One Month Later…
Cloud sat on his usual hillside, near the bike shed, in the dirt and grass that grew in patches now that the weather had turned more rainy. A storm had visited during the night, had drowned the world and moved on, though the sky was still dark, the clouds still present and heavy. Looking up at them, the blond predicted that they were in for another lashing soon enough. The drips in the ceilings would need to be monitored – the Committee couldn't patch them until the roofing tiles dried a little more. The last thing they needed was something slipping and breaking a leg. As a result, there were now pots and pans littering the castle, catching droplets with a steady pattering, Demyx happily collecting the water into bottles to store in his wardrobe. He also took delight in flinging the contents at people in the hallways – apparently, this happened every winter. The musician was about the only one of them that viewed the change of weather with happiness – the rain really was a bitch, cut them off from the city when things got too bad. It was just fortunate, Cloud supposed, that they were as self-sufficient as they were.
Right now, there was a sharpness to it all, to the colours, the air. Sounds travelled more crisply, in the stillness, as the environment took a breath before resuming its wet passion. His pants were damp from sitting on the ground like this. He had come to check on the bike, make sure that it wasn't getting waterlogged, that the shed, at least, was as well-sealed from the elements as ever. In a sleeveless turtleneck zip-up, Cloud could feel the cold nipping at his arms, but… it was a good feeling. It was invigorating, in a way, even if all he wanted was to be quiet with his thoughts. Between his warm fingers, he held Sephiroth's ID tags, the chain brushing the ground just the slightest amount as he smoothed his thumbs over the engravings. His eyes, however, were not on the words, not on the glinting metal, blue irises instead scanning the horizon, lost inside the dark grey meeting the mountains, too busy inhaling the chill to focus on any of the deeper emotions the necklace wrought upon him. Cloud drew a breath, eyelashes fluttering closed for a moment.
Footsteps across the earth, heavy and, from the sounds of it, caked with mud. He turned his head slightly, chin settling on his shoulder, smiled as the owner of the steps came into view. Leon had his hands in his pockets, eyes touching warily on the tags in Cloud's grasp as he approached. He slowed to a stop beside the blond, the slow breeze ruffling the ends of his hair, which he'd been growing out a little lately, to combat the cold. "How's Fenrir?" he asked. Cloud shrugged, small smile still in place.
"Dry." Leon grunted slightly, nodded. Cloud rolled a shoulder, facing forward again. "Take a seat."
Leon frowned at the dirt. "My ass'll get wet."
"My ass is wet," the blond rejoined. "You might as well suffer with me."
The brunet snuffed a breath of a laugh, pulled his hands from his pockets and stepped closer, sank down into a cross-legged position, their knees bumping. "You know," he said conversationally, "I really don't see why I should suffer, too. After all, no one's making you sit in the mud. This isn't solidarity, Cloud."
The other man shook his head, elbows on his ankles as he continued to rub the tags, looking down at them now, smirking. "Yeah, but this is the sort of shit you just have to do."
Leon bent his face to his hand, rubbed one brow, shooting Cloud a dry look. "It is, huh?" The blond hummed confirmation, fingers hooking under the chain, drawing it away from the ground, absently brushing away the dirt that clung. Leon sobered, laced his fingers together between his knees and hunched forward, joining Cloud in staring at the necklace. Silence breathed between them, the blond blinking slowly, gaze seeming to pass gradually out of focus. Leon observed, a crease appearing along his forehead. Quietly, so as not to disturb the man, he asked, "Are you sure about this?"
Cloud twitched, drew a breath and swivelled his head, looked at Leon on a sideways angle. For a long moment, the two men just stared at each other. Then, Cloud smiled, albeit tinged with sadness. "Yeah. They say it won't disturb anything – so, yeah. It feels right."
Leon nodded slightly, lay his head on his open palm to match Cloud's position. "As long as you're happy…" The corner of the blond's mouth twisted up a little further, a slightly withering tone coming into his words.
"Happy, huh?" Leon's fingers moved around to press against his own lips, he blinked lazily as he shrugged. Cloud sighed, leaned over, pried the fingers away and kissed the newly exposed mouth. Softly, he said, "I'm happy."
Leon studied him, a gentle cast to his features. "Just as well." Cloud rested an arm on the man's shoulder, tilted his head so that blond spikes touched brunet locks, and together, they turned their eyes to the view. The metal jingled as Cloud continued to fiddle with the tags. "They'll be going after they've eaten," the brunet reminded, after several hushed, comfortable minutes.
Cloud rested his chin on Leon's shoulder, hooked a piece of hair behind the man's ear. "We'd better get back then," he said, a note of resignation haunting his voice.
Leon nodded, the motion dislodging the hair, making Cloud grunt in mild annoyance, tug it firmly back. "What are you, my groomer?" the brunet muttered, shifting and preparing to rise. "Next thing I know, you'll be measuring the sides to make sure they're even."
"Well, it is such long, pretty hair, a personal groomer may be in order," Cloud conceded, releasing him and pressing his free hand to the damp ground, pushing up to his feet. Leon flashed him a scornful glance.
"You do know your ex had hair down past his ass, right?"
"That's true," the blond nodded, brushing off his pants. "But Seph took care of his hair – you just wake up and go."
"I tie it back at night, don't I? And I comb it after showers." He smirked in Cloud's direction. "It's not like you're not there when it happens."
"I've seen," the blond agreed, unimpressed, winding the necklace up into his fist. "But I also noticed that these days, if I don't brush your hair after showering, you barely bother doing it."
Leon shrugged, stretched his arms over his head. "Then you should brush my hair more often."
