There is no excuse for this. So I'm not even going to begin to explain.

However, there are a few things in this chapter that I was extremely nervous about posting. But...I'm not going to worry about it anymore. Suffice it to say, there's some strange stuff going on, and you can either find it adorable, hilarious, or horrifying. Things are heating up, though, and at some point, I actually got a little carried away. Still, this story is definitely staying T-rated, so don't expect it to get much more intense.

You may also notice that the character formerly known as Blanio has undergone an identity change. He is now officially named Glenn. I've been calling him that for a a while in my head, and it suits him much better, now that he's developed more and I have a better understanding of who he is. I apologize for the confusion, however, I will/have editted the previous chapters to include the name change, so those of you reading this for the first time won't notice any difference. Yes, Glenn was once called Blanio! What a silly name...

As always, I own Glenn and Teacher, and...that's about it.

(-)

Chapter 7: The Education Process

Air. All around. Fresh, clean air. Or as clean as it could get in Borealis City. Lumaira could feel it nipping at his coat sleeves, snaking up the ends of his pants, into the flaps of his hood. How he longed to just rip this hood off, fling his hat to the ground, and let the amazing breeze rustle through his hair, caress his scalp, light and cool emptiness. But of course, that would ruin everything. Everyone would see his bright, unusual hair color…and while it might not fall to pieces instantly, someone would see him. Someone would spread the word of the strange pink-haired young man they'd seen in the market, and someone would recognize him. Someone would turn him in. The House would fall…the only home he'd ever known.

He glanced to his left, since he had almost no peripheral vision in this thing. Glenn stood next to him, similarly disguised, though he only had a hat. Apparently, he could afford to show his face, since they normally made him wear a lot of makeup anyway. His normal hair blended in more easily.

"Don't get distracted," he reminded him. "We're just here to get the supplies, and that's it. Don't you wander off on me!"

Lumaira cracked a smile that only Glenn could see. "Aw, you're no fun. Teacher's pet."

Glenn gave an empty chuckle. "Yeah, right. Everyone likes you best and you know it. If we could have a poster, you'd be on the front of it."

Lumaira laughed back, imagining that. "Someone would have to paint me."

"I'd love to be the one to do it."

He could hear the teasing smirk in his partner's voice. "Hey!" Lumaira punched him on the shoulder, lightly. "We're not supposed to get distracted, remember? Someone should practice what they preach."

Glenn shook his head. "Can't help myself."

Just then, a lady carrying a bundle of clothes in a basket bumped lightly into Glenn's side. "Oh! Excuse me!" she called, before hurrying off into the crowd.

"We need to get moving." Glenn's face twisted into something much more grave and focused than many knew his baby face was capable of. Every shred of Lumaira's being protested…but he had no choice but to follow his lover through the crowds, winding in and out of pedestrians, heading for the colored poles in the distance.

The market. Here was where they bought most of their supplies—especially fresh fruit and vegetables, which were not at all plentiful. Lumaira complacently held their basket out as Glenn loaded it up at the first market stand. Softly, he ran one hand over the smooth, firm skin of an apple. He imagined a world in which apples fell from trees. Where you could pick one from the branches and eat it without having to pay for it first. This was why Glenn constantly had to keep him grounded. He was always daydreaming. He loved to touch things—living things, organic things. Fruits, leaves, even weeds. It gave him comfort, somehow…knowing that life…that nature was fighting back, fighting for its survival and winning.

Glenn placed a heavy sack of munny chips on the counter, and the merchant eagerly scooped it up, mumbling a rough, "thanks for your business". Everyone here…they were all such greedy, selfish, money-grubbing bastards. Lumaira fingered the side of a plump orange as he thought about just how much he'd love to see this whole place go up in smoke.

As they began to walk away, he looked over Glenn's basket, stocked high with other non-food supplies—toiletries, napkins, cleaning solution, fabric soap, bleach, spools of thread and a few needles, a mousetrap… "What about Fert's medicine?" Lumaira asked. He didn't see it anywhere in the pile of items.

"It wasn't on the list." Glenn frowned. "I guess they've decided it's not worth it. He's going to die anyway, whether he gets medicine or not."

For a moment…Lumaira felt really bad for him. That was the worst part. To be trapped. Not being able to do anything about it…

Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks, right there in the middle of the square.

Glenn jerked around, keeping his eyes on his partner's form between the onrushing citizens. "Hey, c'mon!" he called. "What's wrong?" He moved in closer…he didn't want Lumaira to say something stupid out loud.

Lumaira's body was beginning to tremble, lightly. He was trying to keep himself together…he was not about to have a breakdown in the middle of the city.

"What's wrong?" Glenn's voice was gentle…he knew he was upset about something. "I…I'm really sad about Fert, too, but…"

"No…" Lumaira's voice was just as soft, only strained through choked-back tears. "That's not it. Well, I don't mean…it's terrible what's happening to him, but…that's not what…"

Gently, Glenn began to move his free arm around his shoulders. "Okay. It's okay, then. Tell me when we get back, I'm sure it'll be okay…"

"No!" Lumaira pulled away, much to Glenn's surprise. "I…I don't want to go. I can't… Think about it! I'm scared…I'm really scared. What if something like that happens to one of us? I don't want you to die like that!" For once, Lumaira was glad that nobody could see his face…the tears were really welling up now—he could feel their little wet beads under his eyelashes.

"Oh, Luma…" Glenn force-pulled him into a one-armed hug…he couldn't afford to set his basket down for even a second. "…I worry about that too. I worry about something happening to you, about you getting hurt…"

"Me?" Lumaira looked up, nearly ripping out of his grasp again. "I get the better ones. I'm the star. Nothing's going to happen to me. But you-you're the same rank as Fert."

Glenn decided to take a bit of a risk—he leaned in closer and briefly kissed Lumaira's cheek. "I'm going to be just fine," he said…and the solid tone in his voice almost made him believe it. "Don't worry about things like that. You'll just waste your life away."

"Waste my life away?" Suddenly, the tears hardened in their place. A very different feeling was filling him now, running from his heart down through his limbs. He gritted his teeth. "I'm already doing that. We're wasting our lives away right now. Our lives have already been wasted away. What's the use?"

Glenn's close, warm face suddenly darkened. "Luma…I know what you're thinking. Don't start with that again."

"Why not?" Lumaira was tenacious—he would never give something up once the seeds had been planted. "Glenn, we need to get out of here! We need to be rid of them—we need to be free! Please, before something happens, we have to-!"

Swiftly, Glenn stuffed a wad of tissue into Lumaira's mouth, muffling his continued cries. "Shhhhh!" he hissed. "Someone's going to hear you!" And indeed, a few passers-by were giving them odd looks.

"So what—let them hear!" Lumaira wanted to yell. "I don't care! Let them find us!" But he couldn't. For Glenn's sake. He couldn't do that to him. He didn't care what happened to himself, but Glenn…

"Shhh," Glenn hushed, a little more gently, when he sensed that Lumaira wasn't going to ruin everything. He plucked the tissue from his mouth, tossing it on the ground, and kissed him, assuredly. "It's okay. Let's go home now."

But as Lumaira reluctantly followed his love back through the crowded Borealis City streets, he couldn't stop thinking about it. Escaping. Running away. Just grabbing Glenn by the collar and running as fast as he could, out of the city, across the planet, destroying everything that stood in his way. Someday. Someday, he'd have the chance. Someday they'd all pay for this.

The earthy scent of the fresh fruits and vegetables in his arms seemed to agree.

(-)

"…We should go outside."

Vexen sat up straight in his chair. "Outside? What would be the point of that?"

"Don't you ever want to go somewhere else? Get out of this stuffy castle? Well, aside from missions. Go somewhere, just to enjoy…being there?"

"No."

Up until now, Marluxia had been fairly well-behaved, aside from the little affectionate gestures he'd come to expect. Though, by this point, Vexen shouldn't have been surprised to hear something like this from him out of the blue. "I thought you wanted me to come visit your silly garden."

"Yeah, but…now I want to go outside even more."

Vexen sighed as he turned away from the pink mop-head, who was currently filling in a few simple data sheets for him. "There's nothing there. It might look like there's a big, mysterious city all around us, but really, there's nothing in it. Just legions of lesser Nobodies and Neoshadows. The buildings are all empty. Xemnas does quite like his symbolic emptiness."

"No, that's not what I meant." Marluxia looked up, though he didn't even need to see Vexen now to envision his expressions. "I meant…we should go somewhere. To another world. Just by ourselves, for the heck of it."

"We can do no such thing." He pictured Vexen's typical tight scowl. "There is no reason to. Our only current means of transport between worlds is the Dark Corridor, which is strictly monitored. Xemnas would know the instant either of us opened one. If you have such a desperate urge to break the rules, know that I definitely will have no part in it."

"But…don't you ever get to go out somewhere?" Marluxia insisted. "When you need more…supplies? They'd need to let you wander around some other worlds to pick up new samples."

"Usually, Saïx just assigns someone else a mission to get me new samples. Like when you retrieved those three Heartless for me."

"Aw, that's no fun." Marluxia insistently came to the side of the desk, striking Vexen's cheek with his lips before he could notice, almost like a snake lashing out for its prey. "I wanted the chance to get to see you outside."

"…Hmph. I don't see what difference it could possibly make." Though he immediately blushed, and his eyes flickered away, Vexen didn't object to the little kiss and only continued on with his current workload.

Reflexively, a smile pulled over Marluxia's lips. Over the past couple of days, he'd been conditioning him to get used to the cheekbone-kisses, and really, it hadn't taken too long. Vexen would never admit it, but he truly enjoyed them, and they'd both come to realize that for themselves.

"Who knows? It could make all the difference in the world. We all change and adapt according to our environment."

At last, Vexen spared a glance over at his mischievous companion. "You know what I think? I think you've been hovering around me for far too long. You're beginning to pick up some bad habits."

Marluxia shrugged. "I should think you'd praise me for being inquisitive."

"There's a difference between being inquisitive and being just plain nosy."

"You can write this down then—my attraction is making me wish to know all the inner workings of your private life."

Vexen paused to lift his pen and stare at the disturbing note he'd just taken. "Somehow, that sounds like a threat."

"Maybe it is."

Just as Marluxia began to move in for another kiss, a rough smacking sound, like a wet towel against a floor, burst out from the direction of the lab entrance. What in the…?

"Aw, dammit, what now?" Vexen pushed himself up from the chair to make his way to the door…but he wasn't fast enough to avoid another stealth-peck that Marluxia insistently pressed to his cheek.

"Gah! Stop that!" he cried out this time. "This might be important! Now just…be normal!"

"Be normal"? How do I do that? Marluxia thought, but decided not to say it out loud just now. He doubted this whatever-it-was was another Organization member coming to visit, but there was a slim chance it could be Zexion, and he already had his suspicions about him.

