Xemnas pinched the bridge of his nose, contemplating how to negotiate a day that already seemed to have gotten off to a bad start. "Alright, would someone please explain what exactly happened here?" he asked. His eyes ran across the assorted members of Organisation XIII that were collected in the large round room. "Luxord?"
The gambler scraped his throat, somehow managing to look embarrassed and smug at the same time. "I think you'd better ask Demyx and Axel, Superior. It was their actions that started it."
"Fine," Xemnas sighed, with small irritation. He could feel a headache coming up. "Axel?"
"Why me?!" the flamewielder protested. "It was Demyx' idea!"
"You're higher in rank, I'm asking you and I'm losing my patience! Well?"
"Alright, alright." The redheaded Nobody heaved a sigh. "It's like this, well… Demyx had this idea for a prank…"
"You thought it was a good idea too!" Demyx started in. Xemnas glared at him and he fell silent.
"…this idea for a prank," Axel continued, unperturbed. "It involved Luxord's cards, so we sneaked into his room to get them, only he caught us at it and…"
He was interrupted again, this time by Larxene who was hanging limp over her chair, half-hysterical with laughter. "And he – ha ha – changed you into – hee – little children!"
"That was not my intention," Luxord spoke up. "I was only going to stop time around them, to prevent them from getting away. But something went wrong and time got turned back for them somehow." His lips twitched. "I don't see what the problem is. Surely these two pranksters can be more easily controlled this way."
The dull throbbing Xemnas could feel behind his eyes was definitely developing in a full-blown headache by now. For once he regretted his position as leader of Organisation XIII. He wished he was miles away – any world, anywhere but here, forced to deal with this absurd problem. He forced himself to look at the cause and centre of the problem, taking in the sight he would much, much rather be ignoring.
Luxord sat straight in his chair, smugness by now having scored a definitive victory over embarrassment. He was grinning wickedly at the two Nobodies at his side. Axel and Demyx looked very small and lost in their big chair, barely able to even reach the armrest. They both looked like children of about eight or nine years old – oddly vulnerable-looking in their diminutive Organisation coats. At least those had shrunk with them, Xemnas reflected. Larxene was still in stitches, laughing silently now. The other members of the Organisation bore expressions ranging anywhere from amusement to shock. Xemnas wasn't exactly sure where he ranked himself. He felt mostly exasperated.
"Find a way to change them back." He raised an eyebrow at Luxord. "I assume you can change them back?"
"To be honest, I have no idea. I obviously tried, right after… what happened. But I haven't been successful, or we wouldn't be here."
"Well, keep trying," Xemnas said. "Capture some Heartless and experiment on them for all I care. Vexen can help you. We can't send them on missions like this."
"Why not?" Axel shrugged. "Roxas gets sent on missions."
Xemnas sent him a glare that made him cringe, driving home the point of how much trouble he was in. "We can't send you on missions because we have no idea what happened or what more could happen – nor how it affected your powers. I'm not taking any chances." His eyes fell on the Organisation's newest member. "Roxas, you're in charge of looking after these two. Keep them out of trouble."
Roxas nodded, none too pleased with the order, but he wasn't about to protest. Axel and Demyx, however, felt differently. "Oh come on!" Demyx complained. "We don't need a babysitter!"
"On the contrary, I believe you do," Xemnas said icily. "And you'd better be at your best behaviour while we work on a solution to this problem you've created."
He did not see the glances the two boys exchanged behind his back. If he had, he might not have left that awkward meeting feeling quite as relieved as he did.
Missions were suspended until further notice. All members of Organisation XIII lounged about the castle that day, some happy to have a day off, others irritated at the forced idleness. But Xemnas, uncertain of any possible side effects to Luxord's unintended use of his time magic or how it might affect anybody else, did not want to take any more risks.
It did not take long for the boys to get in trouble again. Xaldin, strolling through the case, encountered Roxas, who was looking anxious and annoyed and running frantically through the corridor, almost colliding with the older man.
Xaldin grasped the boy by the shoulders, steadying him. "Whoa, there! What's the rush?" He noticed Roxas was alone. "And where are our two little delinquents?"
