My Brother's Keeper

Chapter 10

The shock wears off only slightly five hours later, when the party is over and the guests have departed. Sora excused himself into his room lying that his stomach was upset, the maids checking on him every hour. This time when one comes in, Sora is sitting on his bed, staring at the wall.

"You majesty, are you all right?" she asks timidly.

I just found out my brother's alive and he doesn't even know who I am, and who he really is. How do I feel?

The mixture of emotions boil and bubble deep inside his stomach like the cauldron of a mage. Shock. Surprise. Anger. Sorrow. Hurt.

Everything seems to whirl around together, and Sora can't seem to grasp even one to try and organize it. So he decides to start from the beginning. The last time he saw his brother, he was kidnapped by, Xemnas. Word had spread that Roxas had perished but he didn't. He was raised by Xemnas as his son. The thought makes Sora's stomach twinge with a sickening feeling.

Xemnas is an assassin, the best of his time. A longtime rival of Sora's father. If Roxas was raised under Xemnas' influence, that means that Roxas, or Jesse, as he was given, must despise the King as well.

All his life has been a lie. His name. His beliefs.

Born of cold, and abhorrence, and a spiteful grudge combined. His icy force, both foul and fair, formed a frozen heart worth mining. There is good in him, Sora knows there is. He'll cut through the heart, cold and clear. Strike for love, strike for fear, and then Sora may see the beauty, sharp and sheer. Years under the tutelage of Xemnas and his lies that he's fed to Roxas, if forged and hammered him into, something. Not a son, nor a person. But purely a weapon. An armor forged in hatred and defiance. A frozen armor he wears as a second skin.

Sora will split the ice apart.

And break Roxas' frozen heart.

That evening back at the home, Roxas is called down by Saix to the dining room.

Straight-back wooden chairs surrounded the long polished table, and candles rest in black iron brackets of the chain chandelier. The air felt smoky and closed off, but Roxas doesn't know if the choked feeling in his throat was from lack of oxygen or from the fact that facing him at the end of the table is Xemnas. The man who rules over us with a ferocity.

When Roxas got home, the members surrounded him; and when there wasn't a drop of blood on his uniform, Marluxia asked why, and Roxas answered bluntly: he didn't kill the King. Axel came to him some time later and warned Roxas that Xemnas was going to have a talk with him. Something about how parents always have a talk with their children. Usually when they did something wrong and they needed to be punished.

Now Roxas puts every ounce of strength he has into maintaining his composure.

The torchlight skims the braid on his crisp blue military jacket, scrapes over his silver hair that overlaps his shoulders. He sits at the head of the table, other members slowly file in.

"Sit." He tells Roxas.

Roxas obeys. His chair drags against the stone floor, a high-pitched squeal of distress. Xemnas looks across the long expanse of table between them and smiles, a small tightening of his mouth that does nothing to mitigate the predatory challenge in his eyes.

Roxas asks with a placid face, "Why are they here?"

Without sparing a single ice breaker, he said, "Jesse, I've called them here to discuss the matter of your failure to annihilate the King. I want them to learn from example."

Roxas swallows a thick lump in his throat. As Axel follows in after Xigbar, Roxas feels prickle with a small electric current as Axel's hand brushes along his shoulder as he passes. Roxas draws a shaky breath as the members take their seats.

Xemnas continues. "Let's just recap, shall we?" He looked up to Roxas, and Roxas' breath catches in his throat. "You should know that it is unacceptable to disregard orders. Especially ones given by me, specifically."

"I understand, sir." Roxas speaks in a steady voice. His body is vibrating, tension coiling within him until he has to clamp his jaw tight to keep from interrupting.

"Therefore, by the right as leader and upholder of this establishment, I will withhold your advancement in title, and place you under Marluxia's official ordering command."

Roxas leaps up from my chair. "What?! No!"

"No?" Xemnas draws out the word with deliberate intent. Dread sinks into Roxas at the way Xemnas' eyes scrape over him like he'd enjoy teaching Roxas how to keep his mouth shut.

Roxas' voice shakes. "You're not . . . I can't be . . . This is crazy."

"What exactly do you mean?" he asks.

