Disclaimer: Seriously? I don't really need Square for the obvious benefits. If I owned that sucker, I'd be doing my damndest to see about getting these things published :(
A/N: Sooooo. Who's surprised? I know I was! It's Thursday, right? And I'm sitting here doing my thing, answering reviews and whatnot, and one comes through for TU from 'anonymouse' (whose email didn't work when I tried to send a foaming-at-mouth reply), who, along with asking about a sequel, utters the precious word, 'prequel'. And I stop. I freeze completely, and just stare at the screen for a moment. It never occurred to me, not once. And before I can fob it off as another 'maybe-but-no' like the sequel idea, it's taken root, and is burrowing little threads into my brain. Naturally, I go screaming for help to my dear and lovely friend decorinne, begging to be saved from myself. She tells me I've come to the wrong person, and promptly squees at how fucking cool it would be, while telling me I have, without a doubt, definitely lost my mind. (You can all thank her for the stove scene, too, btw – I swear to god, I was joking, and she encouraged me then, too).
So, as a result, HTPD's third is very, very late, in the not-begun-coz-I-was-writing-this sense, and we now have a third plot added to the mess. You should see the notes for this baby. I'm happy. Love you guys!
Note: Continuency cock-up numero uno - and I'm hoping to not make too many of these, but this one was sadly seeded in TU, silly girl that I am - Kairi is very firmly one year old in this chapter. Roxas is barely five - this makes him roughly three years older than her. In TU, she is now officially fifteen (thank Christ I never actually named her age). As for how she knows Sora well enough for him to take her out of the system along with Riku - you'll find out ;P So, uh, warning - underage drinking in future chapters, even by my Australian you-gotta-be-eighteen standards.
THE EPILOGUE OF ONE STORY
Ghosts were dancing, one with red hair, one with blond, in the blazing sunshine. Roxas stood on the sidelines and watched them, a woman in white beside him, hands folded neatly against her long skirt. The children laughed, floating in and out of existence, darting between the struts of the play equipment. Nothing was broken. No one was dead.
"My ghost is here, too," the woman said, eyes scanning the area slowly. She paused, inclined her head towards the bench in the corner of the playground, to where two women sat. They chatted animatedly, one eye fixed perpetually upon their little phantoms. Roxas studied them for a moment, turned to glance at the woman by his side.
"…You're the ghost." He flicked a look back at the women. "She's still alive."
Roxas frowned, eyes finding the small ones again, their squeals and cries filling the air. "And those two?"
The playground was bright, filled with light, the sun burning up above, warming the earth. The little blond boy swished his arms chaotically through the air, running in a wide circle, mouth open in an endless, "Aaaaaaaaaaah!" Every now and then, he'd pause to inhale, then continue the droning noise, made simply because he could. His eyes flicked around with disinterest at his surroundings, little beads of sweat rolling down his squat nose. Nearby, a skinny, taller red-haired boy, wild spikes caught back in a severe ponytail, several stabs of scarlet escaping at his neck and around his face, was hauling his way up the multi-coloured jungle-gym. His face was screwed in determination, green t-shirt sticking to his wiry body, slender muscles working as he traversed the most difficult part of the structure. His breaths came in sharp, short puffs, between mostly-adult teeth. He paused, swiped a forearm over his face in an exaggerated motion, turned and yelled, "Shut up!" to the blond, who buzzed dangerously close to his precarious position.
The boy screeched to a halt, clouds of sand erupting from his shoes, a dangerous glare falling over his features. He grabbed the hot bars of metal, started to pull himself up, demanding loudly, "What did you call me?"
The redhead rolled his eyes, hung off the jungle-gym, clinging with only one hand, one foot, replying, "I didn't call you anything, I told you to shut up. You're ruining my concentration!"
The shorter of the two pouted. "I was only singing."
"Yeah? Well, your singing stinks if that's what you sound like," the other retorted, grabbing the hem of his shirt and quickly scrubbing the perspiration from his eyes. He resumed his ascension, as the blond screeched, "It does not!"
"Yep," the redhead said matter-of-factly, sounding strained from the physical effort. "It does."
