My Brother's Keeper

Chapter 1

"Stop him!" shouted the guard as a cloaked figure burst through the door from the bedroom.

The cloaked figure had a mask covering the lower half of his face, his hood pulled up over his head. His footsteps went mute as they sank into plush gold and black carpeting. The walls were lined with shelves decorated with colorful glass knickknacks and boats. Tall floor candelabrums with fancy flat bowls accented the space. Scanning the walls, he could find no windows.

Old-fashioned threadbare tapestries depicting medieval knights, nobles, and ladies hung in their place over the decorative walls.

A plush Persian carpet runner ran the length of the floor beneath his feet, while tall curio cabinets full of strange artifacts like gold scarabs, foreign ankhs, and bleached animal skulls lined the walls on either side of him. Long hallway tables holding stacks of ancient books sat outside several set of closed double doors along with heavy high-backed chairs, the arms of which bore the carved images of crouching sphinxes.

Golden candelabra shaped like women in flowing gowns adorned the walls, the low and steady light they offered between their outstretched hands providing minimal relief from the darkness that saturated everything.

He rushed, keeping his aim on one of the many gigantic ebony pairs of double doors.

Tucked under one arm, he held the Queen's crown jewels. Gorgeous necklaces encrusted with gems of coordinated colors, solid caret diamond earrings. An elaborate hair comb, encrusted with amethyst gemstones, winked at him in the candlelight.

Taking a sharp turn around the next corner, he ducked into the next room. Once he heard the feet pass him by, he takes in his surroundings. He had entered a den for studying and quiet time. A thin glass window showed the view of the courtyard, a fire crackling in the hearth on the far wall.

Holding up the comb for inspection, it sparkled in his grasp, as if each jewel held its own glowing ember within.

The comb was sheathed in his cloak as footsteps of an approaching guard draw near. Pulling his bow off his back, he loads an arrow. Flattening his back against the brick wall, he hears him come closer.

The guard steps through the doorway. He pulls off his helmet and shakes out his hair. Taking a step forward, he pulls back the string. The arrow easily penetrates his skull as he's made a victim of a killer headshot. Prying the arrow free and looting his body for salvage, he flattens against the wall near the doorway once again, but hears no more footsteps.

Slinging the bow over his shoulder, he takes a deep breath and sprints out the door. In seconds though, he hears the thumping of footsteps hurdling towards him and braces himself.

"There! Stop him!" someone yells.

Pausing his fleeing, the thief suddenly leaps forward, slamming his knife into the side an oncoming guard's head, burying it to the hilt. The man makes a wet gurgling noise in the back of his throat. Yanking the blade free, it makes a damp sucking sound, flinging stray droplets of blood into the air. His eyes lock to the thief, and once the knowledge within them has hardened into the far-seeing gaze of the dead, the thief immediately pulls forward an arrow.

His feet pounded down the stone steps that led to the throne room of the castle. From there, it was a straight shot out to the courtyard. He nears the double thick door, when he sees a wall of guards.

Pulling free a sword he stole from the guard he shot, he readies the blade. As he nears the headmaster, his blade wielding high, the cloaked figure let the blade clang against his own, swinging it down, and stepping up over the man's head. He leaps high, over the men - lined up in a four-by-three square. Rolling forward, he continues forward, the village in his sights.

"Halt!" a guard posted on a horse yells, his palm out.

The cloak figure pulls another arrow and shoots the man down. Grabbing the reins of the horse, he pulls himself up and snaps the reins.

He thunders through the village, hooves pounding the dirt grit road. Villagers cry out as they nearly miss the beats powerful feet. The guards continue to shout as he makes a beeline for the treeline to the forest.

"Close the gates! Close the gates!" someone distant shouted from behind.

Through the smattering of clouds, three early night stars shone in the deepening blue, but it wasn't completely dark yet. Under the cover of night, he's nothing more than a shadow.

Up ahead, the gates were slowly winding shut. Beyond them, the bridge of the kingdom lies in wait. The darkening stone stretch of trail black, like a ribbon of ink. The spikes soon to be interlocked, trapping him inside.

The horse huffs, its ears twitch left and right. Yanking in the reins, they come to a stop.

From all sides, guards came out of the shadows like demons, wielding their swords. The gate continuing to shut.