With a sudden burst of bravery, Roxas slams his palms onto the table. "What I mean is that there's no way in the lifetime that I'll ever answer to him." Roxas glares at Marluxia, but his words are laced with panic. "How is putting me with him a punishment? I'm already bypass his skill level. There's nothing he can teach me but how to water flowers." Roxas snarls.

"If you wish to keep your lips, you'll shut your mouth boy." Marluxia interjects.

"I'd like to see you make me." Roxas challenges.

"You dare go against my wishes?" Xemnas slowly rises from his chair, leaning forward placing each palm flat against the table. "You wouldn't"

"Yes, I -"

"You won't."

"How is it a punishment at all, exactly?" Axel questions.

Xemnas looks to him, but Axel looks back. "Given that Jesse failed to assassinate the King, the punishment will be that he will protégé Marluxia and will do any task assigned without question."

"And how is this justified for his failure?" Luxord chimes.

"I just got mad." Roxas defends. "That man was the meanest, nastiest person I've ever met!"

"Next to Larxene." Xigbar murmurs, erupting slight chuckles and giggles from the other members. Larxene in answer shoots a dagger at Xigbar's head, barely missing his ear. Larxene sneers.

"The things he was saying were so insulting! Not just to us but the entire kingdom as well." Roxas says.

"Oh, I didn't realize that mean words were exchanged. Of course, you had no choice but to jeopardize your mission." Xemnas growls.

"Today, wasn't even the day I was supposed to kill the King. We agreed it would be on Sora's birthday!" Roxas counters.

"No plan ever survives contact with the enemy. It is how you react to the unexpected that will determine if you will succeed." Says Lexaeus.

"Thanks for the voice of reason, Lex." Axel quirks.

"I could take Jesse." Vexen says.

Roxas jerks as if Vexen just slapped him.

"I've been meaning to look for a new test subject for my, experiments." Vexen twiddles his fingers together.

"I will not risk losing my greatest member just so that you can see if salt encourages frostbite, Vexen." Xemnas vetoes.

"If the peanut gallery may speak," Demyx raises his hand. "Why not let Jesse go?"

All heads turn to Demyx.

"Elaborate." Vexen demands.

"This is one failure, out of the zero that Jesse has even committed. He simply mismatched the days and timing, and due to the inconsiderate remarks of dukes, his emotions clouded his judgment of the situation." Speaks Axel.

"Which is why I fear he's becoming distracted." Xemnas says.

"I've actually been working on different alchemy experiments, as well as spells and incantations that I've run out of ingredients for." Zexion suddenly says. "And I would require the help of an assistant to fetch and retrieve the rare ingredients."

"Xemnas," Saix says. "Perhaps it would be more suiting for Jesse to assist Zexion. Maybe he could pick up on a few magic spells along the way."

Zexion is the mage of the family. Mage being another word for magician or spellcaster. An entertainer who is skilled in producing illusion by sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.; a conjurer. Their levels of skill in magic bear the same as training with weapons.

Roxas relaxes a little as he can bear living with Zexion's demands for however long. Anything is better than being stuck with Marluxia or Vexen. Plus given that they were usually partnered together for contracts, is eases the tension in Roxas stomach.

"That seems fair." Roxas agrees.

"This is a punishment. You, therefore, have no say." Xemnas snaps.

Roxas throws him a look of absolute loathing. "I've given you nothing, but the best that I have, Xemnas. You indoctrinated me into killing at the age of nine. I've listened to everything the members had to say when training me, no complaining. And I do everything any of you say so that I can restore a reputation to this place! The least you all could do is show me that you at least appreciate it somehow, and just let this go!" Then he seats again, crossing his arms.

The expression on the Xemnas' face turns the dread coursing through Roxas into stone. Stepping away from his chair, he marches toward Roxas with slow deliberation. The torches painted grotesque shadows on his face as he passed them, and Roxas braces himself.

Xemnas stands behind Roxas' chair, gripping its back with bloodless fingers. He was beginning to look close to his seventy-odd years. His skin was worn and thin, and wrinkles score the backs of his hands. Still, his frame is muscular, and he moves with the steady grace of an experienced fighter. Only a fool would underestimate him.

And Roxas is that fool.

