(A/N): Okay, anyone who didn't see a fic coming for AkuRoku day hasn't been paying attention. Though this thing fought the writing process every step of the way. Blargh. And I would sell my soul for some air conditioning. I'm submitting this thing at four thirty in the a.m. and I have to be at work at nine. Lulz. Reviews are happy crack - be an enabler.

Disclaimer: It wouldn't be worth the horrendous power struggle to try and wrench these characters away from their rightful owners.

Exhale

Roxas stared down at the ground, bangs tumbling into his eyes as he scowled at the snowflakes melting against the sidewalk. It was the day after Christmas. Nobody wanted snow after the holidays – so of course it was expected to reach a foot and a half by nightfall. He blew his breath out in aggravation, watching the pale vapor curl up and away into the chilly air before he sat back, crossing his arms over his chest and resting his head against the Plexiglas of the bus shelter.

A flicker of movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention; Roxas let his head loll to the left as he focused on the tall, thin form of the man pacing back and forth and shouting into his cell phone, free hand waving in wide gesticulations. Roxas's eyes narrowed in thought as he stared at the head of wild red spikes, but then he shrugged and turned away, deciding he didn't really care. The man continued to pace and shout in Roxas's peripheral vision, but Roxas didn't glance at him again. Sighing, he kicked idly at the bench leg and glared out at the snow.

The bench shook as the stranger threw himself down, muttering darkly to himself. Roxas frowned, but resisted the impulse to glance over. The redhead began rummaging in his pockets for something, and Roxas tipped his head to the side, trying to ignore the movement. A stray gust of wind swept a flurry of flakes beneath the bus shelter's awning, and Roxas scowled as the flakes melted into the edges of his jeans.

"Shit," the man next to him hissed. Roxas hesitated another second before he glanced over with a silent sigh. He was having a shitty enough day on his own – he didn't need to deal with whatever problems the redhead was having, too.

The man had a cigarette pinched between his lips and was glaring at a cheap plastic lighter he had clenched in his hand. He flicked it a couple times as Roxas watched, but it only sparked and refused to catch. "You're out of lighter fluid," Roxas muttered, sinking down a little in his seat when the redhead glanced at him, surprised.

"Really?" he drawled, features twisting into a frown as he shot a disgusted glare at the lighter before shoving it back into his pocket. He sighed, running a hand through his hair as he glanced at Roxas again. "Don't suppose you have a light," the stranger mumbled. His voice seemed to convey that he wasn't holding out much hope.

Roxas shrugged and dug a brand new lighter out of his front pocket. Grinning a little at the way the man's face lit up, he tossed him the lighter and crossed his arms over his chest again. "Just keep it," he muttered, thumping his head gently against the Plexiglas.

"You sure?" the redhead asked, a satisfied sigh escaping him as the end of his cigarette caught.

"Yeah. I don't use it anyway," Roxas sighed. The redhead glanced at him as he shoved the lighter into his pocket, his expression caught somewhere between amused and curious.

"You carry around a lighter you don't use." Roxas shrugged.

"Just one of those things you're supposed to have on you, right?" he muttered, frowning and rubbing absently at his arms in an effort to return some feeling to them. The man lifted an eyebrow at him.

"Cold?"

Roxas didn't bother to answer, staring moodily out at the flakes spiraling slowly to the sidewalk. The redhead watched him for another moment before he shrugged and turned his attention away, bringing his cigarette back to his lips. They both glanced up as a bus screeched to a halt in front of them, but neither moved as a thin trickle of people stepped down and went on their way. The bus lumbered into motion again, belching a dark cloud of exhaust that made them both cough. The redhead wrinkled his nose before he pitched his cigarette to the side and glanced at Roxas.

"Wanna get indoors?" He rolled his eyes when Roxas shot a suspicious glare at him. "Look, it's cold, okay? Your lips are turning blue. And I'd prefer to choke and die on my own smoke. So." He arched an eyebrow. "Wanna get indoors?" He huffed when Roxas just continued to glare at him. "What's your name, kid?" Roxas's glower intensified. He hated being short for his age.

"Roxas."

The redhead smirked and extended a hand. "Axel. Are we best friends forever yet?" Roxas wasn't able to bite back a smile as he shook Axel's hand. "There, we're pals," Axel grumbled, shoving himself to his feet. "Can we please get inside now?" Roxas hesitated another second, eyes flicking further down the street, and Axel pulled a hand through his hair with a sigh. "Look, you can see the stop from that diner, all right?" Not waiting for an answer, he shoved his hands in his pockets and started across the street. Roxas rolled his eyes and followed.

Axel was already seated by the time Roxas entered the diner. Roxas hesitated in the doorway, considering just turning around and leaving, but Axel looked up and stared at him; scowling, Roxas slid in across from the redhead, not bothering to pick up the menu. Axel raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything.

"So what do you want?" Roxas grumbled, pushing his hair out of his eyes. Axel shrugged and turned his eyes back to the menu.

