A/N: Yeah, so, apparently my dial-up's not terribly fond of forty-plus thousand word documents being uploaded, in that, after several interminable waits, I got these lovely blank FFnet screens with the cheerful word, "Done" in the bottom left-hand corner. :D Thus, two parts, even though it FUCKS UP THE FLOW OF MY ALREADY SHITTY STORY! JEEZE! (Uhm, uh, love you, Sarah!)
The first thing that startled a slight amount of hope into Axel was the fact that, completely spontaneously, a clear and obvious path appeared in front of him. He blinked at it in surprise, the neat deliberation of it, the fact that someone had taken the time to brush the forest floor clean and cut a narrow but definite road into it. It was almost encouraging – he hadn't seen anything man-made in far too long, and it reeked of the desperately sought-after civilisation. Hey, who knew – maybe this time, it wouldn't be a bunch of freaks waiting for him?
He followed the path, looking around cautiously, and was met with his second surprise of the hour – a crossroads, complete with a sign buried at their meeting point. One arrow pointed back the way he'd come; another jutted off to the right, while a third directed him over to the left. About thirteen others stabbed in every other direction, including both directly up, and directly down, and absolutely none of them had an ounce of anything English on them.
A short, stubby, cracked one pointed ahead to the third, and possibly most flooring revelation – a hedge, a grown and trimmed hedge in the middle of the woods, short like a fence, and, right in the middle of it, a small swinging gate. It looked well-crafted, obviously done by hand, by someone who knew what they were doing – and would hopefully not be in a hurry to see it go up in flames.
Interest strong, pulse a-flutter with mounting anticipation, he pushed through the little oiled door, clicked it carefully shut behind him, and continued along the path, which was growing more solid by the foot.
At last, with the volume of the piping and singing reaching its fever pitch, he entered into a large, cultivated garden, shortly-trimmed grass, with, taking up most of the broad space, a long, banquet-sized table covered in an assortment of – teapots? Steaming, screeching teapots?
Axel's hope guttered and died, as his eyes rested upon the singers – two black-clad men at the far end of the table, and, beside them, a silent, pale girl in a white dress, her attention focused on a sketching pad. She had the ears and tail of a mouse, Axel's jaw dropping at the sight.
The more lively of the males was hopping and skipping from chair to chair, more often than not burning his fingers as he switched a countless amount of insanely-coloured and designed teapots onto and off of small burners set up haphazardly along the tablecloth, singing all the while at the top of his lungs. The music, astoundingly enough, was coming from the differently-shaped teapots – each one let out its own shrilling note as it boiled, handled dextrously into a stuttering melody by the dancing blond, who bellowed nonsensical lyrics in surprising harmony.
The second participant in the black coat also wore an enormous black top-hat over his slate-coloured hair, pressing his long fringe across one eye. He remained sitting, but, just as swiftly and perhaps with a shade better adroitness because of his stillness, contributed to the tune willingly, a small smile in place. His lips remained sealed, leaving the singing to his companion. Two seats down from him sat the girl, completely focused on whatever she was drawing, pencil moving with quick, confident strokes across the pad.
It was in fact the white-clad, bloodless girl that spotted Axel first, her pencil pausing and blue eyes rising to stare at the teapot directly in front of her, before slowly turning her gaze to where he stood. He blinked rapidly as she stared, a long, wordless moment passing between them, her expression utterly unchanging. She was – almost eerie in her emptiness.
Spotting her diverted attention, the blond man twisted sharply, a film of sweat shining on his brow, cheeks coloured a heavy pink from exertion. He jumped a little, startled by the appearance of the filthy and awkward-looking redhead, before his face split into a broad, friendly grin.
Axel winced, and waited for the crazy to come gushing forth.
"A visitor!" the blond yelled gleefully, momentarily abandoning the teapots to skip over, Axel flinching back a step. The man clapped his hands happily, grabbed Axel by the arm and half-dragged over to the enormously long table, demanding, "What's your name, stranger? Where you from?" He tipped his head back and yelled, "Zexionnnnn! We've got a visitoooor!" He then wrapped his hands around Axel's shoulders, pushed him in front of one particularly large chair, and forcefully sat him down, before the redhead even had a chance to object.
The other man, the one in the hat, said in light, clipped tones, "Welcome, welcome, if we'd known you were coming to the party we'd have served extra. There's really not enough places, not enough tea for certain, but we'll make do with what we have."
Axel looked blankly at the dozens of pots littering the surface of the table, which the blond was rapidly taking off the boil, their high piping growing more intensely piercing the longer they were left in place. New, cold pots were put in their place, and for a while, there was only the noise of hissing water.
"Not enough places?" he echoed weakly. He gestured to the rows of empty seats. "What about all those?"
"Not enough seats!" the blond bellowed, from right next to his ear, just about giving the weary redhead a heart-attack. "Move down, time to move down!"
The man in the hat, Zexion, jumped up promptly, abandoning the cup he'd been pouring for Axel, and started pushing and prodding at the redhead to get him moving. Axel, for his part, just went along with bewilderment, trying not to trip over any protruding chair-legs, until the blond abruptly grabbed him and shoved him down onto a rickety wooden seat.
Zexion clapped his hands together elegantly, settling beside him and commanding, "Demyx, get our guest some tea, right away!"
The blond saluted with two fingers, winked, responded in jolly tones, "You got it, Zexy." He then clicked his tongue, turned his head and screamed, "Naminé, get your ass over here! There's no room down there!"
The girl looked up, blinking sleepily at them for a moment, before letting loose a slight sigh and rising to her feet, tucking the book against her chest as she weaved between the many, completely empty seats, and took her place anew beside Zexion.
Demyx, meanwhile, had slammed a cup down on the tablecloth in front of Axel, had shovelled several teaspoons of sugar into it, and was stirring violently as he added tea straight from the pot. Zexion placed his elbows on the table's surface, a cup clasped in his hands as he asked, "So, tell us about yourself! What's your name, where are you going?"
The redhead tried to catch his breath, green eyes attempting to take in the many sights, the absolutely confounding structure of some of the pots, while weathering the overwhelming hyperactivity he'd wandered into. "M-my name's Axel," he started.
Demyx barked out a delighted sound. "Axel! Marvellous! Milk?" he demanded sharply. Axel blinked, stuttered for a moment, nodded. The blond snatched up a small jug and started painstakingly pouring a drizzle of white into his cup, focusing intently.
"So, your name is Axel," Zexion prompted, sipping delicately. He made a 'go-on' gesture with one hand, the redhead's mouth opening and closing for a moment.
"Well, I – I've been walking around the woods all day."
"Tea's ready!" Demyx declared loudly. Axel looked up at him, down at his drink, stared for a moment at the watery-white concoction with several stray tea leaves bobbing on its surface.
"I… um… thank you…" He hesitated, reached for it, wrapping his hands around the hot porcelain.
Demyx's hands rested heavily on his shoulders, the redhead pausing with the cup halfway to his mouth, as he whispered darkly into his ear, "Drink deeply, friend."
Axel froze, eyes widening. Zexion looked at the two of them, scowled, crashed his cup down and suddenly snapped, "There's no room here!"
Demyx shot up straight, roared, "No room! No roooom! Move down, move down, move down!" He snatched handfuls of Axel's shirt and jerked the redhead to his feet, the little cup flying out of his hands and going bouncing down the table. He skipped as he dragged the man along the length of the table, before throwing him into a lumpy, soft armchair, better suited to a living room than a dining table. Zexion sat on his other side, snapped his fingers in the air and called, "Naminé, hurry now!" then turned to Axel and asked, "Tea?"
Demyx darted off as the various pots began to boil on their stoves, shuffling them back and forth and recreating the music from before, starting to sing again. The blonde girl slumped into the chair between Axel and Zexion, rested her book against the side of the table and resumed her drawing without a glance at either male.
As Zexion expertly began pouring a new cup of tea for each of them, he encouraged, "So, you were saying, Axel? How did you end up walking around the woods all day?"
"Oh – uh, well… I suppose it all started with the cat," the redhead sighed, keeping a wary eye on the cups.
Demyx and Zexion both stiffened sharply, as Naminé's head popped up, blue eyes wide as she suddenly demanded, "Cat? You saw a cat? Which cat? Where?" She started to stand, looking around wildly. "Where's the cat? Did you see where he went?" Dropping her book and pencil on the table, she cupped her hands around her mouth, frantically called, "Roxa-ah!" She was jammed hard down into her seat, biting her lip accidentally, Demyx's wide hands clutching her shoulders tightly.
"What was that, Nam?" he shouted over the screech of the teapots. "You want more tea?" She struggled desperately, shouting muffled words made incoherent by the hot palm clamped against her lips, succeeding only in letting loose a series of high grunts and squeals. Her mouse ears were flicking madly, her small body thrashing as she fought his grip, tail stiff to one side.
"The jam!" Zexion barked, lunging across the table for a jar of sticky purple substance, its label blank except for the happy face that had been clumsily drawn onto it. It was, however, out of his reach, closer to Axel's end. He slammed his hands into the redhead's arm, shouted, "Get it, get it quick, she's about to lose control!"
Taken aback, Axel started to ask, "Wait, what's she trying to say? What was that about - ?"
"Now, Axel!" Demyx howled, as Naminé started to wail and claw at his wrists, her knees banging the table. With Zexion yelling in his ear, Axel was compelled to obey, lurched across and grabbed up the jam. It was snatched out of his hand the second it came within reach, Zexion scraping up a dollop of the lumpy, grape-coloured mixture, shouting, "Dem, incoming!"
The blond wrenched his hands away from the girl, her mouth opening wide, crying, "Rox – "
In the next heartbeat, she was choking and gagging on the jam, Demyx locking a hand back over her mouth, smearing the extraneous stickiness over her cheeks as he pinched off her nose with his other fingers, tipping her head forcefully back so that he was looking down into her eyes. "Come on, Nam, swallow it down," he said soothingly, holding hard as she struggled with less and less strength. "That's it, that's right, just you swallow, and then you'll be able to breathe again, yeah?"
Axel watched in horror as the girl writhed, tears escaping her closing eyes, a sob wracking her body, unable to let it loose with the way she was being tormented. "No – no, what are you doing?" He jumped to his feet, Zexion cutting him off with an arm across the chest.
"No, stop – she's doing it," he murmured.
The girl's exposed throat convulsed in a long swallow, and then, like a switch being thrown, she suddenly fell limp.
Cautiously, Demyx released her nose, a sharp breath being taken in, but other than that, Naminé did nothing. Gently, the blond pushed her back up, settling her down in her chair, and when her eyes opened again, there was a new blankness in them. Axel recoiled, disgust and dismay on his face as she relaxed back into her slump-shouldered state, gazing dully at the teapots on the table.
After watching her closely for a long moment, Demyx and Zexion both let out relieved sighs. "Oh, thank goodness," the slate-haired man muttered, brushing the splayed hair back across his face, slouching down a little in his chair. Demyx, meanwhile, held up his hands, covered in the same stickiness that now glistened on the girl's face, and asked nervously, "Uh, Zexy? Little help here?"
"Oh, of course, of course!" Zexion stood, grabbed a handful of tablecloth and gestured the blond over. He and Demyx then carefully and thoroughly wiped his hands clean of all sign of the jam, the blond muttering that he felt a little 'sleepy'. Zexion took up a cold cup of tea and poured it over his fingers in a final wash, neither of them fully relaxing until they were sure it was entirely gone.
Axel sat in a state of shock, watching their every move with a horrible flicker of dawning comprehension. Noticing a sticky patch on his own fingers from where he'd touched the jar, he was suddenly anxious to remove it, scrubbing it on the table's surface, dipping the first two fingers of his other hand into his half-poured hot tea and rubbing it completely away.
Noticing, Demyx smiled ruefully, nodded and said, "You don't wanna get any of that in your mouth, man. Not for general consumption, you know?" Zexion tugged on his wrist, said something sharply under his breath, making the blond blink. "…Uh, that is," he then hurried to correct, "you're more than welcome to try it if you feel like it!" When Zexion sighed, shook his head irritably, Demyx amended, "Tea! How about I make you a nice hot cup of tea?"
