Chapter 1

The city of Chicago at the turn of the century was more alike to a coiled spring than to an urban center, carved in steel as it was against a backdrop of factory smoke and the reek of the stockyard butcheries. The underlying pressure of every moment was invisible, to an untrained eye - but the class tensions and racial tensions that were brought to light by the industrial revolution were only made worse by the shadow of coming war in the Old World. With such diverse inhabitants, conflict was inevitable - but it boiled under the surface, manifesting itself in silent murders and rampant corruption within the police force rather than riots, which were visible and therefore undesirable.

This is, of course, not to say that the inhabitants of the city dwelled on such things - they went about their daily lives with a long-suffering, unexceptional determination. Their lives were laid out for them already, by men who valued power more than life.

But as always, there were men who didn't fit either role - neither the determined nor their oppressors; men who worked only for themselves and their own purposes. And among those, born by luck into the time which suited him best, drifted a man named Axel.

He was an assassin, man with a talent for manipulation and subtlety - though everything about him would seem to imply the exact opposite. He stood at an impressive six feet - monstrous in those days - with a shock of long red hair that he spiked and slicked back in such a way that he appeared a good six inches taller than he actually was. Adding to the intimidating air was a penchant for black leather - always perfectly fitted, he had the money to do so - and a grin that almost never left his face.

He smirked because he knew it made people uncomfortable, and they were uncomfortable because it silently promised suffering of the worst variety.

It couldn't be said, however, that he was particularly notorious - in his line of work, the more people knew about you, the easier it was to kill you - but he was met with an immense respect bordering on fear by both those of his same occupation and his many employers. He had few outright enemies, because Axel was never careless enough to let a hit he performed be pinned on him, but no one turned their back to him either - which was probably, all things considered, wise of them.

He killed quietly, he killed quickly - and he had absolutely no moral compunctions about any of it, which made him perfect for the purposes of organized crime. Organized crime, in this case, was synonymous with a group called the Syndicate, Xemnas's Syndicate, or just "those bastards."

Axel had always preferred the latter.

Xemnas was the big badass motherfucker who ran the whole city, to put it simply. At least, that was what the guy wanted everyone to think; but Axel had worked for him a couple of times - alright, a hell of a lot - and thought of him more as a crazy bastard than as badass.

But, crazy or not, when any of the Syndicate's many peons called him, he came - he was never one to refuse a paying job, not with gambling debts stacked high and a penchant for anything with alcohol. So the morning of a piercingly cold winter's day found him wandering the slums, shuffling his black-booted feet through the murky water as he trudged along to the building at which he'd been told to meet his employers.

Despite the fact that he'd lived there once, the assassin had no fondness for the slums and their layered tenements, reeking from refuse and disease. Unsurprisingly, he had very little respect for any group that chose to headquarter in that area - clearly, they were either idiots or there for the purpose of some other agenda. The latter was likely the case - because, quite frankly, any group that headquartered in the slums due to necessity wouldn't be able to afford his fees or those of anybody else worth their while.

Thinking about it, their questionable location probably had something to do with the purpose of this mob's creation - they were led by a man named Xaldin, who nobody really wanted to take on in a fistfight but wasn't exactly renowned for his intelligence. Said asshole had been part of Xemnas's syndicate not two months back, but he'd apparently been detached to create his own. Nobody but the very upper echelons was supposed to be aware of it, but the Superior - as they called him - had been instructing some of his more capable men to create their own little mobs.

They wouldn't be competition, of course, but just a better way for Xemnas to control what every single person in the whole fucking city breathed and drank. It was actually pretty intelligent for the mad-eyed son of a bitch.

But as long as they could afford to pay him, they could headquarter wherever the hell they liked. It didn't, of course, mean that he wasn't going to be an asshole to them about it - but he wasn't about to turn them away, either. Besides, the guy was probably an idiot - and the stupider someone was, the easier they were to manipulate.

Axel defined an idiot as someone who couldn't keep up with him. Not many people could.

