BioQuest: The Fray

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Tenenbaum didn’t say a word, just kept getting her supplies together in preparation to make Lot 192. Looked like she was coming along, at least, but it was up to Elizabeth to decide anything that remained.

With a careful breath as she watched Jack, Elizabeth reached for the radio from Diane. She only hesitated for a second before opening the channel. “Booker, do you read me?”

“Yes,” he answered, curt with the expectation of worse news he always seemed to carry. He wouldn’t be wrong, not this time. “McDonough’s secure.”

“Can you meet us Suchong’s old apartment? We need Lot 192 for Jack now.” As if on cue, Jack hissed and tensed while he was getting his weapons together for braving the city. Try as he might to be subtle about it, Elizabeth couldn’t keep from noticing his every expression and stumble.

“The hell happened?” An echo of McDonough in the background layered with Booker’s response, but they didn’t have time for either. Not yet.

“We’ll tell you when we get there,” Elizabeth explained, picking up extra ammo for her gun.

“Right,” he grumbled and the line went to static.

“Ready to go?” Tenenbaum hadn’t wasted a moment, her pistol and science equipment ready.

“As I’ll ever be,” Jack breathed, pale but determined as he made his way to the exit.

“I’ll stay with the girls and watch the clinic. You be safe out there, you hear me?” Diane squeezed Elizabeth’s hand gently, giving her a worried smile.

“Of course, Diane.” Elizabeth felt a pang of guilt that it couldn’t be a promise, but she would do her best. They all needed to come home.

– – – Outside Suchong’s Old Apartment – – –

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Slowed down by Jack, they arrived to gunfire and shouting already underway. Without a word, everyone reacted like a well-oiled machine. They covered each other’s back and pushed forward to the apartment itself– no sign of Booker or McDonough, unless the dead splicers they passed counted as evidence.

“Elizabeth,” Jack called out, pointing down the hallway to a lit room across from a slumped over, bloody splicer. “The– there. I saw Booker.”

How he caught so much in battle, she would never know. She nodded, leading the way with her gun ready. Tenenbaum shoved past, going directly for the shelves and muttering in German.

“Thank God,” Booker muttered, stepping back to give her space. Science was… Out of his scope, so she couldn’t be surprised.

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“Good to see you too,” she teased him, smirking. Everything had been so chaotic from possible treaties to Atlas’ ambitions, this was a shred of normalcy Elizabeth needed.

“Aha!” That was the only alert from Tenenbaum that she was making progress before she cleared off a battered desk and set to work.

“So…” McDonough cleared his throat, thumbing to Jack. He looked older than she thought he’d be, but he had a naturally fatherly air about him that made you want to trust him. “This the kid?”

bill mcdonough bioshock

“Yeah,” Booker answered, studying Jack and his unsteady breathing. “Yeah, that’s the one.”

“Ryan’s kid,” McDonough said through a laugh. “Yer dad’s not a bad man, son, he’s just…” He scratched the back of his head awkwardly, the sentence dying. “I’m Bill McDonough. ‘S great to meet ya.”

“Thanks,” Jack answered, taking Bill’s offered hand. “He… Kind of is.”

“Almost done,” Tenenbaum interrupted, though Elizabeth doubted that she’d known she had. This was Tenenbaum’s area of expertise, after all.

“Hello, boyo,” came the fizzled voice of Atlas through Booker’s radio. “Hope you ‘ad fun cutting down my people,” he spat, a sure sign he wasn’t alone. He only had to put on a show for his people, not one of them mattered to him.

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“‘Cause we’re gonna get even.” Elizabeth raised her eyebrows, distantly impressed with his emotion. For a person who can’t bring himself to genuinely connect, he almost sounded invested. “Hurry now to Point Prometheus, an’ you might just be in time to save yer old man.”

Thankfully, they had Tenenbaum to break up the staticy silence that followed.

“Jack,” she called him over, holding up two bottles. “You’re a free man.”


What do you want to do, Elizabeth?

– – –

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Chapter 4: Secret Ritual

Hawke woke to incessant knocking with far too brief bouts of quiet between. He rolled in his bed, pulling sheets with him. “You’re just drunk, Sergius. Again,” he muttered, shooing away one of the neighbors packed in around Gamlen’s ramshackle home.

