sharing a good laugh over the misfortune of those suffering beneath their feet.
"Shouldn't we be the least bit worried that Xigbar and the Lord of the Dead are drinking buddies?" Roxas asked Axel.
"Sorry," Axel said, scratching the back of his head as he looked away.
"I said: shouldn't we be the least bit—"
"I heard that part. I was ... I'm sorry."
"Huh? ... Oh, I don't mind doing this," Roxas said, almost done with defrosting the hand.
Looking increasingly uncomfortable even though he could now wriggle his fingers, Axel pulled a leg up and stared out the window, down at the misty grounds littered with jagged rocks and scattered bones.
"Not that," he said after clearing his throat. "About what happened earlier in the tunnel. Could have seriously injured you if it hadn't been for Xigbar. I should have been more careful."
"What's with you?" Roxas asked, growing suspicious. "Did you break something in my room again? You still owe me 280 munny for my stereo."
"No, I didn't break anything," Axel said with a straight face. "It's ... It's just ... I don't know. This whole Saix thing just got me thinking."
"About how it's all your fault?"
"Hey! ... Alright, so that too. But, I mean, it occurred to me how weird it is, suddenly not having him around. And it wasn't until I saw old sourpuss again—"
"—that I realized that ... I think I actually missed him. I miss having everyone together."
Axel's arm were now ice-free, but Roxas was listening so intently he didn't move away, his hand still on Axel's. It was amazing to see the redhead at a loss for words, but even more so was that he had broached such a sentimental topic on his own and, rather than just give up and laugh it off like he usually did when he became embarrassed, Axel was determined to voice his 'feelings'.
Encouraged by Roxas' attentiveness, Axel kept talking, pausing every few seconds to gather his thoughts.
"What happened at Castle Oblivion had to happen, for the greater good. I ... I was responsible for most of it, but I did what I was told to do ... But then when I got back to headquarters, after a few days ... I realized how different things were." Folding his arms, Axel frowned thoughtfully. "It wasn't until Hades pulled out old ice-butt that I realized how ... nice it was to see him again. It reminded me of the old days again, when the Organization was unbreakable; when things were stable and life was tolerable even for us. Who would have thought a week ago that Saix would be exiled? Yeah, yeah, that's my fault, but it just proves that ... anything can happen to us, and we have very little control over it."
"I suppose you're right," Roxas said.
"Who knows what could happen in the future. There could be another rift amongst us, or a mission could go really wrong for one of us: we don't know who could go next, or whether we'd be able to get them back like we're trying with Saix. What if, back in the tunnels, Xigbar hadn't been so quick to react? What if you, or Demyx, got hurt, or even killed? One moment you're there, the next you're gone ... "
Roxas couldn't make out what Axel was trying to say. Axel didn't seem to know what he was trying to say.
"Well, since we're in the Underworld, you probably could have just gone to Hades and asked him to scoop my soul out of that pit over there," Roxas joked, trying to lighten the awkward mood. "Maybe we should ask him to just bring everyone back."
"Roxas ... " Axel hadn't so much as smiled at his attempt at humour. Leaning in, he placed a hand on Roxas' spiky hair. Roxas would normally object to such childish treatment, but the look on his friend's face was neither belittling nor taunting. "You'll stay with us, won't you?"
So, that came completely out of nowhere.
"Like I have a choice? You guys are all I have. Why would I ever leave?"
Axel looked at him for a long time, giving Roxas the strongest impression that, yet again, a big secret was being kept from him.
"Just ... Promise me you won't leave, okay? No matter what happens."
"We're friends, Axel. I won't be throwing that away any time soon," Roxas said. "Friends stick up for each other, don't they? Come on: look at what we're all going through just to get Saix back, and I don't think any of us even consider him a friend. Things are different from before. We may be less in numbers, but as a team we're closer—whoa!"
Well, this wasn't exactly what he'd meant about being 'closer': Axel had pulled him into a hug. Pressed against the other's chest, Roxas wasn't sure whether he was meant to return the gesture or wait for Axel to release him. When he felt the hold loosen he sat back on his heels, staring at the redhead with big eyes. Axel's own eyes were downcast, but he managed a small smirk/smile.
"Strange. Sometimes ... I feel as though I still have a heart when I'm around you."
" ... Ah, Demyx took it."
"What?" Axel asked as Roxas looked around.
"Thought as much," Roxas said, confirming that the item he was looking for was indeed missing. "Demyx accidentally took the Olympus Stone with him when he left with Vexen. Our powers have been draining all this time. That must explain why you're acting all loopy."
"Hey!" Axel grabbed Roxas by the front of his coat and pulled him so close they almost butted heads. "I'm being all sincere here and you—"
"A-hem. Do you two want to be alone?" Xigbar's voice cut in. He and Hades were watching them with raised brows. "We could take this elsewhere if you want. I'm sure you'd rather not have an audience."
"You've got a sick mind, both of you!" Axel scowled, guiltily pushing Roxas away and standing, leaving the shorter male confused and irritated as he walked over to the join the two at the pit. "Found anything yet? We can't stay down here for much longer without the Olympus Stone."
Grinning his don't-you-just-want-to-punch-me grin, Xigbar patted Axel on the shoulder.
"Is that so? So this sudden rush to depart to more ... private locations has got nothing to do with you and blondie over there? Wow, Axel, you're shameless. He's just a kid—"
"Hang on! I think I got a live one here!" Hades said, tossing aside his goblet to reach in with both hands, only to withdraw quickly when bolts of lightning shot out of the pit. "Whoa mama! This one's a real keeper!"
Xigbar hurried over, barely dodging another angry bolt as something attempted to pull the Lord of the Underworld himself into the void.
"What was he talking about?" Roxas said, joining Axel where the redhead literally stood fuming. "What was that about you being shameless?"
"Nothing," Axel said quickly. "It's got nothing to do with you."
Of course. Nothing ever had anything to do with him, hence why everything was kept a secret from him. Roxas would have argued a bit longer on how he did not appreciate being treated as a child with learning disabilities, but Xigbar, holding onto the back of Hades' black robes, yelled out to them to come and lend a hand. Axel rushed over without complaint, leaving Roxas to follow with a frustrated scowl.
"The old girl's still got it!" Xigbar laughed, digging in his heels.
Larxene did not appreciate the 'old' comment and sent forth a massive bolt, which reminded Roxas: the Savage Nymph had always been his least favourite member of the Organization.
Kneeling, Xemnas scooped up a handful of dirt and allowed it to run through his gloved fingers. It was dry, practically ash. And yet, despite the poor soil, the trees in these woods had managed to grow tall and strong; some bore toxic fruits and seeds, while others had not only taken root, but had then uprooted themselves and walked off in search of more civilized company. Blood-guzzling hummingbirds fed off the thick sap which bled from the cracks in the dry barks, and blood-guzzling-hummingbirds-eating squirrels needed only to wait for their meals to flit by before pouncing. Skeletal deer remained just out of sight, but Xemnas could hear their nervous hooves pawing the ground.
In defiance of all logic, these woods of the dead was actually teeming with life.
'Life born from nothingness,' Xemnas thought to himself, intrigued by the possibility.
Halloween Town was a world openly despised by every other member of the Organization, but to Xemnas it had always been one of the most fascinating. Indeed, he never spoke to the ghastly locals, and yet their varying state of being—ranging from living to dead to undead to undecided—was something that he, as both a Nobody and a scientist, felt compelled to study and learn from. In a world where spirits roamed, furniture could walk and some trees held steady jobs, all while possessing no heart, there could lie many answers, if one could stomach the environment long enough to find them.
Indeed, it was in this very world that they, the original six Nobodies, had made a discovery that would instil new hopes and encourage the search for others like them ...
'Mind yourself, Xehanort,' said the Voice sharply. 'That is all in the past. He is no longer relevant.'
Xemnas did as told, if only to avoid getting into another tiresome argument.
'It is for the greater good,' the Voice cooed. 'Any distractions in these woods could be costly.'
That much was certainly true. Heartless had attempted to ambush him twice since he and Xaldin parted ways at the cemetery. Xemnas was certain that, being in the centre of the town, Xaldin hadn't encountered any Heartless, but out here in the wilderness they'd been bold in their attacks. It was unusual for Heartless to go after Nobodies unprovoked, and he had never observed this phenomenon in any other world. There was something in this world that was making its local hives more vicious, more reckless—
Suddenly, a dried shrub nearby rustled. Xemnas stopped, one hand slightly raised and ready. He could not detect any darkness in the area, though, and his senses were proven correct when his would-be attacker revealed itself.
Instead of a Heartless, out crawled a puppy of a canine variety he was not familiar with. It gave an excited bark and hopped over, wagging its tail so hard it barely managed to stay upright as it sniffed his boots. Pushing it aside with his foot, Xemnas continued on, but the creature had taken a liking to him and wouldn't leave well enough alone.
"Begone," Xemnas said, not wishing to sacrifice so much as an ounce of energy to deal with one wayward mutt.
"Snapper!" a female's voice called out as a cloaked figure emerged from the same direction the pup had come from. Spotting the pup running circles around Xemnas' feet, she rushed over and grabbed it. "Forgive him, sir. He's still too young to mind his manners. And don't go around in such a state, Snapper: it's immodest!"
She gave the dog's ear a smart twist, causing it to yelp before its body began to shiver and shift. After many pops and cries, a young boy no older than a year was left in her arms. Xemnas would have walked on, uninterested in the little family reunion, had the child not turned to him with bright yellow eyes. A jagged X scarred the otherwise unblemished skin between those eyes, its edges almost as sharp as the boy's fangs, which gleamed as he giggled as Xemnas' reaction.
Those eyes ... pale skin ... red scar ...
"Did he bite you?" his mother asked as she pushed back the hood of her cloak to reveal a matching scar and fierce eyes of her own.