Xaldin's headquarters was far enough away that the redhead had just about finished his cigarette by the time he reached the front doors, so he took one last drag before letting it fall on the sidewalk, not even bothering to put it out with his heel. The building was an old-tenement house, most likely - though it had been refurbished somewhat since then, it still stank of cholera.

The guards, lounging on the stair in front of the doorway, weren't much better - maybe the slum was the perfect place for these jackasses. So, he only approached until he was about seven or eight feet away, where he could see the nervous expressions on their faces and hopefully not catch gonorrhea.

Both of the men straightened up upon Axel's approach - as well they should have. The redhead knew that nobody could mistake whether he belonged in their world or not - it was obvious that he did, through his motions and his manner even if they couldn't see the gun at his hip.

The unknown factor was whether the assassin was there to take a job or to kill them all - on any given day, it could be either, and the men were quite aware of that fact. That sort of uncertainty was bound to make a person nervous - and the redhead did everything he could to encourage it.

He liked watching the fear on their faces.

"Yo," he drawled by way of greeting, grinning ferociously and topping the expression off with a two-fingered salute. This did little to ease the nervous looks on their faces, but it had never been intended to. "I'm here for a job. Xaldin's request - you'd better let me in before I haveta make you."

One of the door guards rustled up the guts to stand straight and look Axel halfway in the eye, before stuttering: "Sir, I have not been informed of…"

"Shut the fuck up," Axel responded, more than a bit amused by the guy's guts. "Of course you haven't," he continued, expressive hands waving for emphasis, "Nobody tells dumbasses like you anything if they can help it. You can send somebody up if you want - but just so you know, if I was coming to kill your boss I'd do it a hell of a lot more subtly," he drawled, leonine grin never fading as his sharply amused gaze flickered from one man to the other.

This was a lie - but then most of the words that came out of his mouth were. It was true that normally, he went for the subtle approach; but at some point, he was gonna assassinate the leader of some massive organization just by walking in the front door and walking out again the same way.

Just to see if he could, and all.

The little rat he'd been speaking to scrambled up the stairs and through the door - presumably to get info from someone higher up the food chain than the kid himself was - and then scrambled right back down again, looking flushed and vaguely frantic.

"I'm sorry, very sorry, sir - I've been informed that -"

"Didn't I tell you to shut the fuck up already?" Axel remarked with a foreboding laugh, staring the man down as he walked forward and then past, apparently forgetting about the nobody in half a second.

Holy fuck, he thought to himself as he watched the nervous expressions of the people around him, I wouldn't trade this job for anything.

*~*~*

"But Zexion, you said you'd be here for tonight," complained Demyx petulantly from across the room, shaking his head in disbelief. He was dressed in the navy suit he used for auditions only again, looking pleadingly enticing in the way that the blonde had mastered, and was uncomfortably effective even on the normally dispassionate Zexion.

This time, though, he couldn't really afford to give in - he felt a twinge of guilt at his lover's disappointed face, but steeled himself. Zexion was an assassin by trade and by choice, and the profession suited him. When an assassin was approached by the leader of the most powerful syndicate in Chicago, perhaps in the country, they did not turn that job down. Doing so would be hurtful to that assassin's career prospects, at best - Xemnas's reach was far, and long.

"I'm sorry, something came up," Zexion responded firmly, never giving his lover an indication of his momentary regret. If he relented even a bit, Demyx had this disturbing ability to be able to talk him even further out of things that really needed to be done.

"…We were going to go out tonight, though," the blonde pointed out with a glint of what sounded like real disappointment. Some instinct told Zexion that perhaps he ought to listen to his lover, but he dismissed the feeling - after all, if he gave in to his lover's every whim, neither of them would be much able to support themselves at all.

"I have a job to do, Demyx," he responded quietly, running a hand through his slate-grey hair to avoid looking at his lover's face. "If I didn't do my job, you wouldn't have enough money to afford performance as your career. We would not be able to do anything at all," Zexion noted.

