KH2, Loveless. Saix/Vexen. Spoilers for Loveless vol. 4.

Xaldin is the one to summon him that afternoon. The castle is in a relative state of balance: workflows have been smooth, the worlds have been toppling like dominoes, and Saix's Berserkers have displayed admirable improvements in their combat prowess. Life has been relatively pleasant for the Lunar Diviner. While he can't say it's perfect -- a few things mar that definition, like the lack of his heart, and also Axel's mere existence -- he's managed to collect enough victories on his performance reports that he's almost content. Almost.

So when Xaldin picks up a thin folder and waves it at him, Saix's first reaction is, unfortunately, not to run away.

"This world's captured Vexen's interest," the lancer begins without preamble. "It's all he's talked to me about for weeks. It appears that there's a female scientist named Nagisa Sagan there who has artificially created humans that can feel emotions, but not physical pain. In other words, a perfect reversal of us -- but hardly new. We found a sample like that two worlds back, with all those florists." He tosses the papers down; they spread across the table like a splay of broken fan blades. "Naturally, Vexen requires additional data for his experiments."

Saix doesn't move. "Send a Dusk."

Hair rustles as Xaldin makes a slight, dismissive shake of his head. "Not so easy. Even though a connection to Darkness has already been established, the Dusks say they have problems maneuvering in that region. It'll require one of us to attend."

"Ah." Saix shapes the world like an expletive. "One of those worlds."

"He requested me, but I've decided I'm busy." Sweeping the papers together, Xaldin concludes the briefing by nudging the folder towards the berserker. "Enjoy."

- - - - -

Over the course of his employment with the Organization, Saix has come across his fair share of problem worlds. Showing up at the most inconvenient times, they're the ones that require direct attention -- usually because they harbor a particularly stubborn resistance group, or a strong connection to the Light. On rare occasions, it's because of fluctuations in natural laws, like only allowing children to fly and other multicolored nonsense.

Vexen gives Saix a skeptical glare when the berserker shows up on the scientist's doorstep, but after the expected grousing, he's convinced to pack. Both of them refuse to carry the luggage; Saix only relents when Vexen agrees to leave half his books behind, and all the tables of equipment.

The transition to the world is predictably rough. The passage through Darkness blurs in bursts of static. The white and black of the Nothing emblems seem to fritz, dissolving into letters, and then into words. Saix sees a few of them streak by, utter nonsense when lumped together: kiss, god, butterfly.


They land in on the rooftop of one of the taller buildings -- one of many in the sea of city architecture surrounding them. Noise from the streets below filters up, chattering in a vast stew of honks and shouts and chimes. Vexen doesn't spare their surroundings a second glance; he's already unlacing the cover of his supply pack, searching through files with whisper-quick fingers.

Something feels odd inside Saix's jacket. Something twitches on his skull. Disconcerted, Saix reaches up, jerking his fingers away as he touches something soft that flinches, and leaves him with the sensation that someone has just dragged a fingernail across his scalp.

Ears, he realizes. An extra set.

Wary of whatever else might have been inflicted on him, Saix yanks on the zipper of his jacket, until he can reach his hand into the leather and fumble blindly. His hand touches something soft and squirming; coiling around his fingers even as he feels the jolt of nerves running up his spine.

A tail.

Traveling from world to world is a process that involves certain criteria. It's not as simple as just stepping through one door and exiting another. After all, suddenly appearing in the middle of a country while unable to speak or read its local language, digest the cuisine, or even remotely resemble the dominant life forms would be enough to stop any exploration in its tracks. Dying immediately upon entry tends to discourage tourism.

Magic does much to help out automatically with that. Darkness itself is eager to lend a hand, bridging worlds together, encompassing all things in its depths. Whenever Saix uses one of the corridors, Darkness wraps around him cloyingly, enveloping him in a thin layer of disguise -- shapes, clothing, basic features. Like a virus might fool an immune system, the Organization has the vital responsibility of fitting in.

Sometimes, Saix doesn't need the disguise; he refuses to let it stick and change the color of his jacket and hair. Other times, it's easier to let the Darkness have its way. The berserker has gone through stranger transformations than ears and a tail. There have been height alterations, hair and weight. One world had turned him into an platypus.

But what is bothersome about this particular transition is the disparity between himself and Vexen.

Vexen -- unfairly enough -- does not have a tail. Vexen does not have ears. Nor does he seem to care. Vexen, in fact, looks completely normal.

Saix, overcome by the urge to poke at his own tail and watch it flick irritably, finds Vexen's lack to be unfortunate. "Others would take this as an opportunity for hilarity," he observes dryly, watching the appendage shiver away from another prod.

"Yes, but we're creatures of business." Completely ignoring Saix's predicament, Vexen unfolds a laminated map, puzzling over a tangle of colored subway lines. "We're not here to have fun. The Dusk scout we sent said that the specimens often pass through this shopping district together in the afternoon, though they attend classes during the day at separate institutions. If we want to catch them both, it would be most efficient to do it within that timeframe. There's a river nearby that we can lure them to. Let's go."

The intention is easier said than done. Vexen's spells are erratic; half his incantations only sputter. The rest get snarled, spitting up bursts of wind instead of ice. Saix doesn't experiment; he watches Vexen risk getting his own fingers blown off, and stays a careful distance away.

When Vexen finally opens a portal that manages to remain stable for over ten seconds, they both stare at it warily. Saix has been through too many dark corridors that dropped him in unexpected places. He lets Vexen reach out towards it first.

When the scientist touches the surface of the doorway, it wobbles.

Immediately, Saix looks for the nearest service stairwell.

Intending to play it safe, they do everything mundanely. The first order of business involves lodgings. The hotel room that they bargain for is expensive, but immaculately clean; folded cotton robes are stacked on their beds, sashes tucked into decorative shapes, placidly waiting to be picked up. Saix didn't pay much attention to the bill -- Vexen insisted on handling that -- but just looking at the tidiness of their sleeping quarters helps him realize they're paying for each luxurious, tidy minute they spend there.

Absently, he wonders if the maid service charges by each grain of dirt.

