(A/N): Ok, so it's not the most original concept in the world, but hey - I never claimed to be the bearer of all things fresh and original. Updates will probably be sporadic, for which I apologize in advance. And for once, I have no concept ahead of time how long this thing will actually be, so please bear with me. Reviews are always welcomed (with manic grins).
Disclaimer: Oh, please. As if I really owned these characters.
"Let's meet again in the next life." – Axel, Twilight Town
Roxas scowled down at the trash littered across the pavement, wishing for the tenth time that he had taken up smoking. Or drinking. Anything that would've given him something more to do than lean against the soot-smeared wall as he waited for Namine – something that would've occupied his hands, which he was shoving irritably into the deep pockets of his dark jacket for the fifth time.
He hated waiting.
Because when he was still, when he didn't have anything with which to occupy himself, he couldn't ignore the hollow ache that would creep up on him, or the remnants of half-remembered dreams that plagued him nightly.
His head whipped up, eyes seeking the pale head of hair that belonged to his best friend. There – the petite girl was winding her way through the dispersing students, notebooks and sketchpad held aloft to prevent them from being jostled out of her small hands.
Roxas's scowl melted into an almost-smile, the corner of his lips quirking just slightly as Namine came to stand before him, books clutched to her chest.
Everything about the girl seemed washed-out – her platinum blonde hair was so pale it was almost white, her skin looked as if she had never spent a day outdoors in her life, and her clothing was non-descript and monotone. Her eyes were the only colorful things about her – a deep, piercing blue that seemed to look right through you and not only understand, but forgive.
"Sorry," Namine said quietly, reaching up to tuck a pale strand of hair back behind her ear. "I had to stop by the office and pick up Hayner's homework."
Roxas made a small noise of acknowledgement in the back of his throat. Their brash friend had been out sick with the flu for the past two days – he should've known Namine would take it upon herself to deliver his missed assignments to him.
"Roxas? You ok?"
With a slight mental shake, Roxas managed to pull his gaze back from the spot above Namine's left shoulder. He gave her a small, tight smile as he pushed himself away from the wall, settling his backpack more firmly over his right shoulder.
"Yeah," he said, trying to sound reassuring. He turned and fell in step beside her. "Bad day."
Namine didn't reply, but she slipped one thin arm through his, giving him a soft squeeze. Roxas managed to give her a genuine smile as they left the school behind.
He knew Namine wouldn't question him, wouldn't push him to talk. Because Namine understood. She felt that same hollow ache in her own chest sometimes, that sense that she wasn't quite complete.
She poured those feelings out in oil, watercolor, charcoal – any and every medium, she used them all. She was an amazing artist, but her works always tugged at Roxas's heart and made him want to cry.
No matter how bright the colors, how uplifting the image, there was something about her works that was full of melancholy longing. He'd told her that once. She'd smiled sadly and given him a soft kiss on the cheek, murmuring something about him knowing her too well. They'd never spoken about it again.
He hadn't had the courage to ask if she ever dreamed.
Roxas couldn't pinpoint the exact date the troubling dreams had begun, but it had been sometime during the year he'd turned ten. Seven years. Seven years of waking to muffled sobs and plaintive cries that he only recognized as his own after the first few seconds of consciousness.
He could never remember, once he was awake, what exactly the dream had been about. He would lie on his back, tracing patterns through the shadows on his ceiling, trying to recall even a single detail. But the images always fled faster than he could follow them, leaving only that all-too-familiar ache pressing down on his chest.
The soft cry drew Roxas out of his musings. Looking up, he quickly saw the cause of Namine's excitement. They were in the middle of Hollow Bastion's shopping district – they were currently standing in front of a children's toy store, where a large stuffed…thing?
Roxas blinked at the stuffed apparition in the storefront's window. He wasn't sure what it was supposed to be. It was about a foot tall, black, with a round body and oversized feet. Antenna protruded from a round head and yellow glassy eyes stared sightlessly out at the milling crowds. Small poseable arms hung limply at its sides.
Roxas blinked again, trying to repress the smirk that was tugging at his lips. Whatever it was, it was weird, even for Namine. She was clearly enamored of it – she'd slipped her arm out of his and was pressing one pale hand to the glass, a small, silly smile on her lips.
Roxas grabbed her elbow, steering her away from the window and toward the store's door. Namine gasped, twisting in his grip as she realized where he was headed.
"Roxas, no –!"
He ignored her protests, knowing she really did want a closer look at the thing – he could see it in the way she bit at her lip, clearly torn between wrenching her arm away from him and letting him continue to pull her along.
Roxas guided her through the door, keeping his grip on her elbow as he steered her through the other customers and back to the huge display of the stuffed monstrosities. Namine sighed happily as she stepped forward, his hand falling away from her arm.
Roxas let her stand and swoon, or whatever it was she was doing. He wandered down one of the long aisles, confident she'd find him when she was ready to leave. There was a small, yapping dog doing flips on one of the display shelves. Roxas pulled it down with a grimace, searching for the 'off' switch – that yapping was really annoying.
His mind wandered as he turned the toy over in his hands – the damn thing didn't seem to have an 'off' switch. He'd seen a few others, over the years, that he suspected felt the same sense of incompleteness.
There had been a willowy blonde on the subway. She'd pulled a switchblade on some idiot dumb enough to try and cop a feel. The unlucky perv had gotten off at the next stop, pale and shaking. She'd fixed Roxas with a cruel smirk when she saw him watching her, but it hadn't been enough to distract him from the emptiness in her eyes.
There was the blue-eyed guitarist, more often than not set up on the street corner Roxas passed every day on his way to school. The musician had a face meant to smile, but his goofy grins and infectious laughter couldn't disguise the occasional lost gaze he would fix on the people walking past him, as if searching among them for what he was missing.
