Beta reader: The Wistful Bloom
Warnings: major character death, mentions of torture, final chapter
Lowly ranked guards had spread a firm bamboo mat on the ground, where they placed a small wooden table with a sheet of paper and a brush with ink on the side. Saïx was brought forward and was told to sit down and take the brush.
King Xemnas watched him with a frown. Minister Xehanort seemed indifferent from where he stood by his side, but his sidewards glares at Lady Aqua made it obvious that this had been an unforeseen event that might require a change of plans.
"You will write following message exactly as cited," said a guard, reaching for a folded sheet of paper that Lady Aqua had brought as evidence. "In depravity upon depravity, the King has reached absolute bottom in moral decency..."
"What...?" Saïx asked, taken aback as he looked up at King Xemnas, whose focused stare never wavered. "Your Majesty, I don't-"
"Write it down!" King Xemnas demanded, his fists clenched.
"In depravity upon depravity, the King has reached absolute bottom in moral decency," the guard repeated loudly as Saïx put the brush against the paper and began to write down what he was hearing with a shaky breath. "With dancing girls and clowns by his side, the King indulges in the most vulgar of acts."
Another guard approached Saïx and snatched the sheet of paper away from the table. He showed it to the others to compare it with the paper Lady Aqua had brought. They didn't have to look at it for longer than a minute to conclude that the handwriting was the same. King Xemnas was urged to look at the clear evidence of betrayal, and Saïx could see him clench his jaw at what he saw.
There were guards waiting, ready to escort Saïx to wherever he needed to go to be punished. All they needed was the order from King Xemnas.
"Your Majesty, I swear, I have nothing to do with this." Saïx was far from certain if pleading was the right way to go. It hadn't worked for the people he had seen be slain by King Xemnas' hand, but he thought that maybe it could work for him.
"Why would you do something like this?" King Xemnas seemed confused while he gave the situation a second of contemplation. It was a longer display of mercy than anyone had ever received, but it wasn't long before the look in his eyes was replaced with anger for a betrayal he felt he didn't deserve.
Hate was never a feeling that was too far away in any of King Xemnas' relationships. Saïx had seen how quickly he could change. He made people an extension of himself, to be able to get close. If King Xemnas failed to make that connection, people lost whatever value they had held; and at this moment Saïx feared that King Xemnas could see his worthlessness all too clearly.
"I sentence you to death."
The guards quickly pulled Saïx's arms behind his back to tie them together at his wrists. As he was pulled upright, he could see the horrified looks on Seifer's and Hayner's faces at hearing his sentence. He couldn't see Axel. Axel was obscured by the multitude of soldiers around him that were there to keep him from meddling in the affairs between the King and his once beloved clown.
"Death, Your Majesty?" Lady Aqua asked, suddenly pale. "Throwing him out of the castle is surely punishment enough."
"Isn't this what you wanted? It's why you brought it up, isn't it?" King Xemnas didn't look away from Saïx. He wanted to make an example of Saïx in a line of many. Respect for the King wasn't optional, it was an obligation. Those who strayed from his view on this would be met by instant death.
Axel's laughter suddenly broke through the tension and called for the attention of everyone involved when he fearlessly pushed through the guards holding him back, causing others to draw their swords at the sudden threat Axel was imposing.
"You've got the wrong guy," he said with a scoff. "I wrote it. He's innocent."
"The audacity of it has my signature written all over it." Axel dared to look King Xemnas dead in the eye. "After all, it was by audacity that I got into the castle."
"Silence, clown!" Lady Aqua demanded with slight panic in her voice at Axel's confession. "We already have the evidence that it was him."
"The work of a whore and her tongue is never done, huh?" Axel sighed.
"How dare you?!"
Axel reached for the brush that had been left resting by the ink and reached for the original message before he began to write. He took a deep breath to keep his hand from shaking, and once he was done he held up his sheet of paper next to the one Saïx had supposedly written, only to reveal that the handwriting was identical.
"Axel, please, don't do this," Saïx pleaded quietly.
King Xemnas seemed bewildered by the results, but Lady Aqua shook her head decisively. The guard by her side had stepped back, maybe to avoid standing too close to the King.