Leaping off the horse, he dives head first into the pit of vipers. Pulling forth the sword, it clangs against the one of a guard. Slashing the man in the side, he takes the blade and swipes it at the ankles of another. Flipping the weapon, grabbing the blade, he swings and the hilt slams into the head of another guard.

Rushing forward, he ducks down the whistling of a blade in his ears. Whirling he swipes at the sword of another, then slicing the throat with his knife. As another guard rushes to tackle him, he sidesteps and whacks away the tip of another sword and slashes at the wielder's side.

As the men collapse around him, he turns and faces the king and his men. The hood conceals his face, casting a shadow over his eyes, but still the king could feel the piercing gaze of loath.

"Men! On him!" he screams.

But as if on cue, a shower of arrows washes over the gate wall. It showers down spearing any one target theta isn't him.

Turning, the figure barrels toward the gates, then men still closing, but had stalled at the sight of him taking down four men single-handedly. An old traveler, accompanied by a fairly worked mule, drawing a wheelbarrow comes up the bridge. Catching sight of the figure, he drops to his knees, but the cloaked caper merely runs up the ramp of the wheelbarrow, raising an arrow.

Letting it fly, it hits the mechanism controlling the gates. The men startle back and they swing open wide welcoming him to the woods.

"Stop him! Now!" the king orders.

Looking back, he loads another arrow, and in the hundred yards of distance between them, the arrow sinks into the joint connecting the arm and shoulder of the king. He falls off his horse clutching his chest.

"Your majesty!"

Rushing through the gates, putting his fingers between his teeth, a high-pitched whistle rings out. The horse comes running his way, thought he metal trap and not stopping, he leaps atop and rides into the woods.

Slowly, the chaos and sounds of the Radiant Garden Kingdom diminished behind him.

Rows of trees and thick underbrush emerged on either side of him. The farther into the woods he ran, the denser the surrounding forest grew. Overhead, the interlocking patchwork of hanging boughs worked to transform his pathway into a darkening tunnel. Through the lacework of limbs, thick clouds inched by. Darkness crept in around him, spreading its fingers through the trees, working to smear them into a single black blur.

A black shadow moved in one of the trees. Jerking his head, he soon saw a small pinprick of light. The sound of splintery wheels greeted him. He slowed the horse to a trot, then a walk as then hay barrow wagon came into view.

"Who's this?" The one-eyed driver said through a chuckle.

Crooking one corner of his mouth into a half smile, the figure finally removes his hood, revealing his golden blonde hair, and pulling down his mask to breathe. His eyes sparkled in the faint moonlight.

"Just a new friend I made." He replies.

"Well get in boy. We need to get back by sunrise." He says, his dark hair with several grey streaks along with the length of his hair tied into a long ponytail.

As he leaps in, ruffling his spiky hair, the glint of Xigbar's gold eye catches in the moonlight. With his hood down, his pointed, elf-like ears are exposed along with his unusual upturned eyebrows. He also has two visible injuries on his face; the first being a damaged right eye covered by an eyepatch, while the other is a large jagged scar extending from his left cheek and dies in the unremitting darkness of his left eye.

His usual partner in crime, Zexion stepped out with a high-five and mounted the horse in his place. Zexion has bright aqua colored eyes, though only his left one is clearly visible, the right one being covered by his long, layered bangs. His steel-blue hair sports messy bangs that completely cover the right side of his face, reaching about an inch or two past his chin.

On his left side, his bangs, though still rather long, are shorter than the right side, partially covering his ear. A few strands of hair fall over the exposed section of his face. The back of Zexion's hair is quite a bit shorter than the front.

Sitting in the far corner of the wheelbarrow, near the driver's seat shuffling through a deck of cards is another teammate, Luxord. His electric-blue eyes locked on the cards as if locked in a mental game. His clean-cut platinum-blond hair made him appear rugged to the point where you wouldn't want to pick a fight with him, if you were smart. He also possesses a notably British accent in the English translation, furthering his air of sophistication.

"A total of five hours." He speaks. "I believe that's your personal best."

He looks up from his cards, resting one arm on the edge of the wheelbarrow, sparing him a smile. The corner of Roxas' mouth twitched as he sank down into the hay, pulling out his knife and wiping the blood on the crusty grass.

"So, Jesse," Xigbar called from the driver's seat. "Did you get the stuff?"

