KH2, pregame. A Luxord and Demyx short.
There's a game that Luxord plays, and not only with cards. Men of his profession -- for it is one, the careful construction of prediction, so effortless that it becomes automatic, black red black red black black tumbling over and over in roulette in his mind at night -- men of his profession know that the magic of Chance is mere probability, that Fate is manipulation, that Destiny is a simple matter of guiding every little variable with a gentle hand until things fall into place. People believe that it's inevitable for the dominos to topple just so. And that is a belief that's convenient for them to have, which is why it's convenient for Luxord not to disprove it.
Luxord knows this, and he knows the division between camps for men of his profession. Intuitives against mathematicians. Both are equally effective, depending on the game, and both swear their method best, with no victor yet in the bitter war of technique. There's an inexplicable line where strategy becomes art and then reverses itself. There's magic.
Luxord knew that before the shadows ever came, before his world cracked open and fell apart.
It's shortly after his arrival to his second life that Luxord is visited by another patron of the arts. If they were playing under a different roof, he would have a lark of a time matching names to Muses -- but they aren't, so he pulls back a chair congenially for Demyx, and nods. "Coffee?"
"Tea." The word is fast and Demyx blushes when he catches Luxord's bemused gaze. "I mean. Coffee's fine too, if you have it. I'm just used to tea."
"Whichever my fine host would prefer," is Luxord's response, never mind that Demyx is the one visiting him. Patter is a vital component of winning. Luxord likes to win. "Have you come for a game?"
"I guess." Demyx's mouth is a strange thing, quirked in a sheepish, half-mocking fashion. It's an expression that knows it shouldn't exist, but does anyway. It's perfect for a Nobody. "I wanted to ask you something."
"Something?" Luxord likes rhetoric. It gives him time to get all the pawns into position and the money down the back stairs. "That's rather vague. Specifics?"
To his credit, Demyx does not back off. He grins. It makes him look human again; Luxord is suitably impressed. "About your life. Before. Before all... this happened, and we became exceptions to the rules. I mean, no one really knows why us." A twist of his hand encompasses them both. "Why did we make it through? The others, they're scientists or warriors or both. You and I aren't. Unless... you've got any clues you want to share about your past?"
Luxord runs his tongue over his teeth, making a show out of pretended thought. In reality, he's already come to a decision. "All right, then," he states, after a moment. "We'll play a sport for it."
Judging from Demyx's loose, easy nod, this is exactly what the musician expected. "And if I win?"
The display is enough to confirm Luxord's suspicions: Demyx, like himself, was a showman in his previous life. That alone elevates the man a notch in Luxord's eyes. It would be rude to offer anything less than a good performance.
By the same token, he thinks he knows exactly what Demyx misses most.
"If you win?" The silence has grown too long; he cannot afford to let Demyx believe he is being studied. "Then I'll tell you my story," Luxord answers, grinning back. "And more."
Luxord leans forward, caging the deck of cards with his fingers. "Are you in?"
Demyx only hesitates for a second before nodding.
"Pick a card." He can see by Demyx's slow grin that this is a game the musician knows already, and Luxord's glad for that.
Mere chicanery makes it easy for Luxord to influence which card comes up first to Demyx's touch. He flips it over, already aware of what suit and rank is there to greet them. His grip shifts; Luxord moves his hand from the card over to Demyx's knuckles, guiding the fingers gently, repeating the same pattern that his own mentor taught him. Two sets of fingertips affectionately trace a line bisecting the illustration's head. "This one is known as the Suicide King."
Demyx's hands don't tremble. Luxord's know better than to start. "But... it's only the King of Hearts, I thought?"
Luxord smiles. "Very appropriate, considering our circumstances."
Caught up in the moment, Demyx's mouth makes a curve; then he sobers, wit catching on despite the heady atmosphere of charm. "Hey, wait. You don't mean Xemn --"
"Shh." Bypassing any crude insinuations, Luxord plucks the card off the table and brandishes it in the air. "Originally the King held an axe that extended past his head, but over time and artistic copying, the blade was lost, and the shaft was turned into a sword -- hence the name, the Suicide King. Hearts, in turn, represent all manner of containers: cups, chalices, xil'toc bowls. The King of Hearts is a man of art and inspiration," he continues, turning the card again so that the image changes, becoming a man with a crown and a grail between his palms. He flips it again; the King's pale neck is revealed as the image tilts its head back to drink from the poisoned goblet in its hand. "Yet, the man who has his own heart will slaughter himself to get away from it. Creation and destruction, one leading to the other, emotion overwhelming reason."