Blue eyes rolled. "Says the man asking sarcastically if I'm his groomer."
"It was a question, and now it appears to have been answered," Leon answered smoothly, a hint of a smile in place. "Are we going? I need new pants now."
Cloud sighed, nodded regretfully. "I do tend to have that effect on you, yes." He dodged the hand that came swiping at his spikes, dug his hands into his pockets and started walking, looking immensely pleased with himself. Leon matched his step, and together the two men returned to the castle, in through one of the many smaller entrances. They tracked mud and grass deliberately for when Demyx would have to clean the floors as punishment for splashing DiZ directly – both had felt the chilly saturation of the techie's mischief, and found petty glee in making his job just that little bit harder. They traversed the halls with ease, not speaking, reaching the dining hall a few short minutes later.
The table at which Roxas and Axel sat was busy this morning, as many people crammed around it as would fit. Worry was prevalent on most expressions, though the core of the group, Axel, Demyx, Kairi, Yuffie, were cheerful enough. Roxas remained quiet, sitting beside his boyfriend, picking with little interest at the breakfast Aerith had specially prepared for the assemblage. There were plates littering the table, some balanced on laps, a general chatter filling the air, though it felt, for the majority, shallow, impulsive. The blond and brunet approached, many heads perking at their entrance, a small gap forming with much scraping of chair legs for them to enter. Some of the false cheer died down, sobriety stealing through the collection, Axel and Roxas glancing over. Leon nodded, said, "Hey."
Cloud asked, "Are you guys nearly ready?"
The group tensed, Roxas more than any of them, Axel shooting him a quick glance. An arm wrapping securely around the blond's waist, he answered, "Yeah, we're getting there."
The brunet cast a wry glanced at the group. "Shouldn't you people be doing something?" he asked the Committee members. Yuffie stiffened indignantly.
"We are," she yelped defensively. "We're providing moral support!" She squinted, drumming her fingers on the table dangerously. "Shouldn't you be doing something? Other than proposing to Cloud sometime in the next week, that is." Both men rolled their eyes.
"I am doing something, I'm providing actual moral support."
Cloud and Roxas met each other's gazes, and for a long quiet moment, studied one another. "You're sure you want to do this?" the older man asked softly, unconsciously echoing Leon's earlier words. The teen lowered his eyes to the table, shrugged. There was a leanness to his face that lingered, despite the rate at which he'd been healing over the past four weeks. Neither he nor Axel could quite shake the smudges of darkness under their eyes. Aerith wondered aloud to Cloud, every now and then, if they were having nightmares – real nightmares, not just program-induced sleepwalking. It always took them a little while to get going each day, they had a habit of clinging together until the end of breakfast, never allowing more than a foot to develop between one or the other.
When Axel squeezed his hand under the table, Roxas looked up, smiled a little. "Yeah. Just a little nervous, I guess. But…" Blue eyes flickered back to blue, the slight awkwardness the younger blond always seemed to feel now in Cloud's company abating just ever so slightly. "Yeah. We're cool for this. It's going to be alright." He hesitated, tilted his head to the side. "What about you?"
Cloud grimaced, shrugged, swung his fist up and watched the tags drop down to swing, drawing all eyes. "I'm ready to give it up," he said simply. "This feels like the best thing to do." Roxas stared for a moment, gauging his sincerity, then reached out, wrapped his fingers around the dangling chain, held tight. After a moment, Cloud let go, let the small beads clink down onto the boy's fist. He rubbed his hand slowly on his pants, watched Roxas loop it over his head, tucking it under his sweater.
"Well," Axel said, a touch of weariness to his tone, though he seemed peaceful enough despite the circumstances this morning, "I guess we'd better get going, then, huh?" He glanced to Roxas for confirmation, the boy nodding shortly. More chair legs scraped, as people shifted out of the way for the couple, though no one rose. Roxas stood, exited the tight-knit group, turned and waited patiently as Axel unlatched the brakes of his chair, gripped the wheels and expertly reversed away. "Get to work, slackers," the redhead threw over his shoulder, as he spun to join Roxas. Kairi huffed an incredulous laugh.
"You're the laziest one here," she pointed out, sitting on the table in the space left behind.
"Do as I say, not as I do," Axel replied sagely. He glanced up at Roxas. "Ready?" The blond nodded, flicked his eyes over those at the table, Aerith near the counter pretending to wash dishes, repeatedly wiping at a plate that had been clean roughly ten minutes ago. His lips twitched up, just the slightest amount, as she chanced a look over. She was fearful, deep worry etched into the lines of her face. She didn't speak, although he could tell she desperately wanted to – the current mood of the gathered dictated that the subject be skated over, treated as an everyday occurrence, which, Roxas supposed, it sort of was, to a certain extent. There was nothing up with going into Twilight Town, nothing to get concerned about – almost all of the techies had either come from, or been into, the simulation at some point in their lives, Roxas himself obviously included.
But – it was different this time. He supposed they all knew it, which was why they had flocked together like this. There was that tension to the air that hadn't existed when it had been just he and Axel, underlying the bright words that Yuffie and Kairi insisted on exchanging to fill the gaps, Demyx generally jabbering in the background.
So Aerith kept silent, respecting the fact that everyone was trying to pretend this was all normal and okay, though her thoughts were loud and clear to the blond: Be careful. He nodded, just minutely, acknowledging her fears, allaying them with the confidence he felt at doing this – he was calm.
Leaving the group behind, Roxas and Axel crossed the hall, exited out into the corridor. Alone for the first time since leaving their room an hour and a half earlier, Axel cast the blond a sidelong look. "You know, you don't have to do this."