Axel stared for a long, silent minute. Zexion shot him an inscrutable look, adjusted his hat, announced, "I think it's time for a riddle, actually, Demyx." He gave Axel a thin smile. "Do you like riddles, Axel? Demyx and I are quite fond of them."
The redhead's gaze slid over to where Naminé sat, looking utterly lifeless, like a person-sized doll that someone had used and abandoned into a dumpster somewhere. He got such a chill from all of this; his stomach was churning with sharp, sickening anxiety. And she – hadn't she been trying to call for Roxas? What had that been?
Had she been trying to use her third and final save in those precious few lucid moments?
Rather than answer Zexion, Axel turned his attention to her drawing pad, still where she had dropped it on the table. He reached over to pick it up, and looked expressionlessly down at the image she had been sketching out.
"Axel?" Demyx ventured hesitantly, resting his hands on Zexion's shoulders and massaging lightly. "Do you, uh, wanna hear Zexion's riddle? It's a really good one… and then maybe we can all have some tea…"
It seemed like the ones that weren't trying to outright kill him were the most dangerous of all.
Axel stood abruptly, shoving the chair back with his knees. It caught on a clump of grass and tipped over backward, bumping to the ground. The redhead stepped over its jutting legs, plucking up the lead pencil the girl had been using, and carried both over to her. Studying her for a moment, feeling ill at the emptiness in her features, he gently placed the book in her lap, slipped the pencil into her limp fingers, careful to not brush any of the jam that lingered on her skin.
Slowly, her eyes turned down to the pad, taking in the image that was there. Her fingers twitched slightly, lifted the pencil uncertainly, and, within moments, she was back to working on it, tuning out the rest of the world.
Axel's hand hovered for a moment, as he searched for a place to safely pat her, ending up tapping his hand against the crown of her head, between the delicate rodent ears adorning either side of her scalp. "Don't – stop drawing," he urged her softly.
She gave no sign that she had heard him, or felt him. She just kept sketching Roxas.
He turned as a hand touched his arm, found himself looking into the cold glare of Zexion, the man's hat pulled low over his brow. "…You should go," he said icily. "She can't leave here, anyway."
Snarling silently, Axel wrenched free of his grip, stared him down for a long moment. The look was returned unwaveringly, utterly steady and lacking in remorse, Demyx watching anxiously from the sidelines. At length, the redhead cut his eyes down to the side and shoved past, stalking down the length of the table. Demyx came after him, a finger raised, saying dubiously, "Uhm, Axel, how – how about that riddle? There – how, how is a raven like a writing desk? Uh – do you, do you want some tea?"
Axel shoved him out of the way as he attempted to engage his gaze, followed the path back out and slammed through the pretty little gate, taking an iota of vicious satisfaction in the way it cracked against its hinges. He returned to the crossroads, glowered wordlessly up at the useless collection of signs, clenched and loosened his fists several times, then sighed heavily, closing his eyes. He concentrated on gaining a little control, sucking in deep, steady breaths, and wished that the terrible trembling that had taken hold of his limbs would go away.
For one scary moment, he felt like he was getting ready to explode, do something drastic – maybe scream, maybe cry hysterically, maybe uproot the stupid crossroads sign and go back to maul the tea-sucking fuckers back there and rescue the little girl from their clutches. The only thing really stopping him doing that last option was Zexion's last words to him, ringing with dreadful truth.
So – had Naminé eaten the jam? Had she had a sip of tea? Had she always been a mouse, or did that kind of thing only happen to the people that didn't wear the black coats? Even the Riku twins had a similar, unnatural freakiness – "There is only one Riku."
Axel's head was spinning and hurting at the same time. It made him want to hurl all over again, but by now, his stomach was just – hollow. There was nothing. He had to endure to slow burn of wretchedness completely without relief.
He chose a direction, the right-hand path from the hedge, and set off at a trudge, with a worn acceptance that this was all that was left. At least a path was better than nothing, better than stomping through sticks and fucking… fucking mushrooms. Christ, anything was better than that. It was nice to feel something firm beneath his feet for once, something that reminded him that the world wasn't just comprised of the wild.
In fact… it was feeling really firm, come to think of it. He paused, frowned at the magnified sound of his sneakers dragging, lifted one shoe and peered down, lips pursing. He touched his toe down experimentally, pushed it into the earth, scuffed it hard, and realised that it wasn't actually earth anymore. Not just a trail cut into the dirt – actual asphalt, something laid by hands and cement mixers. The kind that crumbled at the edges over time, forming potholes that required a small team of workmen to come out and patch up, when the park rangers' budgets were extensive enough.
Excitement ripped through his veins, unexpected and frightening – he didn't want to be disappointed, oh, God, he couldn't handle it if this was a hoax of some kind. He tried to dampen it, tried to keep a fatalistic view of things, even as he began to jog along the pavement, heart giddily thumping. Sweat popped out at his temples, forcing him to swipe it away as his pace increased, the plastic ends of his shoelaces skittering along audibly.
The clincher of it all was the sign he passed. It was metal, goddamn it, it reflected the last gasps of the rapidly sinking sun in a perfectly placed dent. It was scuffed, and the paint was chipped, it was old as hell, but it read Tulgey Wood, and that was enough to get him running.
Where was Tulgey Wood, again? He was sure he'd heard about it, recently in fact. Maybe it was the part where the rangers allowed the campers to go, to preserve the wildlife in the rest of the forest. Maybe he was heading along one of the quieter, more scenic bushwalks, about to break out and burst into someone's pitching area, their tents aglow with gas lamps and torches and the beautiful crackle of a carefully controlled bonfire.
They would have food, they would have water, he'd be able to pass out happily, in the knowledge that paramedics would be called by the petrified campers to come collect his malnourished and hypothermic carcass, and cart it off to be rejuvenated, care of the state.
Every hope, however, every wish and dream, every imagined sparkle of salvation, died the moment he saw the path end.
Axel slowed, halted, the blood draining from his face as he stared at the clean-cut edge several feet away. The asphalt just – stopped. Like someone had grabbed a cleaver and sliced it away, scraped it up and thrown it out, deeming it useless, superfluous, unnecessary.
He approached tensely, green eyes ticking around hungrily in search of where it would continue. Even – even if it just became dirt from hereon in, he'd be happy, he'd be fine. Maybe they'd… run out of funding at this part. Maybe they were still building it.
Maybe, he thought, as he ventured a few steps into completely untamed woodland, he was deluding himself bitterly.
He stood for a moment, with the temperature dropping as evening fell. A light wind blew, ruffling his spiked, scarlet hair, chilling the many small cuts and bruises, his tongue coming out to press at the slices on his bottom lip. Scanning the area, Axel searched desperately for the exit to this place, as he'd so brightly imagined it.
There wasn't one.
Heart sinking slowly, hurting almost, the disappointment just as viciously hot at he'd imagined it, he turned, stricken, to follow the path back to the crossroads. Perhaps he'd just… chosen the wrong one. Backtrack half an hour, and he'd be fine. He could keep going for a couple hours yet, as long as there was a little road to follow.
Only thing was, when he looked for the path to follow it back – it wasn't there anymore. It was just… it was gone.
Eyebrows drawing together, throat constricting with panic, Axel stood frozen for a moment, before launching into overdrive, tearing through the trees in a frantic hunt, gaze darting all over the place in search of the unmistakeably man-made creation. With the light of the newly twinkling stars shining down on him, Axel threw himself from one copse to the next, refusing to pause, not daring to give up that one and only spark of hope he had. It was the only thing that suggested he'd been on the right path – there'd been the sign, the sign, damn it! If he could just get back there, if he could just… if he could…
But he was… lost.
He no longer knew where he was in relation to where the path was supposed to be. He didn't know where he should head to try and relocate it, because everything looked different in the darkness. He recognised nothing.
"Oh, come on," he whispered brokenly, turning in a circle, searching for anything that would look vaguely familiar. However, other than the fact that every gnarled tree bore a striking resemblance to its predecessor... "No," he muttered, hands rising to his head, eyes squeezing shut. "No, no, no. I am not staying in this place overnight. I can't." Eyes flashing back open, he added shakily, "There's no way."
Apparently, the dark and silent woods didn't agree.
Hands slipping down to cup his mouth, he sucked a hard breath through his nose, panic evident in its shortness.
He resumed walking for a while, utterly aimless now, stopping when he reached the edge of some wetlands. A small waterfall trickled nearby, flashes of pale moonlight glinting against its stream. Axel sat numbly on a large, flat rock, fingers fidgeting between his legs as he stared into the darkness and came to terms with the fact that this was it.
He was cold, starving, dirty and sticky, he had a bad taste in his mouth, and he was too scared to even rinse it out in the clean-flowing water, not for the usual fear of bacteria, but the more pertinent one that he would then be here forever. If he couldn't handle twenty-four hours in the place, he was pretty sure he'd end up throwing himself off a cliff if he somehow doomed himself here for eternity.
Setting an elbow against one knee, he reached up with the heel of his palm, bending his neck and rubbing hard at the slow, hot prickle that had taken up residence in his eyes. Jaw clenching, sniffing hard, he pressed a fist into the bridge of his nose, lips pressed thin, and struggled to remain in control.
The moon rose overhead, a thin crescent like a grinning mouth, and gradually, Axel became aware of soft fingers stroking his hair. He blinked a couple of times, felt a spike being gently tugged, before a warm set of lips pressed to the side of his face. He turned his head with a slight jerk, and found himself looking into Roxas' eyes, the blond sitting crouched on the rock beside him, a hand sifting carefully through the man's red locks.
Roxas smiled faintly, a thumb brushing over his temple, smoothing an eyebrow, coaxing Axel's eyes closed again. "You've done so well," the blond whispered huskily. His other hand came out, to trace the contours of Axel's face, careful and tender. "You're so close now, Axel. Don't be sad – it's nearly over." He kissed his forehead, tucked their heads together for a long minute, Axel just about crumbling in his grasp, breaths growing unsteady as he fought his exhaustion, the accumulated horror of the day. With one final peck on the tip of his nose, Roxas drew back, rested a hand along his cheek, and said quietly, "If you really want to leave this place, you need to ask the King of Hearts, at the palace."
Swallowing thickly, tongue dry, Axel inhaled and nodded, eyes slowly opening, a grimace in place as he met the blond's sympathetic gaze. "Yeah," he croaked. "I'm – ready now. I've had enough. I want to go home." Turning instinctively into the boy's cupping hand, he asked, "How do I find this – palace place?"
Smiling faintly, Roxas shrugged. "There's a lot of different ways to get there… Some people take the high road, some take the low…" Drawing a breath, he turned his head, gazed out into the wetlands. "But me, I prefer – the shortcut."
Following the direction of his stare, Axel dubiously asked, "What, out there? Isn't that all swampy?"
Roxas twisted back, gave him a crooked grin. "The beauty of a shortcut," he pointed out, "is the fact that not everyone knows it's there." Growing serious again, he added, "There's a way through that only I know. It'll take you straight to the palace." Seeing the continuing doubt on the redhead's face, Roxas sighed, tilted his head back and kissed his way along his jaw, ending up at his throat, nuzzling it gently. "It'll be okay. I give you my word that I won't let you be hurt."
His hands rising to take loose handfuls of the blond's shirt, Axel gazed over through the darkness, then, after a moment's hesitation, nodded. "Okay. I trust that you'll – keep your word."
Pulling back with a smile, Roxas smoothed his palms over Axel's hair, holding his face steady to study it for a moment. "Let's go, then," he said softly, firmly. He slid off the rock, the slightly spiked fur of his ears and tail glistening in the moonlight.
Axel followed the blond over past the waterfall, watching it as they went by. A small family of ducks heading the opposite way ignored the two males, webbed feet slapping wetly over the damp ground, dipping into the pool that the waterfall created and quacking loudly, piercing the hush.
Roxas paused at the edge of the wetlands proper, turning and sending Axel a hard look. "Make sure to follow me closely," he warned. "It's too easy to lose your way and end up sinking. Just one step in the wrong direction and you go from standing on the surface to sucking water."
