Disclaimer: I do not own Kingdom Hearts. It is currently nearly 10pm and I have been typing for the past 3 hours so I am DRAINED. Haha, that's why I haven't the energy for a witty disclaimer.
A/N: This fanfic was a MONSTER to write, I kid you not. It being my first Kingdom Hearts fanfic and all... Some bits flowed really easily, while others were like pulling teeth. I hope they came together to form a half-decent fic, though :) This fanfic is dedicated to all members of my cohort in my school, because everyone was awesome in helping everyone else pull through the O Levels and because I'll miss them so horribly when I start Junior College tomorrow...:(
Also, this fanfic is most specially dedicated to my dear Magni (that's her pen-name as one-half of an account we share on here)... She's my best friend and I don't know what I'd do without her! Thanks so much for helping me with the nasty little bits like the summary and for listening to this idea even when it was first conceived (at the airport with me about to jet off to Scotland XD). This was sort of supposed to be your Christmas present so accept it in a belated sort of sense, OK? :)
Playlist: (I was listening to a lot of songs while writing this fic, these are the ones I listened to the most. Some are REALLY random, so here are the ones which seem to go best with the whole mood of the fic...although next to none of the lyrics do.)
1. Water's Edge - Seven Mary Three
2. Cumbersome - Seven Mary Three
3. Times Like These - Seven Mary Three
4. Hurt - Nine Inch Nails
5. Use Somebody - Kings of Leon
6. Ticket To Heaven - 3 Doors Down
8. Duck and Run - 3 Doors Down
P.S. I chose the title 'Water's Edge' because it seemed to work well with the story, on both literal and symbolic levels
"Don't go down to the water's edge…" – Seven Mary Three
The heart is a strange organ. It has always fascinated me. The way it is located almost exactly at the centre of the body, protected by the ribcage, convinces me of its utmost importance. It is as if who or whatever created the human body positioned it first and the other organs – the stomach, liver, intestines – as mere afterthoughts.
The human race has shared my fascination since the dawn of time. The ancient Egyptians embalmed the heart at death and stored it in alabaster canopic jars. The brain they discarded, but the heart lasted forever. The stopping of the heart is final, irrevocable for the body. Even though the myth was debunked long ago, I cannot help wanting to believe that the heart has at least some bearing on human nature and behavior, although I know it is only an illusion created by the reaction of the heart to the secretion of certain bodily chemicals, such as adrenaline or serotonin.
I am a scientist, so maybe it is ironic that I came to the study of the human psyche through such an unscientific misconception. It is childish, I know. It is the brain that controls thought, feeling and behavior. Two thousand years of civilisation laboring under a lie. But even though the idea is untrue, it is still captivating. A lifetime of experiences and millennia of instincts contained within a muscle the size of a fist, no need for neurons, synapses and electrical impulses! To my mind, a heart-based nervous system would be a most efficient way to go in evolution.
Alas, the heart has been relegated by generations of scientists into the role of a mere pump. It was by logical extension that I transferred my interest to psychology instead.
I have always wondered about the fundamental nature of the human psyche. This question sprang, quite naturally, from my research on the mythology surrounding the heart. While trawling through literature as banal as childrens' fairy tales, I was struck by the absolutes used to describe both heroes and villains. One invariably had a "good heart", or a "kind heart", while the other's was a "dark heart", or an "evil heart". I began to toy with the idea that there might be truth in the legend, that each heart, or each person if you will, has an underlying nature to their psyche. This, I concluded, would mean that it has the potential to influence action and behavior. Civilisation has so fettered our minds, however, that our thoughts and actions follow a culturalized pattern, belying the elemental and instinctive.
All this speculation led to another question. What would happen if the civilized environment was taken away? Would the mind revert to its underlying nature, and would people follow what it dictated? More so, what would this nature be? Would different people revert differently, or is the primal in humans basically the same? If so, would human nature lean towards good or evil?
The tall man waited for the light to fade from the laptop's screen and shut it with a snap. He had been sitting hunched up in his swivel chair, long grey hair falling over his face. Now he leaned back and stretched, joints stiff from having been clicked into position for so long.
The room had been very still up till then. When the man moved, its other occupant, who had been sitting at his own desk reading from a file, looked up.
He was considerably younger than the tall man, with very pale skin that spoke of many hours indoors in front of a desk. His silver hair hung down over one eye, and the one visible was deep blue-grey. Under his clothes he was thin, but there was energy in his movements and wry intelligence in his eyes.
"All done, Professor?"
The Professor turned towards him. Seen in the light from the fluorescent strips overhead, his face was not a nice face. It seemed too full of vitality for the bare room. Golden eyes shone with it, disconcertingly. The energy was neither contained nor suppressed. It seemed raw-edged, sharp like a blade.
"Yes, thank you, Zexion," said the Professor.
Zexion blew a sigh of relief through cold lips. They had been working for the better part of the ay, apart from a lecture the Professor had given in the morning that Zexion, as his teaching assistant, had attended. It had been a particularly draining one. The psychology students at Traverse University were not known for their quick grasp of the syllabus. The day had dragged far beyond its acceptable limits, and the Professor's office had been an inhospitable place to spend it. They did not talk as they worked, and the only sound up till now had been the steady hum of the air conditioner and the clicking of the laptop's keys.
Not that Zexion disliked the research he did; on the contrary, he was as deeply immersed in it as the Professor. It intrigued him, but that didn't license it to colonize his day as fully as it had done. He could feel a heaviness around his eyes, the skin stretched tight. It was time to go home.
Promising himself a bath and a hot meal when he got home, Zexion moved around the office, carrying out a last check and tidy. Satisfied with his work, he moved to the door and was about to switch off the light when he realized the Professor hadn't left his desk.
He seemed to be deep in thought, golden eyes focused on some arbitrary point on the plaster wall. Zexion, who was used to this, coughed slightly from where he was standing.
"Uh, Professor – Xemnas –"
The Professor seemed to jerk back to the present.
"My apologies, Zexion. Is that the time? You look dead on your feet! I suggest you go home and have a good rest. I think I shall stay here for a while – there is something I want to study."
"Professor, it's already nearly midnight…"
Xemnas waved a hand, shooing him out of the room.
"I'm not tired. Or rather, this is more interesting than sleep!" He laughed, teeth startlingly white against tanned skin. "Do you remember my conjectures concerning fundamental human nature?"
Here we go again, thought Zexion. He put on a politely interested face, raising a hand to stifle a yawn. He tolerated the Professor's leaps into unverified fantasy, but then again, they had come up only infrequently, and that during civilized hours. It was hard to summon patience when every fiber of his body was aching for rest.
Perhaps Xemnas detected his reluctance, because he did not launch into one of his customary lectures on the subject.
"Suffice to say that I have always dreamt of the perfect experiment… One that will show, once and for all, that I'm right!" The golden eyes studied Zexion's face. "I can see that you don't agree with my hypothesis. Well, neither does anyone else! You're in good company – pretty much all the eminent psychologists in the country. But what if I found a way to prove all of you wrong?"
"If the facts proved it, then of course I' agree," Zexion said, trying to pacify the Professor, whom he could see was working himself up.
"Yes, the facts! You're a typical scientist, Zexion. All for the truth – the plain, hard facts – never one gut feeling, one instinctive leap of faith." He turned away from his assistant, grey hair shadowing his face.
Zexion waited, but this was obviously a dismissal. The Professor was booting up his laptop again. Its glow was the last thing Zexion saw before he turned to leave.
Demyx was waiting for him at reception, lanky body folded into a hard plastic chair. When he saw Zexion approaching, he jumped up, beaming. Unfortunately, he also knocked over the chair. The clatter sounded very loud in the empty hall. Blushing painfully, Demyx bent to right it.
Zexion smiled. One of Demyx's most endearing qualities was the fact that everything embarrassed him. While Demyx was still struggling with the chair, Zexion crossed the hall, came up behind him and planted a kiss on his cheek.
This caused Demyx to flush redder, if that was at all possible. Zexion stepped back, hands on hips.
"What're you doing here?"
A strand of blond hair from Demyx's messy mullet flopped onto his face and he brushed it away. Shifting from foot to foot, he held out a jacket that Zexion recognized as his own.
"You forgot this when you left this morning. Um, I thought I'd better bring it 'cause the nights are getting pretty cold and, you know, it would be murder for you to walk home without it…"
Zexion pulled the other man into a tight hug, ignoring his startled yelp. He breathed deeply, inhaling Demyx's scent, which immediately seemed to banish the disastrous lecture of the morning and the mind-numbing research of the rest of the day.
He drew back, hands on Demyx's shoulders.
Demyx's bright blue eyes were puzzled.
"Uh, it's not that big a deal, y'know…"
Zexion retrieved his jacket from where it had been crushed between them in the hug. "Yes, it is," he said gravely. Demyx decided not to argue with him.
They walked out of the campus together. Demyx didn't seem tired at all, bounding alongside Zexion with his habitual bouncy gait. He had insisted on carrying Zexion's briefcase. There was nothing much in it, but Zexion appreciated the gesture.
Streetlamps striped the sidewalk with bands of light. They passed under them, talking quietly. Zexion felt the tension in his body slowly ease away with every step they took. Demyx had that effect on him, his easy, artless chatter flowing around them. It was soothing.
"And we're doing mass migration of humpback whales now, it's amazing, they go practically around the world during one migration, and Professor Leonhart said…"
Demyx majored in Marine Biology. Zexion listened, appreciating less the actual words than Demyx's obvious enthusiasm. He watched the way the younger man's lips moved and how the light from the streetlamps touched their contours. A pleasant lethargy had settled over him, fatigue and a sort of assurance that it would soon be dealt with.
They shared a small apartment about a fifteen-minute walk away from the university. The neighborhood was good, and it had been a bargain when they had moved in a year ago. It had taken about eight months for them to finally unpack the last box, and now it was home.
Zexion kicked off his shoes and collapsed on the couch. Right then he would have slept anywhere, but he was acutely aware of his rumbling stomach. He had eaten hardly anything that day – the research had claimed his time. He wasn't sure if he could muster the strength to get to the kitchen and whip something up, though.
Demyx set a steaming plate onto the coffee table in front of him. "I cooked."
"Since when do you –"
A film strip of Demyx's past attempts at cooking ran through his mind: smoke gushing out of an open oven, stove rings covered with a sticky, unidentifiable substance, Demyx bleeding, having cut his finger while slicing an onion.
It was with caution, therefore, that he tasted the pasta in front of him. His eyes widened. Apparently, Demyx did cook.
He was standing off to one side, looking anxious.