Roxas looked flustered. "They, ah, gave me the slip," he admitted. "They said they wanted to play tag and then they ran off in two different directions. That was two hours ago. I've looked everywhere, but I can't find them!" The young Nobody began to panic.
"Alright, calm down," Xaldin said. "Start looking again and I'll help you. I'll take the upper floors, you check the lower ones. We'll meet up in the mission room in half an hour whether we find them or not. Okay?"
Roxas nodded; somewhat relieved he was not left to face the problem alone. "I-I'll check the basement – again," he said and ran off. Xaldin watched him go, shaking his head, and walked away in the other direction.
Meanwhile, Marluxia was taking the opportunity of the unexpected free day to care for the plants in his room; then went to visit the garden, outside at the back of the castle. He went through the back gate, juggling various gardening implements, looking forward to a nice, quiet afternoon with his plants and flowers. He descended the steps leading down to the garden, and then… froze.
What should have been a wealth of plants, trees and flowers, smells and colours, was now… a pool, a large pool of steaming water, several foot deep, drowning all the plants and flowers Marluxia had so painstakingly planted, with such care. And in the middle of the pool, two little boys were playing happily.
Marluxia was struck speechless. "Wha- wha- wha…" he stammered, unable to form a single sentence. The boys looked up, grinning widely.
"Hot spring," Demyx explained calmly, as if Marluxia was the stupidest person in the world.
Xaldin arrived back in the mission room before Roxas did. Assorted members of the Organisation were gathered there. The two boys were not present in the room: still missing, the senior Nobody assumed. Larxene was lying comfortably on a couch, reading a magazine. In one corner Xemnas was talking to Saïx, who apparently was giving him the latest report on the progress of Luxord's and Vexen's attempts to reverse the rejuvenation process that afflicted Axel and Demyx. Judging from the look on Xemnas' face, the news, so far, was not good. Xaldin wondered if they knew yet that the boys had run off and if he should tell them. It might get Roxas in trouble, although the boy could hardly be blamed.
The decision was taken out of his hands through intervention of the most uncommon sight: two stark-naked little boys came running into the room, followed by an infuriated Marluxia – who had his scythe out and was waving it around indiscriminately, missing Axel by inches and cleaving a chair in half. The boys led him a merry chase around the room, jumping over tables, climbing over couches, darting around the other Nobodies, who were too stunned to do anything. Larxene had broken out in laughter again, hanging half off her couch in helpless giggles. Even Zexion cracked a smile. But Xemnas wasn't amused.
"Stop this at once!" he thundered. He raised himself to his full height, pointing at Marluxia, who was so out of control that he was foaming at the mouth. "Lexaeus, Xaldin – restrain him! Somebody grab those boys!"
But Demyx and Axel had already darted out the door again. Xaldin and Lexaeus both grabbed hold of Marluxia, forcing him to drop the scythe, which disappeared into nothingness. The Graceful Assassin struggled against his captors, but to no avail. The two older Nobodies were stronger and burlier than him and try as he might, he could not break free. "Let me go!" he raged. "I'll kill them!"
"That would certainly solve our problem," Xemnas stated dryly, "but not in a desirable way. Control yourself, Number Eleven! I can't have one of the members of Organisation Thirteen kill our own. Now would someone fetch those two boys?"
"Looking for something?" came a voice from the doorway. Xigbar strolled in, carrying a struggling, kicking little boy under each arm.
"Thank you," Xemnas said. "Now will someone please tell me what is going on?"
"They destroyed my garden!" Marluxia hissed furiously. "They will pay for that!"
Xemnas motioned at him to be quiet. He looked questionably at the boys, who'd given up fighting Xigbar's grip and were suddenly very busy looking everywhere but at their superior. Xemnas was rapidly losing what little patience he had left. "Well?!" he asked, venom in his voice.
"We decided to make a hot spring," Demyx said. "Outside. I created the water and Axel heated it up."
"But we didn't realise it was Marluxia's garden," Axel added.
"How could you not realise?!" Marluxia screeched.
Xemnas felt his headache returning.
