Pre-CoM. Spoilers for KH2. Axel, Roxas. Related to Magpies too, I guess.
It starts off simple.
The Organization is all stirred up in moving Namine, talking about setting up shop at a second location in the World In-Between to keep her and this Roxas kid separated, so naturally Axel is intrigued. One of his playtoys is getting relocated. Her replacement doesn't look like much fun - wooden expression, tendency to stare off into the distance while the Superior is giving orders - but if Xemnas is involved, then this kid has got to be special.
But mostly, it's boredom.
Axel observes from the sidelines for weeks. This new recruit is Number Thirteen. Wandered alone for a time before Xemnas found him, which would explain the slightly skittish look about him, the tendency to hold himself completely still and study others with a cool-eyed intensity. A feral cat, brought in from the wild. Like he never knew he was human - like he never understood what human was in the first place.
No memory, which explains the rest of his behavior, and might make Axel pity him. If he was still into that kind of thing.
Maybe it's Roxas's lack of memory that keeps the kid from babbling all the time about hearts. Instead, Thirteen's hooked on establishing his identity: what he is, rather than obsessing over how he got here and how to undo it. It makes Xemnas uncomfortable somehow - Axel hasn't figured out why - so that's another reason Roxas gets elevated up the novelty interest ladder. Namine didn't have a past, but Namine was discovered relatively quickly; too, she's never acted like a kid who was shoved into the closet and forgotten. Whoever Namine's Other was, it must've been a girl who listened to her body.
Roxas's Other? No way.
Roxas wants information, worries over it like an open wound. His amnesia sets him apart from his new family, and labels him as out of place in an Organization where memories are paramount. Even the most basic animals are sensitive to that kind of thing. Axel saw it all the time when he was young, manifest in the lazy, indolent felines which would roam the streets of the domed cities, fed from the table scraps of kings. They'd turn on anything that smelled strange, looked funny. Pack instinct.
The only king here is Xemnas, and he's as eccentric as the monarchs of Axel's homeland. He moves like a predator who forgets to be one half the time: grand gestures when he speaks, irregular pauses, and a tendency towards dramatic, wide-sweeping statements. But there's power there too, and an awareness of how to use it; Xemnas is the one thing that Axel thinks he could fear as a Nobody, stemming from a fully intellectual caution. The Superior may be strange, but that doesn't make him any less dangerous.
On his world, Axel remembers the cause had something to do with the inbreeding of royal lines. He doesn't know about Xemnas's origins in that respect, and the one time he asked Zexion, Number Six doubled over in unexpected laughter.
They call him a king anyway at times when arguments turn dangerous - only the original founders of the Organization, because the one time that Larxene dared, no one could find her for a week. Xemnas doesn't like the title, and not even Xigbar pushes too far before he lays off.
Axel's okay with that. He knows how to tread softly, and how to get things done. Besides, there's no need to stir up anything yet, not since Marluxia's started looking extra-smug around the edges. Number Eleven's picked up more confidence since the start of the Castle Oblivion project, confident in the way that sets Axel's hairs rising on the back of his neck. He's seen this before as well. Cats and kings, stalking one another through the streets of marbled cities.
Xemnas and Marluxia: two alpha males, circling slowly through the eddies of the pack.
So the Organization is getting split off into two groups, which Axel could tell anyone is a bad idea, except that no one asks. One group gets Namine. The other one gets Roxas. Axel's a little quirked when he discovers that he's being assigned to Namine's half, but he figures he can slip his placement around, maybe trade with someone else.
Thirteen is an unlucky number, by some people's count, but the pressure to find new human-shaped Nobodies has eased off since the kid's discovery, so Xemnas must be satisfied. No Fourteens needed. Just this.
But the riddle doesn't show itself instantly. First glance, and the kid looks about as interesting as a Dusk. No personality, no humor, no nothing. A bland Nobody, bordering on hostile. The core of his identity is wrapped up in this simple package that contains no depth, no complexity. Only purpse.