Nervously shifting from foot to foot, Axel nodded, trying to not let his concern show. A moment later, he was surprised to have a warm hand squeezing his own tightly, Roxas standing close. "It'll be okay," the blond encouraged quietly. "Didn't I tell you? Just keep following me. Even if you feel the ground start to dip, keep walking where I walk."
"Yeah – no problem," Axel confirmed, agitation clamped down on. After a moment of searching his face, Roxas nodded, turned, and set off into the gloom.
It was slow going. Axel's sneakers grew quickly heavy with damp, darkening from their regular dull, dirty white to a murky brown, socks revoltingly icy and squishy against his flesh. Still, if it meant getting out of here sooner, he'd follow Roxas just about anywhere. And so far, things were going well. They were progressing at a steady, picking pace, despite the way the mud sucked at their feet, sometimes slickly slippery and other times like glue. Every now and then, Roxas would pause, would turn and help him if he needed it, and little by little they made their way deeper into the swamp.
Eyes darting, Axel noticed that the trees further in were slowly dying, rotting, their roots inundated and drowning, trunks just about sagging apart into the water. That there was any path through here, visible or otherwise, was incredible. The redhead was grateful for each and every one of Roxas' sure steps, mimicking them almost exactly, the rhythmic, wet squelch of their progress a constant sound above the sleepy voices of the various waterfowl.
At one point, as they hit a patch of more viscous mud, Axel lost his right shoe. Cursing, he twisted, stretching back with his foot to try and hook it back up and on, arms spread as he attempted to keep his balance. "Hey, Roxas – wait up," he called, voice echoing through the dreariness. "Gotta get my shoe."
"Leave it there," Roxas advised. "It's already gone."
Scowling, Axel glanced back at him, then down to where it had been sucked off, only to realise that he couldn't see it anymore. The more he tried digging with his toes, the number they became, the harder it was to stay upright. After then losing his sock to the muck, he admitted defeat. "Well, shit," he complained, sighing irritably and carefully turning back around. Roxas had already carried on, growing further ahead. Frowning, Axel repeated, "Wait up," and set off after him at a cautiously quick shuffle.
After only covering a few meters, his other shoe was claimed, the mud closing around his ankle. "Fuck," he hissed. He raised his voice. "Roxas, I'm losing everything over here! My goddamn feet are gonna freeze off at this rate – you never told me it was going to be this cold!"
"Just keep going, Axel," the voice came floating back patiently. "It won't be long now."
"Oh, yeah?" the redhead demanded, wrenching his now-bare, filthy foot free and hobbling after him. "How long? And would you please stop getting so far ahead?" With a sigh, Roxas drew to a halt, turning and waiting for him to catch up. "It's getting deeper," Axel muttered, tugging at the legs of his jeans as the cuffs filled with black, mould-scented water.
"It's fine where I am." The blond pointed down to where his feet rested perfectly along the surface, barely causing a ripple. Axel scowled.
"Hey, how come I end up losing my shoes, but yours look just fine? They're not even dirty, Roxas, how'd you end up aagh!" He broke off into a startled yelp as he suddenly plunged down into the freezing water, splashing hard, the swamp slopping all around him. Axel kicked and gasped, voice bouncing off the trees as he wailed, arms thrashing around, before realising, feet touching the mud, that it only came up to his ribs.
He stood panting for a moment, before screeching, "Holy shit!" Head whipping back, he cried up at Roxas, "It's so fucking cold! You gotta help me out, Rox, I'm dying down here!" He started clawing at the water, searching for a solid edge by which to drag himself up, teeth already beginning to chatter violently. "Holy freaking… Roxas? Are you helping, or you just gonna stand there and laugh at me?" he demanded.
The silent blond stared at him for a moment, before saying in low tones, "I'm not laughing, Axel."
Pausing in his efforts, the redhead glared upward. "You're also not helping." He struggled for a moment, erratic movements causing ripples in the water, then felt an abrupt shift beneath his feet. Stiffening, going still, Axel's brows lowered. "Uh… Roxas?" He carefully reached around, pressing his hands into the slimy bank behind him, slowly trying to shift one foot, finding it stuck. "Roxas – the ground is… I think it's unstable." He looked down at himself. "Am I – am I a little deeper than I was before?" When the blond still didn't move, didn't offer any advice, Axel snarled, "Jesus, Roxas, would it kill you to…" He broke off sharply, inhaled hard enough to choke on a stray fleck of dirt clinging to his lip. He gazed in silence at where, only seconds before, the blond had been standing. But now… Roxas was gone.
"No," Axel muttered. "Oh, no, you are not leaving me here." Looking around angrily, unable to find him, he bellowed, "Roxas, you little bitch! Get back here! I'm sinking, you can't just – whoa!" He slipped downward, a slight pocket of air bubbling up to the surface as one leg was swallowed up to the calf. Spluttering and coughing as his face splashed into the water, he turned it onto the side, one cheek immersed, and gasped, "Get the fuck back here! You can't leave me like this!"
His fingers slid away from the earthen wall, a cloud of dirt drifting over from where he'd snatched some out. Plunging his hands down into the icy water, Axel grabbed hold of the heavy denim leg of his jeans and tried yanking his foot loose, sucking a mixture of air and drops of water as the surface bobbed and slapped against his lowered face. Blinking and squeezing his eyes against the stinging, wet invasion, he struggled and fought, furious noises cracking out from between clenched teeth as he lost more and more of himself rapidly into the swamp.
At last, he straightened to find the water up around his chin, several more bubbles of old air rising as the ground choked him down piece by piece. Whining and thrashing, arms cutting back and forth as if he could swim his way to safety, he sank an inch at a time, the water filling his nostrils, flooding his mouth only to be quickly spat out. The man tipped his head right back, keeping his face up for as long as humanly possible, frenziedly chanting, "No, no, no, no!"
Within moments, he would vanish below, no doubt to join the many others that the man with the pink hair had accused Roxas of drowning out here, where Axel had so incredibly stupidly, blindly followed. As if kisses equalled trust!
Face contorting, Axel sucked a deep lungful of air, ending up gulping down filthy water and gagging, choking, retching it back up. With a low, desperate scream, he cried, "Roxas! Roxas! I still have two – fucking – saves – left! I'm calling your name, you bastard! Roxas!"
He dipped below the surface, a burst of chaos erupting as he fought with every last ounce of oxygen he had left, hair floating up towards the surface, no longer in spikes but swaying ribbons. Time running out, he screamed Roxas' name a final time, in a boiling swirl of bubbles.
This time, there was nothing to replace the breath he lost, nothing but frigid, murky water. He covered his mouth, pinched off his nose, curling down into himself as the mud held him. Heartbeat roaring, blood thudding like the blows of a sledgehammer through his ears, Axel cursed Roxas with every last thought and emotion he possessed.
As he began to fade, stars exploding in front of his eyes in the precious few moments before his body took over and forced him to inhale, Axel saw – a face. A face looming out of the pitch darkness, right beside him, deep down in the water. Invisible hands crawled up his body, pressed hotly against the skin of his ribs, beneath his billowing shirt, and slid hard into his armpits. For a moment, Axel and the apparition were nose-to-nose, staring at each other, the redhead's hands still clamped hard over his lower face.
Then, as his eyelashes fluttered shut, there was a surge of motion, a jolt, ice spreading down his legs as his hair flattened down around his shoulders. Seconds later, he hit the air, instinct kicking in and deep, screeching breaths being choked inward.
Axel passed out for a couple of minutes, system kicked hard by the sudden rush of oxygen, and came to in the midst of vomiting violently into the mud. Fluid he didn't even know he'd inhaled came heaving out, chest burning painfully as he coughed uncontrollably, fingers digging into the ground, entire body shaking and jumping.
He became aware of a pair of hands holding the sopping hair out of his face, gasped in several times, then gathered a fistful of mud and whipped around, smashing his saviour right in his eye. Roxas' head rocked back on his neck, but other than that, the blond gave no acknowledgement to the fact that he'd just been punched. Face dripping grit, he lowered his chin and asked calmly, "Are you done now? Is it all up?"
With a low, enraged scream, Axel leapt at him, knuckles flying, feet kicking, slamming him onto his back in the muck. He attacked his face, clawed at his ears, wrapped his fingers around his throat and crushed.
Roxas, who had lain still and accepted his punishment up til then, rolled back onto his shoulders, popping his feet up into the redhead's stomach and, with their joint momentum, flung him over his head and onto drier land. Axel thudded to a stop against a large slab of rock, pawing at his eyes as dust invaded them, only managing to smear the hundreds of grains further across his face until there was no escape.
Sighing heavily, Roxas knelt beside him, grabbed hold of both his wrists and tightened his grip warningly. "Stop," he said firmly, as Axel went still. "You're making things worse. I'll do it."
"Do what?" the redhead demanded in a voiceless hiss. "Try to kill me again?" When no answer was forthcoming, Axel slumped, jerked his hands free and dragged them through his saturated hair, feeling the water squeeze down his back. "You said you wouldn't lead me into danger. Gave me your word. You're just… like all the rest of them," he denounced shakily. "I haven't even done anything wrong."
Roxas took hold of his chin, held up one remarkably clean hand, and started to quickly and efficiently scrape the sand out of his eyes. "…I'm not," he said quietly, as Axel shivered wildly with the cool night air flowing over him. "I only did it to save you."
The redhead let loose a cracked, hysterical laugh. "Save me? Save? Is that what you had in mind, when you left me in the middle of the swamp to drown?" The last part was choked through clenched teeth, burning with anger and betrayal, increasing the way he trembled.
Roxas, twisting his hand into his shirt, lifting it up and gently wiping at Axel's eyes, replied simply, "Yes." As Axel blinked clumsily through the various grains still inhabiting his eyelids, he added, "Because anything is better than being stuck here forever."
Chest puffing and deflating broadly as he continued to regain his breath, Axel stared in perplexity, until his eyes began to sting again. "If you feel that strongly about this place, why don't you just kill yourself, and leave getting the fuck outta here to those of us who want to try?"
Roxas gave a bitter smile, cupping Axel's chin, tipping his head to the side. "Don't you think I've tried?" As the redhead fell silent, expression dropping, Roxas continued, "Death is the perfect escape from this nightmare – I try to save those that I can, because I know what it is to truly suffer it." Pressing his warm forehead to Axel's icy one, he breathed, "I can never leave." Their noses touched. "I'll be honest, though… I really didn't want to do it. The thought of having you around all the time, a cat like me… I could have company, for once…"
"I could end up like Naminé, you mean?" Axel asked, voice low and fierce. Roxas blinked, sighed against his mouth and drew away warily.
"You – saw Naminé?"
"I'm surprised you didn't hear her," the redhead responded coldly. "After all, she was trying to call for you."
Roxas was quiet for several moments, before ducking his head slightly. "Maybe you see, then, why I tried to do what I did."
"…Jesus, Roxas," Axel groaned, lifting a hand to wipe down his face.
Roxas snatched it a bare second before he could, saying, "Ah, no! Your hands are still dirty!"
Axel paused, looked at the blond's smaller hands wrapped around his wrist, then over into the earnest, blue eyes directly across from his, blond brows drawn down in a show of concern. For a long moment, they stared at one another, Axel's arm relaxing in his grasp. "…If I hadn't called to you," he asked softly, intently, "would you have saved me anyway?"
Roxas held his gaze steadily, saying nothing for several heartbeats. Then, "No." As Axel's eyes cut away, expression flattening, Roxas tightened his hold on his tugging wrist. "But, since you brought it up… you owe me my payment."
Axel choked, looked back at him sharply, disbelieving. "You can't be serious."
Roxas intoned, "Three saves for three kisses."
Teeth gnashing, the redhead growled, "Well, how about we don't kiss, and you can take your next save and shove it up your ass? Consider our deal done with."
Rapidly, Roxas countered, "That can't be done. You break our deal, and you end up back in the swamp. We're on the opposite shore right now, Axel, and it really was a shortcut – the palace is just over the next rise. If you don't pay me, though, whether I want it or not, you'll be right back where you started. Or – where you were finishing, as it were."
