Disclaimer: "If Bridget had a child she'd lose it," he guffawed. "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Jones. Bridget, why can't you get all done up on Saturdays like your mum?" That's me. If I had the rights to KH, I'd lose them. Quite possibly in my overstuffed wardrobe. Um, and uh, standard disclaimer for Bridget Jones' Diary, too, I guess XD;;
Long A/N: It turns out that the key to writing successfully is to emo out on LJ over how much you suck at writing, and how tired you are. Guaranteed burst of energy and inspiration will strike, just because life is a contrary s.o.b. like that. Not that I'll complain – EVERYTHING SUCKS. UM. MY LIFE. MY WRITING. I CAN'T WRITE. EVER. AND I WANT TO SLEEP. FOREVER. UM. /waits for contrariness to kick in/ /ends up just being a grouchy moper who convinces herself through constant repetition that everything is going downhill/ Apologies, though, for my recent lack of responsiveness – it shall be abolished ;)
Okay, now, because my last oneshot was a bit laboured due to length, and because I loved the way kurosora1984 updated her short-ish story and completed it so quickly (Through the Shadow, read it if you haven't already ;P), I've decided to break A's F into chapters. You know what this means? I'LL ACTUALLY BE COMPLETING A CHAPTERED FIC FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE FRICKING… TU. UGH. GUH. /shoots self vigorously/ It'll make me happy, anyway ;D So yeah, this is just the first chapter. There'll probably be about… three? I think? (I won't be updated each week like Salem, though, probably .;;)
So: down to business ;) This story is dedicated to Erin, aka Nijuuni, both for being a goddess-like muse beyond compare, and the slightly more mortal achievement of managing to twin-hit my Da 20,000 invisible kiriban ;) She is an endless source of exciting inspiration for me, and I always dread each new art piece from her, for fear that my mind will yet again be derailed by its awesomeness XP I do so try to be a good girl, faithful to the one story, but alas, she tempts me away, wicked seductress ;) So this one's for her :heart: It is based on her wonderful picture of the same title – once again, if you have not seen it yet, go DO so. You have been officially implored.
Final word of warning: I haven't got a religious bone in my body, so most of this was guesswork, What TV Has Taught Me, a quick crash-course in Brother/Father terminology by my Sarah, and what I picked up from Brother Odd by Dean Koontz 8D EN-JOY!
Sunlight's first rays flowed softly through dawn's mist, illuminating the drifting dew like miniature stars, white nebulae hovering thickly above the earth. Night was done with; new days were beginning for life all throughout the planet, bringing fresh hopes, shining dreams, tarnished frustrations.
One man's black boots moved with short, swift steps through the still haze, barely managing to disturb its quiet existence above the green, frost-bitten grass that crunched audibly beneath his soles. His robes whispered as he walked, shades of black, white and purple, a sizeable wooden cross bumping against his sternum, a leather-bound book clutched between long-fingered hands.
Vivid green eyes rose briefly as he approached a large stone edifice of sweeping arches and precise walkways, deep shadows lingering under its broad awnings. The sound of his steps changed as he passed from natural earth to man-hewn stone, the man reaching one hand up to gently bump free the droplets that had gathered on the long red spikes of his hair. Each pace echoed in this more enclosed space, the noise running ahead of him like a ghost child, down the corridor flanking the building's perimeter.
After several quiet minutes, with the sun's influence spreading further over his sphere of existence, the redhead turned a corner and pushed through a heavy door, swallowed instantly by gloom. He paused, allowing his gaze to adjust to the massive, dark interior, small, slitted windows and distant, dull lanterns hanging in rusted brackets providing little light to illuminate it. Drawing the book up against his chest, he shook off the chill of the outdoors, green eyes beginning to move slowly across his surroundings.
Gradually, the enormous room became clearer, corners and edges and browns and blacks, chairs and tables and stacks filled with books upon scrolls upon volumes upon tomes. The air was like glass – frozen, timeless, almost fragile with the weight of the years it had witnessed and absorbed. Every time he entered this place, it felt like he was shifting aside an ancient, untouched veil, stepping into the dusty past.
Straightening himself to be more presentable, he set off into the dimness, keeping a lookout for a familiar head as he moved through the huge library. Soles producing a clipped sound, he glanced along each aisle that passed, entering and exiting warm pools of lantern-light, knowing better than to call out to the almost ever-present keeper of the books – his chances at civil discussion would be greatly hindered if he startled the man out of another reverie of concentration.
And yet, he somehow had a talent for it.
His progress was stopped cold by a nearby stack of books coldly criticising, "You walk as if you were tramping through snow in a blizzard, Father Axel."
The redhead blinked, shifting closer, peering over the top of what he had taken to be a table entirely covered in various foot-thick volumes, and indeed, he wasn't entirely wrong in the assumption; the only clear space had been promptly filled with an open book, its diminutive reader sitting close on a short-backed chair. The book-keeping monk hadn't even bothered to raise his head while levelling the complaint, his single visible eye remaining trained on the dusty tome between his elbows.
Clearing his throat, the noise like a gunshot in the silence, making the man with the glossy, steel-blue hair flinch while glaring down at the pages, Axel lifted the book in his hands and announced, "I've finished the reading you gave me, Brother Zexion."
"Congratulations," the short man replied with terse ill-temper. "The festivities master shall be alerted."
The red-haired priest shifted his weight from one foot to the other, hesitating before venturing, cautious of the other man's temper, "I would like another, please."
At this, the Brother finally snapped up his gaze, eye narrow. Realising that he still clutched the leather-bound book, Axel hastily placed it down atop one of the piles adorning the desk, assuring, "I'll return this one first, of course."
Zexion grimaced, rolled his eyes, echoed, "Of course," in an unimpressed tone and stood, removing it from the stack and carrying it away to a different section of the library. Axel quickly followed, saying enthusiastically, "I found the ideas that Riku presented on the topic of afterlife to be fascinating, if somewhat biased. It's easy to tell he was still freshly redeemed in that volume, and speaks of his encounter with the reaper with a reverence bordering on impropriety."