Perhaps the statement was needlessly cold, but it was nonetheless true; Demyx was a nightclub pianist, and extraordinarily good at what he did. However, careers in the arts did not, as a rule, pay well - and even if he had been Beethoven, he still would have been stuck eating stew for the rest of his life. This could not be blamed entirely on the circumstances - Demyx lacked the ambition and the ruthlessness it took to make it anywhere in that city, and it was fatal to the growth of his career.

The attitude was understandable, however - the blonde had grown up as a child of privilege and wealth, and had never yet done a day of work in his life when Zexion met him. The situation was only made worse when the two men fell in love - this was hardly a choice situation for the heir of a powerful corporation, and so they disowned him. Hence, he'd been left with a rich kid's sensibilities and innocence but without the protective blanket that wealth gave. Out of necessity, he got a job doing the only work that he could do - performing - but that was a hard life, even for the best of the best.

"I know you have a job to do," Demyx returned, eyes pleading with a look more pitiful than he felt. "But you promised." With anyone else, Zexion would have become quietly annoyed at this point - but aside from the fact that it was his lover speaking, he knew that the blonde's objection was mostly justified - Zexion had, indeed, promised. Then, there were the issues about the nature of the assassin's work.

Demyx had never been extraordinarily thrilled about what, precisely, his lover did for a living - the blonde was still a kind and lighthearted individual despite the unforgiving path upon which life had taken him.

But Zexion wouldn't stop, just for that. Assassination was where the man's unique talents could make him the most profit - and he himself had no issue with taking others' lives. The two lovers had worked it out, enough for their relationship still to function, but that didn't mean it wasn't sometimes still a problem between them.

There was a long silence as Zexion went over possible responses to Demyx's earlier plea - he wasn't eager to upset either the blonde or his crazy-eyed employer, and so a compromise would need to be made.

"…Alright, then" he relented finally, "I'll go see the man I'm reporting to now, and let him know that my preparations will take a little bit more time. I'll be gone tomorrow, however, if I put off this job. Are you alright with that?" The next day would be one of Demyx's concerts, and the blonde liked for his lover to be there for them. Sometimes Zexion just couldn't make it for one reason or another, and this would seem to be one of those instances

Demyx sighed on hearing that, giving Zexion a small pout.

"Sometimes you working nights can be so annoying," he mumbled as he sat down on their too-plush burgundy couch, clearly not intending for his words to be any kind of accusation, but just a complaint.

"I'm sorry," Zexion said, and meant it as much as he could. He would not give up his work, but neither would he throw his lover to the wayside.

"Eh, I'll live. Just go convince your boss that you desperately need tonight because you're hopelessly in love with me," he responded with a little smirk that made Zexion's stomach tighten. "And then I'll have a present for you when you get home."

Zexion raised an eyebrow.

"Will I like the gift?" he asked carefully, though he was fairly certain he knew what the other man had in mind.

He definitely liked the expression on his lover's face in that moment.

"Undoubtedly."

It didn't take much to brighten Zexion's day, really.

*~*~*

Although the people around him all seemed to be hopelessly inept, there was amusement to be found in their antics. Also, in the grays and blues of Xaldin's amusingly crappy interior decoration - who did they get to do that shit, anyway? - Axel's burning red hair stood out like a beacon from hell.

Fuck yes.

Also adding to the assassin's good mood was the fact that this Xaldin, also, seemed to be a complete, incompetent idiot.

Axel wasn't ever very good at dealing with idiots, though he did like to play poker with them. They tended to be so much easier to manipulate.

"So what d'ya want?" he asked uninterestedly - this was more to make a point than because he really didn't care. He scratched his head just to emphasize the extent of his apathy, but the expression broke into a grin as he watched a few of the men in front of him broke into cold sweats.

Man, they got scared so easily - though, to be fair, the fact that Axel was holding a gun in that same hand didn't hurt anything, either. Gotta keep people on their toes - and waving weaponry around carelessly tended to make people nervous.

The boss didn't look very pleased, to say the least - which was, of course, the intention - and Axel's smirk grew.

"You are Axel of the Organization, then?" Xaldin asked, ridiculous dreadlocks hanging limply down his back. Unattractive, at best - the redhead wasn't particularly fond of the facial hair, either. The stuff was ok on some people, if they knew what they were doing - but clearly this man didn't. He apparently didn't know what he was doing with regards to much of anything.

