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Friends on the Other Side

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Roxas stumbled back as he turned to face the voice and his foot caught on one of the broken stones. He fell, hard and undignified, but the pain didn’t register.

The figure was there, right there, standing in front of him not ten feet away. This close, Roxas could see the features obscured by his camera’s limited field of view. It was a guy, maybe a couple of years older than him, and the frame was wiry and thin but he moved like shadows, gliding over the broken stones of the courtyard like they were nothing. He looked like a twig but something about the way he stood made it clear that there was power there, too. Power, and intent to use it.

Roxas swallowed hard.

Definitely not a ghost, but he didn’t move like any human Roxas had ever seen. Pence’s voice echoed in the back of his mind. A Silent Watcher. He still didn’t understand what that meant, but he had a feeling the guy had been watching him for a while now. Had this been some sort of trap after all?

“Wh-what?” His voice caught in his throat, and he had to cough and clear it before he could try again. “What do you want? Who are you? Where did you come from?”

The man circled him like a cat, stalking him in long, even strides. Roxas shifted in his prone position, watching the man move around him, wondering if he could text his friends for help without alerting the guy. He could run for it, of course, but it’d be tough getting over the wall or through the gate before the stranger caught up to him.

“Been a while since anyone fell through to this side,” the man said, casually ignoring Roxas’ questions. He came to a stop in front of Roxas, then dropped to squat in front of him, cloak flaring out behind him. Roxas yelped and scrambled back, but the guy didn’t make any further moves other than to sweep back his hood.

Not human, Roxas thought.

Green eyes so bright they shone in the darkness, with pupils narrowed into cat slits, despite the darkness. The wide grin showed off teeth longer and sharper than they had any business being. The color variation in the skin around his eyes that looked like it might be makeup or tattoos, except they give off a pale purple glow. His hair was a wild tangle of red spikes and plaits interwoven with bones and beads, and-- were those horns?

Roxas swallowed down an uncomfortable mix of emotions, and ground his fingers into the dirt around him, holding tight to the debris he collected. Definitely not human.

“My orders are to take stragglers back with me,” said the guy, and Roxas scooted back as far as he could until his back hit the wall of the garden. He didn’t think he could take his eyes off this creature, didn’t want to risk giving the guy an opening for attack. He still just watched Roxas, though, and he was clearly amused. “We can do this the easy way, you know, or--”

Roxas didn’t wait for him to finish. As the guy reached down to give him a hand up, he flung the grass, dirt, and stones he’d managed to gather, aiming for the guy’s eyes. Cheap shot, he thought, maybe even a little cliched, but it seemed to do the trick. He rolled under the guy’s arm and jumped at the garden wall, scrambling up and over the stones as the guy let out a slew of curses and rubbed at his face. He fought down the urge the check behind him, focusing on finding enough footholds in the cracked mortar to get him up and over the wall.

He almost made it, too.

Almost.

He was maneuvering between two of the spikes at the top when a strong grip wound around his ankle and pulled, hard. He kicked with his free foot but that got caught as well, so he wrapped his arms around the spikes and tried to pull himself through, or, failing that, at least hold on tight.

“Let me go!” he shouted, trying to kick with each word, turning at last to look back at his attacker. But the guy wasn’t having any of that. He glared up at Roxas, and there were little bits of twigs still stuck in his hair.

“I told you, we can --hrgg-- do this the easy way,” the guy said, pulling at Roxas’ feet and legs and absorbing the kicks with a grunt, “or we can -- fuck! -- do this the hard way.”  He pulled, hard, and Roxas’ grip gave out at last. He slid down the wall, managing to scrape the exposed skin of his stomach and tear his sweatshirt as he tried to scramble out of the guy’s grasp, but the creep held fast, locking his arms around him in a tight hold.

“I’m not going anywhere with you!” He tried to jump up and headbutt the guy in the chin, but the man leaned back, holding him firmly in place and slightly off the ground. He’d been right-- the guy was stronger than he looked. Roxas decided to squirm anyway, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to try escaping.

“Calm the fuck down, you’re gonna hurt yourself and I’m gonna be in the hound house for it,” the voice was rough and right next to his ear, and Roxas stilled, remembering the flash of those teeth.

“What do you want?” Roxas asked, proud that his voice didn’t break in the middle of that sentence.

It was midnight and he was standing in the deserted garden of a crumbling mansion being held against his will by some dude who looked like he’d dropped a serious chunk of change on some high-end prosthetics, but he had the strength and speed to dispel any belief that those things were just for show. In short, Roxas had been caught by some sort of demon because he was out on a stupid dare, and no one would ever find his bones. Hopefully the gang wouldn’t be foolish enough to attempt the dare again.

“Honestly? A whole lotta things but that’s neither here nor there and you couldn’t get them for me anyway.” Roxas felt the sigh more than heard it, and while the guy didn’t release his hold, he did loosen it a little once Roxas had stopped struggling. “Let’s start with your name and I’ll let you go so we can talk face to face.”

Roxas forced himself to relax, too. Maybe the ghost (monster guy?) of the mansion could be reasoned with. He hadn’t killed him outright for trespassing so that was a good sign, right? And the more he stalled here, the more likely the gang would start trying to call him, trying to find out where his selfie was. They’d come look for him if he didn’t reply… right? Although that might get them caught, too. He wasn’t sure if that was any better.

He took a deep breath, preparing for the worst. “It’s Roxas,” he said, and the reaction was instant. The guy dropped him and stepped back, giving him the space to turn around and glare.

