Title: Light Underneath
Genre: Kingdom Hearts, general/angst/romance, next life/AU
Pairing: Roxas/Axel (background Riku/Sora)
Word Count: 42,054
Summary: Roxas was just the amnesiac younger brother of the Big Fucking Hero. Axel was just the guy who came in through the bedroom window.
He came in through the bedroom window; he'd thought about the bathroom window, of course, but it was too small. He was skinny, but not that skinny. He knew he'd picked the right window, there was no way he could've been wrong, but there was still that bit of fear in the back of his mind that he might've been sorely mistaken somehow, even though he'd checked and double-checked, and that he was going to appear in the wrong bedroom as a result.
That would be very bad. He gave himself about a fifty percent chance of making it out of there in that case, maybe a bit better depending on any mercy that might have factored in, but even if he did he'd have blown his chance, and he might never get one again. He wondered what he'd do in that case. Self-destruct was always an option.
But of course he wasn't wrong.
When Roxas woke up, his eyes flew open but he couldn't move and couldn't speak, much less scream. At first he thought it was a nightmare, or maybe sleep paralysis, but then his eyes focused and even in the dark he could clearly see and feel that he was being physically restrained. A gloved hand covered his mouth, creating an airtight seal and forcing him to gasp for air through his nose, and his arms were being pinned to his sides and his hips in turn pinned to the mattress by the legs of a figure in a jacket and hood that hid all his features – except, Roxas noted in the cool moonlight that slowly began to bring more detail into focus, for a rather delicate jawline, mouth, and nose. Totally androgynous.
The fact that he couldn't scream didn't stop him from trying, but the punctuated, muffled sound and increased air pressure only caused the stranger – attacker, captor, abductor? – to tighten their hand on his mouth, forcing his head further back into his pillows. The mattress shifted as the stranger leaned forward; Roxas's eyes widened further in another sudden rush of terror, his heart beating even faster and harder in a renewed attempt to escape his ribcage, but then all that happened was the penetration of a voice through the rushing of blood in his ears.
"I'm not going to hurt you," the stranger said. Male, Roxas thought automatically, and probably not much older than himself. "Even if you scream. But if you do, you're coming out that window with me and we're having this conversation somewhere else. You gonna scream?"
Roxas glanced over and realized that there was indeed a soft breeze coming through the open window at the side of his bed near the foot of it, blowing the curtains slightly. He turned his head as much as he was allowed, trying to get a look at the stranger's face. The other man likewise turned, and Roxas could just make out a glint of green as his eyes caught the dim light. He took a few deep breaths through his nose as he stared into the stranger's eyes, and then he nodded.
They were both silent for a moment, and then the other man said, "I know you better than that, Hype. I'm gonna let go of you, and you're gonna sock me in the face, aren't you? And then you're gonna yell, and if I try to get up you'll kick me in the groin. Because you're a nice enough person to go for the face first."
Roxas's brain had been trying to grasp the fact that he'd just been called by something that was distinctly not his name – and the shiver of déjà vu it sent down his spine – when he realized that the exact course of action that'd popped into his mind had just been accurately described by this maniac.
"I don't think I thought this through enough," the stranger said, and he sat up again. Roxas could see that he was cocking his head slightly under that hood, and he had a feeling that he was being scrutinized. "You're too smart to be trusted." Now that his heart was going back to a pace that was at least somewhat reasonable and his breathing was becoming steadier, albeit still heavy, Roxas could hear the other man release a long sigh – not so much annoyed or upset, but rather pensive.
He couldn't help but wonder what the hell kind of shitty criminal this guy was. Not that he'd really done that much that was illegal yet, aside from breaking and entering. Something in the back of his mind pointed out that the window wasn't even broken, so it was technically just entering. Finally the guy seemed to make up his mind.
