It was a customary and routine thing for them to do. The white sheets that the paramedics had placed over the bodies did little to deter from the obvious and gruesome fact that underneath it, someone was dead. It didn't help that the white material in question had soaked up the blood that still pooled around the crime scene and was now nothing more than a blotchy patchwork of ivory white and deep crimson.
"This is awful," came the murmuring of someone in the crowd, "how did this happen?"
"Why're you surprised? It's a gay strip joint. Kids must have been targeted by some homophobic whack job."
"They were asking for it if you ask me, did you see how they were dressed?"
Roxas could hear the snippets of gossiping all around him, the words slightly muffled as if hitting some mental wall his mind conjured up.
"Phillip? Charming?" He said under his breath. For a moment he allowed himself the childish thought that by simply speaking their names they would somehow throw the sheets off of them and be grinning at him like a pair of mischievous kids. It was all just an orchestrated joke by his friends and former coworkers to give him a laugh. But Roxas wasn't laughing.
He remained on the asphalt with his knees digging into the ground for a few long minutes. What finally broke him from his suspended stupor was a firm grip on his shoulder. Glancing back, Roxas recognized Eric and was about to call out to him when Eric placed a finger to his lips indicating he remain quiet. Eric gripped his shoulder harder and forced him into a stand.
"Let's go," he managed while pulling Roxas into the crowds and away from the grisly sight. He made to hesitate, but then noticed that the police standing by were looking in his direction. Without any further delay, Roxas and Eric disappeared beyond the crowds.
"Eric, what the hell happened?"
They were walking at a brisk pace in the opposite direction of the club. The way with which Eric was trudging along told Roxas he wanted to be as far away as possible. His actions made Roxas feel suddenly nervous and as soon as the club vanished behind a building several streets away, the blonde forced Eric to a stop.
"I'm sorry, I just couldn't watch it anymore."
Eric's hands were visibly shaking. Roxas swallowed and ran his tongue over his drying lips. Eric gripped his forehead and sighed.
"Do you have a smoke?"
Roxas dug into his pocket and brought out his pack. Giving one to Eric and then holding the lighter for him, Roxas then did the same for himself. With a billowing trail of ashy smoke rising towards the overcast skies, Eric let out a breath.
"I didn't know who to call, I'm sorry if I dragged you away from something."
"Forget it, that doesn't matter. Eric, if you know something, tell me."
"I don't, I swear. I'm just as shocked as you are."
He took another shaky drag from the lit cigarette and blew a stream of smoke. "I was headed to the club to pick up some things when I noticed the crowd. That's when I panicked and called you. I just, I mean..."
The initial shock had not gone away. Roxas wasn't surprised, nobody in their right mind would be okay after what had just happened. If Eric was calm, he'd be worried. They had to go through the motions, no matter how long it took.
"Why them?" Eric said aloud, a stinging welling up in his eyes. "They were good guys."
Eric had known Phillip and Charming much longer than Roxas. The three of them were in their mid twenties, but he had never felt a need to ask just how old exactly. Roxas wasn't of legal age when he waltzed into Gaston's place in search of work three years ago, and when nobody there bothered to ask, he figured he wouldn't ask questions either.
"They were dating for a while now, I mean I didn't think it would go anywhere since Charming's such a slut, but they were making something."
Eric rubbed his lips together as he tasted the tobacco flavor on his tongue. "Who would want to hurt them?"
Roxas had no idea. It had only been a few days since he first stepped into Gaston's place after his initial departure. While he considered the guys that worked there his friends, he hadn't kept the best tabs in keeping in touch. Roxas had no better idea of why those two would be targeted than Eric did.
"Was anything strange going on? Did they seem distracted?"
Going off from what he had seen on television crime dramas, Roxas figured he'd ask some routine questions. "The other night when I stopped by they seemed okay. Phillip was acting kind of douchy, but you guys told me he found out his sister had been sick."
"That's right," Eric nodded flicking the spent cigarette onto the ground and snuffing it out with the tip of his red sneaker. "His sister Elsa got diagnosed with some rare virus that started attacking her joints. It was caught early, but the treatment is fucking expensive and Phillip started stressing out. I can't even imagine her finding out about this."