"Alright," he said. "I think I get the picture. Number Two, Number Five – take Number Eleven somewhere and have him cool off. Number Seven – take care of these two." He indicated Demyx and Axel. "I'm going to hunt down some aspirin."
Saïx cast a silent "why me?!" at his superior's retreating back before getting to the matters at hand. "You can put them down now, Xigbar. Alright everybody – leave. We don't need an audience for this – not you!" He grabbed Axel by the arm as the boy, sensing freedom, was about to run after Larxene and Zexion. "Xigbar – a hand if you please?"
He exchanged glances with the Freeshooter and the elder Nobody, catching his drift, grinned, nodded and grabbed Demyx by the scruff of his neck. The boy, sensing danger, struggled to get free but to no avail. Xigbar dragged him over to a couch, sat down and dragged him easily across his knees.
Saïx did the same with Axel. The redhead, realising what was about to happen to him, was squirming across his lap, trembling. If Saïx had had a heart, it might have prompted him to take pity on the small boy; but as it was, he didn't – so the little delinquent was in for the spanking of his lifetime.
"N-no! Please don't!" Axel pleaded. "We're sorry!"
He was unable to say more as a loud smack echoed through the room. The boy bit back a cry, but he could not hold back a second one as Saïx brought his hand down hard, again and again, across his small bottom. After a few more minutes, Axel could no longer control himself and burst into tears. His behind was starting to feel very hot and painful and he was sure that by now it was as red as his hair. Across the room, on another couch, Demyx was getting the same treatment.
"What are you doing? Stop!"
Saïx, who had been about to wrap up the punishment anyway, halted and looked up to see a very shocked Roxas standing in the doorway. The boy was startled and wide-eyed, uncertain about how to react to this unexpected scene.
"Wait just a bit longer, Number Thirteen," Saïx said. "Your charges will be handed over to you in a moment."
He delivered twelve more hard swats to Axel's bottom (which by now was indeed very red) and then set the little brat on his feet. Xigbar did the same with Demyx. The boys wavered on unsteady feet for a moment, then ran to the only sympathetic person in the room – Roxas. They threw their arms around their babysitter and hid their faces in his leather coat, bawling uncontrollably. Roxas, unsure about what to do, put his arms around them both and hugged them tightly. Saïx let them cry for a moment, then scraped his throat to get their attention. Two very red, tear-stained, guilt-ridden faces peeked out at him from under Roxas's arms.
"Right now I'm not happy with any of you," Saïx said icily, his scathing glance not excluding Roxas, who ducked his head self-consciously and hugged the boys a little tighter. "Remember this punishment – if you start any trouble again, you will get worse. For now, you can go back to the garden, get dressed, and try to undo any damage you did. Roxas, see to it that they do. Report to me when you're done. Dismissed!"
"Yes sir!" Roxas could not leave the room fast enough. Grabbing the boys firmly by the hand, as if afraid that they would escape again if he let them go, he practically ran. Saïx shook his head; he secretly felt a little sorry for Roxas and he did not envy him the tast of looking after the two little delinquents. Or his own, for that matter – he shook his hand, which felt a little sore. Then he turned to Xigbar, who sat calmly on the couch, one leg across the other. The boys didn't know it yet, but they weren't quite done being punished.
Demyx drained the water from the hot spring and Axel dried the earth with his fire magic, but they weren't able to do anything else to undo the damage they did to the garden. Drowned plants were lying limp over the ground, flower beds were in ruins and only the trees seemed to have survived the ordeal more or less intact. Roxas surveyed the small disaster area with dismay. Marluxia was going to be pissed off for days.
"This'll have to do," he sighed. "Let's report to Saïx. You'll have to apologise to Marluxia later," he added sternly.
Demyx made a face. "Aw noooo!"
"Big Brother Roxas is no fun," Axel complained. He smacked Demyx on the arm. "Hey, let's pretend that we're pirates!"
"Haven't you two gotten in enough trouble for one day?" Roxas asked, having nightmare visions of two little pirates looting and pillaging the castle. "Do you really want to be spanked again?"