There were a few more smacks before the now pink-faced Vexen finally reached the laboratory door and slid it open. Suddenly, something burst into the room—a flash of white, accompanied by a silly boiyoing-boiyoing noise. Marluxia stood back as the creature somersaulted a few laps around Vexen before finally stretching upright. It was a Dusk, grinning mindlessly at them and holding an index card between its long, spade-like hands.

"A message?" Vexen questioned, holding out his hand for the card.

The Dusk nodded its big, pointy head, almost like it understood him, and placed it in his hand. Immediately, it hopped back out the door, now that its task had been completed, and Vexen followed it, closing the door behind it while he read the card. Marluxia tried to gauge the expression on his face as he read, but all he could find there was a slight confusion.

"Hmm," Vexen finally pronounced. "A summons."

"A summons?" Marluxia asked.

"Yes, of course, a summons! What did you think that meant, half-wit?" It seemed Vexen had completely switched tracks into his "irritated" mood for some reason. He scurried back to his desk and began rearranging it, paying no heed to his question.

"But a summons for what, exactly?" Marluxia pressed, moving closer, as if to grab him if he tried to escape. "Does that mean Xemnas wants to see you? Or Saïx wants to see you? Or...?"

"No," Vexen growled, clearly upset over it now. "A summons for the day. They want me to…report to the Grey Area with everyone else today."

Marluxia's current thoughts ground to a halt, and he stood straight and shocked while Vexen continued rustling through books and binders. No way. This was just an unbelievable streak of luck. A nomotional bolt of electricity shot through his system, and he felt his grin widen. "Well. Looks like I might just get my wish."

"Not necessarily," Vexen was quick to quell his excitement. "I may be forced out on a mission, but you will mostly likely be sent to a separate world."

"We'll see." It was impossible to resist—Marluxia automatically moved in again for a third kiss. Though he didn't prevent it, Vexen swatted him away afterwards, grumbling and complaining about needing more time to get things in order.

"Go back to your quarters," he gruffly ordered. "You should have something to do before today's mission, shouldn't you?"

"No," Marluxia half-joked. "I spend all my time staring at my weird plants and planning what I'm going to do to you next."

"Wonderful," Vexen sneered back. "Now go do that elsewhere. I have to see your idiotic face again during mission briefings anyway."

Marluxia chuckled under his breath. Either he'd been too flustered to notice the suggestion in his words, or he just didn't care. But what it all boiled down to was this hopeful fact—that things were getting easier. That everything was going his way, even if it was going slowly.

Even as he spoke a snide farewell, his body was trembling with what he assumed was anticipation. How am I going to relax for another half hour? I can't wait for today's mission!

(-)

Nobody (relatively speaking) had any idea what the big summons was about. Every member of the Organization had once again convened in the Grey Area, just standing or sitting around and gossiping while they waited for Saïx.

As usual, Vexen stood off in the corner, folding his arms and just wishing he were back in his safe space, working on Replica genes. The others were staring at him, and he could feel it without even having to look up. He was the marker, after all—everyone knew that if Vexen was here, something really strange was going on today. It was easy to ignore them, though, with everything that was going on in his mind right now.

Usually, Vexen would entertain himself by doing some long and arduous mental math, or by stewing over his current projects and maybe coming up with some new ones. But now, something was in the way…a thought-blocker kept popping up and getting in the way of his practiced head-calculations. A thought-blocker with soft pink hair and electric-blue eyes.

You again, he scowled as he spoke to the mental image of Marluxia. Why do you keep showing up? Get your irritating visage out of my chemical equation! However, he knew that, in the depths of his brain, somewhere, he was ready for this useless mission to be over with, so he could get back to researching with Marluxia at his side.

It had taken a whole night of thinking and planning, but Vexen had finally come to the unfortunate conclusion that he really did desire Marluxia's company…that those little gestures of his…the petting, the comments…even the kissing…were pleasant. Yes, they made his physical-heart pump faster and distracted him from his work, but they were also like a similar kind of nomotional response he usually only got from the idea for a new experiment…excitement. He'd been making notes on it in secret, during the wee hours of the morning, which Marluxia had scolded him for, as usual…but it was extremely perplexing and interesting to him.

Perhaps it was another facet of attraction…but he wasn't attracted to Marluxia—no, it was only the other way around. Except that he kind of was. Marluxia had such beautiful, smooth skin, fluffy hair, and a gorgeous, though mischievous, smile. Then, there was his body…perfectly formed, toned and muscular, yet still sleek and lithe. There was no denying he would be considered attractive…and by Even's standards, he was the most gorgeous man he'd ever seen…but…but…

Aaaaaaugh! Vexen mentally screamed as he felt his physical-heart going haywire again and the prickle on his face signifying that he was blushing again.

Though he didn't notice, almost everyone else in the room turned to stare at him while he went through the motions of calming himself down, taking deep breaths and physically shaking himself out. Everyone just chalked it up to his insanity and continued about their business…though on the other end of the room, Zexion slowly raised one eyebrow as he peered above the cover of his book.

Before he could stop himself, Vexen automatically lifted his gaze towards the opposite end of the nearest couch, stealing a glance at Marluxia…and with a little jolt of panic, found Marluxia looking straight back at him.

(-)

Marluxia inwardly chuckled when Vexen met his eyes and panicked. The poor old man was having another miniature heart attack right in front of the whole Organization, and it pleased him to know that he was the cause. He heard giggling from his left, where Demyx and Xigbar were seated, and so he lightly tuned back into their conversation, though he continued to steal furtive glances at his pink-faced scientist.

"Yo, check out Mr. Creepazoid," Demyx laughed lowly, though he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder back at Vexen. "He's, like, all…happy and stuff."

Though Marluxia didn't see it himself, of course, everyone else hadn't seen Vexen in so long that they were noticing the new changes in him. For the first time, he looked healthy and content rather than all gaunt and crotchety.

Xigbar just shrugged, uninterested. "Ah, he's probably on some new project or something he's all excited over."

"Nah, something definitely happened to him. Something awesome, I bet."

Then, Demyx leaned over to whisper something, and Marluxia had to strain every bit of his hearing sense in order to catch it. "…Maybe he finally got laid."

"Ha ha ha ha ha!" Xigbar burst out in raucous laughter, utterly unmindful of who heard him. "No way! Ahahaha! Who the hell would tap that? Unless he gets one of his own freaky creations to do it. That's the only way he's gettin' any. Oh, Lord. Ha haha!"

Something that felt like a blaze of fire sprang through Marluxia's system, and suddenly, he wanted to punch Xigbar straight across the face. How could he say something like that and laugh out loud? Fortunately, Vexen was still deeply lost in thought and hadn't heard…but pretty much everyone else had, and he thought he noticed Axel and Luxord snickering lightly behind an upraised fist and a hard of cards. How dare they say something so terrible and just…get away with it?

After a moment, it was apparent that no one was going to defend Vexen's honor, and as much as Marluxia burned to leap in and object to them all, he weakly mustered a snort and struggled to quell the chemical anger storm that churned through his body. His annoyance with the ponytailed sharpshooter had just about reached its limit. While everyone else was completely clueless about today's mission and its cause, Xigbar alone had been acting all cocky, like he knew everything and was just dangling it over their heads. He could just be messing around, and in fact, it was highly likely that he was, but still, Marluxia did not enjoy being toyed with, in any sense.

His eyes swept across the room, almost daring anyone else to try laughing…and for a second, his gaze caught a deep blue eye staring back at him from over the hard cover of a large book. Promptly, a whoosh and a burst of black-purple energy announced Saïx's arrival, drawing Marluxia's attention away. Whatever that had been about, he tossed it aside, believing it to be of little consequence anyway.

"Alright, everyone," Saïx announced, and instantly, any chatter rumbled and died out. He took his standard position in the middle of the room, letting the long glass panels behind him and the image of the empty sky create as intimidating a picture as possible. "Today will be our final evaluation day. Though you may not be aware, we are in the process of implementing some significant changes to our organization infrastructure. Our Superior has something very important to announce at our gathering afterwards today, and I expect every one of you to perform to the peak of your abilities at this critical junction."

Axel and Luxord glanced over almost simultaneously as if to say "well, that explains the Vexen."

Saïx coughed to catch their attention again. He sighed, his body slightly deflating, and for a brief moment, he appeared exhausted and beleaguered by stress. "Thus—" Saïx forced himself back into business-mode, eager to be done with it all and hopefully get a half an hour or so to rest. "Since our previous evaluation involved working with those of compatible elements and strengthening your individual powers, this time those powers will be tested by working together with those of your opposing elements."

You could practically hear the thoughts brewing as everyone tried to figure out who they would be partnered with. Vexen's with Axel, maybe? Marluxia thought. Then who am I with? What is the opposite of flowers?

"Axel and Demyx," Saïx continued, not giving them any time for silly questions. "You two are going to Agrabah."

"All right!" Demyx made a show of leaping up from the couch and going over to clap Axel on the shoulder. "I get someone cool this time!"

Axel just grimaced. "Heh, yeah. You can count on me if you're looking for awesome."

Huh, Marluxia considered. So…now what?

"Lexaeus and Xaldin," Saïx answered for him. "You're going to Beast's Castle."

There was no response from either of them, of course. That had to be the most serious, manliest pair in existence.

"Vexen and Marluxia."

What?

"You're going to Twilight Town."

WHAT? Marluxia had to struggle to prevent the shock from instinctually showing on his face. Did he just say…? No way. No freaking way. That would just be way too convenient…like I willed it to happen. No way.

Distantly, he could feel eyes burning over his face as the rest of the Organization watched for his reaction. Fortunately, he succeeded in keeping his expression entirely stoic, though one of his eyebrows might have twitched a little.

Meanwhile, over in the corner, the flush of Vexen's face was slowly draining, and everyone noticed his entirely horrified look.

Marluxia wished he could laugh. It's really happening. Exactly what I wanted. Everything exactly according to plan. This is just amazing…it's like…it was meant to happen. I don't believe that things were "meant to happen", but… heh… I just can't wait to pester him the entire mission. I'll finally get to see what he does on a mission…if he can actually fight with that defensive weapon of his. I'll…learn more.

"Hmn." Saïx's golden eyes swept lowly across the room. Now, only the "intangible three" were left, and no one knew what to do with them. "…Xigbar and Zexion, you two can go to Wonderland, and Luxord…" He paused to ruffle through his already mussed hair. "…You can go with Xaldin and Lexaeus. I think it'll help with your current directives."

"Ah. I see." Luxord reshuffled his cards and stood, preparing himself for departure.

Marluxia could only wonder what those "current directives" were…though he was extremely grateful that Saïx hadn't decided to place Luxord with him and Vexen. That would've just ruined everything.

