Disclaimer: Fatalistically not mine.

A/N: I started a challenge on LiveJournal for people to provide me with pieces of fanart that I would attempt to write fic for. I'm not sure how happy I am with this one, but it was actually really hard to write a fic for the picture I'd been given.

Based on nijuuni. deviantart. com/art/AkuRoku-Apocalypse-Hill-111729484

Apocalypse Hill

Fic © Scribbler, April 2009.

Image © Nijuuni, February 2009.

No doubt about it: going to universes where you had a counterpart sucked major ass.

Roxas stood under the tree and regarded the remnants of their latest operation. Strange, he reflected, how the tree still felt so real when it was actually just reconstituted motes of molecular dust – the building blocks of everything in the multiverse. Without its own universe to tether it, the tree had technically ceased to exist. Only very clever techs and the toys they provided had extended its lifespan. Roxas could almost believe they were actually standing on a real hill, with a real breeze blowing over them, instead of marooned on an island in an Emergency Bubble until a schooner from HQ picked them up.

"Well that was interesting," Axel said blithely. "I didn't think much of your counterpart, but mine was pretty cool. Emoted way too much for someone who claimed to have no heart, but those fire wheel thingies were stellar. Remind me to ask the techs to work on some when we get back. Those boys in the labs are always game for a new project."

"Like they'd give you something so dangerous to play around with," Roxas said absently.

"They might."

"After you pulled that stunt with the charge settings?"

Axel was huffy. "How was I supposed to know the timers measure in seconds instead of minutes?"

"By – I don't know – listening during briefings instead of seeing how many spitwads you can land in Zack's hair?"

"I'm up to fifteen in one briefing." Pride laced Axel's words. "And besides, Zack always flicks back."

Roxas rolled his eyes. His gaze was immediately caught by the key-sword thing his counterpart had waved at them before the charges blew.

He frowned. He'd thought his counterpart was caught in the blast, so how had that thing got here? Unless someone else in that universe had possessed one, and this was theirs. It was possible. He and Axel hadn't exactly gone exploring before they went to work. Once a universe had been marked out for erasure, it was the job of Erasers like them to go in, blast the place, and get out again. They weren't employed to ask questions.

There was a shield buried in the detritus, and he knew somewhere was a magical staff the techs would probably love to take apart. Axel had snagged it when the first blast went off, taking out half of that hideous sugary castle, and all the little humanoid woodland creatures came running out. The techs loved dissecting whatever got left behind after an erasure – although after molecular detonation there wasn't usually much left to dissect. Thoughtful Erasers, and those with enough time, sometimes collected interesting pieces as they went around setting the charges and put them by to deliver to the labs when they got back to HQ.

Roxas and Axel had cut away this piece of the landscape and floated it out into the void before they set the charges around the universe's perimeter. They'd needed something to wait around on afterwards. Axel hated just floating in space. He said it played havoc with his hair and made him want to puke when he got turned upside down and couldn't right himself.

"That was one screwed up dimension," Axel said after a moment. "I mean, seriously. Did you see those little shadow things? I thought I was going to kill myself laughing until they started eating people's hearts. And then those Husks – urgh! I felt slimy just watching them. Plus all those little pocket worlds within one universe, each with their own realities and laws? Way too messy. I can see why the Delineators put this one on the investigative list."

It was standard procedure: when a universe broke the Rules of Veracity, started to operate outside the boundaries of believable reality, or just plain overspilled from its original model, it came to the attention of the Delineation Department. Delineators made a quick inspection, and if they felt it required further examination they stuck it on the investigative list. Then it was the job of Investigators to go in and secretly, without upsetting whatever tenuous balance the universe had set up for itself, figure out whether or not it was saveable. Sometimes universes could be pulled back and made to conform to the rules again, but if they were out of control – or, worse, in danger of spilling over into other, unconnected universes and spreading disorder there as well – the case landed in the Erasure Unit, and on the desks of Erasers like Axel and Roxas.

"They didn't even follow their own rules of logic, let alone the Rules of Veracity," Axel went on, citing the directive that had governed universes since before either he or Roxas ever applied for jobs in the Reality Corps. "

He was always talking. Along with his sarcasm, odd sense of humour and the ruthlessness he applied to getting the job done, it was what Axel was famous for. You could never shut him up unless he wanted to be shut up, and even then he might keep going just to spite himself. Axel was a bit like a universe on the investigative list himself – irrepressible, unpredictable, and likely to endanger everything and everyone around him if he thought it was a good idea.

Basically, he was Roxas's polar opposite.