"All right, I'm leaving," he said as he reached into the pocket of his jacket with the hand that wasn't still muffling Roxas. He held up something that looked like a blank white card in the darkness, and Roxas thought he could see his lips quirk back. Then suddenly the stranger moved and those lips were next to his ear once more. "If you want to speak to me again, you won't mention this to your brother. I'm dead serious about that." And suddenly he was gone; Roxas heard a rustling near the window, but by the time he regained his bearings he was left with nothing but an empty room and the card in his lap. It turned out to be, when he sat up, turned on his bedside lamp, and flipped it over, a photograph.
His heart stopped.
Roxas didn't get much rest that night, and he must have looked it; the first thing out of Sora's mouth when he sat down at the kitchen table the next morning, yawning and blinking blearily at the crowded technicolor back of a box of sugary cereal, was, "Hey, you okay? Did you sleep all right?"
Admittedly, Roxas had spent a long time considering whether or not to mention the events of the previous night to his brother. Of course, the stranger had told him explicitly not to, but Roxas was hardly inclined to listen to the request-threat-command of the sort of person who climbed in windows and sat on people in the dead of night. He was almost more inclined to tell Sora because of it, just to be contrary.
On the other hand, when the man in the black jacket said that he wouldn't be speaking to Roxas again if he talked about it, he believed him. Not that it mattered much to him whether or not he ever saw the freak again – he'd actually prefer not to – but because of the picture the guy had left, he bit his tongue. "I'm fine," he mumbled.
Roxas spent more and more time over the next few days staring at the photograph; he kept it tucked into the folder with all his syllabi at school, and at home he took it out and slipped it under his pillow, as though if he left it in those places it would leak into his schoolwork and seep into his sleeping mind and maybe he'd be able to remember when it was taken.
There was a sizeable blank spot in Roxas's life, a bit more than a year that led up to two months ago, the time when he'd lost that portion of his memory. It was a year of college – his first year, actually. Despite having no recollection of it, to the point of having to take all those classes over again this year, Roxas had had it reconstructed quite vividly for him by Naminé, his best friend since childhood who went to the same university. Everything outside of that had been recounted to him by Sora and Riku, the people he lived with.
It had been a normal year. He had not been to San Francisco in that year. In fact, he had never been to San Francisco in his life. It had to be fake, this picture of him in clothes he'd never seen on a bridge he'd never crossed, smiling for a photographer he probably didn't know and who probably didn't exist. It had to have been faked. Though how... he hadn't the faintest.
And on the back, scrawled along one edge in spidery handwriting with a light pencil, was a little note he almost hadn't noticed. Got it memorized?
He slept terribly for the next couple nights, waking up repeatedly at all hours, expecting the stranger to be there. Bizarre, indefinable feelings were lingering from his dreams, flowing away like water from an overturned bucket as soon as Roxas jolted back into consciousness. It was the same sort of terrible sleep a person gets when they have the biggest job interview of their life first thing in the morning and they can't stop worrying that they're going to oversleep and miss it. At first Roxas had been sure that if he
never saw the stranger again, it'd be too soon. He didn't need that kind of shit messing up his life. But by the third day, he had to admit to himself that he was waiting. He needed to know.
When he awoke with a start for the second time on the third night, the first thing his eyes focused on was the red glow of the clock on the nightstand. 1:38. He let out a long breath and spent a long moment quelling the rapid beating of his heart. After he'd calmed down a bit, he rolled over and nearly jumped out of his skin.
For all the waiting he'd done for the return of the man in the black jacket that week, he certainly still wasn't prepared for it now. The window was open again, and there he was sitting on the sill, one leg pulled up under him at an almost impossible angle and the other sitting on the footboard in front of him. He was dressed similarly, but this time it was a hoodie instead of a jacket and a pair of jeans. Now that he was at a bit of a distance, Roxas could see that he was clearly tall and almost painfully skinny, and he was watching him, his eyes once again obscured by his hood.
"You," Roxas practically growled, sitting up and reaching over to turn on the lamp. The soft incandescent light threw the room and the stranger into sudden sharp relief, and where his heart had been pounding before, now it skipped a beat and drove the air from his lungs.
