Author's Note: Happy Halloween, one day late! (Grr..) This oneshot is unpardonably long. And I hope the language doesn't send anyone running. If it seems boring at first, bear with me for a little bit. And please, do enjoy.
Disclaimers (the many things I stole from others): Title ripped from Ray Bradbury's novel of the same name; plot half based on "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving, and half on Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" starring Johnny Depp; "The Ecstasy" by John Donne; "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" by Christopher Marlowe; and, of course, KH characters all belong to Square Enix.
Long ago, when lines on maps were often merely guesses scribbled around the vast blank spaces of wild, unexplored land, stories of the strange and supernatural were often as true as a trip to market, and perhaps twice as common. Of course, the bustle of humanity in larger towns had done its best to drown out the whispers of ghosts and other impossibilities, but in smaller, more rustic places, the passing of time made very little difference to men and spirits alike.
The tiny village of Tarry Town was just such a place – a small, secluded hamlet in a wooded valley on the very edge of one of the great blank spaces on the maps of their day. Here, the passing of time had seemed to change nothing at all, except perhaps to gradually add to the small, weathered gravestones in the old church yard. The blushing maidens became rosy mothers, then gradually faded to withered grandmothers before joining their ancestors. However, as often as not, even that most permanent of changes could not remove them, for there was hardly a family in Tarry Town who had not had occasional visits from their departed relatives.
From this quiet, sleepy valley, there comes the most incredible tale of the supernatural that has ever been told around a warm fireplace during a long winter's night.
Tarry Town itself was hardly more than a small cluster of shops, surrounded at a distance by the homes of the nearby farmers, and tied together by the tiny, steepled church at the center of town. Set slightly apart from these merchants, up on a hillside, a one-room schoolhouse hunched beneath the trees. If anything ever changed in Tarry Town, it was most likely to be the resident teacher, since the schoolhouse was run by whatever traveling academic happened to find Tarry Town and avail himself of the post of instructor.
At present, the post was occupied by a young man of very few worldly possessions. In fact, his greatest assets were by far those of his own mind and person, since his worldly goods amounted to nothing more than a few articles of clothing – a few spare linen shirts, but only one extra waistcoat – and a few books. His salary, as teacher, largely went to renting a spare shack that one of the farmers had no more need of. In fact, he would hardly have had enough to live on, had he not been so frequently invited to stay to dinner at the homes of his students…after having wisely chosen to escort a little pupil home, on a day when he had nothing to eat in his own pantry.
He was always welcome, for he was an amiable, helpful addition to the house on any evening. He would cheerfully make himself useful, assisting mothers and fathers with any heavy chores he could, for though he was a lanky man, tall and thin, his wiry arms were surprisingly strong. Then, when chores were done and dinner was served, he made an entertaining addition to the table, for he could tell stories from any book he had read, and his storytelling was vivid and enthralling. His startling green eyes and handsome young face were captivatingly expressive, and his fiery hair, lit by the hearth fire late in the evening, gave him an otherworldly look that only enhanced his otherworldly stories to spine-tingling proportions.
In this way, the schoolteacher scraped out his living amongst the villagers, and was happily accepted among them. And his name, as unique as his own existence in Tarry Town, was Axel.
Of an evening when he was not in the company of some farming family, enjoying a pleasant invitation to dinner, Axel was most often wont to amuse himself by wandering the woods, enjoying the beauty of nature, especially on long, summer evenings. At times, when he found a picturesque spot, he would then stop, withdrawing a book, and settle down on a log or by a brook, to read. It was at such times that the scholar turned from his academic reading, or even his books of adventurous stories, and instead dwelt on pages of verse.
Poetry was Axel's secret favorite, and it could even be said that poetry itself changed his life and secured his fate.
It was midsummer, and it was already a well-established routine of Axel's to make his way to a certain farm more often than any other. Having once escorted a young pupil to this home, the scholarly redhead found himself ever keen on returning. This farm, the Van Tassel estate, was the most wealthy and bountiful farm in the surrounding area. That, however, was not Axel's reason for returning.
The eldest son of the Van Tassel family was a golden-haired lad with eyes bluer than the summer sky, and this boy had a particular fondness for Axel's stories. The teacher had never found a more enthralled listener than he did in Roxas, for that was the boy's name. As he told stories in the evening, Roxas would gaze with rapt attention at the speaker, never shifting his eyes from Axel's face for even a moment. He would even beg for another story when Axel was finished, and always seemed heartbroken to see the man leave.
Axel was so flattered by the boy's obvious pleasure in his stories that he found himself eagerly waiting for the time when he could return to the Van Tassel farm, and bring some new tale to his devoted listener.
Thus mutually drawn to each other, each for their own reasons, the schoolteacher and the young heir to a large farm began to spend much time in each other's company over that summer. They would often linger together after meeting at church, and Axel would bestow some great tale of adventure as they walked leisurely back to Roxas' home. All this was hardly worth commenting on, unless the one asked was a young maiden of the village…and virtually any of them would firmly state the same opinion – Roxas spent far too much time with that teacher.
The boy, naturally, was the most popular hope of all the girl's dreams – young, attractive, kind, and, of course, wealthy by the town's standards. One in particular, however, had the keenest eye on the place of the next Mistress Van Tassel. This was a fair-haired girl called Naminé, and she was also recognized by nearly all as having the best chance, as the prettiest maid in Tarry Town. It was she who was the most displeased to see Roxas so often with Axel, simply because, when she came calling of an evening and learned that the object of her hopes was out walking after dinner with his favorite storyteller, her opportunities to ingratiate herself with the blond were ruined again and again.
Perhaps it was she who first whispered the evil thought to some gossiping housewife. Certainly, if it was Naminé, she did not even realize the implications of her words. Yet the fact remains that the women of the village began to comment amongst themselves upon the great amount of time that the village boy spent with the teacher.
"Don't you think it's rather strange how much young Van Tassel is in the company of the teacher?"
