Everyone down in the lab were looking at the ceiling. The lights were finally back and besides letting their eyes adjust to it, most of them looked at each other in surprise. Since they were down in the laboratory, it was not only the lights that had started buzzing and coming to life. No, all of Vexen's other machines were suddenly functional. The scientist in question looked over at the unconscious Roxas on the examination table.
Zexion, who was once again stationed at a window, glanced over his shoulder at the others. "It would seem that the power has returned to the Dark City too," he stated. "Perhaps whatever took the power is gone." He closed his eyes, trying to track the strange scent.
The sound of a portal opening in their midst broke the Schemer's concentration, and the others jumped wearily, almost expecting the intruder to appear. Marluxia and Larxene even got up from the couch, the Assassin wincing visibly. Instead, Lexaeus stepped out of the portal with a body slung over his one shoulder. He looked at them all with a rather grim expression before looking at Vexen.
"I believe Saïx needs some help," Lexaeus said quietly but in a clear voice. "Xaldin is still looking for Xigbar, if he hasn't already found him."
Vexen stared at Lexaeus for almost a full minute, once in a while glancing at the unmoving Saïx. It was only when the Silent Hero walked over to place Saïx on the now vacant couch that Vexen snapped out of his stupor. "What did you do?" Vexen all but demanded. Saïx was not going to be happy about this.
"I stopped him from running wild in this laboratory with all our injured members," Lexaeus explained. "The intruder, whatever it was, managed to make him lose control. He was going to hurt even more people if he stayed in the castle." He looked over at Demyx and Roxas.
"More blood," Zexion said simply, having tried once again to track the remaining members. "The scent of Xaldin is very close to Xigbar's. And Luxord's. They may very well have found each other by now. But more than one of them is injured, Vexen."
"I see," Vexen said with a calculating expression on his face. He glanced over at Lexaeus. Then over at Demyx standing protectively next to Roxas. "Xaldin will quite possibly make sure to bring them down here. In the meantime, the return of the power will now allow me to treat your injuries more thoroughly. Please hand me that suturing kit." He walked quickly over to Roxas on the examination table.
Meanwhile, Marluxia had been staring down at Saïx, glancing around quickly to make sure that no one was looking except Larxene. The latter frowned at him, fairly sure that Marluxia looked like he was ready to just grab a pillow and smother Saïx to death. Of course he wouldn't do it, even if the opportunity was there. It was an unsophisticated way to go about it. Marluxia wrinkled his nose slightly.
"He's loyal as hell to Xemnas," Larxene whispered after having leaned in close to Marluxia's ear. "And it probably won't change."
"Indeed," Marluxia whispered back. "At some point, we have to get rid of him. The others too." He glanced at the others over his shoulder, Vexen in particular. The Graceful Assassin's time for finally setting his plan into action would come soon enough. And when it did, he would have to strike swiftly.
"Hey," Larxene called over her shoulder. "Should we get Saïx to the infirmary?" She asked, referring to the large backroom to Vexen's laboratory. It served as a hospital wing, containing lined-up hospital beds and equipment. It wasn't often that injured members of Organization XIII would have to be confined to that room, since they could normally reside in their own rooms when injured. Only when they were injured badly, and Vexen would want to keep an eye on them while still keeping up his work, would they have to rest there.
"Why, yes," Vexen said, having started to unpack the suturing kit, looking for some latex gloves as well. "If one of you could please help him to the infirmary, that would be – Ah!" He cut himself off as one of Larxene's kunai flew right past his head. He dropped the kit, whirling around to send Larxene a furious scowl, the Savage Nymph still standing with her outstretched arm. Marluxia looked at Larxene calmly.
"What is the meaning of this?" Vexen demanded, glaring at Larxene.
Larxene didn't answer, and wasn't even looking at Vexen. Instead, she seemed to be focusing on something behind Vexen. Without a word, she summoned another knife to her hand. Marluxia seemed to be staring at what Larxene was looking at now as well. He summoned his Graceful Dahlia.
"We've got company," Lexaeus said calmly, just as Vexen turned around to see what the neophytes were looking at. There, in the doorway, stood the figure of Xemnas – or the intruder – with the kunai Larxene had thrown in his hand, having apparently caught it. Lexaeus shifted to get into a fighting position, but he was limping visibly and looked at least as beat as he had to feel.
The moment Xemnas took a single step forward, Marluxia was already upon him in a flash, swinging his scythe towards his target's neck while still mid-air. Larxene took the hint and fired several other kunai towards the impersonator as well. The scythe nearly hit the mark, until Marluxia literally hit an invisible wall. He didn't have time to think about the pain of slamming into it, before painful energy surged from the wall and through Marluxia, sending him flying back into another shelf instead. The knives bounced off the wall, some flying towards Demyx and Roxas. However, they were quickly blocked when Vexen summoned his shield to protect the others.
Xemnas took yet another step towards the group, having not even batted an eyelid at Marluxia and Larxene's attack. At the same time, Marluxia had untangled himself from the rubbish he had become entangled in, charging towards Xemnas once again. This time, Marluxia easily made his way around the all too predictable wall of nothingness, swinging his scythe towards Xemnas' middle in a spinning attack. Just as he thought he had finally landed a hit, red light suddenly caught his eyes, and Marluxia noticed that Xemnas had blocked his Dahlia with a single Ethereal Blade. Another Ethereal Blade sprouted from Xemnas' other hand. With a fast and powerful swing, he was the one to hit Marluxia's middle mercilessly instead, making the Assassin double over before falling to the floor.
"Do not let him reach the injured," Vexen snapped to no one in particular.
"I know, dammit!" Larxene snapped back.
Several knives were suddenly embedded in the floor around Xemnas, as Larxene had decided that the trick she used in the intruder in their first fight would have to suffice again – attacking this one directly was obviously not wise. The knives charged up with lightning, illuminating the already lit room. Once the intruder had made sure that Marluxia wouldn't get up, he turned his attention on Larxene. He lifted his arm, sending dark tendrils towards her. Larxene made a quick dodge roll out of the way, barely making it. Vexen and Demyx had to dodge out of the way as well. Xemnas stepped freely out of the circle of kunai, dismissing his Ethereal Blades and finally taking the last few steps over to Vexen, who managed to get back on his feet, shield in hand. He positioned himself protectively between Xemnas and the unconscious Roxas. Lexaeus did the same.
