[KH] Desperate Reflections 12

Chapter Nine – Crimson Vow

A gout of flame flared against the grey sky as another pale wolf dropped to the ground, silent as it writhed in pain and burned to nothing more than ash. But as quickly as it fell, there were three more to take its place, each as hungry as its fallen brother. Axel scowled as he panted, lifting his already weary arms to defend himself from yet another leaping shadow beast, comforted only by the steady presence of Reno somewhere in the vicinity.

Hordes of them, far more than either man had ever seen before, had attacked suddenly, as if banding together to take over the city. The two of them, he and Reno, had been working tirelessly to drive the beasts back. Two other gatekeepers had joined the battle but they were still vastly outnumbered, and quickly losing ground.

Axel himself was not wholly without injury. One of the beasts had torn a good chunk from his arm and blood was dripping into one of his eyes from a slash across the forehead but nevertheless, he was standing tall, determinedly fighting. He shifted his vision, catching sight of Reno, fumbling a bit from the vicious tear in his arm when a beast had latched its fangs around him before Reno had been able to electrify it but otherwise holding steady.

His nostrils flared at the scent of blood and death, a scent that he realized he was all too familiar with and was frankly, just plain tired of. More and more memories of battle and destruction from his time as a Nobody were returning to his present state. It seemed all Axel could do with his life was fight. Was he nothing more than a weapon in a never-ending battle?

A snarl from nearby distracted him and Axel immediately returned his attention to the fight, wearily lifting his chakram once more and slicing a memory beast through the middle. More swarmed around him, some getting past and loping into the city before he could stop them. He didn’t understand why there were so many at one time and where the hell were the other gate guardians? Why weren’t more people coming to help? He couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t all some big coincidence.

Axel twisted his body to the side, avoiding a leaping beast and sending another gout of flame towards a twin set approaching from the left. More snarls and growls echoed around him, the screams of those few helping him as they fell and the scent of blood so thick on the air he could taste it. The battle was getting fiercer, rougher… deadlier. He didn’t know if he would be able to come out on top this time.

It reminded him of one other time before. With Sora… surrounded by the Nobodies in the in-between path. That was when he had died, when he had for once done something for someone else rather than for himself. He couldn’t help but wonder if that was to be his fate once more.

There was a shout, vaguely audible above the din of battle. Axel’s gaze swept to the side, searching for the owner of the cry when an abrupt darkness fell, shadows leaping from all directions and he crashed to the ground, breath whooshing out of them. Three… maybe four bodies piled on top of him, snarling and snapping as claws dug into his skin through clothes already ripped and torn. He couldn’t see anything but brief glimpses of grey sky between the wriggling and furred albino wolves. Axel’s heart thudded painfully in his chest, reminding him that he was alive… and that fear was beginning to eat its way inside of him, despite his efforts to forestall it.

He growled, twisting his head from side to side as he struggled to avoid those powerful jaws, dimly hearing someone call his name from above the press of bodies. It could have been Reno… or it might have even been a figment of his imagination. Memories were starting to crop up, flashing in front of his eyes and blending with reality, silvery lithe bodies and white muscled creatures all blending into a mass of murderous terror.

A maw clamped down on his left leg, drawing blood and ripping away skin, bringing him forcefully into some semblance of reality. He howled in agony, jamming one chakram upwards as he worked an arm free. He summoned up another burst of strength and called to the flames inside of him, smirking when he felt the burning heat surge from his body and flare outwards at his attackers.

The beasts yelped and yipped, thrown backwards as fangs were forcefully yanked from his leg, taking some of his flesh with it. The putrid odor of burnt fur wafted to his nose and he gagged, rolling over to his side and trying to plant one shaky hand on the pavement, aware that the battle still was not over. He could feel the blood dripping from his body, down his leg and into his eyes from where fangs had grazed his cheek. It was then that his head started to spin, dizzy from both the loss of his strength and using far too much magic at once.

Bleary vision caught Reno trying to fight through the beasts to Axel’s side but the firestarter was determined to make it on his own. He didn’t want anyone to have to protect him. Fighting against the pain in his leg and a new wound he hadn’t even realized he had on his arm, he rose to his feet, albeit a bit shakily and stood there swaying for several seconds before he opened his eyes, not even realizing that he had at some point closed them.

