My Brother's Keeper

Chapter 11

Given Axel always wears his hood or some type of head covering when he goes on contracts, he has the freedom to wander the marketplace with his red hair exposed. His leather cape is hugged closely to his sides to try and keep the cooling breeze from chilling his bones.

Still, some guards have their curious glances and some even have the nerve to follow Axel. They think they're far enough, but Axel could sense them easily as you would spot a bleeding child in the middle of the road. Wrapping his cloak around himself, he walks through South Edge in circuitous routes, ducking through alleys and backyards, making sure he loses his followers.

He comes up to the more, richer part of the market where the stalls turn into stores and richer merchants have clean cloths draped across their tables. One store that catches his attention is one with a shadowmark near its door. Shadowmarks are symbols used by the guild, so that buildings throughout the kingdom can quickly be identified by guild members as to their potential usage. The symbols are usually carved next to the building's doorway.

With the forge out front, it's not that hard to see it's the blacksmith. Axel did remember Jesse saying something about needing a new bow, or better arrows. Also adding that a new shipment of weaponry has just been mailed in adds to Axel's excitement. Plus with his birthday in less than two days, why not get him something nice.

Axel wipes off his boots and enters the shop, where a tingle of bells chimes against the wooden door. "Welcome to Cid's Shop. Take a good look around, I'm sure I've got what you need. If not, let me know. I might have it stored away."

Axel looks to find a man of his mid-thirties with a blonde fohawk and a shadow behind the desk at the back of the room. He wears a pair of goggles and keeps a toothpick in his mouth.

He smiles and nods. "Actually, do you have any new bows in stock?"

"We do! A new shipment just came in. Matching arrows too. Should be in back, just give me a minute." He says.

"Thanks." Axel says.

Axel pats the counter waiting, when he hears the door open again. He turns and sees Prince Sora walk in. He has his hood down, and it even has the emblem of the family sewn on its back.

"Gaining more confidence are we your majesty?" Axel asks.

"Axel!' Sora chimes in delight. He approaches the counter. "Nice to see you. How are you?"

"Good, good. You?"

"Good." Sora chuckles. "Getting something for yourself?"

"No, I'm actually here for Jesse." Axel answers.

"Oh, is he with you?" Sora looks around the shop.

"No, he actually left with a member of the family this morning." Axel explains.

"Why are you getting him something?" Sora smiles.

Axel snickers and rubs the back of his neck. "Uh well, his birthday is coming up soon and I want to get him something, nice. He deserves it." Axel feels the corners of his lip twitch.

"When's his birthday?" Sora asks.

Axel is about to answer when the man comes back out with two powerful looking bows in each of his hands. He notices Sora and smiles. "Ah, hello your majesty."

"Hey Cid." Sora greets.

"I'll be with you in just a moment. Just give me a second here."

Axel's eyes widen as he sets them along the counter. A long bow, hunting bow, and a bow with an imperial design. The line seemed to go from worst to best as they kept getting more detailed and extravagant as Axel gazes along the counter.

One bow catches his attention that screams, Jesse. It is a stunning black and red bow. Axel gasps in admiration. He lifts it carefully into the air to admire the exquisite balance, the elegant design, and the curve of the limbs. It had the Recurve design in which the tips curve away from the archer when the bow is strung. True to its predecessors from the kingdom, the bow's design is demonic in appearance with several spikes protruding from various parts of the body. Delicate lines of red strive along the limbs, the color matching that of crimson blood.

Axel is astonished to be holding such a beautiful and deadly weapon in his hands. The arrows, much like other bow, are black with red vein-like protrusions. Though these arrow seem to be made of some sort of ebony steel and have a double-pronged arrow head.

It surprised Axel he even brought it out since it is most likely extremely out of Axel's price range. But hopefully all his speech training with Marluxia will help him barter for a better price.

"Wow," Sora breathes in admiration. "That's incredible."

"The best we have in stock." Cid says.

Axel sets it down carefully. "How much?" he strains to ask.

"For the whole set, about 2500." Cid says.

"Shit," Axel curses. "For just the bow?"

"I have it priced at 1364 gold."

Axel sighs and leans on the counter. "Any chance you have a birthday's discount? I'm getting this for my friend and he would love me if I got something like this."

"My only discount is that the arrows are free." Cid bluntly denies.

Axel sighs. "Come on sir. Look, we live in the south district. We barely have enough to scrape by daily. We make our money from illegal hunting. Come on, help me out."

Cid's eyes flick to the Prince and to Axel.

"Now I know you want to look kind-hearted in front of the Prince." Axel persuades.

"What if I just help pay?" Sora offers.