"Sometimes," he replied with amusement. It was his standing policy never go give a straight answer if a crooked one would suffice - but that one was mostly true, even if it was enigmatic and confusing for his employers. The Organization was a loosely hierarchical group of assassins that got together under one leader so that they could get jobs and still remain anonymous, though word still got out about the better ones. It was more or less a guild - and people could come and leave as they chose.

However, Axel himself was a freelance assassin, though he did get his most solid employment through the Organization. He got enough requests by name - or, generally, by one of his many pseudonyms - that going through the Organization could be sometimes counterproductive.

Also, the idea of actually having to obey someone's orders - especially the orders of the current leader, Marluxia - was distinctly unappealing. Axel liked being able to do whatever the hell he wanted, regardless of anyone else. He tended to be exceptionally good at avoiding the consequences.

"So, then," Xaldin rumbled after a moment, "I assume you have come because you accepted our offer."

"Uh, no. I've come to see if you're worth my while," Axel smirked. Seriously, this guy was an idiot. The redhead refused to give him any leeway just because the other man was new at this - if Xaldin didn't know what he was doing, Xemnas should never have promoted him.

The dreadlocked man took the insult mostly in stride, though - he didn't respond, although his eyes narrowed in annoyance.

"I want you to target a man named Lexaeus," he explained in his deep, rumbling voice. "He runs one of the biggest finance companies right now-"

Axel interrupted smoothly, unable to stand being lied to when it was over something so utterly stupid.

"Cut the crap, man. I know he runs another one of Xemnas's little shoot-off organizations, and I know him personally. How much are you gonna fork over?" Personal connections, even vague friendships, weren't about to get in the way of doing his job. Lexaeus had helped Axel get started as an assassin, and the redhead still felt some lingering respect for a man who had once been one of the best in the business.

But there tended to come a time when the student surpassed the teacher, and Axel knew that he'd gotten better than his instructor a good long time ago.

"Five thousand," responded Xaldin in that same rough bass.

Axel was silently impressed by the offer, but didn't indicate it outwardly - it was never good to let others see your hand or your interest. Instead, he gave his employer a deadly stare, as if that wasn't nearly enough. That was at least double what the assassin made for a normal hit, and Xaldin didn't even seem to realize it. Hey, if the guy was so interested in throwing away money, Axel wasn't going to stand in his way.

Idiot had probably never hired another hitman before.

"Do you really think that a couple thousand is enough to hire a guy like me?" he asked with a feigned incredulousness, pistol glinting in his right hand as a less than subtle reminder of who, precisely, was in control of this situation. He watched the other man blanch ever so slightly, and his hand dug into the armrest of the chair he was using so tightly that the large gold ring on his middle finger looked like it might be cutting into his skin.

Xaldin's expression was growing less and less friendly by the minute, though that didn't intimidate Axel any.

"How much do you normally get for a hit like this?"

"Ten thousand at a minimum. Lexaeus used to be one of the best in the business," he lied with a straight face.

The other's face darkened.

"You shouldn't mess with me, kid."

Axel didn't respond, only grinned - anything he could say to that would either be inexcusably cliché or get him in more shit than he was looking for just then.

"Six thousand," Xaldin spat, "Or I'm kicking you out and getting someone who knows his place." His black dreadlocks gleamed in the electric light, and his voice was beginning to take on a growling quality. It was amusing as all hell.

"Listen to me, man - in Chicago in this day and age, you're not gonna find any more hires more amicable than myself," he drawled, never losing the smirk and making a wide motion with his hands that was meant to seem magnanimous. It probably succeeded in looking vaguely mocking, but Axel didn't really give a damn. "I won't go for less than nine thousand."

"Seven."

"Eight."

There was a pause.

"Deal, but if you don't deliver, I'll see that you never work again."

That made Axel laugh, a sound that was almost as much threatening as it was thoroughly amused.

He always delivered. That shouldn't even be a question, by this point.

