A/N: Mm. Coffee. Standard disclaimers in that I kind of feel like I failed hardcore with this chapter, but eh, that's nothing new. I enjoyed the story as a whole, at any rate :) Please go and show love for the 'Angel's Fallacy' picture by Nijuuni on dA if you haven't already done so :) Also, I've re-enabled anon reviews, so don't anyone be horrible and leave baseless concrit without giving me the opportunity to respond, or I'll pout and gnash my teeth and go into a rage and once again disable them :iconsototallynotimpressedplz: 'Tis my pet hate, I'm afraid ;)
CHAPTER THREE + EPILOGUE
Snow was thick on the ground, dark and wet in some places, compacted in others, so that Axel, wheezing up the mountain, would have to kick it apart with his heel or risk slipping over the hard surface. He avoided the sucking patches, not wanting to let the ice slide into his boots, not wanting to risk the frostbitten potential more so than he already was. Three coats bulked him out ridiculously, two thick scarves, one wrapped around his neck, the other swathing his lower face, nose and mouth; two pairs of pants, one insulated with lamb's wool, the other pair cured to be as waterproof as possible, and socks, so many pairs of socks, so that his boots were wedged on over the top of them. Still, his chest was freezing; his lungs were tight, his throat pinching with the effort of keeping back the gales of coughing. He fought it every step of the way, each gasping breath harsh and raw. Every now and again a stray choke would rip itself from deep inside, threatening to morph into another fit. If he were to fall into respiratory strife, his lungs could literally collapse. He would smother on himself… but such was merely one of the repercussions that came of interfering with the natural orders of life, death, and God.
By the time he reached the tiny hut tucked sitting lopsidedly on the mountainside, the sun had begun to set, the temperature dropping further still, and an unsteady, hacking cough had started to force its way from his chest. Each inhalation thin, short, he knocked hard against the door of the wooden shack, the sound holding a frantic edge. Several moments passed, before it was opened by a red-haired girl with large blue eyes, a solemn expression on her face. "Father… thank you for coming," she greeted quietly, and stepped back to let him in. Trying to not let the effort show, he let out a few more shallow coughs, cleared his throat, the pressure building up inside. He patted the girl briefly on one shoulder, then went to the small table and begun to unburden himself of his bag and layers.
Within the hut, a fire was burning in the hearth, banked down to create a long-lasting, radiating heat that Axel sucked as deeply as he dared, fearful of exploding into a fit right in front of the girl. "Your grandmother." His voice was rasping, strained with the tamped-down choking. "How is she at the moment, Miss Kairi?"
The girl sighed, going to the fire with large padded mitts over her hands and unhooking a battered kettle from over the flames. Taking it to where two cups had already been set up, she poured black tea into each. "See for yourself, Father."
Shoulders stiff as he attempted to keep his chest immobile, the man hesitated, then went over to the other side of the single-room hut to where a few tattered blankets had been strung from the ceiling to act as a form of curtain, separating the bed from the rest of the home. Pushing aside one soft edge, Axel looked down at the cot's occupant, a tiny, withered old woman, eyes closed, expression peaceful. "She fell asleep a short while ago," the girl told him from where she was placing the teacups on the table behind him. When he turned from the invalid, the girl was twisting her hands together, a sad look in place. "…We… we've already said our good-byes. She wanted me to leave… once you arrived, Father."
"Ah." The priest – still a priest, despite all – inclined his head in understanding, then coughed sharply, three times successively, making the woman's granddaughter blink. Such a wracking noise, so painful-sounding – it was unusual from a man of the cloth, he knew. When people heard him, they wanted to know why he hadn't stayed abed, recovering from whatever illness ailed him, to which he could give no real answer. "Excuse me," Axel gasped, and turned to his bag, fingers fumbling to undo the straps and pull away the leather, digging into one of the pockets, fishing out a small, blue bottle. He tore off the wax seal, uncorked it, and without wasting a second emptied the contents into his mouth, swallowing hurriedly before launching into a scraping series of loud coughs that made the girl flinch.
Damn! He was trying to preserve his supply, to little success. He felt the potion taking effect almost as soon as it coated the length of his throat, a warmth radiating down his sternum and branching out, his breaths becoming gradually easier. Relief was swift to follow, all the pent-up suffering melting away into a faint whisper of itself. Finally, Axel was able to draw a deep, comfortable breath.
Throughout the entire ordeal, Kairi had stared, wide-eyed, until he was able to collect himself, straighten his spine, and smile at her for the first time since entering the cabin. At the back of his mind, he told himself, Two left. Vexen needed to concoct a new batch of the Cure potions. They were useful for minor afflictions, generally, but for something like Axel's condition, they provided only temporary relief. Father Vexen had scolded him often enough for consistently putting himself in danger, moving around when he should have been bed-ridden or at least restricting his activities severely, but… that was nothing that Axel could promise.
Nothing had changed, at all. Not in the three months it had been since he'd met Roxas, nothing except the fact that he was no longer what Brother Zexion could have, with a straight face, ever called 'vigorous' again. Poisons were wont to do that to a body, however briefly they might have invaded a system.
Now, clearing his throat somewhat self-consciously, Axel apologised, "Forgive me. I have some breathing troubles at the moment. The cold weather makes it worse, but I'm fine now, child. You were saying, about your grandmother?"
Uncertainly, the girl hesitated, then, taking his lead, bowed her head in agreement. "Yes, she… she doesn't want me here, Father, for her – final moments. We have already… spoken our last words to one another." Her large eyes glittered suddenly with tears that Axel didn't think he could handle.
"Ah, are we having tea?" He pretended not to see, moving to pick up one of the cups as the girl sniffled and wiped at her eyes. She shook her head, then nodded.
"Grandma asked me to make some for you both. When she wakes, and feels like it."
Axel glanced over again at the bed, wondering to himself just how likely that would be, the old creature waking at this point. Her skin had looked as dry as paper, thin, as if the slightest breeze might graze it open. But, obviously the woman, even close to death, cared enough for her grandchild to supply whatever comfort she could. Thus, the priest nodded broadly, turning back to the girl and saying, "Oh, yes, I'll be sure to take her her cup once she awakens. I'm sure she'll appreciate what you've done for her."
In truth, he was anxious to get rid of the teary young woman. He was grateful, though, to her grandmother – it was always easier when the dying wanted to be left alone for their last breaths; it meant he didn't have to eject the family from the room himself with a litany of excuses as to why. Still, despite this… he couldn't help but feel a pang for the child, who was so obviously upset by her looming loss. He gave a short sigh, pitying her. "Do you have somewhere to go, Miss Kairi? You can't just go and sit out in the snow."
She gave a watery smile, still wiping slowly at her eyes. "I have my half-sister's home, Father. It is where I live. Naminé wanted to be here, but didn't want to… interfere. I kept telling her she wouldn't be… grandma loves her, too… but…" She shrugged, looking remarkably young and vulnerable despite her sixteen or so years. "I will be heading over there, it's only a short walk away. And my stepfather… he will be over later."