The blond scowled deeply, shifting around on the lower bars, to get closer to his aggravator. "My mom says I'm good."
"Then, you're mom stinks, too!" the boy replied cheerily. Roxas sucked in a gasp, let out a wounded bellow, and launched himself at the disappearing heels of the redhead. Axel laughed mockingly. "Can't catch me, little baby Roxas!"
Positively spitting with fury, the blond's voice reached the sky as he shrilly cried, "You butt!" He scuttled quickly along, snatched Axel's ever-dangling shoelaces before they, too, could be jerked out of reach, and started tugging.
"Whoa!" Axel glared down at him, clutching the jungle-gym tightly. "Stop that!"
"I'm not a baby," Roxas hissed angrily. "Kairi's a baby!"
Axel decided the shoe was slowing him down, wriggled his foot out of it, clambered the final couple of feet up to the top of the structure. Laughing, hanging upside-down by the uppermost bar, he taunted, "That's right, you're both babies, and when you grow up, you'll marry each other and make more babies – and you'll still be the biggest baby around!"
Snarling like a wildcat, Roxas thrust a stubby arm through the bars, caught a stray spike of red and yanked. Unprepared for the viciousness of the pull, Axel's loosely hooked legs slipped, and he banged his forehead against one of the bars. A stunned moment passed, in which they stared at each other, a welt already appearing on the redhead's face, before, simultaneously, tears welled in the green eyes, as the blue-eyed boy launched himself from the play-equipment. "You're the butt!" Axel roared, struggling to lower to the ground before Roxas, wailing as he sprinted helter-skelter across the sand, could reach the safe harbour of his mother's arms. He dropped to his feet, one white sock sinking, one rubber sole, and started after the blond.
It was like a predator after prey, the powerful versus the weak, as Axel covered ground at three times the pace Roxas was managing. Their mothers, accustomed to the bellows and shouts their sons gave during the average playtime, had yet to pay any serious attention to the boys, infant Kairi with her mop of auburn hair bouncing contentedly on a dress-covered knee. Roxas went down with a high-pitched scream, lashed out, grabbed a handful of ponytail and wrenched with all his young strength. Axel's response was shrill, a battle-cry, and finally the two women on the park bench looked over.
"Roxas, be careful of Axel's hair! Don't pull!"
They broke apart, breathing hard, Axel rubbing at his abused scalp unhappily, a hint of a glare leftover as he looked at his friend. Roxas staggered to his feet, chubby hands waving. "But mom, he – "
The woman's face turned stern, golden curls dropping around her eyes. "Enough! I said, don't!"
Axel smirked. "Ha-ha," he muttered, earning a poisonous look. "You got in trouble."
The women glanced at each other, eyes rolling. "All right, boys, time to go home," Axel's mother announced, still bopping the baby up and down. She frowned, pausing to inspect the soft, fair skin. "I think Kairi's starting to burn, anyway."
"But we just got here!"
"It's been two hours," Roxas' mother told him patiently. "If that's enough time for you two to get into a fight, then it's obviously enough time for us to be able to go home, Roxas." Faced with the suddenly rebellious faces of the pair, the mothers exchanged amused glances. "Tell you what," the blonde woman offered, "how about we get some popsicles to cool us down while we're walking?"
Instant brightening all round. Roxas leaped into the air, shouting gleefully, "Ice cream!"
"Popsicle," his mother corrected firmly, standing and taking hold of the pram, pushing it around for Kairi to be placed into.
"But I wanna ice cream," the blond complained, latching onto her hand, the playground already forgotten in the face of a promise of frozen treats. Axel bopped along to catch up, leaving his mother with Kairi, and grabbed Roxas' other hand.
"If it's too expensive," he offered brightly, "you can not buy me a popsicle and use the extra money for an ice cream for Roxas!"
"Oh, no, Axel honey, you need one, too," the blonde attempted to gently argue. The redhead shook his head violently, more spikes coming loose.
"I don't like popsicles anymore," he declared proudly. "I don't like anything cold – I want a fire-cle!"