This sobered up the two little boys. Their hands flew to their bottoms, still red and sore after the harsh punishment.
"We'll be good."
They allowed themselves to be led back to the mission room without comment, although they lagged behind a bit when they entered, unsure of what their reception would be.
"Good timing," Saïx said. Some of the other Nobodies had filtered back into the room as well, but they paid the boys no heed. "Vexen and Luxord seem to have come up with something. Go to Vexen's laboratory at once – the sooner things are back to normal, the better."
The laboratory was not the nicest place to be at the best of times, but right now the smell coming out of the half-open door was particularly unpleasant. Axel and Demyx gagged from the stench and almost refused to enter. Roxas had to drag them inside.
Their eyes were watering from the smoke. Vexen and Luxord were wearing goggles; they were very hard at work on some kind of potion which made Roxas ill just looking at it. It was a sickly brown color and seemed to be boiling of its own accord: putrid vapour rose from the beaker. Zexion stood at the back of the lab, away from the smoke, observing the process with mild interest.
Roxas opened his mouth, but immediately started coughing. He got the attention he wanted though; the gambler and the scientist turned to look at the boys.
"You're here – good," Luxord said, pulling Axel and Demyx into the room. "Go sit over there," he pointed at some chairs in the back. "The potion will be ready in a bit: it just needs to cool down."
"Why do we need to sit?" Demyx asked, rubbing his bottom.
"I'd rather stand," Axel said, eyeing the door with longing. That potion stank.
"Sit down," Luxord said, pushing the boys down on the chairs. They both yelped.
"This potion's so potent it'll knock you off your feet if you don't," Vexen quipped. He lifted the beaker with some tongs and divided the foul-smelling liquid over two glasses. The boys eyed it with suspicion. "Are you sure this will work?" Axel asked.
"Well, we'll find out in a minute, won't we?" Vexen cackled. "And if something goes wrong – well, no great loss." He handed each boy a glass, which they accepted without enthusiasm. "Drink up."
Demyx sniffed at the liquid and wrinkled his nose. "Don't wanna," he whined.
Vexen suddenly became as cold as the ice he wielded. "Drink up – or else!" he hissed.
Both boys gulped down their drinks in one go.
"Ewuhhh… It's horrible!" Axel gasped.
Demyx couldn't even talk; he was coughing desperately, tears springing in his eyes.
"Is it working?" Roxas asked anxiously.
"I do believe they are growing a bit," Vexen said. "Are they?"
Luxord peered closely at the diminutive Nobodies. "I think – no. No, it's not doing anything," he sighed. "It's a dud, Vexen."
"We- we drank that horrible stuff for nothing?" Axel gasped, wiping tears from his eyes.
"Afraid so," Vexen drawled. "Come back in an hour or two – we should have something new to try out by then."
Demyx and Axel couldn't get out of the lab quickly enough. They were followed on their heels by Roxas, who was just as glad to be out in fresh air. He was starting to feel dizzy.
Inside, Vexen and Luxord had turned their attention back to the collection of chemicals and instruments that cluttered the table. Zexion, who had remained silent up until then, coughed softly.
"Vexen," he said. "Was that potion ever supposed to do anything?"
"Of course not," the scientist scoffed. "Something caused by time magic could never be undone by a simple potion. The answer lies somewhere in Luxord's powers. We just have to experiment a bit more."
"Then why - "
"We just wanted to teach those two a lesson." Luxord smirked. "Serves 'em right."
"I see," Zexion said. Shaking his head slightly, he left the room. Everybody was behaving childish today!
The boys were disgruntled to be told the news that they were to stay in their respective rooms for the rest of the day, but Saïx was adamant. "We obviously can't have you running wild in the castle in your present state," he said. "Poor Roxas' nerves are frayed enough as it is, to say nothing of the rest of us. Besides, you could use the time to reflect on your wrongdoings. Xigbar and I will escort you to your rooms now, to make sure that you get there. And no, I do not trust you to get there on your own," he added when Axel opened his mouth. "You can come with me now, Axel. Xigbar, will you take Demyx?"
