(A/N): I've been told the KH fandom has pretty well died down. So this is for anyone who's still here. And for Salem, for somehow never failing to believe I'd get back to this some day.
With The Exception Of You I
Roxas kept his eyes on his sneakers as he walked, mind circling restlessly as he fingered the lone bill in his pocket. Axel had sent him to work this job all morning for a lousy twenty bucks? He replayed Tifa's words in his head, a growing sense of guilt churning through his gut with each iteration: "Axel doesn't usually bother with these little jobs – he must be really hurting for money."
God, but he was an idiot. They'd been stalled here four days, four days that Axel had been working shit jobs for worse pay, and instead of offering to help, or do anything more than pay for their rooms – which, Roxas reflected with a wince, he should've offered to do from the moment Axel said he'd drive him to Destiny Islands – Roxas had lounged around in the room, complained about the lack of anything to do and spent money on an animal Axel didn't even like. He hadn't even offered to replace the redhead's beer.
He was an idiot. He was an idiot and a prick and an insensitive bastard, and if he were Axel he'd have left him on the side of the road after the first day and never looked back.
He was still stewing over his own idiocy when a familiar voice dragged him from his thoughts.
He glanced up to find Jim sitting on the steps leading to the office's side entrance, a skateboard balanced across both his knees as he waved a screwdriver in the air to get Roxas's attention. The brown-haired boy glanced back over his shoulder before beckoning Roxas closer. "I checked on that thing you asked me to look in on while you were gone, and everything's fine," he said, voice low.
Roxas blinked at him before managing a weak smile. "Oh. Thanks."
Jim snorted. "Yeah, don't hurt yourself tripping over your gratitude, there," he muttered, bending over the skateboard in his lap. He glanced back up when Roxas didn't move, but whatever sarcastic remark he'd been about to make died when he caught sight of Roxas' expression. "You okay?"
The bill burned between Roxas' fingers. "Yeah. No." He blew his breath out in a harsh rush. "I don't know." Jim was still looking at him, and for some reason the scrutiny irked him. He gestured at the skateboard abruptly. "Is there a park around here?"
"Why? You got a board?"
They stared at each for a long moment; Roxas was the first to break eye contact, tearing one hand through his hair as he glanced to the side. "Look, I just need to get away from here for a while, okay? I'm going stir crazy cooped up in that room all day."
Jim regarded him for another moment before he shrugged. "Okay," he said, standing and tucking the board beneath his arm. "C'mon, I'll show you. I've got a spare board you can use."
Jim's eyes narrowed in exasperation. "Look, do you want to go to this place or not?"
"Well, yeah, but…"
Jim's eyes narrowed further. "But what?"
Roxas cut his gaze away from the other boy. "Nothing. Sorry."
"Whatever." Jim turned back to the office, pausing at the door long enough to throw over his shoulder: "Meet me out front in five minutes if you're coming." Then he was gone.
Roxas glared at the closed door before he lurched back into action, digging the key out of his pocket as he stomped toward the room. The kitten ran to greet him only to shrink away as he slammed the door, features twisted in a glower that softened when he caught sight of the animal's frightened expression. "Hey," he said, crouching down and extending one hand. The kitten approached him cautiously, sniffing at his fingers for several seconds before surging up against his palm with a contented purr.
"Sorry 'bout that," he murmured, scratching below the kitten's chin. "But I don't wanna go anywhere with that asshole." He glanced around the room and sighed. "But I can't stay here again – I can't." He looked back down at the kitten, smiling in spite of himself when it rolled onto its back and batted at his hand. "Sucks, huh?" The kitten meowed up at him. "Yeah, I know."
Roxas pushed himself back to his feet with another sigh, checking to make sure there was still food and water in the kitten's dish before he took the twenty-dollar bill from his pocket and set it on the countertop. He made a quick detour to snag a piece of paper and pen from his duffle bag and penned a single sentence: We need to talk. He wrapped the paper around the money and left it sitting under an unopened toothbrush from the toiletry set. Then he took one last look around the room, bent to give the kitten a final scratch behind the ears, and left.
Jim was standing in front of the office with two skateboards tucked under his arms when Roxas trudged back to the front of the building. He glanced up at the blond's approach, expression still irritated. "Hey. You ready?" Roxas nodded and Jim extended one of the boards out to him wordlessly, turning and striding away as soon as Roxas took it.
Roxas stood irresolutely for a moment, glancing between Jim's rapidly disappearing back and the door to the room before he started after the other boy, breaking into a slow jog until he drew even with him. Jim glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, but otherwise didn't acknowledge his presence. Roxas kept his gaze fixed firmly forward, and they walked the blocks in silence.
"Okay," Jim said at length as they drew even with the entrance to a mid-sized skatepark. "This is it."
"Yeah," Roxas said. "Thanks."
Jim glanced at him as he swung his board to the ground. "You any good with that thing?"
Roxas didn't miss the challenge in the other boy's eyes, and a crooked smile stole across his face as he set his own board on the ground. "Maybe. What about you?"