The woman raised an eyebrow, glanced at her friend, who shrugged. "He's serious," she said, in a resigned sort of way, pushing the pram up alongside them, the small group setting off along the sidewalk. "I caught him with his dad's lighter the other day," she muttered to the blonde, whose eyes widened. "He singed the bottom of the curtains before I got there and realised… Could've burnt the whole house down…"
"That's… odd," Roxas' mother whispered back, not quite able to hold back the little smile tugging the corner of her mouth. "A pyromaniac eight-year-old? I thought you guys got him out of it after that incident with the stove."
The red-haired woman pursed her lips, nodded, the wheels of the perambulator rumbling along the rough pavement. "We thought so, too." She noticed her friend's amusement, protested, "It's not funny! Just you wait, he influences Roxas – soon it'll be you having to glue the hot-plate knobs in the off position!" The blonde snorted back her laughter, muffled with the free hand that wasn't being clutched by the jabbering five-year-old, the four of them crushed abreast as they travelled.
Soon, they reached the popsicle stand on the corner, and, under the force of both boys' begging, Roxas gained an ice cream. "Roxie! Ride on my back," Axel commanded excitedly. "Then you can see what it's like to be tall!"
"I am tall," the blond replied hotly, around slurps of the treat. "I'll be taller than you when I'm grown up!" Still, he clambered up onto the offered body, clutching an arm around the redhead's neck, not bothering to mention as he watched droplets of melted cream tap onto the spikes of hair. At one point, Axel suspiciously asked, "Are you dripping on me?"
"No," the younger of the two replied airily. By the time they reached Roxas' house, the boy was crunching the licked-clean stick noisily, small hands gathered in fistfuls of green material. He bellowed into Axel's ear, "We're home!" The redhead winced, nodded, set him down and made a show of cleaning out his deafened ear, sending the blond into gales of giggles at the silly expressions he made.
"Inside, boys, come on," they were urged. There was a pause, followed by, "Axel, where's your other shoe, young man?" Rolling his eyes at Roxas, still playing the fool, Axel wheeled around, staggered into the house and slammed into the wall. Roxas burst out laughing, a helpless, whinnying sound, clutching his stomach as the boy, muffled by the wall pressed to his lips, muttered, "I think I broke my nose."
The women retired to the sitting room with cups of tea, murmuring in low tones, Kairi feeding from her mother's breast as the boys settled down to play with Roxas' toys. "Look at the tug boat!" Axel exclaimed, yanking the wooden toy from the wicker hamper. "Look, it connects to the others!" Roxas was distracted for a moment by the serious voice coming from his mother, the one she used only when she was discussing the war. He hated the way it vibrated in her chest, whenever he sat in her lap and rested against her. Lately, too many of the adults had been adopting that particular way of speaking, Axel's mother looking grave as she listened to what her friend was relating, too low for the children to hear.
Axel nudged him, still focused on the boats, trying to show him the way to join the tug with the larger boat in Roxas' fingers. Frowning, the blond turned back, as Axel gently took the toy away. "See?" He was hooking them together, displaying it to show the way the bits fit. Kairi, having let go of her feeding nipple, started to cough out the first thin sound of a cry. With a sigh, the red-haired woman propped her against her shoulder, started patting her back. "We're starting to wonder if she has colic," she told the blonde. "It happens so fast each time. Poor baby Kai."
"When's your next appointment with the nurse?"
"Roxie? What's wrong?" Axel asked, quietly, lest the nosy mothers hear and demand the same thing. The blond shrugged.
"I don't like the war," he muttered. "I wish it was over already."
Clumsily, Axel wrapped an arm around his shoulders, giving him a hug. "It'll be over," he said confidently. "My mom said we're thinking of joining in, to keep them from bombing us. There's a meeting tonight, that's why you're sleeping over."
"But what if we get blown up?" Roxas asked, the question that was almost always on his mind since he'd grown sentient enough to know that things were amiss in the world. Axel's hug grew tighter, more comforting.
"You're my best friend," he said, with simple, childish certainty. "I won't let them blow you up."
Pouting, answer unacceptable, Roxas continued to half-heartedly play, Axel letting go a minute later and joining in, switching back to clown mode to raise a smile in the boy. It didn't take long before he was successful.