A golden brow arched. "Axel. How many times do I have to tell you that I want to do this? It was my idea, remember?"
"Yes, but you were young and foolish, then," the redhead pointed out.
"Right. Last week." He shook his head with faint irritation. "Stop treating me like this is some kind of precursor to a breakdown."
Axel shrugged, started wheeling. "You know how I worry." Roxas sighed.
"Well, you shouldn't," he called, as Axel put some distance between them. He took several long strides to catch up, frowning. Axel snorted.
"Right. Me, not worry. About you." Green eyes rolled. "Like that's ever going to happen."
A hand came out, smacked the back of his head. "It had better start happening," Roxas said with an edge. "I don't need you… mothering me, Axel."
"Yeah, and I'm not," the redhead responded quietly. "But I am looking out for you, Rox. This is what I do, remember?"
The blond glanced down, feeling a flash of irritation at the realisation that he was just – overreacting. Axel was probably right to worry, at least a little. As much as it annoyed him in this moment, he could understand where the man was coming from. He sighed, rubbed at his right eye. "Okay, fine. But – I'm okay. Seriously. I wouldn't have suggested it if I wasn't prepared for it."
Axel nodded, accepted. "As long as you're okay, I'm okay."
"Then I guess we're okay." Roxas smiled slightly, shook his head, bent as they travelled and planted a quick kiss on the redhead's temple. "Short-ass."
"Come down here and say that," the man growled. Roxas jumped lightly onto the footrest of the wheelchair, sat quickly on Axel's right thigh, crossed his knees with exaggerated daintiness. "You – are – a short-ass," he repeated, matter-of-factly. He then elaborated, "In your chair."
"Yeah? I won't be here for long, Roxie," Axel jeered. "Whereas you are a short-ass for life."
"So I'll break your leg again," the blond replied airily. There was a pause, as each of them stared at the other, his words hanging in the air, so blithely spoken. Roxas paled a little, averted his gaze. Aside from their initial agreement that Roxas had had nothing to do with the attack, they hadn't bothered to take time to discuss the matter. Everything Roxas had felt, everything Axel had screamed, remained unspoken between them.
Axel uttered, "Jacktard." Shame-facedly, Roxas prepared to get up, was stopped by a pair of arms winding around his middle, settling him more securely on his lap while keeping him away from the main damage. "Oh, no, you're not getting away that easy," the redhead muttered. He pointed a finger in the boy's face sternly, commanded, "Stay." When he was sure the blond wasn't going to vacate anytime soon, he lowered his hands to the wheels, started pushing, the newly-built muscles in his arms coming into play. Roxas resigned himself to the ride, rested against Axel's collar and closed his eyes, breathed him in, waited. For a while, there was just the rise and fall of the redhead's chest, the sensation of motion, the sound of the wheels rolling quickly, efficiently. He lifted a hand, placed it over Axel's heart, felt its steady thud against his palm when he pressed. The man glanced down. "Still beating?"
"Yep," Roxas confirmed softly. "I didn't leave it behind."
Axel gave him a weird look. "Huh?" Roxas didn't respond, gentled his touch.
They entered the computer lab, wheels creating a din on the walkway before silencing on the tiles. Riku and Sora were waiting, working at the terminal, the silver-haired teen's hands creating a rapid tapping that filled the room. It had taken a little while for Roxas to get used to seeing Riku around the place… those flashes of silver had, for several days after coming home, startled him badly, sent his pulse leaping jaggedly.
This time, it was Sora that sat in the smaller chair, swinging back and forth. Both boys raised their heads as the couple came in, wariness identical as their eyes fell upon Roxas. The blond sighed, straightened, carefully stepped out of the chair and raised a forestalling hand. "Please – don't ask me if I'm sure about this," he said, before either could voice their concern. "I'm sure, I'm sure I'm sure, the works."
"…Actually," Sora answered, after a beat, "I was going to ask if I could have a turn in Axel's wheelchair when you guys are gone?" He smiled in the face of all the stares. "It looks like fun," he added defensively, a moment later.
Axel shook his head, grinning wryly. "Oh, sure, it's fun, when you ignore the blisters on your hands, and the fact that your ass is permanently numb."
"Hm, should make things easier for Roxas," Riku muttered, coughing on the last word and trying to look busy, as both Roxas and Sora began to splutter, one with laughter, the other, indignation. Sora whapped Riku with a keyblade, while Roxas chuckled and wiped his eyes, Axel at his side looking torn between amusement and telling Sora to forgo the whapping and skip straight to the stabbity treatment, Larxene-style.
"Ow. Ow, Sora, fuck off."
The brunet glared one last time at his boyfriend, turned to Roxas and Axel and asked, "Any last requests before you leave?"
"Don't challenge Dem to a drag-race," Axel said, wearily. "He bent my right wheel last week."
"I'm thinking he meant for safety's sake," Riku clarified, serious all of a sudden, chair swivelling around so he could cross an ankle over one knee, all but lounging in the large seat, a sceptical expression in place as he studied the pair. The silence from his lack of typing swallowed them, dispensed with the humour they'd been attempting, killing off Roxas' lifted mood just the slightest amount under the tension.
"I'll take care of Roxie," the redhead said quietly. "It's not going to be a big deal."
"You know what I wish?" They looked to Sora, who was frowning. "I wish – we could tie a rope around your middles, so we could – yank you out if she decided to keep you."
