25. Steps Backward to Go Forward

As night at last lifted and a new day shuffled in through the perpetual darkness, bringing with it a foreboding shroud of storm clouds, Zexion had to summon his reserves of patience while he sat in solitude against the window pane. He'd waited out the whole night this way after Number IX had left, a book in his lap while he watched the three remaining candles burn down to stumps of cooling wax. He was waiting for breakfast to end so that the Organizers thinned out through the castle and went about their daily business. Thinking of food, Zexion held a hand over his stomach. Having not eaten since becoming a Dusk, he longed to join his comrades in the kitchen where he knew that Xaldin had taken it upon himself to make pancakes. According to his calendar, it was Thursday, after all, and he could just smell it. But with everything Six had seen, what he thought about it all, he almost felt an unbridgeable distance between himself and them. He couldn't bear to answer the questions they'd pose, either.

Outside the skies rumbled with thunder. Lightning struck not long after and in that split second it lit up the world, the Cloaked Schemer couldn't help wondering whether lightning was capable of drawing towards a Nobody, considering they didn't exist and all. He'd never heard of any of the Lessers getting fried while roaming about during thunder storms…Zexion chuckled mirthlessly. Just another meaningless paradox to their name. Then he thought of Larxene, who he'd once saw direct a lightning bolt down at herself on purpose just so she could feel the sheer, deadly power of it course through her body. He glanced at the clock hanging above the door. By now the morning meal should have finished and the one he needed to talk to was, if his senses were correct, in the library. Zexion stood and started brushing off his clothes but hesitated, staring at the white downy outfit for the first proper time. The whole ensemble made him stand out like a sore thumb from his peers, especially the fact that his feet and hands were bare, and he couldn't even begin to fathom how ridiculous he must've appeared.

Fortunately, though, a spare Organization outfit hung in his closet. In fact it was the only thing in Zexion's closet and once he shed the white garments in favour of the more familiar black ones, he gazed into its recesses for a moment before shutting the door. His room always had been rather bare save for the necessities and a few choice books. Paying it no more mind, Zexion slipped on a pair of black gloves, the leather at first cold against his skin. He flexed his fingers in them and then scrutinized the rest of himself with a downward glance. Now he looked the part at least, though he was doubtful of how well he'd be able to play it. Organization XIII used to give him a sense of belonging, some illusion of power over their situation, but all that was gone. In truth, Zexion didn't know what to think anymore. He looked at the clock one last time as if it could give him all the answers he sought, now reconsidering everything he'd told Demyx.

Hesitance kept the Cloaked Schemer standing there awhile longer but something was urging him on if he would only listen. Then he recalled a quote that he had read one quiet day in the castle long ago which had stuck with him ever since, occasionally popping up from Zexion's subconscious to gnaw away at his thoughts. As it came back to him this time, he murmured it aloud to the stillness of the room.

"For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong." Oddly he remembered Xemnas after the words were past his tongue and began shaking his head again, that humourless, ironic laugh filling the room. If anyone had been there to hear it they doubtless would have thought Zexion had lost his mind. But in reality he'd never seen things more clearly in all his nonexistence.

Cracks of thunder and lightning punctuated the air as heavy raindrops started battering the window pane and Zexion focused his energy into a dark corridor. He followed its swirling depths through to the one spot in the library where he would be out of sight, hidden by a back shelf completely weighed down with old books. In stillness he crouched, hearing a soft murmur of voices he didn't expect as two people conversed. One was Larxene, he knew for sure since he'd smelled her here, but he couldn't be certain who the man was. Zexion cocked his head, listening intensely as he felt the man's light footsteps through the floor while he paced back and forth. The footsteps were very light, in fact, and he began trying to recall who the thinnest member of Organization XIII was…

"What are you doing?"

The new voice had taken him so much by surprise that Zexion nearly fell over and his hand shot out in a scramble for something to grip to keep himself balanced. Of course his hand only managed to knock several thick volumes off the shelf, which made a horrible ruckus as they all crashed to the floor. Six squeezed his eyes shut for a moment in the confused silence that followed. What a disaster this was turning out to be. Then he glanced around his small space before turning an eye towards the aisle across from his where Lexaeus stood staring at him, an open book left forgotten in his palms.

"Zexion?" he asked in a loud whisper, clearly not quite believing who crouched there behind the bookshelves, trying to eavesdrop on the others in the room.

