For all the others he had names, a voice and a face to put to them. Most of them attended their meetings now with hoods down, oft butting into the monologues of the higher-up little blood team they had; Master Xehanort, of course, his younger self, Xemnas, and himself. Four parts of one person, scattered apart.
He would have thought the other vessels would hold more respect but it seemed that with each passing discussion, plan of action and talk of heroes that the underlings of their chosen grew rowdy and distant, distaste in their mouths over their individual predicaments.
The girl, the one with the shrill voice and bad attitude, she was the one who voiced her displeasure most often. Frequently to Xemnas, sometimes to the Younger Xehanort. It was rare that Larxene was so vocal towards the Master, possibly fearing some kind of scolding for insolence, or perhaps just being aware of his sheer power. She had perhaps interrupted himself less than a handful of times, but that was because Ansem, for the most part, listened and did not speak.
Marluxia and Xigbar - those two were often also a handful; if not making snide or sly comments it was pulling faces. As if they were children. The actual children behaved better, puppets that they were. Repliku and Vanitas and the blank little toy. Ansem steered clear of them for as much as he could. Riku's little shadow seemed to sneer or glower whenever the heartless caught a wayward glimpse of him. Too many bad, if false, memories.
Luxord was a quiet, yet valuable vessel. All hidden strength and deep thoughts. Had they more time, Ansem would enjoy spending more time in his company. Oh, the stories that mysterious man must have.
There was the traitor, too. Vexen. Or, Even. Ansem wasn't sure. Of course the scientist lacked a heart, but his mind was as sharp and wicked as ever, and it was only a matter of time before he strayed. Ansem was well aware, and counted the days until the academic vanished entirely from their circle. It was a pity. There was strength in numbers and in those hazy, faraway memories he held of the times he had his heart, the mixed-up disastrous compound it was, were ones of Even helping him along back in their days as apprentices. Ansem recognised some dull spark of emotion somewhere. Disappointment, maybe. Or loss. He did not want to see Vexen leave their ranks, but only time would tell. Vexen would no doubt go back to their old master and attempt to right the wrongs he was a part of. The heartless was not sure if he was envious or not; a chance at redemption does not come for everyone, after all. Perhaps that was a reason Xemnas had not yet acted to scold or control Vexen. He hadn't the heart to feel the distrust and discontent in their ranks. They all had their blind spots, Ansem supposed.
Ansem faded into view on his pillar, the emptiness of the Graveyard spilling endlessly before him. So many keyblades, lost and desolate without their masters. He glanced at the other pillars - they too were all empty, the other vessels scattered among the world's to gather information and strengthen themselves.
Except one, that was.
Midway down, back to the heartless, sat in place. Was he enjoying the view? Surely he had better things to be doing with his time, as all the others were out scattering seeds of distrust and chaos to the keybearer and his lackeys.
It must have been a man - Larxene was the only woman, if you discount the little face-changing puppet a handful of them called Xion. Plus the broad shoulders and thick build were a bit of a giveaway.
He didn't acknowledge Ansem in the slightest, the black back of the hood the only thing pointed his way, and the heartless frowned.
"You. Is there nothing else you could be doing right now?" he spoke loudly, his voice carrying over the expanse between them.
"My orders are clear. The Superior will return at any moment."
Ah, another one of Xemnas' ex-playthings. He had suspected as much. None of the others held even a lick of loyalty to the man though - some going as far to ignore his orders unless himself or one of the Xehanorts' command them to obey.
"And he told you to remain here? Or have you already completed the assignment given to you?"
"You know I'm not allowed to leave this place."
What? Ansem knew no such thing. But the nobodies voice rang true in the back of his mind - he had only ever seen the cloaked figure here, on the spires. He didn't have a face or a name to the deadpan voice, but he was positive he had seen the figure around.
The figure stood, pulling his long legs up from the edge of his tower. He turned and looked up at Ansem, the glint of telltale golden eyes the only visible thing with the setting sun behind him.
"I am bound to stay where Xemnas commands it. At the castle; that is, The World That Never Was, I was only allowed to visit other worlds with his express permission or his accompaniment. Such outings occurred only a handful of times in those eight or so years. I follow his orders, and as I remained at the castle, I am to remain here." In the same way his hands had been clasped on his knees they now folded behind his back. Strong posture. Submissive and open to commands. Square shoulders.
"Why would he not permit you to leave?" Ansem questioned, puzzled. Xemnas had told him extensively about the amount of rebuilding, recon missions and heartless corralling. He always had his lackeys out and away doing as many jobs as possible. Why would he refuse one work? And now of all times, too, when the keyblade wielders would be at their door sooner than they would like.