Sucking a sudden breath, eyes widening, Axel stared for a moment, then shouted, "What the fuck kind of rule is that?!"
"It's no rule," the blond shrugged. "It's just magic. It's just the way the agreement works. The only reason I saved you at all is because I'm bound to it – just like you're bound to paying me for my services."
"So now I have to kiss you?" the redhead demanded.
Eyes narrowing, Roxas replied stiffly, "It doesn't need to be too much of one, if the idea disgusts you so much."
"Oh, I'm sorry that the idea of making out with my would-be murderer doesn't turn me on more," came the whiplash response. Then Axel sliced a hand through the air, saying, "You know what? Fuck it. Fine. If it means I survive this bullshit, I'll kiss you." In chilly tones, he added, as the blond started to lean forward, "But only because I want to survive."
Roxas hesitated, then sat back, eyes becoming hooded. Leaning back against the tall rock, he straightened his legs out and flatly commanded, "In that case – give me my payment. I'm waiting."
Axel scowled at the sudden change in his attitude – as if he were the one being wronged! – and, determined to come out of this the better man, stoically crawled forward. Shoving his way between Roxas' legs, forcing them to bend so that he could settle more comfortably, he glared at the expressionless blond, who merely rested against the stone and waited.
Sighing shortly, Axel flattened a damp hand on the rock either side of his head and leaned forward. Evidently feeling difficult, Roxas shifted his face slightly to the side, forcing Axel to come after him. When the redhead growled, he quickly twisted his head the other way, avoiding him a second time.
Axel dug his fingers into the soft flesh of Roxas' jaw, grip and eyes steely as he grated, "Hold. Still. And let me. Pay you." Not giving the blond a chance to play any further games, he swiftly pressed their mouths together. It was a dry, close-mouthed exchange, Axel taking no pleasure from it, just holding his lips there until he felt a proper amount of time had elapsed during which neither of them made any move to deepen it.
Readying to pull back, he relaxed his grip on Roxas' chin, started to withdraw. In the moment he felt it happening, however, the blond's arms snaked up, looped hard around Axel's neck, and jerked him back before he could disconnect, mouth suddenly opening, tongue coming out to press against the seam of the redhead's stubborn lips. Frowning fiercely at him, Axel made a muffled noise of protest, which Roxas completely ignored. Holding him tighter, hooking his ankles behind the tall man's back, he clutched Axel and refused to let go until he'd got some form of decent response.
Huffing an impatient sigh through his nose, eyes rolling, Axel resentfully submitted to the insistence of the tongue seeking entrance. Instantly, the pressure that Roxas was applying to every section of him eased, as they joined at the mouth, lips smacking quietly. Even now, however, Axel was pissed enough to maintain a sense of detachment, allowing Roxas all the control, not bothering to inject anything of his own into the union. Frustrated, Roxas grunted, then sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and bit down, aggravating the cuts, cleaning away the old blood.
Eyes flaring wide, a breath sucking in as an electric bolt shot through his nerves, Axel slackened in his grasp. Roxas' hands shifted up to the sides of his face, teeth releasing his lip, pulling him ever deeper into the kiss.
At last, reluctance becoming hazy, beginning to fade from his mind, the redhead started taking some initiative, employing Roxas' tongue and mouth with more independence. Humming his approval, the blond relaxed against the stone, wrapping his arms more securely around Axel's shoulders, prolonging the kiss as much as possible, kneading the back of his neck. Axel shivered, fingers sinking into his sides, giving himself over, eyes sliding shut.
He tasted teeth and saliva and Roxas and a hint of the swamp; he tasted sweetness and desperation, all of it combining into a heady mixture designed to trap the senses and pin them down. He sank against Roxas heavily, massaging his sides through his shirt, the blond whimpering at the touch. A second later, his long tail wrapped around Axel's waist, the redhead shuddering slightly, reaching around to grab it and drag his nails through the fur. He swallowed a purr from Roxas' mouth, grinning slightly.
When eventually the amount of oxygen being inhaled through their noses wasn't enough, they broke apart panting. Axel realised with dismay that he wouldn't be allowed to touch Roxas' lips again, not until something life-threatening happened along that he couldn't get himself out of. Almost groaning at the loss, he dropped his face into the stretch of flesh between Roxas' neck and shoulder and kissed at it, peppering butterfly-soft touches up and down the pale column of his throat.
Roxas copied the movement, burying his nose into the corner of Axel's neck, eyelashes fluttering at the redhead's ministrations, before sucking a breath, spreading his slick tongue along the rope of muscle that he found there, and sinking his teeth into it.
Axel's moan echoed briefly through the trees, Roxas pushing his advantage, hands sliding up under his sodden shirt and starting to play with the hardened nubs of the redhead's nipples. "Holy… shit," Axel gasped, arching into his touch, unwittingly grinding their hips together, causing each of them to let loose strangled, pleasured grunts. Panting into his ear, twitching and writhing as Roxas continued to play with his body, Axel asked, "What's – this about? This – nnh – meant to be your… apology?"
Roxas breathed a laugh, sucking briefly on the lobe of his ear, nibbling along its soft shell. "Hardly," he muttered, pushing up against the redhead's crotch, eliciting another erotic noise from his lips. "This is my parting gift to you. Xemnas is going to kill you." With this, he rolled his hips into Axel's a third time, finding a patch of untouched skin on his throat and starting to suck at it ardently.
Axel's eyelids flickered once, twice, three times with a groan, and then suddenly he forced his hands against Roxas' chest and shoved, hard enough to knock the breath out of Roxas and send himself tumbling onto his back in the dirt.
For a while, there was stunned silence, broken only by heavy breaths. Then Roxas demanded, "What? What the fuck?"
Pressing the heels of his palms against his sweaty forehead, Axel gazed up at the leafy sky and sighed, "I could ask the same of you." He levered up onto his elbows, eyeing the blond's self-righteous indignation. "Fuck you, Roxas," he said wearily. "You're so sure I'm not gonna live to see the sunrise. I don't need goddamn… pity sex."
"It's not pity sex," the blond argued fiercely. "I told you, it's a parting gift. It's me giving something to you because you deserve it, not because I feel sorry for you."
"I deserve sex? Why, because I was such a brave boy all day?" Axel suddenly snorted, muttered, "What the hell am I saying, I deserve a freaking harem after everything I went through today." He pushed himself up to sit cross-legged, glaring at the boy. "Just – okay, look. You can stop looking at me like I'm the bad guy in all this, and get used to the fact that I don't go in for 'last fucking meal' fucking, okay? If we were a couple and I was going away on a business trip tomorrow morning, sure, I'd chain you to the nearest bedpost and not let you go until five minutes before the plane was due to take off – but if you're just looking to lay me because this time tomorrow I won't be kicking at all, you can shove it." Unhappily, he rose to his feet, uselessly trying to brush himself off. "I am – I'm not doing this with you. You can't just go from… trying to kill me, to trying to screw me because you think it's the last happy sensation I'll ever get, okay?" He straightened, levelled his shoulders defiantly. "I'll prove it to you. I'll live, goddamn it, and then you'll see I didn't need your pity sex."
Groaning, Roxas repeated, "But it's not –"
"Forget it, Roxas." Axel's voice was quiet, but firm. His green eyes were calm in the moonlight, as he looked down at where the blond remained sitting against the rock. "I'm telling you right now, I don't want or need it. I don't plan on sticking around this place any longer that I have to, and I tell you what – the second I get out, I'll nail the first blond, blue-eyed guy I come across in gratitude."
Mouth twisting down at the corners, Roxas said softly, "But it won't be me, because I'll still be trapped down here." He looked up beseechingly. "Axel, all I wanted… was to –"
Axel held up a hand, forestalling his words. "Whatever either of us wants," he said heavily, "will have to take a backseat, Rox. Your King wants to speak to me, right? And I want to get the hell out of here before something happens to lock me in. Maybe you want a cat-boy friend to keep you company… but that's not exactly fair on me, is it?"
Drawing his knees up to his chest, Roxas wrapped his arms around them, tucked his cheek against one, lowered his gaze to the ground and muttered, "No."
"…Well, then," Axel said, as if this settled the discussion. His hands, dangling loosely by his sides, came up bunch his hair into a brief ponytail, squeezing out the last of the marsh water as best as he could, a useless effort considering the rest of his appearance. "I'm not exactly fit for royal viewing," he sighed distastefully, looking down at his bedraggled, mud-caked, bare-foot state. "But it'll have to do." He looked over at Roxas, spread his arms, and asked, "So, where am I going to see this guy?"
Breathing in a sigh, the blond quietly lifted an arm, and pointed beyond him. "Over that way. Past the hill. Just keep going, and you'll be there before you know it."
Axel turned, squinting through the darkness. "Ah. Okay. That sounds… surprisingly easy." Frowning, he twisted back, suspicion creeping across his expression.
Before he could voice any doubts, Roxas said, "I'm not lying, and I'm not trying to kill you again." He shrugged slightly. "I had my chance, and I blew it. In more than one way, it feels like." Not looking up, he added, "Whatever happens to you from here is your own business."
Axel studied him for a moment. "You're – not coming with me?"
"Have I ever?" Roxas countered. He shook his head, drawing further into himself. "I'll just do like I always do in situations like these," he mumbled. "Stay on the sidelines, and be helpless."
For a long minute, Axel stayed where he was. Yes, he desperately wanted to leave this hellish forest; yes, he wanted to get this entire 'King' thing the fuck over with – but something, some part of Roxas, was holding him back. He wanted to say something to the cat-boy, whose ears and tail, once something to gape about, had become almost commonplace by now. He wanted to say something… but he just – didn't know quite what. He didn't know if thanks were in order, or good-byes, and he didn't think he wanted to ask if they were going to see each other again after this, if Roxas would be waiting at the exit to shake his hand and wish him well.
So instead of saying something, Axel said nothing. He turned his back on the blond, bare feet virtually silent compared to when he'd crunched across the miles in his long-gone sneakers, and walked away. He left the wetlands further and further behind, mounting the rising hill, weaving slowly through the trees that dotted it.
At no point did Roxas try and give chase.
Halfway up, Axel couldn't help but pause and glance back down… but Roxas, as half-expected, was gone. He didn't stick around, it seemed, unless there was something in it for him. Well, that was fine. Axel was pretty much the same way. That was why he was planning to get out of this place as soon as possible, and never, never look back.
He just hoped the tingling of his lips, from their latest kiss, would die down soon, make it easier to forget that it had ever happened in the first place. There was no room for guilt right now, or wishful thinking. Axel had to be focused.
Astoundingly – ridiculously – as Axel approached the peak, he saw the sun doing the same over on the horizon. Despite the fact that only a couple hours had passed since it had gone down, it was attempting to rise again. This place – it obeyed no laws of logic, did it? Absolutely none.
Fine, then. If it wanted to be dawn, then it could be dawn. It didn't matter either way to Axel; in fact, it'd probably make things easier, in the long run. At least he could see a little better now, with the edge of the world lit up silver and gold.
He finally reached the apex of the hill, the forest thinning out around him, and, as promised, in the distance he saw what had to be the palace Roxas had mentioned – not that it was looking particularly palace-like. More like a tower, stabbing skyward. But then, it wasn't like that didn't fit in with the rest of the scheme of things – he figured that whoever was running this place didn't go in for conformity much.
Inhaling deeply, lips thinning, face hardening determinedly, Axel gazed at the looming, pitch-black tower, then started down the other side of the hill, gripping the belt-loops of his mud-heavy pants. This was it, then. After everything he'd gone through, he was finally where he needed to be. His entire purpose in this goddamn forest was to be here, to find this stupid monarch and answer his questions. What he hoped to learn from Axel, the redhead wasn't entirely sure. After all, they already had fire-starting more than covered in their general knowledge, and he didn't think there was a hell of a lot else in his brain that was worth offering, in terms of valid information.
He reached the bottom of the incline twenty minutes later, entering directly into what had to be the palace grounds, considering the amount of tall, perfectly trimmed hedges that had suddenly sprung into being, littered with roses, perfect hearts having been shorn out from the leaves every several feet.
