"You did what?!" Saix slams his palms flat on the table of Xemnas' study. "Are you mad?!"
Xemnas twindles a pen between his fingers. Hazy sunlight stabs through the curtains and casts the room in a veil of gauzy aurora. "The boy was disloyal. He needed to know the errors of his ways."
"Luxord, was the one who encouraged it." Saix reminds. "He's the one who lured the boy in. He did not need to be present for his execution!"
"He'll simply think it was a tactic to show what happens when you go behind my back." Xemnas counters.
"He wasn't even close to figuring out the truth!" Saix barks. "He knows better than to go behind your back. But now you've only proven that you have something to hide! This could only embolden his curiosity."
"Or, it will abate and he will refuse to listen to the other members; in knowing what will happen." Xemnas retorts. He looks to Saix with cold eyes. "I raised him, Saix. I know this boy."
"Perhaps not as well as you think." Saix rertorts. Xemnas glares to him. "With all due respect, Xemnas, you actions are, questionable."
"Do you not like the way I run this family, Saix." Xemnas says. His words were brittle slaps against the air.
"I'm just saying that your decisions lately are, concerning. You seem more distressed than normal. You're not thinking these things through." Saix argues.
Xemnas glares at him, and Saix swallows a lump in this throat and stars back. Xemnas turns to fully face Saix and places his elbows on the table with his hands folded.
"I've waited eighteen years, for this plan to fall into place. And I will not lose my most precious weapon now. Not while it's in my grasp."
"But you're losing that grasp with every wrong decision you make." Saix says. "The yelling, the slapping, and now murdering Luxord right in front of him. The boy is smart, you know that. He will figure out you have something to hide. And since he was raised by you, I can guarantee that he will stop at nothing to find out what it is." Saix then turns and exits the study.
Xemnas watches as he turns the corner, then he stabs the pen into the wood.
Roxas' throat is still raw from the screaming he unleashed at the men in the alley, and he can't stop shaking. He doesn't know what's happened to him, and he doesn't want to talk about it. Not yet. Sora and Axel don't seem inclined to talk either, or maybe they've realized he's not going to answer. They walk side by side to the gates of the castle while a breeze plucks at newborn leaves and tangles his hair.
When they reach the grand hall, Sora and Roxas leave Axel standing in the dining hall while Sora escorts Roxas to the bathroom, though Roxas seems to know his way around enough as he spent nearly half the party scouting the place, meeting new staff members, committing faces to memory.
Inside the bathroom was a huge window with cross-hatched X's overlooking the mountains beyond the wall of the village. A steaming bath awaits Roxas. Someone added a small bag of dried flowers that perfumes the air.
"I'll give you some privacy." Sora speaks timidly. "Just call a staff member if you need anything."
The staff members dismiss after Sora leaves.
Hanging his cloak on a hook, Roxas undresses and lowers himself into the silky water. The tub's deep, with three steps to the bottom. Another staff member has poured in some kind of oil as well, and Roxas eases down and sits, up to his neck in suds.
He sinks down into the water, beneath its skin, letting it block out the sounds around him. It's quiet here, the outside noise muffled and distorted by the water around him. Roxas pretends he's in a cocoon, asleep, the world passing him by, and when he wakes, all of this will have been a bad dream.
The water's cooling by the time Roxas finally decides to shampoo his hair and attack his skin with soap. He scrubs until it hurts, but he's still convinced the crimson stains him deep within where no soap will ever reach.
The memory of Luxord, holding his hand with icy fingers while his life spilled from his chest is more than Roxas can bear. Fresh tears fill his eyes, causing the room to swim. He blinks and they fall searing the skin of his already raw cheeks. Shutting his eyes tight, Roxas wills the tide of despair welling up within him to subside. A sob rises from the depths, but he catches it before it could escape. He swallow hard, forcing it down.
It felt like drowning.
Grief is a yawning pit of darkness blooming at his core. Roxas can hardly stand beneath its weight.
I can't bear this. I can't.
The piercing pain of loss is a double-edged blade Roxas can't bear to touch. How can he grieve for him? Cry for him? Bleed for him inside when it won't change anything? It won't change anything.
All the words he never found time to say. All the things they never found time to do. Ripped from him with merciless finality.
