Disclaimer: My and Decorinne's imaginary bishie harem kind of says it all. Yeah, we own those gorgeous boys, have them locked away in the sweetest of sweet yaoi care… but… 'imaginary'… That damn word just keeps tripping us up whenever we try using it for collateral.

A/N: Take the title of one story? Check.

Take the premise of another? Double check!

Dedicate it with all my love to my favourite Decorinne ever? Totally done!

HAPPY AKUROKU DAY, SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE! Northern Hemisphere, hurry and catch up already ;)

This was written for one the best friends I'll ever have, of whom I think the absolute world. Initially, I started it because the lack of AkuRoku in Sink It In is causing her much anguish and pouting on Roxas' behalf, and I wanted to make her happy again (because, let's face it, they're not getting much action in any of my other stories, excluding the brief face-suckage of MaH)(HTPD totally doesn't count, either), but when it was pointed out to me that AkuRoku day was coming up as well… I figured, what the hell XD For that, I wholeheartedly, as promised, completely and utterly blame Nijuuni, for the last nine hellish days of trying to get it done on time ;)

Anyway - hope you all enjoy my pitiful attempt to write anything vaguely short.

And Saaaraaaaaah – come back soon :( And have fun ;) SO MUCH LOVE FOR YOU! /hugs/

Warnings: Swearing peppered haphazardly and at times needlessly, because I can, and some obscure drug use. Lol, because everyone knows what Alice in Wonderland is metaphorical for. Oh, and I do apologise for how totally random it is :S Eheh, it seemed better when I was writing it. (OH, WELL, AT LEAST I HAD FUN :P).

--

Where the Wild Things Are

Part One

--

It was ten-thirty at night, and Axel was firmly creeped out. He was pretty sure this wasn't how circuses were meant to be; at least, it was nothing like he remembered from the ones his dad had taken him to as a kid.

Those ones, he could recall the hot popcorn smell on the air, the way the lights had pierced the darkness so completely, made it a safe, fun, happy place. He remembered the cheery music, the distant grumbles and hoots of the performing animals and the petting zoo, the actors dressed up in costumes of varying flamboyancy, the fresh hay littering the grass of the town's broad football field. He remembered noise, and laughter.

This place, though – it was just… weird. The clowns were one or the other of manic-depressive, their entire faces painted and arranged to echo that which they had chosen; the animals that Axel saw, as he wandered along with his brittle candy-floss, were sad, tired, empty-eyed and yowling. They shuffled lethargically in pens or cages, discoloured and thin. The term 'mercy killing' sprang to mind.

Strange, sourceless pools of shadow haunted corners, even when, feeling daring, Axel ducked down with his lighter and flicked a flame to life in their depths. That, more than anything else, gave him a jolt, made him shiver and draw back with a worried frown. The grass, mown almost to the dirt, crunched underfoot as he warily passed the cages of the performing beasts.

He'd heard about this circus, like most others that had turned up, from seeing the flyers around town. It had been a few years since anything like it had come their way, so the redhead had been eager. Now, however, being one of the last lingering visitors on the showgrounds despite the fact that the final performance had only ended twenty minutes earlier, he was more enthusiastic to just – get the hell out and go home. It was like someone had taken the 'scary clown' concept, beaten it bloody, and sent it on tour in search of souls. Creepy fuckin' stuff.

Just as the decision was made in his mind to split, go find a diner to have a hot meal in, in bright light and positive company, a cat emerged from under the lions' cage. It was a soft-looking, fluffy, cream-coloured thing, small. It had no collar that Axel could see, as he froze mid-step and watched it dart across his path. Noticing him at once, the little creature fixed him with a steady look, eyes unusually blue, Axel suddenly feeling as if something was trickling, cold, down the length of his spine.

Fighting off a shiver, the redhead glanced around, heard calliope music start up distantly, and turned his attention back to the feline, who maintained its gaze unbroken. Mouth twitching, Axel bent slowly, extending a cautious hand out towards the creature, still several feet out of reach. A great wariness fell across the cat, which drew its head back, ears flicking, one swivelling and flattening slightly, a paw lifting off the ground.

Making gentle kissing noises, Axel darted another quick look around the area, glad for the first time to be alone in the odd atmosphere. The cat glared suspiciously, the redhead softly saying, "Come on, kitten, come here. I won't hurt you." He stretched out a little further, and when the feline didn't flinch, he shuffled forward an awkward inch on his haunches. "Come here and let me pet you, okay, kitty? Here, kitty, kitty, kitty…"

Apparently at least partially convinced, the cat stretched its head forward, fur feathering as its neck extended, and rubbed its jaw against the redhead's outstretched fingers, a quick, affectionate move, a bump. A grin spreading across his features, Axel scratched at it a little before it pulled back. "Hey, cat, the name's Axel. You know a shortcut out of this weird-ass place, or what?"

Cold blue eyes regarded him for a moment, before the creamy creature twisted, placed a delicate paw down, and then, when Axel tried to pat it again, darted off several paces. Frowning, the redhead straightened a little, a hand in the dirt to steady himself as he called, "Hey, kitten – where you going?" He tried for a fruitless minute to coax it back, before sighing, pressing on his jeans-clad thighs and pushing up to his feet, dusting his hands off.

Surprised by a nudge at his shin, he looked down to see the cat had returned, was winding around his ankles. When green eyes met blue, it suddenly leapt away again, before pausing and looking back. Exasperated, Axel called, "Y'know, if you keep racing off, I can't take you home with me."

The cat meowed plaintively. Eyes rolling, Axel started towards it, hunched over and clicking his fingers to try and attract it. Instead, it did the opposite, and as soon as they were nearly level, it again ran away, a little further this time. When Axel hesitated, it gave another loud yowl, blue eyes piercing, and the redhead couldn't help but pursue. "Come here, you little furball," he muttered, frustrated as it once more darted out of reach.

They reached the edge of the circus grounds, situated in a disused farmer's field beside the forest that surrounded the town. The abruptly long grass rustled as the cat disappeared into its midst, a snaking trail of motion indicating its halting progress as Axel resignedly tried to keep up.

The artificial, glaring lights of the circus dwindled as he left it behind, the night sky blazing overhead, deep and broad. Green eyes rising automatically upward to view the heavens, Axel paused, a hand on one hip, drawing deep breaths and letting them out in faint puffs of steam. The stars winked back in a glittery spread, calming the agitation the circus had seeded within his chest.

From the edge of the woods, the white cat called to him in its high voice. Groaning lightly, the redhead located it by the shine of its eyes in the gloom. "Okay, I'm coming. You've gotta stop sometime, though, you know that, right?" A meow of answer, and Axel followed it into the forest. He picked through the knotted foliage, the cat leaping lightly from place to place, always just a little way ahead, its pale fur seeming ethereal in the darkness. Panting now, hands clawing at the rough bark of the trees for support as he struggled through the brush, Axel demanded, "Will you just stop, stupid cat? I wanna take you home, but I am not going to hunt you down all night!"

The field faded into the distance as, despite the statement, he continued, muttering and cursing, sleeves snagging on outward-jutting branches, eyes adjusted to the dark by now but still struggling to see anything beyond the cat. It persistently remained teasingly ahead, periodically checking on his progress before silently slipping onwards.

Eventually, Axel reached his limit. Losing his temper sharply as a twig sliced the skin at the outer corner of one eye, he shouted, "Okay, look! I'm giving up, okay, cat?" He pulled himself over a log, shoes scrunching the dead forest floor on the other side. "I've had enough! I just came from the creepiest goddamn circus on the planet, and I'd like to go see a movie or something." He ducked under a heavy, low bough, palms gaining a layer of filth as he hung onto it to keep his balance. "I was going to take you home, maybe feed you a little milk and tuna, but hey, if you're gonna reject me, then the only one really missing out here is – " Axel stopped, the cat just inches away. "Oh! Hi." He bent slowly, tried to pet it, succeeded for once, its warm softness a pleasure against his fingertips. It nuzzled him with a wet nose, purring briefly, before slithering away, vanishing into nothing.

With a startled noise, Axel dropped to his knees, peered to where it had gone, and noticed the large, camouflaged rabbit burrow. "No!" he hissed, dismayed. "Damn it, kitty, come out of there! I can't – I can't – " He started trying to crawl after it, hands and knees shifting noisily through the leaves and dirt, squeezing first his head and then shoulders through the gap. "Holy shit, I can fit?" His voice took on a muffled quality, trapped by walls of earth. "Hell, I was just gonna try and yank you out by your tail… still – gonna…" He grunted, yanked his hips through and wormed blindly forward, breaths loud in the tightness. "Okay, cat! Getting kinda claustrophobic here… just a little… but, you know…" A stillness enveloped him the further in he went, total blackness. "And – a little more," he muttered, the exit falling further and further behind as he, with less and less determination dragged his body through the close dirt passage, nails digging deep as the ceiling grew progressively lower.

A flash of cream tail ahead made him choke, yell, "Kitty!" and lunge forward with new zest, heart pounding, ready to snatch the creature and drag it howling out into the air.

Then, with a gasp, a frightened shout, the ground where Axel next placed his hand crumbled away. He dropped sharply, flailed, and slammed his back into the low roof. Struggling, scrabbling, more and more of the invisible edge broke away, leading him into a fast, hopeless slide.

At the last moment, feeling the earth vanish completely from under his knees, he tumbled, sank all the fingers of his right hand into the soil brink, clung for dear life.

His hold lasted all of two seconds, before becoming a handful of dirt to clutch as he plummeted hard and fast into some unknown abyss, the only noise he made a brief, strangled cry.

Then, for a while, there was nothing.

--

Green eyes opened slowly. The first thing that registered within Axel's mind was that there should have been a hell of a lot of pain; he wasn't entirely sure why, just yet.

The second thing that registered was the fact that there was none.

He moved each limb in cautious experimentation, before lifting his head carefully, spitting a couple of flecks of dirt from the corner of his mouth. Frowning, dazed, he pushed up onto his knees and found himself sitting back in the forest. He remembered, now – the circus, the cat, the hunt and then the burrow – but the fall?

He glanced upward, saw leafy green foliage, the deep, cool shade of emerald that comes from the sun fighting to pierce a thick blanket of leaves. Here and there, small holes allowed concentrated beams to flood through and stab the green grass, lending the knolled area a peaceful ambience. But the last thing Axel had known, he was falling from underground – and last time he'd checked, rabbit warrens didn't contain leafy glades.

Unless – he'd tripped and hit his head last night, looking for the cat? Or simply exhausted himself enough to lie down and sleep, and have such vivid nightmares? Either way, it ended up coming back to the cat.

"Stupid cat," the redhead sighed, knowing that, by now, it would be long gone. He was stuck in the middle of the woods, with no clue which way to head towards civilisation, and not even a new pet for his troubles.

"Stupid?" a cool voice echoed. Head jumping up, Axel twisted, clambered to his feet quickly and looked around. There was – no one there?

Scowling, he spun in a tight circle, scanning the trees, searching. "Who said that? Hello?"

"Up here," the same voice advised mildly, Axel's neck just about cracking as his skull jerked back, wide eyes staring up into the boughs to find a boy perched high among them, dressed in black and white, watching him intently. "You thought the cat was stupid?"

Axel gaped, stuttered, wondered, "W-what are you doing up there? Who're you?"

Blue eyes narrowed, lips thinning out, and a moment later, the boy simply dropped out of the tree. Axel yelped as the spike-haired blond fell head-first to the ground. At the last moment, however, with the slightest twitch, the boy righted himself and landed silently on his feet, bending into the landing. Axel blinked at him, as he stayed crouched down on the ground, and suddenly noticed that he sported a pair of pointed, furry blond ears, and a long creamy tail.

"My name," the boy said coldly, "is Roxas."

"Roxas," Axel repeated uncertainly, trying not to draw away from the intensity in his gaze. "Hi. I'm… Axel."

"So you said," the blond agreed. He straightened slowly, Axel's eyes following him, before looking the redhead up and down in an unimpressed manner. "Are you telling me you didn't like the cat from the circus?"