“Good morning to you too,” Carver grumbled.

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Ah, it was coming back now. Hawke sat up, stretching to loosen the tension in his shoulders, but there just wasn’t any getting rid of it. Andraste’s ass, this bed was a curse worse than any magic. A bit of morning light filtered down to Hawke, but hardly enough to wake him up. It was no Hightown, that much was obvious. Still— better than the Deep Roads.

“My own brother, here to fetch me?” Hawke teased, swinging his legs out of bed and approaching Carver at the door. Rather, through the slotted window in the door. “I’d been promised a rotating guard. And here I was, worried I’d start to miss you. Barely got a wink.”

“Don’t joke, brother,” Carver scolded, unlocking the door. “They don’t call it the Harrowing because it’s easy.” He stepped back with a scowl set on his face that really was going to turn him into Gamlen if he kept it up. And Hawke knew what that meant. He’d sooner die than admit it, but Carver was worried, and so the joking had to stop. …Alright, he’d just slow it down a little.

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll be alright. Lead the way, Ser Carver,” he teased with a smirk. It wasn’t a spritely dance to lift his spirits, but that was more of a Carver trick anyway. Didn’t have much of an effect regardless as his little brother turned without a word and they rounded a corner into another indistinguishable hallway of the Gallows.

Identical wall torches were all placed the same distance apart and slivers in the walls that were supposedly windows gave no hint as to where they were in relation to the outside. Dark doorways broke up the monotony of the stone halls, but even those doorframes matched each other perfectly.

The Harrowing would be easy for Hawke, no matter what Carver fussed over. What weighed on him now was the idea of Merrill travelling these halls alone at night in a couple weeks without getting lost. There would be no ball of yarn this time, not like in the alienage, and she couldn’t risk being late.

One step at a time. First, the Harrowing.

“They’re testing me, you know. That’s why they sent me for this.” Carver wouldn’t actually look at Hawke while he talked this over. Strangely, no one else was around, but at least it afforded them this moment for Carver to get this weight off his chest and onto his brother’s shoulders. After all, what were big brothers for? “I’ll be watching your Harrowing with Cullen. It has to be perfect.”

“It’s hardly my first visit to the Fade, you know that. Trust me! This won’t be much of a test for either of us,” he encouraged Carver. “I’ll be back before you can miss me.”

Carver scoffed, finally granting Hawke a glance. Barely. Walking up a set of stairs leading to another level in the Gallows, Hawke wasn’t sure which, Carver continued. “You’re not taking this seriously. If you get possessed, I’ll have to—” He cut himself off with a grumble and stopped suddenly on the landing.

Carver had an explanation ready before Hawke could even start to ask what this hesitation was about. “Right, before we get too far… After the Harrowing, watch out for Ser Alrik or anyone who looks like they don’t want to run screaming from him. He’s a nasty one, probably the worst Templar here.”

“Take the Harrowing seriously and avoid Alrik. I think I can do that,” Hawke answered brightly, flashing a smile to counter Carver’s scowl.

“Maker’s breath, just follow me.”

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At the Harrowing chamber, which may or may not be what it was actually called, few Templars in full armor waited with Cullen and Orsino. Hawke had a tendency to turn heads when he entered a place, but nothing like this. Andraste’s ass, it was like being at his own funeral.

“Hawke,” Orsino acknowledged him, sounding somewhere between exhausted and irritated as he usually did. At least he was consistent. Carver went to join Cullen while Orsino came over to Hawke, his back to the Templars almost as if they were scheming.

“I’m not certain what you’ve heard about the Harrowing, but it’s nothing like a normal visit to the Fade.”

“Of course not,” Hawke teased, smirking and already prepared for the worst. It’s not as though he lied to Carver before; he truly was confident that he could handle whatever came his way. It’d worked so far, why question it?

“This ritual sends you to the realm of dreams to contend with a demon with only your willpower to guide you.” Orsino, as somber as ever, looked up at Hawke with an intense, prying gaze. “Do you understand—”

“First Enchanter,” Cullen interrupted. “Each mage has to go through their Harrowing without prior instruction to prove they can shield themselves from the threat of demons.”