When Demyx gives another slow nod, Luxord picks up the pace. "Have you thought about the arrangement of the Organization?" As he speaks, he lays down more cards with his other hand: Queen of Hearts, then the Jack. The Ace gets shunted aside, a huge floating heart in the sky. "Six companions to start, but the rest of us have been scavenged. Not precisely very explanatory, is it?"
One look at Demyx's face, and Luxord knows he has the musician hooked.
"Now, then," he clears his throat. He marks the card with a pen. The ink is still wet and glistening when he tosses it into the air, and at the apex of its flight, the card simply disappears.
"The game is easy," he explains. "Find the Suicide King."
Demyx looks everywhere. In Luxord's room, in his own sitar. In the gardens and the winding stairwells wrapping around the Castle. Luxord, for his part, shuffles cards with his feet on the table, not even minding when Demyx moves him aside bodily just in case he's sitting on it.
They begin the game like that: words and music, staked in place of the missing card. Luxord shares old gambling lore about the Bedpost Queen and the Laughing Boy, flipping over the Queen of Spades and Jack of Diamonds together. They play with the King of Hearts missing from the deck, an empty hole where a ruler should have been. There is no substitute made.
In the middle of a game of Swords on High -- Demyx is winning by three points, but Luxord has a pair yet to cash in -- Demyx fills two wineglasses with a gesture and pushes one over. "Do you remember what art is, Luxord?" His fingers add a Queen to the pile. "Art is memory. If you take it away from a people, it's said that you take away their identities, their hearts. Without art, all that people become are just human bodies reproducing without a purpose."
"Ah." Luxord considers the pot, adds a Two. "But even though we lack our hearts, you can still play music."
"And you can still gamble. Does this mean we've got the responsibility of staying in practice, so we remember, even when others don't?"
Luxord finds himself forced to concede. He flips over a new card and lays it between their glasses, signaling the start of a new round. The wine is acceptably sweet; he might have expected that Demyx would not craft one that was dry.
Everything about the musician falls the same way: Demyx is vibrant with life, Demyx is flavorful conversation. Demyx is creative, and a creator must have something to draw upon, because creations then communicate on behalf of their masters. The only question is what.
"On your world," Luxord ventures, feeling out the depths of his companion, "were the most famous artists only so because they were dead?"
Demyx smiles. "Some of them were suicides. Not all."
Later that day -- while Demyx is busy looking behind every single painting he can find in the City, which, considering the excess apartments, is actually quite a lot -- Luxord goes on his next trip off-world and spends most of his afternoon strolling through fields of sunflowers. He speaks with a few travelers; he discusses the value of flora with one young woman, who promptly demands repayment for her time by buying her dinner. She eats like a horse.
He slips out the back while her brigand and warrior-monk allies are arguing about their travel plans. When he arrives home, he finds Demyx ransacking his bedroom, turning the pillowcases inside-out, stripping the bed bare of its sheets.
"There are better ways to get in those, you know," he comments, and has the pleasure of watching Demyx stammer.
They continue to play without the King of Hearts. When the games start to lose their luster, they pass riddles back and forth. Demyx's notecards are excellent messengers. Luxord's playing cards already have a cipher all their own. Once, Demyx attempts to send a Dusk along with a memo phrase in the form of interpretive dance; Luxord isn't certain what to do about that one, so he abandons it on a planet full of mimes.
Sometimes the notecards come with letters attached, and it's a language built of stories. They tease one another with tidbits of information. The game is an easy one, now that the ball is rolling; withholding secrets is just as satisfying as sharing pieces of them, doling out true opinions and truer facts as sparingly as treacle candy. Honesty is not a habit which is particularly safe for a Nobody. Even Demyx is aware of that.
One evening, while they are discussing work over a backgammon board, Luxord speaks of the necessities of conserving water while traveling through a forest of deadly mist. He crafts the tale well, describing the distorted trees and their crooked branches; he rambles on longer than he expects, stressing the sensation of thirst and how it would crawl up his throat and make the roof of his mouth ache. To drink from tainted forest streams would mean death; the caravan subsided on wineskins and scarce reserves of pure water, saving most of the latter for the horses as people grew sticky-mouthed with the first.
Just as he's in the middle of a particularly colorful description of the slime molds that would fester on the rotting logs, he lets something slip. "My sister," he mentions, "she used to dare me to take just one mouthful."