Xemnas looked at them with a bored expression. But there was something else. "I might forgive you all for attacking me," he suddenly said in that deep voice of his. "If you tell me what has happened to my castle." He looked Vexen dead in the eye.
"He's the real Superior," Zexion suddenly said, having not moved from his spot at the window. He had simply observed the entire scene. "I recognized his scent, but... His power sure did convince me too." He nodded in greeting and respect.
The scientist gasped, taking a shocked step back and dropping his shield with a loud clang. "S-Superior..!" He stammered.
Marluxia finally managed to lift himself into a mix of kneeling and crawling position. A thin string of blood was running from the corner of his mouth and down his chin, a sign of internal injuries.
'He didn't even try,' Marluxia thought, glaring daggers at Xemnas' back. 'He didn't even try, and yet he could have wiped us all out...'
Vexen opened his mouth to speak again.
"What. Happened?" Xemnas cut him off with what could almost be compared with a snarl.
The darkness was thick, like having dived into an endless sea of molasses. Luckily, the need to breathe wasn't there. He felt dizzy, having no firm ground to put his feet on. He didn't even know if he was standing up straight, or if he was perhaps upside-down. One thing was sure... this didn't feel right. The grim realization that he was actually sinking further into the darkness soon hit him, tearing at the edges of his consciousness. He had to wake up – that's it, he wasn't awake! A pain shot through his chest, repeating itself with a panicked rhythm. It was sort of the opposite feeling of the heart trying to beat through your chest. It took his breath away every time. He had to try to swim through this substance – try reaching for light and life. He had to wake up.
Everything was spinning, twisting in a fashion made for nightmares. All he could spot was part darkness and part ceiling. Soon, shadows moved across the walls and the ceiling, revealing that someone was standing close by. His eyes were starting to close again.
"-ouldn't push yourself, you're injured too…"
"-bit more important, Zexion…"
Who was that talking? He couldn't recognize the voices. Where was he?
"-ink he's awake."
The sounds and people came nearer. Something touched his face, assaulting him with a bright light. What was that constant beeping? 'Stop touching me,' he wanted to say. Instead he decided to let out a groan, but nothing came. In fact, no sound wanted to come as commanded. Something was literally stuck in his throat.
"Can you hear me?" Someone said.
"-f you can hear me, then-" And everything was darkness again.
The whiteness of the room instantly assaulted his eyes. Roxas squeezed his eyes shut, letting out the whiniest of groans, just like when he woke up a normal morning and wanted to sleep on for just five more minutes. Only then did he notice that the mattress beneath him did not feel like his own bed. In fact, why were the lights on anyway?
There was a quiet gasp and the sound of someone either shifting or fumbling around nearby. "Ax," someone hissed in Roxas' close vicinity. "I think he's awake!"
Roxas cracked a single eye open, looking timidly around. Like everything in the Castle That Never Was, the ceiling was a dull white. The young Nobody assumed that the walls would have to be the same color. And- wait a minute! The lights in the ceiling were on! Did that mean that they had won? Both of his eyes shot wide open. His eyes darted from side to side to get a good look at his surroundings.
"About time you came back to the world of the living," a rather laid back voice said to his left. "Welcome back, buddy."
"Axel!" Roxas burst out, sitting up in the bed. In fact, Demyx was standing next to the seated Axel, fidgeting nervously with his hands.
The Flurry of Dancing Flames quickly put a hand on Roxas' shoulder and pushed him back down. "Whoa, there!" He said quickly. "Yeah, it's me. You shouldn't jump about yet, apparently you got a serious head-injury. You were out cold the whole night, and most of today too."
"Man," Demyx sighed, rubbing his brow, "I'm really glad you're okay, Roxas. For a minute there, I thought that Saïx actually killed you." He gulped. Roxas looked around while Demyx spoke. It was obvious that he was in the hospital wing.
"I'm feeling just fine," the Keybearer admitted with a shrug. "Bit of a headache, though."
"No surprise there," Axel shrugged, leaning back in the chair he was sitting in. Then he all but bit out, "I think I'm gonna have a talk with Saïx when I see him."
"... He couldn't really help it, Ax," Roxas interjected. "I mean, he was pretty much out of control, right? Demyx?" He looked at the Nocturne.
"Huh?" Demyx said, snapping out of his own thoughts. It seemed like he had been listening to or for something. Now that Roxas thought about it, there was a rather irritating and rhythmical beeping sound in the background. Demyx nodded at what Roxas had said.
"Yeah," Demyx agreed. "Something really managed to tick the dude off. It obviously had to be the work of the intruder, right?"
"Wait," Roxas said suddenly. "What actually happened? Did you... did you defeat Saïx?" He blinked.
"Me?" Demyx blinked as well. He put up his hands defensively. "Oh no, no I didn't! Lexaeus appeared and told me to get you and myself the heck out of there. He was the one who fought him. We gotta thank him, Rox. He might have saved our lives."
Roxas nodded. "But did we get the intruder? Who was it? What did they want?"
"We didn't get anything," Axel mumbled, folding his arms across his chest. "They were all killed, there wasn't anything else to do." His voice was slightly bitter.
Roxas tried to ignore the fact that his hands were clutching his covers. "Right..." He sighed. "At least it's over now…"
"You could say that," Axel said, wrinkling his nose in a distasteful manner. Demyx looked like he wanted to hide away somewhere. "Xemnas is back too, you know."
"He is?" Roxas asked, blinking rapidly.
"Yeah," Demyx choked out, running an ungloved hand through his hair. "And he is sure to be pissy right now..!"
Axel sent Demyx a glaring glance, telling him to shut up. Then he looked back at Roxas. "He gathered some of the others for a meeting in the Round Room. If he is in a foul mood, it's directed at them. Not us. I wasn't even here, man."
"… Ok, the worst part is over," Roxas rephrased.
The others looked a bit uncertain.