Orsino had instructions of a sort for Cullen, Hawke could tell that much even as the elven mage stepped back to stand a good distance away from everyone present. The stoup of lyrium in the center of the room couldn’t be more obviously for the ritual, so Hawke approached it with everyone’s stares boring into his back.

“Sirrah Hawke,” Cullen continued, his voice level with years of practice beginning this speech. Watching the lyrium swirl and glow, as if it were alive, Hawke kept his back to them all and listened. “Place your hand in the lyrium to enter the Fade and begin the Harrowing. If you fail, we Templars will uphold our duty.” The gravity of the pause told Hawke he wasn’t done and that he had nothing nice to say. What a shame. “You will die.”

So that’s what had Carver so worked up.

“Well, no one wants that.” Alright, a few people did. Hawke slipped his hand into the lyrium and felt the cold, lightning rush of the Fade overtake him.

BioQuest: Sideways

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Elizabeth didn’t have an exact count on how many people from the Family were with Grace, but she believed Grace wouldn’t let harm come to them. Even if they didn’t agree to the truce, she’d keep the peace. Elizabeth had to believe that.

“I have considered your offer, but I actually come here with one of my own.” She holstered her weapon, hearing Diane doing the very same behind her. If anyone recognized her in connection to Ryan, they didn’t mention it.

“We’ve made a truce with Ryan,” she started frankly, hoping that honesty would earn her some leniency. Elizabeth saw anger come to Grace quickly, spreading to the Family with her like wildfire.

“A truce with that monster! Like he cares what happens to the good people of Rapture,” she scoffed. “Throw your lot in with him if you like, but we–”

“Grace, please hear me out before you decide. I implore you,” Elizabeth begged, trying to pull this back from the brink. She only had this one chance. “This is our opportunity to bring peace to Rapture for everyone.”

Grace shook her head, scowl unwavering. “Peace? That animal doesn’t want any peace.” Muttering agreement rippled through the group beyond her. “How can you tell me about peace with Ryan when he holds Dr. Lamb, the one who really cares about us little people?”

bioshock rapture family

“We’ll talk to him about Dr. Lamb,” Diane interjected, stepping up to stand beside Elizabeth. “It’s the only right thing to do.”

It was a tall order, but they had to try it. And the fact that Diane came forward… Elizabeth couldn’t be happier. Her friend was finding the self-esteem to be brave when she had to be.

“You do that,” Grace bit back, but at least her expression had softened slightly. “But you hear this, and you remember it well: his answer is ours.”

“I understand,” Elizabeth nodded, taking the unspoken command to leave. Diane walked alongside her in silence until they were far enough from the Limbo Room for comfort when the radio she carried crackled to life.

“Zur Hölle fahren,” came the first distant words, and Elizabeth’s heart froze. Gunfire followed while Diane scrambled to get the radio where they could both speak into it.

“Tenenbaum! Can you hear me?” Elizabeth waited for what felt like ages in static.

“Yes, yes, I hear you,” she snapped back. “Scheisse.” More gunfire burst in the background. “Fontaine was watching us. With you both and Booker gone, he attacked.”

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“Oh, oh no,” Diane worried, her brows furrowing. “What about the girls?”

“And Jack?” They only just opened up to one another, finally starting to date. She waited for him to ask, why did she do that? What if he was–

“We pushed him back. They’re safe, but not for long.” Static punctuated her sentence and it was all Elizabeth could do not to run off without a word.

“We’ll be there soon,” Elizabeth promised, rushing ahead as Diane hurried to keep up.

– – – Back at the clinic – – –

The first thing she heard was Jack biting back a scream, and Elizabeth couldn’t hold back anymore.

“Lizzie, wait,” Diane tried to shout, breathless, but with no luck in stopping her.

“Jack, where are you? Jack,” she called again, running through the second set of clinic doors to see him breathless, pale, and sweaty, leaning again a counter.

“H-here,” he forced out, wincing.

“Fontaine used a command, one I need Lot 192 to reverse,” Tenenbaum explained from her lab area. “Ryan hasn’t delivered, so we would have to go and get the supplies ourselves. But he can’t go anywhere.”

