Title: Deceitful Above All Things
Length: 18,670 words. Novella. OMG WTF.
Rating: A filthy, filthy R
Summary: The heart is. (30 Amnesias)
Deceitful Above All Things
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
. . .
Contrary to the popular beliefs Axel liked to disseminate, he did not meet Roxas in a life-or-death situation involving a million Heartless and gravity-defying acrobatics. That part really did happen, just not on the day they met.
Way before that, there was this summer day in Twilight Town.
Twilight Town was weird and probably a little queer, teeming plastic hipsters and diffuse with the dusty, retrograde light of a sun that never set. Pretty people everywhere, sunlamp tan, flaxen hair, and Axel felt completely justified in openly staring at all the tits and asses he could scope out, figuring that if he had to be there he might as well enjoy himself.
He remembered finding the Organization's newest recruit sitting on the edge of the clock tower, legs swinging in the blurry dizzying drop below. Preternaturally quiet, intense-eyed and fragile-looking, and Axel had wondered to himself then which of his coworkers had made that error of judgment. It had been Xaldin who had pulled him aside to smirk and make cryptic noises about exactly how interesting their latest member was, but Xigbar had also hovered nearby, and he had had a sort of mean(er) look on his face. Now, Axel knew why.
"So, you're the infamous Number XIII," he muttered, and thought depressingly, as if mental defects like Demyx aren't bad enough, our recruitment program's apparently fishing the kindergartners pool now.
More audibly, "Roxas, isn't it?"
"Yeah," said Roxas, and turned to face Axel, eyes bright and blue like the ocean reflecting the sky, infinity within infinity. "And you're late. I've been waiting here for two hours."
That, for no particular reason, sent Axel slightly off-center. So he said, "Meanwhile, my name's Axel," and gave himself ten seconds before adding, "Got it memorized?"
In a surprise twist, Roxas managed neither to develop an allergic reaction to Axel's trademark icebreaker nor find it funnier than he should, which actually made Axel decide maybe he liked the taciturn shrimp. It led to his spending the rest of the morning—Afternoon? Evening? You could never tell in this seaside cosmic joke—asking probing, insightful questions—"But seriously, how do you get your hair to look like that?"—only to learn that everyone in the Organization had warned Roxas about him.
"They also told me I could just hit you if you wouldn't shut up," Roxas said casually, and Axel discovered that whatever his previous observations, they were wrong, wrong, wrong, because here was a bastard in leather boots if he ever saw one.
"Well, are you?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Am I what?" Roxas said, confused.
"Are you going to hit me?"
"Maybe," Roxas said. He shrugged elaborately, as though to warn Axel he hadn't entirely discarded the possibility.
"Ah. Guess that makes you one of us," Axel said, almost to himself. Like filing away information for later use.
"What's that like?" Roxas asked, lukewarm.
Axel grinned. "What? The Organization? You wanna know if there's more to villainy behind the black coats and BDSM-chic leather?"
The smallest curl of a smile. "Yeah."
"Tell you when I figure it out."
Roxas shrugged again, and leaned back, shoulders loosened to look up, up and up to where the sun was a melting red in the orange sky, seeping into filamented edges of clouds. Axel found himself staring sideways at the conch-shell pink of an ear tip as he did the basic math in his head about the likelihood of this day ending in a million Heartless and gravity-defying acrobatics after all.
It was kind of depressing, until a waft of breeze shivered past, stinging with salt, and he remembered exactly where all the quality Ts and As had gone.
"Let's go to the beach," he announced, fingers snapping. "C'mon, we can even take the train and expense account it."
Roxas frowned, and didn't sound sure when he said, "We're suppose to keep watch."
Axel snorted. "What? Over this?" he balked, sweeping out one arm—hills, hills, green hills, ugly hills. "Please, newbie, I had the personal pleasure of canvassing this Moorestown when it first popped up on the world domination map, and trust me, unless the Heartless have developed a paradoxical interest in a timeshare in a tanning table, we're better off wasting our time in a more productive manner."
Roxas still didn't appear sold—just rolled his eyes at 'world domination' and 'tanning table'. So Axel took a wild shot in the dark, "I'll buy you ice cream," and knew he'd hit home when Roxas's face softened into an expression bordering on affection. He shuffled grudgingly to his feet.
"It's on your head," he said, reluctant, but they went anyway.
And later, Axel would remember: Roxas, at that first meeting—mumbling and sullen and oddly graceful with a sort of unnatural stillness. Unhurried, to the point of being fascinating to Axel, who had always felt like he had a storm in his head. The kid was an odd one, to be sure, but what he wasn't was stupid, unlike the unwashed masses thousands in number that always seemed to flock in Axel's immediate vicinity.
He would remember that they weren't friends then.
On their second off-world mission together, Axel discovered to his mounting disgust that Roxas's hair really was like that naturally.
Their third off-world mission together was in turns boring and uncomfortable and embarrassing for assorted reasons including but not limited to thieving seagulls, tropical fish as projectile weapons, and a minor colony of Heartless bent on touching with malicious intent, but most importantly, Axel was sure he'd never seen dental equipment behave like that in his non-life.
"And that," he concluded, "is the reason we're never, ever returning to 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney ever again."
Roxas didn't blink, saying mildly, "No. That is the reason the Superior has forbidden you from ever returning to 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, actually."
He didn't look up from the report he was rewriting, crossing out Axel's chicken-scratched 'Stupid' and 'More Stupid' and 'Wet' and replacing them with what was hopefully not hip teenage lingo.
"Details," Axel discounted. "Horrible, unthinkable amounts of details. This is the reason this room is like crack to you, you know?"
The best thing about the Castle That Never Was, Axel had found, was not her ingeniously cruel architecture, not even the fact that she was more lit up than Agrabah on fight night, but her unflappable ability to constantly and diversely surprise. Two weeks prior, Axel had discovered a tiny, nebulous room squirreled away in the East Wing filled with, hand to God, floating Chinese stress balls. The only person he had shared this privileged knowledge with was Roxas, who ended up spending more time there than Axel anyway, probably for reasons related to his rewriting Axel's mission reports and caring about frivolous details.
As if he was reading Axel's thoughts, Roxas made a bitchy face and said, "You sure got over having your ass handed to you quick."
Axel didn't get defensive, so if he was presently grabbing a stress ball with swirly red patterns out of the air and rolling it around hatefully, it was for no reason he could particularly discern. In the coolest of voice, upper lip stiff, he said, "So you know a few tricks with an oversized key."
A lot of tricks, actually. With that very oversized key, Roxas had single-handedly taken out a vicious slew of Heartless. This incident would have been remarkably less noteworthy and endlessly more dignified had it not occurred immediately in the wake of Axel's pronouncement that while it was very precious of Roxas to wish to contribute to the mission perhaps he should just leave the actual fighting to a professional, at which ironic point some sort of cue had been thrown for said slew of Heartless to start whaling on Axel's ass.
"But you know, I didn't want to make a thing out of it or anything," he prevaricated.
Roxas made another dismissive noise as his pen scratched away, which unfortunately did nothing for Axel's mood.
Admittedly, he thought, passing the ball back and forth, things had gotten a little out of hand back there.
And by out of hand, he meant all-out whacko insane.
The sky dark with danger, and Axel had gotten innovative: gasoline on the water, and the entire harbor had gone up in flames. The sea burning, clotted with terror. The curving bladed silhouettes of the Opera House flickering in between black tendrils of rising smoke, and that was Sydney, on fire. Fleets of sleek white speedboats, tethered, namesake-agility rendered useless as the docks vibrated with their desperation, and the lick of flame, lunging like a swinging door, opening, closing, opening.
Beautiful, Axel had thought, but later would remember just this: the figure of Roxas outlined against the fire, dual blades splayed, this snapshot of a thin boy with hair in his face and blue eyes flashing, frozen in a slice of time.
"How's your leg?" Axel asked suddenly, palming the curve of the stress ball.
"Fine," Roxas said, and closing the mission book, pulled himself to his feet. He was favoring his right leg, jaws brittle in an obvious effort to downplay the extent of his injury.
The sight made Axel wince, totally knee-jerk.
"If it helps anything, um," he said, scraping the words out of his throat. "Thanks. And all."
Roxas was nearly out the door, but he paused at the threshold to flash a rueful smile and say, "Sure, what are friends for?" before slinking off into the artificial light.
In the room: a dull thud, echoing. Axel had dropped the stress ball.
Axel spent the next three days avoiding Roxas throughout the floors and corridors of the Castle That Never Was.
This was in and of itself not a difficult task, but ended up highly problematic anyway when in the course of those three days Axel managed to a) repeatedly stub his toes trying to look out from behind corners, b) learn the receiving end of psycho-terrorism, and c) cause near permanent damage to his tailbone falling down some steps while trying to get away from what at the time had appeared to be a Roxas-shaped shadow.
It was all very dramatic and juvenile; what made it worse was the fact that Roxas didn't even notice, just coasted along on his merry non-sequitur-sprouting way, oblivious to Axel's silent, manly suffering. He even seemed perfectly fine with not seeing Axel for those whole three days—and seriously, what kind of 'friend' doesn't pine at separation?
"Seriously," whined Axel bitterly on the fourth day, choking on mildewy dust in the library, which he'd decided was his best bet for a safe haven. "What kind of friend doesn't care?"
Larxene looked wildly alarmed for a moment, expression fluctuating between "What the fuck?" and "Why are you talking to me?" and "Why are you here?" before interest blinkered out and she resolutely turned back to her book, deadpanning, "If you're not going to read that—and it'll be a icy day in hell before you do—damn well put it back in its proper place."
The, "Or I flay you skin from flesh," remained unspoken but implicit.
Axel, mostly because he was full of nothing if not asbestos fortitude, continued flicking through the volume he was holding, though judging by the glares Larxene was slinging in his direction he wasn't getting any brownie points for academic sincerity or acting ability.
"Larxene," he began casually after a moment of studious silence. "Do you remember that mission we had together in Sector X3-455? The World That Was Dark and Faux-Gothic?"
"Traverse Town?" Larxene echoed distantly. "I remember the hookers."
Axel smirked—everyone remembered the hookers. "Yeah? Well remember how I totally saved your hide on that mission?"
"No," Larxene intoned, and something in her voice totally made Axel take two steps backward to ensure he wasn't standing in a puddle of water of some kind. "But I do remember your chauvinistic glory-hogging crap. That, I remember."
"I was helping you out," Axel lied. "Killing Heartless is so beneath you."
"And my heart grew three sizes that day," Larxene said without looking up from her page. "What's your point?"
"My point is," Axel said carefully, and thought, there are circles of hell less painful than this. "Does that make us friends?"
And when Larxene just stared at him like he was completely insane, he kind of got his answer.
"What's this about, anyway?" Larxene asked, looking curious—never, ever a good sign. "Usually when you make noises just to hear the sound of your own voice, you don't come off as though you'd dropped your game in the darkness portal."
"Shut up," Axel mumbled distractedly, still basically trying to convince himself this totally homoerotic Roxas-induced episode he was having was neither very homoerotic nor Roxas-induced. "Someone—said some stuff—it's none of your business."
He knew it was a tactical error on his part the moment the words left his mouth, because Larxene's face lit up like the local department store had suddenly announced a Blue Light Special on cattleprods and projectile weapons. "Let me guess," she said, bright-eyed and supremely interested. "Number Thirteen asked you to go steady with him?"