Xemnas leans closer, the torchlight flickering across his skin to gild Roxas' hair with flame.

"Let it go?" he speaks agonizingly slow.

Roxas swallows.

"Are you saying you want to throw away everything you've been preparing for your whole life?"

"You've been preparing me for my whole life."

"Are you absolutely sure you want to take me on, boy?" his words were brittle slaps against the air. His fingers clenched against the back of Roxas' chair, like he meant to snap it in two. "I will not tolerate dissension. I will not tolerate disobedience."

He then grabbed a handful of Roxas' hair and twisted Roxas around to face him. Roxas clenches his fists and hissed a quick gasp of pain; but Roxas meets Xemnas' eyes without flinching.

"And I will not tolerate a mere boy speaking to me as if he was my equal. You live because I allow it. Never forget that."

Roxas snarls and his nostrils flare. "I won't forget it."

He sounds appropriately frightened and humbled, though knowing Roxas, it's possible he's figured out how to show Xemnas what he expects to see. Xemnas uncurls his fingers from Roxas' hair, wipes his hands against his pant leg as if he's touched something filthy, and abruptly turns to the other members.

"Let that be a lesson to you all in how to control your ward. It appears we seemed to have somewhat remiss in Jesse's education.

He has no idea just how remiss Axel, and Demyx have been about instilling in Roxas the docile, meek obedience expected from a man in the Twilight Kingdom. A man was to stand aside and allow people exiting a store to go first, also aid a woman if she is in any aid. If he's under the age of being a man, he is to not gawk at any women on the arm of another man, nor is he to gaze at a married woman; the proper notion is to gaze downward as is polite.

"So are we done here?" Larxene asks, gazing at her cuticles as if they're more important.

"You're dismissed." Xemnas says.

All members rise from the table and file out of the dining room. Roxas files in with Axel and Demyx as they leave, Roxas then takes Axel's hand and guides him to the stairs. They ascend without word and wait a minute after Roxas sets up a fire to speak.

"Yeesh, you could actually feel the tension." Axel jokes. But Roxas doesn't smile. "Aw come on Jesse, it's not that big a deal."

"Maybe for you, you're not the one whose hair feels like it was attacked by a dog. Didn't know he had a hard grip." Roxas says. "He's never been this, strict around me."

"Maybe it's just the pressure." Axel says.

"I don't get what he's so stressed about. I'm the one who's doing the killing." Roxas counters, plopping onto his bed while Axel takes his usual spot in the armchair.

"Well, he just wants everything to go perfect. We infiltrate the castle, then we overrun the guards, then you execute the king in front of the entire village." Axel explains.

"What could go wrong?" Roxas asks.

"Have you met the members?"

Roxas chuckles and folds his under him. "I just, don't get it. Even if it is pressure, I feel like he's constantly watching me. Like he, I don't know, expects me to slip up."

"Well, you've been hanging around with the Prince a lot. Maybe he just doesn't want to lose you to him." Axel says.

"What's that mean?" Roxas quirks and eyebrow.

"Well, funny story." Axel smiles, shifting so one leg dangles over the arm of the chair. "See, I read this book where this one kid, who was like all badass and stuff, started hanging out with this girl to win her trust, but he really wanted to kill her brother."

"Sounds familiar." Roxas snickers.

"But as they started hanging out more, he started to fall in love with her. And in the end betrayed his family." Axel concludes.

"And they ended up together?" Roxas assumes.

"No, the guy died in the end, but the killer got caught."

"Oh well there's that warm fuzzy feeling I was looking for." Roxas nudges Axel's foot.

"It's actually a pretty good read."

"Well that's not going to happen. For one, it's a story, and there's no way I'm going to fall for Sora." Says Roxas.

"Of course not." Axel says. He gets up and leans into Roxas. He places a kiss on Roxas' lips, and Roxas grabs his shirt and pulls him closer. When they break apart, Axel mumbles. "I got dibs."

Roxas laughs and shoves him away, back onto the armchair. "And second, I know where my loyalties lie."

"Really."

"Yeah, really. Why give me that look?"

Axel shrugs. "I don't know, you just seem different."

"We've already been through this. So I'm happier. Big deal." Roxas waves his arms in the air for emphasis.