"He's lying, Your Majesty," she said in an attempt to convince King Xemnas. "Why would anyone confess so readily to something as heinous as this?"
"I taught him to write. He imitated my style. That's why it looks the same. He's the King's beloved one, isn't he? What reason would he have to spread lies about you?"
King Xemnas took one step forward to move away from the hand Lady Aqua had on his arm. His glare was one of threatened superiority, despite being a King faced with a lowly street performer whose life was in his hands.
Axel looked right back at him, foolishly unafraid of the power King Xemnas had. Some would say that it was a look of a man who had lost it all, but it was a foreign concept to the King, and so, he took it as a wordless challenge.
King Xemnas looked over at Saïx and caught him gazing at the man who had openly admitted to disgracing the King's name. He simply reached his hand out to one of the guards nearby.
"Sword," was King Xemnas' simple demand. "You'll be rewarded for your honesty, clown. I'll end your pitiful life right here. That's all the mercy I can grant you."
"Don't use words you don't understand."
"Y-your Majesty, don't!" Saïx's voice had King Xemnas lowering his sword. "You shouldn't soil your hands with the blood of a street rat. He's not worthy of such an honor."
King Xemnas turned to look at Saïx whose tears seemed to have drained his face of colour. With a simple wave of his hand, he ordered his guards to release Saïx, and he kneeled in front of him with a small smile on his lips.
"You're spellbound, Isa," he said and caught a tear that ran down Saïx's cheek with his thumb. "It was him that murdered you, wasn't it? He told you to leave when I so graciously offered you a home. You have to break the spell. Black magic only works for as long as the sorcerer is alive."
"No," Saïx shook his head softly. "Please, Your Majesty..."
"You have to put an end to him, little Butterfly. He's ruining our kingdom and filling it with thorns."
King Xemnas was talking to him, and yet, Saïx looked past him and at the obnoxious threat of a man behind him instead, as if he couldn't help himself. As if he wouldn't be able to look at anyone else as long as the man could look back at him.
King Xemnas rose to his feet, his hand clenching around the sword in his hand. Death was a punishment much too lenient, and he only needed a quick glance at the fire burning from the torches around him to be struck by the idea of a much better punishment.
"Blind him," he demanded instead. "With iron."
The announcement that had been made in such an indifferent tone stirred an uproar amongst the clown's allies. The guards had to hold back the street performers that had been looking from afar. They had to restrain Saïx and the man who would soon no longer have the ability to stare so defiantly at the King.
Guards came with an iron bar, its end glowing in a furious mixture of orange and white. King Xemnas looked over to Minister Xehanort briefly, to ease the never vanishing sense of insecurity before each of his decisions. Minister Xehanort simply gave him a brief nod, and that was all it took for King Xemnas to find the certainty he needed.
The scream of agony that echoed in the small courtyard that night was King Xemnas' absolute proof that he had won once more.
As the thorns vanished, and the smell of burnt flesh dispersed, King Xemnas sighed, contented and relieved.
The wide shackles hanging from the ceiling were tight around Axel's wrists, and they kept his arms up in an uncomfortable position, making his shoulders ache. His legs felt weak and it was difficult to stand up, even though standing up relieved the pain in his back.
He was certain that he was in a dungeon somewhere, held captive behind bars for his crime, guarded by soldiers that were as much prisoners as he was. There was no way to know for sure. His world was dark now, completely void of light.
Was this a fate worse than death?
Axel scoffed at the thought. Maybe it was. It wasn't the grand closure he had expected. His final curtain had fallen in a tattered mess. He was just another prisoner in the line of many. When the King's story was written down, Axel wouldn't be mentioned as one to have died by his hands. He would, in all likelihood, not be remembered at all.
And yet, there was a part of him that still managed to feel at ease.
Saïx was still alive. What he did now was completely up to him, and Axel believed him strong enough to make a decision. It would hurt for a while, but Saïx would soon find the strength he needed to run and start anew. If Axel, by some miracle, survived this, he'd happily follow.
Axel coughed and tried to stand up for a second, to give his shoulders a rest. He heard something from a distance and assumed that one of the soldiers had fallen out of stance.
"You don't have it easy, do you?" he asked and paused in the hope he'd get a reply, but there was nothing. "Hey, mind if I tell you a story? I've heard I tell pretty good ones."
