The laugh echoed, harsh and discordant. He was ever so dimly aware that the floor wasn't as smooth as it had looked, the knees of his trousers catching on the invisible rough snags. If he lifted his eyelids slightly higher, he would see a blurry image of the white figure cringing against the wall. Made blurry by the angle, what lashes he had contributing to the obscuration of the view, and moisture clouding in, his view did not consist of any view of her expression. Roxas could guess startled and seriously doubtful of her childhood friend's sanity.

His eyes acknowledged nothing but the dancing image of black scorch marks. "Why—" He choked. Why couldn't he. Stop. Laughing? "Why would you…what did he…ever do to you? Fine! He had a mouth on him! Hardly reason to go and burn him to a crisp! Talk about temper!"

"…Ah."

Roxas heard the quiet breath and his hand darted out, groping wildly for his dagger. It was here, on the floor somewhere, and dragon or no, he was still going to give a few painful lessons to—

Sleep. His thoughts carried on, raging, but slowly faded from audibility. Even years later, Roxas struggled to describe the warm cocoon that seemed to envelop his mind. It wasn't security so much as a sense of utter justified selfishness. Everything else could wait until…whenever. It was soft. It was dangerous.

Through it all, he heard Naminé's very distorted voice and a familiar husky one exchanging hushed comments. Their words reverberated and Roxas indistinctly felt irritation that they were going to bring the walls of the cave crashing down in a landslide if they kept talking. Then the voices ceased and there were arms sweeping him off the cold stone. Someone brushed aside a few strands of hair that had been on the verge of poking into his eye and, that last annoyance vanishing, darkness began converging on his senses.

The crackling of flames followed him down.


Roxas sat up. It was all a dream. To be more accurate, a nightmare. He gripped several folds of comforter in his hand and waited for his fluttering pulse to even out. The cave was not going to go up in flames; rock did not burn easily. Wait. Cave? Rock?

He glanced down. Yes, the wrinkling fabric was a deep solid scarlet instead of the ornate white and gold that he had woken up to for a little under thirteen years. Pale shadows played over his hands as they unclenched and Roxas finally noticed the dancing lights of the torch angled towards him. No wonder his dreams had been filled with the image, intensified and distorted by his imagination. A spasm of shivers swept over his body and he quickly averted his gaze.

His eyes landed on the door just as it swung inwards. An achingly familiar face poked her head through the crack of the doorway. "Oh! Good morning, Roxas."

"…Good morning."

Naminé looked healthy and…vibrant. There was a term he had never thought could be applied to the girl. Color suffused her cheeks and her eyes contained a glow in the washed out blue that he had never seen there before. Again, he saw that she still carried her sketchbook with her, this time having tucked it carefully under her arm.

"Breakfast?"

The door opened wider as she took a step in. Roxas immediately colored. How the kitchen staff would gasp in horror and then later gleefully whisper about Princess Naminé. In Roxas's bedroom. Granted it wasn't exactly his bedroom, but… Oblivious to Roxas's sudden unfounded panic, Naminé nudged the door all the way open with her foot, silver tray laden with steaming plates balanced on her other hand.

"Roxas, there's no one here who doesn't know we're just friends."

Oh. Not that oblivious then.

"Or we could eat outside if you're uncomfortable." Her eyes looked questioningly at him.

Roxas swallowed. "Sure. Outside's fine."

Naminé was normally one of the few people he found himself being natural around. But with so many questions and much confusion buzzing in his head concerning the circumstances, Roxas discovered his tongue more inclined towards tasting than conversing. On that note.

"Where did all this come from, Naminé?"

Her fork faltered in mid-dig. "A—He leaves it on the table every morning before he leaves."

"He. The redhead right?" He continued even as she nodded the confirmation, "So who is he anyway?"

Naminé's exuberant mood seemed diminished by his persistent questioning now. She shifted in her chair. "Roxas, it's not my place to tell you."

"Then at least tell me something about what's going on!" Roxas gripped his utensil tightly, squeezing as if by pure force it would relieve some of the bewilderment plaguing him. "I came here because there was talk about you being kidnapped by this dragon and now that I'm here, I don't know what's real anymore. I'm starting to think this dragon doesn't even exist, am I right about that?"

"No. There…was a dragon. People are right about that. Roxas, I really shouldn't tell you anymore. It's…his right to tell, not mine."

When Naminé wanted to be, she could be down right immoveable. Metaphorically speaking. Such was the case now.


Adrenaline now winding down, he found himself sliding alarmingly into that grey, drab realm of 'bored'. Until Roxas realized that since breakfast, Naminé seemed to have vanished. Upon discovery of this fact, Roxas's immediate reaction was that of vague hurt. It took very little imagination to conjecture the reason she could not be found was because she didn't want to be found, and therefore was hiding to avoid him and any more potentially uncomfortable questions he held. He allowed his wounded feelings to simmer briefly. Then he remembered that he had not seen her actually leave via cave entrance to the winding mountain road leading down to the forest. Roxas remained certain that, no matter how distracted he may have been, there was no way he could have missed the distinctive rumble of the cave wall rising up and groaning its way back down, which seemed to be the only way to leave this place.

His eyes swiveled to the door. It allowed his suspicious scrutiny politely; it would have perhaps obligingly shuffled forward on awkward corners for even closer observation if it hadn't been set firmly between four sides of surrounding stone. But surely Naminé would not have gone into his room…even ignoring reasons of propriety, what reason had she? Last time he had checked, there was nothing much of interest in there: a bed, a torch, a low table, a closet. Certainly nothing tempting enough to lure her in there.

Perhaps, and his curiosity and anticipation swelled, this was one of those doors that led to different areas in compliance with what its opener desired. In trawling through many thick textbooks and considerably more interesting, but fewer in quantity, storybooks, many descriptions of such enchantments were briefly given, sometimes accompanied by an even shorter attempt at explaining how such magic could be comprehended by puny human minds. (All had failed terribly, in Roxas's humble opinion.) Breath cut to a temporary stop, Roxas placed a hand on the slatted surface and thought as hard as he could, so that his facial muscles ached from squeezing, of a library. Dusty shelves and leather spines lines up neatly upon them, some maybe even piled haphazardly on the floor from the sheer amount the room had to contain.

His bed, torch, side table, and closet greeted him mildly. Roxas's face fell in annoyance and he glanced quickly around to see if, by chance, Naminé had come in here. Feeling rather foolish, he quickly lifted the edge of the covers hanging over the side of the bed and peeked beneath the bed. A cool draft swept over his face as he released the trapped pocket of air there, but that was all.