As soon as he thinks that, he realizes that he wants to see the room utterly despoiled.

- - - - -

Having already decided that the best way to endure this assignment with Vexen is to be involved as little as possible, Saix sets about this task with determination. It's not his best idea of a productive mission, but since he's glorified bodyguard service -- it's that, or be regulated to mere fetch-and-carry -- he might as well scrounge enjoyment where he can.

After they shove their luggage in the corner, not bothering to even unpack, they head down to the shopping district that the Dusks have scouted out. While he is impatient to get the job over with, after being confronted by Vexen's foul temper, Saix is guessing that the only satisfaction he'll get out of the entire trip involves keeping his composure. In comparison to Vexen's tendency to fuss and fidget and express annoyance at the drop of a hat, the berserker is a saint.

They take up position outside one of the department stores, trying not to be too obvious at how they're scanning the crowd. Faced with an unnecessarily large amount of curious stares from pedestrians, Saix chooses to turn around -- only to be confronted by rows of pastel-draped mannequins, swathed in excessively flouncy skirts. A few of them have sequins.

"Here." Vexen's hand thrusts a welcome distraction his way in the form of photographs.

Saix takes them, and gets his first good look at their targets.

It's a pair of girls, still of schooling age, both in skirt uniforms of different colors. Like Saix, the dark-haired one has a pair of ears; like Saix, the look of total unenthusiasm looks to be well-settled into her expression, her face turned away from the camera, the lenses of her glasses reflecting the light. The name Koya Sakagami is scrawled in marker across her knees. The girl next to her, labeled Yamato Nakano, is blonde, earless, and smiling. Though the two of them aren't directly touching in the pictures, Saix can still see a connection in the way that the dark-haired girl behaves: standing between the blonde and the open street, frozen by the camera lens into a silent, eternal guardian.

Saix knew they were hunting teenagers, but he hadn't bothered to invest any great interest in the details -- assuming that the less he paid attention, the sooner the job would be over. This pair doesn't seem too difficult. He examines the photos with only passing curiosity before handing them back. Leave it up to Vexen to have an obsession with the underage, he thinks. "Are we capturing them, or simply killing them?"

"At this rate?" Vexen fusses with his folder, pinning the photos back underneath a paperclip. "We'll be lucky to even perform analysis. I'll be satisfied if this trip isn't an entire waste."

There's only so long that Saix can spend looking at frilly dresses without seeming perverse, or lonely, or both. He turns around to stare back at the crowd instead. Tails and ears pop out to his eye like mushrooms. It's odd that not everyone has the same physical characteristics. Vexen does not; most of the other adults that Saix can see do not, while all the children do. The teenager bracket is a mixed range.

A mark of physical maturity, he thinks sourly, not unlike a voice cracking, or thinning hair. That would explain why some of the adults still possess the dissimilar marks, though they are far in the minority. It would also explain the strange looks that Saix continues to earn. Wonderful. They must think I'm a eunuch.

Beside him, Vexen flinches. The scientist recovers quickly before Saix can inquire, lifting a hand to his head. "I sense something." Then Vexen frowns. "But I can't define it. It's not like the presence of Darkness."

"Then what is it?" Saix asks him.

"Something -- something coming closer." Cued by his intuition, Vexen turns his head to the left, scouring the crowd until he stops, shoulders tensing. "There."

Surprisingly, the pair of girls peel away from the crowd of their own free will. The way that they walk directly towards them is disconcerting; Saix hadn't realized he and Vexen were so obvious, though in retrospect, it might have been the matched black jackets that cued them as strangers.

The pair aren't shy. They come to a halt just in front of Saix and Vexen; both sides assess the other in silence as clueless shoppers flow by. Finally, the blonde girl -- Yamato -- jerks her head towards the outskirts of the crowd, waiting for them to step forward before she continues to move.

They lead Saix and Vexen out of the tangle of bodies and plastic merchandise bags, weaving through streetlights until they trail to a halt near a murky, burbling canal. The dark-haired one speaks first. "What are you two doing here?"

Still puzzling out why the teenagers aren't doing what should be logical -- there's no reason they should be expecting Saix and Vexen, and if so, there's no reason why they shouldn't be running away -- Saix offers back a bland stare. "Looking for you," he answers truthfully.

The blunt response causes the black-haired girl -- Koya -- to square her shoulders. She doesn't seem surprised. "Very well. We are Zero. What is your name?"

"Vexen," the scientist snaps, not to be outdone by Saix's linguistic skills. "And the flunky beside me can be called Saix."

"Your team name," Yamato corrects. She rocks back on her heels, coiling her finger around a lock of her hair, twisting it up like a spring. "I don't see it on you anywhere. Is it located somewhere private?"

Vexen doesn't rise to the teasing. "The Organization."

"What a bizarre name." The blonde releases her hair, sliding her hand free. "The Organization? I haven't heard of this team before." She shrugs. "No matter. If you're challenging us, then we accept. Koya?"

The dark-haired girl nods once: a brisk, confident motion. "Battle systems engage."

Instantly, the world darkens. Power expands around them in a sphere, widening in a soundless explosion -- like a prison, or a Gravity spell before collapsing. Almost instantly, the bubble closes, capping them inside a world of inversions, of black sky and emptiness.

Saix's breathing seems to echo, ringing strangely in his ears. He whirls, taking small steps to turn himself around like a dog in a cage. Other than himself, Vexen, and the two girls, there are no other people nearby. A containment field, he assumes, since the spell hasn't yet tried to crush him. At least we can hope we won't be interrupted.

Koya reaches up, slipping off what Saix realizes is a pair of artificial ears. She tucks them away in her bag almost thoughtfully, like a knight concealing his lady's token before a joust. "Since your Fighter seems reluctant, I suppose it falls to us after all. I declare a spell battle!"

"Declare all you want," spits Vexen. The scientist doesn't look outwardly shaken, but Saix can guess that this sort of confrontation is not what the other man had in mind. "It won't change your fate."

This response, oddly, causes the dark-haired girl to arch an eyebrow. "Not bothering with formality, I see."