Axel blinked. "No, I – I liked it. I wanted to take him home with me."

An eyebrow arching, expression smoothing out from its hardened state, Roxas seemed content with this answer. "I think, given the choice… that the cat would have happily accompanied you." He stepped close to Axel, right inside his personal bubble, and brought his face close. "Now that that's out of the way, let me explain to you the rules."

"R-rules?" Axel choked, the heat rising in his neck, creeping up his jaw. Somehow, he couldn't find the strength to pull away from the invasion, oddly ensnared by those large, piercing eyes.

"I will be your guide here, when I think you need it," the boy explained, breath fanning the redhead's mouth, a bare inch away. "And I will give you three chances, only three, to call on me to help you out of a difficult situation. It is up to you how you use them, but whenever you need saving, call to me and I will come – in exchange for one kiss."

Axel's eyes just about fell out of his head. "Kiss? Wh-at? I don't –"

Roxas' gaze sharpened. "You don't know what a kiss is?" His tail flicked – it flicked, it was real, just like the soft look of his ears – and a moment later, the blond's hands placed themselves firmly on Axel's upper arms.

"W-wait, I –"

Axel was silenced, the cat-boy pressing his mouth firmly to his, soft but insistent. Eyebrows shooting high, he fought the urge to stagger back, different parts of his brain and anatomy screaming at him as the blond pressed his tongue into his mouth and kissed him.

The heat in his neck and jaw exploded, absorbing his chest, his face, making the tips of his fingers tingle. Roxas opened his mouth wider, gasping in a little breath, giving Axel's mouth one last brush before pulling back, eyes darker than before, leaving the redhead absolutely dazzled.

"That was a kiss," the blond told him. "I will require three of those," he held up the same amount of fingers in demonstration, "in return for three saves. Do you understand this rule?"

Axel stared, debated replying negatively to see if he got another demonstration, but ended up hesitantly nodding.

"Good," said Roxas softly. His hands fell from the redhead's shoulders. "Another rule is that you must speak to everyone you come across along the way. If you fail to obey this, you will incur a penalty." His expression briefly darkened. "Punishments from the King are nothing to dismiss, so tread carefully. Too many have gone before you and failed."

"…Right," Axel said. Then, "King?"

"A third rule," the boy continued, "is that you must consume nothing in this realm, or you will be trapped. Eat nothing, drink nothing, and at the end of the day, perhaps you… unlike I… will leave."

Axel grappled, tried to understand, failed, and demanded, "What exactly the hell is going on?"

Roxas regarded him dully. "You have been chosen by the King of Hearts. He wishes for an audience with you, to discuss the outside world. However, the way will not be entirely safe. There will be times where you need assistance."

Axel ran this through his mind, tried to find places to file the information that was being so sombrely related. "…Can I ask you something – Roxas?"

"…Yes," the blond allowed, his weary expression seeming to tell the redhead that he knew precisely what the question would be.

"Why do you have ears and a tail?"

Roxas stared for a moment, blankly. Then, just ever so faintly, the slightest flicker of a smile darted over his features. He stretched up and placed a quick kiss just beside Axel's mouth. "Perhaps I should want you to fail – maybe you would grow ears and a tail, too."

Axel's expression slackened. "Seriously?" He reached up to touch his head, as if expecting to spontaneously find extra appendages there.

Shaking his head with faint affection, Roxas said, "I'm here to aid you. If you require me, call my name… Otherwise, I suppose I will have to look forward to the pleasure of your company some other time, Axel…"

Frowning, the redhead opened his mouth to continue speaking – then choked as, right in front of his eyes, an enigmatic smile in place, Roxas vanished into thin air. The last remaining part of him was that upward curve of his lips, a final flash of blue irises, and then – nothing.

Axel was alone.

Lips parting, taking a step forward to where the blond should still have been standing, his hands cautiously grasped at the air. Nothing was there – Roxas was just gone. "Whoa," the redhead whispered, green eyes wide, darting around. "What the hell did those crazy clowns slip into my candy floss, anyway?"

A cloud passed over the sun, the clearing growing cold, dim. A chill wind blew, making the redhead shiver and frown, arms folding over his chest.

"Hello, stranger," a low voice greeted from behind. With an exclamation, Axel whipped around, saw a silver-haired teen sitting on a log at the edge of the small glade, moss under his fingers, darkness pooling around him. "What - ?" He gave a yelp as, a second later, cool hands slid up the back of his neck, down his chest, rubbing against him.

"Hello, stranger," came the murmur into his ear, thick with smile. Wrenching away, Axel spun, blinked hard.

"Holy crap, there's two of you!" Head whipping back and forth, he ascertained the fact that, yes, there were two silver-haired boys in the clearing, both wearing identical smirks. They must have been twins; their looks were indistinguishable, except for the fact that the one on the log wore his hair slightly longer than the other.

The long-haired one over on the log stood, hopped up onto the wood, a burst of sunshine piercing through the clouds to illuminate him. "Indeed there are," he cried, arms throwing wide. He folded his hands behind his head as the other one sidled close again, circling the redhead tightly.

"We come as a set," the shorter-haired one said silkily, a hand trailing Axel's waist. The man uneasily knocked him away, stepping back. Glancing around quickly, he wondered again with fresh anxiety where the hell cat-boy Roxas had got to.

"Uh, that's great," he said, with a tight smile. "Real – uh, great, but you know, I actually have to get going. There was this guy here a second ago, and I'm not totally sure where he went, but I'd kinda like to find him, you know? So…"

"Don't go yet!" the one on the log exclaimed, sounding shocked. "You can't, you only just got here!"

"You have to stay," the other agreed stridently. "You can't just disappear!"

Holding his hands up, Axel laughed uncertainly, backing off towards the other side of the dell. "Yeah, right, sorry, but I've really gotta get going…"

"But you can't just leave," the short-haired one snarled, stepping quickly into his path as he turned to go. "That's not how you do things! When you meet someone, you have to first introduce yourself! You've got it backwards!"

"He's got a point, you know," called the other from behind him.

Axel closed his eyes for a moment. Roxas' voice whispered unbidden in his mind, You must speak to everyone you come across along the way. What kind of rule was that? Was that what these guys were talking about? He glanced around at the trees, smothering frustration. Where had the blond got to, damn it?

With a sigh, eyes settling resignedly on the short-haired one, Axel plastered on a thin smile. "Right. Of course – how rude of me. So, uh, how do we do this? You want me to introduce myself?"

"Yes!" bellowed the silver-haired male over on the log.

Lifting his shoulders in surrender, he said, "Okay, fine… My name is Axel. Aaaand – I'm a pyromaniac."

As he smiled at his joke, the two boys tilted their heads identically to the side, exchanged looks, and told him in unison, "Our name is Riku. And we're narcissistic."

Smile freezing, an eyebrow quirking, the man nodded slowly. "Ah. I see. Right. I can see a whole heap of imagination went into your guys' birth… Okay then, now that that's out of the way – goodbye?"

"No, no, no!" the shorter-haired Riku argued, stomping a foot. "No! You can't end it like that!"

"Hey, look, I really need to get going," the redhead replied sternly. "What the hell else do you want from me?"

Riku frowned, then brightened with an idea. "Will you play a game with us?"

"Oh, a game, yes," enthused the long-haired one, leaping down from his perch, hands falling to his sides and swinging exaggeratedly as he stalked near. Axel twisted, grimaced, reversed several steps. Reaching out their hands, the twins entwined fingers as they met, turned as one towards him and advanced with grins. "Play a game with us," the long-haired Riku insisted. "We have all sorts of things to play – we just know you'll enjoy them."

"Definitely," the other agreed, aqua eyes flashing.

"No, I really don't think so," the redhead answered nervously, not quite wanting to turn his back on them. "I'd really rather just go look for Roxas."

"Roxas!" the long-haired Riku echoed, brightening up. "We know him!"

Axel stopped, mid-step. "…You do?"

He couldn't explain what the pull was towards the blond, couldn't figure out why it was he wasn't just asking for the directions to town and hightailing it out of there… except that maybe logic just – dictated that cat-boys that vanished before your eyes had to be found again, to set things right. Remind them firmly of the laws of the universe, things like that.

Smirks broke out on the twins' faces. "We do." The long-haired one then affected disinterest, eyebrows rising as he said, "But you're in such a hurry, I'm sure you don't want to hear what we have to say about him…"

The teens released each other and turned their backs on Axel, as the redhead quickly panicked, argued, "No, if you know where I can find him, tell me! It'll be a lot quicker than me just poking around the place!"

"We never said we knew where to find him," the long-haired Riku sniffed over his shoulder.

Axel groaned.

"Although, we have a good idea," the other one mused.

The redhead sucked a breath through his nose, expression turning grim. "Okay, either you guys are going to tell me, or you're gonna keep jerking me around. So which is it?"

Glancing at one another for a brief moment, the pair nodded in unison, whirled around and swooped to each of Axel's arms. They wrapped themselves around the redhead, clutching him close. "Okay, then," the long-haired one breathed into his left ear, "we'll tell you what we can."

"Consider it a story," the short-haired one suggested, blowing teasingly into his right, eliciting a sharp shiver from the man. "A bedtime tale."

"Though perhaps," the Riku on the left grinned with a hard edge, teeth snapping at the redhead's earlobe, "not exactly suitable for pleasant dreams…"

Axel was frozen awkwardly in place, heart thumping, unsure of how to continue. The twins took the decision away from him, their voices turning mellifluous, hands beginning a slow, teasing journey over his chest.

"Once upon a time, there was a boy and his brother," long-haired Riku began, tickling the knuckles of his twin's hand, their fingers briefly snagging and pressing against his heart. Axel squirmed, sharp shoulders ignored by the tactile pair, who, undeterred, balanced themselves on the edge of molestation and kept it all above the belt. As long as their words continued, however, he somehow felt incapable of throwing them off; he had to hear about the blond.

"Was the boy Roxas?" he hedged. Short-haired Riku pouted, cut a fingernail into the redhead's collarbone, making him wince.

"Hush now," he reprimanded.

"The boy's name doesn't matter," left-hand Riku decreed with a toss of his shining mane. "In fact, the boy doesn't matter at all!"

"It's his brother," the one on his right agreed.

"Yes," replied the other, solemn for a moment. "It's Sora that matters."

Both were silent for a moment, their roaming touches hesitating briefly. Then, with a frown, the short-haired Riku leaned in and bit Axel's ear sharply. "Now look what you've done, you've upset us with memories."

"B-but! You were supposed to be telling me about Roxas," the redhead reminded him incredulously.

"Oh, him," the long-haired one snorted, unimpressed. "Fine. On with the story." He quickly lapped his tongue up Axel's face, then continued, "There were two boys, one like the moon, one like the sun."

"I thought we were the moon?" short-haired Riku wondered.

"We're the shore," came the impatient answer. "Sora is the sky, and the sky is shared into two, between the sun and the moon."

"And Sora is the sun."

"Sora is the sun," Riku confirmed, back to massaging Axel's chest, the redhead twitching unhappily.

"And Roxas is the – moon?" Axel guessed.

"Quiet!" Together, the twins left tongue-lashed teeth imprints on either side of his throat, making him cough, legs weakening. "The sun and moon are not important!"

"What's important is what they witnessed," short-haired Riku informed him sombrely.

"What they saw," the Riku on his left confirmed softly. "That's what matters. What they saw was what doomed their souls."

"Souls which can't be freed," the short-haired one murmured.

"Though we tried," Riku sighed. "We did, we tried."

They were quiet again, before, fingers tightening on Axel, they leaned across his chest and shared a chaste kiss. "Don't be sad," the short-haired one whispered.

"Don't be," the long-haired one mournfully returned. There was a beat of silence, before he added, "I'm feeling sad now."

The Riku on Axel's right straightened, rested his cheek on the tall redhead's shoulder, fingers brushing the base of his throat, making him swallow. "What matters is what the boy and his brother saw. They witnessed murder most foul, a school of oysters consumed right under their twin faces."