“I can–” Jack cut off in a horrid gasp, gripping the edge of the counter he was against. “I can go. I’ve had worse.”

“You aren’t convincing anyone, Jack,” Elizabeth said, tempted to be gentler but knowing she had to be honest first.

“I need the dose, or I’ll die waiting here for it. My heart is stopping every–” He cringed, eyes shut tight for a few seconds. “It’s stopping too often. I won’t make it unless I go too.”


What do you want to do, Elizabeth?

Read the next chapter.

– – –

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A Hero’s Burden: KH3 Spoilers

So I was doing some thinking on Luxu and Sora, and the parallels between them as protagonists of their own stories (though Luxu doesn’t have a game at the moment, of course)… And how much I’d love to analyze that like the nerd I am. And here we are!

Luxu

Sadly, there’s not much on Luxu himself before he returns as Xigbar. But I can glean some information from The Case of Luxu!

And yeah, he’s not exactly a hero, per se, but he’s got a quest and a mentor and bear with me here

The Gazing Eye

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The Keyblade he was given didn’t have a name, but Luxu assumed this was its name. It’s something both literal and philosophical— there is literally an eye in it and it gives MoM the ability to see into the future.

And once he’s told it has no name, he repeats “No Name” with a breathless interest, giving the Keyblade a closer look. It’s safe for us to assume, then, that he’s a philosophical person who looks for deeper meaning in things and that he also reveres the Master of Masters like all the Foretellers do.

Whatever he told Luxu, the seventh member would have been interested and sought depth in the message he was given— whether it was there or not.

EWWW

But when he’s told that it’s the Master’s eye, he recoils and says “ew” immediately. From his voice here in particular, we can assume Luxu was young. Perhaps Sora’s age at Kingdom Hearts 1, but likely a little bit older.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. When MoM asks him accusingly if he thinks that’s gross, Luxu hesitantly answers, “N-no.” He holds his hand out towards MoM in a disarming gesture, looking a little crestfallen.

So even though he just said Ew and clearly thinks it’s gross, he said he didn’t. Why lie? Based on his body language, he either didn’t want to disappoint MoM or didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

Later in life, I would call that a manipulation, but Luxu’s overall sincerity and inability to hold back his emotional responses here (such as recoiling and saying ew), I think it’s truly a little bit of both.

His Role

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When he’s told his role, he makes the connections quickly— his role is what allows the Book of Prophecies to exist. Luxu is smart, but for now, he tends to think in linear patterns. As most people do.

MoM tries to congratulate him on a job well done, but Luxu only said, “But I haven’t done anything yet.” This is a far cry from his actions as Xigbar, who sits on ceilings and casually warps space regularly while also helping out with some heart science and time travel.

The first step of his role was the most brutal, which I’ll expand on in this next section.

Luxu’s Disposition

Given how jumpy he can be, he’s likely kept to himself for the most part in his youth, possibly even being distrusting.

At one point, MoM says bingo and points in Luxu’s face and the younger man jumps and draws back to get some distance between them. This tells me Luxu dislikes sudden movements and people being in his space.

That said, all the Foretellers knew who he was even when he was Xigbar and presumably didn’t look like himself. So they knew him well enough to recognize his heart regardless of its vessel, at least.

His isolation during his role that took literally hundreds of years to see to fruition did not do him any favors in this regard. Especially considering he didn’t want to go alone and asked if he really had to, even wondering aloud what the other Foretellers would be doing.

With that and his eagerness to help MoM when pulling out the box, I think it’s a fair claim that Luxu doesn’t necessarily like people, but he’s loyal to those who are close to him. He dismissed his Keyblade the second he realized MoM was struggling with the box, running over to help him even though the job was mostly done.

And his promise to not open the box if he was told what was inside was softly spoken, but sincere, further cementing the notion that he’s devoted to those he already holds close.

But he’s also very curious and loves to push boundaries. If he’s told no, it just makes him want to do whatever it is more. Like not knowing what was in the box paired with not being able to open it made him really want to know what was inside.

And even when MoM told him what was in the box, he wanted to know why. This driven curiosity carried over to his time as Xigbar in the most destructive of ways, where learning secrets was worth nearly any cost.

