(A/N): I'm trying to move away from working in the actual context of the game, but I wanted to do a follow-up piece to Hollow Heart. This can be considered a sequel, but it's not necessary to read Hollow Heart to understand what's happening. Contains MAJOR spoilers for the events of KH 2.
Disclaimer: I only own one copy of the game. Unless the world goes completely, utterly mad, I will never own the characters.
"Tell me…Tell me why he picked you!" – Roxas, The World That Never Was
Axel lay flat on his back, watching with detached interest as small pieces of himself floated up and away, disappearing into the empty space of Betwixt and Between. He was fading.
He tried to give a small bark of laughter, but he had to settle for a pained smirk.
He knew it was a Nobody's destiny to fade back into nothingness; he'd seen countless Dusks and Creepers, even a few Dancers and Assassins fade away. Maybe he'd been arrogant, but he really hadn't expected it to happen to him.
He didn't remember hitting the ground, which was strange because it must've hurt seeing as how he hadn't had the power to arrest his fall. Oh well. What was one more cracked rib? He was pretty sure he wouldn't have to worry about the pain for long.
Small spits of flame licked at the edges of his broken body, but he was empty, didn't have anything left, and they wouldn't obey his will.
He really was a selfish bastard, he thought with a trace of bitter amusement. Now that he'd poured out all of himself, now that he couldn't go back, he didn't want to die. Not yet.
He wanted to see Roxas.
He probably should have thought of that before pouring himself into his final strike. He never had been the best thinker, though – always too emotional (oh, ha ha), reacting on instinct more often than reason.
He still didn't understand why. Why he'd sacrificed himself for a snot-nosed brat that had stolen the only thing he'd ever truly cared about.
Because Axel could've beaten the lowly Nobodies without giving it his all. And Sora – no matter how temporarily overwhelmed the Keybearer might've been, Roxas was still in there somewhere. Roxas would never have let Dusks get the better of him.
Maybe, Axel reflected as he heard Sora cry his name, he'd done it because it was the only way he could apologize.
To Roxas – for obeying the Superior and keeping the truth of the kid's Other a secret. For not being strong enough to help him remember his past in time to change his fate.
To Sora – for what he'd done to Kairi. For what he would've done to the Keybearer, given half a chance.
The flames around him finally began to die out as Sora ran to where he lay. The kid really looked nothing like Roxas, except he did. Axel closed his eyes against the sight of those wide blue eyes – too innocent to be the wide blue eyes he so desperately wanted to see again.
When Axel opened his eyes again, the Keybearer was kneeling over him, eyes clouded with an emotion Axel couldn't read. The kid really was so hopelessly naïve – how had he ever managed to get this far?
After Kairi had given him the slip – he really hadn't expected her to kick him there – Axel had been forced to move erratically from world to world as Saix's pursuit had grown more and more determined.
But he hadn't been about to lie down and let the Luna Diviner kill him. Even if Saix had managed to spirit Kairi away before Axel could get his hands on her (and that was probably a good thing – he wouldn't have been in a forgiving mood) he was still determined to bring Roxas back.
Because Axel had no one and nothing but Roxas.
He'd kept careful track of the Keybearer's movements from the shadows, even in the face of Saix's pursuit, but the damn kid was never without his idiotic companions, and Axel hadn't wanted a full-fledged battle with the wielder of the Keyblade. He'd just wanted a chance to grab the brat and disappear.
Though he told himself that Sora was nothing like the friend he so desperately missed – he smiled too often and too widely, he was too energetic, and his cheery optimism could be downright sickening – there had been times when Sora would quiet down, and Axel would feel his breath hitch in his throat, seeing Roxas in Sora's place until he blinked it away.
At those times he'd always been torn between two warring impulses – to step forward and wring the life from Sora for taking Roxas away from him and to abandon his quest altogether. Unused to the conflicting emotions tearing his heartless chest apart, he'd always opted to remain hidden, biding his time.
Until the Keybearer had killed Demyx at Hollow Bastion and so obligingly fulfilled the expectations of the Organization.