He knew that face for an instant – knew it, not in the way one knows the face of a celebrity, or a coworker, or the guy you see on the bus every morning. He was familiar with every detail of that face, and something was off about it, but it was still the same. And then he realized that he'd never seen this man before in his life, not since three nights ago.
A thin, lopsided smile tugged at the stranger's lips. "Hello, Roxas," he said, his voice practically a purr. He reached up and pulled the hood of his sweatshirt off to reveal close-cropped, messy black hair. That took Roxas even more off-guard than finding the man in his room again had in the first place, and he had no idea why. There was nothing unusual about it. "You didn't tell, did you?"
It wasn't a question; it was a statement with a request for unnecessary confirmation. Roxas narrowed his eyes at the smug attitude. "No," he muttered. "I didn't."
That slight smile broke into a broad grin and the stranger said, "I knew you wouldn't. You're too curious about your past to blow it, huh?"
Roxas lowered his eyelids and pursed his lips, going silent for a moment. "How about you tell me who you are first?" he asked at last.
"I'm your past," the stranger said matter-of-factly, looking almost proud of himself for the perceived fact.
Roxas rolled his eyes slightly; if he'd known what an irritating idiot this guy was the first time they'd met, he would hardly have been able to be frightened of him at all. Amazing how quickly things changed.
The stranger seemed to take note of Roxas's reaction and added, voice laced with amusement, "Well, not the only part of your past; just the most important part." He suddenly swung both legs to the other side of the footboard and pushed himself off the windowsill to begin perambulating around the small room, examining Roxas's stuff with an air of curiosity mixed with disdain.
"I don't even know you, so quit flattering yourself," Roxas grumbled, pushing the blankets off of himself and moving to sit on the edge of the bed. He felt sort of ridiculous sitting there in his t-shirt and drawstring pants, but he reminded himself that he belonged here and the stranger decidedly did not. "Now what the hell is your name?"
The stranger had stopped, staring at the books on the shelves above his desk, as soon as Roxas said he didn't know him. He was silent, his posture stiff; he was facing half away from Roxas, and now he turned his head to give him a rather dark, sidelong look. "My name is Axel," he said slowly, his voice suddenly lower. "You know me, and I know you. You're either going to remember knowing me, or you're going to get to know me again, Roxas."
By the time Axel was finished talking, Roxas had distinct chills running down his spine, though he couldn't pinpoint why. It started with the name, and was intensified by the absolute surety with which Axel set himself as a fixture in Roxas's life. It was a confidence that couldn't be argued with, and it seemed to muffle Roxas's voice, which was very quiet as he murmured, "Where did you get that picture?"
As an afterthought, he reached over and slipped it out from under his pillow. When he turned back, it was obvious that Axel had been watching the motion, and the other man's expression had become significantly softer and more unguarded. He stared at the picture in Roxas's hand and then dropped his head and shook it, laughing softly. "I took it, dumbass." The word was so non-confrontational, so gently teasing, that it came off the same way as if someone like Sora or Naminé had said it. "I can't believe you forgot the best business trip we ever had."
Roxas furrowed his eyebrows and looked down at the picture; it certainly didn't look very businesslike. "Business trip? I've never even worked anywhere more complicated than McDonald's."
"We went on five of them," Axel said firmly. "That was the best one because it was where the least amount of business got done, if you know what I mean."
"I don't know what you mean." It was only the truth, and an obvious one, but it made Axel wince anyway, and for some reason Roxas felt guilty about rubbing his own amnesia in. Even though, of course, that wasn't what he was doing, and it shouldn't have been Axel's problem at all. But apparently it was.
"Who are you?" Roxas asked, the underlying implication being what are you to me?
Axel stared at him for a minute, trying to hide a frown and not doing a particularly good job. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then avoided the question with, "You really don't remember anything, do you?"
He sounded so dismal, at such a contrast to the sunny disposition he'd carried through the window with him, that Roxas felt even worse. It almost came out as an excuse when he said, "I've tried."