Another moment of silence went by, and Axel decided to tell the story whether the soldiers liked it or not. Talking seemed to at least ease the fever induced echoing in his head.
"I was sorta meant to end up here. I went to the School of Performing Arts, but I ran away. I fell in love first. That's how it all started. Have you ever looked at someone and known that you're done for? Heaven and earth simply disappears from your world, and it's replaced by an endless abyss. Suddenly you walk a narrow line through life, putting one foot in front of the other, thinking that maybe you've gone blind, but then you see it; a light."
Axel shivered when a droplet of cold water fell from the high ceiling and hit him on the head. A rat ran past his bare feet at the squeak that came from the other side of the cell. Axel almost lost his footing when his right ankle suddenly twisted underneath his weight, but he managed to keep his balance.
"He always did screw up my symbolism," Axel muttered when he thought about his half-baked story. "See, I thought that he was my saving grace, the clown with the dollface. He was the tightrope I walked on through the abyss, he was going to lead me to the light, lead me home. But that's not how it is. I was born blind. Most of us are, I think."
The soldier opened the door to Axel's cell slowly, and the rusted iron door creaked at the hinges.
"The world has always been an abyss. He was the light that tossed me a rope and gave me a sense of direction. He was home, and now, when I'm really blind, I see it clearly. Isn't that true irony?" Axel asked with a bitter laugh, not expecting an answer.
"Yeah, it is," Seifer said, his voice thick.
Axel heard him give someone else a soft shove before that someone walked up to him. Fingers lingered right above the piece of fabric that had been tied around Axel's eyes, but they never came close enough to brush against it.
"Do you want some water or anything?" Hayner asked and took a step back.
"You should both leave. It's crawling with soldiers in here, and I'm too weak to run." Axel didn't mean to sound stern. His friends had come for him, he felt grateful for that, but their safety was far more important.
"And let you rot here without giving you the chance to tell Saïx your incoherent story?" Seifer asked back, in a tone just as stern. "Open up, here comes water," he said and put the wet ladle against Axel's lips to let him drink. Almost half of it ended up running down his chin, but the water he managed to drink felt nice in his feverish state.
"Saïx is with the King," Axel said and had to squirm when he felt his upper left arm cramp. "I'm not leaving without him and you're not taking me with you. Run. Save yourselves."
"Shut up, Axel," Hayner cut in before Seifer had the chance to say anything. "You're not in a position to tell us what to do. We call the shots now and you're coming with us."
Axel felt a scent of flowers waft past him and for a split second he thought that maybe they had gotten Saïx out already, but the hand on his wrists was soft and cold, and far too small to be Saïx's.
"I'm sorry for how things turned out."
It took Axel a moment to put a face to that voice, but as he was freed from his shackles, he remembered; Lady Aqua. Seifer and Hayner were quick to put Axel's arms around their necks to keep him up straight and lead him forward slowly, to not cause him any more harm.
They stopped once Lady Aqua closed the cell door behind her, and Axel waited for her to speak to know whether she was standing in front of him or behind him.
"I didn't realize how far gone King Xemnas was until it was too late. I don't expect you to forgive me, but I hope you can at least let me do this for you."
"The Southern Kingdom is preparing for an attack. We're not sure when they'll strike, but they're coming and we need to be out of here before they do," Hayner was quick to add.
"Lady Aqua said that she has an idea to how we can get Saïx out safe and sound," Seifer said in an attempt to convince Axel to go along with their escape. "We can do this."
"What do they mean?" Axel asked with a heavy sigh. "There's going to be another war?"
"The King is weak," Lady Aqua said with feigned indifference. "But whatever happens, it won't be your problem. The army from the Southern Kingdom will not harm civilians."
"And if the civilians put up a fight?" Axel had clenched his fists and tried to step forward, but Seifer and Hayner held him back.
"How about we try to solve the problems we're facing right now? King Xemnas has been locked inside his chamber for two days with your friend. The servants say that his mental state has clearly deteriorated..."