"I hadn't thought so…but now that you mention…"
It would have stayed at that as well, no suppositions springing from the comment, no insidious guesses arising among the townsfolk, who were naturally honest and knew little of human vice. The greatest fear in Tarry Town was surely witchcraft, and the good folks had not seen enough of the illicit for such things to come to their minds naturally.
However, once the first gossip had begun, it was not long before it became compounded. The end of the week, in fact.
Sunday came, and the entire village filled the tiny country church, as usual. And, as usual, Roxas (attired in his Sunday best, rather than the usual loose shirt and work britches) happily greeted the teacher, hurrying to his side after the service was adjourned, and accompanying him for a walk, the two of them easily settling into their habit of sharing a thrilling story on the way to the Van Tassel farm.
The rumor, already planted in many minds at this point, was suddenly fed to a new level. It was marked, this Sunday, how eagerly the blond rushed to the redheaded scholar, how brightly his young eyes sparkled, and how completely the heir of Van Tassel ignored all others and devoted his attention entirely to a man…a man with whom he should not have such an exclusive connection. There was no reason, in the suddenly curious minds of the gossips, for a boy, who had never studied under this teacher, to turn his eyes from the maidens who vied for his attention, and train them solely on a man who should be of no true consequence to him.
"Did you mark today, Mistress Baum, how raptly young Van Tassel attends on the schoolteacher?"
"Indeed, Mistress Finigen, all the lasses went quite unnoticed. I do wonder why that schoolteacher holds such sway with the boy…"
"Wonder indeed!" A superstitious, aged dame interjected. "You may ask yourself, why does any youth become enamored of one who has strange and foreign knowledge?" Her sharpened features and wizened scowl bore a suspicious, knowing look.
"Dame Haltswitch, you cannot mean to say…ill work?"
"I only speak what the years have shown me." The woman muttered mysteriously. "When the unexplainable is seen, it may well be the Devil at work."
Thus, the rumor twisted and spread anew – could it be that the schoolteacher was a familiar of Lucifer, and had bewitched the innocent Roxas to be his consort? It was largely laughed off as ridiculous, yet still, Tarry Town was the sort of village where mentions of witchcraft and warlocks lingered well, and were never ignored as ridiculous.
Thus, the murmur continued, until one afternoon, Roxas himself overheard whispers of it.
The day was fading, and the boy was completing the last of the chores, hurrying to finish. He had seen, from the fields, a tall man with bright red hair arrive at his house, and was eagerly hoping for a chance to hear Axel's stories again tonight. It was an accident of his own forgetfulness that he had to hurry back to the barn, having neglected some task, and thus happened to hear the stable boys sharing the story that the wives had been gossiping about.
"Impossible! Roxas, bewitched by the teacher? The Devil's work? You lie!"
"I didn't think of it, it's just what everyone is saying!"
"You give too much credence to old wives' gossip."
These few words sent Roxas creeping away, surprise and bewilderment carved on his delicate features.
I? Bewitched by…Axel? What on earth would make the town say such a thing? I am only…very fond of him. His stories are wonderful, and his company is…pleasant. And warm.
And yet, as Roxas contemplated his relationship with the man, he felt an inexplicable tightness in his chest. Almost…a longing. A feeling he did not understand in the least.
That night, he listened as attentively as ever to Axel's stories, yet his feelings were somewhat confused, and his manner slightly subdued. Still, when Axel finished his tale, Roxas, as usual, resisted his leaving until the teacher agreed to a walk and just one more story.
It was midsummer, and the evening had not yet faded into night, as the two set out across the fields, toward the edge of the forest. The time was pleasantly spent between them, as Axel continued his storytelling for his eager audience. He was pleased, as usual, to be able to keep company with such an eager youth; what was more, he dearly enjoyed these walks. Time alone with Roxas was perhaps the best of all.
They soon reached the forest, and continued their walk a short ways into the trees, heading for a small clearing where they often sat and relaxed a moment before returning.
Axel had just finished his story as the two of them sat on a convenient log.
"Axel," the boy began, "I do love your stories…but I was wondering, have you anything different to tell me? Something other than an adventurous tale?"
Axel hesitated, considering a moment before the thought of his dearly-loved poetry came to mind. Carefully, he drew a small volume from his coat pocket, and offered to read from it to Roxas. The boy gladly acquiesced.
Axel's deep voice quietly intoned the lines, as expressive as ever. Roxas felt that the reading was even more passionate than the man's usual storytelling, and he listened in awe.
"Where, like a pillow on a bed,
A pregnant bank swell'd up, to rest
The violet's reclining head,
Sat we two, one another's best.
"Our hands were firmly cemented
By a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.
"So to engraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one;
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.
"As, 'twixt two equal armies, Fate
Suspends uncertain victory,
Our souls—which to advance their state,
Were gone out—hung 'twixt her and me…
"This ecstasy doth unperplex
(We said) and tell us what we love;
We see by this, it was not sex;
We see, we saw not, what did move:
"But as all several souls contain
Mixture of things they know not what,
Love these mix'd souls doth mix again,
And makes both one, each this, and that…
"But, O alas! so long, so far,
Our bodies why do we forbear?
They are ours, though not we; we are
Th' intelligences, they the spheres.
"So must pure lovers' souls descend
To affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.
"To our bodies turn we then, that so
Weak men on love reveal'd may look;
Love's mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book…"
When Axel finished, glancing with a small smile at his companion, he was suddenly struck by the most wondrously dazzling sight he had ever seen. Roxas looked as though he gazed upon the most beautiful thing in the world…and his captivated gaze was still fixed on Axel. The man felt his breath catch at the sight of the glistening eyes and slightly flushed cheeks, and the parted, wavering lips.
"It's…beautiful. But…what does it all mean, Axel?"
The teacher felt his own countenance flush slightly, as he turned toward Roxas to demonstrate.