Axel continued with cautiousness, following the long, slender path that lead straight through the middle of the hedges, despite the many openings that branched off, maze-like. There was absolutely no temptation to explore – Axel wanted to get in, and get out, in that order. This was not the time to regress into childhood and start poking around.
As he went, he began to notice red splotches dotting the grass here and there, looking sickeningly reminiscent of... "Blood?" he murmured, stomach contracting. He hesitated, glanced around, wondering if someone had been hurt recently. However, a flash of motion caught his eye, and, frowning deeply, he went to one of the red roses adorning the hedge, bent slightly and stared intently. As he watched, a new bead of red formed at the base of one petal, trickled down slowly, and shivered on its edge.
Axel caught it with a finger, held up the shining, quivering bead, studied it closely. He flattened it with his thumb, rubbing it until it thinned and grew sticky. Reluctantly, he lifted it to his nose and sniffed.
Oh, hell, it was blood.
Gasping quietly, he scrubbed his hand rapidly against his shirt, leaving a slight stain behind, feeling pale all of a sudden. He stepped back abruptly from the flower, utterly bewildered, only to find, as he looked up and down the hedge, that all of them were doing it. The roses – the roses were bleeding.
"That is – so messed up, I don't even know where to start," the redhead muttered frantically, struggling to control the gag reflex in his throat. Gulping in a few stabilising breaths, he shut his eyes for a moment, trying to not see flecks of red behind his lids.
He continued walking, not waiting to calm down, opening his eyes again and keeping his gaze centred, focused on the prize at the end of the road, the tower at the end of the maze. He swallowed constantly, staving off the horrifying notion that he could smell the blood. Oh, no, he most certainly could not. No way. Whatever scent these roses had, it was not going to be blood. He was just – his imagination was running away with him. His… olfactory imagination. Yeah.
He started running, feet crushing the grass in the dawn silence, eyes trained on the palace and hoping to God someone would be awake when he got there.
Just as he arrived, clutching for air, heart going at a panicked thunder as if all the monsters of the world were snapping at his heels, darkness exploded in front of him, a swirling, black-purple vortex that seemed almost to consume the nearby light, spreading poisonous tendrils curling through the air. In the next second, someone stepped out of it.
Axel stumbled to a halt, fists jumping up automatically at the sight of the long black coat, hood up for the first time in his experience, completely obscuring the wearer's face from view. He eyed the figure off, chest heaving, gaze darting. "What do you want?" he demanded in a loud wheeze. "Leave me alone, I'm here to see the King!"
The man in the coat laughed quietly, an almost polite sound, folding his hands together behind his back. "Actually, you are here to see the Superior," he corrected in a husky, refined voice. "The King of Hearts has been… shall we say, out of commission, for quite some time now. Xemnas oversees this place these days. He has been waiting for you, Axel."
The redhead shook his head sharply to clear it. "Wait, you're saying that the King doesn't want to talk to me? Like, at all? It's – that Xemnas guy?"
"The Superior, yes," the genteel-sounding man agreed. "But, please, where are my manners? Do come in, before we begin discussing just why you're here, or whom to see." Axel leapt back a step as he came forward, causing the man to hesitate, head tilting inquisitively to one side. "You are here to see the Superior, aren't you? And it looks like your journey has been long and hard, at best…" He gestured a gloved hand to Axel's filthiness, the redhead glancing down and back up with a hint of despair.
"…Okay," he agreed heavily, and, after a moment's uncertainty, he moved reluctantly to meet the man, who so far seemed to be the most sane one of these black-coat guys that he'd come across.
"Very good," came the response, a thin smile evident in his tone. As Axel came within range, he glanced nervously at the nefarious-looking portal that continued to swirl and lick at reality's edges.
"Just please tell me I don't have to – " he started to ask unsurely, cut off abruptly as the man's hand wrapped with sudden, cruel tightness around his upper arm. "Hey, ow!"
"See you there," the black figure said dryly, and, too weak to fight more than perfunctorily, the redhead was tossed into darkness. It swallowed him up without a second's pause.
For a while, Axel ceased to exist, aside from noisy breaths and a heartbeat. It was like – losing his mind. Like falling, and never having a place to land, not even to impact and die. There was no sensation of motion, no heat, no cold, no feeling at all. It was a thousand times worse than any pain he'd ever endured, any sadness, any depression or anger. This was… hopelessness, embodied. He was just a mind, a gasping, displaced brain hurtling at zero miles an hour through nothing.
And in the next, timeless moment, he was just a thin, exhausted, nauseous man on his knees in the dirt, coughing at the bile searing his throat, nails digging hard into the rocky earth. Struggling on the brink of hyperventilation, every particle his body throbbing at triple speed, he raised his eyes, looked about wildly at suddenly new surroundings, back in the darkness of night.
Just as he was getting ready to curse anew at time's fancy-fucking-free attitude when it came to the sun, getting ready to have a panic attack and freak out in the aftermath of such hideous, nightmarish trauma… he realised, as the world came sharply into focus, that he knew this place.
He was somewhere… familiar again. And – to be honest, it wasn't the party he'd thought it would be.
He was – back in the circus.
All hysteria was put on hold, dying down into coldness as he slowly, achingly pushed his way up from the ground to his feet, absently brushing his hands against his mud-caked jeans.
His voice, soft though it was, almost seemed to echo, bouncing off of invisible barriers, shaking its way into a different plane of existence. Axel held his breath, eyebrows drawing together in consternation as he gazed steadily around, hands tucking anxiously across his chest and under his biceps. He shivered a little, though the air was still, turning in place, taking in the dead-looking, silent showgrounds.
There were lights on, but only a few of them, only enough to be able to barely see. He was in – the sideshow area, where the games and rides were set up. All the stalls were empty and dark, but the two carousels were lit up like Christmas, the static horses with their mouths open around their bridles, looking like someone had set off a series of firecrackers, terrified them into flight, and then photographed them. Trapped their souls. The fact that their paint was old and chipped was a relief to Axel's tight chest – it was proof they weren't real, and never had been. Right now… he didn't think he could be sure of anything.
Swallowing unevenly, eyes darting, he started moving, an awkward, uncertain shuffle over the brutally short grass and underlying dirt. His mind raced as he tried to remember where the exit was – if – if this was really the circus… then that meant he was out of the forest. Close to town. If he could only skirt his way around the edges, find the way out… then it would be over. He could – run, all the way home, heedless of bleeding bare feet over bitumen, and just… hide himself away in the apartment forever after.
He didn't question the fact of how he was here at all – he just hoped the luck would hold, that this wouldn't all end up being an elaborate illusion to leave him broken inside.
Picking up speed, he made his way along the alley of game booths, glancing at the silent prizes, the glassy eyes of the plushies seeming to stare, giving a wide berth to the frozen, gaping clown-heads waiting to choke down ping-pong balls, finding them too unnerving to look at for any length of time. He passed the popcorn wagon, the candy-floss vendor where he'd spent four bucks in what felt like another lifetime, the hotdog stand with the skanky wares, all utterly abandoned, and somehow scentless despite their usual all-encompassing quality.
Wary, jumpy from the continuing ghost-town feel of the place, Axel hurried through the last of the sideshows, left them behind and entered into the empty petting zoo. There were short, straw-filled stalls set up in two rows, but, though a faint mustiness hung in the air, there were no animals to be seen. The last time he'd walked this place, there had been pigs, a couple of goats and sheep, some weary-looking chickens fluffing their feathers and making low, soft noises. He wondered briefly where they had all got to, almost worrying for them. After all, they were only livestock – it wasn't like they could look out for themselves, especially not with the lions nearby, pacing their cages.
Finally, as if some kind of pièce de résistance was being thrown his way, Axel entered the caged-animal area, and slowly… stopped… walking.
The cages, unlike the rest of the circus, were actually occupied.
The cages, unlike the rest of the circus, had people in them.
People like Roxas, like Naminé.
He stepped into their midst with wonder and disbelief, wide eyes skating over the many forms that had been packed into them. Most inhabitants were sleeping, but some remained awake, sitting up in the hay, not bothering to speak to one another, barely even glancing Axel's way as he paced hesitantly past them.
There was something – hollow about their features. Like they'd spent the last ten years of their lives inside the darkness that had so leeched the spirit out of Axel himself while he'd been in it. They all wore ears and tails of some description, ranging in a wide variety of species, both mammalian and occasionally reptile. It was… hideous. They were grey, thin, trapped, and Axel was their only witness.
Jesus, it had been bad enough when they were regular animals. This – this was like some kind of living nightmare.
Towards the end of the row of cages, barred, peeling carriages that could easily be hooked together and towed by a tractor, Axel saw his first sign that the pathetic creatures still had some life left in them: Two men were sitting playing cards, a blond and a brunet, both bearing the unmistakable likenesses of lions. Their hair was slightly shaggier than usual, faintly resembling ruffs. They were older than Axel, looking to be in their mid-to-late twenties, both focused intently on the card game.
As the redhead couldn't help but approach, he caught a glimpse of three others within the same small holding cell. A woman with long black hair and speckled cat's ears, pointier than Roxas', was fast asleep with her head on the knee of the blond man, while over against the wall, a short, dark-haired, dog-eared girl lay curled against the hip of a tattooed, red-haired man of similar species, only with slightly rougher-looking fur.
Axel reached the bars, staying a wary foot back, and watched the two awake ones playing for a minute, before the brown-haired lion-man shifted his right hand quickly, murmuring, "Snap." The blond's arm jerked a split-second later, reflexes just the slightest bit too slow, a defeated sigh escaping his lips.
"I'll get them back the next turn."
"Visitor," the brunet grunted, picking up the mess of discarded winnings and adding them to his deck, beginning to shuffle swiftly and expertly.
The blond nodded, turned to Axel, said, "The palace is just up ahead. They'll be waiting for you."
The redhead blinked, features suddenly freezing. "Wait – what? The – palace?" Feeling like someone had cracked an icy egg over his head and was drooling the innards down his back, he watched the blond man nod, small, stiff, round ears remaining still in the chaos of his spiky hair.
"Keep your voice down," he advised flatly, gesturing with his head to the sleepers.
Glancing over at the other inhabitants, the redhead moved quickly to the bars, wrapped his hands around them, whispered insistently, "But – this is the circus. There's no palace here!"
The man shrugged. "Think what you want. Either way, Xemnas and the others are in the main pavilion, expecting you any minute now." Axel stared helplessly, mind grinding to a halt, just about sagging against the bars.
"Then – I'm nowhere near home yet, am I?"
The blond licked his lips impatiently, checking quickly on his playing partner's progress, but the man had apparently chosen to undergo several different shuffling methods, carefully not looking up as he separated the deck. Sky-blue eyes turned back to Axel, and the redhead thought there was the smallest hint of pity in their depths. "Listen, what's your name?"
"…Axel," he said miserably. The blond nodded.
"I'm Cloud. My friend here is Leon." The brunet grunted faint acknowledgement. "When – if things don't turn out, we'll make sure you're taken care of, in whichever carriage you end up in, okay? We can't guarantee much more than that. Sorry."
Scowling, pressing his forehead against the cold bars, Axel moaned quietly, "God, you're showing as much faith in me as Roxas."
Cloud's gaze sharpened, Leon's cutting up a second later, their storm-grey depths expressing shock. "…You've met Roxas?" the brunet asked.
Axel sighed. "Yeah. I met him." Emotions battled in those few words. He wondered, with a sudden stab, if he really had walked away from the cat-boy for the last time, without even saying goodbye.
Squinting at him, Cloud clarified, "You've met Roxas… but you're still here?"
The redhead frowned for a moment. "…Where else would I be?" When the men exchanged uneasy glances, a scowl formed over Axel's face like gathering clouds. "Oh. I think I see. What, am I more suited to the bottom of a swamp?" When they blinked, startled, he stepped back and gestured down at himself. "Been there, done that," he said gruffly. "Lucky me, I had a couple kisses left in stock."
If possible, the two men's eyes widened even further. "…Roxas – offered you three saves for three kisses, didn't he?" Leon said dimly. He and Cloud looked at each other for a long moment, Axel seeing pain flash through the features of the blond.