"Do you like it? I followed the recipe really carefully and nothing disastrous happened this time, nothing much anyway, nothing you need to worry about, I just thought you'd be hungry -"
Zexion pulled him down by the hem of his sweater and kissed him full on the mouth. He smiled as he felt Demyx's lips move against his.
It was good to be home.
They don't believe me. I should be used to that by now but it still rankles. The look on Zexion's face when I told him about my idea! It's this disbelief, this skepticism, this refusal to think about anything beyond what's right in front of them. It has made me even more determined to succeed; to prove my hypothesis.
I know what I am going to do.
One Month Later
Roxas saw the notice as he was heading to class with Hayner, Pence and Olette, fellow English majors. Quite a crowd had gathered at the board by this time. Most were inclined to treat whatever the notice said as something rather funny; there were broad grins on many faces and some scattered laughter.
Hayner, a tall, wiry boy with gelled, blond hair, began to shove his way through the throng. He was met with an immovable mass – everyone in the hall wanted to see the notice. Hayner may have been tall, but he wasn't strong enough to forcibly bull everyone in front of him aside. He subsided, cursing under his breath.
"Shit. How long does it take someone to read a notice?"
Pence, a plump boy with spiky dark hair, laughed merrily, adjusting the sweatband he wore.
"Well, you'll just have to wait, won't you, Hayner?"
A flush spread across Hayner's cheeks. His friends, who were used to his meteoric mood swings, knew what was coming. They stood by, grinning. Hayner was famous for his outbursts, which nevertheless subsided quickly into fits of the sulks. Everyone baited him unmercifully because of it, and Hayner knew it. Sometimes, Roxas suspected that he was just playing to the crowd, giving them a bit of what they wanted to see.
"We've got a tutorial in ten minutes!" He shouted over the heads of the people around the board. "Hey! Will you idiots move already so someone else can see the damn thing?"
Those who knew Hayner ignored him. Those who didn't gave him varying looks of disgust or condescension. Luxord, a bearded Sociology major, flipped Hayner the bird before pointedly turning back to the notice board.
"Aargh!" Hayner's fists were knotting in his shirt. Laughing, Roxas slung an arm around his shoulders and pulled him into a sort of half-hug, restraining him from pushing through the crowd by main force.
The atmosphere shifted at once. Hayner winced at Roxas' touch and stepped away from him fast, cheeks crimson. Roxas, who had touched him on the spur of the moment, jerked away too. Pence and Olette were no longer laughing. They were looking from Roxas to Hayner, faces apprehensive.
Roxas groaned inwardly. He could have kicked himself for making such a stupid mistake. More than that, contact with Hayner had sent unwelcome shivers down his spine. The memories came rushing back.
Please, God, Roxas thought, looking around at the faces of his three best friends: two concerned, one embarrassed. I don't need this right now. He cursed as he realized that he had no one else to blame for breaching the touchy subject. Seriously, we should have gotten over this by now…
Roxas and Hayner had broken up just under a month ago. The relationship had been good, better than good, but they had decided to end it. It had taken a toll on their friendship with Pence and Olette; they had no longer felt like such a group, and neither Hayner nor Roxas had wanted to destroy a friendship that had endured since high school. Logically, it had been the right choice to make. Logically, he should have been able to make the seamless transition from Hayner-as-a-boyfriend to Hayner-as-just-a-friend.
There was a slight problem with here. Roxas tried not to admit it even to himself, but he was missing Hayner. He was missing Hayner a lot. But being around him these days was nothing short of torture. Their conversation had become stilted, both parties painfully steering clear of any potentially touchy or revealing subject. Some nights, Roxas found himself starting up his computer before realizing that he and Hayner weren't spending hours on instant messaging any more. Hayner had stopped calling Roxas on his mobile, or indeed talking to him without Pence and Olette present. And of course, bodily contact was right out of the question.
Sometimes Roxas wondered just why he and Hayner were circling each other like this. It was terribly frustrating, not least because he suspected Hayner was missing him too. Was it because they didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea? Or – more unsettling, this one – were they not giving themselves a chance to get together again?
He felt an arm around his shoulder. It was Olette. She walked him a little way off, away from Hayner and Pence.
"Roxas. You know what you need?"
Roxas looked at her blankly, mind still wrestling with the Hayner problem. The pretty, dark-haired girl's face grew exasperated. She gave him a quick slap upside the head. Roxas yelped.
"Look at you! It's been a month and everyone can see you're not over Hayner. I know you guys broke up to save our friendship, and don't think for one moment that I'm not grateful for that, but the way you're going now you might as well still be together."
"Both of you are moping around, practically refusing to talk to each other, and the strain it's putting on the group is about the same, if not worse. You know what you need? Someone else in your life."
"It's about the only way you'll forger Hayner." Olette looked supremely pleased with herself, standing back, arms crossed over chest.
Roxas kneaded his forehead, summoning patience.
"Olette. Don't think I haven't considered that. But it's not like – like Cinderella or something! I don't get a fairy godmother or whatever at point of need. It's like a lottery. You have about a one in three billion chance of hitting the jackpot. Don't think for one second that I don't want to get over this. It's just impossible."
Olette put a hand on his arm.
"Oh, sweetie. A smart, funny, good-looking boy like you? Depend on it, there's someone waiting out there."
"You're just saying that," Roxas mumbled. But he did feel a little better. Olette had that gift.
Back on the edge of the crowd, Hayner was still agonizing over reading the notice. Pence was reminding him of their imminent tutorial, but still Hayner refused to move. Once he got an idea between his teeth he rarely let go. The crowd still wasn't giving an inch. Then Hayner's face brightened.
The massive, dreadlocked man, who rather surprisingly was majoring in Art History, lumbered over.
"What d'you want?"
Hayner gave his most disarming smile. "We'd really like to see that notice, but we can't get through the crowd."
Xaldin grunted non-conversationally, then bulldozed his way through the throng, which parted for him with alacrity. He yanked the notice off the board, ignoring the immediate outcry, and waded back to them.
Hayner almost snatched it, muttering his thanks. He read it out to Roxas, Pence and Olette.
"Wanted: students to participate in a psychological study over the course of two months. All those who wish to sign up please report to lecture theatre 1 at 3p.m. today."
Pence shrugged. "Weird. Don't get many of those. Look, it's signed by Professor Highsmith."
"What, that crazy old coot from Psychology?"
This was a new voice, rough and sardonic. They all jumped, turning to stare at the newcomer who had invaded the group.
He was tall, taller than Hayner, who had noticed this and didn't seem too pleased about it. He was also almost painfully thin and simply dressed in jeans and a black button-down shirt. He had a long, pale face, startling green eyes and a mane of unruly red hair. The eyes skipped across their faces and came to rest on Roxas. The stranger looked him up and down with his unsettling green gaze, then smiled, wide and lopsided. Roxas felt himself getting hot under the collar. He noticed that the pale skin under the eyes was slashed with twin, tear-drop shaped tattoos.
The stranger kept his eyes on Roxas as he spoke again.
"So, any of you going? Should be a laugh."
There were several non-committal shrugs. Roxas opened his mouth to say something, caught the red-head's eye and blushed.
The man chuckled softly. He seemed to have detected Roxas' discomfort and to be thoroughly enjoying it.
"The name's Axel. Got it memorized?" The smile widened, showing white, pointed teeth. Then he was gone.
Roxas was acutely aware that his cheeks were redder than ever. He tried to deflect attention from himself by breaking the silence.
"Well, that was weird."
Hayner was steadfastly refusing to look at him, but Pence and Olette nodded agreement. All at once, Roxas felt an arm across his shoulders and a face close to his. Warm breath blew over his cheek. He was too startled to squirm. There was a throaty whisper in his ear.
"I'll see you there, Blondie."
Axel walked off. Roxas watched the tall figure as it turned off down a corridor and disappeared.
Hayner still wasn't looking at him. "We should get to class." He shoved the notice at a group of girls who were walking by, ignoring their high-pitched complaints.
Roxas was mentally reeling. Olette gave him a light punch on the shoulder. When he turned, she drew a pencil from her skirt pocket and waved it like a magic wand.
"Oh, shut up," muttered Roxas.
They went into class.
Riku had read the notice before Xaldin ripped it off the board; now he sat some distance away, where there were benches and a study table. He was with Wakka and Tidus, as usual. The study area where the three sat had quickly become the centre of attention; people kept dropping out of the crowd to say hi or just chat for a while. The three would talk willingly enough, but they didn't invite anyone to join their table, and no one asked to.
Tall and strong, with silver hair and blue-green eyes, Riku was attractive and well aware of the fact. He exploited it to its full potential. Out of their group of three, Tidus and Wakka both deferred to him. It had nothing to do with simple physical strength – Wakka was a head taller and his body was corded with hard muscle, but he still looked to Riku as his natural leader. Both, if asked, would have been hard-put to explain just why Riku was so high up on the societal food chain. His work wasn't great. He played basketball competently, but not outstandingly. He kept his head down in class. But there was something about him that made people follow. It might have been the look in his sea-green eyes, or the way he held himself. Whatever it was, the fact remained that most of the students worshipped at the Riku altar, and their god himself enjoyed the fruits of his popularity.
Tidus and Wakka came in to a lot of reflected glory. They were just about the only two people who could call Riku their friend. But even they didn't know him all that well. Riku dabbled in relationships like a stone skipping across water, a few momentary touches but no real connection. He preferred to hold himself aloof, away from others, and this had magnified his allure. Sometimes, Tidus wondered if he knew it, if he used his untouchability as a means to an end.
They were having a lively back-and-forth conversation, or at least Wakka and Tidus were. Riku was listening as he normally did, smiling and nodding and occasionally interjecting some comment that would invariably steer the conversation in the direction he wanted it to go.
Eventually, it turned to Professor Highsmith's notice. Tidus and Wakka thought the whole idea was hilarious.
"Psychological study, huh?" Tidus laughed. "Everyone knows Highsmith's crazy. How many people do you think'll show up this afternoon? Three, four?"
Wakka punched his friend good-naturedly. "Hey, wanna make it three or four plus one? I dare you to go and see what it's like."
Tidus shuddered. "No thanks. That crazy old man – who knows what he might have up his sleeve? Maybe he'd get us going through mazes like mice. Anyway, I heard from Selphie that his tutorials are hideously long and boring. Why waste a good afternoon?"
"Huh, you're just chicken. Apart from the creepy eyes and boring tutorials, what's Highsmith got that can hurt you?"
Tidus laughed uneasily, running a hand through his short, blond hair. Professor Xemnas Highsmith was an unknown quantity in the world of Traverse University. He acted like none of the other teachers, and they tended to avoid him. This attitude had filtered down to the student body, and most were leery of the Professor.