"Disappointing," Xemnas hissed from his position in the highest throne in Where Nothing Gathers. "I leave this, my castle, to you all, in my absence. And you cannot even protect it, or our Dark City, from a few intruders!"
It had all happened last night by now. Xemnas had arrived, less than pleased, to find out about the entire predicament in the Castle That Never Was. Whether it was his presence or the last intruder's death that finally allowed the electricity to return was still mystery. The Superior of the In-Between had waited for them all to fix the mess they'd gotten themselves into, until he finally called all the original members of Organization XIII to the current meeting. And Saïx.
"You are my second-in-command," Xemnas turned his head to look down at the Nobody in question. "I left my castle in the care of you, first and foremost. You allowed something like this to happen on your watch, Number VII. That is failure."
Saïx didn't move as Xemnas spoke. However, the little twitch of his feet indicated the curling of toes. Like with Vexen, a bandage was wrapped around his head, being held up by his pointy ears. Other than that, he seemed completely calm. "Forgive me, Superior," he said clearly. "I will never allow this to happen again, I give you my word. However, I managed to kill one of the intruders."
"You are dismissed, Saïx," Xemnas drawled from his throne, without moving. He didn't even care to wave his hand or nod.
"Superior – " Saïx tried, but was cut off.
"Dismissed, Number VII."
There was a strange look on Saïx' face, before the second-in-command simply portaled away from the room. The others watched the now empty spot in silence.
"As for you all," Xemnas began ominously, looking around at his original and founding members.
Vexen was silently drumming his fingertips in his armrests, nothing anyone could hear in that huge room.
Zexion and Xaldin were both waiting patiently, knowing that they couldn't be to blame, seeing as they were supposed to have been away during the events and the fact that they had helped out a great deal when they did arrive.
Lexaeus was sitting leaned back in his throne, his movements still rather stiff and awkward. His eyes were closed in grim acceptance of the harsh words that were about to come.
The only one not dressed in the usual black coat was Xigbar. The Freeshooter was sitting in his throne as well, merely dressed in a t-shirt and boxers, which was understandable since he had been forced to spend his night in the hospital wing as well, just like Saïx and Roxas. He didn't need the protection against darkness either, since he could just teleport. His one arm, the one with the injured shoulder, was resting in a sling. His other hand was clenched tightly, only being clenched tighter every time Xemnas spoke. The very sound of his voice seemed to tick him off.
Xemnas finally looked at Xigbar of all people. "Saïx may have been my second-in-command… but, obviously, I expected more from you all. Especially you, Number II."
Xigbar stared straight ahead at the thrones in front of him.
Xemnas continued, this time speaking to all of them. Supposedly. "This is not the first time that people have let intruders just wander into our city and castle. And now you've allowed several members to get injured in the process, even our Keyblade Wielder. None of you managed to catch at least one of these intruders last night – I dare say that you keep… disappointing me."
Xigbar scoffed loudly, wanting to fold his arms. "Big deal," he sneered. "Saïx killed one, in his berserker-rage. I killed two, if not three. They're not coming back. If they do, they're idiots. Problem solved! Now, can I get the hell outta here?"
"Who were they, though?" Lexaeus said, effectively cutting off Xigbar's provocative behavior.
"I have a theory," Zexion said calmly, raising his hand for a short moment.
There was a tense, in which Xemnas slowly turned his head to look at the Cloaked Schemer. "Speak," Xemnas finally said.
Zexion spoke, bringing his hand to his chin in thought. "My mission with Xaldin was simple; to explore the new world we had found. Upon our arrival with a dark portal, we were met with the sight of a huge lake. In the middle of this lake, I sensed some sort of magical barrier. True enough, the barrier appeared to be hiding what looked like an enormous castle. Now, on this mission, we managed to gather plenty of information of the people, flora and fauna. A certain creature was a shape-shifter, much like the ones described in these last hours. From your information, I can only gather that this creature must have snuck through the portal from its own world when we arrived."
"That creature would have been destroyed by the darkness..!" Vexen argued.
"Or empowered," Zexion said simply. "There is a difference in our information, you see. The way you have all described these intruders is a bit different from ours. Our version is, supposedly, not able to copy powers and memories. Other than that, every other description fits perfectly. I can only assume that its journey through the darkness gave it those powers."
"I see," Xemnas said. "It is the only fitting theory, indeed."
Zexion nodded in agreement. Xaldin was glancing discreetly over at Xigbar, who seemed to have calmed down just a bit.
Xemnas then looked over at Vexen. "Report," he said simply.
Vexen jumped visibly in his seat, having momentarily forgotten the chance of him being picked out. "Of course," he almost stammered. "Among our members, seven were injured, including myself. Xigbar has suffered a severe and deep cut across his shoulder. Lexaeus and Saïx took a lot of damage from each other – however, Saïx suffered severe exhaustion as well. Marluxia has several injuries as well, the worst ones being internal bleeding… on your behalf… and severe exhaustion, as well. Roxas showed to have a skull fracture, but he is healing nicely. He should be awake by now…" He trailed off.
Everyone had been listening in silence, wanting to know the situation. Xemnas, however, couldn't look less dull and uninterested. The fates of his members were, however, interesting for him to know.
Vexen continued. "Luxord's case is a more difficult one," Vexen said. "He had already suffered several broken ribs before the intruders revealed their presence. According to Xaldin, Number X's breathing and pulse gave out rather spontaneously. But perhaps it isn't that spontaneous. Taking his broken ribs into consideration, I can only assume that Luxord must have fallen victim to an ugly fall, or several blunt attacks to said ribs, if not both. The already broken ribs must have pierced his lung, which then collapsed after a good amount of time."
Xigbar glanced over at the empty throne belonging to the Gambler of Fate.
"He was gone for about two minutes," Xaldin added, "before Xigbar managed to resuscitate him."
"Clinically dead is the right term here," Vexen concluded. "His breathing is currently being supported, but I plan on extubating him later. However, I do believe that Xigbar should return to the infirmary as well."
Xemnas exhaled through his nose. "Very well. You are all dismissed."
Everyone portaled away, and Xigbar teleported.
His reflection in the water was murky and blurred, just like the surrounding landscape. The little boat, governed by no one, slowly slid between the trees upon the water. Oddly enough, standing at the tip of the boat did not affect its perfect balance in any way.