Several minutes later, severely disgruntled and sporting a faint headache, Roxas had successfully rediscovered his room some scores of times and not found a single new area or Naminé. Ok, not strictly true. Apparently, someone was kind enough to have supplied him with a lavatory through what he had originally thought was the closet door. But there was nothing magical about that since that had simply been a misassumption on his part.

When Naminé reappeared from that very door hours later, closing it on a room that most definitely looked nothing like Roxas's, she reluctantly did confirm that the door was enchanted, and no, the door didn't yet recognize Roxas as approved to use it.


And to be honest, when the wall began grating upwards and the redhead ducked underneath it impatiently, he did look rather tired, irritated, and drenched. Roxas and Naminé stared at him, magically appearing dinner forgotten. He glared back, exasperated. "What?"

Naminé jumped up and pushed through the door, reemerging with arms bundled full of fluffy towel. "What happened?"

"What—neither of you have stepped outside? It's pouring to beat the gods outside." He waved vaguely and the towel obligingly tugged itself from Naminé's arms and draped over his outstretched hand. Naminé looked unfazed. Roxas blinked.

"You know I was drawing, Ax—" Naminé clasped both hands to her mouth, eyes wide. Hurriedly, she moved on, "And you haven't set up Roxas for any of the entrances in here."

The mage had merely raised an eyebrow at Naminé's hurried interruption, but now he looked up sharply, pausing in his brisk toweling off. "I haven't…?" He turned his questioning gaze upwards, and stood there for several seconds. Occasionally, his eyes twitched in various moods until they widened abruptly and swung down to regard Roxas in a startled manner. Roxas squirmed under the intense, however brief, it was still intense, gaze. "What?" In retrospect, the word did shoot out of his mouth rather shortly.

The redhead's parted lips sealed quickly and stretched into a languid smirk. Eyelids half lowered over those green eyes that had been so quick to astonishment earlier. "Nothing, little Prince. You're free to roam now." He swept his hand—clothed in black like the rest of his body, Roxas noted—out in a mocking bow. "That is, whenever our sweet Naminé finds the time to instruct you. Wouldn't want for you to confuse the door and get swept out into the void between the dimensions now, would we?"

Roxas's cheeks noticeably paled. Death threats, he would like to think, did not scare him normally, but… "You're not serious…?"

"No, he's not," Naminé sighed, retaking her seat at the table. "He just does that sometimes. A lot."

The he in question grinned more widely and lifted a knowing finger to his lips. The towel that had been idly dangling from his hand remained in its exact position in the air as he swept past it before it obligingly curled into a ball and winked out. Roxas stared idly and supposed that he would have to get used to this sort of thing happening on a regular basis. His head shot up as the door creaked. "Wait!"

Both of the others paused, Naminé shooting a glance at him that he would have been able to interpret but for his eyes being fixated on the other, the lean figure half way through the doorway, profile visible as he looked at Roxas out of the corners of his eyes.

"I still don't know your name," Roxas stated defiantly.

A breath came from Naminé, the beginning of a gasp or perhaps a shocked exclamation of "Roxas!" but she never finished it.

"Naminé, it's fine." He did not look at her, shaded eyes continuing to focus on Roxas, who stared back unflinchingly. That same mysterious smile flitted over his face again. "Axel," he said at last. "You can call me Axel."

In a slight anti-climax, he—Axel now glanced at Naminé who gave him an utterly confused and questioning look. "Naminé, please do take time out of your ever so busy schedule to teach our royal guest here. I'm sure someone will have my head if we let him fall through the cracks." A low chuckle and he was gone in a whirl of black robes and slam of the door. Roxas dropped his head against the table. Lovely. Now he was even more confused than before.

"Roxas, that's not how he usually is."

"Really," came Roxas's skeptical muffled response.

"Really. He's—I'll go talk to him."

Roxas listened to her echoing footsteps, the door open, and her tentative call, "Axel?" The door swung shut behind her. The blond propped his head up in both palms and regarded the empty room thoughtfully. A few minutes later, Naminé reappeared, with a look on her face that Roxas realized in surprise was exasperation.

"So. You talked to him…?" Roxas let the question hang.

Sporting a very uncharacteristic twist of the mouth, Naminé plopped into her chair, and smiled wryly. "You just caught him on a bad day, Roxas." The smile that was suspiciously reminiscent of one he had just seen on a very different face dissolved as she picked up her sketchbook off the table and fiddled with the…now that Roxas noticed it, he sat up and stared at it for details. It was charcoal, but thinned and rounded on one end. And a pale red, the main deviation that had caught his attention first. "Did Axel make that?" He tried out the name for the first time, not liking the way it rolled off his tongue, requiring too harsh a sound and a hiss.

Naminé followed his gaze. "Yes. Roxas. There's something I have to tell you."

"Yes, Naminé?"

She continued staring at the drawing utensil in her hand and rolling it between her fingers. A thin layer of pink film was gathering on her fingertips. "I…I didn't need rescuing."

"So I gathered."

"No, it's… I never was scared, I mean, I knew it all along. I knew there wasn't a dragon, and when Axel would come. We planned it all out."

Strangely, he thought he understood it as all the pieces of this particular puzzle slid in rapidly. And as the truth peeked demurely at him from behind the words left unsaid, he found he had not the faintest twitch of upset. "Nami, what are you saying?"

Naminé looked quickly at him. "I told Axel to take me away." She watched his face carefully, gauging his response.

Roxas tilted his head back and blew out a breath. "I think we need to talk."


In the following weeks, Naminé and Roxas had several long conversations during which Naminé relieved portions of the lack of information that had been plaguing the prince, though Roxas was still fairly certain she was holding back certain specifics. He didn't care. Alright, lie, he did care, but compared to the confused days in the beginning, the sudden influx of knowledge was at least satisfying.

Because it would be tedious and unnecessary to recount every exact word of every single conversation, here is what Roxas learned during those many meals and days spent together:

He had been played along with the rest of society. Except for a few key royal youths who had apparently been as restless as he had. (And he was miffed to realize that he had never recognized how much Naminé had disliked being a princess, seeing as how wrapped up he himself had been in the same problem. Maybe that had been it, his being too wrapped up in his own problems.) Naminé loved drawing; everybody knew that. Naminé wanted to be a professional artist; nobody had known that. And then Axel had come along and seen the stifled urges that were building like a scream in Naminé and coaxed her worries out into the open. Long, convoluted story short, they, together, agreed on and formulated a plan. Or more, Axel proposed a plan that seemed too suspiciously detailed to be one made up on the spot. And thus, in a few days after that, a young dragon dipped over the white-walled kingdom and its roar shook the walls of the castle. And Naminé looked up. And smiled. Very willingly, she stepped outside and was unfortunately snatched and carried off towards the mountains beyond. The dragon deposited Naminé at the entrance of the cave before spiraling into the air and vanishing from sight. Then the redheaded mage she had met a few days earlier was at her shoulder and mockingly welcoming her "to a new life, filled with potential for the gluttony of sketch."