Brother Zexion grunted, turning down an aisle and grasping a sliding ladder leaned against the bookshelf, dragging it on its small wheels along with him. "The reaper angel Sora is said to inspire such emotions. And who can tell what hidden allures death holds for one who drifted as far into darkness as that prophet? It is not so strange for a man to be enthralled by his saviour, even if that saviour happens to be God's darker hand in guiding mankind into ashes." He stopped the ladder, steadied it, and began to deftly climb one-handed, holding the book securely against his robes.
Axel made an impatient motion, gripping the lower rung to hold it in place as the man reached the high shelves. "Well, whatever his motivation, you were right in recommending it, Brother – it was filled with reaper information, and so clear it felt at times as if I were the one encountering Sora."
"Imagine that," said Zexion archly, gaze scanning the faded spines all lined up before espying the slot in which Axel's book belonged, sliding it carefully in. "And you want more, do you?"
"Please," responded the redhead instantly. "The subject is too fascinating to let go of."
Zexion grunted, grasping the ladder's rungs with both hands now and reversing back down. "You'd do better to spend your time and intelligence on greater projects than this, Father. Have you even tended to your duties today?"
As his boots touched once more on the ground, Axel spread his hands in protest, objecting, "Dawn only just broke! The day has barely begun!"
"And yet, here you are," the man responded, his dry voice falling flat on the still air, "a young priest of considerable vigour preparing to waste away within the pages of some volume or another, chasing the fancies of ages long past..."
"I'm sorry, Brother," Axel interrupted, matching the book-keeper's wry tone perfectly, "but I forget if you were talking about me, or yourself."
Zexion harrumphed like some kind of wizened creature three times his age. "I am a scholar. My work and duties belong within the pages of more books than you will ever absorb in your entire lifetime, no matter how passionate on a subject you may become. Besides," he sniffed, "I was a weak child; one could never consider me as being 'vigorous'."
Rolling his eyes skyward, Axel insisted, as they resumed walking down the long aisle, "Nevertheless, as you said, I am passionate on this particular topic. My mind has been captured, Zexion, and I intend to satisfy it for as long as it hungers."
"Lusts of the head?" Zexion muttered distractedly, gaze sweeping the many books, his hands behind his back. He paused, turning to the redhead with a slight smirk. "Surely there is something in the scriptures that forbids such a thing. Careful, Father – making such heated statements around the wrong colleague could have you scrubbing floors whilst singing hymns on the Lord's purity for a week."
Axel mimed a shudder. "May I be protected from such a fate."
"And the rest of us, as well." Zexion was amused now, his previous grouchy coolness warmed by the presence of one as hot-blooded as Axel ever was. "Fetch me the ladder, I have a book that may interest you."
Eagerness springing to life in his handsome features, Axel hurried to obey, vestments swishing out behind him in his haste. The sound of the wheels squeaking across the hard floor briefly filled the high ceiling with bouncing echoes as he dragged it swiftly to the waiting man. No sooner had it stopped than had Zexion begun his ascent, mind focused entirely now on locating whichever volume had entered his skull, eyes reflecting the same hunger of which his red-haired Brother had spoken. He could attempt to sound superior, but if lust of the mind for knowledge had truly been punishable, he himself would have been among the very first to be on his knees in the Grand Hall, scrubbing brush firmly in hand. As Axel stood with his hands clasped hopefully below, the self-proclaimed scholar began hunting with keen vision for his quarry.
"Aha!" He slowly inserted a finger between the many spines, gently tugging out a painfully slender, journal-sized book, its green cover dull with age. Axel's face dropped as he caught sight of it.
"Is that all?"
Sending him a sharp, outraged glance, Zexion bit off, "If this book held the explanation to the meaning of life, you wouldn't say 'Is that all?' at its mere size." He scaled down again, facing the chastised man like a mother hen protecting her chicks. "Size is not what concerns a true scholar; it is what the text contains that is vital!"
"I do believe," murmured Axel, reaching over to pluck the book from his hand, "that I have heard the labourers in the towns say similar things to their wives – only in a somewhat different context, I'll admit, unless euphemisms are being employed." As Zexion began to splutter and blush and fume, the redhead turned away, flipping the book open, perusing its contents as he headed back out towards the more open space.
"Axel, you are incorrigible," the pale-haired scholar finally managed to choke out, at which the priest hid a pleased smirk, fingers already splitting the intangible-seeming book in two, bright green gaze darting briefly over keywords in search of what made it worthy of such regard. He flicked backwards through its pages, while behind him, Zexion pulled the ladder back to the aisle's end for ready later use. Still sceptical as to how such sparse reading matter, no more than two hundred brittle pages, could be terribly informative on the subject his heart most desired, it wasn't until he reached the front of the book that his critical eye was abruptly stumbled, brows rising slowly as he read.
"Do be careful with that, Father," Zexion grumbled as he brushed past with small, light steps. "It is an extremely old text. I can't say that it is valued in terms of its content by the world at large, but all documents must be shown the proper respect."
Axel was barely listening, had heard maybe only a word or two of the book-keeper's warning. He moved to automatically follow the man as Zexion aimed back towards the more brightly lit corner of the enormous cavern of a room, the book-smothered perch he had inhabited before the redhead had come trudging through.
"Zexion," he rasped, eyes wide. "Zexion, listen to this. You must listen." Placing a finger upon the very first page, Axel traced it carefully along the lines of writing, breathlessly reciting:
"The world is divided, a landscape of both beauty and beast. As Angels, we must only walk the steps of those born of sacred hearts. We must stray from the style of the wicked.
Reapers are the fading and the forgotten, damned to walk the earth and feared upon by the eyes of the living, damned to harvest life, hearts--all without remorse, and damned to remain as empty souls void of love and compassion with no other possession than a wicked skull.
We are not Reapers. We are Angels. We are the saints to lead the future to the Doors to Light, and so must seek guidance from our beloved, wise priests, and the scripts of the Words of Angels.
Priests are blessed with a forgiving nature, with strength to resist the darkest seduction, and with wisdom to nurture the gift named Purity. Priests are courageous, with the bestowed task of lighting the path to divinity with the Cross chained to the heart.
