The scent of smoke and wet ash pervaded the entire landscape, overwhelming the sensitive noses of the Pride Lands' residents. A layer of sickly grey still hung in the atmosphere, and though the grass was damp underfoot now, the black line to the south showed all too clearly where, only the night before, a bolt of heat lightning had brought doom from the sky, and the life-giving grass had been consumed in a raging blaze that had threatened to engulf the world in a red wall of death. Now, for a few brief hours, the boundaries between predator and prey vanished as all those who had escaped the inferno circled the burn zone, some blessing their luck, some searching for loved ones and friends they hadn't seen since the fire and praying they'd escaped as well. The charred bones that could be seen dotting the blackened ground bore testament to the fact that not all had.
But they had to have. They couldn't have not escaped. They couldn't have been caught. Not them...
In among all the dazed, frightened, grieving creatures wandering near the burn zone, a hyena, a jackal, and a lion cub all wandering together didn't attract nearly as much attention as such a mismatched group normally would have. Not like Roxas could have cared less about what the other animals thought of them right then. Rubbing a paw over the wet, unburned grass, he couldn't help but let his mind wander to the worst-case scenario. No, it was impossible, absolutely impossible. But it was so easy to think right now, surrounded by all this gloom and despair...
Where in the world could they be?
Well, the part of his brain that wasn't busy panicking and focusing on the worst-case scenario knew academically that Axel and Demyx were still alive somewhere. They'd checked the Proof of Existence before leaving home. But their mission should have been over yesterday - what were they still doing still in the Pride Lands? Assuming they were still in this world at all? But why wouldn't they be? Where were they? And that horrible fire that had obviously come through, recently enough that the ashes still smoldered in some parts...Kingdom Hearts, if that was Axel's doing...but it couldn't have been, could it? Axel wouldn't be that stupid, and even if he was, he couldn't get away with it with Demyx along...could he? Sure, Demyx wasn't that difficult to intimidate most of the time, but he wasn't such a shrinking violet he'd let Axel torch the Pride Lands freely...
Startled by Saix's sharp bark, Roxas nearly tripped over his own paws as he scrambled to catch up. If you had a small, weak alter form, it was dangerous to wander the Pride Lands alone under any circumstance. But honestly, if the situation wasn't bad and scary enough as it was, Saix was twice as intimidating as a blue-furred jackal as he was as a human, and that wasn't the lion cub speaking. Or, at least, not just the lion cub. He felt like Saix was going to snap his neck and eat him at a moment's notice. Of course, the vibes that he got from the one-eyed hyena that answered to Xigbar weren't any better. Hyenas were not a popular species in the Pride Lands, and Roxas could understand why; even knowing it was just Xigbar didn't make that hyena look a bit less menacing.
...Come to think of it, he didn't even know what forms Axel and Demyx took in this world. He was on the lookout for two grown lions, but for all he knew, he should be looking for a hawk and a crocodile. And even if he knew what they smelled like, he wouldn't be able to pick their scents out of all the ash and smoke still hanging around. He was torn between breaking down and panicking and demanding to be sent home because he was absolutely useless on this mission, and nerving up and trudging on because he'd been chosen for the rescue mission and these were his brothers he was looking for, after all. Eventually, he split the difference and just ran off towards the charred patch, just because he couldn't stand feeling so useless and he had to do something and running was as helpful or worthless as anything. "Thirteen, get back here! What in Kingdom Hearts's name are you thinking?" Saix demanded behind him, but Roxas just kept running. He knew they'd catch up to him and drag him back with them sooner or later, but he didn't care. Right now, he just had to run.
Xigbar and Saix didn't catch up to him. He ran unimpeded to within several yards of the burn zone, under the long shadow of a large stone that could be a bastard child of Pride Rock, and just stopped in his tracks and sank to the ground, crushed with anxiety. Of course, when the others caught up with him, he'd have some explaining to do for just running off like that, but he didn't care - Axel and Demyx were missing, and they could be anywhere in this world; they could be terribly hurt, or dying of smoke inhalation, or in two separate corners of the world, and they were never going to find them this way. They should have brought Zexion instead of him, except Zexion would have been totally confused by all the smoke and burned smells and he wouldn't be able to accomplish anything either, and...and...oh, to hell with it; Roxas was scared to death he'd never see his brothers again. Suddenly unable to deal with it for a moment, he covered his eyes with his paws and wished desperately to find himself back at home in the castle, playing video games with Axel while Demyx sat back and provided commentary.