"Well, it's about two lovers. And in the beginning, they are sitting on a riverbank, and they are holding hands tightly, like this." The man lifted Roxas' hands and clasped them with his own, lacing their fingers together as they faced one another. "And he says they are staring into each other's eyes…" His own green eyes seemed fixed on the blue pools that did not waver in their rapt gaze. "…And he says that their souls are mingling between them, in ecstasy. But their souls are trapped in their bodies, so they must turn to their bodies to express their love to one another. And they…mingle, as their souls have mingled. They give themselves to each other, as an expression of the union of their souls."
The teacher halted after this explanation, and suddenly noted how reddened his companion's face had become. He himself could feel with near-certainty that his own complexion burned shyly at the words he had spoken. And yet he remained, unmoving, facing the boy, with their hands locked together, hardly knowing why he felt so disinclined to move away.
"It sounds…" Roxas' head ducked slightly, embarrassed. "Improper."
"On the contrary." Axel defended, his voice, however, wavering and sometimes stuttering a bit with uncertainty. "Though it may be very…in-intimate, the author looks upon the u-union as a very sacred action…even a spiritual occurrence."
Roxas listened to this, yet dared not raise his gaze to Axel's again. His heart seemed suddenly in turmoil, beset by confusions he had never experienced before. His turbulent thoughts reminded him of the gossip he had heard. Bewitched…is this the feeling of being bewitched? Am I…under an evil enchantment of some kind? His heart wavered a moment.
Axel's voice broke upon his contention, asking tentatively, "Do you find the poem…offensive?"
"No!" Roxas softly objected, and raised his head, almost involuntarily. As his eyes met Axel's green, concerned gaze, the hesitation that had flooded his soul dissipated, leaving Roxas with only one clear thought.
If this is enchantment…if I am bewitched…it matters not. I do not mind.
The face Roxas turned to the schoolteacher in that moment would be seared into the man's mind forever. The boy's features, always lovely, were now transformed. Adoration and bliss shone forth, striking Axel's tenderest affections directly, nearly stopping the pulse of his heart with an overflow of wonder.
It was a long moment ere the two parted – a moment during which neither spoke, nor drew his eyes from the other's. In truth, the poem read moments ago might well have described these two, who sat, unmoving, as if their souls indeed were mingling between them.
When at last they parted, still voiceless in the twilight forest, and began, by mutual consent, their leisurely return to the farmhouse, an unspoken change had occurred in both of them. Neither was certain of it yet – they both returned to the house and parted ways without feeling conscious of any great alteration, beyond a tingling sensation each experienced flowing over his body – but soon, they would both realize with strange certainty that they were no longer the same.
Roxas realized it once he had retired to his room, with only the lamp for light, and even that soon doused, as the boy lay in the silvery glow of the moon. He was no longer himself, alone here in his skin.
Axel realized it as he walked back to the hut where he lived, the eye of the moon casting beams of light through the heavy summer leaves, speckling his winding path home. The feeling was the same – he no longer felt at ease on this lonely walk through the forest; he no longer enjoyed the isolation of his own thoughts. He felt as if he had left part of himself behind…part of his soul seemed to be missing. And yet, at the same time, he felt as if he carried with him a sacred treasure. He had lost part of himself, and gained part of something priceless.
Indeed, as the poet had written, Axel felt that his soul had mingled with another, and, once parted from that person, he was left feeling both empty and full. The poet's words expressed his feeling perfectly…and it was then that Axel realized the truth of his connection to Roxas, and this realization filled him with joy.
How he had always dreamed of knowing the feeling these poets wrote about! How he had eternally longed to experience…love.
Axel lay down in his meager cottage with a heart overflowing in rapture, and he drifted off to the land of dreams, the whippoorwill's haunting song his lullaby.
In Tarry Town, as in many similar towns, school was largely a luxury afforded only to the very young, and often the seasons of the farms determined when instruction took place. As summer began to approach its end, many a child eagerly waited for the harvest season, and its accompanying respite from study.
It was a difficult time for anyone who earned his living only when the school doors were open. Alternate means must be made, and Axel, of all schoolteachers perhaps the most resourceful, had planned in advance how he would live until his pupils returned.
There were enough well-off farmers in Tarry Town to furnish a weekly round of private lessons – Monday the Van Dorren's children, Tuesday the Golswellen's, and so on. In addition, since the lessons would be in the evening, leaving the children free to help about the farm during the day, Axel had found himself similar labors for the daylit hours. Old Van Tassel had agreed to hire him as a farm hand, for lighter tasks.
Word spread quickly of the arrangement, and certain heads shook, remembering their suspicions and wondering why, of all the farms, the academic had chosen to be near the one boy already so unnaturally devoted to him. For indeed, suspicions had not really faded – as the summer had continued , Roxas' behavior toward Axel had only grown more openly attached. And, much to the housewives displeasure, the scholarly man did nothing to discourage the boy. In fact, he displayed a fondness quite as adamant, if less exuberant in appearance.
The maidens, in particular, disapproved most firmly. None of them had had so much as a pleasant conversation with Roxas for half the summer. The schoolteacher was ever the blond's first priority. And one maiden, the fairest in the town, had begun to act on her irritation.
Naminé did not lack for admirers, and had her pick of Tarry Town's lads. And, what she could not accomplish for herself, she could easily assign to an eager-to-please young bumpkin.
Thus it happened that, on the first cool morning of the approaching autumn, when the wraiths of mist twisted mournfully through the trees in the low hollows of the valley, the school was opened by its master, only to reveal a gruesome prank. Chicken bones were placed on each pupil's desk, all arranged in weird and fantastical designs, and on the teacher's desk there lay the severed head of the chicken. The combined effect of the spectacle was to frighten the children with a sight almost immediately viewed as the sort of trick a goblin was wont to play.
Axel was left to patiently clean the greasy prank away – though he could not quite remove the carrion smell from the room – and struggle to bring his class to task in his usual gentle but firm manner. This was the first, though not the last of the pranks brought down on the school and its teacher. And each time a trick was played, it turned more vicious, and more blatant in painting a view of devilish work.