A low growl, significantly deeper and more terrifying than the others raised the hair on the back of his neck and Axel whirled around to come face to face with another of the memory beasts. Only this one was far larger than any he had ever encountered, both taller and heavier then he was. A smirk crossed the firestarter’s face, immediately dropping into his battle stance as he spun the chakram on his fingers. He pushed all dizziness and pain inside, the thrill of battle surging in his blood.

He had to survive.

The beast swiped at him with one massive claw but Axel easily danced out of the way with nimble steps. He darted in to slash at the furry hide and sent a spray of blood through the air before he dodged away once more, narrowly avoiding another angry claw. The monster was big but essentially slow and stupid. It would be a cinch to take out, provided that nothing else got Axel first.

A fireball soared through the air, pinging across the memory beast’s forehead and singeing its pale fur, blackening it with ash. It howled and Axel smirked, unable to resist a goading taunt. “Too hot for you?” he mocked, shifting his weight as the creature leapt forward, snarling with foam-flecked fangs and eager to tear him limb from limb.

Smirking, Axel quickly pulled his chakram out in front of him, summoning another burst of blaze, igniting the sharpened blades of his weapon. As the beast skidded to a stop, scrabbling against the pavement to turn around, the firestarter wasted no time in unleashing his attack, sending both chakram flying at the beast’s head and neatly slicing it from its body.

The decapitated head bounced several feet away as the body went limp, falling to the ground in an almost comical slow-motion. It slowly began to turn to dust, like all the other defeated beasts before it. Axel caught the returning chakram with little effort, snubbing his nose at the big, dumb creature. It was then that a vague prickle of warning raced up his spine, every sense in his body screaming danger.

“Abarai!”

He turned, emerald eyes widening in shock as a flash of bright red hair darted in front of him, barely catching sight of Reno’s black uniform. Time seemed to slow, stop even, as he helplessly watched Reno take an attack that had been meant for his unprotected back. Bright scarlet blood splashed into the air and on Axel’s face when claws raked down Reno’s chest, digging so deeply he half-expected them to come out the other side.

Reno jerked, one arm flailing to the side before he collapsed backwards into Axel. In a flash of fury, the firestarter snarled and sent a course of flame rippling outwards, immediately incinerating the beast before it could even hit the ground. Reno’s body began to shake as he struggled to suck in a breath, blood already gurgling sickly as it trickled down the front of the other man’s body.

Axel quickly caught his friend before Reno could slump, chakram clattering to the ground and horror filling him to the core when warm fluid washed over his hand from where he had wrapped it around the older man’s waist. His own legs shaking in horror and shock, Axel gently lowered the gasping man to the ground, a fiery rage unlike anything he’s ever felt before beginning to build up within him. It was as if flames licked at his insides, burning up his organs and turning his blood to nothing more than boiling lava.

Orange flame burned in his eyes, once emerald now a fiery orange, a cry of rage escaping from his lips. It was primal, animal even, and did nothing to quell the fury or the general helplessness that washed over him. The beasts had done nothing but terrify him from day one, attacked him when he was weak in the beginning, attacked others… they slayed for no purpose but the joy of killing and the Council did nothing. Nothing.

Something roared in his ears, wordless cries of destruction and death and he knew nothing but this sudden desire to kill and destroy. The darkness, once useful for nothing but despair and depression, turned to rage as he rose to his feet, flames licking at his boots. He dug deep down inside of himself for every last vestige of power, every tiny bit of emotion that he could grasp onto as his chakram began to rise of their own accord off the ground, spinning with gouts of dancing ocher on their tips.

His body began to shake, the ground trembled he was sure of it, and deep inside of him, something burst, exploded into a few thousand pieces and Axel screamed, roared his rage. The world went white-hot as explosion after explosion arced out from around him in all directions, incinerating everything around him. The gate became nothing more than a pile of ash, every building in the area crumpling to piles of stone and rock… even the other gatekeepers that had survived the beasts burned in the blast, leaving him standing in the middle of a blackened pit.

With a gasp, Axel fell to his knees, dizziness and weakness attacking him with the fierceness of a hungry carnivore. He swayed, struggling to remain upright as his hand fell on something warm and sticky. He peeled his tired eyes open, only to pale in sudden recognition. He had subconsciously protected Reno from the blaze yet… it seemed it was for naught, judging by the pool of blood already staining the ground and spreading out in an increasing puddle.

Those aquamarine eyes were unfocused as Reno struggled to draw breath, coughing up blood and to Axel’s horror, he could see the glistening of the other man’s innards, nausea striking him in that instant. He ignored the destruction around him and his own weariness, jerking off his torn over jacket and pressing it over Reno’s wound, ignoring the older man’s wince of pain. Surely there was something… he couldn’t sit and watch Reno die!