"It's good enough, Koya," the blonde orders. "Let's see what they can do!"

Vexen starts first. With an arrogant jut to his chin, the scientist waves his fingers; Saix recognizes the motion as the prelude to a warding spell. Ice fizzles and snaps around Vexen's arm. The light that coils from his wrist does so with the hypnotic grace of a snake, writhing with murderous promise.

No shield forms.

Realizing that he'll have to work after all, Saix takes a step forward. Automatically, he extends his own hand, willing his sword to manifest.

Nothing happens.

For a moment, completely baffled, Saix stares at his empty fingers. It's impossible for the weapon to disobey. As a manifestation of his control over Darkness, it should respond directly to his unspoken command. The only way that it could refuse is if Saix no longer had his powers.

Unless the Darkness is ignoring him completely.

He tries again, focusing hard on the image of the blade gathering itself against his palm. His arm shivers with tension. Finally, the distinctive lines of the sword begin to fade into view -- but they do so oddly, refusing to hold their shape, fading away as quickly as they manifest. Finally he loses patience and snaps out, "Stay."

This seems to force it to heed. The weapon drops into existence so suddenly that it nearly wrenches his hand off, the weight of it coming by surprise. Its tip rakes across the ground.

Both girls are watching him now. Yamato is smiling, something cruel playing about the curve of her lips; Kouya's mouth remains fixed in a serious line. Behind her glasses, her eyes narrow. "Some Fighter Unit you are. Did you forget how to cast anything longer than one syllable?" The question seems to give her inspiration, for she launches into another speech, this one sharp and lyrical. "Forget your spells, forget all things completely. The blackness of a empty mind. Absolute zero engulfs you. Absolute zero wipes everything away! Restraint!"

Too late, Saix recognizes the cadences of what must be magic, realizing that it's not a simple taunt only when black energy rises like mist around him. It doesn't feel like Darkness, but he's not sure; it doesn't respond to his mental command, makes him feel like he's batting uselessly at the wind itself. His head is buzzing.

His sword -- lacking his concentration -- vanishes.

Spells are more Vexen's forte -- but when Saix looks over, Vexen is struggling in his own way, a chain linking his wrists together, leather manacles on his arms. His teeth are visible, clenched in pain.

It's better to have the magics expert free, so Saix wheels back and tries to rip off the chains with his own hands -- but touching them makes his nerves ache, hammering through his skin like the merciless warning of a hot stove to a child's paw. He whirls too late, and sees forks of lightning splitting towards them, multiplying like rivulets in a flood. When he tries to charge forward, the spell bats him aside, sending him staggering back.


Vexen screams. The high-pitched howl sounds like an animal being set on fire. Chains lock the scientist's arms to his sides; chains wrap around Saix's throat next, weaving glowing blue lines that rattle when he moves, around his neck and both wrists. Each link feels like cold fire. But there's no blood, no blistering, and that's the worst part of it all: Saix doesn't know what's hurting Vexen. He doesn't know how to stop it.

Yamato chants word after word, verse after verse. Flames burst around Saix; he can feel the pain, but his clothing doesn't burn. Illusions, he decides -- but then blades of ice lance out, and his skin slices, dripping down blood, real blood. Feedback. That's dangerous enough to kill just as effectively.

With a final cry, Vexen crumples to the ground. Chains weigh both of them down; Saix is bent nearly double with the burden of them, down on one knee and barely managing that. The bindings paralyze him wherever they touch, fusing his muscles to his bones, making each breath of air into a struggle. Cloth ribbons compress his ribs. Everything hurts.

He hears the mocking laughter of the blonde girl in his ears. Koya remains serious, though scornful, her gaze unflinching. "We win."

Yamato leans down to where he's kneeling. "Don't bother coming back for a rematch," she coos. "We'd just beat you again. It's pathetic when adults don't know their own limitations."

"Come on, Yamato," Kouya says impatiently to the blonde, but she waits for her companion to join her before she turns away.

As the two girls disappear back towards the shopping district, the barrier peels away, gone as harmlessly as milkweed fluff. The chains melt and vanish. There's no mark on Vexen's throat from the shackle, but the scientist is still shivering, still twitching. He doesn't respond when rolled onto his back.

"Vexen," Saix pants, pulling at the scientist's torn jacket, wondering if there's a wound opened up on the inside, concealed by leather. For a second, the berserker's imagination goes scarlet with a vision of unzipping Vexen's coat and being confronted with the man's exposed organs -- as if the jacket is the only thing keeping Vexen's innards together, and peeling it off will be like peeling Vexen's skin.

But the scientist is miraculously intact. There's a button-up shirt and pants and only minor surface wounds. None of that explains why Vexen's eyes are shut tight and his convulsions are becoming weaker and weaker by the moment.

Saix pulls off more of the jacket, moving up to check Vexen's back, Vexen's chest, before he catches sight of a word blazoned on delicate, pale skin. The letterforms are dark with ink, like a tattoo that penned by quill. The word runs letter by letter down the inside of Vexen's left arm, following delicately along the veins and tendons from hand to elbow, rather than sawing across the wrist: a suicide's preferred cut.


- - - - -

Vexen is dead weight. His muscles are slack; his limbs roll and flop. His skin is the same temperature of his shredded clothes, both freezing to the touch. Saix can tell that he is alive only because of the shallow rhythm of his chest breathing in and out, the occasional spasm of his throat as his body tries to swallow down its own pain.

The hotel workers politely avert their eyes as Saix hauls his burden through. The hallways are deserted. The elevator chimes dulcet pleasantries. He fumbles with the keycard, jams it in backwards, shoves open the door with his hip. Vexen remains limp in his arms, unresisting. Saix tries hard not to think about it.

The knob in the shower squeaks as he cranks it up. Working with the same methodical grimness that he reserves for executions, Saix strips the remains of Vexen's jacket off and dumps it on the floor. The leather is in ribbons. Steam fills the bathroom in undulating waves. Moisture greases his hair to the back of his neck as the spout gurgles forth hot water, filling the tub.