"How did you lose your memory?" Axel asked suddenly. Roxas was a bit taken aback by the question. Axel obviously knew him, or was very good at faking it. And he probably knew about Sora, if he was worried about Sora finding out he was here, which meant that he was either closer to Roxas than he'd let on or – more likely, despite how young he might have seemed – was involved in some government agency. It was the only thing that made sense, with him knowing both Roxas and his brother. Was it possible that Roxas had been more involved with Sora's work during his missing year than he'd been told?
Either way, Axel should by all rights have known what happened to Roxas. It wasn't like it was that long ago. But Roxas found himself reciting the story anyway. "I happened to be near an explosion two months ago, the concussive force of which slammed me into a wall. I was in a coma for a week, and when I woke up I'd forgotten nearly all of the last fourteen months or so." By now he sounded rather sick of telling the tale; something so traumatic had become rather tiresome and routine.
"An explosion," Axel said flatly. "That's unusual. One that had to do with your brother and the Organization? If you were with him, something carried out while he was off-duty, I guess?"
Roxas bristled slightly. "How the hell do you know this shit?"
"Lucky guess," Axel said lightly. "Would've been a really lucky guess on the Organization's part, trying to assassinate the Keyblade outside of business hours. Considering they don't know who he is."
That threw Roxas for such a loop he ended up a little lightheaded. It shouldn't have, he told himself; this Axel guy was just some nutcase who'd dropped through his window once or twice, and there was no reason to believe him, except for the fact that he did. Roxas stood up, marching across the room and glaring up at Axel, searching his face before meeting his eyes. "What do you know about me?"
Axel's demeanor had sobered significantly since he'd arrived; but now that little smirk came back, though it was a little bit more strained than it had been before. He considered Roxas with a slight tilt of his head and finally said, "Not everything."
Roxas was about to throw back a sarcastic remark about stating the painfully fucking obvious, but then there was a soft warmth surrounding his fingers, and he realized that it was Axel taking and lifting his hand. Actually having to grasp this fact by looking down at the action, he didn't even think not to let Axel spread that hand out palm up and press a thin strip of stiff paper into it face-down. Axel's hands lingered around Roxas's for a moment as he added, "More than you do, though."
How Axel could be in one place and then entirely another in such a short amount of time Roxas had no idea. It only took a couple of seconds for Axel to be out his window and off into the night, or at least onto and presumably down the fire escape – although he was more silent about it than Roxas would have expected. Roxas didn't even gather himself fast enough to call after him, and after he was gone he flipped over the picture that Axel had left this time.
It was, as Roxas should've guessed by the shape and glossy feel of the other side against his skin, a strip of film from one of those picture booths of the sort found in malls and arcades. There were three pictures, tinted blue from the lousy camera and lighting, again of Roxas. But this time Axel was there with him. The first was a relatively normal picture, except that Roxas had his hand on the side of Axel's face and was trying to push him out of the frame as he grinned broadly. In the second, Axel had that same arm by the wrist and was biting Roxas's shoulder – and apparently it tickled. In the third, Roxas had regained the upper hand and had a good grip on Axel's hair with the hand that Axel wasn't restraining.
And that was the thing: Axel's hair. It had been bright red at that point, and long – very long, if the messy, folded-over ponytail he had it pulled up in was any indication. He also had two black marks on his cheeks under his eyes, though the exact shape couldn't be made out in the small photographs. But it was definitely Axel, and he wasn't hard to identify. In fact, he was more Axel in these photos than he had been in this bedroom, inexplicably enough. Roxas still didn't remember him, but with the pictures something clicked.
The bottom edge of the picture strip was slightly uneven, the thin white border just a little asymmetrical. Roxas ran his thumb along it, knowing that these things usually came in fours.
Even the missing pieces of his life were missing pieces.
Roxas thought Sora's work was more or less ridiculous on a lot of levels, and work was what Roxas considered it even though the term generally implied things like applications and job descriptions and salaries. What Sora technically did was volunteer work, and the fact that he was basically subsidized as an independent agent by the federal government was almost incidental.