Just like last time, Saïx recited the customary rules—stay undetected, be back by five o' clock, exc, and summoned four dark corridors with one forceful and irritated wave of his hand. For once in his life, Demyx was the first to jump at his portal, excitedly chattering away to Axel about all the "super-awesome" things they could do, and it was clear that Axel would probably come back early for the first time in his life, just to get away from the annoyance. The team of the Organization's manliest macho men left next, Luxord being the only one attempting to make conversation. Perhaps Saïx had added him to the group just to liven things up a little.

"Hey, let's go, Pipsqueak," Xigbar cracked as he made his way towards his portal.

Zexion reluctantly rose, closing his book and crossing his arms. "I'm not answering to such a disparaging epithet."

"Eh, have it your way." Xigbar shrugged, even as he was halfway through the portal. "But don't expect me to slow down and wait for your little legs to catch up."

Marluxia's breath caught when he realized he was next. He hadn't been able to exchange a word yet with Vexen about this whole situation, and now, it was time to dive into it.

Just when he was about to turn and command the old man to follow him, Vexen determinedly strode past him, pointedly keeping himself from even glancing at his face. "Come on, you imbecile, let's get this over with."

Let's get this over with, indeed. At last, Marluxia let the eager smirk break over his face as he followed Vexen to the portal's edge. His tall body disappeared into the morass of darkness just ahead of him, and willingly, Marluxia reached out to embrace it and let it envelop him.

"A-Ah-!"

Suddenly, something lashed out and clamped down hard over his wrist, almost as if the portal had reached out a tendril and stopped him in his tracks…but a panicked glance down revealed that it was another black-gloved hand squeezed in a death-grip around the spot. What?

The next thing he knew, Marluxia was staring into Zexion's hair-draped face, a disturbingly dark expression glaring back at him from what he could see of his one eye and eyebrow. Thoughts and questions flooded through Marluxia's brain, wondering what in the world he could want, what he was going to do, if he was going to attack him, what he should do if he did attempt to injure him, why he would want to injure him, and what he had done to merit this kind of treatment.

Zexion's eyes narrowed a miniscule. "You." He spoke softly, yet clearly, the words meant for him and him alone. "…You had better take care of him. You better satisfy him and make his every waking moment a joy. If I find you've only harmed him and wounded him, in any way…you can consider me your eternal enemy."

It felt like a coldness was creeping up Marluxia's arm from where Zexion's hand was cutting off its circulation…crawling up over his shoulder and into his chest. Yes. Of course. He'd had his suspicions about Zexion before…he should've seen this coming. There was nothing he could do now.

"What do you mean…?" he feigned ignorance, forming his face into a perfectly confused, exasperated signal. "I…I'm sorry, but I don't know who or what you're referring to."

If it was possible, Zexion's dark blue eyes went even colder. "I meant exactly what I said. It would be wise for you to heed these warnings." With a bit of a jerk, he released his wrist, turning his back and facing into his own portal. "…You don't want me to have to set myself against you."

And with that, he took a single step forward…and was gone, in the resulting burst of dark energy.

.. Marluxia stared at the spot, dumbfounded. He knows. Of course he knows. And he'll be watching me from now on, to make sure I'm doing a good enough job.

That thought made him very uneasy, though he wasn't sure exactly why. One slip-up and he'd have gained an opposing force just like that…because if Zexion went against him, Lexaeus would undoubtedly follow. He'd sorely underestimated the strength of those shared memories that bound numbers four, five, and six together. Vexen had acted like that connection was no longer there at all…but perhaps he didn't even know himself. Perhaps that was the way Zexion wanted it.

These thoughts and considerations left Marluxia shaking his head when he at last entered the portal to follow Vexen through the dark corridor leading to Twilight Town. And as the misty blackness enfolded his body, one thought at least pushed through all the others.

Vexen…you have no idea…how much he really does care about you.

(-)

"Kiiiiii!" A small, floating Heartless screamed as a deadly sharp ice crystal impaled it. A clattering of comically oversized helmets announced the presence of two more Soldier Heartless, and Marluxia easily took them out with one powerful side-swipe of his scythe. The crowd of little darkness-creatures was thinning out now, and pretty soon, they'd be done with this silly evaluation mission. Still…it had been a very interesting and informative mission, if nothing else.

"Hah!" When Vexen landed, he quickly speared a few lurking Shadows with the spikes on the top of his shield and turned to face his unfortunate partner. "Let's move to the northern stairways. It seems we're all done here, but we've got to make sure no more have appeared in our absence."

Marluxia rolled his eyes slightly, but agreed. Oh, Vexen…always needing to maintain some illusion that he was still in charge.

Unfortunately, they hadn't had much time for amusing banter, but it had been highly entertaining watching Vexen fight. Though he wasn't as strong as Marluxia himself—it took him two or three hits to finish off a Heartless that Marluxia could plow through with one strike—he still attacked his enemies with surprising ferocity and dispatched them as quickly as he could. As he'd soon discovered, Vexen often threw his shield in a more intense battle, letting it sweep through distant Heartless before it sprang back to his arm on some sort of invisible yo-yo string. But what was most interesting was when he attempted evasive measures. Vexen's body was too tall and awkward to move with any real swiftness, and he sometimes stumbled or got caught in a blast in the process of trying to run away from it. Then again, that also explained his weapon—meant for blocking instead of dodging, since he was obviously no good at that.

It was also enjoyable watching him use his powers so much. Though he couldn't stand touching the cold, rigid chunks, Marluxia couldn't help but admire the beauty of the clear, crystalline bursts of ice Vexen summoned in the midst of battle. They shattered and tinkled against his foes, bursting apart, sometimes catching the low sunlight and glistening before disappearing into nothingness again. Part of him wanted to see him perform a Limit Break, because he knew it would be a dazzling, unforgettable sight…but another part of him just as strongly wanted to make sure he never got to the point at which he could perform a Limit Break.

Meanwhile, though he could barely admit it to himself, Vexen had been enjoying the view of Marluxia battling as well. He cursed himself for lapsing a few times and losing his concentration when he allowed himself a glimpse of his slick body reeling and thrusting, engaged in combat. There was so much power, but so much smoothness in the way Marluxia moved—he delivered brutal strikes, but the graceful arc of his lashing scythe somehow softened the image. He wielded it more like a tool than a weapon—an artist's paintbrush, a sculptor's chisel. Little explosions of flower petals often followed his blows, lending an air of exquisiteness to the whole image. Vexen had to practically force himself not to look, and he resented that he couldn't better control his own actions. He tried to pass it off as mere curiosity, but he knew, deep down, it was more than that.

It was no wonder they hadn't spoken much, really…they were too busy furtively checking each other out. Marluxia enjoyed a particularly nice view from behind as he followed Vexen up the flight of steps to the north.

"Hm." Vexen stopped at the top step, glancing around the empty train courtyard before them. Everything was perfectly quiet…then suddenly, something tugged on the inside of their stomachs at the same time. Though it was a strange sensation to Vexen, Marluxia had become very familiar with it.

"Looks like the RTC has been activated," Marluxia announced. "We're all done already…that was fast."

"Then let's return and be done with it." Vexen nodded and turned…to find Marluxia pushing back against his chest, determinedly. Wonderful, he thought. Now it's going to start. I knew it was too much to hope for that we could pass this mission without incident.

"No. Not so fast. You're finally here, in an outside world. We're staying and enjoying it a little longer."

Vexen sighed. I just knew he was going to say something like that. "Marluxia, if you've forgotten, this is an evaluation mission. Saïx and Xemnas are watching and reviewing our performances. We can't afford to be lazing about when there's no need for us to linger here any longer. Let's be on our way."

He moved to walk past him, but Marluxia stubbornly threw his body in the way once more, pushing him back. Here, he could afford to be forceful…he could easily gain the upper hand. "No. This is...a special opportunity, and I won't let it be wasted. Come on, now. The others will probably all slack off after their missions are complete, too. In fact, I'm sure they will. No one takes these pointless missions seriously. We're staying a moment to rest."

And then, glancing slightly to the right, he noticed it. The perfect place. Just over a brick railing, Marluxia could see a slightly raised, grassy area and a lone oak tree. To anyone else, it would've seemed like nothing special—just a bit of decorative vegetation…but Marluxia knew, as soon as he laid eyes on it, that the spot was just what he'd been looking for. He could practically feel it calling to him.

Before he could spare a second to change his mind, he seized Vexen by the long sleeve of his coat and forcefully tugged him along towards it. "There's no reason anyone should be upset if we just took a little break to rest…to sit down for a little while under that tree there. It's only natural."

Vexen grumbled a little, but followed, because truth be told, he really did want to. He only wished he'd had the foresight to bring a notepad or something with him, but then again, he'd never expected Marluxia's wishes to actually come true. If he didn't know better, he'd think he set this up on purpose somehow.

Before he could think anymore about the matter, he found himself being insistently tugged downwards to the base of the tree, and he awkwardly knelt near its roots while Marluxia sprawled out like he owned this plot of land.

"Hmnnnn," Marluxia sighed and stretched, relieving his somewhat-sore muscles from the strain of battle. "Now isn't this wonderful? Makes you appreciate the power of nature."

Vexen clenched his hands into fists over his thighs. "I'd much rather be back in my lab right now."

"You and that damn lab. That's all you ever think about, isn't it? Getting back there as soon as possible. Are you really that uncomfortable with the outside worlds, Vexen?"

"No. I quite enjoy the outside worlds. They are a part of what I seek to understand, after all. But I do not enjoy being out and about in them when there is important work to be done."

Marluxia's arm moved upwards, stroking Vexen's right bang and a bit of his shoulder with it. "Oh, come now. I only want you to admit that nature is wonderful and calming. Just stop and feel the breeze. Listen to the leaves. Don't think about anything. Just relax and let the tree's gentle power sweep you away."

Vexen snorted. "The tree's 'gentle power'? Trees have no power of their own. They are dependent on the soil, the sunlight, the weather…they have no will of their own. They, as everything else in this universe, bend to the dictates of science. Its particles make it what it is. Break those down, and it would be entirely at your mercy. I could turn this entire tree to gold, given the time to rearrange its matter. "The power of the tree"…pah."

"Really?" Marluxia's voice slithered. "You could turn it to gold? I'd like to see you achieve that."

"I could," Vexen replied. "Don't underestimate me."

"I want to see it, then…sometime." Marluxia's tone softened, caught up in the whole image his mind was creating. "I want to see your golden tree. I bet it would be a sight to behold."

Silence. A few birds flew overhead, letting out pointed cries. The wind shifted through the leaves, a soft noise of cradling. Somewhere far off in the distance, a train whistle blew. And the perpetual sunset bathed everything in a warm, comforting glow.