"What about you, Riku? I bet Highsmith freaks you out too, right? Would you go?"
The silver-haired boy's face was hidden as he sat with his back to the window. The light streaming in touched the strands of his hair but not his face. He was silent for a while, then spoke.
"Maybe I will."
Demyx directed Zexion's attention to the notice as they walked into the hall together. They paused to read it. Zexion frowned.
"Funny. He never told me about this."
Demyx slipped an arm around Zexion's waist. "You know the prof, don't you? He's, like, out of touch with the real world. It probably never crossed his mind."
"Still. I'm his assistant, so I'll be helping him on this, I expect. It's my project as much as his. Only I hope it's not going to be a total waste of time."
Demyx smiled. "I guess I'll go to the meeting today, then."
"Why?" Zexion was perplexed. "You don't have any interest in psychology –"
He stopped short as a warm finger tapped his lips. Demyx laughed.
"But I do want to help you, idiot."
He pulled Zexion into a kiss, gave a yelp as he looked at his watch, and sprinted off down the hall, waving goodbye to Zexion, who stood at the notice board and watched him until he was out of sight.
Tidus' prediction of three or four people attending that afternoon's lecture had been incorrect; even though people were wary of Xemnas, that and the prospect of losing an afternoon hadn't kept them away. Some had been pushed into it by friends; others were there out of pure interest. Whatever the reason, they had come, and there were thirty or forty students in the lecture theatre at 3p.m.
Professor Highsmith presided at the podium, aided by Zexion, who was sitting in the front row of seats, ready should the Professor need something. He shuffled a bundle of consent forms Xemnas had given him, unusually ill-at-ease. He had confronted the Professor earlier that day and still knew nothing about the study. Demyx sat beside him, fidgeting. Demyx seemed to be physically incapable of keeping still, even when required to do so.
Roxas shared Zexion's unease, but for a different reason. He had arrived on time and taken his seat, but Axel had not joined him. He had scanned the auditorium and found no sign of the tall red-head among the students seated there.
Could this have been some kind of prank? Was Axel just playing a joke on him, promising to meet him there, but not turning up so Roxas would be forced to endure one of Highsmith's interminable lectures? He was beginning to think so. Remarks from the gossip he, Pence and Olette had shared about Axel during English began to float through his mind.
"I think he's majoring in Spanish or something. Anyway, he's a couple years older than us."
Then why would he bother with a kid like Roxas?
"But I heard he rarely turns up for lectures. He's got a cousin who does English, that's how I know. You guys know Reno, right?"
"The red-head in our class? The one who sits at the back and smells of cigarette smoke and always mouths off to Professor Strife?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
Like cousin, like…cousin. Or something along those lines. Roxas, by now, had convinced himself that Axel wasn't going to show up. He briefly contemplated walking out now, before the meeting got properly started. He began to ram his notebook and pencil case into his bag, promising himself that no matter how bad the Hayner situation got in the future, he sure as hell wasn't going to succumb to the wiles of would-be Casanovas playing on his desperation.
Someone slid into the seat beside him. He caught a whiff of cigarette smoke.
"Where you going, Blondie?"
Roxas jumped violently, and tried to remove the pencil case and notebook as unobtrusively as possible. "Nowhere, I was just -"
Axel laughed, a low, crackling chuckle that made Roxas think of flames consuming dry leaves. "Thought I wasn't going to turn up? Well, here I am."
Below them, the Professor was starting up. Roxas turned away from Axel and prepared to take notes. His concentration was spoilt, however, by Axel craning his neck to see what he had written and sending periodic breaths of warm air against his ear. The combined effects of Xemnas' lecture (which was true to form, for him) and the presence at his shoulder caused his pen to meander. In the end he gave up note-taking and sat back, arms folded. He and Axel began to talk, and Xemnas receded into the background.
"So," Axel whispered. "How come you showed up?"
"…a psychological study, which, dare I say, could well be definitive in demonstrating…"
Roxas didn't really feel like launching into the whole story of what was between him and Hayner.
"Um, I just went through this break-up. But I've noticed lately that we – me and the other person – haven't gotten over it. So I thought this might help me forget."
"I see." Axel's face was unreadable.
"…the study of fundamental human nature has been vastly neglected in the annals of science…"
Roxas hoped that his last statement wouldn't scare Axel away. He hadn't revealed much information, and without the whole story it would be easy for Axel to label him a possessive freak – or worse.
"…the inherent nature of the human psyche. This is what we aim to prove by means of this study. Those who participate will be assessed over the course of two months…"
He sneaked a glance at Axel, but there was no condemnation in the green eyes. The silence stretched between them.
"…the actual tests will not be revealed until they must be done, to eliminate prior preparation or textbook answers. Those who still wish to participate may obtain a consent form from my assistant. There is just one more formality…"
"I can help you forget," said Axel, quietly.
"…a coin toss must be performed after obtaining a form from Zexion, to determine the variety of test you, personally, will undergo…"
Roxas said nothing, feeling the heat creep up his cheeks. All around them, people were standing, either to leave or to approach Professor Highsmith's assistant. Blinking the moment aside, Axel snapped back to his customary smirk.
"So, what do you say? Want to do this mind-doctor shit?"
"Huh?" Roxas had hardly heard any of the lecture, and was floundering desperately for an answer.
"It's probably some random questionnaires or something. Sounds kinda interesting, actually, all that stuff he was saying about human nature and all that. Wanna give it a shot?"
They joined the queue that was rapidly forming in front of the Professor's assistant. After the person before them – an exuberant, blonde boy who seemed to be on very friendly terms with the assistant – was done, they each took a consent form and signed it. Then they were each presented with a coin to toss.
"Please write the result of your coin toss on your consent form and pass it back to me." The Professor's assistant sounded bored. He'd probably said it to everyone who had come to sign up.
Roxas flipped his coin, watching it go up, winking in the fluorescent light. He caught it on the back of his hand and covered it with his palm.
Axel had done the same. He grinned at Roxas.
They revealed the results together; Roxas' coin had landed on tails. Axel's went heads. The silver-haired aide held out his hand for them. "Write down your results, please." His voice carried a shade of annoyance. He probably wanted out of the lecture theatre and home.
Axel and Roxas scribbled accordingly. While they were doing this they became aware of the Professor watching them, a strange expression in his golden eyes. It was so close to exultation that Roxas felt disquietude; but Axel seemingly noticed nothing as he handed both their forms back to the assistant.
They were about to leave when Professor Highsmith called Axel back, motioning him to a corner where several other people were waiting. Roxas tried to follow, but was directed to the door.
"It's to do with the results of the toss, you see."
Once again Roxas caught the flash of excitement in the Professor's eyes. There was nothing for it. With one last glance at Axel, he turned and left.
Everything is ready. The formalities have been completed, and everything logistics-wise has been prepared. I have briefed all those necessary. They are ready for the role they must assume.
The experiment begins now.
They came for Roxas early the next morning, knocking on the door of his room in the hostel. The pounding roused him from an uneasy sleep. He went to get the door.
As soon as he unlocked it it was shoved forward, nearly knocking him over. A light shone full in his face and he staggered back, reeling. Someone grabbed him by the shoulders, spinning him round and shoving him against a wall. There was a click and something cold on his wrists. He could no longer move his hands.
Roxas' sleepy mind tried to process these rapid-fire events. Adrenaline surged and he began to struggle, but something hit him on the side of the head, hard. Stars burst in front of his eyes.
A voice from somewhere to the right, separate from the person holding his arms.
"Roxas Leigh, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Everything you say can and will be taken down and used against you in a court of law."
Incredulity banished Roxas' daze. He twisted his head, the movement making his neck feel like it was on fire, and looked full into a pair of familiar sea-green eyes, illuminated by the torch their owner held.
"What the fuck?"
Riku regarded him impassively.
Demyx stumbled and fell, choking on the blood that filled his mouth. He'd struggled and almost gotten away from the figures that had filled his doorway and barged into the apartment. Then one of them had swung a truncheon of some sort and caught him on the jaw.
Someone dragged him up from the floor, spinning him around and snapping what Demyx could only suppose were handcuffs onto his wrists. His arms were twisted painfully behind his back, ligaments straining. Demyx moaned.
The second figure, who had stood off to one side when Demyx had been struggling with his partner, spoke.
"Is that really necessary? You're hurting him."
He was holding the torch. Demyx caught a glimpse of a tall, spare frame and unruly red hair before he was hustled out of the door.
His head was pounding. Vainly, he wished for Zexion. But the other man had left earlier that evening, at the insistence of the Professor.
The one holding Demyx kicked the door shut behind them.
"Demyx Mulroney, you are under arrest…"
They took Roxas to a small, empty room that he could only suppose was part of the university. They left him there, first removing his cuffs. Roxas rubbed his aching wrists gratefully. He still didn't have much clue what was going on, and thinking about it was doing his head in. He leaned against the wall and tried to wait it out.
He had drifted into some sort of uneasy half-sleep when the scrape of the door opening woke him suddenly. He started to scramble to his feet.
Two people were pushed into the room, each with raw bands around his wrists which meant that they'd gone through the same thing Roxas had. The door slammed and he caught no glimpse of who was outside.
The smaller of the two swayed, collapsed against the wall and slumped down into a sitting position. His spiky brown hair framed a small face with startling blue eyes. It was currently streaked with dirt and sweat, or tears. He didn't speak. Roxas didn't know him.
The other looked vaguely familiar, although the lower half of his face was caked with blood. Roxas tried to place him, but to think was to swim through twenty feet of quicksand. He gave up with a sigh, turning away from the newcomers. It was unlikely that they'd know what was going on.
The blond boy he thought he knew came to sit next to him. When he spoke, his voice was halting.
"I think I saw you at the meeting yesterday…"
Yesterday. The boy, the one standing in front of him and Axel. He nodded, feeling the shocks of pain it sent into his skull.
The blond boy held out a hand, realized that it was covered in dried blood and attempted to wipe it off on his T-shirt.
They shook hands in the dim cell. Demyx, who seemed a bit dazed by what had happened but none the worse for wear, called across the room.
"What about you?"
"I'm Sora." The brown-haired boy's voice was soft and hesitant. "What's happening? Why did they bring us here?"
Roxas shrugged. "I don't know. We haven't done anything wrong. I'm guessing this is something to do with that study they were talking about at the meeting. I didn't think it'd be like this. Riku was one of the ones who came to get me, though I have no idea why."
Demyx nodded. "Riku was at the meeting as well. I saw him."
Sora's voice piped up from the corner. "He was one of the ones who had to stay after."
"Are you sure? There were so many people there."