The Nobodies left the room like two little prisoners and their wardens. Axel was sullen and moody as Saïx shoved him into his room. As he expected, the blue-haired Nobody locked the door when he left. The redhead flopped belly-down on his bed, wishing for something – anything – with which to occupy his mind. But the room was characteristically empty. There was nothing else to do for the young Nobody but to let his thoughts roam and – as Saïx had ordered him to – reflect.
Demyx' thoughts were equally dark and sour and would turn darker still. When he'd entered his room and was about to slam the door in Xigbar's face, the grizzled Nobody'd stepped forward, halting the door's swing with his foot. "Just a minute, young man. Give me your sitar."
"What? Why?" Demyx stared at him, horrified.
"Because we want you to think about the trouble you caused, not kicking back and enjoying yourself. Are you going to oblige or will I have to take you over my knee again?"
Grumbling, Demyx summoned his sitar and handed it over. He hated to be parted of his favourite instrument. Even more, he hated the idea of being locked in his empty room for the rest of the day without it. But when Xigbar closed and locked the door behind him, a sly grin crept across his face. If he could not leave through the door, there was always the window!
He waited for a bit until he was certain that Xigbar had gone back to whatever it was that Xigbar did, then sprang into motion. First order of business was getting his sitar back. He was sure the elder Nobody had hidden it in his own room somewhere. Demyx opened the window and looked out. It was a pretty steep drop, but he was sure he could make it to a ridge not far below. It would not be so much of a jump from there.
Climbing on the windowsill, he carefully lowered his feet until his toes could feel the ridge. It would have been easier if he had still been an adult: he could reach, but only just. He hung on to the windowsill by the tip of his fingers, then let go.
For a moment, he thought that everything would go as planned, but then his feet slipped. He lost his grip and went down, flailing backwards frantically as he fell through the air.
He landed heavily on his backside on the path outside, biting back a cry of pain. He was sure he was going to be bruised all over the next day, but – he checked – no bones broken. He grinned triumphantly. Did they really think they could keep him captured in his own room?
The boy made his way back into the castle, making sure that the corridors were abandoned, and ran to Xigbar's room. He was all but prepared to pick the lock, but to his surprise the door swung open easily. He could not believe his luck. It wasn't locked!
And there was his sitar, standing against the back wall in all its glory. Demyx couldn't suppress a cry of joy as he ran forward to be reunited with his beloved instrument.
The slam of the door nearly made him jump out of the window. Turning slowly, the young boy felt his blood run cold when he saw Xigbar leaning casually against the wall next to the door behind which he had been hiding, his arms crossed and a grim look on his face. Uh-oh!
"And what do you think you're doing?" the Freeshooter asked.
"Um – getting my sitar?" Demyx said flippantly, even though a small voice at the back of his mind whispered that maybe stating the obvious wasn't such a good idea right now.
"I thought so," Xigbar said. "Even though I made it abundantly clear that you couldn't have it?"
"Well… yes…" Demyx' eyes darted frantically across the room, searching for a way out. He yelped as he saw Xigbar coming from him.
The elder Nobody grabbed him firmly by the back of his coat, lifting him off his feet and carrying him like a kitten, back to his room. As they were about to enter, Saïx came 'round the corner. The Organisation's second-in-command halted when he saw them and lifted an eyebrow. "Déjà vu," he said. "Didn't you just deliver him to his room about an hour ago, Xigbar?"
"He escaped," the gunman explained.
"Ah. I'd better check on Axel then – he might have similar ideas. As for this one – deal with him as you see fit."
Saïx left and Xigbar carried a frantically struggling Demyx inside. "Alright," the Freeshooter said, putting the boy down and pushing him towards the wall. "Go stand in that corner and contemplate your misdeeds – all of them. I'll be here to make sure you don't escape again."
Demyx stared at him in disbelief. "You're giving me a time-out?"
"Unless you'd rather have another spanking?" Xigbar smacked him hard on the bottom and Demyx yelped and ran over to the corner, facing the wall obediently. "Um… how long am I supposed to stand here?"
"Until I say you can leave." Xigbar sat down on Demyx' bed and made himself comfortable.