It was still early one day, when Axel arrived at the Van Tassel farm, escorting the youngest child home. Mistress Van Tassel was quick to question the teacher as to why he had come so shortly after she had sent her own child off to be schooled. The man dropped wearily into a chair, and, sipping an offered cup of tea, proceeded to reveal the reason.
"I had to cancel lessons today. I sent all the children home. There was – there is, rather – a wild boar's head nailed to the front door of the school. The children were terrified, and I could not remove the thing in their sight…if indeed I will be able to remove it on my own."
The mother's shock and horror was quite evident, and she insisted that the poor teacher remain, have a bite to eat, and collect his strength. She then sent a child out to the field to fetch his father in. Old Van Tassel came with little delay, along with his eldest son. Roxas was delighted to see Axel, but his joy soon faded to concern when he saw the haggard look to the man. The tale of the trick played upon the schoolhouse was retold, and both new listeners were outraged…though Roxas was perhaps the more personally angered at the thought of Axel suffering such a sick prank.
Old Van Tassel offered to come and remove the offending head from the school door, but there was some debate over who could be spared from the fields. In the end, Roxas prevailed upon his father to stay and let him go – he and Axel, he promised, would surely be enough to clean the boar's head away.
And so, with a few farm tools in hand to assist them, an empty sack for the head, and some rags to clean the door, Axel and Roxas returned to the school to face the gruesome task.
The occasion was hardly a pleasant one, and yet secretly, both young men were overjoyed to have some unexpected time alone with the other. Certainly, they had continued their occasional evening walks and weekly meetings after church, and had, in this manner, explored quite a bit of poetry together. Still, they never felt satisfied. It was never enough. Each one silently longed to see the other, to the point where every moment apart was a moment bitterly resented.
And so, they faced the horrid task with more quiet cheer than either should have felt, and soon accomplished it and cleaned the unfortunate door as best they could, glad to be rid of the unholy sight of that decapitated animal.
The now-filled sack was left outside by the door, to be buried later, as Axel entered the single-room building, followed a moment later by Roxas. The door was left open to shed some light through the dark room, as the schoolmaster examined his domain for any further tampering. Roxas helped, checking inside and under all the desks with him. Everything, however, seemed to be in good order beyond the vandalized door.
"Well, that is certainly a relief." The teacher sighed, having verified that his own desk was as un-violated as the rest.
Roxas waited in the center aisle, halfway to the door, seemingly ready to leave, yet making no determined motions to do so. He hovered, wishing that his time with Axel could be extended. Gazing around, he mused, "It has been so long since I was a pupil here. Yet nothing has changed…save for, of course, the schoolmaster." He smiled at Axel. "I should have liked to have studied under your tutelage here."
The teacher felt his heart pound heavily with longing, as he gazed through the dimly-lit room at the smiling lad. Indeed, he shared the boy's desire wholeheartedly. At that same moment, however, he also remembered a book of poetry he had planned to fetch from his desk. He turned to remove it from amongst its companions.
"At the least, I can tutor you in poetry now." He smiled leaving his desk and approaching Roxas. "Here is a book I have not read from yet."
The radiant blue eyes shone excitedly at him. "Oh, read me something from it now!"
The taller man forced his face into an expression of mock seriousness. "Now now, haven't you fields to return to?"
The lovely blue eyes rolled at him. "We cleaned up much quicker than expected, so I'm sure they are not wondering at my absence yet. Come, Axel, we have time. Please?"
The man felt himself melt at the request from Roxas. Unable to even feign displeasure, he smiled as he opened the book, leaning against a nearby school desk, and began to read for the eager boy.
"Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That hills and valleys, dales and field,
Or woods or steepy mountain yields.
"And we will sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
"And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.
"A gown made of the finest wool,
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.
"A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.
"Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.
"The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love."
Roxas was silent, breathless. Axel had been unable to keep his eyes down, focused on the page, as he read. He knew the poem well, and on certain lines – particularly the last – he quite unintentionally lifted his gaze, his eyes meeting Roxas' as he spoke the words.
Roxas needed no translation this time. The words made perfect sense to him, without any explanation. What he did want clarified, however, was the expression on the reader's face. What he most deeply longed to know was what Axel intended when he stared directly into Roxas' eyes and spoke the lines, "Then live with me and be my Love."
"Axel…" He all but whispered, a shiver half of fear and half of delight and anticipation tracing down his spine.
The older man did not reply. His eyes remained locked on Roxas, while his hands automatically closed the book and set it aside on the desk. His motions were slow, but his heart was racing. By rapid degrees, his desire to be closer to Roxas was building, escalating into a desperate need to hold the youth. As his hands released the book, the mounting passion finally broke his control.
In one swift, fluid motion, Axel closed the space between them. His right arm circled around Roxas' slender waist, while his free hand cupped the side of that delicate face, fingers brushing into soft, golden strands of hair. A moment later, their bodies now pressed tightly against one another, Axel bent and sealed their lips together in a passionate kiss.
Roxas' eyes widened briefly in surprise. He was only startled for a moment, however. Axel's heated embrace and his burning kiss soon drove the fears and uncertainties from Roxas' mind, and the youth closed his eyes, his own hands moving up to slide over Axel's strong arms, as he felt himself being swept away by the man he loved.
It felt like an eternity, and yet only a moment passed before a nagging worry made itself recognized in Roxas' mind. He pulled back, gasping breathlessly, his fingers clutching in the fabric of the man's sleeves, "Axel! No…"
The ecstasy he had felt with Roxas in his arms vanished in a moment at the word. In a heartbeat, a million agonized thoughts flew through Axel's mind. What have I done, I've kissed a village lad, of course he never felt the same for me, it was all my own imagination, he'll hate me now, I'm to be driven from the town forever, oh what have I done? Near panic, he remained frozen for that one moment, before the sweet voice continued, low and breathless, almost panting.