Across the table, Demyx blinks. Luxord shakes his head, smiling with rue, and continues. "Just one small mouthful, just enough to ease the thirst. Only a little poison. How much could a person take before it really became lethal? Just one sip could build up toxins in your body, but really -- how much?"
All throughout the story, he watches Demyx watch him. When the musician stammers out something about how agonizing it must have been to be thirsty, Luxord only nods in token acknowledgement. He knows Demyx is stringing together the small hints that he makes certain to drop on occasion, like weaving together colored strands on a loom of words to shape together the hollow of Luxord's heart.
They're assigned together largely by accident to hunt the Four Realms, searching for a red crown whose powers are supposedly linked to Darkness. Their gate-in point drops them on a beach; more accurately, it dumps them in the surf, which earns a laugh from Demyx and a wrinkle of Luxord's nose. He squelches to drier land, regretting that even knee-high boots don't protect against water coming up to one's thighs, and carefully, tactfully, rewinds his clothes until the leather stops dripping.
By the time he's through with his task, Demyx has also escaped the boundaries of the waves. He's squatting down, staring resolutely at the sand. When Luxord pads over, the musician cranes his head up, but his gaze seems fixed on a very different horizon.
"People would kill to have the opportunities we get each day," he blurts. "All the worlds we can visit, all the things that we can see. All this wonder. But none of it matters to people like us." He drops his chin again, the spikes of his hair fluffing in the breeze. "No time to even enjoy it."
Luxord only offers a cool glance, arching an eyebrow very carefully at the implicit question -- question and dare and challenge -- before dodging it entirely by pretending to be cryptic. "How does the saying go? If you bet on a coin toss enough times, eventually it will come up heads a hundred throws in a row. The only hard part, you see, is convincing others that it really did happen." He wanders a few steps away down the beach, allowing his feet to make ambling marks in the sand. "Right now, we're already living on the very brink of chance, the root of implausibility. Anything could happen here. Perhaps it already has."
Later in the afternoon, they trap sea serpents with the help of several Heartless. The Shadows bob like black pearls in the water. Their tendrils interlace into nets. As the sun grows long across the dunes, Luxord watches the thread-like, jeweled snake creatures writhe as their hearts are seized. A few of the beasts may yet become Nobodies. The results will have to be dredged out of the Never-World.
As they move from the Blue Realm into the Green, he and Demyx find new prey to hunt. They chase Sand Merks with caution; Zexion had been very clear about the dangers of the beasts in his report briefing, and the first time that Luxord hears the insect-like chitter begin to rise during the night, he's grateful for foreknowledge. The pain is maddening. It rises and drills into Luxord's eardrums and temples like a thousand diamond needles, and for a moment, he almost blacks out.
Then Demyx's melody rises. His fingers dance over the sitar's strings, drowning out the keening cries of the Merks with wild celebration instead, and Luxord firms his concentration long enough to give direction to the Heartless.
Later on, when they are recovering amidst the darkness of the Red Realm, with the stink of acid peppering the breeze, Luxord projects aloud: "I've heard some painters say they'd kill themselves if they went blind. Didn't you ever think to yourself, at least once, that you'd rather die than lose your sense of the notes?"
Demyx barks a harsh laugh, a strange noise for his customarily harmonious timbre. "Even wind-up music boxes can still play."
The contrast to expectations leaves Luxord remembering that, despite all Demyx's posturing, the musician is still a Nobody -- and one that outranks Luxord in experience. The reminder is a worthwhile one. It fuels his next line. "You can surprise yourself with what you don't end up doing." A beat. "You're still an artist, then, correct?"
"A musician," Demyx affirms, with the reflexive, bemused air of a man who's had long trials fighting with the distinguishing qualities of words.
"A musician," Luxord repeats back, smiling, and then he catches a glimpse of dragons on the breeze.
They slide across worlds, checking off tasks from the rolled-up list that Zexion sent their way. Demyx doodles notes in the margins, small fragments of song mid-composition; Luxord decorates the score with ornate spades and prosthetic hearts. He leaves complimentary graffiti in place of lyrics, and watches out of the corner of his eye whenever Demyx tries to interpret it.
On the world of Great Valley, Luxord tries to calculate how much use a giant Dusk lizard would be -- counterbalanced with the issue of reliable transportation for such a beast -- and then finally surrenders the dilemma to rhetoric. Abandoning it for a more pleasant time, he finds Demyx engaged in very serious discussion with what looks like a miniature dinosaur.