Finally, the little boat came to a gentle stop at a small pier, leading up to a primitive hut. After a moment's thought, Luxord stepped carefully from the boat to the wooden boards onto the pier. Nothing hindered him from walking straight up to the little hut and entering, which he did. The inside was at least as messy as outside, with jars and bottles hanging from the ceiling, suspended by rope and strings. However, it looked slightly bigger from inside the walls. A doorway led to another room, and shelves lined the walls. Candles were burning everywhere, giving the place an eerie, yellow glow.
Luxord politely closed the door after him, going to the small table with the two chairs. He rested his one hand on the dusty chair, enjoying the feeling of something solid.
"You have arrived, I see," a heavily accented, female voice suddenly said, breaking the silence. Luxord turned to look at the person. What he saw was a dark woman in a ragged dress, black dreadlocks cascading down her shoulders, beautiful curves and a sly grin on her all too mysterious face. She was holding a small teacup in her hands.
"For the cold," she offered, placing the cup on the table. "And the pain."
Luxord stood up straight, finally getting over the sight of her. He stepped over to the woman, taking her hand with a soft yet sad smile. "Tia Dalma," he greeted, kissing her hand gently. "It really is an honor to meet you yet again." He let go of her hand and stepped back.
Her black lips curled into a smile instead. "Charmer," she quipped with a chuckle, seating herself in one of the chairs. Her fingertips started playing very lightly with the flame of a candle. With her other hand, she signaled for Luxord to sit as well. "Now… what brings you here?"
"… I don't know," Luxord admitted, taking the teacup. The warmth of the porcelain already surged through his hands, a small comfort. "I don't even know where I came from. Am I dead?"
"Would you like to know," Tia Dalma suddenly started, "how you're going to die?" That sly yet alluring expression on her face was back. An old and obviously used deck of cards was suddenly in her hands. She had stopped playing with the candle. With one hand, she fanned out the cards neatly on the table, backside up.
The smallest of smiles tugged at the corner of Luxord's mouth. "I have a faint idea," he whispered, taking a sip from the warm tea.
"Every possibility?" She pushed.
"And this is not one of them." It was more of a statement than a question.
"No," Luxord finished. "But it feels so close and familiar at the same time. Like losing my heart all over again. I was sure that Jones had finished me off."
"Because you are close," Tia Dalma explained. "And Jones… even though it was not really him… him cruel and savage deeds are punished now."
Luxord nodded, taking another sip.
"Why have you come here?" She repeated. Only then did Luxord notice the sound of a small music box playing the exact same melody that the other music box had been playing back at the Castle That Never Was. However, instead of installing fear and paranoia, it was soothing and calm.
Luxord rested his head in the palm of his other hand. "I didn't choose this. Not consciously, at least. But since I'm here, the only thing I can think of is… guidance."
Tia Dalma waited patiently for Luxord to continue.
"This world," Luxord continued. "My world. It's spinning out of control. I know so little, I…" He trailed off.
"Tell me, Luxord," Tia Dalma suddenly said. Some of the jars and bottles started swinging a bit, possibly the result of a light breeze. "Him wanted to kill you. Why?"
Luxord stared at her in surprise. Then he took a deep breath. He sat up straight again. "Because that was the deal," he said. "You already know."
"Tell me," she insisted.
Luxord sighed. Where to start? Suddenly, it was so awkward talking about his past, even with someone who supposedly already knew about it. "When I was still human and younger than I am now, I left what was left of my home. Actually, there was nothing left for me to stay with. I did what I'd always wanted to do; I traveled the world, looking for freedom and living no better than my own skill. The pain of her death would only just start to fade after several years. And after several years, Davy Jones was the one I came across. Jones all but murdered the other passengers, men and women. That's when I knew that, no matter what I did, I was dead."
"You have two options, whelp," the accented voice laughed. "You can die now. I can send you to the dark abyss, where you will be facing your deeds. Or you can live..! Accept this offer, and you will not only live the years of a single life. No, you, lad, can live for a hundred years on my ship. If I were you, I'd accept. It's that, or death."
There was a snicker.
"Amused, are we?"
A moment's silence. "They say that you have no heart," the young man said. "I can't see why I should accept the offer of a heartless man. So… I'll throw in a choice of my own; I'll play you for it. If I win, I live. If I lose… then you're free to take the heart, which you lack, from me. Do whatever you want with it. It's a challenge."
"And my fate was sealed," Luxord said bitterly, putting down the teacup. "Obviously. And Jones decided that he could do with my heart what he wanted, since it was his now." His fingers trailed over a certain spot on his own chest, where he knew an old and slightly faded scar was lurking under the several layers of clothes.
"In the darkest, calmest and deepest depths of my domain, a feeble soul with fading heart and dying body appeared," Tia Dalma said. "Fate soon swept him away, dooming him to the life of a Nobody."
Silence. Tia Dalma started shuffling the cards again. Luxord could see – he knew – that they were the Major Arcana.
"I saw something tonight," Luxord suddenly said, changing the subject. "Something that not only made me think that I really am crazy, but actually made me hope it as well."
She smiled, her fingers playing with a flame again. "Oh?"
"It's Xigbar…" His fingers were in his lap, trembling slightly. "There's just something… wrong with him. Something I can't understand, something dangerous..!"
"You worry about your friend?" The dark woman pushed, fanning out the cards on the table again. "Or are you scared?"
"Of course I worry..!" Luxord hissed, refusing to admit the other option, if it was even an option.
"Him not like you. Dwelled in the darkness longer than you, him has. You seem to know him well, however… Everything is never as it seems. Him may be your friend, and you are his. That's why…" She flipped one of the cards on the table, picking it randomly. The first thing Luxord saw was the number sixteen written in Roman numerals. The he saw it – the high tower, engulfed in flames and despair. "You are going to suffer more than anyone."
The Tower. Chaos, impact and crisis.
Luxord felt something inside him sink and tighten. "He can do that?" He choked out.
"That choice is his, when time comes…" Tia Dalma deadpanned. The jars and bottles were swinging back and forth more visibly by now. Something tense was in the air. "You see yourself as weak, but this is actually where you are wrong."