Something like amusement breezed through the vessels voice, but it was rapidly crushed down into the same one-tone voice.
"Runaways get punished, sir."
"Show me." His voice was rougher than intended. Not that it mattered - it's not like the nobody had any feelings to hurt.
Saïx pushed back his hood and locked eyes with the heartless. The X etched over the bridge of his nose was as prominent as ever, and he recognised the glimpse of understanding from the heartless.
"Oh, it's you. I remember you. When we tried to get Sora among our ranks you tried to fight off that red-haired little interruption."
"I thought you were Xemnas' right hand. I assumed he let you have run of the castle back then, let you do as you wish. Figured you would be doing the same now."
"I'm afraid not. I was to remain in the castle at all times to do remedial jobs. I was the one handing out work, organising reports, issuing commands to both the others and the dusks."
How long had it been since either of them had had a fairly regular conversation with another? One that didn't involve destiny or prophecy, fates design or keyblades and wars? There was something nice about this bizarre conversation, just speaking candidly about work and such. It was almost as if they were human once more, but such things were impossibilities.
"How did you make such a high ranking if you were punished in such a way?" Ansem made a vague gesture towards the blue-haired vessel, intending towards the scar. "I'm aware that that is my counterparts handiwork. His blades leave clean cuts, if not excruciatingly painful ones."
"I gained his trust back, I suppose. I worked hard and did everything he asked of me. Like a good nobody. What other choice was there to be had? " There it was, that hint of amusement again. Something in the same vein as sarcasm but not quite as biting.
"And he still forbade you from leaving?"
"I was useful. He needed me to run trivial things. I was always a vessel, whether I knew it or not. I doubt he wanted to face the potential risk of my - escape."
Escape. Ansem didn't like the word and liked the pause before it even less. The other vessels had come to their side willingly, besides the puppets, all charmed into their ranks with some promise or another. Perhaps he was reading into it too much.
" What did he promise you?" Ansem smiled down at Saïx, trying to keep his tone at least somewhat light and friendly. He wasn’t sure why. "In return for being a vessel, what did he promise you?"
There were murmurings between Xigbar and the Master over a keyblade, Larxene and Marluxia and Luxord all with their own agenda, supplemented by Xemnas’ false charm, and the puppets having the possibility of a true, normal life dangled before them. Surely Saïx had been bargained something or another.
"Surely there is something you wanted in return? Xemnas must have offered you some kind of pittance for all this."
"I'm afraid not." Saïx seemed to take in a breath. "I served him for a few months, in the beginning. I attempted to escape servitude to the Organization. He made a public example out of my punishment - the next thing I remember is waking up looking like this. Only younger, of course. It was several years ago, after all."
"How long? You said it was months after your initiation, and that was some time ago. You must have been, what, sixteen? Seventeen?"
No age at all, really. True, they had tried to lay claim to Sora as a vessel but his untapped potential, the hearts within him and his time as a keyblade wielder all added to this. And the puppets were only shadows of actual people, the mimicry of their ages were unimportant. Too many children corralled into this whole sordid affair, Ansem thought. Too many lives shattered for the sake of a new war.
"Young, to be wounded in such a way."
Saïx looked at him for a moment, sharp eyes scanning the heartless' tan face for a moment as if calculating a risk and its worth.
"You don't remember me, do you?"
Ansem crossed his arms, black leather creaking at the movement. He remembered Saïxs' attempted intervention in retrieving Sora, but that was all. They hadn't met before then, he was re-recruited after his completion by the younger Xehanort, taken while still asleep after reforming - so the boy was forced into their ranks not once but twice, becoming a vessel unwillingly while unconscious on both occasions, he realized. Cruel, Ansem thought, but a small act of atrocity under their collective mountain of monstrous acts. He had never met the nobody.
"I was an apprentice under your namesake. I worked in the labs, alongside some of the other apprentices."
"... No," Ansem lied. "I don't remember you."
He did, however, remember the somebody. There were few hazy patches in his time as Xehanort. The studies of the heartless and manufacturing of them were all he could recount on most days, that and the other apprentices. Their faces were crystal clear in his mind. Even, of course, and Ienzo both in the labs. The two strong ones, Aeleus and Dilan, and the redhead one that followed them around towards those end days as a new recruit. They never spoke, not once, but he had strangely clear memories of a boy with blue hair working around Ansem The Wise's castle. Fetching things mostly, or taking notes and aiding Even. Always unfaltering polite, eyes like a tropical ocean. Choked up blood and had a look of fury when he lost his heart as his chest hit the hilt of the keyblade.
"A pity." Saïx gave an imitation of a frown. "The Superior has no memory of those times either."