"You want anything to eat?"

"No. I need to catch my bus." Axel snorted as his eyes locked with Roxas's over the edge of his menu.

"Liar." Roxas narrowed his eyes at him, but Axel only grinned and turned his attention back to the menu. "So how old are you, kid? You look a little young to be freezing in bus shelters." Roxas hunched his shoulders and glared out the window.

"Eighteen."

"School?"

"HBU."

"Ah." Axel smirked and nodded to himself, and Roxas felt his temper rising.

"What?" he growled, glaring at the redhead. Axel shrugged, waving a hand dismissively in the air.

"Nothing. It's just eighteen is a little old to be running away from home, isn't it?" Roxas's jaw clenched. He hated the way Axel's eyes glittered at his reaction. The redhead nodded again, settling back in his seat. "Thought so."

"Who the hell do you think you are?" Roxas hissed, struggling to keep from reaching across the small booth and hitting the other man. "I am not running away." Axel sighed and crossed his arms over his chest.

"You were carrying a lighter you admit you never use – 'just one of those things you're supposed to have,' I believe you said," Axel said dryly, a small smirk slipping across his face. "You were sitting in that bus shelter long enough for your lips to turn blue, but you didn't move when the bus came by. If you weren't debating blowing town, what were you doing – enjoying the onset of hypothermia?" Roxas glared out the window, refusing to look at the man. "Look, Roxas, I don't know what the story is, but you'd better at least have a plan for whenever you get wherever the hell you're going." He paused, a twisted smile flitting across his face. "Although from this half-assed beginning of yours, I'd guess you don't."

Roxas's shoulders drooped. "What do you care?" he muttered.

"I don't," Axel shrugged, grinning when Roxas glanced at him, surprised. "It doesn't bother me one way or the other if you decide to take off – but I just got fired from my fucking job, and I've got nothing better to do. So." His grin widened as he propped his elbows on the table. "Humor me."

Roxas remained silent until Axel's order arrived, glaring at the table and waiting for the redhead to get frustrated and get up and leave. He didn't – he only grinned at Roxas's expression before he began digging into his plate. The clink of silverware filled the silence for the next few minutes as Roxas turned his eyes back out the window. The snow was picking up, the flakes smaller and coming down harder, being driven by a stiff wind.

"I wasn't leaving," he said, voice low. Axel glanced up as he shoved another bite into his mouth. "I wasn't," Roxas muttered, slouching forward and resting his head in his hands, wondering why it was important to him that Axel believe him. "I just…needed to think." Axel swallowed and cocked his head to the side.

"About what?"

Roxas fell silent again before he found himself telling Axel about Hayner, Pence, and Olette – the first and best friends he'd made upon his arrival in Twilight Town nearly ten years ago. He'd been the sullen child of a widowed father, withdrawn and prone to pushing people away, but Olette had been relentless in her overtures of friendship, and gradually, Roxas had found himself reciprocating. He'd been officially inducted into their small group when he and Hayner had initiated a contest to see who could spit the farthest and Roxas had won.

"He said anybody who could spit two feet had to be all right," Roxas remembered, a small grin flashing across his face. He was surprised when he glanced up and found Axel was really listening to him, leaning forward and nodding occasionally. He told him about how Olette had been the rock for their group – the steady, reliable voice of reason who had usually been able to talk Hayner and Roxas out of their hare-brained schemes to get out of schoolwork. And how Hayner tended to act first and think later, leading to more than one occasion where blows had been exchanged between them, but they always managed to patch things up. And Pence, who could be so quiet but come up with some of the strangest things Roxas had ever heard of and almost make him believe they were true.

He found himself talking about how hearing from them was a bittersweet experience, because while he missed them desperately they were all moving on with their lives, and he couldn't help worrying he was being left behind. They knew what they wanted to do with their futures, while Roxas was entering his second semester of college still undeclared and with no clue as to what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

"I like working," he muttered, pushing his hair out of his eyes. "You know – odd jobs, whatever. Doing something with my hands. I don't like being cooped up inside a classroom, but you can't get anywhere without a college degree anymore."

"Not if you don't mind the work," Axel cut in, frowning slightly. "If you wanna work, work. Or hey," he continued, eyes lighting up as he nodded to himself. "What about trade school?" He chuckled at Roxas's expression, wagging his fork at him. "Why go to college if it makes you miserable?" Roxas paused before he shrugged, a wry smile slipping over his features.

"My dad wants me to," he sighed, glancing back out the window. Axel grinned and rolled his eyes, motioning for Roxas to continue.

Roxas told him about Namine, the girl who'd followed him to Hollow Bastion and whom he'd loved for years, though only, he'd recently realized, as a dear friend or sister. And how guilty it made him feel – how, after years of putting up with his bullshit, he couldn't love her the way she deserved to be loved. He froze when he realized what he'd let slip, eyeing Axel narrowly. It was so easy talking to the guy he hadn't stopped to consider that he might be a violent homophobe.