Sora blushed under the dirt.
Roxas remembered what Professor Highsmith had said by way of explanation.
"Then he must have tossed heads."
Demyx made a face. "And that helps us how? Me, I got tails."
"Me, too," mumbled Sora.
The coin toss had been to make a distinction between the tests they would take, Roxas remembered. The words were beginning to take on another significance now.
"Mine was tails, too," he said.
They didn't talk after that; there was nothing else to say. They waited in the close, dim room until the door opened and Riku walked in, at the head of three others. He looked supremely confident as always, but there were varying looks of uncertainty on his three followers' faces.
The sight of the last person to come into the room jerked Roxas out of his stupor.
The red-head looked at Roxas with a mixture of shock and guilt. The expressions flitted over his face in quick succession, then Axel smiled a small smile. With one twitch of his lips he managed to convey an adequate apology. Roxas smiled back, uncertainly. If Axel was here, things had just gotten a little better. He opened his mouth to speak again.
Riku stepped between him and Axel, blocking his view with his body. "Be quiet."
He said it softly and without menace, but it was enough to make Roxas subside. Riku reached down and pulled at his arm, trying to hoist him to his feet. His actions were somehow unhandy, and he fumbled, which Riku never usually did. Roxas would have taken it for nervousness, but he saw the look in Riku's eyes. They were bright with some kind of feverish excitement.
He stood, and Riku motioned him to turn, handcuffing him once again. At Riku's signal, the others came forward and Roxas got a good look at them. One was tall and wiry, with a patch over one eye and a grey-streaked ponytail. Roxas didn't know him. The other was a taciturn Literature major whom Roxas knew by sight, but not by name. Long, blue hair hung about his face, and the bridge of his nose was disfigured by an X-shaped scar.
He turned back to face the front and stared at the wall. The sounds from behind him told him that both Demyx and Sora had also been handcuffed. Riku kept his hand on Roxas' shoulder, not hard, but with enough force to remind him of the strength he had at his disposal.
They were pushed out of the room and emerged into a corridor that Roxas recognized as being relatively near the English department of the university. It was still early. He could see a lemony streak on the horizon from out of the window. Not dawn yet. No one was around.
There was a bus waiting for them in the parking lot. Riku led the way up the steps, pushing Roxas before him and leading him to an empty seat. There was a sort of handle on the back of the seat in front, for passengers to hold on to, and Riku fastened Roxas' cuffs to it, preventing him from moving from the seat.
The other two had dawdled in the aisle, not sure what to do. Axel was behind them and his face was blank. Riku beckoned.
Sora was shoved into the seat beside Roxas; Demyx was led further up the aisle and vanished from sight. Roxas craned his neck and realized that most of the other seats in the bus were already full of people in the same predicament. Here or there he recognized a face but they were mostly people he didn't know. Riku, Axel and the others who were there of their own free will sat at the front of the bus. Then sat the male prisoners. Right at the back, there were a couple of rows of girls. All the ones who had been 'arrested' looked dazed, unable to fully grasp the situation.
The bus started with a jerk, throwing Roxas forward. He gasped in pain as his head smashed into the seat in front. He had not been able to use his hands to stop his momentum. Then they were pulling out of the school gates.
Roxas had no idea where they were going. They hadn't been told or given any other information. Next to him, Sora was quietly staring down at his knees. Roxas turned away from the other boy and tried to get comfortable looking out of the window. Despite the uncomfortable jerks on his wrists every time the bus stopped or started, he fell into an uneasy doze.
When he woke they were far into country he didn't recognize. There were no trees. Instead, an ocean of dry, brown grass whispered. There were no hills. All Roxas could make out were the plains stretching as far as the eye could see. The sun had risen by this time, but it was weak and watery in a grey sky. It cast a sickly yellow light over the scene. Apart from the road that slashed through the plains like a tarmac wound, there were no other landmarks. Roxas could feel the monotony draining him as he took in each successive scene.
Then, out of nowhere, the ground beside the road fell away, a steep, almost vertical incline reaching down to a silent lake. The whispering grass did not grow on the lake's shores, but it spilled down the sides of the crater like discolored water. There was no life on the lake, and no wind. Not even the faintest ripples disturbed its quiet surface.
The sun was shining under the water, it seemed. Somehow, it looked more real in the lake than the sky. Roxas couldn't suppress a shudder.
Then they were past the crater, and the grass continued without a break until the road branched, leading up to a square, grey-concrete building, surrounded with a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The bus drove through a gate and pulled up.
Riku stood, his figure dominating the aisle. He smiled, the habitual cocky Riku smile that people had worshipped back at the university. Here, it was at odds with their surroundings and rang false.
"Welcome to Hollow Bastion."
They entered through heavy double doors, were made to queue in two separate lines, one for each gender. Then they were directed one at a time into a room where their guards were waiting.
No one exited through the same door they had come in by, so Roxas didn't know what to expect as he stepped into the room. He took in his surroundings. Bare, grey walls, plastic chair behind a desk, where Riku was sitting. Axel, Xigbar and Saix stood at his shoulder.
Riku gestured and Xigbar stepped forward, unlocking Roxas' handcuffs, then withdrawing. He stood shakily in front of the desk.
Riku spoke. "Name?"
Roxas frowned. "You know my name –"
Axel was watching him with pity in his eyes. Roxas didn't look at him. What good would it have done?
Riku wrote it down.
"Please turn out your pockets and deposit anything you have onto the desk."
Roxas had been wearing his normal sleeping attire when they had come, a T-shirt and boxers. He had no pockets. Riku nodded when he told them.
"Please remove your clothes."
Axel made an involuntary movement; Riku turned and pinned him with a glare. Axel subsided.
"This is standard procedure."
Roxas felt anger rising as he stared at Riku's impassive face. "That is fucked up, man, what kind of sick place is this? It's just an experiment, for God's sake, not a jail!"
Saix stepped forward at this. He was twirling what looked like a rubber truncheon between long fingers. At Riku's nod he struck Roxas a blow that made him reel back.
"Mr. Leigh." Riku's voice was perfectly calm, but the fever was back in his eyes. "I have to ask you to comply."
Roxas took a step forward, but Saix hefted his truncheon and Roxas flinched from the thought of taking another blow. He shivered as the cold air hit his bare skin.
Riku gestured with his pen. "Somebody search him."
The three others shifted uneasily. Having gone through this with the ones preceding didn't seem to have lessened their inhibitions. Roxas kept his eyes on the floor.
There was a movement from the corner. "I'll do it," a familiar voice said.
Axel's fingers were gentle, but that didn't lessen Roxas' sense of violation. The red-head took as little time as possible, then drew back. Through a haze of shame, Roxas felt a coarse bundle of cloth being thrust into his arms.
"Please take a shower in that cubicle to your left. Then you will be escorted to join the others."
The cubicle had clear plastic curtains, and the shock of the cold water made Roxas splutter. He had been given a kind of jumpsuit, made from some scratchy, blue material, and plastic flip-flops.
Xigbar led him to the door. Behind him, Riku had already started on the next in line.
Zexion smashed a fist onto the desk, achieving nothing but an aching hand and a temporary outlet for his anger. The Professor didn't even look around; he was intently studying the banks of screens that showed footage from the CCTV cameras dotted around the compound.
"You didn't tell me anything – what it'd be like – I wouldn't have agreed if I'd known –"
Xemnas spoke without turning.
"You are my assistant; I need your help to make this experiment succeed. Already, it is fascinating. With the removal of civilisation and the receipt of power over others, who knows what aspects of the psyche will be revealed? They may or may not exploit their power. And at the other end of the spectrum, how will the prisoners revert? Doesn't that appeal to you, as a scientist? The perfect experiment."
His voice was gloating. Zexion's throat ached with the words he was swallowing. His intuition was pounding at his skull, telling him that there was something inherently wrong with the whole set-up.
He sank into a chair, rationalizing. Just because the guards had been given power over the prisoners didn't mean that they were going to misuse it at the first possible opportunity. Plus, he was still skeptical about the Professor's hypothesis. This experiment was meant to show basic human nature, correct? But what if the whole idea was ludicrous, what if it was doomed to fail? Then there was no harm in debunking the myth. His gut feeling was just that, a feeling, unbacked by facts. The facts, as they stood, were that Xemnas was probably wrong about his conjecture. None of the present literature agreed with it. This experiment would show, for once and for all, that he was wrong. No harm would come to any of the prisoners.
He felt satisfaction as he pursued his argument to its logical conclusion. Xemnas had turned and was watching him with hungry golden eyes.
Zexion felt uncomfortable under his gaze, but that was another intuitive leap he didn't want to make.
Xigbar had lead Roxas out into a courtyard. The others who had been before him were standing there in raggedly straight rows. He was directed to stand on his own, next to a boy who looked a little older than himself, powerfully-built with a belligerent expression.
Once the guard had gone Roxas turned to him.
"What's your name?"
All that had happened had seemed to anger the boy rather than cow him.
They shook hands, then let go hastily as Xigbar came across the courtyard again, this time leading a frightened-looking Sora, who was made to stand behind Roxas. The smaller boy's hair was still plastered down from the shower and he was shivering. Where they were was open to the sky and the air was cold. Roxas could feel the chill strike through his thin shirt.
They stood for a long time, getting progressively colder and colder, the monotony periodically broken by more people emerging from the building and joining their lines. Demyx took his place behind Sora. The flow of prisoners slowed, then stopped. Everyone watched as Riku came out. He was accompanied by a woman Roxas had never seen before – she was pretty, with slicked-down blonde hair. They walked in front of the other guards and Roxas craned his neck, spotting Axel, Xigbar and Saix, as well as several others he didn't know.
Riku and the woman came to a halt a few feet away from the first row. The other guards ranged themselves out behind them, a solid wall. They carried their truncheons awkwardly, as if unsure how to use them.
Riku waited for absolute silence before he spoke.
"You will stay at Hollow Bastion for the period of Professor Highsmith's experiment. I need not remind you that you have all been placed under arrest, and as such are prisoners."
There were a few murmurs from the ranks, but everyone quietened at once when Riku cleared his throat.
"These are your positions for roll-call. There is to be no talking when you are assembled. You are not to move. I hope I will not have to repeat myself."
For a moment he was the popular one, the school leader, again, with everyone eager to follow. Then something changed. The world shifted indefinably and Riku was still Riku, but somehow different.
The blonde woman took up the speech. Her voice was high, and it carried.
"Here, we are your guards. We have no names. When you address us, it will be as either 'sir' or 'ma'am'. Is that clear?"
"I said, is that clear?"
The answer was pulled from the masses by her tone.