He doesn't waste any more time. After testing the water to make certain it's not scalding, Saix dumps Vexen into the bathtub while still clothed in the remains of what was once a set of tunic and slacks. Liquid sloshes over the edge; it coats Saix's thighs and drips down his jacket, puddling around his boots. Vexen's eyelids twitch, but don't open.

The first thing that comes to hand is a small scrap of towel off the rack, carefully fluffed and stitched in clover-leaf patterns, and never meant to wash anything bigger than someone's cheek. Saix yanks it down, dunks it in the water, and starts to work it over Vexen's body with all the dignity of a wet rag. There are no deep wounds that he can see. Apart from shallow cuts, there's no damage anywhere, no mark save the word running along the inside of Vexen's arm -- an ebony brand of letters, each stroke precisely shaped -- and that's the confusing thing, as if the pain that crippled Vexen had originated entirely from within. The lack of bruises leaves Saix staring at Vexen blankly, not knowing what he did to hurt him.

Suspicion hits him in a rush. He drops the cloth on the side of the tub; it lands in a sodden pile, oozing slowly down the side into the water as he tears at the lacings of his jacket. The zipper snarls when he gives it a hard jerk. He struggles out of the black leather, and yanks up his sleeve to expose his left arm.

The same word is printed on him. He's a perfect match. Hopeless.

- - - - -

Vexen is different after that. He's snappish, prone to staring off into the distance; he picks up things from the writing desk, from the sidetable, and puts them down again aimlessly. He can't have pride, but what fills in the gap is close enough that Saix could be fooled.

They've come right in the middle of the holiday season. The weather hasn't started to snow yet, but everywhere there's a healthy dose of cheer -- particularly with the merchants. This world will celebrate its Christmas soon.

The two girls -- the Zeroes -- have disappeared. Their owner, Nagisa, can't be tracked. If the Dusks were in better capacity, it would be simple; if the Darkness listened to them, everything would be simpler, but this world seems to demand being addressed in different ways. It wants to be spoken to, to be wooed with poetry rather than incantations, and that's not a method that either Vexen or Saix understand.

Vexen spends an entire day just using words for opening simple latches, until he blows the door off the bathroom while Saix is shaving.

The Dusks remain useful, pilfering funds to help pay for the lavishly over-expensive hotel, fetching replacement jackets to replace the ones that the Zeroes ruined. After enough stomached not-pride, Vexen sends a message back to Xaldin via one, though the wiggly creatures can't seem to find the Zeroes. They scramble through the cities, getting lost and offering conflicting reports of what they see. Like Saix and Vexen, they're not in harmony with this world. They don't speak the right language.

Ordered to stay close to the hotel, Saix exhausts the list of television channels. He becomes well-acquainted with the gap-toothed storeowner of the nearest corner shop, who seems tickled that Saix doesn't mind browsing through the thick comic book magazines. Their hotel is stocked with a variety of luxuries, ranging from the writing desk in the corner to the plush armchair with a matching lightstand. The managers smile and bow when Saix starts renewing their rentals on a weekly basis -- though the staff is deferential enough that Saix assumes they wouldn't put up a fuss even if Vexen danced naked through the halls.

All told, Saix can think of worse situations to get stranded in.

The only downside, really, is Vexen.

After one evening spent pawing through frozen convenience store snacks, Saix trudges back to the hotel with a stack of illustrated comics for businessmen on the go. There, he discovers that Vexen has picked up one of the promotional brochures from the side table, and is flipping through the photographs of everywhere they don't plan to be. Beside the scientist is a thick book, freshly torn out of its packaging; brown paper and string are discarded to the side, A letter rests on top; Saix gingerly reaches out to pick it up.

When Vexen doesn't bite his head off for intruding, the berserker turns the page around and scans the brief words.

Your current difficulties sound fascinating, he reads. Xaldin told me you could use some assistance. I hope this anecdote comes in handy. Regards, Zexion.

When Vexen doesn't speak up to explain what's inside the book, Saix decides to pursue a different tactic. "When you were tied up like that," he asks, curious, "what happened? How bad was it?"

Vexen stiffens. He turns away from Saix, presenting the berserker with the cold line of his shoulders. "I don't want to talk about it. And," he adds abruptly, still speaking to the wall, "I don't want to go through it again."

- - - - -

Vexen's determination is put to the test all too quickly. The next team finds them on their own initiative; one minute, Saix is in line at a cafe trying to figure out the menu, and the next, he's flanked by two teenagers who already have their drinks. He's stubborn enough to make them wait while he navigates the options of espresso, flavor, and foam.

They gather in the nearest alleyway, shrouded between the trendy stores. The teenagers -- who introduce themselves as Sleepless this time -- smirk into their lattes. "So you're the really awful team that teacher told us about? You don't look like much."

Saix blows steam from his cup. "Where is Nagisa Sagan?"

"I don't know if I should answer an adult who still has his ears." The girl presses the back of her hand to her mouth to stifle a mocking giggle. "Are they real?"

When the fight begins, Saix charges her first.

He doesn't bother with complex strategy this time, focusing instead on keeping his sword tangible. When the first spell comes up -- blistering winds, as hot as an oven, parching his skin and burning his lungs with each breath -- Saix braces the sword crosswise in front of him, seeking to ward again the worst of the force. It helps just enough to allow him to keep searching for an opening, weathering the buffeting storm.

Saix grits his teeth. His mind hums with two words interspersed crazily together, sword and stay, like a broken prayer that forgets everything else in its desperation. He lunges forward, the blade trailing splinters of itself as he cleaves through gouts of fire.

Too late.

The winds treble in force. Flame roars from the ground like a behemoth rising, rolling in waves off the black-void walls of the alleyway. Saix's eyes narrow into slits as he's battered. Disoriented by the comet trails blossoming around him, he loses sight of his targets; when the inferno dies down, the two kids have dodged away.

"Fight properly!" the girl yelps; she's clutching the boy, both of them huddled together beside a trash can. "Don't you even have a bond with your partner?"

"You both are crazy!" the boy adds. "You're trying to kill us!"

