"So you were an unseen spectator in this dream?"

"Yes."

Zexion folded his arms and thought for a moment.

"But you could hear his thoughts in your mind as you watched?"

"Yes. Do you know what it means?"

"Hmmmm." The Ha'meid reached for a book on his shelf of spells and pulled it out, leafing gently but quickly through the pages. Axel bit his lip in impatience, but not about to insult the wise magician. Zexion would find the answer, of that the prince was sure, but Axel wasn't sure he wanted to know if he wasn't going to like what he found.

Zexion paused on a page and looked at it hard for a moment. Then two, then three. He made a sound low in his throat, then spoke up before Axel could ask.

"I have not seen cases of dwelling inside another's thoughts during these types of dreams. It's odd. I will have to examine my notes...but the dream itself can be referred to as an 'out-of-body' experience. Some interpret it as a spiritual occurrence, becoming closer to the gods and the spirits of all living things. Perhaps even becoming one with the universe itself."

Axel raised an eyebrow. "Is that how you would interpret it?"

The Ha'meid scratched the back of his head. "It is...difficult to say, my prince. The graphic nature of the dream is in such direct contrast to spiritual connectivity. But who can say what Shira has in store?" He shrugged. "If you want my personal opinion, however..."

"Yes?" Axel had a feeling he wasn't going to like this.

"Your reaction in the dream and after the dream most likely symbolizes fear. You fear to lose power, to not be in control, and this boy makes you feel-"

"Stop," he commanded, and the magician's jaw clenched and fell shut. But Axel didn't reprimand him further. He had invited the man to be bold, after all.

"I think I understand."

Zexion nodded, setting the book aside and gathering a few similar volumes for the shelf. "Is that all you wished to know, my prince?"

"All for now," he replied softly, turning to leave. "Please continue researching and let me know what you come across."

"Of course, Sire."

As he walked to the court, he tightened the lid on his temper as best as he could. He did feel a pull towards Roxas physically, which by itself was not unthinkable. Axel could have as many lovers as he chose before marriage, and while a male would cause more of a stir, Axel could defuse tension fairly easily. He had been interested in men before, and his mother and father were aware, though they discouraged him from pursuing it. But he felt so very interested in this boy, and not just physically. He was an enigma.

He entered the court to find his father speaking with one of his advisors, his mother looking ahead gravely.

"Mother, has something happened?" he whispered, coming to her side immediately. It was a stupid question, admittedly, but she did not tease him as she usually did. The queen kept looking straight ahead, the hand resting on her robe clenching slightly.

"The army has been sent to guard the palace doors. Word has reached out ears that Xerxes is planning a siege of these hallowed walls."

Axel looked to his father, who had just finished his conversation. The advisor bowed and quickly left the room as the king approached, placing a hand on Axel's shoulder.

"It seems the rebel threat is much larger than we realized. Son, you must arm yourself," he said simply, pulling aside his own cloak to reveal three small daggers strapped to his belt. "If those brigands penetrate our defenses, they will surely attempt to assassinate you."

The young man nodded. "What about the rest of the court?"

The king sighed. "Those who cannot defend themselves have a guard with them. You are more capable than that." The king and queen did not look it, but they were very skilled in the art of the sword. In war times, they would both have to lead the people, unless either were ill or the queen was carrying. As the next king, Axel had chosen to hone his skills with other blades. His large chakrams, unusual for their class and unwieldy to the average eye, were deadly in his trained hands.

A little bit of fire magic didn't hurt either.

"Has the treasury been sealed?" he asked.

"Sealed and guarded," the king replied, taking his seat on the throne beside the queen. "We will have to anticipate the rebels' move as best we can. If you know of any ways in and out of the palace that may be unmonitored, you would do best to inform me so that I can have them guarded."

Axel remembered the exits well. He would find them when he played with Demyx or when he ducked his escorts as a child. Not without regret, he passed these secrets to his father, who then advised him to go about his business as usual. But the royal family would not be caught off guard no matter what.

~Y~

The palace seemed to be bustling this morning, Roxas noticed. Servants scampered past the kitchens where he worked, all looking very nervous, and Aqua has left some time ago to speak with Axel. Something must have happened, but Aqua still hadn't returned and no body passing by had stopped to answer his questions or even acknowledge his presence.

Resigned, he returned to his work scrubbing the floor of the kitchens, balling his fists and using the palms of his hands to press the sponge. It was slow, but it did the job well enough and put the least painful pressure on his hands. His muscled ached a little from disuse, but that was to be expected.

It was much better than working out in the blistering sun.

