(A/N): So, I've only recently forayed into the world of fanfiction as a challenge from a friend. This story is the first fanfic I've ever written, so please be nice. It's centered around Axel's point of view and contains quite a view spoilers for the actual plot of KH 2. Reviews are always welcome.

Hollow Heart

"Axel will stop at nothing to turn you into a Heartless." – Saix, Twilight Town

Axel ignored the soft cries and fruitless struggles of the girl he dragged through the darkness. This would work. He'd make it work.

Because if he couldn't bring Roxas back, he might as well give up and fade back into the darkness that had spawned him.

He winced as small, sharp teeth bit savagely into his gloved hand. Kairi was nothing if not persistent. Throwing a steely-eyed glare back over his shoulder, he summoned a burning chakram to his free hand.

"Stop it," he ordered curtly.

Kairi's eyes widened at the appearance of the flaming weapon. Shrinking back from him, she pinned him with a glare that managed to be both frightened and defiant.

Turning away from her, Axel let the weapon fade back into nothingness. His hand still hurt. And that was all he could feel.

He wasn't stupid – he knew he didn't have a heart. He'd felt the hollow ache in his chest where it should've been every day since his (non)birth. But it never failed to anger him.

He hadn't asked to be created. He certainly would never have chosen this half-existence of his own free will. But here he was, still incomplete, and missing the only thing that had ever made that hollow feeling in his chest lessen, if only for a few moments.

It was part of the reason he hated the Heartless. He was sure that somewhere among them was the bastard that had lost his heart and caused this whole mess. If he ever found his Other alive, he'd probably kill him.

When he'd first joined the Organization, he'd been sent on countless missions to destroy the swarming bastards. Although the Superior always assigned Dusks to help him, Axel would dismiss the lowly Nobodies the second he entered the shadowed corridors that connected their not-quite-real world to all the others. And he would slaughter the swarm himself, mercilessly, hatred pounding in his veins.

He would watch, aching with frustration, as the captive hearts burst forth from the decaying black shadows, wondering if his heart was somewhere among them, so fucking close but forever out of reach. More than once he had the completely irrational urge to reach out and pluck one of the shining objects from the sky and press it against his chest until the damn thing melded with him, completed him so that that horrible, aching emptiness would forever disappear.

But a Nobody couldn't become a Somebody that easily.

Sometimes, far back in the dark corners of his mind, Axel had worried that it wasn't possible at all.

Kairi stumbled behind him, dragging against the hand that he'd clamped around her wrist. He didn't bother to look back.

"Keep moving. Don't you wanna see Sora?"

She didn't answer him. He hadn't expected her to.

Surely a Somebody would feel something at all that he'd done. Guilt, perhaps, at his kidnapping of Kairi. Regret at what he planned to do to the bright, energetic boy she loved.

But he wasn't a Somebody, and he didn't feel any of those things.

The Organization's Superior had always been very explicit on the nature of Nobodies – they were beings that didn't truly exist, lacking the hearts and emotions to make them whole. What made the members of the Organization special, what saved them from simply being Dusks or Dancers in another form, was that they remembered what it was like to have a heart.

It was those memories that spawned flashes of false emotions in them from time to time – a sudden, vague certainty that their Others had felt this way under similar circumstances. Lobes and nerves and synapses trying to emulate what their stolen hearts could no longer produce.

While the faded memories allowed them to imitate emotions they did not feel, they did nothing to relieve the hollow ache of non-existence that haunted them. Because they all knew the ghostly emotions weren't real, and their appearance only heightened the feeling of emptiness after they faded.

And so they planned and plotted, seeking a way, any way, to restore what they so sorely missed.

Axel had hated those early days when he'd first joined – all the plotting and counter-plotting, all of them so fixated on obtaining Kingdom Hearts that the elders barely spoke to anyone but each other. They were all empty and aching inside, but that didn't mean they had to act like it all the time, damn it.

That was why, when Demyx had found his way into the cold, echoing hallways of the Castle That Never Was, Axel had made a real effort to befriend the kid.

Demyx had been an outcast almost immediately. He was always smiling or playing his sitar, though Axel never heard him actually laugh. His optimistic assurance that they would succeed in regaining their hearts amused and angered the other members by varying degrees.