"Shh!" the Cloaked Schemer admonished him. He tried to peek out from his hiding spot but sensed that they were looking and sat back against the shelf.

Now Lexaeus was suspecting that he had hit his head at some point and was beginning to see things. He turned away, replacing the book, and started massaging his left temple when Zexion beckoned to him urgently. Frowning hard, the Silent Hero lowered his arm and went over, half expecting him to disappear.

"Zexion?" Lexaeus pressed, kneeling next to him.

"Who is the man over there? With Larxene." Number VI had his fingers braced against his lips as though hushing himself while he looked at his colleague expectantly. For a moment Lexaeus just blinked, an eyebrow raised in doubt, but he poked his head around the bookshelf nonetheless.

"Axel."

"Ah…should've known that one…" he mumbled to himself. The Silent Hero kept staring while Zexion seemed to ignore him now, moving his lips without a sound like a child who'd just begun to read.

"Zexion!"

"What is it?" he snapped, alarm in his voice. He only glanced at his colleague, looking as if Number V had brought him back to reality from a trance.

"God's bones," Lexaeus cursed, then growled at him, "What's the matter with you? What ludicrous plot has you sneaking around like a thief now?"

The Cloaked Schemer turned his head to him again, dark eyes seeming a hair's breadth away from psychotic. Then he flashed a brief smile that more resembled a grimace anything before answering.

"I assure you, it's better if you didn't know. But you'll find out anyway. Soon." He paused, biting his lip, then added, "I just need you to do one thing for me."

"Well that seems rather convenient," rasped Lexaeus sardonically, eyebrows pulled together while he looked down upon Number VI. Taken by surprise from his negative reaction, Zexion started to speak but faltered. "Am I the only one who sees a pattern here? Remember what happened last you enlisted me but failed to explain the purpose."

"I remember. No harm came to you and I bore the responsibility that was mine." Lexaeus's facial muscles tightened.

"You got turned into a Dusk," he stated, ignoring his colleague's prior remark.

"…And the point you're trying to make is…?"

"Tell me what it is you're planning this time," Lexaeus said, "or I can no longer allow myself to assist you." He met Six's stare evenly before the Cloaked Schemer turned his head away with a short sigh. So follow-the-leader Lexaeus had changed into a man of his own principles. If he'd just done that a few years ago, they wouldn't be having this conversation here now. This would have been a very different story, indeed.

He was silent for a long time, avoiding Number V's eyes and staring straight ahead at the colourless wall. Fingers curling and uncurling against his knee, he searched for something to say though he knew any effort would be futile on his part. The Cloaked Schemer had run out of words.

"I see how it is, then," Lexaeus murmured, standing and folding his arms behind him. "I bid you farewell, Number VI." And with that he flipped up the hood of his cloak, heading off into a portal. Too late for him to see, Zexion raised his hands as if in surrender, dropping his head forward like a rag doll's. He remained that way for several long breaths, but then hauled himself to his feet with a new resolve. Fine, he thought. I'll do it all myself.

Clenching his left hand into a tight fist, Zexion came out from the cover of the bookshelf and approached his comrades seated around the wooden table at the front end of the library. Axel, who'd been facing away from him, turned to follow the Savage Nymph's gaze as she stopped talking before Six had caught a stray word. Her face betrayed no reaction to him being there and Zexion made sure he looked just as impassive as she. They stared at each other like this for a few moments, making Axel thoroughly uncomfortable and somewhat irked in the process.

"Would you mind giving us some privacy, Number VIII? There is something I must discuss with Larxene." He could see that Axel was bothered by how he'd called the Savage Nymph by her name and him by number.

"Anything you have to say to her, you can say it in front of me," Axel declared, standing and looking Six in the eye as if daring him to challenge that. Apparently Larxene found this side of him quite amusing, for she hid a quick smile under her left hand.

"You are mistaken. This is not a matter I dare to talk about openly with many individuals," Zexion said. "And I'm afraid you're not one of them."

"Axel," Larxene cut in before either of them could say anything more idiotic. "Just go. This shouldn't take long." They could both see the argument drain out of him as his shoulders dropped and he gazed at Number XII for a moment, lips parted in silent protest. After bringing his lower jaw back up and giving Zexion one last suspicious glare, Eight made a resigned gesture. He turned and left them, smouldering slightly in both senses of the word.

Larxene eyed the Cloaked Schemer as he watched Axel slam the door on his way out, leaving the room in silence. Then she invited him to sit, which he did, and she allowed herself a small, mocking smile at Zexion, who remained undaunted.