Instead of answering, Jesse takes then satchel concealed with in his cloak, and dumps the contents into the hay.

"Yep he got it." Zexion answers.

As Roxas sharpens his knife, Luxord stares at him, twirling a card between his fingers. Looking at the how the boy's grown, a small patch of sympathy buds at his core. Since the day Xemnas brought him home, they boy's life has been an entire lie. Even his name. With the risk of people seeing him, he always had to wear a hood or something to cover his blonde hair that made him so easily recognizable. And he's lived his life by a whole different name.

Sometimes Luxord wonders what he'd be like if he wasn't, here. Would he smile more? Would his eyes look warmer instead of stark and cold? Would that iron-gate guard of his be demolished?

"So," Luxord speaks. "I believe someone's birthday is coming up soon. Anything you have in mind?"

"Like anyone cares." Roxas snaps.

As they reach a fork in the road, steering left, Luxord can see the glint of blue in Roxas' eyes. Looking over on the horizon, the sky was surrendering to the early morning blue bleeding across the sky. As they pass a road sign, the carved emblem of the Twilight Kingdom peeks through Roxas' peripheral vision.

He draws his head up and gazes at the emblem.

It was in the shape of a heart with a small crown etched at the intersection. The delicate lines of the heart gave it a fluid motion, portraying a welcoming softness and warmth that Roxas rarely ever felt except when he was here. Course it was the place where he grew up so that probably explains for that.

They soon see the Wall that borders the perimeter if the forty-three acre estate. It's a massive expanse of weather-stained gray stone bolstered by ribbons of steel. Darkened windows are cut into the bulky exterior like idles, unblinking eyes, and the roof holds several turrets manned with guards whose sole job is to cut down any escapers before they've gone twenty paces. Looking past the fifty-yard perimeter of scorched ground that he keeps around the wall, the sun is nothing but a fiery mirage below the tree line. The rusty iron gate shuts every night at ten o'clock sharp with a heavy and authoritative metallic clang.

As they pulled up, Roxas pulled his hood over his head and leaped off the wagon.

"I'll be back by noon." He says.

"Want your horse?" Zexion asks.

"Take it." Roxas waves off as he trots off to the woods.

Luxord watches as his cloak sways in the breeze, and with a smooth walk to the trees, he disappears, leaving nothing in his wake.

Tossing in his bed, Sora rolls to face his window. His eyes flutter open. Dawn is a whisper in the morning air. Springing up in his bed, Sora flings off the covers and ruffles his fingers through his spiky brown hair. Changing into his clothes, a navy-blue tunic with short-sleeves, black pants and a pair of hunting boots, he grabs his cloak. Wrapping it around his neck, he fastens the buttons and heads down the stairs.

As he enters the corridor, he sees the stone staircase leading down towards the courtyard of the castle. He slides down the railing, snatching an apple from a maid coming up the steps. The servants exchange 'Good morning, your majesty' as he heads out the door. Seeing the stable where he keeps his horse, Tula, Sora runs up a pyramid of boxes, swinging onto the horse's back from a banister. Snapping the reins, they bolt forward. Mud puddles gouge the gritty road, courtesy of a heavy rain shower.

The sun had risen, casting everything in a golden halo as Sora passed under the stone archway of the outer wall and crossed the stone bridge into the forest trail. He and Tula thundered through the trees, stirring up swirls of leaves in their wake. The summer's sun heating his skin and tingling his scalp. The wind seared through Sora's hair, and as they hopped a log Sora threw his head back.

"Woohoo!" he howled.

It was days like this that he enjoyed. It was one of few that came every once in a while. Usually, every day of his life focused on lessons on proper etiquette, manners and language. All of which he needed to know as he will be King one day.

As he slowed to the small meadow near a hillside, an unwelcome shaft of longing courses through him.

Would Roxas have liked this? He asks himself.

Sora usually misses his brother. Even if he was kidnapped after they were born, he felt like he already knew everything about him. And it's moments like this, Sora misses what they would've had together. He imagines their hair being similar shades of brown. Maybe they would've both loved lemon cake and hated spinach. Or maybe they would've both thought the only truly useful items are ones that are sharp because pointy things make for excellent weapons.