Naminé was happy.

Roxas was disturbed by how vaguely familiar the story sounded.

So he had stormed into the unnamed room where Axel almost always resided, although it was no bedroom, and yes, hurrah, he had mastered the basics of the enchanted door, and demanded more details. The redhead's immediate raised eyebrows lowered, and he drawled, "Naminé not being forthcoming enough for your liking?" before he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

Just as Roxas was about to check if Axel was deliberately and pointedly ignoring him, Axel began in a softer, less acerbic tone. "Yes, I helped spirit Naminé away. I find it particularly disgusting of royal parents especially to force their children into following in their public kissed footsteps. Being brought up as replicas and no one understanding you sound familiar?" Hooded eyes peered amusedly at Roxas. "What else do you want? I assume Naminé was not so closemouthed as to not tell you the basics of what happened. I met her in the city, knew she was the pampered princess of the kingdom, and knew she was unhappy. I've a nose for them, I suppose, although I prefer to think that most people are just too blind to notice that others of different statuses also have feelings. You want to hear about our talk long into the evening, how people cast venomous glances at the shady stranger seducing their precious princess, but dared not interfere quite yet? We talked, that's all we did, so calm your nerves, Prince Roxas." He grinned at the younger man.

Roxas flushed. "I wasn't thinking of that!"

Axel laughed. "So you didn't. Alright, you're special. Tell me what you want to know. This mage is humbly at your service, prince."

"Don't call me that." Roxas finally voiced the thought that had been niggling at the back of his mind for Odin knows how long. "And I want to know…I want to know how you started this. Naminé wasn't the first, was she?"

Axel turned fully towards him, the chair rising very briefly into the air and turning to come to a rest facing the opposite direction. His eyes were bright. "Sit if you please." Roxas sat, sinking gratefully into a soft chair, yet feeling those fascinated eyes never leaving him.

"You are quick to see that, Roxas. Yes, there were others." He paused. "Do you want to hear the old man ramble or should I stop there and let you escape?"

"I want to hear."

A faint note that Roxas had not noticed before colored Axel's reply. "Well. Ok, the first girl was Yuffie. And I kid you not, she wanted to be a ninja."

Time passed, but Roxas was hardly aware of it doing so. There was Yuffie from Wutai, on the other side of the mountains, and apparently, there lay a plethora of kingdoms and people there that few on this side knew about. Yuffie, who was constantly being reprimanded by her father for improper behavior that ill befitted a princess. Primarily her obsession with pickpocketing and shiny objects. The two interests were entwined. Axel caught her fingers in the pocket of his cloak, and was more intrigued than annoyed. "And the powerful mage fell in that moment," Axel commented wryly. Then there was Larxene, who had her own proclivity for magic and who Axel now faintly regretted having introduced to magic since her powers, while not as progressed as Axel's own, only fueled her sadism at seeing things electrocuted. Not to death, that was no fun, but tiny uncomfortable buzzes to more…painful full-bodied zaps.

Names flew through Roxas's ears, some completely strange and unfamiliar, others he had heard of some time in conversation or what little he remembered of history classes. Yuna of Spira, the brilliant prodigy of summoning magic. Fuu of Balamb, who now terrorized unsuspecting students at Balamb Gardens' University with her forceful lectures on strategic military maneuvers. Selphie of Trabia far to the north, who was helping design the ultimate railroad system that would, so it was said, run the entire length of the continent. Penelo, Tifa, Aqua, the stories ran on. Any males? None thus far.

"So this is the fulltime occupation for you? Being a professional princess rescuer?"

Axel flashed a lazy glimpse of teeth, lips curved in a pleased manner. "Could think of worse things I could be."


And thus began the more interesting portion of Roxas's education thus far. Certainly not conventionally appropriate subjects for the royal heir to study, but definitely more enjoyable. Once Axel had extracted from each a promise (that he had to deem heartfelt enough first) to not wander far, they felt free to roam the area, carefully always in sight of the mountain. Which wasn't particularly hard considering how large it was.

Naminé proved herself surprisingly adept at navigating through the obscuring trees and identical bushes. Roxas found that he had missed days when they would just sit in comfortable silence together; she would draw and he would…it varied from time to time. They just fit together. When light still filtered through the mass of leaves, they brought lunches and searched out suitable clearings. There, Naminé would do as she always did and Roxas mainly explored. He searched for the shadows, but he never found them. He forced himself to search for scorch marks, but he never found them either.


"Axel?"

The mage hummed softly, wisps of glowing orange coiling around the two balanced legs of his chair. Tilting even more precariously backwards, his upside-down gaze found Roxas's amused one. "Ever at your service."

"Why a lizard?"

"I—" Axel snapped his mouth shut. His gaze chilled and Roxas flinched at the cold suspicion now being leveled at him in those hard slivers of emerald. "Axel. I know."

"You do, do you?" Axel murmured softly, still with that drawn intensity to his frame. He was no longer looking directly at Roxas, but intently studying the very interesting ceiling.

"Yes. I do. I've…I've guessed for a while now."

"Say it then." He turned in his chair, resting both hands on the back, arms tense. "If you dare, little prince."

"I…"

"Say it."

"You thrice damned idiot!" Roxas exploded. Forgotten fury swarmed across his vision in red swathes. "What in heavens possessed you to think that vanishing and leaving a scorched corpse mark behind was a good idea? Have you any—any idea what I felt?"

"I'm sorry."

"You're sorry."

"Believe me, I did not intend to leave a mark behind with such…" Axel smirked dryly, "negative implications. And for the worry that caused you, I apologize. Really. But I was honestly surprised at the state in which you stumbled up here. Was it really that traumatic?"

Roxas looked away, color staining his cheeks. He heard Axel give a low chuckle. "I'm touched, Roxas."

"You've not answered my original question."

"So I didn't," and he looked very tempted to leave the question as it was, unanswered. Roxas was about to press the point when Axel resumed speaking, voice taking on the cautious deliberative pace that Roxas had come to associate with his longer anecdotes. "In my younger days, I, shall we say, rather gleefully practiced conjuring fire at length. Always in secret. Soon, the various sightings of smoke and flashes of flame inspired the local rumormongers to spread the tale of a dragon having newly arrived in the area. It was amusing, and I did nothing to quell the stories. When I met Yuffie, this provided a reliable tale to mask my trail. It helps that our affinities for fire allow us to converse, fire-breathing lizards and I. Think of the lizard as my private joke. And, yes, he's alive."