But it had been his eyes that had been the most telling difference between himself and his fellow Nobodies. When lit with false emotion, something in Demyx's eyes made it look real. Like there was really something behind it. Something that shouldn't be there, not for a Nobody.

Axel had hoped that by getting closer to the younger Organization member, he would learn the secret behind it. Learn to feel strongly enough that he believed it was real.

But months went by and Axel still didn't know how Demyx did it, why he was able to do it when he couldn't. And the more he thought about it, the more his annoyance fanned into anger.

Things had come to a head one day when Demyx had thrown himself down next to Axel and run a hand through his mullet. He had turned to Axel, a wicked smile on his lips, probably getting ready to relate something embarrassing about one of the other members.

But it had been the humor in his eyes that made the void in Axel's chest clench in an echo of pain.

"Stop it," he'd growled, hands fisting in his lap as he resisted the urge to summon his chakram and fling them at the Melodious Nocturne's head.

Demyx had blinked, his mouth hanging open, whatever he'd been about to say forgotten. Finally, he'd closed his mouth and regarded Axel quizzically.

"Stop what?"

Axel's head had snapped up; glaring at the younger Nobody, he'd barked, "Stop looking at me like that!"

Demyx's eyes had filled with confusion, and Axel's empty chest had clenched and twisted in a way that made it hard to breathe.

"…Like what?"

Axel had jumped up from the couch and pointed an accusing finger in Demyx's face.

"Like that!" he'd practically screamed, feeling himself losing control, helpless to stop it.

Demyx's wide eyes had grown even wider, and then they were filled with such a believable mixture of hurt, understanding, and sorrow that Axel felt his anger quickly flare into rage.

The chakram had flamed to life in his hands and without further thought he had thrown them at Demyx's head, truly not caring if he hurt the boy. If he killed him. At least then Demyx's eyes would no longer be able to reflect those damned emotions so convincingly.

The Melodious Nocturne may not have been much of a fighter, but he wasn't a pushover, either. He had summoned a thick wall of water to absorb the brunt of the chakram's force, then wasted no time in fleeing the room under the cover of the resulting clouds of steam.

Axel had been left panting in the middle of the empty room, clutching his chakram so tightly the warm metal cut through his gloves and bit into the skin of his palms. The flash of rage was gone, and he had never felt so empty.

Demyx never told the other Organization members about what had happened between them, for which Axel was pathetically grateful. But he never spoke to Axel on a more than casual basis again. Axel knew that should bother him more than it did.

But it didn't.

Kairi was still struggling behind him, trying to dig the fingers of her free hand beneath his own, weaken his grip on her wrist. Axel heaved a silent sigh. Couldn't she keep still for more than a few minutes at a time?

In one fluid motion, he turned back to her, jerking her wrist so that she fell forward into him. He wrapped his free hand around her chin, digging his thumb into the tender flesh below her jaw.

"Stop it," he breathed. Her eyes widened when she felt the sudden surge of warmth against her jugular – he dug his thumb a little further into her neck for emphasis before spinning her away from him, her wrist still trapped in his iron grip.

He turned forward again, dragging her behind him.

"I won't tell you again. Behave."

He thought he heard her mutter something under her breath. It might have been a rude expression, directed at him. But he couldn't be sure.

Axel didn't really remember much about the time between his fight with Demyx and Roxas's arrival. He had simply existed, carrying out orders when they were given to him, ignoring the other Organization members as best he was able.

And one day, Roxas had simply been there, striding down the hall toward him with a determined step. Axel hadn't been surprised that no one had bothered to introduce him to their newest member – the Organization had begun to crack and splinter around him.

So Axel had set himself in the kid's path, summoning a chakram and swinging it from his fingers for show.

"Name's Axel," he'd said, his green eyes locked on the new member's blue ones.

Roxas had blinked at him, then carefully stepped around Axel and continued down the hall. Not in the least put off, Axel had turned and fallen in step with the boy.

"Ya know, when someone offers their name, they expect the same in return," he'd chided.

Roxas had turned his head and stared at him for a moment. Axel had raised an eyebrow.

"XIII," the kid had said at last.

That had bothered Axel. Reaching out, he'd grabbed Roxas's shoulder, feeling the younger Nobody tense at the unexpected contact. Axel had pulled the boy around to face him.

"Listen kid, I asked for your name, not your damn number. We may be Nobodies, but we're gonna be Somebodies someday, so use your damn name."