Roxas aimlessly played with the zipper on his jacket. Taking a moment to look around the corner, he noticed that the crowds off in the distance hadn't dispersed.
"Do you think they'll question us?"
He turned back to Eric. "The police? They'll have to. Phillip and Charming worked there so it's a given that the police are going to want to talk with anyone else that does too. But you don't have to be afraid of anything."
"You're right, it's just, well, you know what kind of stuff happens in there. If the police start snooping there's a chance the place will get shut down."
They were in the red light district. It didn't take a genius to understand what kinds of things a person could find in such a place. It was a "we don't see it, we don't care" kind of situation with law enforcement. As long as the businesses weren't causing trouble, the police and city didn't care. But with a double murder now on their hands, they had no choice but to treat it exactly as what it was and follow their routines to a T.
"Gaston's not stupid, he won't let that happen. He's got some favors with city officials, they won't close the place."
"Yeah?" Eric asked rubbing at his eyes.
"Yeah, I'm sure of it. For now, maybe you should get some rest."
"Oh...I guess so."
He could see it in his eyes, Eric was tired. The murders aside, Eric probably hadn't gotten enough sleep the night before. It was all too common with his line of work. It wasn't unusual for the club to stay open well into the morning hours and after a night of performing and waiting on customers, the guys were exhausted.
He glanced at his friend, nodding. "What is it?"
"Do you, um, think I could crash with you today?"
Roxas had never had one of the guys at his place even while he worked with them. But with Eric so shaken up, and rightfully so, Roxas wasn't going to say no. With a smile, the blonde walked up to him and placed an arm around his shoulders. Eric was just a bit taller than Roxas, but he comfortably propelled them into a walk.
"Of course, come on."
They rode the subway in relative silence, talking a bit here and there about what had happened. Switching lines a few times brought them to the district Roxas lived in and just before noon, they arrived at his apartment.
"Make yourself comfortable. The bathroom's in my room at the end of the hall, so feel free whenever."
His place was clean and well kept with a minimal spatter of things decorating the place. Eric walked around the living room taking in a deep breath. "Thanks, Roxas. Your place is nice and so clean. You have someone clean for you?"
"You serious?" Roxas tilted a grin at him, "You're looking at someone that spent the better part of his childhood cleaning up after everyone else. I'm not paying good money to have someone else do it."
"No? I figured with how much you're earning now something like that would be a given."
Roxas ventured to the open kitchen and pulled the refrigerator door open. He grabbed a bottle of juice he had prepared the night before and a water, offering the two to Eric. The older man accepted the water and uncapped it, taking a small sip.
"You're right in that I do make money, but I'm not rich. Nor do I take it for granted. Most of it I'm actually saving for something."
"What's that? You planning on buying a car or a house?"
He shook his head as he leaned on the countertop overlooking the open living room. "Nothing like that. It's a long story, I don't really talk about it."
"That's cool, you don't have to tell me. I'm sure there's stuff about my past I wouldn't tell anybody else so easily. Not that I don't trust you or anything," he said adding on that last part with his hand raised indicating he wasn't trying to be offensive or anything. "Half the guys at work come from tough backgrounds, we all have our demons."
A buzz rattled in Roxas's pocket before he took his phone out. Glancing at the screen, he made a face. "Hmm..."
"No, well, when you called I said I already had plans and I just need to rearrange my schedule a bit. Nothing to worry about, but I might have to step out while you're here."
Eric took a seat on one of the couches that lined the living room. "Again, sorry, I know you're a busy guy."
"Don't apologize, I'm glad you did. I mean..." he paused for a moment, thinking back to the blood soaked scene in the red light district. "You shouldn't be alone with something like that having happened...and you know what?"
He looked at his phone and powered it off, offering Eric a smile. "I'm all yours today. I'll give you a good rate."
The icy blue eyed man returned the gesture, his face brightening up a tinge. "Thank you, seriously."
The column of endless light illuminated the table and chairs. Sora sat with a leg crossed over the other and a hand resting under his chin in thought. This was the scene that Roxas walked into.
"Hey," Roxas said as he stood under the graceful light.
"Hello Roxas, how's the day going?"
He didn't take a seat, and remained standing just as naked as ever. Having done their exchange a few times already and their bodies still as bare as the day they were born, Roxas gave up on the idea of Axel somehow figuring out how to get them clothes.