Roxas always dropped some money into the guy's open case, and they were on nodding terms with one another, but he doubted it would ever progress any further than that. They recognized the same hollow ache in each other, and they both knew the other wasn't what they needed to fill it.
"What are you doing to that dog?"
Roxas started and glanced over at Namine guiltily. He'd been thinking of dismembering the stuffed toy and smashing the sound box that was producing that high-pitched yipping.
Namine was holding one of the black bugs under her arm, wedged on top of her notebooks. Roxas raised an eyebrow.
"You actually bought one of those things?" he asked incredulously, placing the unharmed toy back on the display shelf. Namine's face split into a gentle grin as she hugged the black thing closer to her.
"Isn't it cute?" she sighed happily. Roxas's eyebrow traveled a little higher. "Cute" was not the first word that sprang to his mind, but he gave a small nod, shifting the strap of his backpack a little higher on his shoulder.
"Sure," he said noncommittally. Namine made a face at him, wrinkling her nose at his lack of enthusiasm.
"It is cute," she insisted, grabbing it by the neck and holding it out for him to inspect. Roxas gently batted it back at her, moving past her and up the aisle.
"I'll take your word for it," he grinned. Namine tucked the bug back under her arm and caught up with him, linking her free arm with his. There was a gentle smile on her lips.
"Thanks for dragging me in here, Roxas," she said quietly. Roxas shrugged, bumping her shoulder with his.
They threaded their way through the other customers and left the store in silence.
"Hey, Roxas! Namine!"
Their heads swiveled in the direction from which the shout had come. Pence and Olette were making their way through the jostling crowds toward them. Olette was waving cheerfully. Pence couldn't wave – he was weighed down under at least four boxes and three bags. Olette had somehow convinced him to take her shopping again.
Roxas stepped forward, disentangling his arm from Namine's, and took the top two boxes from the pile his friend was currently trying to keep his grip on. Pence flashed him a smile of embarrassed thanks.
Olette descended on Namine, drawing her pale friend into a gentle hug. She stepped back, grasping Namine's free hand, green eyes widening at the sight of the black monstrosity tucked under her arm.
Roxas turned back to Pence and rolled his eyes in apology – Olette would probably now insist on entering the toy store. The two girls were quickly involved in a heated discussion of just how cute the black bug apparently was – Roxas nudged Pence and the two of them moved a little farther away.
"How'd she get you this time?" Roxas asked, grinning. Pence flushed and looked at his feet. Well, he tried to look at his feet – Olette's boxes and bags interrupted his view.
"She said she only needed one thing," he muttered good-naturedly. Roxas smirked.
"When does Olette ever need just one thing?" he chuckled. Pence ducked his head, then shrugged.
"Never," he admitted, grinning.
Olette was gesturing at them, clearly wanting Roxas and Pence to rejoin them. Carefully balancing packages, they moved back toward the two girls. Roxas shifted his grip on the boxes cautiously, his eyes wandering down the crowded street –
Roxas froze, Olette's packages falling from his suddenly senseless fingers. He didn't hear Olette's cry of distress or the complaints of the people around him. His eyes were fixed on a head of flaming hair on the other side of the street, two blocks down from where he was standing.
His mouth was suddenly dry and his heart was hammering in his chest. Without understanding why, Roxas took a hesitant step forward, then another. Before he knew it, he was sprinting, deaf to the confused cries of his friends.
He shoved his way through the crowds desperately, not understanding the urgency with which he was running, driven forward by the primal voice screaming in his head to move, to catch the redhead before – before…
A small part of Roxas's brain wondered detachedly what the hell was wrong with him. So the guy had red hair. So what? He'd seen red hair before, for crying out loud. But that voice was pounding through him insistently, and he was powerless to resist it.
The owner of the red hair was walking at a brisk pace, head bobbing gently to an unheard rhythm. He was too far away for Roxas to make out more than that he was wearing a dark leather trench coat and had a book bag slung over his right shoulder.
Roxas put on a burst of speed and closed the distance between them to half a block. He was so close, the guy was just across the street – he pulled up short at the warning honk that sounded a second before a car flew past him, so close the side-view mirror clipped him.
Roxas staggered back, clutching his arm. He knew he'd have an ugly bruise by the morning, but the pain didn't seem to register properly – all that was important were those fiery spikes disappearing as the guy descended to the subway.
Roxas waited impatiently for the light to change, clutching his throbbing arm to his side. He flew across the street and almost tripped in his haste to get down the subway stairs. The small, sane corner of his brain let him know he was going to kill himself before he caught up with the redhead, but reason could not override Roxas's bizarre state of panic.
He waited impatiently at the turnstile, frowning so fiercely that a few people shied away from him. He shoved his way through the crowd, eyes seeking those red spikes desperately.
The guy was on the opposite platform, his face turned away from Roxas, speaking to someone behind him. Roxas fought the debilitating urge to jump down onto the tracks.
With something like desperation, he studied the redhead. All he could see was the sweep of one ear – studded with silver, sporting the ear bud of an iPod – and the curve of one pale cheek. He couldn't see the guy's face at all.
Roxas felt slightly foolish as his adrenaline began to ebb. He'd torn after a complete stranger for almost five blocks. That primal scream was still tearing through him, but as he felt the platform vibrate in anticipation of the appearance of the approaching train, its cries seemed less important.
The train pulled up to the redhead's platform, brakes protesting shrilly. Roxas could only watch dully as the surge of people exiting the cars clashed with those trying to board. He couldn't even see where the stranger was sitting.
Roxas watched the train pull away silently, wondering why he felt so cheated.