“A…barai…”

The firestarter choked. “I don’t… I don’t have any healing magic,” he stuttered fervently. “I can’t do anything!” He jerked his head up, immediately scanning the area and despite seeing no one, called out anyways. “Help! Medic! Someone!”

A bloodstained hand flopped weakly against his cheek, dragging his attention back towards the dying man. “Don’t… bother. No one will come,” Reno managed to garble out, swallowing thickly before more blood bubbled up in his throat. And by the look in his eyes, even as Reno managed a dry and raspy strained laugh, Axel realized that Reno knew he was dying.

“Even a Turk knows when it’s the end.” He blinked rapidly trying to focus on Axel as the younger man stared at him, unable to comprehend the emotions suddenly racing through him. Reno had been his mentor, his ally, his closest companion outside of Vincent and something inside of him was breaking, shattering into pieces that he didn’t think would ever heal. It wasn’t right. Axel was the one who should have taken the hit, he was the one who should be lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood. Not Reno.

“You… stupid,” the firestarter muttered, fingers curling around the overcoat as he pressed it futilely to the bleeding wound. A minute maybe, seconds more likely, that was all the other man had. “It should’ve been me.”

Reno waved off his comment, a serious and grave expression taking over his ghostly pale face. “Axel, listen to me, yo. Get off this world.” He paused, coughing as his body began to shake slightly. Already he could feel the tingling in his extremities, the horrible creeping of an icy coldness that meant he was slipping away. “Do whatever it takes. Don’t die here.”

On the edge of his conscious, Axel dimly heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Most likely bystanders drawn by the explosion and subsequent destruction but he simply ignored them. They were of little importance and at the moment, he didn’t care if anyone caught him. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but the words wouldn’t or couldn’t come. He didn’t understand the raw rending pain inside of him, how it made him speechless and how the back of his eyes burned with tears he didn’t think he had ever shed before for another person.

It was all happening so fast. Words blending one with another, his vision dimming and the sights and sounds all swirling into a mass of confusion. Reno was gasping, trying to breathe and hang onto life for just a bit longer. Axel was struggling to maintain some grip on his sanity, attempting to patch Reno together with his just his hands, as if by scooping up the blood and pouring it back in would somehow save his friend. It was a futile notion but he couldn’t stop himself from wishing. Seconds sped by so quickly that Axel was sure that the world had started spinning double time. Reno was going to die before he could even find the words to say, if there were any at all. And still the older man struggled to speak, lips trembling and face becoming so pale that every outline of the veins beneath were painfully visible.

Reno’s free hand, the one not tangled in the front of Axel’s shirt, reached up weakly, grasping futilely for the glasses somehow still attached to his forehead. The movement left a garish streak of crimson across his pale features as he begged Axel with his eyes.

“Do me a favor, ne?” he asked weakly, voice hoarse and little more than a whisper. “Find Rude when you get off, yo. Tell him–” He cut off suddenly, coughing as eyelids fluttered over aquamarine eyes and Axel pressed even harder at the wound in his belly, willing Reno to heal miraculously, willing his own strength to somehow seep through his fingers and into his friends body.

“Tell him that I never forgot him, okay? I never forgot!” The last was said firmly, loudly, sapping all of Reno’s strength as his eyes flashed with determination, both love and fire echoing in his bright orbs.

Axel nodded frantically, swallowing thickly on an imagined lump in his throat. “I got it,” he uttered quickly. “You never forgot.” He placed his hand over Reno’s, wrapping long fingers around the black sunglasses. His heart lurched at the coldness in his friend’s touch. Almost like ice…

“…P–promise!”

“I do!” he cried fiercely. “I…” He swallowed thickly. “I got it memorized.” His usual phrase, felt hollow coming from his lips, holding none of the teasing element that it usually carried. If it weren’t for the relief in Reno’s aquamarine eyes, he might have even regretted it. But the older man looked so comforted that Axel swallowed down what else he might have thought to say. Truly, words had deserted him.

The sound of wings beating floated to Axel’s ears, the noise of Gatherers, approaching, barely audible over the blood pounding in his skull or the crying in his heart. This was grief, pure sadness, and he didn’t know what to do with it. The pain was raw and fresh, clawing at him from the inside and fighting for dominance. Reno might have been just a friend, but to Axel, he was important, he was someone. After knowing the other male for almost a year, he felt close to him, like a brother.