"What do you mean?" Luxord asked, rising from his seat. "I'm at the end of my rope. I couldn't even beat Jones in my Nobody form. It's as if I'm resting in suspended animation, never getting as strong as the others. There is a reason Xigbar pities me, thinking I need a chaperone every minute of the day. I feel like I'm giving in to madness itself!"
Tia Dalma smiled. "That's where you are mistaken," she said and clucked her tongue. "Such convincing feelings."
Luxord didn't say anything.
"I have watched," the mysterious woman explained. She got up from her seat as well, making her way around the table to stand in front of the Gambler. "You were beaten, wounded. You think those are signs of complete weakness. The creatures you have encountered tonight deals in shadows, fear and insanity itself. Every single one of you all was confronted by 'madness itself', as you so well put it, my witty friend. But… you are the one who did not give in to it. Your mind is strong, dearest one. Brute force was never you. Your spirit, your soul, is your strength as well. A most powerful one."
Luxord stared at her, only able to concentrate on his shaky hands. "How do I stop the darkness tugging at the edges of my mind? My powers aren't useless, but they intimidate me. How do I..." He trailed off.
"How will you avoid the suffering?" Tia Dalma finished for him. "Cast away these emotions of yours and become still as the depths, waiting for the next victim of the world. The question, however, is not how you do it…"
"Then what is the real question, then?" Luxord asked, glancing at the cards on the table. The Tower was still mocking him.
"The question is," Tia Dalma started, staring him straight in the eyes with a serious expression all of a sudden, "should you do it?"
He frowned, letting silence settle over the two of them. The music box had stopped playing, leaving only the sound of wind and creaking floorboards. He knew what she meant. You couldn't avoid suffering in life. Pain was at least as big a part of being alive as pleasure was. Trying to avoid it would mean that you had to avoid both.
Knowing that he would probably always have a card up his sleeve, he reached out and flipped another random card, revealing the Wheel of Fortune, also known as Time.
Changes, opportunities and a new beginning. He wanted to fight for that. For chance and possibilities. For the choice of not sinking back into darkness.
'We are Nobodies,' Luxord thought, closing his eyes. 'But we strive to be human. However, it is… near impossible.' He opened his eyes again.
"… What happens now?" Luxord whispered.
Tia Dalma placed her palm in the middle of his chest, smiling. "Return to life," she said. For a moment it felt like she was trying to dig her fingers into his chest. "Return to the realm of the living."
Luxord nodded. "Thank you, Tia Dalma," he said, enjoying the lack of tremors. "Thank you… Calypso." And he was suddenly pushed violently back and into darkness.
The sharp intake of breath was, perhaps, the worst thing he could have done upon awakening. Shock traveled through his side, resulting in a pained spasm, only causing more hurt. It felt like he hadn't moved in ages, with his fingers cramping up and his entire body shivering, like having broken through the surface of icy water.
He groaned, reaching out for something – anything – to hold on to. He found nothing, and panic rose within him. He let out another regrettable gasp, opening his eyes wide open to look around.
Curtains. Curtains surrounded the bed he was currently in.
Machines. Noisy, beeping, blinking.
Dizziness, weakness, breathlessness and coughs.
He let himself sink into the mattress, relaxing his muscles for mere seconds before his right hand sought to his left side, trying to feel the damage. He realized that his chest was bare, allowing his fingers to feel the beaten and bruised skin, clinging to his ribs. Even though he made his best to touch everything gently, the very touch set his side on fire. He let out a pained sound, all the while wondering why his skin felt… uneven. Something even seemed to be embedded somewhere between his ribs, as well. He allowed his fingers to touch it.
"No." Someone was suddenly at his side, actually way too close, grabbing his wrist. "Don't touch it."
Luxord didn't even have the power to resist the grip, his hand going limp in the person's.
"It's a chest-tube," the voice explained. Those icy hands… It could only be Vexen. "It's helping you." Once he had placed Luxord's arm back at his side, Vexen reached over to correct the Gambler's nasal cannula.
That beeping sound…
"Where..?" Luxord whispered hoarsely.
"Listen closely," Vexen said quietly, leaning in close to Luxord so he wouldn't have to talk too loudly. "You are in the hospital wing, in the Castle That Never Was. You've been under for about twenty-four hours, give or take a few. You shouldn't try to move too much. Is there anything you need? Water, perhaps?"
Luxord closed his tired eyes, shaking his head weakly. He wasn't sure if Vexen could even see it.
"So he's awake," Someone else said from Luxord's other side. Through the fog, the Gambler of Fate recognized Xigbar's voice.
"Yes," Vexen said, "But he's still faint. And you should get back to your bed."
'I'm not weak,' Luxord thought. 'Not… Weak…'
"I'm fine," Xigbar said, shrugging to prove his point. But the pained expression on his face gave him away. "Just wanna see to the guy, relax."
"Fine," Vexen sighed, stepping back from Luxord's bed. He sent Luxord a quick glance before disappearing through the curtains.
Xigbar sat down in a chair, careful not to move his shoulder too much. "How are you?" He asked, giving Luxord a hard look.
Luxord, for some reason, flinched at the look. He didn't know why. Perhaps it wasn't the look he received, maybe it was the sound of the Freeshooter's voice. The sight of him? Something about Xigbar's presence made Luxord uneasy.
"I'm…" Luxord started out. Perhaps he should've accepted the water. "I'm alright."
"Bullshit," Xigbar hissed, frowning. "You were dead for two minutes, Lux."
"Sorry?" Luxord tried, not knowing where Xigbar was going.
"You're an idiot," Xigbar bit out, giving Luxord a full glare.
Luxord sighed, trying his best not to let his uneasiness affect him. Or the exhaustion. Already now, he could feel his eyes threatening to slide shut. His fingers twitched, still feeling rather stiff. He found himself staring at the dimmed light in the ceiling, remembering Tia Dalma's hut with the dusty bottles and jars.
"-ext time you're hurt, you shouldn't even go near the exit of your room." Xigbar finished, even though Luxord hadn't been listening. "Why the hell couldn't you just heal up instead of-"
"Xigbar, stop it…" Luxord said, wincing at his own loud voice. "I-I don't know what's happening right now… Just… a moment, alright?"