"Um, could be better. Some things came up and I'm going to need today and maybe tomorrow to myself. I just wanted to check in with you and see if that's going to be a problem."
Showing a look of concern, Sora gazed at Roxas. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah...sort of. I'm fine, it's just a friend of mine is having a hard time right now and I'm lending him a hand."
"Then by all means Roxas, take as much time as you need. It'd be in bad taste to ask for a turn when someone needs you right now."
"Thanks, I'll let you know for sure tomorrow how things are going and if I'll need more time or not."
Sora nodded with his head of chocolate spikes. "Perfect. Trust me though, I'll be okay. After the other night and getting something I really wanted, I'm feeling very satisfied."
Roxas was curious, but realized that if he asked, Sora would more than likely tell him what it was. And considering that Roxas himself wanted to keep their memories and experiences separate, knowing what Sora was up to would put him in a hypocritical light. So saving the sudden desire to know, Roxas nodded at Sora and began walking towards the edge of light surrounding their little space.
"Do you ever get bored here?" Roxas asked.
"Hmm? No, not really. Remember Roxas, for years I've been unable to get out of bed. Sitting here waiting is nothing that I can't handle. Plus, now that I'm not experiencing pain or discomfort from my sickly body I'm able to relax and think more clearly. It's kind of therapeutic actually."
The blonde laughed. "I see, I've been mostly sleeping while I'm here."
"I do that too, believe me," Sora returned the laugh, "anyways, I should let you go. I'll see you soon."
"Yep, see you soon."
Roxas disappeared from the column of light, leaving Sora to sigh as he looked at the orange flowers that sat in the middle of the table.
"Hmm, is it me or are these flowers getting bigger?"
Eric had fallen asleep on the couch by the time Roxas returned from speaking with Sora. He would have offered his bed, but seeing how soundly he was sleeping, Roxas didn't want to wake him. He grabbed a few blankets and a pillow from a hallway closet and carefully used them to make Eric more comfortable. Checking the time on an electronic clock by the coffee table told him it was just past 2 pm.
"He'll be out for a while, maybe I should get stuff for dinner while he's sleeping."
Grabbing his keys and phone from the kitchen counter, Roxas let himself out of the apartment and locked the door behind him. He walked a few streets away and to a local grocery store he often frequented. It was a weekday, early afternoon so the crowds weren't bad. Roxas was just about to head over to the produce department when he noticed someone standing in the aisle, someone that he recognized.
The tall, lanky man directed his attention towards Roxas. He hesitated for a second, unsure who had called his name, but he immediately smiled realizing who the blonde was.
"Roxas? Holy shit, it's really you!"
The two closed the gap and gave each other a tight hug.
"Milo, what are you doing here? I thought you moved to Atlantis."
"Yeah...about that," Milo began scratching the back of his head, "didn't work out. The guy I moved away with turned out to be a major jerk after a while. So I figured I'd come back. But, wait a sec, I never told you about Atlantis. How'd you find out?"
"The guys from Gaston's place, Eric told me you had moved."
"Oh wow so they're still all there," Milo said adjusting a messenger bag he had slung over his shoulder. "Are you back there now too?"
He shook his head. "No, I just happened to be there a few nights ago. I was catching up with the guys."
"Oh okay, well, maybe I'll stop by again. I'm kinda back to square one and have no job. You think Gaston would let me work there again?"
Roxas felt his heart sinking, knowing that Milo had no idea what was going on at that exact moment. Milo had been part of their group, they were all friends and while it had been some time since he was last in the city, he knew it'd be hard to hear.
"Um, listen, Milo. Something happened there..."
By the time Roxas had his groceries bagged and paid for he and Milo were walking in the direction of his apartment. The grocery store wasn't the place to talk about something so sensitive so he invited Milo back to fill him in. He did mention that Eric was already there taking a nap.
"This place is nice," Milo said as they walked down the hallway of his building, "do you live alone?"
"Yeah," Roxas replied stopping at his apartment door and fishing the key out of his pocket. "Just over a year, maybe a little more since I got the place."