Reno’s eyes suddenly widened in recognition as they shifted to the side, a brief moment of clarity shining through. The slightest smile tugged on the corner of his lips even as he coughed, splattering blood all over Axel’s arm. “Take… care… Vincent,” he whispered, hand slackening in its once desperate hold of Axel’s shirt. “He needs it more than you think.”

Footsteps echoed on the harsh pavement, but Axel was oblivious to them, nodding wordlessly as the hand fell away from his body completely, limply falling to the side. The heartbeat that he had been frantically clinging to, became nothing, still and terribly soundless. It was a heavy silence, louder than all of the noise around him and Axel’s fingers curled tightly around the blood-soaked over coat and Reno’s sunglasses, nearly breaking them.

Anger began to blossom inside of him, anger with himself and the council, with their words and their actions. He was furious with himself, and his inability to save Reno. He should have been stronger, watching his own back. His power should have been something more helpful. He could destroy and burn… not heal and save. What good was the power if he couldn’t rely on it when it mattered the most, when he couldn’t even save his friend?

Reno’s words echoed in his mind, the promise that he made, the other man’s request of him to leave. He had the power, he knew of a method. Only Vincent’s suggestion of wariness kept him from using it. But Axel no longer cared. He was not going to die on Gaia’s Grotto. He would rather risk death in the darkness than rot away into nothingness. He made his decision than and there, kneeling over the fallen form of his friend, a man who had only ever wanted to return to the one he loved, that he would try the portal. Nothing was going to stop him. He didn’t care if he died trying.

“What happened here?”

He recognized the almost accusing voice immediately and looked up, knowing that his eyes were most likely swimming with tears. Vincent knelt beside him, crimson gaze darkening as he took in the state of his friend. His wings twitched restlessly behind him as one of his claws clenched at his side but the younger man only noted this with a cursory glance. He swept his eyes past the Gatherer, noticing the crowd that was beginning to gather. And quite a lot of them.

Not that it mattered anymore. Axel had already made his decision and wasn’t going to waste any more talking about.

He didn’t answer Vincent, merely shaking his head as he reached out with a trembling hand to brush his fingertips over Reno’s eyelids and closing them. He had no sooner withdrew the touch when the body suddenly began to slowly disintegrate, turning to black ash that swirled in the light breeze, rank with the smell of death, blood, and failure. Almost as if Reno had never existed at all, as if he had been nothing more than a Nobody.

Axel set his jaw, sorrow and fury blending so thoroughly in his soul that he couldn’t distinguish one from the other. He ignored his blood-spattered clothing and the crimson fluid that wasn’t his own, already drying on his face. His eyes gleamed, probably looking partly insane. He felt a little crazy; he felt off-center. But by kami, he wasn’t going to be on Gaia’s Grotto any longer. He was a fool for waiting so long already.

“Vincent, we’re leaving,” he announced, voice tight and barely under his control. His throat was thick with unshed tears and one hand wrapped tenaciously around the blood-spattered sunglasses.

Crimson eyes narrowed as Vincent surged to his feet. “What the hell are you talking about?” he demanded, his gaze flickering to the crowd surrounding them. “Have you gone mad?”

Axel shook his head, wasting no time and not bothering to argue with Vincent. The time for talking was passed. He rushed forward, quickly wrapping his arms around the winged man before Vincent could even protest. The older man made a strangled sound in the back of his throat, clawed hands landing on Axel’s shoulders but the firestarter ignored him. He shuttered his eyes tightly closed as he looked deep inside of himself, searching for the darkness that he knew resided there.

He remembered his research. There were two portals he could use: either a gateway or a portico. The portico would take him to the in-between realm of twilight but the gateway would take him directly to another world, one of his choosing. He didn’t know what would happen if they ended up in the in-between realm so Axel was aiming to summon a gateway. He didn’t think he had the strength for more than one anyways.

He concentrated on his anger and his helplessness, used his despair as fuel and his desperation as a guide. Darkness coiled inside of him, battling with the light for control of his magic. He dimly heard Vincent speaking but blocked out all coherent thought in translating it. Instead, he latched onto the darkness and yanked fiercely, calling for the gateway with every thrumming emotion inside of him.

He could feel it, licking at his feet and ankles, working its way up his body. It was working; he was succeeding. He tightened his arms around Vincent, hating the disorientating rush that was accompanying the use of the darkness and grit his teeth against the steady throb of pain that was building inside of him.