"Take me," he'd continued, gesturing to himself. "You call me Axel." Roxas had opened his mouth, maybe to object, but Axel overrode him. "Or if that really bothers you, call me the Flurry of Dancing Flames. Not VIII. Never VIII."

He'd jabbed an emphatic finger under the kid's nose. "Got it memorized?"

The young Nobody had stared at him blankly for a long moment, but when he turned away, Axel heard him mutter, "Roxas."

And that had been the beginning.

They'd spent most of their time together after that. Axel wasn't quite sure why, except that he didn't particularly care for the other Organization members, and Roxas tolerated his presence when he would've sent anyone else – even the Superior – running for the nearest exit with a well-aimed swipe of his Keyblade.

Roxas barely spoke, and never smiled – Axel was determined to loosen the kid up a little. And finally, a few weeks after their meeting in the hall, his persistence had been rewarded.

He couldn't quite remember, now, what he had said or done to garner such a reaction. But he remembered what had come next.

Roxas, the Nobody who would probably have died before altering his expression, smiled.

Oh, it hadn't been big, certainly nothing like Axel's Cheshire cat grin or Demyx's beaming smile – in fact, the corners of his mouth barely quirked. But the smile was there in his eyes for anyone who was looking closely.

Axel had been dumbstruck. He had simply sat and stared for a full ten seconds before he'd pointed at the younger Nobody, his words almost an accusation.

"You're smiling."

Roxas had gazed back at him silently, quirking an eyebrow before returning to his book.

And Axel was suddenly inexplicably, irrationally happy. Roxas wasn't paying attention to him anymore, but the light of his small smile was still there in those painfully blue eyes. Axel was overwhelmed that Roxas had trusted him enough to show him something so, so – not Roxas-like.

He was so euphoric that it had taken a full three minutes for the fact that what he was feeling was not real to seep back into his brain. And somehow, the knowledge had hurt less than it always had before.

And that had been the beginning of the end.

Axel paused, stiffening as he cast a glance back over his shoulder. There was no one behind him but Kairi, who was fixing him with a sullen glare. Axel smirked at her.

"Your face'll freeze that way," he warned. Her frown deepened as she huffed at him.

He shrugged as he turned away from her. At least she was being quiet.

The day Roxas had allowed him to see what he never showed anybody else – that small, secret smile – had been the day that cemented their friendship. Or the closest two beings without hearts could come to friendship.

And for the next few months, Axel felt. He knew Roxas did too, by the quiet light that would steal into his eyes, a calmer reflection of Demyx's cheery optimism, but seemingly every bit as real.

As for Axel himself, he could go for hours without remembering that what he was feeling was a sham, a pale imitation of something he was no longer equipped to enjoy. And even when the realization would return and smack him over the head, he only had to look at Roxas to believe the hurt would only be temporary.

His friendship with Roxas made the fracturing of the Organization seem trivial; the events at Castle Oblivion hadn't seemed as earth-shatteringly important as they probably should have. Because it was in the aftermath of that upheaval that Roxas had begun to change.

If Axel hadn't been so caught up in the sensation of feeling, he might have noticed how quiet Roxas would grow, or the way he would glance down at the Keyblades clutched in his hands, expression solemn.

Maybe not. But he liked to think he would've.

He hadn't expected Roxas to leave.

He'd gone after him, of course. He knew him well enough to guess which road he would take out of the World That Never Was. He had waited, a shadow against shadows, only his fiery hair relieving the darkness around him.

Roxas had walked right past him. He'd known then that he couldn't stop him. Axel had spoken just to keep him there a few moments longer.

"Your mind's made up?"

Roxas had paused, half-turning back to him.

"Why did the Keyblade choose me? I have to know."

That had made Axel angry. They were so close to completing Kingdom Hearts – why should it matter why the Keyblade had chosen Roxas?! They were so close to having hearts of their own – how could anything be more important than that!

He'd pushed himself away from the wall with more vehemence than he would've believed possible for a Nobody. "You can't turn on the Organization!" he'd spat, itching to summon his chakram and slice Roxas into smoldering bits. He would've fought him if he thought it would make him stay. Anything to keep Roxas with him just a little bit longer. "You get on their bad side and they'll destroy you!"

Roxas had turned away from him.

"No one would miss me."

