Title: The Flip Side

Warnings: Violence, non-graphic rape, language, and major screwing with canon.

Disclaimer: Kingdom Hearts is the creation of Square Enix and Disney.

Notes: Yes, I am well aware that it has been… well, suffice to say, it has been a very long time.

I had hoped to get this chapter out earlier, and I apologize for how long it has taken. My only excuse (besides the usual ones) is that writing this chapter was very, very difficult. This story has always been dark, but this chapter goes further than any of the previous ones. Even now, after many, many drafts, I am not sure it does justice to the situation.

It likely does not.

On a completely different note though, I know that in the… very long time it has taken me to get this out, there has been more information on the Apprentices in Radiant Garden thanks to the release of Birth by Sleep. None of that gets taken into consideration here, as it will likely destroy what little is left of my sanity to integrate the two (not that I even think it is possible at this point).

VII: Promise

He was shaken out of the darkness by a scream.

It might have been real, but logic (and an insane amount of cynicism, but given the circumstances it was totally justified) said that it probably wasn't. Either way, it was hard to tell given a present reality where very little seemed to be real. And when the little was turned out to be something else entirely… well, it was no wonder why Riku was starting to get a little suspicious when it came to distinguishing between what was there and what was just in his head, although some people would argue that he was never very good at that in the first place.

Riku tended to ignore said people, especially when they turned out to be manipulative bastards who happened to be manipulating him straight into a trap. Not that he was bitter or anything.

But then, that was exactly the problem. Now it wasn't that he wanted to be bitter, but at least bitter was a nice, normal reaction to being betrayed. And while normal was the last word he would use to describe his life thus far, even he knew that there was something seriously wrong with the way he felt now—which was, in short, one hundred percent confused over the fact that he was still alive.

Again, 'alive' was the last word he would use to describe this cursed half-existence, but it was more than he had expected to have. Like it or not, he had known that his days were up as soon as Xehanort knew he was onto the Nobody's act. This in turn meant that sooner than later Xehanort was going to destroy him, and he wouldn't be able to do a damn thing about it.

It was a pretty fatalistic way of looking at things, but after all this time Riku had at least learned to be realistic. Of course it was a lesson he had learned a few years too late, and he had a feeling he hadn't learned it that well because even though he knew there was no point, he had prepared himself for a fight that he knew he couldn't win. He'd justified it by saying that he didn't want to give in without a fight, and although he wasn't sure if even he believed that reason, he prepared himself for the proverbial losing battle…

… only to wake up to find that there was no one around to fight with.

If it had been a cartoon, there would have been crickets chirping in the background. Seeing as this was reality, there was only dead silence. Riku had even gotten desperate enough to call out the Heartless's name, certain that would be enough to draw the creature out if it was hiding, only to be met with nothing. No taunt, no laugh, no sudden blow from behind that would send him on his merry way to that light at the end of the tunnel. For what seemed like hours, he had stood there on edge, ready to act, ready to die, and he was still waiting.

At the time, it was easy to write off as being nothing. A fluke, really. He told himself that there were many reasons why Xehanort hadn't offed him yet. Maybe the Heartless wasn't quite ready, or maybe the Heartless didn't feel like crushing him out of existence just yet. Both perfectly legitimate reasons that, if he thought about it for more than half a second, made absolutely no sense given that Xehanort wasn't the kind of guy to put off maiming and death. Especially if Riku posed any kind of threat (a hilarious concept, really)—no, the Heartless would bear down on him with everything darkness had to offer, and yet-

Yet he was still here.

It had made even less sense the second time he had awoken, only to find himself again. By the third time he had run out of half-baked explanations that sounded more like excuses than reason, and he was forced to confront the simple truth: something was wrong, but he just didn't know what.

That question affected everything even as nothing else seemed to change. He would come back to himself, confused by his continued existence, and continued to see Xehanort's memories of the past. He didn't know what that was, but then he didn't know why he saw those images in the first place. It made him wonder if he was supposed to do something with that information. After all, in the fairytales didn't mysterious information like this always play a role at some convenient point (i.e., right before the hero got roasted by an angry dragon)? Yet so far, the visions of Ansem the Wise's six idiot apprentices were just interesting back-story, rather than anything of actual use.

Riku knew there was one person who could tell him what those flashbacks meant (seeing how the bastard was one of said idiot apprentices), but that would require actually speaking to the Nobody. Needless to say, that was no longer happening. Riku hadn't gone back to see the Nobody since confronting him with the truth. It was the one thing that had changed, and he meant for it to stay that way. He never should have trusted the Nobody. A part of him had always known that Zexion would betray him, but he had ignored it in his desperation. And now he was paying for it.

Except that… he wasn't. Not as he had expected to, at least. That was the problem, the fact that he could not ignore. Nothing had happened to him since he had last spoken to the Nobody, and he knew that something should have. Because Zexion would have told Xehanort, and Xehanort would have-

And again, there was that doubt. The quiet yet overwhelming doubt in the back of his head. Every time he tried to remind himself that the Nobody had never planned on working with him, it would sneak into his mind, replacing the anger with the mind-wracking paranoia that maybe… maybe….

Maybe what? He couldn't afford such doubts, not at a time like this. But he couldn't be angry anymore either, although whether it was because it didn't matter anymore or because he just wasn't capable of it….

The latter point was just another one of those things on a very long list that he didn't want to confront. But if he was to be honest with himself, he knew that he was changing. It was difficult to describe how that change was occurring, but it could not be ignored anymore either. He just… he couldn't feel as much anymore. Even when he was awake, he couldn't really bring himself to feel anger or fear or any of those things. Mostly he felt tired, and while a part of that might have been that hopelessness, he knew it was not just that. It was as if he was not capable of feeling such things without concerted effort. Everything, from staying awake to feeling emotions to simply living, was getting harder, and that could only mean one thing.

He was losing himself. This was the only truth he knew now, and it terrified him.

What he didn't know was why it was happening—was it because the Heartless was getting stronger? It seemed the most logical explanation, but if that was the case then why hadn't Xehanort destroyed him already? The Nobody had always made it clear that if Xehanort found out about these moments of consciousness (useless as they were), the Heartless wouldn't hesitate to get rid of him. And if that was true, then this was the perfect opportunity for the Heartless to do just that.

So why hadn't he?

It was always possible that the threat was just another one of the Nobody's lies, but somehow Riku didn't think that was the case. Xehanort didn't have any reason to keep him around, and even though he didn't know how he could be a threat to anyone, he did know the Heartless. Xehanort wasn't the kind to hold back; hell, the Heartless was the kind of psychopath who would use a nuke to kill an ant. Riku wasn't a threat, not right now, but Xehanort wouldn't risk letting him become one. Not after Hollow Bastion, where in a fleeting moment of sanity when Riku had realized that it probably wasn't a good idea to let the Heartless massacre his friends, he had actually managed to stop the Heartless. Sure, it hadn't lasted long and he'd been useless after that, but Xehanort wouldn't dare let him live if the Heartless thought he could do it again.