"You're alive," Roxas accused softly. "That was no actual animal, under your bidding, or a dead shell with your spirit."

Axel just looked at him. "Say it."

"You're a shape shifter."

"…yes."

Naminé paled. "He told you?"


Information on shape shifters was notoriously difficult to find. Given that the rarity of the skill itself and the fact that few had ever been captured, this fact was not surprising. Midgar had briefly possessed a branch dedicated to this specific study, although hearing about it and then learning the natures of some of the tactics were very different things. In brief, they did not recruit test subjects; the proper term would be "kidnap." Vincent Valentine, Azul the Cerulean, Genesis, Angeal. Even Roxas remembered the names, and this coming from he who hated history lessons with a passion.

The ends of those subjects were not pretty. The lucky ones were recruited by the kings of whatever kingdoms were lucky enough to capture them. Having a sentient weapon who could morph into a predator for battle, a virtually invisible spy for reconnaissance; the temptation was too much to resist. Hence the sudden die-out of these powerful mages as all and one quickly concealed themselves as best they could to avoid detection.

And now…

Roxas, like it or not, was moved. But… "You're rather reckless, aren't you?"

Axel shrugged. "Still alive."

Naminé, tender-hearted princess that she was, began worrying what her parents were thinking. Regardless of Roxas's protests that they would be forced together in marriage if she returned, she remained adamant. "I have to let them know I'm unharmed, Roxas. They're my parents." She raised a hand and Roxas snapped his mouth shut. "I think you should stay here, Roxas. I can explain to my parents; they'll listen." Alright, he would give her that; Naminé's mother and father were comparatively easy to get along with, just a tad overprotective.

"You and Axel will be good for each other."

Roxas raised his gaze from the floor and looked at her. Naminé returned his look with calm wide eyes. Oh. That was it; the thing about her that he'd noticed ever since seeing her again but hadn't been able to identify exactly. "Nami…" You've grown up sometime when I thought we were still kids at play. When did you change from my little sister to my older one?

A small smile told him that she understood. "I'll be fine, Roxas."


Axel caught her as she was placing the last of her folded dresses into a knapsack. "All my efforts for naught now, Naminé?"

She pulled the drawstrings shut and hefted the bag up. Naminé smiled up at him. "Don't say that, Axel; you know it's not true."

"After all," he drawled with a wink, "I went to such lengths to bring you here and I find out you've been wanting to go home the entire time."

"Axel, I did want to leave and I loved staying here." Naminé bit her lip. "But this isn't where I belong. You've given me so much, but now I feel like it's time for me to use what I've learned."

He laughed and stepped closer to ruffle her hair. The softened look on his face was affectionate as he grinned down at her. "I know that, little princess. Go shock the kingdom now."

"Take care of Roxas, Axel."

A brief flash of surprise showed momentarily in his eyes. He recovered quickly. "Would a promise of no teeth on either side allay your fears?" His smirk dissolved into a serious expression now. Axel bent closer to her. "You take care of yourself, Naminé. I'll be shielding you on your journey, but that gives you no leave to lower your guard, you hear me?" He eyed her critically. "Maybe I should—"

"Don't." Naminé slung the leather straps about the shoulders and adjusted the position carefully. "I need to do this for myself. And I would not want you to overtax yourself by bringing me all the way through the void back home."

"I'm still seeing you past the Pride Plains," Axel's tone bore no room for protest. Naminé nodded. "Of course. I promised."

"Farewell, Naminé. Do take that literally, my dear." Before Naminé could respond in like, he stuck his head out the door and called, "Last call for teary-eyed partings that are such sweet sorrows." She heard the scuffle of a chair being hurriedly pulled back, an indistinct retort from Roxas as his racing footsteps approached the door, and Axel's brief amused laugh. She shook her head, smiling. Everything was going to be all right.


Naminé surely had not meant so much to him, Roxas reasoned confusedly as he watched Axel flip haphazardly through a book without looking. With a start, he found he recognized the look on the man's face as one that had often occupied his own when brooding. But what had Axel encountered to occupy him so?

It was perhaps a mistake to let Axel wallow in his gloom for so long. But then again, if he had confronted him earlier, what did happen eventually would never have happened and who knows where he would be now? This assuming that confronting him earlier would have accomplished anything at all, of course.

So it was that some days later, after Axel had begun staying out later and later, and Roxas was gradually becoming more and more worried, that the cave began echoing with shuffling and the occasional shudder of a boom. Roxas glanced quickly at the ceiling and assured himself that the mountain was not collapsing inward on him. Another rumble, this time a familiar one, and shadow began crawling across the floor beneath the rising stone.

"Axel?"

The man paid no heed to his words, slamming the wall into place behind him with a careless fling of his hand. He staggered only very slightly.

Roxas pushed away from the chair, concern etching its way into his face. "Are you hurt?" The moment the words left his mouth, he realized that that was not the case. Axel's stumbling was not of pain, but of a sudden lack in coordination. He was bloody intoxicated. "You—"

"Am not beat up if that'sh what you mean," Axel interrupted darkly, with the faintest of slurs distorting his words. With only minor collisions, he managed to make his way to the table and collapse with head buried in his arms on the polished surface.

Roxas slowly sank into the chair facing him again. "Do you want to talk—"

"No."

Roxas blew out a slow breath; he was trying, he really was. "What brought this on?"

A certain silence fell during which the torches sizzled and Axel's muffled breathing filled the room. Roxas twitched as a particularly pungent waft of alcohol breezed past his nose. He studied the pathetically hunched man before him, the slack shoulders and drooping red spikes of hair. How the mighty fell under the influence of drink…

"Tifa." Roxas was barely able to pick out the name from the deadened syllables he actually heard. Axel finally lifted his head and Roxas jumped a little when he caught sight of those green eyes that were now pinpricked and shot through with red. As soon as Axel had risen from his slumped position, his head immediately sank again onto his arms, tilted this time and voice unobstructed. His bleary eyes locked onto the grain of the table, refusing to meet Roxas's. A finger absently beginning to trace invisible patterns on the wooden surface, Axel blinked and his mouth turned down into a scowl. "Tifa wrote. Had the fucking nerve to say she and Reno were doing alright."

"Is that…bad?"

Axel laughed bitterly. "Oh! Good for them, alright. Rub it in that the girl runs off with the big brother and leaves her rescuer in the dust. Way to rub the point in, Teef!" He snarled the name. "You don't know, do you, Roxas? Everything handed to you on a golden platter. Marry the girl of your dreams someday. Never had everybody run away from you, not even a thank you, maybe a goodbye, nice knowing you. Nobody wants to stay with the mage on the run. And now she's doing fine and opening up a pub with Reno and having two point five redheaded brats gonna run around the place, smashing glasses. Naminé…now Nami I thought maybe would stay around. So she did give the closest thing to 'thank you' before running off. You've never known, have you, little prince? Never been so strange, never been such a danger to so-society, no one to know what's going on in your head. They'd sooner run away than listen."