The click of Axel's mouth snapping shut was actually audible in the stale library air.
"Axel, Axel," Larxene said with exaggerated patience—she was positively preening. "Try to pretend for a moment you're not actually a fourteen-year-old girl, okay?"
Axel was sorely tempted to throw a book at her head, but controlled himself out of self-preservation. "Ha ha ha," he said humorlessly. "I know it must be hard to be the minority, but seriously, Larx, your desperate imprinting is just getting sad now."
Larxene raised an eyebrow, but seemed to decide that it was actually beneath her. When she spoke, it was with the timbre of voice that would be described as 'gentle' had Axel not known that unlike the rest of them, Larxene lacked the ability to fake basic human decency.
"Is this sort of like the time that dog in Sector Z4-635 bit you in the shin and you spent the rest of the day trying to be its friend?"
"This is nothing like that," Axel argued. "That dog was a yapping pygmy-menace to society—I was trying to lure it into a false sense of security before making my move."
Larxene did a shoulder-roll that could be interpreted as a shrug, all dismissive, "So it's exactly like that time, then."
Nobody in the Organization really got the Roxas and Axel thing, which made perfect sense because Axel didn't get Roxas either, and philosophically speaking no one could be said to truly get themselves, so maybe Axel just didn't get anything at all.
It was like a scab, black and festering and would probably heal if only you could stop picking at it long enough.
"Don't worry," Larxene went on maliciously. "How could he possibly not like you—you're the prettiest girl at the dance, Flurry."
At this point, Axel actually threw the book. He made sure to hightail it out of the library before the outraged shrieking subsided and Larxene had time to break out the knives.
He had resolved to settle the matter with Roxas once and for all by the following day, but by the following day was stuck in a mandatory meeting all day long.
It was the kind of gathering that under normal circumstances would be aimed towards solidarity and improving morale, but given the present company more or less amounted to Xemnas drawing a few unfortunate names from a hat to suffer a verbal litany of things equal parts obvious and foreboding—"The longer you work for Organization XIII, the more high-risk behaviors you'll find yourself indulging in," etc.
Nobody really paid attention. Demyx composed songs in his head. Larxene hid a book in her lap and sneaked glances at it in between badly stifled yawns. Axel counted loose threads in the linings of his cloak and debated the meaning of friendship and all the complications thereof.
It was in the middle of a stream of long and increasingly stupid Organization minutiae and orders of business that he sprung up out of his customary belligerent slouch and thumped the armrest of his chair, yelling, "Okay, but what the fuck did that even mean?"
Three minutes later, he had been summarily thrown out of the meeting room, worse for wear in the sense that the 'punishment' had gotten slightly intense and nearly ripped him a new one. One of the spears had actually hit him in the shin, because Xaldin was that kind of evil bastard.
It was three in the afternoon, which by Xemnas's decree meant Silent Meditation Hour—in turn code for Useless And Slothful Hour For The Purpose Of Napping Or Catching Up On Mission Reports That Were Totally Due Yesterday. Common sense told him to search for Roxas in the sleeping quarters; Axel knew better, so he hobbled faster than humanly possible for the mess hall, where invariably he found Roxas at one of the long canteen tables meticulously separating his carrots from his peas and moving them around morosely on his plate, mashing the slices to a disgusting pulp with his fork.
Axel had once voiced his concern that Roxas was nursing a real and obvious eating disorder or at the very least running the risk of developing xerophthalamia from vitamin A deficiency, but then Roxas had replied, eyes huge, that he hadn't realized Axel was the go-to person for emotional crises in Organization XIII, so Axel had vowed never to give a damn about that motherfucker again.
Which, in retrospect, had probably been a lie, because there he was, throwing himself down across from Roxas and saying, "Exactly what did you mean by that?"
Roxas stopped mutilating his vegetable and looked up in silence, though he did make an unconsciously feral noise in his throat when Axel reached over and swiped his chocolate cupcake.
Axel tried again, speaking carefully as if to a slow child, "What did you mean when you told me 'what are friends for'?"
It apparently took a moment for the reference to parse. Then Roxas said, "I suppose—I didn't really mean anything by it."
"Oh," Axel said, quashing down a sense of reasonless hurt. "But do you really think we're friends?"
"Well," drawled Roxas, lacing his fingers together contemplatively. "I save your ass when we go on missions."—"One mission," corrected Axel.—"And I let you steal my food without stabbing you in the eye with my utensil."—Axel eyed the fork warily.—"So yeah, by that strand of reasoning, I guess we kind of are."
"But how would you know?" pressed Axel, magnanimously ignoring the fact that Roxas was essentially equating cupcake theft with the saving of his life. "It's not like you've actually had friends before."
And it was a sign Axel hadn't entirely lost his button-pushing touch, because Roxas's expression grew thunderous and he immediately resumed stabbing at his molested carrots, albeit with greater ferocity than before. "That's probably because I have really poor taste in acquaintances," he muttered sarcastically, dark with meaning.
For no good reason, Axel found this statement immensely amusing, and laughed for an unwarrantedly long time about it. There must be something wrong with him. He vowed to get a better sense of humor at his earliest convenience.
"…right," Roxas shrugged and took to carving hieroglyphical grooves into the skin of his Mandarin grapefruit with a plastic knife, spilling sticky juice all over his fingers. He was such a freak.
Granted, they were all freaks, just with varying depths, but the fact that Roxas was now apparently Axel's freak seemed to make a world of difference.
"Sometimes I don't know why I like you," Roxas said, spearing the mangled fruit in one decisive stab.
"But you do like me," Axel pointed out, floored with revelation.
"What happened to not making a thing out of it?" Roxas said, and with the last word his hard expression collapsed into a smile, long and low and all drawn-out, a non-verbal acquiescence.
Roxas was touchy on the subject of existence, bit out fierce responses and readily put up stony walls of silence, but Axel liked him better this way, quiet and subdued and comfortable in his own skin—Halcyon days, still water—and anyway, it was becoming clear to him that this had already been a thing long before anything about it could be helped.
So he said, "Well, then," quietly, propping his chin on his hand in resignation, and it was as if he could feel the sea change—this shifting geography between them—like the words had suddenly opened up a new course into strange and uncharted and ceaselessly exhilarating waters. Boundaries unmarked.
Roxas collected rock, pebbles the size of peach stones, cracked globes marbled smooth by ceaseless water, bits of pretty glass. One nasty wet afternoon in December Axel lost him on the scrap of shore over Atlantica and spent the better parts of three hours tearing up and down the beach like a crazy person, fog like chilled milk on his skin, only to have Roxas wander up to him later like an even crazier person, hair a wind-tangled cotton candy mess and streaks of sand on his cloak, cupped hands filled to the brim with beach glass.
"You just can't lay off the certifiable stuff for one day, can you?" Axel had said, pissed off. He was damp to the bones and entertaining fatalistic, blasphemous thoughts such chopping off wads of his own hair.
It had taken exactly ten seconds for Roxas to come up with something jerkwaddish like, "No heart—you do whatever works, right?" which probably only made sense to people who were completely insane. Like Roxas.
Yet Axel had felt something unknot anyway, loosen and segue gracefully into a flash of rain on the water, the wind from the north biting and heavy with a smell of fish.
The insides of Roxas's cloak bulged with souvenirs at the end of a day. His steps weighed from it, narrow shoulders bowed, and when he stood in the middle of his bedroom afterward and turned out his pockets, they showered onto the floor, falling debris with odd harmonics, a sound like running face-first into a glass window, the break tinkling past your ears. Kept them pell-mell in a birchwood box he'd bought from a dancing babushka that time a break in the portal network had landed them in St. Petersburg during a demon revolt.
At one point, there were exactly one hundred and twenty six stones in Roxas's collection. Axel knew this because he had stolen them, removed the birchwood box from Roxas's bedside table while he was off-world on a mission, because he was bored that week and Roxas's lowkey unobtrusiveness could be weirdly provocative.
He found himself upending the box in the privacy of his quarters, spilling its contents into an outward fan like galaxies of seeds and cherry pits, luminous in the overhead light. A stone with a bull's eye, a white stone like the silhouette of an animal's head. Sifting through them, rearranging, dashing lines and wild angles, and he realized he was trying to find the pattern, something that worked, whatever Roxas thought he saw in these bones of the earth.
None presented itself, and by the time he looked up, it was to the sight of lightning though the window, the song of thunder, a fine spray of water blowing into the room and dampening the floor.
Axel couldn't hear himself think over the sound of the falling rain, but he could feel the lowgrade vibration as water came down like hail and assaulted the walls of the castle, streaking all her beautiful windows. He went to his own window and braced his hands on the ledge, leaned out and breathed, and there was no smell, not that earthy metallic hint on the tip of the tongue, not here in the World That Never Was, but there was something very cathartic anyway about the way the rain whipped through the sky, the slow wander of drifts.
The birchwood box was back in its rightful place eons before Roxas got back from his mission, but when Axel got in later that night, there was a white pebble on his nightstand about the size of his thumb, pitted and streaked though with black, like fogged glass on eggshell. Underneath it was a note, written in Roxas's generic hand that was immiscible only to Axel who had to suffer his t-crossing, i-dotting on a regular basis.
'This one's for keeps.'
"You're damn right," Axel said under his breath, and pocketed the pebble.
Embarrassingly enough, Roxas kept his knack of being both revoltingly capable and ridiculously apt at getting Axel out of tight spots, and for no concrete reasons, Axel kept letting him.
After the fourth time it happened, he bought Roxas dinner.
Part of the reason was his misplaced guilt—because this latest adventure in reciprocal friendship had actually caused three of Roxas's fingers to be broken—but most of it had to do with the fact that there was no such thing as a poor excuse for seafood. He had always wanted to eat at the Oriental Sea Palace.
But what had seemed like a good idea at the time quickly turned out to be worrisomely ineffectual, as Roxas persisted in being a wronged princess about the whole thing and fouled up the mood. He sulked—and masked it with failed insouciance. He made disturbing references to multi-fragmentary bone fracture. He fumed through the calamari hors d'œuvre, smoldered through the lightly fried red snapper in a playful Asian sweet-and-sour sauce entrée, and by the time the dessert cart rolled around, was presumably well-done.
Dessert was freshly drizzled bourbon crème brûlée, which at two hundred munny a pop resembled payback in a quaintly mismatching ramekin more than the advertised 'tasty after-dinner treat' and quietly withered a piece of Axel's soul.
He forgave all however when Roxas took the first spoonful and almost expired of joy, if the disturbing yet oddly cute orgasmic noises he was making were any indication.
"Geez, Rox," Axel said, faking concern. "Don't you think you ought to at least buy that thing dinner first?"
In response, Roxas flipped him the finger, still face-deep in makeout session with his new custard boyfriend.
Afterwards, the coffee was brought out, and they both lunged for it simultaneously and started guzzling it down like crack addicts at a meth party—something about living in a world with no daylight that played hell with your sleeping schedule.
"Three cups and then I'm cutting you off," Roxas caveated, laying down his cup to recline, fingers drumming lightly along the armrests.
"Hey, I don't remember interrupting your special time with the significant other," Axel said feelingly, then ruined it by curving a smirk around the edge of his cup. It only made him feel marginally better when Roxas grinned back, almost in synchronism.