He'll never know, and thinking about it won't help, so he shoves the longing away. By now though, at the age of seventeen, the only thing that remained untarnished by layers of wishful thinking and fogginess was the core feeling left with him. It lay buried deep within him, like a piece of grit worried into a pearl.

In the end, it was the only thing he really needed to keep going.

Hope.

By the afternoon, they were perched on a clearing overlooking the mountain valley. He spun his knife that he kept strapped to his thigh, between his fingers. Lying on his back, a blade of grain grass between his teeth, he ticked it back and forth while Tula rolls in the grass.

Suddenly he hears the caw of a hawk. Looking up, he sees one of the few birds he and his father train soaring stories above him. It calls again, and circles back towards the mountains, where the mouth of the Destiny Falls spilled out over the valley. Springing up, he follows the bird's path. The river snaked its way to the shoreline, where far below, the waves leaped at the rocks, hungrily licking at the flat face of the cliff.

Legend says that on the days the clouds surrounded the sun, the moon's pure light – being it casted through the piercing blackness of night, purified the water. Gave it special properties. That when combined with the purest of hearts, can grant your deepest desire.

Climbing the sea stacks that poked out from the ground like jagged teeth, Sora placed his feet and hands accordingly as he was mere feet from the top. His foot slipped on one rock, causing him to skid down for a split second, Tula neighing in worry as a wave swept up on the rocks. He was soaked, but he didn't care. The water felt good against his heated skin.

The sun was a single speck of light, the entire sky casted in an icy-blue as clouds rolled in and swallowed the bright red and peach pink.

Sora pulled his way to the top of the sea stack. He looked out at the beauty of the sunset. The waves were rolling in, racing towards the stacks. Sora prepped his footing as it crashed into the rock. Arching upward and curving into a crescent for a few seconds. Within those seconds, Sora was showered with the drops of ice tears. Holding out his tongue, the drops plastered to it, but the sour salt was gone, purity in of itself.

Up until now, Sora could never climb the stacks. He was either too small, too weak, or too cowardly. But now that he was hear, being showered by the sea, he wished with every fiber of his being, to see his brother.

This wish was past his mind, beyond his heart. He wished from his soul.

And that's the space where only Roxas and God dwell.

By the end of the day, Sora's clothing was still fairly wet, and the sun was gone from the sky. He rides in through the village, and to the inner wall that separated the villagers and the castle. There he slowed to a trot and parked Tula back in her stable spot. Hopping off, he pats his stomach.

"Whew, I'm staring. What about you Tula?" she neighs and nuzzles Sora's cheek. "Alright, carrots it is."

Pushing his way thought the door of the kitchen, the chefs greet him with a 'Good day your highness.' Sora bows in politeness and sneaks a taste of walnuts while also snatching another apple. Then as he's walking through, he slyly smiles as he sees a plate of delicious pastries. He pops the apple in his mouth and sneaks over, blocking the view. Picking it up, he spins and walks out alluring suspicion.

Walking into the dining hall, the scent of cinnamon, freshly baked bread, and spiced meat seeped to his nose, causing his stomach to growl. The music from the musicians washed over him, building and falling, the melody mimicking itself, then starting over.

The thick gold-and-red chamber lay stretched before him. Thick velvet draperies spilled from tall windows, like motionless crimson waterfalls. The smell of perfume and wine mingled with the scent of the rich food. More red-and-gold-lined draperies hung suspended from the vaulted ceilings. A warm fire crackling in the hearth.

The table was overflowing with food. A crown roast, filet tied with rosemary and exotic dishes. A large bird stuffed with dressing and pears, resting on peacock feathers arranged to resemble a live bird's open tail. And sparkling candies shaped like hearts.

"Oh, welcome sweetheart." His mother said, looking up from a small scattering of papers sprawled in front of her.

"Hello son!" his father belched, half a turkey leg in his hand while other held a mug.

"Mother, father." Sora greet as he brushes kisses with his mother.

Walking up to his place, he plops his knife in its sheath into the table as he sets down the tray of sweets.

"Sora," his mother spoke, the obvious irritation in her voice. "how many times have I told you not to put your weapons on the table?"

"Aw come on, mom. It's just my knife, and it's in its sheath." Sora playfully wines.

"Off." She orders with a smirk.

"Oh leave him be darling. He's a growing boy, and learning how to fight is essential for a future king." His father chimes in.