"She's not going to, you guys," Roxas sighed, running an agitated hand through his hair. "I know…" He closed his eyes briefly, softened his tone. "I know that everyone's thinking of her as – the crazy computer that Roxas-napped me – to quote Demyx directly – but…" He shook his head, hands dropping to his sides, shrugging slightly. "I trust her. I was part of her for a while, and I sort of know how she works now." His gaze turned to meet Axel's, the green intent, with an undercurrent of fear shining through, though he tried to keep it hidden. "She's not interested in hoarding her 'children' and keeping them til they're old and grey," the blond murmured. "She just – she's only doing what she's programmed for. She protects until she has to let go, and then she does. I know what she said – about missing us – but…" He glanced at the others. "Isn't that what all moms do, when their kids leave the nest?"
Riku was unimpressed. "I don't like her," he said bluntly. "She's not a 'mom', she's a program." He snorted. "Plus, DiZ created her. I'm not thinking of Jenova as my mom, because I refuse to have that man as my 'grandfather'."
"The point I'm making – " Roxas rolled his eyes. " – is that we've got nothing to worry about. She's not going to decide she likes having me back and seal you guys out. She depends on you as much as you do on her, remember? She just wants to be the core, and take care of Twilight Town. That's it."
"Then, why so tense?" Sora asked mildly, elbows on knees, the tip of his keyblade touching the ground, fingers rotating it slowly in place. Roxas glared.
"I understand her, Sora," he replied, with irritation. "Doesn't mean I trust her a hundred percent. I – I can't. Not until we've done this, and she lets me leave again."
"So…" Riku drew the word out, thinking. "After saying all that to us, you're not sure yourself – but you want to find out?"
Roxas stilled for a moment, then nodded, not pleasing Axel in the least. "And if she decides not to?" the redhead asked in low tones. Sora winked, kicking up the end of the keyblade, waving it through the air.
"That's when we perform emergency measures," he promised. He rolled his eyes. "Come on, Axel, you know there's more than one way out of Twilight Town, you should be the one who's confident here."
Axel grimaced, looked down pointedly at his leg, then back at Sora. "You think so, huh?"
"Are we going to keep philosophising about the nature of a mechanical mother, or are you guys actually going in there sometime today?" Riku demanded, propping his silver head on one hand, an eyebrow arching.
Axel threw up his hands, exclaimed, "Fine! Do it, send us in, and be the one to suffer and weep and say, 'Why? Why didn't I let Axel philosophise longer before the computer ate him up?'"
Roxas shifted over to the circle on the wall. "She's not going to eat anyone up," he stated, as firmly as he could. He turned, hands on hips. "Are you rolling over here, or do I have to push you?"
"You're not pushing me," Axel said quickly, pride snapping up, driving his hands down to the wheels to join the blond.
"You're sure this'll work with Axel?" Roxas asked doubtfully, looking down at the man. Sora flapped a dismissive hand.
"It's cool, all under control. It's just pixels, right? We decide how you come out on the other side, it's all in the coding."
"In that case, make me sexy," Axel commanded. "Like, sexier. I want Roxie to look at me, foam at the mouth, and fall over to do my bidding."
"You mean the way you do every time he enters a room?" Riku replied, twisting the chair back and resuming his typing efforts. Axel scowled.
"You want to start talking about who's whipped here? How about that time when you – "
"Okay, cock-competitions aside," Sora interrupted loudly, sighing, "are you guys in position and stuff? And if I hear anything about positions, from either of you – " He darted Riku a warning look, received a distracted smirk in return, lit up by the glow of the screen. " – I'll start hurting people."
"Yeah, like he can measure up to Innuendo Boy," Axel muttered. He tugged Roxas a little, shoved him into place, gestured his hands in a 'go on' motion to the other techies. Riku and Sora exchanged a look, shrugged simultaneously, and started the process. "Take care of Roxas," Riku cautioned, at which he received a scornful look and a middle finger. Then the blue light began to flicker, washed over the blond and redhead, scanned them in, and broke them apart. They were sucked away, and the next time they existed, it was in an alleyway, dim, golden light illuminating the world.
Roxas gasped, fell over, was caught by strong, gentle hands and steadied. "Gonna be sick?" Words warm in his ear. Roxas shook his head hurriedly, then emptied his breakfast out onto the pavement a bare moment later, coughing at the burn. Axel held him tightly for some minutes, until the awful shaking receded. Roxas hung from his grip, waiting for the dizziness to fade. It took a little while for him to realise that – Axel was taller than him again. He blinked, twisted his head, looked up with surprise at the smiling face. "Your tattoos are gone," he croaked. Axel's brows rose. He steadied Roxas, until he was sure the teen was standing on his own, walked a little way down the alley until he reached a window studded in the side of the brick wall, dusty and covered from within. He peered at his reflection. "Huh, so they are. Must've been left over from last time."
"Axel…" The redhead turned curiously at the tone of Roxas' voice. The boy was looking – horribly depressed, all of a sudden. Axel frowned, started towards him.
"Rox? What is it?"
The blond shook his head, gestured weakly. "Look at you. You're walking."
Axel glanced down, lifted his left leg, looked back at the teen and smiled, extending the leg, balancing unsteadily. "Yep! You heard Sora, right? All just pixels. Easy enough to give me a new leg in here." He hesitated, lowered his foot back to the ground. "Think about it, Rox – it was a war. Well-placed and shittily-aimed bombs wiped out most of the goddamn adult population, remember? There were some kids that came here – missing things." He shrugged a little at the dawning horror on Roxas' face. "Just another good reason to keep some of them in here, you know?" He returned to where the blond stood, slung an arm around his shoulders, held him close for a moment. "When we get home, it's back to the chair for me, but we figured it'd be easier if I was able to walk around a little." Roxas nodded, frowning. One slender-fingered hand came up, Axel tenderly brushing the flaxen hair from his face. "Come on. Let's go find him." Roxas' eyes slipped shut for a moment, he took a breath before nodding. Axel's hand dropped down, hooked into one of his, and together they left the alleyway.