Later… for when the old woman was among the dead, when her body was merely a body, ready for disposal. The words flitted through Axel's mind, and his sympathy grew. Patting her gently on the head, he said, "Then go and join the rest of your family, child. I will take care of your grandmother from here. She will feel no pain."
By the time the girl had dressed herself in adequate outer layers and ready to go, she was softly weeping. With one last look over at the cordoned-off bed, she left the hut, letting in a gasp of cold air, the sound of her whimpers trailing after her. Axel waited for several minutes, watching her through the window until she disappeared over a snowy rise in the rapidly falling night. The temperature plummeted with the sun, bringing a frigid chill snapping over the earth, kept at bay by the tamped-down fire, its heat flowing through the hut.
Along with the fireplace, a scatter of candles had been set up, already lit by the conscientious youth in anticipation of his vigil. The old woman in question was doing precisely what he himself had defied, and riding out the natural count of her days, with this one being her last. They had sent a messenger for him, one of the village boys, grateful to have a priest so close by to actually be able to sit by their loved one, rather than having her die, and only able to have the funeral itself presided over by one of the clergy.
It had been two months now that he had been living away from the monastery; the moment he was deemed healthy enough to be able to make the trip, he'd gathered his things and moved away to the most far-flung township he could think of off the top of his head: the birthplace of the vomiting infant. It had grown a little bit cute in his absence, but not enough to endear him to it, he'd discovered. His interest still remained with those leaving the world; the only change laying in the fact that the dying were no longer his focus so much as the dead themselves. He knew now what lay beyond the veil, he did not need to hold his breath and wonder and peer into thin air praying to see a flitting shape. That burn had left his mind, had left him peaceful. He had a different focus now.
Pulling up a chair, and his cup of tea, Axel went to sit beside the old woman, still slumbering quietly, or perhaps simply unconscious. There was a difference, he had discovered over the years. Pushing the curtain aside on its slender rope so that the light of the candles, the glow of the fire, could flood past, the redhead blew on the hot liquid, gingerly sipped, and directed his eyes longingly over to where a winged shape sat clearly silhouetted on the bed against wooden wall. On a sigh, Axel whispered, "Roxas," steam from the tea exhaling from his breath into the air.
The angel was tied to him, trapped against his body, had become his shadow. He could not leave, and that was nothing that Axel had ever hoped for. He had done precisely as he had told Zexion he wouldn't: he had captured the reaper, and caged him like a bird. The angel could not communicate, could only follow the priest's steps, a short, slender, feathered darkness. His hair, its hue only remembered in this black state, curled softly to the right. Occasionally, Roxas would flick his head as if to dislodge a stray strand from one eye, and the spikes would all sway en masse. He would shift and adjust the position of his wings, and when sitting as he was now, would draw his knees up to his chest, the swooping shadow of his scythe forever jutting into the air.
Axel had apologised, and apologised, but he didn't think the reaper could hear him. Wherever Roxas was now, wherever Axel had bound him by grabbing him in that penultimate moment of his soul snapping back to its body, he could move neither forwards nor back, he was disconnected from all. He had been sewn to the priest's existence, and no matter how many deaths Axel oversaw, he neither escaped nor was rescued by others of his kind.
Axel didn't know what to do. Roxas' state grieved him, terribly; he had never intended for this to happen, not to his reaper, his angel.
And yet… oh, the wonder he felt, when he would spend hours of a night doing nothing but staring at the walls, watching Roxas with his head occasionally bowed as if weary, wishing that the angel would never leave his side. He wanted Roxas to be free; he wanted to clutch to him, and relished these days and weeks and months where all he had to do was see his shadow in order to see his angel. The very reason he had moved away from the monastery and into the cold, windy little priest's quarters in the middle of nowhere, citing terrible illness and a need to convalesce, was to protect them both. Protect himself from the reactions of those that would notice his new, deformed Other; protect Roxas from whatever they might conceive to rid him from this plane. He just… he didn't know what else to do. He was in hiding, emerging only to accept the confessions of the near-deceased, and see anxiously if the reaper could not catch hold of that soul's coattails and be released.
To date, it had not worked.
On this sinking night, it did not work again.
At his side, the old woman eventually drew her last, and departed. Axel, his bright green, unknowingly yearning gaze never wavering from the figure of the reaper, didn't dare even to blink; but in the end, Roxas remained.
He contained his joy behind his shame, and gathered his things to return home. The young girl's stepfather came after the fire had begun to burn low, and transported the priest back down to the town on the back of his cart, heavy Clydesdale horse snorting steam as it trudged through the blankets of ice. Quietly thanking one another for each other's service, they parted at the church gate. His bag bouncing against one leg as he walked, Axel hobbled into the holy grounds, checking half-heartedly that the church doors remained locked, before retiring to his tiny quarters. Undressing in the dark, he climbed instantly into bed, desperate to be warm, anxious to allow his lungs respite after the difficult day they'd endured. He didn't want to die yet. He didn't want to stop being able to breathe. There was still too much to do.
The night passed restlessly. At some point during his slumber, Axel developed a fever, directly resulting from his foray through the snow. When he awoke, his head felt thick, a dryness adhering his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Sitting up, blinking and scowling, he rubbed a clumsy hand through his hair and glanced automatically towards the faint outline of his shadow, Roxas pale in the sunlight, barely visible. He let out a sigh, accompanied by some weak, wheezy coughing, and climbed out of bed, clearing his throat roughly.
Able to hear the rattle in each breath, he shuffled to the small fireplace studded into the wall of the sitting room, set up a fresh lattice of fine wood and got some flames burning. For a while, he remained cross-legged in front of the hearth, inhaling the heat and gradually feeding larger pieces in. Then, feeling suddenly unhealthy, uncomfortably hot just at the moment when the fire really got going, he pushed feebly away from the hearth and retreated back to the untouched chill of the bedroom to dress for the coming day. His hands, he noticed, were shaking. Taking deep breaths, choking through them as was the usual practice these days, he pressed a clammy hand to his forehead, frowning unhappily. Illness was as dangerous for his current health as was tramping through snow. He really couldn't afford to be sick, at least until Father Vexen sent a new collection of bottles down from the monastery.
With a grimace, he returned to the bench and stove that qualified as the kitchen in the small abode, carrying a collection of burning kindling from the fireplace to coax life into the cooker, and set the ancient teapot over it to boil. At that very moment, a visitor knocked upon the front door, Axel glancing over his shoulder in mild surprise. The townsfolk generally knew not to disturb him without good cause; he had gained a reputation as being unwell, and was most of the time left in peace… unless, of course, another death was forthcoming. He was also rather well-known for his ability to travel through most any weather to be by the side of the failing, although no one quite knew what to make of this habit. They had opted, out of respect, to believe it was kindness that prompted such an impulse, and in turn responded by giving him the wide berth he so obviously desired. For someone to be knocking at this hour, there had to have either been a terrible accident, or a sudden attack of illness.
For a brief second, Axel considered not answering. He was still utterly drained of energy from yesterday's activities, and the heat in his brow, crawling under his flesh, appeared to be settling in for a stay he could ill afford. With a few deep, irrepressible coughs, though, he announced his presence to the visitor outside. He certainly couldn't pretend to not be home, now. And besides… as he wearily headed for the door, vestments swishing at his ankles, he supposed that if there truly was a death about to occur, he owed it to his reaper to be there.