He was probably lying also. Xemnas had a much clearer memory of those days than he did. Perhaps his lack of a heart made memories much easier to cling to, as emotions didn’t get in the way. The vessel must be clutching at straws - sixteen when he lost his heart and became nothing, forced to harbour another inside of him, forced to work without thanks for all this time with barely his own identity. Trapped to one place. To be remembered must be a powerful thing for a faceless coat taken away from its life so young. If he had a heart, perhaps it would hurt, knowing that the ones who caused such a domino effect of bad life choices denied their involvement and pretended to forget its beginnings. Saïx must have been eager to get out. Perhaps he would do anything. Perhaps Even was not the only one whose goals were clouded with the need to be on the other side.
"You know... When the day comes that we have our final battle, the light versus our dark. Should you wish to slip away, I am sure the day before it all collides that your so-called Superior and the others would be too distracted to notice your absence."
Saïx knew exactly what he was implying, and kept solid eye contact. He said nothing, choosing to allow the heartless to explain himself.
"Xemnas needn't know if you left this place for a little while. Perhaps only to see another world or a familiar face before it all ends. Perhaps that redhead friend of yours."
Maybe he had it wrong. Maybe they were not friends at all. But he had not missed the way Lea had murmured Saïx 's old name the moment they clashed. Of course they knew each other - they joined as apprentices at the same time after all. They lost their hearts together in the castle. In the end, they were both swept up in the darkness. Surely if Saïx attempted to escape yet again, that would be the person he would seek out.
Saïx looked away, seeming to suck on his teeth for a moment in thought. It was a tough decision, figuring out whether the heartless of his Superior was even remotely trustworthy.
Perhaps betrayal ran deeper than Even, Ansem thought. Out of all of the vessels, the quiet one brought here against his will was the obvious choice for treachery. Nobody would have suspected loyal, wilful, obeying Saïx. He wouldn't blame the boy for running - fighting back obviously hadn't worked out so well either. Of all his hazy memories, Ansem could remember clearly how the boy had clawed and spat and yelled, screamed, howled as Xehanort struck him down and took his heart away. He had still ended up here, ten years later, for all the quiet fight he kept locked inside of him.
"Should I run, Xemnas would only find me and take control again. He likes to play with minds. It would not be so difficult for him to take complete control over me. I would have no sense of self until it was over with. To say it is unpleasant is quite the understatement. It always is. And I doubt it would make me of much use in the fight afterwards. "
"It will all come to an end either way." Ansem found himself saying sombrely, looking toward the sunset. It would be night soon, and Saïx would sit on his spire until the sun rose again. And again. And again. "I have a feeling about all this. Light has a habit of prevailing. And our numbers are weak."
"We have all thirteen. Plus spares." Saïx eyes narrowed, a long lost memory of confusion sneaking into his expression. "If anything we are over-prepared in numbers."
"I doubt it." Ansem let out the tiniest laugh, and oh how Saïx wished he had the heart to envy him. "There are traitors among us. You must be aware of that. Ears as sharp of yours hear everything, I'm sure."
Saïx said nothing for a long moment, before turning and following Ansems gaze into the horizon.
"It was almost nice while it lasted. The camaraderie. A group of us all together. But this wasn't meant to be. We all share a heart but I don't think any of us truly have our hearts set on this, hm?" Ansem tried to finish it as a question, in hopes that Saïx would respond in kind. Maybe agree and assure him of his traitor status. Ansem would not feel anger or hurt about it. Perhaps, if anything, there would be a sense of relief. Their collection of vessels were destined to fail, and Ansem knew this, and he had accepted this. Master Xehanort's master plan would not reach fruition, and Ansem was sure both his own and the rest of the vessels end was approaching all too fast. He would not blame the vessels for wanting to jump from a sinking ship. He did not even have the heart in him to fight to his full strength - Sora had defeated both he and Xemnas and all of the others alone before. It wouldn’t matter that their numbers have increased; the numbers against them would always be stacked in kind.
The silence stretched on for a moment, before Saïx spoke up, the thought of leaving playing on the breeze.
"Even if I was betraying the Superior, and Master Xehanort, and the plan, even if I was aiding the light or planning an escape, it would be for nought. Even if I could leave, Xemnas marked me like this for a reason." Saïxs’ eyes downcast for a moment. "This mark, not only a way to show my flaws but also a way to track my movements, as I'm sure you are aware. He knows my location at all times. Even if I did slip away in the final hours to -... to see Lea. Visit another world. Recollect myself. Anything. Xemnas would know. And I am positive I would be punished for it. I cannot control my whereabouts but currently, I still control my mind and my actions. I want to keep it that way. "
"A pity that he is so short-sighted. I'm sure having another pair of boots on the ground would be useful. Much more useful than having you drift around the Graveyard."