Xemnas can't just want obedient troops. There are Dusks for that - there's Saix for that, which is all the ruthless violence a guy could ask for and more. Roxas doesn't look like a scientist, which is probably for the best considering how defensive Vexen gets about his labs. And the kid isn't showing any big signs of magical talent, unless you count his key-thing, and Axel hasn't really figured out the whole story about that.
So he watches. And he waits.
The first hint comes during a routine briefing, one mixed together with a spar. Despite being newly arrived, Roxas has already collected a handful of Dusks which seem to resonate with him. Xemnas took one look at the creatures and called them samurai, after one of the worlds they had explored; Roxas accepted the label with as much enthusiasm as everything else, which consisted of a shrug and a nod.
Watching the Dusks shuffle around on the practice field is enough to occupy three Organization members; watching the Organization members is enough for Axel. Roxas's Samurai are slower on their feet than Xaldin's Dragoons. They slide, while the Dragoons fly. What equalizes the playing field is the ability for the Samurai to lunge forward, cutting through distance and substance with equal grace. The Snipers play idle target games on the sidelines; they already tested their aim against the array of white swords.
After several hours of this, Xaldin eventually calls for a halt. He's been pacing up and down the length of the field with his arms folded behind his back, stern as any drill instructor. As soon as he turns away from the other two, Xigbar proceeds to make some kind of extended joke involving a lot of hand gestures and pointing in the lancer's direction.
Roxas looks sullen and quiet, but then he turns his head up for just a second, a moment's time.
There's a jolt in Axel's spine as he realizes there is something very irregular hidden inside Number Thirteen, something that doesn't add up with the psycho lifeless blonde exterior, the boring shell.
It could have been a fluke. He'd have to see it again to be sure.
He's not sure what it implies, that Roxas can resemble this cheerful kid who rivals Demyx in goodwill, but he wants to find out. Best way to do this is to stop pussyfooting around, and initiate direct conversation. Introductions. Now that the initial reconnaissance is over, Axel's got to start getting his hands dirty.
He follows Roxas as the boy peels away from the other Organization members, dismissed to go practice or do whatever-it-is that occupies Number Thirteen's time. In all his days scouting out the kid, all Axel's been able to tell is that Roxas spends most of his free hours swinging around that weird key-mace, dueling with his Samurai.
"Hey," he begins, sidling up to the balcony and draping his arms over the rail. "You got a second?"
Roxas gives him an arbitrary glance. "Your purpose?"
Axel tries to hide the scowl; the kid sounds like a machine sometimes, spitting back the words he's been taught. You can see it in action, and it's fascinating. The Organization is Roxas's first language: inside the boy's mouth is Xigbar's arrogance and Xaldin's aloofness and Xemnas's cold inhumanity. Zexion's composure. Lexaeus's implacability. Vexen's... whatever.
All because Roxas is speaking the only tongue he knows so far.
But there's something else there too - Axel's sure of it. A core personality that isn't getting submerged beneath the Organization. Something original. Something real.
Something that's just Roxas.
"I've got a job." The proposition comes out smooth, and Axel allows himself a beat of satisfaction before continuing. "Nice world, lots of sun. You want to come along?"
Roxas makes a lopsided shrug.
After waiting for a handful of uncomfortable seconds, Axel clears his throat. "So, uh." He's used to indifference - he'd have to be, living around Nobodies - and to scorn and to Xigbar's weird sense of humor. But stark disinterest is another thing entirely. "Is that a yes?"
"Haven't we left yet?" is Number Thirteen's cold response, but the kid's turned away from the balcony, and is checking his gloves to make sure they're fastened snug at the wrists. It's a let's go already kind of action, and Axel doesn't need to be told twice before he opens a portal, grinning.
The assignment isn't remarkable - just check out a world that's on the long list of realms getting invaded by the Heartless - and they don't run into any serious opposition. Most of the inhabitants are too busy dying in various ways to even notice two black-clad strangers wandering among the Shadows.