With a harsh breath, he opened the door, a thin smile fixed in place, only to freeze as his gaze fell upon he who waited on the other side. Green eyes which had been narrow to start with had leapt wide, eyebrows high, a strange counterpoint to the smile which remained locked in position. His entire face transformed into a grimace of shock, in direct contrast to the cool, calm expression that steadily met him.
Zexion said, "I hear you've been up to your old tricks again. When I arrived yesterday afternoon, they told me you'd left to oversee a death." He was dressed in a thick coat against the cold, its hood down around his shoulders, a roughly knitted scarf barely visible beneath it. He looked about the same as ever, hair shifting in the slight breeze that blew through the town. "I had imagined," he continued blandly, "that it had all been poisoned out of you. Moving all the way out here, away from the monastery and the core of your duties... Shall I say, 'more fool me' again, Father?"
"It…" Axel's mouth worked wordlessly for a moment. "I…"
Zexion tucked his hands placidly into his pockets. "How about you invite me in, Axel?" Silently, the redhead regarded him a moment longer, then drew back from the doorway, allowing him entry. Zexion brushed past, looking strange and out of place outside of the monastery and his library.
It had been three months since they had last faced one another. The last thing Axel remembered of Zexion was his voice, before he had fallen unconscious that night so long ago. The last words they had actively exchanged had been angry. And now, here the monk was, wearing the same inscrutable face as ever and inviting himself in.
"Ah, are you making tea? I'll have some. It's cold around these parts, more so even than back at the monastery." He began, as Axel clicked the door shut again, stripping himself of gloves and coat, unwinding the thick scarf from around his neck, revealing his slight frame in its regular brown habit of the Brotherhood.
To his comment, all that Axel could manage was a faint, "Mm," of agreement, followed by an abrasive, chest-deep cough. The redhead barely noticed its presence, as he crossed in a stunned sort of manner to check on the teapot, but Zexion glanced at him sharply. He said nothing, but observed everything, taking in the room, Axel's slow, hobbling gait, the faint flush of his cheeks. Disapproval began to drag his features into a frown. He draped his outerwear over the back of one of the old chairs and seated himself near to the fire, gaze continuing to wander.
As Axel readied the cups, still without having uttered a single actual word, Zexion sighed and began making aimless conversation. "I arrived yesterday, as I said. Demyx has accompanied me, but I left him to sleep. He is like a bear; it's incredible how much he sleeps. We've been graciously accepted into the home of the head townsman, since there appears to be a lack of inn here. It really is a very small place, hardly more than a built-up village." When the redhead remained silent, Zexion gave a small noise of impatience. "Do you really still hover over deathbeds, Father? If such is the case, then I shall regret my purpose for coming here."
Axel jolted slightly, green eyes flickering only briefly over to where the man sat neatly with crossed legs and a determined expression. Voice coarser and more hesitant than it had been the last time they had exchanged words, the redhead licked his lips, then said, "It's not what you're thinking. This isn't… about reapers anymore, Brother. I swear to you." He paused a beat, then asked, "What is your purpose for being here?"
"I decided to check on you," the monk tartly replied, "since you're so inclined to idiocy and self-destruction." He relented after this, adding, "And I also had something to deliver to you." He twisted a little, reaching into his overcoat and digging around through the pockets, before withdrawing a slim, rectangular package wrapped in cloth. As Axel came over with tea and curiosity, he peered down uncomprehendingly at the shape, frowning as he handed Zexion his cup and took the item in return.
As soon as his fingers closed around it, Axel recognised it. He stilled, startled and confused, gaze darting up in bewilderment to the other man's watchful visible eye. "Take it," Zexion said quietly. Silence fell through the priest's quarters, broken only by the clink of Axel's saucer against the small table as he abandoned his drink, hands clasping the object tightly enough to show white across his knuckles. He felt as if he'd been punched; there was no breath inside his body.
He paced away from the sitting man, shaking hands tugging and yanking the cloth free, letting it slide to the floor as the green leather cover revealed itself, eyes going wide before falling shut, squeezing tightly. With a coarse cough, he leaned suddenly against the bookshelf, gripping it with one hand while the other clutched the reaper book close against his chest. For long moments, the crackle of fire eating wood filled the space between them. Axel's breaths were uneven, head bowed. Zexion held his cup and saucer, not drinking, looking on with a sad air.
At last, raggedly, the redhead managed to demand, "Why?"
The monk's faint smile was lacking in all humour. "Because you were willing to die in the pursuit of knowledge. It was wrong, what you did was an affront to God, but I cannot blame you for so desperately wanting to find out a truth. You acted like a scholar. An extremist," he amended, eliciting a short barking cough which could have been a laugh, equally humourless, from the priest, "but every discipline has its members who will go… entirely too far." He ended the sentence on a sigh, and once again, the fire filled the silence. Minutes ticked past before Axel was able to move away from the shelf, his attention riveted on the slender volume in his hands.
"I don't…" He took a breath, muttered, "I don't know what to say." He turned to Zexion, lips twitching into a bemused smile. "Even after all this time, I still remember every word of it. But, to hold it in my hands like this…" He shook his head abruptly. "I always wondered, during the – long nights, if there was something that I had missed. Some… vital piece of information, just a sentence that would help… I was convinced that the answer lay in here, somewhere." His fingertips traced the aged lines on the cover, flipped the book open, slipping through page after page, eyes darting over the text with familiarity. "But now that I have it again, I know that I was wrong… I knew everything, I didn't even… need this…" He broke off, lifting a hand to press his wrist against his mouth, panting from the most speech he had uttered in roughly three months. His chest began to rise and fell in short, sharp motions, before the coughing resumed with new intensity, a wave of them wrung from his body, exhausting him. By the time they passed, he was crouched on the floor, tasting blood at the back of his throat, muscles aching with exertion.
Zexion had not shifted from his chair, watched on with something akin to dispassion as his onetime-colleague gasped and laboured. Ever focused, he waited until the clamour had died away, once Axel seemed capable of paying attention, before asking mildly, "Are you saying you don't want it? It's no longer of any use to you?"
Axel's whole body jerked, the book coming up again to be held hard against his front, harsh words spitting out, "I didn't say that!" He returned to his limp state almost instantly, as if the outburst had cost him precious reserve.
"You don't look well, Father," the monk softly observed. "Aside from the explainable."
"I just have a slight fever," the redhead croaked, pushing sweaty hanks of hair away from his hot face. "It will pass on its own." Pressing a hand hard against one thigh, he managed to push himself, with a groaning rasp, back upright. While he allowed the man to collect himself once more, Zexion began elegantly consuming his tea.