"Yeah," the redhead answered slowly. "What of it?"
Cloud swallowed, lowered his gaze, shook his head slightly and muttered, "Wow, he must really like you."
Leon scrutinised Axel, showing more interest in the proceedings all of a sudden. "He probably didn't tell you this, but you should know – if you end up trapped here, the pair of you will be bound into cages like ours for all of eternity. Or at least, that's what they say."
"It's true," Cloud said softly. He looked up at Axel from an angle, some rough flaxen spikes falling across his face. "It happened to us. Leon gave me my three saves, and in the end, I still failed. He bound himself to me with it, hoping to rescue me – but, after everything, I doomed us to this prison for the rest of – well, forever. I became a lion like him, and we haven't been out of the circus since then." His eyes closed briefly. "I don't even know… how long it's been. But I suppose it doesn't matter."
Axel's gaze flicked from one to the other, disquiet gradually building as the blond related their tale. "So, wait… You're saying that – if I fuck up, Roxas and me both get tossed into cages? I'll become a cat like him, and we'll be stuck here?"
Leon shrugged faintly. "Seems like that's the choice Roxas made."
"That idiot," Cloud grated. He glared at Leon hotly. "He's an idiot. He could have spent his life in the forest, not free but freer than this – but instead, he's given it all up for some guy, completely on a whim."
Again, Leon shrugged. "These things happen. When you've lived in stasis for a few decades or centuries, whims can take you by storm." The air rumbled with the growl of the lion Cloud claimed to be. Leon shot him a firm, patient look. "The others," he reminded gently, the blond glancing down in frustration at the woman against his leg.
Then, blue eyes burning, Cloud turned to Axel and hissed, "You've completely destroyed what small hope of escape Roxas ever had. When it happens, it'll be all your fault. Congratulations."
As he twisted his face away, refusing to look at the redhead anymore, Axel reeled under the venom of the assault. Then Leon, acting like a balm over a wound, calmly said, "You're the first person to survive Roxas, you know. It's been a while since I saw him, but last I knew, he was leading as many unsuspecting interlopers to their deaths as possible, to save them from this." He flicked a casual hand at their surroundings, the darkness, the bars. "Since we ended up here, there's been several people come in, but none of them had ever heard of Roxas. No one that meets Roxas makes it this far, I think." He studied Axel for a long, silent moment, before concluding thoughtfully, "Cloud's right – he must really like you." As the redhead grappled with this new information, so much clearer and more reasonable-sounding than the version Roxas had given him back in the woods, when Axel had been busy trying to beat him to a pulp, Leon sighed through his nose, gave a small smile. "You should go, Axel." He straightened the cards in his broad palms, slid the top one off the deck and flipped it crisply onto the brushed-clean patch of wood. "The sooner you get this over with, the sooner you find out if you and Roxas end up here with us – or if you maybe end up free."
Mouth dry, pulse thumping, Axel croaked, "Who ends up going free, if we don't turn up back here? Just me, or both of us?"
Leon paused, Cloud going still, though his face remained averted. After a moment's consideration, the brunet confessed, "I don't know. No one's ever made it that far."
Axel bit his lip, winced at the cuts he disturbed. Agitated, somehow a hell of a lot more concerned and frazzled than he'd been before he talked to them, he stepped away from the cage. Leon inclined his head over to the left. "Just keep going, Axel. It'll all be over soon enough."
The redhead nodded distantly, eyes dragging over to where he'd pointed, apprehension at an all-time high. Then, Cloud muttered, "Good luck, kid." His attention was focused on his cards, as he placed one down, glowering hard at the nine of clubs, but he'd definitely said. Axel hesitated, nodded even though the man couldn't see it, and turned, venturing silently on into the night.
He left the cages behind, tried to put their sad occupants out of his mind, and really – really concentrate on the moment.
Who knew… it might be the last time he could walk around freely like this.
Bad thought, bad thought, he silently reprimanded, features arranging into a stubborn scowl as he passed over the butchered grass, steps taking him inevitably towards the only damn place that was left around here – the main arena, the enormous pavilion within which, in another slice of space and time, a show had once been put on to entertain people. It hadn't been the best, and the clowns had been creepy-looking, but in the here and now, any menace they might have once held for Axel seemed shallow and ridiculous. So they didn't know how to appeal to the public properly, someone in charge had a twisted idea of how a circus should be – who the fuck really cared?
The fact remained that Axel had been able to get up and leave. He had left at the end of the night, and if he hadn't gone kitten-hunting, he'd, right this second, already be back in bed and content.
Of course, the closer he got to the darkened tent flaps, the more he began to wonder if that hadn't been the entire purpose of the place to begin with… ensnaring unsuspecting customers… What the fuck kind of circus was this, anyway, that it could turn into some dark little trap when everyone went home?
More to the point – what was going to be waiting for him when he entered the arena?
Steeling himself, he crept cautiously towards the entrance, hovering unhappily in place, swallowing and glancing back the way he'd come. The temptation was strong, at this point, to just turn around and bolt for it. Find an exit, the real exit – make one, if necessary, tear through the temporary fence that had been set up, throw himself over the barbed wire and deal with the consequences once he was out.
Roxas had risked his freedom for him? Was – that really what he'd done? And, even though he'd tried to kill Axel at the last minute, he'd followed through on his promise. He'd saved him, even though it meant he risked becoming trapped, like Leon and Cloud. But then, at the same time, hadn't he actually expressed a desire for company? He'd almost sounded like he wanted Axel to end up being stuck, in turn becoming trapped himself, just – because – he wanted a friend? Because he liked him?
Was it really that lonely for the blond?
…And if Axel played his cards right, could he actually possibly win freedom for them both? There was no guarantee of what would happen if he tried to run, and so far no one worth listening to had suggested that he try. It had always just been about getting there, and finding out his fate. Talking to the King, and hoping to hell that afterwards he'd be somehow supercalifragilistic-expialidociously transported back home.
Before he'd reached the end of this thread of thought, before he decided one way or another between taking any particular course of action, there was a sudden explosion of light and pale blue smoke not six feet away, directly in front of the pavilion's entrance. Hissing and leaping back, nowhere to hide but trying anyway, Axel threw himself to the ground, terrified that it was another portal forming, the thought of having to endure such madness again enough to strip him of his wits.
In the next moment, however, he paused, eyes popping wide as he recognised the shape emerging – or, at least, recognised by name, by description. An old man with a white beard stepped free of the rapidly fading sparks and fog, dressed in a long blue robe and a pointed hat. First thought: court magician.
Second thought: White Rabbit. The man's startlingly pale ears extended high into the air, soft and delicate, if somewhat patchy with age. They twitched and swivelled almost as if independent entities to the rest of his body, seeming to virtually sniff the air, if in an entirely ear-like fashion. The man himself was toting a heavy carry-bag and a large golden pocket-watch, which he paused to check before entering the arena.
"Oh, dear," Axel heard him mutter. "I am running quite, quite late." Then he shrugged bony shoulders, gathered up the chain and tucked the watch away. "Well, at least I got here before the guest of honour. By the way," he added, raising his quavering voice, "you'll get nothing achieved laying about in the dirt, lad. All good things must come to end, etcetera, et al." Without even glancing towards the redhead, he straightened his spine, threw his straggly beard over one shoulder, and strode confidently into the tent.
Axel gaped for a moment, chin an inch off the dust, eyes slowly scanning the area. What…? That had been the White Rabbit, without a doubt. The one that the Riku twins had advised him to ask for, when he was seeking out Roxas. So – had they known he would end up here, then? Was that why? Had they realised what was going on, and just directed him to where they knew it would all end up going down?
Holy freaking premonition, Batman.
Sighing hard into the grass, Axel levered himself up, climbed to his feet, dithered for another minute before, with no other viable options ahead, shifting over towards the tent flaps. He approached at an angle, hoping to remain unseen until absolutely necessary, trusting no one and nothing. The closer he got, though, the more abandoned the place seemed. He could hear nothing coming from the pavilion, and neither was there any light shining forth. The whole massive tent was dark and silent, and he could only wonder if there were more black-clad figures on the other side, possibly toting baseball bats and getting ready to pound him into bloody, toothless oblivion.
He supposed it was just… the sort of risk he was going to have to take.
Sucking in a breath, counting to ten, at first slowly and then in a rapid jumble of numbers, Axel squeezed his eyes shut, and sprang forward into the arena.
When he opened his eyes, he was in an entirely new setting.
White was the first thing that struck him; blazing white, from here to eternity, searing his retinas, brighter than stars. After the darkness of the circus grounds, he was forced to cover his poor, abused eyes, pressing his fingertips into his sockets and grunting at the explosive presence.
"Ah… Axel, is it?" a smooth voice greeted coolly. "At last you arrive. We have been expecting you for some time now."
Stiffening, the redhead ceased all motion. He slowly, carefully lifted his head from its cowering position and removed his hands, blinking sightlessly for a moment, once again seeing nothing but the endless white. There was no sign of any speaker.
"Up here, please," came the efficient, clipped tones of the old man from before. Axel raised his eyes, and felt his blood chill.
Evidently, he had made it inside the black tower that jutted above the maze-hedges and their bleeding roses – the place he was in was impossible high, cylindrical, as bleached on the inside as it was charred on the outside. And there, way above him, in ascending order until reaching the very topmost, were a series of raised thrones, a black-clad figure perched upon each column.
Standing on a small platform to the right of the highest chair, beside the stiff-postured man that sat there, was the White Rabbit, adjusting little half-moon glasses on the bridge of his nose, unfurling a long scroll of parchment from his bag. A small, black-feathered quill rose by itself as he held the parchment up, and began writing as he announced, "Ah – you find yourself in the High Court of the King – that is to say, his chief advisor, Superior Xemnas. Please state your name and business."
Axel stood there, far below, and stared dumbly. To be honest, his eyes were still adjusting. It helped to gape at the black figures – the contrast they introduced lessened the strain.
The bearded man was unimpressed with his tactics, it seemed. He harrumphed, then repeated himself with greater volume, "Please, guest of the Superior, state your name and your business here."
For a moment, the redhead spluttered, mouth opening and closing. One of the black figures leaned over and muttered something to his partner, who sniggered audibly. Axel was – violently sure he recognised the voice. He just couldn't remember yet which heinous section of the last twenty-four hours it had tormented him during.
Eventually, he managed, "G-guest?" His voice echoed within the tower's confines. "I'm meant to be a guest here? You've got to be kidding me," he muttered, words bouncing all too audibly up. He grappled with this notion silently for several moments, before yelling, "I don't feel very guest-like!" Glaring up at the black-coated figures, he demanded in a snarl, "If I'm supposed to be a guest here, where the fuck are my mini-soaps and shampoos? Where was my bed, when I was trying to sleep in the middle of the forest? Where was my complimentary fucking breakfast, for the twenty minutes that it was actually dawn?"
Silence of the stunned variety drifted down to meet him, before the second topmost figure – definitely recognised to be the soft-voiced greeter from outside the tower – uttered, "Do you know to whom you speak, whelp?"
Lightning quick, the redhead retorted, "Do I care?"
There was a murmur of outraged shock, cut off quickly by the one sitting at the apex of it all, beside the White Rabbit, lifting a hand lazily. "It's obvious you're dazed and disoriented after what looks to have been an ordeal, newcomer," he said, the voice from before, the very first one that had spoken to him after entering, evidently the ill-famed Superior. "In truth, you are the first human to make it into my presence in seventy-seven years, so perhaps we are hasty in assuming that you will speak right away. However…" His voice adopted a thread of steel. "You would do well to remember your manners, and hold your tongue unless saying something of import. We are none of us here well reputed for our easy tempers." There was laughter among the ranks, Axel scowling up at them. Once again, the old man cleared his throat, sounding more irritated with every minute wasted.
"Visitor to the throne," he persisted curtly, "you are required to state your name and business for the benefit of the register." He gestured to the floating quill, which waited patiently to perform its duty. Axel grimaced, massaged his forehead with one hand, shook his head and sighed, "Axel. My name – is Axel. And – " He threw up his hands. "I don't even know why I'm here, except that apparently the King, or Superior or someone, wants to ask me about the outside world. Okay?"