"The sun and moon could only watch," long-haired Riku grieved.

Struggling to understand, bewildered by their suddenly funereal attitudes, Axel surmised, "And this – doomed their souls?"

"Forever to the darkness," short-haired Riku nodded. "One remains up high, guarding the entrance to this bitter place…"

"Sora," long-haired Riku wailed.

"…while the other remains down here, deep, deep down, within the King's reach."

"…Roxas?" Axel uttered, flinching in anticipation of more teeth. But the boys just wearily nodded.

"Roxas stays here. But Roxas isn't what matters. Sora matters."

Shaking his head slowly, Axel asked, "Why does Sora matter more than Roxas?"

Hugging him now, resting his face more securely into the hollow of his neck, short-haired Riku said quietly, "Because we loved him. Riku loves Sora."

Brows drawing together, he glanced between them. "What – both of you?"

"There is only one Riku," the long-haired one growled. He reached out, took hold of the other Riku's chin and tugged him roughly forward, kissing him again, each of them letting out a small, soft moan that vibrated into Axel's flesh.

"Narcissism, huh?" he muttered. He let out an unsteady breath, eyes rising skyward. "…Look, uh, as hot as it might be to watch you two makin' out, I think I'd like to find Roxas now. Is story-time over, or what?"

They paused, eyes swivelling sideways to stare, mid-lip-lock. Mouths separating with a soft pop, long-haired Riku straightened, releasing Axel. Wiping his lips slowly with one wrist, he inspected the redhead closely, while his twin continued to hang off him. "You really want to find him that bad?"

A brow arching, green eyes rolled. "I thought that was why I agreed to stay at all?" he responded, elbowing the other Riku impatiently. Frowning for a long moment, the long-haired one seemed to consider.

"…I think Sora would be happy to know that an outsider was interested in finding Roxas…"

"But don't make things difficult for him, see?" the short-haired one murmured into his ear, a hint of threat lacing his words.

"We'll come after you if you do," the other one agreed darkly.

Axel shook the second Riku off, scowling and snapping his hands down his shirt to straighten it as he stepped out of reach. "I'm not intending to make things difficult. I just want to find him."

"Why?" long-haired Riku asked, one eye squinting.

"What's your interest in him?" the short-haired one demanded, arms folding, chin lifting.

For once, Axel was stuck for an answer. He opened his mouth, a slight croak coming out, before clearing his throat. Confusion strong, he said, "I – don't know. I just really want to find him again. I was talking to him just before…"

"Oh?"

"Oh?"

"Interesting…"

"Then he's revealed himself to you…"

They looked at each other, then turned their teal-coloured eyes back to him and simultaneously jerked their thumbs over to the right. "Go that way. You'll find him."

"But if you come across anyone else, don't ask for him directly," the long-haired Riku warned. "You'll get him in trouble."

"Ask instead for the White Rabbit," short-haired Riku commanded.

"They'll direct you to where Roxas is if you do."

"The – White Rabbit?" Axel echoed, fighting to keep up. Together, the twins nodded.

"Don't dawdle," the short-haired one added, wagging a finger at him.

"And always ask for the 'White Rabbit'," the long-haired one reminded him strictly.

"…Right," the redhead said faintly, turning to peer in the direction they were pointing. "Right, okay…" He trotted off, giving them a last, hurried wave. "Thanks…?"

"You're welcome!" they chimed cheerily. As he disappeared through the trees, their smiles became smirks, eyes quickly meeting, hands joining, and, a heartbeat later, they melted back into the darkness from whence they'd come.

Breaths panting, Axel jogged, gaze darting about the forest, trying to keep some idea of direction in mind as he passed through the many trees. Come to think of it, the Riku twins hadn't told him how far this way he had to go… and exactly how trustworthy were they to begin with?

Either way, he resignedly realised, it was the best kind of info that he had right now.

So he continued onward. For an hour, he kept going, struggling to stick to some kind of straight path and not go veering off to the side. As lost as he already was, he didn't relish the thought of being even more lost. Lost while lost – kind of a bitchy irony.

Shoes crunching over leaves, twigs, and other woody detritus, the redhead followed helplessly the direction the twins had advised, and just hoped that something vaguely cat-boyish would turn up soon.

Gradually, he noticed the trees starting to thin. An eyebrow quirking, relief ready to start flowing through, he put on some speed. The sunlight grew stronger, more frequent, the grass becoming thicker, and he saw the forest ending just up ahead – civilisation? Had the freaky duo actually done him some good?

He broke free of the tree-line, and slowed to a halt, breathing hard. Forehead creasing, he pushed his hands through his hair. Well – it was sort of civilisation.

It was a house. A cottage, more like. It was sitting in the middle of a clear corner of the woods, looking like something out of a fairytale, with a thatched roof and whitewashed walls. As he cautiously approached, Axel could see a vegetable garden fenced off around to one side. Stopping as he felt something hard under one foot, he glanced down, saw that he was now officially walking on the remains of a little cobbled footpath.

Smirking a little at the white-picket-fence quality of it all, with a small shake of his head, he trotted up to the front door, raised a hand to knock – and just about smacked his knuckles into some guy's face as it swung open without warning.

"Whoa!" he exclaimed, stopping sharply mid-rap. "Hi! Sorry, I didn't – "

The guy, thin-faced, with an eye-patch and silver-streaked black hair drawn back into a ponytail, demanded, "Dude, you the maid? We can't find our gloves. Get in here!" Snatching Axel's sleeve, he jerked him inside before the redhead could form any protest, throwing him staggering down the short entrance hallway. Tilting his head back, the guy bellowed, "Lexaeus! Maid's here! Come tell her where you last saw your fuckin' gloves!"

"Dude!" Axel cried, bewildered, pressing a hand to the wall to keep his balance. "Check me out, I'm a guy, not a freaking girl! And I am not your maid, okay?"

"Shut the fuck up, Marianne." The guy brushed past him, pushing a finger under his eye-patch and scratching ferociously for a moment, before yelling again, "Lexaeus!"

"I'm here," came a soft, deep voice, from right beside him, an enormous man standing there that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

Both Axel and the eye-patch guy jumped a little, before the guy turned and ordered, "Tell Marianne to find our gloves, we're gonna be late if we don't get our asses into gear."

The large man sent Axel a steady, appraising look, the redhead returning his gaze warily. "Hey, uh, can you tell this guy – "

Smoothly, he was cut off with, "Come right this way, please, Marianne."

Blinking, Axel helplessly demanded, "Did I spontaneously grow pigtails and a pretty pink bow, or what?" His shoulder was encased in a heavy, thick-knuckled hand, his steps steered forcefully over towards a petit set of stairs that looked like they'd splinter under the giant's weight.

"Up there," the man quietly informed him, "was the last place I saw our gloves. Would you please retrieve them for us?"

Axel stared at him for a long moment, features caught in consternation. "Uh… look, my name's not – Marianne, okay? I'm a guy. And I'm actually looking for someone, this guy I met earlier…"

"Our gloves are upstairs."

"Yeah, that's great, but I'm actually looking for – "

The enormous Lexaeus was shoved aside, replaced with the eye-patch guy screaming, "Get the fuck upstairs, bitch! I can't leave without my gloves!"

He grabbed fistfuls of Axel's shirt and half-ran, half-dragged him up there, throwing him into the small loft with a resounding thump. The door was slammed abruptly after him, the stomp of boots returning down the stairs mingling with the guy's insane muttering.

For a long minute, Axel lay where he was, staring wildly at the ceiling.

What – the fuck – had just happened?

He pushed slowly up onto his hands, looking around dazedly. Below, he could still hear the ponytailed guy raving, punctuated by the faint murmurs of the giant. There was a crash of what sounded like crockery hitting the floor, and then more rumbling from Lexaeus.

Panting a little, shoulder throbbing from where he'd hit the ground, Axel glanced around the loft room, taking note of the bed, the cold fireplace, the wooden chest at the foot of the mattress and the small window that led nowhere but down. Climbing achingly to his feet, the redhead shuffled over to it, unlatching the small hook and swinging it carefully open, turning his gaze towards the ground.

"Hmm." Too far to jump, and a distinct lack of latticing and/or creeping plant to clamber down like the hero in a kid's mystery novel. With a sigh, he drew back in, pulled the window shut.

"Marianne!"

Cursing under his breath, Axel glared at the door, muffling the crazy-man's voice from downstairs. He was regretting ever approaching the damn house, and wondered if those bastard-creepy twins had known this was going to happen. On top of everything – no sign of Roxas.

So, he had two options – first: bolt down there and try and muscle his way past the crazy dude and his soft-spoken WWF accomplice, or, second: locate the goddamn gloves, throw them at them, and get the hell away as fast as possible.

He supposed the second choice was his best shot – he had all sorts of pretty visions of him trying to take on the giant with the same sort of success rate as a cheap car slamming at a hundred miles an hour into a brick wall. And the scrawny one was unpredictable as all hell – Axel didn't feel like trying his luck against him. God only knew what kind of weapon he was packing under that long black coat he'd been wearing.

Muttering under his breath, Axel began a quick search of the loft, pulling open the drawers beside the bed, checking underneath the mattress, before settling on the chest. Dropping to his knees in front of it, he struggled for a moment with the latch, hefted the lid with a rusty creak, and looked in curiously at the contents.

A collection of odds and ends met green eyes, his complexion paling a little at the sight of several guns placed carefully and lovingly along the bottom.

Good thing he ditched option one, then.

"Holy…" Axel took great care to not touch them. In fact, he'd have retreated completely from the chest at that point, snatched his hands to himself as if they were hovering in the jaws of a trap, if he hadn't seen the two pairs of black leather gloves tucked into the corner.

Hesitating, eyes returning to the guns with the kind of wariness one gives to sleeping Rottweilers, he reached down slowly, fingers touching the cold fabric, working them out from between the wooden wall of the trunk and a small, heavy, metal box. He pulled them up carefully, knuckles brushing the iciness of a muzzle, before both the gloves and his hands were free.

Feeling kind of like he'd run a marathon, Axel eased the trunk's lid shut again, wondering uneasily what kind of guys kept that many firearms just sitting around – and ordered unknown passersby to go venturing in around them. Snapping the faint wrinkles from the gloves, pulling them between his fingers nervously, he dithered for a moment, then opened the door cautiously and started back downstairs.

The little house had fallen quiet, the low sounds of broken porcelain being swept coming from the doorway to the miniature kitchen, while, in the main sitting area, the fuck-ass crazy eye-patch guy was sitting pushing some dried mushrooms around on a low coffee table. So intent was he on his task, he didn't notice the redhead hovering at the foot of the stairs, wondering which of them to approach.

Since he was being peaceful for the time being, Axel figured it'd be safe enough to go with the crazy dude, and approached guardedly. "So, uh – here are your gloves," he announced, reaching forward and dropping them carefully onto the corner of the coffee table. The guy popped one of the mushrooms in his mouth, chewed like he couldn't taste it, and swallowed. No other response. No acknowledgement.

Feeling nervous, Axel continued, "While we're here, I was just – wondering – um, have you ever heard of the, uh, White Rabbit? I'm looking for a guy… and I was told to ask for the White Rabbit…"

The eye-patch guy paused, frowned. He seemed to have heard this time, and Axel's words had obviously puzzled him. The redhead could just about hear the cogs grinding in his skull as he attempted to make sense of what had been said. "…ite Rabbit," he mumbled under his breath. "White…" Eye squinting at the wall, he asked, "White Rabbit? What the fuck are you on, ma…a-a…" He turned to look at the redhead, mouth dropping open, last word drawing out and stuttering to a halt. His gaze travelled slowly up the length of Axel's body, taking in every inch, until it reached his face, single pupil thin.

Axel was expecting some demand of where the fuck Marianne had got to – hurray at last for gender recognition – and so as a result had the bejesus completely and utterly terrified out of him when the guy's jaw dropped, he sucked in a breath, and suddenly started screaming piercingly.