Eventually, Axel sank into the other chair in the room, holding the book and staring at it blankly. "So, in the end, it is mine anyway. All I had to do was cripple myself, Zexion?" As the monk glanced away, he shook his head, adding, "Never mind. No. I wouldn't change it, any of it. I got what I wanted. It's just that…" He hesitated, waited for Zexion to look at him again. "Brother… you are a learned man. You might never have shared my passion for reapers, but you always knew in which direction to point me. You always knew the right books, and even, without realising, the right words to say to me…" A shadow passed through Zexion's expression, ignored by the redhead. "Please, then, you have to help me." Axel's voice had lowered to a murmur, almost a whisper. "I need your counsel, Brother, as I never needed it before. Previously, I only ever came to you for my own purposes, but… now it is another who needs your expertise." He closed his eyes briefly, flashed them back open, flipped over the front cover of the book and held it out to the scholar. "Here. Please, take it, read it. Read what the angels have written on the subject of reapers, and tell me what you think."
Frowning, Zexion slowly held out his hand to accept it, saying, "It doesn't matter what I think of this, Axel. If you need my help, you need only ask, I'm sure. I don't see how reading this will make any difference." Nevertheless, he lifted his chin, held the book out in front of him, and silently read through the words that had so ensnared Axel and turned him down the path of madness. His face changed from sceptical to plainly unimpressed. "Sacred hearts… fading and forgotten… damned, without remorse… empty souls… Well. I told you my opinion already, once."
"'Incredible'," Axel remembered neutrally.
"Requiring the credulous, yes." The monk's tone was so similar to what it had been the first time Axel had tried to convince him of the text's purity that it was like being flung disorientatingly through time. He lowered the book, asking, "So, how does my reading this help you in any way, Father? You'll need to explain things to me a little more clearly, if you require my aid."
The redhead was cautious. "Zexion… I want to know how to – free a reaper. From his bonds."
The other man stared for a long, flat minute. Voice heavy, he said, "I had thought you beyond this. How can you possibly…" He trailed off, words fading, disbelief and disappointment strong. "You're still completely out of your mind," he managed, after a pause, a thread of ice lacing his tone. He shut his eyes tightly, shook his head, fingers hardening around the book in his lap. "After everything I went through because of you… When will I stop being such a soft-hearted fool?" His gaze blazed as he directed it once again at the priest, the most visibly angered than Axel had ever seen him, including the time he had nearly struck the man. Harshly, Zexion told him, "I never did tell the Superior the truth of what happened to you. Did you ever stop to consider the extreme discrepancy in your continuing being allowed to practice as a clergyman, Father? You killed yourself, you defied God, but, damn it all, I blamed myself. I convinced Vexen with everything at my disposal, including a valuable book of mine I hadn't wanted to part ownership with, to keep silent on the matter. He and I were the only ones who could know what you did, but I told him that, since your aim was never to actually commit the mortal sin of despair, we had to think carefully before we destroyed your prospects, and in the end, he agreed, agreed to let it lie. And for what?!"
He stood abruptly, teeth bared in his mounting fury, flinging the reaper book across the room, where it slammed into the wall and dropped to the floor with a new rip in the spine. When Axel jerked involuntarily towards it, looking suddenly paler, Zexion barked, "That's right, go running after it! Go and throw yourself on top of your precious book! Don't worry, I won't take it away, Axel, I'd feel dreadful if you killed yourself again." His disgust was palpable, as was his pain as Axel returned wide green eyes back to his face. He continued savagely, "You nearly died, you risked your soul chasing reapers, and it was I who pushed you to it. I who imagined that the best way to deal with you was to try to force your mind still. This was my penance, Axel, for you. For the loss you have suffered, I would gladly give books, hide blame, even lie to protect you, because none of it can measure up to the initial sin that I am responsible for."
He finally stopped talking. His breaths, in the silence, were short and fast, the man upset but dry-eyed. His guilt was a terrible thing. Axel could almost see the way it had slowly burned away at him during the intermittent months, eating his self-possession, his quiet superiority, his sense of right and wrong. Yes, he had wondered why he had not been immediately thrust out of the Order; yes, he had noticed, and escaped before minds could be changed, when no one accused him of wicked, treacherous acts against God and nature. He hadn't been able to relax fully for three months, had been waiting for the proverbial guillotine blade to come crashing down and end this unnaturally elongated existence he continued to lead as a man of God in name alone. Zexion had been protecting him all along, and he hadn't known, hadn't realised the impact that that night had had upon someone he had viewed as being unshakeable.
The monk's eyes were closed again, his fingers up and touching the bridge of his nose in a composing, fortifying gesture, the loss of control unscheduled, unplanned, and unwanted. His breaths were being steadied, deepened, and it was only a matter of time before Axel would be watching his back retreat down the overgrown path from the priest's quarters to the church, and then the road, never to return.
But Zexion remained his only hope for Roxas. Delivered so fatefully, surely this was a chance provided by God.
With this in mind, Axel sucked in a slow breath, eyes narrowing on the Brother, and said, "…Zexion. I have suffered no loss. I have only gained." As the man went still, he leaned forward and added in low tones, "The reapers… they are real."
Zexion let out a sigh, wiping a hand over his face in abject hopelessness. Axel watched the fight drain out of him as surely as if there were a funnel from which it was being diverted from his body and out onto the ground to puddle at his feet. He muttered, almost too quietly to be heard, "Axel, you are a delusional madman and I'll tolerate you no longer."
"Don't leave," the redhead commanded, standing with another of his commonplace deep coughs. "Mad I may be, I'll not deny it – it takes it to do what I have done, no doubt you'd agree – but what I am not is delusional, and I can prove it to you." As the man sent him a look of blatant, wary, sickened distrust, Axel hardened his resolve, repeated with no hint of fervour, no zeal, no twisted inspiration lighting his depths, "I can prove it." For a long moment, they gazed at one another. When Zexion did not automatically begin collecting his things, Axel was the first to move, going to the small window indented into the wall and with a loud rattle drawing across the thick curtain.
Apparently deciding that some measure of protest should be forthcoming as the voice of reason, Zexion wearily attempted, "Axel, stop. I have no interest in –"
"You will," the redhead avowed, determined, and, grabbing up a bucket containing soapy dishwater yet to be cast out from two nights previously, he carried it to the fireplace and flung the icy liquid onto the flames. With a violent hiss and belching of steam and smoke, the fire was extinguished, startling the monk, leaving the two of them in darkness pierced only by a persistent glow of natural light sneaking around the edges of the curtain.
"Axel, what in the hell do you suppose you're doing?"
Obviously, Zexion had been very severely put off-balance. A man ever accustomed to knowing the ways of the world, his use of a curse denoted great uncertainty in the face of the priest's unpredictable behaviour. "In just a minute, you'll see," Axel promised, the other man having no way of knowing the multiple layers existing within the statement. With growing nervousness, Axel fumbled in the kitchen for matches and candles, carrying them into the sitting room and depositing them on the small table still housing his untouched tea. With a breath, fingers trembling, he set three candles up in the centre of the table, struck a match, and quickly, flame shaking, lit their charred wicks. The orange lights flared, gleamed against the pale planes of his thin face, green eyes rising to find Zexion watching him with a puzzled, tired frown.