Roxas was following the tirade with minor difficulty, slowly getting a sense of Axel's skipping and broken train of thought, and Axel's point. "I'm not leav—" And he stopped himself for the first time. Another cracked chuckle from Axel drove in the point. "Yes, you are," he smirked, "Go on; I'll always be watching as everyone gets their Prince Charmings—sorry, Princess for you, is it? Just look for me in the shadows, heh." He continued, but most of Roxas's focus had shifted elsewhere. He was leaving, wasn't he? Naminé was safe, and it was about time he got back home and helped deal with the marriage and reward mess that was sure to follow. Except…

Except what? There was no life for him here, no life for a prince, not like this. Then a very horrible and delicious thought whispered in his mind. He could turn Axel in. Not only had Axel technically performed numerous kidnappings throughout the land, but he was an unregistered shapeshifter. Any kingdom would offer Roxas anything he wanted in order to gain such a powerful mage under lock and key. A lifetime of whims and desires fulfilled beckoned to him. He held no obligatory allegiance to Axel; he had not requested nor received any sort of rescue from him.

Except he had. The fantasy dissolved and he let it relievedly. Momentary madness had consumed him and Roxas felt his face burn when he recalled how long he had entertained the thoughts. Axel had rescued him. Hadn't he felt he was dying of boredom back in Twilight Kingdom, where no one understood his quirks and he had foreseen no enjoyable future in succeeding his father for the throne? Axel had offered and accompanied him on the greatest adventure in his life just when he had been going out of his mind from the monotony of it all, quite possibly saved his life those nights in the wild…and here he was, toying with the thought of betraying the man to a lifetime of enslavement. After said mage had decided to entrust him with this secret. Roxas suddenly found himself unable to look at Axel.

"It'sh ok. Really."

Roxas felt his face drain of blood, before he realized that Axel had not read his mind but was connecting something in his buzzed monologue that Roxas had completely lost track of. And before he could stop himself, he had looked up and met too bright eyes with a start.

Glazed green eyes disappeared from view abruptly as Axel turned his head and buried aching eyes in the folds of his sleeve. "I don't blame you."

In a flash of sympathy, attempt at absolution, and something he didn't quite dare name, Roxas shot up from his seat and marched over. Just as Axel was looking up, startled, Roxas did the job for him by yanking him roughly up from the table. "I'm not leaving, you idiot."

"Yes, you—"

"No, I'm not!" Roxas yelled, bringing his free hand down on the table with a heavy slap. "You're moaning about how no one understands you and always runs away from you. You think I don't know what that's like? You forget I was the babied prince; people stared at me when they thought I wasn't looking all the time! Guess what? You've never had an entire castle staff tittering behind your back about his royal comeuppance rightly deserved! You think you're the only isolated one? You think you've got it so damn hard!"

At this point, Roxas let go of Axel's shirt collar with a flinch as the redhead began cackling. He stared with wide eyes as Axel caught himself from slamming his head onto the table again and pushed himself back to laugh unsteadily at the ceiling. In that moment, Roxas's thoughts ran the horrified path of Oh gods above, I've broken him.

Axel's uneven hiccupped laugh subsided enough for him to choke out, "Th…that's what she said."

Roxas remained unamused. He crossed his arms and, doing what he did best under such circumstances, glared impassively.

Axel finally had the decency to remove his gaze from the fascinating stonework above his head and the residual chuckling died out. His eyes considered Roxas thoughtfully for several long minutes. Which does not sound very long, but as literal minutes in a very quiet, very awkward situation, felt very long indeed. Roxas was just considering breaking eye contact and hauling the drunken twit to bed, if he could ever manage to find Axel's bedroom, or maybe just dump him in what apparently was Axel's study. But then Axel stood.

Leaned forward, grabbed the back of Roxas's head and. Oh. Axel's lips were cold and chapped enough to be noticeable. And it came as no surprise that Axel tasted of clean smoke and wildness beneath the bitterness of alcohol. But the unexpected sensual slide of tongue and lips induced intoxicating tingles throughout Roxas's breathless body. He was lost, lost in a void that was so very Axel.

He was left no choice when he felt Axel pull back softly, just barely brushing their lips together one last time. Roxas reluctantly dragged his eyes open in time to see Axel's too-sober eyes obscure from view as the man turned. He stumbled slightly and Roxas, too stupefied to move, stupidly let him make it all the way to the door and pause in front of it. Axel seemed to be studying the wooden slats with great intensity as he said softly, "Nice try, Roxas." Then he was gone before the half-choked protest could burst from Roxas's throat.

Roxas muttered something about melodramatic redheads before burying his head in his arms.


"Sadistic crazy bitch!" Roxas awoke with a start and jumped when the door slammed open with a crack and a bam. He was certain he looked terrible; he must have fallen asleep in that position and his joints ached. Axel looked worse. Red hair had dried and flattened into awkward angles. Green eyes were lined through with blood that was obvious even from the distance and the speed at which the man was storming towards the bookshelves.

"Axel…?"

Axel either ignored him or heard nothing; either was possible judging from the extremely irritated expression on his face. A book obligingly flipped itself from the shelf and fanned out onto the sidetable as Axel gestured towards it with a scowl. The frantically flipping pages froze as he slashed a hand above it, and the uplifted pages slowly settled down on their respective sides. They fluttered as Axel growled out, "Larxene," and a sudden cast of sunlight glowed from the pages and illuminated his face. He winced and reflexively flung up a hand to ward off the blinding light.

Unnoticed, Roxas knelt on his chair and began maneuvering his way to a better vantage point to see into the book, which…was something moving in the picture?

"LARXENE, what did you think you were doing?" Axel yelled, pressing a hand to the side of his pounding head. Roxas could not hear a reply, but now he could just barely see someone framed within the book, waving a hand vaguely to illustrate some point. Apparently…she was talking as Axel's frown twisted downwards at the corner even more. He retorted at a calmer volume, but still with a dangerous vehemence in his voice, "Ifrit help me, Larxene. When I said I wanted a drink, that was not my permission for you to shove your experimental concoctions of brews on me!"

Something was said, and now that Roxas was inching his way forward, he could make out the faint sounds of a woman's voice, mocking it sounded, as if from a great distance.