Letting out a high yell of his own, Axel stumbled back several steps, as the guy leapt to his feet, pointed, and kept shrieking at the top of his lungs. "Giant! It's a giant! It's a fuckin' monster! LEXAEUUUS!"

The massive man came running, looking around wildly for the danger, finding only the crazy guy scrabbling over the sofa, a boot scattering dried mushrooms over the floor, wailing and spitting about monsters, while the redhead was backing up as fast as he could go.

Axel turned desperately to Lexaeus, yelled, "What the shit, man?! He looked at me and went nuts!"

The man shoved past him, went to where the eye-patch guy was thrashing, and immobilised him by pinning him to the floor. His low, murmuring voice could be heard distinctly beneath the screams, and slowly, slowly the guy started calming down, starting gasping for air, little cries and whimpers escaping his raw throat. Axel heard snatches of panted words, "…Monster… giant… out of nowhere…"

More mumbling from the enormous man – wasn't he supposed to be the giant in this equation? – and finally, the guy started nodding, tearfully saying, "Yeah – yeah, okay… okay…" He sniffed hard. "Yeah, that'll work."

Lexaeus straightened slowly, keeping a hand on him until he absolutely had to pull away, then turned calmly to Axel. With a heavy breath, he approached, his steps quiet, and said, "Marianne, I'm really sorry about this."

Shakily, Axel shook his head, stammered, "S-sure, whatever, I'll just get out of your – hey!" The hulking man wrapped an arm around his waist and neck, heaved him easily up off the floor and took him stomping up the stairs, thrown over his shoulder. "Let go of me, asshole!" The small staircase creaked under their combined weight. Axel was thrown back through the doorway into the loft a second later, a hell of a lot harder than he had been the first time, smacking his head against the bedpost and seeing stars.

As he struggled to regain himself, the door was closed, and a distinct, ominous click was heard. Blinking hard, Axel struggled to his knees, scrambled with a limp for the door, grabbed hold of the handle and started wrenching.

No good – he'd been locked in.

Pulling himself halfway up, one hand clutching the doorknob, he balled the other into a fist and pounded hard against the wood. "Hey, come on, let me out! I didn't do anything! God damn it!" He smashed harder, thundering and slamming for several intense seconds, before sagging, climbing to his feet, sore all over. With both hands, he rattled some more at the handle, then started looking around for something to bash it open with. His eyes fell immediately on the trunk at the foot of the bed – but hell, it was solid. He doubted he'd be able to lift it anytime soon, much less wield it as an effective ram on his own.

Growling in frustration, he reared back and kicked the door a couple times near the lock, trying to splinter it away from the frame. It remained depressingly immovable. Damn it, why wouldn't it work like it did in movies?

Lip curling as he considered, Axel drew back, breathing hard, narrow eyes inspecting the barrier for weaknesses. He took a breath, let it go slowly, hardened his muscles and ran at it, throwing his entire right side into the wood. He bounced off, yelling, "Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Grabbing his right elbow, he swung in a broad, pained circle, collapsing onto the bed and letting loose a string of expletives into the soft comforter.

When he lifted his head, hissing through spit-slick lips, body throbbing sharply, he detected a hint of familiarity on the air. He paused, frowned, and attuned every sense to figuring out what felt so comfortable all of a sudden. It was like – every cell in his body had relaxed a notch. It was like a coffee drinker's first cup of the day, a smoker's first cigarette, a pyromaniac's first glorious whiff of toxic air…

… and why could Axel smell fire?

He pushed up, went suspiciously to the door, placing his face to the crack and inhaling deeply, the scent stronger now, more heady. It smelled – thick. Lips to the door, he yelled, "Hey! Hey! What's going on?" No response. "Is someone gonna let me out of here, or what?" There was a clattering downstairs, but no voices calling back, no steps coming his way.

Scowling, worrying, he drew back, hands on hips, and gave the room another sweep with his eyes. Sucking his bottom lip in between his teeth, he ventured over towards the window again, leaned close and looked down. It – it didn't look so bad when you were locked in, as opposed to just searching for gloves. As someone who was pretty sure he was free to leave whenever he felt like it, it was a sucky option, sure – but now?

Three metres wasn't such a huge drop, right? Axel was like six foot or something – it was like standing on his own shoulders, and then getting someone to jump from his shoulders… He could totally imagine doing that while drunk. He was pretty sure he might have actually already done it at some point in his life. So how was being sober going to make that much difference?

Well, aside from actually feeling the pain straight away.

The smoke smell grew stronger, and, on top of that, Axel could feel heat radiating up from below. Nervously, he shifted, gazed down between his sneakers at the floorboards, and wondered for the first time just how completely crazy those two guys were. Like – burning-down-their-house-with-the-giant-Marianne-inside insane, or just – imagining-monsters-and-girls-where-there-were-none insane?

It was becoming more and more likely, with the way the floor was starting to feel hot beneath his soles, the smoke was beginning to take on a choking quality, that those particular two belonged to the former.

"Shit!" Frantically, Axel glanced around at everything he'd already seen, before deciding enough was enough and making a beeline for the trunk. He heaved the lid back on its hinges, took hold of it and wrestled the large chest onto its side with a crash of metal. The guns came spilling out, the few clothing items, and, beneath all that, a cascade of – candy? A veritable waterfall of candy hearts.

"What the fuck?" Axel murmured, bewildered enough to pluck one up and turn it over, taking note of the elaborate decoration around the edges. It was the prettiest damn candy heart he'd ever seen – the kind you paid a fortune for a box of on Valentine's day.

Eat Me, it invited, in flowery cursive writing. Axel blinked.

"I am – really glad I hate these things," he mumbled, dropping it back in amongst its contemporaries. It was so nice-looking, he almost wanted to try it just for the experience… but no. No – what had Roxas said? '…you must consume nothing in this realm, or you will be trapped. Eat nothing, drink nothing, and at the end of the day, perhaps you… unlike I… will leave.'

Well – Axel definitely intended on leaving.

Coughing, seeing a glow between the floorboards, realising that they really had set the place on fire, the redhead shook out the last few candy hearts and hefted the trunk up. It slipped precariously in his grip, awkward to hold onto, desperately heavy. Gathering a burst of momentum, he rocked back, focused on the door handle, then rushed forward and swung.

The chest crunched hard into the wood, splintering a broad hole while snapping the brass handle straight off, before dropping with foot-severing impact to the floor as he leapt back. With a triumphant grunt, Axel shoved the trunk out of the way with one sneaker, scratching the wood horribly, and wrenched the door the rest of the way open.

His happiness was short-lived – the cottage was up in flames. Hard fire, hungry and fast, black smoke billowing. Heat slammed into him, as he stood on the tip of the iceberg and gaped out in horror. He took a cautious step downwards, but the second his hand made contact with the banister, he snatched it back, skin seared. The entire bottom story was burning. As practiced as he was in the art of flames, the redhead had no choice but to admit defeat and retreat back into the loft.

"…Jesus," he stated incredulously. They were actually burning down the cottage, with him inside. Shaking his head angrily, he crossed over to his only remaining avenue of escape. Fuck pain – he'd had his fair share of burns in the past, but there was no way in hell he was going out this way. He'd always made it a point of pride to not be eaten alive by his fascination. Of course, there was no guarantee that the crazy guys weren't waiting for him outside with torches and pitchforks, but he was willing to take his chances.

Brushing his tender palms down his shirt, blowing on them lightly, licking each of them once, wetly, Axel unlatched the window again and swung it open. It wasn't wide, and it was a little round, but he'd punch holes in the goddamn wall if he had to.

He slipped one leg through, sat carefully on the frame, swung the other out and saw the sick upward spiral of dark smoke, the way it poured from the little wooden house. In the space of minutes, it had turned into a death-trap.

Hands gripping the sides of the sill, he glanced down anxiously. The vegetable patch was directly below, the small kitchen window that looked out upon it choosing that moment to shatter from the force of the flames, letting them come licking out and voraciously climb the wall towards Axel's feet. If ever fire had seemed like a live, murderous creation, it was now.

Sucking a deep breath, figuring this would be the only chance he got, the redhead gathered every ounce of strength in his limbs, coiled himself, briefly balanced on the thin bar of the windowsill, and launched as far from the dying house as possible.

The ground approached fast, slammed into him as he landed badly. Crumpling to the soil, he gasped for air, choked on dirt and smoke, felt the fierce hotness roaring out to meet him, sparks spitting dangerously. Dragging himself up, he staggered for the small fence, threw himself over it, and collapsed. Still far too close for comfort, he crawled for several minutes, until he could no longer feel his skin being baked, until the stench of belching smoke was replaced with that of sizzled hair.

He rolled over to watch the last of the little cottage be consumed, staring dazedly for a while, before noticing two black-clad figures standing at the start of its path, the shorter of the two jumping up and down and pumping his hands into the air.

Eyes popping wide, Axel dragged a breath into heat-abused lungs and climbed to his feet, stumbling off towards the safety of the trees, hoping against hope that he wouldn't be spotted before he got the chance to disappear.

He reached the woods intact, allowing them to swallow him up. Trunks sprang up thick and many, their bark dark, damp to touch, leaving smears on his hands as he pulled himself through their midst. He ran until the air cleared, until the flickers at his back had sunk into shadow, until he was sure, certain, completely positive that no crazy guys, eye-patched or otherwise, were going to leap out and attack him.

He slowed, stopped for a few minutes to cough out the last of the toxin from his lungs and suck in some clean breaths, clamping a hand on each knee and waiting, hunched over, for his heart to stop beating so scarily fast.

He'd dealt with some awesomely out-of-control flames before, and God only knew he'd seared himself time for time more often than he changed his underwear – but he'd never had someone try to burn him to death before. Never had someone go insane right in front of his eyes, and try to kill him. It was frightening, it was sick-inducing, it made him want nothing more than to just – find a way home. He needed a shower, and some proper sleep… He wished he could find that cat from last night and take it back to take care of it.

Heaving a sigh, Axel looked around to gauge his chances at ever achieving that star-flung aspiration, and realised he was more lost than ever. He didn't recognise anything about this place – it even looked like an entirely different section of forest. Everything was bigger, wilder, more overgrown. He didn't even know what the hell he was doing here in the first place.

"God damn it Axel," he muttered through clenched teeth, picking a direction and resuming picking through the vegetation. "You just had to go after the kitty, didn't you? There you are – " He grunted as he was forced to climb over a low-hanging bough. " – standing in the middle of the creepiest circus in existence…" He panted as he ducked under a thick knot of climbing vine choking the self-same tree that the branch belonged to, slowly sucking it dry. "…and just when you're thinking it might be a good idea to run away quickly, you instead – " He kicked his ankle quickly out of a snarl of thorns. " – go chasing after – " He sucked in a breath, dragged himself over a fat, fallen tree-trunk, only to find that it was rotten, breaking apart under his weight, letting light pierce through to a hidden nest of insects. Yelping loudly, he danced back several steps, stomping and shaking off the scuttling bugs, their little legs pricking at his skin, finishing with a bellow, " – a goddamn kitty!"

"You seem to be experiencing some difficulty."

With a yell, Axel flailed and whipped around, fists jumping up and ready to take on whatever freak had crawled out of the woodwork this time. When he found no one, even as he spun quickly again, eyes wide and scouring the dark surroundings, he paused. Heart hammering in his ears, chest puffed with too much oxygen, the redhead hesitated, whispered, "Roxas?"

"Why so quiet?" murmured a voice in his ear. With a silent gasp, Axel twisted, leaping away, and found the blond sitting on a slender branch at hip-height. Brain grinding to a halt, the redhead shook his head slowly.

"You – weren't there a second ago," he informed him dubiously. Roxas smiled thinly, his hanging tail curling up into a vague question mark.

"Wasn't I?" he countered. "Or were you just too busy looking for someone that was going to hurt you?"

"I think I'd notice the cat-boy I've been looking for sitting on a branch that should be breaking under his weight," Axel snapped back. "What the hell do you even weigh? What are you, an anorexic schoolgirl in disguise?"