*~*~*

When he was finally escorted out of Xaldin's over-protected safe-room with the click and creak of metal doors closing, Axel was met by a man in a smart suit on the other side who gave him an appraising and vaguely condescending glance. The redhead put his hands up in the air and shrugged to show that he was unarmed - of course, he wasn't; his gun was in a hidden holster at his back - and followed in the direction that the man began to lead.

"He's paying you half beforehand?" the man asked briskly, sounding professional even if his employer wasn't.

"Sure thing. Standard procedure," the assassin responded derisively - that's always the way these things worked. The fact that the suited man even had to ask really said something about this place.

They were at what looked like a vault within minutes, the redhead following silently behind the other man as they passed the two guards at the first door. That's when the guy made his first mistake - he closed the door, effectively blocking his route of escape and also the path through which any help would come.

"I will be back in a moment with your payment, sir," he stated politely, giving a little unassuming bow. Perfect timing.

"Actually," Axel began as his gun found its way, lightning-fast, into his hand, "You're not. You're going to take me there, and you're going to give me the whole eight thousand you owe me right now," he drawled, flicking the hammer of his pistol absently as he watched the little man cower in the gun's sight.

He had a plan - because having a little more money to spend on getting shitfaced drunk or new weaponry was always a good idea.

Suddenly, a knife was in the redhead's off-hand, meeting dangerously with the other man's throat as he flashed forward to behind the other. With the hand that still held his gun, Axel proceeded to put the escort's gun arm into rather painful lock, and grinned as the man winced. He pressed closer to the other from behind him, lips up against the shell of his ear, and teeth bared in amusement and malice.

"Suffice to say that if you so much as hint to anyone about what's happening, I will shoot you." His voice dripped honey and venom. "Or slit your throat, whichever's quicker." He paused.

"And if you ever in the future tell anyone about what has happened, I will hunt you down. Nowhere will be safe for you, and nobody will be willing to take you in. You will be forced to the streets, and I will kill you there."

For once, not a word out of his mouth was a lie.

*~*~*

Marluxia gave an appraising look to the woman standing before him, and found himself rather unimpressed. She was skinny and the muscles were barely visible in her lithe form - not generally good for the job she was wanting to do - but, she had been recommended by Axel, and his was quite the recommendation. The redhead had never recommended anyone before, so Marluxia could only assume that the woman had some talent that was not immediately evident.

The one thing that was interesting about her was the look on her face - she was constantly smirking, though it was nothing like Axel's expression. Everything about the sickly sweet smile was venomous, even sadistic. For that one instant, she reminded him of a coiled snake, and his hopes for her rose.

"What's your name?" That was more a formality than anything.

"Larxene, but you know that already or I wouldn't be here," she said with a false sweetness.

"Indeed." Marluxia paused, and one of his guards shifted his weight. She made them uncomfortable. Interesting.

"You know what you're here for, of course. What makes you think that you, as a woman, would be an asset to an organization like ours?" His voice was only mildly derisive, but she caught it, and the gleam in her bright green eyes responded with malice.

"Because I can inflict more pain on someone that they thought was humanly possible," she responded, tone vindictive. "Because I have a decorating chain of men's balls in my bedroom, and one pair of eyes from a man who didn't have any balls to speak of," she said with a quiet but vicious laugh. "Because I can kill people in ways you didn't even know someone could be killed in. I've lived on the street for thirteen years and have learned more shit than a pansy-ass like you in your little throne-room could ever understand," she continued, sweet expression given its true meaning by her threateningly narrowed eyes.

So she had bite. He liked that.

If he had to imagine the sort of woman that he would allow into his Organization, this is what she would sound like.

"Do you mind if we test your capabilities?" he stated rather than asked, polite formality nothing but a habit to disguise intent. It was an order.

Marluxia gave a nod to one of the men next to him - the other was lithe and fast, but not particularly strong; a good match for her apparent skills - and the guard took to the floor in just a moment. But before the Organization's leader could initiate the match, a set of daggers had left her hands and were flying toward his man's vital points. He dodged them with only a small amount of effort, but in the process moved directly into the path of the sweep-kick that she was executing precisely for that purpose.