It was – so strange walking these streets again, bathed in the now almost-unfamiliar early twilight. It was – quiet here, none of the frenetic energy that Hollow Bastion owned. Roxas could see why Axel had liked it when he'd come for him – there truly was a sense of peace, it lingered on the air, in the brighter colours of everything. People were calmer, their lives sedate. It was – enjoyable, because Roxas knew that, in the end, this wasn't home anymore. He wasn't trapped here, and so could appreciate all that had only bored him before. It was a nice place to grow up, and for the first time, he was grateful that he'd been able to. He'd been given the gift of a quiet life, when the world outside it was rife with conflict. Maybe eventually that hadn't worked for him, but it was a good place for a kid.
He shut his eyes, breathed the cool air deeply, and thought of how it had looked as a small ball in a jewellery box.
"You remember the way?" Axel asked softly, studying him carefully. Roxas smiled, blue eyes flashing open.
"It'd be hard to forget, don't you think?" He nodded, tugged the redhead's hand, subtly taking the lead. "I know where to go." They walked slowly along the sidewalk, fingers intertwined, looking for all the world like any regular couple out for a stroll. After a while, Roxas smiled. "This feels familiar," he murmured. Axel glanced down.
Roxas nodded to the nearby bushes. "Three in the morning, you, me, walking around the block." Axel's head rose, gaze sharpening. Amusement crept across his features.
"Well, what do you know… I'm getting the sudden urge to start collecting little rocks."
"Yeah, but, if you threw them right now? I totally wouldn't come to the window." Their eyes caught, smirks deep, heads shaking slightly at the thought of that time of their lives ever even existing. Roxas sighed, grip on Axel tightening as the house came into view. There were two different realities running through his head in this deciding moment – there was him and Axel, like this, together and walking through the light, and then there was Roxas alone, schoolbag slung over his shoulder, the world darkening, mood low, breath trapped without knowing. He could almost feel that other version of himself, walking a half-pace behind, blurring into him. He could – almost feel the hopelessness.
A dog barked nearby. The Roxas of little more than two months ago faded, wilted, was gone, leaving only Axel's Roxie in his place, shoes scraping the path. Blond hair touched Axel's shoulder, their steps slowing, his nose burrowing briefly into the redhead's arm. Axel touched his chin, lifted, met his gaze and studied him for a moment, before tapping their lips dryly together. "I see him," he murmured. Roxas twisted, froze a little, heartbeat hesitating at the sight.
Kadaj was on Roxas' driveway, bouncing one of Roxas' tennis balls. The clothes were new, though – he wouldn't have fit Roxas' wardrobe. And the golden-haired dog running around – Roxas had never seen that before. And yet, it was unmistakably Kadaj's. It yapped happily, bounding around, a joyful air surrounding it as the young silver-haired man threw the ball across the yard, the canine streaking after it. It had been Aerith's gift to him, to aid in his bid for peace. There weren't many pets in Twilight Town, because the thought of transporting animals into the castle and scanning them in had seemed too difficult and ridiculous, but – they'd made an exception for this one. Naminé had written it into his life flawlessly.
Roxas pondered on how they could care so much about the happiness of a man they feared, someone who had tormented him, put the entire castle on edge. Part of it was necessity – if he didn't find his peace, couldn't be stable, there were few options left. It was vital that he survived this, found somewhere that his mind and heart could rest. But, at the same time… there was a small part, or maybe a larger one, in almost everyone that had been in that room that day, that wanted this for him. Not for themselves, to keep out of trouble, but – it was hard to look at a broken soul, and not want it to be mended. No matter how horrendous his acts might have been, Roxas doubted there was a single person with intimate knowledge of the man that didn't desire him to be happy, just so he could be happy. There was an inner voice, loud or soft, that told their consciences that everyone deserved a chance.
How bizarre, to see him now, laughter bright, with a musical quality, as the dog galloped back, a glimpse of apple-green in its mouth. Kadaj didn't appear to care about the slobber, though Axel made a face when they saw a string of it descend from the pet's jaw as the silver-haired man took the ball. Seconds later, it was sailing again, the four-legged creature tearing after it. Roxas and Axel looked at each other, steeled themselves, and approached.
It was odd seeing someone else obviously living in the house he'd grown up in. Even more surprising, the fact that he didn't feel jealous. Roxas would have expected it, at least a little. Kadaj now believed that he'd spent his entire life here, had been raised from a baby with the house that Roxas had lived in. And it had been up til less than three months ago. Shouldn't he have felt some stab of possessiveness, at the very least? A sensation of mild desolation at having been so utterly cast aside and replaced? If he did, it wasn't coming, didn't flicker, didn't flare. The most he felt at it all was – a sense of finality, he supposed. This truly was the end of it, the end of his Twilight Town days, the end of his early, fearful Hollow Bastion days. It was done with.
Kadaj glanced up as they approached, out of breath, cheeks flushed and hair messy, shorter than it had been in Hollow Bastion, swinging at shoulder-length. The grin died a little, becoming faint wariness, slight puzzlement as the blond and redhead crossed to where he waited for the dog to return. It was rustling wildly through the hedge on the far side of the yard, searching for its prize. The man straightened, wiping his slobbery hand on his pants while the other lifted the hair from his narrowing eyes. There was something faintly defensive about his stance. "Can I help you?" he asked cautiously. His gaze flicked from one to the other, not quite suspicious, but as if he were ready to become so. Roxas forced a smile.