Tendrils of icy shadow wrapped around his body and suddenly, everything exploded into nothingness and he was only dimly aware that he was dragging Vincent along for the ride. He didn’t know where he was going or where the gateway would take them. So long as he was no longer on Gaia’s Grotto and they came out alive, he didn’t particularly care. Darkness curled around him and he was…

… cold, so cold and covered in ice. Light and shadow blended into nothing and everything and there was fear, so thick and heavy and washing over him like a tidal wave.

“You are Lae no longer.”

He saw nothing and heard everything, felt the pinpricks of sheer agony racing through his body. There was pain, so much pain, and little pleasure. His heart ached, his muscles strained, he was pulled in so many directions, his head splitting, blood everywhere.

Cries in the dark, awful haunted voices and tear-shod pleas.

“Daddy! Happy Birthday!” Laughter echoed and curled around him like a snake, limiting his movement. His soul shattered; his heart broke.

He said he was leaving. “I’ll miss you…” Words faded. He couldn’t stop him, but he tried, kami knows he tried. He was useless, he was nothing, he was…

Broken into a million shattered pieces of an already fragmented dream. His thumb rubbed over the warmed metal, twirling it over and over around his finger. His eyes were red and raw, aching from too many tears shed as the words they didn’t mean echoed inside his heart.

“Hey, I feel like we’re friends already.”

Time stopped and spun, the world twisted on its axis. His breath was ragged in his chest; his arms and his soul felt heavy, weighted down by those silly little truths called emotion. Who knew that a heart was such a burden? Who knew that feelings hurt more than the lack of?

“Want to spar?”

He was part of it, part of everything. They were joined but there was a chance. Yes? A chance to try again, to be his own self, his own purpose. But he was already dead. He had already flitted away into ash and nothingness.

Despair clouded everything; happiness was only a vague memory. Had he ever been happy? Did he know joy? Could he even recognize it? And love, an equally foreign thought. He claimed he loved her. She claimed that there was no one but him. And in the end, ‘Daddy’ was nothing more than a lie. He didn’t have a heart; Nobodies couldn’t love.

Good and evil were mere reflections of each other, desperately searching for the ultimate victory. On either side, they loved or they hated, on either end they strove for something more. Luck was on the side of the lucky and the victors wrote the history. Only the winners are seen as good, but it’s the same story, just different sides.

There was nothing beneath his feet. He was floating in an endless sea of tears and mistakes, soaring through the darkened sky, filled with empty pits where stars once hung. And he was falling, fallen, falling like so many others. His body shook as he dropped like a boulder and plummeted downwards…

… landing on something immeasurably solid and jarring every bone in his body it seemed. Axel grunted, throwing an arm out to catch himself before he shoved his face into the concrete and broke his noise. His head was spinning, dizziness and nausea attacking his senses and he barely had the strength to breathe. He registered that the gateway had deposited them somewhere, and fought to find it in him to open his tired eyes.

Fuzzy images, bright colors, the sun so terribly warm and just so damn beautiful that he could hardly believe it. He could feel the heat on the back of his neck and it was the most wonderful sensation in the world. It wasn’t raining and there was a breeze, a soft and balmy brush of air against his clothing that ruffled his blood spattered hair and gore-stained body.

“By Kami,” breathed a voice and Axel was relieved to recognize it as Vincent. “You did it, Axel. I’m home.” The relief in the winged man’s voice was obvious even to Axel, as well as the joy and he knew he could detect the sound of someone struggling to rein in their tears.

The firestarter remained on the ground, panting as brief sparks of pain continued to resonate through his body. He was gasping for breath and he felt weary, exhausted, and most definitely pushed beyond his limits. Tears banked behind his eyelids but he was the happiest he had ever been because he was alive and he was free and the thought was titillating. He had managed to save Vincent as well, and in his right hand, he still clutched Reno’s sunglasses, making an internal vow then and there to find Rude.

He would pay his debt to Reno the only way he knew how.

Axel rolled over and managed a half-sitting position, aware that his limbs felt like limp noodles and almost refusing to respond to his call. His eyes were half-lidded, threatening at any moment to shutter closed. The calling of the gateway had taken every last vestige of strength and he could only hope that Vincent’s ‘home’ wasn’t dangerous because he didn’t think he could defend himself.