They stepped inside, the afternoon light cascading gently through the living room windows. Eric was still fast asleep on the couch, his breathing just loud enough for them to hear. Roxas placed his things down and carried the groceries over to the kitchen before he, and with Milo's help, put them away.
"So, is something wrong with Gaston's place? You didn't want to talk about it while we were in the grocery store."
Roxas carefully folded the empty paper bags and slid them on top of the fridge. "I hate to be the one tell you this, but Phillip and Charming were murdered."
Milo was taken aback. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, but he couldn't get a word out right away. "Wh-what? No, that's not true."
"It's why Eric is here, he's completely shaken up. I just found out this morning when he called me asking to come by the red light district. I saw it myself Milo, it was them."
"My god," Milo gasped running a hand through his dark blonde hair, "who would do that? Why them?"
"I don't know...it just happened so we don't have a clue. The police are going to have to investigate so the club will more than likely be roped off behind yellow tape for a while."
"I can't believe it, Charming was the one that got me the job in the first place. I owed him a lot, I just...man this wasn't what I wanted to hear being back in the city."
Roxas faced Milo, his long pointed face contorted sadly. He placed both hands on his shoulders and gave them a rough squeeze. "It'll be okay."
For the better part of the afternoon Roxas and Milo talked in the kitchen with a slumbering Eric away in a world of dreams. He didn't rouse until the sun was just creeping over the horizon and lighting the living room up with a golden glow. Eric lifted himself off the couch, a blanket Roxas had placed over him falling in the process.
"Well look who it is."
Milo came into view and Eric's groggy mind didn't register his face at first. But that took but a second before he was on his feet and in Milo's arms. Eric hugged him close, running his hands against Milo's back.
"It's so good to see you," Eric said into Milo's neck, "did Roxas fill you in?"
Milo ran a hand through Eric's hair, disheveling it even more. "Yeah, he did. I'm so sorry Eric, I really am."
With night arriving, Roxas and his newfound group went about making dinner. He found it strange at first, knowing that he never had company over. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Tifa was the only other person that had visited or stayed at his place. And even then, it was still an odd feeling. Roxas had grown up in an orphanage so having to share a room with not one, but sometimes five other kids at any given time wasn't unusual. It was something he was used to.
But now having his own place, having a sense of something belonging to him, it had changed that part of him a little. Roxas didn't dislike this turn of events. Of course, he was upset, his friends were taken away from him and that left a perpetual sting. However, having others around, especially when they too were hurting, was comforting.
"This is delicious, Roxas," Eric said chewing away at a piece of roasted beef, "I didn't know you could cook like this."
"Yeah, well not like I had the time or place to do it before. But I'm glad you like it."
They sat around the kitchen countertop eating, the clinking of utensils and glasses heavy in the air.
"Oh, I heard something interesting as I was coming back to Hollow Bastion."
Roxas and Eric turned their attention to Milo. "What's that?" they asked
"So a few nights ago in one of the inner most districts, there was an auction going on at an opera house."
"Yeah, you know, rich know it alls blowing millions on old crap," Milo continued forking a piece of tomato off his plate, "Well from what I heard, the auction got out of control at one point and people started bidding these outrageous amounts for an item. Like, when I say ridiculous, I mean ridiculous."
"How much did it end up going for?" Roxas asked taking a sip from his glass.
Eric and Roxas stopped mid bite and looked at Milo with large eyes. Roxas took a napkin to wipe away at the drool that more than likely was hanging from his open mouth. "Are you kidding?"
"I'm serious, someone dropped 800 million on some rock."
Roxas flitted his eyes trying to wrap his mind around such an exorbitant amount. That went beyond someone being rich and more along the lines of some multibillion international company. It wasn't to say that there weren't people with that kind of money, but it just sounded insane to Roxas.
"And whoever spent that did it for a rock?" Eric said with a disgusted look on his face, as if it was simply a travesty to hear of such spending. "What's so special about a rock?"
"That's the interesting part," Milo flashed them a curious glance, "that rock is really fucking something."
"Well, what was it?"
Milo reached into the messenger bag he had with him sitting at the base of his chair and pulled out a folded up piece of paper.
"This was part of the catalog the auction was handing out to the guests. Look here."