“Roxas,” the man repeated, rolling it over his tongue and dragging out the syllables like he was tasting it. Roxas’ stomach lurched as another wave of adrenaline shot through him, making him slightly queasy and tingly again. He shivered at the sound and tried not to think about how alluring his name sounded in the guy's voice. “Hmm, well Roxas, you’re gonna be good and come quietly.”

The guy turned, apparently content to leave it at that, and started walking across the courtyard, lifting up a hand. Roxas could see the shadows around him shift, almost as though there was some sort of inner glow that flickered as the shadowy coat swirled around him. Roxas felt queasy just looking at it, and shut his eyes, shaking his head to clear the fog.

“Yeah, no thanks, I’m not going anywhere with you,” Roxas flat out refused, which seemed to startle the guy. Who was this jerk, anyway? What was he? It was kinda hard to look at him and not get distracted by the creepy getup, and it probably wasn’t polite to ask ‘what’s with the horns?’ so he settled for something safe. Small talk. Small talk with people who dressed like monsters, how had it come to this? “Who are you, anyway?”

The guy frowned. “Your name is Roxas,” he said, more of a statement than a question, although Roxas nodded. “....seriously?”

“Um, yeah. And it’d be easier to hold a conversation if I know who you are,” Roxas said, not really sure where the guy was going with this. Maybe he recognized the name from the Struggle posters? ...Did monster men keep up with local sports? That was a nightmare thought for another night, he could only handle so much trauma at once.

“Roxas, I want you to raise your right hand.” The guy ignored Roxas’ question and narrowed his eyes, although what he was focusing on was unclear. Roxas felt it again-- that slight wave of nausea, a tingling in his right arm-- but he wasn’t going to give this asshole the satisfaction until he answered some questions. He gave him the finger instead.

That earned him a laugh. “You’re not doing it,” the guy said, sounding impressed. “I gave you a direct order and I have your name, but you’re not doing it. Aren’t you full of surprises?” The man tilted his head in thought, then grinned.

“Gonna be an interesting night, I can tell. You can call me Axel,” the guy-- Axel-- said at last. He leaned back against one of the crumbling pillars, giving Roxas plenty of space to lean against the wall for support, but not enough space to attempt running away again. “And as to your first question, like I said-- my orders are to take you to the boss. You’re trespassing, you know.”

“Look, I’ll just go,” Roxas said, flinching a little at the accusation. “It was a stupid dare, I’ll just leave and no harm done, right?”

“You think you can leave?” Axel asked, eyebrow raised. Roxas followed his pointed gaze to the gate... which apparently was no longer padlocked. He resisted the urge to groan-- if he’d known that Axel had opened the gate when he came in, he could’ve made a run for it, might’ve even made it through. Still, Axel’s complete lack of concern that the gate stood open gave him pause.

“The gate’s open, so…. Yeah?”

“Heh, sure thing, then, go for it. This I’ve gotta see, it never gets old.” Axel pushed off from his pillar and sauntered over to the gate, leaning against the wall and gesturing Roxas towards the door. Roxas followed him at a cautious distance, then stopped a few feet in front of the gate. He looked at the door, then at Axel.

“What’s the catch? Did you electrify it or something?”

“That’s way above my paygrade,” Axel said. “No catch-- you open the door and you can go on your merry mortal way, no strings attached.”

Roxas looked back at the gate, swallowing back the unease and sudden resurgence of nausea. The sooner he got out of here, the better. He was going to call everyone to let them know that there was definitely something weird and he was never going to try out a dare on his own again. He lifted a hand to press against the metal and pushed.

The result was hard to describe. He couldn’t feel the gate, but there was definite resistance of some sort, his hand going numb as it seemed to pass through the solid metal frame. He pulled back his hand and the feeling lessened, but he could see something shimmering over the metal, like a fine mist of glitter.

Axel cackled and Roxas glared, then turned to push against the gate again. This time he could see his hand go through the gate, and the strange tingle extended up his arm to his shoulder. He pulled back again and rubbed at the limb to try to bring life back into it while he sucked in breath, hoping that he wasn’t going to throw up. He opted for bending over and putting his head between his knees.

“So, as much fun as it is seeing you try to break through the barrier--” Axel’s voice cut through the haze of queasiness, “-- I need to check in with the boss. Are you gonna come with me, or are we gonna have to go through the whole ‘hard way’ thing again?”

“What the fuck just happened?” Roxas asked, clenching his hand into a fist. It was still sort of numb but he could move all his fingers. The gate didn’t seem affected at all.

“You’re on the dark side of the veil now, bud,” Axel replied, pushing off from the wall. “For better or worse, you’re stuck here until further notice. So, lemme ask again--”  

He clapped a hand on Roxas’ shoulder, grip firm, the message clear. He lifted the other hand and Roxas felt another wave of nausea-- magic? -- roll through him. One of the shadows in the courtyard expanded and grew , rising up into what looked like a circle of darkness. Axel looked down at him, expression neutral.

“Easy? Or Difficult?” he asked again.

Roxas tried to suppress the tremble that he could feel building in the pit of his stomach. This had to be some sort of nightmare, maybe he’d hit his head while getting into the mansion and he was actually bleeding out in the courtyard, and this was all some weird sort of hallucination. Kind of sad when that seemed a more promising outcome than walking into a giant portal of darkness with a demon.

Axel’s hand tightened, and Roxas moved, knowing he didn’t really have a choice.

“Lead the way.”