"For your information," Axel hissed, "that tasted vile, was absolutely horrific in its effect, and induces the mother of all headaches. Shut up! Listen to me, you conniving sadistic bitch—"

A crackling and Axel flung himself backwards, arms wheeling comically. Roxas wisely stayed put as a bolt of lightning shot upward from the book, exploding into the ceiling above it with an echoing crack. He felt strands of his hair lift and stand on end at the lingering static. The book slammed shut.

Roxas sighed and slid an arm under Axel's as the mage cursed and futilely attempted to pick himself up off the floor. As Axel muttered impolite phrases underneath his breath, Roxas glanced up at the ceiling and mentally noted that the scorch mark would need to be cleaned up some time. When Axel suddenly cut short his swearing, paled, and badly disguised a retch, Roxas quickened his steps to the lavatory.


They did not speak for a long while. Which wasn't particularly difficult since Axel always managed to slip out before Roxas was awake and return long after the sun had set to vanish into his room. Roxas was extremely annoyed.

He tried, every chance he received, to engage the redhead in conversation, but his awkward attempts were quickly rebuffed as Axel swept into his own bedroom and the door slammed shut behind him. In desperation once, Roxas spent another entire morning and afternoon struggling with the enchanted door. After several attempts, he developed a headache from picturing the bedroom as hard as he could, and had to resort to yelling and then pleading with the damn thing. Severely disgruntled, he resigned himself to sitting blankly at the table until food quietly appeared in front of him. What rankled the worst was Axel coming in several hours later, taking one look at Roxas, and silently sweeping away Roxas's aches with a wave. He still wouldn't talk.

"Axel! Wai—" Roxas sighed and reluctantly turned in his chair back towards the bookshelves. This was ridiculous.

Strangely enough, three days later, his saving grace came. In the form of Sora. In an unexpected entrance and shape.

"I call foul play! You can't use magic when I can't! Come on, just let me—AHA!"

The wall swung upwards and Axel's cursing became audible. Roxas sat up. Maybe this could get somewhere; this was the first time Axel had spoken in his presence for a long while. His priorities then shifted to what Axel was actually doing. Which, at the moment, was staring in exasperation at the hand he held out in front of him and from which dangled…hadn't that voice been familiar?

Roxas stared. "Sora?"

The squirrel's head twisted and he dropped with a squeak of fright onto the floor as his mouth opened. Fortunately, it was not far to the ground. "Roxy?" Roxas's estimation of Axel catapulted; shape shifting was rare, but the ability to shape shift others, especially without their consent, was practically unheard of. Two others in the whole of history consisting of at least a thousand years.

Axel fell back against the wall with a heavy breath. He held his hand up and examined it, all the while muttering something about "damnable teeth".

Preoccupied, Roxas ignored him for the moment. "Sora, what are you doing here? What happened?"

Sora darted forward. Well, he tried. But apparently, he was not used to four coordinating limbs instead of two yet and he tumbled end over end. "Roxy, we thought you were dead! I mean, we heard that Nami came back, but she didn't come to visit, and no one said anything about you, so we just all thought… And then Riku and I thought that if Naminé was alright, that maybe Kairi was too, but then Riku's parents wouldn't let him and my mom was really nice about it and so I'm here under conditions to look out for myself."

"I don't think your mother would be too happy to find out you got turned into a squirrel." Roxas suddenly blinked, stared at Sora, and then turned his suspicious gaze upon Axel. The man was still mournfully inspecting his glove. Sora, at the same time, replied defensively, "That wasn't my fault! I was just walking along, minding my own, and he turns me into this!" He pointed an accusing paw at Axel, caught glimpse of his now-furry appendage, and shrieked. Roxas glared at Axel. "You did what?"

Axel returned his gaze coolly. "He provoked me."

"How in the—"

"I was in the forest and this brat ambushes me with his sword drawn. Be glad I didn't do something more permanent to him. I've been needing a live sacrifice for a while."

Sora clumsily tripped his way backwards, beady eyes wide. "S-sacrifice?"

"He's kidding, Sora," Roxas replied absently. "Sora, did you really attack him?"

The squirrel stopped and Roxas found it oddly amusing when Sora raised a skinny arm to scratch at his head in a familiar sheepish manner. "Oh. Well, I thought he was a shadow. I guess I did. But I'm really sorry, now change me back please?"

Roxas sighed and turned back to Axel, who was annoyingly silent again. "Axel. Please?"

The mage looked up at the ceiling briefly, which Roxas had come to recognize as his habitual gesture in stalling for time. "I…can't."

"You said it wasn't permanent."

"I said that it wasn't more permanent," Axel corrected. "I can't turn him back now; the transformation wears off by itself in time."

"And how much time would this be?"

He shrugged. "Seven moons. Sometimes more, sometimes less."

Sora gave a despairing wail.


After the initial bout of grief, doom, and despair, Sora's insatiable curiosity broke through. Axel, apparently still bearing a grudge for the bite marks now present in his gloves, terrified Sora into staying far far away from any of his books. In what he felt to be a generous gesture, Roxas kept Axel from tearing his hair out in frustration by letting Sora ride on his shoulder in walks through the forest, not too far, since Naminé was no longer around to help pick out paths.

Sora was inquisitive, nonstop so. But Roxas refused to clarify one point that perpetually puzzled him. "Roxy, you get so defensive. I'm just saying he didn't need to lose his temper at me. So swinging a sword at someone isn't very polite, but I just spent days in a forest that had attacking shadows every night. And I did apologize as soon as I saw he wasn't a shadow, but…oh, I suppose it was too late then."

Roxas shrugged. "Teach you to check before you try to hack people up."

"I just said-!"

Axel still proved extremely elusive to corner. Between his behavior and the realization that living with Sora's enthusiasm hour after hour grated on his nerves, Roxas's irritation levels were sharply increasing. His respect for Riku reluctantly inched upwards. He had no idea how the other was able to put up with this incessant chatter.

He found out two days later.

Honestly, Roxas did not consider it very fair that the sword was black. It made seeing reflected light off the metal blade much more difficult. And if his attention had not wandered from looking for Sora among the thick foliage, his head would probably have been cleaved in half. The blade edges screeched as they clashed. Roxas stumbled, but his arm held steady. Riku's eyes widened. "Roxas?"

"Greetings, Riku. Could you put your sword down now?"

Riku's arm went limp, his Way to Dawn falling to one side. "Odin above, we thought you were dead! Have you seen Sora?" He looked as weary and worried as Roxas had ever seen him. Roxas looked up, and saw no furry bush of a tail anywhere in sight. Lovely, Sora, just lovely. "Um."

"Where is he?" Riku was quick to pick up on the hesitation.

"About that." Theoretically, Sora could drop out of a tree any second now. Imagining Riku struggling with a clawing surprised squirrel on his face amused him. In retrospect, it was a really bad idea to smirk at that moment.