So then why was he still here?

You think you know what is happening? You know nothing of what I have gone through when I could have informed Xehanort of your brief moments of awareness, and yet you dare to play martyr with me?

Those words weren't so easy to dismiss anymore, especially when those tired explanations he came up with explained nothing. He had tried to tell himself that Zexion's goal was to confuse him and to make him doubt what he knew to be truth. And it made sense (one of the few things that still did), and he could almost dismiss the issue until he remembered the look on the Nobody's face. Because as easy as it was to set aside the Nobody's words, he just couldn't get that one image out of his head.

It wasn't a look a hatred or anger. Well, there was a little anger (or at least the semblance of it), but mostly it was… something else. He didn't know and so he tried to tell himself that he didn't care either, but for something that he claimed not to care about it was sure haunting him. That look, that split-second look, was making him wonder if he was wrong, if maybe the Nobody—

If maybe Zexion was telling the truth.

It would be Sora all over again, where he had been so convinced of the truth that he couldn't see what was right in front of him. But this was different, he told himself. This wasn't Sora, someone he should have trusted. Sora had never tried to kill him, or to warp his mind, or to manipulate him into working for the other side. Zexion wasn't Sora, and he certainly didn't owe the Nobody the benefit of the doubt.

And yet despite that innate trust between them, he knew that he needed the Nobody in more ways than one. Of course there was the entire helping him—or rather, pretending to—figure out how to defeat Xehanort, but it was more than that. Zexion anchored him to reality, and at a time when Riku couldn't tell the difference between what was real and what was not, that sort of thing was important. Maybe Zexion didn't know how to give a straight answer and maybe Riku couldn't trust anything that came out of the guy's mouth, but at least Riku knew that if he was standing in front of the Nobody, it meant that he was still real.

There was also the way the Nobody did it. Sure, he hated how the bastard talked down to him and made him feel like an idiot. But that was what he deserved, and more importantly it was what he needed after the sheer number of fuck ups he'd accomplished in the span of a month. He needed someone to tell him the truth, no matter how horrible it was, and to make him accept—

And yet you could never accept it, could you? the voice that sounded disturbingly like Xehanort asked, silky and mocking and all too knowing. You claim to want the truth, but you close yourself away every time someone tries to speak it.

He didn't bother answering, partly because he didn't want to have an argument with himself (especially one that he had a feeling he was going to lose) but mostly because all coherent thought was abruptly cut off by another scream. Unlike the last one, this was closer… more real. Real enough, in fact, to reach through the darkness and pull him right back into reality.

It wasn't nearly as gentle as it sounded. Whereas the other times it felt like he was… floating back into his own consciousness, this time it felt like he was slamming right into a brick wall. The sudden transition from his mind to his body was so wrenching that he nearly wanted to vomit, and he nearly did so when he finally managed to open his eyes and see the truth he had spent so long denying.

For what seemed like hours, Riku sad there and stared. It was an entirely useless gesture, which meant he was sticking with his usual pattern of being useless. Or worse than useless because the scene before him was not the product of being useless, but of really, really fucking up.

"Oh god."

He barely even realized that he was speaking. He barely realized a lot of things. He was aware, in a distant sort of way, that he was naked, and that he was not the only one. But he could not take that next step of comprehending what it actually meant. His brain had shut down, and he could feel bile in the back of his throat demanding to get out one way or the other. The words themselves were no more than a horrified whisper, barely louder than the harsh breathing of the person beneath him. But they echoed through the room, damning him over and over again as slowly, reluctantly, dark blue eyes opened to look at him.

The effect was chilling in its contrast. Riku was used to those eyes being sharp and discerning, but now they were cloudy and unfocused. Riku could read confusion in them as the Nobody visibly struggled to figure out what was going on. A few blinks eventually erased the haziness, but nothing could get rid of that hollowed, deadened look.

It was a look that one associated with complete and utter loss. Riku was very familiar with that look.

"Oh. It's you."

He couldn't help but flinch, as if each word was a physical blow when in reality they were apathetic and sluggish, as if Zexion was speaking words for the first time in a long while. Riku didn't respond, partly because he didn't know what to say and mostly because he didn't think he had the right to say anything. The silence was finally broken when Zexion said in a voice so calm that it was borderline psychotic:

"Get off of me, Riku."

It was not a command but not quite a plea, and it was more than enough to send him flying off the bed in a scene that might have been funny if it wasn't for everything else. He practically threw himself away, and after landing on the floor awkwardly he scrambled to put some distance between them. When his legs didn't work he had to forcibly drag himself away, a task that was made all the more difficult by the sheer need to get as far away as possible from what he had done.

As he moved, he tried to think of something to say but his words, like his actions thus far, meant nothing. He had nothing to say, and even if he had his voice was not working because oh god, what could he say? No words would make this right, especially coming from him, but if he did not speak then he would scream and scream and scream until he woke up from this nightmare.

And so he tried desperately to form words. Nothing came out. Instead, his mind continued to open and close as if he was a suffocating fish, which again might have been funny if everything about the current situation wasn't so wrong. All the while, Zexion just continued to lie there. The Nobody did not take any amusement from his frenzied attempts to get away; hell, the Nobody had not even seemed to notice, staring instead at the ceiling. Or at least in its general direction because even Riku could tell that Zexion was not seeing much of anything right now. The Nobody had not even moved beyond what was necessary to speak those few words. Belatedly, Riku realized that Zexion had barely reacted when Riku had taken the Heartless's place, not even when the darkness binding those pale wrists had dissipated. From where he was he could still see that those wrists were a lurid red, as if the darkness had burned what it touched, and—

"Well?" Zexion said abruptly, his voice dry and sardonic but a mere ghost to what it once was. "Are you not pleased? Here is your evidence of the betrayal you have so painfully suffered. Is it everything you could have hoped for?"

A sound rather like a whimper escaped his lips, and a smile twisted on the Nobody's face. "Not to your liking, I take it. There is little else I can do to rectify that though, although we both know of someone who will be more than pleased to accommodate you. I expect you will have to go away for that, but never you worry that he will ensure that I suffer enough so that your tragic existence is not in vain."

"Zexion." The word was small and pathetic, desperate to intervene but having no force behind it.

"Yes, yes, that is my name." Zexion sounded almost amused. But amusement quickly turned to confusion as the Nobody repeated after him, as if trying to remember something important. "Zexion. We do not pick our names, you realize. They are given. As Nobodies, we have little right to choose anything, now do we?"

Riku shook his head, as if trying still to deny what he was witnessing. It was painful, watching Zexion sway between these two polar opposites—one moment the Nobody was mocking cruelty, the next this… broken, twisted, lost creature. He hadn't meant for this to happen, and now that it had, he once again proved that he could not handle the consequences of his own actions. He wanted to recoil from the scene before him, but somehow he forced himself not to run, but to stand and inch closer, as if approaching a wounded animal that was in so much pain it could no longer tell the difference between friend and enemy.

Considering what Riku's own inability had cost the Nobody, he no longer knew which of those categories he fell into.