"I could be useful. Or I could betray you and your cause." Saïx tilted his head to the right ever so slightly. "Seems the others are doing just that, and they are coming and going as they do please."
Saïx knew what he was doing, and he was sure Ansem knew what he was saying underneath it all too. Of course Saïx was never loyal to their cause - even trapped in the Keyblade Graveyard he was able to pull strings, spark ideas and begin mutinies. Evens oncoming betrayal was all his idea after all, and Saïx had always had the ability to drop little seedlings of ideas into others heads. It's how he got Xemnas' favour back so quickly and how, even without the ability to leave the castle, he had so much control over who did what mission and the overall progress of their cause. Even choosing the ones to visit Oblivion and meet their demise. It was him all along, with Axel as his hands, and Xemnas was never any wiser.
Ansem already knew the outcome of all this, and while the sense of betrayal stung somewhat somewhere, he found himself numb to it all. Their plan was going to fail without their vessels loyalty, but they had been going about this whole thing all wrong.
He was much too old, and had seen far too much.
"So. What's your plan?" He murmured, and when Saïx didn't answer him for a moment he was unsure if his voice had carried down enough.
"There is no plan." Saïx lied and then proceeded to lie again. "I follow orders. It's what I do, and it is what I have always done."
"And if I ordered you to take care of the traitors among us?"
"You wouldn't ask that of me. You already said that our numbers are not enough. A weak and turbulent thirteen is far better than a stronger, lower number. We need them, traitors or not."
"Spoken like someone truly playing both sides." Ansem finalised, and Saïx cast a glance at him over his shoulder.
"... It would not be the first time." he admitted in response, and he could hear Ansems smirk from there, a bitter sense of triumph filling the heartless.
"As I suspected." Ansem could not bring himself to care. They were doomed to fail and wither away no matter what. Their numbers were destined to fail, and light would always bleed into the darkness. "I think you and I both know how this will all end. There is more out there than just the Organization. If I were you, I would take your chances."
Saïx turned to face Ansem again. Melancholy seemed to be in his expression. It had been so long since Saïx had seen a genuine emotion. He rather coveted the idea of being a heartless and filled with the corruption of his own heart than being a nobody and cursed to bear someone else's.
"Before the final fight. Go see your friend. I can find some way to distract Xemnas, I'm sure. Go see a different sunset before it all ends."
"It will all end the same way." Saïx parroted. "I might. And Xemnas will make use of me in the battle without my knowledge or control either way. I doubt he would trust me using my own body in a fight like this, knowing that there are traitors among us. I might just be the first one he looks at as the source of all this treachery. "
"And you aren't?" Ansem was smiling despite himself. None of them stood a chance against the light - Saïx might as well do what he must to survive afterwards as happily as he could manage.
"Well." Saïx tilted his head, the fixed expression of chill he always wore melting a little. His eyes softened a touch, and Ansem found the genuineness of it appealing. It was an admittance and there was almost warmth there, hidden deep away. "He didn't realize before."
Once a runaway traitor, always a runaway traitor, Saïx figured. He'd been undermining the Organization for years for it to work in his favour and he was doing it all over again now, only with higher stakes. Except they weren't - the light would yet again prevail and he would be recompleted, the True Organization scattered to dust and ash in the wind. The only thing he could do was help the light strengthen themselves as best he could. He was already doing all he could to aid in Roxas' return and helping Ienzo and Even with Ansem The Wise's research - a long-winded apology of sorts, to all of them. Whereas once he was shaping the Organization to benefit himself and Axel, now he was doing it all for the greater good.
Ansem let out a sigh he didn't realise that he had kept inside for so long. It would be dark soon, and the cold that swept over the open, dead plains of the graveyard was near unbearable.
There was a silence between them, and Ansem did not desire to break it. The wind was picking up, and the others would return soon and speak of their findings, of the keybearers locations, of their progress. And Ansem would stand and listen and regret returning, knowing he would only vanish back into the void yet again. At least some of the others had a chance of not only recompletion but redemption, a clear conscience, a second chance at a normal, decent, human life. Saïx had not been human in so long, and neither had many of the others. The darkness would be imbued in light once again, and even if the X-blade was forged and Kingdom Hearts opened, Sora would put a stop to all this, the way he did each and every other time.
Light and darkness would find their balance one way or another, and Ansem knew their time was running short. The True Organization was betrayed, and it would crumble, and life would go on.
"It's a shame."
No, it wasn't.
"Yes, I suppose it is." Saïx agreed, except he didn't.