Never will the two worlds twine as one.
Never will the 'hearts' of Reapers be granted the gift of love.
Love will never come to those who have sinned.
Thus saith the Angels."
There was a pause as the redhead finally broke off, looking expectantly at his companion in faith, eyes shining by the nearby lantern's glow.
"Indeed," remarked Zexion with disinterest, taking his previous seat. "You see now why one shouldn't discount based on size, yes?"
Stunned by his lack of reaction, Axel swooped around to the side of the desk, elbows dropping onto the cover of a book as he exclaimed, "But don't you see what this means, Brother?"
"Get your bony elbows off my books," came the curt command, the redhead complying without thought, continuing eagerly as if uninterrupted, "These are words from the angels themselves! Straight from their glorious mouths, 'so saith the Angels' – don't you find it incredible?!"
"Incredible, yes," Zexion responded dryly, smoothing delicate hands down his front in a compulsively neat motion. "It was written by man, Father – angels do not scribe from the heavens and leave their words where we might conveniently stumble upon them."
"But they must communicate with man in the first place," Axel argued stubbornly, "in order to have their words recorded. Is that not the basis of the Holy Book?"
"There is a difference," Zexion sniffed piously, "between the Word of God and the supposed scriptures of the angels' policy on death reapers. I myself consider the topic little more than fiction, Father, and would advise you to do the same." Axel frowned deeply at him, eyes narrowing slightly. He eased the book shut, averting his gaze as the other man glanced over. "Now – you have new reading material to partake in. May I finally be left to continue my real research?"
Without waiting for the redhead's assent, Zexion turned his attention back to the pages of the large book on the table, more than content to melt back into the stillness and silence that clung to every surface of the library like knowledge into the crags of the brain. However, concentration was not the easiest thing to come by when one was haunted by a tall, doleful, spike-haired shadow falling over one's visible light.
At length, Zexion sighed, laying down his pen and drying its tip, squinting up at Axel's lingering form. "Father." His patience was sounding deliberate and thin. "Is there perhaps any other matter in which I can aid you?"
Axel hesitated, as if unsure, but Zexion waited, resignedly conscious of more on the redhead's tongue than had already been voiced. Truth be told, now that he had noticed it, he wondered how it was that he had not earlier. It had been present all along, a near-agitated energy in the tall priest, a restlessness that had been rare in him since his inauguration three years previously into the monastery's brotherhood. Zexion recalled that while Axel been a probationary member of the cloister, he had often worn this same air – this sense of need hanging about him. At the time, his 'passion' had been his powerful desire to serve God from within their ranks; and now?
Axel wet his lips with the tip of his tongue, eyes darting about for a moment before he made a concerted effort to calm himself, meeting the monk's visible eye determinedly and taking a breath. "Brother Zexion, I – I have been thinking. I wish… to catch one."
For a long, quiet moment, Zexion stared up at him, chin resting on laced fingers. "…One what?" he eventually asked blankly, realising suddenly that no elaboration was forthcoming. Axel looked to be losing his nerve, but had obviously made some decision long before returning his last book.
"A reaper angel."
Axel was briefly treated to the rare sight of both of the man's clear eyes as Zexion slid a hand under the obscuring swathe of fringe and lifted, to better see the redhead, to better blink at him with incredulity, to better tell if this was the priest's idea of a joke on the abbey's reclusive scholar, or if some seed of madness truly existed within his mind. Upon seeing the newly firm, serious set to his features, Zexion gazed at him a moment longer, before letting the gunmetal curtain fall back into place while giving a loud, rude snort. "One doesn't catch angels as if they were butterflies. Restrain your foolishness to mere fascination, nothing more. Go no further, Axel." Dismissively, he once again lowered his focus to the open text before him.
"All right, I worded it incorrectly," Axel persisted, frustrated. "Not so much catch and cage like a common bird, but – seek out. Find. Encounter." His eyes grew distant, fervour sparkling in their depths. "If I, like the prophet Riku, could actually be face to face with the reaper Sora…"
Zexion expelled a slow breath, rubbing slender fingers through his hair in a fortifying motion. He inhaled, ticked his hard gaze up at the redhead. "Are we really to have this conversation?" he demanded, sounding tired. He closed his eyes briefly, steepling his fingertips together. "Father Axel. Your imagination runs away with you. You seem to be entertaining some peculiar notions as to the availability of angels to the common mortal." His eyes flashed open again, a reproving stare in place. "To be a man of God does not grant you any special privileges over the next man. We do not commune with the heavens, Father, we are merely extended mouthpieces of the Lord's holy Word." He leaned forward sharply, cutting off whatever protest the redhead had been forming, continuing in low tones, "You desire a reaper? Cast such unclean thoughts from your mind. To find Death, one must stalk death. Such practices are unhealthy, and, moreover, unholy."
He straightened gradually, gaze fixed unwaveringly on the man's green irises, until Axel finally glanced away. Grimly, Zexion nodded. "Very well, then. If there's nothing more to discuss –" and his tone assured Axel in no uncertain terms that there wasn't – "I would like to be left to my studies now, if you'd be so kind as to show yourself quietly out."
Axel stood in silence for a minute, as Zexion promptly ignored him, this time remaining that way, refusing to acknowledge or enable the redhead any further than he already had done. A small sigh worked its way from Axel's lungs, hands wrapping around the new book. His voice echoing softly in the thick silence, he said, "Thank you, Brother."
Zexion did not look up. Grimacing faintly, Axel turned and did as bidden, steps much duller than they had been upon arrival, slower. He retraced his earlier path, back to the door, wrapped a hand around the handle, and with one disappointed look over his shoulder at the library's tall shelves, Zexion's point of light invisible from this angle, he pulled it open and exited back out into the cold.
As it slid shut behind him, its considerable weight tugging at the hinges, Axel turned his eyes down to the faded green cover clasped between fingers that were white at the knuckles. He hesitated, a frown tugging at his features as the scholarly monk's words ran through his mind, bitterness touching his mood. He flipped the book back open, sliding through its pages, attempting to find some element of the fiction that Zexion had mentioned, only to end up once again at the very beginning, fingers smoothing slowly down the aged, flowing text. He touched the start of each sentence, taking in the ornate lettering, the sobriety of the words, the formality. 'So saith the angels.' How could something concerning so sombre a subject sound all so beautiful inside his head?