But Roxas is not gone. He's still here – miles from home, surrounded by strangers, forever stained by Luxord's blood. Deep inside, he hears the anguished wailing – the wordless kneeing of unbearable grief.
Roxas can't stand to hear it. To feel it. To let it live. A yawning pit of darkness within him opens wide, whispering promises to take the pain. Swallow the loss. Make it possible to draw a breath without choking on the shattered pieces no one will ever fix. Loss is a gaping hole with jagged teeth, and he can't bear it.
The hope the blazed within him floats like ash into the darkness. The wall of grief inside him slowly subsides into a well of icy silence – deafening and absolute. It rips Roxas in two, cutting him off from everything he can't stand to face.
He don't try to stop it. If he feels the loss, it will break him.
They may have had their differences, but, Luxord was still his family. And he loved him.
Loved him like a brother he never had; even if it was dysfunctional.
Roxas grips his arm and digs his fingers into his bicep. He should've taken better care of him. Protect him from Xemnas for starters. But it's too late for that now.
But not too late to take vengeance on his killer.
Xemnas is his.
Roxas doesn't call anyone as he steps out and grabs a towel from the rack. Be combs through his water-heavy hair and it sticks to his forehead in damp strands. He opens up a pantry and finds stacks of clothes at his disposal. Pulling on a long green tunic and a pair of leggings to match, Roxas opens the door.
Keeping his eyes on the plush carpet beneath his feet, he focuses on the muffled sound of his footsteps as he heads down the hall to the dining room; ignoring the glances he gets from the staff members.
Sora and Axel wait in the dining hall of the castle. Sora sits at the end of the table, leaning forward in the high-backed chair with his elbows to his knees, his head braced between his fisted hands. Axel stands near the window, his cloak still about his shoulder and his hands in his pockets. He glares out at the village, the wall surrounding it, and the woods beyond. Farther back, past the sign post at the fork in the road, Axel can see the top of the chimney of the mansion.
For the past countless numbers of years, that building had been the safe house, but now, Axel distrusted its protection.
Sora looks to the back of Axel's spiked hair, and squints his eyes. Now that they are back in the castle, and Roxas out of the room, perhaps now would be the best time to bring up Sora's, predicament. He has the guards surrounding the castle, and he's had enough training and inside secrets from Roxas to predict and sense an opponent's moves. He could take Axel, but he's discouraged since he knows nothing about Axel's skill level. Roxas said he was proclaimed the best, but it that really true?
But something inside Sora's chest tells him that Axel could be different. He seems to care for Roxas in ways that Sora believes is more than just a casual friendship. Maybe he could help Sora, if he were to believe it was better for Roxas.
Sora swallows a lump of wax in his throat, and pushes to his feet. "Axel,"
Axel glances over his shoulder.
Sora hesitates, but uses a shot of adrenaline for bravery.
"You know, don't you." Sora says sharply.
Axel turns to face him, his face placid. If he was shocked, he was definitely planning to not show it. Sora takes notice that he swallows before speaking.
"If you mean knowing who probably took him, then yes. I do." Axel admits. "And I can promise you it's -"
"That's not what I meant." Sora interjects. He takes a couple of daring steps closer. "You know about him. What he is."
"Your majesty, I can assure you -"
"Don't try and lie to me!" Sora snaps.
Axel looks to him sternly; his glare a challenge. His eyes narrow and his lip twitches, fighting a snarl.
"You know who he is!" Sora seethes. He lowers his voice as a guard walks past the open doorway. "You know he's my brother."
A spark of panic and recognition flicker in Axel's eyes. His shoulders lower and Sora notices a shift under Axel's cloak. Of course he still has a weapon. But he probably grasped something small.
"And before you do anything rash, remember that with a snap of my fingers, or a cry of distress, I can have an ambush of guards take you down. And even if you were to cut me down where I stand, think about Jesse. Roxas. You really think it's the wisest decision while he's like this?" Sora barters.
Axel's lip contorts into a small snarl. He keeps his hand on his weapon.