The smell of smoke and wet ash didn't go away. Roxas uncovered his eyes to find himself still lying on the ground in the Pride Lands next to a big rock. So much for that. Feeling a little sick, he picked himself up, shaking himself slightly, and tried actually looking at his surroundings instead of charging around blindly, starting with the handful of other animals near the rock; maybe he could come up with a story about thinking he smelled Axel or Demyx or something to give Xigbar and Saix when they caught him. It probably wouldn't work, but still. There was a big eland trying to reassure a fretful gazelle mother and fawn, all three harmless. An old she-jackal was just leaving with a young leopard, presumably in search of either her pack or his mother. A grown lion with a fiercely red mane was lying next to a rare white cheetah with a serious burn over its back and side; even though the two predators normally got along not at all, the lion was gently licking the cheetah's fur, trying to comfort it, though the cheetah probably wasn't going to last very long in a world without any kind of medical care. The wounded cheetah looked up for a moment, and caught Roxas's gaze; Roxas was struck by its bright sea-blue eyes, that seemed somehow familiar...
...Aren't white animals with blue eyes usually deaf?
Finally, finally it clicked. Feeling like an idiot, Roxas raced over to them, slipping a little on the damp grass. Axel - the lion - spared a lick and a weak smile for him as he came within reach. "Didn't expect them to send a rescue team nearly this soon," he said in a soft voice, sounding a little strained, though he was clearly trying to stay calm and casual for Roxas's benefit. "At least, I hope you're not here alone. He really needs to get back home as soon as possible, but I didn't think I could get him home by myself. I think he's dehydrated - he might have burned himself out fighting the fire."
Roxas carefully stretched out and touched noses with Demyx; Demyx's nose was hot and dry, not a healthy condition. Demyx said nothing, but gave him a pained smile and licked the top of his head. "Saix and Xigbar are...somewhere," Roxas confessed to Axel, simultaneously relieved to have found them and eaten up with fresh worry for Demyx. That burn didn't look bad enough to kill him, if it got some medical attention in a reasonable amount of time, but still. "I'm sure they'll catch up soon...what happened?"
Axel glanced down at Demyx, though it wasn't like Demyx could follow their conversation. His hearing aids didn't work in this world (even if they fit on his ears), it was impossible to sign with paws, and it was probably just as difficult to read an animal's lips. "The fire was started by lightning," Axel finally said softly. "And...dry as the Pride Lands normally are...it went like oil-soaked kindling. The fire was out of control in under five minutes. We did what we could, but...it's hard to call rain in such a dry world. That's probably how he burned himself out." He nosed Demyx gently; Demyx squeezed his eyes shut, acknowledging the contact, but didn't turn to look at him. "I did what I could to keep the fire contained, but...that's the thing about fire; it doesn't always want to obey. Try to force it to do something it doesn't want to do, like go out, and it might and probably will turn on you...I think I did more good than harm, but not much. He did a hell of a lot more good than I did."
Roxas nodded slowly, pawing anxiously at the wet grass and wondering where in Kingdom Hearts's name Saix and Xigbar were. "Why didn't you just go home?" he asked, wishing he didn't have to see one of his big brothers hurt again. It seemed like one or the other of them got hurt so often, and it hurt him on some level to see it. He couldn't really imagine them cutting and running in case of a disaster they could do anything about; they just weren't like that, but...why did things like this have to happen to them?
Axel only gave him a weak smile and bumped him with his nose. "I think you know the answer to that already, little brother."
"See, I told you he wouldn't just run off like an idiot. He beat us to 'em. Little warning next time, kid."
"Sorry," Roxas grunted as Saix and Xigbar came trotting up to join them, though he hardly felt it. He was still consumed with anxiety, even though he knew Axel and Demyx were safe; Demyx was hurt, Axel didn't look all that lively either, and they weren't home safe yet. If Xigbar wanted to hang around and chit-chat, Roxas was going to lose the last shred of patience he had, in spectacular fashion. "They don't look so good - we'd better get them home as soon as possible," he added in, just to get the point across. Just in case one look at Demyx didn't clue either of them in.