"What have you done with him?" Riku's sword was up and screaming through the air in an instant again. Roxas barely blocked the blow and as soon as metal crashed against metal, Riku was slashing without stopping, eyes wild.

"Riku! I didn't do any—!"

"Liar! You know where he is; I saw it!" Roxas's grip on his dagger faltered as the tip of Way to Dawn dug itself against the hilt. Riku saw, and slammed his body against Roxas's. The dagger fell from his hand as Roxas's back hit the tree hard, knocking all breath from his body. He gasped and flinched immediately as the movement scraped a thin line of skin against the sharp blade held to his neck. Riku's voice was dangerously soft. "If he's dead by your doing, Roxas, so help me, I will end you right here."

"He's alive!" Roxas snapped in a panic.

Riku watched him for a long moment. "I can't tell if you're lying or not. Tell me where he is. Now."

"I don't know!"

"—!"

Roxas never did find out what Riku was going to answer because the words were cut short before they were even said.

The world erupted in fire. Flame rained from the sky, the trees crackled and writhed into black twisting shapes. Riku's mouth fell open; though Roxas could not tell whether he was screaming, whimpering, or maybe praying. All he heard was the roar of the angry flames, hungrily licking at his body, sizzling the ends of his hair. Then lean arms wrapped crushingly tight around him, everywhere they touched numbed and Roxas wondered if Axel himself was the white-hot core of the hellfire around them. He twisted his head around and saw pure fury contorting the thin face. Strangely calm, he wiggled in Axel's grasp. "Axel. Stop it."

Axel's bright eyes met his. In a sudden vacuum of sound and light, the flames twisted inwards, reaching for their master, then vanished in a whirl. The sudden silence was uncanny. Roxas placed a hand on the arm wrapped around his chest and left it there. Either one or both of them were trembling. Axel's breath came heavily, stirring thin strands of golden hair beneath his chin.

Riku collapsed to one knee, eyes squeezed tightly shut. His clothes were scorched, and he dropped Way to Dawn with a wince.

"Hell, what do I have to do to discourage people from dropping by?" Axel hissed. "And here I thought living in the middle of an enchanted forest crawling with Heartless would deter casual visitors. What. Do. You. Want?"

"Where's Sora?" Riku pressed stubbornly. He rose achingly upwards, a hand flying out, nearly falling. Axel lifted an arm to press the heel of his palm to his eyes in frustration. "Roxas. Give Silver here his boy toy. Please."

"I lost him." Roxas shifted uneasily when Axel turned incredulous eyes upon him. Swearing softly, Axel swept his outstretched palm around them, fingers twitching as if searching for—"Hm." A thin glow of red danced from the shadows and wrapped around Axel's palm. He pulled.

Nothing happened for several long moments. Riku's fingers clenched, then he lifted his head abruptly, startled. Becoming audible and steadily growing louder, came the loud indignant protests of "Ow, ow. Ow. OW!" in a continuous mantra. Finally, the squirrel himself flew into view from between blackened and charred trees, thrown into a halt in midair. "Ow, hey!"

"Where were you? I thought I told you not to leave this tree!"

Sora looked up guiltily. "There was a branch that was too high, so I thought I could reach it if I jumped to the next tree over, but I had to keep going to find another branch and I guess I got lost and I couldn't find you anymore. RIKU?" Axel winced at the volume and shuttled the squirrel a few feet away from him. "Take him; take him please." Riku barely managed to catch the squealing animal as Axel tossed Sora over. "Sora?"

"Give it a few days. Watch the teeth," Axel cautioned dryly. He had not let go of Roxas, and now, without warning, Roxas's vision filled with black. For only a moment, but he had the distinct uncomfortable sensation of cold tendrils swirling around him, worming into his very marrow. Then smoky tendrils wafted across his eyes and they were back in the cave.

With a choice final remark, Axel mumbled something about "acid moat" and Roxas felt him pull away. He turned swiftly, and caught Axel's arm. The man did not look down. "Roxas, let go."

"No."

Axel sighed. "Please. Let go now."

"You've not spoken to me for a fortnight." Roxas insisted.

"I believe I am now, when I tell you to let go."

"Not till I've had my say."

Axel threw up his free hand. "By all means, talk then and quickly so I can leave!"

Roxas gritted his teeth. "Sit down and face me." Axel obeyed partially, turning to stare coldly at him.

"Sit." Axel stayed standing, eyes daring Roxas to push the issue further.

This would have to do. "Fine. Odin bless. What you said just now. That. Hurt." He yanked Axel to him, and crushed their lips together clumsily. It wasn't perfect; Axel's mouth fell open slackly in surprise; there was too much spit and tongue, and not enough slow movement; but Roxas persisted.

Axel made a soft noise; Roxas greedily swallowed the sound. But then Axel was pushing him away, and Roxas really wanted to surge forward, press their bodies into one, but he let himself be moved unenthusiastically. The mage's voice was hoarse. "Gods. Roxas, don't do this to me."

"And what is this?" Roxas asked quietly. "Why did you bring me here, Axel? What was your hope for me?"

Axel said nothing. In a vicious swell of ire, Roxas glared. "No one will stay with you. Is that it? Did you need something more fulfilling than your own hand?"

Axel's head snapped up. "What the hell, Roxas?" Hurt and anger shone in his eyes. "Is that—"

"That's not why; I know that," Roxas interrupted. His burst of temper now dissipated and he felt very tired. "Your implication was that you hated everyone always running off after you'd rescued them. I'm here. Right now. Talk to me, please. Just answer this one question and then I'll do whatever you want me to do. If you want me to leave you to your studies, I will. Just tell me why you chose me and brought me here."

For a long heartsickening moment, Axel wavered. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Please, Axel.

His voice was low and Roxas had to strain to hear him. "You know, I saw you before we ever met as lizard and oatmeal-covered prince." Roxas flushed at the memory. Axel smiled briefly; that was a good sign. "Please don't take this offensively, but I was aiming for your sister when I cast my scrying spell on your kingdom. I decided against it eventually. One, she was too young, and two, she seemed happy where she was at the moment."

Roxas refrained from commenting.

"And then you walked into the picture literally. You…intrigued me. You were adorable helping Rikku with her homework." Axel grinned lazily at his blush. "Don't deny it. But you just seemed unhappy, even with all your absorbing princely duties and privileges." What had been quiet now turned practically inaudible as Axel ducked his head and spoke even more softly, "Rest assured, I did give you your privacy to the best of my ability, but…I grew fascinated with you. I can't explain precisely why. And just watching soon became unsatisfying and I…started lingering around the castle in animal form. My gratitude for slipping scraps to that one cat by the way."