Within a blink, Sora felt a fist smash his temple, followed by a swift kick to his groin. As he staggers to one knee, there is another punch to his nose. Sora takes Axels wrist and kicks his legs out form under him. Sora sends his fist flying to Axel and lands it into his jaw. Axel catches Sora's wrist before Sora could pull his fist back. But Axel was not prepared for the sudden maneuver Sora made. His fingers wrapped around Axel's own wrist, his body twisted, and then Axel was down on both knees, wincing as the bones of his arm protested in pain.
Any delusions Axel had of Sora being a normal boy vanishes with his muffled shriek of pain. His fingernails dig into Sora's skin, but Sora doesn't seem to care. Face-to-face they stared, and Axel can see that despite his well-controlled moves, his eyes are full of fear and desperation. Sora lets go of Axel's wrist and tries to kick him in the chest. Axel ducks under the kick, spun around Sora, and then jabs his throat with his elbow. When Sora collapses, he rolls his body, avoiding the next two blows from Axel's foot. Sora catches Axel's heel on his third kick and then shoves it upward. Axel somersaults with the push, snapping Sora's chin with his feet, draws two dagger from his belt, and hurls them across the room.
They stab into the floor barely an inch to either side of Sora's feet. Sora backflips, still with no weapon in hand.
"You really think "Jesse" will be pleased with this when he comes back?" Sora says.
Axel opens his mouth, then closes it. He keeps the daggers in his hand, twirling them in his fingers. Sora was smart, she could see that. He knew he was beaten, but Sora still held back from calling the guards, or drawing a weapon. Surely that earns some level of trust.
"You're different from the others." Sora says.
"You don't know what I am." Axel hisses.
"No, but I do know that you care for Roxas in ways that exceed a normal friendship." says Sora. Axel tenses, and rises to his feet. "Enough to know what's best for him."
Axel's face slowly loses its disdain and he takes deep, slow breathes.
"How much do you know?" Axel asks.
"Just from what I could piece together, but if I admit, it's still confusing." Sora stands and pries out the two daggers in the floor. "Roxas was taken from me when I was a babe. He was taken by Xemnas, and if he was raised under his tutelage, then he must hate the King, and maybe me."
Axel sheathes his dagger and stands still as Sora approaches.
"And if you two live together, then you're a part of his "organization" just as he is."
Axel keeps his gaze to Sora as Sora hands him his daggers. Now this would have been a stupid move, if Axel wasn't so transfixed on Sora' words.
"I promise you, if you help me, I can erase any bounty on your head. Please . . . just please help me get my brother back." Sora says softly.
Axel stares daggers at Sora before he sighs shaking his head. He turns to the window, rubbing his chin and running his fingers through his hair.
"Please, Axel. You're the only other person Roxas trusts." Sora pleads.
"That's why I'm afraid to tell him. When he finds out all these years I've lied to him, that I've kept it from him, he'll hate me. Everything, will be ruined. It's hard to tell the truth when you've always lied." Axel's voice shakes.
Sora hesitates for a moment, then he feels his palms grow cold. "You love him?" Axel looks to Sora with a slight spark of panic. "But it's all the more reason to help me. It'll be more than enough for him to forgive you."
Axel ponders over this for a moment. He folds his lips in and looks to Sora.
"I want to make one thing clear, I'm only working with you because I'm sick of Xemnas. I've put up with his bullshit long enough, and terrorizing Roxas was the last straw." Axel says.
"Rationalize it however you want, Axel. Just help me get back my brother, then you can spill Xemnas' blood on the cobblestone." Sora sneers.
Axel sighs. "Well, since it's official, you should know, there's more to the story than just having Xemnas kidnap, Roxas."
"What is it?" Sora desperately asks.
Axel exhales and takes a seat. "We . . . we have a mage. Of course I can't give names, but . . . he, he did something, strange."
"He, took Roxas' memories, and . . . morphed them." Axel explains. "He removed all memory of you, your father, his family, and left only disdain and hatred. Made it so that Roxas hated your family as much as Xemnas."
"How is that possible?" Sora asks dumbfounded.
"I don't know. Magic can expand past any expectations."
"Yeah, Xemnas plans to have you, and your father killed on your birthday, by Roxas."
Sora's eyes widen and a breath hitches in his throat. "What? Why?"
"Because for a crazy assassin, what could be better than having the long lost Prince be discovered alive, and he just killed his brother and father." Axel snipes.