Werewolves, just like—
'Negligible,' said the Voice firmly. 'Many werewolves roam these woods. It matters nothing to us.'
Still, Xemnas turned away, unable to look upon either faces.
"No," he said in answer to her question. "You should keep your offspring on a shorter leash. It is dangerous."
"In these parts it is you who should watch yourself," said the female, slyly passing off her threat as a generous caution. "My son and I travel under the protection of our pack. Out here, fortune favours safety in numbers. Will you be staying here for long?"
Before Xemnas could decide on whether to keep up this conversation, a blaring howl rose from somewhere deep in the woods. The pup perked up and squirmed in his mother's arms until she put him down. He scampered off ahead, obediently heading the call of his kind. Taking a few steps towards the trees, the female could not bring herself to just end the conversation at that.
"Beware the Shadow on the Moon, my good stranger," she said, brushing her lilac hair over her shoulders, suddenly looking every bit the savage her fair face belied. "Get yourself out of the wilderness in three days' time, or face the devastating effects the Shadow on the Moon will have over my less fortunate, pack-less kin. You do not want to be caught on your own when the time comes."
And she was gone, driving home her foreboding message with an equally ominous vanishing act.
Quite a few people would have been left shaking in their boots, but Xemnas was barely impressed enough to raise a brow.
"Superstitious drones," he scoffed before continuing on his way.
This was why he never spoke to anyone in this world.
In its own twisted, menacing and downright revolting way, Halloween Town had a certain charm about it that had gone unnoticed by Saix during his missions in the past. Perhaps it was because he had come to accept that he was now no better than the rest of them, or perhaps there really was more to this nightmarish world than meets the unknowing eye.
"Lizard on a stick?" asked the warty golem manning the snack kiosk at the entrance of the market. An honest merchant who did not partake in false advertising, he held out a fried lizard skewered on a foot-long stick, tempting Saix to take it as though he were giving them away for free. "Try one, get one free, then buy three. Only four crunks for three!"
"No thank you," Saix said, not returning the other's joviality but not being too abrupt in his rejection either. Although Garmjaw's predictions on his increase in appetite had come true, he had yet to acquire a broad taste for some of the town's more unique cuisine. "I am only here to look around."
"Smart suit, smart suit," said the golem, giving Saix's attire an approving nod. Apparently, golems had no qualms about dealing with lone wolves. "Good look. Try one, buy one, wrap them up nicely for you! Only two crunks for one; or one munny for two."
Though not hungry, Saix accepted the offer as he realized it would be the first transaction he'd make by himself since coming here. In fact, Organization members only ever purchased items from reputable worlds like Hollow Bastion, Twilight Town, and Traverse Town. There was nothing in Halloween Town any Nobody would want, let alone pay for to get, so Saix had no knowledge or experience in the trade going on around him. Having had no munny of his own up until now, he had relied on Garmjaw to deal with the matter of making payments. Now the owner of a sizeable pouch of his own munny, however, he could begin familiarizing himself with the local commerce.
Thinking it over, Saix ran his hand through his short hair, still unaccustomed to the lack of length and weight. It had been a surprisingly difficult decision to get it cut, but Garmjaw had strongly recommended shorter locks as a measure against fleas in the upcoming winter, which was when the pest sought out the thickest, warmest hair and fur to shelter in. In the end, only the assurance from the older werewolf that Saix could grow out his hair again come spring persuaded him to take a seat in front of the six-armed arachnid barber, who was an old friend of Garmjaw and had scissors for hands and an extra pair of eyes to keep track of what all his limbs were doing. It had taken him less than a minute to achieve the desired length, after which he had offered Saix two hundred munny in exchange for the cut hair; the spidery barber had marvelled over Saix's hair, probably because he had none of his own.
So, now that he was short on hair but not on munny, and since Garmjaw, who had gone off on some secretive errand after their trip to the barber, was not around to insist on buying anything for him, Saix was free to spend his not-hard-earned cash on whatever he wanted.
"Munny!" the golem said brightly, admiring the shiny blue and gold coins Saix dropped in his three-fingered hand. Compared to the rotting paper bills and cracked pebbles and shrunken eyeballs preferred by the locals, munny was a rare luxury currency happily accepted by any reputable merchant. This golem was so thrilled with the two coins he now dropped into the front pocket of his filthy smock that he stuffed an extra lizard on a stick into the bag before passing it over the unpolished counter to Saix. "Come again, come again! Smart suit, good look, good wolf. One more, one more! Munny!"
As Saix walked away he could still hear the golem now gloating to his neighbours, a sour group of bugbears, talking about the "nice wolf in smart suit" as he counted his precious munny loudly for all to hear.
The market only came to town once a month, on the day before new moon. While Halloween Town itself was the capital of this world, there were other smaller towns and villages scattered about. Merchants were constantly on the move, gravitating from community to community as one, both as a safety measure and as a way to keep an eye on their rivals at all time. Too big to fit in Guillotine Plaza, the market's regular venue was Rat Rack Boulevard, five streets to the east of the Plaza, leading up to Blood Moon Square, which housed the ever popular pub, the Brazen Bull.
One could get anything and everything on this market, including things which one shouldn't be able to get under the hardly ever implemented law. Butchers proudly displayed their choices of meats, which ranged from so fresh they were still attached to the living creatures (already skinned) to so rotten it had turned to mush and needed to be scooped out of the barrels with mouldy ladles. The fruit stalls carried nothing but blackened produce that stank even more than the meats. Cavity-stricken children gathered in excited hordes around the candy sellers, who tempted them with things like blood-filled taffies (very popular with the vampires), exploding gobstoppers (which gave everyone the temporary ability to breathe fire), and invisible gum (which could be enjoyed by the town's ghost minority without giving away their presence). Feathery harpies shrieked at passersby to buy bouquets of stinging nettles ("For extra stings, buy two and get a free jar of angry wasps!"), but had a hard time being heard over the wails of the bloated sirens sitting in the gushing fountain ("If a mate is what you require/our songs are available for hire/for just two munny an hour/we will offer our power/to give you your un-beating heart's desire!").
Uninterested in these garish goods and services, Saix leisurely wove his way through the crowd, keeping out of everyone's way as they rushed from stall to stall with bulging bags and brimming baskets. There was little need for stealth, since no one paid any mind to anything other than the lowest prices and loudest merchants, but old habits were hard to forget. Even though he was carrying a bag of fried lizards he had personally purchased, he was not yet used to going about in the open without hood or secrecy. 'Newfound freedom,' was what Garmjaw had termed it while looking like a proud parent whose child had completed his first day of school. Saix didn't agree with the term, as it implied that he had been a helpless captive up until now.
When his mind started to drift back to the Organization Saix shifted his attention off the stalls and onto the excited crowd gathered at the end of the boulevard. Choosing a relatively quiet corner next to a dank alleyway, Saix observed the interesting scene that had drawn such a large number of shoppers whose time would have been better spent fighting over the few remaining jugs of bile beer ("Straight from the liver of Gladys Blackbridle, recently crowned Hag Mountain's deadest witch! Get it while it's hot!").
But few seemed interested in the bodily functions of old dead Gladys. This month's market was even more cramped than usual for one-third of its usual space had been reserved for its newest attraction: a black two-headed dragon who offered short aerial tours of the wild countryside to anyone who was willing to pay the outrageous fee, which only got higher and higher as the two heads—who seemed to be at constant odds with one another—took their turns bartering with financially wealthy but intellectually poor customers. Those who could not afford a ride gathered around, gaping, because while he was a terrifying sight to behold, the dragon still stood out in his horrifying surroundings. He was not covered in blood, or scabbed, or warty; neither deformed (two heads were perfectly normal here) nor mutilated; neither revolting in appearance nor offensive in smell. When compared to the locals, he looked the part of a god that had descended from the heavens; a glorified foil in a world that revelled in squalor and misery yet could still appreciate unsoiled splendour. With his shiny scales, curved horns and heavy collar made out of fallen knights' armour, glowing crystal balls and dried wyvern bones, the dragon's appearance left the crowd so spellbound they were unaware that he was scamming them for all they were worth.
"One-and-twenty munny!" roared the head on the left, which was crowned with a sparkling pink crystal tiara, even though its voice and shared body was clearly male.
"One-and-thirty pieces!" challenged the other head, tapping his diamond-studded claws impatiently on the great treasure chest they greedily owned.
"Five-and-thirty!" said the one on the left.
"Thirty-and-twenty!" said the one of the right.
"Strong wind currents today! Double it!" said the tiara-wearing head.
"Low humidity! Double your double!" said the other, admiring his claws.
"Fifty-and-hundred munny!" they agreed upon instead, leaving their hapless customers—a father minotaur, a mother fox-demon and their hybrid toddler—out of the negotiations and now facing a price they had not agreed upon. The will to object, if they had any, was crushed when the dragon lowered its heads, allowing for close viewing of all its teeth, and growled, "Agreed. Pay up."
Father minotaur quickly searched the inner pockets of his tailored suit jacket (the only piece of clothing he wore), while his vixen nervously jiggled their horned and cloven-hoofed pup, who wore a spotless sailor suit as white as his mother's furry boa. What had started out as a nice family outing had ended in a death threat and a much lighter wallet, though few would think the latter an outrage since this family clearly came from money and thus had plenty enough left to spend on other worthless activities.
Everyone, including Saix, watched on as the minotaur helped his hesitant wife up onto the grinning dragon's back. Someone at the back of the crowd wagered that the little family would not live to step foot back on solid land, and a hat began to circulate as others wickedly joined in on the pool.
Unaware of the bets being placed on their lives (or, rather, their deaths), the family held on tight as the dragon spread his wings, which were so large they cast a shadow over the entire market and scraped a number of tiles off the roofs of surrounding buildings, some of which were six storeys high. His serpentine tail whipped as he flexed his muscles, ready for flight and—
Saix was snapped out of his gazing as someone fell against his side. A wicker basket crashed at his feet, the contents of one of its bottles splattering the toes of his new boots.