"Axel, I'm not sure I –"
"Wait." The order came as a whisper, certain, the strongest the priest had sounded the entire visit. It was followed by a hoarse series of chokes that he shielded behind one hand, not wanting to disturb the candles. Dragging his chair close, the flames steadying and burning high, Axel situated himself as close against the wall as he could, and let the light flood past, brighter than usual against the otherwise gloomy interior of what was a naturally dark room to begin with.
The shadows of the two men grew longer, bolder, Zexion shifting restlessly on his feet. Axel said, "You might want to sit down for this," and, making sure that the monk was watching him, shifted slightly to open a path between himself and the wall. His shadow did not move with him; it remained attached to his body, but autonomously refused to change its position as he had. Zexion, whose gaze at first had followed the redhead, flicked back to the wall with perplexity, sensing something amiss but not yet able to pinpoint its source.
Then Roxas, as he occasionally was wont to do, stretched his wings. In the stark lighting, suddenly every feather's edge was visible, every short curl of his spikes. The set of his shoulders, the swoop of his scythe resting beside him – all was discernible, caught inside a swathing black cage. Axel heard Zexion's breaths literally stop within his chest, a catching sound emitting from his throat. He saw the man's body sway faintly forward, before rocking sharply back, an involuntary step taking him further away, but in no way able to diminish the shape that remained silhouetted against the cold stone.
With only the few candles flickering, Roxas' form was clearer than it would have been with the soft diffusion of light the fire threw out, and certainly more so than when the daylight had been resolutely smudging him out of existence. Zexion had no way of escaping the truth. The reaper stood before him in all his still reality, unmoving but by no means frozen; the occasional shift here, the slight motion there, all proving that he lived, even if on a plane that was untouchable from the world of mortals. Of Axel's own mimicking shadow, there was no sign.
Zexion took Axel's advice, and sat as if in a dream. That he managed to find his chair without taking his gaze away from the reaper seemed a feat to the vaguely amused, overwhelmingly relieved redhead. For a moment, he had been afraid that for some reason Roxas would remain invisible to the scholar; but Zexion's reaction was the most satisfying thing he had witnessed in a long, long while. Almost even more so than proving to himself that reapers existed; for here, there was no possibility of delusion or madness. When a man such as Zexion had his denials withered away, Axel knew that he had won; the truth existed.
He had to wipe his eyes as they burned and tingled, throat moving as he swallowed with sudden thickness. He had no idea where they were coming from, these tears, but he saw that they were echoed by Zexion. Two grown men sitting in the gloom with wet faces; whatever was the world coming to?
After a few deep breaths, and the volley of coughing that this brought, causing the monk to flinch at the roughness of it in the silence, Axel quietly said, "He is caught against me, Brother. He cannot escape, and I don't know how to free him."
"Axel…" Zexion spoke the name helplessly, head shaking faintly from side to side, before lapsing once more into silence, barely seeming to notice that his companion had spoken. Long minutes passed, in which the redhead allowed him to adjust to a suddenly canted world view, everything the monk had ever thought he'd known to be fictitious suddenly coming under scrutiny.
When he judged that perhaps Zexion would be capable of listening, he told him, "His name is Roxas. He is the brother of the reaper Sora, but I don't know if that connection is relative or actual; perhaps all reapers are considered brothers. He came to me, when I had… taken the poison, and attempted to take me onwards."
Slowly, the monk's visible eye swivelled to look at him, caught somewhere between dazed and stricken. "…You truly are a scholar, aren't you?" His voice was hoarse, distant. When Axel said nothing, he elaborated, "You – you sensed truth, and pursued it, no matter the cost. And you…" A hand came up to cover his mouth, gaze returning to the shadow on the wall. "This is not a trick," he murmured, almost a question but mostly a statement, a realisation.
"I'm no scholar," Axel sighed. "I am barely a priest, Zexion. I am merely a man whose mind was whipped up into enough of a frenzy to do something foolhardy, and be lucky enough for it to have meant something. But, Zexion…" He leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped tightly together, engaging the man's attention again, though it came over reluctantly. "Do you see what's wrong with this situation? I found a reaper. I spoke with him, in the brief thralls of death, before the Phoenix revived me." Zexion looked positively faint, Axel growing grim. "But something went wrong, and now he cannot leave me. I took hold of his wrist at the exact moment that my soul was returned to my body, and since then he has been – like this." He gestured weakly to the wall, an expression of impotence and anguish in place. "He can't leave me. He is stuck like this, as my shadow, and I don't know how to let him go. I need you to help me; tell me what to do, and I will do it, but I have exhausted what few options I had."
Zexion's eyes flared in flustered astonishment, a small choking sound coming from within him. It took him a little while to manage, "What! You actually – you expect me to – you think I know anything about this sort of thing? Be reasonable, man. Please." He stared over at Roxas with more expressions than his face had room for, all of them fighting for dominance at the same time. "You can't… you can't ask for my help with this, Axel. I am just… a researcher, I've never paid attention to the reaper myths…" He trailed off, the thought occurring obviously that he could no longer consider the reapers as mythological, whether he wanted to or not. An agitated hand swept through his hair, holding his fringe to one side against his scalp so that he might focus more fully on the creature. Brows knitting and rising, he drew a deep, shuddering breath and let it out. "Good God in Heaven." He shook his head again. "What have you done, Axel? What have you done?"
"I don't know," the redhead miserably replied. "But believe me, I don't want it to continue, that's why I need your help. He shouldn't be like this, I am aware that this is more an affront to God than anything I've done in my lifetime, but no matter how many deaths I oversee or prayers I utter, my angel cannot leave my side."
"Your angel?" Zexion was quick to notice the use of possession, tone sharp and more like himself. For a brief moment, he was able to forget the miracle he was witnessing and instead sternly berated, "Father Axel, this reaper angel is in the service of God, just as you yourself once believed yourself to be; don't even try to cross this very last line into pure insanity and consider this creature to be your own, to have any –"
Zexion tripped over his words, said, "Pardon?"
Axel averted his gaze, a frown in place. "He is not a 'creature', his name is Roxas. He… he looks like a boy, Zexion. Perhaps around the age of Demyx. And –" He swallowed, lifted his chin, his eyes, faced the monk squarely and went on, voice shaking with power, "He is so beautiful, Zexion. To see him thus, you have no idea how he looks… And his voice, it's nothing like you'd imagine. Not anything from an angel, at least. He sounds like a person, like you or I, and… He is – he's just…"
"…You speak of him," the monk said flatly, "with a 'reverence bordering on impropriety'."
Axel blinked, stiffened, thought back to the prophet Riku and was quiet, before finally uttering, "I know how he feels now." He looked over at Roxas. "It is impossible to encounter a reaper and not… feel." He exhaled slowly. "I will grant you one thing, Brother, one thing in your favour, and that is that I don't believe the beginning of your book anymore." Your book. After all this time, he so very ironically no longer wanted it. "It is a lie. It says such cruel things about the reapers, all that about being wicked, and about the angels themselves, those who are not reapers, being somehow better than the reapers…" A scowl darkened his face, and turning to the monk he argued, "Tell me, what can be more important or merciful than a reaper? If it is the reapers that take souls to Heaven, then what use do the other angels even have? What do they do with themselves, while their contemporaries are down here among the humans sending one soul after another up to God's grace?! It's all lies!"