Both men look to him in surprise.

"Now look, I know you want to get it for yourself because of this male pride thing I seem to be lacking, but come on. I wanted to get something for Jesse too." Sora says.

Axel and Cid exchange a look. "Uh, no offense your majesty, but I'm sure Jesse wouldn't want you wasting money on him."

"It's not wasting." Sora points out. "Not if I want to pay for him."

"There's really no differe -"

"So what's the price?!" Sora asks cheeringly as he brushes past Axel.

"2500 for the whole set, your Majesty." Cid says.

"Done, and give us an extra set of arrows." Sora says.

Cid pulls out a black rectangular box and flips the hinges to open and reveal a velvet casing. He pulls the velvet and sets the arrows on the bottom, then placing the fabric back, he sets it steady and gingerly places the bow inside. Sora pats the counter with a giddy happiness. Cid sets the hinges and pushes the case forward.

"There you are your majesty." Cid says.

Sora smiles and reaches into his pockets, pulling out three coin purses; the size fit to hold more than the estimated about Cid said for the bow.

"Keep the change." Sora smiles.

Before either Axel or Sora have time to react, Sora turns with the case and heads for the exit of the sore. "Good doing business with you, your Majesty." Cid calls.

Sora turns and waves back. "Come on Axel! Let's get this to Jesse!"

Axel looks to Cid, then to Sora and sighs. He follows Sora out the door and back into the thick air of the marketplace. Without word, Axel takes the case from Sora, knowing that Sora was struggling to hold it. The two walk side by side through the marketplace.

"You're just like a walking coin purse aren't you?" Axel asks.

"Yeah, Jesse gave me crap about it the first day we met. I had paid for this, whatever stuff he wanted, and he said that it wasn't safe for me to be here." Sora explains.

"Makes sense. You're the Prince," Axel whispers. "You have more than enough coin on you, and anyone who catches you can sell you for some gold."

"And thank you for that pleasant thought." Sora pesters.

Axel chuckles and Sora sneaks a glance at him. Axel was tall with a rather broad shoulder-length, bright red hair styled into slicked-back spikes. His eyes are a bright emerald color. At first glance, he doesn't seem like much muscle, but Sora knew better than to underestimate people. Axel's frame was strong.

A tugging feeling pulls at Sora's chest. If Roxas was raised under Xemnas' rule, and he lived in the same house as Axel and the 'others', Axel must know. They all must know. Sora clenches his fist and glances down at his toes as he walks. Sora could tell Axel he knows, and threaten to have the guards storm the home, but Axel could just as easily slit Sora's throat before he even finishes saying he knows the truth. Something about Axel gave Sora a feeling that, he cares about Roxas, genuinely. And Sora's torn between going with his gut feeling to not trust Axel, or his heart an telling him so that maybe Axel could help. The decision can go in two ways, either he'll cut down Sora where he stands, or he'll tell Sora everything and try to help him, it's really al up to Axel. And Sora does not feel too good about that.

He'll need to find out more.

"So, Axel, how did you and Roxas get so close in your family?" Sora asks. "Jesse always tells me it's kind of, dysfunctional."

Axel snickers. "That would be an understatement. Everyone seems to keep to themselves, and we always follow the orders of our, Dad, and his one son who can't seem to stop kissing his ass."

"Did you all know one another before Jesse?"

They pass the fruit stand with two children playing tag around the table.

"Yeah, Jesse was the newest member. Well, actually we've had him since he was a baby, but he didn't start helping out the family until he was, eight I want to say." Axel explains.

"What do you mean "helping out the family"?" Sora asks. "Was there some kind of initiation?"

"Eh, something like that." Axel vaguely answers.

A chill runs through Sora as he tries to imagine the connection to what Axel said, and Xemnas' organization. Roxas, his own brother – someone who Sora figured would never throw a punch when forced into a fight – killing at the age of eight. Eight years old.

Sora cringes as he pictures a young Roxas, holding a bloody short sword, blood running down his wrists. Whilst Sora only held a wooden one, meant for play and fake battle.

Killing really is all Roxas has ever known.

Could he ever change? Even after he finds out the truth? That is depending if he even believes Sora.

No. No he will believe Sora. They've spent enough time together for Roxas to know Sora isn't one to lie for jokes. Plus, somehow he has his star pendant, and there are more than enough painting in the castle the Sora can show as proof.

"Jesse tells me that you were pretty much his tutor and babysitter." Sora continues. "Must've been a handful given his, personality."

"Yeah, it was, interesting." Axel chuckles. "He's certainly got a mouth on him. Pretty defiant spirit."

"Why do you say that like it's a bad thing?" Sora asks.