Roxas, damp from a bath, sat on the settee beside Axel, the pair of them dressed in pajamas. The blond's were powder-blue to match his eyes, with a bunny motif, while the redhead wore bright crimson flannel, his hair finally released from its bindings, spikes shooting every which way as he leaned forward, cross-legged, elbows on knees, face in hands, staring at the television screen. Roxas was curled into the corner of the sofa, sleepily chewing the ear of a teddy-bear, which he insisted on keeping despite Axel's occasional sneering claims that only babies kept stuffed toys.
The lights were on, warm yellow filling the room, their elderly babysitter busy putting Kairi to bed in Roxas' old crib upstairs. The movie on the TV screen was something to do with dinosaurs, less Roxas' interest than Axel's, who watched raptly, acid-green eyes fixed intently in place. He jumped every now and then, just slightly, fingers digging into the fabric of his pants, lips parted. Roxas rubbed his face into the wet fur of his teddy, cuddling further into the corner, feet stretching out to push against his older friend's hip. Axel scowled as he was shoved, turned to the smirking blond, who watched from under mostly lowered eyelids. When the redhead twisted back, returning his attention to the screen, Roxas poked him sharply with his toes. Pale hands wrapped around his ankles, Axel warning, "If you don't stop now, I'll make you regret it. Let me watch – go to sleep."
"Not tired," Roxas stated, still with that sly smile.
"You are too," Axel responded quickly. "You're falling asleep at the same time as Kairi – baby."
Growling, the blond struggled up to sitting, swiping the soft hair from his eyes, jamming his feet into the other boy's side. "I'm not a baby!" He whacked him with the broad-side of the bear. "Take it back, Axel!"
"I'll take it back if you stop shoving me," the boy replied, smugly.
"Fine!" Roxas sulked, bringing the teddy into his arms to crush, wriggling around to lie on his side, scowling at the TV, where, throughout it all, the reptiles had continued to battle. Sighing with relief, the eight-year-old tucked his hands behind his head, leaning back across Roxas' feet, ignoring the way the toes twitched against his back.
The power went off. Midway through his loud complaint, Axel was cut off by a sharp, rumbling vibration, lung-deep. It started almost gently, then grew, building in volume, intensity, the sound of cutlery clattering in the kitchen. The walls hummed, the windows shook, the boys' chests buzzed with the reverberation. Roxas scrambled into Axel's lap, wide-eyed, clinging tight. Without breathing, they clutched together, recognising the sensation that had been visiting Hollow Bastion with increasing frequency over the last year. The blond's whimpers were barely audible as the thrumming absorbed the house, thunder rolling through their young bodies. He dug his face into the redhead's chest, felt fingers wind through his hair.
It was a long burst this time, lasting almost an entire minute, growing more and more frightening, like a great beast howling for blood. Forgetting all the words their mothers had ever told them about situations like this, they remained locked together on the couch in the dark room. A peak was reached, fever-pitched surpassed, and like a jet fighter flying overhead, the noise, the danger, started to fade.
That's when the whistling started, high-pitched and thin, a bare second before the house exploded. The boys' screams were lost, the structure wrenching and shattering. Sections of ceiling disintegrated, plummeted, a groaning rip tearing the air to strips. Deafening crashes and booms could be heard, near and far, the entire universe being blown chunk from chunk.
Time passed. Darkness swallowed, and when Axel opened his eyes, all he could see was sticky red-blond hair, right up against his face. He smelled dust, and fire, and blood. The fire was further away, though – it was carried on drifting whispers of smoke, his nose finely attuned to the scent. Eyes moist, shock stripping him of direction or reaction, he whispered through bleeding lips, "Roxas?" The little body directly beneath his own shifted. He lifted a trembling hand, took one small shoulder and shook gently. "Roxas?"
Dazed blue eyes were slowly revealed, rolling without focus. "Askel… Where's mommy?"
Kairi screamed from over their heads, loud and piercing, snapping them both upright, gasping. Axel wrapped his arms around Roxas, head tilted back. "Kairi!"