The corner of Jim's lips quirked up. "Maybe."
"Okay, then," Roxas said, setting one foot on his board. "Let's do this."
"All right," Jim panted an hour later, collapsing onto the bench and throwing his head back with a sigh. "So you can skate." Roxas didn't respond, only threw himself down on the bench next to Jim and tried to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. "Haven't had a workout like that in ages," Jim continued, slicking his hair back out of his face.
"Me neither," Roxas said, bending to knead his calf.
Jim grunted and fell silent, gaze fixed on some indefinable point in the near distance. Roxas concentrated on bringing his breathing back under control, and for a few minutes they sat in comfortable silence, watching their vaporous breaths dissipate in the chilly air.
"So what's up with you and Axel?" Jim asked, tone nonchalant.
Roxas shrugged, striving to keep his own voice as casual. "My car broke down. He's taking me out to Destiny Islands." He regarded Jim from the corner of his eye. "Why?"
It was Jim's turn to shrug, sitting forward far enough to prop his elbows on his knees. "Just curious. I've known Axel for a while, and I've never seen him ride with anyone else before."
"He picked you up," Roxas said, then bit his tongue as Jim's head whipped around.
"He told you about that, huh?" Jim's voice was soft, but something in his expression made Roxas's chest twist.
"Not really," he said, trying to shrug it off. "He just said you were the only kid he'd ever stopped for."
A mirthless smile spread across Jim's face. "Until you." He laughed low in his throat when Roxas had to drop his gaze. "Yeah, well, thanks for the workout, anyway," he said, pushing himself to his feet. Roxas's gaze snapped back up as Jim brushed his bangs back out of his eyes and began to walk away.
"Hey, wait," Roxas said, half-rising and brandishing the skateboard. "Don't you want this back?"
Jim didn't look back. "Keep it."
Roxas stared after him, struggling to follow the sudden turn their conversation had taken, before he rose and began jogging after the other boy. "Hey – hey, wait!" If Jim heard him, he chose to ignore him, and Roxas had to catch him by the arm before Jim deigned to glance back over his shoulder at him. "Look, I don't know what's going on with you and Axel," Roxas started, ignoring the way Jim's eyebrows drew together. "But he's just taking me to Destiny Islands, okay?" Jim remained silent, expression revealing nothing. "Just – look, what is your deal? I haven't done anything to you!"
"Let go," Jim said tonelessly. Roxas glared at him, fingers tightening around the other boy's arm in frustration, but Jim didn't react. Finally, Roxas released his grip and stepped back. Jim turned away again and resumed walking without a word. He didn't look back.
Roxas watched him go, fighting the urge to take the skateboard and break it over the nearest available surface. Releasing a harsh breath, he turned away from the sight of Jim's receding back and checked his watch.
It was still hours until Axel would be back.
Roxas groaned under his breath and glanced back in the direction of the hotel. Jim had disappeared from view. Well, at least that was something. Tucking the skateboard up under his arm, Roxas began the trek back to the room.
The kitten was batting the twenty-dollar bill across the floor. Roxas stood in the doorway, propping himself up on the doorframe as he watched the white ball of fluff skitter back and forth across the room, alternately pouncing on and running from the flimsy improvised toy. The note he'd wrapped around it was nowhere to be seen.
Roxas waited to feel something as he continued to track the kitten's movements – irritation, frustration, anger – but he only felt empty. Wrung-out.
Finally, when the cat got too close to the door, Roxas clapped his hands to herd it back into the room and stepped inside, closing the door behind him. "Gimme that," he muttered, bending and snatching the bill away from the kitten's outstretched paw. The kitten tried to swipe at it as it rose through the air, but missed and meowed piteously up at Roxas as he anchored the bill underneath Axel's razor. "Oh, shut up. You'll live." The kitten loudly mewled its disagreement. "Fine, be like that."
Wiping a hand tiredly down his face, Roxas glanced around the small room. "I'm an idiot," he said, turning his gaze back on the kitten. It only blinked at him. "Yeah," he sighed, moving past it and dropping down on his bed. "I know." He propped the skateboard against the wall and flopped back onto the mattress, gazing blindly at the ceiling before he shifted to lie on his side, curling into a tight ball.
He needed to make it up to Axel somehow. Figure out how much he'd cost him, pay him back. He closed his eyes, wishing he could close out his whirling thoughts as easily as his surroundings. His mind was still wandering in useless circles when he fell into an uneasy sleep.
It was dark outside by the time Axel returned, the redhead's voice jolting Roxas back to full consciousness. "What the fuck did you tell Tifa to convince her I don't feed you, kid?" he asked as he breezed through the door, a six-pack of beer dangling from one hand.
Roxas rubbed irritably at his temple, trying to re-center his thoughts. "Nothing," he said. "I forgot to eat before heading out and she just –"
"Decided I'm starving you," Axel finished with a snort, withdrawing a cellophane-wrapped sandwich from his jacket pocket and tossing it at the blond. The kitten scrambled across Roxas' legs to avoid being hit with the projectile, claws scoring him through his jeans before the animal dropped to the floor and darted beneath Axel's bed. "That's for you," Axel said, ignoring the glare Roxas pinned him with. "Since clearly you're wasting away."