By the time it wraps up, Axel's no closer to his answer than before. In fact, he's even wondering if his eyes played tricks on him; Roxas didn't crack one fake smile at all during the trip, and refuses to respond to any polite conversation.
When their trip's over, Roxas takes the portal home without a word. He stalks past Axel into the Darkness, and doesn't look back.
Next job Axel gets, he debates for a few hours alone, twisting up his mouth in frowns and pouts and thoughtful lines, and then finally decides to ask Roxas to come again.
This time, they take a detour.
Despite the big priority warning scrawled across the top of his mission briefing, Axel wagers that they've got enough time for a side trip first. There's not much in the way of natural scenery in the City. Lexaeus has tried; Marluxia has encouraged greenery, but you can't exactly go mountain-hiking when the world ends past Fifty-Second and Main.
Still, there are some natural touches. A beach exists on the far end of the City, where the terrain starts to blur and get mixed up with the sky. There are two common means of access. Several jumps through Darkness is the easier way, playing hopscotch on tiny scraps of land. The harder version involves one long stretch at once. Problem with that method is that the beach is still unstable; you can end up in the ocean half the time, or even worse, right in the Superior's lap when he's out thinking about the nature of non-life.
Roxas, predictably, doesn't see the point in deviating from orders, and he makes this clear as soon as they step out onto the sand.
Through the kid's complaints, Axel holds up his hands, waving them in tiny circles to try and get Roxas's attention. "There's a reason," he claims, trying to remember half the excuses he came up with during the trip, and rapidly making more on the spot. "The next job's got a chance of being dangerous. I just want to know what you're capable of, in case we end up with trouble."
This relaxes Roxas, but barely. He shifts his weight to the left; cocks his right eyebrow like a blonde feather, and throws out his next question. "So the Superior's concerned with my performance?"
"No, no," Axel replies quickly, and then, realizing the value of a little creative dissent, "maybe." His boots slip by fractions as he sidles down the beach, losing traction on the sand. "Take a look around. What do you think?"
Number Thirteen hasn't moved. "There's water."
Axel opens his mouth in an exaggerated sigh. "O-kay, that's a start. Lexaeus built this place, you know. But it was just a desert at first. I came out to help him by working with the sand. There's glass underneath in some parts - you can't see it," he adds, as if the kid would go swimming just to find the evidence of artificial creation, because you never know with Roxas, "but it's there. The water came after. When we got Demyx."
He feels a little odd as he talks. He's never bothered to explain the whole process to anyone, but it's hard to keep Roxas's interest. It's like the kid is this one big lantern, and if you're slow in fueling his attention, it'll just flicker and go out.
After another moment in reflection, Roxas finally stops staring at the horizon and turns a sliver of his attention in the other Nobody's direction. "Doesn't fire... hate water?"
"Yeah," comes Axel's glib reply, "but we love messing around with it."
He demonstrates by steam trails and sand, delicate plumes of fire that dance like maddened snakes in the air. They hiss when they touch the ocean. The light shimmers like red pearls over the waves, blossoming in miniature setting suns. It's a contrast that's foreign for the midnight beach, which is only ever touched by that single moon and no stars.
The change is a welcome one for Axel. Sparks crackle between his hands. Blue meets scarlet and orange and yellow and white, tiny fireworks that seem just a smidge out of control before they're safely reined in to burn tamely in the sand. The display is born out of memory: Axel's home world was full of such pyrotechnics, lush with street performers who would hiccup small gouts of flame, and hissing salamanders kept in glass jars for lamps.
Once he's done, slightly out of breath from the exertion, he turns to the boy beside him. "So, what do you do?"
A splaying of Roxas's fingers, and then the key-mace-blade-thing drops into his hand. He tosses it into the air with a confidence that's lazy, or arrogant, or both. It's a motion which reveals complete familiarity with the object being handled, memorization of weight and angles and curves. Number Thirteen could juggle the key in his sleep, and he's well aware of that fact. He sees no need to hide it.