The table they were sitting at stood directly beneath the enormous bay window, the sun a fiery pit in the distance, and when the tangy wind came in, reaching across the belly of the sea to ruffle Roxas's hair, it made his pale lashes curve golden over the blue of his eyes in the failing light. So now Axel was kind of leaning back and squinting, abruptly reminded of that first day, remembered why ocean equaled Roxas.
Under torture or possibly the influence of grain alcohol, Axel might have admitted that Roxas was attractive. This point was relatively moot as Roxas's physical appeal was tied up in all the other things that made him quintessentially Roxas—too kind to be cruel, too ruthless to be sweet, too invested in ruining Axel's life to be a halfway decent friend, etc.
It was tellingly informative how everything about Roxas seemed to be operating in inverse proportion to one another, like he was a rogue variant that vacillated through the intersecting planes screwing up carefully orchestrated derivations, but that was mathematics and Axel hunted Heartless for Organization XIII so what did he know?
"Have you ever considered the possibility you might have been some kind of beach bum in your past life?" Axel asked, unthinking since he was half-lost in thoughts.
Luckily, he was good enough at faking normalcy to hold off the incipient panic attack when Roxas quirked an eyebrow at him and stared pointedly. Goddamn sensitive subject.
"I mean," he soldiered on, hiding his mouth with the coffee cup. "You must have noticed you just have this natural affinity to the sea--"
"That," interrupted Roxas, staring meaningfully, "is a theory that you made up--"
"—is a theory that I proposed after tireless observation," corrected Axel. "Anyway, it could happen."
"What are the chances?" Roxas challenged, amused.
It was weird, Axel reflected, how he still didn't know what Roxas's favorite color was—though orange was likely out of the running—but totally had a central line to the knowledge that while Roxas's smiles seldom quite reached his eyes, his real smiles never reached his mouth, just creased the corners of his eyes and drew you unexpectedly into their impossible depths, a wash of blue like so many lofty skies. Axel committed it to memory.
"You'd be surprised," he said. And, gnawing on a fishbone, told Roxas about his parents.
Axel's father had met his mother in the harbor of the town they shared by happy accident when his boat had been dry-docked due to a slight problem with the boom that'd made the old girl wallow and throw in water. She had happened to pass by on her morning stroll, and he had looked down from his vantage point and seen a pretty girl with dazzling green eyes and said something charming like, "Nice shelf you got on you, lady. Crack like a mighty tunnel." They had been married three months later.
"And that's how I got these beauts," Axel proclaimed proudly, indicating his eyes.
"There's no way you can actually know any of that," Roxas said, propping up one arm and leaning his head on it.
"Way," said Axel, and took the opportunity to pour himself a fourth cup of coffee.
Axel's mother had been the baker's daughter and town's favorite, known for her dark, spirited beauty and ability to make pastries from scratch. Her marriage to a sloe-eyed sailor had raised eye-brows, but the thing was that Axel's father had been unanimously loved too, all reckless and rakish and laughing, had sung bawdily at pubs and bought drinks all around the day she'd said yes. Ten years they had been married and people would still talk about their first meeting, the stories growing more saucy with each retelling.
He ended up recounting to Roxas the bulk of these tales, occasionally slipping in a few of his own, The Life of His Other. Days: baked like the hot sand, spent scrambling along the cliffs and swimming in the sea. Fishing: digging holes in the silt, staring at the degenerate sea squirts, collecting buckets full of mermaid's purses and capturing razorfish and cockles. Bare-footed boys: dry-lipped and their shirttails sticking out of the back of their breeches…
At this point, they were interrupted by a small, curvaceous girl about Roxas's age, who wandered up to their table offering to sell them fresh crimson roses, each tied with a slip of satiny, individually-monogrammed white ribbon.
After they had both stared at her—Axel: horror-struck, aghast at the implications; Roxas: blushing, hormone-triggered by the merchant's blonde highlights, her soulful hazel eyes and equally soulful cleavage—Axel suppressed his gag reflex and smiled wide, lifted one of the perfect, long-stemmed flowers out of the handbasket and proceeded to hand it over to Roxas with cheesy, overstated flair, brushing his thumb ostentatiously over the seductive velvet curve of the bulb.
This made the flower wench beam indulgently and Roxas shift his gaze onto Axel in a glare to pierce titanium, so, you know—two birds, one stone.
"Didn't want you to feel like a cheap date," Axel soothed once The Tiniest Blonde Entrepreneur had fluttered off to harass other restaurant patrons.
To which Roxas answered, "Of course," in the same breath that he said, "Waiter? Bring me another crème brûlée, extra-snappy, and this time don't skimp on the bourbon," waving his newly-acquired rose majestically.
"You're such a bitch," Axel grouched in disgust, and felt a throbbing pain in his chest—where he kept his wallet.
"I try because I care," Roxas said sweetly, proving that he lived to make Axel feel shitty.
At least he had stopped making skeptical faces as Axel conjured tale after tall, tall tale about his other life—though Roxas must have figured out by now he really couldn't have remembered all that. Still, it had been nice to sit there filling the air with his own voice as stars began to appear in the night sky, talking with his hands almost as much as his voice and watching Roxas shake his head fondly each time he made a particularly exaggerated gesture to shape out the words.
Besides, the stories might not be real, but they were true.
"So my ma used to sail out with my pa sometimes, and boy did people have something to say about that--"
"Who did what now?" Axel boggled, pulled up out of his string of inventive and slightly self-congratulatory yarn.
"Did you ever sail," Roxas spelled out patiently, eyes crinkling.
"No," Axel said, more sulkily than he'd anticipated, his hand fisting on the tabletop. Perhaps there were more than one sensitive subject circling this conversation, unexpected storms. "Damn, I am just so thirsty. Can we talk about something else?"
Roxas was undeterred. "Water not your element?"
"Was there ever any doubt?" Axel snapped irately, opening his palm to present a crackling blossom of flame.
Five separate people in the restaurants dropped their flatwear. Out of the corner of his eye, Axel saw a waiter who had been approaching their table with a tray containing Roxas's extra snappy crème brûlée make a sharp and obvious turn left and disappear into the kitchen again.
Roxas didn't blink, just uncurled out of his nappy slouch and faithfully picked up Axel's untouched glass of water, flicked away the slice of lemon and poured the content over the flame—and incidentally, Axel's hand.
"I hate this restaurant," Axel mumbled over the smoke, and felt sacrilegious, but whatever.
Because regardless of what he had told Roxas that night, what he had neglected to mention was that most of his memories of his past life were just sense memories—a split second flash like touching a live wire, or a slow lingering wash of warmth, like when you were sick as a kid and had soft, cool sheets pulled over you, and above that, the huge, fuzzy shadow of something bigger, wrapping you up.
But some memories were vivid and weirdly concise, cool hands on your forehead, a calloused touch.
Storm surge on the ocean. The sea itself was dangerous. Winter storms, savage as they came, hurricane wind, cold, forty-foot breakers. Immense seas. It never left you. Could never listen to the wind afterward and not hear that banshee moan, remember the watery mountains, crests tossed into foam. Hear the boats moaning, even though you couldn't see them from shore. What if you were ten years old and knew that one of those boats carried the only two people in the world you had ties with, knew they weren't coming back?
What if you were ten years old and knew that after this day, the people in town would never again talk about the day your parents had first met, because the sea would have claimed them, risen up and swallowed all your life whole?
"Landlubber for life, and proud of it," Axel said conversationally. "Anyway, eventually the Darkness broke in, many casualties, very terrible things. So. No sailing, for little Axel." He added, as an afterthought, "Or, you know, whatever his name was."
"Doesn't it ever bother you?" Roxas asked suddenly, and when Axel looked up, startled, Roxas's eyes were blue and grey and supernaturally deep, like parts of the ocean where light didn't filter in. It made him frown to see them, caused something in the pit of his stomach to unlodge, fall out of place. He had wanted to avoid this.
He swallowed hard, said, "What doesn't bother me?"
"The not knowing," said Roxas—soft and wondering. Uneasy. "You call them your parents, but you say it's his name. Doesn't it bother you not knowing what it was?"
"Not particularly, no," Axel said, shrugging. Treading lightly. "And if you really stop to consider the options, it can't be anything spectacular, now can it?"
"No," Roxas said, smiling wanly. "No, I suppose not."
He sounded easy again, warm and dusky and drowsy in the chilly night air, and that had to count for something. To Axel, it counted a lot.
Now the not-so-cool thing about the Castle That Never Was, and incidentally the world in which she resided, discounting the lurking threat of bone mineralization, was the bulimiarexic approach to food. Months of compacted carbohydrates and bruise-colored goops and things that only tangentially looked like they had once been alive, and even the most iron-lined of stomachs began yearning for more organic fares. Axel hadn't been back to the Oriental Sea Palace since that last dinner with Roxas, but that didn't mean he didn't sometimes wake in the dead of night shaky and aroused and short of breath, chasing blurry images of plastic, art deco tables, shades of gold and red, slick curves and tender white meat that melted away on the tongue.
Inevitably, they all took advantage of offworld missions to go native—creamy tropical fruits the colors of the rainbow, poached trouts and garlic shrimps, candied dates draped in sparkling Jallab, Chinese dumplings stuffed with whole jumbo shrimps all pink and sweet and alluring through the near-sheer wrappings. Everyone got the lectures—reckless indulgence, not an efficient use of resources—but hell, it was worth it.
In late February, the Land of Dragons and her authentic steamed-in-bamboo-baskets xiaolongbao lost the cuisine crown when Axel and Xigbar "borrowed" Xaldin's recon map and subsequently discovered a little town, a quiet village full of little people where everyday was like the day before but that also churned out the most amazing French pastries in all the land. Glaze-sugar so perfectly white and sweet that the two of them formed a temporary non-aggression pact to hole up in one of the Castle's more technologically generic chambers at fucking 3 a.m. and eat themselves stupid.
At some point in between the strawberry tartlets and the orange shortbread that Axel ultimately set aside to present to Roxas later for entertainment, the sugar high must have kicked in, because they were in the middle of demolishing the petit gâteaux when Xigbar waved his fork at Axel in a nebulous way and said, "So, you and the new kid are choking the weasel."
In response, Axel actually choked on the piece of cake he was trying to stuff into his mouth.
Xigbar laid down the fork, waited graciously for Axel to finish trying to cough up all his vital organs sans one. Then he laughed and said, "Classic. I've waited all night to do that."
"Jackass," Axel spat, and didn't start fingering around the nebula for his chakrams, but it was very hard. Seriously, this was why there was so much violence in the workplace.
Then he remembered the point. "Wait. What the hell was that even supposed to mean?"
"Well," said Xigbar philosophically. "You two are pretty tight, and taking the evidence I recently collected into consideration—let's just say it was like putting two and two together."
"Stop talking," Axel said, rubbing his temples so hard he feared he might puncture his skull. "Every time you talk, something shitty happens. Also—what evidence?"
It suddenly occurred to him that if he didn't get while the getting was good, something unspeakably horrible was going to happen. But before he had so much as moved an inch toward the door, Xigbar had smirked with malicious intent and slammed a magazine onto the table between them, and then Axel promptly lost his mind, his life was so surreal.
Splashed across the tabletop was what seemed to be miles upon miles of colorful, terrifyingly high-definition images of various improbably attractive men all enthusiastically balling each other in increasingly improbable positions, acrobatic bodies bent in ways that perfectly-formed bodies had never bent before.