Sora leans against the high back of the chair. His body is numb as rock drops in his stomach. Panic and fear pool into his veins, replacing his blood with a white hot liquid. "Will he go through with it?"
"He was hesitant, because he's grown to like you. But now, after whatever it is Xemnas did to him, he probably won't even question anything Xemnas orders. Or it could motivate him to defy him more." Axel says.
"How much influence does Roxas have from him?" Sora asks.
"He was always the 'chosen child'. He was never taught how to love, how to feel. And he never knew how to heal. There weren't many good examples in the organization."Axel says. "He practically walks around, broken. Emotional frozen. It's hard to talk for him, to say what's deep inside."
"You said he didn't start, "helping out the family" until he was eight. Did he, kill someone?" Sora hesitantly inquires.
Axel nods. "They told him he'd never survive. But survive is that boy's middle name."
"Can he change?" Sora asks. "Will he change?"
"It's not that easy to break the habit. But I can tell he wants to." Axel says. "But before all that, we need to try and see if he'll tell us what happened. Once we know he's okay, then we can flip his whole world upside down."
Sora gives him the faintest smile, then the doors to the hall open. Roxas walks in with his head down. He crosses his arms over his chest and moves to curl up at the cushioned window seat. He meets Sora and Axel's gaze with misery and fury in his eyes.
"Do you need anything?" Sora asks, and Roxas knows he's asking about more than food and water.
Roxas shakes his head, but Sora stands and jogs to the kitchen. He comes back with a cup of water with a bowl of tomato soup and a slice of bread with butter on the side, and a plate of apple slices as if he never responded. Roxas takes a bite of the apple to please them, but he can't taste it.
Axel eases himself onto the window seat, closer to Roxas than to the other end, but still keeping a careful distance between them. He's moving slowly, as if afraid hell spook Roxas at any moment. Roxas want to tell him about Luxord. He wants to open his mouth, let it all come gushing out, and find solace in weeping but the words won't come. Instead, Roxas takes a tiny sip of soup and concentrates on the heat in his mouth.
"We need to talk to you. It's okay if you don't want to respond, but I need to know you're listening." Sora says quietly, and waits.
Roxas swallows the cheese, takes a sip of water, and sets it all on the floor at his feet. He owes them this.
He owes Luxord too.
The thought draws blood, and his eyes slowly fill with tears. He's tired. So tired. He aches, inside and out, and nothing seems simply anymore. Nothing seems right.
"I know he took you." Axel says, clenching his fist until his knuckles are white. His voice is hard. "I don't know what he did to you, and I know you probably don't want to talk about. But just know that we're here for you."
Axel's expression is haunted, and Roxas knows he blames himself for today. Roxas doesn't know how to comfort him when nothing soft and conciliatory lives inside him anymore. Did it ever really did? Beneath Roxas' grief, uncushioned by his shock, a hard kernel of anger takes root and burrows in. He failed Luxord today, yes. But he doesn't have to fail him again. A debt is owed for his life, and Roxas intends to pay it.
Something catches Roxas' eye, they follow his gaze. On the table are Roxas' weapons, cleaned and polished. He wants to hold the weapons, to feel like he has some way to keep the promises he's made to himself, but he doesn't know how anyone feels about giving it to him.
"You can't attack everyone who pulls a weapon," Sora says when the sees Roxas gazing at the weapons.
He's wrong. If you don't attack first, you lose everything.
"You cared us today," Sora softly says, and Roxas looks away from the weapons. "They'd already demanded our money. The swords were just to intimidate us into giving them a way to buy their next drink."
"It was a situation you could've talked your way out of with your eyes shut. Instead, you killed them." Axel adds.
Roxas can't look away from the worry on their faces, even though he wants to tell them he's learned his lesson. The lesson Axel tried to teach him when he made Roxas promise to strike down Xemnas if he ever threatened him. It's branded deep into the fibers of Roxas' being now, and Roxas doesn't plan to act like it isn't.
"How can we trust you to carry your weapons if you don't know who deserves a death sentence and who doesn't?" Axel asks, and slides closer to him, wrapping his arms around Roxas and pulls him against his chest. "R . . . Jesse. I should've been with you today. I'm so sorry."
It's not his fault.