He was flat on the ground in an instant, and her poisonous smirk never left her face as she began to dig her dagger into his crotch.

"If you prefer," she responded sweetly to his look of terror, "I could stick this in your ass and slice up. Don't thank me, it's my natural generosity." She giggled at this, the look in her eyes crazed.

Marluxia put a hand up at that, matching her vicious smile with a smirk of his own.

"That was hardly a fair match," he said with a mildly disapproving tone. "But," he continued, "killing for hire is hardly a profession that requires honor. If you had waited until he was prepared, I wouldn't consider you."

She removed her knife from the man's crotch with a look reminiscent of disappointment, then turned to face the other with a slight mocking bow.

"Excellent, a man after my own morals."

"Indeed, it would seem so," he said with a smirk and a raised eyebrow.

"You are accepted," he continued, "but you will be considered at the lowest level until you have proven otherwise."

He could tell that rankled her - excellent. She would move up quickly.

"Is that acceptable?" he asked, mocking tone barely audible.

"No," she responded with a toothy grin, "But it'll do for now."

Marluxia laughed silently as she turned and left, giving his defeated guard a derisive look. He made a mental note to replace the that guard, though his gaze never left the door where she left. He would watch her rise with interest. He could only hope that too many of his men weren't castrated in the process.

*~*~*

Axel whistled lightly as he walked out of Xaldin's building with a briefcase full of cash held seemingly carelessly over his shoulder. To his intense amusement, these guys apparently trusted him fairly well - at the door, they had checked to make sure he was only carrying the allotted portion of his payment. Of course, he had been - the other half of the amount he had stolen had been adequately taken care of.

He wasn't stupid enough to make it that easy for the idiots - and, after that, he had been quite free to go.

The suited escort that the assassin had threatened had glared at him the whole way, which was vaguely amusing. That didn't really matter, though, because he nodded to the door guard in affirmation that everything was alright - which was, of course, not true - and so Axel didn't really give a shit whether the guy was happy or not.

I haven't even done anything wrong, after all, he thought with mock indignation - there he was, leaving all legit and everything, and the guy still didn't like him. He chuckled. Some days you just can't win.

Other days you win the whole goddamn pot.

He walked in silence for a few more minutes as he left the entrance to Xaldin's little hideout behind, black leather combat boots tapping quietly on the pavement. It took only a bit of extra effort to make himself seem like he was wandering aimlessly - he didn't want them to think he was heading anywhere in particular. This wasn't true, but it just made things easier for him.

It took only another thirty seconds or so before he came to the nearest locksmith's shop, which was slightly less grungy and dilapidated than the buildings by which it was surrounded. He pulled up his black hood, just to make sure that no-one would recognize him, then opened the door and took a long step inside.

About ten minutes later, the man he had been waiting for arrived, checking over his shoulder with the paranoid energy of a man who had many enemies and no confidence. The man's clothes were probably years old and threadbare, so he was clearly a lackey - or had been. He gave Axel an intense look, peering through the shadows thrown by a hood. After confirming the redhead's identity, he and made a motion towards the briefcase in his hand.

"Did you tell Xaldin that you quit?" the redhead asked quietly upon seeing the case, face still hidden in the shadow of his hood. It wouldn't do to have someone else recognize him during the exchange that was going to follow.

"Yeah," the man confirmed, presenting his briefcase for inspection, just so Axel could see that it was the same one that he had given to the other man not a half hour before.

It was rather plain, a regular briefcase in all respects but one - its one curiosity was a rather large and complicated lock. That had been one of Axel's better investments, really - it was portable, and attached with very little effort to whatever surface one wished to be locked. This was quite crucial, because in said briefcase was the other half of the redhead's pay.

After retrieving the cash - not stealing, of course - and putting it into a second briefcase, he found some random goon in the hallway. Axel proceeded to promise the other man that he would receive two thousand dollars - half of the amount in the briefcase - if he helped in getting the cash out and the lock undone. When asked, the redhead lied and said that he'd stolen it but couldn't get the lock off.