Demyx's death had angered Axel – he hadn't been particularly fond of the Melodious Nocturne, but there had been a time when they had been almost-friends. And he had disliked the way the Superior had sent the kid to fight the Keybearer when he had to have known Demyx had no chance of winning.
When Xemnas himself had appeared, Axel had snapped. Sora may not have been Roxas, but Roxas was undeniably a part of Sora, and Axel loathed the idea of the Superior thinking he could twist and manipulate his friend like that.
"Way to fall right into their trap."
The Keybearer hadn't been expecting his appearance –he had adopted a battle stance so similar to Roxas's that Axel had had to close his eyes for a moment.
"C'mon, it's a set-up by Organization XIII."
Axel had kept talking to force the thought of Roxas from his mind. He knew he couldn't touch Sora at that point; dwelling on the impossible was useless. Pushing himself away from the cliff's wall, he'd let the words spill from his lips, not caring that he was betraying Organization secrets – he was already a traitor, after all.
"Xemnas is using you to destroy the Heartless – that's his big master plan."
Sora's companions had eyed him narrowly, clearly not trusting his words.
"The guy you just saw," Axel'd continued, ignoring their obvious distrust and gesturing to where the Superior had vanished into a portal of darkness. "He's their leader." He hadn't even thought about his choice of words – he was never going to follow Xemnas again. He'd tapped a finger to his temple. "Got it memorized?"
They still hadn't understood.
"Man, you're slow," Axel had smirked, waving a hand at them dismissively. How could this dim-witted kid be Roxas's Other? He'd gestured to the Keyblade clutched in the boy's hands.
"Every Heartless slain with that Keyblade releases a captive heart. That is what the Organization is after."
"So what are those guys gonna do with the hearts?"
Axel had felt the words stick in his throat. How could a Somebody understand what the Organization was trying to do? How could they understand how they hated and envied those with hearts?
How could they comprehend what it was to know you weren't meant to exist, that you had no right to feel anything? To know that the rest of the worlds despised you, when you'd had no hand in becoming what you were?
No one but a Nobody could understand why the Organization was so desperate to obtain Kingdom Hearts. And that was how it should be. A Somebody could never understand a Nobody's pain. Axel had shrugged.
"I'm not telling," he'd replied, grinning cockily.
Sora's companions had gotten angry at his sudden reticence, but the Keybearer had suddenly lunged forward like he hadn't even heard the conversation.
"You…you're the one who kidnapped Kairi!"
Axel had cocked an eyebrow. Was the kid really just realizing that now?
"Bingo. The name's Axel." Axel's chest had tightened – he'd said something painfully similar to Roxas when they'd first met. "Got it memorized?" he'd thrown in, ignoring the sensation.
"Where is Kairi?" There had been such a note of desperation in the Keybearer's voice that Axel had actually paused.
"Please. Just tell me!"
Those damn blue eyes hadn't looked a thing like Roxas's in that moment – too vulnerable, too pleading – but Axel had still found himself almost feeling bad about what he had done to the girl. Not to mention that he hadn't had any idea where Kairi was by that point – Saix had captured her weeks ago.
Axel had looked away from the Keybearer, trying to ignore the kid's beseeching expression.
"Look, about Kairi…"
"I'm sorry," he'd finished at last, shocked to find that he almost meant it.
Axel had started at the sound of the Luna Diviner's voice – for a moment he'd forgotten that the bastard was chasing him. As Saix had appeared in front of the Keybearer, Axel had shot his elder a poisonous glare before retreating back into the darkness.
When Saix hadn't immediately pursued him, Axel had paused in the shadowed corridor to try and put a name to the strange emotion roiling in his empty chest. As he ran through a mental list of half-remembered feelings, only one stood out in his mind: guilt.
The kid was still looking at him like he expected some kind of response. What did he want Axel to do – deny it? That would be pointless – more and more of him was breaking away.
"Well, that's what happens when you put your whole being into an attack. You know what I mean?"