Then he heard them, the whispered voices and the concerned tones. He felt eyes on him, boring into his body and he looked up, gaze locking with dozens of strangers that seemed to surround he and Vincent. Behind him, the winged male struggled to stand, in significantly better condition than Axel himself. He reached down and yanked the woozy firestarter to his feet, jerking the younger male against his body as he glared at the citizens staring at them with mixed expressions of curiosity, worry…. and fear.

“It’s a heartless!” Someone cried. The voice was male, the tone accusatory and Axel stiffened at the fear evident in the man’s words. He dimly realized that anyone who didn’t know Vincent’s appearance would probably mistake him for a Heartless, and Axel himself was covered in blood and gore from the battle.

Any sane person would believe they were dangerous just from looking at them.

He forced his weary head upwards, trying to remain on his feet as the crowd began to grow restless and edgy, terror rippling through them. Had they escaped from Gaia’s Grotto only to be thrust into an even worse predicament? He couldn’t ignore the subtle shaking of exhaustion in his limbs either, or the emotional pain that was still so fresh it caused his heart to literally ache. They had succeed but at what cost? What price had he paid for his hesitance?

“The Heartless have returned!”

“Kill it before it kills us!”

“No!” Axel roared, somehow finding the words that had been momentarily stuck on his tongue. He reached down deep inside of himself, and found the last vestiges of his strength, somehow managing to stand straight and tall as Vincent hovered at his side. “We are not Heartless!!”

But they didn’t appear to want to listen and some of the bolder ones were quickly turning ominous. The crowd of onlookers surged forward, backing Vincent and Axel even closer together as their frantic comments and murmurings grew louder. They ignored the firestarter’s words, remembering all too well the first attack of the Heartless and the destruction of their homes. It appeared they didn’t want to take any chances.

“We can’t hurt them,” Vincent muttered lowly, though one claw loosely dangled close to his weapon.

Axel frowned, emerald eyes narrowing. “We might have to. I’m not about to let them tear me to pieces, misguided and scared or not.” He tilted his head back, raising his voice higher. “We aren’t Heartless!!” he reiterated, hoping that they would begin to see reason. “We don’t want to hurt you. Stay back!!”

He quickly shoved Reno’s sunglasses into one of his pockets as his chakram appeared in a swirl of fire at his side, startling most of the onlookers gathered. They backed away a few steps, the flame reflecting in their wide, frightened eyes and Axel shook his head grimly, already dropping down into a battle stance.

He could feel the other man stiffening behind him, resolving to defend himself as well. He knew Vincent wouldn’t fire his gun but for the winged man, his claws were probably enough to fend off their attackers. As it were, Axel planned to knock as many out as he could, despite the weariness. He wouldn’t go down without a fight.

“What the hell is going on here?” The angry demand was thunderous, cutting through the aura of confusion and fear that had settled like a thick web over them. The crowds immediately parted, allowing some male to come through, his face swirling with a storm. The first thing Axel noticed about him was his piercing grey-blue eyes, reminding him of an unsettled tempest.

The next was the subtle way his hand hovered close to the layers of belts looped about his rather feminine hips, perched over the hilt of a rather wicked looking blade that Axel couldn’t identify. On the man’s shoulder, perched a fairy, unlike any the firestarter had ever seen before, and the scar that crossed the man’s face didn’t detract at all from his attractiveness.

Behind Axel, Vincent sucked in a breath and remembering that this was Vincent’s home, he could only surmise that the winged male recognized this other younger man. Surely, this man who seemed to be in charge, could stop the frantic and frightened press of people around them.

One citizen suddenly turned brave, taking a menacing step forward and Axel snarled, lifting up his chakram. He was prepared to defend himself. “Get them back!” he growled, eyes cutting towards the fur-wearing brunette. “I don’t want to hurt them if I don’t have to.”

“Stand down!” the unidentified man bellowed. “Return to your homes. I’ll take care of this!”

Dozens of strangers blinked as Axel wobbled in his firm stance, uncertain if he could maintain his footing any longer with the weariness weighing heavily on his body. The relief in the face of the crowd was evident though, and it was clear they looked up to this stormy-eyed brunet, content to leave the defeat of the ‘Heartless’ to him. He was intimidating, Axel gave him that much.

“Who are you?” The brunet demanded as the mob began to disperse, stalking towards them with an almost thunderous expression on his face. Muscles shifted panther-like beneath tanned skin and the glint of metal around the man’s neck caught Axel’s attention, some type of lion-shaped pendant made of silver.