A crooked smirk spread over Axel's face at Roxas's expression as he pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket.

"Look, Roxas," he sighed, dragging the ashtray across the table so that it was resting next to him, "gay, straight, whatever – they're just words. They don't mean anything." He paused to light his cigarette with the lighter Roxas had given him, flicking it closed and returning it to his pocket as he regarded Roxas with an unusually serious expression on his face. "There's just you, and what you're attracted to. Sometimes it's one thing, sometimes it's another. Who cares?"

Roxas rolled his eyes and glanced back out the window, trying to hide his relieved smile. "So what are you attracted to?"

Axel grinned crookedly and blew smoke to the side. "Blondes."

When Roxas fell silent, thrown off, Axel laughed softly and readily filled the silence, long fingers painting pictures in the air to accompany his speech. He told Roxas about how he and his brother Reno wanted to go into business together – something to do with demolitions. Roxas couldn't help laughing at that.

"I can see you doing something like that," he chuckled dryly. Axel laughed with him, running a hand through his hair.

"I might have a touch of pyromania," he admitted, grinning. "But I blame it all on Reno – he used to make his own firecrackers when he was like, five. He's damn lucky he still has both hands."

Axel was finishing up his last semester, going for a degree in business. "So I can run the legal end of things, you know?" he chuckled, rolling his eyes. Roxas scoffed and took a sip of the soda Axel had ordered for him somewhere in the middle of everything.

"Yeah, you really seem like the legal aide type," he snorted, gesturing at the tattoos on the redhead's cheeks. Axel shrugged good-naturedly.

"Reno won't do it," he muttered, stubbing his cigarette out.

Axel kept trying to get jobs on the side to ease the strain on his wallet, but he found it difficult to hold one down. "They keep telling me I don't work well with others," he complained, lighting another cigarette. "Which is absolute and total bullshit. Why I wanna run my own business – don't have to put up with anybody else's shit when I'm my own boss."

Which turned the conversation back to what Roxas wanted to do. Roxas shrugged. "I really don't know," he insisted, frowning as he played with his straw wrapper. "What I wanna do is just leave school for a while, you know? Work while I figure it out." He paused, a soft smile playing around the edges of his lips. He missed the way Axel raised an eyebrow at his expression. "Namine keeps telling me to just do it," he chuckled, pulling a hand through his hair. "Screw my old man – just do what I want to, you know? She worries, I think, thinks I –"

"Think too much," Axel cut in, grinning. Roxas glanced up, surprised, before his face split into a grin and he nodded.

"Yeah."

"I wonder why," Axel chuckled wryly, smirking as he blew smoke across the table at him. Roxas rolled his eyes and fanned it away from his face, gaze moving to the window and the white mantel that had nearly obliterated the street. Axel followed his gaze, absentmindedly stubbing his cigarette out. "Guess they weren't joking about a foot of snow," he muttered distantly.

Roxas hesitated, eyes trained on the snow still coming down. He needed to leave before it got much deeper if he wanted to be able to make the trek back to his dorm before dark, but he found himself unwilling to move and break whatever it was that was happening here. Axel, perhaps following his train of thought as he'd followed his gaze, sighed and stretched, making a pleased noise in the back of his throat when his back popped.

"I should get going," he muttered, smoothing his hair back from his face. Roxas did his best to keep his expression neutral, nodding curtly as he grabbed for his soda. Axel ducked his head and grinned – a small, private smile that made Roxas's stomach clench. The redhead grabbed up the check, draining the last of his coffee in one long swallow before he stood, sliding out of the booth and staring down at Roxas. "You'll figure it out," he said suddenly, grinning when Roxas scowled up at him.

Then he gave Roxas some sort of half-assed, two-fingered salute and was gone.

Roxas sat and stared at the empty space for a good five minutes before he could bring himself to move, pulling himself out of the booth, the motion taking more effort than it should've. His eyes returned to the window one final time, sweeping the street for vibrant red spikes. He didn't see any. Turning away with a sigh, Roxas shoved his hands in his pockets and headed for the door.

The cashier flagged him down as he tried to leave. "Sir? Are you Roxas?" She smiled when he jerked his head up, startled – it was a quick, nervous expression that faded quickly as she smoothed her fingers over a scrap of paper clutched in one hand. "Um, this was left for you."

Roxas took the paper, bemused, but she only smiled tightly at him again before she turned away. Muttering his thanks to her back, Roxas shouldered his way out of the diner, the icy crust of the snow crunching under his feet. Cursing under his breath, he moved out of the doorway before he unfolded the paper.

A phone number was scribbled across the small scrap. Roxas stared at it, dazed, almost missing the scrawled message beneath it.

Just in case you need some help figuring it all out.

Roxas let out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding, a self-deprecating smile spreading over his face as he carefully re-folded the note and slid it into his pocket. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he ducked his head and turned to begin the long trek home.