Xigbar's smirk widened like he just knew Axel's grasp on reality was dwindling, and dwindling fast; he flicked through the pages: yet more man-porn flashed before Axel's bulging eyes.
Axel swallowed hard—his throat was very dry. "Is there something you're trying to tell me?" he said, striving for the accepted degree of cockiness but failing slightly. "Because, you know, I would understand. You were always kind of a crazy person."
"Hilarious stuff," Xigbar said leniently. "My taste is a little more sophisticated—this trash belongs to your little friend Roxas."
The silence that followed was like never before.
"Not so glib now, are you?" Xigbar said smugly. "Yeah, our Little Boy Blond's got some extracurricular interests. Not too smooth about it though—I found this under his mattress, of all places."
"What were you doing poking around his bed?" Axel asked, narrowing his eyes.
"Relax," Xigbar said placidly. "No one's perving on your underage man-wife. I was just doing a routine follow-up investigation on the new recruit. It's only, you know, my job."
Axel snorted, because he'd totally heard that one before.
"And as part of my job, it is my duty to draw attention to the obvious need of our young comrade," Xigbar continued pompously, eye sparkling. "You must imagine what a difficult time he must be having, in light of his—ah, emerging special feelings."
"Oh my God," Axel mouthed, suddenly filled with the sinking feeling that this conversation was going down a very bad avenue. "I think I have to go away now."
"I think you should talk to him," Xigbar went on, blithely ignoring him. "Share your benefit of experience. It could be one of those lovely heartfelt conversations. Maybe you could cry together a bit, reconnect with old feelings. I'm sure it would bring you two even closer."
"What? No!" Axel balked, hitting the table with both hands. "Just no. Not taking into account what a delightful exchange that particular talk would be, you don't even know what he's doing with that magazine, you sick fuck!"
Xigbar looked on condescendingly, like he was patiently waiting for Axel to realize just how crazy he sounded. He wasn't wrong—Axel knew he sounded six kinds of insane, it just had never stopped him before.
"I mean, he could just be holding it," he finished lamely. "For someone else." He paused, then muttered, "And why the fuck would I say something like that?"
"Hell, it was too easy anyway," Xigbar said, laughing. "And to lay your concern to rest, this nudie mag is most definitely Roxas's possession. Look."
He jabbed his finger down at a page in random, and for the first time Axel saw what his incapacitating horror had prevented him from noticing earlier—that the scandalous pages of the magazine were covered in handwritten notes, red-inked and underlined, written in a disconcertingly familiar hand.
Some of the notes said RESEARCH and some said OF NOTE and then there was the one that read FASCINATING IN THEORY BUT PROB. UNCOMFORTBALE IN PRACTICE, which made Axel shrink into incapacitating horror all over again.
"So you see now the importance of talking your friend through this awkward phase?" Xigbar asked, a deranged grin on his face.
"I'd rather die," Axel declared.
"That could be also arranged," Xigbar offered helpfully. Axel didn't like the way he was fingering his hip holster, and promptly had a change of heart. Figuratively speaking.
And the day had gone so well, he groaned inwardly. The mission had been smooth; there'd been some fighting in the middle of there, nothing epic but satisfyingly violent nonetheless, and then they had discovered the village with the awesome pastries which had basically made Axel's year. Plus, Roxas had been in a pissy mood the day before, guaranteeing that he would develop some kind of embolism the moment Axel gave him the shortbread, so for once he had even had something to look forward to in this sunless poorly-ventilated hell.
And now, Axel had to go confront his best friend about the existence of his alternative lifestyle and possibly give him The Talk, or risk being gunned down by his unforeseeably twisted superior, which was so going to throw a wrench into the gears of his life plans.
The worst part was the iota of truth that resonated with something deep inside of him, something prickly and strange, which he worried he might have been spending all this time subliminating into artful man-dates and watery metaphors.
Demyx liked to say that this was because being Roxas's friend had caused Axel to go soft, but Axel liked to think that Demyx was a moron, and routinely ignored him.
"Are you sure I can't polish your gun instead?" he asked desperately, last-ditch.
"That's sweet, Red," Xigbar—who had no soul—said. "But you're really not my type."
Thankfully, somewhere in his past life testosterone had flooded the embryo when his Other had been a fetus, so instead of searching for a paper bag to breathe in he decided just to suck it up and face the problem head-on, and, of course, to milk it for all its worth.
So when he barreled into Roxas's bedroom because he was the best friend and had that privilege, it was eight in the morning—which in other people's world probably meant 'morning' but in theirs just meant 'virtual coma'—and he was kind of ridiculously psyched about the whole thing.
Only, Roxas, freak of nature that he was, wasn't there.
"What are you doing?"
Axel turned, and there was his victim, silhouetted in the doorway he had vacated moments before, looking particularly vulnerable and prey-like in the hallway light without his coat and clutching a humongous still-steaming mug.
Roxas was very fast, Axel knew, which made it all the funnier to watch him lumber around like a zombie in the sleepy part of the morning, waiting for the coffee to seep in. Like a machine that needed rebooting, Axel would say, if only he was slightly more convinced of Roxas's organic credentials.
Before he could make a comment, Roxas had narrowed his eyes and said, bullet-quick, "You look excited. What's going on? Is something on fire?"
Axel frowned, faking pique. "Why, hello to you, too."
"Oh God," Roxas said under his breath, gripping the coffee mug like he was trying to absorb the caffeine through his skin. "You burned down the library, didn't you? Axel, I swear to God, if Larxene--"
"Roxas, man, chill out," Axel said, thinking, okay, so this is why everyone calls him my wife. "I haven't done anything—I was just up all night, is all."
Roxas just looked extremely sorrowed. "Then why aren't you tired?"
"Possibly," Axel said, producing the evidence Xigbar had pawned off onto him, "because I had this to keep me entertained." It occurred to him that the stupid things he said was going to cause him a stroke one of these days.
Nevertheless, he threw the damning magazine with a flourish down onto Roxas's bed, where it conveniently fell open to a particularly well-thumbed page featuring a blond, beefed up man with rough features wearing pilot goggles and doing something entirely illegal with a lancing spear. The man's well-defined pectorals and other assets were almost wholly obscured by lengthy notes, many of which were in ALL-CAPS and ended in ! and !
Roxas turned a color red most frequently found on Axel's head. "Where the hell did you get that?" he shouted, making grabbing motions. Axel quickly jerked the magazine out from under his reach.
"I can't reveal my sources," he said solemnly, dangling the bone of dispute over Roxas head—Reason Fifty Two For Being Tall. "And even if I could, I wouldn't, since you didn't even see fit to tell me about your personal preference. And here I thought we were friends."
Roxas was looking increasingly out of sorts. Even his hair looked demoralized. Axel felt slightly bad—but he was laughing too hard inside to care.
"I mean, it's pretty weird how all these notes say RESEARCH," he went on, half-crazed, and was a little freaked out by the fact that he could hear the caps in his own voice. "What's that about? Also, care to explain your lingering obsession with this," he made a snowballing gesture that could mean anything from 'guy' to 'Germanic porn star', " this… blond thing?"
Roxas's flush was actually starting to look painful—at some point he was obviously going to lose all his limbs because all the blood in his body had flown to his face.
"Fuck you!" he yelled, furious. "Just back off, okay?"
"No," Axel said firmly, moving to block Roxas's exit, because even though his friend was looking more homicidal by the second, this was totally worth a Keyblade to the ribs. "What can you possibly research from this crap? Where did you even get it?"
Roxas looked kind of sick, and Axel saw that his face had gone from beefsteak red to a shade of white that indicated imminent bodily failure. Then he huffed long-sufferingly and capitulated, "That mission in Sector X3-455. The dark town. I just—I was curious. I picked it up outside the hotel. Do you remember that district?"
"I remember the hookers," Axel said, nodding.
Roxas's eyes widened, and he made a small frustrated noise, running his hand through his hair. But he was smiling slightly, like he was sometimes abruptly reminded that, yeah, I chose this guy for a friend, and was overcome by the knowledge.
The brittle harmony of their relationship was preserved by a process which Roxas crassly referred to as better living through quitting while you're ahead. Axel grasped this concept, he really did, only how could he help himself when the situation so obviously called for him to say something like:
"I totally understand where you're coming from, but seriously, should you even be looking at this stuff? You're like, twelve."
Which was about as much as Roxas was willing to take, because he went from placid to smashingly furious in a record 2.5 seconds—made a broken, predatory noise and pounced.
To reiterate a point, Roxas was very fast. Axel was aware of this on an intellectual level, but apparently he had never quite grasped this concept either because when the straw broke the camel's back, Roxas had spun around angrily and, scrambling, wild and a little unhinged, pinned Axel into the mattress with all his negligible weight and tried to kiss him on the mouth.
Only, it didn't work out so hot because Axel was still talking and didn't take kindly to being interrupted.
So once Roxas had removed his face and they had both made sure neither had accidentally bitten the other's tongue off in the tussle, Axel wiped his lips and said flatly, "You've got to be fucking kidding."
In return, Roxas made the kind of strangled, frustrated noise native to baby seals being denied their daily rations of fish.
Then he tried to pull off an embarrassed version of his laconic stalk-off, but somehow forgot that he still had one hand flat against Axel chest, which Axel interpreted as a clear invitation for him to grab Roxas's thin, knobby wrist and pull him, flailing limbs and huffy protests and all, down on top of his body, effectively preventing him from making his escape.
"What do you think you're doing?" Roxas hissed, squirming in a clumsy attempt to wrench himself free.
Axel's grip held firm. "I wasn't finished talking," he said simply, using his teeth to remove the leather glove from his other hand. He had a feeling now would be a good time to start regretting that 'twelve' comment, which was in itself a notion that would give him a headache if thought on at length.
"What—" Roxas started, and seemingly became distracted with staring at Axel's mouth as he began licking his fingers in long, languorous tongue strokes. But, being Roxas, somehow soldiered on with a high-pitched, "—are you doing?"
In a maneuver that required minimal effort on his part, Axel forcefully jerked Roxas toward him again, until their faces were nearly touching and he could feel on his skin the damp heat of Roxas's breaths, coming in quick and shallow, and see the first slow wave of mist rising behind the striking blue irises. He leaned forward, touching their foreheads together, inhaling Roxas's scent—soap and water, coffee and new sweat and, predictably, the crushed, acrid hint of Mandarin grapefruit.
"Hey," Axel said, voice tamped to a whisper, apropos of nothing.
"What?" said Roxas stubbornly, grunting.
So Axel just rolled his eyes and stuck his now-slick hand down the front of Roxas's pants.
Roxas was attractive when he arched his neck for Axel—pale clean lines, spray of freckles, and the criminally errant drops of sweat that traced them.
When Axel emerged from the shower, running a towel through his damp hair, Roxas was leaning against the wall in the hallway, head down and tapping his foot nervously.
"So that was—that," he muttered, masking his tension with a thinly layered nonchalance he was copying badly from actual apathy. "It's not all that impressive."
Axel snorted. "Right. So I imagined your head banging against the bedpost then."
Roxas glared up mulishly for an instant, then darted his head back down again. He looked painfully annoyed and awkward. Annoyed and awkward never looked so good, Axel thought in a moment of intense self-loathing.
"You can breathe in and out, you know," he said, smirking, and in a significantly hushed tone, added, "After all, it's not like you're the only one with a thing for blonds."
"I'll kill you," Roxas promised.
"Oh, I think not," he sing-songed. "Not if you want this to go somewhere."