Every word was torture to his blistered lungs, but Axel couldn't remain silent with those damn eyes – so similar but so different from Roxas's eyes – looking at him like that. Something about that statement had sounded wrong though.
"Not that Nobodies actually have beings…right?" he amended with a faint chuckle.
And there was the crux of the problem. He shouldn't have cared about what happened to the Keybearer, at least not outside of how it might affect Roxas. But he had helped him, poured out his life for the kid, and it hadn't brought Roxas back to him.
His mind was wandering, he realized, shaking himself back to the present.
"Anyway, I digress. Go, find Kairi."
Axel felt that strange emotion roiling around in his chest again.
"Oh, almost forgot… Sorry for what I did to her."
And this time, to his surprise, Axel really meant it.
Sora's face fell. When he spoke, his soft words were almost lost on Axel – he was more preoccupied with the disturbing haze that seemed to be falling over him, blotting out his surroundings and everything but the boy kneeling beside him.
"When we find her, you can tell her that yourself."
Axel didn't know if he should want to laugh or cry at the kid's pathetic determination to pretend that he wasn't dying. He looked back up into the kid's face – and felt what little breath he had catch in his throat. He thought he saw something behind the cerulean depths of Sora's eyes – the wild struggling of another consciousness desperately trying to assert itself.
Axel tore his gaze away from the Keybearer's face, instead gazing up into the darkness clouding his vision.
"Think I'll pass. My heart just wouldn't be in it, you know? Haven't got one."
Sora didn't react to his little joke, but Axel managed to chuckle weakly. His lungs hated him for it.
Axel had followed the Keybearer from world to world, but he'd never revealed himself to the boy again. He couldn't risk Saix capturing him. Not when he was so close to having Roxas back.
But the opportunity Axel had hoped would eventually fall into his lap had never come. At least not until Sora and his companions had returned to Twilight Town and found DiZ's – Ansem's – whatever name he'd finally settled on – his computer.
Axel hadn't had to follow them through the machine into the false Twilight Town – he'd connected the digital world to the darkness when he'd first tried to bring Roxas back. The memory had caused an ache deep in his heartless chest.
When he'd arrived, the Keybearer and his friends were still standing in the basement of the false world. Sora had been regarding the computer Roxas had destroyed.
"This is the other Twilight Town," he'd said slowly, his eyes unfocused. "Roxas's Twilight Town."
It had taken every ounce of self-control Axel possessed to keep from springing at the kid and killing him right then and there. Because this hadn't been Roxas's town, it had been his prison.
They'd stolen him away, warped his memories, and trapped him in a false life with false friends. It was even less of an existence than that of a Nobody.
And Axel hadn't been able to save him.
The King had spoken, pulling the Keybearer out of his daze, and the moment had passed. The small party had turned and worked their way farther into the basement. Grinding his teeth, Axel had followed.
They'd found the doorway easily enough – DiZ had never bothered to repair the distortion Axel had caused after his final battle with Roxas. There hadn't been a need. DiZ already had what he wanted – Sora had awakened. He had no further use for his false world.
Somehow, that thought angered Axel.
Because DiZ had treated Roxas in the exact same manner. Like a tool, to be used and discarded when he was no longer of use.
The King had broken away from the Keybearer and his friends before they could step into the portal – Axel wasn't sure if the rodent had detected his own presence or that of a friend, but he'd turned away, saying he'd find another way. Axel had watched him go with something like relief. One less Keyblade to contend with.
Sora and his friends had stepped through the doorway to Betwixt and Between, and Axel had known he finally had them right where he wanted them. Because there was no way forward unless one of the Organization opened the path to The World That Never Was.
And Axel certainly wasn't going to do that.
He'd taken his time following them, knowing what he'd find when he stepped through. Dusks had surrounded the Keybearer and his small party, and though they fought tirelessly, more of the pale Nobodies always rose to replace those that had been cut down.
In time, the sheer number of Dusks would overwhelm them. And Axel would finally be able to capture the brat and vanish.