Roxas stared at him for a long moment, one ear twitching a little to the left, as if listening to something distant, before asking, "You were looking for me?"

Axel blinked in confused wonder. "…Well, yeah, I was looking for you. You – you disappeared into thin air, Roxas. And just now, it's like you…" He threw his hands up into his hair, dragging his fingers along the many spikes and squeezing his eyes shut. "Damn it, all I want to do is get home! I'm so lost!" Helplessly, he dropped his hands back down, looked at Roxas and demanded, "You must know your way around, though, right? You found me here – you've gotta know what you're doing. Can't you, I don't know – point me in the right direction, at least? Can't you take me part of the way back towards civilisation?"

Roxas slowly started frowning, the more desperate Axel sounded. "Weren't you listening at all to what I told you earlier?" he asked disapprovingly when the redhead stopped for breath, hands resting on his knees as he balanced effortlessly on the branch. "You're not supposed to be going home – you were chosen to speak to the King." He sighed in response to the utterly blank look that came his way. "The entire reason I'm here for you is to help you through everything, Axel," he explained, an edge of irritation in his tone. "I'm quite sure I made that clear when we last spoke."

Scowling, Axel snapped, "Oh, you think so, do you? You're here to 'help' me, huh?" He stabbed a vicious finger back the way he'd come, voice echoing as he demanded, "So where the hell were you in all your 'appears-out-of-nowhere' fucking glory when I was just about burnt down to the ground inside some crazy asshole's summer cottage, huh?"

"I told you," Roxas replied sternly, tail lashing to match his mood, blue eyes narrowing. "You have to call for me. Only then can I help, for the price of a kiss."

Throwing his hands up, Axel cried, "Again with the kisses!" He shot the blond an unreadable look, lips pursing angrily, before determination seized his features. He stomped through the undergrowth, the last of the scurrying bugs, and said, "Alright, fine. If you're so desperate for kisses, I'll kiss you, okay? But then you have to show me the way out!"

He was paused, mid-stalk, by the tip of a tail pressing surprisingly hard into the centre of his forehead. Eyes rising, he found his gaze locked directly with Roxas', some kind of humour shimmering beneath the surface of the almost cold look on the blond's expression. "I'm afraid that's not possible," the boy said softly, even as the fingers of one hand walked teasingly along Axel's collarbone. "Three kisses in exchange for three saves – this was the deal between us. If you were to squander one of your chances here, with nothing to be rescued from, I wouldn't be able to recompense you later on."

Blinking a couple of times, head pleasantly fuzzy, the redhead asked unsteadily, "Well – I mean, how likely is it that I'm going to need all three?"

Roxas laughed quietly, Axel smiling in automatic response. "I like you," the blond said fondly. Then he slapped Axel's cheek, a small gesture, but sharp. "If you're so desperate for kisses, I'll kiss you, okay?" he breathed, the same hand tickling the side of the redhead's jaw as he lowered towards his ear. "But first… you have to need my help." He drew back slowly, dragging the soft tips of his fingers along Axel's chin before letting them drop. "And in order to gain my help, you have to call for me." He reached down and took hold of Axel's hands, lifting them and gently placing them over the redhead's green eyes. "So just remember that, the next time you need me in all my… 'appears-out-of-nowhere fucking glory, when some crazy asshole is trying to burn you down inside his summer cottage'…" In a low whisper, he added, "The King is waiting for you. Don't… test his patience."

When the pressure slid away from his wrists, Axel slowly dropped his hands, opened his eyes, only to find himself gazing into empty, dark air. Once again – Roxas was gone. Only the faintest echo of his words remained, locked within Axel's skull –

Don't… test his patience.

"The King?" the redhead murmured, reaching up to slowly scratch a leaf out of his hair. His gaze darted around half-heartedly for the cat-eared blond, already resignedly convinced he wasn't going to be conveniently within view. "…Since when is there a King around this place, anyway?"

He drew in a breath, noted the slight shakiness of it, leftover from the cryptic blond's close proximity. There was something about Roxas' scent, the way he breathed on Axel, that completely and uselessly shook the redhead up.

"Okay, so…" he mumbled, eyes scanning the trees. He waited for a blank minute, then complained, "Awwww, fuck!" Hands on hips, he called up to the treetops, "So how the hell am I meant to get home?"

An answer, there came none.

Muttering and bitching under his breath, Axel got moving again, pushing through the thick, tangled foliage on every side. "Meant to find the King, but I don't even know any Kings – what the hell are we, some kind of monarchy? And Roxas is gone, and I don't know where I am…" He broke abruptly through into a clearing, staggering to a halt, little scratches all along his bare forearms and knuckles. Panting, he straightened, picking the leaves and twigs from his clothing, sneakers scraping through the thin carpet of leaves over dark dirt. Light was sparse in this part of the forest, making him think that maybe, with exiting the place being his firm objective, he'd kind of chosen the wrong direction.

Everything here was… tall. The trees towered insanely high, gigantic wooden skyscrapers, the lowest of their boughs beginning at about the twenty-meter mark, way above Axel's head. The flowers bobbed at six feet, shoulder-height grass running along either side of the narrow strip of winding, barren earth, easily overshadowing him. He felt diminished all of a sudden, like a bug, an ant among giants. Even the hugely-statured Lexaeus would have seemed little more than a speck in this place.

On top of that, a curious hush had descended upon the woods. Where previously Axel had always been able to hear the birds twittering, the hidden creatures rustling, the unnerving slither of small snakes as he stomped near their basking places, here… there was only silence. The air was still. What light filtered through the leafy canopy way, way overhead was dim, glowing in small pools. Nothing moved, not even faintly. The greatest amount of disruption in this static environment was that caused by Axel himself – he was the noise, the motion, the chaos in tranquillity.

It was the most unnerving, and possibly most beautiful, place he'd ever been. It was a pocket of utter nature.

Forcing himself to move after long minutes of staring, Axel slowly followed the haphazard trail the clear earth had created, no doubt used by numerous small quadrupeds. He was the only clumsily two-legged creature to ever crush its leaf-strewn soil underfoot, feeling like an interloper. Each breath he drew was cold, dry. The only scent in his nose was of heavy, rich earth, tinged with ozone, as if a storm had been and gone.

Slowly, the grass gave way to more and more flowers, their numbers growing steadily, their heads higher and prouder, colours vivid and bright. Vines wound themselves thickly around their stems, but somehow they thrived as powerfully as ever, Axel turning in an unhurried, awed circle, wide eyes taking in as much of the rare and gorgeous sight as he could.

Various sweet aromas started threading the air, perfumes of dozens of different breeds mingling and stirring to create an almost intoxicating amalgamation. It was heady, it was some kind of naturalist's perfection, and it was ultimately serving to give Axel a slight headache, but he didn't really care. It was worth it to be able to tattoo this on his memory.

To one side of the path, he heard a rustling, the first sign of any life in the area, bringing him gradually back to his senses. His step, which had slowed to a shuffle as he gaped at his surroundings, picked up reluctantly, the sharp crackling crunch as he crushed various twigs under his sneakers returning to pierce the hush. Though his gaze remained on the high, immobile heads of the flowers, his pace returned to something near to normal, taking him deeper into their midst.

A loud, elongated shiver of underbrush caught his attention with a frown, coming from behind. He twisted, continuing but walking backwards for several steps, seeking out the source of the noise, hoping to God it wasn't some kind of killer python writhing close. Sure, pythons didn't tend to frequent your regular run-of-the-mill forestation – but then, 'regular' wasn't exactly the word on the tip of his tongue when he looked at this place.

Nothing to be seen. Grunting softly, Axel hesitated, then started to turn back, shoelaces dragging in the dirt, when something thick caught his toe and tripped him.

Falling to the ground with a heavy thump, incapable of catching himself in time, the breath was slammed from his chest. For a long moment, he lay still, before grimacing, levering up onto his hands, looking down at the smeared mess his shirt had become. He glanced back over his shoulder at the thick vine lying across the otherwise clear trail. "The one time I'm not looking," he mumbled, eyes slipping shut as his already abused body found new bruises to pulse over. His head dropped, hanging between his elbows, an inch off the ground. "Son-of-a-bitch."

Over to the right, deeper in, a sharp, fast crackling came, like something heavy dragging along the ground. Axel's head popped back up, a frown tugging at his features, the faintest shine of fear in his eyes.

So far, the most dangerous animals he'd encountered had been of the human variety – but that didn't mean there wasn't something more four-legged waiting to have a go at him. Weren't there meant to be – like, cougars or something living out here? He seemed to remember animal control rounding up some form of bitey-scratchy creature several summers ago, when a couple of them had come down from the hills to drink out of people's swimming pools. Woe to his crappy memory for refusing to reveal exactly what kind of bitey-scratchy it had been. He just hoped he wasn't about to find out the hard way.

Picking himself up slowly, absently brushing his elbows off, Axel cast a wary eye upon the forest, taking a few cautious steps along the path. He looked down at it, pausing as he considered that perhaps the trail had been formed by whatever creature was out lurking.

Another swift noise, this time to the left.

Make that, creatures, plural.

"Oh, Christ," the redhead muttered, picking up the pace, wondering helplessly if running would help or hinder him in this happenstance – would it provoke a hunt? Was he better off just finding the nearest ginormous tree to try and throw himself up? What the hell was he supposed to do?

He thought of Roxas, thought of the blond, cat-eared boy telling him he need only call out to him for a save – but what exactly the hell did that really mean? How could Roxas just save him? What, was he following Axel around? Was he sitting in a nearby tree dispassionately watching, seeing danger coming and refusing to move until Axel cried his name?

What the hell kind of kink was that?

Huffing, gritting his teeth against the fear, Axel sped up a notch, kept up a stable semi-jog, ready to burst into a sprint at any moment. Behind him, off from the path, another loud noise, like a slithering, and great, the python was back in his head. His imagination couldn't decide which was more likely to kill him – snakes or cougars. Both were equally fun to dwell upon.

Hands forming fists, he steadily, with forced calm, hurried along the trail, eyes darting anxiously for a break in the thick foliage, one leading to thinner patches of trees, hopefully away from whatever lair he might have stumbled upon. The rustling grew louder, more constant, bolder. It was getting closer – whatever it was, they, whatever they were, they were approaching, zeroing in on him with intent.

Finally, as the bushes on either side of the trail began shaking, the creatures just about on top of him, Axel broke and ran. Head lowering, forearms stiff, legs lengthening, he bolted away, didn't look back as he heard the foliage erupt behind him.

Throughout it all, the only sounds were the throbbing in his skull and the hideous slithering rustling – there were no animalistic snarls or grunts or gasps, nothing to suggest that whatever was hunting him was going to tear him to shreds, and somehow, this only made things a little bit more awful.

Sneakers pounding the earth, shoelaces bouncing and dragging, he sprinted along the narrow trail, the enormous flowers watching him go from their lofty positions, their demeanour heavy, judgemental, no longer as beautiful as they had first seemed.

The most depressing thing Axel thought he'd ever encountered was the moment he broke through into a slightly wider area, saw the trail begin again on the other side of it, noticed the way the plant-growth was at its thickest yet, and realised he had only just, just, just reached the centre of it all. Was this the middle of the entire fucking forest?

Before he had a chance to continue, and plunge back onto the other side of the trail, the sides of the clearing shook chaotically, the endless sheet of flowers splitting apart, giving way to a series of aggressive, focused, predatory green snakes, a wave of them, everywhere, all around. They flowed to him before he even had a chance to yell, threaded swiftly around his legs, crawled up his thighs and encased his hips. From there, they lunged upward, moving with an alacrity no snake should ever have possessed, twisting alarmingly, ensnared his wrists, ripped them down to be pinned against his sides as they swarmed ever up his body.