Not that Sora had actually volunteered for what he did. The Keyblade had chosen him when he was fourteen; he'd never asked to use it, or to become known by its name. It was just something he had to
do, or at least felt that he had to do. Roxas feared for Sora's life deep down inside, knowing that when he called the weapon and it appeared in whatever form and accompanied by whichever alien-looking armor obscured and protected his brother's features, he became little more than a servant of the weapon, an extension of the blade itself.
The Keyblade had practically made itself a member of their tiny family unit, the same way Riku had when he met Sora through the FBI. Roxas found them both irritating and rather ridiculous. Riku because he was the one who made sure Sora's work and their lives stayed classified in his stupid holier-than-thou self-assured idiom, and the Keyblade because it was a giant fucking key. Efficacy aside, who the hell thought that had been a good idea?
The Keyblade made it difficult to really get to know his brother. Riku had experience in this, Riku knew best, and Riku had pretty much divided up Sora's existence and stamped half of it top secret. Sora claimed that he would have told Roxas everything, except that it would have worried Roxas, and he wanted his little brother to have some semblance of normalcy. Roxas didn't care; he didn't pay attention to the headlines and he mostly ignored the fact that his brother was a Big Fucking Hero. Roxas went about his routine. Roxas studied for his classes and focused on his own future. Roxas didn't pry. But he assumed that if he did, he'd get answers.
It wasn't that simple.
"Sora, why hasn't the Organization tried to kill you again?"
Sora fumbled and nearly dropped his fork, losing the ravioli that had been halfway to his mouth. "I… what?" The look on his face was a bit shocked, and he'd gone almost imperceptibly paler. But then a grin broke across his face, that same old expression that was so very Sora, the one that hadn't changed a bit since they were kids. "What, are you trying to get rid of me? I've already willed all my game consoles to Riku, Rox, so that's not gonna work."
Fixing Sora with an unamused look across the dinner table, Roxas muttered, "I'm serious. They tried to blow you up two months ago, and they haven't made a move since."
"They infiltrated the Pentagon at the beginning of the month," Sora said almost nonchalantly. He took a bite of his food and then added, "They're still trying to recover that records room from the fire damage."
"I meant a move against you. If they found out who you are, why would they try and fail once and then give up?"
Sora faltered slightly, but Riku stepped in almost immediately. "Sora has a lot of identities, Roxas. They learned one of the fakes, and that fake no longer exists. They have no means of finding him beyond canvassing the entire city and outlying areas for people who look like him. And with the circumstances of the attack and the nature of the intelligence, they didn't even get a very good look at him."
"He doesn't always need you to answer for him, Riku," Roxas said darkly, but Sora shook his head.
"He knows about that technical stuff better than I do. I don't just keep him around for the sex, you know." Another one of those huge grins that somehow made Sora's words line up with his innocent air.
Apparently that was that. That wasn't enough.
In the nine weeks since the incident that took Roxas's memory, not one thing had jogged his memory of the time that he'd lost. The doctors said that it was likely that he'd never get those memories back, and that he shouldn't worry about it, that he was lucky he didn't lose significantly more. Roxas supposed this was true, but he'd never once believed that that year was necessarily gone for good. There was always the chance that he'd wake up one morning and have it back, or that he'd start to regain portions of it slowly.
Maybe he'd start remembering the first time he'd been through the classes he was taking now while sitting in a boring lecture one day. Maybe he'd remember some of the time he'd spent with Naminé last year when they hung out on the weekends now. Maybe one day he'd have a conversation with Sora that brought back some other conversation he'd had with Sora six, eight, ten months ago. He'd been waiting for something, anything, to return the lost bits of his past. Nothing had worked.
Axel was the first sense of déjà vu he'd gotten. Axel was the only person who'd handed him a real, solid relic of that year, something more substantial than clothes he didn't remember buying or books he didn't remember reading, none of which looked familiar. Axel was the one thing that gave him pause for no apparent reason.