More than that – how could something this clear and powerful be anything but truth? Its tone was so completely different to the writings of any of the prophets or religious researchers that he had come across in the monastery's extensive library. And Axel… he wanted more. That thrilling taste of shock he'd got when he'd first read the opening to this book, all it had done was confirm his overwhelming desire to be like so few before him and be touched by one of these enigmatic divinities. To experience it from more than a scholar's seat. But – Zexion's reaction…
'To find Death, one must stalk death.'
As a priest of the monastery, Axel had seen his share of deaths in the last three years, had spoken many a prayer over many a dull casket, had cleared the conscience of the people in the various far-flung towns when they had lingered on their death beds… Death, he had discovered, was a woeful thing. It caused pain wherever it went, whether to the victims or their families. The thought of hunting such an abstract, tormented creation, perhaps right to the grave's edge – it gave, as Brother Zexion had warned, a crawling feeling of impurity. No matter that the act of dying led to eternal peace in the Lord's arms – the fact remained that while the body still breathed, death was an enemy to be feared.
Yet, while he understood this perfectly, Axel could not extend such fears to the ushers that came at breath's end. They were, after all, the very bridging force between the body and the afterlife, if all the various accounts were to be believed. And, try as Zexion might to convince him otherwise… Axel did believe. He couldn't not, after all that he'd read on the matter.
Besides which… by now, he had sat at enough bedsides, Holy Book clasped in hand – too many, with last year's vicious and most virulent case of smallpox claiming one after another of the surrounding towns' populations. He had borne witness to that final moment on numerous occasions, for both young and old alike, and… well, perhaps it was somewhat morbid in a particular context, but Axel's fascination with the death reapers was innocent enough. He had merely come to wonder: when a soul's time within its body has come to a close, did the good and righteous automatically know their way to God's grace?
The superstitious had countless tales of ghostly apparitions still walking the planet – were these, then, those who did not know their way, neither to Heaven nor even to Hell? If that was indeed the case, then what was it that these souls had lacked, upon their demise, that so many others did not?
He had once posed such a question to the most learned priest he had access to, and Brother Zexion, in all his folly, had referred the curious redhead on to the religious myth of angels of death, harbingers of Heaven's call to the weary.
From then on, Axel had been a slave to it. Every text was richer and more fascinating than the last, compounding again and again his growing certainty that these reapers were actually real. It was only a logical progression that he should graduate from reading the accounts of those who claimed to have met a reaper to wanting to be one of them. Imagine, actually encountering an angel! It would be enough to fuel his faith for millennia to come. He would be in an eternal bliss, the most peaceful man on God's earth, never to have a crisis of questioning His divine presence like he'd know several others to go through at some point or another, because he would have proof.
He did not, of course, need proof in order to love and believe in God – but the thought of coming into contact with one of His celestial servants was enough to make him almost ill with anticipated euphoria.
But now… he had finally admitted his aspiration to his fellow clergyman, the very one who had first introduced him to it all, and Zexion had virtually named his thoughts as heresy. He had thought the man would support him, honestly, would have a similar interest, would at least see the fascination from an intellectual point of view and encourage the search for gratification… but now, Axel felt confusion. There was nothing unclean about his desires, yet in a few short sentences, Zexion had stripped his idea of all its purity and instead labelled it a dangerous, despicable path to pursue. This had never been his intention, not for a moment. He just – he merely wanted…
His gaze drew slowly into focus on the pages in front of him, brooding reverie dispelling enough for him to yet again absorb their content. Standing in the growing sunlight, he hopelessly felt a thrill of anticipation at the sober text.
We are not Reapers. We are Angels.
This, then, was an account of reapers from the angels' point of view – and a harsh one, it appeared. All this talk of wicked skulls, empty souls… one would think that the angels didn't favour the reapers, didn't regard them as cousins in Heaven the way they seemed to Axel's mind. To him, there had never been any great distinction between them – all were in God's great service, were they not? However, now that the excitement of finding a text written as if by the angels themselves was settling down, he was realising that it was all quite… defamatory of reapers. But still, he couldn't help but think of the prophet Riku's writings, his fervour, his undying gratitude and, dare it be said, love, towards the reaper Sora. Whether it was proper or not, the man had felt passionately enough to dedicate his life to chronicling his experiences. Axel had felt the vibration of his emotions through those writings, and longed, longed to know them himself. It wasn't enough to merely read, it wasn't enough to wonder; he yearned so strongly to encounter, and create his own chronicles, even if he wasn'ta natural scholar like Zexion. It gnawed at him, this feeling, and left him feeling lost that he had been so coolly dismissed by the one person he'd thought could appreciate and share such ideas.
Gradually, the sound of echoing footsteps drew him back out of himself, Axel's bright head lifting, the frown remaining on his brow as another of the monastery's inhabitants appeared around the corner. Long blond hair drifting around his elbows, the man noticed Axel, inclined his head in greeting, Axel deferring to him respectfully as he neared, "Father Vexen, good morning."
"And to you," said the older man in his thin tone. "Is Zexion still awake and working?"
Nodding, Axel answered, "I've just been… discussing research with him. He is in the far corner."
"Very good." Glancing down at the book in the redhead's hands, Vexen commanded, "Put that somewhere safe and fulfil your duties before morning prayers, Father. You have barely an hour before the bell tolls." Without waiting for a response, he pulled the library's heavy door open and vanished inside, no doubt a great deal more welcome than Axel had been.
Grimacing, the redhead clapped the still-open book sharply shut with a dry noise, then glanced down at it apologetically. If Zexion had seen, he would have scowled; it wasn't the book's fault that things weren't going according to plan. Sighing, Axel tucked it against his front protectively, casting a last, long look at his surroundings, drinking in the bright light before he had to return indoors for duties, prayers, and then the morning meal. What he wouldn't have given to find some comfortable, warm perch to sit and begin to process the fine details of the slender volume for the rest of the day, ignoring any and all else that was required of him, concentrating only on the melodic flow of old language in his head…
But such was not the privilege of a priest. He had more to attend to than his own personal desires, he had made vows to that effect three years previously, and would not regret them now simply over a whimsy of heart.