"Thanks," Roxas muttered, watching as the redhead bent to retrieve another microwave dinner from the fridge. "Look, I…" He hesitated when Axel glanced at him before scowling and cutting his own gaze to the side. "The money she gave me's on the counter."
Axel nodded. "Okay. Thanks."
"Twenty bucks, Axel?" Roxas burst out, gesticulating wildly with one hand. "Why didn't you say something earlier? I could've – you shouldn't –" He broke off in frustration, slapping his hand back to the mattress. "Why didn't you say something?" he repeated sullenly.
Axel regarded him with a blank expression for a moment before he sighed and popped his dinner into the microwave. "Okay, I'll bite – what the hell brought this on?"
Roxas gaped at him. "You – I – you sent me to work a job for twenty bucks, Axel! Tifa said –"
"What? That I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel?" Axel shrugged as a mirthless grin flashed across his face. "You do what you have to sometimes, kid."
"But you shouldn't have to!" Roxas snapped. "It's my fault you're broke and you're still the one doing all the –"
"Roxas." Roxas' teeth clicked shut as Axel shook his head, chuckling dryly. "Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment, but this is what I do. How do you think I knew to come here in the first place?"
"But you're only stuck here because you stopped to help me –"
"I am not 'stuck here,'" Axel scoffed, leaning against the counter and crossing his arms. "If I wasn't here I'd be somewhere just like it, doing the exact same thing." He paused, a smirk curling his lip. "Well, maybe not the twenty-dollar jobs," he amended, "but right now every little bit helps. The point," he continued, waving a stalling hand as Roxas opened his mouth again, "is that if anyone's stuck here, it's you. And you're already paying for that privilege. So I don't know what Tifa said to put this bug up your ass, but you can forget it right now."
"But nothing," Axel said, turning to grab his food when the microwave beeped. "If your conscience really bothers you so much, you can keep helping with the little jobs. But that's as far as it goes, Roxas."
Roxas only glared at him, throat clenched with frustration. "Look, it's not fair that –"
Axel snorted. "Life's not fair, kid. Get used to it." Grabbing his beer, he settled at the table, glancing at the blond when he didn't move. "Are you gonna eat or what?"
Roxas wanted to fling the sandwich at the man's head; instead, he slid off the bed and moved to join him at the table. "At least tell me why you won't let me help," he grumbled as he threw himself into his chair.
Axel rolled his eyes. "I am letting you help, idiot," he shot back. "I just said you can work the little jobs for me."
"That's not what I mean," Roxas said, frowning.
"Look, kid, I knew what I was getting myself into when I picked you up. You could've taken off when I ran out of money and I wouldn't have blamed you. Paying for all this –" He gestured around the room with his fork. "– while I build up a little money again is more than enough. So drop it, or I'll put you on a bus myself," he finished with a grin.
Roxas ducked his head, throat tight. "Okay," he said quietly.
"Finally," Axel huffed. He shoveled another forkful of food into his mouth. "You think too damn much, you know that?" he muttered.
Roxas managed a watery smile before he unwrapped the sandwich. They ate in silence, the smell of the turkey drawing the kitten from beneath the bed so that it sat at Roxas' feet, watching his every move with rapt attention. Axel rolled his eyes again when Roxas tore off a small strip of lunchmeat for it.
"So is this really what you do?" Roxas asked as they were finishing up. "Just go place to place and find work wherever you can?"
Axel's grin was sharp as he replied. "What, the romance wearing off already, Rox?" He laughed at the blond's expression before he sat back, eyes rising to the ceiling as he considered the question. "Yeah, this is pretty much it. I'm in a bit more of a hurry to drum up some quick cash just now, but yeah – drive somewhere, get a job or two for a couple of months, then move on."
Axel shrugged. "Why not? Sure as hell haven't found anything worth stopping for yet." He shoved himself up from the table, grabbing the empty food container and depositing it in the trash bin. He paused at the counter, seemingly thinking as he dug his cigarettes out of his pocket. "Not that I haven't done other shit from time to time," he said as he flicked open his lighter. "Remind me to tell you about the year I was a roadie sometime."
"A roadie?" Roxas asked, unable to keep a skeptical smile from his face.
Axel grinned. "Yeah, and you'd never believe who for. But that," he said, doing a poor job of covering a yawn with the back of his hand, "is a story for another night. If you're all done being weird for the evening I'm gonna watch some TV and hit the sack."
Roxas nodded mutely, clearing his own mess from the table before he returned to his bed, dragging his duffle bag onto the mattress with him and digging out his CD player. He fit the headphones over his ears and sat back, propping himself against the headboard and watching Axel watch television from the corner of his eye. "Hey, Axel?" he said, pausing the music. He glanced to the side when the redhead looked over at him. "Thanks. For everything. I just…I'm glad you're the one who stopped."
He couldn't read the other man's expression. Finally, Axel nodded. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Guess I am, too, kid."