But while he'd been watching the Keybearer fight, lazily inspecting his gloved fingers while he waited for the kid to fall, a trick of the light, the angle of Sora's head – something had made him see Roxas in Sora's place again. And seeing his friend fighting so desperately had made the void where his heart should've been clench and tremble.
"Don't stop moving, or the darkness will overtake you!"
He'd spoken before he could stop himself. The Dusks, alerted to his presence for the first time, had paused, clearly torn between which of them to attack.
Axel had taken all of one second to curse at himself, calling himself every name he could think of, before he'd launched himself at the nearest Dusk. In for a penny, in for a pound, he'd thought wryly. If only he could've kept his mouth shut for once…
He'd destroyed the Dusks standing directly in the way of Sora's party, the chakram spinning and dancing around him, returning to his hands when he called. He'd turned and been mildly annoyed when he found they hadn't moved – they were just standing and gaping at him with their mouths hanging open.
"Get goin'!" he'd cried, his voice a little harsher than he'd intended.
The Keybearer had simply stared back.
That was the one question Axel couldn't answer.
"Don't ask. Just do it!"
He'd been so fixated on Sora and his little party that he hadn't sensed the Dusk approaching until it had slammed into him, knocking him to the ground. He'd been so shocked that he'd lost his hold on the chakram, and without his will, they had faded back into nothingness.
Nose pressed to the ground, Axel had had time to wonder if he was going to die. It was a damn pathetic way to go, he'd reflected. He'd envisioned hundreds of ways he might die – the life of an Organization member was not for the faint-hearted – but he'd never expected to be snuffed out by a Dusk.
And suddenly the weight pressing down on him was gone, and he'd looked up to see Sora standing over him. For a second Axel had been half-convinced the Keybearer was going to take a swing at him until he'd registered the kid's question.
Axel had pushed himself to his knees, glaring up at the young Keybearer. He didn't want the kid's concern. And he certainly didn't want Sora thinking he needed his help. He'd let the words pour out of him, wanting the kid to understand that he was not his friend.
"I kidnapped Kairi, but she got away from me." Sora's gaze hadn't flinched, and Axel hadn't known whether he should be annoyed or grateful – he didn't want a Keyblade shoved down his throat, after all, but he didn't want the kid to keep looking at him like that, either. "After that, Saix caught her."
Sora had blinked at that, though in confusion rather than anger.
"He's a member of Organization XIII," Axel had elaborated. "Saix. Got it memorized?"
And suddenly Axel had seen Roxas in Sora's place again. Closing his eyes against the illusion, he'd grated out, "Now go save her!" Because in that moment, he'd no longer cared about capturing the Keybearer. He'd just wanted the kid out of his sight so that he couldn't continue to torture himself with visions of Roxas.
A Dusk had launched itself at the Keybearer's back, but Sora had turned and sliced through the pale Nobody effortlessly.
"Leave us alone!" he'd cried, voice tight with anger, and Axel had been shocked to realize that Sora had included him in that desperate shout.
He'd pushed himself to his feet with a smirk, calling the chakram back into his hands.
And so, after weeks dedicated to nothing but capturing the kid and turning him into a Heartless, Axel had found himself fighting alongside the Keybearer. He wondered if Roxas would've found the situation as amusing as he did.
The Dusks had swarmed around them, and though they fell quickly to the singing metal of the Keyblade and Axel's flame, more always rose to replace those they cut down. Axel had known it was hopeless unless he could close all the portals leading into Betwixt and Between, but that required more energy than he had ever expended in a single attack.
He and Sora had come to rest back to back, regarding the swarm of Dusks surrounding them.
"I think I liked it better when they were on my side," Axel had remarked, half-serious. The Dusks were just so mindlessly persistent – they didn't know when to give up and retreat.
Sora had turned and grinned up at him.
"Feeling a little…regret?"