Gradually, Vexen did begin to relax…he shifted his position, lying back against the tree trunk and tucking his long legs comfortably underneath him. His eyes closed, and he tried to imagine he was somewhere else…alone…with no other ties, no obligations suffocating him. It didn't…matter. He tried not to let it matter. All that mattered was here…right now. He didn't mind it anymore. Being here with Marluxia…in the silence. It was wonderful. If only it could go on for eternity. It couldn't.

"I…want to ask you something."

Vexen opened one eye. Marluxia was lying on the ground right next to him, his smooth face glancing up at him from beside his right thigh. Yet the tone he used was so mellow, so non-threatening. So sincere.

"Even…you said your Other had some sort of previous connection with Zexion and Lexaeus's Others. You never told me…what kind of connection it was. I want to know more about it."

Vexen sighed. "Ienzo…Zexion's Other was very young—only eight years old—when Master Ansem adopted him into our circle of Apprentices. He chose Even to be young Ienzo's mentor and caregiver, since work often kept him too busy for him to be with the child. They…grew to…care about each other, almost like parent and son. Meanwhile, Aeleus, Lexaeus's Other, was kind of like Even's silent protector. Even never knew it, but Aeleus was always looking out for him—he preferred him more than any of the other Apprentices, and he often worried about his health and safety. I could see this, but Even never could…until it was too late."

Vexen paused, wondering if he should continue, but one glance over towards Marluxia's awestruck, curious face urged him to keep going.

"Well…one day, little Ienzo found out about the Siphoning Process…and he was furious and decided he was going to put a stop to it any way he could. He interrupted it while Even was right in the middle of feeding off his energy…and leaped into the middle of the energy's stream. Even tried to stop it, but by then, it was too late. The process went haywire and sucked too much life force from Ienzo all at once. When it was finally finished, his body had aged to be sixteen years."

Marluxia's eyes widened, trying to imagine being eight years old one day and suddenly being sixteen years old the next.

"Even was devastated about it—he saw it as his fault, and…I didn't help matters. Aeleus tried to help him, but he…but we wouldn't listen. Even wanted nothing more to do with Ienzo, believing himself to be a curse, and Ienzo grew frustrated with him…again, it…wasn't exactly his fault."

Vexen squeezed his eyes closed, but he could see Marluxia's softly questioning look staring back at him. His beautifully constructed concern was almost convincing. These were dark secrets…things he thought he'd never share with another living being…but now he was willing to reveal them at last, to the only creature that had ever consumed so much of his attention before.

"Back then, I was—different. When I first came into being. I had thoughts and I had a consciousness…but I was only Darkness eating away at Even's heart. I was…the essence of that Darkness. I sought control over his body at every turn…I desperately tried to overcome him, to destroy him. Everyone else's Darkness was doing the same, but the difference was, they were not aware of it. Even knew I was there. He screamed at me, trying to get me to leave him alone…but I crushed him. I caused immeasurable suffering for him. I was the one urging him to go farther…to perform unspeakable horrors in the name of his scientific inquiry. In a sense, I was his passion…red-hot desire and maniacal lust for power, unbidden by pesky things like morals and conscience. Even and I completed gruesome experiments without a thought for others' safety. And always, afterwards, Even would only suffer even more at the horror and loathing of what he'd done. I…I made his life a living hell."

Marluxia was utterly transfixed, listening to Vexen's tale. Never had he imagined that at any time, he'd been so full of…pure malice.

Vexen shook his head, wishing he could just forget. Having such a far sight and deep-reaching memory was a curse sometimes, and he wished he could've been like everyone else, ignorant of the first few months of their formation.

"But afterwards, once Even faded and I finally had complete control over his body…I could no longer feel that rush of vile adrenaline…that malcontented joy I would get out of snuffing the life out of creatures. I could no longer feel anything at all. I am much, much wiser now. I was…a monster, then. Now I know and understand Even better than I ever could before. I am him. Nothing of that newborn, unformed spirit of me remains now. I despise what I used to be."

One gloved hand trailed up Vexen's shoulder, again rubbing at it and trying to ease the solid tightness that had formed there. I never knew such a thing was possible, Marluxia thought. I wonder what I was like before I was "fully formed"…but from the sounds of things, I'm better off not knowing. He'll always have to carry the burden of knowing how he tormented his other self. Vexen really has so much to bear all at once. That's…my reactionary desire…to make it just a little lighter and easier for him. I hope I can accomplish that.

"Vexen…" Gingerly, Marluxia shifted himself upwards, gripping onto his shoulder…and carefully placed a kiss, right near the corner of his mouth. Though he immediately flushed a bit, he was too lost in thought to react in any other way. "Thank you for sharing so much with me. I understand so much more about you now. I never knew…your past was so dark. That you used to be so evil."

Underneath his touch, Vexen's body seemed to harden even more. It was all too much now…he didn't want to think about it anymore. He didn't want to have to deal with this anymore.

"You have no right to judge," he coldly spoke. "Like your past was so innocent and virtuous."

That hand clenched down through his coat sleeve, almost piercing into skin. How dare he…? How dare he bring that up now? Trying to equate Lumaira's life with his misdeeds. How dare he think so lowly of me…?

"You…have…no idea." Marluxia's voice seeped through tightly-clamped teeth. "You haven't a clue what my Other's life was really like. I don't care what you've seen from what makes up my being. You have no right to judge him—to talk about him in that way. Lumaira had plenty of weaknesses, yes, and I can't stand him for that. But you have no right to look down on him like a piece of trash!"

In an instant, the calm atmosphere had become charged with electric fury and tension. Yet Vexen didn't let Marluxia's threat perturb him this time. He shrugged. "I only know what I have rightly observed—a small piece of his desires."

"You think it was by choice?" Marluxia was trembling as he tried to prevent himself from outright attacking him. And everything had been going so well—Vexen had been trusting him and opening up to him again…but then he had to look down his hooked nose at him in disgust. He would never stand for this kind of treatment!

"Hmph." Vexen turned his face. "Either way, I'm certain I don't want to hear about it."

"Gah-!" Marluxia's arm shot up, as if to strike him, but at the very last second, he managed to reel himself in, letting it fall into his lap and squeezing into a fist. How dare he…how dare he? He'd sat patiently and listened to his entire story, and now he didn't give a damn about anything he had to say?

"I don't care," he growled, with warning. "You will see. I will make you understand. You told me it would be good for me to get in touch with my Other's life…well, I will. You'll see."

Though Vexen made sure nothing showed on his face, his mind did start to panic a smidge at that threat. He'd have to be very careful tonight…and any future nights.

Thoroughly irritated, Marluxia pushed off from the ground, commanding Vexen to follow. "Let's go now."

Oh, well, Vexen couldn't help but think when he lifted back to his feet and contemplatively made his way with Marluxia towards the open Dark Corridor. So much for the "power of nature".

(-)

Throughout the whole afternoon, Marluxia couldn't get his mind off what Vexen had said to him. No matter what the others tried to chit-chat with him about, his mind continued to stew over his snarky responses. No matter what, he couldn't allow it to go on. He'd put him back in his place…he'd prove the worth of his own background.

Strange, how not so long ago, he'd hated Lumaira…he'd been desperate to set himself up as distinctly separate from Lumaira. Though he still thought of himself as better than him, an improved version of him, he knew the connection he shared with him…and he cherished it as an essential piece of who he was.

I know just what I'm going to do tonight, he finally decided. Marluxia was lost in his thoughts again—the echoing voices ricocheted around him in Where Nothing Gathers as he made his way to his chair. I've wanted to do one of Lumaira's routines before, yet I've stopped myself, fearing how Vexen would react. Tonight, I'm going to let it flow out. If he screams at me…if he attacks me, so be it. It's time I taught him a thing or two. For being such a genius…there's so much he doesn't know.

The drone of Xemnas's deep voice buzzed in his ears as he looked down on Vexen's scowling face across from him. Well, he couldn't actually see his face, but from his posture, it was pretty obvious he was scowling underneath his hair.

And then…something else caught Marluxia's eye, completely shocking him out of his contemplative trance. Far, far below, in the center of the circular Nobody symbol etched into the stone floor, a small black figure stood straight and unmoving. Curious, Marluxia tuned back into Xemnas Radio just to get an idea of what in the world was going on.

"…selected. We are, as of now, the Twelfth Order."

Wh…what? That's…a new member? Though he'd certainly known it was possible, and actually highly likely, Marluxia had never expected there to be someone new…someone newer than him.

Everyone was staring in fascination and utter bewilderment at the figure, almost like they'd never seen something like this before. Well, the more reserved members, like Xaldin and Lexaeus were just staring with slight interest, while Demyx was outright gaping. That was when Marluxia blinked and noticed that there was indeed something very different about this Nobody.

It was quite slender…but even from this distance, he could see shape to its body…an outwardly curved chest, a smaller waist, more arching hips… A…female? No one had ever seen a female Nobody before. It was so foreign to them, they couldn't help but stare on in amazement.

"This is our Number Twelve…" Xemnas announced. "Larxene."

With that, a trained Dusk hopped up behind the new Nobody…and pulled back her hood.

Her hair was a startling blond…more yellow than any natural blond could hope to be, and cut short below her ears. But by far, her most striking feature was the two long pieces of hair that stood up on their own, curving around her head like two antennae. Her wide green eyes stared blankly ahead of her, like any other new-formed Nobody. But as small gasps and awed cries escaped his fellow members' lips, Marluxia delved deep into thought again.

How come none of us have ever seen her before? When I was new, Xigbar introduced me to everyone else in the Grey Area long before I attended my first Organization gathering. Is there…something special about this Larxene, aside from her being a woman? Why would she have been kept secret from us?

While Xemnas went on to babble about future plans and hearts and darkness and stuff, Marluxia pondered. I hope I'll get to meet her soon…

As it was, the Dusks brought her away when the meeting was done, before anyone could say a word to her. Yet, he just knew…they would be together soon. Larxene…he would get her to trust him too.

(-)

Tiny gaseous bubbles rushed up through a clear liquid, quiet slopping sounds breaking the otherwise peaceful quiet. The white noise of machines buzzed underneath, a familiar hum that calmed nerves and swept worries away. He'd needed this moment…needed it almost as much as they did.

One bare, bony hand slid up over the glass tank, drawing comfort from its smooth, warm surface. Immersed in the liquid on the other side, the scrunched, peachy form of a baby was suspended in an opaque, fleshy sack…resting, but healthy and alive. To anyone else, the image would be alarming—grotesque, unnatural, and wrong—but to Vexen, it was miraculous.

The Replicas were beginning to take form now…though he was developing this more critical one faster. It had slowly grown past the size of a fetus into a real infant now. All the adjustments to its DNA structure were complete, come what may of the odd changes he'd been required to perform, and now, all that was left was to keep the feed of energy going and closely monitor its accelerated developments.