"You…" his voice was increasingly becoming higher pitched. "Him…."

Zexion blinked, tilting his head ever so slightly and inadvertently revealing a mess of bruises on his neck, as if someone had tried to strangle him. "That? What of it? You already knew about it. I believe that was what you were blathering on about the last time, was it not?"

The words were flat, and each was a punch to the gut. "I didn't-"

He didn't even know what he was trying to protest, but it didn't matter as Zexion cut of him off. "Of course you did not. You, like so many others, see only what you wish to see. He is much the same. He sees me as someone I have not been in quite some time. I do not really understand what he wants, or what motivates him to act in such curious ways. But I suppose it does not matter for he will take what he wants at his leisure, and leave nothing in his wake. But that is what a Nobody is in the end, is it not? Perhaps he seeks only to hurry the inevitable. Either way, I am in no position to stop him. I accept that, although I do rather hope he can quicken his pace. It is too much, you see. Do inform him of that for me, will you? I would do it myself, but he cares little for what I have to say."

Riku wasn't sure how it was possible for him to feel worse, but with each calm sentence it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. But then it managed to get worse still, like the train was slamming right into him as Zexion's voice finally seemed to crack at the end, no longer able to carry on the charade, and allowing Riku to ask, "What happened to you?"

Zexion swallowed, obviously trying to regain his composure before he finally said quietly, "I would think it obvious."

And it was. That was precisely the problem. Now that he saw it, he realized that it was so obvious. A part of him tried to protest—there was no way he could have known; it wasn't like Zexion ever said anything. The Nobody had even tried to hide it, but then that was it, wasn't it? He had long suspected that something was happening ever since he saw the heavy bruising on that pale skin, and... fuck.

"How long has this been going on?"

Zexion shifted ever so slightly, in what might have been a shrug or just strained breathing. "What does it matter?"

"How long?!" The demand echoed through the room, and he tried not to shudder at Zexion's slight flinch.

He didn't really want to know, but he had to. He needed to know how long he had allowed this to—no. No, it wasn't as simple as letting this happen. He did this. It was as simple as that. He did this by throwing those hateful words without stopping to think what was really happening, leaving Zexion to deal with the Heartless on his own, abandoning yet another person who had needed his help.

"Long enough." And then, an almost shrill, tired laugh. "Too long. I do not know. I lost count. I never thought that would happen. But I have. Is that not odd? How something like this could become so ordinary?"

By this point, Riku wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and pretend that this wasn't happening. Instead, he kept his eyes open and fixated on Zexion. He owed the guy that much at least, and he wouldn't hide from this again. "Zexion…."

It was as far as he could go. But again, it didn't seem to matter as Zexion didn't really seem to be listening to him anyway. Hell, Zexion barely seemed lucid as the Nobody continued, "I do remember the first time, at least. That is something, is it not? You were still around then. If you had not, it might not have happened. But that is nothing new. You really are quite maddening, I hope you realize. I rather think the world will end before you truly understand anything. I am likely correct. It is a shame. But what of it? I suppose it does not matter anymore. There were never many options, and you work with what you have, but this truly was a poor hand to play with. Not that I am in any position to complain."

If it had been anyone else, Riku might have been fooled. But having gotten to know Zexion—as well as anyone could know a person who excelled in concealing truths behind half-truth—he knew that the words that would have sounded calm from anyone else were really just a ruse. Zexion never spoke like this, in a way that could only be described as… babbling. Not the calm, composed Nobody who knew everything about everyone, and never let anyone know more than they absolutely had to.

His hands clenched into fists, nails digging into his palm but that pain was nothing compared to what he was seeing. "I… I didn't know." The denial sounded even feebler than it had in his head, and yet he couldn't help but continue, "I didn't know what he was doing to you. If I had, I wouldn't… I wouldn't have said those things, believe me. I would have done something about it, I would have-"

He was met only by an incredulous laugh. "And what, pray tell, would you have done?"

"I don't know!" He was yelling now, but he couldn't contain himself anymore and Zexion didn't seem to care anyway. Why did this sort of thing always happen to him? Why could he never protect the people around him, instead of causing them more pain?! "Why didn't you tell me? Why did you let me say those things, why did you… you should have told me! You should have… if you had, I could have helped you. I could have done something, I could-"

"Wrong," Zexion said, saying what they both knew but only one was capable of facing. "You would not have been able to do anything. Not as you are."

"You don't know that."

Even now, Riku didn't want to accept it. Maybe it was because he needed to believe this wasn't entirely his fault for not seeing what was happening. He had been so wrapped up in his own troubles that he had blinded himself to reality, and still he could not accept it. Was that why he was trying to push the blame onto Zexion, for not telling him what he should have already known? Was this how he had justified attacking Sora not so long ago?

What the hell was wrong with him?

Zexion answered, although even he could not answer that particular question. "You cannot even save yourself."

He shook his head, avoiding eye contact with Zexion. "That's not the point." He wasn't sure who he was responding to at this point.

"To you, I suppose it is not," Zexion conceded, although his tone implied not that he agreed but that he just didn't have the strength to argue with fools anymore. "You seem rather more interested in saving others than yourself, although one could argue that the two are inextricably linked. Perhaps that is why you fail so often? It matters not. You are wasting your time here. There was never anything left for you to save, you see."

Something inside of him snapped at this, and he slammed his hands down on the bed. It wasn't the most effective of gestures, and he wasn't even sure why he was mad in the first place, but it was enough to at least force a look of almost-surprise (and fear) from Zexion as he yelled, "Don't say that! How can you even say that?! Don't say this is a waste of time, that… what the hell are you trying to say? That you're not worth saving? Is that really what you think?!"


He should have been prepared for that answer. Zexion certainly seemed to think so, continuing relentlessly, "Why are you so surprised? I thought I disgusted you. You made that perfectly clear the last time we spoke, did you not?"

Riku had almost forgotten how good Zexion was at using his own words against him, but somehow this was worse than all those other times. Maybe it was because no matter how much he hated himself for betraying Sora and Kairi, and not to mention plunging multiple worlds into darkness, at least those things had been… fixed. No thanks to him, frankly, but at least there wasn't any lasting damage to anyone except himself. And he deserved that.

But this? He didn't know if it was possible to fix this. Even if Zexion claimed to not have feelings, to not care, to not matter… it was stupid. No one standing here, at this precise moment, would think that. No one would believe that this did not matter, but Zexion did. Zexion seemed, honest to god, to believe that what was happening was of no concern to anyone. And was it any wonder after what he had said? As he stood there, frozen, those hateful, spiteful, stupid words he had said at their last meeting continued to echo through his mind, damning him over and over again.

He deserved it. He would not deny that. Yet even though the self-hatred, he could tell that Zexion was trying to make him give up.

He was not going to. Not this time, not again.

"I see the past." He surprised himself with how calm the words were, considering how they weren't the ones he had wanted to say. But he had needed to say… no, do something before the silence made him completely lose what was left of his sanity. Some people—or one in particular—would say that it was too late for that, but he couldn't let himself believe that anymore. He knew now that this wasn't about him anymore.