The guy was annoying and troublesome, presumptive and pushy. But mostly he was evocative. He made Roxas nervous, almost painfully tense – his stomach turned over when he thought about him, or when he thought about the fact that he was going to come back. He hadn't said as much, but he hadn't had to. It was obvious that Roxas hadn't seen the last of Axel.
And in the meantime, he was seeing more than enough of him when he went to sleep. Both the picture of Roxas alone and the ones with Axel sat under his pillow now, and the stupid superstitious attempt at memory retrieval seemed to be working, at least a little. The first picture had dredged up seemingly random emotions in the middle of the night. The second ones brought dreams.
Roxas couldn't remember the dreams, not much of them anyway, but from the state he woke up in it was obvious the sort of dreams they were. Details were what stuck, what remained after the initial waking period in which the dreams – memories? – slipped out of his sleepy, overheated mind's grasp.
The feel of red hair between his fingers, the smell and taste of smoke unlike any he'd ever encountered, the soft texture of scars on fingers that weren't his and across palpable ribs and sharply delineated hips.
His mind could've been making it all up. A significant portion of him hoped it was, because if it wasn't this situation had just become even more fucked up than it had been already. But he could barely go a half hour without wondering when Axel was going to come back.
The days were warm, but the nights were cool. He put an extra blanket on his bed and slept with the window open.
It took four nights for Axel to return this time. He came through the window at about half past midnight. Roxas was awake when he got there; it was the weekend and he didn't have to worry about getting enough rest to function. He was sitting at his computer staring blankly at page two of a five page paper he was supposed to have done by Tuesday, eyes focused on a blank white space just below and to the right of the last thing he had written.
The music from his computer speakers was turned down fairly low, but he didn't hear his visitor come in. Instead, he became abruptly aware of the fact that he was being watched, and he twisted around in his seat to find Axel looking at him from the bed. He was sitting stretched out across it, his back resting against the wall next to the window and hands stuck in the pockets of his black track jacket emblazoned with the number eight. An almost imperceptible smile quirked his lips.
His appearance shouldn't have thrown Roxas like it did. He'd seen him less than a week ago looking just like this. But he'd spent the time since then thinking of the Axel from the pictures, the fiery redhead with the distinctive harlequin tattoos, someone who didn't look remotely as inconspicuous as the man who'd commandeered his mattress now.
"You could at least say something when you get here," Roxas said dryly, pushing his seat back from his desk and angling it a bit so that he could speak to Axel more easily.
Axel grinned. "You looked like you were concentrating. Didn't wanna interrupt the thought process."
Roxas didn't bother to say that he hadn't been concentrating at all, that Axel had somehow managed to drive him to practically perpetual distraction. There was too much else that was important right now, too much that he needed to discuss, to ask. He barely knew where to start, but he went with the first thing that sprang to mind. "How do you know me, Axel?"
There was no hesitation on Axel's part the way there had been on Sora's; in fact, he seemed to be expecting exactly that question. "I used to work for the Defense Department," he said simply. Roxas had expected something like that, but the fact that Axel knew his brother meant that he must've had pretty
high clearance, which in turn probably meant that he was quite a bit older than he looked. He wondered what a guy like Axel – a guy who looked like Axel, much less – was doing with the Defense Department. But he also knew that people who knew about Sora were invariably not allowed to breathe a word about their work, past or present.
"And that's how you met us," Roxas said pensively, nodding slightly. He realized that he'd begun gnawing at his lip nervously and made himself stop. "So where've you been for the past two months, and why the hell am I not allowed to say anything about you? Why do you crawl through my window in the middle of the night?"
"You have to've realized that there're things that Sora isn't telling you about your lost year," Axel said, scooting forward on the bed to sit on the edge and rest his elbows on his knees. "I'm not prepared to cover everything right now, and I can't dump it all on you at once. You'd hate me for it."
Roxas sighed through his nose and looked off at the ceiling. It occurred to him to try to make Axel tell him everything now, but that would never work since Axel was the one holding every last card here. "Answer my question."