"He'll get over it," she said of Axel, carefully flexing the fingers of the arm bandaged under her cloak. Zexion blinked in response. "So what's this about?"

"I need someone who can keep a secret and work with me…discreetly," the Cloaked Schemer said, dropping into the quiet, devious tone he was well renowned for. Larxene immediately raised a sceptical eyebrow at his dramatics.

"What, do you plan on uprooting Marluxia's rhododendron bush for spite and need me to make it a covert job?" she teased. "Or maybe you're trying to dig up Roxas's old comic book collection, huh? Some top-secret idiocy like that…yeah, thanks but no thanks." Number XII continued to scoff, deepening Zexion's frown.

"You vex me. I am terribly vexed…shunning an offer before even hearing what it is…"

He began to lift himself from the chair to leave and Larxene went quiet for a moment, not expecting his sudden elusiveness.

"Wait," she said, then quickly uttered an apology for what she called impoliteness.

"Impoliteness? You mean your deliberate mocking of my intentions?"

"Yeah," she admitted shortly. The edge on her voice warned Zexion not to push her any further, however, and so he resumed his seat.

"I shouldn't be telling you this until you've allied yourself with the cause," he said, glancing around conspiratorially to ensure no unwelcome ears were listening. "But…well, you are aware of how Xemnas imposes the idea of collectivism on us and how none of us will be cheated out of a heart so long as we cooperate."

"No duh. He only drills the Organization's 'principles' into us every meeting," Larxene reminded him.

"Right. Except our superior doesn't abide what he preaches. To him, we're all expendable."

For the next half hour in the eerie atmosphere of the library, the Cloaked Schemer told her of Xemnas's real view of the Organization, likening him to a tyrant that looked out only for his own best interests. And Larxene listened, absorbing every word. By time Zexion had asked her to join his "force" in knocking Xemnas off the top of the food chain, Number XII was ready to agree. They stood and she even did not object to shaking his hand as a promise of secrecy over what they'd talked about.

"So is anyone else in on this?" Larxene asked, letting her arm drop back by her side.

"I beg your pardon?" Zexion faltered for just a second, but it was enough to make him panic involuntarily. "Oh-you're asking…Lexaeus." It had been the first name to come to mind.

"Lexaeus," she repeated. By the sound of her voice, it was obvious that she found the Silent Hero's turn away from Xemnas hard to believe.

"And Demyx," the Cloaked Schemer added. He regretted it a moment later when Larxene crossed her arms and looked at him with her eyebrows lifted in surprise. Thereby Zexion decided to bite on his tongue in an attempt to refrain from saying something of increased stupidity.

"Lexaeus and Demyx?" she said. "So our little renegade group consists of you, me, Demyx and Lexaeus?"

"Actually, we're more of a revolutionist group," he pointed out. Apparently his tongue-biting strategy wasn't working out so well.

"Right." The two stared at each other in silence. Then the Savage Nymph declared, "Well, at least no one will suspect us of anything," and turned to summon a portal.

"But remember, you can't talk about-"

"I know," Larxene said, waving him off. She glanced back, smirked, and disappeared into the darkness.

When the portal finally closed, Zexion let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and collapsed onto the nearest armchair. He could hardly believe that she had bought into his "revolutionist group" so easily. Of course he had to lie, and Larxene would not be pleased to find out the truth, but that part came later. For now Zexion had what he needed. It was time to begin anew.

OOO

The world came about in a blur. Everything appeared to be off a bright, unashamed white at first with no detail, like the inside of a block. But then she began to see that there was, in fact, pieces of furniture and things set up conservatively around the room, all in the same shade of white. There were some white chairs around a white table which had white flowers as a centrepiece, although the green stems of the lilies were hidden by the tall white vase that they stood in. It was enough to give any sane person a headache. In addition, Risk just noticed that she was sitting up on a white bed, her dark clothes stark against the white sheets.

Risk shuddered and glanced to the left where a long mirror reflected the scene to her. The girl looked so foreign in this unfamiliar place that she had to stare at the image for a studious minute before she could accept it as real. Finally she reached a cautious hand up to her left cheek and explored the shallow fissures of the small, X-shaped scar there. Oddly, this was the first time Thirteen paused to wonder where it came from. She couldn't remember it happening or even when she noticed the scar to begin with. As Risk decided that it must've been there since she was very young, the mirror warned her of the door behind her opening on well-oiled hinges and she jerked her hand away, snapping to attention.