The crowd cheered. The dragon had taken off, knocking two chimneys over with his tail before disappearing into the brown clouds. Now everyone was free to loudly call out their bets as the hat, already full, continued to be passed from hand to hand.
"I'm so sorry," said the stitch-laced, long-haired ragdoll to Saix, hopping in place on the only leg she had. She dropped gracelessly to the ground and pulled out a kerchief. "It's hard to steer without a second leg. Here, let me ... "
But Saix stepped back, wordlessly turning down her offer to clean his boots. She didn't waste time insisting and began to collect her fallen goods as though she were in some great hurry to be anywhere but here. The day was not hers, however, as her swift movements undid the thread that attached her left arm to her shoulder. It fell off, its fingers wriggling in alarm at its sudden independence. Instead of blood, dried leaves spilled from the open stump. Rather than cry out in agony or horror, however, the ragdoll only released an anxious sigh.
"Oh, not now ... " she moaned, now short one leg and one arm. Balancing precariously, she pulled a large needle from behind her hair and some thread from her pockets. "I have to see Jack before—"
"Oh, Sally! Saaaaally!" croaked of a voice above the bustle of the market.
The ragdoll froze, only her large eyes moving as she desperately looked for cover as the voice drew nearer.
"Sally, my sweet, where are you? Come, I'm not mad at you! Let's both go home for a nice cup of tea and I'll give you your leg back!" The tone was so tender and affectionate it could only be insincere. Indeed, when he received no response the caller's temper went from sweet to vicious in a heartbeat. "SA-LLY!! You wretched girl! If you don't come here at once I will detach your remaining limbs and substitute your stuffing with bugs! SALLY!!!"
The ragdoll looked at Saix beseechingly and went "Shh!" before crawling under the nearest table, whose tenant didn't notice her since he'd long since hurried over to join the betting crowd around the empty dragon pen. Her disconnected arm collected the leaves that had spilled from her body and dragged itself along using only one dainty finger, taking with it substantial amount of evidence that she'd even been here. No sooner had woman and body part disappeared when the crowd before Saix parted.
A wheelchair-bound man with a large head, tiny goggles and protruding mouth missing most of its teeth rolled into sight. Judging by his white coat and black gloves, he could only be the town's renowned Dr Finklestein. Garmjaw had spoken of this character before, with a great deal of admiration, as Garmjaw himself confessed to being something of a bookworm. With his vast knowledge, groundbreaking discoveries and influential creations, Finklestein was as much an eccentric as he was a genius.
Which explained why only he could go about the town with a woman's dismembered leg draped over his lap, and still receive nothing but adoration and respect from those around him.
"Good morning, Dr Finklestein!" hailed a group of umbrella-wielding vampires sucking on those blood-filled taffies.
"Would you like some fresh toad-meal, Dr Finklestein?" asked a goat-headed witch, offering a bowl of her homemade amphibian porridge.
"Make us more of those exploding balloons, Dr Finklestein!" begged three little masked demon children as they passed by in a walking bathtub filled with candy and torture toys.
"Later, later!" snapped Finklestein, waving everyone aside impatiently and running over the toes and claws of those who did not get out of his way fast enough. He held a cold compress to the side of his bald head and was seen to wince in pain every now and then, especially when he shouted. "I said later! Unless any of you have seen that wretched ingrate Sally, I will not hear it!"
Having been either too caught up in betting on the unlikely return of the dragon's naive riders, or in comparing the prices of Slugworth P. Silkworm's finest formal nooses with those of Charlotte Blackwiddow's, no one had noticed the wretched Sally's presence, so they all drifted back to the stalls to hunt for better bargains, leaving the doctor to flip open his cranium and scratch his exposed brain so hard it wobbled in his skull.
"As if I don't have enough work to deal with already! I know I saw her come this way," he muttered to himself, steering his motorized wheelchair in a complete circle as he searched the area. "How can she move so fast on only one leg? For her own good, I just might have to amputate the other leg when we get home. That will keep her in her place until I find a better alternative ... What's this?"
Having spotted the spilled basket at Saix's feet, Finklestein wheeled himself over with a hideous grin of triumph.
"You there!" he said to Saix, pointing for clarity's sake even though they were the only two in this empty corner of the market. "Did you see the girl who dropped this?"
Saix considered both sides of this crooked coin. In the past he would have ignored the question and dismissed the doctor: the Organization never remained in a world long enough to face the consequences of their actions. But this was his home now, so it would be unwise to snob one of its most prestigious inhabitants. Still, this was a very unpleasant-looking individual, and Saix's could feel the ragdoll's pleading eyes boring into him from her hiding place nearby.
"You are mistaken, doctor," he said calmly, kneeling to gather what could be salvaged. "I'm the one who dropped this. These are my purchases."
"Yours?" growled the doctor, steering himself even closer. He reached down and grabbed a handful of dried herbs. "What use do you have for all this deadly nightshade? This is premium brand, boy! I know my Sally's stock has run out and that she'd escaped from her room again to come out and buy some more! Tell me where she is."
"I have little time and patience for games myself," Saix said with a straight face, scraping together the scattered dried larvae and dropping them into the rawhide pouch. "I could have lied and steered you in a false direction, if just to end this confrontation, but that would have been disrespectful. In all honesty, I do not know the woman you are looking for." Which was perfectly honest: he'd only accidentally met her a few minutes ago. "Deadly nightshade is a very popular item on the market: I am sure I am not the only one who bought some today. I was told that, in small amounts, it makes for a fine seasoning. I plan to use it for my meal." He held up his bag of crispy lizards. "Beyond that limited knowledge, I'm afraid have little else to say, doctor."
"Hmm. Yes, I cannot disagree that a sprinkle of deadly nightshade certainly does liven up any dinner," Finklestein said, rubbing his weak chin as he studied Saix, who remained reticent even as he rose to his feet, holding the dainty basket. "You're not from around here."
"I am new to this town," Saix said, refusing to go into details.
"So you travel alone. A lonely werewolf ... I am always on the lookout for new material to study, and while I have already done extensive research on our local packs, foreign werewolves should provide me with valuable information. The mind of a lone werewolf must be filled with fresh thoughts, and his spurned heart with pent up emotions. Are you looking for accommodations? I can readily supply you with comfortable lodging. In return, you need only to voluntarily subject yourself to a few tests every now and then."
Saix seriously considered the possibility that Finklestein was in fact the reincarnation of IV, before reminding himself that IV had never been so merciful as to give his test subjects a choice in whether they wanted to be physically probed, lobotomized and dissected. In comparison, Finklestein was a gentleman. Were it not for the leg across the doctor's lap—which he continued to stroke in a somewhat lecherous fashion—Saix would have recanted his story from before and inform the mad yet reasonable scientist that the woman he sought was less than eight feet to the right.
"I have already taken up residency with another," Saix said, taking a few steps to the side, leading the scientist away from the table.
"Shame, shame. But I will not let you go so easily," said Finklestein, in a much better mood than before; even chuckling. "You can expect an invitation to tea at my laboratory sometime this week. No, this is no trap. I would never discredit my name by lowering myself to abduction and forced imprisonment. Oh no, no. Mine is a respected name in this town. We'll just have a little chat and you will be free to go whenever you please."
Saix was about to turn down that invitation as well, then thought it over.
"If it is information you want, then you wouldn't mind me bringing a ... friend along," he said. "He too is a werewolf without a pack, and has far more experience in the matter. And he is a big admirer of your work."
"A lone werewolf admirer? What a find! I thought I knew everyone in this town, but there are always a couple who somehow avoid my detection. All the better: he too will be a new spring of information. Two exiled werewolves in one day! Excellent! Then we will agree to meet at my place this Saturday, at exactly noon. It will be a much welcomed break from my current research. You need only ask for directions: everyone here knows where to find me. Very exciting and uplifting!" crowed Finklestein, so excited he almost dropped the leg, which reminded him of his earlier displeasure, which soured his mood all over again. "That stupid girl! Now, if you'll excuse me ... "
"If you'll excuse me, Isa, I still have a worthless creation to find and punish. SALLY!"
Finklestein rolled away, still clutching the leg he'd created for his creation and hollering her name as he pushed through a passing throng of black-capped gnomes who had to scatter to prevent being crushed.
When the coast was clear, the ragdoll crept out from under the table, her arm now reattached.
"Thank you for not telling. Isa, is it? I'm sorry for all that," she said, grabbing the edge of the table to pull herself up. She regained her balance and took back her basket with a shaky bow and smile. "You speak so eloquent for a werewolf. You must have many interesting stories to tell. I hope Dr Finklestein will allow me to sit in on your conversation this Saturday, though he will probably confine me to my room. He doesn't think I should be exposed to too much excitement."
"Sally!" Finklestein's voice could still be heard calling, though he was unknowingly moving farther and farther away from his target. "Saaaaaaaaallyyyyyy ... !!"
The ragdoll pouted, puffing her cheeks until the stitches on either side of her mouth almost burst.
"He's too overprotective. It's not good for his own health: all this searching wears him out. When I get home tonight I will make him his favourite peat soup with fresh maggots and frog's breath, and I won't lace it with deadly nightshade," she said brightly, checking her basket to see whether she had all the necessary ingredients for this unappetizing meal. "Oh no! Most of the maggots have escaped. I'll have to go back to the graveyard and collect more now. I hope there are still a few graves open ... "
"You will return to him voluntarily?" Saix asked, quite certain they had both heard Finklestein threatening to dismember what remained of her.