Roxas's eyes went wide and frozen for a moment before he let out a long, shuddering breath, and rubbed his face tiredly. Axel bit his lips, and sent out a silent grateful prayer to powers that be in their various incarnations for graciously favoring him—nine times out of ten the only thing that separated you from the other guy and his total crushing humiliation was your god-given poker face.
Besides, earlier in the shower, Axel had almost managed to unravel and rationalize the whole thing. It was a little too strange to be good and a little too good to be wrong, he had deduced, hot water sluicing down his body and washing away the searing prints, hands, lips, lingering traces on his collarbone, his stomach, the crease of his thigh where the skin was soft and his leg met his pelvis. When the heady steam cleared, it was as if he had been left with a brand new skin, and it was weird and desolate in there, holding him suspended.
But Roxas's mouth was red and bruised and perfect like that, and Axel knew better than to freak him out over how much he was freaked out.
"And now we never talk about this with anyone ever," he announced, leaning back against the wall beside Roxas. Stared at the ceiling. Resisted the impulse to reach over and stroke the skin of Roxas's jaw line, corner him into the cold marble, lean in and press his mouth to the soft inward curve where Roxas's lips met in a frown.
Clearly, the shower should have been cold.
Roxas snorted. "Shame and silence. This is going to help my self-esteem."
"I am totally serious," Axel said, lowering his voice meaningfully. "This kind of things can only lead to people dying tragically or running away from home. As a totally random example, if Xigbar should ever catch wind of this incident, I will have to kill him tragically and then run away from the Organization, and we don't want that happening, now do we?"
"I just don't even want to know," Roxas deadpanned.
They stayed like that for a moment, standing side by side in silence, and it was weirdly normal even though this had to have changed things, right?
After awhile, Axel pushed himself off the wall and started to walk away, and the reason he gave was, "Anyway, love to stick around and chitchat, but I've got to go meet the Superior," but really it was to continue the mass freak-out he had started in the shower.
"He made some noises yesterday morning about a special assignment," he continued, putting one foot in front of the other. "Something Kingdom Hearts related—though I'm willing to bet the hypothetical heart I got stowed away there that--"
"Axel," interrupted Roxas, and there was something in his voice—small and revelatory—that stalled Axel in his track, made him hold his breath and wait.
"Yeah?" he said, knowing if he tried to form a complete sentence his voice would probably break in the middle of it.
"Sure," Axel said over his shoulder, throwaway. "What are friends for?"
He enjoyed the sweet music of Roxas's choked sputtering all the way down the corridor.
So while Axel couldn't be Roxas's go-to person for emotional crises, he was apparently the perfect candidate for his young friend's sexual explorations. This had made unbearable the following:
(1) Axel's favorite sitting position.
(2) Looking Xigbar in the eye—though, arguably if not realistically, he could attribute that to maintaining sensitivity about the guy's obviously hideous facial disfigurement.
(3) Being in the same room as Larxene, who was prone to jeering if not outright asking Axel if he had grown girl-parts. He wasn't too torn up about it personally, since lately she had taken to swapping shoulders with Marluxia, whose official name was "The Graceful Assassin" but whom everyone just called "Fuck, not that asshole", so clearly there was no accounting for taste. Besides, didn't they all wish they could bag some hot young thing.
Above all, the arrangement had huge perks. F'rinstance, if Roxas amply gave himself the liberty to back Axel into various walls and chilly columns and chart what seemed like the sailing routes of the all vast oceans in all the vast known world(s) onto the Axel's stomach with the wet slick of his tongue, then Axel felt completely justified in staring at Roxas's ass at every available opportunity and trapping him in a choking cuddle on the few occasions that they didn't feel absolutely, imperatively, unnegotiably necessary to get away from each other immediately after each encounter of the homosexual kind.
Axel discovered that Roxas was beautiful on a Tuesday in April. Outside the window, morning had just broken, and the day was new and soft, like the burst-open flesh of a ripe peach, summer-sweet and flaring. The sun a dim, benign presence at the edge of the horizon, and Axel remembered falling in love—groggily, figuratively—with whatever world it was that they were waking up in, because it was a place where morning broke and allowed him to discover that Roxas was beautiful, his hair bright and tousled and bleeding gold at the edges in the early light that filtered in.
And again, perched on the highest of the fortress's faux-Gothic turrets, pale and bony and fierce, awash in the cold, wan spill of Kingdom Hearts' wintry glow.
"You're lying to me."
"Uh," Axel said, because he didn't have a reply to that. So he just stared, in parts because he had no idea what Roxas was talking about, in parts because he had a sinking feeling he should.
The sky was a bowl of light, and when Roxas spoke again, his voice cracked in a way that had nothing to do with the freezing wind that was threatening to flay them skin from flesh. "You're lying to me," he said again, like the sentence had parsed perfectly the first time around. "I can tell—you're a completely shitty liar."
This was news to Axel, who blinked and felt the fire of ire rush into him unexpectedly. "If this is what you called me out to discuss, I'm afraid I have to admit I have no fucking idea what you're on about," he spat, with more venom than perhaps was necessary.
In return, Roxas just squared his jaws and held their gaze, unflinching. He had a braced, closely guarded look on his face that meant if Axel started any of his usual asshattery he wouldn't be surprised, and after awhile Axel broke the stalemate, sucked in a sour breath and shuffled away to peer sullenly into the darkness below, dotted with the flickering lights that made up the Dark City.
"I'm talking about this mission you're always throwing around," Roxas said quietly. "The reason you're away for days and days and come back looking like you lost a fist fight with yourself and it's--"
"It's nothing," Axel snarled, dark and crisp. "I told you already. I'm over at Oblivion—that's Marluxia's little dollhouse. The Superior wanted to see if we could maybe make something of it because he's twisted like that, and that's what we're doing. There's a lot to do. A lot to research. Many things gets broken."
"Many things need fixing," he wanted to say, except when he turned around it was to Roxas's eyes, huge and luminous, supernatural, bearing down on him with the weight of things that could not be changed, and Roxas was saying, "You're lying. Lying by omission is still lying."
He paused, and, narrowing his eyes, added, "You told me this."
"I say a lot of stuff," Axel muttered, but the words raked at him nonetheless.
"It's just," Roxas went on, nostrils flaring. "You've lost weight. You look like crap all the time—or the few seconds I actually get to see you these days. You keep saying research like it means something to you, but I don't think it does."
He paused, shaky, haunted. "I ran into Saix the other day in the corridor and he said—just out of the blue—that he wondered if you might have bitten off more than you can chew this time--"
"Saix is famous for lying," Axel said viciously, and did not pause to appreciate the inherent irony. "Plus, he eats babies, so really, what point are you trying to make?"
Roxas growled. "I'm saying if you have to insist on systematic self-destruction you should at least let me in on it every now and then."
This made Axel see red for a moment, everything in his field of vision going supernova.
"And what makes you think you have the right?" he said, and surprised himself by the iciness in his own voice. Apparently, it surprised Roxas too, because he flinched, visibly.
Roxas really shouldn't flatter himself. Axel lied to everyone—he'd lie to himself if he thought he had half a chance of being believed. What they had was not a relationship: it was a situation. Things did not flow smoothly here, but rose in huge breakers, smashed against each other, ground down with broken edges; things were hurtful and difficult and sometimes not worth the effort, and when they went bad, as was their inevitable wont, there would not be a dramatic scene where turtledoves sang and the world's smallest violin played in the background. No one would lose their memory or be tragically killed. It would not be graceful.
Instead, it would be swift and clean and ugly—the flashing blade of a guillotine.
So if it was a fight Roxas wanted, then a fight he was going to get, because Axel had three hundred hours plus clocked in to what was potentially a suicide mission and he was worn through to his nerves from lies and intrigue and wanted to sleep for a thousand years—this was seriously the last thing he could handle.
Except he was already right in the middle of composing his caustic and eloquent argument when it finally occurred to him that Roxas wasn't, wasn't game, wasn't fighting him. That he seemed worn thin, threadbare and ragged around the edges, and Axel blinked, felt his chest cave in. He'd never even realized he could do that to a person.
Perhaps Roxas was right; if Axel was a shitty liar it was only because with Roxas he didn't have to be that guy, didn't have to keep up the sort of determined awareness that tired him. If Roxas wasn't somehow involved, it wasn't important to Axel. This he knew was dumb and contradictory besides, but couldn't seem to help. It was a complacency born of false comfort, like food that had weight sitting in your mouth and sliding down your throat but disappeared in your stomach—spatial displacement.
Only, the thing that really mattered wasn't just about himself anymore, and when he looked at Roxas properly, eyes shadowed, his mouth a pale, thin line like he was the one in need of a thousand years of sleep, Axel thought about his friend pacing his small bedroom, running his fingers through the cool sliding curves of his rock collection, cagey and ravenous. He thought of taking Roxas by the shoulder and guiding him through the bright, overlit halls to find darkness and cool sheets and a deep bed, where they'd crawl in next to each other and sleep, lazy and ordinary and uncomplicated—
But he still had a job and Roxas still couldn't know so he didn't, just took a deep breath and said, "Roxas, man--"
He said: Roxas, man, you got nothing to worry about.
Well, he couldn't say: For the past couple of weeks, I've been playing double agent on two separate factions within the Organization—guess those solidarity talks wouldn't have gone amiss after all, huh? Word on the street is that we're there to research, but the only science going on is watching out for the chemical reactions; we're all volatile substances forced to interact in a sterilized environment, how long do you think before there's an explosion?
He couldn't say: The thing is they're all going to die. I might even die, and I kind of want you to know because even though you've been cool enough about all the other stuff I have this voice in my head telling me you might have a problem with this. It's totally your fault my sense of perception's so warped the phantom voices are starting to give good advice.
But the thing is that I can't. I can't say anything about it because I know the moment you hear "Keyblade" and "Sora" you'll jump the gun, and no matter what you like to think, you are in fact too young and stupid to know the consequences of going off half-cocked.
It made him think, with a faint, disgusted shudder, of Castle Oblivion, the chalky light, the clinical walls bleaching out the shadows, where all time passed in the same smear of suffocating monochrome. The place was weird, definitely queer, a house of cards, packed in with people and their malice, their warring loyalties, their loneliness. It was the kind of place that changed you, which was fine and good given that making people lose themselves was their de facto modus operandi, but it left a stain on the back of one's mind.
"Ever get the feeling the longer you stay here, the more it feels like your own memories are going the way of your heart?" Axel had already once voiced his opinion to Larxene, on a day when staring at the same stretch of wall competitively actually didn't make time go any faster.
And the fact that she had only snarled, "Know something else that wants to go the way of your heart?" was a pretty good indicator of the general feeling all around.
Larxene had already changed; these days she oscillated from scathing and electric to seamless jungle cat arrogance like an overcharged molecule. She was complacent with the possibility of power, drunk with it, and at the same time anxious, hair-trigger crazy, as though Madam de Sade was just coming to heed the sensation of standing at the brink of everything, vertigo rushing as they drew closer to the edge and the voice of the abyss heightened to drown out all others.
The thing was that, regardless of the final outcome, Larxene was going to die. Conceit didn't win, Axel told himself, and then tried to tell himself that he'd probably have more of an issue with this if she had been less of a bitch. Or if he could emote.