Still, though. He wished. He wished… for several things, in that moment.
In time, he would come to wish for more.
Two weeks passed, and Axel held onto the book. He studied each page carefully by night, candle fluttering nearby as he struggled to absorb the depth of the words contained within the text. Zexion had been correct; its mere size had nothing to do with its content, which at times he found difficult to understand. The language could be complicated, and finicky, frustrating at times for someone accustomed to approaching the world in a direct manner. Determined to miss no part of it, however, he persevered. As days went by, he developed dark smudges under his eyes, misplaced sleep and knowledge gained, ideas placed within his head, building conviction beginning to replace the need for slumber. He could feel it tingling at his fingertips, every time he touched the pages. Hard to comprehend, yes; but only because there was so much to comprehend.
He doubted that Zexion had realised precisely what it was that he was handing to Axel, the moment that the cover had passed from the hands of one man to the other. If he had, he possibly wouldn't have given it over. Perhaps he was underestimating Axel's resolve. Or underestimating the book, maybe, as a mere work of fiction, little realising that... the more that Axel read, the more he was convinced that this was no mere fancy of man. Perhaps it had been written by man's hands, because of course angels didn't just leave texts lying around… but like a spirit of inspiration, perhaps one of them had visited the unknown author, guided his thoughts and words, helped to create something which would someday be destined to reach the eyes of one such man who would use it to further his knowledge, use it to… find out more about the elusive reapers.
It was less subjective than the prophet Riku's writings, less passionate, yet did nothing but fuel Axel's inner burn for … he knew that once he finished this one and returned it, Zexion would be reluctant to give him any further readings. He'd misjudged the man's receptivity, and feared that it would result in the book-keeper being conveniently unable to find any other volumes on the matter. He'd had a while to think it over now, and would either have decided Axel to be a deluded fool or a madman, he was sure. The power of his emotion – Zexion had been able to sense it, he had been too obvious. The monk would attempt to steer him away from the path of the reapers, allow the feeling to dull within the redhead, until he returned to being the same man he ever had been, without such an odd passion. He did not want that to happen; Axel didn't want to lose this. But after hearing such discouraging remarks about it, he didn't know how to go forward. He didn't know how to… not blaspheme God in the process of pursuing his desires. Perhaps Zexion had been right about this sort of thing being forbidden; this need, it was as powerful as any longing of the flesh. Was it a lack of discipline? Should he have been praying that the urge be taken, and its presence within him forgiven, like some sinful lust? He didn't know the next step to take.
Then came an afternoon, during this faltering of his confidence, in which he found himself down in one of the nearby towns, the hem of his robes swishing around his ankles as he led the monastery's latest novice around the marketplace. The air was cold, containing a sharp bite, while a morning's heavy rain had turned the world to sludge. Despite this, the marketplace bustled with bodies and livestock, loud voices piercing the air, wares being haggled and exchanged, children and animals darting in and out of the forest of legs that hurried back and forth.
Axel navigated the throng with ease, his height, along with his distinctive head of hair, increasing his visibility, the market-goers respectfully making room for the smiling priest and the blond novice lugging packages at his side. He listened to the huffing and puffing of his rapidly exhausted companion with some sympathy, but, even more, with amusement – he still remembered clearly the woes of being the Brothers' lapdog, and had no qualms in passing the favour on. They liked to call it 'character building' up at the monastery, and it seemed as if this boy needed a reasonable amount of it if he was going to be strong enough to undergo a lifetime of service to God. He was bright enough, certainly, and dedicated, earnest – but, sadly…
A pained expression twitching his bland, ever-present smile, Axel extricated his right hand from within his left sleeve, where he'd had it stored for warmth, and brought it around in a stinging clip to the back of the acolyte's head. "Demyx," he advised pleasantly through his teeth, "stop looking."
The blond, whining out a protest, twisted back from where he'd turned almost completely around to stare at one of the passing townspeople – as he had been doing absolutely every time anyone halfway attractive came along. He was threatening to give Axel a nervous twitch. This was the first time he'd been out and about with the novice, and he was half-convinced that eventually somebody was going to turn to the blond and punch him in the face for such blatant ogling of their daughters. Demyx, however, didn't quite seem to grasp this.
"It's only looking, though, there's no harm," he complained, on this particular occasion. Face brightening, the boy added, "He was cute."
"Are you talking about a man?" Axel's hand came around again in a castigating blow, eyes squeezing shut, Demyx yelping in response.
"Ow! He just looked like Brother Zexion, that's all…"
Smack. Axel's eyes leapt open, arm moving all of its own accord for a third time, barely pausing from the second, words grating out with half a disbelieving laugh haunting their depths, "You honestly have a death wish, don't you?"
Unhappily mumbling, the acolyte seemed to finally sensed his cue to fall silent and keep his eyes frontward, but not before having allowed the taller man the opportunity to bring 'death' into the conversation, however lightly mentioned it may have been.
These days, anything to do with death – any connection whatsoever – triggered the longing within Axel to know more about reapers. The two were synonymous.
To be honest, that death in any form should make him feel this yearning… he couldn't deny that it disturbed him ever so slightly. This was precisely this sort of thing that led to his doubting himself – yet it wasn't enough to put him off the subject. He was forced to hang in this crawling limbo, discomfort and need co-existing, until he managed to decide for once and for all which direction to choose. Sense, of course, dictated that this was little more than a hobby which had caught his imagination and thus sprawled out of hand – but then, sense had a voice remarkably similar to Zexion's within his skull. Of course, he understood that this had begun with mere interest and unravelled from there into what it now was… but what was it, exactly? Obsession? Fixation, fascination? Healthy, unhealthy, understandable or alien? He was in too subjective a position to be able to accurately decide, but knew now that objectivity lacked the understanding or compassion necessary to make a fair judgement.