"I'm his creation," she said as she rearranged the contents of her basket and covered it with a square piece of cloth. She spoke matter-of-factly, but understood his reaction to her indifferent acceptance. "I wish he would stop treating me like a child, but in a way I am his child. He gave me a brain, and a heart, and a soul. Besides, the worst he ever does is lock me in my room for a few days. He's my maker: how can I leave him? Who would I be without him?"
" ... Trust me, and I will make you complete once more ... Now, you are nothing ... I will make you someone once again ... I will make you whole, Isa, if you come with me ... I will make you whole ... if you are with me ... "
'Superior ... ?'
Saix looked down at the worried hand that had been placed on his shoulder. The ragdoll quickly withdrew it.
"Are you alright?" she asked, eyeing a nearby fortune-teller's stall with some suspicion. "You looked as though you went into a trance."
Tempted to wriggle his finger in his ear to silence the painfully familiar voice, Saix shook his head. Unlike Garmjaw, whose persistence could try anyone's patience, the ragdoll knew when her company was no longer wanted.
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Isa. I look forward to seeing you and meeting your friend on Saturday," she said, then suddenly beamed. "Oh! Here. A small thank you for helping me. This will indeed taste wonderful with your lizards."
Stuffing a handful of costly deadly nightshade in his bag, she gave him an uneven curtsy and hopped off, long hair flying all over the place as she haphazardly made her way up the boulevard, making her way towards the Brazen Bull pub. Her words, however, lingered.
"Where would we be without our makers ... ?" Saix asked himself.
The rose a collective gasp from the market as a great shadow swooped by overhead, followed by a collective hush as the two-headed dragon landed with a heavy thud atop his train-sized treasure chest.
"Who would I be without mine ... ?"
No longer interested in the ghoulish charm of the market, nor the fate of the dragon's riders, Saix slipped away through the alley the ragdoll had come from, barely aware of the disappointed groan the crowd that strongly suggested that the conned family had somehow survived their expensive flight after all.
What a bunch of freaks.
Anyone who could make Axel look like a normal person had to be abnormal beyond all rational expectations, and this world was filled with such deviant creatures.
"'Scuse me," said someone as they tapped Xaldin's shoulder. "I was wondering where you got that fright-tastic coat. My grandson has been asking for a Reaper coat of his own. Do they carry them in plus-size?"
Glaring sideways at the rotund woman-ish being, who was accompanied by another female who looked so thin she probably donated all of her food to her friend, Xaldin stiffly jerked his shoulder away from her poking, porky finger.
"No," he said tersely, and walked on.
"Why I never!" sputtered the first female. "You saw that, Agnes? These young hoodlums these days are so rude, going around with hoods on. In my days we were all proud to show our faces in public! Nowadays they hide their ugly mugs as if it's something to be ashamed of!"
"Inconceivable!" agreed skinny Agnes. "It upsets me so it's almost enough to make me want to eat an entire slice of bread."
Leaving that little titbit of nonsense behind him, Xaldin decided that he'd had enough of this mission and that it was high time he returned to the town gates and leave this forsaken world. He had finished his recon mission, which had been easier than usual since the town was too preoccupied with the marketplace. With so many weirdoes, both local and foreign, walking these streets, Xaldin did not stand out and had thus been able to carry out his mission in the open; with his hood on, of course. However, if one more damned reaper minion approached him with a job offer to join their ranks he'd run his lances through their hooded face.
A sudden whoosh of wind almost blew off his own hood as that boorish two-headed dragon flew by overhead; the sixth time this had happened since Xaldin's arrival. He didn't quite know why a dragon had suddenly decided to bury its infamous pride in order to allow itself to be used as a winged pony, but he confirmed earlier that the reptile was only here for the market and had no connections with the Heartless.
In fact, he had learned more about that dragon than the Heartless, who were the reason he'd come here in the first place. His mission hadn't yielded any new information. He had searched the town, from the highest towers to the deepest dungeons, travelling both on foot and through the Corridors to cover more ground, but whatever was causing the massive growth in Heartless numbers was not within the town walls. Oddly enough, there wasn't a single Heartless in here, which was also unusual since he distinctly recalled encountering small packs of the pests during every one of his past excursions to this world.
'With any luck, the Superior is having no better luck than I am,' he thought. 'It would be for the best if he did not fight anything any time soon.'
As he followed the spiralling street that lead the way down to Guillotine Plaza, he wondered whether this trip had done the Superior any good. He still didn't know what had possessed the other to come along on a whim; unless it had been just that, a whim. Xaldin had left their leader with some trepidation, feeling that it was against his duties and responsibilities to leave Xemnas' side when he was in such an unpredictable state, but at the same time he couldn't have been more happy to go: the Superior was usually quick to pick up on sneakiness, and it was pure dumb luck that this gift had seemingly abandoned the Superior in a time when the Organization was rife with good-natured but troublesome wiles.
Then again, perhaps an orgy of Heartless slayings was exactly what the Superior needed. For certain, Xaldin could do with a freestyle bout of violence right about now.
"Are you part of this afternoon's Deadliest Death's Dead theatre performance?" squeaked a willowy old crone as Xaldin passed where he sat reading today's aged newspaper outside a shack that served as a cafe. He held up a chisel and a slab of rock. 'Can I get your autograph?'
'When Kingdom Hearts is complete, and we've regained our hearts, I will suggest to Xemnas to use its remaining power to obliterate this world,' Xaldin promised himself, quickening his steps.
The calm that promise offered didn't last very long as he reached the end of the street to find himself at the back of a large crowd that had gathered on Guillotine Plaza. He'd overheard that the market on the boulevard would go on until midnight, so this gathering of freaks and frights on this side of town could not be shopping related. And if that insipid Mayor standing on an elevated platform in the middle of the Plaza was meant to be some form of entertainment Xaldin understood why the majority of the townspeople were so content to be in various states of death: with entertainment this lousy, death would certainly be a preferred alternative.
It turned out, however, that it was probably the Mayor himself who was wishing he were dead. Even with two faces, he looked unprepared to face the crowd, which, Xaldin noticed, looked rather discontent. In a world where torture was the preferred form of social bonding; suffering was considered a personal right; and someone could sue another in court for having not inflicted the desired amount of fear and mental scarring, it would take something of dire magnitude to actually generate any displeasure among its citizens.
"Everyone, everyone, please calm down!" begged the Mayor through a bullhorn, wiping his sweaty pale face every few seconds with a skull-spotted handkerchief. "I sanctioned this impromptu public meeting because, as your devoted and hard-working mayor, I understand your concerns. Rest assured, I'm sure Jack will come up with a plan! He and Dr Finklestein have been analyzing the problem together and—"
"Why don't you do something about it?" called a skeleton-adorned tree in the back, as the crowd grumbled an accord.
"Me?" the Mayor asked, so stunned at the mere thought that it made his head spin several times. "B-But I'm just the elected official! I don't actually do anything. "
Xaldin never stopped walking on his way towards the gates, yet he kept an ear on the proceedings, curious to hear what could have caused the citizens of Halloween Town to abandon their brewing cauldrons and cups of blood and moss-covered graves to come out here and witness democracy at its finest hour.
" ... cannot even go out in the countryside anymore!" said a moulting cockatrice, ruffling her fiery plumage. Although everyone avoided looking her directly in her death-dealing eyes, they nodded in agreement. "My chicks can no longer make the journey to Tombstone Town to visit their great-grandmother on their own! What is this world coming to if grandchildren cannot even visit their ailing grandparents to cheer them up with some good, clean family-friendly blood sport?"
"The road to St Carding's Gyre is overrun with the things! And I haven't heard from my cousins over in Shackles-upon-Necks for two months!" yelled someone who had to hold up his dismembered head above the crowd to be seen. "We've become captives in our own town! If something isn't done soon, we won't be able to attend this month's Witch Hunt in Salem Ville! I already reserved a broom and everything!"
"W-Well, we could always organize our own witch hunt here," said the Mayor, now mopping the sweat off both his faces. "Our own coven of lovely local ladies would surely put on an equally entertaining show."
"We can't hold the event here: all our stakes burnt down two years ago!"
Someone started wailing at the very thought of it while everyone else began conversing among each other, paying no attention to the man they had elected to rule over them even as he fiddled to adjust the volume on his battered bullhorn.
"And it isn't even as though they are killed!" growled the angriest of hobgoblin of them all, suddenly speaking up. She leapt up onto the nearby wall, drawing all eyes on her and her tacky wig. "I'm the proud mother of six dead children, all of whom have gone on to become terribly successful ghosts! But those things beyond our town, festering in our woods and clogging up our bogs and loitering in our wastelands, do not even have the decency to leave behind so much as the soul! If one of them gobbles you, you're gone for good!"
The town gates were right before him, but Xaldin turned back to the crowd, interested to hear them talking about what could only be the Heartless. Having found nothing worthy of publishing in a report, he decided to stay a while and glean what little valuable information he could get from the mostly paranoid rabble. He moved to the back of the crowd, where a few other loners hung back as well, content to just watch the Mayor squirm uncomfortably up on the platform.
"Order! Order!" he ordered feebly, now attempting to pass himself off as a judge since the title of mayor obviously didn't suit him. Stamping his tiny feet, he managed to recapture some of his audience's attention; the hobgoblins were not to be silenced but were generous enough to move to the side, where they began consulting a sinister-looking book. The Mayor took advantage of this to try and salvage what remained of his public image. His head spun, showing the crowd a smiling face. "My dear fellow frights! Surely you do not doubt our very own Pumpkin King and the great Dr Finklestein, do you?"
The crowd quieted down. Xaldin rolled his eyes. If these people were this easily manipulated it was no wonder they'd chosen this fool as their leader. What, had his main rival in the elections been a rock? This man's strategy would be crushed by the arguments of seven-year-old from the Bastion, and yet here he was, beaming as he tactlessly reeled the naive crowd back over onto his side.
"We all love Jack, don't we?" the Mayor asked.
The crowd nodded.