Struggling by now, thrashing uselessly, Axel staggered under their combined weight, letting out a disbelieving cry at their incredible length, the fact that, even now, their bodies still stretched back into the thick of the flowers. They wrapped higher, one touching his neck, slithering around it, and for the first time, it occurred to him that – this wasn't what snakes felt like. He'd been to snake-handling demonstrations where the people at the reptile-petting zoo let you reach out and touch the serpent – they were cold, and smooth. These things – sure, they weren't warm, but they didn't have that deliberate chill, either, and – and they were sort of rough, and, and there were leaves coming out of them, and…

And – and they were vines.

Axel fell to his knees, no longer able to support himself, then toppled over onto his side. He struggled and strained, gasping hard as the vines slithered tighter around his chest, clamped his limbs together, tied themselves up around his throat and started spreading rapidly across his face. He tasted dirt, spat it out, bit down on one as it experimentally entered his mouth, choked and tore it apart. More replaced it within seconds, pressing against his lips, slicing past without care, their leaves and miniature protrusions slicing into the soft, puffy flesh.

Drawing in as deep a breath as his fast constricting lungs would allow, he burst it out in a wildly screamed, "Roxas!"

The world went dark, it went airless, the pressure all over his body increasing, around his skull, sealing his lips and nose shut. He was trapped, and he was smothering, and he couldn't feel his legs. Everything was getting tighter; he could feel his ribs rubbing, could feel a terrible pain developing fast in his sternum, could feel the bones of his fingers grinding together, the blood everywhere being steadily cut off.

This was all… real.

Perhaps this was the first time it occurred to Axel; none of this was a fantasy. None of this was something he could brazen his way out of. The presence of a boy with a tail and ears didn't make it so that he was untouchable. This was happening.

A little late in the game to start taking things seriously.

Axel was fading quickly. The pain was growing extreme. The pressure on his eyes was phenomenal. It wasn't fair that his last mental image was of himself as a stubborn tube of toothpaste about to be popped open. Nope. Not fair. It was a shit final thought.

And then… oh, blessedly, there was light, and air, and from one split-second to the next, he went from crushing doom to flopping apart, limbs dropping to the earth, chest a study in piercing excruciation. The gripping vines fell apart from the centre, littering the ground around him, lifeless again. He inhaled hard, coughed harshly, and groaned, rolling onto his side, bringing his numb hands up towards his throat, elbows tucked in against his stomach.

He rocked a little, choking against the pain, trying to breathe despite it, blinking blindly down at the dirt. A gentle touch at his cheek stilled him, made his gaze swivel upward, vision filled with a worried face hovering over his, careful fingers pushing the hair from his eyes. With blood trickling from the corner of his mouth, Axel dazedly muttered, "Do I give you your kiss now?"

Roxas wiped the blood away, drawing back with a smeared hand. In the other, he held a key-shaped instrument, like a sword. Leaning down, placing a soothing, dry peck on the redhead's forehead, he softly responded, "Not yet."

Giving Axel a small smile, he patted his cheek, then stood, tail snaking back and forth. Raising his head, eyes narrow, he inspected the high flowers, as the dozens of vines slowly crept back into the shadows. A scowl in place, he commanded, voice echoing, "Marluxia! Come out!"

There was a long silence, broken only by Axel's struggled gasps on the ground, Roxas' sharp eyes never ceasing in their roaming. He turned in a circle, suspiciously scouring the surrounding vegetation, before pausing. He stopped breathing, attuned his hearing, right ear giving one small flicker of warning before a burst of light erupted out from his free hand, hardening into another weapon. They were swung before the second one was even fully formed, lashing out to the side and slamming away the enormous scythe that had come spinning out of the darkness.

There was a sharp clang, a thud as it hit the dirt and bounced into the bushes on the other side of the clearing, and then a smooth voice admonishing, "Roxas! Is that any way to treat a superior?"

Roxas twisted, expression flat, hands tight around his blades as the pink-haired man came sliding out of the shadowy depths of the massive garden. A slight, displeased scowl in place, Marluxia approached, the hood of his black coat bouncing at his shoulders. "Why have you interfered? I'm only doing as I was charged to do by our leader," he reminded the blond, "which is to remove any and all weeds from our midst." Sneering, he looked down at the redhead, who was attempting to sit, a hand massaging frantically at his chest. "And now look what you've done," he added with scathing regret, "you made me let one live."

"This one's mine," the blond said dangerously. Marluxia's gaze sharpened, interest piquing suddenly.

"I beg your pardon? Care to repeat that?" When Roxas said nothing, the man's brows rose slowly. "You dare to contradict my duty?" Shaking his head slowly, Marluxia tutted. "This won't do. Not at all, young man, not at all." He paused, thought for a moment, then curled his lip distastefully. "Oh, don't tell me – you're not trying to save him, are you?" As Roxas' glare intensified, Marluxia looked briefly startled, then let out a delighted laugh. Momentarily forgetting his earlier purpose, the man clapped his hands, exclaiming, "I can hardly believe it! You, the ice-cold cat, caring whether a human lives or dies? How many that have come before him did you all but lead into the swamps of Tulgey Wood, dear Roxas?" Arms folding, a hard light entering his gaze, he leaned forward, asking with a silken edge, "Or is that what you're planning for this one, too?"

He raised a boot and shoved Axel, sending the redhead back down with a loud groan. Roxas snarled, knuckles white, but made no move to stop him.

Shooting the blond an unimpressed look, Marluxia grunted, apparently losing interest in the discussion. "Huh. Well, whatever you do decide, just remember – you're not allowed to keep killing them off, you know. If you end up letting another one drown in the swamps, the Superior will be dreadfully unhappy with you. You never do it right, they end up just dying and staying dead."

"Oh, yes," Roxas muttered venomously, "Heavens forbid that the man should die before the King has a chance to personally remove his head and steal his soul."

Marluxia sent over a cold smile, head tilting to the side. "Carefully, carefully," he sang liltingly, "never breathe a word of treason." From the forest, more vines came crawling, slithering around the man's boots, cinching at his ankles, wrapping into a harness and lifting him. Several snaked out from the other side of the clearing, dragging his scythe, curling up into the general mass and reuniting the weapon with its owner.

"The trees whisper to one another, you know," he warned darkly, as they drew him back into their midst, fading from the light. Moments later, he was gone from sight, and not long after that, silence returned to the woods.

Axel wheezed in a breath, croaked, "Roxas?" He had managed to rise to his knees, elbows in the dirt, spitting little bits of leaf and blood. His forehead was pressed to the side of one arm, face contorted as, every time he tried to straighten, the pain in his chest pulled hard. The blond, when he managed to lift his head, was sitting crouched on the ground two feet away, watching him intently, weapons gone. He struggled to smile, a gory sort of sight with the two larger cuts congealing. "So, you really did come." Gasping a little as he tried to push up, lowering back down and pressing the heel of his palm hard into the site of the pain, he panted, "And – that stuff he said about… about you leading people into swamps…?"

Roxas grimaced. "You weren't supposed to hear that."

Axel laughed weakly, a harsh sound. "Sorry. Forgot… to turn off my ears." Lips pulling back, he jammed his fist hard into his chest, twisting it, trying to physically shove the pressure away. "Ah, jeeze."

"I won't lead you into danger," the blond said solemnly. When Axel glanced up, squinting sceptically, he added, "I gave you my word."

Shaking his head, Axel eased up onto his knees, teeth grating at the awful tug, ramming his knuckles deeper into his sternum, rolling them harder. Roxas watched with a frown, asked, "What are you doing?"

"I – I just gotta…" The redhead grimaced, tried to suck a full breath and couldn't, lowered his chin and punched his breastbone, massaged at a slightly different angle. "I felt it," he grunted. "When I was being squeezed…" He drilled his fist in for a severe moment, expression tugged with flashes of agony, before a sudden, sharp click was felt, seeming to reverberate through his entire body. The pain vanished instantly, Axel dragging in a lungful of fresh air and coughing it back out, shoulders relaxing, whole posture loosening.

Slumping, he closed his eyes, flopped on his back into the dirt, spreading his arms wide and luxuriated in the sudden silence of his body. "Gotcha," he murmured. He drew a breath, let it out easily, feeling like he'd been run through a wood-chipper. Waiting for his pulse to slow back to its proper speed, for the lesser aches and pains to lunge up with new ferocity, he softly said, "I just wanna go home. I don't know where I am. I don't know who you are. I don't know what you even want from me, all this talk of a 'King'." He covered his face with his hands, let out a thin moan of exhaustion. "Wish I had just grabbed that dumb cat at the circus and not let it go, instead of following it all the way out like that…"

Roxas made a noise of irritation. "Still talking about the cat? Every time I hear you, you're mentioning it."

"Yeah, well – I wanted it," the redhead snapped, dropping his hands to the sides. "Hell, you're the one with freaking cat features, I'd have thought you'd find it endearing!"

Roxas sighed and shook his head. "You really are short-sighted, aren't you?"

"Yeah, fuck you, too, cat-boy," Axel muttered, flipping him off with one hand, covering the top half of his face with both arms. There was a pause, before the blond tutted.

"Is that any way to thank me for saving your life?"

Axel froze for a moment, then, before he even had a chance to pull his arms away, a soft pair of lips was touching his own. Roxas' hands gently took hold of the sides of his face, the blond straddling his chest comfortably, Axel glad, for the duration of remaining thought, that he'd managed to fix things physically before anyone went and tried to sit on him.

Then, his mind shut down.

He tilted his head back slightly, pressing into the stinging, coppery kiss, mouth opening willingly to the tongue that came questing. Arms shifting upward, he scratched lightly at the base of Roxas' neck, before pushing one hand down the back of his shirt, pressing it flat against the hot skin. The other cupped the blond's head, pulling him deeper, breaths puffing through noses as their tongues played and danced together.

Roxas, in response to this, hunched his shoulders, snaking his arms under the crimson spikes splaying across the earth, shivering as Axel scraped a fingernail between his shoulder-blades. Their mouths broke apart as he inhaled shakily, lips swollen, cheeks flushed, but when Axel went in to re-engage, Roxas turned his face quickly to the side.

"No lips," he breathed, panting slightly. "It'll count as a second time, a – a second save."

Underneath him, Axel paused, fingers still scratching lightly at his warm skin, thumb drawing a faint pattern through his hair. Then he smirked. "No lips," he pointed out. He proceeded to kiss and nip his way along the blond's jaw, Roxas' eyelids fluttering shut. "I want to make sure I thank you properly," the redhead muttered smugly. He licked the lobe of Roxas' right ear, nibbled at it. He exhaled a hot, gentle breath along his cheekbone. "And I don't exactly hear you complaining."

The blond shuddered, pulled away a little and shook his head as if to clear it, pouting cutely. "You're not supposed to do things like that," he muttered. "You'll… delay me. Delay us."

"But, what am I meant to do now?" Axel asked, curiously touching one blond cat's ear, scratching its base lightly. Roxas curled down into the gesture, shivered sharply with a loud rumble that could almost have been a purr.

"Now, we finish up here, and you continue on your way," he informed him lazily, obviously enjoying the sensation. Axel stared at him for a long moment, before scowling.

A moment later, Roxas found himself thudding onto his tail in the dirt, as Axel abruptly stood, brushing himself off, trying to regain some sense of composure.

"So, that's it, is it?" he demanded between his teeth. "I've come away from two, count 'em two, life-threatening situations, and you – " He whirled on Roxas, the blond climbing cautiously to his feet. "You! You want me to 'continue'?" Glaring, the redhead swiped his hands through the air in a sharp, final motion. "Forget it, buddy. I'm done, okay? Finished. Whatever the hell is up with you guys and your King, you can just keep it to yourselves, alright? Because I – am going elsewhere." He turned his back on the blond, threw a casual hand into the air, said with loud casualness, "Maybe I'll see you around sometime, cat-boy. I'm heading home."

There was a laugh from the blond. "Oh? I can't wait to see how far you get."

Anger flaring, Axel spun to confront him – only to find himself utterly alone. The clearing was, right on schedule, completely empty of anyone but him.

"Just remember to call me when you're needing," Roxas added carelessly, a warm murmur in his ear, hands massaging his shoulders briefly. Whipping around, Axel found only air. He twisted in a circle, good sense refusing to let him believe that the blond was just passing in and out of reality at will.