"Here, you have no names, either. If you look at the breast pocket of your jumpsuit you will find your number. Remember it. Here, that is your name."
Roxas craned his neck. Sewn onto his pocket was a tag. The number on it was 401.
They were dismissed after a few more administrative matters and taken to their cells. Roxas would be sharing his with Demyx. It was a small room, nearer a cubicle, with a bunk bed and a small, barred window set high in the wall. There was a peephole in the heavy door that opened from the outside, and a toilet and sink in one corner.
Demyx flung himself on the top bunk, still amazingly upbeat. "Cheery. I guess it'll be home for the next few weeks."
Roxas sat down more gingerly, feeling the thin mattress shift as he did. The window let in a feeble slice of light but what sky he could see outside was gray without a break.
Everything necessary at the start has been accomplished, and the prisoners are settling in fairly quickly. I watch them and the guards alike from the observation room, and record their actions.
So far, the guards are coping well under the influence of this new authority. There have been no sadistic tendencies as yet displayed, no abuse of power. However, I have my eye on certain of them, and only time will tell. Their reactions to the removal of civilized restraints are integral to this experiment, as they will in turn influence the actions (and possible regression) of the prisoners.
I know I am right! Sometimes, I have the urge to get out of the observation room and participate in the study myself. However, that would demolish my set-up. I must restrain myself. A true scientist studies without personal attachment. Only, my observation of the guards has convinced me of the intoxicating quality of their new-found power. They are bearing up well, but what effect will this heady brew have on their psyches? Sometimes, I wish for a taste of that power.
The days melted together. Roxas could hardly distinguish one from another. The main difference was the changes in weather. The routine was always the same. Early in the morning, the guards would rouse them and inspect their cells. They would assemble in the courtyard for roll-call, where no names were called, only numbers. Then they would go to the mess hall for breakfast. Halfway through the day there was an exercise period of an hour, where they shuffled around the courtyard under the watchful eyes of the guards.
Most of the day was spent in one's cell. Roxas took to lying on his bunk, staring at the metal frame of the one above. Demyx didn't talk half as much as he had, and they passed the days in silence.
One day, sometime during the interminable afternoon, there was the scrape of the peephole and the door opened to admit Axel. He closed it behind him, warily looking around the cell, taking in Roxas' tired face.
"What do you want?" Roxas' heart had leapt when he saw Axel, but his body felt like lead and he couldn't muster up enough energy to look pleased. He heard Demyx turn over in his sleep on the top bunk.
Axel crossed over and sat on the mattress, beside him. There was none of the old cockiness in his face; instead, he looked concerned.
"Are you hanging in all right?"
"Peachy." Roxas heard the venom in his own voice and wondered at it. Axel looked like he'd been hit. He turned his head away.
"Sorry. I'm all right. We're being treated reasonably well – you're treating us well. It's just the fucking boredom."
He felt Axel's hand on his shoulder. "I'm glad you're OK. I just came in here to apologise, really."
This was unexpected; Roxas turned over and looked into Axel's face.
"What've you got to say sorry for?"
Axel looked uncomfortable.
"Well, I suggested going to the meeting and signing up. I swear I didn't know it was going to be like this."
Roxas laughed. "Hey, don't worry about it! It's just for a few more weeks, then it'll be over. It's going to be something I can laugh about years into the future. Getting caught up in some professor's crazy experiment. It's like TV, or a story."
Axel smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "OK, I'll take your word for it. But, Roxas -"
He teetered on the edge of speech. Roxas saw the green eyes cloud and Axel's face turn inward on itself, revealing uncertainty and something very close to fear.
"What is it?"
Axel forced the smile back onto his face. "Forget about it."
He turned to leave. Then, from his retreating figure, words so soft Roxas barely heard them.
The guards took their meals separately from the prisoners; they had a mess hall of their own, with round, plastic tables and foil-covered, plastic packages of food. Riku, Saix, Xigbar and Axel were sitting and eating when Larxene, one of the guards of the female prisoners, rushed into the hall and slid into a seat at their table. Her face was flushed, eyes wide. There was a rust-red splotch on her forehead, near her hairline.
Riku looked her up and down, contrasting her discomposure with his poise.
"What is it?"
She was breathing fast, not with the deep inhalations of someone who has run hard and is exhausted, but with quick, light pants that rasped in her throat. She placed her hands flat on the table as if she did not quite know what to do with them. When she spoke, her voice was low and excited.
"Number 203, that little, blonde girl –"
"Naminé." Axel felt a lingering sense of horror at Larxene's agitation.
"Yeah. Her. Well, she's in her cell. She needs the infirmary." A strange, inexplicable smile spread over Larxene's face. "She's been hurt."
Riku felt that Larxene knew more than she was letting on. "How do you know?"
Larxene laughed, and it was high and hysterical.
"I'm the one who did it."
Axel recoiled, but Larxene still spoke, breathlessly.
"God, this beats everything, this feeling. Knowing that I can do whatever the fuck I want to anyone I want. You can't imagine it – not till you try it. You feel like a fucking god."
She stood, explosively, almost knocking over her chair. Walked off quickly, but as if she had very little idea where she was going.
"Crazy bitch," Axel muttered. "What kind of psycho gets off on hurting others –"
He broke off, abruptly. Larxene's hysteria seemed to have permeated the air and Axel felt a trace of what it would be like if –
He could feel a kind of hunger, as if something inside him had been awakened and was not satisfied with what it had been given. He shuddered. Pushed his food away.
The fever was back in Riku's eyes.
I was right. It is beginning.
The atmosphere was different at the next roll-call. More electric, somehow. Roxas couldn't help noticing the way the guards' eyes kept flicking to the woman next to Riku. Axel was standing where he normally did, face impossible to read, but Roxas noticed he looked at her too.
He wondered whether this might have anything to do with their encounter the day before. He stared at Axel, trying to divine the reasons for this change in the world's tone, concentrating as if just looking could rip the truth from behind the guard's empty face.
There was dead silence in the courtyard. The serial counting off of numbers had stopped, abruptly. People were shifting uneasily where they stood, craning their necks and trying to see who had not given their name.
Riku's voice cut the air like a knife.
"That's you, man." Next to Roxas, Seifer hissed out of the corner of his mouth. Roxas jerked out of his stupor, realizing his mistake. He dropped his gaze to the ground.
"Number 301, be quiet!" Roxas heard soft footsteps coming forward and stop in front of him. He just barely raised his eyes and they met Riku's.
The other boy's eyes were no longer the slightly lazy ones of the university god. They were wide and glazed over with something Roxas did not recognize. Riku was breathing hard and, as Roxas watched, his tongue, startlingly pink, flicked across his lips and left a trail of wet.
"Well?" Riku almost whispered the words. "Can't remember your name?"
Roxas was silent.
Riku's hand shot out, grasped Roxas' hair. The younger boy cried out in pain as his face was jerked upward.
"Say your name."
Roxas could see nothing but Riku's face, the eyes wide, possessed. Suddenly he was afraid. Back at Traverse, Riku had inspired respect, following, never fear. He was on the verge of gasping out his number, begging for forgiveness and being allowed to resume his orderly position in the ranks.
Then Riku smiled, and the smile awoke something else in Roxas. Anger permeated the haze of his mind like a white-hot thread; anger and an overwhelming sense of injustice.
Riku tightened his grip. "I'm waiting."
His voice was quiet, but it carried through the dead silence. No one moved. The world teetered on the edge for one long moment, then Riku smashed Roxas across the face so hard he fell backwards.
Roxas could feel blood flowing from his nose. It seemed to be broken; anyway, he was having trouble breathing. He reached a hand up to his face and doubled over as a boot thudded into his ribs.
Riku was standing over him, panting. He beckoned, and Saix detached himself from the line of guards, came over and dragged Roxas to his feet. The boy was too dazed to offer any sort of resistance as he was hustled off into the building. While this small drama had been playing out, none of the prisoners had moved. They had remained staring straight ahead, knowing that if they drew attention to themselves Riku's anger might deflect.
Riku spoke through tight lips.
"I'll deal with him later."
They had taken Roxas to a cell much smaller than the one he shared with Demyx, and dark. There was no window. Once Roxas' eyes had gotten used to the gloom he could make out the silhouette of a mattress against the far wall.
Although every nerve in his body was on fire, Roxas dragged himself over the concrete floor and dropped onto the pallet. It wasn't much of a step up from the bare floor, but suddenly Roxas was too tired to care. Leaning against the wall, he drew his knees up to his chest and rested his head on them, all the while feeling the blood bubbling through his broken nose.
He soon lost track of how long he'd been in the cell; there were no changes in light to inform him of the passage of time. The minutes stretched intolerably; it could have been an hour or a full day. Roxas did not shift position, although he became uncomfortable after a while. By keeping still and silent he had managed to detach his mind from his body to a certain degree; to move would be to destroy any peace he had managed to achieve. To move would be to remember that this was not the end. What had Riku said? He would be along; it was only a matter of time.
Soon, this trance-like state had given way to real sleep. Roxas slumped against the wall, mind finally free of the pressing darkness and the fears that came with it.
He was back at the university, strolling to class with Hayner, Pence and Olette; and this was before him and Hayner, so the other boy was his normal cheery self as they laughed together about something he couldn't quite grasp in his sleep. Still, he was quite content to go with the flow and soak up the atmosphere.
There was wind in the trees above… And the sun was shining. It was all right, everything was back to normal now.
Something hit him, hard, and he was jerked awake. The darkness rushed back and blinded him so fast that he let out a cry that the blow had not been able to produce. He struggled backwards and remembered where he was as his back hit the wall. He tried to stand but a hand on his shoulder forced him back down. The darkness cleared somewhat and he could make out a ring of silent figures standing over him.
Bile rose in his throat and he retched, emptily, remembering too late that there was nothing in his stomach to throw up. Instinctively, he raised his arms to protect his face, but that left his body vulnerable, and a truncheon smashed into his stomach. Then the blows were raining down thick and fast, landing indiscriminately over face and body. Roxas screamed as his broken nose was jarred.
His eyes had become used to the darkness, and in the whirl of faces that flicked into his vision for seconds at a time he recognized Riku, teeth bared like an animal. Saix was there too, face set with grim pleasure. Xigbar was plying his truncheon as well, but more tentatively. The expression in his one eye was that of a small child discovering the allure of something forbidden for the first time.
Roxas learnt his first, essential lesson on survival in the space of a few seconds. Don't fight back, it's useless, might makes right and you're defenseless against three people with truncheons. Cower, scream, beg, plead with them to stop, keep it up without a break. Ignore the crunch of blows hitting your body. The reason for the beating is immaterial, they're doing it and that's what matters. You have no power to stop them. They have set themselves over you. Accept it, assimilate it, grovel as befits their position of power. Devolve from a living, thinking human being to a mass of raw instincts, and follow them. They're right. You can't fight it.