Summoned weapons don't really impress Axel. Every member of the Organization can conjure something to defend themselves with, if they're so inclined; most of the Dusks can too, the ones that have been specialized to serve individual masters.
But Roxas keeps standing there, keeps looking at Axel with that jaunty poise and suddenly Axel has his second terrible realization about the kid.
Number Thirteen didn't just summon his weapon, he was one.
"Whoa," the Flurry of Dancing Flames hears himself saying. And then, hopefully to stop sounding like a gaping idiot, "Okay. Uh. That's nice. Real nice. I can see why the Superior keeps you," he tacks on, unable to resist another jab.
Roxas doesn't volunteer any more information, however, releasing control over the Keyblade and allowing it to dissipate.
The gate to the next world is opened easily enough - leaving the beach is never a problem, just getting there intact - and the two members step through and disappear.
They don't take any more delays while they're out. Roxas follows the criteria of the mission details perfectly, blocking three forest passes long enough for the Heartless to catch up and devour the villagers trapped inside. Axel is sloppier, sitting back and watching as he wonders just what he's gotten himself into, if not the metaphysical equivalent of a detonation chamber.
This kid's Other must have been one class act, he decides, and keeps himself entertained by imagining what kind of monster that boy must have been.
Life gets complicated fast.
Castle Oblivion's moorings get locked down in the shifting mass of In-Between, and now the tiny lump of land has substance. It is large enough to be considered stable, so the additional Organization members depart, with Xaldin muttering about impossible stairways and Xigbar still warning about gravity not being entirely stabilized.
This leaves seven of them behind. Namine's officially moved in, with enough paper and pencils to keep her occupied; Zexion and Vexen filter down to the lower levels of the Castle on their own, seeking out the quieter rooms of Oblivion to pursue their own studies. Lexaeus drums his fingers for a week before he asks the Dusks to bring over some of his weights from home. Larxene slinks around like she owns the place, and maybe she does, because Marluxia's the one in charge and the two of them have become close as red-bannered thieves.
Axel's required to go check in with the guy because he's technically under Number Eleven's supervision - something he doesn't really understand, except to know that Marluxia must have pulled one heck of a trick to get jurisdiction over the older members. It's a blatantly obvious bid for power, in Axel's eyes; makes Castle Oblivion slightly more interesting, because he wants to be nearby to see how it develops.
Problem is, Roxas isn't there. Roxas is back at the World That Never Was, with the Superior. In turn, Marluxia's got Namine, and Axel knows he should be paying more attention to that because the division in these two factions is getting more distinct with each passing day.
It's only going to be a matter of time before these authority games explode.
There are too many things that Axel has to keep track of now. And Zexion keeps giving him this look, like he knows why Axel keeps taking jobs to scout out different worlds, and that it has nothing to do with wanting space away from Marluxia's flowerpots. It makes Axel restless, because the last thing he needs is Number Six getting involved. Zexion's smart, but Axel's betting he's more cunning than the Cloaked Schemer - betting and hoping and pulling cards out of nowhere like one of Luxord's Gamblers.
He's not sure why it matters so much, this pursuit of figuring out Roxas. But it does.
After a while, Axel stops thinking about trying to get his assignment changed back to the World That Isn't, because it'd be too obvious where his interest is straying, and he wants to keep this secret protected. He doesn't understand the full ramifications yet, and the last thing he needs is the Superior's little cadre of scientists poking and prodding around, asking awkward questions. Each time, he has to make more creative excuses to get out of Oblivion, and he weighs the value of keeping track of Marluxia this week, or marking the path of Xemnas's goals.
But there are results. There's more of Roxas waking up out of that mindless coma - Axel's sure of it, because the kid's making conversation about the world around him, sharing observations he's had, things he wants to do. He has fun while he's out on missions now; sometimes, he even comes to Axel first and invites the Flurry of Dancing Flames to come along.