"He can be, complacent sometimes. But he's grown to be humble, and he's a quick study." Axel says.

As they turn the corner to the north market, Sora looks and finds Kairi pushing through the pods of people jogging towards them. At first Sora thinks she's excited, but the closer she gets, the more obvious it is that she isn't excited. She's frantic.

"Sora!" she cries. She nearly stumbles and Sora catches her.

"Whoa, whoa Kairi, what's wrong?" Sora asks.

Kairi is doubled over, heaving and clutching her chest. Sora lets her catch her breath. Axel stands behind Sora with his arms crossed.

"It's Jesse." She says breathless. "I don't know what's wrong, but, I need you to come back to the shop immediately."

A weight settles on Axel's shoulders and Sora's heart sinks. A pool of ice cool fear hardening in the pit of Sora's stomach. Roxas. He got into a fight. And he got caught. Kairi says something else, but Sora can't hear anything beyond the pulse roaring in his ears. He turns to Axel.

"You need to come."

Axel nods and they hurry towards the main street, fear driving their steps.

He hasn't gotten in a fight.

They arrive at the shop, and thankfully they don't find Roxas' body lying broken and bloody. But what they find is more disturbing.

Roxas is huddled on the floor, pressed against the back wall of Kairi's stockroom.

Axel can't process this Roxas. He's never seen him like this.

An assistant is sitting near him, watching him concerned. Sora and Axel ignore the employees in favor of heading straight for them. The girl looks up and stands so Sora can take her place. But Sora insists Axel goes first. He'd probably know how to handle this better. To Sora's dislike, he's known Roxas longer.

Axel crouches on the floor beside Roxas. He looks into Axel's eyes and there' nothing but glassy shock in Roxas'. Axel's heart sinks. "Jesse? What's wrong?"

Roxas begins rocking as if he needs that simple rhythm to keep himself anchored.

"Can you tell me?" Axel asks, his mind racing.

Sora bites his nails in angst. Maybe something happened to Oliver, but no one reported anything.

Maybe he's realized the truth and its magnitude, though Axel doubts that would cause this state of shock. Maybe a man hurt him. Axel doesn't know how, since Roxas has been known to handle himself well, but he has to acknowledge the possibility.

If that's the case, Axel promises to hunt down the perpetrator and kill him. In the most inhumane method he can possibly devise.

Roxas' lips tremble, and he clamps both hands across his mouth.

"Jesse?" Sora asks, but he isn't listening.

Ms. Grelod approaches them. "A man in a black cloak showed up while Jesse was waiting for someone. He took Jesse."

Panic erases all rational thought from Sora and Axel's heads. And the look on Axel's face, showing a slight bit of recognition, scares Sora even more. It can't be who Sora thinks it is, but he doesn't disclose it.

"Where did he take him?" Axel seethes.

"We don't know."

"How long were they gone?" Sora asks.

"Over an hour. When he returned, he was like this."

Fierce anger surges through Axel. He can't speak or he might release it on those who don't deserve it. Instead, he turns back to Roxas. Axel's in over his head. He can't fix this. Can't understand where to begin making it right of he doesn't have all the information. And Roxas can't bear to tell him. He might tell Sora, but that would risk exposure.

"It's going to be okay." Axel whispers so no one else can hear him. "We can go home and I can try and help."

At the mention of the home, Roxas rocks faster, banging his head against the wall behind him. Sora lunges for him, wrapping his arms around Roxas, and pulling Roxas against him. Pressing his mouth to Roxas' ear, he whispers promises he doesn't know how to keep. Roxas quiets into an unnatural stillness that scares the two even more than the rocking did.

"Perhaps the castle would be better." Sora suggests.

Axel nods and helps Roxas to his feet.

"He hasn't spoken since he returned." Kairi says.

Sora meets her tear-filled eyes and makes another promise he doesn't know if he can keep. "We'll get him to speak to us. We just need to get him somewhere safe."

Tightening his arm around Roxas, Sora guides him from the shop and into the weak afternoon sunlight through a haze of mist that makes visibility sketchy after twenty yards or so. Axel pulls Roxas' hood up over his head.

As Axel follows, he almost hopes someone tries attacking them. The rage within him begs for a target.

The fact that the real target is the most well-protected man in the city, and his boss, makes no difference. Xemnas is Axel's now. Axel doesn't know how he'll do it, but before his life is over, he'll end Xemnas'.

"Jesse," Sora coos. "We're taking you to the castle." He says, though he doesn't' expect a response. "Will it be too difficult to walk?"

Roxas doesn't response to that, either so they both watch Roxas' gait carefully. If he's been violated, he'll have trouble walking.