Sometime during the course of the beating, Roxas felt his bladder let go and warmth trickle down his legs. He felt no shame associated with this action. Tears and mucus were mixing with the blood on his face.
His eyes were fast swelling shut, but he noticed that one of the guards wasn't joining in. He was a shadow standing off to one side, waiting for the others to finish. He did not move or speak, but Roxas picked around the silhouette until he recognized the posture, the figure, the mane of hair.
"Axel!" He choked out a plea.
Axel did not move. Roxas could not see the expression on his face but sensed the guard's eyes on him.
Finally, Axel spoke.
He turned and left, shutting the door behind him.
The speed at which the guards' reversion has progressed is amazing. I have concluded that the presentation of power to any individual (the guards were made up of many, varied people of both sexes) has the effect of bringing out the evil in their hearts – indeed; I believe that this evil is common to all man. Although civilisation has inculcated severe restraints against any kind of violence, the temptation of hurting others when civilisation has been removed is too strong to resist.
On the other hand, I am fascinated by the way the prisoners' reversion has progressed. Instead of showing a certain aspect of the nature of the human psyche, their change in character is motivated by the increasing sadism of the guards. They have become increasingly animalistic in attempting to survive, and the compulsion seems to be uppermost in their minds. They adapt to survive in each unpredictable situation dictated by the guards, but this survival instinct is totally and completely geared to oneself. I doubt that any of the prisoners are still capable of altruism.
"So, Axel, what happened in there?" Riku walked with a swing in his step, truncheon tucked into his belt.
"Nothing," Axel muttered. He felt revulsion at what had happened, but it was weakly confined to the part of his mind that remembered the university, home life and a person called Roxas. Something had, on the spur of the moment, held him back from joining in. Watching the others, he had felt the strange elation that had gripped him in the mess hall. His body had been tensed almost to the point beyond endurance as two parts of his mind fought, one wanting to help, or turn away, and the other wanting so badly to take his truncheon and –
Maybe Riku sensed what Axel was feeling, because he turned to the red-head and spread his arms expansively. The smile was back on his face.
"Man, you missed something there! It's like Larxene said. Amazing feeling. You can do anything you want! No one can stop you; everyone's feeling the same anyway! It's the new norm." He laughed. "We're like fucking kings. We own this place, and everyone in it!"
There was something in Axel's mind that still cried out against what was happening, but it was fast fading. Riku's words seemed to hold some magic, some of what he had used to inspire at Traverse, but the allure was a hundred times stronger. His hand floated to the truncheon at his belt.
Riku noticed the movement.
"Next time, huh?"
He smiled, and it promised many things.
"Yeah," Axel said. "Next time."
Xemnas was watching the screen with absorbed interest. Zexion, unable to bear it any longer, crossed over to the control panel and ripped out a few wires. The pictures on the view screens flickered, buzzed and subsided into blackness.
He took a step back as the Professor turned to him. Xemnas' golden eyes blazed and his face was contorted with anger.
"How dare you…"
Zexion faced him, assuming more confidence than he felt.
"Did you see what just happened? This proves it. This has gone way beyond an experiment. People are getting hurt, people are hurting others! And what have you done to stop it?"
The Professor spread his hands.
"I am in charge of this experiment. I merely observe. I am in no way responsible for what just happened. What do you want from me? What can I do?"
"Shut this thing down. Now, before anyone else gets hurt."
Xemnas' face was expressionless.
"God, I should never have agreed to help you. I should have pulled out right at the start. I should never have let Demyx sign up. When that girl got hurt? I should have made you shut this fucking thing down. We sat here and watched her get hurt. Doesn't that bother you? And then afterwards, you and your fucking excuses, saying that it was only a once-off and you suspected Larxene of sadistic tendencies right from the start. But you didn't care. Because it's all in the name of science, right?"
"Calm down, Zexion. I would appreciate it if you acted in a more mature manner -"
"Oh. That's just it. That boy could have died in there and you're telling me to act more fucking mature? Well, no more of this."
He moved towards the Professor's desk. Picked up the cordless phone on it.
Xemnas was out of his seat and in Zexion's face in a moment. "What are you doing?"
Zexion tried to keep his voice steady. He was suddenly acutely aware how much less physically powerful he was than the Professor.
"I'm calling the police."
"No, you're not," Xemnas hissed.
"Give me one reason why not."
Xemnas crossed again to his chair and sat down. He smiled, and Zexion realized that the threat had not shaken him.
"Firstly, you're the only one with say-so here who thinks Hollow Bastion should be shut down. How about the guards? They love what they do now. I don't think they'd take kindly to you trying to deprive them of their power."
Zexion remembered the savagery with which they had beaten the boy less than an hour before. He shuddered.
"We're in the middle of nowhere here. It'll take a long time for the police to come, even if your story was believed. What are you going to tell them, there's a mad scientist who's conducting a crazy experiment that's going pear-shaped and people are getting hurt, come quickly?"
Zexion was gripping the phone so hard he could feel the tendons in his hand crackling.
"Let's just say, what if I decide to call the police despite all that you've just told me?"
"If it comes to that, I won't have any qualms about stopping you myself. I'll do anything I have to."
Very slowly, Zexion put the phone back down on its cradle.
"You're a sick bastard, you know?"
"Insults won't help your cause, Zexion, I'm afraid. Would you mind fetching me the toolbox so I can reconnect these wires?"
Morning was always marked by a harsh klaxon blare that knifed through even the deepest layers of sleep. Sora had gotten used to the fact that the sky was still dark outside when he and his cell-mate Marluxia woke, and that they'd have an unmarked interval of time in which to tidy their respective living areas before the guards came round for the morning inspection.
More often than not, Axel, Saix or Xigbar would be the ones coming to inspect their cell. Sora didn't care about them. Once in a while, it would be Riku, and Sora always wished it would be him as soon as he woke.
Back at Traverse, Sora had watched Riku from afar, hoping against hope that the older boy would one day notice his existence. His best friend Kairi, who knew Riku by reputation and didn't want to see Sora hurt, had advised him to give up. This had not discouraged Sora; the boy was capable of remarkable tenacity when it suited him, and he had continued to hover on the fringes of Riku's life like a small ghost.
Riku was everything he had ever wanted to be. Sora had never been physically strong or any good at sports. Riku was both. Sora had few friends; he was timid by nature and people tended to pay him little attention. Riku was the exact opposite. Sora, in his quiet, shy way, loved Riku.
Although they weren't at Traverse any more, Sora's feelings hadn't changed. To him, Riku was still the one point of stability in an uncertain world. Back at Traverse, wherever Sora had looked Riku was there, surrounded by friends and admirers, providing the focal point. Here, it was the same. Riku was still in charge, still the leader he had been, and even though he seemed to have changed Sora was doing his best to account for it. When, he reasoned, Riku had hit Roxas that morning; he must have had a reason. Even though he hadn't realized it, Roxas must have provoked Riku to such an extent that he had lost control. There was a rumor filtering through the cells that Roxas was in the infirmary; that Demyx no longer had a cell-mate because the boy had been hurt badly. Sora didn't believe it. He didn't want to believe it. No matter what, Riku was still Riku.
Sora hadn't been particularly happy at the university, but he clung to its state of affairs as someone drowning clutches a lifeline. Even though they hadn't been ideal, they were normal and friendly and he wanted to believe in them so badly. Sora coated Hollow Bastion with a patina of Traverse as his strategy for survival. And the foremost element in the make-believe was Riku.
He and Marluxia finished getting ready for the inspection and stood by their beds. They had been just in time; almost immediately the door swung open and – Sora's heart leapt – Riku walked in.
The silver-haired boy's manner had changed from what it had been a few weeks ago. His muscles seemed to be permanently tensed; and his blue-green eyes stared. He walked with a sort of tentative swagger.
Sora felt his cheeks beginning to flame. He stared at the floor. Riku began to make his inspection.
Sora's reaction to his presence had not escaped him. Back at the university, their social spheres may have rarely collided, but Riku was observant enough to notice how the younger boy clung to him. He had treated this as a necessary annoyance of popularity – Sora hadn't been the only one with a thing for him. However, he'd come to notice that the boy's infatuation had been of a subtly different sort. The attraction had not been merely sexual. Sora followed Riku almost religiously, and he seemed to treat any momentary contact with the other boy like something sanctified.
Sora's eyes were very blue as they met Riku's. Riku finished checking Marluxia's locker and bed and turned his attention to Sora. The younger boy's eyes followed him shyly and the expression in them was absolute trust.
Riku had always tolerated Sora's obvious infatuation. It hadn't affected him directly, and Wakka and Tidus had only teased him a few times about it. All in all, it had simply been beneath his notice.
However, Hollow Bastion had changed nothing about it. Sora still acted like they were in Traverse, and that irked Riku. The other inmates now treated the guards with overt fear. Sora did not; the only guard he took notice of was Riku, and he still loved him.
This was somehow beyond Riku's understanding; he could comprehend the mixture of hatred and fear with which he was regarded by the other prisoners. Sora was an anomaly. He was somehow outside Riku's power, because whatever happened in front of him he would still look at the older boy with those loving, trusting eyes. He simply refused to tear his idol down from the pedestal he had placed him on.
Sora's blue eyes made Riku understand all this in a moment. And Riku suddenly hated him for it. He crossed to Sora's carefully-tidied locker.
"I don't think you've done this properly."
Hurt bewilderment flashed in those eyes, and Riku felt a surge of grim joy from finally being able to change the emotion within them. He carefully tipped the contents of the locker onto the floor, watching them crumple into a messy pile.
Sora's eyes were wide and his face white. Riku kicked at the heap.
"You see? Now, let's check your bed, shall we?"
Sora had the lower bunk. He had made the bed lovingly and well. Riku grinned maliciously.
"You haven't done a good job here, either."
Slowly, watching the expression on Sora's face, he pulled the blanket into disarray. The pillow he threw on the floor with the neglected contents of the locker.
"Clean this up. You can do it while everyone's at breakfast. You can't expect food if you don't pass morning inspection."
Riku felt the same exhilaration as when he and the others had beaten Roxas into submission. At that moment, he learned that power over others does not necessarily begin and end with the clenched fist.
He left, having methodically broken Sora's world into pieces.
Demyx overheard about what had happened to Sora as he walked past Riku on the way to a table in the mess hall. The boy was talking to the red-headed guard – Axel? – and when the story had finished, they both laughed.