"It is for me." Axel smiles. "I was afraid if I had kissed you back then, I figured you would've slit my throat."

Roxas glares at him. "No I wouldn't. I would've tried to strangle you."

"Oh aren't you sweet." Axel ruffles Roxas' hair and Roxas laughs while trying to slap his hand away.

The two talked until it was nine in the evening, then Axel gave him a little-too-long, kiss goodnight before walking down the steps. Roxas sprawls himself across his bed staring at the ceiling. His fingers fiddle with the chain of his necklace until he finds the star pendant. He holds it between his thumb and pointer finger for a long while, poking at its tips.

His mind is strangely occupied by the fate and disappearance of the kingdom's second prince. What became of him? What did Xemnas to do him? What was the point of kidnapping an heir to the royal family if he wasn't going to use him as blackmail or leverage? Xemnas is too smart to just kidnap a prince simply for the purpose of killing him; unless it was to somehow gain an upper hand and fearsome reputation around the kingdom. Yet a plan that big had to be detailed ad specific, so what could've happened?

And what about the upcoming anniversary of the princes' birth is making Xemnas so, stressed? He usually handles things with a calm and even domineering etiquette. Yes it was going to be on the birthday of the princes', and the members are a little, out of it, but they always manage to pull together in the end. Does Xemnas not have faith in them for job this big?

Roxas spins the charm in his fingers. Come to think of it, Xemnas wasn't at all crazy or as involved in all of this until after Luxord gave him the pendant.

A weight drops in Roxas' stomach.

What is it was Xemnas' in the first place? What if Luxord stole it and gave it to Roxas so that he'd get in trouble? Such a thing is irrelevant and childish for Luxord, and there would have to be a strong motivation or desperation for anyone to steal from Xemnas. Adding on Luxord's warning of not letting anyone see it only adds to the conspiracy.

Roxas clutches the pendant in his fist. He has half a mind to rip the thing off and chuck it out the window, and yet he can't bring himself to do it. Is it because it looks so valuable? Roxas groans in aggravation and hauls himself off his bed.

He bounds down the steps, not even bothering to be quiet as he enters the third floor and locates Luxord's room. He shoves the door open with his shoulder and kicks it closed behind him. Luxord sits on his sleigh bed, legs stretched out in front of him, shuffling through a deck of card.

"Ah, Jesse. I was wondering when I'd see you." He says, not even gazing up from his hands.

"Did you steal this necklace from Xemnas?" Roxas blurts.

This draws Luxord's attention and he immediately stops and shushes him. "Shhh!" he hisses. "Not so loud."

"So it's true?" Roxas angrily interrogates.

"Be quiet!" Luxord hisses. He brushes past Roxas and peeks out from his door. When the coast is clear, he shuts and locks his door.

Roxas looks around and never realized how sized Luxord's room is. It had his bed on one side with a chest at the foot, a dresser and wardrobe along one wall, plush couches in front of a warm fire and French doors that lead out to a small balcony. The room smells of Luxord, an even mixture of something sharp and masculine.

He motions Roxas to sit, but Roxas remains standing as Luxord sits on the couch. He now ruffles through his cards, but Roxas can tell that it's from anxiety. "Look, I did take it from Xemnas," he starts and Roxas has to stop himself from launching at Luxord and clawing at his eyes. "But I only did it because you're the rightful owner."

Roxas freezes and gives Luxord a confused look.

"Weren't expecting to hear that." He jokes.

"What do you mean it's mine?" Roxas asks, finally taking Luxord up on his offer as he sits on the edge of his bed.

"I told you. It was given to you when you were a baby." Luxord says.

"Well then why did Xemnas take it?" Roxas asks. "Because I don't like sneaking around behind his back."

Luxord folds his lips in and sighs. He stares at his cards, his thumb briskly swiping them aside. For a moment, Roxas watches the signs of the cards. 3. 7. 4. Queen. 5. 8. 1. Jack. 12. King. Ace. Luxord sighs again and looks to Roxas.

"Look, we can't talk about this." He whispers.

A sudden burst of anger explodes in Roxas' chest. "Why not?!" he springs up from his seat. Luxord does the same and places hands on his shoulders. Roxas swipes them away and steps back, but he keeps his voice at a hiss.