It was, of course, his lock that he'd put on for precisely this purpose - so someone else could smuggle the cash out for him without being able to pilfer it for themselves.

So, the stupid guy had agreed to quit Xaldin's organization and show up at the locksmith's for the tools he needed. So he stood there expectantly, waiting for Axel to turn to the locksmith and buy the pieces. After a long moment of silence, a look of realization dawned on the man's face - apparently he had finally noticed that the assassin had been lying to him all along. Tough luck.

As soon as the assassin confirmed that it was the same briefcase - the lock on the top wouldn't be easily duplicated - he pulled his gun and shot the other man in the face, watching intently as the lackey's blood sprayed onto the front window.

"Thanks for everything," he said with a malicious grin as he picked up the suitcase, and much to the astonishment of the shell-shocked locksmith, walked out without another word.

*~*~*

Demyx was more than happy with the preparation of his songs for that evening's concert - he was thrilled, really - and even though Zexion wasn't going to be there, he couldn't help his budding excitement. He was an excitable sort of person, in any case, because it was better to be excited about something than depressed, no matter what life threw at you.

He never had gotten to go out with Zexion the night before, either - but that was ok, because sex was generally an acceptable alternative to going out. Especially if it was good sex, which was the case improbably often with them.

The blonde's less-than-innocent thoughts were interrupted momentarily by a knock on his front door, and he jumped in surprise, blushing at the intrusion. In his vaguely mortified scramble to get up, he knocked over the vase on the piano as he stood up to get it - dammit, not again - but thankfully, most of the stuff in this house was durable. He wasn't the most graceful person in all of creation.

"Coming!" he told the person on the other side of the door as if to reassure them that he was alright, and ran to the door as quickly as he could manage.

Demyx couldn't help but grin in shock as the door swung open to reveal Axel on the other side.

"So you didn't trip and kill yourself, then?" the redhead asked by way of greeting, still smiling as always.

"Of course not, I'm better than that, at least," Demyx responded with a laugh, moving out of the way of the door so that Axel could come in. "Why did it take so long for your skinny ass to show up here again? Where have you been, man?"

"Ah, here and there, doing shit that needed to be done." A pause. "So where's your whipped lover-boy?" That was Axel's sort-of nickname for Zexion: he couldn't help but mock the other assassin for finally settling down, Demyx figured, but that was ok because it was Axel. It occurred to him that Axel might find it amusing because he'd known both parties long before they'd met each other. The redhead had probably screwed both of them in their own time - though Demyx couldn't say for certain in Zexion's case, he was notably tightlipped on the subject - but he repressed that thought quickly enough.

"Oh, Zexy's gone for now. He won't be back until morning, most likely, so you're good," he informed the other casually.

Zexion had a tendency to get angry and kind of violent when he came home to find Axel camping out in the living room, so they tried to avoid him if they could. The blonde knew that it was jealousy - the dark-haired assassin wasn't thrilled with letting Demyx's ex-lovers stay the night - which was kind of cute, but still. The assassin was probably the blonde's best friend who wasn't also his lover, and he wasn't about to let that go.

"Ah, then can I stay the night?" the redhead asked simply, looking around at the décor - it had been changed somewhat substantially since the last time the man had shown up. It had been way too long since then.

"Of course, though normal regulations still apply," the musician responded with amusement. Before Zexion was in the picture, Axel had stayed in Demyx's bedroom, generally naked - but that wasn't acceptable anymore for obvious reasons. Also, another requirement was that he clean up nicely after himself, that he couldn't still be there when Zexion showed up, which the redhead was fine with by all accounts. Entirely apart from the other man's jealous streak, the two were colleagues and rivals to some degree, and even Demyx knew that it could be bad in a job like theirs to let other people know what they were up to.

Though if it ever really came down to it, if it was one over the other - he would have to pick Zexion over his redheaded friend, and he didn't really want to ever have to do that. So he relegated each to their own special world, and did his best not to mix the two. He only hoped that could continue.