Anger springing suddenly out of nowhere, Axel leapt to his feet, stalked to where Zexion had thrown the book and snatched it up. In one swift motion, he completed the job that the impact against the wall had started, and tore the cover clean off. Pages followed, scattered to the ground, Zexion leaping up in horror and crying, "Stop that, you silly fool, don't be stupid! That is a book!"
"This," Axel declared hotly, shaking it at the monk, "truly is fiction, Brother." He threw the remains into the fireplace. Though the flames were gone, the water began to dampen the pages instantly, and the next time they were dry enough, he would set the whole thing ablaze. "I don't need to hear what God's precious angels think of reapers, I already know what Roxas is like, and that's all that matters!" He spun from the fireplace, coughing, and through his respiratory distress shouted, "I have watched him for three months, and never have I had to wonder if those words are true! What wickedness exists in Roxas? None! What compassion does he lack? None! He reassured me, Zexion, he told me not to fear! He held out his hand to me, and gently told me to take it and be received into God's care. And perhaps, maybe, maybe he has been damned to walk the earth, but the only reason the living would ever have need to fear is because they fear death – there is nothing about a reaper that is frightening, nothing at all. And – and as for…" He closed his eyes, gripped the mantle and doubled over with spasms from his chest, gasping and wheezing and glaring fiercely all the while at the monk on the other side of the room. The second he had breath again, tasting the dangerous tang of blood on his lips, Axel continued, "As for the two worlds of reapers and priests never twining as one – take a look at my reaper and tell me that it is so! Perhaps we are not meant to twine, but twine we have, Zexion. If that is untrue from that damnable book, then so too is everything it claims. And love! Good God, love! 'Love will never come to those who have sinned'!"
"Are you telling me that, too, is a lie, Axel?" Zexion demanded shrewdly.
"Of course it's a lie!" the redhead bawled back furiously. "Because if God knows but one thing about me in this instant, it is that –!" He stopped with all the abruptness of a crash, and the silence in the wake of his rage was deafening. It was filled after only a short pause, however, by the persistence of his harsh, lung-deep hacking, and this time, it did not subside. Too much yelling, too much agitation, and with a fever still on his brow; it was a lucky thing that Zexion and Vexen were together on the scandal, otherwise the monk might not have known about the dwindling supply of potions. Axel was brought back from the brink of unconsciousness – he couldn't inhale, couldn't breathe – by the cool slither of liquid down his throat, the familiar healing tingle of a Cure.
Sweating, nauseous, dizzy, the world slowly came back into focus with Axel in Zexion's arms, down on the floor, like a parody of that night so long ago, a realisation which escaped neither of them. Zexion sighed down at him. "Look what has become of you, you ridiculous man. To think that you were once so promising." He looked to where the reaper was now, no longer on the far wall; it had shifted to follow Axel across the room, stood nearby with an air that seemed eerily dispassionate due to lack of visible expression. As he directed his gaze back down to the redhead, he noticed Axel's eyes fixed on the hand not holding his head off the hard floor, the monk holding up the small, empty vial and telling him, "Vexen sent the latest series along with me. It seems that God walks with you no matter what, Father. Or perhaps angels stepping on one's heels brings luck."
Axel closed his eyes briefly, drew a deep, rattling breath, coughed once to rid his throat of prevailing mucus and the threading of blood, and slowly eased himself up from Zexion's grip. The monk sat back on his heels, and somehow between them the air was clear again, more than it had been in a very long time, as if all the bad feeling had been burnt away and the pair of them returned to level ground. Zexion's awe had been shaken from him, and now he was able to view the divine shadow that clung to the priest with a cooler mind, though his shock at its existence remained hovering beneath the surface of his skin. This visit was beginning to feel more and more surreal.
"So." Axel spoke quietly, sounding exhausted, holding himself up on thin arms, head down and eyes hidden by hair. "Will you help me? Help Roxas?"
Zexion carefully corked the empty potion bottle, saying nothing for a long while. Axel did not press him for an answer; he could see that the monk was thinking. He knew the consequences of disturbing Zexion mid-thought. His lips quirked at the edges in memory of times that were very definitely over and gone. They seemed to be equals, these days, the scholar and the mad priest.
"…In the book," Zexion began, at last, but Axel interrupted, "Forget the book. I should never have brought it into this, it will cloud your thoughts with its – its blatant falsities."
"Nevertheless," the scholar calmly persisted, refusing to be put off course, "despite your distaste for it now, it surely has truths buried deep. It says erroneous things, in your opinion, about reapers – but what about what creates a reaper, Axel? You say you desire a way to free this reaper of yours from the bonds you somehow unwittingly created for it – pardon me, him – so then, we must ask ourselves, how does one free a reaper? Not from a situation like this; we have nothing to go by, not even Riku's writings involve this sort of situation." He turned to look once again at Axel's new shadow, the redhead joining him, though in his eyes was not mere frustration but also flickers of unsettling desire; Zexion noticed them with a frown, but was long beyond pointing anything untoward out. Besides which, his mind had found hooks and threads to follow, he didn't want to be diverted by yet another pointless argument. "No, the two of us, Father, are very much on our own from here. I do wish," he briefly exhaled, "that you hadn't destroyed that book. But I suppose it was yours to do with what you will…"
"What are you getting at? What's your point? Do you have one?" Axel was tired, and impatient. He felt unhealthy, and his chest was sore even with the Cure having momentarily settled things. The taste of blood would not leave his tongue.
"…What causes a reaper?"
The way Zexion said it, it was more like he was musing than posing a serious question. Axel mused along with him, but quickly came back with the answer of, "Sin. It is the act of some form of sin or another, whether in life or as an angel, more probably, that destines a reaper to his fate." He hesitated. "But that is what the book told me. I have never come across an explanation for reapers, prior to that, and it can't be trusted as being truth, can it? It has lied already, so many times."
"We must disregard that," the monk countered disapprovingly. "It's no use asking for my help if you're going to resolutely close your eyes to anything you happen to dislike. If reapers are damned angels, then it stands to reason that yes, they have sinned. And I would place a reasonable amount of trust in that judgement, if only because of the dark places in which several of the known encounters have taken place, the most well-chronicled of course being Riku's in the bowels of darkness. Do you disagree, Axel?"
Axel lifted his head, glared at him. "Are you suggesting that Roxas is something wicked, after all? Damn it all, Zexion, I'd stake my life that –"
"You've done that already, you silly twit, and don't curse in front of me." Zexion eyed him witheringly. "I never said anything of the like. A man is not wicked simply for having sinned, and I'll not cast down such judgements even on angels; in fact, I would say that simply by being an angel, one is as far from wickedness as can be, providing they do not Fall. To be reapers, they still are in God's service, Axel. This equals sin without evil." Axel grumbled a little, but made no further outbursts. When he was sure that the redhead had been suitably mollified, Zexion continued, "What I am suggesting is that your reaper has sinned. I am suggesting that once upon a time, it stands to reason that he was a – a regular angel, but that by some misdemeanour or another he found himself cast down the hierarchy to his… to his current position, do you see what I am saying?"