His Descent

When he was told to just stand by and watch “as things unfold between the others”, the direct instructions from MoM, it was probably actually difficult to do. See them turning on one another, these people that he cared about and trusted, and worse yet— they were bringing the whole world down with them.

It’s no wonder that he grew to value emotional ties so little. It was those ties, their hearts, that led them so wrong. This affirmed that Luxu was right to distrust people, even friends, and that was the start of his descent down a slippery slope.

And now I draw my parallel.

With Sora!

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He’s curious, competitive, thoughtful, and loyal. Sora values his friends above all else and there’s nothing he won’t do for them.

To someone like Luxu, who started his journey by watching his friends destroy each other and the lives of those around him, it must be hard to see someone with a good deal in common with his younger self.

Sora also watched one of his friends turn on him, even going so far as to make him feel worthless.

But he was able to act. He wasn’t confined to a role. Sora stepped in and didn’t lose faith in his friends. Whether Luxu thinks he’s a fool who only put off the inevitable betrayal or resents him for being able to save the people he cared about (or a third option I can’t see yet), Sora is a reminder of how Luxu used to be.

Worse, how he could have been.

Then you get into meta narrative bits, like Kairi and Riku either expressly telling Sora or implying that he should never change.

As Sora battles with his insecurities, especially in KH3, it’s possible for him to go down a similar path as Luxu and lose his hope and optimism. For someone like Sora, that would make him change completely.

I can’t say that Kairi and Riku knew that was a risk or if Nomura is teasing that option with Sora. But I personally find it interesting that Luxu can be paralleled with Sora, at least with how they began their journeys, and I hope it is highlighted in some future game or DLC.

But most of all, I hope you had fun reading this!

Have a Good Scare

“Weeeird!” Demyx squeaked, twisting around and bending his arms to look at the fins sprouting from his limbs. Thin fog sat close to the ground in the graveyard and Jack o’ lanterns were skewered on wrought iron fence posts over the headstones. A grinning scarecrow pointed further into the world where Xigbar was assigned with Demyx to scope the place out. This was his first big mission without Vexen nagging him— or instructing, he called it. Not that it meant Xigbar was about to give blondie a break.

“Hey, ‘s no big deal.” Xigbar shrugged it off. “What, this your first transformation?” He nodded to Demyx, a smirk on his face. He could feel stitches pulling on his skin, but it didn’t hurt a bit. So he was some kind of Frankenstein’s monster and Demyx was a creature from a lagoon. If nothing else, at least the sneaky little slacker would get a chance to be scary for once in his life.

“Uhh… Yes?” Demyx frowned in confusion, but that got him standing still for a change. Sure, Xigbar recruited the kid for the cause, but even he had his doubts sometimes that he was really cut out to wear the cloak. Not that it mattered much in the grand scheme of things, anyway. And hey, Xigbar liked having someone fun around for once. The others were so uptight all the time, and when he ran out of munny to lose to Luxord (and steal back later), Demyx was always right there and ready to prank and be pranked.

“Ha! What’re you asking me for?” He shook his head, chuckling. “Don’t you know for sure?”

“Well, yeah, it’s just, couldn’t we go a place that’s less…” He tugged at the tattered, faded shirt hanging loosely over his scaled skin, eyeing the area now instead of dwelling on his new form.

“Less what?” Xigbar knew the answer, but he had to lead the kid on. Where’s the fun in not doing that? For a guy told all the time that he didn’t have a heart, Demyx sure gave the best reactions to his feelings. If people took him more seriously, that might’ve been a problem. Lucky for the both of them that he did barely enough to not be turned into a Dusk, then.

“Ah, y’know, it’s kinda…” Demyx dragged it out, leaning to look past Xigbar into the dark, shadowy town through the iron gate. “Kinda scary here.”

“Scary? As if!” Xigbar turned around, waving over his shoulder as he went ahead toward the town. “You don’t even exist, remember? Not like you can die again, Dem. What’s to be scared of, huh?”

Demyx groaned, shuffling along in awkward steps. He was never a graceful guy, but from the sounds of his steps, the transformation really screwed up his stride with all those fins made for swimming, not walking. “Fiiiine. Just a quick look, yeah? Then we run back and RTC?”