Xigbar stayed quiet, but eventually gave a nod. "Just, this time, do what Vexen says, okay?" Xigbar ordered. "Tell me what you need."
"Cold…" Luxord groaned, feeling the room spin and twist again. "It's cold."
"Hold on," Xigbar mumbled, reaching his good arm across Luxord to grab the folded comforter.
Soon, Luxord felt less exposed. His eyes were closed, allowing him to just listen to the rhythm of those beeps, which seemed to have slowed down. He noticed that he was, in fact, completely numb from the waist and down – he couldn't feel his legs, but it was a blessed numbness compared to the pain. But was it going to last? He struggled to lift his head off of the pillow, trying to get a look at what could be causing this numbness.
"What is it?" Xigbar said, noticing the frown on Luxord's face. "You in pain? I can get Vexen to up the pain-killers."
"It's not like that," Luxord denied. "Are you alright?" Luxord asked, meaning it in every way possible. He found himself staring at the ceiling again, finding comfort in the lights. It was uncanny how they, creatures of darkness, were easily overthrown by the lack of lamps.
"Hmm? I'm pretty okay," Xigbar scoffed, grinning confidently. "Takes more than that to get me down. It was the other guy who was smoked, remember?"
'Smoked?' Luxord thought. 'How about savagely murdered..?' He turned his head sluggishly to look at the Freeshooter.
"That's… good," he mumbled, feeling his vision blacken. He couldn't stay awake anymore.
'I just wished I could have stopped you…'
Larxene was sitting in his windowsill when he emerged from the bathroom. At least he had dressed himself in boxers and pants before he came out.
"What do you want?" Marluxia grumbled, trying to keep a somewhat polite tone. He threw his towel on the bed, going to his closet. Not that he was ashamed of his body, but Larxene shouldn't stop him from following a routine.
She was silent for a while, shifting her position. "You saw how powerful he was," she said simply. "You even felt it. A simple look-alike was even enough to challenge the both of us."
"I see where you're going with this," he said like he didn't care. "But I'm not going back on this plan. Admit that you still want it."
"I do," Larxene shrugged, and then hopped down from the windowsill. She threw his towel in the laundry bin. "But it's not going to work if we're fish in a barrel against Xemnas."
Marluxia finally found a dark t-shirt and pulled it over his head. Larxene sighed inwardly at the way he had to fan out his hair afterwards. "It's a minor set-back, Larxene," the Graceful Assassin explained. "Yes, he's strong, but did you expect it to be otherwise?" He lifted an eyebrow.
Larxene scrutinized him with her eyes.
"I was simply testing his strength," Marluxia hissed, walking over to her with a serious expression. "This just means a change of plans. Mark my words; Organization XIII is going to be mine."
"It's going to be so great sleeping in my own bed!" Roxas exclaimed, throwing himself on his bed.
"Hey, don't jump like that..!" Demyx gasped from the doorway. "You're just gonna hit your head again!"
"Right," Roxas said, flopping onto his back instead. "The lethal pillows and comforters are going to injure me." He threw his pillow at Demyx to prove a point, but Axel caught in on his way in.
"I'm serious," Roxas said, interlocking his fingers behind his neck. "I'm feeling just fine."
"See, he's okay, Dem," Axel shrugged, throwing the pillow back at Roxas. "This time. I'm a bit jealous that Lexaeus got to slug Saïx a few times, though. I should've been here. You're really lucky that Lexaeus appeared when he did." He scratched his cheek, a sulky look on his face.
"You can't always be everywhere, Ax," Roxas said, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. "You were away this time, you can't really be blamed, right? You could've handled it if you were there, which is more than you can say about us…" He sighed.
"Don't bother your spiky, little head about that," Axel said, waving a hand dismissively.
"I'm not," Roxas suddenly said, standing up. He summoned his Keyblade in his outstretched arm, causing a small and quick flash of light. "Last night's events only proved that I need to get stronger! I want to be able to protect my friends too, Axel, it's a promise I made once. Next time, I'll protect everyone."
Axel smiled, shaking his head.
"Well, I kinda protected you…" Demyx mumbled under his breath.
"What's that Demyx?" Roxas said.
Axel looked out into the hallway as Saïx passed, letting the two other Nobodies' conversation fly over his head. He ducked out of the room, catching up with the Luna Diviner.
"Saïx, wait up!" He called, slowing down as he was finally walking next to the second-in-command. "I'm back."
"Obviously," Saïx deadpanned. Axel noticed that he was carrying a lot of files and papers. It was a huge stack, actually, occupying both of the latter's arms. Number VII didn't stop his walking, but didn't signal for Axel to remove himself either. He still wore the bandages around his head.
"What?" Axel said, feeling that he had to keep speeding up little by little to keep up with him. "No instant reporting? No, 'tell me everything, now'?"
"It's hardly the right time, Number VIII," Saïx sneered, taking a sharp turn into his own room. He placed the stack of files on his desk, sighing. "If you haven't noticed, there are other pressing matters."
Axel stopped in the doorway, like he had done in Roxas' room, staring at the other Nobody. Very distantly, he remembered a young man named Isa, who would usually be a total workaholic whenever something bothered him. Whenever something really struck a nerve. Not the way Lea had always bothered him, which was just brotherly teasing, but really bothering. Saïx took the first files from the top of the stack, seating himself at the desk.
"Xemnas is really pissed, isn't he?" Axel asked.
"I fail to comprehend what that has to do with our conversation," Saïx said calmly, already going through his work.
Axel sighed. "I'm gonna report to you when you're not so… busy," he said, turning to leave. "And I'm gonna talk to you about practically splitting open Roxas' skull, too."
Saïx scoffed. "Close the door when you leave."
"We can't go back to that world," Zexion said simply, turning a page in his book. He, along with Xaldin and Lexaeus were seated in the couches of the Grey Area.
"Just because a few creatures slipped through, giving the bigger part of the Organization a fright, it doesn't mean it's going to happen again," Xaldin said, folding his arms. "We'll keep a better eye on our surroundings the next time, take our precautions. We shouldn't count it out just yet."