On some level, he knew that before this… he had believed that if he gave up, it wouldn't really matter. That maybe it shouldn't matter. Sure, Sora and Kairi would have been sad about it, but they would have bounced back from it. And maybe he had even convinced himself that they would be better off without him, that maybe it was a good thing if he wasn't there to mess up their lives all over again.

It was ironic then, that he couldn't stand to let Zexion engage in the same kind of self-loathing. Ironic and hypocritical, but Riku had long accepted his shortcomings to the point that he couldn't see what benefit his existence could have to anyone. And maybe he was right, but he was also wrong. Leaving Zexion behind to the Heartless was a direct result of his trying to run away. He had thought himself justified at the time, focusing on the other's deceptions rather than his own. But he couldn't hide from the truth anymore, and so the only thing left was to confront it straight on.

"I think it is the past, at least. I'm not really sure. But it has you and him and… others. Like those two Nobodies at Castle Oblivion. And there's another Ansem… the real Ansem, I think, but I don't know what any of it means. I know I should have told you sooner, but I wasn't… I wasn't sure, and then-"

He stopped, a rising sense of desperation bubbling up inside of him. Zexion still wasn't looking at him; the guy barely seemed to be paying attention. Even though he knew he was one to talk, he couldn't help but say rather desperately, "Come on, you can't give up. You have to help me."

"Help you?" Zexion finally looked at him, and those dark blue eyes were as flat and empty as they always were but for some reason it was different this time. Instead of the usual curiosity, or that contemplative look that seemed to be gauging his usefulness in some grander scheme, for the first time it truly was—


"Yes," he said, managing to stutter a one-syllable word. He swallowed, trying to calm himself before saying, "We can still do this. If you… if you help me, then I can-"

"You expect me to help you?" Zexion asked again, not noticing his flinch as the guy looked straight through him. "I cannot help you. That is the difference between you and I; I harbor no delusions as to my inabilities, which as you can see are many. I cannot help myself, and therefore I cannot help anyone else. I do not see what you expect me to do. Everyone seems to have such… lofty expectations of me, but honestly I am failing to see how such expectations can arise. I have told you, and I have told him—I have no answers. I do not know what either of you are speaking of, and I never claimed to. Now Ienzo; he, perhaps, has some answers. At least he will think that he does. Likely he does not, but practicality was never high on his list of priorities. Besides, he is not here to answer such questions."

He blinked, confused by this last point. "But Ienzo… you're him, aren't you?"

That was obviously the wrong question to ask as Zexion cringed, his words losing any lingering semblance of poise as sheer terror seemed to take over. "No. No, I am not him, I am not Ienzo, I am not, I am-"

Zexion seemed on the verge of a panic attack, and in desperation Riku reached out to grab his hand. The reaction was almost automatic, a throwback to happier days when he, Sora, and Kairi used to take each other by the hand when they were scared by something stupid, and it occurred to him that it probably wasn't the best thing to do to someone who was freaking out like this. But he couldn't think about that right now, and the only thing he could do at this point was to act on instinct, and to hope that he would get through..

"Okay," he said. He didn't want to speak so loudly, but it was the only way to ensure that Zexion was able to hear as he repeated in what he could only hope was a calming voice. "Okay, you're not Ienzo. I get it. Alright? I get it."

Somehow this was enough to get Zexion to look at him, eyes still wide but slowly losing some of the prior terror as the Nobody asked, "Why?"

"I want to help you." He didn't wait to let the words sink in, knowing that even now, Zexion would probably throw them back into his face. Not that he deserved any less, but this just wasn't the time. "I know it doesn't mean anything, and that's it too late, but I'm not going to let this happen to you anymore. Not again. I'm not going to just stand aside and let this happen."

Zexion shook his head, obviously not willing to believe anything he had to say. "You did not answer my question. I asked why. What do you want from me? You must want something from me. Everyone seems to want something away from me, the Heartless especially. Will you do the same? Will you also take and take and take until there is nothing left for me to give you? If you would, I must admit that there is very little for you to have. But if you insist then I suggest you get on with it before the Heartless returns, as he leaves very little in his wake."

"That's not what I want." His words were a lot calmer than he felt as he made a promise he did not know he could keep, but would die trying to keep if it came down to it. "I don't want anything from you. Really. I just want to help you. Please, believe me. I will help you."

"Why? You must have a reason. You must-"

"… because." He knew he had to say it; empty promises were no substitute, and so he swallowed and said, "I'm so-"

His throat suddenly constricted and the words choked into a sudden halt. Zexion ripped his hand away, those dark blue eyes once again wide with fear as both knew immediately what was happening. Riku tried to speak, but then the darkness swelled up within him, swallowing his words as tendrils snaked through his mind and dragged him into the abyss.

He found himself staring right at Xehanort.

Zexion was no longer anywhere to be seen. The stark white walls of the almost empty room had been replaced by… whatever this was—a place that was here yet not, between reality and delusion, one step away from both existence and imprisonment. And more terrifying than any of that was Xehanort, who stood before him now.

He renewed his struggles as the Heartless surveyed him, expecting a harsh, depreciating laugh for his efforts. But Xehanort didn't seem interested in his plight, those orange eyes burning furiously as the Heartless glared at him. There was some surprise, but mostly anger and hatred, and in one cold, callous movement, Xehanort bore down on him, tearing through the fragile defenses he tried to put up but were never anything to begin with. He yelled, in rage or despair or a little bit of both, but Xehanort didn't stop. The act was so easy, it was almost perfunctory, but Riku knew better because of the rage that the Heartless did not bother to hide. Rage, he knew, would be….

He couldn't let that happen. He couldn't let Zexion suffer again for his mistakes, for his incompetence, for him. And so where he might have stopped before, he tried one last, desperate time to break free of the darkness. Instead of giving in as he always did, he pushed back, using sheer determination to try and drag himself towards the increasingly distant light.

Riku wasn't sure who was more surprised by this, and the fact that the Heartless did not expect it was almost enough for him to make it. The grip on him seemed to loosen, and if there was actually ground to walk on the sudden lack of resistance would have made him fall on his face. Instead, he was practically launched towards the light, but before he could actually reach it, Xehanort must have snapped out of the temporary shock. Tendrils of darkness wrapped around his ankle, and the pain as he was yanked backwards felt like the bone had snapped, but somehow it didn't matter. Or at least, it didn't matter as the light disappeared, and he was finally forced out of his own body and back into a prison of his own making.

His last coherent though as the darkness fell upon him like a starving animal was that he wished he'd had the chance to finish apologizing.

"Well, everyone, it's been fun. But I'm going to say what we're all thinking—we're dead."

"Don't be so melodramatic," Dilan replies, but it's half-hearted at best as he stares blankly at the glass paperweight on Ansem's desk. "It is not as if he knows."

"Are you fucking kidding me? Of course he knows! It's the only explanation. We are so fucking fucked."