"...he's not speaking," Lady Aqua paused. "Which is why we have to move in quickly. King Xemnas is unpredictable as it is. We ̶̶ I, will coax him out. He wants to hear stories. A large tightrope has been set up in the main courtyard where you first performed. Can you do it? Are you fit to make simple tricks on the tightrope?"
"Yeah. Yeah, of course, you'll bring him out to the courtyard and we'll do a number and tell him a story," Axel took a deep breath, not feeling like the air quite reached his lungs.
The memories of Isa's long days in silence rushed through him and reminded him of the claustrophobic feeling at knowing that there was a universe of thoughts within Isa that he refused to voice when he had been frightened into thinking that his universe wasn't worth anything at all. Lea had struggled to bring him back, and despite his efforts, Axel knew that Lea never managed to get back the Isa from before the incident. It scared him to think that Axel would fail to help Saïx out of it too.
The escape plan was simple. After the performance they would go backstage and leave the King with the impression that there was going to be a scenery change. They would run down the stairs into the Royal Gardens and out through the unlocked gates. They would be gone before the King realized that they had escaped.
It was a simple plan, but Axel was uncertain if he could follow through when he had to walk with the support of Seifer and Hayner just to get out of the dungeon.
The long hallways stood empty and there had been no guards standing by the doors when Lady Aqua walked into the castle, armed with a dagger that she had hidden in her wide silken belt.
The silence made her uneasy. No one else in the castle but her knew that King Eraqus of the Southern Kingdom had dispatched his army. She hurried down the familiar hallways, ignoring the few servants that bowed in her presence. It wasn't until she walked around the corner to the last hallway that she was stopped in her tracks.
"Going somewhere?" Minister Xehanort asked with a smug look.
"I'm going to see the King."
"What for? He's well entertained."
"There's entertainment waiting for him out on the courtyard."
"That's not for you to decide, Lady Aqua." He rested his hands onto his back and paced briefly. "I know about the little surprise attack, and the King needs to stay inside the castle."
"Is that why you've send all the guards away, you traitor?" Lady Aqua's eyes narrowed, but she kept her arms firmly to her sides to resist the temptation to reach for her dagger.
"I'm the traitor? Surely you're not one to talk seeing how you've been conspiring against the King since the very beginning. We are working for the same goals, Lady Aqua. Why not await the special moment in peace?"
Whether it was the comparison to Minister Xehanort or the general despise she felt towards him that had her reach for her dagger after all, she couldn't say. All she knew was that she had pushed the old man against the wall in one swift move, putting the dagger against his throat.
"I wouldn't do anything hasty if I were you, Lady Aqua," Minister Xehanort said with unnerving certainty that nothing would happen. "King Eraqus is awaiting my arrival."
"Weren't you informed, Lady Aqua?" Minister Xehanort asked with a smirk. "I'll be rewarded for my services to the Southern Kingdom with the title 'royal advisor'."
Lady Aqua stared at him, frightened and bewildered at what Minister Xehanort's position would mean for the kingdom she had fought relentlessly for. She tried to understand how King Eraqus could have put his trust in Minister Xehanort when he had shown how easily he could turn his back on a king whom he had vowed to serve until death.
"If you think I'll let you ruin my home, you're severely mistaken, Minister Xehanort."
"I don't see any other choice for you, Lady Aqua. Your thoughts mean nothing in this world."
Lady Aqua was subtly surprised by how easily she managed to stab through Minister Xehanort's throat. One stab was enough. She took a step back as she pulled her dagger out and watched the old man clutch at his throat like she had done so many times when King Xemnas had lost his temper with her.
Minister Xehanort struggled for air that he was never to breathe again. Lady Aqua had thought that if Minister Xehanort were ever to die in front of her, she would stay to watch the pure evil disguised as a man leave this world, but she left before he died.
She wiped the blade of her dagger clean on her sleeve. The bloodstains were the least of her worries when she pushed the paper-doors aside before the servants could. She could hear King Xemnas speak, his tone changing with every pause he made.
King Xemnas looked up at her when she pushed the last door aside and stepped into his chamber. He held a small doll in his hand. It was dressed in clothes of a peasant and there were still small traces of the red yarn that had been the doll's hair, but King Xemnas had altered it as best as he could. He had tied pieces of silk around the doll's neck and he had teared the red yarn away and put a piece of a golden candlestick holder on top of the doll's head for a crown.