Axel knew Roxas hadn't been trying to be cruel. In his own brusque way, Roxas had probably been trying to comfort him. They were Nobodies – if Axel couldn't feel anything real for another person, he couldn't miss them.

He had still wanted to disembowel him. Even if the emotions he felt around Roxas weren't real – even if they were just pale imitations of faded memories from another life – they were all he had, damn it, and who was Roxas to take that away from him!

And for the first time in his nonexistence, Axel had been glad he didn't have a heart. Because if it had hurt him that much to watch Roxas leave without one – and yes it had hurt, fuck what the Superior and the elders and all their damn research said – he couldn't imagine what the pain would've been like with one of those fragile objects lodged in his chest.

"That's not true – "

The harsh cry had been swallowed up with Roxas as he disappeared into the darkness, leaving Axel alone in the dark street. As soon as Roxas was out of sight, Axel had slumped forward, unable to maintain the pain blazing in his empty chest. He couldn't even sustain his anger at Roxas's leaving without him there.

"I would," he'd muttered to the empty street.

Axel's head snapped up. Eyes narrowing, he studied the five… seven… thirteen Dusks (oh, the delicious irony) ranged across the dark corridor ahead of them. They ignored his brusque gesture of dismissal, gliding around and above one another in disjointed rhythm.

Well.

"Well shit," he smirked. Axel had to admit that he was affronted. He, the Flurry of Dancing Flames, had defected from the Organization, and the best they could send against him were Dusks?

Scratch that. He was insulted.

He felt Kairi stiffen behind him, probably as she caught sight of the pale Nobodies blocking their path. And suddenly she was clawing at his hand and arm again, desperately trying to free herself from his grip.

Closing his eyes with a sigh, Axel amused himself with the mental image of flinging Kairi to the Dusks and watching her try to fight her way out of them. Not that he would, of course. He needed her to get Roxas back.

Still, it was tempting.

He opened his eyes. The Dusks hadn't moved – they were still twining around one another a few feet away. Summoning a chakram to his free hand, Axel looked over his shoulder at Kairi, keeping the amused expression on his face.

"If you don't cut that out," he said, keeping his tone even, "I'm going to give you to them." It was a lie, but she didn't know that. She looked up, expression stuck somewhere between terrified and defiant, her grip suddenly white-knuckled as her fingers tightened around the sleeve of his dark jacket.

Axel briefly wondered what sort of emotional upheaval he'd just triggered, but only briefly. He turned back to the prancing Dusks.

"Just stay still and watch," he ordered, his smirk widening.

When the order had come to find Roxas and bring him back, Axel had volunteered to be the one to go. He knew he'd raised a few eyebrows among the remaining Organization members – he'd never gone out of his way to do anything before – but he hadn't cared.

He would be the only one to face Roxas. He would be the only one who would decide whether or not it was necessary to kill him.

There had been a quiet brilliance to how DiZ had hidden Roxas. He couldn't simply open a door from the darkness into a world that technically didn't exist – not a world powered by chips and composed of pixels.

It had taken weeks for Axel to track the young Nobody to Twilight Town, where the boy's trail had vanished. Axel had searched the town fruitlessly for days, trying to figure out where the kid had disappeared to. When he'd stumbled into the secret basement in the old mansion and seen the data flashing out at him from myriad computer screens, he'd known he was in the right place.

He'd only slipped into the false Twilight Town long enough to connect it to the darkness. Then he'd sent swarms of Dusks into the town with orders to find Roxas and bring him back. The useless Nobodies had brought him photographs – photographs that depicted Roxas, over and over again, with false friends, false memories, false emotions.

The photographs had caused a queer ache deep in Axel's heartless chest. Roxas had left behind everything – had turned his back on the Organization, on Axel – for a false life, a false persona that would disappear as soon as DiZ succeeded in waking Sora?

Well, that probably wasn't fair to Roxas – he probably hadn't planned on being beaten and captured by Riku – uh, Ansem – whatever the kid was calling himself these days. Still, the photographs had been enough to make Axel watch Roxas himself.

He'd revealed himself to Roxas the day of the Struggle tournament, when the Keyblade had appeared in the boy's hands for the second time. He'd hoped the persistent re-appearance of the Keyblade had meant that Roxas's memories were returning.

The blank, slightly apprehensive look Roxas had fixed him with had snuffed that hope quickly.