Walking along the road with his hands back in his sleeves, the sun shining down from within its nest within the clouds, noisy activity all over the place… it was hard to imagine what the right outcome could be. Axel sighed, fearing that he'd never be able to find a definitive answer. With a glimmer of misdirected frustration, he noticed Demyx once again twisted in place, an unconscious step taken to the side, towards whoever it was he was staring at this time. Honestly, one would imagine the boy had been raised in a monastery, never mind becoming a novice at age seventeen. Axel lowered his chin, let out a sharp breath, and with a grimace prepared to twist the boy's ear until he squealed his promises of chastity, only to realise that in that brief moment of collection, the blond had begun to actually walk away.
Beginnings of genuine anger fluttering to life in his chest, Axel turned his head to deliver a sharp reprimand, only to let out an outraged exclamation as Demyx completely dropped his armful of packages, their brown paper outsides splattering directly into a muddy puddle, scattering messily. Ignoring his superior, Demyx took off at a half-run, but even as Axel's shocked gaze took in the sight of the ruined parcels, the urgency of the blond's motions had already touched his mind. He followed for several steps, unsurely at first, before spotting what the painfully observant boy had already long-noticed – an old man, across the marketplace, collapsed and gripping his chest, a young boy screaming at his side.
In the next heartbeat, Axel was running after the acolyte, packages forgotten, pushing and weaving through the market crowd. Reaching the quickly growing circle of onlookers, he forced his way through, a ripple passing through the townspeople as they realised the priest in their midst. A new respect entered the proceedings; the ring grew broader, bemused alarm turning to concern within the surrounding faces as Axel took to the damp ground beside where Demyx was already gathering the fallen man in his arms, attempting to prop him up against his knees. "Water!" the blond called anxiously to the crowd. "Somebody, get him some water!"
Turning to the nearest townsperson, Axel barked, "Find a physician!" Focusing his attention on the sufferer, he gripped the old man's chin, twisting his heavy head to face him, taking in the slack quality of his skin with a sinking sensation of dread. "Whose child is that?" he demanded, of the now sobbing youngster who struggled as a young woman in pink held him back.
"He belongs to Sir Jecht up in the manor, Father," she informed him desperately, bent double in an attempt to cling to the wildly thrashing blond child, who burst out, "Grandpa!" and then dissolved into loud weeping. Over his wailing, she continued, "Their family physician is Doctor Yen-Sid, he may be able to…"
"Fine," Axel cut her off, already standing, gesturing with his head for Demyx to follow suit. Looking distressed, the blond did as bidden, and the two of them hauled the old man up into their arms. "Please, lead the way to the manor." With the aid of one of the townsmen, they managed to carry the lead-heavy body uphill, out of the marketplace, tracking sodden mud across cobblestones. The woman, carrying the young boy who continued to cry quietly into her shoulder, quickly led the way, casting green-eyed glances of concern back at them every now and then as they struggled along with the man's bulk like a sack of potatoes between them.
The journey was not a lengthy one, the manor apparently the only one of its kind, located impressively in the very centre of the town across the main square, a tall, solid structure boxed in by a high brick wall. As they hurried down the front path, the door was opened by a confused-looking teenage girl in a yellow uniform, the woman with the braid rapidly calling, "Selphie, go and tell Doctor Yen-Sid that Sir Jecht's father has taken ill. Be quick!" The girl quickly leapt out to meet them, ushering them inside with suddenly frantic politeness before dashing off without a word, hair bobbing as she disappeared around the corner of the wall. "My name is Aerith Gainsborough," the woman threw over her shoulder at the men, "I bring flowers to the housekeeper daily, I know the family."
"Thank you for guiding us, Miss Gainsborough," Axel grunted as she led them to a dark-wood staircase.
"Not at all, Father," she worriedly replied, before ascending as lightly as a delicate woman could when holding a half-grown boy hanging in her arms. She glanced downwards as another of the manor's servants appeared, calling, "Vaan! Please go inform your master that his father is ill, and that the physician is on his way." Instantly picking up on the gravity of the situation, taking in the sight of the three men carrying the fourth, the slight boy with the pale hair vanished quickly back into the heart of the house. Aerith took them along a narrow hallway, then suddenly stopped and opened one of the many doors, urging them inside.
Axel found himself in a small, brightly-lit room, the fresh scent of what could only be the woman's own flowers filling the air from a vase over on the mantelpiece. "This way, lay him down carefully." Vexed, she stepped out of the way as they approached the cleanly-made bed and unburdened themselves. The third man, silent so far, went to draw the curtains, plunging the room into cool dimness. Gratefully, Aerith sighed, "Leon, thank you."
The taciturn male nodded curtly. "I'll be out of your way, then. I hope he recovers." The way he said it suggested to Axel that his expectations were far lower than his hopes, much in the same way that his own were. Both had seen the waxen pallor of the old man's flesh, and drawn their own conclusions as to how this day would end for one of the town's inhabitants. "Hand me the boy," the brunet added, "I'll leave him with the housekeeper."
Distractedly, Aerith unslung the blond from her chest, settling him on his feet and cutting him off before he could renew his tears by saying, "I hear Mrs. Potts has been baking, Tidus – you must go and stay with her, and taste what she has made. Doctor Yen-Sid will take care of your grandpa. You go on with Mister Leonhart now."
There was some sniffling, but the thought of food had done it – the men sent each other respectful nods of acknowledgement, then Leonhart took the boy's hand and escorted him back out into the hallway, pushing the door to rest against its frame. A new hush falling through the room, Axel stepped forward, offering, "Please, allow us to make him more comfortable."
"Oh, thank you," the woman sighed. "You're too kind, Father, and your companion as well." Demyx flushed at being mentioned, and followed the redhead quietly, Aerith shifting to support the old man's head as the two of them carefully pulled the blankets and sheets out from under him and repositioned them back on top. Tucking in the corners with the utilitarian efficiency taught by life at the monastery, Axel had him secured and warm within moments, a hand going up to feel his wrinkled brow. He frowned. "Hmm. Fever," he muttered.