Also on the list of Soon To Be Departed were the bottom-dwellers, scientists and lunatics et al, who slunk around the basements like a pack of hugely incestuous jackals. Axel was mostly trying to keep on top of things—you wouldn't believe how easy it was for the sheer humanity of the place to seethe up around you when you weren't paying attention—but so far his only notable interaction with the rock stars who inhabited the underground quarters had involved a bizarre and overtly homoerotic discussion of the scents.
But Axel knew Zexion was just another close-sighted, rank-arrogant asshole regardless of what he was talking about, and so for the time being he remained topside, played nice with the breed of crazies there, which unfortunately put him into close contact with Marluxia "Fuck, not that asshole" for periods of time longer than was necessarily healthy.
Perhaps it was the thing where he was pretty much convinced Marluxia referred to himself in the majestic plural when no one else was around, but it was much easier to nod back and let the litany of megalomaniacal ravings dull into a sort of lulling white noise when there was a suitable distraction at hand, and his third day at Oblivion, Axel thought he had found it, clad in white and bent exhaustively over a spiral-bound sketchbook, so precious he could break it over his knee.
He had no idea where Marluxia had picked up the girl that he had strapped to a throne and crowned with a charcoal pen. He did know that she had as-yet-undefined powers over the Keyblade Master, that she was a weapon, and in that sense a significant princess, but it didn't stop a coil of nausea from snaking around his spine anyway each time Marluxia curved his large hand around her beautiful, heart-shaped face, like snapping a bird's wings.
Week two, and Axel still hadn't figured out whether Marluxia's little pet was just meek or devoted or broken, but he had taken to spending inordinate amounts of time in and around the white room, which—while it allowed for plenty of firsthand observation—spoke poorly for his personal taste.
It was essentially about as interesting as watching paint dry; while Naminé might be a witch and cowed and hopeless, what she wasn't was afraid to say feeble things like, "But Marluxia told me to," and, "I am just a shadow, a nobody."
"Yeah, well," Axel said, sarcasm sharpening his voice to a needlepoint. "That's how some people are built—they just can't be helped."
Naminé startled. Then she bowed her head, expression crumpling like tired paper, at which point Axel apparently developed an epileptic seizure and accidentally crushed one of her crayons in his grip. The crayon was green, left a smear on his glove like poison.
But what kept him enthralled, the part that kept him coming back, was the sense of anticipation, growing as the days spiraled down to the eleventh hour. "Sora is coming," whispered the walls, heaving with excitement. "Sora is coming," fluttered ghostly curtains. "Sora is coming," cried the echoes of pins dropped on the floor, lingering for hours. Initially, he had been somewhat mystified by the revelation that Roxas's much-talked-of Other had basically amounted to Roxas with trademark frown capsized and hair marginally less—or more, depending on how you looked at it—ridiculous, but bafflement had given way to curiosity and he had to know. He had to meet this guy, had to see the other side of a heart he had never known but had come to consider marked territory anyway.
So he stayed. Sora was coming.
A slight cough dragged Axel's awareness back to the moment, and when he blinked, the world was soft and charcoal around him once more, and Roxas was there, no further than the tug of an arm, and he remembered suddenly why everything always seemed to circle back to this.
"I wonder what it is you do when I'm not around," Roxas was saying, eyes distant. Averted.
"The same things I always do," Axel said obstinately, partly out of truth, partly because by focusing the issue on himself he could avoid the questions to which he had no answers—or too many. "I just got to do what I got to do. And it'll be fine."
It'll be fine, he repeated the words to himself. Like by playing his cards right he could make them come true. The hero of the story would live to go on wooing damsels with his keyblade-wielding ways, Roxas would exist, and the Organization could go back to working to attain Kingdom Hearts. And even if this took years and years to achieve—even if it never came to pass at all—well, in the mean time he would have Roxas, who was definitely neither broken nor meek, but curled up against Axel in sleep, made him feel like a windblown paperboat in open water: at sea.
Axel was petty and calculating, acted like a greedy child about most things, but this particular loss of control, this was something he could learn to live with.
None of it was anything he'd burden Roxas with knowing, though that didn't make it any less true.
"Okay," Roxas said, acquiescing. "Okay." Turned to leave. "Are you coming?"
Was he coming? He could turn in all standing.
But he stayed motionless—"Be there in a minute."—and squinted into the shimmering wash of night like he was taking measurements, weighing his options. Presently, the sounds of footsteps behind him died away, and then there was just the howling wind.
The stage was almost set, the players in place, and come tomorrow Axel would return to Castle Oblivion and face Marluxia and all the rest of them, smirks on his lips like flaking stage make-up, talking lots and saying nothing, all smiles one moment and vicious and snarling the next and never once giving his hand away.
After all, you had to play tough when you were playing someone for a fool.
As predicted, Axel was the only one to survive the night. The threats to the Organization—both inward and outward—had either been eliminated or contained. A real professional job, if he did say so himself.
But he carried back with him something from Castle Oblivion that wasn't three broken ribs and a damaged spleen. He carried the burden of memory, the burn of secrets, and for the first time it made him raw with desperation, miss the simplicity of the not knowing because somewhere in the middle there he stopped meeting Roxas's eyes and it was exhausting.
It was around the same time he took up drinking that a rumor began circulating the halls of the Castle, to the effect that Roxas had gone to the Superior himself for a very eyebrow-raising conversation.
A far more illicit rumor had it that the conversation had mostly involved thought-provoking peccadilloes like, "I'm the best talent you've got, and you're wasting me on Heartless and recon doozies," but Axel couldn't be terribly sure, he was on this self-imposed semi-therapeutic break from the general gossip mill.
What he did know was that Roxas came back from this supposed meeting ravenous and infuriated and fucked Axel into his mattress, held his wrists and ground down, bruising and brutal and gnashing-harsh. And Roxas, who had problems with above-cover sex and had once spent an entire afternoon kissing Axel's ankle like a total girl, playing with the little bone lazily as sunlight poured in golden and arcing to drape over them, now dug his fingers in like a pro, left moon-shaped welts and red flakes under the nails, and Axel raised a brow, rode down the sensations so that everything felt like a scrape of teeth along his cock, razing.
"Wow," Axel heard himself say, out of sheer cussedness. "This is attractive."
Roxas stopped moving, just long enough to lean down and pant into Axel's neck, "It would probably help if you also made an effort."
In the moonlight, Roxas's face was smooth and pale, his mouth a gleam of wet skin, curving. Axel stared, feeling terribly uninspired, but wetted his fingers—one, two, three—and shoved them in anyway.
But this was them, so it figured that by the time Roxas finally had enough and clawed his way down the length of Axel's body, fingering old scars and leaving new purple, damning marks—reminders of things to be lost—he was hard and guttering, cock flushed and leaking against his stomach. Roxas held him down, took the time to run the ridge of his teeth against Axel's balls before closing his mouth over and forcing the orgasm out of him like a freight train, shriek of metal and the sudden, almost-painful crash that made him buck and arch nearly all the way off the bed.
They lay together just long enough for the edges to bite, like a reminder that they didn't fit anymore, had corroded away too fast, and the too-familiar stickiness that had once characterized a well-spent night was anything but sexy now. When Roxas grumbled and rolled away, Axel almost reached out to pull him back, before he remembered what this was all about, and felt the shifting spaces widen, water seeping in.
Mostly, he remembered how they hadn't kissed that night, not once. Come to think of it, he couldn't really remembered the last time they'd kissed, and he didn't know which was worse.
"So what is this, break-up sex?" he chanced, keeping it light. "Because, you know, if it were then there should be a moment. I could--"
"I didn't do this, Axel," cut in Roxas, naked back a pale wash in the dim light. "You know I didn't want this."
Axel closed his eyes, thought, here we go. "I know." Felt the long freefall in the pit of his stomach.
The walls were insurmountable tonight. Axel wasn't sure he could scale them, whether or not he even wanted to.
But that wasn't his choice to make.
Because never mind that the Keyblades had chosen Roxas, he was Axel's keystone, the piece of masonry that balanced; how would he go on standing if Roxas wasn't there to keep him together? Axel was unstable, all rotted mortar and treacherous stones, crumbling infrastructure, had practically been on the edge of spontaneous combustion from sheer ceaselessness prior to meeting Roxas. There was no love lost between the rest of the Organization and the rogue agent, and he didn't get why Roxas didn't get that.
Axel was no good at useless bravery, but Roxas was his best friend, and this was a fight he was going to win.
But even as he was mentally compiling his moving and eloquent speech, Roxas had flopped onto his back and raised himself up to regard Axel, heavy-lidded. Stared down at him, hard, and said, "You also know that this was never about you."
Axel blinked, felt his spine stiffen. "No. You're right. It was all you. Right from the beginning." It sounded like something a sinking ship would say.
He'd never lost a fight he'd wanted to win; this could be one of many first.
Roxas was still sitting up, blanket pooled around his waist, shoulders slightly rocking—but Axel couldn't look at him, knowing he'd see the naked memory of this night written all over Roxas's face just as he was feeling it down to his bones, one huge, indelible bruise. So he said, "You know what? Do whatever you want, man—I couldn't care less," and grabbing his pants, rolled off the bed. Walked away without looking back.
It didn't take much to send two people down a bad road, and it was possible that somewhere along the line Roxas had grown sick and tired of all his wrong turns.
So Roxas left him.
No, scratch that.
Roxas left. He left on a Wednesday just like any other, and on normal days Axel was usually capable of separating the important from the chaff but today he had no fucking clue.
What he did was say the one thing that came to his mind—the only thing left to say, really. He said, "That's not true."
Said, "I would."
Immediately after making this statement, Axel realized it wasn't a lie.
It didn't surprise him in the slightest. Axel was showing his cards, at long belated last. Too bad Roxas couldn't see them; he had already turned his back, and the only surprising thing here was that the weight of this revelation, crushing and huge and unnaturally violent, eating at the edges of the aching emptiness within Axel's chest like an industrial-strength corrosive by virtue of sheer enormity, still wasn't enough to keep Roxas from walking away.
The heart of the matter was a matter of the heart. This didn't actually explain how Axel seemed to be neck-deep in it anyway, but for the moment, he'd keep tally.
Roxas leaving was significant for three primary reasons:
(1) It meant Axel had been right all along, and yet somehow that still didn't make everything okay.
(2) It really pissed off the people at the top, which was maybe the one positive thing to come out of the whole ordeal.
(3) It proved beyond all doubts that Roxas was the only person in the world who made Axel feel like he had a heart, because otherwise it wouldn't have felt like it was being ripped out with the clawed end of a rusty crowbar.
On leaving the Organization, Roxas had left behind:
One hundred and eighty three (183) rocks, polished, origins various.
One (1) birchwood box to store said rocks.
Two (2) coffee mugs, in black and white respectively. Chipped, but otherwise functional.
One (1) refurbished PS2 console which Axel knew for a fact Roxas had acquired for the sole purpose of going on late-night Katamari Damacy binges. Initially, he had expressed skepticism—"This is seriously a game about rolling shit up?" and "That drag queen went on a bender and destroyed the universe?"—but 4:30 a.m. was a mighty temptress and the 5.1 Surround Sound had addled with his brain, made the drowsy night hypnotic with technicolor.
The irony that was a tiny prince charged with the weight of the stars and moon wasn't lost on him either.
Axel had known Roxas for a sum total of: eleven (11) months, five (5) weeks, and seventeen (17) days.