"Your brother and I have had a lot of disagreements," Axel said rather quietly. "He doesn't like me. When you relocated after you lost your memory, I was never told where you were going. I'm not supposed to know."
"You spent two months trying to track me down?" Roxas asked in disbelief. It wasn't surprising that it would take someone two months to find him, even someone with high-level ties to the government; it was surprising that someone would bother spending two months to find him, a person of little to no consequence.
"Of course," Axel replied with a slightly self-satisfied air.
"And why did you?" Roxas asked, feeling his stomach twist in anticipation of the answer, feeling like he already knew what it was going to be, even if he couldn't consciously say what.
He was wrong. "Because you're my best friend," Axel said simply. Roxas furrowed his eyebrows; something in him wasn't happy with that answer, the same part of him that was sure those dreams were more than dreams. Another part of him was telling him just to let it go, that it didn't matter, that it was stupid to push the issue right now.
His hands were resting on the arms of his chairs, and now his fingers were twitching slightly; his whole body was itching to get up, to go over there. "Is that it?" he asked, his voice tight. Axel's eyes widened, and he swallowed, but he hesitated too long; Roxas was on his feet and marching the short distance over to the bed. Axel sat up, surprised, and leaned back, but Roxas grabbed hold of his jacket and shirt and yanked them up.
There it was, the burn scar, the long band of taut, pink-tinted skin that ran from his ribs down to his hip and below the waist of his low-slung jeans. Roxas stopped and stared at it, and it was exactly what he'd expected. "Roxas!" Axel hissed in an attempt not to raise his voice, his tone more surprised than upset. Roxas glanced up at him with darkened eyes and gave his clothes another yank, revealing a similar scar running from Axel's shoulder down across the left side of his chest.
Axel attempted to take hold of Roxas's shoulders and push him away enough to regain his balance and bearings, but Roxas just grabbed one of his hands by the wrist and tugged the sleeve up, revealing hands and forearms that were covered in a variety of similar scars, ones that had been of differing degrees and healed with varying amounts of success.
"Roxas, what're you doing?" Axel asked quietly but insistently.
"I was right," Roxas breathed. "I know you."
"Everyone knows about the burns, Rox," Axel said, voice faltering slightly.
"Do they all know about the one on the inside of your right thigh?"
The taller man froze in place, paling a little bit. His voice got a bit higher and nearly cracked with a throat that had suddenly gone dry as he murmured, "You remember?"
"I remember details. Some details." Roxas moved back, letting Axel sit up a bit. His visitor seemed to be trying to gather his thoughts, figure out something to say, but Roxas was already leaning over to the bedside table. There was a glass of water he'd left on it, and he dipped his fingers into the lukewarm liquid.
"What are you—?"
Before Axel could finish the question, Roxas was rubbing his fingers across his cheeks just under his eyes. His mouth snapped shut, and in a second Roxas had smeared away the makeup that covered Axel's tattoos with his wet fingertips. A second after that he was wiping away that moisture with the heel of his hand. He stared down at Axel for a long moment, and Axel stared right back, and then he murmured, "Why did you change yourself?"
"So that I could come see you," Axel breathed. "I didn't want to be caught and lose my chance."
"Your chance to do what?"
Axel looked slightly hurt by the question. "To help you remember," he said, and then quickly added, "There are things I have to explain to you, more than just me…"
"Why don't you start with you?" Roxas asked, voice going a little dry. "You're the part that's here."
"I'm not important!" Axel insisted, pushing Roxas out of the way – albeit gently – so that he could get up and begin pacing a bit, arms crossed over his chest. He reached up to scratch at his hair, faltering halfway there as though he still wasn't used to having so little of it.
"Funny, you said you were the most important part last time," Roxas countered smoothly.
Axel glanced up and fixed Roxas with narrowed eyes. "I was being a jerk, okay? I'm nobody; I'm just here for you." His countenance looked thoroughly shaken, and it struck Roxas that while for him, arguing with Axel was somehow familiar, almost comforting, for Axel it seemed to be genuinely agitating. But Roxas pushed ahead; he was going to find out what Axel had to tell him, and he was going to deal with first things first, and the first thing now was getting Axel to come clean about himself so that then he could come clean about everything else.