Demyx risked a glance over his shoulder. "Are you sure you want to stay here all that time? Surely you'd rather…"
Xigbar gave him a pleasant grin. "I assure you, I can't think of a more entertaining pastime. Now face the wall and be quiet."
Demyx sighed and turned back to the wall, resigning himself to what would undoubtedly prove to be a very long and boring afternoon.
Axel did have the same idea, but different methods. He'd learned from previous experience that it was, indeed, possible to create access to the Dark Corridors from his room. He was sure that Saïx would not expect him to go to another world, not after he'd been expressly forbidden to do so by Xemnas. They'd never find him there!
Saïx opened the door just at the moment that Axel had created a dark portal and stepped through. For a moment, the blue-haired Nobody stood frozen in the door, astonished at the gall of the boy. But with only seconds to act, he didn't have time to think; he spurred into motion and jumped after Axel just before the portal closed.
Anger and irritation battled with concern as he came out on the other side. There was no sign of Axel – how could the boy have disappeared so quickly? He looked around and slowly started to recognize the place. Of course – Halloween Town. Of all the worlds Axel could have chosen, this was the one with the most risk of trouble.
As he walked down the lane to the town centre, he had to fight his way past an uncommonly large number of Heartless. This disconcerted him. What had caused the appearance of so many? Did Axel trigger them as he went past? Maybe he'd slipped by them unnoticed. If he'd had to fight them, Saïx would have encountered him by now. Feeling suddenly very worried, the older Nobody hastened on his way.
Axel might have evaded earlier Heartless, but they caught up with him at the town square. Saïx found him desperately trying to keep shadows and hover ghosts at bay. He realised now why Xemnas had been uneasy about sending Axel and Demyx on missions; while the boy's control over fire was as strong as ever, his small, childish frame had less strength and stamina than a grown man's body and his chakrams had not shrunk with him; they were large and unwieldy in the child's small hands.
At that moment, Axel saw him. "Saïx! Hellllp!" he cried. The older Nobody sprang forward, summoning his claymore and lashing out at the nearest Heartless. But more and more came, threatening to overwhelm them both.
Saïx saw Axel cry out and go down and the sight filled him with a boundless fury. He might not have a heart, but he had memories of having one; and the feelings and past attachments that came with it. And although he would never admit it to anybody, Axel was dearest to him of all members of Organisation XIII. They had entered together and knew each other from their past lives; however strained their friendship had become, that never changed. Losing him was… unconceivable.
His rage fuelled his power and the Heartless fell back before him. Those he didn't destroy at a stroke of his sword, fled – and soon Saïx was the only one left standing. Breathing heavily, he let his fury boil down to a mere mild anger. Which he reserved for…
Axel was lying on his back at the foot of a fountain, unconscious, but – Saïx found to his relief – still breathing. Yet he did not seem to be in good shape; he had deep gashes on his faces and bruises that already started to swell. Saïx knelt down on the cobble stones, pulling the boy on his lap and fishing around in his cloak's pocket for the potion he always carried. He forced the flask's mouth between the pale-faced child's lips and carefully poured some of the liquid into his mouth.
"C'mon Axel, wake up…" He fervently prayed he wasn't too late.
Axel coughed and struggled and nearly spit out the potion again, but he regained consciousness. Saïx sighed in relief and helped him sit up. The boy groaned in pain and the older Nobody made him drink the rest of the potion. The small redhead gulped it down gratefully.
Saïx held him tight for a moment longer, then relief began to make place for irritation. He heaved the boy to his feet and stood towering over him, a perfect picture of rage. Axel, sensing the sudden change of his mood, glanced up and then, after one short look at Saïx' furious face, quickly looked down again.
Saïx grabbed him by an ear, dragged the yelping, protesting boy down the lane and opened the dark portal. "Get in," he ordered. He followed immediately afterwards. They found themselves back at the castle.
"S-Saïx?" Axel said in a small voice. "A-are you very angry? I'm sorry!"
"Oh, not half as much as you're going to be," Saïx growled. He grabbed Axel by the arm and strode off. Halting in front of Marluxia's chamber door, he raised his hand and knocked.