"Why? Why can't we?!" he seethes.

"Because these walls have ears boy!" Luxord matches his anger. "And right now, we're being tested."

Roxas glares at him and fists his hands. He snarls and turns away thrusting open the door. "Jesse!" Luxord calls.

Roxas ignore him for a moment before he feels a hand grab and wrench his shoulder.

"Listen to me," Luxord hisses. "I want to tell you, everything. And I will . . . tomorrow. At Kairi's dress shop"

Roxas feels his anger diminish as he looks at Luxord's eyes. A form of desperation clouds the blue of his iris. It's not the normal desperation that Roxas sees; the kind where someone would do anything to save their own skin, but the urge to reveal something that if told, could have cruel repercussions for its holder. Whatever Luxord knows, it's big. Bigger than Xemnas, and the organization.

Roxas breathes and holds up his hand. He folds in his fingers except for his pinky. Luxord's eyes between Roxas' eyes and hand. Then the corners of his mouth twitch and he interlocks his pinky with Roxas'.

"When?" Roxas breathes.

Luxord doesn't answer, instead Roxas watches as the old personality of him flicks back to life in his eyes. He smiles and flicks a card into his hand. He then hands it to Roxas. Roxas takes it without a word and turns down the hall. When he hears Luxord's door click, he waits until he's back in his own room, locking the door behind him.

Looking at the card in his hand, he finds it a twelve of hearts.

That night, Sora spent most of the night in the attic, sitting in front of the portrait painting that always sits with a tarp over it to prevent the wear of the paint. He couldn't sleep, knowing that within the first five seconds of shutting his eyes. He then decided to drag a blanket from his bedroom and walk up to the attic. The room once scared him with its darkened corners and limited light, but now, Sora can walk it sure-footed. He doesn't need light anymore.

Never thought Sora would be a victim of nyctophilia.

He now sits, elbows wrapped around his knees, the blanket fanned out around him as he gazes at the painting. The two babies seem to be smiling wider and the silver of their necklaces seem to gleam brighter in the moonlight. He knew nothing useful would come from just staring at the painting, but somehow it makes things easier for Sora to think, and helps makes it easier to connect the likeness of Jesse, and baby Roxas.

They're both blonde, and blue-eyed, and they share the same silver pendant.

Sora still can't believe it. Roxas is alive. Alive all these years, yet he doesn't know he is the prince. He's been under the influence of Xemnas, that's why Sora wasn't allowed to 'meet the family.' It is plausible Xemnas' entire organization is all cooped up in that one house. Sora's caught between telling his father or telling Roxas first. Not that he would easily believe Sora, especially on something so, major. It would take hard evidence, evidence that he couldn't deny to make Roxas believe him.

It'll be tricky, but at this point, Sora will do anything to ensure that Roxas knows the truth. He then decides to leave the attic.

The path led him to the dining hall, which looked naked with the empty chairs, covered tables, and unlit chandeliers. He wanders over to the portrait his family normally kept covered by the black veil. Sora takes the ropes and pulls at them, yanking the cloth high, making it crumple together at the top.

He gazes at the family portrait and feels a small smile crawl across his lips, as tears streamed down his face.

The next morning, Roxas got up early to hunt the day's lunch while his breakfast consisted of berries, water and bread. Compared to the feast he endeavored at the palace, now the food seems plain and distasteful. So Roxas forces himself to swallow it down, telling himself it's time to return to reality.

Dropping off the haul, Roxas hurries out to the market and takes his memorized map of the marketplace. He enters Kairi's shop where fancy dresses hang near the front window and bolts of fabric line the walls in a feast of color. Two tables are set up on either side of the shop. One has baskets of useless things like beads, buttons, and rolls of ribbons. The other is empty of anything but a measuring tape and two pairs of scissors.

Roxas pretends to browse the shop while constantly looking out the window for Luxord. Knowing how ridiculous he looks picking at pink and floral patterned fabrics, Roxas heads back outside and leans against the front window, arms folded, to instill he's waiting for someone.

His fingers twiddle with the pendant of his necklace, but quickly tucks it beneath the collar line of his shirt.