"Shut up," Even hisses. "It's been three weeks and he hasn't found out, has he? So just shut up before he walks in and figures it out from your incessant babbling."

"Oh give it up already," Braig snaps. "Why else would he call us here? It's not to give us a pat on the head and some sea salt ice cream, I can tell you that."

At this point, Aeleus, always the voice of reason (and hence often silent) points out, "But how would he know then?"

"I do not see how any of this matters," Ienzo says suddenly, looking up at the rest of them. He had also been staring at Ansem's paperweight, although with the demeanor of one who was convinced the object would suddenly come alive and devour him whole. "He approved of the plans. He must have known we would not just sit around and do nothi-"

"Yeah, we all know he approved of the plans, munchkin." Ienzo practically snarls at Braig, having always detested that particular nickname, but the man just ignores it as he continues, 'But would he approve of what we did? Somehow I doubt it. If there was any chance that he would be totally fine with it, Xehanort here wouldn't have wanted to hide any of this, now would you?"

He had not expected to be brought into the conversation like this, although he knew it was really only a matter of time. As soon as the six of them had been called up to Ansem's study, the others had started squabbling like schoolchildren. And like schoolchildren, they were now engaged in the age-old tradition of finding someone to blame. Naturally that onus would fall upon himself, the only one of them all that was brave enough to take responsibility for their actions. It was good that he had never bothered to trust them, or to let them in on everything he knew. Sometimes, he suspected that some of them had figured out, but he doubted that any of them knew the full picture. If they had worked together, piecing together what they knew, they might have figured out what his experiments were really meant to do. But they were competitors by nature; cooperation did not come easy, and it was difficult to let down one's defenses long enough to come to any meaningful conclusion.

All the better for him, then, although at times like these he found himself wishing he was acting alone. It would just be so much easier….

Their attention is turned to him now; Braig always was good at rallying the troops at the most inopportune times. So he fixes a smile on his face, wondering briefly how fake it is but deciding that likely none of them care, and says in as comforting a tone as he can manage, "I never had any intention of hiding our work. I simply wanted there to be more data before we alerted Master Ansem to all of this. What is the point of bothering him if we have nothing to present, or if our work seems to be going nowhere? This is simple efficiency, nothing more. It is not as if we are acting in secret. As Ienzo points out, Ansem-"

"Master Ansem," Ienzo corrects, not looking at all pleased to be named. He never understood why the boy is so reluctant to be acknowledged by him, but this is not the time to ask. Although these days, there is rarely an opportunity to ask with Aeleus constantly looking over the youngest apprentice's shoulder—more so now, then ever before.

As confrontation is not ideal at the moment, he nods and says—almost through gritted teeth, "Of course. Pardon my slip. I meant no disrespect."

"It is a frequent 'slip' of yours these days." Even gives him a look, searching but not at all knowing. For none of them know what he wants, even if they claim to make up the best that this world has to offer. "Are you hiding something from us as well, Xehanort?"

"And why would we think that?" he replies, the words as smooth as Even's were brittle and clipped. "Are we not all in this together?"

"Is that what you call this?" Dilan asks, but he obviously does not expect an answer. The question is more than enough; the others are glancing at each other warily, although careful to avoid all eye contact with Xehanort. Inside he scowls at this, as this is precisely what he cannot have happening. He needs them to be divided, waiting to be led to places that Ansem cannot possibly take them.

He needs them to need him.

But before he can seek to reassure them once again, Ansem enters—an understatement, really, as the king slams open the door, causing them all to practically jump out of their seats. Their faces run the gauntlet from shame to fear to perfect neutrality, and each and every one of them is silent as the man storms past them to his desk. Ansem does not sit though; he stands there, his hands clutched around papers that Xehanort quickly recognizes as his own notes.

For the longest time Ansem does not speak. Ansem does not even look at them, as if he cannot stand the sight of any of them, his eyes tightly closed and his breathing harsh and angry. Xehanort can see that the other apprentices want to slink away and escape before the king can come back to life, but not one of them is brave enough to attempt to move. And so they all stand there, waiting for someone to make the first step, and for the sake of moving things forward Xehanort is prepared to be that one. But before he can open his mouth, Ansem says quietly, "How long has this been going on?"

No one answers.

Ansem looks up at them, his eyes snapping open and flashing with anger and something akin to disappointment. Xehanort is quite familiar with that expression now, but not for the almost yell of, "How long has this… this foolery been going on?!"

At this point Xehanort knows that no one is going to answer if he does not, and tries to say soothingly, "Not long, Master Ansem. We would not think to act against your-"

Ansem turns on him, cutting his explanation off with a sharp, "Do not speak! Do not… no." The words all too quickly lose their strength, and the king collapses into his seat with a shake of the head. "No. I do not wish to know. I do not wish to…."

If Xehanort had cared for the man still, he might have felt sorry. Ansem seemed to be in genuine pain despite suffering no wounds, his demeanor a defeated and broken man. But now Xehanort feels only shame. How he could ever have wanted to follow such a weak old man, he does not know. He does not know what Ansem could have done to convince him that he wanted acceptance in this world, from this man, and he resents and almost hates the man for twisting him so. Especially now, when he knows that Ansem never cared for him, and likely only helped him to use him. He will not allow himself to be used again though, and if the only way to avoid such a fate from happening again is to use others, he is willing to make that sacrifice. After all, there is little sacrifice of himself involved, and he is beginning to understand why Ansem found it all too easy to use him so.

"How could you do this?" The question is not angry, but simply sad and confused and above all, pitiful. He watches out of the corner of his eye as the others seem to hang their head in shame, so easily brought down by their emotions. "I do not understand how you could do this."

"We were only carrying out the research that you yourself-" Dilan starts to say, but an angry look from Ansem stops him cold.

"Research that I stopped," Ansem reminds coldly, obviously displeased about being reminded of his own happy role in this situation. "Research that I stopped because it was too dangerous. To this world, the people, ourselves—knowing that, why did you restart this research again? What could have possessed you all to go against basic common sense?!"

"But… the plans… the lab…" Ienzo stammers. "Why would you approve them if you never intended us to act?"

For a moment, the king looks almost trapped by the question. Xehanort wants to smirk, and perhaps a ghost of a mocking smile crosses his lips because Ansem transitions sharply from broken old man to angry dictator, "That means nothing! Those plans were a mistake. Approving of them was my mistake, and I take responsibility for that and whatever you six seemed to take from it. And so I will say nothing more of this, as long as it ends here. Do you understand me?! It ends here."

No more is said, but no more needs to be said at this point. Slowly, one by one, each of the apprentices bows and slinks out of the room like reprimanded children. Dilan, Braig, Ienzo and Aeleus, and finally Even leave. He watches them go, and waits for Ansem to acknowledge him.

He does not need to wait long; as soon as the door closes behind the blond. Ansem is still seated, rubbing his temples, and finally the man says without looking up to acknowledge him, "I have been… reading your papers. You signed them under my name."