He folded it out for them to see, smoothing out any wrinkles. Roxas and Eric looked at the glossy page and took turns trying to decipher what it was. The unfamiliar word played with Roxas's lips.
Milo nodded. "That's what it was. Someone spent 800 million to buy a Fayth."
"What the hell is it?" Eric asked pouring more wine into his glass. "What's so special about it? I don't get it."
"It's an old story, like super ancient. My grandpa was a historian and archeologist back in the day so I was always hearing about it. Well anyways, Fayth are these pieces of rock or precious gems that hold a person inside of them. It's essentially a tomb. It was said that these people willingly sacrificed their lives in order to offer their souls as a form of energy to their heavenly gods. In other words, it was nothing more than ritualistic human sacrifice."
The pair looked at Milo unblinking. Roxas peered down at the page again, finding that there was indeed what appeared to be a human figure jutting out from the obsidian rock. The more he looked at it, the more something in his stomach churned. It wasn't necessarily a discomforting feeling, but more along the lines of something telling him it looked more familiar than it needed to be. Roxas was growing concerned that for some ungodly reason, he had seen something like this before.
"I still don't get why anyone would want something that creepy, its gross actually," Eric huffed sitting back in his chair, "I mean, it's a dead person in there, right?"
"Pretty much. It's the empty husk of a dead person."
That's when it hit him. Roxas understood why it looked familiar to him.
He was led past the multitude of sculptures, some made of materials Roxas couldn't name. There was even one resembling a pyramid engrained with tiny dots of glowing green.
The 56th floor. The sculptures he found eerie sitting along the night-like black floor of Sora's high story condominium.
Roxas got up from his seat, his friends looking at him suddenly. "Roxas?"
"Sorry, but I need to step out for a second."
He had his things and out the door before Eric or Milo had a chance to say anything.
"Did I say something wrong?" Milo wondered as Eric shrugged his shoulders.
Out in the streets, Roxas was quickly making his way towards the underground subway station. He boarded a train and was soon barreling off in the direction of Sora's district.
"That was Sora that bought the Fayth," he said to himself as he sat in the moving train. "And the sculptures in his condo, are those..."
Before long he was standing outside the high story building, eyes cast against the sky. He walked into the first floor lobby and into the awaiting elevator. Punching in the key he had been given, he was soon being lifted up towards the appointed floor. The minute the doors flew open, Roxas could only stare.
The night-like floor was occupied by a new sculpture. Roxas had walked by this place enough times to recognize that something was different about it. A beautiful, pitch black column of crystal stood in the center of the floor. But what caused Roxas to stare in awe was the unmistakable form of a man erupting from the crystalline material like a newborn butterfly. It was a piece of true artwork.
"I see you've learned about my master's recent purchase."
The voice came from further along the floor, the sound of footsteps echoing against the silent atmosphere. Axel walked into the dim light being cast by the specialized canopy of bulbs that hung from the ceiling. He was dressed rather casually in black trousers and a long sleeve red cotton shirt. Axel stopped at the side of the black sculpture, the Fayth that had cost Sora a ridiculous fortune.
"Isn't it beautiful?"
Roxas continued staring. "Are all these-"
"Fayth?" Axel cut him off waving an arm at the other art pieces that decorated the floor. "Yes, they are. Each and every one of them is a Fayth."
Studying the sculptures he had grown to recognize, Roxas noticed that something was missing. It was such an obvious fact now that he was aware of what Sora had been set out to buy. "But I thought Fayth had people in them, all of these are empty."
Axel nodded, his eyes veered slightly. "You're absolutely right. The people once entombed in them are no longer here."
"What does that mean? Did Sora have them removed? Doesn't that kind of defeat their purpose?"
"Oh Roxas, you're much smarter than even you think. Just ponder it a little more, the answer should be blatantly obvious considering what kind of situation you and my master are currently in."
He swallowed Axel's words, letting them intermix with his thoughts. "Sora and I are sharing my body. You transferred his soul-"
His heart throbbed. Roxas looked from Axel to the figure arched from the black crystal like a human butterfly. He remembered what Milo had told him not even an hour ago.
Fayth. People that sacrificed themselves willingly to the gods. The bodies left behind were nothing more than a husk, an empty shell. A perfect body without a soul. Axel's lips pulled into a smile.