Zexion nodded. "Indeed, there did seem to be a strong concentration of magic. A different sort, though. But we cannot return right now. Leave it for a bit, Xaldin."
Xaldin nodded, glancing over at Lexaeus. The Silent Hero nodded as well.
"As of right now, at least three members are probably going to be excused from any missions," Lexaeus said. "Roxas included. The only thing that's left is to heal and move on."
The others nodded, deep in thought.
The bullets went through his body, piercing his skin and penetrating bone. It gave a sickening crack and splatter, and he hit the ground with a pained grunt. The mere shock of the attack left him trembling on the ground. It was incredibly cold all of a sudden. He lifted his head weakly to look at his attacker, a single yellow eye catching his attention.
"You really were the weakest of us, dude," the attacker said, aiming his weapon at him again. "No wonder you're gonna die…"
And Luxord's eyes shot open, his insides screaming. The lights in the ceilings were still dimmed, thankfully not hurting his still tired eyes. He hadn't screamed out, luckily, but sweat was covering his brow. His head was spinning and his chest was heaving with silent gasps for air. The several pillows behind his back had him sitting up very slightly, making it easier to look around. Xigbar was sitting in the same chair again. The annoying background noise indicated that he was probably watching television, but he was now looking at Luxord quietly instead.
As expected, Vexen soon appeared from behind the curtain once again. Luxord had to suspect that Vexen could tell when he was awake or not. His timing couldn't be that great. The Gambler of Fate looked between the two, not knowing what to say. He didn't have to, however, because an ice-cold hand was soon placed on his brow.
"Just uneasy sleep," Luxord said, not liking the attention he got. "It'll pass."
"You don't have a fever," Vexen remarked. "It could be the pain. Are the painkillers sufficient?"
Luxord glanced discreetly at Xigbar. "I can still feel it sometimes, the pain," he explained.
Vexen scribbled something in a journal, fumbling with an intravenous tube afterwards. He nodded to himself when he was satisfied with the results. "You might start to feel drowsy again soon. You also still shouldn't move too much with that chest-tube." He turned to leave.
"Wait…" Luxord said, stopping Vexen in his tracks. "How long do I… have to stay here..?"
Vexen looked between Xigbar and Luxord. "A little over three weeks," he stated. "Perhaps less."
"Three weeks?" Luxord and Xigbar chorused.
"Oh, trust me," Vexen said, a curious look on his face. "It would take far longer than that, if we did it in the good, old-fashioned way that you so praise." His voice was mocking by now. Vexen left, mumbling several not-so-nice things under his breath all the way out of the infirmary.
Luxord looked down at his hands, trying to flex his numb fingers. Vexen was right, he could feel the increased medicine. And he needed to stay here and receive medical care for now. The chair scraped slightly as Xigbar skidded closer to the bed.
"Afraid I have to agree with the creep," Xigbar said, resting his arm on the mattress. "You should just do your best to recover, and then you'll be out of here in no time."
Luxord looked at him, the visions from his recent and repeating dreams going through his head again. Were his hands shaking again? What was the matter with him? He looked down, trying to calm his breath and pulse. But that strange device, still attacked to his finger and beeping provocatively, gave him away. He relaxed back into the pillows.
"Luxord," Xigbar said suddenly. He reached out suddenly and grabbed the Gambler's chin in order to look him dead in the eye. Golden met blue, and Luxord was once again reminded of how Xigbar's eyes always seemed to glow in the darkness. "What's wrong? You seem totally confused, like you're really sick, dude. I know you're still not fine, I know. But Vexen just said you didn't have a fever. Did you see anything that night?" He said quietly.
Luxord looked at him, feeling how the hand holding his chin was slowly tightening slightly. How could he ever explain to this man what he had seen him do? How could he explain to his comrade that he didn't want him near himself right now? But Luxord knew that he couldn't avoid him forever. And he didn't want to either. But how could he explain to Xigbar that the Freeshooter practically scared the living hell out of him right now, foreshadowing downfall, betrayal and pain. In fact, it was all that the world held.
Xigbar kept looking him in the eye, searching for any sign that could indicate what was wrong with this dude. He was injured and only just recovering, yes, but he seemed… resigned.
… should you do it?
Cast away these emotions of yours and become still as the depths, waiting for the next victim of the world…
… do it?
Luxord frowned at the Freeshooter. Finally, Xigbar saw something – a reaction – in the Gambler's eyes. But it surprised him at least as much as what happened next. He saw something just break in those blue eyes, and then the corners of Luxord's mouth twitched slightly before pulling into the faintest and oddest of smiles. Xigbar frowned back.
"I'm fine, Xigbar," Luxord said quietly, reaching up to remove the Freeshooter's hand from his chin. "Thank you for asking. I do hope you'll feel better soon, too. Wounds heal." He made himself more comfortable before closing his eyes. He fell asleep fast, knowing that Xigbar was still watching him in tense silence.
Once the Gambler was asleep, Xigbar reached over to feel his brow as well. The dude had to be delirious or something, because he sure as hell wasn't acting like himself. But he wasn't warm, just rather clammy instead. He spotted a mostly faded scar in the center of the Gambler's chest. He hadn't noticed that before, not that the blonde was ever found walking around without a shirt, really.
"Wounds heal," Xigbar repeated to himself. "As if." His hand ghosted over the scar on his face.
Xigbar couldn't put his finger on it, but there was something weird about Luxord ever since that night with the intruders. He was shaken, obviously, but everyone who came across one of those creatures had to be. Even Xigbar, though he would never admit that. But seeing the face of that old jerk again wasn't exactly expected over dinner. It was now about three weeks later, and Xigbar had full function of his arm and shoulder again. Luxord had been released from the infirmary, on the condition that he did not strain himself. He had spent the first couple of days after his release sleeping in the comfort and privacy of his own room, without Xigbar watching him like a hawk. But the Freeshooter could tell that he was still sleeping uneasily. And even though Luxord and Xigbar himself were excused from missions and both had to take it easy…
… since when did they both follow instructions like that?