"Did I?" he asks lightly. Although if one was to be completely honest, he would have to admit that he did not… really know why he had done such a thing. True, the original reports were started by the old man himself, but he could have signed them under his own name. He could have given himself the credit, for research that was truly groundbreaking. Why let the king take the credit when he was too scared to do the work?

"You did."

Xehanort can hear the distrust in his voice. At least he deserves it now, although somehow it still… hurts, even though that man in turn deserves nothing. He searches for an answer, one that is close enough to the truth that it would not seem quite like a lie, but then what is the truth? The two of them are well-versed enough in falsity that perhaps there is no reason to deviate from prior pattern. "I meant no disrespect. I only sought to give you credit-"

"Credit? Blame is more like it!" The papers are practically thrown at him as Ansem again stands, yelling, "I read these… these reports! What were you trying to do? And getting the others involved in this… what has happened to you?!"

The answer is on the tip of his tongue, begging to be said, but he has more self-control than that. He does not even blink as the papers seem to float down like the snow he reads about in books, although of course there is no such thing in this picture-perfect world. A world, so perfect on the outside, that it has become absurdly simple to tear it down from the inside until nothing is left.

But he may not have the chance, if things progress in such a fashion. Why was it that everyone felt an incessant need to get in his way? It really was quite exasperating.

"Who told you?"

He is no longer surprised that he has the nerve to ask—to stand up for himself, as no one else on this wretched world will do that for him—but Ansem certainly is. The king actually gapes at him for a few seconds, before quickly replacing surprise with that mask of indifference and deceit. "What makes you think anyone-"

"Do not give me that. You owe me this much, at least," he replies. It takes everything to keep the anger from overwhelming him; even now, the old man thinks him so gullible? They would soon see who the gullible one is. "Someone must have told you. Who? Even?" Nothing at the mention of his greatest competitor. "Braig?" Again, nothing about Ansem's first apprentice. He is not sure who of the others might have spoken, and so he picks names at random, saying the first that comes to mind. "Ienzo?"

"Enough, Xehanort. Blaming your peers solves nothing," Ansem cuts off sharply, but Xehanort is barely listening now as the old man blathers on, under the mistaken impression that he cares enough to listen. Instead, he is trying to process this information. Of them all, he would not have expected—

Who said I ever trusted you to begin with?

He smiles inwardly, realizing his mistake. Obviously he had underestimated the boy. He should not have. Only someone skilled at manipulation could have convinced Ansem to approve of the plans for the lab in the first place. But somehow, despite the way Ienzo always kept him at a distance, he had never expected those abilities to be used against him. He had always assumed he had something to… offer to the boy, something to keep that keen mind interested when Ansem would have rendered it stagnant. But he had been mistaken, and like so many others Ienzo had betrayed him as well. Did the boy put all the blame on him? How much had he told?

He could not worry too much about that though. The infection that the boy represented was only the start. Given the chance, just as they had today, he knows that the other apprentices would all run back to the foolish old king for so long as the man continued to exist. Their loyalties were divided, but as this incident demonstrated so aptly, were still squarely in favor of one.

As that one was not himself, he would simply have to rid himself of the competition. To remove the temptation to betray.

He must get rid of Ansem.

It was such a calming thought, considering how it was one he had never truly entertained. Certainly he had thought of it, but he had never quite anticipated having to go to such lengths. As much as he detested the man now, there was still… before, it was simply difficult to contemplate actually killing him. Perhaps it was that eager desire to please, or something vaguely deeper, but it mattered not anymore. He was tired of this, the lies and the deception, of being used to protect a world he cared nothing for. Ever since he arrived at this world, he had cared naught for its inhabitants—and of those fools, only one had ever purported to care for him. But he knows now the truth, that Ansem never cared for him, and he owes no lingering obligation to the man any longer. He will treat the man as he was once treated, a protective measure to ensure that he is never used so again.

It is only fair.

As for the boy, he resolves not to say anything to Ienzo of this. Let the boy think that he does not know. Let the boy think that he is safe. He will show him, but there is no need for haste. For now, he can continue bow and scrape and smile through gritted teeth, and he does all of the above before excusing himself from the room. Let Ansem be satisfied with that. Let the other apprentices think that he had given in. Let Ienzo believe that his betrayal has gone unnoticed.

He can continue to act, playing the part of the perfect apprentice, for as long as it takes. But once he rids himself of the old man—then, finally, he will act as he sees fit.

Zexion did not wait for the Heartless to come back to consciousness. Although initially frozen, Riku had barely been enveloped by the darkness before he was forcing himself to move, scrabbling awkwardly to put some distance between himself and the struggling boy. The act was almost automatic, which would explain a lot because he had no idea why he was trying to act at all. For that matter, it was the first time in what seemed like ages that he had felt any inclination to do anything at all, but he did not need to see Xehanort to know that this time was different. The darkness itself was pulsing—angry—and he knew exactly who that anger was directed at.

But all the desperation in the world could not substitute for the energy needed to truly act; even at full strength, he never had the ability to escape. Now, weakened by pain and long-term abuse, the idea of escape was laughable. Logic therefore dictated that he should do nothing but accept what was to come, yet logic was the farthest thing from his mind at this point. Logic had granted him no favors thus far, and he doubted Xehanort would be satisfied with his capitulation.

It did beg the question of what would satisfy the Heartless, although he rarely dwelled on such things. For the most part, he simply lacked the strength to dwell on anything besides the present pain, which made it difficult to think of anything as abstract as the future or as distant as the past. Sometimes he wondered if that was exactly what Xehanort wanted, to be the only person Zexion could think about. It was exactly the kind of punishment a creature as egoistical as the Heartless would have liked, and so far a decidedly unpleasant one.

It was about to become all the more unpleasant, he knew without a doubt.

Falling off the bed took more energy than he would have liked to admit, and he quickly found that he might as well have tried jumping over the moon for all the good it did him. He could not stand, his limbs so out of use that they could not support even his insubstantial weight, and he could not drag himself either. He could only hunch there, shuddering like an animal caught in a trap, except he was trapped not by metal but by his own useless body. Riku's presence had been replaced entirely by the Heartless, who did not wait long to act.

The time for niceties had long since passed; it took barely any effort for the Heartless to grab him by the arm and yank him back onto the bed. His rather pathetic cry of pain was quickly smothered as he was thrown face down into sheets that smelled of body fluids. Choking on the acrid stench of sweat, semen, and his own blood, he struggled to rise so that he could breathe only to be pushed down further by the creature.

"Again, Zexion?"

He froze at the sound of his name (his name, his name), and the pressure on his back increased accordingly as Xehanort leaned over him, asking, "Is there something you would like to tell me?"

He could not respond in his current state, and he dared not respond when the truth was so damning. Cold fingers caressed his cheek in a twisted parody of affection as the Heartless continued, "Why must you do such things? Did you not learn from the first time, or was death not enough of a lesson?"

With that, the Heartless grabbed his hair, pulling him up so that he could finally breathe. It was no mercy though; the back of his scalp burned to the point of eliciting tears and his lungs screamed in pain as air was gasped into them, but he had little time to consider the benefits of not breathing when he was again slammed face down. It was clear that Xehanort wanted not answers but for him to simply be coherent enough to react, although what was he supposed to be reacting to?