This wasn't nearly long enough to constitute a lifetime, even if it did feel a lot like one. But maybe it was kind of like that, because Roxas had come into his life so quietly, seeped in through the cracks and slowly filled up all the windswept chambers, cool and calm and a bit like a crushing sort of longing—under the surface. For awhile, Axel had sort of floated in that, let it become such a part of him that he didn't feel the cold, didn't miss the oxygen—only to have someone open the doors and windows and let all the water out in one breathless rush, so that he had opened his eyes and suffocated in the open air.
So it was important to keep a head on his neck. With any luck, this transition would remain a manageable kind of ugly—he had a feeling everything might immolate otherwise, too unstable to contain all the empty spaces that had been let in.
a) A four-letter word.
b) The leading cause of terminal stupidity.
c) A slow burn.
Really the latter was most appropriate. He got blisters and burns, was crosshatched with them all over, and he still didn't seem to have learned. Because when you crunched down to bottom-line, the thing about being alone was: it wasn't so bad, as long as you'd never actually known the difference.
The worst mistake Axel had ever made, reasoned his better part, had been allowing himself to become plural. If he made a habit out of listening to his better part, he would have been rid of Roxas's grassroots influence, like, yesterday.
Apparently, a headline.
NOBODY DIES OF A BROKEN HEART.
On a day just like any other, Roxas gave Axel his life back.
This was what Axel had wanted all along, but he had forgotten one very important component part: that life without Roxas, while not precisely or even very close to not worth living, was spectacularly lacking, like cloud and smoke, substanceless things, like missing sunshine on the tip of your tongue or some such metaphorical claptrap.
In other The World Has Crumbled All Around news, he made his mouth move and sound came out, and on being informed by Demyx that in musical terms he apparently displayed symptoms of the My Woman Left With All My Money And Darn Stole My Dog Blues, set Demyx's cloak on fire, which at least nudged things in the direction of status quo.
But Axel didn't make a career out of killing himself over things he couldn't fix, so when around two thirty in the afternoon on a Friday none too remarkable he got up and off the ugly emo couch he had been getting miserable, depressed, pathetic loser all over and went out the door, breaching the threshold and falling into the wide open sky, it was as if things were back on track—indeed, had never faltered in step to begin with.
Because when it all came down to it, what had happened here was that Roxas had made a choice. It was a stupid choice, granted, but choices were things you lived with, and now everyone else, Axel included, was just reacting to it the best way they knew how.
That was all, really.
Like a game of Snakes and Ladders, life can change with a roll of the dice. For every ladder you climb, there's a serpent waiting just around the corner, and Axel supposed getting metaphorical was just another way in which he hated being sent after Roxas.
He half-expected to find his former friend captured and chained up in some dank sinister dungeon being tortured for information about the Organization and other assorted crimes of the morally broken kind. This didn't happen, and instead he wound up back in Twilight Town—or rather, a fake, politically correct version of it, complete with air-tight security. He could feel the barriers of this world buffering his intrusion, resistant to entry, as if the very fabric of its existence were threatened by his presence.
But there had never been a single world on this and other physical planes that Axel had not been able to successfully infiltrate, so a little prodding here, a mite of wiggling there and Twi-lite's virtually simulated knees were falling open like she had trained in the best of whorehouses, and then he was in, tossed back into the original Shangri-La of vapidity.
"Honestly, I always motherfucking hated this town," Axel said loudly, scattering small children and causing a street vendor to give him the gimlet eye.
However, the carrot-and-stick mechanism meant that for every snake, a ladder would compensate, and thus he had barely convinced himself that razing the town to its very foundations would be astonishingly stupid when who should he run across mooning about the shopping district but his former Castle Oblivion pal, Naminé.
"Hello, sweetheart," said Axel delightfully, making a beeline for the girl, and grinned at the frozen deer-in-headlight expression that broke across her face when she finally spotted him. "Remember me?"
Naminé made a tiny noise of distress, and effectively backed herself into a lamppost.
"Oh my God," Axel muttered, and, at Naminé's increasingly green complexion, decided to tone down his tactical looming-ness. "I was going to ask how that freedom was working out for you, but I see now you're even more of a scared mouse than the last time we saw each other, if that's at all possible."
"Well give me a smile at least," he went on, cocking his head winsomely. "I threatened to go through you to get to Marluxia, and then Xemnas nearly Dusked me for letting you get away, so shouldn't that make us—what's the phrase—vegan culture?"
In a surprising display of backbone, Naminé knitted her brows and slitted her eyes at him. Sketchbook clutched like a shield in shaking, white-knuckled hands, but when she spoke, her voice was cool and even, "What are you doing here, Axel?"
"Just looking for an old frie--" he began, but trailed off when a too-familiar outline appeared at the edge of his vision.
And there, popsicle and stupid hair and all, was Roxas.
He had a skateboard. And a tan. He wore a lot of khakis. Axel felt his mouth go slack.
And shocked he should be: Axel, who had grown used to seeing Roxas stalk solitary and silent through the bleak echoing spaces of The World That Never Was, his shoulders a hard, unbroken line, had suddenly been introduced to the world of Roxas the Twilight Town Inhabitant. He was surrounded by a gaggle of similarly beige friends, all of whom smiled 100 percent of the time and clearly failed to grasp the essential nature of pooling hearts into a great big moon in the sky, for which Axel hated and judged them silently.
The problem that was none of it was real, and he was brought up short to this reality at one point in the midst of the Struggle Tournament—about which he mostly resisted editorializing, except for a few choice comments he simply had to make regarding the phallic symbolism inherent in teenage competitive sports—when one of Roxas's bubble-brained cretins interrupted the match to yell something at him excitedly from the sidelines.
Roxas had paused, pushed sweaty bangs out of his face, and smiled.
It was a genuine smile, bright, vintage Roxas, and Axel found he could not, could not look away.
Snakes and ladders, Axel thought. It's all about the duality of things, and fingered the pebble he kept in his pocket. For keeps. Roxas was a lot like that piece of stone these days: some parts fogged over, discolored like a dark glass, the rest still shining.
And the worst thing of all, he knew, the bright green poison of the snake that lurked in the grass, the worst thing of all was still waiting for him, just ahead. The worst thing was that Roxas didn't remember.
The thought made his insides cold with anger, reel with the bile suddenly welling up his throat—not altogether an unwarranted feeling. Surely there was a logical flaw here, some sort of breakdown in the laws of the universe, because the only thing Axel had ever wanted from anybody was to be remembered, and the only thing he wanted in regards to Roxas was to forget, and the sick irony of it all tore his chest inside out. It felt good, for something to hurt.
But his anger was edged with sorrow, a faint echoing sound that broke the skin and hovered in all the empty resonating places, and he didn't know what to do with it so as usual he soundbited, transmuted the poisoned barb into words, translated and communicated the best and only way he knew how.
And in this case, what he wanted to say was:
Your name is Roxas.
You had another name, once, but you forgot it. You collect rocks, and hate orange-colored food. You like to pretend you prefer being alone, but actually sleep better if there's someone else in the bed with you, to count the bumps of vertebrae along your spine with their knuckles, maybe liken the shape of their lips to the nape of your neck. Maybe. You also drool in your sleep. Back when I knew you, this happened a lot.
You don't have a heart, but it doesn't matter because you're still cooler than over half the bastards out there who do. You made an impression. Hell, sometimes I still feel the bruise.
You are everything to me.
But these words just crowded around in his head, seeped through the cracks where the edges didn't quite meet and flaked off the roof of his mouth, skated off his tongue as though it were a sheet of glass. Rising, rising, rising up the back of his throat like a flashflood, but talking was useless, so for once he sandbagged the words behind his teeth, banished them some place quiet where they couldn't be heard, until the impulse passed and he felt right enough to put on his game face again.
"You know," he said quietly, watching from a distance as Roxas flailed around and bopped people on the head with his foamy blue weapon. "I wouldn't have been so free-handed with the vegan culture thing if I had known you were one of my buddy's jailors."
Naminé didn't answer. She had her face up, chin tilted, blond hair a gleaming sheet down her back, and her eyes were fixed upon some invisible celestial wonder, up on high where the clouds continuously gathered, deep and violent and the color of bruises.
Axel looked at the ground, drew patterns with his boot. "Guess I was wrong about you after all, pet. You really have come a long way."
"I'm sorry, Axel," Naminé said softly, and sounded like she meant it.
"Tell me," he went on, resolutely not looking at her face. "Is this really what you want?"
For a long time, there was only the whirring of cicadas. Then, probably as a testament to how much she'd grown as a person, Naminé said, serenely, "This summer is so much sadder than the last."
Her voice dropped, a hopeful, plaintive note. "I trust in Roxas's judgment. Why don't you?"
Axel bit back his knee-jerk desire to say something scathing to the effect that Roxas's 'judgment' mostly revolved around ice cream these days. Instead, he said, "Let's just say that's a gamble I'm not willing to take," and, ignoring the sucker-punched look on Naminé's face, signaled for his Assassins to move in and start the attack.
He still hadn't learned anything, but now was no time to start.
Well, if nothing else, he'd learned that he was really terrifically bad at losing.
Taking a cue from the King of All Cosmos and making a bonfire with Roxas's Playstation in total fugue state was petty and pointless but satisfying nonetheless. The smell of melted plastic followed Axel everywhere for the rest of the day, but on the other hand he had always placed his faith in the cathartic power of fire, so who knew?
It had to be karma, of course, that three hours later, thoroughly catharsized yet so edgy that he was actually considering a visit to Stress Ball Room, Axel sensed something approach him in the hallway that made his spine stiffen.
There was a depressingly familiar aura around the corner. Axel gritted his teeth, thought to himself, Crazy Bitch At Two O' Clock. At this proximity, it wasn't likely that Saix hadn't also sensed his presence, but Axel decided to announce himself anyway—for all he knew, Saix was probably paranoid-delusional enough to believe in preemptive strike, and a lifetime picking icicles out of his hair wasn't a prospect he particularly relished.
Saix regarded him for a moment, eyes in narrow, yellow slits. "Axel. How is your mission progressing?"
A glimmer of interest. "I heard there have been—unexpected roadblocks."
Axel bristled, for no reason. He kept letting these things slip out the gate, he had to stop. Saix was too clever for personal attacks. "Trifles—it seems Number XIII has forgotten a few things since taking his extended leave. Nothing I can't handle."
"I wonder," Saix said, calm and eviscerating. "The Superior has expressed concern over your hitherto lack of success."
"The Superior gave me this mission," Axel riposted. "And I intend to get it done, and get it done right. For your information, I am completely in control of the situation."
It was not without truth. There was no point in engaging in a battle of head versus heart, because he was not in possession of the latter, and the former had probably sustained enough abuse by way of blunt trauma in the name of the Organization to be completely useless for practical thinking purposes. Instead, he decided to trust his guts, which had never failed him but once; and that time had involved the decision of letting Roxas in, which Axel knew was quite possibly the simultaneous best and worst idea of his life. Because even though Axel admitted to liking Roxas to a somewhat embarrassing degree, it wasn't as if the sky had fallen down on his head or anything. He was very nearly sure of this.
Even if this meant erasing Roxas—and everything he stood for, quiet hands, lofty skies, mystery in the curve of a smile. All the things that he was only beginning to skim the surface of understanding, that had once been irrelevant and periphery but now made up all the vast world because there was nothing else to stand on.