"Damn it!" he yelled to the emptiness. "Would you quit doing that? You're killing everything Physics ever taught me!"

Nothing further was heard from Roxas, from wherever the hell he was lurking, in whichever dimension. For crying out loud – crazy people, vines that attacked and throttled, pink-haired guys spouting creepy warnings that weren't even intended for him, yet were completely about him, and, to top it off, a King he'd never heard of and a cat-guy that could disappear and reappear whenever he felt like it. The fact that Axel had survived his latest bad encounter didn't mean that he could just forget the epiphany that had occurred as he was being crushed, the one where he realised, oh, that's right, that all of this was real.

For the first time, he considered the possibility that last night had actually happened as he remembered it – had he really followed the kitty into the rabbit's hole, only to fall down into some – deep, black hole? But then… how did that explain…?

Axel's eyes rose slowly towards the sky, sneakers scuffing quietly through the leaves as he turned, seeking out the sparkling spots of daylight that filtered through. He was – definitely outdoors. There was no doubt about that. But – it was feeling less and less likely that he was going to just stumble on out of these woods and head for home. It seemed like no matter where he went, he only found himself delving deeper into unknown territory, meeting someone new that he was really better off never knowing at all.

Damn Roxas for sounding so smug. I can't wait to see how far you get.

Axel grumbled, "Yeah, let's see how far you get, the next time you're wanting my kisses. Goddamn – extortionist perv." He huffed, glaring around at the loneliness, hoping that wherever the blond was invisibly standing, he'd cop a blast of it. Of course, knowing Axel's current luck, Roxas was probably off in the Caribbean, completely deaf to anything but his name being shrieked at hysterical volumes.

With nothing better to do, Axel helplessly gazed over at the other half of the trail, drew a breath and resumed walking. He didn't know where he was going, but he couldn't exactly stay put, either. This was going to be one of those situations where staying in one place was only going to make it easy for the psychopaths to find him, never mind Search and Rescue. Them, and their pet plants.

Picking through the rough foliage, the neatness of the path vanishing steadily the further from the epicentre of it he got, Axel carefully started taking stock of his various injuries. Tongue playing incessantly with the deeper of the cuts on his bottom lip, he ran a mental inventory, taking into account just how much each body part was throbbing, and estimating how many millions of dollars of bath-salts it was going to take to make it all go away.

Though the flowers gradually thinned out on either side of him, the section of forest through which Axel ventured was obviously just that much older than that which he'd started out in, the trees continuing to tower, the vegetation large and densely packed. The overhead canopy grew tighter, light lessening, as the soil underfoot became heavier, damper, more richly scented. Fungi started springing up all over the place, some violently coloured, others more reminiscent of pared knuckles scattered across the ground. The further he walked, the more frequent they became, until he couldn't walk past a tree that didn't have its base encrusted, couldn't take three steps without ending up bumping into one of the increasingly larger toadstools or wild mushrooms growing at hip-height from the nutritious forest floor.

Sneakers sinking into the sagging earth, crushing many a rotting fungus underfoot, clothing and skin smeared, Axel wearily trudged on. It was his own little version of Hell, this place, he'd decided – he couldn't stop, for fear of something or someone jumping out of the shadows to get him; but, on the other hand, he just – didn't know where he was going. Roxas hadn't even appeared again to point him in the right direction… flying blind was really, really sucking. He was so tired, and sore, and wishing he'd eaten one of the skanky-looking hotdogs at the circus instead of the candy floss.

When he detected smoke on the air, after a couple of hours of useless travelling, Axel stopped cold, one blackened palm resting upon the bark of a tree. He held himself steady against it as his foot hovered above the ground, ceasing all motion, all distraction, all breath.

Eyes widening, he dedicated every part of his being to the aural and olfactory senses, hunting the air for signs of life – crazy eye-patched or otherwise. For some unfathomable reason, Axel now automatically equated the scent of smoke as a sign that someone was going to try to burn him the fuck to death.

The raucous, distant burst of laughter he heard a moment later did nothing to assuage this fear. In fact, the instinct arose in him to just get the heck away as fast as was humanly possible.

He twisted, started to act on this, when Roxas' second rule again sprang horribly unwelcome to mind. The last time he'd remembered that he was supposed to talk to everyone he came across was when he'd promptly been mistaken for a girl, and entered the fun spiral from which he was still trying to figure out a method to claw his way out of.

But then – Roxas had also said, if he didn't obey the rule, he'd incur a… 'penalty'. Considering just how hideous regular life had been so far, did he really want to know what could be as traumatic as an actual penalty?

Axel hesitated, leaned heavily against the tree, looking unhappily over his shoulder, back to where the laugh had originated from. He drew a deep breath, trying to analyse the intensity of the smoke. It was strong, but – very possibly a product of cigarettes, now that he focused on it. Cigarettes plus laughter – that wasn't necessarily anything too terribly bad, right? That was like someone on their coffee break.

In the, uh, middle of the forest. Surrounded by… mushrooms.

He sighed, muttered aloud, "If they start calling me girl names, I'm outta there," and reluctantly pushed away from the tree, making his way over.

The smoke grew thicker the closer he got, but rather than alarming him, Axel started to feel oddly – relaxed, in a weird sort of way. His muscles were looser, head clouding slightly. Suspiciously sniffing the air, he detected a hint of something sweet. He hesitated, an eyebrow rising as the dots connected in his head, some of the tension leaving his bearing, and not just because the fumes were getting to him. He supposed, on a sliding scale of people most likely to cause him bodily injury, a couple of stoners weren't going to be much trouble.

A little more confident, trying to keep his inhalation to a minimum, he followed the slowly writhing smoke that fogged the forest to its source, pushing past some heavy ferns and finding himself looking at a – a smoke-ship.

It was bright orange, hanging on the air, impossibly fragile and yet magnificently formed. It was perfect, floating gently into the dark forest. Blinking hard, stunned, Axel turned his gaze over to where a soft glow was coming from, in the middle of the gloom. Taking several steps towards it, he passed a neon-pink, smoke-formed deck of cards drifting past, dealing themselves out slowly and curling away into nothingness.

Voices were audible now, two from what he could tell, conversing and occasionally shouting with laughter. Shaken, awed, curiosity seizing him firmly, he continued, ducked under some thick undergrowth and emerged to see the biggest damn toadstool yet. It was the mothership of mushrooms, and on its soft yet firm, crimp-edged surface, two men lounged, wearing the same black coats that the last three guys had been sporting. However, these two were anything but the hyped-up aggression of eye-patch guy or the sinisterness of the one Roxas had called Marluxia.

They lay on their sides, heads supported by a bent arm, the one with short blond hair and an elegant goatee jutting a knee up, while the other, a thick-set man with black dreadlocks and fierce sideburns, had his legs curled beneath him. Both glanced over as Axel appeared out of the bushes, mouths hesitating on the thin pipes they were smoking, long, thin, curling tubes leading from each to a small, squat contraption off to one side, the source of the warm light and, obviously, the smoke they were puffing out.

The blond man clamped the metal bit between his teeth, its hose bobbing as he congenially asked, "Who the fuck're you?"

Well – they weren't automatically assuming he was the maid. That was a positive sign.

The dark-haired man drew the pipe out of his mouth and drawled in a husky, deep voice, "Something we can help you with, stranger?" With their every exhalation, brightly-coloured smoke exited their lungs into the air. While the blond's had been an unformed cloud, the larger man's formed the unmistakable shape of a yellow question mark, at which the blond pointed and cawed with laughter.

"Brilliant, Xal, fantastic! Now do me, do me!" He sucked on his pipe, wheezed out a puff of green, and, without either of them seeming to do anything that Axel could detect, this time the blond's smoke elaborately copied his friend's. This second question mark came breezing over towards him, breaking gently apart on his face. The blond applauded delightedly, while Axel coughed a little, squinting through the haze.

"Hi, there." He gave them an uncertain wave. "I was just, um, passing by, and thought I'd better come and – uh, not ignore you."

"You see, that's what I love about these bloody rules of Xemnas'," the blond one said to his partner, "it makes everyone so friendly to one another!" He clumsily reached around and patted a free patch of mushroom. "Come over and sit, lad, pull up a bit of fungus and join in the fun. What's your name? I'm Luxy, and my pal over there is Xally."

"Luxord and Xaldin," the dark man clarified, apparently not as slap-happy wasted as his friend. He lifted a thick brow. "And you are?"

"…Axel," the redhead said, shifting closer, but not clambering up onto the giant mushroom, happier with a couple feet between them.

Luxord blinked, grinned stupidly. "Axel? Axel!" He pawed at Xaldin, saying loudly, "Axel, Axe – I mean, Xally, do an axe now, do an axe!"

The larger man snickered, sucked on his pipe and blew out smoothly. The deep blue smoke twisted and writhed for a moment, before straightening into the shape of an axe. It started making chopping motions as it drifted over towards Luxord, making the blond squeal and giggle hysterically, swiping it away. Axel could only stare, mouth agape.

"Holy…! How do you do that? And, like, with the colours and stuff?"

Drawing a deep breath of mingled colours, Luxord calmed himself, shrugged as Xaldin took another drag, saying with the occasional lingering chuckle, "We don't rightly know ourselves – we're just having fun!"

"It's awesome," Xaldin contributed, exhaling, the three of them watching as his red breath swirled into the shape of a happy face, Luxord smothering his giggles at the sight. Flicking the redhead a glance, the dark-haired man added, "Axel, why don't you come try it out? We're all friends here."

Slowly, an entertained half-smile in place as he watched Luxord trying to pull the face apart as it floated by overhead, he shook his head. "Ah, thanks all the same, but I don't smoke. Or, you know, other stuff."

Luxord puffed out some orange, complaining, "Aww, come on, be a pal with us! It's not like there's anything else to do in this place."

Axel hesitated, said, "Well, now that you mention it – the whole 'anything else to do' thing – I was wondering, could you guys maybe… point me in the direction out of these woods?"

Both men stared at him for a long moment, before bursting into identical shouts of laughter, apparently too amused to even make the smoke do anything cool. Axel's hopes withered, shoulders slumping, waiting dully for them to stop.

"No – no – no, seriously…" Luxord gasped in a breath. "Seriously, why don't you come join the party? Because – because – " Coherent speech dissolved once again, the man pounding the surface of the toadstool.

Letting out an impatient sigh, biting back a groan of irritation, Axel instead asked, "What about the White Rabbit? You guys think you could direct me his way?"

Once again, the pair paused in their mirth, this time looking surprised and perhaps halfway to serious, Xaldin wiping his eyes and echoing, "The White Rabbit? Interesting – what could you possibly want with him?"

"Boring bloody bastard," the blond muttered in agreement. Axel folded his arms, glanced away.

"I just – want to find him, is all."

"Hmm." Xaldin relaxed, returning his head to its shelf on his broad palm, sucking meditatively at the pipe. "Well…" The smoke from his mouth quickly arranged itself into dozens upon dozens of small bricks, which then formed themselves into a cylinder with a bucket dropping down the middle. Luxord clapped his appreciation. "I suppose we could tell you where to go," the dark-haired man said slowly, Luxord raising an eyebrow as he puffed his own pipe.

He swapped a smirking glance with the blond, and, at some silent prompt, the pair of them inhaled deeply, filling their lungs and throats, eyes slipping shut as their chests expanded to their outermost limits. Then, as one, they heaved out the multi-coloured smog, and Xaldin quickly started talking, shapes forming rapidly in the cloud.

"What you wanna do, guy, is take a left at the old oak, take the trail until you reach the frog pond, follow the creek until you reach a series of rocks and go to the first one, the second one, back to the first one, and jump straight across. Then you've gotta take the right-hand junction all the way to the lily-patch, take a left, then a right then a left, pass through the meadow and under the waterfall, swim a couple leagues until you reach the fjord, jump out and dry off, jump back in and take the rapids, take a right after that, climb out again and follow the path that's there. Once you reach it, that's when the hard shit starts –"

Head completely swathed in a rainbow of rivers, frogs, stones, arrows, flowers and trees, coughing and waving his hands through the air, Axel finally reached his limit, bellowed, "Enough!" Xaldin fell abruptly silent as the redhead heaved and gasped, unable to find a clean breath no matter where he turned, eyes streaming, head growing dizzier by the second. "Assholes!"