"And we all know Dr Finklestein is a genius, don't we?" cooed the Mayor.
The crowd nodded again.
"And don't we all want to just enjoy our splendid market, which is even better than last years, and find out who won our monthly Creep Contest? Think of all the fun we could be having instead!"
As the Organization's Master Manipulator, Xaldin physically ached as he watched this show of amateurish manipulation and its ridiculously effective influence over the crowd, who seemed to have forgotten everything at the mention of a damn popularity contest. Even the hobgoblins put away their black book, excitedly preening their wigs and adjusting their cloaks. This mindlessness insulted Xaldin so much he almost applauded when one fat ogress spoke up, refusing to be distracted.
"Trophies won't solve the situation!"
Waddling to the front, she climbed the first step leading up to the platform, almost causing the whole thing to collapse beneath her weight. The black cat that trotted after her shape shifted into the ugliest little girl Xaldin had ever seen; she really did take after her mother. Plopping down at her mother's feet, she played with her crooked pigtails as the ogress commandeered the crowd, completely ignoring the fussing Mayor behind her.
"My eldest lives just thirty miles from here and he sent a telegram to me via bat-mail," she said, waving a piece of paper as proof. "After receiving my previous letter in which I told him about our problem he took his girlfriend's broom and flew around a bit to see for himself just how widespread these things are. He says, and I quote: 'Mum, your pies—and not Jezebel Beelzebub's—are the best and should have won first place in last year's cookery.' Also, he reports that these black shadow things have converged on this town alone. Something is drawing them here, and I know exactly what!"
The silence added a nice dramatic effect to this announcement. Even the Mayor was leaning forward, unwilling to miss a word she said, which was unnecessary since Xaldin could hear her perfectly fine over a hundred feet away. Even the two-headed sell-out dragon, flying by for the seventh time, had glanced down at the sound of her booming voice.
"Werewolves!" the ogress finally said after the theatrical pause. Before the close-knit group of lycans in the crowd could object, she clarified, "Lone werewolves!"
Most everyone, including the werewolves, seemed to agree that this was a problem, though what sort of threat a lone werewolf could pose to a town of creatures who delighted in having their bones snapped and their skin burnt was beyond Xaldin.
"My dear, sweet Brickabrack—" she looked fondly at her spawn, who was gnawing on her own knuckles "—encountered two such miscreants last night! Of course, I do not imply that all lone werewolves are direct threats to our peaceful and awful communities, but did anyone notice these shadow things prior to the arrival of the rogue werewolf known as Garmjaw? I didn't! How can we know whether—"
"Oh, shut up, you stupid woman!"
All heads (including the one being held up by its detached owner) turned as a wheelchair bound man rolled into view, dragging with him an unhappy-looking living ragdoll who had to hop quickly on her one leg to keep up. The man—some sort of scientist—sneered at the ogress, who suddenly lost her nerve and ushered her child and herself back into the safety of the crowd. Listening closely, Xaldin heard one of the nearby vampires whisper the name "Finklestein!" behind his umbrella.
"What is this I hear about shadows and werewolves?" asked the scientist, presumably Finklestein. He slammed the armrest of his wheelchair with his free fist, making everyone jump. "What have I told you about hypothesizing so recklessly? The shadow creatures are part of my research and until I have found an answer to the problem I will not have my efforts sullied by the mindless gossiping conjured up in your empty heads! There will be no more town meetings on this matter, am I understood? Go back to your shopping and scaring and leave the theorizing to science!"
Nods and apologies abound. Even the Mayor bowed apologetically for having offended this crippled genius. State affairs had never been Xaldin's strongest subject back in his apprentice days, but he was certain that this wasn't how it was meant to work: free speech was acceptable, but apparently the only reason this buffoon was Mayor was because someone had mistakenly written the word MAYOR on the ribbon he wore on his chest. Only Halloween Town could take something that was already as distorted as politics and put a new spin on it.
"Jack and I believe we've made a breakthrough!" Finklestein shouted up to the Mayor, who put on a smiling face at the news. "You are welcomed to come see the progress we've made. Just don't touch anything."
Suddenly feeling as tall as his exaggerated top hat, the Mayor strode down the steps with an air of importance, though he was still sweating profusely. Along with the scientist and the unwilling ragdoll, he left the Plaza. With no one to complain to, the crowd grew bored and slowly began drifting off to whatever hole or dung pile they'd crawled out of.
Well, that had been time not-well spent.
Sighing, Xaldin started to turn back towards the gates when, from across the Plaza, through the thinning crowd, he happened to lock eyes with a familiar yellow pair.
There, half-hidden in the shadows between a crumbling wall and crumbling building, was Saix, returning Xaldin's surprised stare with one of his own. After days of not looking for their missing and wayward Berserker, Xaldin had accidentally found him.
If they had both been on the Plaza this entire time, why hadn't they sensed each other sooner? Xaldin's excuse was that Saix's aura had decreased significantly since he last saw him. Even now, looking at the Diviner, Xaldin could barely make out a weak sliver of darkness surrounding Saix. On the other hand, Xaldin's was as strong as ever, and should have functioned as a beacon to any other Nobody, yet he had avoided Saix's detection up until now. How could it be that Saix, who had once tracked him down across three hundred miles of open plains and dense jungle in the Pride Lands, had failed to notice him standing less than one hundred feet away?
And why in the name of Kingdom Hearts had Saix cut his hair?
Curious to get the answers to these questions (honestly, the issue of the haircut needed thorough explanation), Xaldin gave the other an authoritative look and jerked his head in the direction of the towering town gates, which would offer them more privacy than the now empty Plaza did. Saix didn't react immediately. Officially, since he had been stripped of his membership, Saix was free to ignore his former superiors' commands, though it was still unclear whether he was even aware of this demotion. However, either out of ignorance or freewill, the Diviner obeyed the silent order and left the safety of the shadows to cross the Plaza.
Already outside the gates, Xaldin leaned against the wall and waited, arms crossed in contemplation as his mind quickly put together a game plan to tackle this unexpected breakthrough. No, masterminding and manipulation wouldn't work now. Saix knew his tricks well enough to recognize when they were being used against him, and the risk of the Berserker disappearing on them again was too great. Though it went against his principles, Xaldin had no choice but to play this one openly and honestly.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel just a few feet away. When Xaldin did not react Saix remained silent, like any good subordinate should be before their superior, and patiently waited until Xaldin decided to break the silence.
Still not speaking, Xaldin raised his head and considered the other, now standing in broad daylight. It was good to see that Saix wasn't struggling to survive out here: he looked well-fed and well-groomed (but the hair! It didn't necessarily look horrible, but ... Xaldin would take a lance to the eye socket of anyone who were to so much as suggest cutting off his dreads: he couldn't imagine Saix being this lenient when it came to his own trademark mane). Gone was the standard Organization coat; instead, Saix now wore a three-piece black-and-teal suit beneath a cloak held together by silver clasps. Hanging from his belt was what looked like a full money pouch and whatever he was carrying in that bag had a delicious aroma to it.
Saix's exile was meant to be punishment, right?
But he had been punished; suffering had eaten away at the Diviner. Perhaps Saix was unaware of this, for nothing else could explain his open display of inferiority as he couldn't even bring himself to meet Xaldin's eyes again.
"I am not about to have a conversation with the side of your head," Xaldin said.
"My apologies, sir. I have not been myself for some time," Saix said, though he did turn to face Xaldin.
This felt so very wrong. Saix had always been polite and formal when addressing his superiors, but that had never made him any less frightening. Now, however, he sounded ... just polite and formal. The underlying threat in his voice which had served as a reminder of his suppressed rage was gone. This Saix didn't sound as though he was secretly envisioning emasculating you while digging his claws into your eardrums. Xaldin actually found himself wishing he were talking to that Saix: at least he knew how to deal with that Saix. This Saix was mystery to him.
"You are not as surprised as before," he said, wondering to himself how wise an idea it would be to test just how much of the old Saix was left by flicking the tip of the Diviner's ear (as Demyx had once unwittingly discovered by bad luck, Saix didn't like that very much).
"I am surprised it took the Organization this long to find me," Saix said. "I hope this does not reflect disorganization within our ... your ranks. If you are here on direct order I will not fight you, III."
This successfully curtailed Xaldin's annoy-Saix-until-he-becomes-himself-again tactics.
"What are you talking about?"
"Of the remaining members, you're the most qualified for this sort of thing." A trace of acceptance tugged at one corner of the Diviner's mouth. Xaldin thought he looked ... relieved, which made Saix's next statement all the more morbid. "You've come to execute me, haven't you?"
Admittedly, that was standard Organization procedure, but those targeted for assassination weren't supposed to accept this sentence so gratefully. Their very existence—whatever part of it qualified as existence, anyway—rested wholly on survival; they lived in order to regain their hearts and live again. For a Nobody, who was already nothing, to smile longingly at the thought of death and its eternal nothingness ...
"No such order has been issued," Xaldin said as though the entire idea was sheer ludicrous. "I am only here on recon. It is purely coincidence that I spotted you."
While many would give an arm and a leg in exchange for clemency, Saix took the news that he wouldn't be sliced and diced on this very spot in moderation: he sighed, not relieved.
Further talks were briefly interrupted by a tiny procession of walking jack-o'-lanterns that came marching through the gates to the beat of the lead jack-o'-lantern drumming the town's anthem on its hard shell. Using this random distraction as a chance to contemplate the Berserker while Saix watched the demonic produce pass on by (another recent development: Saix had never been this easily distracted), Xaldin noted that Saix was more relaxed than calm; more curious than suspicious; more soft-spoken than reticent. And still, this did not make him any less dangerous, for something new had manifested itself in him. The darkness around him was failing, but within him was a force that had only begun to brew, though Xaldin could not tell what. This destructive was so at odds with this new, 'peaceful' Saix it begged the question whether Saix even knew the exact nature and magnitude of what resided in that empty cavity in his chest.