If he's been violated . . . Axel can't bear to think of it.

Roxas walks with wooden steps, his eyes on the ground. Despite the evidence that physically he can handle the journey, Sora can't bear to put him through it. Instead, Sora decides to use what coin he has to purchase a wagon ride home. Axel doesn't protest.

They guide Roxas to a stop in the Center Square. Roxas stands still, looking at her feet, and Axel whistle's for a driver. Roxas jerks away from Sora at the sound, and trembles.

Axel's heart hurts as he gathers Roxas into him and say, "It's okay, Jesse."

Roxas leans into him, closes his eyes, and breathes deeply. Axel presses his lips to the corn of Roxas' head, and watches the driver ease his wagon to a stop in front of them.

Sora gives the castle's address to the driver and Axel tries to tug Roxas toward the back of the wagon.

Roxas digs his heels in and pulls against Axel's arm.

"You don't need to walk. We'll take a ride to the castle. It'll be easier on you this way." Sora says, and something within Roxas breaks loose.

He twists free of Axel's arm and takes off.

Both Sora and Axel race after Roxas as he cuts through the Center Square and flies into the South Edge.

We are fools, Axel thinks. Of course Xemnas picked Roxas up in a wagon. He wasn't going to hurt Roxas on the streets where anyone could see and begin questioning.

Roxas turns a corner and slides into an alley. Axel follows just in time to see Roxas stumble and fall toward the cobblestone. Lunging forward, Axel catches hi, twisting his body so that he lands on the street beneath Roxas.

His breath scrapes against Axel's ear in harsh pants, and Roxas is shaking from head to toe. Axel gathers Roxas to his chest. Sora comes running up to them, breathless, but says, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." His voice breaks, and he has to swallow hard to get the next words out. Tears glimmer in his eyes. "I didn't know he had him in a wagon. I was trying to spare him the long walk home. I'm sorry."

Axel shakes his head and gives Sora a look of compensation. He didn't know better. He doesn't know Xemnas. Roxas feels unbelievably fragile in his arms.

"Would a carriage make any difference?" Sora quietly asks.

Axel shakes his head. He doesn't know how to get them home without hurting Roxas further, but his options are limited. Sora gently touches Roxas' shoulder and help him to his feet again. Axel stands as well, and Sora keeps his arms open as Roxas clings to him. They manage to make it out of the alley and into the main road again. Eyes cling to Sora, but he doesn't notice or care.

A trio of men, swords drawn, block their path. The middle one smiles wide enough to show gaps where his teeth should be, and says, "Give us your money, and no one gets hurt."

For one brief, blazing second, Axel imagines honing the rage blistering through hi into something he can use to obliterate the sorry excuses for human beings who dare to threaten them now. It wouldn't be hard. They're drunkards. Already shaking with withdrawal. Desperate to have just enough money for their next jug.

As tempting as the idea is, the confrontation isn't worth it. Sora can toss a small handful of coin away from them and walk away as they scramble across the filthy cobblestone to snatch it.

Or Axel could if he didn't have to worry about getting Roxas to the castle. He looks to Sora, and Sora nods. He reaches for a coin purse.

Looking up, Roxas sees the men and freezes. Sora's about to coach him on the exit strategy when Roxas sucks in a raspy breath, and his expression goes from blank to feral in a heartbeat. He pushes against Sora's chest and takes a fighting stance.

Sora reaches a cautionary hand to him. "They just want money, Jesse. I'll take care of it."

"Jesse please, don't make a scene." Axel adds.

Roxas isn't listening. Shoving Sora's hand away from him, he curls his lip into a fierce snarl. Before Axel can stop him, Roxas whips his knife out of its sheath, raises it above his head, and rushes toward the men.

"Jesse, no!" Axel grabs for his sword as the men brace themselves for his attack. Axel races for Roxas, but he's too late.

Aiming for the man in the middle, Roxas ducks beneath his raised sword arm and launches into him. They both slam into the street, but Axel doesn't have enough time to see if Roxas is okay. The other two are attacking him and Sora.

Axel blocks, parry, thrusts and slices, but he can barely focus. Roxas is screaming, harsh bursts of sound that flay the air. Axel slams the butt of his sword into the man closest to him, whirls to block a blow from the other. One man is body-slammed to the side, and Axel finds Sora with a dagger drawn, and he watches as Sora impressively spins the blade between his fingers. Sora spins his blade out and slashes at the man, guiding him backwards. A crowd has gathered and Axel can hear shouts: "Why are they hurting each other?" "A fight!" "Is that the Prince?!" "My money's on the big one!"