Roxas should've killed Xemnas. He should've entered the weapon and attacked without hesitation.
He should've kept his promise to Axel. If he had, Luxord would still be alive.
A small whimper escapes Roxas, and tears spill down his cheeks. Roxas tries to tell them. To make the words come, but sobs choke him instead. Roxas' fingers are icy, trembling. Tension coils within him. He has to tell them.
Sora wants to comfort Roxas as well, so without breaking them apart, he sets his hand on Roxas' shoulder. Roxas' fingers spidercrawl their way to Sora's, and they interlock.
"We don't know what happened. But I, we, need to tell you, to convince you, that if whoever did this . . . if there was anything . . . if he hurt you in the way a man can hurt a young man, it wouldn't change how we see you. He can't break us, Jesse, unless we let him." says Sora.
"I also want to make a promise to you. Will you look at me?"
Roxas tilts his head back to stare into Axel's dark green eyes. Axel raises his hand and strokes the side of Roxas' face. His touch is far gentler than his words.
"I'm going to make Xemnas pay for what he did, Jesse. I swear it. And if he dares lay a hand on you today, I won't stop until he's dead."
This kind of response will ruin everything. All Xemnas needs is one tiny excuse to take Axel away from him forever. And he's about to tell him something that will make his anger so much worse.
But as Roxas processes Axel's words, a small spark ignites, something inside him.
Axel wants Xemnas dead. He doesn't care for him anymore. He's just like Roxas.
The shadow of grief and loss can't obscure the startling clarity of this thought. Roxas feels like he's emerged from a long slumber, awake and ready to act.
Roxas would be a fool to take Xemnas at his word. He has to protect Axel, and Sora, and the only way to do it is to trust them the way he promised he would. And Axel won't try to exact unthinking, furious revenge for Luxord if he has a chance to grieve and then formulate a plan. As for Sora, hopefully their friendship is secure to survive him learning everything Roxas will say.
Roxas' voice is still hoarse from the screaming he did as he looks Axel in the eye and says. "What you think he did, it's not like that. It's much worse -"
Roxas' throat closes as the memories hit. Being inside the wagon. Luxord. Crimson everywhere.
Sora pulls up a chair while Axel reaches up to cup Roxas' face with his palm, and Roxas smells him – metal, fresh pepper, and musk. "Listen to me, Jesse. You can take this once piece at a time. We're in no hurry."
"He said . . ." grief surges through Roxas' chest, burning a path to his throat.
"Tell us." Sora speaks.
"He's going to kill you." Roxas sobs to Axel. Suddenly the words are there, tumbling over themselves in a rush to be heard. "He said I'm loyal to a fault, and I'll do anything to avoid having him kill someone I love."
The wagon bed. The cloth-covered lump. Crimson everywhere.
Roxas can't breathe as the blood-soaked image of Luxord burns itself into his brain and stays. Pushing away from Axel, Roxas rushes to the kitchen, yanks over a pot, and hunches over the table, retching.
Axel are behind him in seconds, keeping his distance. When Roxas' stomach is empty, Axel help him sit on the chair back in the dining room. Sora has fixed Roxas glass of water with a sprig of mint.
Roxas chews on the mint and sips the water in grateful silence, bit it's a brief reprieve. They need to rest of the story, and Roxas has to find a way to give it to them.
Sora sits at the head of the table while Axel sits next to him, his shoulder touching Roxas' and says quietly, "Did he claim to have, someone killed?"
Roxas shake his head, and sets the glass down before his hands drop it on their own. "He took me. In a wagon. There was a cloth-covered lump. And he said I was plotting behind his back." Roxas' voice rises as he rushes to through it all. "I thought it was you. I thought he'd taken you, and I prayed it would be a stranger. A guard. But it wasn't."
Roxas' voice trembles and Axel exchanges a look with Sora, who now bites his nails nervously.
"He stabbed the person beneath the cloth, and there was blood everywhere, and I tried to reach him, but I couldn't."
Roxas reaches a hand out to Sora, for absolution or for comfort, he doesn't know.
"I couldn't save him. I though he was safe, coming to meet me in the marketplace, and I didn't save him. I'm so sorry!"