Turning, he stumbled out of the hollow, clawing his way through the overgrown flora, the second the air cleared sucking in desperate, hacking lungfuls of oxygen. He fell to his knees, vomited the meagre contents of his stomach into a copse of fungi, clutching the soil and trying to not keel over. Chest burning, he panted heavily, eyes squeezing shut as he crawled away from the mess he'd made and found a tree to lean against, praying his senses would quickly return.

For a while there was blissful silence. There was no glowing light, no colours – just the cool dimness, the purity of chilly air, the smell of vegetation and crushed ants. Looking down blearily at the trail of insects he'd dropped a knee on, cursing under his breath as a couple of them nipped at his flesh, he stood, swayed, fled a few feet and shook the few clinging ones away. Rubbing a wrist over his forehead, he tilted his head back and inhaled with relief, his head finally starting to settle down from the intensity of the fumes.

He supposed that this was what he got for half-believing any of these guys had an ounce of sanity between them.

Shooting a resentful look back towards the distant spot of warm light, glittering through the minute gaps in the underbrush, he glanced around, recognised the direction in which the very first of Xaldin's coloured arrows had pointed, and resignedly started trudging away.

Distantly, he heard a faint call of his name. Frowning, he paused, looked back, and saw, way, way away, a small figure jumping up and down to be seen. Again, his name was bellowed from afar, Luxord trying to get his attention. Scowling, Axel debated for a moment, then sighed shortly, turned and picked his way back towards the gigantic toadstool. Pushing aside the enormous palm fronds, he stuck his head back into the clearing and demanded, "What is it? What do you want?"

Luxord and Xaldin were sitting cross-legged, puffing demurely at their pipes, the blond letting loose an elegant smoke ring all of his own design. "We thought there was something you should know," he said after a moment, squinting through the centre of the loop. Xaldin nodded, removing the metal bit from his mouth.

"It's important, for someone of your disposition," he informed the redhead gravely.

"And for our jobs," Luxord mused, before the tube connecting him to the oddly-shaped smoke-machine bobbed with his inhalation. Clearing his throat, Xaldin turned to face Axel front-on, sitting tall and squaring his shoulders. Axel, for his part, suspicious but curious, waited patiently.

"The mushrooms," Xaldin said calmly. "The mushrooms. They're everywhere. You should try one, whenever you're in need. They'll help you out."

Frowning, eyes narrowing, Axel cagily surmised, "You want me to eat the mushrooms?"

Luxord waved his pipe around airily, releasing a breath of purple. "They're all over the place," he confirmed, "and I guarantee – each and every one will get you wasted."

Axel glared heavily at them for a moment, then, as they blinked innocently back, gave a wordless snarl and let the fronds snap firmly back into place, stomping off through the woods.

He stepped on each and every mushroom he came across, kicking the larger ones as far as he could, an incessant, dry crunching marking his progress. "Eat the mushrooms? You mean like Roxas told me not to, so I don't get trapped here?" he hissed, destroying another collection of the off-white fungi. So it was part of their jobs to try and get him to eat something and be stuck in this place for life? Why, all of a sudden, was the tale of Persephone running so clearly through Axel's mind? "Sons-of-bitches," he growled.

For a while, he crashed through the forest heedlessly, not paying attention to where he was going, not trying, for once, to find some semblance of direction or order, not even on the lookout for anyone who would try to hurt him – just smashing all the toadstools he could find, and blazing his own damn trail, never mind attempting to follow the insane directions that Xaldin had provided.

He suddenly wished he'd brought along his torching tools – his arc welder, or even just an aerosol of deodorant and his lighter. The lighter he'd had in his pocket at the circus was long gone, probably got lost when he was chasing after the goddamn cat in the first place.

He wanted to yell out to Roxas; wanted to make the blond come and explain a thing or two, even just reiterate his stupid rules, the ones that were probably keeping him alive and which he hadn't paid much attention to at the time of delivery, what with being distracted by the ears and tail. He wanted to kick himself for being so damn – lacking in foresight!

But he was worried that if he did call to Roxas, that would mean one of his saves was used up, whether he needed it or not, and he was pretty sure he was going to need all the help he could get.

So he did the only thing he could do – continue blindly, and, with dwindling hope, try to come out somewhere beneficial. Thoughts of actually getting home were fading further and further into the obscurity of unlikelihood – maybe if he just found this stupid King everyone was always yapping about, he could ask him for a way home. He seemed to be the one all these goddamn crazies deferred to – hell, at the very least, Axel could ask him to call off his dogs. It would be nice to just encounter someone that wasn't weird, or enigmatic, or trying to bullshit him in one way or another. Jesus, it'd be bliss.

He crunched his way through the trees, growing slower and slower. How many hours had it been since he'd woken up, anyway? How many long, smoky, pain-filled hours since he'd first met Roxas, sitting up a tree with his tail dangling down? Hell, how long had it been since he'd eaten a decent meal? He was dying here, his stomach had gone beyond the point of plotting a revolution by lunging up his throat to choke him, and had by now simply resigned itself to a lonely, empty death.

Basically, he was exhausted. He didn't know how long he'd been wandering when he started stumbling, and eventually, there was no stark reason he could come up with to not just stop. His movements ceased, for the first time in hours, and he sat himself on the forest floor, slumped against a fallen tree. Knees drawing up slowly, he propped his elbows on them, and held handfuls of hair as his face dangled down.

He started to doze, caught himself, blinking incredulously. "I can't sleep here," he murmured, wiping his face hard. "I… Aw, hell, who'm I kidding?"

When you were stuck in the middle of nowhere and starving, things like bed-etiquette pretty much flew out the non-existent window. Axel lay down next to the log, a bundle of leaves as his pillow, an arm bent up awkwardly under his head, and closed his eyes. The darkness behind his lids was the most peace he'd ever thought could exist.

For a while, he slept.

Birds called softly in the high boughs of the trees. Small creatures picked their way past the slumbering bundle that reeked of ash and blood. Bugs scampered unfelt over his skin, a couple getting tangled in his hair. The sun shifted, and, gradually, a pool of light formed where he was lying, illuminating and warming. Axel stretched out slowly, eyelids twitching faintly with dream.

Which is when, from above, an entire fucking branch was dropped on him, complete with a bird's nest of hysterically cheeping babies.

Axel woke up screaming.

The birds were going nuts, fluttering around on half-trained wings, and, moments later, as he thrashed and yelled, the mother came swooping down to attack. "Son-of-a-bitch!" the redhead shrieked, at last managing to shove the branch off and scramble to his feet, covering his head as he pelted through the trees, trying to escape the vicious, slicing beak.

At that point, the woman in the black coat swung down from the tree right in front of him, her hands wrapped around a jutting bough, and slammed her size-elevens right into his face. Next thing Axel knew, he was on his back, bleeding again, as the blonde-haired chick with the slicked-back bangs screeched, "Snake!" Her boots dropped into the dirt, Axel letting out a grunting cry and rolling onto his stomach, staggering to his feet and running as she came after him, howling, "Snake! Snaaake! Monster! Snake!"

After dodging trees for several meters, ribs burning from where the branch had struck him, warmth trickling from one nostril, hearing her growing rapidly closer, he stopped, held his breath, turned, and punched her. She stumbled briefly, evidently not expecting the attack, clutching the side of her face with wide eyes. Then her icy-blue gaze narrowed, lips pulling back from her teeth, a low hiss gushing from between them.

"A snake in our forest!"

Axel snatched up a dead branch, wielding it like a baseball bat, shouting, "I am not a fucking snake!" Shaking his head agitatedly, he demanded, "Just how the fuck many of you are permanently stoned on hallucinogens?! I am not a girl, I am not a maid, I am not a weed, and I am not a snake!"

"Then what are you?" the blonde asked silkily, circling him like a predator, her steps light and quick.

"I'm just a guy, for Christ's sake!" Axel bellowed.

She snorted, "A likely story!" and lunged, bare hands hooked into claws. Already more than ready for her, Axel swung once, missed, caught her on the back-swing and sent her thudding into a nearby tree.

"Hey, how do you like it, bitch?" he snarled. "Wake me up by dropping half a tree on me, huh?"

She lounged against the tree almost lazily, grinning darkly over at him as she swiped a thumb through her own matching blood trail. "When I see a snake in the King's forests, I act. There you were, warming your cold, cold blood in our sunshine… Don't try to fool me, you disgusting little serpent."

Axel shook his head slowly, eyeing her off with new amazement. "You're – completely nuts, aren't you? You're just… you're mad."

She laughed a little, said throatily, "Oh, you can't help that. We're all mad here."

Axel dropped his chin, waved his makeshift weapon threateningly. "Yeah? Well, I don't want to go among mad people."

The woman sneered. "So what are you going to do about it, snake?"

The redhead froze, and she shoved off the tree, leapt straight for him, got the middle of the branch rammed right into her throat, slamming her down with a knee to the gut.

It was around about then that Axel realised he was beating up a defenceless woman. A vicious bitch who started it, but weaponless, and entirely too female. It didn't even matter that she was obviously part of the black-coat brigade – every issue of male honour suddenly reared up and snatched hold of his brain, sending him stumbling back, breathing hard, as she rolled around clutching her gut. Still, that smile lingered – she couldn't catch her breath, she was bleeding, but goddamn it, she wouldn't just lie down and die.

Axel ditched the branch and ran. He sprinted as fast as he could, pumped with adrenaline, and didn't stop until he was completely, utterly certain that he was alone. He hadn't heard her pursuing – he could only glance fearfully at the trees and hope she wasn't swinging through them like some demented jungle-girl. It seemed, though, for the moment at least, that he'd successfully fled.

Now that he was paying attention to his surroundings, he realised that the forest seemed to have brightened again, despite the graduation from morning to late afternoon. The trees were a little more loosely spaced, more average in width and height, the undergrowth calmer, less wild and tangled. It was more like normal woodland, the woods closer to home… It looked like he'd finally made it out of the bad parts.

He didn't pause to catch his breath, didn't quite trust his surroundings, and so continued at an easy pace, hands on hips as he sucked chest-expanding inhalations and tried to dampen down the jumpy feeling.

He'd now officially got to the point where he couldn't quite relax, no matter how resolutely he tried to calm himself. There was just no point to it – it seemed like the very moment he let his guard down each time, something happened to prove what a bad idea that had been. Every noise made his eyes dart, even the birdcalls now a cause for paranoia, hands instinctively smoothing agitatedly through his hair each time he heard wings go fluttering overhead.

The longer he walked, the more peaceful the woods became. Unknowingly, his steps regained their regular pace, heart thumping a little as he started unconsciously searching for landmarks, his mind stirring at the familiarity of it all. It looked so much like the trees close to home… and then, distantly, he heard the birdsong change.

Frowning, his head swung around, ears pricking, trying to define what it was that had caught his attention. The usual chirps and chitters had taken on a shrill tone, a greater order, more structured-sounding – almost like music. Shaking his head, unable to quite believe that he'd stumbled across a birdie-choir going through their warm-ups, he couldn't help but curiously venture over towards the sound.

The closer he got, the more obvious it became that it was, in fact, something other than birds, more like the high, fluting tones of an organ – accompanied, he realised with a steadily sinking sensation, by a voice singing along. There were people nearby, and he was – too superstitious at this point to not follow through on the rules. He supposed that at least this time he was going into it with utter suspicion – that would hopefully make it more difficult for whoever it was to pull a fast one on him.

Resignedly, regretting his stupid urge to find the cause of anything in this God-abandoned forest, he headed for the voice, the music, and brought Roxas' name to the tip of his tongue for ready use.