Despite his nervousness, the blonde was grateful for that. The slaver made him wear chains and pull his cart, and even sometimes help drag the other slaves who passed out from exhaustion. When he wasn't selling them, the man would offer their services in the towns they passed through. In the early stretch of the journey, before they had entered the desert, Roxas distinctly remembered being forced to haul in a large ship with his fellow slaves. The vessel had gotten stuck in the dry sea bed when the tide went out, and the owner had paid the slaver for all of them to drag it up the bank.

He didn't even feed them well, or care for them when they got sick. But Axel did. The prince nursed him back to health again.

The Neko nodded to himself as he pushed the heavy sponge across the floor, then dipped it back into the bucket of warm, soapy water. He would be grateful, and maybe...maybe if Axel liked him, and he behaved, Axel would be kind and not ask that he sleep with him. If he did, well...that was a thought for later.

Roxas especially liked Xion, though. She was pretty and funny and very friendly. Even when he was afraid and had hurt her, she didn't beat him, yell at him, or throw him in a dark room. She did what she did expecting nothing from him. If he could be near her, he could be decently happy. Roxas was almost sure of it.

Something about her vaguely reminded him of Sora. Maybe it was her deep blue eyes...

The Neko yelped as the sponge he'd been leaning on slid forward, and he hit the newly scrubbed floor face first. Sitting up again, pulling his ears back against his head, he hissed when he saw the scrapes on the back of his arms. They looked raw and faintly red, but thankfully not much skin had been lost. The stone floor was rough in places, but it hadn't done too much damage.

He stood for a moment and brushed himself off, wincing when his bandaged hands touched his heavy robes. He was just a clumsy mess.

"Where is Aqua?" he wondered aloud, looking out the door that led to the hall. Where was anyone? When he wasn't paying attention, all the passersby seemed to have stopped coming. Roxas walked to the door and peered out to the right, seeing no one. There was no one to the left either.

Glancing back at the sponge and bucket, the Neko wondered if it was alright for him to leave. He had done most of the floor; could he take a break and wander a bit?

After a moment's deliberation, the boy left the kitchens, heading down the hall to the right where he had seen most people running before. He stopped at one of the windows and looked out, seeing guards gathered in large groups along the balcony. They stared transfixed at the ground below, holding idle bows at their sides. Roxas could see the tension in their hands, ready to move to the quivers and fire arrows at any moment.

He opened his mouth to call out to them, ask what was happening, but the sound never left his lips. Blue eyes widened as the call became one of alarm, muffled behind a large, dirty hand.

"Well, well, look what we have here."

Roxas began to shake violently as the other hand moved from resting on his shoulder to his hands, pulling his wrists behind him. Unable to squirm away, he shut his eyes and whimpered as they quickly bound his hands tightly.

"What is it, Xerna?" a weaselly voice asked, just as the Neko was forcibly turned to face his attackers. A dark, skinny little man was ogling him, standing beside a huge brute of a man with wild dark brown hair and cold brown eyes.

"Hmmm. Looks like a cat boy, Sephra," the bigger man said, looking over him curiously. "I've never seen one before."

"I wonder if they're just like cats." The smaller man grabbed his tail and tugged hard, making the boy cry out in pain.

Xerna gave a low laugh. "Seems so. Heard their lot was rare." He lifted Roxas's chin for a better look, seeing unshed tears glistening in those eyes. "Pretty boy could fetch a pretty price."

Sephra shook his head, looking more serious. "Xerxes would know for sure. Bring him along if you can keep the brat quiet." He crossed his arms and looked out the window, sneering at the guards. "We gotta meet up before they catch on."

"He said he'd be waiting near the treasury."

"Then let's go! We're burning daylight!"

Roxas yelped as he was dragged through the palace, barely able to keep up with them. What was happening? Who were these people? They certainly weren't friendly. They wanted to sell him just like-

The blonde felt his head throb, the memory firmly out of reach in his mind. He knew who kidnapped him and took him away from Sora, but the name and face escaped him. How could that be? The harder he tried to think, the more his head hurt.

Or perhaps that was the running taking a toll on him. Roxas noted how hard he was breathing, practically coughing from the pain in his lungs and head.

"The brat is slowing us down, Xerna! Lose him!" Sephra hissed back at them.

"Can't! He's seen us! The second I let him go, he'll squeal!"

After some more bickering, Xerna finally threw the Neko over his shoulder, one hand still firmly clamped over his mouth. Bobbing up and down as they ran, Roxas was sure he was going to black out or throw up. Gasping for breath, he watched the floor pass underneath him quickly, fading in and out in some moments. He felt it once or twice when Xerna turned a corner, but finally he couldn't hold on to consciousness anymore.