He's face was twisted with frustration when he looked back at the doll on the floor; Saïx's doll that was just as motionless as Saïx himself.
Lady Aqua moved further into the room slowly. Saïx had a faint bruise on his left cheek. Lady Aqua tried to see if there were any other wounds on him, and when she found none, she turned her attention to the King who had reached for Saïx's hand to give him the doll on the floor.
"Your Majesty, the Royal Court is awaiting you. A celebration has been put together in your honor," Lady Aqua said gently, taking one small step forward.
"Little Butterfly..." King Xemnas whispered in sing-song to Saïx. "Wake up."
"Are you a thorn, Lady Aqua?" King Xemnas didn't turn to look at her. He was probably not entirely aware that she truly was standing there, watching a madman of a King trying to make someone he had shattered work at his command.
Lady Aqua kneeled and dared to move in closer.
"Your Majesty, I don't think you understand," she said with sudden desperation in her voice and then completely changed when King Xemnas turned his head slightly. "Play along, Your Majesty."
King Xemnas quickly looked back as if he suddenly understood that he was part of a great skit and needed to be in character.
"Little Butterfly can't hear you now, Your Majesty. Don't you see that the Little Butterfly is in a cocoon? It needs sun to flourish into the Butterfly you have been awaiting, Your Majesty."
"And only then will Radiant Garden truly be grand," King Xemnas added and hurried to get onto his feet. He walked over to his dresser on the other side of the room and dressed for the final act that he had been promised out on the courtyard.
Lady Aqua moved in closer to Saïx with a quick glimpse at King Xemnas before she dared to say anything.
"Isa," she began in a whisper. "The sun is about to set and you promised to be by shallow waters at the moonrise to speak of his name to a world who would otherwise forget him. Axel is waiting for you."
She gulped. She didn't know what it meant, she only repeated what Axel had told her to say, and now she could only hope that it was enough to get Saïx to react in a crucial moment like this. Each second that passed seemed eternal, and she feared that she wouldn't get through to him before King Xemnas came back, but then suddenly, Saïx looked at her.
"Just follow my lead, I'll take you to him," Lady Aqua said with a small smile and sat back as soon as she heard King Xemnas move away from his dresser.
Lady Aqua knew that taking King Xemnas out to the courtyard was foolish when an attack from the Southern Kingdom was imminent. In his mental state, he could easily get himself killed even though King Eraqus had promised her mercy on his life. But when she saw the once majestic man hurry to the aid of what he believed to be the personified essence of Radiant Garden, she knew that his time of glory was long gone, and in a world as cruel as this one, death might be the best for him after all.
Saïx had never ceased to be amazed at Axel's ability to challenge him, whether it was for a petty bet or a life changing decision. If Axel ran fast, Saïx would run faster. If Axel jumped high, Saïx would jump higher. If Axel was strong, Saïx would be stronger. Axel was Saïx's way of measuring his own value. If Axel wasn't with him, Saïx deemed himself worthless.
Saïx knew how furiously Axel would oppose his way of thinking, but it was how he survived. Axel made living worthwhile. Saïx could see the beauty of the world through Axel's eyes, but through leeching off Axel's happiness, Saïx had ended up costing him his sight.
After all the suffering Saïx felt that he had caused Axel, he didn't think that Axel would ever want to deal with him again, to not be reminded of the life he had led up until now. But Axel hung on, just like he had always done. Now it was Saïx's turn to wait by the tightrope.
His heart was beating fast. The tightrope in the middle of the courtyard where they first had performed for the King, towered over them. It was the tallest tightrope Saïx had ever seen, but falling off of it wasn't even a concern.
Two guards escorted Axel. Saïx's breath hitched in throat at seeing him, still dishevelled from his time locked up in the dungeons, feverish from his blinding and aching in his body. The fabric tied around his eyes was meant to keep his wounds hidden from the world, but it only reminded Saïx of what had been done to him.
Saïx balanced his way up to the top of the tightrope when the guards guided Axel to his end where he carefully placed a foot and then the other. Axel moved with certainty, as if he was walking on firm ground. He stopped once he had gotten to the top and he took a deep breath.