"My head hurts," the blond said faintly. The older boy turned to him, mouth quivering at the line of red that quickly trickled downward with gravity's influence. He wiped it away gently. "We got – blown up," Roxas realised, voice shaking up and down with distress. Axel took his hands, wound them around his neck, took the boy into his arms, carrying him as he stood, staggering. Automatically, the blond hung tight, sore head flopping against the taller boy's shoulder.
The room was dusky, the night sky revealed where it hadn't been before, stars apparent when the shell-shocked boy looked up. The ground was no longer clean and free; littered across the pale carpet were hunks of white plaster, the bookshelf, bricks and blocks of stone, one window broken and scattered. His feet were bare. By the time he reached the staircase, Axel was crying quietly into Roxas' blood-scented hair. He lowered the boy down, sat on the second step, and gingerly lifted one foot onto his knee. As Roxas clutched his shoulder, shivering against him, the redhead painstakingly pulled out the cutting objects from each sole. When he stood again, taking the blond back readily into his arms, he left smeared prints on each wooden step.
They reached the top, found Kairi's room smashed by an enormous slab of grey cement, stinking of heat. The infant was still crying, a hysterical, wailing sound without control. The sitter that regularly cared for the trio was nowhere to be seen. The crib was blocked off by debris. Axel started hyperventilating. "Kairi!" His throat was raw, the word a bare whisper. He set Roxas onto his feet, went to the wreckage, started futilely scratching and scrabbling, trying to haul with weak, skinny arms what a grown man couldn't hope to lift. "My sister's in there!" he cried shrilly, yanking at the rubble, breaking nails, scraping the bones of his wrists. Kairi screamed endlessly.
A gap in the mess was spotted, Axel briefly staring at it before scrambling over, frantically trying to squeeze through, scraping his shoulders and neck, the curve of his back, before realising he didn't have a chance in hell of fitting. He sobbed, tried to force his way, felt little hands grab his pajama shirt and tug. Gasping, he backed out, looked up in confusion at Roxas. The golden-haired boy was white as a ghost, eyes large and dark, lips almost bloodless, a gory smear where the fluid continued to trail down his forehead. Wordlessly, Roxas replaced Axel, wormed through the hole, disappearing from sight. The redhead sat back on his heels, heaving for air.
"Let me the fuck out!"
"Say it, Roxas," Axel said, a slight grin in place. "Say, 'Axel wasn't throwing a fit'."
"I won't," the blond spat stubbornly. "Let me go, you asshole! I don't like being stuck in small spaces!"
There was scraping, the baby's breaths hitching, her screeches quietening. When her auburn head was presented to the narrow gap, Axel nearly cried out. "Careful," he whispered, reaching gently through, cupping the back of her head like his mother had taught him, pulling her with his other hand under her arm. She started crying again, her face scraping the rock hard enough to graze, as between them the boys clumsily worked her out of the tight space. As she came free, Axel inhaled sharply, scooped her up, cradling her, the only injury a small cut on her shoulder. Roxas followed a bare moment later, choking slightly, panic evident in his eyes. He dragged himself over to peer down at the infant, as she hiccuped and wept, calmer, though, in her brother's arms.
"We have to find mom and dad," Axel muttered, bouncing her carefully. "She needs feeding." Roxas didn't answer, huddled up against him as they waited for her to be quiet again. "We have to find them," the redhead repeated. He sighed, as Kairi opened her mouth, making needful noises. "She's hungry." He grabbed a handful of Roxas' sleeve, used the boy to push up to his feet while clutching the baby. Once upright, he hooked his arms around her more securely, felt Roxas pull himself up by his pants-leg. Together, they left the unstable house, in search of parents that were, of course, already long dead… Little better than bones.
Though Hollow Bastion's long days were hot under the sun, its nights, its dawn dews, were more than capable of freezing a small, overlooked child to death.
Many children were overlooked.
An emptiness had fallen over the city, a hollow feeling that seemed evident even to the young, who wandered with feet bare and expressions lost. Days passed, and, far too quickly, Hollow Bastion seemed to be dying. Those among the more highly-aged, that struggled and survived, were those that had been opposed to joining the war as a new participant, and so plans were made that the children were unaware of. Zanarkand was allowed entry into the broken city. There was no longer any resistance to speak of.
Just the wails of those that collected the dead.