Axel began to tremble in fear. "A-are you going to hand me over to Marluxia?"
Saïx looked down at the small, wide-eyed face looking up at him. "A tempting idea – but no. I doubt he would give you back to me after he's done with you. If there'd be anything left to give back."
The door opened. Axel yelped and jumped behind Saïx, clutching the other Nobody's cloak. Marluxia stood in the door opening. He seemed surprised to see Saïx there – then his face twisted with dark hatred when he noticed Axel, peeking out from behind Saïx' leg.
"Saïx," Marluxia drawled. "Have you changed your mind about letting me punish the boys?"
"Their punishment has already been taken care of, as you well know," Saïx said coolly. "However, this one seems in need of another lesson. Could you make me a switch or some such?"
Marluxia's lips curled into an unpleasant smile. "It'll be my pleasure." He disappeared into the room and returned far too quickly to Axel's liking, carrying a birch switch. He handed the implement to Saïx. "You know - if you need any help, holding him down or something…"
"No thank you, this'll do." Saïx reached behind him, grabbing hold of the hood of Axel's cloak and dragged him into view. "While we're here, Axel, I believe you have something to say to Marluxia?"
The boy seemed to wilt under the gardener's glare. He fidgeted and looked at the floor, as if hoping that a hole would open up and swallow him. "I-I'm sorry about your garden, Marluxia," he stammered. "Me an' Demyx both. We didn't mean to do so much damage. Saïx spanked me real bad for it," he added, hoping that this would mollify the other Nobody a little.
"Axel and Demyx dried out the area," Saïx said, forestalling any more awkward moments – or an answer on Marluxia's part, which would probably be anything but pleasant. "You'd better head down there and see what you can do about the plants. Meanwhile, Axel and I have… unfinished business to attend to."
The air was heavy with apprehension as the two Nobodies walked down the corridor leading to Saïx' room, which was closer than Axel's. Saïx was holding the boy firmly by the hand, but Axel was stalling, dragging his feet and sometimes coming to a full stop entirely, digging in his heels. Saïx had intended the detour past Marluxia's room to be as much a way to calm himself down as to get the switch, but now he could feel his anger and irritation returning. Finally he got fed up with it, twirled around and took the boy by the shoulders.
"Axel," he said. "I did warn you what would happen if you got yourself in trouble again. You've only got yourself to blame." He grabbed the boy's chin and forced him to look up at him. "Now listen. Any attempt at drawing this out, running away or complaining will result in your punishment begin twice as long and twice as painful. Am I making myself clear?"
It was amazing how complacent Axel could be, given the proper motivation.
The two Nobodies reached Saïx' room without further delay. Saïx made Axel go in first, then locked the door behind them. He sat down on the bed and drew Axel up over his knees, flipping up the boy's coat and gently pulling down his pants and underwear. Axel had been quiet up until then, but now he started to tremble uncontrollably. "Please Saïx!" he begged, clutching at the older Nobody's coat. "I'll be good, I swear! Don't hit me!"
"I'm sorry, Axel," Saïx said, placing his left hand on the boy's back, pinning him in place. "You should have thought about that earlier, when you had the chance. Now – why are you being punished?" He raised the switch high in the air.
"W-what?" Axel said. Saïx brought the switch down hard and a sharp, stinging sensation shot up the boy's rear. "Aah! F-for running away when I was told to stay in my room."
Axel cried out again as Saïx brought down the switch a second time, bringing tears to his eyes. "And?" the blue-haired Nobody asked.
"A-and… for going to another world when I wasn't supposed to. And for getting in trouble there. A-and – " The redhead halted – was there supposed to be more?