Her hands clasped at her chest, Aerith let out a resigned breath. "He has a weak heart. He's a good man, his grandson is very fond of him. I wish it hadn't happened in front of him…"
"Children are resilient, Miss Gainsborough," Axel softly responded, then straightened, exhaling slowly as he returned his hands into his wide sleeves. "Is the doctor far?"
"No, no, in fact –"
"I live very nearby, Father Axel," a gruff voice announced from the doorway, startling the three of them, Demyx instinctively clutching the redhead's arm. Drawing himself taller, Axel frowned at the slightly bent, wizened-looking, sharp-eyed man that entered the room, clutching a large bag. His stare was piercing, absorbing the sight of the two clerics as he shuffled slowly towards the bed. "It's lucky that this happened when it did. Young Miss Selphie found me just as I was returning from my morning rounds, and it looks like all promptness is going to be required… although I was not aware that you inhabitants of the hill-top monastery were now also performing medical services."
"Forgive me," Axel said stiffly, "but you appear to be aware of who I am without my being able to return the favour."
"You have a reputation, Father. Your hair precedes you." As the priest blinked at this, the man added, "I am Yen-Sid, a physician in town. I will see what can be done for Sir Jecht's father, but I must request that you wait in the hall. You as well, Miss Gainsborough, I have no need of a hovering nurse. You must surely have other duties to tend to today, without adding a bedsit to them. The priest will stay, but only because clergy are meddlesome creatures." He placed down his bag on top of the bed, unclipping it and opening it up, ignoring the three of them now with caveat in place.
Aerith hesitated, but turned as bidden and followed Axel and Demyx out into the hall, where the girl in the yellow dress was already setting up two chairs. She glanced up as they appeared, a crease between her brows and a curtsey in her knees as she gestured to the straight-backed seats. "Yen-Sid said that you can wait here, um, Fathers…"
"Oh, it's fine, I'm not a priest yet," Demyx told her, managing to turn the simplest statement into the most shameless flirtation and causing the girl to go pink in the cheeks. Restraining himself, barely – the circumstances, for goodness' sake! – Axel gripped the blond's sleeve and yanked him close as he sat, saying grimly, "Thank you, child, we are most grateful."
The girl bobbed once more in respect and returned to her household chores, flipped-up hairstyle disappearing back down the stairs. Once she was gone, Axel sent the blond a glare, beckoning him down close with a finger. Swallowing, Demyx did as he was told, Axel looking as if he were about to hiss abuse into his ear – only to have his head, for the fourth time in a single half-hour period, soundly whacked with the broad of the priest's hand. Straightening the finger that had coaxed him near, Axel pointed hard at his face and muttered, "You will go with Miss Gainsborough and make sure she gets to her next appointment of duty safely, and then you will go and gather what's left of our shopping and return with it to the monastery. And if I hear," he added in a harsh whisper, green eyes hot, "that you have paused along the way to interfere with anybody, anybody at all – especially Miss Gainsborough – I will see you cleaning absolutely every triangle of stained glass within the chapel for three months. Do I make myself clear?"
Gulping, the novice nodded, eyelids fluttering slightly. Axel levelled him with a steady scowl, measuring his sincerity, before finally letting him go with a jerk. Expression clearing the instant the blond was out of the way, he smiled up at Aerith, who stood awkwardly nearby, evidently waiting to politely excuse herself from their esteemed presence. "Miss Gainsborough – as a sign of our thanks for your help, young Demyx here will be escorting you to wherever you next need to be. Please, if you need anything carried, heavy things that perhaps you were delaying for another time – do not hesitate to use him." Axel's smile turned sweet, and was answered in kind by the young woman's, though Aerith's sweetness was perhaps rather a bit more genuine than his own.
Dipping on her knee as Selphie had done, the brunette thanked him for his generosity, and departed with the suddenly gloomy-looking acolyte in tow, Demyx shooting one final, pleading glance over his shoulder before he descended to the lower level of the house. There was a scuffle of noise just as they reached the bottom, Axel half-lifting from his chair with a frown, only to lower back down as a well-dressed man with long brown hair in his late thirties came striding up the staircase, features set into an expression that seemed torn between anger and anxiety. Dark eyes settling on the red-haired ecclesiastic, he demanded with a rough voice, "My old man! Where is he?! Where's Yen-Sid?"
Maintaining a calm face, Axel pointed towards the door beside him, opening his mouth to speak only to flinch seconds later as the handle slammed to a halt a bare inch away from his face, the well-dressed man already storming into the room. "Dad! Yen-Sid, what the hell are you doing? Why is he sick?"
"Because he's sick," came the flat, matter-of-fact response. Then, raising his voice slightly, Yen-Sid called, "Father, if you are in fact still conscious, please push the door shut again." Axel hesitated for a moment, before poking the shining brass handle with his finger until it had swung back to the frame.
For several minutes afterward, there was an agitated muffle of voices from within, the louder obviously belonging to the master of the house, Sir Jecht, while the more cutting of the two was easily recognised as the physician's. Quite quickly, there was only Yen-Sid's voice remaining, before finally, silence returned. Axel pondered the possibility that they'd knocked each other out, entertaining himself with the various ways in which they might have done so while he waited, not entirely sure why he was still there at all. The doctor was here, after all – it was quite polite of him, the redhead supposed, to allow him to stay, because it would mean he wouldn't have to wait to find out the outcome another day – but Yen-Sid, despite his manner, hadn't really given Axel the opportunity to leave. It was curious, and a little unsettling. He felt out of place in such a luxurious setting; the house was very lavishly decorated, the family obviously moneyed. Accustomed to a much more austere environment, he felt awkward in such a place. However, if this was what was required of him, he would remain, at least until the time became a little ridiculous.
Resigning himself to the one thing that never really had been his forte – oh, patience, wicked mistress of order – Axel exhaled slowly, and let the minutes pass by. Somewhere nearby, a grandfather clock could be heard ticking, its heavy metronome seeming to compound time into a slowly trickling stream, as if an hourglass had been set before him, with every grain of sand falling to the bottom letting out another interminable, sharp tock.