"In a time, much like our own, there was a King," Axel said loudly, his voice echoing in the courtyard.
King Xemnas sat on his throne, watching intently with Lady Aqua by his side. No one seemed to have questioned the missing Ministers or the lack of guards, even the servants were scarce.
"At that same time, there was a man and a doll whom the man loved so deeply that it could fill this world and the next."
"What fool of a man would fall in love with a doll?" Saïx asked, his voice breaking slightly at the small smile on Axel's lips when he heard Saïx speak.
"But you see, it wasn't any kind of doll. A man needs to climb high mountains and plead with the gods for the touch of life, for only then can the doll love a man back."
"Only a King can speak with the gods, and a King is not a fool, so the King wouldn't fall for the doll."
"That is true, but a King doesn't love. A King wants, and the King wanted the doll so much that his kingdom fell in his stead. As the kingdom crumbled, the fool of a man turned to the doll and said in a weary voice; tired are my legs, just as yours, my love for you is infinite and will survive this world, will you take my hand as we stand and face, what little is left of our final days?"
From behind the castle walls came a low rumble of battle cries from hundreds and hundreds of warriors dressed in the colours that didn't belong to Radiant Garden. The large wooden doors didn't seem to be enough to hold the foreign soldiers out of the heart of their kingdom as they slammed large trunks against it, in wait for it to budge under their strength.
"Yes, I will," came Saïx's reply with a soft sob.
They both skipped ahead on the thin rope up high, and right before they got to each other, they jumped, the stretched rope pushing them higher up in the air where they reached for each others hands, pulling each other into a tight embrace just as the soldiers from the Southern Kingdom poured into the courtyard and the castle, ready to combat any resistance in their way.
The unlikely story of how a King fell in love with a clown whose heart belonged to someone else lives on in the mouths of people, sometimes told as a cautionary tale, but mostly told as a love story greater than that of King Ansem and the Dragon Princess.
As it is with many legends, many details become skewed along the way, twisted and turned until the story is no longer what it once was. But as a legend that is close to my heart, I will tell it every time I'm given a chance to bring justice to the fool of a man who fell in love with a doll, and climbed high mountains and screamed until the gods listened and gave him the touch of life.
What I won't and can't tell you is whether they lived or not. Many say that they died in each other's embrace that fateful day, other say that they were taken prisoners or as slaves to the Southern Kingdom.
Very few believe that they live in a small house by the sea where they have a garden, chickens and a cow in the backyard.
As for what I believe, well, I believe they escaped.
"Seifer, c'mon, we gotta hurry! There won't be fresh fish all day!" Hayner hurried past Seifer where he sat on a small bench by the harbour, with a thick notebook on his lap and a novelty pen that didn't require dipping in ink to write.
After their escape, Seifer had spent a lot of time thinking of the three friends he had left behind. He thought of Demyx's cold hands in his, he thought of Axel's broken smile when he had heard Saïx's voice up on the tightrope, and Saïx's longing look when he stood too far away from Axel. They had all changed his life, led him to places he never thought he'd see.
Seifer and Hayner had waited for Axel and Saïx to the very last second to escape the castle. Even as the hostile army broke down the door of the main entrance to the castle grounds, they had stayed and listened to every word that was exchanged between Axel and Saïx. As it became clear that their friends had decided to have their lives come to an end, together on the tightrope as they had lived life, Seifer had pulled Hayner out of there.
They were never given full closure. The Southern Kingdom had laid siege on the castle and forced the citizens away. Seifer and Hayner had left with what was left of their troupe and kept Axel's and Saïx's legacy alive as they travelled from town to town until they made it to a village by the sea where a certain story of a fisherman, who had been forced to leave everything behind, had originated.
Here they found out that the events that had unfolded before them at the castle had become stories that were told at pubs, gatherings and bonfires. It only seemed fair enough to learn how to read and write to make sure that Axel's, Saïx's and Demyx's life stories lived on forever. Seifer had taken on that task gladly.
Seifer put his things away in his satchel and took a quick glimpse at the sun and the clear blue sky.
He smiled and walked after Hayner with a sigh to let out some of the overwhelming warmth in his chest at thinking of his friends, hoping that they were happy and together wherever they might be.