"The door…is open…if someone comes…we'll be seen…" Blue eyes filled with desire, yet tainted with fear, met Axel's.
The redhead's relief was so overwhelming, he was as yet unable to move for a moment. That's…his objection? Then… In two long strides, Axel reached the door, quickly and smoothly shutting it, the iron bolt falling into place as the chirping of morning birds in the forest and the sight of the melting mist were shut out. In the suddenly much darker room, he turned back to face Roxas again, leaning his back against the door. His mind was filled with one question, as he gazed at the boy standing a few paces away, barely visible in the light of the morning sun that filtered through the slats of the shutters over the windows.
Could it be…that he also…?
Roxas answered his silent question, rushing suddenly across the intervening space with a soft cry of "Axel!" Unhesitatingly, he threw himself into the man's embrace again, his own arms twisting around Axel's neck and pulling the bewildered yet overjoyed teacher into another desperate, hungry kiss.
Neither was certain how long they remained this way. Time seemed to disappear, along with all sounds and scents of the outside world. Even the room around them vanished from their consciousnesses. All they saw was each other, all they felt was each other, all they tasted was each other, all they knew was each other.
When at last they parted – slowly, tantalizingly drawing back only a few inches, their bodies still pressed close – their eyes met again, and each face was filled with a smile of purest joy. Axel now softly stroked the side of Roxas' slender throat, while his other hand had come up to gently play in the golden hair. Roxas, in return, slowly caressed the face of his beloved, his tender fingers tracing Axel's handsome features, memorizing them with his adoring touch. Each was lost in the pools of the other's eyes, and each was moved nearly to tears by the overflow of emotion welling in their hearts.
"Roxas…" Axel whispered, his voice filled with wonder as he looked upon the lad.
"Axel. I love you." The smiling lips spoke the words the man most dearly longed to hear, not a trace of fear remaining.
"I, too." Axel choked out softly, around a lump forming in his throat. "I love you more than anything, Roxas."
Nothing more remained to be said. Contented, the young men gently embraced again, cherishing kiss after kiss in the dim schoolroom.
When Roxas finally reappeared at the Van Tassel farm, alone, only his mother marked, as he passed her on his way out to the fields, how unusually radiant her son looked…particularly after having had to remove a boar's head from a schoolhouse door.
The clanging of the old church bell in the narrow steeple echoed over the fields and forests, summoning Tarry Town to service. It was the first Sunday morning to nip the congregation with a chill sufficient to make them step swiftly through the doors, relieved to feel the warm glow of the small stove at the entrance, lit in advance by the humble minister. The news of the boar's head nailed to the schoolhouse door was no longer new – every soul living in Tarry Town had already been informed – yet it was not yet old to the point of growing too stale to merit another mention, another shake of the head, another reiteration of "certainly most devilishly macabre."
The summer term was nearing its close, as harvest drew steadily nearer. Axel had continued to make his rounds of the farms, yet his visits had not brought him back to Van Tassel's in the past week. He had seen Roxas, as usual, Sunday afternoon a week ago. This Sunday as well, the two young men met directly after the service and walked leisurely to Roxas' home. To all appearances, their conversation was no different from usual. This was in keeping with their quiet conversation from the week before.
"I have longed to see you, Axel." Roxas had quietly murmured to his companion, once they were far enough out of hearing of the other townsfolk.
"As have I." The man smiled briefly down at his beloved. "Yet I dared not come again, or increase my visits."
Roxas nodded, acquiescing. "We cannot arouse suspicion."
A heaviness had endeavored to settle over their hearts then, as they recalled the forbidden nature of their affection. Axel, however, did not wish to see their time together spent in misery. He glanced sideways, a sly expression just visible glinting from his eyes.
"Were we not in sight of half the village, I would not be able to resist embracing you right now." Sparkling blue eyes flashed briefly up to meet his, before returning to the road they walked. Roxas could feel his heart pound heavily in his chest at the words, spoken in such low tones. His breath came suddenly quicker as he replied.
"Were it not far too suspicious, I should drag you this moment into the shelter of the forest…and…and ki-kiss you. A great deal." The words were spoken sweetly, in a low tone to match Axel's, endeavoring to sound confident, but the warm flush on the youth's cheeks and the slight hesitation in his voice betrayed his bashfulness.
Axel's cheeks also flushed slightly, but with pleasure rather than shyness. His voice was even lower, almost a whisper. "I should like that…very much."
In this manner, their walk last Sunday had passed far more swiftly than any prior Sunday walk. On this Sunday, a full week of separation later, their conversation would be very similar.
The first to speak this time was Roxas. Barely away from the congregation, he whispered so softly that Axel could barely hear him, "I love you."
The simple, barely-heard words were like crystalline water to Axel's parched soul. His eyes slid shut a moment in bliss before he replied, "I also love you, Roxas. I adore you." Their eyes met as they walked casually side-by-side. Axel barely maintained a calm, neutral expression, but his eyes were burning with emotion. "How I wish I could show you how deeply I feel for you."
"Perhaps…" The gentle voice responded, "We may have more…opportunities…when harvest comes. At the least, I hope we shall see each other quite often. And…our farm is quite large, with many isolated places…" His voice trailed off as he glanced over at Axel, a secretive smile gracing his lips.
The redhead's face broke into a responding grin, and the rest of their walk was a pleasurable exchange of quiet, flirtatious words. None heard their soft exchange, and none marked any change in their bearings.
Eyes did follow them, however – for the rumors of enchantment, once started, could never be forgotten – and among those eyes, a few there were that burned with envy and anger. One pair, alone, carried more than jealous rage – Naminé's eyes watched the pair with grim determination.
Her pranks had not satisfied her frustration, nor succeeded in frightening or angering the teacher enough to drive him away from Tarry Town. Roxas kept company with Axel as much as ever, and Naminé had finally decided that harsher actions must be taken. That Sunday noontide, she set about preparing a plan to act upon that night.