At length, the door opened again. Axel's eyelids, caught at a half-mast stare of sightlessness, blinked, gaze coming up as, this time, the handle remained neutral and did not attempt to harm him. The man that emerged, quiet and efficient even in his motions, was Yen-Sid. The physician glanced down at him as he slowly slid the door shut again, an unimpressed grimace on his lips. "...Priests are getting younger," he muttered. He then heaved a weary breath. "But I saw you several times last year during the smallpox virus, Father, and so know you to be reasonably adept at what you do." Confusion spreading across Axel's face, the doctor turned to face him directly. "I leave him in your hands from here. There is nothing more that a man of science can do – his body is beyond the expertise of medicine. It's time for his soul to have its turn."
Comprehension… dawned. Axel's face dropped, a crease appearing along his forehead. "He's dying…?"
"If you don't hurry," Yen-Sid grunted, already turning away, his large eyes half obscured by their bushy brows, "you'll miss it." As he set off down the hallway, his voice drifted back in parting: "Go comfort him, Father. The man is awake, and frightened. I'm no good at this part. A man stammers that he's dying, and I tell him, 'Yes, you are. At least your memory's fine.'"
Moments later, the front door to the manor banged, announcing his exit, Axel still sitting in his chair and blinking. Then, as Yen-Sid's words sank in, he let out a small gasp, pushing to his feet and entering the room.
It was still dim, but Yen-Sid had evidently lit candles for visibility; they stood still, flames tall and silent above misshapen lumps of wax. It took a moment, in the hush, to locate the old man's son, Sir Jecht standing very quietly by the curtained window. It was still afternoon outside, but within the room, darkness had already long-fallen.
Axel stepped past the threshold, clearing his throat slightly to gain the dazed-looking man's attention, Sir Jecht's head swinging around as if it were heavy upon his neck, gaze touching only briefly on the red-haired priest before shifting over to the bed. Sadness welling in Axel, he walked over to where a chair had been set up at the bedside, the old man from the marketplace lying with his arms pressed against his sides on top of the blanket. His eyes were open, focused on the ceiling, and for a gut-wrenching moment, Axel thought he really had missed the event – but then, noticing the motion, the aged eyes slid towards him. As Yen-Sid had warned… there was fear within them.
Parting his lips, the man croaked, "Father…"
Over by the window, Jecht ran a hand through his hair sharply. "I'm… gonna go get my kid," he said, to no one in particular. "Gotta… make sure he's not still cryin'." In a mutter, he added, "Shit, he's gonna cry so much…" With a heavy sigh, he turned from the window and strode to the door, vanishing from the room, Axel blinking at his sudden lack of presence.
From the bed came a wheeze which could have been either a cough or a laugh. When his eyes returned to the patient, the old man said apologetically, "He doesn't express emotion well, Father. It's how I raised him. It would be better for him if he… missed…" His voice, which had been strained and thin before now, suddenly faded completely away. Looking suddenly less of a man, more of a child, he fixed his yellowed gaze pleadingly on the redhead. "What… comes next, Father? Where – will I go?"
Axel felt a slow throb in his chest, sorrow for this poor creature's uncertainty. Reaching out from his chair, he took hold of the nearest, spotted hand, held its coolness tightly within his warmth. "Surely to Heaven, for you have been a good and honest child of God. You have no need of fear."
The old man licked his cracked lips with a pale tongue, eyes slipping briefly shut, features contracting into a moue of gentle distress. He shook in Axel's grasp as he whispered, "Ahh… but… I am still afraid."
Axel's breaths were deep, even, though his heart began to beat more swiftly. Unable to give it thought, he kept his focus on the man in need, ventured cautiously, "…You fear because… you do not know what happens next? From the moment of death, to finding Heaven?"
His lips trembled, a swallow forced down. From under his closed lids, a tear appeared, glistening its way down his wrinkled cheek. He rasped, "I don't know. I'm simply… scared to die."
Squeezing his hand carefully, the priest let out a gradual sigh, his pity enormous. But… beneath it, there also resided a sensation of – peace. Because this man had no certainty as to what happened next, what happened once he closed his eyes with that finality that could not be undone, he was – terrified. Even as a child of God, he could not repress his feelings of doubt and anxiety.
Axel, however… was holding on to a tenuous certainty that told him, no matter what, that safety would be waiting on the other side of waking. His fingers twitching around the old man's, the description of the reaper Sora in mind, slightly hoarsely he said, "…You will be guided, my friend. There will be one to take you safely on. And he will be kind to you; you will not be afraid in his presence."
The dying man's eyes re-opened, the idea apparently appealing, his fear briefly overwhelmed by innocent, vulnerable hope. In their last moments, all of God's children were precisely this – merely children. "In – God's presence? God will meet me?"
The redhead paused, then nodded, the gesture slight but firm. "On the other side, God will meet you. At Heaven's gates. Between this bed, and that point, I believe a hand will be waiting."
For a long moment, the man stared at Axel, as if he hardly dared to believe it… but then, he nodded as well. The tension that had been in him began to drain away. Calmer now, he settled down into his pillow, and closed his eyes once again.
By the time Sir Jecht had returned with his blond son, the old man was no longer within the room. He had passed, with Axel holding his hand, and somewhere out of vision's limitations, someone else's had grasped the other.
As the priest readied himself to leave later on that night, having comforted the family, in particular the child, he reflected on the afternoon's events, and realised with placidity that he had reached his decision. There was, he thought, no such thing as right or wrong where his interest in reapers was concerned; if death were going to happen anyway, then there should be no harm in his paying it close attention. What he had was not merely a fascination that had raged out of control; it was a recognition that there were things in this world that could not necessarily be automatically known. For many… for one man, today… that created fear.
Axel… didn't want to suffer such uncertainty. It was easy enough to believe when one wasn't the one counting his last breaths; less so, it would seem, when the darkness was looming. He wanted to get to the root of this mystery, it had set itself a fire in his heart and mind, and he didn't want to just forget about it. He didn't want to end up an old man who lay on his deathbed and didn't know what was coming.
He would pursue this matter; and, if God favoured him, he would find his answer.