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“Nah, we gotta get the whole job done right.” Not his favorite thing to do either, but what can you do? “Check your little card— says we gotta team up, infiltrate the world, and get intel. Maybe you like Saïx yelling at you all the time, but I didn’t sign up for that.”

“Okay, okay,” he begrudgingly agreed, trotting to catch up with Xigbar. Demyx was even quiet for almost a full thirty seconds when he found his nasally voice again. “Do you, uhh… D’ya hear that?”

Xigbar stopped, focusing on their surroundings when he heard a tune in the air. “Singing?” Of course he noticed the music before Xigbar did.

“It’s our town, everybody scream,” shrill voices sang, but even Xigbar was running into trouble placing exactly where the singers were. “In this town of Halloween!”

Whisps of white blurred around them and Demyx let out a shriek, bubbles forming and dissolving as he realized the ghosts already took off again. What, was Xigbar s’posed to pretend he didn’t see that? Turn a blind eye? The bad joke to himself just made him laugh harder.

“C’mon, man,” Demyx whined, rubbing his arm self-consciously. He really was a terrible swamp monster. “You’ve been laughing like that forever…”

“Exaggeration, much?” It’d been, what, maybe a few seconds. Not Xigbar’s fault he was self-conscious about being a scaredy-cat. “‘Sides, you’re in for a lot worse than that. You hear them over your squealing?”

“H-hey, it’s not a squeal, it’s— Enngh, never mind.” Dem caught sight of his smirk and dropped it then and there. He knew a losing battle when he saw one, even if he always just ran away from ‘em. “They sang about a town of Halloween, so that’s gotta be here. I mean, just look at the place. Spooky.”

“Oh, so you do listen?”

“Huh?” He tried playing innocent, scratching his cheek absently and avoiding all eye contact. As if that was gonna make him more believable. “Umm. Sometimes.”

“Uh-huh, sure,” Xigbar dismissed with a sneer. He could taunt Demyx about that all he wanted on this mission, but they did actually have work to do before the day was out and Saïx had a fit. Xigbar outranked him and all, but he was easier to deal with once he had what he wanted. “Alright, time to dig up some intel. Fear’s a good emotion to keep folks in check, so I betcha Lord Xemnas will love hearin’ about this.”

“Yeah, probably,” Demyx agreed half-heartedly, kicking a pebble along the graveyard pathway. “He already scares me a lot, an’I… Xiggy?” When the musician kid wasn’t looking, Xigbar used his powers to teleport himself behind him. No harm in a little prank, right? ‘Course not. “Haha, reeaally funny, you… Ya got me.” Man, that nervousness was too real. The little water spout actually liked him, imagine that! He wasn’t gonna last long in the ranks at that rate.

Xigbar teleported himself behind Demyx this time and whispered, “Gotcha.”

“Eek!” Demyx elbowed him in the stomach, hard, and Xigbar coughed out a laugh.

“Look at you! Got some fight in you after all, just gotta scare it outta you first.”

“Wha? Me?” Demyx gestured to himself, panic in his amphibious eyes. This world really went all out on the transformation bit, not that it did a damn thing for the kid. “No, no, no, I just… It was instinct! C’mon, can’t we just look around and, I dunno, not scare me?”

“Ha! Not a chance. I’m just blending in, Dem,” he teased, empty friendliness and sarcasm giving his words an edge. “You really oughta do the same or they’ll find out you’re chicken.”

Demyx’s brow furrowed again and he stuck his tongue out, touching the end of it. “Ennnh, I bi’ my tongue!”

“Not even listening to me, what’re we gonna do with you?” He clapped Demyx on the back once, walking ahead. “I’ll show you how it’s done.”

“Really?!” Demyx brightened from his voice to his eyes, a light chuckle not far behind. So easily pleased, so easily scared. He had a heart, alright. Just a matter of time before he pieced that little fact together, but that was a problem for the future. As if he’d even act on it— this was Demyx, the king of lazing around in closets, the Grey Room, and anywhere he thought he’d get away with it. Even if he figured out part of their scam, it’s not like he was gonna do anything about it. “Hey, thanks, Xiggy!”