The reddened sky above cast warm hues over the farms as the last of the workers made their weary ways homeward. Naminé stepped daintily over roots that twisted up from the ground, cluttering the pathway from her house to that of her friend, Kairi.
Her parents had consented to their daughter's request to spend the night with her friend. Kairi's parents, however, had been asked by their daughter if they would have Naminé to dinner. Only the fair blonde maiden knew that there was any conflict between the information each family had received.
Accordingly, she spent a pleasant dinner with her friend, and politely took her leave after a lengthy evening visit. She left in the company of an old servant, dutifully sent as a guardian to see her safely home. Naminé, however, well knew how to be rid of this impediment.
Cresting the hill that looked down on her family's farm, she turned to the servant. "You may return home now. I am certain you are weary, and it is just across my father's field, I shall have no trouble."
She had rightly predicted that the servant would be fully weary enough to settle for this compromise, and take it as a gesture of kindness from the young lady. She was thus left alone, a field's length away from her home. Her steps turned from that destination, however, as soon as she was left unattended. The pale girl stepped resolutely to the side, entering the black, forbidding forest, braving the paths where no moonlight could penetrate the heavy foliage.
She had never walked this path before, yet she knew the destination. It was a famed spot, avoided by every soul within rumor's reach of Tarry Town, only approached by daring young boys who goaded each other with taunts and boasts. To them, it was considered quite a feat of bravery to come as far as the place where the path forked, one trail leading down to the terrible knoll.
Naminé came to that spot and turned, stepping firmly upon the untrod path. Her soul, it must be admitted, quavered a bit with fright, yet her steps did not waver, even as she approached the dreaded hovel.
The birds were silent here, as were the crickets, and all the other small creatures that filled the nighttime forest with sound. The silence was total, save only for the girl's soft footfall, now suddenly disastrously loud in the stillness. She was near enough now to make out the malformed shape of the half-ruined shack. The few boards that remained to serve as a door hung away from the entrance, and Naminé found that here, her feet betrayed her, and would step no nearer.
Thus might she have avoided carrying through that dread encounter, had not a voice issued forth from the cavernous doorway, addressing her in deep, ominous tones.
"Why comes a maiden of the village to this cursed ground? Speak quickly and go, ere the damnation fall upon your head as well."
Naminé swallowed her fear and replied to the unseen speaker, "I have no fear of damnation. I come to learn its ways, that I may bring curses upon my enemy."
A pause followed. A moment later, as a shadow stirred within the house, slowly emerging, the voice spoke again, "Directly answered, for such a willowy, fool-seeming girl."
As the man emerged, Naminé cautiously took in his tall form. He wore a darkly colored robe, yet his powerful form was still distinguishable from his straight and imposing bearing. As he removed his hood, revealing long, strangely-tinted hair that framed his powerful face with an unnatural pink, he spoke again, amusement and a note of cruelty in his voice.
"However, I am not one to refuse a young would-be witch."
The nervous girl could not suppress a slightly sharp intake of breath as she beheld the man. His lips parted in a narrow, arrogant grin. "What, lusting after me already?"
Naminé was glad of the darkness, suddenly, for it concealed her flushed face. "I-I was merely taken aback…I had not expected the Warlock of the Western Wood to be…young."
"Nor am I." His invisible smirk was evident in his voice. "If I bothered to recall, I could name your great-grandfather for you, for I no doubt frightened him as a child as well. Yet such people are far below my notice."
He turned, then added over his shoulder as he reentered the hut, "Follow, little Apprentice Witch, if such is still your aim."
From two nights after that, the schoolteacher began to be plagued by strange sights after the sun had set, and ill omens greeted him many a morning. His regular journeys homeward from the farms where he was a dinner guest became riddled with these unsettling events. Not once, nor twice, but thrice did he see a black cat come across his path behaving most strangely. It would stop, then stare at him with a fixed, yellow look, then turn and stalk purposefully toward him, its uncanny gaze unwaveringly set upon him. No sudden motions to drive it away would cause so much as a blink.
The first time this happened, Axel was in the process of merely supposing that the cat was ill or mad with moonlight. Until the cat was within a yard of him, where it stopped, released a low, haunting cry that sounded in no way catlike and sent a violent shudder through the unnerved man…and promptly vanished from sight.
Axel was spooked so badly that he was home behind locked doors with a lantern lit in half the time it usually took him. And this uncanny, impossible event occurred twice more, imbuing the teacher with a fast-increasing horror of cats.
To add to the supernatural fears that began to follow the innocent academic, nightmarish, otherworldly sounds began to interrupt his sleep. Oft he woke, certain he heard tormented groans from his door, or beneath his window; at other times, it was a slow, agonized scratching that sounded as if the planks were being gouged almost to the point of being penetrated. In the morning, however, there would be no mark visible anywhere, nor would the ground show even the slightest mark of disturbance.
The scholarly man even attempted to trap the trickster. Despite his nerves, he would sneak to the door and stealthily unlatch it, jerking it open only to reveal…nothing. He then set traps by dusting the ground with fine sawdust, in hopes of catching footprints that would betray the human or animal agent of mischief. This test, however, only caused him more fright in the end, for the sawdust only proved that no living thing had come near…yet the sounds persisted.
Even a calm, rational man such as Axel could not help being affected by these supernatural hauntings. His sleep soon became restless, so often was he wakened in this evil manner. And the manifestations only grew worse. Aside from the vanishing black cat, various ghostly spectres appeared to the nervous man whenever he was returning home. He could hardly pass the church yard, the bridge over the brook outside town, or the isolated barn that once belonged to wicked old Silas Houten without a ghostly apparition appearing and startling him terribly.
Axel began to avoid walking home at night at all costs. It was, however, difficult to manage, for he still depended on the generosity of the farmers to provide him with an evening meal, and the days were already growing shorter. Evening fell earlier, leaving him often in twilight ere he reached his home, no matter how he hurried.