"What were we, Axel?" Roxas got up and walked over to the taller man, having to tilt his head back to look up at him. Axel steadfastly avoided his gaze for a long moment, staring off into space, and when he angled his eyes back down to meet Roxas's, the blond was surprised to find that the taller man looked like he was on the verge of having to blink back tears.
"Fine," he muttered. Roxas was surprised to see him reach into his back pocket, pulling out his wallet as he said, "We were lovers. You felt something for me then, but you don't feel it now, right? Maybe you could again someday, maybe it was just a fluke, I don't know. I'll settle for being your friend now. Hell, I'll settle for just being useful to you."
And that feeling was back, the one like he'd just been punched in the gut. Roxas reached up to his chest as though trying to confirm that it really was his heart beating that hard and that fast, and he said, his voice almost a whisper, "Axel, don't…" Don't what? Say that? Well, why the hell not? What did Roxas have to counter that? What was he supposed to tell the person he only remembered in fevered dreams and inconsequential semantics? How was he supposed to fix that?
"Don't lie," Axel said firmly. He'd opened his wallet, staring at it for a moment before slipping two things out of it – a small piece of paper from one of the card slots and a larger, folded piece out of the billfold. "I'm not here for that; I'm just here to help you, okay?" He closed the wallet and put it back into his pocket, holding those two papers between his fingers and staring at them silently. Finally he muttered, "I wasn't gonna give you these. Wasn't gonna give you anything today, actually. But here."
Roxas held out his hand, seeing his fingers trembling a bit and regarding the movement in a rather detached sort of way. Axel pressed the papers into his palm, face-down again. He held them there as he said, "The others were gifts; you can do whatever you want with those. But these are mine, and I'm going to want them back." He turned and was at the window again when Roxas interrupted him.
"Is there some way I can contact you? Give me a phone number, an email..."
Axel paused, hands braced on the window frame as he turned and said, "There's no way to contact me. I'm sorry."
Confusion at that, of course, confusion and maybe a little hurt. But Roxas ignored that and said, his voice's strength starting to give out, "My brother and Riku will be out of town three nights from now."
Axel's posture stiffened again in the middle of leaning down to crawl out the window. He paused, then murmured, "I'll try."
As soon as Axel was gone, Roxas remembered that he was still holding the papers that the other man had given to him. He turned them over – the one was folded in quarters, so there was nothing on the other side, but the second was, as its size and shape had suggested, the last part of the photo strip. Axel was still gripping Roxas's wrist and Roxas was still holding Axel's hair tightly, but one of them had pulled the other into a deep kiss, or perhaps they'd both pulled each other into it. At the very least, they seemed to be equally – and entirely – focused on it.
Roxas took the couple of steps over to the bed and slumped down on it. He'd never experienced such a surreal feeling; there was a big difference between being told he'd done something during the time he'd forgotten and having that something handed to him. And there was a further big difference between going on a trip to San Francisco or taking pictures in an overpriced photo booth and… and… whatever had happened with Axel.
He nearly dropped the picture as he held it between two shaky fingers and used the rest to open up the folded stationery and find his own unmistakable handwriting staring up at him, the messy manuscript that made everything he wrote look like something passed between classmates in high school chemistry.
I know you told me not to say anything. I know this isn't what we're supposed to do, and I know we have to be discreet. I know it'd just make things harder to say it. So I won't say anything.
But I love you anyway. Pretend I tell you every day.
He didn't really know what the note was talking about, and he didn't remember what it was like being in love, or even the fact that he had been at one point. But he began crying despite all that, or maybe because of it, a sob suddenly escaping him at the same time as hot tears began spilling out between his
eyelids. He soon realized that he was getting the note wet, so he quickly folded it back up and stuffed it under his pillow along with the pictures, then curled up and pulled the blanket over his head so that he could bury his face in that same pillow until he fell asleep.