"You really don't remember?"

Axel had striven to keep his tone light as he addressed his one-time friend. He'd thrown his dark hood back, hoping his face would spark Roxas's memory.

"It's me. You know, Axel."

"Axel?"

Roxas's voice had held nothing but confusion. Axel's chest had clenched – he'd half hoped his presence would've been enough to force the memories through the barriers Namine had erected around Roxas's previous life.

He'd kept talking to fill the emptiness he'd felt growing inside him – small, useless phrases that hadn't conveyed what he'd really meant to say. Seeing Roxas there, right in front of him, but not knowing him – slightly afraid of him – was doing funny things to the void where his heart should've been.

Axel had known that if he could just get Roxas away from there, the barriers would eventually fall. He'd called his chakram to his hands.

"You're coming with me, conscious or not. Then you'll hear the story."

Roxas had backed away, very definitely afraid, as the air began to ripple around them. DiZ had noticed Axel's interference in his false world – Axel had known he had to hurry.

Unfortunately, Roxas's fear had given way to frustration. With a defiant shout, he'd jumped at Axel – his fighting hadn't been what it used to be, but the Keyblade in his hands was still undeniably dangerous.

"Hey," Axel had called as he dodged Roxas's first swing – one final attempt to reach his friend – "I'm gonna make it all stop."

But Roxas didn't know him, didn't realize the life he remembered was false, and Roxas hadn't wanted it to stop.

Before Axel could knock that damn Keyblade away from him, DiZ had appeared. The bastard had had the gall – the sheer nerve – to tell Roxas that Axel was lying to him. That had pissed Axel off. He'd never lied to the kid, and that was saying something, seeing as how he lied to practically everybody else if it served his purposes.

He'd thrown his flaming chakram, determined to slice DiZ in half, but they had disappeared in a flash of fire – it was DiZ's world, and Axel couldn't touch him.

He had shouted, desperate now – "Roxas, don't let him deceive you!"

But Roxas had backed away from them both, clapping his hands over his ears to drown out their cries. Watching Roxas call out the names of friends – friends that weren't real, were less real than even Nobodies – Axel had known Roxas was lost to him forever.

As he had retreated back into the darkness, leaving Roxas to his false memories, his false life, Axel had felt a hatred for Namine more intense than any he had ever experienced before. He hated her more than the Heartless, more than his Other, even more than DiZ, and he knew that if he ever saw the pale slip of a Nobody again, he would torch her world and everything in it.

Paper made such wonderful tinder, after all.

Axel swung the chakram in his fingers, eyeing the remaining Dusks in front of him. He'd already sent eight of the lowly Nobodies back to the darkness, but he was finding it harder to fight than he had expected – the effort to protect Kairi from their assailants (and not accidentally burn her himself) was making the battle far more complicated than it had any right to be.

The remaining Dusks were trying to circle around behind him – Axel jumped up and away, dragging Kairi up into the air with him. At the apex of his leap, he twisted his body so that he was facing the Dusks below them.

Extending his fingers, he released his chakram so that it spun madly just beyond the reach of his outstretched fingers. He called fire to the weapon, until the spinning wheel was blazing brightly.

Below him, the Dusks slithered and twisted on the ground, confused by the disappearance of their prey.

A column of fire erupted from Axel's spinning chakram, heading for the flailing Nobodies huddled below him –

Kairi wasn't as light as she looked, Axel reflected as her weight suddenly dragged at his right side. The fire leapt wildly below him, strafing the knot of Dusks, incinerating only two of the pale Nobodies.

He sighed, irritated. It had been a perfect chance to end this.

Alert once again, the remaining Dusks launched themselves into the air. Kairi twisted in his grasp, crying out as her shoulder tried to tear itself out of its socket. Axel frowned. This was not working.

As they began to fall back toward the Dusks rising to meet them, Axel pulled Kairi closer to him, ignoring her gasp of pain. He accidentally-on-purpose grabbed her chin with a little more force than was strictly necessary – he was irritated, after all – and forced her eyes to meet his.

"Trust me?" he asked, smirking.

He didn't give her time to answer. He could guess what the answer would've been anyway.

He gathered her into his arms – and threw her straight at the Dusks. Her shriek was part terror, part indignation.