Xigbar took one look at Demyx and cringed visibly; in his current form, it looked more like a snarl. "Kingdom Hearts, you two must have a gift or something. Should I even ask, or do I not want to know that badly?"
Axel just snorted weakly and jerked his head in the direction of the burned zone. "Do you even really need to ask?" Xigbar didn't need to think for very long before shaking his head. "Didn't think so. How'd they know to send a rescue team so soon?"
"You two never showed up for your malaria pills. Or insulin. Or Depakene." Xigbar leaned down and nudged Demyx gently; Demyx didn't react. "Shit, does he not look good...come on, kid, get up..." He nudged Demyx again, but the cheetah still didn't move.
Roxas's breath caught in his throat at how inert Demyx was, as Saix came up next to him and gave him a harder nudge. "On your feet, Nine," he said in a soft yet commanding voice, and though Demyx couldn't possibly have heard him either, he managed to pull himself unsteadily to his feet. Axel stood up as well and gave him another encouraging nudge towards the portal Xigbar had just opened, and Demyx wobbled through it with no slight difficulty, looking like he was going to collapse again with every step, though it was no more than ten feet.
Once more unable to help himself, Roxas darted through the portal after him, stumbling as he went back to two feet and nearly tripping. Demyx was sprawled on the floor, conscious but in obvious pain, though his burns were now hidden by his clothing. Thankfully, Xigbar had thought to open the portal straight to the hospital wing; Roxas quickly punched the buzzer to summon Vexen from wherever he was before Demyx could even drag himself to his knees, let alone his feet. As soon as he turned back from the buzzer, he had to rush back over and help Demyx into a chair as Axel stumbled and fell through the portal like he'd been shoved. "...Saix insisted I stop here first," he told Roxas with visible embarrassment as he stood up; Roxas wasn't paying too much attention, because Demyx was squeezing his hand so hard it was starting to hurt. "He and Xigbar were going to report to Xemnas...how's he doing?"
"I'm...still alive." Demyx had been so silent up until now that Roxas jerked in surprise to hear him speak. He didn't have his hearing aids back on, but now that they were all human again, he must be reading their lips. "Not...really comfortable...right now, but...alive is good..."
"Well, that's good...you just try to relax right now," Roxas said, trying to make sure Demyx could see his face while patting his shoulder comfortingly and trying to remember which side was worst injured and if the burn went all the way up to his shoulder. Demyx didn't scream in pain, so he assumed he wasn't touching the burn, or Demyx's pain tolerance was through the roof. "Vexen should be here soon, so -"
As if summoned by Roxas's words, Vexen appeared through a portal, looking at the three of them like they were the source of all of life's little miseries. "...What exactly is the problem?" he said in a strained voice, as if only duty and orders kept him from saying or doing something much ruder.
"Both of them, I guess," Roxas answered before Axel could say something rude. "Well - Demyx is hurt a lot worse - don't do that," he admonished as Demyx tried to unzip his robe. Demyx either didn't see him or chose to ignore him. "They were caught in a wildfire, and he's pretty badly burned under his clothes, and Axel thinks he's burned out too..." Roxas glanced over at Axel; Axel was glaring venomously at Vexen, but thankfully keeping his mouth shut, probably only for Demyx's sake. "I guess Axel just needs to be checked over..."
Vexen somehow managed to encompass all three of them in a single glare, then nodded sharply, reaching under his desk to push a second buzzer. "Thirteen, if you have no need of medical attention, you may go," he said in a that-was-not-a-request sort of voice. That was the last thing Roxas wanted to do; he glanced over at Axel in search of an ally, but Axel only winced and gestured towards the door. That was it, then; he had no choice but to go. Dragging his heels all the way, Roxas headed out into the hall and back to his own room. Once there, he simply flopped on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Well, he knew his brothers would be all right now; they were home safe and getting medical care...but the gnawing anxiety in his gut just would not go away.
Roxas had no idea how long he spent lying on his bed, just staring at the ceiling and feeling miserable, occasionally rolling over to stare at a wall just for variety's sake. He knew he was wasting time like no one's business, but he couldn't bring himself to do anything constructive, and nothing seemed any fun right then. It felt like several hours trickled painfully by before Axel opened the bedroom door and stuck his head in. "Oh, good, you're still here...um...how are you doing?"