Here, in the back room with his creations, Vexen could temporarily put his Marluxia problem on the back burner and focus on what mattered most. But unfortunately, as soon as he allowed his mind a smidgeon of room to think his name, all of these worries came flooding back.

I…like him. There was no denying it anymore. At least my body is responding with arousal to him. I can't blame it, really. And…I've become too close and trusting with him. I really shouldn't have told him everything about Even and I. But…I've known for so long…these special properties of Nobody creation. I've never had anyone to listen before. It's no fault of my own, either.

Regretfully, Vexen exited from the Replica room back into his cluttered lab, sighing at all the disorganized rubble. He'd been taking notes like a madman this afternoon, and after the "examination" he'd been too stressed out to try to put anything back in order. And with a quick glance towards the wall clock, he realized that things weren't about to get any better. 8:55…no time before he gets here.

At least Marluxia hadn't been arriving hours early lately…apparently, he had "important projects" to work on, though Vexen scoffed that nothing he could do by himself could possibly be so important. Then, he'd possibly have to deal with whatever punishment he'd cooked up for him in retaliation for insulting his Other.

A cold, throbbing sensation began in the pit of Vexen's stomach, and he labeled it something like the memory of utter dread. He had every right to prepare himself for any sort of life-threatening situation…there was no telling what Marluxia might do, and he'd really rather not try to imagine.

A moment later, just as he'd feared, a loud rapping sounded against his iron lab doors…and there was nothing else to do but go ahead and open them.

Marluxia was completely prepared. As soon as Vexen slid open the doors, he shoved him aside and burst in, just as a display of dominance.

Somehow, as he slammed the doors after him, Vexen managed to keep his metaphorical cool."A little eager for tonight's happenings, are we?" He turned and raised an eyebrow.

"Supremely," Marluxia answered, level and ready. "Couldn't wait all evening."

That does not bode well… "Then you're fortunate I've finished inputting Number Twelve's data, and tonight, I have some time to work on our next emotional energy facsimile." Vexen tried to ignore the warnings going off in his system and simply began pulling out the charts and tables associated with the incomplete "happiness" model.

"Oh." Marluxia appeared mildly interested. "So you had to give Larxene a checkup, like what you did with me? It must've been so hard for you to touch a girl like that—I feel so sorry for you."

Obviously, he was purposely trying to nag him and get on his nerves…and Vexen just didn't have the patience for that. "Marluxia, you know very well examinations have nothing to do with that piece of my being. As a purely medical practice, there is no stimulation—either positive or negative—involved. I don't even know why I'm reiterating this to you."

"Because you have nothing else to respond with…" Marluxia slithered closer, almost brushing his body against Vexen's side. Oh, he just loved the way Vexen's long body shuddered whenever he touched it.

Marluxia brought his face in very close, and though Vexen was taller, he could almost see him shrink at the feel of his hissing breath on his neck. "Tonight is going to be a little different," he whispered, striving to evoke both trepidation and desire within him. "I'm going to be the one doing a little experiment. So you had better watch closely, now."

"I-If you do anything to harm me, Eleven, I'll have just cause to retaliate…to get the rest of the Organization involved." Vexen hated how the pink-haired menace could somehow cause him to stumble over his words. "You know very well that Ze…"

"Oh, hush," Marluxia cut him off. "It's nothing. Just relax." He pushed down against his shoulders, urging him to take a seat. "I just want to show you something. It might…be relevant."

Although every fiber of his being was screaming at him to leave this fearful situation, another, buried part of Vexen's psyche was burning with curiosity. He couldn't…really hurt him, right? Would he really hurt him? No…he should be safe here. And so, against his better judgment, he fetched his desk chair and a pad of notes…and took a safe seat in it.

Marluxia was sweeping away piles of books and empty wrappers and old racks, clearing a large, circular floor space. It probably didn't mean anything, but Vexen took a note of it anyway. While he was writing, Marluxia unzipped his jacket, shrugging it to the ground and easily flinging it away over the piles of junk he'd just repositioned. When Vexen lifted his gaze, his face reddened.

Wow, all it takes for him to flare up now is just being shirtless. This was already incredibly fun, Marluxia decided, as he slipped off both his boots and his socks, also tossing them out of the way.

Well…this is…certainly nice, Vexen thought as he sat staring at Marluxia's body, clad only in tight black pants. But…this isn't…what he wanted to show me…is it? He was even having difficulty thinking around that…masterfully carved human figure.

But before Vexen could ogle his abs any more, his eyes closed…and he stretched… And then…Marluxia began to…dance.

"Dance" was far from the correct term, and it fell woefully short of describing what occurred before Vexen's eyes…but that was the only thing he could think to name it.

Marluxia concentrated, letting his memories overtake him…sweep through his system and take control of his limbs…fill every last molecule of space. Soon, he found himself moving on his own…in ways and beats he never had before. Through his mind's eye, he saw flashes of color…sparkles, lights, heat, so much heat…exhilaration. This…this had been what Lumaira truly enjoyed. This had been his life. His work. His passion. There was such beauty and life and energy around him. He wished it could go on forever…that it never had to end and melt away into darkness and searing pain. The end he knew was coming.

But not here. Not me. Marluxia caught a hold of his own separate identity again. Not…Vexen.

His body was swirling and undulating to a soft rhythm heard only in his distant memories…folding and heaving and pulling and stretching into positions the human body shouldn't even be capable of. In the midst of it, one action tugged his arm up to slide a kiss in Vexen's direction. Just another part of this particular routine. He knew it would end up happening. Just keep going…don't let it fade out now.

Clenching his eyes shut to focus, Marluxia gradually began to move faster. By now, Vexen had entirely forgotten about taking notes. In fact, the notepad had already slipped from his hand, leaving him simply staring, mouth slightly agape. As his jerks and pulsations and undulations accelerated, Marluxia was slowly moving forward…occasionally opening his eyes, as his memories dictated, flashing Vexen incredibly sultry smiles. At one point, his arms opened, waving…beckoning. But then his mad dance resumed, sweeping and spinning across the floor like a Dervish, his hair flinging behind him in a pink whirl.

A frantic heartbeat pounded in Marluxia's ears, drowning out all other sounds, and he was dancing to his own beat now. The flashes were growing too much…racing through his mind at speeds too fast and maniacal to process…everything was accumulating…pulling so hard, he was suddenly afraid it all might just burst inside of him. But at last, he felt his body squeeze against something, and instantly, the spell was broken.

Marluxia opened his eyes, gasping for breath, sweat trickling down his chin…to find himself pressing his hands to Vexen's chest, and his right knee pressing into his thigh.

"Uh…ah…huh…fuh…" There was no hope of him getting any words out, so he simply lifted himself off, standing blankly at his side while he caught his breath.

Meanwhile…Vexen was almost equally out of breath. His face was bright red, his body quivering, his eyes staring, unblinking at him. A few drops of sweat were beading on his forehead too.

"Th…th-thank you," Marluxia finally managed to choke out, bending a little at the waist to signal that he was through.

"K…ghhh…kkkk…" Vexen also struggled with his vocal chords. His whole throat suddenly felt very dry and sticky. After a moment, he coughed, clearing some of the haze pressing down on his senses and just slightly unknotting the enormous strain in the center of his chest. It took a second before he could think clearly again.

Marluxia observed all of this and couldn't help beaming with pride at his accomplishment. "Well…" he spoke, tauntingly, with a glance downwards. "I can see you quite enjoyed my performance."

With a little yelp of alarm, Vexen flung a book from his desk into his lap, and one drop of sweat fell down the side of his face in embarrassment.

"Huh…ahahahahaha!" The laugh bursting from Marluxia's lungs was almost painful.

"Y-You…how could you… That was…"

"Oh, shush." Marluxia reached up to dab away a bit of Vexen's sweat, though he was still coated in perspiration himself. He couldn't stop himself and let it lead him to combing fingers through his hair. "It's only natural. And Lumaira was a master at his craft."

"I…guess I can't hide it anymore." Vexen's eyes dipped and his voice was very soft, so Marluxia moved in a little closer to hear him. "I've…begun to experience attraction towards you as well."

"Heheh," Marluxia lightly chuckled. "That much is obvious."

An urge built up within him—a sudden spark, as if his brain was telling him to do something without any explanation. It just demanded he obey. And so he carefully moved in closer, so as not to startle Vexen too much, and continued raking through his hair.

Then…finally…while both their minds were still a bit numb…he pushed his lips to Vexen's…gently, yet firmly…holding there for a moment. Underneath, he felt Vexen's lips quivering a little. He pulled away, fearing that this miraculous moment would come to an end.

But to his complete surprise, arms suddenly lifted, wrapping themselves around his waist and drawing him in closer. Marluxia folded himself back over Vexen's lap…and amazingly enough…Vexen was insistently kissing back at his lips. It was very awkward and stilted, but when they pulled away a minute later, Marluxia thought it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to him.

Vexen panted with effort, his heart beating wildly under the lining of his coat. What was he doing? Mentally, he screamed all kinds of depreciating obscenities at himself. No! No! He couldn't be doing this! It didn't matter that Marluxia wouldn't reject him…actually, no, that wasn't a definite either. He could turn at any moment. Most of all—he was tampering with his own materials! He might as well burn every scrap of his "attraction research notebook". None of it…none of it was any use anymore. And it was all his own fault.

Still…at least Marluxia seemed to be artificially happy. On top of him, he could feel his body pressing in…his chest heaving against his torso, the rough sounds of his panting at his collarbone.

"Oh, Vexen…" The shot of crackling, looping, infinite energy did twists and turns and loops of elation through Marluxia's body. If only he could feel what this energy would have given him…he was sure it would've been the most amazing feeling in the universe. A chuckle popped out from his lungs. "You're a terrible kisser."

He was so lost in this strange experience that he didn't notice Vexen's body grow slightly colder.

"I think you need a little more practice…" Trembling with overstimulation, his hands raised, grabbing at the edges of Vexen's hood and using them to pull himself closer…reaching again for his lips.

"Hgg…ggii…iiih…no!" At last, Vexen's reason returned, and he flung Marluxia's shaking body off with a small burst of coolness, leaving him to crash painfully backwards onto the floor.

"Aaaugh!" Marluxia shrieked when his backside collided with the ground. Why…?

When he mustered his bearings to look back up, Vexen had leapt from the chair, unconsciously clutching at the top of his coat zipper as if to prevent him from ripping his clothes off. Another interesting composite expression squeezed his features…fear, anger, and disappointment. It was so easy to read him now…and Marluxia even had an idea of what he might be thinking at this moment. I bet he can't believe what he's just done, and he's disgusted with himself. He's…not really angry with me. He's angry with himself. Damn. There go his stupid ice barriers again, getting in the way and ruining the moment.