"You guys need to stop hanging around each other," Demyx complains one day, combing ashes out of his hair. Roxas had just teamed up to pull a prank on the Melodious Nocturne, and had managed to scamper off away before being caught. Axel's stuck behind, but with an alibi that keeps him from direct guilt. "You've been a bad influence on Number Thirteen."
"Oh yeah?" challenges Axel, feeling pretty good about himself. Number Nine's shedding grey dandruff everywhere, but particularly all over his nice black coat.
"Yeah," the sitar-player shoots back, "now he's acting just like you."
Axel's stomach turns suddenly, like a dying fish.
In all this time, he hadn't thought about that possibility. There's a chance - slim, but very real - that, just like Xigbar and Xemnas and all the rest of the Organization have left their mark on how Roxas is adjusting, Axel's own stamp might be there too. It could be true that Roxas is only acting like he's having fun because he doesn't know any better. It doesn't mean anything special to Number Thirteen. Never has.
Or maybe Axel's imagination is the only thing that's painting life into the kid's soul.
The next mission they pull together doesn't go well. It starts out rough, and doesn't get any better; the inhabitants of the world are born fighters, and they're repelling the Shadows with every sign of a long siege yet to come. Two Organization members blend in far too well to that kind of party. They're considered in league with the Heartless, and are attacked on sight.
Despite being Nobodies - and therefore immune to most mundane weapons - enough physical damage can and will leave a mark. No one's sure exactly why claws pass right through them on one world and yet draw blood on another, so caution overrides confidence, especially when Axel's already nursing a bad scrape across his forehead from a poorly-ducked attack.
Bad luck traps them both in a maze of narrow corridors. Roxas is yelling something about more monsters on the way as three of the lean dog-beasts prowl near the only exit, barking and whining in contralto hunger. They've been on the run for hours. Their Dusks have been whittled away, one by one, and neither of them has time to summon more.
Finally, Axel loses his patience.
"We are out of here," he announces, slapping his hand against the back wall. Darkness listens to him instantly, opening a portal to safety. He doesn't remember when he'd been so glad to see it before.
At the doorway, Roxas is struggling to free himself from their attackers. One of the dogs has grown bold. Its teeth are buried in the sleeve of his jacket. His arm is cramped against his body, half-extended into the hall; he can't get the Keyblade free to defend himself, and instead is viciously slamming the dog's skull against the doorway with his other hand.
Axel takes one look at the scenario, and that's all he needs. Fire leaps off his fingers, hitting the ground and rolling forward into a cross-slash that simmers low beneath Roxas's body and into the hallway.
The resulting explosion sends fireblooms and canine bodies into the air, roasting the corridor and threatening to backlash.
Roxas is thrown free, but Axel's already prepared, and grabs the other Nobody by the hood. They swing around together; the portal out is ready, and Axel jumps through without waiting, letting his weight twist forward in a single reckless leap.
They catch their breath only when they're safe at the City. Roxas stretches his legs out gingerly, and then his hands, counting all ten of his fingers to make sure they're still intact. Only then does he speak.
"Hey," Axel replies, attempting to look nonchalant through the blood, "that's what friends are for, right?"
Roxas gives him this look, like a sly butterfly about to escape through the cracks of someone's fingers. "Except that we're not."
Axel finds himself blinking, an automatic smirk crawling up his face. The expression feels wrong, tight-fitting across his cheeks. "Yeah," he agrees, and wonders why the reminder feels like a punch, all aching and funny somewhere in his chest. Roxas is right. Friendship is technically impossible.
Nobodies don't have hearts.
So it can't be a heart that motivates him to say the next few sentences. "So you're saying all the fun you've been having isn't real. What you feel doesn't exist."
Roxas cocks his head. "Why are you bothered?"