"Now I know where you get your stubbornness from." His mother mumbles.

Sora chuckles while taking the knife and draping it over the back of the chair, taking his seat. Loading his plate with the food, he sits, taking a fork and stabbing the juicy meat of the bird. Placing it in his mouth, he breaks the delicate skin with his teeth and immediately his tongue is assaulted with a sweet and savory taste of gravy.

"Speaking of weapons, Squall tells me you've been getting better at your training." His father says after chugging down the rest of his drink.

"Oh yeah." Sora bashfully says, shrugging his shoulders.

"You are remembering his rules?" he presses.

"Yes father." Sora answers.

"Sweetie, you seem distracted, everything okay?" his mother asks after placing aside another sheet of mail.

"Um, it's just . . ." Sora pauses. "you'll never guess what I did today."

"Oh?" his father answers. Hovering his hand over his glass as a maid comes ready to fill it. She sees this and withdraws, carrying the pitcher over to Sora.

"Thank you." He says once she refills his glass. She nods and heads back to the kitchen. "Well today," getting back on the subject. "I climbed the sea stacks and wished under the Angel's Tears."

His father looks to him in pride. "The Angel's Tears, huh? You know they say only the purest of hearts could make it to the top. Worthy enough to bathe in the tears."

Sora and his father share a chuckle as Sora gloats slightly. Passing through the archway was their made Airerth, carrying a silver tray with another letter.

"Did you wish for anything darling?" His mother asks, taking the letter with a 'Thank-you'.

"Uh yeah, but you guys don't want to hear it." Sora quickly dismisses. He picks up his loaf of bread and slices in half. Smearing some butter on top, he takes a bite to avoid answering.

"Sure we do, what is it?" His father urged.

"Is it a bride?" his mother teases.

Sora shoots her a look of amused annoyance as he swallows the bread. "It's nothing, really. Besides if I tell you it won't come true."

And utterly fill the room with a palpable and awkward silence.

"Please dear, come now." His mother said in her sudden serious tone. "What is it?"

Sora places down his fork and sighs. He looks to his father who only has the same curiosity and urgency as his mother.

"I wished to see my brother."

As expected, his parents fell silent and slouched back into their seats. Sora bit his lip, feeling stupider for saying it out loud.

"We all wish for that, honey." His mother spoke. "And if we could, you know we'd bring him home in a heartbeat."

Sora simply nods as his mother opens the letter and his father eats with more proper etiquette.

"OH dear." His mother suddenly speaks.

"What is it dear?" His father asks.

"It's a letter from Sir Ansem." She says. Sora and his father's head perk up in unison.

"What'd he say?" Sora asks.

His mother's eyes flick to him then she lowers the letter, her posture changing instantly.

"Sora, you are excused." She says.

Sora looks to his dad, and he motions his head for him to leave. Sora pushes out his seat, wiping his mouth and getting up. Walking through the archway, he closes the door behind him. But instead of walking on, he stays crouched, listening in. He crept up to stand just outside the doorway. Pressing his back to the wall, he turned his head to listen. Peeking through the crevice of the doors.

"It says that he's been robbed again. This time he was able to break into the castle and steal the queen's royal jewels." His mother speaks, her tone slightly worried and frantic.

"Do they have any idea who it is" his father asks.

"No, he wears a cloak and a mask to cover his face. They don't know who it is. But they've managed to figure out that he takes the same route to our kingdom after every robbery." His mother reads.

A numbing dread prickled in Sora's gut.

"He sent us a warning to be on the lookout. And to inform them if we'll need any assistance if we're to encounter the man. He writes that he took out several guards, mercilessly. And just before he vanished, he shot at the Ansem."

"He dare strike down a king?"

"And he disappeared with all the jewels." His mother concludes.

"I'll send a response letter immediately." His father said.

"Honey, I don't feel comfortable letting Sora out of the castle with that thief on the loose." His mother suddenly says.

At these words, Sora paled. He drew a quick breath and held it.

"Sara, he'll be fine. He can fight. He knows how to take care of himself." His father defends.

"He's still my boy though, and he'll be an easy target if he were to be recognized in the marketplace." His mother argues.

"It's not like everyone's in accomplice with the robber." His father said.

"But if they recognize him and the thief's near, he'll target him." His mother counters.