The blond boy remembered Sora. He stood in front of Demyx during roll-call, and with nowhere else to look Demyx had become familiar with the sight of him, or rather his back. He attached nowhere near the same level of familiarity to Sora's face, but he knew how thin and delicate Sora was, bones bird-fragile under his loose jumpsuit. He knew how, when the boy's legs seized up with standing, he would shift from foot to foot, movements so slight as to be almost imperceptible. He was familiar with the timbre of Sora's soft voice, even though he only ever heard the boy say one thing – his number. In a way, Demyx felt that he knew Sora well. He felt sure that they could have been friends.
He considered the food on his tray. There was a bowl of some kind of cereal. That was no good. There was also a piece of bread. Demyx checked to make sure no guards were watching. The bread ended up wrapped in a napkin, in Demyx's pocket.
Later that day, Demyx maneuvered himself next to Sora during exercise period. They were supposed to be walking around the courtyard, inadequate exercise in itself, but enough to stave off the monotony for a while. Demyx liked to walk while looking at the sky spread out above him, instead of a scrap shown through bars.
Sora looked collapsed, slumped in on himself as he shuffled aimlessly. The small boy's blue eyes were usually gently hopeful, and he usually kept as near to Riku as he could, passing close by him on every circuit of the courtyard. Today, he kept as far away from the silver-haired guard as possible. The blue of his eyes seemed dimmed, muted and he walked like he was in a dream.
Demyx sidled up next to him and they walked together for a while, though Sora seemed not to have noticed his presence. Finally, the older boy tapped him on the shoulder.
Sora jumped as if he had been struck. He looked Demyx full in the face and the blond boy saw a cringing fear in his eyes that had not been there before.
"You missed breakfast this morning."
Sora gave no indication of having heard this. They continued to walk, weaving their way through the milling throng. Demyx reached into the pocket of his jumpsuit, extracting the napkin-wrapped parcel, now rather the worse for wear.
"Here. Eat it when you're back in your cell."
Sora's lips moved, but Demyx couldn't catch what he said. The smaller boy took the package and stowed it away. The two of them separated. Sora was swallowed up by the crowd.
Saix had been leaning against the wall a distance away. He had seen Demyx put himself next to Sora, and their furtive transaction. He went up to Riku and spoke a few words to him.
They brought Roxas back from the infirmary that afternoon. He walked stiffly into the cell, flanked by Axel and Saix. Demyx could still see the shadows of bruises on his skin and noticed that his nose hadn't been set properly. Even though he seemed to have almost completely recovered, something about him seemed broken. It was in the way he walked, the way he let the two guards hold his limp arms, the way he stared at the floor.
Roxas crawled onto his bunk and pressed himself into a corner, pulling his knees up to his chest. Demyx, on the top bunk, waited for Axel and Saix to leave but they didn't. Instead, Riku walked in. The air seemed to snap with tension as both guards turned expectantly to him.
Riku nodded. Saix, taking advantage of his superior height and reach, pulled Demyx bodily from his bunk. The smaller boy fell hard on the concrete floor with a cry of pain.
Axel was standing off on the sidelines, shifting between excitement and wary anticipation. Saix's obvious pleasure in hurting Demyx elated and at the same time sickened him. He wasn't sure what the boy was supposed to have done wrong, but Riku thought it merited punishment, so whatever was about to happen to him was in some way justified. It couldn't be wrong. Riku was the undisputed leader of the guards. He was the one making the decisions for the complex hive-mind. No one would so much as question his decisions.
Demyx squirmed. He had landed awkwardly and his face was twisted in a grimace of pain. He looked up at the people standing over him and took the path of least resistance. He remained on the floor, instinctively knowing that an attempt to rise would be met with a blow or worse. Somehow, the guards must have found out about him and Sora. He could think of no other reason why this should happen; he took care to keep his head down most of the time.
Some callous part of Demyx's mind blamed Sora for what was happening. If he hadn't gotten himself into trouble I wouldn't have tried to help him. He almost hated Sora for a moment. Then a better part of him reasserted itself as he remembered Sora's dejection. He knew he would have done it again.
Riku seemed to guess some of what he was thinking. He smirked.
"Poor little Sora. You know, he really liked me. Back at Traverse, that is – I'm pretty sure he's not deluded on that count any more."
Demyx said nothing.
"I'm sure you're glad you helped him. He was feeling so sad, so betrayed... Unfortunately, I don't like what you did. Sora needed to be taught a lesson, and I didn't need anyone interfering in it."
Demyx had always been a good judge of people; he instinctively knew what to say or do in any given situation. Zexion had admired him for it; the scientist was not a people person himself. However, now he was at a loss. He could sense something not right about Riku, something like a sickness that seemed to have grown and spread until the silver-haired boy was past the point of no return. But he could not place it, and he could think of no adequate response to Riku's needling. Nor did he know what was going to happen to him, and Riku stood above him secure in the power of this knowledge. For the first time in his life Demyx felt real fear.
Riku smiled, and Demyx felt the fear creep through his body, paralyzing him.
"Hold him down."
Saix did so with a boot to Demyx's chest. Panicking now, the blond boy bucked upwards, trying to dislodge it. There was a feral gleam in Saix's eyes as he raised his boot and stamped down, hard. There was a dull crack and Demyx screamed.
Riku hooked his fingers under the waistband of Demyx's loose trousers, roughly pulling them down. He placed a hand on the other boy's hip to stop him from struggling. With his other hand, he unbuttoned his pants.
Axel, seeing the turn this was taking, hovered near Riku's shoulder, torn between excitement and dismay.
"Do you think we should?"
Demyx was crying now. Riku turned to him, speaking over the boy's small, dry sobs.
"It's to teach him a lesson. Anyway, there's nothing wrong with doing it."
This remark was far removed from the civilisation they had left. A week or two before, Axel would have noticed this and questioned it. Now, however, he had more than half-forgotten the fact that there was a world outside Hollow Bastion. And if Riku championed this move, then the only thing to do was follow.
"You can take a turn after I'm done."
"OK." Axel felt the delirium beginning to steal over him.
Roxas did not move from where he had been sitting. He pressed his back against the wall, burying his head in his hands as Demyx whimpered in pain. He could hear rustling of material and Riku's heavy breathing. He didn't want to see anything more.
"No." Zexion's palms were against the screen, and he felt the vibrations of the machine shock through them. The picture of the cell was grainy and blurred but he could see what was going on. He could see everything.
"No. No, no, no." He repeated the word to himself like a prayer. Maybe if he said it often enough or with enough conviction this would stop. Hazily, he wondered if a God he'd always maintained he didn't believe in would step in and help him. He turned to the door and discovered Xemnas standing there, blocking his way. The Professor looked at his white, set face for what seemed like an age. Then, he slowly shook his head.
Some kind of mist had descended over Zexion; he saw the Professor from what seemed to be under water. His mind, normally so sharp and ready with a strong argument or proof of a new theorem, had blanked out as if with the flick of a curtain. His mouth felt dry; with a taste like that of old iron.
"Let me pass." The words came out slurred.
The Professor didn't move. Zexion, everything he was feeling displayed in an explosive surge of action, hurled himself at the immobile figure. Next moment, he was lying back on the floor, jaw aching, blood in his mouth, wondering how he had gotten there.
Xemnas was watching him with golden eyes that were alive and shining. He was breathing hard and his fist was still raised. As Zexion looked up at him, he smiled as if with supreme fulfillment.
The silver-haired assistant scrambled to his feet. His blood seemed to be alive as it surged through his veins, leaving his mind more jumbled than before. He felt dimly sure that Demyx should have been uppermost on his mind at that moment. However, something he couldn't name seemed to be pounding through his body with the blood, mixing up his priorities. Right now, the only thing he wanted to do was hurt the man in front of him.
Xemnas stood; tense, in front of the door. Zexion looked around. With the sharpness of desperation he saw a paper-knife on the desk and snatched it up, brandishing it unhandily. When Zexion rushed at the Professor, he punched the smaller man with all his strength. Zexion fell back, but he lashed out with the paper-knife as he did so. The sharp, silver blade tore Xemnas all the way down the arm.
The cut was deep, and the sight of the harm he had inflicted snapped Zexion back to the present. Bile rose in his throat and he just stopped himself from vomiting, not just from the sickening realization of what he had done. He shoved the hard knot of excitement that had formed at Xemnas' gasp of pain down.
Demyx cried out from the screen, in the room, yet inaccessible. Zexion, panting, charged again. Xemnas was cradling his arm and the younger man took him by surprise. The knife ripped into the Professor's side. He screamed, and Zexion shoved down his nausea at the feeling of the blade cutting through skin and muscle. He bulled the Professor aside as the latter staggered, falling to the floor.
It was the first time in his life that he had fought and deliberately injured another human being. Zexion's mind was a tumult of strange, half-formed emotions as he started off down the corridor, running as fast as he could. He realized that he was still holding the paper-knife. Its blade was clotted with blood. He dropped it as he ran. It clattered, spun itself into a corner.
Zexion has gone. I must confess that this was totally unexpected. I had thought that his scientific curiosity, coupled with his rationality, would have kept him here. I gave him the most excellent reasons for staying, and I thought I knew Zexion well enough to be sure that he would weigh all options before coming to an informed decision. Clearly, I was wrong. This place has wrought changes in not just the participants of the experiment. I thought Zexion and I, as impartial observers, would be immune to the situation as it unfolds around us. I thought so, but now he is gone and he has taken Number 403 with him.
What happened to 403 has been the catalyst for increased tension, if that is at all possible, between the prisoners and the guards. Hollow Bastion broods under it. The prisoners fear the guards more than ever, while they, by contrast, have been spurred on to exercise even more power over the prisoners. Even up here in the observation room I can feel it.
The dam is about to burst.
Demyx's hair was spread over the pillow as he lay unconscious. Zexion reached a hand out to stroke it, then drew back as the other boy moaned, face twisted, tossing and turning under his sheet. In the stark lights of the hospital room Zexion could see the dark bruises splotching his face. When the blankets slipped down, they revealed the gauze bandages wrapped around Demyx's torso. The doctor, with infuriating calmness, had informed him that Demyx had broken two ribs, and that one of them had come a within a shade of fatally puncturing a lung.
Zexion fought panic as he remembered how close it had been. It had been his fault; everything had been his fault, right from the start. He should have stopped Demyx from signing up. He should have known that nothing good would have come of the Professor's obsession.
Somehow, obscurely, he felt that he had renounced his claim to Demyx. He half-anticipated, half-dreaded the moment when the blond boy would regain consciousness. It was too wild an assumption that Demyx, once woken, would be the Demyx Zexion had known before Hollow Bastion – how many years ago now? Most of all, Zexion dreaded Demyx's condemnation, although he knew he deserved it for not pulling both of them out of the experiment earlier.