"Hi. We're from the school. They sent us to give you something."
A silver brow lifted. "Give me something?" His hands found his hips, body twisting slightly to face them better. He was looking healthier than Roxas remembered, flesh fuller, more muscle beneath his skin, exposed by the short sleeves of his shirt.
"Yeah." Roxas lifted his hands, unhooked the necklace, let the ID tags drop from his fist like he'd seen Cloud do. As Kadaj stared at them, eyes following the glint of metal as they swung, Axel and Roxas watched his closely. They were ready, if he snapped, to call for their weapons and fight him. Sora and Riku were up there, out there, like minor deities, following the proceedings closely – Axel's chakrams, Roxas' keyblades, both were already scanned into the system, ready to burst into being at their fingertips.
"Your brother made them in a metalwork class."
A frown creased the man's face, teal-green eyes jumping up to azure irises. "My – brother?"
"Yeah," Axel said easily. "Read the inscription."
Uncertainly, Kadaj reached out, caught the swaying necklace. Roxas let go immediately, the two males stepping back, putting enough space between them all for a decent fight to take place. Not noticing, the man tucked some hair behind one ear, rubbed a thumb over the metal, lifted it close to scrutinise the worn words. "Sephiroth. Gen. Sephiroth… General?" He glanced at them inquisitively, received no response, returned to the tags. "Zanarkand Corps…" He scowled a little, formed a fist around the chain. "What is this?"
"We told you," Axel replied calmly. "It belonged to your older brother. He's dead now, but he made that in high school. They found it lying around, sent us to give it to you."
Confusion touched the man's features, eyes drawn back to the tags. "…Oh…" He looked back up at them, briefly baffled. "My brother… died?"
"You know he did," Roxas said softly. "He was a good man, remember?"
Kadaj lowered his gaze, swallowed. "…Right. Of course."
"Kadaj?" All three turned, Kadaj breaking into a bright smile, as a woman appeared at the front door, where Roxas' mother would normally have stood. She was tall, slender, with flowing silver hair almost to her calves. She dressed simply, in white, and wore a gentle expression. "I think Meteor's lost the ball," she called, crossing her arms and leaning against the doorframe. "How about you go help? Then come on in, sweetie."
Kadaj hesitated, nodded. "Sure, mom," he replied loudly. He turned to the two others, his eyes lingering on Roxas for a second longer than Axel. There was a look to them that suggested to the blond that some part of him, deep, deep down, thought he was meant to remember this person, this short, spike-haired boy with the wide, blue eyes. "Thanks," he said at last, gesturing with the chain. "I appreciate it. I'm sure my mom will, too."
"Yeah, I'll bet," Axel muttered. Roxas merely nodded. Both watched as the boy sketched a wave, went jogging over to where the dog was running in confused semi-circles around the hedge. Roxas was already staring at the woman, who gazed back calmly, a slight smile in place. Axel noticed, glared a little, a hand coming up to rest on the blond's shoulder, squeezing and rubbing. She met his look, inclined her head faintly, sent one last affectionate blink Roxas' way, and disappeared into the house. Kadaj went past a moment later, leading the dog by the collar, tennis ball grubby in his other hand. He glanced over, waved a second time, followed her in through the open door. It shut, leaving the blond and redhead alone on the pavement.
"Well," Axel said positively, "he didn't go crazy. That's got to be a good sign, huh?" Roxas murmured a response, eyes fixed on the white front door. Axel examined him. "Roxie? You okay?"
The teen heaved a sigh, squeezed his hand. "I'm okay. Just – feeling stuff." He smiled. "He seemed okay, though, didn't he?"
"He did," the redhead agreed quietly. He tugged at Roxas' arm, drawing his attention away from the silent house. "Hey, one more stop, right?"
Roxas grew wary. "Are you sure that's a good idea? I wouldn't want to… you know…"
"It'll be fine." Axel pulled him close, planted a kiss in his hair, swayed him slightly. "Seriously. It's not that fragile." He leaned back, ran a thumb tenderly over the blond's cheek. "It's okay to ask."
Roxas drew a breath, nodded. "Okay, then."
"Lead the way again?" Axel offered. Roxas' mouth curved up.
They started back the way they'd come, cresting the short hill and walking down towards town. Again, the surrealistic comparison between then and now rose up, but this time, Roxas merely observed it, and thanked his lucky stars for letting them this time be holding hands. Realising that this would be the last time for a while that they'd be like this, Roxas lifted Axel's arm, wound it around his shoulder, reached up to grab a handful of shirt and rested against his boyfriend. Only a little surprised by the action, Axel held him close, their steps leading them into the heart of Twilight Town and then a little bit further.
There was a train on the tracks, thundering over the Usual Spot as they arrived, deafening those inside to their approach. Roxas let go of Axel, quickening unconsciously, pushing the ratty curtain aside and entering the cubby-hole of a space. It took a moment for the three inhabitants to notice him standing there, a little longer for the noise to die down enough for speech. There was puzzlement on each face, curiosity. Roxas just – stared.
Hayner lifted an eyebrow. "Uh – hi? Can we help you?"
Now that he was here, he didn't quite know what to say. How did you ask someone a question like this? Someone who thought of you as a total stranger? Axel entered behind him, glancing around with the same appreciation he'd displayed the first time he'd seen it. Olette blinked. "Hello," she offered the pair. "Um – I'm Olette. That's my boyfriend Hayner, and our friend Pence." The cheerful brunet, just as Roxas remembered him, lifted his hand in a wave.