"Why here?" Xaldin asked when the last possessed pumpkin rolled off downhill.
"Of all the worlds we've discovered, why did you choose to come to this one?"
"Instincts, I suppose," Saix shrugged.
For some reason, seeing the Diviner give a nonchalant response irked Xaldin. Saix didn't give nonchalant responses: if Saix considered a question beneath him he'd either say so openly and honestly, or he'd say nothing at all. The Saix Xaldin knew did not waste his time and breath on careless answers.
"Have you been here all this time?" Xaldin then asked.
"As you may have noticed, the darkness' hold on me, and mine on it, has lessened considerably. The simple task of opening a Corridor is no longer so simple for me. It is too dangerous to risk travelling," Saix said.
Which wasn't a nonchalant answer, but it sure was a lengthy one. Likewise, Saix was not prone to giving long answers when a simple yes or no would do the trick.
Somehow, Xaldin found himself growing more and more annoyed.
" ... I don't care for your hair," he said, as if that were the cause for his irritation. Well, perhaps it was a little. "It reminds me of Zexion's."
Surprised, Saix absently swept a hand through it, though with his hair being so short now he could no longer do that little over-the-shoulder flip that Axel often parodied behind the Diviner's back.
"It is a small sacrifice to pay. Actually, it paid me well," Saix said, glancing down at the heavy money pouch attached to his belt. "My apologies, though, if it brings up unwanted memories ... What? Does it really offend you that much?"
There was nothing there. Those yellow eyes, which once had the stopping power to put an end to Xigbar's overblown storytelling simply by narrowing, were almost completely devoid of their former fierceness. The Diviner's voice, which had never been loud unless roaring in battle, was softer and more detached; the type of tone one used when wanting to be both polite yet impersonal when talking to a complete stranger. Having fought alongside Saix during so many missions, and having even helped the victorious but badly injured Berserker limp back to the headquarters at least half a dozen times, Xaldin felt slighted.
"Cut hair can always grow back to its former glory, but honour is not so easily regained," Xaldin said, sharply looking away. "You may no longer be one of us, but I never thought I'd ever look upon the great Luna Diviner and hardly recognize him. Your face is unmistakable, but this new attitude does not suit you. Perhaps the Superior was right to excommunicate you: you have grown weak."
At last, a flash in those eyes.
"I have always admired you powers of perception, III," Saix said, visibly exercising control over himself, "and clearly they have not waned, but I have not so much as changed as I have adapted to the best of my abilities. Having lost the dark powers I was taught to depend on so heavily, I had to accept whatever alternative nature supplied me."
"What are you talking about?"
"It has returned to me, III," Saix said with a growl, tugging agitatedly at his gloves. "The savagery that you and II beat out of me when you first found me long ago. It was a state I wished never to revert to again, but now it is my only defence."
It only took Xaldin a second to realize what Saix meant, but it took a while longer for it to sink in. Stunned, he grabbed the other by the arm.
"A werewolf?" he asked in disbelief, speaking softly as though the very word were cursed. "You've actually regained your status as a werewolf?"
"I don't know what that makes me," Saix said, no longer knowing where to look.
Once the shock wore off, concern began to set in as Xaldin recalled the scene on the Plaza earlier. Saix must have witnessed it himself, coming to think of it.
"If the people here decide that you qualify as a solitary werewolf enough than that will make you vulnerable to their scorn," Xaldin said, pulling Saix away from the gates and blocking him from view with his own body. "If your Nobody powers have indeed faded you should push off until this political farce has died down. It might be too dangerous for you to walk these streets alone."
Releasing a frustrated snarl, Saix roughly yanked his arm free and took several steps back.
"What I do no longer concerns you, III!" he snapped, adjusting his cloak. "If you are not here to kill me than please complete your recon mission and return to where your opinions are still valid. If my punishment is to live and regret the mistakes I've made, then so be it, but it is the gravest of insults to hear my battle prowess—possibly the only thing I have left to be proud of—questioned. I am neither helpless, nor am I alone in this world, so you need not spare me these empty concerns, III."
"What, you've already found an ally?" Xaldin called after Saix, who was on the verge of turning away to enter the town again. "Do not turn your back on your superior, Saix!"
That stopped the other dead in his tracks, and when Saix looked over his shoulder it was the coldest, most hateful look Xaldin had ever received from him.
"You are not my superior, Xaldin."
Hearing Saix actually say his name struck Xaldin dumb for a few crucial seconds. During those seconds, he was aware of the Corridor that had suddenly blossomed open behind Saix. Before he could even advise Saix to move out of the way, someone stepped out, unaware that they now had an angry Berserker right in the middle of their path.
"I do not appreciate being made to wait, Xal—!"
The voice had an immediate effect on Saix, who spun around just in time to meet the Superior eye-to-eye before he unknowingly walked straight into him.
If the others were having better luck than Xaldin, the God of the Dead should have fished out their two traitorous ex-comrades by now; meanwhile, it would appear that Fate had taken it upon herself to 'assist' Xaldin in a task he had unknowingly been saddled with. And if this was Fate's idea of helping out, her wrath must indeed be a terrible thing to witness.
" ... You bleeding idiots," was all Vexen could say once Luxord finished explaining.
"Aw, that's a little harsh, ain't—"
Demyx shrank back into the lounge's couch next to Luxord, trying to conceal himself behind the Gambler, who stared passively at Vexen's trembling finger that had aimed itself at Demyx. Dropping his hand, Vexen started to pace erratically, rubbing the sides of his head and talking to himself as if he'd skipped the part of nervous breakdown and leapt straight into insanity.
"A game ... these fools treat this like some game!" he said, throwing his hands up into the air, up at Kingdom Hearts. "Setting up Xemnas and—! Great Heart of hearts!! What has the Organization become?! What have these neophytes reduced all my hard work to?! No respect for their superiors! No respect for science! I knew it! I told Xemnas we shouldn't have taken on more, and now ... those ... those ... troglodytes!"
"Is that a dinosaur?" Demyx asked softly.
"Now, now, sir," Luxord said, waving away the Nocturne and rising to take Vexen by the shoulders in a friendly manner. "It is unsavoury to hear such language from a distinguished researcher like yourself. Have I not always thought nothing but the best of you? Much to my regret, I do not share a vast academic knowledge like yourself, but did we not have many pleasant and interesting talks in the past? I understand that this might be a bit upsetting, coming back from the dead, but can we not discuss this in a manner befitting of gentlemen. We need not even include Demyx in our conversation."
Slapping away Luxord's hands, Vexen straightened the collar of his coat and untwisted his sneering features. He took a seat, lowering himself into an armchair with slow control, and entwined his fingers. Once completely rational again, he gave an authoritative nod.
"Very well," he said, barely able to unclench his teeth. "I suppose the sooner this has been dealt with, the sooner I can return to my peace."
"Huh? What do you—mph!"
"What do you mean?" Luxord asked, keeping a firm hand over Demyx's mouth despite the other's best attempts to pull free. "Are you under contract?"
"Did you think I could just walk back into this life and stay?" Vexen said, raising his chin slightly. "Dead is dead, X. I wasn't even who you were looking for—and may I add, it is insulting to think that you'd sooner seek out those two miscreant snakes to aid you in your plans and not even consider me. Had it not been for the misguided sentiments of that," he pointed to Demyx, "which compelled him to run up and hug me, and by doing so unwittingly reconnect me with the world of the living, I would have simply thrown me back in. Now, I can't go back to my peaceful slumber until I have finished unfinished business. In short: sort this mess out or I will make your lives not worth living."
When alive, an angry Vexen had been about as threatening as a drowned kitten.
Back from the dead, however ... Nope, he still wasn't very threatening, but at least he had some credentials for having done time in literally the most hellish prison ever.
"If all goes according to plan, we will get right to it once the rest return," Luxord said.
Vexen remained unoptimistic.
"You know what they say about the best laid schemes of mice and men," he said.
"Er ... they couldn't put Humpty together again?"
"IX, aren't there windows for you to clean?"
Chastised, Demyx got to his feet and shuffled off to a corner, muttering, "Geez, what was wrong with a little group participation?"
"I have something that will put you in a much better mood, Vexen," Luxord said jovially as he conjured up stacks of small, bamboo tiles. "While we wait, a game to pass the time. I do recall you were very partial to mah-jong, and I happen to have with me a brand new set of tiles I recently won off an imperial soldier in the Land of the Dragons."
No longer sulking quite as much as before, Vexen sat up with an interested look.
"Well, it's about time you offered me some intellectual refreshments," he said as Luxord set up the game.
Saix was in his arms.
Saix, who had grabbed onto him for balance after they'd literally bumped into each other, was now staring up at him with wide yellow eyes.
Saix, who he had not seen in what felt like forever, was right there, trapped against his chest.
Saix, who ... had cut his hair.
"Forget the hair," the agitated Voice hissed. "Forget him!"
... How could Saix cut his hair?
"Xehanort, listen to me! Do not let him ensnare you again!"
... But Saix's hair was never meant to be worn this short.
"Kingdom Hearts will give you all the power you'll ever need."
Blinking, Xemnas dropped his arms and drew himself to his full height. No longer held, Saix stepped back. Xemnas could not look away from the Diviner; the Diviner could not look Xemnas in the eyes.
"Superior—" Xaldin, being the first to find his voice, started to reason, but Xemnas would not have it.
It was too difficult. He had made his choice, but being confronted with the consequences was still too raw an experience. He would not change his mind, though. He could not. Kingdom Hearts was too important to give up now.
"Our work here is done," Xemnas said, speaking as though Xaldin and he were the only two there. He held out a palm, ready to reopen the Corridor.
"So true! He's nothing but a traitor. A deserter."
Whatever he was, it was easier to pretend that he wasn't; that he was not even there.