XXX

"…So you got double for this job what you get for a normal job?" the blonde asked with amazement, sprawled on his couch after listening to Axel's more than slightly edited version of what had gone on that day.

"Yep," the redhead responded amicably. In truth, it had been three to four times the amount - but he wasn't about to admit that, even to Demyx.

The other man grinned in a manner that was half-conspiratorial and half-shocked, and the redhead couldn't help but grin back.

"Hell, how'd you get them to do that?" he asked, voice almost soaked with something resembling worship. The kid was like that sometimes - but that made him fun as all hell to mess around with.

"My natural charm and good looks," Axel responded, taking his black leather jacket and hanging it on the hook. He'd try to stay there for as long as he could - he stayed wherever he like most of the time, regardless, but he liked to stay out of Zexion's way. The other assassin was one of the few people Axel openly acknowledged as being intelligent - extremely so, really - and the redhead didn't want him as an enemy for as long as he could avoid it.

The two had a certain respect for each other that came from being two of the best in the business, but that didn't mean that they liked each other. This was probably fueled by jealousy on Zexion's part - Demyx had said as much - or maybe also by Axel's habit of conspicuously groping the blond only when the other assassin was in the room. Aside from that, though, they were both schemers - both talented at the art of manipulation, and neither felt that they could take the other at their word. Of course, both were right.

"Or that guy was an idiot," Demyx responded with the same grin.

"Entirely a possibility," the other man replied with a flashed smirk. "But I'm still chalking it up to skill."

"Yeah, you lie like a master, don't you? I guess lying to yourself isn't any different." The blonde's tone wasn't accusatory at all, instead carrying a gentle teasing tone.

Axel gave the other a theatrically wounded look, and put his hands up as if to deflect suspicion.

"Come on now, whatever made you think that?" he drawled, eyes flashing with amusement and something else. It always came to him as something like a shock when Demyx did something that proved he knew the other man. The redhead never quite understood why he let this camaraderie live, when it had a possibility to be so dangerous.

Demyx was an interesting enough kid, it was true - he managed to keep his innocence and good nature despite his numerous connections to mob life. It was impressive, he supposed, but Axel made it a rule never to trust anyone as far has he could throw them. He told himself that that was true even for the doe-eyed blonde boyfriend of one of his colleagues.

Especially, it occurred to him, for the boyfriend of one of his colleagues. You never knew when someone you'd been cleaning your pistol with - figuratively or literally - would be suddenly in your rifle sights. Or the other way around.

It would probably be in both of their best interests to keep away from Demyx for a good long time. Emotional connections tended to get you killed more than they did anything else. That was why he didn't have any - none that mattered, anyway.

The redhead's train of thought was interrupted by Demyx's response to his earlier words.

"Well, you know, the lying was a big tip-off that you might be a liar," the blonde said with amusement.

"Izzat so?" the other murmured. A topic change was in order. "So anyway, I've got that job coming up, so you won't be seeing me for a while" - possibly ever again, if he could manage it - "but until then, I'm crashing at your place."

This was his way of asking for a room. Not so very long ago, it had also been his way of asking for a casual fuck, but then the kid and Zexion had gotten together, and Axel discovered that Demyx had this strange aversion to cheating on his boyfriend. Weird world.

He didn't press the issue, because he wasn't all that attracted to the blonde anyway, and willing help for problems of a sexual nature could be found so easily, if you knew where to look. So he slept on the couch.

"Fantastic. Now, you wouldn't happen to have a map of the city lying around, would you?"

"Might. Why?"

"I'm gonna plan my next hit, what did you expect?" he asked with a kind of fond derision reserved only for the stupidity of people he could stand.

"Ah." One of the things Axel liked about this kid was that the insults didn't seem to phase him. "I'll get it for you, then?"

"You do that."

Silently, he laughed, because here he was in Zexion's household, planning the demise of Lexaeus. The best part was that Axel's target was one of the few men that the other assassin had ever called a friend.

He could practically taste the irony. It was a taste the world could do with more of.

XXX

XXX

Heavily revised, especially the beginning section. Thank you for reading!

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