"How's it going?" Pence asked, pleasantly.
"You two lost or something?" Hayner asked, arms crossing as he looked Axel up and down with a faintly unimpressed expression. "People don't usually come back here – especially not out-of-towners."
Axel smirked. "Oh, you can tell?"
"Dude, if I'd seen you before, I'd remember. No one forgets a thatch of hair like that."
"Unless I'm just really, really forgettable," the redhead replied merrily. Roxas shook his head sharply, darted Axel a warning glance. He turned his gaze onto Hayner, felt a stab of uncertainty at having his childhood best friend look at him with such lack of recognition. It was one thing to see it on screen, another to actually experience it. It was unnerving, to say the least. He did still care about them, after all. "Um…" All eyes were on the blond. He took a breath, smiled and waved weakly. "Hi. I'm – Roxas. This is my – friend – Axel." Axel's smirk grew wider.
"Roxas?" Hayner echoed sceptically. He eyed the boy off for a long moment. Olette and Pence seemed to wait for his approval. He shrugged. "Welcome to Twilight Town, I guess. Are you lost?"
Roxas relaxed, released the breath, smile becoming warmer, easier, if tinged with a little melancholy. "No, we're just – looking around. Checking places out."
"So, where are you two from?" Olette asked, cheerfully, bouncing her knees. "Are you here for long?"
"No – we're… we're leaving pretty soon," Roxas replied hesitantly.
"We're from Hollow Bastion," Axel interjected, leaning casually on the blond's shoulder. There was a slight pause, as the three teens frowned simultaneously. They looked at each other, a hair of confusion lacing the air.
"You know…?" Olette said slowly. "I'm pretty sure I've heard of that somewhere… but I can't quite remember where."
"Oh, it's no big place," Axel replied breezily. "You probably heard it mentioned on TV or something."
"So – do you guys like Twilight Town?" Pence asked, amiably. "How come you're going already?"
"Oh, we love it, it's a beautiful place," Axel cut in, before Roxas could respond. He shrugged. "But, you know, things to do, people to see, all that jazz." He paused suddenly, placed his hands together and pointed his index fingers, touching them thoughtfully to his lips. "Something you might be able to help us with, though – Roxas has a question for you." They turned to Roxas, as Roxas turned to Axel with wide eyes. The redhead beamed. "Don't you, honey?"
Roxas glared, pursed his lips, rolled his eyes and twisted back to the others. "Uh, yeah," he said uncertainly. Hayner was waiting expectantly, tapping his foot.
"Well? We'll tell you whatever you need to know."
Roxas thought for a moment, panicking at the blankness in his mind. His fingers knotted together. "Well… I just was wondering if – " His eyes darted up, flicked to each of them in turn. His voice softened. " – if you're happy here. Your lives. In Twilight Town. Are you – are you happy?"
There was silence. They stared for a long moment. Hayner's eyebrow raised even further. "That's what you wanted to ask? That?"
Roxas shrugged uncomfortably, a hand reaching up to slide under his collar, grabbing his shoulder. "Well – yeah. I was just – curious, I guess. Maybe it's weird to hear… a total stranger ask you that, but, I guess I just – wanted to know."
Hayner studied him. "I guess," he said after a while. "I guess it is weird, but you know? I kinda like you. You remind me of someone."
Roxas looked up sharply, heart thundering. "I – who?"
The dirty-blond frowned, shook his head. "Couldn't tell you. Maybe someone I used to know as a kid or something." He squinted at the pair. "You sure you've never lived here before? You seem – familiar, all of a sudden."
"No, no, we're strangers," Axel said quickly, on a wide, slightly forced grin. "If we offered you candy, you'd have to say nooooo. We should probably get going, though, we have a train to catch, and – "
"Are you?" Roxas demanded, elbowing the redhead silent. "Are you happy here?"
The three friends glanced at one another, some form of communication taking place, before Hayner turned back to him, shrugged one shoulder, responded, "Sure. What's not to be happy about?"
Roxas closed his eyes, went still, absorbed these words. He nodded shortly, gave a little laugh. "You're right," he said quietly. "What's not to be happy about?" When he looked at them again, he was smiling, lighter-looking than before. "That's good. I'm glad – that you're happy." Axel's hand found the back of his neck, touch gentle.
"We should go," he murmured. Roxas tilted his chin to one side and down, agreed.
"You're leaving already?" Olette asked, sounding disappointed. Roxas shrugged regretfully.
"Like he said – train to catch."
Axel's arm wrapped around his shoulder. "It was great meeting you all, really, but we're going to be late." He tugged at the blond. "Come on, Roxie."
Roxas resisted a little, gazing longingly at his old friends. "I hope – I hope you keep being happy," he said. "As long as you're happy…"
"We are," Pence assured him. He beamed at his friends. "I don't think that's about to change anytime soon, right, guys?" They assented firmly. Olette smiled sweetly.
"Thanks for caring, though."
Roxas returned the expression. "No problem, 'Lette." Hayner scowled a little at the familiarity of his tone, but it faded as Roxas met his gaze. "So, I'll see you sometime, maybe."
Hayner nodded slowly. "Sure. Maybe. If you ever come back."
"Or maybe," Roxas corrected softly, "if you ever leave…"
After saying good-bye, they exited into the alleyway, passing through a burst of artificial sunlight that looked and felt so damn real. They walked to the mansion; they left the simulation.
Roxas never did go back.