The old magician nodded firmly at this, the quill scribbling rapidly, said, "Thank you, that will do."
The Superior leaned onto the arm of his bright white throne, black-gloved fingers tapping idly. "Well, then, while we're on the subject," he said dryly, "please do just that, Axel. Tell us of the outside world, tell us how it has changed in the last seventy-seven years."
Axel blinked. "What, you serious?" He glanced at them all, took in the old man's frowning expression, then shrugged. "I don't know, seventy years?"
"Seventy-seven precisely," the White Rabbit interrupted crisply. Green eyes rolled.
"Fine. Whatever." He thought for a minute. "…I don't know. Cars are probably around a lot more… and TV, and computers, the internet." He lifted a shoulder uneasily. "But, uh, considering the extreme lack of electricity I've seen with you guys, I'm guessing those things aren't gonna be too valued…" He let loose a frustrated noise. "I don't know! It's too much to think about! What do you want to know?"
One figure leaned forward in his chair, and the moment he spoke, Axel recognised Xaldin's mellow tones. "What is the state of the military these days? How would you rate it on a scale of one to ten?"
"For where, exactly?" the redhead asked testily.
Axel barked out a laugh. "Oh, come on, like I'd know that? Has anyone, ever been able to tell you that? Did the last person, seventy-seven years ago, have a fucking degree in fact-retention, or what?"
"Watch yourself," a female voice warned sweetly, making his stomach drop steeply. His gaze sought her out, the crazy chick that dropped the branch on him, hooded this time, and wondered suddenly if this was all of them, if they were all here – every one of the ones that had either tried to harm him or trap him, they all belonged here, to the Superior?
His eyes narrowed. "…You've been trying to trap me here, haven't you? It's not just about 'don't consume anything or you'll be stuck' – you make it your mission to stop me from leaving, don't you?"
"Who told you that?" Xemnas demanded sharply. "Someone actually warned you against consuming food and beverages? Who?"
"That would no doubt be Roxas," drawled the one that could only be Marluxia, who had accused Roxas of killing too many people in Tulgey Wood. "He was trying to lead the human astray… I think…" He was quiet for a moment, before adding, "Actually, I'm not so sure about that. Roxas claimed him as his own."
"What do you mean, claimed him?" the Superior growled. His head swivelled towards the White Rabbit. "Merlin – what do you know of this?"
"Oh, it's true, I'm afraid," the old man confirmed, nodding regretfully. "I myself felt the magics of the bonding stir early yesterday morning."
There was a thud as the black-clad man smashed a fist into the arm of his throne. "Unacceptable! Why didn't you inform me, you stupid old rabbit?!"
Offended, the man replied, "Sir, I was not asked about the nature of the human's connection to any one of the creatures or spirits in the land, and it is not my privilege to merely blurt such things on my own!"
"Must I ask every time a human comes through? Your loyalties should be to me," came the hissed response. Without waiting for a response, Xemnas threw a finger down in Axel's direction, demanding, "You, human! Where is Roxas now? Where is the foolish cat that refused a chair among us?"
Grimly, Axel replied, "I don't know. I left him behind a while ago."
"No doubt after he tried to drown you, yes?" Marluxia smugly supposed, earning a laugh from the lone female among them. When Axel hesitated, the rest of them, except for the Superior, Merlin, and the one that had thrown him through the portal, erupted into jeers and applause. "What a beautiful relationship they've shared," the pink-haired man sneered.
Xemnas, however, leaned forward, fingers lacing together, an intentness about him that dampened the boisterousness of the others until silence echoed among them. Obviously sending Axel a hard, searching look, though it was hidden by the hood, the man asked quietly, "If this is true, then you must see now that the cat cannot be trusted. He is a tricky creature, one of untold layers and motivations, and a brilliant manipulator. If he has indeed bound himself to you as the old wizard suggests, then tried to kill you anyway as he has done so often in the past, one can only assume that he is using you in an attempt to escape."
His heart beating fast at the notion of his own freedom equalling Roxas' as well, the redhead cautiously prompted, "Oh, yeah?"
"Join us, Axel," were the next words out of the Superior's mouth, intense and fiery in a somehow icy way. "Be one of us, and let the manipulation end. As part of the Organisation, you will be free to come and go as you please, in exchange only for your loyalty to me. Roxas will be incapable of harming you, and the bond between you will be severed – you will be useless to him." He straightened, swept an arm grandly at the gathered, inviting, "Assume a seat among us, and be one who rules the forest, instead of its unsteady victim. Share with us everything you know, and be accepted. Take your destiny with each hand!"
With the narrowed eyes of the White Rabbit upon him, Axel made a show of pondering, holding his chin between a thumb and forefinger. "You know…" he said slowly, Xemnas' eagerness evident even from the distance between them, "that could actually work…" He held up a finger. "If… you weren't such an obvious cocksucker." As the stunned silence fell anew, he continued, "If Roxas was trying to use me specifically to free himself, why would he then try to kill me? He would achieve nothing. And, from the sounds of it, he hasn't done it much, if at all, previous to me."
"That's correct," Merlin interjected with an officious sniff. "The leftover spirit may bind itself to only one other life-form. Roxas, as one who has been killed but had his spirit preserved, initiated the binding magics to you, Axel, and none other."
The redhead faltered, his voice drifting up tentatively. "…Roxas was – killed?"
"Oh, yes, just as you will no doubt be, since you have so deeply insulted the Superior," the old man replied easily. "I don't even know if your spirit will end up being preserved. You'll probably just die and stay dead."
Xemnas slammed his fists down onto the white arms again. "Shut up! Enough!" He reached up, tore back his hood, revealing a dark-skinned, silver-haired man, fury dancing across his features. "If you won't join us, then you will die, you insolent nobody!" Drawing a breath, he bared his teeth, threw his head back, and cried, "Off with his head!"
The effect was instantaneous. The room erupted, black figures leaping up onto their thrones and vanishing through light-eating portals. Merlin, remaining calmly in place, called down in the brief silence, "Axel, I believe that the agreement between yourself and Roxas has yet to be concluded, correct?" He smirked slightly, added, "Still got a kiss in stock?"
Axel jumped, startled by how quickly things had happened, mind fighting to register what the old man meant. Then, as the first of the vortexes burst into being at his side, he gasped in a sharp breath and bellowed, "Roxas!"
"You old fool!" Xemnas screamed, making a grab for the White Rabbit. But by that time, the wizard had already nodded to himself in satisfaction, and vanished into a puff of blue smoke and sparks. Roxas was there an instant later, exploding out of nothingness and snatching Axel's hand, slamming a shoulder into the nearest Organisation member, sending him staggering, and dragging Axel directly into the still-open portal, straight into the darkness.
This time, there was no time to go mad. Roxas tore him right through it, the pair of them bursting back into the circus grounds, the blond's fingers clamping harder around Axel's palm as he urged, "Go, Axel!"
The redhead, needing no further prompting, matched his speed swiftly, the pair racing hand in hand across the dirt, plunging between the great many cages, whipping past Leon and Cloud's carriage. The men looked up in startled, electrified shock as the shouts and bellows from Xemnas' followers snarled into existence behind them, the entire company pouring through the vortex in chase. A second later, both had abandoned their cards, slamming into the bars, eyes wide, Cloud yelling in cracked tones, "Run!"
Beside him, Leon sucked a massive breath, and let loose a roar of pure lion, awakening every prisoner within every cage in a flurry of screeches and howls. Cloud joined in, intensifying the din. In moments, every cage was rocking, as the many captives from over God only knew what impossible stretch of time threw themselves against the metal barriers of their traps and bellowed.
Roxas surged forward, tugging Axel to keep up as the man let out a frightened, breathless laugh at the commotion, the black-clad pursuers suffering under a sudden storm of food scraps, water jugs, and clumps of old straw and dirt.
Cloud's roar followed them as they pelted through into the sideshows, the many booths a blur on either side. As another seed of darkness blossomed sharply in their path, Roxas didn't even pause to dislodge the attacker, instead blasting through, smacking straight into him and keeping on going, Axel leaping over the man's flailing legs. As his hood fell back, the redhead recognised crazy eye-patch guy, the pulse of terror this gave him carrying him through the darkness, the pair of them leaping out into – "Ack, fuck!"
Axel splashed knee-deep into the marshes, sloshing water wildly as he fought to keep upright, Roxas yelling, "Axel, come on!" and tugging at him. The blond's feet didn't even dip below as he ploughed onward, turning with frustration as Axel sank only deeper behind him, the redhead grunting and struggling for traction. Behind them, Xemnas' followers came splashing out into the water, crying out in surprise, but recovering quickly, joining Roxas' plane of reality and running up on top of the slush, none of them quite as humanly weighed down as Axel.
Snarling, Roxas was forced to pause, bent and plunged his arms into the freezing water, wrapping them around Axel's waist. Then he turned and started up again, towing the redhead as best as he could, half-carrying him.
They flashed through half the swamp, the Organisation members gaining rapidly, before, with a clatter and smash, Roxas was suddenly, completely illogically, instead dragging the redhead bouncing across the long banquet table covered in teapots. The pair cried out, limbs tangling, Roxas crashing briefly to his knees, Axel exclaiming with utter bewilderment, "The fuck?!"
"It's falling apart," Roxas panted, hauling him back up, "everything's falling apart – just keep going!" They took off down the table, hearing the thuds of so many pairs of boots transferring from the swamp onto the tablecloth, kicking aside hot-plates and cups, jugs splitting apart, fluid flying.
Then, Roxas faltered, his step slowing, and he tripped, Axel snatching at him. "Roxas! What –?" He broke off, the pair of them managing only just to keep their balance, swinging in a tight circle with the momentum, but both maintaining eye contact with the pale, blue-eyed girl sitting in one of the chairs. The pencil in her hand, which had been going non-stop since Axel had left, paused on the page of her sketchpad. She stared at them.
Deep regret haunted Roxas' voice as he breathed, "Naminé." He shook his head, pain evident in his features. "I'm so sorry…"
Axel, feeling a similar stabbing wrench, nevertheless started hustling the blond forward again, hearing the enemy approaching, not even daring to glance over his shoulder as he snapped, "Roxas, there's no time, please, please – she's already lost."
Stumbling backward over the many items covering the table, Axel's grip tightened around his upper arms as he called with anguish, "I'm sorry, Naminé!"
Throat choking up, he allowed Axel to get him moving, never seeing the girl's expression slowly change, a frown forming on her delicate features. Her lips parted, mouthing silently, Roxas… She heard the commotion of the pursuers, head twisting to gaze at them, before turning her attention sharply to her notepad.
"…Roxas…" Naminé sucked in a breath, leapt to her feet and yelled, with a cracking, disused voice, "Roxas, go!" She leaned hard over the table, scooping up the jar with the happy-face label, turning to meet the oncoming Organisation members. Shaking hands gripping it hard, she held her breath, heard Demyx shout a muffled warning from whichever coat he was hidden inside, and heaved it with all her might at the nearest hood-swathed head.
Axel heard a sharp, distant curse, a flurry of coughing, and then a loud, messy thump and shatter of crockery. Beside him, focused again but expression torn, Roxas said intensely, "It's coming; I can feel it – jump!" The two males leapt from the edge of the table – and slammed into a patch of toadstool-ridden forest, complete with giant flowers, their heads bobbing in an invisible wind.
Axel hissed, "Shit, not this place!"
"It's okay, it's breaking," Roxas gasped at his side, hurrying him along, fingers tightening into his shirt as he again yelled, "Jump!"
Axel demanded, "What?" and smashed a kneecap into the single white picket of a fence in broad daylight, howling viciously in his agony. Flames roared, smoke bellowed and belched into the sky, heat vomiting out to meet them as Roxas hauled Axel staggering over the fence, through the vegetable patch beside the cottage. They covered their faces as they rushed to the garden path, raced down it and away, heading into the woods.