"I honestly do not understand why you feel such a need to betray me. Especially to the likes of them. First Ansem, now that boy… a small lesson for you, Nobody—if you must betray someone, make sure that your fellow conspirator is powerful enough to protect you. Otherwise," a hand, moving down his hip, idly tracing the sickening bruises that would not heal any longer, "you end up broken for nothing."

His mind was racing; if he had a heart, that would have been racing too, but soon none of that mattered as he could not help but scream when his hip was roughly grabbed, nails digging into wounded flesh and sending pain, such pain through him. The scream was as pointless as his existence, wasting air for naught when no one could hear it, the sound too short from lack of air and too muffled to make any lasting impression. It did have some effect though; already he could feel consciousness slipping away as he squandered what little strength he had left. That, he did not bother to fight when it would solve so many of his current problems. Of course he knew it would only be putting off the inevitable, but that didn't matter. If this was the only way he could escape the pain, he would gladly take it.

"No." It was as if the Heartless could read his mind; before he could just let it all go, he was roughly turned onto his back. Automatically his traitorous body gasped in air, bringing everything back into all too sharp relief as Xehanort hissed, "You will not be escaping that easily."

The Heartless's face was ugly, contorted by rage as Xehanort leaned down so that there was barely an inch separating their faces. Zexion had never seen the man lose control such, although Ienzo had once long ago. It was a sight the boy had hoped never to see again, and Zexion could understand why as the Heartless asked—no, demanded, "Did you really think you could get away with this again? Surely you could not be so foolish to believe that I would forgive another one of your transgressions? Perhaps you would care to enlighten me by telling me how long this has been going on?"

He did not know why Xehanort was bothering to ask; either way, he was guilty of something. It was therefore easier to say nothing, but he knew that would not be enough for the creature. No, Xehanort wanted him to admit guilt and thus, to admit that he deserved any punishment that the Heartless could and would inflict. Not that Xehanort needed any excuse to hurt him—if the Heartless had actually needed a reason, then what was everything that had happened before? It was not as if Xehanort could have known he was helping (or rather, trying to help) Riku; if he had, this would have happened long ago.

"Well, Ienzo?" The question was now sickly sweet although the Heartless's eyes were still bright with madness. How could Ienzo or any of the other apprentices ever have trusted the man? Certainly he hid the insanity well, but there had always been something off about him. Always something not right. "Tell me the truth, and I may be more inclined to be merciful."

As little as those words promised, he knew they were still a lie—a lie he nevertheless clung to in futile desperation. But when he opened his mouth to speak, a thin scream cut off the words he did not even know would come as Xehanort seemed to completely lost interest in whatever excuses he might have to offer. He closed his eyes even more tightly than before as he tried to concentrate on breathing so that he would not have to face what was happening down there. More than that, it was so that he would not give into the mind-breaking fear, although as a Nobody he should not be able to feel fear in the first place. Was the memory of fear simply that strong within him? How odd and cruel that the dark emotions like anger, hatred, and fear were the ones he remembered best, while happier times fell by the wayside with each passing day. As a result, he could not even try to escape into his own mind as Xehanort said coldly, "I'm sorry; did you have something to say? I simply assumed it would be a lie."

There was no mocking lilt in the words; Xehanort had gone past that now, no longer bothering to hide behind grace and pretty lies. "Still, I cannot help but be a little surprised. After giving me up to Ansem, I would have thought you would know be-"


The question was barely more than a whisper, but it caused Xehanort to stop mid-word, the Heartless straightening in evident surprise. For a moment they stared at each other, trying to read the other, but the moment did not last long as suddenly Xehanort lashed out, backhanding him. His vision spun, but even through the pain he could hear Xehanort snap, "Do not insult me like that, Zexion. It is unbecoming. Surely you did not think I would never find out that you were the one to tell Ansem of our experiments, just as we were finally making progress."

His breath caught, and Xehanort smirked. "Truly? You thought I did not know? Surprising. Of course, not as surprising as your pitiful existence. I would have thought for sure that my Nobody would have done away with you, to avoid having you betray him again. So imagine my surprise when you showed up at Castle Oblivion. How he could have let you survive, I do not know, but I must thank him. If not for that mistake, I would not have had the chance for this, to make you pay for what you did. And that is why you exist now. That is the only reason why you exist. So that I may teach you the error of your ways, and it would seem that another lesson-"

"I didn't." His voice was shaking, but not in that parody of fear that was the most Nobodies could feel. He nearly wanted to laugh in relief. Xehanort believed that he had told Ansem of the experiments back in Radiant Garden? If that misconception was the reason why Xehanort was doing this, he could tell him… tell him that it was not true. He had no idea who had told Ansem, and had never thought much of it. Ienzo had always assumed that the king had discovered their experiments on his own, but Xehanort… if Xehanort thought that, and that was the reason why this was happening, he could stop him. He could explain, he could… yes, he could explain that it was all a mistake, and perhaps then his alliance with Riku would not matter either because… he could explain that away too. It would be difficult but he would figure out a way—he always did, did he not?—but first he had to dispel Xehanort's notion that Ienzo was the one who had told the king all those years ago. "I didn't say anything to Ansem, I never-"

"Again with the lies?" Xehanort asked, eyes narrowed. "Zexion or Ienzo, you are one and the same, and one is responsible for the actions of the other no matter how much you may deny it."

He shook his head frantically, not caring how it made the pain in his head intensify to the point that he nearly could not think. The pain did not matter, not when he could prevent that which was coming. He could push through it, now that he understood what was happening and could see a way through this. "Ienzo… Ienzo never told him either. Ansem-"

"Hm? Even now, you continue to deny it?" Xehanort was coming close again, too close, and Zexion had to stop him somehow. It hurt to speak and his voice was shaking but he had to make the Heartless listen.

"No, not denying it. It never… never happened. Ienzo did not… he would not have told the king. There was no reason to, no reason when the experiments were going so well and-"

He nearly sighed in relief as the weight upon him suddenly disappeared. Xehanort got off of him, face impassive as the Heartless looked over him with the analytical eye of a practiced scientist. Ienzo had earned that look many a time back in Radiant Garden, although never in such a circumstance. Zexion swallowed, trying to recapture the calm that he thought he had long ago lost, and continued, "Please… you must believe me. Ienzo did not betray you." He made no mention of himself, of course. Now was not the time to bring that up, although it inevitably would be. But when it was, he would deal with it.

Still, Xehanort said nothing. He did not dare move, barely dared to breathe, and finally Xehanort said, "You sound so sincere."

Finally. Finally it was over, and they could move on. Certainly this could not erase what had happened before, but what did that matter? Pain was temporary, and what was… rape beyond the pain when he could not feel any of the related emotional trauma? Granted, it had not always felt that way, but that did not matter anymore. As long as it did not happen again, he could get past it. It would not affect him. He could… no, he still had to explain what had happened with Riku but now the Heartless would be more forgiving, especially after what had happened. It would be easy, especially if he did not need the boy anymore, and if he did then he would not have this anymore. It would be over. Yes, it would be over and perhaps the Heartless would even release him, and he would be able to leave this place and—"What are you doing?!"