As anticipated, the Dusks scattered when confronted with the unexpected. With both of his hands free, Axel summoned both chakram and set them spinning around him. He vanished in a flash of flame –

Only to reappear between two of the Dusks, the chakram flaming as they spun around his body. He shot his arms out to either side and watched, smirking, as the weapons obeyed his will, flashing through the supple Nobodies, burning what they didn't slice.

Oh yeah. The girl.

Giving himself a stern mental shake, Axel berated himself for almost forgetting that he needed Kairi alive for his plan to succeed. He turned in the air, his eyes seeking, seeking…

His eyes widened.

Shit.

Axel barely managed to teleport himself to the ground before Kairi slammed into him, almost knocking him to his knees. Staggering, Axel wondered if maybe he hadn't thrown her with a little too much force.

Kairi immediately began to struggle and squirm against his chest. Axel huffed in annoyance. Honestly, he should've just let her hit the ground – maybe then she'd have given him less trouble.

He gave her a little shake, trying to make her stop squirming, but she beat small fists against his chest and tried to kick him. Only a quick back step preserved his dignity. Axel growled in annoyance. What did that brat see in her?

They had both forgotten about the final Dusk until it shot up to its full height between them; Axel had no choice but to release Kairi. He jumped backward, chakram suddenly back in his hands, waiting for the thing to come at him.

To his dismay, it turned and leaped at Kairi.

Eyes wide, Kairi brought her arms up in a hopeless motion to shield herself.

"Do not move," Axel shouted, the chakram bursting into flame in his hands.

The Dusk recoiled from Kairi as a circle of fire shot up from the ground, engulfing the slim girl. Before it could gather itself and attack again, two flaming chakram tore their way through the Nobody's body, shredding it.

As the Dusk dissolved, Axel let the fire around Kairi die out. His hands remained clenched around the chakram.

They stared at each other across the shadowed corridor for a moment.

Finally, Axel slumped forward a fraction, letting the chakram fade. The elation at battle had deserted him – he was, once again, empty. He needed Roxas with him to sustain any type of meaningful emotion.

Without a word, he stepped forward and grabbed Kairi's wrist again. To his surprise, she didn't fight his grip. Looking back at her, he cringed internally at the look of appreciation in her eyes. He was drained and empty – he didn't want her thanks, especially considering what he planned to use her for.

"Don't," he said, his voice sounding tired and hollow in his own ears. "Don't look at me like that."

When the order had come to destroy Roxas if he refused to return, Axel hadn't been surprised. He had been surprised when he found himself volunteering again.

Perhaps it wasn't so surprising in hindsight. He would never have stood for letting anyone else kill Roxas. He owed the boy that much at least.

The digital world DiZ had created had begun to break down in the face of Sora's awakening. When Axel had appeared before him for the second time, Roxas hadn't seemed overly surprised, only cautious.

"Look at what it's come to. I've been given these icky orders to destroy you if you refuse to come back with me."

Axel had known the boy before him only wore Roxas's face, but he couldn't help but try to reach his friend one more time.

Roxas had gazed back, blue eyes wide in a face that had never looked so innocent in the Castle That Never Was.

"We're…best friends, right?"

The import of those words hadn't hit Axel right away – running a hand through his hair, he'd answered almost distractedly.

"Sure…but I'm not getting turned into a Dusk for…"

He'd caught his breath, eyes widening as he caught the significance behind Roxas's question. He'd leaned forward, willing it to be true.

"Wait a sec! You remember now!?"

Roxas's affirmation had been hesitant. Feeling his doubts resurfacing, Axel had beat back his elation and searched his mind for a question only his Roxas would've been able to answer.

"What's our boss's name?"

Roxas had simply stared back at him, not even trying to pretend he knew. Axel had felt something in his empty chest clench and twist at the expression on the younger Nobody's face.

"Can't believe this…" he'd groaned.

Without a word, Roxas had reached for a forgotten stick lying in the street. Axel had watched with something like pain as the Keyblade flashed to life in Roxas's hands.

With a heavy feeling in his chest, Axel had summoned his chakram. He would do this one last thing for Roxas. He would save him from this artifice, save him from disappearing inside Sora, never to be his own person – Nobody – again.

But as he'd lifted his arm to attack, DiZ had interfered once again. Everything and everyone around Axel had frozen – except Roxas. Immobilized, Axel could only watch as Roxas had reacted to a voice Axel couldn't hear. As Roxas had run away from him for the second time.