"Whoa, it's not that," backpedaling fast, and Axel holds up both his hands. "Just came up in conversation this morning at breakfast. You know how the rest of the Organization always talks about how us Nobodies don't have feelings. Technically, we're not even supposed to like each other."
The streetlights around them flicker. Axel hadn't picked a specific destination - just home, just away from the dogs - and the portal had dumped them on one of the roads near the Castle That Isn't. It's not a bad place for existential conversation, but there aren't any comfortable chairs, and Axel's throat could really use something to drink.
A stray Heartless bubbles out of the ground. It points glowing eyes in Roxas's direction, and he studies it with as little emotion as it gives him. "Our memory is what distinguishes us from the regular Dusks, right?" The Shadow moves on. "If I don't have a memory - if I don't remember what it was like to have feelings, I can't judge what's only the memory of an emotion, and what's not. So what does it matter, anyway?"
"I don't think a heart has anything to do with it." Axel announces, just to be stubborn. "A heart just makes it harder to think. Like not having as clear a perspective, y'know?" he adds, flexing one ankle and mentally cursing when the tendons feel bruised. "And it's harder to imagine what other people might be feeling. You just don't care enough, compared to what they're actually doing. Larxene tried to talk to me about it once, back when she was interested in that kinda thin - ow." Another twist of his ankle, and Axel claps his hand down on his foot, gritting his teeth. Definitely a sprain. "She said that not having a heart is about not having empathy - the ability to connect your heart to another. When you don't have a heart, you don't have that ability anymore."
Part of him feels half-stupid as he talks, but it's better than keeping quiet, than watching Roxas lapse back into that reclusive kid who looks ready to bite your face off if he doesn't understand what you're saying. "So you see, that's really why we're considered nothing. We're no longer a part of other people's lives. We can't touch them in the same way. And they can't touch us. Doesn't mean we can't still like people."
Roxas snorts. "It was Larxene who said that. Do you really believe anything she says?"
"Hey," Axel chides, though he has to privately agree, "it was a long time ago. A very long time. She was different back then. I wouldn't ask her about this, if I were you," he warns, envisioning the disaster that would explode if Number Twelve found out the stray gossip. She's touchy enough as it is, like picking up a hedgehog with bare hands. And since she's been hanging around Marluxia and they're both in Castle Oblivion, the last thing Axel needs is more reasons to watch his back.
For a minute, Axel thinks the discussion's going to end there, maybe wander back towards what weird plant Marluxia's been growing in the kitchen now, but Roxas still wants to talk. He's thirsty for details tonight, maybe to take his mind off their recent failure. "So what is it you remember?" The kid picks at the bite marks on his sleeve. "About having a heart."
Axel takes a deep breath, crossing his arms tight, so that his fingers press on muscle and bone. This isn't the first time they've both talked about memory. The answer never really changes, but Axel's forced to study his existence each time; each time, he finds a different way to phrase it. Being around Roxas makes him think. Not in terms of kings and cats and betrayals, but about just having fun again, or at least not dying.
"I don't know if I miss it." The words are just as honest as ever, but he succumbs to the urge to clarify. "Being affected by emotion, I mean. When you have a heart, it's easier to get hurt. And harder to forget about being hurt. I think..." hesitation trails his words out long before he remembers it's still his turn in the conversation, "that's the only difference."
This information does not please the Key of Destiny. Roxas glances away; some of the old hostility creeps back into his features, hardening the lines of his face. "Then if I don't remember what that was like, what's to keep me from becoming a Dusk?"
"I guess you've got to memorize what you're like now," Axel replies, laughing. It's hard to dismiss the treacherous doubt that came up ever since his conversation with Demyx, but Axel tries anyway. "And if you don't know any better... you might as well call us friends, right? Think you can memorize that?"
That last line breaks the tension, as neatly as a fresh gust of wind through a hot day. Roxas smirks, pushing himself up off the ground and dusting a scrap of fur from his coat. "Maybe."
When he offers out his hand for support, Axel reaches up and takes it.