Saix's head appeared in the doorway, eyes scanning the room like a thief's. When they came to rest on Risk's small form upright on the bed, the Luna Diviner blinked them and bowed his head for a moment in respect to the younger member's privacy in which he'd just violated. Then he retreated from his position at the door and eased it shut. Seconds later a quick rapping sounded from his side, requesting permission to enter.

"…Who is it?" Risk called out as she'd been taught to do so long ago.

"Saix," he answered after a brief pause.

"Um, just a minute, please." She hopped down from the white bed to the white floor, glancing around at this disorienting room once more before moving to accommodate her visitor. It took the girl a moment to find the door handle as it was also, of course, white.

Once Number XIII opened the door, Saix looked down upon her in his usual calm but icy fashion. Risk blinked at him several times awkwardly before he made a weak throat-clearing noise and spoke.

"Good afternoon, Thirteen. I trust you've acquired sufficient rest for the day's proceedings?"

"Sure," she said with a shrug. "But I'm really hungry now. Um…c-can I has a sandwich?"

"May you has a sandwich," Saix corrected her, "and yes, you may. The appropriate accommodations have been made down here to meet any needs you will have. Follow me. I will show you the Empty Room."

By then a number of questions had surfaced in Risk's mind, like where was everybody else, what was this unfamiliar place and why did Number VII want to show her an empty room. But at that time her stomach was the dominate force inside of her, so with the promise of food she followed him. They'd hardly left the room Risk had awakened in, however, before he halted.

"Here we are," he announced.

"Here? But I don't see anything." She peered around the place, seeing only more white walls.

"You wanted food. Don't forget what you came here for."

"Er…yeah, a sandwich-whoa!" At the word, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich appeared in front of her nose out of thin air, naturally startling the girl. Saix sighed as she clung to his leg.

"Don't be so foolish," he snapped. "Go on, take it." He gave Risk a push and she stumbled forward, then reached out tentatively for the apparition. Taking the squishy thing in both hands, she examined it from various angles before finally taking a bite. She chewed thoughtfully, swallowed and smacked her lips.

"It's good!" Number XIII said, beaming up at Saix in delight.

"Satisfied? Fine. Now have a seat. There are some things that require an explanation."

Two chairs materialized in the room facing each other. Once the pair had settled into their respective places, the Luna Diviner began as Risk chewed intently.

"Superior Xemnas has deemed it best for you to complete you training apart from your fellow Nobodies and free of the distractions they unintentionally yet inevitably cause. I am to be your new mentor of sorts."

"You're going to teach me things?" Risk asked. He nodded. "What kind of things?"

"Dark corridor control, inferior Nobody summoning, how to remain undetected during stealth operations, basic self-defence techniques…being skilful like your comrades. Every member of Organization XIII must be like a Swiss army knife, plus holding some of their own functions. So most importantly, we will be focusing on your unique powers. What makes you different, in other words," Saix said.

For a few moments it was quiet as Risk absorbed this new information and finished off the last bite of her lunch.

"So…I'll be here on my own a lot?"

"No. I will be present throughout the day to train and guide you as I've said. Only in the evenings will I have to take my leave."

"Oh. Just you, then. No one fun," she surmised. Seven's mouth twitched slightly in irritation.

"Yes. Just me," he replied stiffly. "For the most part you will remain here, in Negative Space, though in the future we may take trips to other worlds to test your progress. Once your training is complete, you may return to the greater parts of the castle and your regular lifestyle. Do you have any further questions?"

"No, sir," she said, looking down at her hands.

"Very well. One last thing," Number VII added. "I suggest you keep a record of some sort on your activities, a diary or journal perhaps. Quite a few of our colleagues keep them. You might find the practice to you liking." He stood and the chair, no longer needed, vanished from the room. "If you are ready, we should begin."

"Yes." Risk met his eyes. "I'm ready."


And that...is another chapter. Thank you guys for all the kind reviews you submitted last time. Good to know people are still reading this after three years...still can't get over that fact. Least, it's been three years for me, heh heh. It was months before I posted the first chapters, in case any of you are wondering at my astounding math since the story date is at '08. Yeah.

Thanks again for reading and don't forget that any and all opinions are welcome if you so care to leave a review! I would especially like to know if something is wrong so I can correct it or at least apologize. XD