Roxas' voice breaks, and he drops his hand as terrible awareness comes into Axel's eyes. Word was spread that only one person had planned to meet with Roxas today . . .
"Luxord?" he asks with a voice that begs Roxas to lie. To make the truth something he can still fix.
Axel stares at Roxas, eyes glassy with sock, then jumps up to his feet and strides across the room. When he reaches the kitchen, there's a vicious crash, and Sora and Roxas rush over. Axel had pulled open the cabinets and throws a plate across the room. It hits the wall and shatters into a cluster of shards.
Roxas looks to Sora, who only watches with a blank face.
Minutes pass as Axel breaks all the plates in that one cabinet as if by obliterating the tableware, he can obliterate the truth.
Finally he breaks the last plate and punches the doors to the pantry shut. He hunches over the table in the middle of the room. Roxas goes to him, ignoring the bits of glass sticking into his boots and lays a hand on Axel's shoulder. Sora remains in the doorway; this wasn't his business and it would only be awkward. Whoever was killed was as close as family.
Turning to Roxas, Axel wraps his arms round Roxas and drags him against him. Roxas holds him and vows to make Xemnas hurt for what he's done to them. When Axel finally lifts his face to Roxas, Roxas can see he feels the same. His eyes are haunted, his expression hard.
"I'm sorry." Roxas' voice is small against the weight of their loss, but it's all he has to give.
"I can't believe he's gone." Axel's voice chokes on the last word, and he scrubs his hands over his face. "Where is he?"
"I don't know."
"They took him away in the wagon?"
"Guards came in and took him." Roxas can't look at Axel. He can't bear to see the shadows in his eyes. "They just . . . dragged him away."
"I want to see him. I want to . . ."
Say goodbye. Say the things they now wish they'd said the last time they saw Luxord. Roxas doesn't know if it would make it easier, but he knows Axel need it. Roxas does too, but they aren't going to get it. They aren't going to get another word to say on the matter that doesn't involve the sharp end of a sword.
"He should have a proper burial." Sora suddenly says.
"Yes. But he isn't going to get it." Roxas says the words taste like ashes. They'll never lay Luxord top rest. Never say the words he deserved to hear. Never bring flowers to a sacred patch of ground set aside for Luxord alone. "He isn't going to get it. But he can have justice. If we work together."
Roxas makes sure Axel meets his eyes and says, "You can't go and take him out. Not with Xion there."
Axel looks fierce. "We're going to turn his plan against him instead. We need to tell the others."
"How? They'll never believe us."
"How could Xemnas cover up Luxord's death? They'll notice he's gone. And when we tell them how, there will be souls that will rebel." Axel assures.
Suddenly, Axel's arms are around Roxas again, and he's against the hard wall of Axel's chest. "Jesse, I'm so sorry you had to see Luxord die."
"No, I'm sorry. If I'd just stabbed Xemnas like you said –"
"This wasn't your fault. It wasn't min. it was Xemnas'. And one day, you will make him pay for it in full."
"No, one day we'll make him pay for it in full." Roxas says.
"Yes," he says, holding Roxas' gaze. "We will."
He holds Roxas and kisses the crown of his head. He looks up to Sora, who has patiently been watching them without interruption or judgment. He leans against the opening with his hands in the pockets of his tunic. His head was lowered, but as if sensing Axel's gaze, he looks up. He raises his eyebrows.
"Starting today." He leans away from Roxas and motions with his eyes.
Roxas turns and follows it to Sora. Sora pushes off the wall and nervously rubs his hands.
"What's going on?" Roxas asks.
Sora's quiet for a moment, "Where'd you get that necklace?" he asks.
Roxas' fingers instantly go to the pendant about his neck. "I got it from . . ." he turns to Axel. ". . . from Luxord."
"It's nice." Sora says.
"Thanks. But what does it have to do with anything?" Roxas asks.
Roxas and Axel carefully exit the kitchen.
"Follow me. I want to show you something." Sora says and turns way walking out of the dining hall.
Roxas looks to Axel who only motions him forward. They follow Sora out the hall and through the maze of hallways and corridors until they reach a hidden spiral staircase. Sora ducks under a low opening and onto the steps.
"Where does this go?" Roxas asks.
Sora's quiet, climbing a few steps ahead before speaking.