"I wasn't involved with the wildfire," Roxas grunted without looking at him - not the most polite response ever, but he didn't feel very polite right then. "...How's Demyx?"
"Burned. Dehydrated. Probably going to be on the DL for a few weeks, and light duty for a few weeks after that." Axel sat down backwards in Roxas's desk chair, resting his chin on the back. "But, he'll recover, possibly with a few fresh scars to tell fascinating stories about. Or get a tattoo over."
Axel's casual tone helped Roxas relax; he wouldn't be so cavalier about it if Demyx was in serious trouble. "Is Vexen allowing visitors?" he asked, finally rolling over to look at him.
"Technically, yes, but I wouldn't advise it. When last seen, Demyx was zonked out like no one's business." Axel fell silent for a moment, then chuckled softly and reached over to ruffle Roxas's hair. "He's gonna be fine. You can quit worrying any time now."
"Thanks," Roxas grunted, rolling over again and burying his face in his pillow. "I just...I hate this. It seems like you two have a natural gift for disaster. I mean...can't someone else have the shit luck for once?"
Axel was silent for several moments, his face serious. "...Rox, remember you asked me why Demyx and I didn't just cut and run home when the fire broke out?" Roxas nodded, not sure where this was going. "Well...the answers are related. Because I know some of the other members would have run. Granted, maybe Demyx and I are the best suited to trying to fight a wildfire out of everyone. But even if they'd had our powers, I know some of the others would have run. I...won't name any names, though you could probably come up with a few if you thought about it. They would have chosen to save their own skins first and foremost, or run because they didn't think they could do enough good to make a difference."
He fell silent, looking at Roxas as though expecting him to put all the pieces together from there. Roxas felt like he had only half a puzzle, and he wasn't sure which half it was. "So, um...what exactly are you saying?" he prompted, hoping Axel would cue him in or something. Nothing doing; Axel just kept giving him that "figure it out yourself" look. "...All right, here's an offer for you. Tell me what you're talking about or I'll brain you with a book."
"...You make yourself hard to argue with some days."
"That's not an answer."
"Oh, come on, Roxas, it's simple. Just think about it. If you had been in our situation, with our powers, what would you have done and why? Think seriously now."
Roxas glared a little, but obediently kept his mouth shut and seriously thought about it. If that had been him facing the wildfire, and if he was able to control water, or fire, or both...and if what he did with his powers meant life or death for dozens, hundreds, thousands...even if to stay would be to risk death, and to run was to guarantee life for himself and guarantee death for so many others...
It scared him to death, just thinking about being in such a nightmare situation. But he knew what his answer was - it was the only answer he could give. "I...I would have stayed," he said softly, staring down at his hands as he imagined the hell the Pride Lands had turned into the night before. "I would have been scared to death, but...I would have stayed."
Axel smiled faintly and gave him a light punch in the shoulder. "That's my little brother. You get it now?"
"Yeah. I...I think so."
"Good." Axel pried himself away from the chair, then went over and gave Roxas a hug. "Now...think you can stop worrying for a bit?" Roxas couldn't help but shake his head numbly. Just because he understood why Axel and Demyx so often stayed in harm's way when they had a chance to run didn't mean he didn't mind when they got hurt because of it. "Oh...why am I not surprised. Well." He sighed and sat down on the bed next to Roxas, offering him a faint smile. "While we may be among the dumbest, craziest, and most accident-prone people you know, we're also some of the luckiest, or else we'd be dead by now. So...just relax. Demyx is gonna be fine. Now, wanna head up to the kitchen and see how long it takes to produce an edible batch of cookies? Demyx is bound to appreciate some when he sobers up."
Roxas couldn't help but snort. "Cookies? At a time like this, the best idea you have is making cookies? Especially us making cookies?"
"Do you have a better idea? And besides, cookies are good. And besides, Demyx has earned some. Now come on. The good guys have to look out for each other."
AN: I know I uploaded this before. I just don't know where it went. Anyway. Here it is again.
This was a prize for Shiba-X on deviantART. She won my fanart contest, and asked for something with Xigbar, Saix, or the Trio, set in the Pride Lands. Delivered as requested.