The three were quiet, as they munched on the apples Axel had managed to scrounge from the remains of the grocery store that they'd decided to camp in. He had found a break in the rubble, a small cache of decomposing produce that wasn't yet crushed by the ruined walls and ceiling. There were places he knew to avoid, after nearly three days – puddles of water that smelled strange, knives of stone that littered the ground under a deceptive powder of dust, the hole where the larger rodents entered. It was a tight fit, Roxas would have been better suited size-wise, but Axel knew better the sorts of things that could be eaten, would be tougher against the perils, or so he thought.
Sometimes, though, when he was deep within the quietly crumbling, cold depths of the silent store's debris, he wished he wasn't the older one, the stronger one. He wished he hadn't spent so much time telling Roxas what a baby he was, because now he had to act on that, had to leave the babies together, the blond holding the infant and shushing her whimpers, while he played the part of the hunter. He felt brave, and strong, and weak, hungry, tired, cold, terrified… He was determined, but his face continued to sport tear-streaks through the filth and ash.
Eventually, someone would come for them. His parents, or Roxas' parents – if nothing else, Kairi needed milk, his mother never let her go without for very long. She would be frantic, would be searching for her baby, knowing that Axel didn't know how to burp her properly.
The apples were old, but they were edible, and the children were starving. Between them, the two boys bit pieces of Kairi's apple off the fruit, made them small enough for her developing teeth to gnash without choking. It was a miserable, emotionless existence, the stages of survival robotic. Most of the time, when they weren't eating, weren't trying to keep warm or searching for supplies, they slept. Roxas, who had become Kairi's adoptive mother after Axel's frequent missions away from their almost-sealed hidey-hole at the back of the destroyed shop, would hold the infant in his arms, making her seem larger, dwarfing himself, and the two of them would cuddle into the older redhead, who slumped against a slab of rock he called their bed.
They stayed within their shelter, because the outside world had become a hell they did not know how to traverse. Soldiers had arrived – both boys recognised the green of Zanarkand's uniform – and were regularly patrolling the streets in large, noisy vehicles. Whatever had happened to their town, both boys knew that Zanarkand was to blame – Zanarkand was always to blame. That they were now actually within Hollow Bastion was a terrifying notion. It bespoke the end of – of everything. Axel distinctly remembered his father saying, the day that Zanarkand took Hollow Bastion would mean the end of life as they knew it. And now, the hated nation had come. They had blown up parts of the city. Roxas' house had been crushed by flying pieces of buildings, just like he'd seen on the evening news, and their parents had yet to rescue them.
Ten minutes after finishing her apple, Kairi began to cry, right on schedule. Roxas picked her up from her dirty position on the floor between them, heaved her onto his knee and began trying to soothe the girl's pained howls. Axel, with his hair tied back like he knew his mother would want it, propped himself up on one elbow and watched with a critical eye. The baby's stomach was upset from all the solid food they were making her ingest, digestive gasses building in her stomach and intestine. Sometimes, she would end up throwing it all back up, which encouraged the rats to venture closer, frightening with their glinting eyes and scurrying motions.
Roxas' lethargic rocking wasn't helping on this particular occasion, the almost silent boy making low, ineffective shushing sounds. After several minutes, in which Kairi seemed only to get more hysterical, as her constant demands for, "Mammy," went unanswered, Axel pushed himself up with a deep sigh.
"Give her over," he commanded bluntly, hands outstretched. Roxas blinked, some of the dullness leaving his eyes, before scowling, pulling the baby girl against his chest wordlessly. He had uttered less and less since first crawling out of the cramped space he had rescued Kairi from. It hadn't been until late the next morning that he had related the position he'd found their former babysitter in, after which he ceased almost all speech. He had got to the point now of being as possessive of Kairi as he had been of his bear, once upon a time. Any time Axel touched her, he glared, this, in turn, angering the redhead.
"I said, give," Axel said, irritation plain, hands insistent. When Roxas made no move to comply, instead redoubling his efforts to comfort her, Axel argued loudly, "She's not yours, Roxas, she's mine. She's my sister!"