As Roxas fiddles with his knife, to signal he's armed, the clip-clop of a carriage thrums in his ears. Across the way, a trio of girls in fancy gowns giggle and laugh, twirling their umbrellas and daintily touching the ringlets of their hair. One looks to Roxas and smiles, ad Roxas smiles in return. The second waves and Roxas nods slightly and saluting with two fingers.

The girls laugh even more, then suddenly their laughter chokes into the kind of silence that hints to Roxas something's wrong. Roxas turns his head to see the cause and feel his stomach lurch.

Even with the dark hood obscuring most of his face, the stark cold color of his eyes makes him easily recognizable for Roxas.

Xemnas stands with his sword drawn and his dark eyes cold.

"You're coming with me." He gestures toward the carriage behind him. The polished silver buttons on his crisp blue military uniform catching the artificial light and wink like little diamonds. Roxas looks away. He heads toward the wagon, lips trembling.

The afternoon light is suddenly blinding, and a breeze plays with Roxas' hair as he faces a trio of guards waiting for him on the cobblestone street. Their swords drawn too. The emblem of the organization is on their armbands.

Xemnas presses his palm against the middle of Roxas' back. Without a jacket, the heat from his body scorches Roxas'.

"Get in," he says, and the guards step aside to reveal a large mule-drawn wagon.

Roxas glances around, but if anyone notices what's happening, they aren't stopping to stare. Roxas can't blame them. Shrugging off the Xemnas' hand, he refuses the assistance of the guard closest to him and climb into the back of the wagon. Xemnas and one of the three guards follow on his heels. In a moment, the wagon lurches forward and rumbles over the cobblestone. The heavy canvas covering dilutes the late afternoon sun into something dim and gray, and Roxas' eyes struggle to adjust.

It takes a few seconds to notice the cloth-covered lump leaning against the far wall of the wagon. Foreboding fills him, and oil poison that makes him queasy.

Roxas doesn't know what's under the cloth, but it can't be good.

"Have a seat." Xemnas moves past Roxas, knocking him into the wooden bench, right beside the lump. His sword is still drawn. The guard braces himself against the back of the wagon and stands, sword drawn, blocking the exit. Roxas wants to scan his surroundings looking for possible escape routes, but he can't tear his eyes away from the lump. There's something horribly familiar about its shape, but Roxas don't want to put it into words because it isn't true.

It can't be possible.

"You have been keeping secrets, Jesse." Xemnas' eyes are bright, hard orbs lighting the dim space with malice. "Did you really think I wouldn't know your every move before you do?"

Roxas looks at the cloth-covered lump and dread pools into his stomach. It's just the right size for a person. Roxas looks at the person shrouded in cloth and try to find his voice, though he has no idea what he'll say.

"Not going to tell me what you're up to?"

Roxas opens his mouth but nothing comes out.

"I see you need a bit of convincing." He smiles and drives his sword into the lump. Whoever is trapped beneath the cloth sucks in a raspy breath and moans. Blood blossoms beneath the cloth and spreads like a fast-blooming rose.

Roxas' breath leaves him as if he's been hit in the stomach. "Who is that?"

Oh please, oh please let it be a stranger. Another guard. Another object lesson. Please.

Xemnas ignores him. "I don't trust most of my tributes, I don't trust you either, but you have quality they lack."

Roxas can't look away from the blood, and he feels a scream, clawing for freedom at the back of his throat.

"Do you know what it is?" he pulls his sword free, and the person beneath the cloth twitches. "It's loyalty."

Roxas can't breathe. He tries to stand, but his knees won't hold him, and he crumples to the splintery wagon floor. Ignoring Xemnas, Roxas crawls toward the person beneath the cloth. He's nearly there when Xemnas drives his sword into the wagon floor, inches from Roxas' face.

His voice is harsh as he bites each syllable into pieces. "The tributes aren't loyal. They think they are, but if I put them to the test, they'd fail. Their own agenda will always be more important to them than anyone else."

Roxas' catches on a shuddering sob, and he tries to crawl around the sword. It nicks his shoulder as he pass, and the Xemnas laughs.