Unable to take the nervousness pooling in his stomach, Sora stepped back from the door. He went up the stone steps with hurried feet. Disappearing into his room, he took a deep breath as he tried to process the new information of a skilled thief roaming the streets of his kingdom, and terrorizing another. Single-handedly able to take down guards skilled in the art of sword-fighting and walk away unharmed, and anonymous.

Who is this guy? He thought, slowly approaching his bed.

Outside the rectangular, three-paneled window crosshatched by white Xs, a tangled outline of naked black tree limbs scratched at a churning backdrop of ominous gray-purple clouds.

Deep in the forest, in an abandoned house of a wealthy merchant, another dinner was being prepped. The house itself was incredible, practically a castle in its own. It had three levels, the topmost of which might be an attic. The roof met in the peak there, with a little subroof sticking out from underneath the first framing a rectangular, three-paneled window. A small concrete porch led up to a front door, shaded by a simple verandah, which was itself supported by a row of painted white pillars. The front door, done in an opaque gold stained-glass design, shimmered a satiny dim yellow in the late afternoon sunlight.

A heavy wind rushed by, causing the leafy heads of enormous, ancient looking trees to swish back and forth. The sun poked through the clouds, lighting the very center of the court where a huge fountain stood. No water poured from the enormous green basin, and the elevated base was surrounded by graceful swans and solemn-faced shrubs.

At the very top of the fountain, a statue of a voluptuous nude woman looked down on them as they passed. She held a swath of fabric that clung to the lower half of her body and appeared to billow out behind her in a suspended arc. Curly-haired cherubs frolicked beneath the basin in a captured moment of abandon. Though the figures might have seemed playful in the daylight, something about the mix of shadows and stark light cast on their small faces through the trees made them appear more mischievous than free-spirited, more impish than gleeful.

The large swans that reveled with them, rearing back with wings outspread, looked somehow frantic.

Blocked by the wide bowl of the basin, the light could not reach the sultry figure of the nude woman who stood at the very top of the fountain, her veil billowing out behind her. She remained swathed in shadow, a silhouette that belonged to the night.

Carrying the haul from today's hunt, Roxas lugged the burlap sacks, one on his shoulder. Strapped to his belt were three rabbits snagged in his snare traps, and in the sack he carried over his shoulder was a gathering of berries and greens. In the other was a turkey he shot by the river. He was hoping to trade it in the market tomorrow.

Inside, as Roxas entered, his footsteps echoed against the polished wood floor. He craned his head at the incredible height of the ceiling. Xemnas liked old-fashioned boats. Roxas' eyes finding first the model of what he thought might be a schooner, perched on a long hallway table, and then a large painting depicting a ship being tossed around on a stormy sea.

His footsteps went mute as they sank into plush gold and black carpeting, which trailed all the way up a grand staircase tucked against the wall to his left. To his right was an open living room area with tall, sliding wooden doors. Inside, a fireplace played the role of centerpiece. The walls were lined with shelves decorated with colorful glass knickknacks and more boats. Tall floor candelabrums with fancy flat bowls accented the space. The lamp especially gave the room a very "look but don't touch" feel.

His name was called out from down the hall. "Jesse?"

"Coming!" he called back through a sigh.

Scooping up this things, he made his way down the hall to the kitchen. Standing at the hearth chopping up green onions, is Xaldin.

Xaldin is a broad-shouldered man whose attire consists of a long-sleeved tunic covered by an apron with its age told from the many stains and smears of powder on it. Xaldin's black hair is styled into distinctive dreadlocks. One of these dreads is used to tie most of the others into a sort of ponytail, while four thinner dreads dangle in front of Xaldin's face (two on each side). He also has bushy eyebrows and very thick sideburns, the latter of which hook around his cheeks, parallel to his violet eyes.

He looks to the younger boy with a slight smile on his face. Let be known Xaldin rarely ever smiles at Roxas unless the boy proves his usefulness. But Roxas couldn't care less, he's not there to impress him.

"Nice haul today boy." He speaks as he wipes his hands on a rag on his shoulder.

"Is that a compliment?" Roxas teases.

"It's a mere observation." Xaldin replies. "Not bad."

He's usually sarcastic and inpatient with Roxas, but tends to show the boy praise when deserved. Roxas gives a ghost of a smile as he set the bag of greens and berries on the countertop, and the rabbits on Xaldin's cutting board.