The Heartless still showed nothing as his legs were wrenched apart, and Xehanort settled between them as if this was something completely normal. As if hands there and "I do not believe you."

No. No, no, no, no, this could not be happening, this could not. Not when he was so close, not now! "I told you! It wasn't him, it wasn't-"

He was cut off by a hand over his mouth. "I do not believe you," Xehanort repeated flatly. "My Nobody may have been foolish enough to believe your stories, but I am not. I believed in you once, but no longer. Your lies will deceive me no longer. I have spent too much of my life being lied to; did you think I would not be able to recognize yours when they are so painfully apparent? Did you really think that a few pretty words would explain away your actions? Pathetic."

He tried desperately to speak, but Xehanort was not budging. But even as he struggled, he knew it was in vain because of the sinking, horrific realization that nothing he said would convince the Heartless of the truth. Xehanort would not listen to reason, would not listen to him, but who else could explain? If not him, how else would Xehanort realize that this was a mistake, that Ienzo had never said anything to Ansem? That this should not be happening, that there was no need for 'lessons' or punishment or this, and instead this would continue because Xehanort believed something that was not true and nothing he could do would dissuade the Heartless.

And if that was the case, he knew without a doubt that this would be the rest of his existence. If he could not convince Xehanort of the truth, Xehanort would—the thought was too horrifying to consider, but he could not deny it. Not when his legs were splayed so to give the Heartless easier access, and as always he had no strength to prevent it from happening. Xehanort pressed against him, the excruciating intrusion imminent, and all he had to prevent it from happening again (and again, and again) was silly words that everyone had long ago stopped listening to.

He could not let it happen. He could not bear to go through this again. He could not, and he should not have to. And yet it was nothing new, nothing more than what had already been done but somehow the thought of it was enough to send him into hysterics. And as one hand began to explore his body, following familiar paths marked by unhealed cuts and bruises, pressing in to overload his senses, he started to sob.

It started quietly at first, but as Xehanort laughed and fingers slipped down to—not there, not there, not again—it quickly reached the point of wracking through his body. Still he did not know why this was different; even after everything the Heartless had put him through, he had never broken down like this before. He could still hold onto some semblance of dignity rather than giving into such humiliation, but at this point, he simply could not help it. The pain, it was more than the pain, for the thought that he could do nothing to stop this after that one wild, desperate moment of believing this would end. Oh it was foolish, and he never should have given in to such delusional hope, but how could he not have? He needed this to end because he could not take it anymore, and the realization that he would have to continue on like this….

He could barely think now, the intrusion already too much although it was nothing compared to what was coming. And still Xehanort was laughing, enjoying his breakdown as he stopped trying to fight and just cried, unable to do much else. He couldn't take this, he shouldn't have to take this but he couldn't stop it. Everything depended on the Heartless's whims, and this was what Xehanort wanted. Lying here, breaking down piece by piece until what was left was a pathetic, broken creature that could only gag and shudder, his trembling more like the convulsions of a dying man.

"Magnificent." The sheer delight in Xehanort's voice made him want to vomit, and hopefully to die choking on it, but even that small relief was denied him. He would gladly die now if it meant he would escape this, but he knew Xehanort would not let him. "But my pleasure is not the only aim in this, of course. You and I once had a wonderful teaching relationship, did we not? A part of me yearns for those days again, so this is not without its own lessons. Are you listening to me?"

His scream was cut short by the darkness wrapping around his mouth, gagging him effectively. There was no effort to bind his body though as his legs were pushed up and the fingers replaced with something much worse, but his wails were muffled so he could not help but hear Xehanort continue in a familiar academic tone, as if they were in a classroom rather than in a bed, as if the Heartless was not inside of him, "Now you must pay attention, or how else will you learn? A little reciprocity is, I believe, in order. We shall start with a simple premise. You know, I assume, why people usually do not betray their comrades."

A sharp movement accompanied the words, and it was becoming impossible to see clearly through the tears. But his impaired sight only seemed to heighten his sense of hearing as Xehanort said cruelly, "It is the guilt, Nobody. The guilt of betraying trust, but Ienzo lacked such trust, did he not? And now you, his Nobody, cannot feel any sort of emotion. So I thought to myself, how else can I teach him? How else can I show him the error of his ways? And it occurred to me-"

He was pushed back, the force of the Heartless's movements enough so that his head slammed into the wall. But still Xehanort's words were all too clear because he could not even scream to drown it out, and his futile attempts to do so only made the Heartless laugh and shake his head, "And it occurred to me that even a Nobody such as yourself can feel physical pain. I assume as a scientist, or the shell of one at least, you understand what I am getting at? Oh, it is crude, I must admit, but really you have left me no choice. If I cannot appeal to your common sense, then I will treat you like the animal you are and rely on conditioning. Associating pain with betrayal—to be honest, I thought I was already doing enough, but apparently you need a harsher hand if you still had the impudence to conspire with that boy. Was my attentions not enough for you, or is your threshold of tolerance higher than even I could have expected?"

Xehanort paused, gold eyes darkening suddenly as all laughter drained out. What was left was the madness, dedicated solely to destroying him as the Heartless said in barely more than a whisper, "There will be no more of that. You will never betray me again, Nobody. Do you understand me? For rest assured that you will have my undivided attention from this point on, until we have ensured that you have learned your lessons well."

End Notes:

The scene that took me the longest time to do was the second scene. Not the last, surprisingly enough, because while writing Zexion in that way was… awkward, writing Riku was far more difficult. Riku's been through a lot, between the near destruction of a couple of worlds, but for me at least, this was different. It was a lot more personal. Not only because what was happening to Zexion was already to intimately personal, but… the very idea of seeing something like that and realizing that you could have stopped it and worse than that, that you might have caused it in part… I cannot imagine it. This made it difficult to write because part of my writing is putting myself in the mindset of the characters, and I just could not imagine what could possibly go through Riku's head in that situation. I did my best, but I freely admit that in this case, my best was not enough.

Anyhow, I just wanted to thank everyone for reading this. The reviews are nice too, although horribly guilt-inducing because I feel rather badly for taking so long with this chapter. Nevertheless they are much appreciated, especially since I know I'm terrible about consistent updates. I wish I could promise more timely updates in this new year, but I simply cannot. In fact, I was rushing to get this chapter done so that I would avoid the upcoming crush of schoolwork. I will do my best to get something done within the coming months, but the most I can do now is thank you in advance for your patience.

Upcoming Chapter Preview:

"I will have to take care of him, of course." Xehanort was not speaking to him, not really. "That boy is more trouble than he is worth. It is earlier than I would have liked, but then…."

The Heartless turned to look at him, a complacent, cruel smile on its face. "Perhaps you can still be of some use to me after all, Nobody."