"Ah." Carefully, Marluxia picked himself up, sadly releasing the wondrous energy that had filled his system and letting it slowly burn out. He rubbed his sore butt cheeks and re-fluffed his hair, though he was still red-faced and somewhat rumpled from his routine.

Secretly, Vexen thought it was incredibly sexy. And then cussed himself out again for thinking so.

"So I guess that's as far as we're going, huh? Well, good progress anyway."

"Y-Y-Yes, that's as far as we're 'going'!" Vexen snapped, sensing the return of his faculties. "I don't know what you deigned to accomplish with such a barbaric display. I suppose you consider it successful, based on the type of response such things are designed to evoke. Thus I retain my former assertion that your Other was a filthy, earth-sodden bastard!"

"Oh, those words." As much as they might have stung someone with the ability to feel, Marluxia was still too amused to let them bother him. Quickly, he fetched his dropped coat and shrugged it back over his shoulders, leveling his gaze at Vexen's rigid form. "You can spout those fancy words at me all you like, but now the both of us know for sure…you don't really mean them."

"I…I disclosed that my body is exhibiting signs of stimulation in your presence, but that is the sole fact. Nothing in my manner indicates that I am not entirely against your so-called 'progress'."

Oh, geez…when will he just drop it for good? Marluxia hummed softly while he zippered his coat and pulled his boots back on. And he's attracted to me too now…or he's always been and he just never knew it. This is going to be so much fun.

"Well, like it or not, my performance elicited a certain response from you…something I'm sure you would've never experienced otherwise. And also, whether you like it or not, it was a positive experience. Now write that down in your notes."

"Write down in my…notes?" Vexen's body scrunched as he tried to restrain himself from spiraling into hysterics. "My notes are completely worthless now! There is no scientific merit in such blemished research! This unique Nobody attraction might as well have never occurred, if I cannot properly document it! There is no use…no point in continuing. But I can't…"

"You can't turn back now." Marluxia slid closer, gently lifting Vexen's chin and staring into his quivering green eyes with gentleness…but also an underlining hunger. "It's too late. You already belong to me."

"…Hmph!" Vexen slapped his hand off, whirling away towards his familiar desk. "I belong to no one! Nor am I an object to be possessed or to be used as anyone wishes!" Desperately, he lowered his head towards his desk, using it to steady himself both physically and mentally…and mumbled something, just low enough to be out of hearing range.

Marluxia sauntered after him. "Well. You cannot deny I now have a certain foothold over you, though."

"But don't you forget…" Although he was still panting and shivering slightly, when Vexen turned his face, his pointed, maniacal grin was almost alarming. "I have a firm foothold over you as well."

Before Marluxia could form any sort of response, Vexen shoved an armful of papers at him, forcing him to grab them before he lost his balance. "You'll be filing those for me tonight. I have some energy combinations to test, and you can look over them once you're finished. No wasting any more of my precious time!"

So it's the old "I'm not thinking about this anymore, so just go do some work and leave me alone" strategy. Oh, well, fine. It's enough for now. Even though he knew he'd be spending the rest of the night organizing archaic graphs and data sheets, Marluxia was entirely satisfied…he'd be thinking about this night for the rest of the week.

(-)

It was getting harder and harder to focus exclusively on the tasks at hand, even though everything was still just as fascinating and compelling. Vexen watched intently as the tiny glass container between his fingers heated…and then shattered. Not that one, then…

These experiments were still his life—what he thought about every waking moment. But gradually…he'd find his mind wandering, other thoughts and sensations distracting him. He used to be able to sit here and work for hours on end without pausing a moment…but now he'd get tired or hungry or sore and have to stop for a short while to readjust. He could still ignore the pains his body sent him and keep working, if he was compelled enough…but the fact that they could derail him, even for a second, was disturbing to him. However it had happened, Marluxia had reawakened his own physical sensations…the things he'd fought to suppress and ignore even before overtaking Even's body.

Even had learned at a young age to hide his sexuality and make it virtually nonexistent. It would only harm him and destroy him. In his competitive line of work, he would've never been accepted as a gay scientist. Eventually, he'd succeeded in "freezing himself over"…making himself entirely numb to his own bodily needs. As a Nobody, Vexen had taken this numbing to a further degree, to the point where he'd been unable to feel his own hunger, thirst, and fatigue. He'd had to keep a little timer around while working to remind himself to use the bathroom.

But now…Marluxia had effectively erased every trace of it. He felt hungry again…he felt tired again…he felt aroused again. And it was killing him.

It shouldn't have been so much of a surprise, really. Vexen had been keeping track of these things, along with Marluxia's progress in the attraction research…but he figured easing the numbness away from his hunger and fatigue wasn't so bad. Nothing should be able to reach far enough to be able to reawaken his body's other sensations. But Marluxia had…and now, Vexen was scared out of his mind.

Yet…another part of him thought that…maybe this could be for the better. After all, he had no more emotional ties to any physical sensations. As he'd stated…he still had a hold in Marluxia as well…as much as they both despised it, they were bound to each other now, with invisible golden threads.

And perhaps…through this abominable permission, Vexen could learn a thing or two himself.

(-)

"We are confident that you will train her effectively."

Marluxia had never heard a more wonderful collection of words. Today's mission…was to take Larxene out on her first mission.

Saïx had warned everyone that she was unstable and a challenge to control, but he'd deemed Marluxia competent enough to work with her. "In light of your recent mission performances, we believe you will be up to the challenge," he'd said to him. "It is customary for our most recently inducted members to experience the first mission together…so we're truly fortunate to have you as our Number Eleven." There was nothing like a little ego-stroking before a long day of work.

Good. Marluxia thought, even as he reiterated basic mission procedure to the female Nobody. This means Xemnas is beginning to acknowledge me…he thinks enough of me at least to entrust me with this supposedly volatile woman. It's not as much as I would like, of course, but it is something. It's more than I expected, actually.

Lately, he'd been concerned that he'd been spending too much time with his "Vexen Project" and not doing enough to advance himself in the Organization. Here, he decided he ought to work a little harder…but he didn't have to fret over it so much. They'd come to fully appreciate him in due time. Meanwhile…he'd take this opportunity to find out what Larxene was all about.

The female Nobody was simply staring at him, a distant coldness in her large green eyes. Her eyes bore some distant resembles to Vexen's…and maybe that was why Marluxia felt so inexorably comfortable in her presence. By all rights, he should've been more wary, given what Saïx had been saying about her…but…somehow, he knew it had to be lies and exaggerations.

Larxene hadn't yet said a word to him. For now, it seemed like she was simply appraising him…looking him up and down, watching his body language, his voice tone, maybe deciding if she would listen to him or not.

"And so…" Marluxia finished up his mundane speech by reaching one arm above his head and summoning his scythe in a small flurry of flower petals.

That finally got a response out of Larxene. She looked up at it and her eyes lit up with some sort of recognition. Apparently, blades were something she could understand.

Marluxia smiled a little—one of his soft smiles that hid something darker behind it. "…let's see how you do in battle."

With a little dramatic swipe of his scythe, he brought forth a small group of Heartless from the Dark Corridor behind him—a special "training package" Saïx had prepared. Soldiers, Scarlet Tangos, Watchers, and even a Large Armor streamed forth from the black vortex, and they immediately began to mill around, filling the plaza.

That might be a bit overkill, Marluxia admitted. He was probably meant to release the Heartless gradually, leading Larxene up to the tougher enemies. But it was much more fun and interesting this way. If he needed to intervene, he would be ready…but for now…

Shhnk! In one fluid motion of her arms, a yellow burst of light surrounded Larxene's hands…and clutched between her fingers, a set of yellow throwing knives appeared, pointed threateningly, like claws.

Hm. Interesting choice of weapon, Marluxia mused, though he kept silent in anticipation. I wonder how she's going to…?

He didn't have long to wonder. With a glint of her now narrowed eyes, Larxene flashed forward, her slim body nothing but a black and yellow streak. With a wild ferocity, she tore into the nearest Soldier, slicing its body to bits with lightning-quick swipes of her arms. Fortunately, it quickly dispersed into a cloud of Darkness…but no sooner had it misted away, when Larxene was already annihilating the next group of floating Scarlet Tangos.

Marluxia couldn't deny that he was surprised by all this…but at the same time, he found it completely fitting. Most people would underestimate her for being a woman…just like most people would underestimate him for his pink hair. But they would both prove them to be dead wrong.

As he gazed on, watching her darting and slashing savagely at the Large Armor, his mind registered a sort of kinship with her. Something in that steely gaze of hers…the way her body twisted and stabbed with relentless energy… it resonated with him. He could understand.

At last, once Larxene had finished off the final Heartless, she wrenched herself to a stop just a few feet away from Marluxia, panting…her shoulders shuddering, almost as if she were struggling to contain something within her.

Though he barely remembered the sensation, Marluxia could understand what was going on with her now…that basic need as a Nobody to destroy…to tear apart everything in your path. And slowly, as Larxene turned her head back up to him, her long antenna-bangs bouncing…something in her expression told him she understood as well.

Number Twelve…Marluxia thought. I will have her too. I want her on my side.

He formed a smirk on his lips. "Very well done. Now…"

With an audible thwup, he swung his scythe downward, holding its pole like a karate staff. "…would you care to match blows with me?"

Larxene blinked. She took a deep breath, and the shivering in her body relaxed just slightly. She averted her eyes. And at last…she spoke.

"Aren't you…going to tell me to stop now?"

"Stop?" Marluxia kept his stance leveled. "Why stop now? You're all warmed up. Come, spar with me."

If possible, Larxene's deep green eyes grew even colder. Her hands dropped down to her sides, and she clutched them into squeezing fists, the knives still protruding from them. "He said not to…that it wasn't "appropriate" for something like me. For a woman. The blue-haired one. He would force me to stop. Even when he couldn't stop himself. But the Superior man helped him. They would force me…to deny myself. Aren't you going to do the same? Isn't that what this Organization is about?"

We…are the same, Marluxia realized, with slight wonderment. That fighting spirit…the will to never let anyone control us, to tell us what we should and shouldn't be.

"No."

Larxene trembled a little again.

"No one has the right to tell you what is "right" and "appropriate" for you. Only you can decide that. If you wish to fight, then fight. If you wish to cause immeasurable carnage, well…go ahead and try."

Larxene looked back up in disbelief…and she stared back into Marluxia's confident gaze. Gradually…her blank face transformed…for the first time in her Nobody life…into the ghost of a smile. Her body relaxed, as if all of her pent-up energy had found a new purpose—had been released from the floodgates that held it back—and she took on a focused, combative stance.

"Okay. You asked for it. Now bring it on, Mr. Pink."