"And the bird?" Xaldin gestures.

Roxas slightly turns away, his hand placing on the bird. "I'm going to trade it at the market tomorrow."

Xaldin shrugs and starts to skin the rabbits. Roxas pushes through the swing door to the kitchen into the living room. He walked down the hallway, stopping when he came to the second, larger room to his right. This one was another no-touchy, done in antique gold and soft pinks with hardwood inlay floor, heavy draperies, and fancy old chairs. In one corner, like a squat gentlemen in a tuxedo, stood a polished black piano.

He strode toward the piano, carefully stepping around a low table with spindly legs. He moved to stand behind the instrument, where he let his fingers trial the keys.

Roxas knew how to play, in fact Demyx was the one who taught him the basic keys and scales. When he was younger Roxas would sneak downstairs and quietly play the keys. He learned the notes of all the songs known throughout the kingdom. Sometimes he'd write his own songs, of which he'd rarely play. As the years progressed, Roxas' hobby soon got shoved into the back of the closet as he was given more duties, and he didn't like to perform in front of the other members.

He climbed up the stairs, the fingers of his hand sliding along the mahogany banister. After another short, silent spurt of stairs, he reached the second floor landing, which gave way to a cloister of rooms. But this would not be his stop. He traipsed higher yet. Here the carpet ended, and they tromped on naked wood, the sound echoing through the house. He reached yet another tiny landing, a window stamped into the wall to his left. Roxas quirked an eyebrow at the view through this tiny portal one that showed him little more than the detail of a skeletal tree.

He rounded one final corner. With an internal groan, he saw that here, the next staircase, set slightly apart, seemed to slant more steeply and grow even more narrow, the individual steps themselves somehow thicker and taller. This staircase reached up toward a single narrow door. The burn in his thighs intensified as they climbed again.

Reaching the top of the stairs, Roxas stepped over the threshold into his bedroom. Shadows gathered in pockets despite the room's two windows, while above him, the ceiling pitched and slanted upward like the roof of a tent. A time-eaten mauve color wrapped the walls. Large purple curtains snapped and stirred in the breeze. Outside the window, a tangled outline of naked black tree limbs scratched at a churning backdrop of ominous gray-purple clouds.

He stood beneath a chandelier with candles suspended over a narrow metal-framed bed, which had been shoved lengthwise against one wall. Their flame shape sputtered, trying to stay lit. A chain suspended the fixture from a hook in the ceiling. There was a tiny crawlspace that contained small glass vials, each a different color and shape. They stood gathered together like potion bottles in a sorcerer's forgotten cabinet. Instead of magical elixirs, though, each little vial held an assortment of dried flowers.

Centered in a pool of yellow light, he could see a plush purple chair. Bookshelves stuffed with dust-caked tomes lined the walls, and on a nearby table sat an old-fashioned oil lamp. Dimly lit, it was a partial source of the overlay of yellow light. The other contributor was the bed of fading embers glowing low within the enormous fireplace in front of the purple chair.

And the edge of one black boot.

He looked at the hand that rested on the velvet-covered armrest. A familiar hand gripped it with curled fingers.

Sitting there, slouched and relaxed, Axel's head cocked up and turned to look over his shoulder. The muscles in Roxas' face relax as he sets the turkey aside. The sight of him waiting there brings a smile to Roxas' face. An actual smile, teeth and all.

Axel always teases him about how he never sees Roxas smile unless they're together. Claiming his 'good-looks' are irresistible to anyone. In turn Roxas would always disregard with a sly remark and a punch to his arm.

Axel has fair skin with rosy hues, a widow's peak, rather small eyebrows and thick, shoulder-length, bright red hair styled into slicked-back spikes. His eyes are a bright emerald color and he has a purple reverse-teardrop shaped marking under each eye.

"Hey Jesse." He says.

"Hey." Roxas replies as he shrugs off his jacket. Axel takes a quick peek of the bird.

"I take it you're not sharing?"

"I'm going to trade it at the market tomorrow." Roxas answers as he plops on the floor. "Hopefully I can trade it for something useful."

"What'cha looking to buy?" Axel asks. Roxas taking notice of him digging around through his satchel.

"I don't know. Maybe a new knife. Some new laces for my boots." Roxas answers.