…And Six Months After That
One step, two steps, a thousand steps, it felt like, and Axel still refused to hurry the fuck up. "Come on, come on," Roxas whined impatiently. "What are you, an old fucking man? Are you arthritic?"
The redhead wheezed a laugh. "Hey, I've got the cane, don't I? There's my ticket to senior-citizenship. It's like a one-way trip. Which means no more sex – from now on, you have to pre-chew my food and massage lotion into my wrinkles."
"Our ice-creams are melting," Roxas complained. He head-butted the slow-moving man in the small of his back. "Jeeze, by the time we get up there, I'll be holding two popsicle sticks. If I'd known you were going to be slow, I'd have gone first and had my ice-cream already!"
"Yeah, yeah, bitch, bitch, bitch." Axel glanced back, asked breathlessly, "If you're so worried, have the ice-cream now. You don't have to wait for me."
Roxas groaned, flopped against the staircase rail in distress. "Okay, firstly, yes I do, otherwise I'd suck, and secondly, it's not the same if I have it here!" His face hardened stubbornly. "I'm waiting, damn it."
"Well, then." Axel twirled a hand. "Shut the fuck up and push me."
"Push you?" Roxas eyed his back sceptically. "I can push you down, if you'd like."
"Or," the redhead responded slyly, "you could grab my ass and push me that way."
"Aw, sorry," the teen said, mock-regret dripping from his voice, "but my hands are filled with ice-cream. Otherwise, I'd totally grab your ass, Axel. And fling you down the stairs."
"No fun," Axel panted. "No fun at all."
By the time they reached the top, Roxas was glaring. They emerged into fresh air, a brisk breeze blowing at this point in the afternoon, as the broad orb of the sun swam over the horizon. Axel turned with a wide smile, ready to exclaim over the view, and got a sticky blue hand thrust into his face. "Take it," the blond grated. "No-o-o-w."
Head leaning away, Axel squinted at him, took the melted confection. It truly was a little sad, by now – a misshapen sky-blue lump dribbling on a stick. He muffled a laugh at the sight of Roxas' forearms, both with cobalt ribbons of sugar twined around and around the flesh. "Oh, you think this is funny?" the blond demanded. "Well, wise-guy, while I'm sitting on the edge of the clock tower eating what's left of my ice-cream, you're going to be getting a little messy yourself, since you'll be busy licking my arms clean."
Axel grinned cockily. "Roxie, you say that like it's a punishment. It'll be my pleasure," he drew the word out, "to lick you, my sweet."
"Less talk, more lick." The blond shoved his arm in the man's face, paying absolutely no attention as Axel took and began slowly, methodically, lapping the blue away. He was forced to shuffle after Roxas, who grabbed a handful of his hair so he couldn't disengage, over to the edge. "Un, 'Oxas?" he attempted, tongue sliding over the boy's golden skin, "ah hink – huck!" He was jerked down as Roxas sat abruptly, the smirk on the teen's face more than evident, as he smugly sucked away a section of coldness.
"Yes, Axel? My sweet?"
The man struggled to settle without hurting his leg or tumbling into oblivion. He shot the blond a dirty look. "Ur a huckin hucker."
"Oh, Axie, I love you, too." When the flesh of both arms was clean, he lifted his head.
"Can I stop now?" Roxas turned, eyed him off.
"Hmm. Almost done." He leaned forward, hooked a finger under the redhead's chin, and slowly licked away the faint ring of blue from around Axel's mouth. The man hummed his approval, eyes slipping lazily shut. Roxas pulled back, lips smacking. "You're melting," he warned with a crooked smile. Axel blinked dazedly for a moment, glanced down at his blue-smeared stick. The confection itself had dripped into a neat puddle on the limestone. "Well, fuck," he said conversationally. "There's goes my sea-salt ice-cream."
Roxas bumped him with a shoulder. "Don't worry, you got the majority off my arms."
"It's just not the same," the man sighed. He wrapped his arms around the blond, kissed him. "But you do taste like it… your tongue's even cold… Hey, Roxie? Wanna play pretend?"
"Wanna fall a looooong, looooong way to the ground?"
Axel pouted. "Oh, come on, don't be mean. We're here, aren't we? And I seem to recall you promising to do anything if I got you onto the clock tower…"
"And now you find out that I lied," the blond said brightly. "Hah!" He snorted at the disappointed glare he received, tossed the stick away and twisted on the wall, sitting with his back resting against Axel, his legs stretched out. He tipped his head onto the redhead's shoulder. "Come on, Axel, for once we can actually watch the clouds from up high," he said softly. "It might not be Sunset Hill, but hell, we can always go there tomorrow, right? And we've got plenty of time for…" He rolled his eyes. "…'playing pretend', when the sun goes down." He placed a sticky-lipped kiss onto the man's cheek. "Please?"
Axel met his gaze, flinched away as if pained. "Oh, jeeze, the look, you're giving me the look." He exhaled loudly, exasperatedly throwing up his hands. "Fine! We'll watch the stupid sunset and the stupid clouds."
"Yay!" Roxas drew his face around, kissed him more deeply. "Thank you."
Axel's eyes fluttered closed. He murmured, "Mm, you taste salty… No, wait, sweet…"
Roxas winked, flicked the tip of his nose with his tongue. "Who knew I was such a cuisine?"
They settled, Axel absently hanging an arm over the blond, fingers brushing along his bare arm. He licked at his popsicle stick, although there was nothing left but some flavour and a growing sense of splinters.
They watched their very first, real Twilight Town sunset together, real clouds that hung identically, elsewhere, over a false version of the view. They stayed until the stars came out, one by twinkling one.