The firestarter opened his mouth with every intention to respond, however, nothing came out. Instead, a strange sensation of falling suddenly spread through his body. He dimly heard the sounds of his chakram hitting the ground, twin pings of metal against pavement before they dispersed. Arms wrapped around his back, a faint prick of familiar claws and then his weariness consumed him, sending Axel into the comforting and overwhelming embrace of darkness.

It was a memory, one of his favorites because it involved Roxas and the first time he had ever met the thirteenth member of the Organization. At first, he hadn’t thought anything special of the slightly scrawny and petulant blond that Xemnas seemed especially proud about locating. The boy’s bottom lip pouted slightly but if anything, it was his eyes that were the most mesmerizing, such a startling shade of ocean-blue and he was caught in the tide.

Axel smirked, twirling a chakram on his finger when Saix finished the introductions. They stood in one of the many corridors of the Organization stronghold as Saix, shadows clinging to darkened alcoves around them and giving the whole encounter a creepy aura that would have made Axel shudder, if he truly felt fear.

“So we’re employing runts now?” he questioned, raising one brow at the luna divider. “He sure doesn’t look like anything special.”

The blue-haired male laughed, the sound mocking. But it was actually Roxas who spoke, angrily crossing his arms over his chest as irritation flashed in his eyes. “I am certain I could take you down,” he spat, head tilted back to meet the gaze of the taller firestarter.

Impressed by his sharp-tongue and pride, Axel rescinded his original line of thought. This boy was interesting after all. He drew himself to his full height, emerald eyes flashing with fire as he glared down at the impudent brat, the lazy smirk never leaving his face.

“Oh?” he taunted in a languid drawl. “Care to test it?” He jabbed the tip of a chakram at the blond, poking him in one scrawny shoulder. “I’ll bet you can’t even lift a sword.”

Metal flashed as something clanged against his chakram, batting it aside easily and sending reverberations up and down the firestarter’s arm. He blinked. Roxas had moved so fast that he had barely seen the motion, and now gaped as the boy sneered at him, not one but two weapons gleaming in his hands. They were similar enough to swords that he was certain they weren’t light.

“Impressive,” Axel commented, still not willing to concede defeat. “But can you use them?” he taunted.

A twitch in the left eyebrow was all the warning he received before the boy was attacking him, twin blades raised in succession. Axel merely held his ground, summoning up his other chakram with a flurry of flame. Their weapons met in a resounding clang as Saix watched impassively, neither Nobody managing to come out on top.

“You’re pretty strong, kid.”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Touchy.” Axel smirked. “What should I call you then? Runt? Boy?” He leaned in closer, until their faces were barely a foot apart. “Blondie?”

Roxas snarled and surged forwards, throwing the firestarter off balance. “How about my name, asshole?” he growled as he stepped to take the advantage, raising his strange weapons once more.

But Axel had been fighting for long before him and quickly regained his control, using Roxas’ momentum against him. He twisted his body in an agile movement, allowing Roxas to barrel past him before casually sticking out a booted foot at the same time that he smacked the kid’s rump with his chakram.

Blondie went tumbling to the floor, but not before he twisted his body and chucked one of his blades at Axel. Emerald eyes widened in surprise as the firestarter moved to duck but was not fast enough. He felt the metal bite into his cheek, drawing blood, before it clattered to the floor behind him.

Axel cursed, glowering as he reached up to wipe away the blood. It stung. On the floor, Roxas scowled as he rose to a sitting position, eyes swimming with the irritation of being made the fool. His gaze flickered to his weapon and Axel quickly caught the motion. He smirked as he turned to swipe the strange blade from the floor.

“I don’t know,” Axel lazily drawled, examining Roxas’ ‘sword’. “If you can’t beat me, then I retain the right to call you whatever the hell I want.”

“Tch.” Roxas glared as he clambered to his feet, watching the firestarter give an experimental swing of his weapon. He thrust out his hand, making Axel curious, until suddenly, the blade in his grasp disappeared, only to reappear in Roxas’.

“Well,” the taller Nobody stated, planting one hand on his hip. “Now, that’s a neat little trick. We should be friends.” He couldn’t deny that it was fun goading this newest member, and unlike Demyx, Roxas could dish it out as well as take it. There was something about that fierce stare and the firm set to that almost dainty jaw…

Ocean blue eyes narrowed and something inside Axel gloated. Finally, a worthy opponent. “Your logic is irrational.”

“But a hell of a lot more fun.”