As he approaches, Demyx gives the fellow a pat on the head and waves farewell.
"Little guy's lost," he explains, hiking up his jacket as he trudges up the slope towards Luxord, heedless of the mud. "I figured I'd give him some pointers to help him on his way."
Another Nobody might have dismissed the weight of Demyx's action. Luxord doesn't congratulate it. He smirks, but recognizes the incongruity: Demyx showed mercy needlessly. What that means is a potential lead for Luxord's hunches. "Separated from his family?" he asks, deceptively light.
Luxord's eyes are clever; they catch what might have been a jump in Demyx's jaw, far back where the molars clench. But, "Probably," is all the musician says back, and that's what Luxord has to settle with for now.
The longer that Luxord watches, the more he recognizes the craft of Demyx's personality. Demyx is a performer, Demyx is a man of the profession. There's goofiness and seriousness and sarcasm, but they all float on the surface of IX's personality, like duckweed on a pond or butterflies orbiting some distant flower. From all their time in extended gameplay with one another, Luxord thinks he has a better sense of the musician than when they started -- and if so, surely Demyx has taken a full measure of Luxord himself.
Now, the only question is who has come out ahead on the scoreboard.
"Find the Suicide King," Luxord murmurs during the waning hours of the afternoon, watching dinosaur herds slump together and begin their slow drift across the landscape. His hands are open, hanging slack at his sides. His mind cycles through chords from Demyx. "'Even wind-up music boxes can still play.'"
After they are through with their chores off-world, they gravitate naturally towards the gaming table on Luxord's patio. It stands unoccupied; many of the Gamblers tidy their own business after themselves when they're done, and no one from the Organization lurks waiting. For now, the field belongs to Luxord and his opponent.
"So." Demyx clears his throat. His fingers drum on the table, a delicate staccato around the deck of fifty-one cards. "I think we've had a chance to learn a lot about each other by now, right?"
Gracious in concerns to the truth, Luxord nods. One of his Gamblers comes when he beckons; it sets two slender champagne glasses on the table and fills them both with brandy. The smell stings the hairs of Luxord's nose.
"I suppose we have," he allows. "It certainly has been an interesting time."
They're both silent while they sip at the brandy, framing which question to use next. Demyx's eyes are restless; they flit around the expanse of the patio, looking for the shape of that one last card, that one last answer to the riddles they have both set down like plastic soldiers on a grid to represent real battle. Luxord is more pragmatic. He recorks the brandy.
"You never did tell me the rest of the stories about your sister," Demyx ventures suddenly. It's a more blatant opening than Luxord expected; more blatant, which means it's significant. Deliberate or not, that's another question.
Luxord has more than two options -- red black red black red red, dancing -- available as a valid answer to such a request, but he has Demyx's attention now and won't let it go just yet. Final round stakes are always highest.
He takes another swallow of the brandy, and lets it settle.
"My sister used to dance," he begins. "And bilk peddlers for their coins. We played over violins and horseshoes and wore gold in our ears to attract the greedy. We would read fortunes in people's hands, and be surprised only if they came true. But in my sister, there was a gift." This part is harder than he expects, and Luxord debates the amount of alcohol left in his champagne glass, warming slowly in the air and against the transferred heat of his fingers. "She had trouble telling her dreams apart from reality. Not big things -- she never mistook herself for a frog, or anything half so foolish as that. But when she slept, she saw fragments of other lives, other destinies splintering and weaving around our own. A hundred coins tossed, and she was privy to each one. Then," he takes a deeper breath, extracting each word with care. "Then, she started looking at me the same way, and I realized she was watching me die, a hundred different times each day with every single choice I made. Knowledge of the future is... a terrible thing. Knowledge, and the illusion of control over one's Fate."
Demyx is rapt by the end of it, leaning forward over the table; the cuffs of his sleeves brush against the surface, making blurry reflections like spilled ink. "What did she do?"
"What any sensible girl would do," Luxord smirks. "She never told me."
Generously enough, Demyx does not inquire as to how Luxord found out; it's a small mercy, and Luxord distantly appreciates it. "What happened to her?"
"To your sister."
"I had a sister?" Luxord asks, perfectly innocent, and stands. He fingers make a careless snap. At the sound, a card flickers back into visibility on the table, as if it had been sitting there all along, just out of notice.
The ink on its surface is still glistening wet.