But the sudden appearance of Saix had caused the Voice to go on the high defensive. It felt as though it was physically battering its displeasure against Xemnas' mind, causing a sudden and very painful throb to develop left of Xemnas' temple as it shrieked, sounding panicked.
"You're lying to me! I can see him, Xehanort! I can see him so vividly in your mind! You're faltering! Prove your strength! He no longer matters to us. Say it, Xehanort!"
Too loud ... so much pain ... where was the silence?
'He's no longer ... '
"Don't stop there! He is a traitor! Are you stupid enough to trust traitors? Are you as stupid as your old mentor?! You don't need him! You need me! Say it to me, Xehanort!"
Too much. Too chaotic. He could not handle all this now.
"Why can't you say it?! Why can't you prove yourself to me, Xehanort?! Say it if you believe it!"
'He ... '
Why wouldn't it end?
"SAY IT! SAY IT! SAY IT! SAY IT! SAY—!"
And then the world fell into the sweetest silence Xemnas had ever heard.
Raising his hands to touch his sore temple, he was surprised to find that another pair had beaten him to it. Softly cradling the sides of Xemnas' head with cool fingertips, Saix had his eyes clothes, rapidly muttering something beneath his breath as the soreness lessened and then vanished entirely.
Xemnas suddenly realized that Saix's aura had all but faded entirely. Despite having little energy for himself, Saix had stepped up and put Xemnas' needs before his ... hadn't he? A show of loyalty ? The fingers pulled away. Having done as much as his remaining powers would allow, Saix released Xemnas and took a few unsteady steps back, looking pale and faint as he rubbed his eyes. When he opened them again they were blood-shot.
"Superior, I ... I'm ... " His eyes rolled back into his head and he slowly pitched forward.
"Saix!" Xaldin called out, but there came no reaction.
Xemnas was moving without any thought or rationale, one arm out to catch the Diviner before he hit the ground.
" ... either he falls ... or you will ... " the Voice, sounding extremely weak and in pain, grumbled before retreating to lick its wounds.
Still, it was enough to make Xemnas hesitate, and in that brief pause his view was blocked when someone else rushed past him, catching Saix against his chest and quickly lowering the unresponsive Nobody to the ground.
"Isa! Isa! What have they done to you?"
Xemnas' fists clenched. That name ... Who was this intruder, and who was he to use the name Xemnas himself had rearranged? Who was he to come between Xemnas and his follower?
The stranger, getting no immediate response from Saix, turned around to leer at Xemnas. He was a werewolf, marked with the same scar as Saix. Male, tall, well-built and not that well maintained, though it appeared he had made recent attempts to groom himself. While his eyes spoke volumes of the pain he wished to inflict on whoever was responsible for Saix's condition, his hands continued to cradle the Diviner with a gentleness that set off alarms in Xemnas' head.
Indeed, when studied side by side, the two almost looked identical, down to the same style cut of their blue—This was the vile creature behind the desecration of Saix's hair!
"Those coats ... You're the ones, aren't you?" the werewolf snapped, baring his fangs at Xemnas, moving in so close they were almost chest-to-chest. "Are you not yet satisfied with what you've done to him? Why do you continue to torment him?"
Not about to degrade himself by answering to someone so far beneath him on every ladder, Xemnas allowed Xaldin to do that for him. The werewolf's angry words were silenced by the pointy tip of a lance against the side of his neck. The softest of prods was enough to break the skin, which convinced him to move away from Xemnas as Xaldin moved to stand between the two of them.
"Who are you to get involved in our affairs?" Xaldin demanded.
The werewolf considered Xaldin, then the lance held against his neck, then the five other lances floating above them, their blades aimed at him.
"I would ask you the same thing," he said, testing Xaldin's range by tilting his head to the side. A second lance appeared on his other side, hovering on its own to press its tip against the skin beneath his jaw, trapping him. "Isa is no longer one of yours. You have no more business with him."
"You did not answer my question," Xaldin said, twisting his wrist to draw blood.
"Garmjaw Blackback VI," said the werewolf proudly, defiantly refusing to flinch at the wound. Even though it was Xaldin who was holding him at lance-point, he looked over to Xemnas and a sense of deep mutual loathing was established. He growled. "And you?"
"Mind your manners. Who we are does not matter," Xaldin answered, levelling another lance at the mongrel's chest, right over his heart. "You won't know anything soon enough."
Having made a miraculously quick recovery and already on his feet, Saix grabbed the lance before it could deal the fatal blow. The weapon tugged and jerked in his grip, refusing to be moved.
"Do not get in the way," Xaldin warned.
"He is no enemy of yours," Saix said to Xaldin, refusing to let go. "You claimed to fear for my safety in this town, and yet you would strike down my only ally?"
Ally? Saix would confront them in order to protect ... this? Then what of before, when he had driven away the Voice? Had that not been ... With whom did the Diviner's allegiance ultimately lie?
"Do not try to reason with them, Isa," the werewolf said, one hand on Saix's side, never taking his eyes off the blades aimed at him. "If it is a fight they want—!"
The gate creaked and groaned but managed to withstand the force of the werewolf's body weight slamming against it. Saix tried to intervene, but Xaldin grabbed him, barring his way with the shaft of a lance.
Xemnas tightened his fingers around the werewolf's throat, threatening to rip it out and finally silence the proud voice that continued to use that name. Even gasping for air, the beast had the gall to glare up at him in defiance. He was not trying to escape, as though confident no effort would be needed to outwit Xemnas.
Looking away from the werewolf (staring at him any longer would well incite Xemnas to just murder him then and there), Xemnas made a flicking motion with his wrist. Xaldin accordingly released Saix. Another nod from Xemnas and the Lancer, with a confused frown, pressed one of his lances into Saix's hand. Xemnas stepped aside, leaving the werewolf to slump to the ground, coughing and hacking as he rubbed his bruised throat and neck.
"Eliminate him," Xemnas repeated. "Kill him, prove yourself to me, and you will be reinstated in the Organization. Refuse, and there will be consequences for the both of you.
"Don't give him the chance to—!"
'Shut up,' Xemnas growled at the Voice, and it cowered and obeyed.
Saix looked between Xemnas and the werewolf, then he looked to Xaldin, who hid his own surprise well. Saix's eyes met his again, and it disturbed Xemnas to see the conflict in their depths. Doubt. Saix was doubting his words; his orders.
" ... I can't."
Saix tossed the spear back to Xaldin, who caught it, slack-jawed.
"Forgive me, Superior," Saix said, lowering himself onto one knee, palms flat on the ground, and bowing his head, "but by your previous orders, I am no longer yours to command. I am no longer part of the Organization, nor will I ever be again. It is a choice I made in the past, and I will live with the consequences."
Disobeyed. Publicly rejected in the presence of not just one of his other followers, but before that damned werewolf as well. Xemnas had faced some opposition in the past, but never had felt like such a devastating blow to his pride and authority.
"I told you," said the Voice gleefully. "Traitors will always be traitors."
When Xemnas said and did nothing Saix appeared to realize the gravity of his decision.
"Superior, you must understand—"
He wasn't thinking. He didn't know what to blame his actions on, but for now Xemnas did not regret striking the Diviner. Saix's head snapped back, and he staggered, but remained on his feet, head turned away in silence and disgrace.
"You bastard!" the werewolf roared.
Saix remained silent and calm.
"I have no use for an ingrate dog who would bite the very hand that fed it," Xemnas said coldly. He turned his back to the Diviner and said to Xaldin. "Our mission here is done. Clearly, there is nothing here that is worth our while."
Unable to do anything else, Xaldin opened a Corridor and went on ahead. Before he stepped through, Xemnas glanced back. The werewolf had gotten to his feet and was at Saix's side, standing so close he could speak softly to the Diviner without his words carrying. Once more, he squarely placed a hand on Saix's hip while the other examined the discoloured bruise on the side of Saix's face. Despite the other's overbearing fretting, Saix was not reacting to him. The yellow eyes remained downcast, features frozen in shamed disbelief.
Before he could even begin immensely regretting his words and actions, Xemnas stepped into the Corridor, abandoning his once loyal follower to the company of his fellow lowlife.
Xaldin stepped out of the Corridor and into the lounge, only to throw up his hands to shield his eyes from the blinding flash that lit up the entire room. Once the dots stopped dancing before his eyes and depth perception returned to him, he found himself face to face with Xigbar.
"Oh, it's just you," Xigbar said, grinning. He still stank of brimstone, sulphur and alcohol. "Gave us a bit of a start when the Corridor suddenly opened up without warning. Isn't the Superior supposed to be with you? Luxord said he was."
"He was," Xaldin said grumpily, dropping down on a couch, biting worryingly on the tip of his gloved thumb. "He's gone off on his own."
Not picking up on Xaldin's aggravated state, Xigbar balanced himself on the armrest next to shaken Lancer.
"Great! The longer he's out of the Castle, the lesser the chance of him finding out what we did. I whisked them away before you could see them, but it worked: we got Marluxia and Larxene!"
Replaying what had happened at the gates over and over in his head, Xaldin shrugged.
"Outstanding. Treat yourself to some ice cream."
"Well, aren't you just the radiant ray of sunshine in this cold, dark world," Xigbar snorted, hunkering down on the table directly in front of Xaldin. "Spill it. What went wrong now?"
You won't be in a much better news once you hear what happened," Xaldin said.
"Am all ears."
"BLEIG, YOU BRAINLESS BUFFOON! GET US OFF THIS ROOF IMMEDIATELY!"
"Whoops. I'll be all ears once we find the rest," Xigbar said, hopping off the table. "Kinda sent them off in a hurry, so I'm hoping they didn't end up someplace dangerous."
"IT'S REALLY DANGEROUS OUT HERE!"