With the crash of metal on metal, the edges of knives met a scythe blade…and the glorious noises of their match rang through the Twilight Town square. This was a keeper, for sure.

And though their competition ended in a tight draw, Marluxia knew he couldn't wait to get a chance to work with Number Twelve again.

(-)

"No. Fornicating. Way."

Marluxia pouted, majestically, and tried to keep himself from stretching the material in his hands out of pure frustration. "Come ooooon. I told you I had something new to try out today. And you know how I am. You should have been prepared for this."

"Marluxia, nothing could prepare me for this. Why would I even think of…? For that matter, why would you think of…?"

"I've been preparing this for quite a while, actually."

"You must have some manner of mental disability. You have to. There's no other explanation. Or else a severe vision impairment."

"Love you too."

Although Marluxia's non-life had become a lot more exciting and enjoyable since Larxene had come into it…tormenting his Vexen was still his number one pleasure. Their bantering was made even sweeter recently when he considered that he was actually attracted to him in return. He knew that as much as Vexen put up a front, he'd already captivated some piece of him. Right now…he'd get him to do this, as much as he'd pretend to resist.

Tonight, as usual, Vexen was working on his next emotional energy model, with barely any progress. Marluxia couldn't understand why it was so difficult—he'd already finished one, shouldn't he be able to just replicate the "anger" one and make slight changes? No, Vexen had asserted that it was an entirely different process and he had to start over from scratch. It was taking far too long for Marluxia's liking to complete even this prototype model of a heart…he was going to have to start looking into other options. But for now…

"This is part of my own self-discovery mission to get in touch with my Other's life, you know. I figured you of all people would support me in my quest for knowledge."

"I don't understand how that would help you."

"Oh, it would help me in multiple ways."

Bit by bit, Vexen's long cheeks were flushing, and Marluxia could only imagine the chaos of thoughts swirling around through his head right now.

"Look…don't be afraid. I'll do it with you, if you want, so it'll be easier."

"N-No!" Vexen shouted, hair whipping behind him as he turned away. "I'm not…I'm not wearing a dress!"

Delicately draped over Marluxia's arms was a long, silky, light blue garment decorated with silvery chiffon and delicate beadwork. With such rich fabric, it would've been worth at least five hundred dollars at a store…yet Marluxia had produced it himself, right in his own garden. Ever since the day he'd first planted its contents, one special plant had been spinning the fabric of this dress…and under his direction, stitched it together with thin, yet sturdy fiber-threads. Finally, two days ago, it had been completed…just on time.

And just in case, Marluxia had quickly used the plant again to spin a second dress for himself. His was much shorter and not as finely adorned, but he thought it would suit him well enough, if the need arose for it. Unfortunately, it looked like it would.

Vexen refused to look back at the sight of it as he bent back over his chemical research table. "I understand that your tastes differ from the expected average, Marluxia, but honestly… What kind of deranged, deviant, backwards half-wit wants to see an old man wearing a dress?"

"Because…I don't want to see a regular old man wearing a regular dress," Marluxia protested, his voice a practiced hush. "I want to see you wearing a dress that I carefully made especially for you."

Vexen's body shuddered in response. "I had hoped to actually get something done today."

"And we will get something done today," Marluxia wheedled. "You just have to try it on for a moment. It doesn't have to be long. Just quickly try it on and let me see it. You can't tell me you've never been curious and tried a dress on at least once in your entire existence. There's nothing wrong with that."

Vexen chewed on the inside of his cheek. I don't know what he's up to now, but…I can't allow myself to get carried away again. It makes sense, but… I could… What if he…?

"Well…yes. Even used to do it privately…once in a while. But no one else ever knew. He was…deeply ashamed of it. He saw it as a kind of moral weakness. But that has nothing to do with me as I am now. Since I am devoid of true emotion, I have never felt the desire to do such a ridiculous thing."

Aha. There it was. The one crack of an opening that Marluxia needed. "But then…don't you want to find out?" He moved in a slight bit closer, though Vexen kept his eyes focused on the yellow glow of the glass container on his table. "Don't you want to get more in touch with him? It was a part of who he was, even if you don't want to admit it. You're always telling me to get to know my Other better—to accept him. Why won't you accept Even now, in this?"

Damn Marluxia and his skills of persuasion.

"Rrrgh!" Vexen suddenly growled and snatched the gown, much too roughly for Marluxia's liking.

His physical-heart leapt in panic with fear that he would tear it or break the fragile beads apart. Would he really destroy it right before his eyes…?

Vexen glared at the dress with complete disgust. "Alright," he grumbled. "But just for one minute. And you put yours on too."

Marluxia's panicked energy turned into excited energy…though they felt exactly the same to him. Yes! I knew it. And it didn't take too long.

"Of course!" he chirped. "Shall I help you get dressed right here?"

"No!" Vexen's face turned a lovely shade of red as he began to walk away. "I'm changing in the back room, of course! What did you think?"

"Aw, so your Replicas get to see you naked, but I don't? That's no faaair…"

"Why would anyone want to…? Marluxia, just shut your mouth and get dressed!"

Vexen slammed the door after that last screech, leaving Marluxia chuckling with amusement. Oh, how he loved tormenting his Vexen. Still…I hope I do get to see him naked soon. I want…him to be more comfortable with his body. Baring himself to me would be like the ultimate act of trust on his part.

Similar thoughts and plans trailed through his head as he carelessly pulled on his own temporary dress. It was red, not pink, and decorated with two little white bows at the hemline. He'd given it short sleeves, but a tall neckline, with little grooved patterns trailing down the bodice. It didn't much matter to him, though. Lumaira had been cross-dressing almost every day of his life. There was no more thrill or anxiety in it for him than for getting dressed in his uniform. He might as well look pretty, through.

Once the dress was on, he quickly tied up a small piece of his hair and materialized a rose in it. There—good enough. Now all that was left was to wait.

Vexen sure was taking a while, and Marluxia imagined him behind that door, struggling with the gown's side zippers and shoulder-straps, getting his hair caught in the beads. I really should've insisted on being there to help.

Still, he kept his eyes trained on the closed door to the back room…and when at last it began to peek open, a jolt of electrifying energy shot through him. Then…Marluxia could literally feel his breath being pulled from his lungs as Vexen gingerly stepped out from behind it, into the room.

He clutched his arms behind him, uncomfortably, and scowled rather unattractively. "Stop gawking like that," he spoke, flatly.

"Ah…"

It was…it was even better than Marluxia had expected. The gown fit his body perfectly, like it had been made for him…because it had. The light blue layers of the skirt framed his hips and tumbled all the way to his feet, complementing his long legs. Meanwhile, the beaded bodice and neckline showed off his collar bone while fleshing out his chest area to make it appear smoother and less obviously manly. Opaque blue chiffon sleeves draped over his upper arms, softly. Marluxia couldn't help but gape in awe of it all.

"I said stop gawking at me!" Vexen snapped, at once shattering the image. "I know, it's hilarious. You've had your minute now—I'm getting out of this."

"Wait, no!" Desperately, Marluxia dove forward, barely managing to catch him before he closed the door again. "I—It's beautiful! You look amazing! Really, please don't take it off yet. It's…amazing. It's perfect."

Vexen gave him a puzzled, disturbed look, but at least didn't run away into the back room again. "Tch," he snarled. "You and your overzealous aspirations. One day I'm going to ply that forked tongue out of your mouth."

"I…I'm not lying."

Again, that bitter resistance was up, as soon as he'd called him beautiful. For as concerned as he was about earning his praise, Vexen sure didn't know how to take a compliment.

Thoughtfully, Marluxia glanced downward…and noticed something alarming. He hadn't even seen it before…probably because he'd been too focused on the sight of Vexen in his dress. Underneath his hand, the bare skin of Vexen's arm was spotted up and down with tiny scars and dull blotches.

Vexen sighed when he noticed Marluxia staring at his arm, the falsified concern evident in his eyes. "Burns. Accidents. What have you. Though you might think otherwise, my experimentation is not always the safest line of work. Quit your worrying—it means nothing to me anyway."

He yanked his arms out of Marluxia's grasp…but at least he made no more moves to scoot into the back room again.

"Hmn," Marluxia grumbled with displeasure. He could just tell where this was headed now. More of that "my body is disposable", "I've given my body to science" bull crap. He was just not in the mood to listen to that garbage.

"Well, it matters to me. Even if you don't care about it."

"Ppf," Vexen spat again. "Well, if you want me to be perfect—if you want me to be your pretty little princess, I don't know what kind of brain disorder you have. I have never been and I never will be physically attractive, and I'm perfectly fine with that."

Marluxia hugged him. It happened so quickly, Vexen had no response other than a suddenly elevated heart rate. Marluxia just grappled him into a squeeze-hug before he could escape and held him there. Just holding him.

A whole minute passed before anything changed.

"Um…" Vexen finally spoke up, his face a little rosy once again. "What…?"

Marluxia shook his head, twisting it further against his stomach, refusing to let go. "Vexen…I'm perfectly fine with that too. You're beautiful to me, just the way you are right now, and you always will be. No matter what you say. I can't stand it."

Softly, Vexen sighed, as much as he could breathe with a nomotional pink-head wrapped around his chest. And then he lifted his arms, to rest his hands on Marluxia's back.

"You're insane. You're bat-shit crazy insane. Maybe that's why I like having you around."

Everything was a warm bubble—a different, private sphere, connecting the two of them. Then…Marluxia felt his lungs freeze in awe as he felt Vexen's fingers gently raking through his hair.

"Huh…nice hairdo." He felt the chuckle in his chest. "Did you do that while I was changing?"

"Oh…" Gingerly, Marluxia finally pulled away, leaving Vexen still reaching up to poke at his tiny pigtail. Somewhere in the middle of all this, he'd completely forgotten they were both wearing women's clothing. "Yeah. I just…had to do something while I was waiting." He shrugged.

"It's cute," Vexen remarked, with a little smirk before pulling back. Slowly…the small upturn of his mouth blossomed into a rare, gentle smile.

Could it be possible that…he's enjoying seeing me in a dress too? Marluxia wanted to laugh out loud, but he choked it down for fear of ruining the atmosphere. Things were going so well all of a sudden, and he wasn't ready for it to be over just yet.

Instead, his shoulders twitched. "It's nothing. Lumaira did this all the time. It no longer suits his body. Dresses just don't look as good on me as they did on him."

Vexen snorted. "Modesty doesn't suit you either, Marluxia."

"But it's true…" He heard the echo of Vexen's own words even as they were leaving his tongue. A strange, shivery feeling passed through Marluxia's chest as he remembered…probably the ghost of Lumaira's utter agony and terror.