One night, shortly before the end of the school term and the beginning of harvest, he had been unavoidably delayed in his departure from a certain farm. As he walked through the gloomy gathering dusk, hurrying for all the world to get home before it was truly night, he suddenly spied, from the top of a small hill, what looked like a horrendous, powerful blaze in the direction of his schoolhouse. Struck with horror at this catastrophe (for it was a great danger, not only to him, but to the nearby farms, to have the schoolhouse in flames) he raced toward the poor building. As he neared, he was certain that, through the trees, he could see the blazing inferno, and even feel its monstrous heat, as harsh and searing as the flames of Hell.
Suddenly, just as he cleared the trees, in full sight of the burning schoolhouse, the flaming vision disappeared. The flames that had been utterly consuming the building shrank and vanished in an instant, and the schoolhouse appeared utterly unchanged to the eyes of the stunned schoolteacher.
Axel, incredulous, circled the building, examining it for signs of fire. He even entered and sought for any such traces within, yet not a scorch mark nor even the faintest trace of the scent of smoke could he detect. He left the building at last, having ascertained that it was in perfectly untouched, ordinary condition.
When dawn broke and the teacher returned, accompanied by his pupils, the golden morning light through the opened door revealed a sight that froze both teacher and students in their tracks.
Every desk was covered in blood.
There was a slight nip in the air now, early and late in the day, and the leaves had just begun to turn from their summer greens to a myriad of autumnal colors. Lines of geese had begun to cross the sky, their chorus of calls echoing over the laden fields and gardens and orchards. The wild creatures were about their busy work in the forest, gathering and collecting against the approaching cold. Harvest time had come at last, and school was finally closed.
Axel now rose before the sun, daily making his way to the Van Tassel farm, beginning work in the fields ere daybreak. He was not asked to do the heaviest work, not having the physical bulk of the year-round farmhands, yet he proved himself a strong and capable worker.
Indeed, the work itself was but a light and easy burden for him, for he was able to work alongside Roxas nearly every day, and the happiness that filled his being made all other drudgery inconsequential.
Working in the field, there was a relaxed, easy atmosphere among the men. When they rested at midday, they merrily traded jokes, gossip, and laughter. Their light, friendly discourse welcomed the newcomer amongst them, and Axel gladly enjoyed the good-natured company. Best of all, however, was the company of the young heir to the farm, who was often to be found at the teacher's side. Roxas had eagerly taken it upon himself to guide Axel in the particulars of the farm work, and even when that guidance was obviously no longer needed, they habitually remained together much of the time.
To be able to see Roxas' smile every day, to hear his beloved one laughing, to be near him, working together in the warm sunshine…Axel was certain he had never been so happy in his life.
Together they gathered apples and pecans, harvested yellow ears of corn, and, when they were secluded from view by the tall corn stalks and certain that no other workers were close by, they each stole many quick, secretive kisses from the other.
And, true to his word, amongst the daily routine of working together with all the farm hands, Roxas found many occasions for them to be quite alone, by one chance or another.
One such day, the men were finishing their work in the hay fields. Roxas carefully saw to it that he and Axel were slightly behind the others as they worked their section, gathering hay into a tall haystack. As the sun sank low, casting long shadows from the completed stacks, many of the men began to return, gathering their equipment and trudging wearily in to dinner.
Roxas and Axel were soon nearly alone at the farthest end of the field. A farm hand called to them, asking if they were coming in.
"All of you go ahead," Roxas called back. "Axel and I will just finish up this section and be in shortly."
The men agreed, calling back their farewells, and soon, Axel and Roxas were quite alone in the field.
Glancing cautiously around, Roxas grinned, seeing the fields empty at last. Turning abruptly, Roxas grabbed Axel's unsuspecting wrists and pulled him suddenly behind the large haystack. Taken off-guard, Axel tripped and tumbled with Roxas onto the loose hay gathered at the base. With a grunt, he avoided crushing Roxas under him at the last moment, bracing himself over the smaller young man. A moment later, their eyes met, both sparkling with amusement and delight. Roxas was giggling happily as he wound his arms up around Axel's neck. The man's responding chuckle was light and filled with pleasure as he bent forward, touching their foreheads together. Their delighted smiles became dreamy as they gently rubbed noses, Roxas' fingers playing languidly in the long red strands of Axel's hair. The older man shifted to free his hands, reverently touching the precious face as Roxas pressed, catlike, into his caress.
With a sigh of bliss, Axel placed a few gentle kisses along the boy's soft cheek, before moving to gently kiss the fluttering eyelids shut. Finally, with a whisper of "I love you, Roxas," their lips met in a long, slow kiss.
Lazy moments passed as the lovers, tangled together in the hay, enjoyed the sweet contact they perpetually longed for. Their movements were slow and adoring as they cherished a rare moment when they could freely express their love.
When they finally drew gradually apart – lips clinging, lingering just a moment more, even pressing quickly together again – radiant contentment shone from their eyes as they smiled warmly at one another. They had hardly spoken, yet their hearts each understood the other's feelings, without any words.
Roxas sighed, then murmured to his lover, "I could kiss you like this all day."
"Oh?" Axel teasingly replied, a sly grin in place. "I could kiss you like this all week."
Through a gleeful chuckle, Roxas tauntingly joked, "Ah, but I am certain that I could continue kissing you for a month!"
Axel's eyes widened in mock wonder. "However shall I eat in a month of kissing?"
"Mmmm…" Roxas' eyes rolled as he pretended to contemplate the problem, his bemused smile still in place. Swiftly, with a naughty glint appearing in his ocean eyes, he pressed his hands against Axel's chest, pushing the teacher over onto his back as Roxas followed, rolling to lie on top of his lover.
"Why should I permit you to eat?" He smirked teasingly before breaking into a lighthearted chuckle again, in which he was swiftly joined by Axel. The two laughed together, Roxas reclining on top of Axel, the last light of the late afternoon sun painting them in warm, burnished hues.
Axel reached up, lazily drawing his fingers through the lad's golden locks. "Well," he mildly concluded, "I doubt I shall have need of food in any event, if I have so many kisses from you."