"Roxas was demoted?" Axel could not have packed more disbelief and scepticism into his tone if he had tried, and Zexion did not appreciate it.
"Since we must operate on a simplistic level that you would understand, then yes, consider it that if you will."
Axel grimaced, ran his fingers slowly through his sweat-damp hair, feeling the hot touch of his skin through the strands. "So Roxas sinned, and became a reaper as a form of penance."
"…No?" The priest was confused.
"Not penance," Zexion corrected, raising a finger, "but punishment. Punishment and penance are two different things; penance is the forfeit one makes when one has wronged, in order to atone, whereas punishment, penalty, is what is imposed upon the wrongdoer to teach him a lesson. Your Roxas has not atoned, he has simply been serving a sentence."
"Provided that any of this is even viable," Axel contributed, unhelpfully and without hope.
"You asked for my help," the monk snapped, "and this is what you're getting: my educated opinion based on assumptions drawn from the available resources. Goodness knows we haven't any concrete evidence to back any of these ideas up, because it either doesn't exist, or is sitting dirty and damp in your fireplace! Are you going to listen to what I'm saying, or are you going to argue at every given opportunity? You have a reaper caught as a shadow, Axel. Do you really want to free him, or would you rather have this continue as it is? Perhaps your conscience and your desires haven't agreed on the matter."
It was a sharply aimed blow, one which silenced the redhead numbly. Looking stung, Axel glanced away, brow furrowing, and made no further comment. After a moment, he gestured with one finger for Zexion to go on. "We shall assume," the man resumed, with a warning remaining in his voice, "that the reaper has sinned, and is suffering as a result. Thus, we must consider: what is the duty of a priest to a sinner? One doesn't merely sin and have that be the end of it; he sins, he despairs, he confesses and then he atones. But, of course, your angel cannot confess in his current state, whether he wants to or not. Despite this, we must find a way to absolve your reaper." When Axel's gaze snapped up, incredulity strong on his features, Zexion merely shrugged. "If he is forgiven by God, perhaps he will be freed. That is the best I can come up with."
A long minute passed, during which the redhead's mouth moved several times, wordlessly, before finally creaking out, "How on earth do I absolve an angel?"
Zexion raised his brows as well as his shoulders this time. "You personally do not; it is God who forgives. As a priest, you are His mouthpiece. If you are attempting to absolve one who cannot confess nor repent, due to circumstances beyond anyone's control… Well. I imagine you must act for both parties. You must forgive, on behalf of God, and you must atone on behalf of the reaper. You must pray, as he would have to pray, that God will be merciful. Maybe then, he will be released, and you can both be free."
Axel's eyes narrowed, the complexity of the situation forcing its way through his mind from as many angles as he could manage, attempting to find a seed of proper understanding out of it all. "Do you honestly believe that – God would allow that sort of thing? It is He who has condemned them, is it not? Would He then turn around simply at the word of a priest and – and change His mind?" Doubtfully, Axel said, "That sounds more like the work of man, Brother. God is not the sort to make an incorrect decision."
Zexion couldn't help but softly laugh at the childish nature of such a statement, and with the smile lingering on his lips replied, "If God was not lenient and did not understand the nature of sin, then he would not have given priests the power to forgive in the first place. It is not about God making mistakes, it is about sinners making amends."
Gradually, as Axel thought this over, his expression darkened, became withdrawn. "…Brother." His voice was quiet, and dull. "Do you think, though, that God still considers me a priest? What I did was not committed out of despair, but I nevertheless chose to take my own life. It was not a permanent arrangement, but anything could have gone wrong, and I'd have been dead at my own hand. You may not have turned me in to the Superior, but that doesn't mean that God does not know; and if He knows, then surely He would have, in his own mind, cast me away?"
Zexion was silent for a while. The two of them sat on the floor, with the candles burning lower and their shadows sharing space along the walls, lost in thought. Eventually, the monk ventured, "It is called the 'sin of despair', taking one's own life. The emphasis is not on the death itself, but on the loss of faith in God, and the giving in to sorrow, darkness. You… arranged to meet a reaper the only way you knew how. I do not see the despair in that." He spoke gradually, testing each word out, feeling ways around the technicalities. Axel could not help giving him a ghost of a smile.
"If you were God," he said wearily, "I'd have no need to worry."
"Don't be blasphemous."
Axel's forehead creased slowly. "But we don't even know what he did. Suppose for a moment I try your idea of absolution: what sin warrants a loss of rank within angels? Exactly how many prayers am I going to have to recite on Roxas' behalf, when we don't even know the severity of the sin?" Another silence. "Perhaps," the redhead eventually sighed, "I should aim for the worst and hope that somewhere between one Hail Mary and thirty decades of them, he will suddenly disappear from my shadow?"
Zexion stared. "Thirty decades of Hail Marys?"
"He's an angel who might have sinned," Axel responded, frustrated, with a cough. "Who knows what kind of penitence that will require? What you're proposing I do is attempt to actually… upgrade his position within the Heavenly hierarchy. I feel like thirty decades of Hail Marys would be getting off lightly, to be perfectly honest. And that is always assuming that my mumbling prayers on Roxas' behalf will even doanything in his favour." He shook his head faintly, resigned. "But I suppose that in the end, it's the only idea we have right now."
The monk sent over a sympathetic look, pushed down on his knees and levered himself to his feet, brushing off the rough brown fabric of his habit. "My advice would be, don't get too ahead of yourself, Father. Don't think about the 'Heavenly hierarchy'; this has nothing to do with anything except forgiveness. Forgiveness is the key. Be the vessel through which God can forgive the reaper, and good things will come. I'm sure of it."
Axel gazed up at him blankly, thinking it through, before helplessness returned to take root. "…I don't…"
"Do you want to free it, or not?" Zexion was blunt this time, his compassion stretching only so far; a scholar in need, he could identify with, but one with an untried potential answer was another scenario entirely. Still, as he looked down at the red-haired man still sitting, bewildered, on the floor, seeming as though he were lost in an ocean of vague theories, the slightest thorn of responsibility remained lodged in Zexion's conscience. He grimaced, running his hands shortly through his hair, considered for a long moment, and then announced abruptly, "I will stay here again, Axel. One more night in this town. Tonight, while the people sleep, you must perform the absolution in trying to free this reaper. If it doesn't work… then you will return with me, and in the library at the monastery we will continue to search for answers. How does that please you?"
In all honesty, Axel felt the strong need to say 'not at all' – he was skittish around the monastery now, afraid of consequences, of truth, awkward in being faced with the enormity of his lies. However, he had to admit that part of that had been his strong misgivings regarding having to, yet again, confront Zexion, and also Vexen. And, if it would help Roxas…?
He turned his eyes to the wall, the reaper crouched nearby, only vaguely mimicking the solid body that he unwittingly haunted. A long, slow breath released from Axel's lungs, accompanied by a dry catching in his throat, a muffled choke. His chest continued to ache. "…All right." His voice was soft, drained. "If that is what it takes, then – with your blessings, if I fail, I will return."