"You on the other hand, are loyal to a fault. You won't scheme, manipulate, or betray. Not if it will cost you someone you love." He yanks his sword free of the floor and slides it into the blood-soaked lump again. "No, you'll go to the ends of the earth, do everything that's asked of you, ignore your own ethics and instincts, as long as you get to save the one you love."

Roxas has reached the cloth and am tearing at it with shaking hands while the person beneath it moans in agony.

"Please." Roxas can't loosen the cloth. "Please!" Roxas looks at Xemnas, and his smile twists into a grotesque parody of mirth.

It will be a guard. A prisoner. Someone who means nothing to me. I can't bear to be wrong.

"Allow me to help you," Xemnas says in a voice filled with malice. Pulling his sword free again, he slices it through the cloth and splits it top to bottom.

Roxas snatches at the pieces and yank them free. A scream builds in his chest as he gazes.

Not a stranger.

Not a guard.

Luxord.

Luxord.

He's supposed to be meeting him here. Safe. He's supposed to be, but he isn't. Luxord looks to Roxas, sadness and pride mingling with the love he's rarely shown Roxas, and then moans again.

Roxas comes undone.

"No, no, no, no, no." There's so much blood. So much. It pours from his chest and covers Roxas' hands, and he can't stop it.

He can't stop it.

"You shouldn't have plotted behind my back," Xemnas says, his voice as hard as the wagon floor beneath me. "You were disloyal, and now it's cost you."

"It's going to be okay." Roxas tells Luxord. Tears burn his eyes, and Roxas has to blink to see him. "It's going to be okay," Roxas lie, because he don't know what else to do.

He tries to speak, but blood bubbles from his lips instead. Roxas grabs the cloth and press it against his chest with both hands.

"It's going to be okay," Roxas says again, and presses harder, though he doesn't know how to make his words true.

Luxord shakes his head slightly and tries to raise his arm. Roxas grabs his hand with his own and wraps their fingers together the way he used to when Roxas was little and Luxord was walking him through the garden. His hand still swallows Roxas', though now his skin is like ice.

"Save him," Roxas says to Xemnas. "Please. Get him to a doctor. I'll do anything you want. Anything."

"Yes you will," he says "because if you don't, I'll kill Axel in ways the tributes will remember for decades to come."

"Axel?" Roxas look up, tears obscuring his view of the Xemnas' face. "I don't understand. This is Luxord. I want you to save Luxord!"

"Oh it's far too late for him," he says and, with a flick of his wrist, drives his sword through Luxord's neck.

The scream inside Roxas rips through his throat. He reaches for the sword, but it's already gone. Throwing himself on Luxord, he shoves the cloth against his neck and beg for Luxord to look at him, though Roxas knows he can't, he can't, and he never will again. Wild sobs choke Roxas, and he can barely find the air to let them loose. Rough hands grab Roxas' arms and pull him from Luxord. Roxas screams and beats at the person behind him to no avail. The wagon stops, and two more guards enter, scoop up Luxord's body up inside the cloth, and haul him out. The guard holding Roxas tosses him to the floor and exits as well; leaving Roxas huddled at the Xemnas' feet. He crouches to Roxas level, Luxord's blood still glistening on his blade.

"You will kill the Prince and the King."

Roxas stares at his sword, crosses his arms over his chest, and rocks back and forth.

"Are you listening?" Xemnas grabs Roxas' chin with his hand, forcing Roxas to meet his gaze. "Pay attention."

Roxas' teeth are chattering, and his body shudders, but Roxas makes himself nod. Axel is all he has left. Whatever it takes to get him off of Xemnas' kill list, so help him, he'll do it.

"You'll enter the party, then twenty minutes until the climax, you will open up the gates and help the other members sneak inside." His smile flickers at the edges. "Then, you are going to expose yourself in front of the crowd. Then you are going to kill the King first."

Roxas is too numb to protest.

"After the Prince cries and begs, you will look him dead in the eye, and paint the stone with his blood."

He lets go of Roxas' chin and rubs his palm across Roxas' cheek, tangling his fingers in Roxas' hair. "Do I make myself clear?"

Roxas nods, a wobbly, uncertain movement, and watches the blood slide down Xemnas' blade.

"Until tomorrow." He says, and then he's gone.