"I see you understand. It's exactly as you're thinking, Roxas. My master is at death's door, he had no more than a year before he leaves this world. So naturally, he'd try to find a remedy to that situation. And that's where the legend of the Fayth comes in. A perfectly preserved body without a soul. What better vessel for a man that is near death?"
Roxas was trying to make sense of it all, but there wasn't a reason to not believe what Axel was saying. Deep in his heart he was currently housing another person's soul. He had made a contract and offered a year of his life in order to give Sora a body to use and fulfill whatever it was that he wanted. But the more he thought about it, the more he was questioning what his role in all of this was.
"I don't understand," Roxas expressed, "if you had this option all along, then why were you so adamant about involving me?"
At this Axel's smile faltered. "These gorgeous sculptures, you said it yourself. The Fayth within them are gone. Had the transfer been successful, we would not be speaking at this moment."
"So, you've been unable to transfer Sora into the Fayth?"
"Oh no, I've absolutely had success in doing that," he replied placing a hand on the newest addition to Sora's collection. "My lack of power or ability has not been the problem. It's an entirely different matter."
He took a step closer to Roxas. "Do you remember what I told you about my clan? How we were cursed in being unable to transfer the soul of someone other than our own?"
Roxas licked his lips. "Yeah, that if you did that then the person you were transferring and the recipient would die. What about it?"
"Think about it Roxas. How was I able to do it for you and my master and so far, everything has turned out well. It's because I managed to circumvent that process. I was able to direct the source of the curse away from the both of you."
He let out a long sigh, his face pouting. "For some reason I am unable to decipher, shortly after I transferred my master's soul into the Fayth, the body would begin to die. No matter my method, I could not prevent the body from completely dying out."
"And yet Sora was okay?" Roxas asked not fully grasping things. "I thought he would have died according to what you've told me."
Axel shrugged. "The thing is, the body's death wasn't instantaneous. It allowed me the time to return my master back into his own body. Perhaps because of how long the Fayth were preserved it somehow acted as a sort of, oh how should I say it, "buffer" against immediate death. And after repeating this cycle with multiple specimens, the results were the same."
Roxas looked at the the floor. He didn't know what kind of emotion was coiling through him. It wasn't as if what Axel and Sora were doing was wrong. They weren't hurting anybody. Yet Roxas couldn't explain why he seemed bothered by this. After all, he was only in this for the money. He was promised a fortune for the year of his life he would be spending letting Sora have use of his body.
"I still don't understand why me."
"It's a simple answer. Once the year is up, I will transfer my master's soul from your heart, directly into this Fayth."
"How is that any different from what's already happened?"
Axel heaved a heavy sigh. "Because the curse will kill my master. His body that is." He extended his arm and touched a finger to Roxas's chest, swirling it in a circular pattern.
"Your role is important because you are acting as a temporary shell. When the transfer is complete, you will not die as the curse will be rerouted to his dying body. Master Sora will be in possession of the Fayth and you will have your heart back as if all of this was just a simple outing. This year is required for me to set up the preparation for it."
He removed his finger from Roxas's chest and crossed his arms. "Master Sora's body is no longer an option. And therefore, we will take advantage of my clan's curse to kill it off in order to secure this outcome. Trust in my power Roxas, I would not put you in any harm."
Everything sounded so far fetched, but Roxas didn't have any reason to doubt him. Breathing deeply to rid himself of the uncomfortable feeling playing with his stomach, Roxas shifted his attention to the Fayth.
"It's a bit scary, but I do have to admit it's beautiful."
Axel turned to it and grinned, admiring the deep muscle lines in the strong man entombed in it. "He is, isn't he? He's close to 3,000 years old. My master and I have followed his ownership details for years and knew the moment he was put up for auction he needed to be ours."
"Do you know anything about him?" Roxas asked as he grew more courageous and approached the pillar of pitch black.
"Are you familiar with the ancient keyblade wars?"
"Well, the man you're looking at was the leader of a particularly famous band of wielders. They were know as the SeeD and fought for a powerful Sorceress."
Roxas looked on, his hand reaching for the fine hair that fell over the arched back of the Fayth. "What was his name?"
Axel touched the side of his face with a finger, his eyes glowing green.
"His name was Riku Kramer."