Roxas thrilled with pleasure at the low, adoring tone. He wordlessly drew in a breath that shuddered with delight, and suddenly he felt an irresistible longing to feel his lover's kiss again. His eyes slipped shut as he lowered himself to meet Axel's lips, pressing his own ardently to the teacher's.
Since their first kiss, these intimate moments had been primarily sweet and innocent. This one was different. Axel felt it immediately – it bore more similarity to that first passionate embrace. He could sense the young blond's desire, and it awoke within him his own deep-rooted passion, his powerful hunger for all that Roxas was. His strong yet tender arms pulled the boy even closer as they both moved faster together, feeling heat begin to flow through their bodies.
A moment later, Roxas' loosely-closed lips parted wantingly, and Axel, though surprised, unhesitatingly responded. Their tongues met, tentatively at first, then rapidly as they caressed with more boldness. Fueled by their mutual needs, which had been denied daily since their confession in the schoolhouse, Axel and Roxas embraced passionately, their touches growing heated, almost wild, as they kissed more deeply than they had yet been free to.
Axel's hands now roamed Roxas' body, gliding down the slender, firm sides before returning to caress the boy's chest, concealed by the loose fabric of his field-work shirt. Overwhelmed by the pleasure of Axel's kiss and touch, Roxas gasped, then moaned softly into his lover's accepting mouth. The sound thrilled Axel, and he ardently rolled them over again, thrusting Roxas into the hay and bracing himself above the lad, desperately pressing further into his lover's arms and kiss.
In the fading light at the far end of the field, the gathering chill did not touch the lovers, who neither felt the coolness beyond their burning skin, nor marked the passage of time, though it grew late for their return to the farmhouse. Their joy in at last expressing their love to one another consumed all their notice.
They were fortunate, therefore, when an unpleasant interruption in the form of a large black crow chanced to recall them to the wider world. The crow lit on the haystack, and its sudden raucous cry startled the young men so that they broke apart suddenly, glancing fearfully around until they spied the intruder.
Roxas relaxed – it was only a bird; they were not discovered. The shock, however, forced him to notice the hour, and he ruefully realized that he and Axel must part and return. He turned to the redhead, only to notice a nervous expression lingering on the handsome features. Axel's gaze remained on the crow.
"Axel? Is something wrong?" The man's tenseness made Roxas nervous.
The teacher's reply was low, quiet and hesitant. "I am half afraid it will come after me…"
"Come after you? Why would a crow do that?" He sought the green eyes for some hint to explain the teacher's apparent fear. Slowly, they turned to him, calmness returning, mingled with resignation as Axel sighed, and tenderness as he gazed at the blond.
"I've much to tell you, I fear. My steps, of late, have been quite unpleasantly haunted." Then, as they gathered themselves from the hay, collecting their tools and attempting to help one another set their hair and clothing right again, Axel began to briefly describe the supernatural events of the past weeks.
Roxas was appalled to hear such strange, unnatural tales from the schoolteacher. Even in the tales told by the most ancient grandmothers and grandfathers of the village, no one person had ever been so frequently and fearfully haunted.
"What could have brought this on? You have done nothing to bring devils down upon your head!" He longed to wrap his arms around the teacher, supporting him in body and spirit, yet they were already en route to the farmhouse, and lacked proper concealment for such a gesture. Roxas dared not do more than gently brush his hand against Axel's arm.
The taller man gazed down affectionately at the lad. Though tormented by the unearthly, it was a wonder how Roxas' presence soothed him. Telling his troubles to the blond who walked beside him had reassured him. Truthfully, speaking with Roxas, walking beside him, and merely being near the young man were all that the teacher needed to calm the worries of his heart and mind.
"I know not why these strange things should be happening." He met the beautiful blue eyes with his own, and smiled reassuringly at his love. "Still, I have suffered no harm, and I am sure that I will be able to discover the reason, in time. Or, it may happen that these visions cease to occur soon enough." He spoke more confidently than he felt, for he wanted to ease Roxas' mind.
The youth allowed himself to believe in Axel, or at least to place his trust in hoping, as Axel hoped, that all would be well. Thus mutually consoled, the two neared the farmhouse.
First, however, they turned aside to lay up their tools in the barn. Finding no one there, and it now being fully twilight, they paused once more before turning their steps to the house, whose windows were a beacon of light in the gathering dusk. Risking suspicion by increasing their delay, they tarried in the shadowy barn. Their brief time alone together would end the very moment they stepped into the bright house with its many inhabitants. Reluctant to surrender this rare and priceless time, neither could find the will to return immediately.
Instead, Axel reached for Roxas, pulling the young man by the arms into one of the darker shadows. Hurriedly, they sought one another's lips again, on this occasion, not lingering over sweet words and innocent beginnings. Their tongues rapidly danced together, and they all but crushed their bodies close. Axel's hands sought to trace the boy's entire form in an ardent race, and Roxas likewise caressed his lover heatedly.
After a moment, they sought to draw apart, but Axel returned, longing for more, unable to let go of the adored blond. Passionately, he kissed the fine jaw line, then moved downward, opening his lips to sear the side of Roxas' throat with burning kisses. Roxas' moaning whisper panted in his ear as he sucked the tender flesh. "Axel…Axel…Axel! I love you…Axel, I love you, I love you!"
At last, Axel replied, his breath hot against Roxas' neck. "And I love you, Roxas. I shall never love another half so much. Oh, how I love you!"
He withdrew a short distance, his eyes seeking the beautiful face. Roxas, likewise, met his glimmering green eyes, his own gaze filled with unsatisfied longing. The dim twilight made their faces shine pale, even in the shadow. They clung tightly together in the darkened barn, saying nothing, only allowing their souls to meet and mingle again, wordlessly communicating all that they felt, until, by unspoken mutual understanding, they turned together toward the house, their steps leaden with regret, but their hearts still pounding with elation.