"They pulled him. He started getting too old…he started growing too much." Irrevocably, Marluxia's eyes were drawn downwards while he dredged up these memories. "His shoulders—my shoulders—and his chest were getting too wide. It didn't look good with the dresses he had to wear. Too manly. They tried to…rearrange his bones. To stop his growth. It…it was one of the worst things he had ever endured. I don't like to think about it, because I can remember his pain."

Just then, Vexen blinked…and something in his eyes softened. "I never realized…" He shook his head.

"What?" Without even meaning to, Marluxia injected a bitter tone to his voice. "You never realized that life wasn't all excitement and pleasure in my past either? That I could possibly have painful memories too? That I don't-"

And suddenly, everything he'd been about to say was swallowed in a pair of cool, trembling lips.

All of his previous thoughts smashed into a mental wall, and all his brain could register was surprise and…delight. He kissed me. He kissed me. He…kissed me.

It only lasted for a few seconds, but that was enough. Vexen's hands grew slightly clammy over Marluxia's shoulders, and he quickly retracted them. His entire being seemed to be shivering slightly, as if he might either burst into tears or hit the floor at any moment.

"I just…I can…understand you now. At least a lot better than I could before. I apologize for…acting insensitive. I think that… It seems like… We can…"

A million memories of former sensations were threatening to overload Vexen's brain as he fought to get the words out. But he had to…he knew he had to now. There was no turning back. "I think that…we can be together. I want to be together."

"Kku-" Marluxia literally choked down the bubble of laughter that almost popped from his throat. Was this a love confession from Vexen now? It was a miracle.

Gee…force him to wear a dress, and he confesses his love for me? I should do this stuff more often. Or maybe just keep talking about how terrible Lumaira's life was and keep getting him to take pity on me. It's…true, though. It's all true.

Instead, he found himself forming an expression he realized he hardly ever used himself…the smile of true happiness. "Well, that's perfect! Because I always want to be together."

For the first time, he moved in and was met with no resistance as he pressed his lips to Vexen's face, his hands sliding around his waist, smooth with the slinky dress material.

This time, it did last longer. After a minute or so, Marluxia moved a little further down, kissing tenderly at Vexen's neck…and Vexen's hands fingered the fluffy hair on the back of his head, pulling his little ponytail out and almost pushing his face further against him.

Eventually, Vexen made his way into a chair, and Marluxia swept aside a pile of junk to sit on the table in front of him…and they continued this little kissing and gentle fondling spree. Somewhere in his hazy, pleasure-filled mind, Marluxia found it ironic how hot Vexen's skin felt under his lips. His poor physical-heart was probably ready to explode. But it didn't matter. Nothing else mattered now.

It only came to a halt when he slid the shimmery sleeves of Vexen's dress down his shoulders…beginning to undress him.

Almost immediately, his frigid barrier returned. His body froze, and he shoved back into his chest—not enough to fling him off the table, but enough to put him at fending-off distance. Hastily, he shoved the sleeves back on, still trembling slightly. Fortunately, no words were needed, since they were both incapable of speaking at the moment.

Marluxia knew what he meant. No. Not that. No more. I'm not going any further. Okay, it was too early. Not now…but hopefully sometime in the future.

There were a few more silent, wonderful minutes. Deliberately, Marluxia waited ten more minutes before attempting to touch Vexen again. Surprisingly, he allowed him to stroke his hair, while the two of them calmed down…somehow, the action had become familiar and comforting to them both.

Once his panic had faded away enough, Vexen closed his eyes. It was safe again now. Safe enough…to share something he wanted to share.

"…I think I know why my Organization coat is so long now."

"Really?" Marluxia idly combed his fingers through the ends of Vexen's hair again. He thought he knew why, too, but he wanted to hear him say it.

"Because…it's programmed into my body. Even liked wearing long, flowy dresses. It started when he was very little, and the family maids liked to dress him up because they thought it was cute. He enjoyed it. Until his mother found out and put an end to it…she even fired some of the maids who had been involved. But he continued doing it sometimes in secret, because…he liked the feel of the long material over his legs, brushing his ankles. This is…this is a part of me, too, as much as I might wish it were not. And I should…accept it. Maybe not embrace it, but…at least accept it. It would be useless to persist in fighting against something you cannot change."

Naturally, Marluxia leaned down closer and planted a small kiss on Vexen's scalp. "Good boy," he murmured. "You're learning."

Vexen snorted. "Hearing you say that to me, I'm paralyzed with horror."

"Oh, you should be." Marluxia chuckled.

Against anything Marluxia had ever hoped, Vexen decided to keep the dress…though he changed out of it as soon as eleven o' clock rolled around. He insisted on kicking him out of the lab for the rest of the night, because he had important work to do. Though Marluxia was disappointed that he wouldn't get to pretend to force him to sleep again while he groped him, he conceded, since so much amazing progress had already been made today. Once again, he made him promise to get to bed by one in the morning, much to his chagrin.

Little by little…the door was creaking open…and Marluxia had one leg firmly planted inside, fingers clenched around the edge. Now, all he needed was to force it the rest of the way. Behind it, all of Vexen's secrets and treasures lied in wait…tools he could use and possess for his own.

It was no surprise that, as Marluxia carefully changed out of his costume in a nearby locker room and delicately climbed the stairs back to his chamber, a distant, immense sensation of satisfaction settled inside him.

(-)

"Huafff," Vexen sighed when he sat down to work again at last. I just hung an evening dress in my personal closet…what in the name of physiology?

"I hope you're happy," he grumbled to his ever-present Other. I'd bet he's laughing at me right now. Well, I suppose it's only fair…

Vexen's mind continued to wander over the previous events while he got out his data sheets for the Happiness emotional model and laid them out over his desk in precise order.

I have never provided him with anything to be amused with. Only…pain and terror. Vaguely, he thought he could recall experiencing a mild bit of amusement in his early months…but that would have been amusement at Even's own weakness, mocking his shortcomings… He didn't want to think about that any more.

Hm. I should probably be working on the Replicas instead, Vexen considered. But I'll just try this again for a little while. It probably won't get anywhere anyway, and in another half-hour, I can go look over the readings from my Replica tanks again…Thankfully, progress on the first Replica was continuing apace…though Xemnas wasn't exactly thrilled about its current prognosis. Only ten minutes or so.

Yet…fifteen minutes later, he was hunkered in the same position, fingers trailing deftly over sheets of graph paper. Why…why hadn't he thought of this before? Suddenly, pieces and numbers were clicking into place where they had never previously fit. Everything made perfect sense to him. Was it…was it because…

A signal sparked through Vexen's brain, even as it continued to churn out the solutions to vast webs of mathematics. A signal telling him to…laugh. To reach into Even's childhood and pull out the kinetic memories of bubbling giggles. It made absolutely no sense…but it made all the sense in the world.

Pressing one hand lightly to his abdomen, Vexen let loose a burst of mirthful giggles. Perfect. Completely perfect. Everything is exactly the way it needs to be. I see it now. Of course.

And another twenty minutes later, Vexen was gazing admiringly at a small yellow pulsating bead contained within a bubbled glass tube. Happiness. The model for Happiness was complete.

It's because I understand it better, Vexen thought, though his eyelids were beginning to droop, drowsily. He wouldn't say that he'd actually experienced happiness, oh no—Nobodies were incapable of that—but, given his situation, he would have. And that made all the difference in the world. Instead of focusing on the negative memories of Even's past—his mother nagging him and putting pressure on him, researchers constantly surveying him, being surrounded by gruesome images—he was thinking about the good times—playing with the maids, being praised and recognized for his talents, late-night conversations with Ansem, the feel of Ienzo's small hand tugging on his sleeve. Feeling loved.

The yellow ball of falsified happiness floated merrily in its clear gel packing, and Vexen softly gave it a smile. Everything was getting better. Everything was so much better now, so much happier, so much more positive. So much better…since…since Marluxia

(-)

Unfit. Scrnnncgh. Grotesque. Ccrrrrrrgh. Verging limit. Brown hues, black lines swam before his vision. Blending paint molecules, fuzzy edges, squishing, eyeballs popping, head exploding.

Glenn appeared, screaming, crying, holding tight to his arm…but it was only an illusion, a memory, a distant thought in this never-ending existence of clenching agony.

Brain squishing, teeth stripping down raw from his gums. His mouth was being blocked by something, and its worn, jagged edges were eating into his flesh. The cool droplets of his own blood oozing from his lips were comforting. He swallowed, tasting dirty metal and fresh dentine.

He could remember dimly now… A rough grunt flicked his right eardrum from above, and the immense, unbelievable pressure crushed down even harder on his shoulder. There he was…Glenn…

Two tears squeezed out from Lumaira's lower eyelid, even though he'd promised himself he wouldn't cry. He didn't care about himself. Whatever horrific disfigurement occurred to his own body, he didn't care. But Glenn…

The brown-haired young man had clamped iron arms around his body, dragging him back, his face covered with tears, a torturous pain tearing through him. He'd been looking more lean and haggard than was usual for him lately, and it was just disturbing and unnatural. He'd screamed until his throat was raw, begging, pleading with them. Teacher and the other new trainers. But there was nothing that could be done.

"Glenn…it's okay," Lumaira heard his own voice, eerily calm in the midst of this crisis. "This is a good thing. I'll be able to continue working with everyone for a while longer. After it's…done. Once it's over. I'll be back."

"Nooo!" Glenn shrieked. "No, Luma!"

It couldn't be helped. They took him.

Unusable. "Hhgggh!"

Something scratched up from the back of Lumaira's throat—blood and bile. It squished out around his mouth-gag, thankfully preventing him from choking to death. His formerly brilliant pink locks were mattered down to the side of his head, brown with dirt and blood.

They had taken him into the back room…the room usually used for training. But now, it had been set up differently. A bed, with an iron neck-clamp, wrist and ankle shackles… "It'll all be over soon," Teacher had assured him. She was the most vile, disgusting liar on the face of the planet.

Lumaira was their star, their most lucrative money-maker, their most valuable possession. But he was getting too old…he was growing through puberty. His chest and his shoulders were growing too wide. He looked far too masculine. No one would want such an awkwardly-shaped lady to entertain them. So there was only one solution.

Cggcgcgckk. The pressure was so great, so unbearable, it wasn't even there anymore. Lumaira wasn't sure he was still alive. But then, something popped…snapped and cracked inside him, and he knew it was his shoulder bones breaking apart.

The one solution…make his shoulders smaller. Force them in. With special barbed iron presses, designed just for this purpose. Why not?

The explosion of pain could never be registered on any scale. Once again, the brown patterns of the floor spun rapidly before his sight…mixed with the haunting image of Glenn's shiny, wet face. Glenn…I love you. I'll be back.

Then, the world plunged into peaceful blackness, as Lumaira finally, mercifully, fell into a beautiful unconsciousness.