Xigbar smiled as he saw the empty room belonging to the Gambler. The bed was neatly made, the clocks on the walls and shelves were ticking away, oblivious to everything. Xigbar almost expected to find a note from the Gambler, saying that he had gone somewhere.
That was the thing about Luxord, at the moment. He was up and about, probably still taking it easy, but still not resting completely. Man, Vexen would have a fit if he knew that the Brit was leaving the castle – even his room – once in a while, in his long recovery. But Luxord seemed fine, better than when Xigbar had brought him to the laboratory that night, having only just managed to bring his ass back from the brink of death. In fact, he was already over the edge, Xigbar just managed to catch him. But Luxord seemed just fine by now, give or take a few oddities. He was healing nicely, talked politely and acted patiently. That was the problem!
Xigbar knew that the Gambler of Fate was a master of masks. As a Nobody, he kept them up rather well, making it his face to the world outside. Only a few times did the mask break and the perfectly blank expression fell. Xigbar had seen it on occasion, being pretty close to the dude. His mask was completely shattered that night, and Xigbar suspected that Luxord's mind had probably suffered the same treatment. Now a new mask was up, and it was simply better than the old one, simply too perfect. Luxord was way too fine right now, Xigbar reasoned. That little click in the hospital wing raised several alarms in the back of the Freeshooter's head. The dude was hiding behind a mask of dull smiles, polite nods and fine.
"Where did you go now, Lux?" Xigbar mumbled to himself, leaning against the wall. He was staring out the window for a few minutes, considering several possibilities of where Luxord could have gone. Finally deciding, Xigbar teleported out of the room and forgot to close the door after him. Not like fine Luxord could get himself to be pissed off by that anyways.
"Hey," Xigbar greeted, shielding his eye from the sharp sunlight reflecting in the almost white sand. "Thought you might be here."
A light breeze came over the shore, something that Xigbar was grateful for. He really hated being too hot. The water washed in over the sand, smoothing it out. The sun, not covered by a single cloud, beamed down on the little beach. Luxord was sitting cross-legged in the sand, with his back to Xigbar. He looked over his shoulder upon the Freeshooter's greeting, and Xigbar could see that the Gambler was careful not to twist his body too much.
"Xigbar," Luxord greeted with a polite nod. "What on earth are you doing here?" There was a curious look on his face. Xigbar noticed that he wasn't wearing his coat or even his boots. They were both positioned at or draped over a rock nearby. Rather, he wore a simple white shirt and the usual black pants.
"I could ask you the same thing, buddy," Xigbar said, standing in front of the Gambler so he didn't have to sit uncomfortably. "You know someone's probably going to murder you with their own bare hands if they discover that you're playing around here."
Luxord chuckled. "You or Vexen?" A quick scoff from Xigbar revealed that he wanted an answer. Luxord closed his eyes. "I needed some fresh air. And genuine light." He squinted up at the sun.
Xigbar plopped down next to him, folding his arms now that he finally could. "Yeah, I guess sunlight and crashing waves is better than lamps and rumbling machines, huh?"
Luxord nodded, his eyes closed in a calm manner. "It is," he agreed. "Was there anything you wanted, Xigbar?" He opened his eyes and looked over at him.
'Actually,' Xigbar thought, 'I wanna pull you up by the collar and shake some friggin' sense into you.' He opened his mouth to speak.
"It is wonderful to have a few days off," Luxord remarked, looking out at the sea again. "Much needed."
Xigbar was silent. A few days off? He really should give the guy a break, shouldn't he? The whole attitude of Luxord's annoyed him, perhaps because of the simple reason that he couldn't figure out the change in the Gambler's personality to begin with. Luxord seemed happier to everyone else, though Xigbar couldn't be fooled. But… what if it made Luxord happy to seem happy? What if it was Luxord's way to heal up and move on? Retreating into himself for a while, then coming out of his shell yet again when he was ready. He didn't want to break the dude completely, or force off his chosen, just fine, slightly mad, new mask. Some wounds needed a bandage to cover them up while they healed too, right? It was Luxord's choice after all.
Xigbar realized that he had been staring at the Gambler. He reached out and patted his shoulder gently. "Just came to see if you had managed to drown yourself yet," he joked with a grin. "Wounds heal, right?"
Luxord nodded. "Indeed," He said. There was a silence that lasted for several seconds. "Post tenebras lux."
"What?" Xigbar said, lifting a pointy eyebrow.
"Light after darkness," Luxord translated. "It is nice of you to keep check on me. However, if you're really that worried, I can say that I've been here for some time and therefore gotten my fair share of fresh air and quiet." He started trying to get up from his position in the sand. Xigbar was up in a flash and helped the blonde to his feet, doing his best not to cause him any pain. "Thank you, Xigbar."
"You're gonna go with me back?" Xigbar asked as Luxord, with rather stiff movements, walked over to the rock with his boots and coat.
As Luxord started the process of picking up his belongings, his eyes caught the sea once again. It stretched out into the horizon and further, mysterious and beautiful like the smile on Tia Dalma's face sometimes. Luxord's face fell slightly as his inner ear could still hear the melody of the little music box, playing slowly. He knew what was lurking at sea, beneath the crashing waves or beyond the horizon. It was almost like the music came from there. But it stopped almost as soon as it had started, fading out like a long gone memory. Sometimes, Luxord couldn't even remember the melody, and sometimes he could. He stared.
"Hey!" Xigbar called impatiently. "You coming or what?"
Luxord lifted his head to look at Xigbar, a faint smile playing on his lips. He picked up his belongings and walked towards the Freeshooter, the dull smile still there.
"Of course," Luxord said, now with his back to the blue sea. He took a deep breath, ignoring the light stinging in his side. "Don't worry, Xigbar, we have lots of time for now, don't we?"
Xigbar waited for the Gambler, once again lifting an eyebrow. "Yeah," he sighed.
Oh my god, it's finally the end. Everyone forgive me for crappy endings, it is truly hard to tie something like this up. The few of you who followed, read and reviewed this story, thank you very much. If there is perhaps enough support I could write another one, so spread the joyous word. This is THE longest chapter I have ever written. Ever, ever, ever. Don't forget to follow Luxord's "whacky" adventures in 50 Times.