Saix was smiling now, agreeably, and it reminded Axel of the first time he had seen the other Nobody, what he'd felt then: ice in his veins. "And you're really quite certain you're up to performing the task with which you've been charged?"
He waited, and when it seemed like nothing more would come, said, "Now if you excuse me, I have a second trip to plan. Places to see, people to capture. Terribly busy—but of course you wouldn't know what that's like."
The smile on Saix's face thinned out, a sliver of teeth. "Stubbornness doesn't win, Axel."
"I do," he lied, storming off. "Every time."
Once—and only once—there was a dream.
In it, the sea was a sheet of blue pearl, looked as if it might sound if struck. The sky felt like the largest thing in the world. Wind filled Axel's mouth, parted and snapped his hair at intervals. Underneath him, the ground tilted imperceptibly. A boat. The lightness of a beautiful day on the water.
"I get the feeling your subconscious is trying to tell you something."
Roxas, at the prow. Dressed in black, making short, imprecise movements with his head like imitating the slow seesaw of the white-flecked water. Every now and then, his eyes darted at the horizon, measuring cuts of sky. Far shores creamed with fog.
Blinking hard, Axel said, "It's telling me I must be patently disturbed if you of all people are the voice of my subconscious."
Roxas turned, grinning. "Or I could just be part of everything you see here." But. "You came to tell me something."
"I'm sorry," Axel blurted out.
Roxas looked on, expectant. Water slapped beneath. Curdled foam.
"For everything," he went on, consonants blurry around the sudden ache in his throat. "For what happened to you—it wasn't fair, any of it. I should have been there."
But. "I'm still angry at you for leaving. I don't think I'll ever get over that." The last part scraped out of his throat, saw on metal.
"It was a Thursday," said Roxas.
Axel opened his mouth, then closed it, blinking in confusion. "Wait—what?"
Roxas smiled, embarrassed. "Okay, so maybe I am the voice of your subconscious. Which is, apparently, reminding you that the last time we kissed was on a Thursday."
"Thursday," repeated Axel, and even as he did the cut-water memory swam steadily into focus. Thursday. A dream within a dream—and he would remember both.
That time, they had been assigned a mission on some godforsaken world covered with ice and snow and where Axel had immediately lost all feelings in his bodily extremities. Literally speaking. He'd been trailing black particles through miles of white, and hadn't that been fun, moving gingerly, trying not to look down and morbidly thinking you should anyway just to see if your arm might not be missing or something.
It was morning—the early kind, when the light looked like dishwater. The air flaking with snow, and Axel remembered thinking to himself that having a heart had better be totally fucking awesome, because not even a Dusk should have to put up with this shit.
"What?" he grouched, and turned to where Roxas had stopped in his track a few yards back. One of the Keyblades hung slack at his side, its ornate notches digging into the powdery snow, and then Roxas was raising it, gesturing at the ground. "Look."
So Axel had, limped the distance and looked, and seen what for all means and purpose had appeared to be a butt-print in the snow.
"It's Kingdom Hearts," Roxas said roguishly.
The kiss had come then. Now that he had remembered, he remembered everything, all the little details, the things he had wanted to say—"I hate it when you talk," and, "Oh my God, this is going to drive me into a diabetic coma."—and he remembered that the kiss had come then. He remembered his hand sliding to the back of Roxas's head, the skin behind his ear warm and achingly alive, how Roxas had smirked and jerked Axel down and crushed their lips together, and they had laughed and laughed into each other's mouths.
Had it been a friendly kiss, or a romantic one—had he known then what he knew now?
"It's weird that I didn't remember that," Axel said, just loud enough to be heard over the murmur of the sea.
"You'd think you would," dream-Roxas agreed, giving a jungle smile before turning back to the sky. "You always hold on to what you want, and only what you want. You're even doing it right now."
There was truth to that. Axel was recreating, and this Roxas, hands on the rail and hair blowing in the breeze, a boy outlined against the clouds with his easy smile and easy words and languid look—a definite image that had never existed in reality—this Roxas was not real. But he was as Axel would want to remember him, and that in itself was necessary—much like the kiss on a Thursday that had been friendly or romantic, really the line had blurred so much in between.
And if the lazy afternoon sway of the boat would tip him forward, close the distance, then he would tell Roxas that, whisper the words into his familiar mouth.
The sea swilled over them. He stepped forward—
—and woke to the now-familiar sense of yawning loss, floundering and waterlogged in the fading channels of his dream. He didn't need to touch the water on his face to know that he was drowning, that Roxas had broken him like gravity broke a headstrong wave, the crash so cold and huge and sickeningly loud that it felt like he'd never be high again.
Axel wasn't around for Roxas's last moment, and so did not remember it.
Instead, his last memory of Roxas was of their last meeting, the solemn-eyed standoff, the weight of an unrealizable promise—because Axel had always known that this day was coming, failed retrieval efforts notwithstanding. In a lot of ways, he had always known he was going to lose Roxas. Once, he'd thought it'd be to the battlefield; later, to a masked man and his controlled amnesia. But Roxas had been resilient to the last, kept outrunning the odds and resurfacing beyond all shadows of expectation, and so Axel had relaxed his mind, allowed himself hope. The slow burn, the four-letter word.
It was troubling, but unsurprising. Most probably, eleven months odd back and forth had rubbed off on Axel some of Roxas's stupid fixation for lost causes, since there was no other explanation for the way he kept setting himself up for the fall these days, digging his heels in for the slow eroding slide to total and inevitable disappointment.
And deeper still was the knowledge that he was never actually meant to be part of Roxas's life—or rather: he and Roxas were not meant to share fate, but for a while, without much rhyme or reason, they just had, and perhaps this was already more than either of them, than any Nobody, was ever supposed to have anyway.
But the thing was that he hadn't known at the time that it would be their last meeting. No one had bothered informing Axel that he wouldn't be seeing Roxas again. He hadn't known the last would be the last.
That was the only reason, you see.
si tú no vives,
si tú, querida, amor mío, si tú
te has muerto,
todas las hojas caerán en mi pecho,
lloverá sobre mi alma noche y día,
mis pies querrán marchar hacia donde tú duermes
pero seguiré vivo
. . .
In the days immediately following Roxas's disappearance, it was difficult not to feel like the sea was rising up all over again and devouring Axel's entire world in her swirling black rage. He'd like to think this—and not the fact that he was just used to yawing—was the reason that'd brought him to Destiny Island.
But there was a moment, just after spying the wisp of girlish pink on the beach and before going that last length, cranking up his fakest, most customer-service chic voice in an effort at achieving something he only hoped he wouldn't come to regret later, when time apparently froze over and he could feel it, distinctly: the sensation of standing at the brink of everything, water rushing past. Perhaps a part of him would always be standing there, ballasted on that golden beach, with everything and nothing to lose.
But quietly, still funneling hope, the rest of him said, "Won't be long now, buddy," and steeling into resolution, continued treading water.
"Okay," Axel muttered to himself, portaling into the world of Betwixt and Between. "But when I said I hope he gets his face eaten off by the Dusks, I didn't actually mean it."
Axel had met Roxas on the clock tower in Twilight Town, legs swinging in the blurry dizzying drop below. The first things Roxas had said to him were, "Yeah," and, "You're late," because he was that kind of persnickety asshole, and later Axel would not remember the actual purpose of his coming to Twilight Town, only that Roxas's eyes had been blue like the ocean reflecting the sky that day, that he had been quiet and fascinating, the eye of Axel's storm.
But now that deep blue calm was gone, and inevitably Hurricane Axel was teetering wildly off course, impossible and electrical and wreaking havoc, all the bite and twice the sting.
He was getting sloppy, and there was no excuse, only that, inevitably, everything boiled down to this: Roxas was Sora. Sora was. Axel wanted Roxas. These things were not mutually inclusive.
Nothing else mattered, really. It had taken a long time for him to come to terms with this state of affairs, but before he had been able to do anything about it, Saix had interfered and the whole thing had classically blown up in Axel's face. Suddenly, Sora was in the Castle, surrounded by what seemed like a gazillion Dusks bent on basically eating his face off, and Sora in danger meant Roxas was in danger, so Axel went to stand by him and fight, because that was what friends did in the face of evil and love.
All in all, it was probably a little late in the day to own up that all his worst mistakes traced back to one single point of origin.
Instead, he'd keep slicing and dicing.
But even though Sora was far from incompetent and Axel knew his own limits, their odds were stacked, and after they had been chopping down Dusks like it was going out of style for what seemed like a geologic era, things were beginning to look grim.
The last time Roxas had kissed him had been a Thursday. It had snowed.
The first time he had discovered his ability to manipulate fire, he had just emerged into this shiny new Nobody shell, and it had been cold and empty in there, the absence of one outweighing the abundance of many, all the vastness of sky and sea small and insignificant in comparison. The fire had changed that, he remembered, and when the sparks had begun to fly and had not burnt, he had laughed, felt the flames vibrant and warm and tremoring like a faint heartbeat. Back then, he'd thought fire was his favorite thing in the world.
He'd like to say that this was the last thing he remembered as well, this illusion in fire. It would have been a fitting end.
But it wasn't.
As it turned out, that was yet another fun addition to the ever tantalizing web of Kingdom Hearts' lies. A man destined to drown can never burn, and he was sinking already, chest burning from losing oxygen and going down fast. Silence inside silence outside, and now there was nothing, no light, no bottom to touch down, just the same unbroken Neptunian blue that was the same color as Sora's eyes, Sora who was and was not Roxas, who had and had never asked, "Did you ever sail?" and received, "No," for an answer because it was as close to, "I was afraid of losing," as Axel could ever manage.
The ocean and the human heart, two things that were seemingly unknowable, endlessly deceitful, and – for him – ultimately unattainable. The only truly heartless things. Since he'd never actually gotten around to improving his sense of humor, Axel found this funny; it made him smile, and that seemed to make Sora feel better, so he smiled some more, said some stuff he was mostly glad he wouldn't be remembering later.
There wasn't going to be a later.
And perhaps somewhere, in another life, there might still be snapping ocean breeze, and white sands, and swaying redemptive grace, and Roxas might be staring out at the vast, impossibly drowning blue of the water, eating a Sea-Salt Popsicle as he waited, lips blue-stained and serene.
Quizás, quizás, quizás…
Your name is Axel.
You had another name, once, but you forgot it.
You love Roxas.
. . .
Haría todo por ti.
A/N: I wrote this story over an exhaustive period of over three months, with the critical support of an awesome friends list who did not hesitate to hold my hand as well as kick my butt. Like most of my more ambitious (and thus, longer) projects, I don't really expect this story to catch on -- we all know the world of fanfiction is dominated by pithy punchers and breathless epics. But it has been a weird and kind of awful three months; I'm just glad to have reached the finish line. Your comments of course are still happy crack to me, and I'll be sure to treasure and reply to each and everyone of them with the sincerity and squee-age each deserves. Really, guys, I'll reply this time!
Love, for me, will always be a warm and drowsy truce -- something to wrap yourself in.
Oh, and here is a (rough!) translation of the Neruda excerpt I used for 25 -- from the poem La Muerta (The Dead Woman). Putting it here because no one brings sensuality and grief to the table like Senor Neruda:
if you are not living
if you, beloved, my love, if
you have died
all the leaves will fall on my breast
it will rain on my soul all night, all day
my feet will want to march to where you are sleeping
but I shall live
(Haría todo por ti means 'Everything for you' or, 'For you, I would do everything'.)