The blond's face remained down-turned, whole body swaying as he attempted to cradle her to sleep. The redhead's patience snapped sharply, he jumped forward and snatched a handful of Roxas' soft hair, yanking his head back, opening up a clear view of Kairi's screaming, scrunched-up face, and a set of solemn blue eyes. He glared down into them, upside-down, prepared to try and wrench the infant away if need be, when a suddenly deep voice entered the cacophony: "Who's in there?"
The boys froze, Kairi's coughing wails continuing, giving them away. Almost simultaneously, the two children tried to smother her mouth, making her choke and screech with even more distress than before, head whipping to the side. "Ssh," they desperately bid her. A bright light pierced the natural gloom of their hiding place, sweeping across Axel's jutting ponytail, Roxas' outstretched feet clad in one of the towels the redhead had discovered in his foraging expeditions. The voice came again, directed elsewhere: "There's a couple over here!" Into the hole, it called, "Hey, in there – don't worry, we're not gonna hurt you, kids. We're here to get you someplace warm, okay?"
Axel and Roxas froze, even Kairi quietening down at the sound of a nearby adult. Wide-eyed, the boys exchanged looks, more than a little fear in the blond's gaze as he hitched Kairi closer. Axel frowned, nodded slightly, turned to where the mysterious voice was coming from. The man was still talking, reassuring words, as the redhead crept along the wall of their little alcove, steps cautious. He must have crunched some rocks too loudly or something, because the voice stopped, the owner listening for a moment. Softly, he said, "You okay, kid?" Axel gasped a little. "We're not going to hurt you, I promise." The boy turned back to Roxas, who was clutching Kairi tightly, his face lowered to hers.
"Who are you?" Axel asked, shakily, echoing in the hollow space. "…Do you know our moms?"
"Sorry, kid, I don't think I do," came the regretful response. "But if they're out here, we can help you find them, okay? We're only going to help you."
The boy hesitated, hands slipping over the lip of the gap in the ruins, brought his dirty face around to peep at the intruder. He saw the green uniform, screeched, "Zanarkand!" and tried to scurry back. The soldier lunged forward, a thick arm shooting through and wrapping around the boy's bright red pajama top, yanking him to a halt. "Don't make this harder than it needs to be!" he yelled, as, across the abode, Kairi resumed her screaming, Roxas joining in this time. He staggered to his feet as Axel bit, fought and struggled, squeezed Kairi to his shoulder, half hanging over it, and grabbed his friend's head. He wrapped an arm around Axel's neck and started heaving the other way in a panic, trying to break him free, succeeding only in blocking off the boy's desperate flails. The three of them were pulled sharply sideways, towards the hole, and the arm snaked around to encompass Roxas' waist. The boys were slammed against the edges of the gap, both crying out in pain, Kairi slipping down Roxas' body, the blond grasping for her. Axel switched his focus, darted his arms around Roxas' waist and grabbed onto Kairi before she could hit the ground. The little girl dangled, with two sets of hands pressing her against the legs of blue, bunny-ridden pajama bottoms.
A second large arm came through, pressing down on Axel's head, forcing him backwards through the hole, the owner grunting, "We're really – just trying – to help."
"Zanarkand," the boy spat, a poisonous insult.
"You got that right, kid." Roxas was dragged after him. "If you want to help that baby," the man said firmly, "the two of you are gonna have to co-operate. She's not gonna survive in there." Kairi was screaming bloody murder. In an instant, she was snatched out of Roxas' hands by a woman who had been standing by, wearing the same green outfit.
"She's filthy!" came the shocked exclamation, before she promptly turned and left.
"No – Kairi!" Axel yelled, lunging, caught short by the man, who flung him over one shoulder, grabbing Roxas up by the back of his pants and shirt. Finally, the blond was making noise again, raging and kicking, demanding Kairi back, fury and command and venom vomiting forth from his mouth, mingling with Axel's. Together, the boys were dragged out to the road, where a waiting vehicle idled, the tray already packed with a collection of children in varying stages of hypothermia, starvation, and terror. Two more soldiers stood by, guns held obvious, keeping the youngsters from simply swarming back out, overwhelming them and scattering back out into the night.