"That's generally the point!" Vexen snaps back, only to yelp as a flurry of razor-sharp needles jet through the air, peppering exposed skin.

But somehow -- despite Saix's aggression, Vexen's wit -- they lose again. Spells leak through. Vexen's defenses fail. Saix can't protect him. They both end up struggling in a web of restraints, laden with chains and leather straps, locked in place so efficiently that they might as well be paralyzed.

The Sleepless pair leaves them sprawled on the ground. Vexen's out cold. Saix is in nearly as bad a condition, every muscle in his body aching from the touch of the chains. They're both bleeding from the final assault.

Vexen stays unconscious while Saix examines the nicks on his face and throat. He finally comes alive when Saix starts to undo his pants, searching for more of the shallow cuts. Jerking awake with a shudder, the scientist's eyes bolt open, one hand lashing down to slap around Saix's wrist like a fresh manacle.

Back in their hotel room, Saix flops down on the freshly-turned sheets of his bed. He doesn't bother to take off his coats first, letting his muddy boots rub against the covers. By tomorrow, they'll be clean again, replaced by the endless maids.

"I'm just saying that if we can't use spells, they shouldn't either." Dabbing at his cuts with a handtowel, Vexen dips the cloth into a bowl of warm water, wringing out the drops.

"Being beaten by little children like this is humiliating, Vexen." While he doesn't take offense as personally as the scientist -- Saix has seen Roxas fight, and has a healthy respect for power despite outer packaging -- the berserker can't say he's happy with it either. Rolling off the bed, he punches the buttons of the small coffee machine on the writing desk, watching as it starts to burble.

Behind him, Vexen sucks air sharply though his teeth as blood begins to seep through the cloth, tinting it with salmon clouds. "I don't want to admit defeat."

Saix shoots him a skeptical glance, torn between being amused and unimpressed. "How can something without a heart have so much pride?"

"Because it's what I remember best," Vexen snaps. "What about you? You can't tell me you don't remember anything from your past."

Caught reaching for an empty mug, Saix finds his thoughts dip treacherously backwards, winding back time like thread on a spool. Axel's face flickers across his mind.

"No," he answers. "I can't."

He pours a second cup as a peace offering, grabbing packets of sugar and cream to carry over to the scientist. "We have to find the right words to get home," he reasons. "'Hopeless.' Lacking hope?"

"It means pathetic," Vexen snorts. He accepts the coffee, claiming both packets and methodically ripping them open to dump into the liquid. "Hopelessly outmatched, hopelessly ignorant -- powerless would have been a better choice. What kind of game is it when the word itself has two different implications? It's as brilliant as naming the Heartless all over again. 'Yes, Ansem,'" he quotes mockingly, "'Let's name creatures made of nothing but hearts the Heartless. You're such a good researcher.'"

Tactful enough to sidestep matters of personal history, Saix offers the wastebin towards Vexen for the empty packets. He's already starting to learn that when he stays calm, Vexen cools down that much faster; there are ways to manage the scientist, which mostly involve being subtle enough that Vexen doesn't notice he's being redirected. "There's still a great amount of Darkness on this world. But it doesn't recognize us yet. Perhaps because it doesn't yet respect our strength."

Vexen snorts. "That's nonsense. The Darkness is universal. That's part of its charm -- "

" -- and we aren't creatures of Darkness," Saix interrupts. "We're Nothing."

Stymied by logic, Vexen opens his mouth and closes it again fruitlessly.

Saix takes another sip from his cup, claiming the armchair and wedging the ottoman beneath his legs. "If we're stuck here for long enough, the Organization will send someone else to help get us out. Since we don't want to have a third member stranded here too, let's focus on being able to escape first. We can come back for the Zeroes later. All right?"

The tactic works. Vexen's irritation slowly ebbs. Steam trickles out of the coffeemaker's carafe, and Saix lets the heat from his mug seep into his bones, loosening his muscles like a balm.

- - - - -

It's cold the next day. By mid-afternoon, snow is starting to trickle down from the sky; the haze of lights and overcast clouds makes it almost impossible to guess at the exact time, with only rough estimates between noon and night. Saix sits at the window for most of it, debating what they'll do if they can't get back to the World That Never Was. Logically, he should be depressed about it -- but he doesn't have the emotion of despair, only the memory of it, which makes it worse. With only a memory, there can be no resolution, no fixing. All it does is play over and over again, like a broken chord unable to resolve itself.

In his pants, his tail is coiled up like a fat rope, pinched and uncomfortable. Saix is forced to keep adjusting himself grimly with the dour thought that he went through puberty once already. Unfortunately, all the pants he sees in the stores they've passed seem to provide no outlet for a tail. Clearly, there isn't enough call for it to be an adult clothing line.

Restless, he addresses the scientist. "Did Zexion send anything else?"

"Just the book. Tell me if you're surprised," Vexen adds dryly. Pausing in his research, Vexen rummages through desk drawers until he pulls out the leather-bound tome for scrutiny. "It's a history of one world. I'm not certain if it's literal or hyperbole. Apparently, all the troubles of this world were once locked inside a box. A girl and a boy were entrusted with the keeping of it. Tempted by curiosity, this girl named Pandora opened the box in search of riches, only to set free all manner of calamity -- everything from illness to bad luck. Yet, at the very bottom of this box was the embodiment of Hope. So even though she brought ruin and disaster upon the entirety of her world, it was all made better by a consolation prize." Wrinkling his nose, Vexen tosses the book onto the bed. "If you ask me, I think they should have stuffed her inside the box instead."

"So what about the boy?"

The scientist lifts his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. "There's no name listed. People only remember the girl because she was the one to blame, I suppose. So -- are we Pandora, or are we the anonymous boy? Or are we the world, lacking hope?"

"You're becoming too abstract," Saix retorts from the window. "For all we know, this is just an insult that Zero left behind to commemorate their victory."

Anger flavors Vexen's voice; the scientist snatches up the book again, stacking it on top of his folders and gathering them all up together in a hasty bundle. "If you have any better ideas on how to get out of here, then by all means -- let me know. In the meantime, I'll be out studying."