When he and Roxas were first introduced, Roxas had looked at his new partner and thought it would never work, for the simple reason that he would probably kill the guy after an hour. Yet somehow, against all odds and expectations, they'd clicked. They worked well together, Roxas's cautious reticence offset by Axel's recklessness. They'd saved each other's lives more than once when assignments went south.

They'd acquitted themselves especially well during that awful situation when Sephiroth had his breakdown, and let the Delineators know he wasn't happy with their current investigative list by holding their entire department hostage. The poor guy had been sent out to destroy three consecutive universes with counterparts of himself in them, each more messed up than the last. His mind couldn't take the strain of constantly murdering himself. He'd snapped when he was handed a fourth file, marked 'Dissidia'. In the end, Axel had ignored procedure and the hierarchy by sneaking in, Roxas following even though he thought it was a bad idea because, really, what else could he do? He couldn't just let his partner get killed, even if Axel was a giant pain in the neck with the emotional maturity of a toddler. Together they had surprised Sephiroth and restrained him long enough for Corps. Security to get in and pretend they'd done all the work.

"What gives us the right to just destroy universes?" Sephiroth had howled as they dragged him away. "We're not gods!"

"Uh, yeah, because gods are the creation of undeveloped universes who can't understand basic proto-physics like we do and need some way of explaining the inexplicable so their tiny little minds don't go kaplooey." Axel had snorted, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "Can you believe that guy? He was so overdue some vacation time."

The paper pushers had really dropped the ball with that whole thing, but the upshot was that since then they'd been much better at letting Erasers know when they were headed to places where they might meet, and be expected to erase, doubles of themselves. You could choose to decline those, which hadn't been an option before Sephiroth.

"When do you think those bozos will get off their asses and come pick us up?" Axel asked, dragging Roxas back to the present moment.

Roxas sighed. "It would've been easier if you hadn't lost the location transmitter."

"Hey, I was in a hurry."

"Because you got the timers wrong."

Axel squatted down and stared out into the void. There was no air there, outside the Emergency Bubble they'd put around this tree to keep it from dissolving when the rest of the universe did. They'd have to put Bubbles around whatever the techs wanted, otherwise when they disengaged the Emergency Bubbles everything would revert to free-floating molecular dust, ready to be reformed into a new universe someplace else.

And possibly erased if it gets it wrong and becomes too dangerous as well. Roxas sighed. There were times his job was the most depressing thing in the … well, multiverse.

"I'm hungry," Axel said, as if this was the most important thing ever and Roxas should take immediate note. "I vote we have chimmychangers for lunch."

"Fine, but if you eat them you're sleeping in the hallway tonight. No way am I sharing barracks with you and your gas."

"Lightweight." Axel grinned. You'd never know he just killed someone he could've been in a different life. Axel never let the job get him down – except that once, when he'd had to put down one of Roxas's counterparts. Usually Roxas dealt with them, but at the time he'd been unconscious, and had awoken later to find Axel uncharacteristically subdued.

Our counterparts seem to turn up together more than most people's, Roxas reflected, not for the first time. The techs called it an anomaly. Then again, they called Axel sane, so that just showed what they knew. All Roxas really knew was that ever since then, he'd made a point of figuring out where his counterpart was when they erased that type of universe, so Axel wouldn't have to see it when the charges detonated.

Axel leaned back, hand clasped loosely around one knee. "I never complain when you eat chilli con carne, do I?"

"Yes. A lot. Often through a gag of your own socks when you force me to prove which is stinkier."

"Oh. Well." Axel blinked. "Hey, look, there's the schooner." He stood up and waved his arms frantically at the little craft putt-putting towards them. "Hey, yoo-hoo! We're over here!"

Roxas gave a rare smile. What did he care about copies from dead universes? He, the original, was still alive, and that was all that really mattered.


The key-sword glinted accusingly at him as he stepped off the island and onto the schooner's boarding causeway. Zack was piloting, with Reno as his co-pilot. Roxas suppressed a groan. Putting Axel and Reno together in a confined space was never a good idea, and it was at least an hour back to HQ.

"Successful assignment?" Zack asked, the glint in his eyes saying he knew exactly where Roxas's thoughts had gone.

"Up until now, sure."

Zack ticked his eyes to the box of earplugs on the dashboard. "Came prepared."

"You're a lifesaver," Roxas said gratefully, reaching for a pair as the first of the 'I'm so much better than you' declarations kicked off. There were days he really wished he'd listened to his mother and become a photographer instead of a safeguard of reality.