At this point, their hands finally broke apart, heads lowering, and, completely free for the first time, they launched into an all-out sprint. Trees erupted on every side, branches whipping past, the air so light and clean-feeling, but they weren't safe yet – Axel could still hear Xemnas' lackeys in hot pursuit, crashing through the underbrush. They had given up trying to stay one step ahead of the fleeing duo, and were now hunting them down with determined fervour, shouting and calling to one another, closing in in a pincer movement.
From the shadows slithered Riku, and, right behind him, Riku. The silver-haired twins flashed Axel and Roxas identical smirks, nods of acknowledgement. "Almost there," the long-haired one said, with a toss of his head. The brothers sprang apart and plunged past them, screams erupting from the Organisation black-coats moments later.
Almost there. Almost back to the beginning. Everything was being reversed, the air almost vibrating around them. Axel shot sweat-stung glances sideways, seeking out Roxas through the trees, the blond disappearing and reappearing with each trunk that flashed between them. Chest clutching, the redhead lunged sideways, gripped his hand again, narrowly avoiding slamming face-first into a tree. Roxas sent him a bewildered look, but tugged him forward, the two of them racing once again side by side, the sounds of battle ringing out behind them. Axel thought he heard one of the Riku twins laughing wildly.
Their feet flew over the long grass, the redhead not even noticing as his soles were pierced, not noticing the raging heat under his skin or the rivers of perspiration leaking from his pores. His left arm pumped, while his right moved in synch with Roxas', the pair of them neck and neck, crimson and white blurs.
At last, as they vaulted over a moss-covered log, Axel realised with a stab of panicked elation that they had reached a very familiar place – he'd be surprised to ever forget what this particular clearing looked like. Just to prove that he was right, this was the end, this was it, Roxas stumbled to a halt.
Their slick hands released one another, each bending and grasping his knees, heaving needy breaths, Axel tilting his face up and closing his eyes at the pain in his chest. "Oh, my God," he choked, struggling to recover quickly. He threw a helpless look over to the blond, gasping, "What now?"
Narrow blue eyes cut up from the grass, the expression on Roxas' shining face hard and daunting. Axel's dramatic breaths skipped slightly, nails digging into his knees at the glare he was receiving. He swallowed, eyebrows drawing together, panting with an edge of timidity, "Roxas?"
"…Remember," the blond said tightly. "You still owe me payment."
Axel's jaw dropped, he staggered, demanded shrilly, "Did you not notice the people trying to kill me, Roxas, honey?"
Slowly, Roxas straightened, filled his lungs, glanced back to where the commotion grew steadily closer. "I know," he agreed quietly, so soft that Axel had to arch forward to hear him. When he looked back at the redhead, resolve was firm in his gaze. "Just – don't forget, okay?"
"We can do this later, later," Axel said frantically, pushing up from his legs, twisting his hands in tight motions through the air.
"No. We can't," came the blunt response.
Roxas wrapped a hand around Axel's biceps, the redhead hissing at the crushing pressure. "What are you talking about?"
Roxas lifted a hand, extended his arm, and, quietly, a billow of darkness swirled into existence – one of the portals. Axel jerked in his grasp, wide-eyed, feet slipping in startled shock. "Wait – what? Roxas –" He turned to the blond, who gazed steadily back.
"I'm glad you liked the cat so much, Axel. The cat… both cats… liked you, too."
For a voiceless moment, Axel stared in consternation, confusion. The vortex spread its twining fingers through the air, like a living bruise trying to spread. "Ro –"
Before he could finish speaking the name, he was pushed into darkness. His feet found no purchase, his grabbing hands closing on nothing as he let out a strangled noise and tried to hold onto the blond. The green grass, the trees, the cold blue eyes – all were, in the next instant, swallowed up. Or – Axel was.
Again, for a while… he ceased to be. Only this time, there wasn't even the screaming terror of being alone and disembodied.
This time, there was, literally, nothing. Just like the first time.
Existence returned fuzzily, hazy at the edges. Sound drifted into being, slow and disconnected, a swell and ebb of familiarity that was randomly placed and perplexing. Touch was soon to follow, coldness seeping through every limb, and an odd, almost-painful scratching occurring on his chin, a constant sensation. Sense of smell arose, Axel's nose filled with the scent of earth, stale straw, a musty, animalistic musk. Bizarrely, stomach churning nauseously, there was something underlying it that made him think of food.
"Hey, cat, where'd you go?"
Axel's eyes cracked open, swivelling sightlessly, the world a blur of dark blobs of dull colour, and the scraping at his chin continued.
"Little kitten, where'd you – holy shit." There was motion nearby, close, new colour entering the grimness, some blue, some white and red, something blond that made Axel blink. "Jesus, are you okay?" the voice asked urgently, before scolding, "Stop that, cat, he's not a goddamn popsicle." A moment later, the sandpaper sensation vanished, along with a slight weight Axel hadn't realised was pressing into his chest. He coughed weakly, inhaled dirt, and groaned, eyes slipping shut again.
"Oh, hey, don't fall asleep, okay?" There was fear in the voice. Then, "God, look at the lump on your skull. What the hell did you do, play Chicken with the lion cage?" Gentle hands touched him, green irises fluttering back into view, vision clearer this time, not necessarily to his advantage.
Axel moaned, "Oh, no, scary clown," and tried to clumsily push the figure away.
"Yeah, yeah, shut up," was the wearily annoyed voice. "I know I look like a freak, okay? But I'm trying to help you, so work with me here." The hands tightened, pulled him carefully out from under the darkness, which, the redhead realised slowly, was in fact the bottom of a peeling, weathered carriage.
As he was eased into a sitting position, he looked around dazedly, saw the tawny ruff of a lion's mane poking out from between a series of bars, and muttered, "…The circus…?"
"The circus," the scary clown sighed in confirmation. Grimacing, Axel went to lift a hand to his head, only to have his wrist grabbed out of the air, with an exclaimed, "Ah, no! You have this – gigantic lump on your forehead, don't touch it."
Spiked with sudden, sharp recognition, Axel blinked several times to clear his gaze, shook his head automatically and suffered for it, the clown hissing in pained sympathy as he winced.
When the redhead looked at him, really looked, he spent a few moments not speaking. The clown was kneeling beside him in the dirt, dressed in a baggy, patchy costume, but where all the clowns Axel remembered had been wearing curling wigs in a variety of colours, this one had blond spikes swept up at one side, looking a little dirty and messy, like they'd been crushed under a hat all day, but real. He was still wearing full makeup, a broad, unhappy scowl painted from one side of his face to the other, the rest of his skin coloured a bone white. However, beneath it all, he was… unmistakable. His eyes were bright, clear blue, artificially red brows pulled down in concern as he regarded Axel.
On top of all that, he was holding a cream-coloured, fluffy cat.
Axel stared. "The cat…"
The blond glanced down at the feline in his hands. "Oh, is he yours? He's been hanging around for a few days. I've fed him a couple times, but I didn't know he had an owner. Did you lose him?" He frowned, then brightened slightly in understanding. "Is that how you hurt yourself, looking for him?" He smiled. "He seems to know you, at least."
Beginning to tremble, Axel nodded jerkily, said, voice shaking slightly, "Yeah, h-he's mine."
Nose wrinkling, the blond lifted the cat up. "Well, I'm gonna miss him, he was good company. Does he have a name, though? I've just been calling him 'cat' all this time, I didn't want to confuse him in case he was just lost and not stray."
"…Roxas," the redhead said. The blond blinked, looked up, surprised.
"Yeah? Do I know you?"
Axel hitched in a breath, hands snaking out and gripping the sides of the blond's face, dragging him into a desperate kiss. He dived into the hot mouth, sucking on the inhabiting tongue, hands shifting around to grip the back of the clown's baggy shirt. The blond's eyes shot wide, small grunts of stunned objection being swallowed by Axel's insistence, before, almost against his will, he began tentatively responding. Blue gaze shifting from side to side in utter confusion, he suddenly noticed the cat sitting a foot away, watching them curiously. Blinking hard, Roxas gathered all his willpower and wrestled the redhead off him, the pair of them gasping as their lips separated, mouths buzzing.
Sense returning, realising he'd just had the breath kissed out of him by a perfect stranger, Roxas scrambled back a little, demanded, "What the hell? What, do you have a thing for the sad clowns or something?"
Axel grinned a little madly, a little lop-sidedly, and said, "Just – paying my debt."
Shaking his head with a growl, the blond muttered, "I'm glad I'm quitting this place if it means I don't have to get molested by the patrons." Then, bewilderment strong, he blurted, "But no one molests the clowns! We're all too creepy looking! What the hell, man?"
"Roxas – you're quitting the circus?" Axel was suddenly alert, even as the blond tilted his head uncomprehendingly.
"Have we met? How do you know my name?"
For a long minute, Axel had no answer, though his mind raced with images and memories. Eventually, he said, "…I guess – you just made an impression on me."
Roxas eyed him for a moment, then, reluctantly, nodded. "I understand that, I guess… I mean, I definitely noticed you earlier, when you were wandering around the sideshow, you just, you caught my eye, and – uh…" He ground to a halt, obviously deciding he'd said too much. If he blushed, it was covered up by the white makeup, Axel grinning widely.
Roxas shook his head. "Look, you shouldn't be here," he said, trying to hide his embarrassment. "If Xemnas catches you here this late, heads will roll."
"In that case, I'll leave," the redhead said easily. "I'll take my cat and go – as long as no one tries to stop me."
Snorting, Roxas rose to his feet. "No one will, we all understand how weird this place is." With a breath, he glanced around. "It surprises me that anyone comes here at all." He reached a hand down, which Axel grasped, the two of them working from either end to lever him to his feet, the redhead swooping in and planting a kiss on his jaw as he came upright. Roxas took a shivery breath, shoved him away a little, frowning. He looked down at the white cat, bent and gently picked it up, scratching its fluffy chin. "I guess this is goodbye," he said softly to it. "So, what's it's name, anyway?"
"…Actually, it's new," Axel revealed cautiously. "I haven't had it long… I haven't named it yet."
Indignantly, the blond echoed, "You haven't named it, yet?"
Grinning crookedly, he replied, "Well, I was planning to call him Roxas, but then I found that some other cute blond thing had already grabbed it." He hesitated, reached for the cat and took it carefully, stroking between its ears. "This little guy – he's elusive," the redhead murmured. "You should – come home with us, if he likes you so much. Just so he doesn't start pining for you or anything."
Roxas smirked, and Axel just about saw his ears twitch, his tail lash lazily. "Right. Wouldn't want the cat to pine."
"You could help come up with a name," Axel tempted. "And I need someone to hold him while I go into the grocery store for milk and tuna, anyway."
The blond wavered uncertainly. "…I don't even know your name."
Leaning forward, he placed another kiss against his face, before, after a moment's pause, kissing his mouth again, softly this time, just for a moment, the blond strangely unresisting. "My name is Axel," he reminded huskily, as he drew back, their noses an inch apart. "And I think I had a dream about you."
Round eyes inspected green. "…Really?" Roxas shuddered slightly as the redhead slowly nodded. "Cheesy pick-up line," he said faintly. "But what the hell. I just quit my shitty job as a scary clown. I might as well go to some stranger's house and feed his cat, just to really… round things out." He sighed. "I have to change first, though, and my boss – ex-boss – might cause you trouble if he sees you lurking around." The corners of his mouth lifted. "…But don't worry. I'll save you if he does."
"In exchange for a kiss," Axel agreed quietly. Roxas shook his head.
"No, the save is obligatory, this time. But – I'll keep that idea in mind." Smiling faintly, he set off towards the pavilion to take off his makeup for the last time, while Axel leaned against the lion cage, holding his small, warm cat close.
Feeling the breeze against his dry, clean clothes, his flawless skin aside from the lump marring his head, Axel drew a breath, closed his eyes, and resolved himself to waiting. He glanced down at the feline, muttering, "One within the King's reach, one to guard the entrance… How about I call you… Sora?"
The cat purred against him, and together, they let the minutes trickle past. It didn't matter how long Roxas took, as long as he returned.
This time, Axel was determined to not leave without the blond, no matter who came after him.