The wagon lurches forward again, and it takes Roxas a moment to realize he's not alone in the back. One of the guards is sitting on the bench behind him, holding a paper-wrapped package in one hand and a damp cloth in the other.

Roxas scoots as far away from him as he can without touching the puddle of Dad's blood seeping slowly into the floorboards. When he ignores me, I wrap my arms around my knees and try not to let the agonized wailing I hear inside my head leave my lips.

Luxord is dead.

Dead.

The secret he was about to tell, the reason why he disobeyed Xemnas, all gone.

The truth is too harsh to touch, and Roxas shies away from it before it sears itself into his brain and becomes real.

If I can't feel, I'm not alive, I'm not real.

Instead Roxas find a quiet place within himself where Xemnas doesn't exist, the family is still intact, and he's not covered in anyone's blood. Maybe if he tries hard enough, he can leave his broken world behind.

The harsh kneeing inside Roxas' head becomes muted – the grief of some other boy. Not his. Roxas rocks, holding himself as if he'll fly into a million pieces if he lets go.

The guard says something, but Roxas can't hear him. If he listens to him, he might hear the grief-stricken wail of the boy who just lost something precious.

He slaps Roxas, but Roxas can't feel it. He says something else, then crouches down in front of him and scrubs his face with rough persistence. When he pulls back, the damp cloth in his hand is covered in bright red patches, like little crimson flowers decorating the fabric.

Bile rises at the back of Roxas' throat, and he tears his eyes away from the cloth.

He removes the string on the package he carries and tears off the paper. Roxas doesn't look to see what he has. It might be covered in red too.

He's talking again, louder this time. His boots dig into the hard wooden floor beneath us as he stands. Roxas catches a glimpse of crimson staining the edge of his right sole, and tucks his head toward his chest.

Roxas' chest is covered in rusted-scented crimson.

Covered.

Be beats at it. Tears at it with frantic fingers. He has to get it off him.

He has to.

The guard helps. Rough hands unlace his tunic, and Roxas claws his way free. He's panting, harsh bursts of air that fill the wagon.

The guard attacks Roxas' skin with his red-flowered cloth again, and Roxas twists his body, trying to get away. He don't want him to touch me with that thing. He can't stand to have it touch him for one more second.

The guard drops the cloth, and in its place, he holds a new tunic that looks just like Roxas' old one used to look. Pure white. Crimson free.

Roxas lets him slide it over his head. Let the rough linen threads scrape against his skin. Maybe if they scrape hard enough, he'll forget. About the crimson. About the awful wailing he still hears inside him.

About what he just lost.

The guard pulls Roxas to his feet and fumbles with the laces on his pants, but Roxas doesn't help him.

How can I? I'm not really there. I'm home.

He's home, on the back porch, sipping lemonade while his family is close by, just out of sight.

He says something, but Roxas doesn't hear him. Roxas is too busy listening to the deep rumble of men's voices coming from somewhere behind the back porch.

Roxas' pants puddle around his feet, and he lifts him out of it.

The lemonade Roxas sips is the perfect combination of tart and sweet. He wants to share it with his family, but they stay just out of reach.

He pulls new pants over my legs. Light blue, just like the one he removed.

Light blue like the summer sky he sees from his porch.

Roxas is sitting on the wagon's bench.

No, I'm sitting on our rocker.

His shoes are gone.

It's summer. I don't need shoes.

Now, they're back again. A stranger is tying them.

Which is silly, because I can tie my own shoes. If I want to. Which I don't because the summer sun is hot, and I'm too tired.

I'm so tired.

Hands lift Roxas up and set him down on a faded cobblestone street. He stares at his boots. They're the same color and design as always, but the scuffs and creases are gone as if they never were.

Behind him, a wagon clip-clops away. He doesn't turn. He doesn't know where his home has gone. Where the summer sun went. It's cold now. Cold and gray and the air feels damp against his face. Someone calls Roxas' name, and he looks up to see Kairi, her bright blue eyes full of fear, beckoning to him from the doorway to his right.

As Roxas turns and walks toward her, he hears the faint wailing of the grief-stricken boy grow louder and clamps his lips tight to hold it in.

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