Roxas rises from the inert body of the first man, his eyes desperate and wild, and races to jump on the back of the man Sora just hit. He presses the tip of his knife into the soft tissue beneath his throat, and the man raises his arm and drops his sword in surrender.

The man Axel's fighting glances at them, and Axel takes advantage of his distraction to bring his knee up and kick the man hard in the side. As he doubles over, Axel sinks his dagger into the flesh of his throat, then middle of his back. Gasping, he falls and dies. Sora's opponent blocks al of Sora's slashing and goes for a punch. Axel is left in shock as he watches Sora duck, knock his arm aside, and leap and twist in midair, gripping the man's neck with his ankles and whirling his body downward, jerking the man to the ground.

Axel turns back to see the other man punch Roxas' knife hand away from his throat. The tip gouges his skin as it goes and a stream of blood arcs through the air. Roxas watches it and comes undone. The man throws Roxas to the ground, but Roxas kicks his legs out from beneath him, and scrabbles across him, that terrible scream still ripping its way out Roxas' throat as he punches, kicks, and tries to stab the man with his knife. The crowed gasps.

Sora yells Roxas' name until his throat is hoarse, but Roxas can't hear him, and the two of them are too tangle dup for either Axel or Sora to intervene without injuring Roxas. Axel readies himself for the first available opportunity, and Sora watches in horror. Roxas takes his blows like they're nothing. Digging his nails into the man's skin as if it's a wall he has to climb, Roxas claws his way up the man's body.

Without warning, the one man Sora took out sprints towards them. Axel and Sora charge after, but the one man jumps in front of them. Before they can even think about how stupid he is about going against two armed men, the one sprinting has reached Roxas and the man. Then Sora watches in astonishment, as Roxas' form changes completely.

Still screaming and wailing, Roxas dances between the two men, his dagger a blur of steel. Both men are bleeding, and one in particular was soaked with blood from a gash underneath his arm. Sora and Axel watch as Roxas ducks a sideways slash, spins on his heels, and then lunges to the side of a thrust. The sword pierces the air inches from Roxas' face, but he seems to not care how close he comes to death. Roxas' dagger punches underneath the breastplate, slicing open the flesh and spilling intestines to the cold stone of the road.

Some girl in the crowd screams. Roxas never hesitates, not even after such a cruel killing. The other man's strike would have severed Roxas' spine, but instead it clacks against the ground. Roxas slashes his wrist, dances about, stabs the man's side, and then as the man turns Roxas continues dancing, continues twirling. His dagger buried itself in flesh, finding two or more exposed slits in the armor. Blood runs freely, and when Roxas kicks out the man's knees, he falls without the strength to stand.

Xemnas has taught him well. Too well. Axel clenches his jaw tight.

Roxas then charges and slams his knife hilt into the third man's forehead, rendering him nearly unconscious, and then flips his weapon around and drives the blade towards his throat.

Sora knocks him off the man from the side before the blade finds skin, and Roxas sprawls on the cobblestone, his knife skittering across the road, to the crowd's feet. They jump back as if it's a venomous snake about to strike.

Roxas pushes himself up to his hands and knees and crawls towards it.

Leaping ahead of him, Axel reaches it first. Grasping it, he turns and approaches Roxas carefully. Roxas' eyes are that of a panicked animal cornered and fighting for his life. His voice is nearly gone from screaming. He reaches for his knife, but Axel holds it away from him. Sora sheaths his dagger, stepping behind Axel.

"Rox . . . Jesse," Axel breathes his name in a voice full of pain.

Roxas looks at him, eyes still glassy from shock, and reaches for his knife again.

"They just wanted money," Axel says softly. "Just money. You don't need your knife."

Roxas shakes his head and whimpers. Axel slowly extends the hand that doesn't hold Roxas' knife.

"I'm sorry." It's a hollow offering in the face of what Roxas' been through, and Axel doesn't intend for it to be the best he can do. But for now, he just needs to get Roxas to the castle. He can make a plan from there.

Roxas doesn't' respond.

"I don't know what he did to you, but killing someone else isn't going to make it better." Axel says.

Sora steps forward. "I'm going to help you up, Jesse. That's all. Can I touch you?"

Roxas looks down at himself and starts shaking again. Sora pulls him to his feet, though he's' not sure Roxas can stand on his own now.

He's trembling uncontrollably, and Axel wants to rip Xemnas into tiny little pieces and light each of them on fire. He tucks Roxas' knife into his belt and steps ahead so that the crowd will part.

"We're taking you to the castle." Sora says, though he no longer hopes for a reply.

"We'll figure out what to do once we get there." Axel says.

And they will. They have to.

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