“It’s my job, Dem,” Xigbar reminded him drily. “Just be glad they sent me along to help you out and not cranky, old Vexen.”

Hearts’ Reunion: Zemyx

“I’m sorry you had to see me that way, Demyx,” Ienzo explained. It wasn’t much of a greeting for their agreed upon “chat” in the labs, but it had to be said sooner rather than later. Demyx seemed uncomfortable in the moment between Ienzo and Ansem the Wise, and it took Demyx speaking up for him to even realize that. Ienzo shook his head at such a serious oversight. And to think he believed he’d improved so much in understanding social cues since recompletion. He was proud of it, even.

“Nah, it’s no big deal,” Demyx dismissed with a wave, or as much of one as he could manage with two cups in his hands. Thick straws jutted out of the plastic film covering them and dark spheres sat at the bottom inch or two. Ienzo eyed the drinks, glancing up to Demyx questioningly. This was not part of their plans for this reunion and he couldn’t resist his curiosity.

A trait Demyx knew well from his regular visits to see him in the castle labs. He avoided his missions at all costs, but Demyx certainly always found time for social calls… Which led to their friendship and eventually evolved into something quite a bit more despite their lack of hearts. Pushing that thought away for now, Ienzo drew himself back to the present and willed his mind to stay on track.

“I just wasn’t really sure how to handle it. And, uhh, the others might’ve caught on if I dragged my feet.” After a thoughtful pause and a pout, he laughed. “Eventually. And Vexen, man, he is a terrible liar! He’d probably get me into more trouble with whatever story he cooked up.”

Ienzo chuckled at the thought. Even could keep his fair share of secrets, but it’s true that he had insufficient skills in impromptu lies. Given time to plan, at least, Even could deceive as well as any of them. But he had another question to address. “Demyx, what are those…?” He pointed to the cups and Demyx started as if he had completely forgotten they were there. Perhaps he had.

“Oh! Right!” He offered one to Ienzo, smiling from ear to ear. “You gotta try this! There’s a world out there with this stuff called bubble tea,” he answered with a shake of the cup he held out. The black orbs in the bottom jostled about to demonstrate his point that they were the reason for the name. Rather, Ienzo presumed that was the case. “I wanted to surprise ya, so I went with something I thought you’d like.”

“Thank you, but,” he trailed off, folding his arms as he examined the drink. “What is it, exactly? You’ve brought me a fair share of tea, but never anything like this.”

“I found it out—” Demyx cut himself off with a grumble, frowning. “Doing stuff.” Ienzo raised an eyebrow at that. Had Demyx taken up pretending his missions with the Organization didn’t exist? They were both well aware that he’d been deceived back into their ranks, so there was nothing to benefit from acting as though that wasn’t the case.

“It’s tea with some flavored milk, sugar, and they let you put a buncha stuff in it. I stuck with the classic chewy tapioca because the popping boba has this little flim that gets stuck in your teeth, and it’s just kinda weird. Still fun, though, you gotta try that next,” he ended through a giggle.

“Well, thank you,” Ienzo accepted, taking the cup from Demyx. “And now that we’re… getting to chat, I have some questions for you.”

“Huh?” Demyx fiddled with the straw in his cup, angling for the tapioca. “Umm, sure. Shoot.”

“The time at the castle… When we were both with the Organization, I…” Ienzo idly moved the cup around in his hands, busying himself to steady his mind. “Did it mean something to you?” It came out harsher than he meant it to. But what other way was there to ask and get an honest answer?

“You mean dating?” Demyx had a sip of his drink at the single worst time for Ienzo’s nerves, meeting his distressed gaze over the tea. “Aaah. I mean, sure. Even if it was in secret and all, like you wanted, I really lo— Sorry, sorry. I really like you.”

Ienzo sighed in relief, but it seemed there were more problems to resolve. “You can say love, Demyx. And I’m sorry I told you that you couldn’t before. Without believing I had a heart, I…” He shook his head, staring down at his untouched tea. “That was in the past, I suppose.”

Demyx watched him hopefully, brow furrowed but his smile intact. “Right, gotcha. I, uhh, I love you, so yeah, it, umm, it meant a lot to me, Zexion.”