Axel had smirked. So the kid had a sense of humor after all. Who knew? In fact, it had sounded remarkably close to what he would've expected Roxas to say…
"Nah… I can handle these punks." He'd turned and grinned at the Keybearer. It was all so wrong – it should've been Roxas standing beside him, joking with him, but Roxas was gone and all that remained was his overly-energetic, idiotically optimistic Other. Still, looking at Sora's face, Axel had felt a sort of calm acceptance overcome him.
He'd turned away with a small laugh. "Watch this!" he'd smirked, leaping away from the boy.
He'd landed in the middle of the prancing Nobodies and immediately set the chakram spinning around him. Gathering all of his power, he'd concentrated on the feel of the swarm of Nobodies surrounding him and the portals they were flowing through.
With a scream that had damaged his throat, he'd released everything – his power, his flames, his rage at Roxas's being taken from him, his regret at being unable to bring him back – he had poured everything he had and was into his attack, incinerating the Dusks and destroying the portals.
It had hurt, and he'd known in that moment that this was one of the last things he would ever do. He was the Flurry of Dancing Flames, and the fire, which had always obeyed his will so effortlessly, was hurting him, burning him inside and out –
And then there had only been pain.
The kid just couldn't keep quiet and let him die in peace. Brows creasing, Axel made a noise in the back of his throat. Let the kid interpret it however he wanted.
"What were you trying to do?"
Axel's eyes flicked open, resting momentarily on Sora's face. He paused for a moment, not sure he wanted to divulge the truth to the Keybearer. But Roxas was still a part of the kid, and Axel hadn't had the chance to tell his friend the truth before. He was dying – there was no point in mincing words.
"I wanted to see Roxas," he answered, ignoring Sora's little double take at the words. What, did the kid think he didn't have it in him? Sora's brows drew together in an expression totally out of place on his normally cheery face, and Axel saw it again.
Struggling frantically against the psyche of his Other, desperate for one last moment of dominance. Axel knew it was too late – Roxas had been a part of Sora for too long, and his Other's will was too strong for him to overtake it in the time Axel had left.
Still, Axel's non-existent heart lifted as he recognized the light that was his friend behind Sora's eyes.
The world continued to darken around him, and Axel turned his head away from Sora – he was speaking to Roxas now, saying all the things he should've said before his friend had left him behind.
"He…was the only one I liked…"
His body was dissolving in little wisps and tendrils. It sort of reminded him of smoke.
"He made me feel…like I had a heart."
And suddenly understanding smacked him over the head.
"It's kind of…funny…"
Though it hurt him, he turned back to face the Keybearer.
"You make me feel…the same…"
His laboring lungs cut the sentiment short, and Axel closed his eyes, drifting in a hazy fog. He'd said everything he needed to say. He'd told Roxas the truth, knowing the kid could hear him. He felt more and more of himself fading, disappearing into the vast emptiness of Betwixt and Between.
Betwixt and Between…
Axel dragged his eyes open again. If he died before opening a portal, everything would be for nothing. Sora and his friends would be trapped here.
The Keybearer was still looking at him with that same sad expression. The kid wasn't even aware of the struggle taking place deep within him.
He really was so different from Roxas.
"Kairi's in the castle dungeon," Axel said, proud of the fact that his voice was clear and strong, though his tortured lungs were screaming with each borrowed breath he drew. "Now go."
He turned away from the Keybearer for the final time, reaching down inside himself and tapping reserves he didn't know he had to open a portal to The World That Never Was. As the darkness opened before him, responding to the last of his will, his body began to dissolve in earnest.
Axel felt a quiet terror at the darkness creeping across his vision. He didn't want to fade away here, in the void between worlds, with only the boy who wasn't Roxas to mourn him. He didn't want to die…
Axel had no breath left to catch, but the void in his chest suddenly trembled. Because that haunted, heart-breaking murmur had come from Roxas. Speaking through Sora, saying his final good-bye to the friend he had remembered too late.
And with all that he had left, with all that he still was even as he faded back into nothing, Axel smiled. Because the hollow, aching emptiness that had always occupied the space his heart should have taken was suddenly full.