Sudden clapping interrupted their staring contest and the two young members of Organization XIII whirled to find Xemnas stepping out of the darkness portal. He exchanged glances with Saix, before sweeping his gaze over both Roxas and Axel. In their short duel, they had forgotten that Saix was watching.

“You are getting along,” Xemnas commented, though it came out sounding vaguely sarcastic and pleased. “That is good since I require Saix’s assistance. Finish the tour for him, Number Eight.”

Roxas seemed annoyed by this and opened his mouth to argue, but Axel interrupted before he could. “Whatever you say, boss. I’ll show the runt around.”

Xemnas’ yellow eyes gleamed dangerously. “I would be cautious if I were you, Number Eight. That ‘runt’ is the key we’ve been waiting for.” Xemnas smirked as he turned, summoning up a portal with a wave of his hand. “Come Saix.”

The blue-haired Nobody tilted his head in obedience and the two disappeared into the clinging, black tendrils. Once they were gone, Axel laughed and shook his head. “Yeah, I’ll bet he ‘requires his ‘assistance’,” the firestarter leered.

Roxas shot him an annoyed stare. “You are an idiot.”

A reddish eyebrow rose as Axel turned towards the blond, again captured by steely, innocent blue eyes. “Why Roxy was that a compliment?”

“No, it wasn’t. And don’t call me that.” He turned on his heels and stalked down the scantily lit corridor.

“Where are you going?”

“Somewhere away from you.”

Axel chuckled before moving to catch up with him, long-legged strides making it easy. “I think we should be friends.”

“I don’t want any friends.”

“Aren’t you the feisty one.”

“Go away, you.”

“Axel.”

“I don’t care.”

“A-X-E-L. Got it memorized?”

“I’m trying to forget.”

The firestarter laughed again, slinging his arms over Roxas’ shoulder despite the shorter boy’s protests. “Don’t worry. I won’t let you.”

The dream began to fade then, swirling back into the confusion of his memories even though Axel tried desperately to cling to it. He didn’t want to lose that sight of Roxas, that annoyed scowl, those bright ocean blue eyes. His heart thudded in his chest and suddenly it felt as if he were…

…burning up from the inside; his body being consumed by fire, like his magic had finally turned on him. He moaned piteously, wanting some relief from the aching throb. Then a palm settled on his forehead, soft and cool as it chased away the pain with its presence. The touch was gentle, reminding him of near-forgotten and far away memories of his mother.

Yet, try as he might, he couldn’t peel his tired eyelids open. He was simply too weary. So Axel relaxed against some soft surface, probably a bed, and basked in the tender touch.

“He’ll be fine; he’s just exhausted,” a female voice murmured from above him. “With all the blood, I feared he was dead.”

“Most of it is not his own.” He recognized that voice at least. It was Vincent. The thought comforted him some, knowing that he hadn’t inadvertently killed Vincent by dragging him along through the portal.

“Gawd!” Someone shrieked. He thought it was female. “Man, where did you guys come from?” That voice, he decided, was going to be annoying in the future. He hoped she didn’t speak again since it turned out his tongue and mouth were working just as well as his eyelids.

“It is a long story.”

“Tch! It’s not like we ain’t got the fuckin’ time, man! Yer buddy over there is unconscious.”

“Cid! Learn some manners!” The kind voice above him chastised. The cool palm smoothed over his forehead, brushing his hair back.

The gruff man grunted. “Shit. What for? He ain’t caring.”

Someone groaned. It sounded irritated. “If you wouldn’t mind, Mr. Valentine, I am quite interested in hearing your story.” He thought he recognized that voice, too. Maybe the brunet from before, when the mob tried to attack Vincent.

“Right this very moment? I am as weary as my companion and much of it is his story to tell.”

Axel’s exhaustion was beginning to consume him again and he felt it tugging at his consciousness. Their voices were beginning to dim, which was fine, but the last strains of the conversation still floated through his senses nonetheless.

“Very well. Yuffie can take you somewhere to rest. Cid and I–”

“Leon!” A groan of annoyance.

Cid and I will help Aeris move your friend.”

“Yay!” cheered an exuberant female, the same one that Axel had already decided was annoying. “Come with me, Vinny! I promise a five-star hotel… or at least a bed. Say, your eyes are really cool. Can I touch your wings?”

“No.”

“Aw, come on. You’re no fun.”

Hands were on his body and he felt himself being lifted.

“What ‘bout your friend. Is he fun?”

“Axel.”

“What?”

“His name is Axel.”

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