Roxas nodded tightly. "And Naminé…"

"Oh, Naminé knew alright. I could hardly conceal that from her." Axel smirked. "She actually encouraged me to bring you here. I wasn't lying when I said you looked in need of fresh air." He spread out his hands. "And you know the rest, young…Roxas."

"Axel, I've been wondering. Sora mentioned having to fight off shadows in the forest. Riku probably had to too, from the edgy way he was acting." Axel snorted at that. Roxas continued, "And on our way here, at night, the shadows would move. In ways that they should not have. What were those? The Heartless you spoke of? Why would they leave me alone?"

Axel glanced at him askance. "I think you know the answer to that, Roxas."

"Pretend I do not."

"Yes, those creatures were Heartless. They swarm the forest and the plains, appearing only at night with the darkness as it descends." Axel smiled nastily. "Legend has it that they are manifestations of the sins within every heart. I would imagine your two friends had sleepless nights for a while."

"And you're letting them make their way home alone."

He shrugged carelessly. "They made it here in a more or less intact condition, did they not? As to why you were not harassed by these things," Axel glanced up at the ceiling and spoke at it, "I may possibly have placed a drop or two of potion in your meals."

"What about before that?" Axel shifted nervously and Roxas answered himself, "You cast spells inducing sleep on me, didn't you? I've thought about it, and it doesn't make natural sense that I would sleep the soundest nights I've ever experienced under such circumstances."

"…Maybe. Yes. I'll admit I did not plan that part very well. I had to rely on wards, and it was rather difficult drawing them in that form. Not one of my better ideas, I can tell you that."

"Is that what happened that last night?"

Axel winced. "You're quick to catching on. Yes, I realized afterwards that I had not closed the circle entirely. Sloppy of me. I was on the verge of sleep when the Heartless came. Obviously, I could not fight back as a small reptile, so I was forced to end the transformation. After the Heartless were gone, dawn approaching, I was too drained to change back into Rorek, and I could not yet risk you seeing me. I'm sorry I had no time to excuse my leaving. I did return when I realized you were proceeding at snail's pace through the forest to cast a weaker ward from afar. Had I known your state of mind at that point, I would have returned Rorek to you that night."

"I thought you were dead," Roxas muttered, eyes downcast.

He sighed. "I apologize. I couldn't exactly leave a note to assuage your fears, and at the time, would never have expected your reaction. Believe me; I had not intended my abrupt departure. I—I would not have wanted such pain for you."

"Say it."

It took a beat for Axel to catch on. He paled. "No."

"Say it; I need to know," Roxas pleaded.

Axel looked away. "And I will have to watch you flee from me if I do, I suppose. Oh, you're right; no use prolonging the inevitable." Roxas indignantly began to protest Axel's reasoning, but Axel managed to slip in ahead of him. "I love you. Or I think I do. There, happy?"

"Very," Roxas said and shook his head in fond exasperation. "You fool."

The redhead turned back at this, but Roxas didn't wait to see whether he was wounded or surprised. He went for a gentler angle this time. Now that there was no alcohol staining his tongue, Roxas found himself quickly lost in that heady taste. His arms flew up, pulled Axel down and near, keeping their mouths sealed together in a fervid dance. Softly, twin touches caressed his waist before Axel grasped firmly and pulled Roxas closer to him.

"And after three times, if you're still not convinced I'm staying…" Roxas breathed. He dared to hope that maybe, just maybe he'd finally conveyed his decision into that stubborn skull.

"An implied action there. What will you do if I say I'm not sufficiently persuaded?"

The smile of comprehension was slow to spread across Roxas's face. "I suppose I'd have to tell it to you again and again the best way I can until you do believe me."

"Please do…"


There. Did I satisfy? I've perhaps proven "my skills as an aspiring parchment scratcher", although heaven help your sanity if you ever begin pestering me about publishing this for the eyes of the general public. When you've quite finished, meet me. I'll be waiting.

Axel shook his head with a small smirk. Then with a rumble of stone, the cave was empty and Axel was making his way up, past the cave entrance, up to the peak of that particular jag of mountain.

"I had to climb my way up here," Roxas complained mockingly as Axel, aided by a burst of flame, landed before him.

"May I remind you as to who picks this particular spot every time to watch the sunset?"

"I hardly directed the mountain to be structured as it is! This just happens to be the place with the best view and mmph." They remained quiet, even after their lips parted and Axel settled back against the rocky surface with a soft groan. The sun sank beneath the edge of the world reluctantly, last warm rays barely fading before the forest below was swallowed in shadow. Then Roxas stirred, when skittering dark forms began mingling amongst the trees. He jabbed a finger at Axel's side.

"Mmwhat?"

"We should return home. The Heartless are beginning to arrive."

"We should," Axel agreed, eyes still closed. He made no move to arise. Roxas hummed tunelessly and leaned back.

"You know, I couldn't finish it entirely, because there's something you've never explained to me."

"Is there?"

"Do you remember that night? Not the first night when I arrived, but the following evening?"

"Mmhm."

"When Nami told you that I couldn't use the door yet, you looked…"

"Surprised? Heh. Yes, I was." Axel sat up. The enigmatic expression that Roxas now knew to be of secret enjoyment played on his face. "I'd distinctly remembered arranging for the void to respond to the next unfamiliar aura that approached them and to obey that soul from then onwards." He glanced sideways and Roxas nodded slightly. He now understood something about Axel's deals with the darkness, and although it still bothered him, Axel had assured him that the only consequences were the ones you deserved if you angered the spirits of your pact. No eternal damnation or slow vile corruption of the mind and heart. He rested his head on Axel's shoulder and felt a warm arm encircle his waist securely.

"So, with my assumption that you had tried using the door, you being the stubborn mite you are, I could not understand why you had not succeeded. Imagine, if you would, my astonishment when checking the enchantment revealed that no new aura had approached. I had to make a few garish adjustments to grant you passage."

"So you're saying I have a defective aura then?"

Axel leaned in close, whispered words breathed against Roxas's ear. "Not at all. Just that I seem to have found the missing half of my soul, that's all; commit it to memory."

Roxas turned, blue eyes aglow with pleasure.

Afterwards, the Heartless were still attempting (and failing) to ascend the steep crag, misshapen antennae twitching and swiveling. Axel traced a languid pattern on Roxas's sweat-slick arm. "We should be returning back down."

"Mmm."

"Significant day tomorrow, what with little Rikku turning twelve. Important age."

"Mmhm."

"No doubt she'll be extremely disappointed if you miss it for the sake of sleeping late. I'm sure we'll never hear the end of the royal tantrumee. Your parents would cast the evil eyes upon me again."

"Axel?"

"Ever at your service, love."

"Hush."