The silver-haired boy took Demyx's hand in his own, feeling the cold fingers. He clutched it to his face, closing his eyes. His thoughts still had not settled and they scuttled feverishly around his tired mind. Pictures flashed through the mire – Demyx the night Xemnas had told him about his hypothesis, smiling, talking animatedly about his class that day. Demyx reaching up to kiss him in front of the notice board. The prisoners lined up in the courtyard. Xemnas' golden eyes. The paper-knife in his hand, slick with blood.
Suddenly, Zexion felt deathly tired. He would have been glad to sleep and never wake up. He felt himself slipping off his chair to kneel at the side of the bed, still holding on to Demyx's limp hand. His head landed on Demyx's chest, and he could feel the rise and fall that came with each breath. It was just barely there.
Please, Demyx… please be all right.
Please wake up.
Please, God, I'll do anything. I don't know – I've never prayed before in my life, but…
I'll do anything.
Demyx, please don't hate me.
I love you…
"You're hurting me…"
A weak voice. Zexion, hazily registering it, sat up. He stared into a pair of bright blue eyes. A face grimacing in pain.
Zexion let Demyx's hand go, raised his head. He knelt by the other boy's bed, not daring to meet the eyes again, because a longer look might reveal the hate and condemnation he was sure would surface sometime soon. A dull kind of hopelessness settled over him.
Demyx's voice was soft and expressionless. Zexion clenched his fists, wadding them in the blanket. For the first time, he realized that he had cut himself during the fight with Xemnas. The gash had started bleeding again, red trailing into the bright white sheet.
"Please look at me."
Slowly, Zexion raised his eyes. Demyx was half-sitting against his pillows. Even the small movement had exhausted him, and he slumped, exhausted. There was the tiniest spot of blood on his bandages and Zexion thought, insanely, how the red had defiled both them and the sheets. Then he couldn't think anything else.
Because Demyx smiled.
It was a tired, wan smile, a shadow of the boy's usual gaiety. It quirked Demyx's lips only slightly, and Zexion still couldn't tell whether it was one of absolution.
It didn't make everything right. It hadn't made anything right. But it was so far off the disgust and blame Zexion had expected that he was willing to take it as it was.
For the first time since the scientist could remember, he felt tears gathering at the back of his eyes. Demyx sighed, and his head fell back. Tentatively, Zexion reached out a hand. Gently, he stroked Demyx's hair. This time, the other boy didn't flinch away.
Since Demyx had left, Roxas had sunk deeper into a spiral of self-hatred. The fact that he had stayed on one side and not helped the other boy twisted at the back of his mind. The part of him that was dominant now screamed that what he'd done was the only thing possible. He had stayed out of it, and so escaped being hurt as well. It was sensible. It was survival.
But some small part of him, the one that answered to a name instead of a number, loathed himself for doing it. The same part was also the one that now questioned the brutality of the guards. It maintained that the hell he was in was just an experiment, and that he could withdraw any time he wished. Demyx had gone. Why shouldn't he?
Even as he reasoned this out, Roxas knew it wouldn't work. With the acceptance of his new name and his failure to help Demyx, he had dug himself deep into a pit of his own making. He had let the fear dominate him, and now there was no escape.
An excruciating bleakness settled over him as he shuffled around the courtyard. He knew that he wouldn't dare do anything. Fear of the guards paralyzed him, especially of Riku. The silver-haired boy had been transformed from the person he'd been at Traverse to a nameless, faceless authority. Guards and prisoners alike called him not by name, but 'sir'.
Axel was watching the prisoners with a bored look on his face. Roxas' eyes skipped over him and returned to rest. Vaguely, he could remember the Axel of Traverse, his sardonic laugh and his quiet sincerity in the lecture theatre. The person in front of him bore next to no resemblance to the memory. The bright green eyes alternated between intense excitement and a kind of dullness. Axel rarely spoke now, and when he did Roxas could imagine any of the other guards saying exactly the same thing.
The red-head noticed Roxas' eyes on him. He stepped forward.
"What are you looking at?"
He had been watching them with dull eyes; now a fever flashed in the green. Roxas did not answer, nor did he drop his head. Anger was now pervading the fear the guard awoke in him; anger at this person who was so far removed from the Axel Roxas had known. He remembered brilliant, laughing green eyes. And with that memory the knowledge that he was called Roxas, not 401, came rushing uppermost.
"I said, what the fuck are you looking at?"
Roxas' eyes, those blue eyes, were looking at him, full in the face. Axel raised his truncheon, wanting to smash the expression from them. Roxas took the blow without flinching. Then he hit Axel in the face, putting his full weight behind his fist. The guard crumpled, dropping his truncheon.
There were a few, scattered cries from the prisoners and concerted movement from the guards as Roxas sprinted across the courtyard and through the door to the room in which he had been searched. Even as panic was fast colonizing his mind, he had instinctively chosen the shortest route to the outside. The empty walls of the corridor seemed to close in on him as he ran, acutely aware of the sounds of pursuit behind him.
He burst out in front of the main building, where the bus had stopped to let them off. The concrete was cold under his thin shoes.
The compound was surrounded by a chain link fence. Roxas dimly remembered seeing it when they had first arrived. Now it presented an insurmountable problem.
The footsteps behind him were getting louder. Roxas trembled as he imagined the consequences of capture. After what had happened to Demyx… What would they do? Beat him again? Or worse?
He twisted on the concrete, looking for escape. Then it struck him, through his fear-blinded mind.
It had been parked a little way off. Roxas spared a glance behind him and ran for it. Fumbling with the door handle, jerking it until the door opened, he tumbled into the driver's seat.
The keys were in the ignition. Roxas could not summon the appropriate amazement and relief that should have been the proper response to this good luck. There was a strange feeling in his hands as he turned the key, and it quickly spread to the rest of his body. His muscles seemed to be shrinking around his bones and the unbearable tightness made him gasp. He didn't even hear the engine as it roared to life.
The guards were running across the concrete. Roxas clumsily swung the steering wheel around, stamping down on the accelerator. It was important to build up enough speed for his purpose… If he managed this he would be home free…
He drove straight into the fence. He felt the chain link buckle and crumple against the fender of the bus. Suddenly his vision was pebble-dashed as the windscreen shattered. Roxas yelled, ducking as fragments of glass lashed at his face.
The bus teetered crazily. Roxas clung to the steering wheel, but his fingers slipped and he was thrown against the door. The impact seemed likely to send the bus toppling over the edge, but by some miracle it righted.
The guards had drawn back from the crash, and were standing in a mass a few meters away. Roxas realized that his spur-of-the-moment plan had been seriously flawed. The bus was irretrievably snarled in the fence.
His legs almost buckled as he hit the ground, but the animal that was snarling in his ear for him to survive hauled him upright. Outside the fence, the grass stretched as far as the eye could see.
Roxas set off, running.
The guards took some time to circumvent the bus; Roxas managed to get over a swell in the ground and into the relative safety of the corresponding dip without hearing pursuit. Panting, he rested his back against the grassy knoll and contemplated his position. Clearly, there was no sense in staying where he was. They would be there in a few moments. They would find him.
Vividly, he imagined the guards fanning out across the plains. They would spread out in a line, he thought, and beat the grass like they were hunting an animal. They would find him.
Roxas tilted his head to the sky. It was gray, pearly, an unbroken stretch of peace. He was tempted to lie down and accept his capture with the fatalism of the prey. He pulled himself to his feet. Stumbled off across the grass, with very little idea where he was going.
He should stay away from the road, he thought. He did not know if there was another vehicle at Hollow Bastion apart from the bus. But if there were, and he came upon the road, he would be exposed, helpless…!
He bit down hard on his fist. The plains were trackless, endless. There was nowhere to hide. They would find him.
Then he had it. The lake.
He remembered the crater, gouged crazily out of the landscape. Its sides were almost sheer, and he remembered seeing crannies in the rock from the bus. There, he could hide. There, he might have a chance.
But then, he realized, he would have to find the road.
He screamed his frustration to the sky. Road? Stay on the plains? Either way, they would catch him. One or the other.
He veered crazily to the right, running with all the strength in his body. There was one advantage, he thought. They would have to beat the grass in case he was lying there, concealed. That would slow them up.
Then he was at the road. His feet thumped the tarmac. For a sudden, wild moment, he hoped a car would come along. He could jump in front of it, stop it… He knew it was impossible. No one would come. There would be no witnesses for when they would catch him.
Clamping down on the hope, Roxas ran on.
He almost missed the lake – the grass had not withered away from its sides and without the vantage point of a seat on the bus it was next to impossible to see. Breath harsh in his throat, he threw himself over the edge, sliding down the incline in a puff of dust and a scrabbling fall of scree.
His elbows were scraped bloody, but Roxas barely felt them. He could hear faint shouts, coming from behind him. Surely they hadn't seen –! Roxas realized he was trembling, the involuntary movements seemingly sapping him of even more of his strength. A lot of energy is needed to maintain terror.
He ran a short distance along the circumference of the lake before he found a niche in the rock big enough to squeeze into. There was a sort of scrubby bush half-hiding it, and he pulled the sprays to cover more of the hole.
The voices were nearer. He thought he could recognize Riku's. He pressed himself against the rock, panting. They were nearly here. They would catch him.
There was the sound of someone sliding down the edge of the crater. Roxas stuffed his shirt in his mouth and screamed silently into it. Everything that made him him, every conscious thought and feeling in his mind, had been shut down long ago by waves of animal fear. Footsteps crunched along the edge of the lake.
Blindly, Roxas realized the underlying reason he had picked the lake to hide. He could see the dark water from where he was. It looked deep. If he were caught, he would only have to put all his strength into one last struggle, one last successful attempt to break free - and then…
The water looked peaceful.
The footsteps were coming closer. A figure came into view.
Startlingly green eyes looked straight into his.
Axel had seen him, he knew. The guard was standing a few feet away, staring straight at him. Yet he made no move to come forward. Roxas wondered what he was waiting for. Now was the time, the time to take advantage of Axel's immobility… The lake looked inviting.
Roxas tried to power his legs, to burst out of the niche. He could not move. Axel's eyes were boring into his, and the dullness that had been in them thus far lifted for a single, brief moment. In the guard's eyes, Roxas read sadness, and fear, and regret.
Then the emotions were gone, so quickly Roxas thought he must have imagined it.
Axel took a few steps forward, until he and Roxas were so close they could have touched each other. Roxas cringed back.
They teetered together at the water's edge for one, long, indefinable moment.