Axel watched helplessly as Kairi was taken into the front of the truck, he and Roxas shoved into the tray with the others, struggling all the while. He was stopped by the butt of a rifle knocking his shoulder, not too hard, but hard enough to hurt, to serve as a warning, and was thrust into the crowd, Roxas jammed into his arms a moment later. Gasping, struggling to sit, they barely had time to catch their breath before the vehicle rumbled into motion, setting them off-balance all over again, sending them tumbling into their neighbours. The two soldiers with the guns quickly grabbed handholds on the side of the tray, leaping up easily onto the mudguards, crouching as the truck picked up speed.
In Axel's grasp, Roxas started to weep piteously, wrapping his arms around the older boy's chest and pressing close. The redhead was breathing quickly, mind fighting to catch up with the turn of events. He turned, found himself eye-to-eye with one of the soldiers, cried above the wind and engine, "Where's my mom?" When the man ignored him, his green eyes closed, squeezed, and he buried his face into Roxas' hair, fingers digging into the smaller boy's shirt.
The ride seemed to last an interminable amount of time, the truck quickly sweeping through the city, not making any further stops, exiting at the far gate and setting a fast pace up the mountain. The blond and redhead hugged tightly, panting the icy air, holding back frightened tears, whimpers at being separated from Kairi. Teeth gritting, Axel tucked his head down, pressing their ears together, feeling the wild thump of his heart echoed by the small chest pressed against his own. All around them, others were in similar situations, though many just sat huddled and quiet, waiting for whatever was to come. Some looked familiar, others were unknown, all of them destined to one fate.
By the time the castle came into view, they had turned numb, shivering. The hulking structure was one that they had all seen at one point or another in their young lives, but, as yet, few of them had ever entered its confines. The vehicle pulled to a halt, alongside another, identical, its back-end empty. The engine cut out, leaving them in silence broken by the footsteps of the soldiers as they hopped down from their positions, boots muffled by the earth. By this point in time, most of the weeping had petered out, short-lived and exhausted. Still wielding their guns, less intent now that they were in an isolated position, the two men worked the pins out of the short metal gate, lowered it down, looked up with flat expectance at the children's weary, drawn faces.
The man that had snatched Roxas, Axel and Kairi jumped out of the cabin, along with the woman, the infant sleeping in her arms. She set off for the castle without waiting, not bothering to let them see if Kairi was okay or not, not caring that she had people that cared about her. "All of you, out," the soldier ordered. "Line up in two straight lines, holding hands." There was a hesitation, then, slowly, the children started to obey, rising reluctantly from their cold positions. One by one, they dropped to the dirt, in ratty shoes and bare feet, varying states of undress. There was a brief confusion of questioning eyes, before they each found someone to pair up with, one oddly-numbered child left trailing behind. Axel and Roxas clung to each other hard, followed the human train into the depths of the castle.
Over the next three weeks, children from all over Hollow Bastion were brought in, hunted down in some cases, very few escaping the soldiers' determination. One by one, they were cleaned, checked for disease; some cases were sent back down to the one remaining, understaffed hospital that remained in the city, briefly patched up or operated on, then sent promptly back up. It didn't matter if their injuries were dire – once they were delivered into a state of virtual stasis, their wounds would cease to exist. Others were forcefully removed from the hospital's care, whether the caring physicians gave permission or not; it was out of their hands. Agreements had been made, plans set into motion, which very few had the power to control or influence.
Roxas and Kairi were only in the castle for two days. They suffered the same physical evaluations as all the others, had their details taken down, recorded. They were given one hot meal, and were scrubbed clean by soldiers standing on tiles with buckets of warm, soapy water and large sponges, mostly female. Axel and Roxas slept, for one night, in a shared single cot on the floor, alongside a veritable army of others in the same situation.
The next morning, Roxas was taken away, silent and wide-eyed. Axel assumed they would again be reunited, not realising that, as he tucked his knees up to his chin and watched the blond being led away with a crowd of other similarly-aged children, he wouldn't see him again for thirteen years to come. He had been evaluated, and found to be bright enough, independent enough, fierce enough to stay and fend for himself. The system was being overloaded as it was – any that could be spared, were.
And so, he was left alone, in cold Hollow Bastion.