" ... Was that Vexen?" Xaldin asked, though there was only one person who could so easily produce a ringing in his ear.
"Yeeeeaah," Xigbar said, leaning out the window the search the roofs and towers for the missing group. "Funny story, that. And you look like you could use a good laugh."
It was going to take more than a humorous anecdote to lighten the dark tidings Xaldin had to share with the others. At least Marluxia and Larxene, ever the ones to enjoy the personal sufferings of others, would probably have a good laugh over it.
Axel, on the other hand, was going to incinerate something.
Personally, Xaldin blamed the boy for this mess. If anyone was going to be sent out to bring back their enraged leader, Xaldin was ready to nominate Roxas.
" ... don't have to worry about draughts, and it is but a five minute's walk away from the butcher's on Mausoleum Lane, meaning we can have fresh meat every morning. Best of all, it has a large skylight, so we can view the moon every night from now on without having to go out. Then again, there is a very interesting bookstore not far from here that I have been meaning to visit. Since it is still early, we could check it out and get something to eat on the way back: those barbecued lizards were delicious, but hardly filling."
Saix wasn't looking, and barely listening, to Garmjaw, who was moving about the comfortable loft he had found them earlier in the day. His laconic behaviour had not gone unnoticed, but Garmjaw was attempting to talk him out of it by showing him around their new home. When he realized his efforts were not having the desired effects, he sighed and joined Saix in the centre of the floor.
"It's over," Garmjaw said, touching heads in an effort to draw Saix's full attention. "We survived it, and now we do not have to worry about your former pack mates returning. They made that quite clear."
"He hit me," Saix said softly. Even though it had occurred over an hour ago, every second that passed by only seemed to increase the pain, reminding Saix of the uncharacteristic burst of outrage the Superior had directed at him. "I ... I was his most loyal ... Why did he hit me?"
"He hit me as well, and the other one stabbed me," Garmjaw said, testing whether the cut on his neck had healed yet. "They're a violent bunch."
"But I was his most loyal!" Saix repeated, sounding almost panicked. It confounded him to the point of insanity. The Superior had never even raised his voice to the likes of XI and XII, yet he had physically struck him, Saix, who up until then had been nothing but devoted to him and his cause. "Why would he ... ? Something's gone badly wrong ... What have I done?"
"Stop that!" Garmjaw snapped. "Don't do that! Do not blame yourself for what happened! All you did was stand up for yourself. He only has himself to blame, and he knows it. Expecting you to obey orders after exiling you ... I already held this so-called Superior in very low regards, and meeting him proved that I was right to expect so little from someone who treated you so poorly. He is a power-hungry fool!"
"Don't call him that," Saix said, his claws twitching.
"Would that I were stronger," Garmjaw went on, still seething as his carved grooves into the wooden window with his own claws. "I could have killed him for talking down to you like that! Striking you as though you were a slave! That bastard—"
Saix grabbed him by the collar, growling.
"I said, don't call him that."
"Stop defending him!" Garmjaw said when Saix released him, returning to look out the window of the fifth storey loft. "I have seen his type before, and you are very lucky for people like him will chase one thing and one thing alone: power. And it almost always leads to their downfall, and then they drag others down with them. Had you continued to follow him, he would have lead you straight into an early grave."
"No, he would have given me my ... "
But what about the others? What about IV, and V, and VI? They were dead. They died pursuing the dream of regaining their hearts. They died ... following the Superior ...
Arms encircled him from behind. Though this was far more bodily contact than Saix was used to, he did not attempt to extract himself. He had grown used to Garmjaw's tendency to touch, and, admittedly, could find some relieve in being held this way. It lessened the overwhelming feeling of loneliness he'd been experiencing since that horrible moment at the gates.
"I can understand how conflicted you feel, Isa," Garmjaw said solemnly, staring straight ahead, out the window, as he rested his chin on Saix's shoulder. "When I was forced out of my pack I struggled to come to terms with being on my own. I did not know what to think, how to feel. I hated them so deeply for what they'd done to me, and yet I am sure that, had they come after me and offered me a second chance, I would have jumped at the occasion. I hated them because I had loved them so much. But I had been blinded, you see. It would take years for me to realize that while the pack had been the world to me, to them I'd been just another foot soldier."
A family of bats returned to their home in rafters of the building opposite theirs, carrying with them bags of goods they had purchased from the market. Chattering excitedly, they filed inside, the children first, followed by the parents. The father bat, wearing a brand new wide-brimmed hat, put his winged arm around the mother as they waddled out of sight.
"Fried bat rice! Come get your fried bat rice!" someone began hollering from the ground floor of the same building, having just opened their little snack shop. "Freshly caught and plucked! A crispy treat for tonight's supper!"
"Was that all I was then?" Saix asked, leaning back against Garmjaw. "An expendable soldier?"
"I don't know what your ex-leader expected from you, other than flawed devotion. He believed that he needed only to snap his fingers and you'd jump to his side, like a well-trained dog—I cannot believe he called you that!"
Saix remained silent for a long time. Garmjaw did not insist on talking, content to just stand there, resting his head against Saix's and making a calming rumbling sound at the back of his throat, though it might have been that he did so to calm himself, not Saix.
" ... What am I to you, Garmjaw?" Saix asked, causing the other to stir.
"The truth cannot hurt anymore than I already have today," Saix said brusquely, though he shivered out of his reverie when warm air blew over the sensitive tip of his ear.
Garmjaw hesitated a great deal, uncertain whether to answer the question. Stalling, he turned Saix around and looked at him hard, which seemed to give him the courage he needed.
"Since you've asked ... you're everything to me."
That wasn't the sort of answer Saix had expected.
"Is that not overtly dramatic?" he asked sceptically.
The question wounded the other's confidence, but now that he had said it, Garmjaw could not allow himself to retract it.
"I cannot put it any simpler," he said, stroking his knuckles lightly over the bruise. "But when your ex-leader gave you the choice to kill me, I would not have objected if you had agreed, because while life before you was miserable, life after you would have been impossible."
He meant something to this person; to someone who had a heart ... It felt different than being a nobody.
Saix felt a stir of something within him. Garmjaw tentatively touched lips, and the sensation intensified. Instinctively, Saix turned towards the inquisitive mouth, silently encouraging Garmjaw to continue to test his limits.
"I think ... I understand your ex-leader's unwillingness to let you go ... " Garmjaw said, eyes darkened as he stared at Saix, gripped by the same primitive urge.
That's right ... the Superior had kissed him as well. And he had forcibly rejected him. And now he was submitting to Garmjaw's kisses ... Why? Saix's rational side was appalled by this submissive behaviour, but his wilder side, the side that had been growing in power since he first accepted his rediscovered nature, grew more and more excited.
"Shall we just stay in tonight?" Garmjaw asked.
The beast within him was quick to agree, but even as he offered his neck Saix could only think of the only other time he'd been kissed like this, and in deepened the guilt of betrayal in his chest. To want this, yet reject the Superior ... Is this what he truly wanted? Had he chosen carnal desires over the very person who had ridded him of said bestial wants; who had given him a sense of identity and honour and pride.
... only to strip him of everything and call him a dog.
Turning his head away as he allowed himself to be seduced by the only person he had left, in this world and any other, Saix stared out at the dark orange skies.
'It could have been different ... Superior ... why did you hit me?'
A large shadow briefly blocked out the dying rays of sunlight. Gripping his giant treasure chest brimming with today's earnings, the two-headed dragon soared off into the darkening skies, throwing back his tiara-topped head and rubbing his jewel-clawed hands as he greedily laughed just thinking of his next conquest.
A/N: (Warning: here follows perhaps my most snarkiest A/N yet. I apologize in advance.)
To anyone who, while reading this chapter (particularly the marketplace scene), wondered "Wow, elaborate description much?", allow me to reason: bite me. I've had a very bad, very stressful past three weeks, which were first spent ploughing through three exams, seven (SEVEN!) essays and two presentations, almost all of which were on either Shakespeare, 19th Century English Literature or poetry, so I still got literature on the brain, which plays out in my writing. And then, on top of that, my entire family (myself, my dad, my sister, my sister's boyfriend, my sister's three little kids; apparently, my mom's immune to everything but death and spree-shopping-fever) have been struck down by your friendly neighbourhood swine flu, so I wrote this chapter in a semi-lucid state and could only write bits and pieces in between very, very long naps and spells of fever and nausea. On top of that, the DBSK lawsuit has taken an ugly turn for the oh-my-god-get-me-my-gun-this-means-war! All in all, I was not in a good mood when I wrote this (coincidentally, I'm still ill, and the lawsuit controversy is still ongoing, so I'm still not in a good mood) so please, no "Oh, this chapter's too wordy" or "Who do you think you are, JK Rowling?" comments because, quite frankly, I'm too fucking tired to defend this chapter any more than I already have.
And if it's not as funny as you would have like, well, you can imagine that I'm not really in a humorous mood right now. My comic sense will hopefully return by the time I start on the next chapter.
(Please note that I greatly value my readers. I love storytelling and writing, but if I were doing this for myself more than half of my works would still be vague storylines floating about in my head. You guys are what motivate me to post these stories, and writing actually helped take my mind off of my less-than-happy condition, so I am not accusing any of you of pressuring me to write. In fact, thank you for giving me something fun to do in these difficult times. Maybe, once I've recovered and DBSK go back to making sweet music together, I'll edit this chapter and remove the flu-induced rant from above.)
So, what's going to happen in chapter 11 ... ? Guess. While I'm very pleased with this chapter, I've now got a headache, achy joints and a bad cough so I'm going to go curl up under some warm, warm blankets and pass out and hopefully when I wake up from my death-like sleep in two days' time the universe will be grovelling at my feet, apologizing for its unjust treatment of me and my pretty Korean boys, and will then grant me three wishes and a free lifetime's supply of chocolate to make up for everything.
Read & Review, please.