The door slams shut. In the hall, the elevator chimes, rolls its doors, and fades away.

Shoving up the sleeve of his jacket, Saix examines his arm. The word printed on him hasn't changed at all. Hopeless.

If they're in a world of riddles, then Vexen should be able to solve them. Saix is not the master puzzler of the Organization, but he's bright enough to navigate the Castle without getting lost, so that has to count for something too. So far, neither of them has figured anything out. They're stuck until they can find the right words.

Just as he's about to resign himself to another evening flipping through channels and failing to summon his sword, Vexen comes back with dinner in the form of carry-out containers.

"How can something feel without feeling?" the scientist begins suddenly without explanation, launching into a continuation of his earlier train of thought. Styrofoam squeaks as he hauls out the neatly-packed boxes, arranging them on the writing desk. "All these named pairs have some sort of bond with their partner. Even the Zeroes are matched, despite their physical immunity. But you and I are lacking hearts. If we can't do it emotionally, we have to do it another way."

Searching for a fork among all the plastic spoons that were provided, Saix only keeps half a mind on what the scientist is saying. Suddenly, his attention is interrupted by the feeling of something pinching him. It's disorienting enough that, for a moment, he wonders if he's fallen over and hit his head against the wall; then he realizes that Vexen has grabbed one of his excess ears, and has started to rub it.

"Can you hear anything with them?" Vexen asks, working at the delicate flesh as if trying to polish a coin.

Saix recoils away. "Don't touch them."

"Do they function?"

Again, Vexen's fingers run over the tiny hairs. Saix's ears flatten back before he can even think to suppress the reaction, but Vexen follows them relentlessly, stroking and prodding. "They seem to serve the purpose of social communication, but you have no emotions to display. That girl asked you if they were real. Do you think she suspects?"

Saix opens his mouth to answer, but his throat feels choked; he resorts to a clumsy grunt. He tries to elaborate on the noise with a shake of his head, but the motion only causes an ear to bump into Vexen's palm. Blood rushes underneath his skin to the point of impact. Instantly, he freezes.

The scientist's hand is inescapable. It traces over the delicate veins of the ears, the soft coating of fur, down to the junction of where the ears feed into Saix's skull. Vexen's fingers are invaders in Saix's world; they are unasked for and unwanted, and still they slide in past his boundaries of personal space. There are a hundred places on Saix's body that are private. Only he has known the back of his neck, the long muscles of his stomach, the small tufts of hair that draw a crooked line from his belly to his groin. By touching one, Vexen could be touching them all.

The physical sensation is so foreign that it's painful. Vexen's fingernails scrape the rims of Saix's ears. The berserker's thoughts regroup and scatter, regroup again and scatter again, until his world becomes concentrated on razor-fine points of contact. The feeling is intense enough to skin Saix alive from the inside -- nerves catching on fire and singeing his innards to ash, leaving only a single layer of flesh as a shell for Vexen to touch.

His blood hums.

He can't bear the sensation. He can't bear being without it.

Then Vexen's hand is suddenly gone, and the man is stepping away. "We'll have to study them," he muses, no evidence of anything in his voice other than detached scientific interest, cold as the element he favors. "I doubt they're of real significance, but who knows?"

If Saix could have one emotion, could summon up a flimsy memory of an emotion out of the empty space inside his chest and give it a name, it would be this:

He would hate Vexen.

- - - - -

He learns the exact truth only later when leafing through a TV listing and seeing the special porn ads -- losing their ears he reads, a higher price for ears-on virgins, and realizes with a facsimile of dread that the phrase is meant literally.

The glossy pages of the magazine flop over Saix's hands. He doesn't bother to get up from his sprawl. He can feel the awkward bump of his tail pressing into the mattress, thumbing the base of his spine; he can feel the length of it lying docile and fat against the inside of his thigh. The ceiling is perfectly white and sterile above him, scrubbed clean by the invisibly efficient waitstaff. If he stares at it hard enough, he might be able to pretend he can find flaws.

Unfortunately, Vexen doesn't let the matter drop. "How exactly is the line of virginity drawn?" he asks, bewildered. Saix can almost see the mental gears ticking. "Masturbation? Assisted masturbation? Intercourse? Puberty would indicate sexual maturity, but -- "

Saix resists the urge to throw the magazine at the scientist. "I never had time for it before," he grits out, sternly reminding himself that he shouldn't care about having to admit such things to the other Nobody. He's not a teenager anymore; he has more than enough indicators of physical prowess. "And no interest after. Why does it matter?"

Vexen's scowl comes into view over the spine of the magazine. "Because it matters," he insists, blankly, impossibly. "You can't possibly say that you're not curious about the natural laws of such an uncommon occurrence, can you?"

"Curiosity is supposed to kill cats," Saix reminds him, and rolls over onto his belly, replacing the view of the perfect ceiling with the mussed duvet spread.

He extends an arm and drops the magazine off the side of the bed, letting it fall from his fingers with a crinkle of wounded pages. The articles inside offer up a variety of parental advice, running in tidy columns alongside the skin ads. Breasts the shape of cantaloupes loom menacingly in his direction, punctuated by teardrop nipples. Saix eyes them without any interest, and wonders if it would be more wrong to be attracted to them.

And Vexen is there, suddenly, his weight depressing the bedsprings. The duvet pinches under the pressure of his knee. His hand is on Saix's spine, palm bridging the space from shoulderblade to shoulderblade, fingertips braced on Saix's ribcage.

"Because I want to know," he insists, stubbornly, and Saix's breathing goes perfectly still.

Merciless, the scientist runs his fingers over Saix's tail, circling the tip over and over, nail flicking the edge of where the hairs part enough to present the bone tip. Saix tenses by degrees, the berserker's breathing going more and more shallow, as if by denying himself oxygen he might deny all kinds of physical reactions. But Vexen refuses to stop experimenting; Saix can't seem to find a way to slide free and escape. The scientist circles Saix's tail with his palm, with his fingers, cupping the supple length and feeling it shiver with small twitches of muscle.