“Please, call me Ienzo,” he diverted, not prepared for his confession even though he had prompted it. “I acknowledge that I am responsible for my actions as a Nobody, but I am using my human name now, and I… I love you as well.” To preoccupy himself, Ienzo finally had a sip of the tea. “Oh, this is delicious.”

“Ha! Called it!”

Pawns on the Board

KINGDOM HEARTS HD 2.8 FINAL CHAPTER PROLOGUE

Staring out the window at Kingdom Hearts and its pale glow, Xemnas reflected upon the current status of his plans— and the pawns in them. The greatest among them were a select few Organization members who believed they had greater significance on the chessboard. Those who aimed to prove their loyalty in earnest. Zexion, of course, was perhaps even more dedicated to Xemnas than Ienzo had been to Ansem. The thought brought him a biting satisfaction that could be likened to happiness.

Of course, Lord Xemnas knew they had an ability to regain their hearts should one pursue it. By convincing them that this was beyond their grasp without his aid, he controlled all the Organization members. A heart did not need to be complete to be receptive to seeds of doubt or empty convictions. Though they still lacked their final member, the certainty with which those already present held to this falsehood would be the only requirement to convince Number XIII of its veracity as well.

This fact brought Xemnas to consider his most determined pawn of all. Saïx was a relatively unexpected addition to their ranks, as was Axel. Unlike his former companion, Number VII instantly set to proving his worth within the Organization upon becoming a Nobody. Lord Xemnas saw it in his eyes— a resolute conviction so intense that its origins could only have been a memory from his old life. There was no finer motivation for Saïx himself to build his heartless non-existence around, and no better instrument for Xemnas to manipulate him with.

“Lord Xemnas,” the subject of his thoughts interrupted. “I have compiled the mission reports for your review.”

“As expected,” Xemnas responded, turning to face the self-appointed administrator of Organization XIII. It was convenient that he had done so. The members who had an inclination for order and paperwork managed to have even less patience for underachievers such as Demyx and could not be troubled to maintain the digitized filing system Saïx had arranged for their archives. Yet by far, the finest attribute of Number VII was his readiness to understand and excel at any expense.

“Before you begin,” he started, talking decisive steps towards his protégé— or perhaps project was the more suitable term. “I will impart another lesson to you. Though we lack hearts ourselves,” he stated to reinforce the myth, addressing both himself and Saïx in a fluid gesture. “Each of us recalls the memories of possessing one.”

“I understand,” Saïx acknowledged. His intense watchfulness fixated on Xemnas, the golden hue of his eyes and jagged scarring representing all that Saïx was willing to sacrifice for these fragments of knowledge.

“Your aptitude for injuring a heart,” Xemnas began, each word weighted and precise. “Will prove to be invaluable in realizing the future we desire.”

Saïx nodded, his grip tightening on the reports almost imperceptibly. “I would do anything to secure our goals.”

Lord Xemnas knew fully that this was not the whole of the truth. That meant little to him in the strategy for this piece on the board. Saïx’s blindness to his own readability that made his manipulation that much more rewarding. Every Nobody to don the cloak had been instrumental in creating the mental prisons they confined themselves within. Few were so rewarding to lead ever deeper into imprisonment as the Luna Diviner.

“Good,” he answered, pausing. “Bear in mind that you have tremendous power over those with hearts or even those who succumb to illusions of their former heart.” Lord Xemnas recognized a shadow of a smile in Saïx’s expression and continued on. “Pain, doubt, insecurity… Knowing which emotion will lead to which action will be of great use to us. How else would one direct the pawns to precisely where they must go to secure our hearts?” It was but a moment that Saix permitted his gaze to rest on Kingdom Hearts beyond Xemnas, and yet, it betrayed more still of his aspirations. Despite all his pretense in acceptance of the shattered void where his heart once resided, Number VII longed for its return. Truly, he was an ideal pawn that would sacrifice it all for hollow promises in return. “Refining your skill in manipulating hearts… This is the lesson I will impart to you time and again in preparation of what is to come.”

“Yes, Lord Xemnas,” Saix agreed without hesitation.