Axel smiles. "Hey speaking of shopping, listen, I got you something today."

Roxas' head pops up as Axel pulls out a paper-wrapped package. The wafting sweet scent immediately made Roxas' mouth flood with saliva. He shifts to his knees as Axel pulls the string, revealing a perfectly preserved piece of lemon cake.

Oh my god!" Roxas gasps. "Is this real?"

"Yeah."

Axel quickly rewraps it, stuffing it back into his bag. "Saving it for later. After dinner just so Xemnas doesn't know. I know you're not too willing to share."

As if on cue, Luxord's voice called out to all members that dinner was ready. Walking into the dining hall, the room was lit by hundreds of tiny black votive candles, and stands of black glass beads hung from the chandelier. Everyone took their seats at the enormous rectangular claw-foot table. It was dark wood, almost black, and there were intricate designs, like vines, carved into the legs. Huge black candles flickered in the center of the table.

Axel sat next to Roxas. Xaldin, Luxord, and Xigbar at the father end. More of the members came to join. Marluxia, a tall elegant man with feminine features. His hair was shoulder length and rose pink with ruffles. He had blue eyes and his lips are a pale pink.

He comes in with Larxene on his arm. She had bright, blonde hair is slicked back and about jaw-length, with two long strands styled into distinctive antennae-like strands.

Larxene's eyes are cyan and she is very slim with an hourglass figure when compared to other members due to her gender. As he passes by Axel, he purposefully traces a feather-like touch along Axel's shoulders. Axel cringes and jerks back as if it scalded him. Sitting across for him was the only other person Roxas felt comfortable around.

Demyx.

He has cyan eyes and dirty blonde hair, the latter of which is quite distinctive. It has an odd mullet-like style, and he has several individual bangs that fall over his face. He is rather useful in appearance.

"Jesse if you care about me, you'll have gotten some squirrel." Demyx jokes, placing his hands in prayer form.

"Sorry man, the early bird gets the room." Roxas answers.

Vexen, the mad hatter of the group comes in, his bright green eyes having a calculating expression in deep thought. His platinum blond hair worn long with two slightly shorter (but still long) bangs that frame his face.

Zexion soon enters with his most trusted accomplice, Lexaeus.

Lexaeus is easily the largest member of the organization. He has very angular and strong features, with a square chin, straight nose, and sharp cheekbones. He has blue eyes and small eyebrows. His hair is ginger and slicked back into rather odd, messy spikes.

As soon as Saix enters the room, everyone has taken their seats, mingling with one another on their day.

He's the second-in-command with Xemnas despite his ranking within the group.

Saïx has long, frayed blue hair framing his face, though slicked back in wild spikes at the top. Behind, it reaches down to his mid-back and is cut slightly neater. A distinctive trait of Saïx's is the X-shaped scar between his yellow eyes that extends to about halfway up his forehead in one direction and to just under his eyes in the other. He wears a single studded earring on each pointed ear.

"Quite the dinner you've made Xaldin." He comments.

"Thank you," he formally replies. "Jesse had a good haul today."

Roxas' eyes flick to Saix for a moment as he chews on the greens he picked earlier.

"Is that so?" Saix's cool voice speaks. "Well done, Roxas."

Roxas shrugs. "It was a lucky day."

Saix simply nods as they members chow down. Roxas belittles the meal as compared to the feast the royal family must eat every night. The exotic foods they must see, and how they must so easily dispose of it. Roxas' lip curls into a small snarl at the idea of throwing away the food not touched. Atrocious.

After the meal, the members disperse once again into their own little worlds. Roxas was about to head up the journey stairs again when Axel caught his hand.

"Hey, Jesse." He says, leading Roxas down the steps.

He steps in close and Roxas felt his hand, which held the warmth of the roasted rabbits, slip against his. Roxas' breath caught in his throat, and his eyes widened. He pressed something into his stomach. His hands curled to secure it and, for the briefest moment, held Axel's. In the next, he moved on, and Roxas felt himself turning to stare after him, rubbing his thumb over the rough slip of crunched paper.

It wasn't until he made it to his room that he opened the lemon cake once again. Propped on top of t, folded in half was a note.

Picking it between his fingers Roxas read;

Consider this an early birthday present.

-A

With a heavy sigh, Roxas folded the note and entombed the sweet delicacy once more.

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