Then he closes his hand further, until the hairs are flat against his skin, and rubs the wrong way down.

"Still there," Vexen whispers, before pulling away and leaving Saix alone on the bed, in the gloom, tasting his own sweat against the pillow.

- - - - -

By the time they fight and lose against their third pair -- another set of equally frustrated children, shouting angrily about how Vexen and Saix weren't doing it right -- Saix thinks he's had about enough of this world and its bizarre fixation with language.

These ones were named Breathless; the Zeroes were still missing. For a third time, Saix endures the feeling of chains shackled mercilessly to his throat, to his arms, ribbons of icy cloth tightening around his body and squeezing him like a fruit.

For a third time, they end up back in their hotel room, battered and without any idea of what to do.

Vexen's curiosity is like an undertow, ravenous and cold. He paces up and down their hotel room, crossing back and forth between the lines of their separate beds. From the window, Saix watches. Frost is crawling up the glass, kept at bay by the heat leaking out of the sidepanel radiators. The hotel must be feeling charitable towards -- or pity for -- their long-term guests, because there had been packets of instant cocoa along with the coffee that morning.

"Let's think about this logically," the scientist insists, pausing at the foot of his bed to poke an irritable finger at the duvet. "Even the name is suspicious. Zero. As if they truly are reflections, inversions of us in the Organization -- Number Zero, as you're Seven and I'm Four. And this whole business about a Sacrifice and a Fighter. We keep hearing those terms."

"The Fighter always uses spells, so that should be you." Balancing his cocoa on his leg, Saix rests the side of his hand against the window. Moisture begins to form a cornea around it, misting on the glass. Through it, the lights bloom like flowers. "I'm no magus."

"But I don't have anything to protect," Vexen snaps. "That's what you're supposed to do. As you said, however -- your magic is inferior. Clearly, you are not meant to be the Fighter."

Suddenly much more comfortable with the idea of making Vexen do all the work, Saix picks his mug back up again. "The problem is that the Sacrifice is the one providing observation and commands," he points out. "I can't imagine you ever taking a command from me. Have some cocoa -- it's not bad."

Vexen bristles visibly; he stalks over to the coffeepot and shakes powdered chocolate into the spare cup. "Words!" he snaps, adding hot water brusquely enough that a few drops splash over the edge. "How can words mean anything? I can't tell you to be connected to me and just make it happen!"

Saix tips the cup towards his mouth. "Then how do you plan to do it?"

With a snarl, Vexen abandons the hot water and crosses the room. He rounds the bed, rips the mug out of Saix's hands, puts his hand on Saix's throat. Saix can feel the flexing of Vexen's palm when he swallows.

"Hopeless," Vexen hisses.

It's violent, how it happens. Vexen tries to pull Saix away from the window, thin fingers clenching in Saix's jacket. But the berserker outmasses the other man; he grabs Vexen's arm and shoves him away, only to be dragged forward when Vexen refuses to let go. The spilled cocoa is hot against his foot. He kicks the mug away by accident, hearing it bounce off the dresser in a hollow thunk.

Vexen curses a long string of syllables, flailing for the first thing to come to hand as he's dislodged. Saix regains his balance just in time to frantically block the television remote as it flies for his head; he's not certain what the scientist is doing, or why the scientist is doing it, save that there's some kind of breaking point that Vexen has hit in all his conclusions that Saix can only hope to survive. He lurches forward, a vague plan of pinning the other man's arms to his body, and knocks over the lightstand in the process.

Vexen pushes Saix down against the bed. Pillows squash against Saix's spine, forcing his shoulders to arch. He rolls over, knees Vexen away; the scientist slides in a tumble, yanking the duvet with him. A drawer comes half-open when Saix mistakenly latches onto the handle rather than the corner. He ignores it, shaking his head to try and clear away the dizziness.

A lamp cracks, dragged down by the cord as Vexen clambers back up. He launches himself back at Saix; they rock against the armchair, causing the furniture to tip crazily before sliding over and spilling them both. They're reversed now, Vexen straddling Saix, and Saix has one leg up on the ottoman and there are bedsheets everywhere, as if a whirlwind struck and left halfway through.

Teeth graze the side of Saix's neck. Fingers dig into Saix's hip, painfully forcing the berseker to twist to the side to try and relieve the pressure. Doing so allows Vexen's leg to slide down between Saix's knees. Limbs tangle; stray hairs are everywhere, blinding Saix as Vexen's hands undo his jacket, as Vexen's mouth fastens hungrily on Saix's bare shoulder, as Vexen tries to conquer this last riddle through any means possible.

And Saix lets himself be drawn in, by Vexen's passion-that-isn't, feeling himself being claimed in a mimicry of want that shouldn't matter and that amounts to zero.

He allows himself to be pulled forward, until all he can do is brace himself and tremble, losing and being lost.

- - - - -

The ears come off in the morning, like an old tooth, or a nail loosening from its bed. The tail is withered already, a snake's cast-off skin. The little bones in it are crumbling, like the knuckles of severed fingers sewn loose into a fur sleeve. On his scalp and on his tailbone, there are flat scars. On his skull, they are thin lines, demi-moons of smooth tissue. On his back, there's a blank circle. The skin is raw and hot, but sealed completely closed.

Holding the scraps of himself, Saix wonders if any of the inhabitants of this realm retain these symbols of their youth, like some parents saving the afterbirth of a child. It's a morbid train of thought, bordering on disgusting -- though Saix only makes that value judgement arbitrarily. He's no expert when it comes to wrong and right.

Ears and tails must be useful at times to communicate with, like the body language of other animals, giving away reactions more openly than fighting a blush. Without them, adults must seem mysterious, difficult to read. He thinks that keeping the appendages would be a better symbol of adulthood, a better hurdle to surmount: the ability to hide your feelings.

He thinks, this is a world which is powerful enough to inscribe its will upon its visitors, and to do so through use of words.

He thinks, holding the remnants of his virginity in his hands, this is a world where the passage to adulthood means something about you dies.