Saïx let the swats come down in quicker succession now, drawing a cry from the boy with each sharp twack. "You had me worried. I thought you were dead. Don't you. EVER. dare to do something like that again!" He accented every word with another twack from the switch, until the boy's bottom was redder than it had been after the first spanking. Axel was sobbing uncontrollably now, clutching at Saïx' leg and shrieking loudly every time the switch came down. He barely even seemed to notice when Saïx stopped, put the switch down and rearranged the boy's clothing. Saïx shifted the child's weight so that he was lying on the bed with his head cradled in his arms on the older Nobody's lap and let him cry there for a while. The blue-haired Nobody was starting to feel uneasy. How did one go about comforting a child after punishment? Roxas had made it look so easy… After some hesitation, he put his hand on Axel's hair and gently stroked the spiky locks. "There, there, Axel – it's over now. It's alright – I forgive you."
The frantic crying subsided into a quiet sobbing, interrupted by the occasional hiccup. Finally Axel had calmed down completely. His breathing came soft and even and Saïx noticed with some amusement that the boy had fallen asleep on his lap.
Quietly, not wanting to wake him up, Saïx shifted out from under him. He turned over the sleeping child, picking him up and laying him down more comfortably on the bed. Axel whimpered as his sore bottom touched the mattress, but he did not wake up and he soon settled into a deeper slumber. Saïx stood watching him for a moment, then went to fetch a blanket and covered the sleeping little Nobody, gently tucking him in. Smoothing the wild, red hair, Saïx bent over and kissed the child on the forehead, whispering softly in his ear.
"Sleep tight… little Lea."
Axel woke the next morning feeling as if he'd slept forever. He felt heavy and disoriented at first – why did his room look so different? Then he realised the heaviness he felt did not come from him; someone was lying next to him on the bed and had his arm lying protectively over Axel's chest. Saïx?
"Wha – " the redhead sputtered. He reached out, giving the blue-haired Nobody a mighty push which tossed him clear off the bed. "What are you doing in my bed?"
Saïx landed on the floor with an impact that woke him up instantly. "What are you talking about? It's my bed and you fell asleep on it! I didn't have anywhere else to sleep, so I lay down next to you. Besides which, you were having nightmares. I didn't want to leave you alone."
"Oh." Axel's memories of the previous day began to come back to him. He and Demyx had been changed into children, behaved like little brats and caused a lot of trouble for everyone. He remembered falling asleep on Saïx' lap too and he coloured with embarrassment. But somehow he felt different now. The bed seemed smaller than it had been the previous night, too. How…
He caught on. "Heyyy!" he said, jumping to his feet. Saïx, sitting on the floor, noticed too. "You've turned back!"
Axel stood up straight, stretching to his full height and relishing every moment of it. "Yup – looks like it," he said. "But how?"
"Ah," Luxord said. "The effect must have worn off. I thought it might."
Twelve pairs of eyes turned to him. "You knew – and you didn't tell us?" Xaldin said in a dangerously low voice.
Luxord shrugged. "I thought it was obvious – most of my time magic wears off after a while. To be honest, it was kind of a game for me to see how many of you would catch on. But in the end, only Vexen and Zexion did."
Demyx stood on his chair. "So all this time, with Axel and me not knowing if we were going to stay like that forever and Vexen feeding us that awful potion – and you knew all the time?!" he yelled.
"Suspected, not knew. It serves you right though. Remember it was you two who started all this trouble in the first place."
This shut the young musician up and he sat down again – carefully. Several smirks and glances were exchanged between the others in the room. It had escaped nobody that both he and Axel still had sore bottoms and had trouble sitting. Xemnas smiled slightly.
"Let's hope that that's the end of it and we'll not see a repeat of the trouble," he said. "Numbers Eight and Nine – let that be a lesson for you. No more ill-conceived pranks."
The troublemakers blushed and averted their glances. The meeting over, the Nobodies gathered in the room began to break up.
"That must have been the most troublesome day in the entire history of the Organisation!" Xemnas said with exasperation as he and Saïx walked towards the mission room.
"It was," Saïx said. "But at least it was lively. Be honest – don't you having those boys around?"
Xemnas stopped dead in his tracks. "Heavens, no. Demyx and Axel are bad enough as adults. No, I wouldn't miss those two little brats one bit!"
He marched on through the corridor, leaving Saïx standing still in the hallway. The blue-haired Nobody reflected on the events of the previous day and a slight smile slid across his face.
"I would," he said.
But softly, so no-one could hear.