When he'd regained the use of his body, Axel had let the chakram fade away. Roxas had lied to him. Suddenly, it didn't matter that the boy with false memories of a life spent in a false town wasn't the same person his friend had been. Roxas had lied to him.

"Fine, I see how it is…"

When Axel had caught up with Roxas, the kid had found his way into the secret basement of DiZ's dilapidated mansion. He had watched dispassionately as Roxas made short work of a group of Dusks.

The kid still hadn't been fighting the way he used to, but he seemed to be getting more comfortable with the Keyblade. Axel had known he had to attack him soon if he wanted to win. And he did want to.

"Simply amazing, Roxas," he'd sneered, his voice dripping sarcasm as he entered the small room, letting the dark portal close behind him.

Roxas had looked at him strangely, and the uncertain way he uttered Axel's name had made his heartless chest ache. But Axel hadn't been about to fall for the same trick twice.

"You really do remember me this time?" he'd asked, turning to face his former friend. "I'm so flattered!" He'd called up a wall of fire, trapping Roxas inside with him. Roxas wasn't going to be able to run away from him this time.

Roxas had fallen back immediately, looking around for some way out. That had just pissed Axel off even more. "But you're too late!!"

And then – the unexpected. Somehow, through the haze of Namine's manipulation and DiZ's obstruction, Roxas had called to Oathkeeper and Oblivion – and they had responded.

When he had seen the dual Keyblades in Roxas's hands, Axel had known he couldn't win. Summoning his chakram, he'd bid a silent good-bye to his friend.

But Roxas hadn't killed him. When the battle had ended and the flames had died out, Roxas had looked at him, and suddenly it was his Roxas again.

"Axel…"

The way Roxas said his name, Axel had known he finally remembered him. Maybe not everything, but he remembered him. And suddenly, that was enough.

The darkness had begun to call him back; he'd used too much of himself in their little scuffle. Still, he hadn't wanted to leave the kid with nothing.

"Let's meet again in the next life."

The words had surprised him, especially since he hadn't realized he was going to speak. But Roxas had nodded as if he'd been waiting for that sentence all along.

"Yeah. I'll be waiting."

And suddenly the absurdity of the statement had struck him. He was a Nobody. He didn't have another life to look forward to. The darkness had risen up around him as he'd spoken his final words to his only friend.

"Silly. Just because you have a next life…"

By the time he'd regained enough strength to return to Twilight Town, Roxas had already merged with Sora. Not really understanding why, Axel had stayed, watching the Keybearer that did and didn't remind him so strongly of his lost friend.

And then, when Sora and his companions had prepared to board the train and leave, Axel had seen it. The single tear that had slipped from Sora's eye. The Keybearer had been confused and a little embarrassed, not understanding where it had come from, but Axel had known.

Roxas was still in there.

And Axel had known right then that he'd do anything to get him back.

He had never returned to the Castle That Never Was. Eventually the Superior had noticed his absence. Saix had been stalking Axel from world to world – Axel was sure the group of Dusks he had just faced down had been sentries for the Superior's lapdog.

He was pretty sure that if they ever caught him, they wouldn't even bother turning him into a Dusk. They'd probably just kill him. So now, albeit at different times, he and Roxas had become the same – fugitives.

The irony wasn't lost on him. If Roxas had trusted him just a little more, had discussed his wish to leave the Organization with Axel – had given Axel time to learn to deal with the strange new emotions that had filled him where before there had always been nothing – Axel probably would have chosen to go with him.

And none of this would've happened.

Not even Riku would've been able to overpower both of them, not even after giving his body back over to the darkness, or whatever it was he'd done. And without Riku, DiZ never would've gotten his hands on Roxas, allowing Namine to mess around with the kid's memories.

And Roxas would still be here

"You're hurting me!"

Shaking himself out of his thoughts, Axel glanced behind him. Kairi was twisting against his hold again. His fingers had tightened on her wrist until his grip was almost cruel, grinding the small bones together. Abashed, he loosened his hold, but he checked the apology that rose to his lips.

She shouldn't expect him to care about her. She shouldn't expect kindness. Because he might have to do more than hurt her to get what he so desperately wanted.

Axel turned away from her and continued on through the darkness.