His fingers dip down into his pants, exploring the small crevice where his tail once was. The depression is marked like the smoothest of scars, melting effortlessly into the skin. Their absence is harmless, almost invisible.

The room is in shambles.

- - - - -

The next day, Vexen gets the hang of freezing water with a word. He experiments with it until he manages to turn Saix's coffee into a solid sepia block while Saix is trying to drink it.

Saix, dubious, tells him that he could have achieved the same thing just by leaving the cup outside overnight.

He dumps the chunk of caffeinated ice in the bathroom sink, and turns on the tap. The rough edges of the block soften under the hot water, dwindling away like a dissolving mountain. "Are we almost ready to go then, Vexen?" he calls out over the sounds of running water. "Or did you have a reason to stay longer?"

There's no response.

Curious, Saix turns off the water and pokes his head out of the bathroom. The city lights paint the room with fingerlets of color, streaks of red and green and icewater blue. Everything is murky; there's enough of a chill on the air that Saix has been reluctant to get out of bed lately, despite the number of blankets he's ordered from room service.

Vexen is standing at the window, beside the new curtains that the maid service hung. After a moment, he turns and crosses the room swiftly, bridging the distance between himself and Saix. His hand is cold when he reaches out, tracing the place where Saix's ears had been, as if possessively memorizing the spot.

"So have we figured it out yet?" Saix whispers, his voice insulated by Vexen's wrist. "Who's supposed to be the Fighter, and who's the Sacrifice?"

Vexen's hand stops.

"Words," is the only thing he says. "Words."

- - - - -

Christmas looms closer and closer on the calendar. Time ticks by. Vexen never answers when Saix talks about leaving.

Temperatures dip. Saix gets used to waking up with cold feet pressed against his legs. Vexen saps the berserker's body heat without even trying; curled up together, buried beneath the covers like two animals, they touch one another indiscriminately. Hours melt seamlessly together as the world outside ticks by, and Saix learns how to make Vexen gasp.

When they find Zero again, it's by surprise.

They're in another region entirely, the next city over when Vexen frowns, turning his head and staring intently at the crowd. For a moment, Saix is about to ask what's caught Vexen's attention. Then the pedestrians shift, parting just enough to reveal the pair of girls, out of their familiar skirts and in different school uniforms.

The black-haired girl sees them first -- Koya, he remembers, as she also twists around to stare at them unerringly back. There's a hunted, haunted look in her eyes that wasn't there before. And the way that she moves to stand between them and the blonde girl is different; she was protective enough in the first place, but now the motion has an urgency to it that Saix doesn't remember being there previously.

This time, Saix has to gesture for the Zeroes to follow. When they do, it's with reluctance, their fingers intertwined. They end up in a corner of the subway station, the two girls still moving together, still holding hands as if afraid to let go.

"We can't fight you anymore," Koya announces tersely, before Saix even has the chance to inquire. "We're no longer Zero."

"Basic addition doesn't change the facts," Vexen sneers. He flexes a hand, snapping it aggressively through the air in a dictator's command. "Either surrender to us now, or be forced to submit once we're through."

"Did you hear me? We can't duel." Koya's affront is almost tangible; she hunches her shoulders, though her mouth remains a thin line. "But if you touch Yamato -- if you hurt her, I swear -- "

"Hurt?" Saix interrupts, before the war of egos can get much more extravagant. "I thought you weren't supposed to care about getting hurt. Aren't you incapable of pain?"

Yamato lifts her chin. The motion draws her face back -- just enough, just a bit, that for a moment it looks like a recoil.

In that response, Saix suddenly realizes what's wrong. "That's changed, hasn't it," he accuses, blocking Vexen with a hand. "That's what you mean. You do feel something now." Koya only glares back at him when he looks to her, but Yamato, Yamato's eyes flicker away, and with a diviner's intuition, Saix senses the weakness. "One of you does, at least."

Koya doesn't clarify. She doesn't need to. "I told you," she repeats, grudgingly. "We're no longer Zero. You have no business with us."

Beside him, Vexen makes a huff in his throat as the scientist's own reasoning fits the pieces into place. He lifts his hand again -- this time with the fingers arched. "Darkness everlasting," he intones, "Darkness to flow and fill the gaps between. Nothingness guides the road. Gateways open, here and there."

Shoving Yamato further behind her, Koya tenses. Saix glances at the scientist. The words are strange -- they're petitions to elements other than ice. "Vexen?"

Not looking at the berserker, Vexen keeps his hand outstretched, allowing power to gather, attracted to the vessel of language. Blackness pools around the scientist, before congealing in the familiar thorny spikes of Nothingness; the two forces swirl together, rising up in a portal that roots itself firmly in the ground. "They're flawed." The declaration is loud. Vexen's gaze is fixed on the Zeroes, drinking the sight of them in without wavering. "There's no longer any need to capture these two. Their value was in being a matched set. They're ruined now. I don't see any further reason to waste our time here."

Yamato's free hand clutches Koya's shoulder. Koya hesitates, every inch of her screaming readiness for a fight, and then she reaches back.

The thing at the bottom of disaster was hope, Saix thinks, watching them. He has no reason to spare them -- neither he nor Vexen do -- but there's a strange symmetry between the four of them. Feeling, not feeling. Feeling, and becoming able to feel.

He reaches out, catches Vexen by the elbow. Leaning in, he studies the scientist's face. "You're certain you've found what you want?"

Vexen turns his chin. His throat has a mottled bruise on the side, the exact size of Saix's mouth. Saix can smell the evidence of the hotel on him -- the detergent on the sheets, the soap from the shower, the musk of sweat and sex. "Seeing a creature with nothing that learned how to feel?" the scientist proposes. His lips make a wry twist. "That might not have been what I was expecting, but in the end, it was worth the visit. Wouldn't you say so?"

- - - - -

That night, tangled in the cool sheets of Vexen's bed, Saix rolls over and stares up at the ceiling. The scientist is already asleep. His hair fans out in disheveled snarls across the pillow; Saix can hear the whisper of his breath, slow and rhythmic, matching the beat of the berserker's pulse.

He looks at his arm.

It's blank.