Zexion nodded briefly, began pulling on his gloves, collecting his bag, drawing his overcoat on. Glancing every now and then at the shadowy wall, he said, "Fine. In that case, rest up today. Get over that fever, take care of your lungs, have the potions on hand for if and when things get dire. I have little interest in touring this small place – no library to speak of – so I'll be in the town leader's home if you have need of me. If you have need of Demyx at all, well, look for the local children, no doubt. He was expressing a desire to play when we arrived yesterday and found them kicking a ball in the street. He's still too young to take things seriously." As he shrugged on the strap of his bag, the monk smiled slightly, adding, "But then, in light of recent events, I don't consider that an entirely dislikeable trait, do you, Father?"
Axel thought of Demyx, and gave a tiny, half-hearted laugh. "I must admit, I am sick of the world being taken so seriously. A little of that lightness would be quite, quite desirable."
Ready to leave now, Zexion inhaled deeply, let the breath out, and studied the redhead with a gentle eye. "Perhaps," he said, "when this is over, you can take some lessons from him." When Axel glanced up, one eyebrow raised, the monk smiled ironically. "It wouldn't kill you, that's for certain." Another small snuff of a laugh from Axel, and Zexion took his leave, showing himself out of the small quarters with only one last, lingering look at the wraith in the shadows. "Good luck, Axel," he parted earnestly. "I count myself richer for having seen your reaper, but I pray that I never need lay eyes upon him again."
"…Until death," Axel murmured, to which the monk inclined his head peaceably.
As he opened and then closed the door, the gust of cold air that it allowed puffed the candles out, plunging the room into darkness. Axel was left alone with his shadow, his hot brow, his thoughts, and that lingering flavour of blood.
That evening, snow began to fall. Axel smelled it coming, felt the temperature drop as if the planet was settling for a deep freeze. By the time he was stepping out the door of the cramped priest's quarters, into night made blacker by winter's blanketing of the skies, tiny, wet flakes were quietly filling the air, a slow, thick cloud sighing to the earth. He lifted his eyes to the faintly illuminated fall, the lights of the town shining dimly nearby, filtering through the trees that surrounded the church lot. He inhaled, choked on the cold bite of the temperature, and bowed his head as several low coughs shook his frame. Folding his arms tightly over his sore chest, throat feeling raw from a day of fever and breathing difficulties, the red-haired clergyman, though he scarcely considered himself seriously by the title anymore, sank lower into his heavy, rough woollen coat, fighting back a wave of shivers.
One of the townsmen or their children had been along earlier in the day and salted the walkways between his little dwelling and the church, but in the intermittent hours the ice had managed to reform to a degree, making the way to the large, empty building a cautious affair. It was, fortunately, only a short distance, following the one winding garden path, Axel reaching the side-door of the old building and unlocking it with gloved hands, expelling bursts of steam into the frigid air as he sporadically coughed through the tightness in his chest. His breaths, as he sucked them in and pushed them out, sounded thin, strained; clearing his throat loudly and forcefully had developed throughout the day into a habit, whenever it felt like he couldn't quite inhale deeply enough. The presence of the fever within him along with the previous evening's snowy hike had aggravated things to the point where he had had to consume three more of Vexen's potions already, despite their still-limited number. However, if, as he resignedly believed he would, he ended up returning to the monastery in the morning, he could always convene personally with the other priest and organise for something more effective in situations such as this, when a mere Cure wouldn't suffice. He didn't look forward to what Vexen might have to say to him, though.
The church building, as Axel pushed his way inside, was dry, but thoroughly frozen. The air was cruel in its intensity, sinking sharp hooks into every square inch of the man's exposed face and stabbing into the softness of his thick clothing. It hurt to breathe. The slab-stone walls provided no insulation whatsoever, seemed to leech the world of not only heat but colour as well. Darkness swathed the wooden pews, the pulpit from which sermons were delivered when the opportunity arose, though not, so far, by he himself.
The small stone basin from which he had taken water to baptise the screaming baby those months ago sat quietly against one wall, an unnerving, silent reminder of that time of his life. He had spent little time within the church itself since he'd arrived to live at the priest's quarters; it seemed as if a phantom memory of a younger Axel clung to the air, disturbing the old man he had become in the meantime. The internal fire had burned out, blown gently away by cool angel breaths, and from the ashes a wiser, quieter man had risen who disliked being reminded of the past. Perhaps he did not regret what he had done, did not regret by any means the discovery of Roxas, but that long-ago night still haunted him, and would continue to do so for many years to come. One did not just… forget one's own death, no matter the reward at the end of it. If nothing else, the pain of it would never leave his mind, nor his body – he had half-destroyed his flesh gaining spiritual insight, and not a day went by where he was not reminded of this. The rapidity with which he went through Vexen's potions was testament enough.
Getting accustomed to the temperature was not something Axel would be able to do standing in place and gazing about at his surroundings – he needed to keep moving, needed to get warm blood flooding his veins and loosening his lungs before the constricting quality of the cold choked him. Holding his gloved hands over his mouth and nose, he cured the immediate worry by gasping in and out into the wool, so that after some minutes the air he inhaled was warmer, if somewhat stifling. His throat, which had begun to tense, relaxed little by little, and feeling easier, he wandered the building, setting up a collection of dormant candles on the altar at the front of the room, near the pulpit. His boots sending out an echo in the broad space, he took his time, not wanting to rush, not wanting to agitate his body. Keeping one hand over his mouth, continuing to breathe through woollen fingers, he lit first one short votive candle, then used that one to light the others. After some minutes, four rows of quiet flames burned, wax occasionally hissing as it liquefied and met with fire.
With a slow breath, carefully lowering his glove and braving the naked air, Axel gazed down at the altar meditatively, uncertainty flickering within, meeting with doubt, hopelessness. He could not see how this would work; but in the end, there was nothing to be gained by simply not trying. He could not return to his room and climb into bed without knowing for sure that he had failed; to leave any stone unturned would be a worse offence to Roxas than anything he had managed thus far.
With the flames throwing the angel into sharp relief against his stark surroundings, Axel shifted his gaze down to where Roxas patiently waited, stretched across the floor and robbed of dignity, featureless, isolated. His expression softened as the reaper moved slightly, a faint motion of the head. Outside, the snow fell thicker, the wind rattling the glass panes of the windows. "…I am sorry." Axel's voice was lonely in the large room. His eyes lingered on the dark shape, a deep sigh working its way from inside of him, slowly steaming out into the crisp air. He'd already said it before, and so much else. Roxas never reacted.
Tiredly, the redhead went over to the pulpit, climbed up behind it before the rows of empty pews, ran his hands over the heavy, gild-edged, ever-present Bible and opened it, hardly feeling through his gloves. Page after thin, delicate page, he flicked through the solid book, wondering, briefly, why it couldn't have been enough. He had found a calling in life, and he had meant it so very deeply at the time; but in the end, it had merely served as a door to something it hurt to admit was greater. Yes; this was greater to Axel than God. Roxas, even as a shadow, meant more – and that unlawful redesignation of devotion was a cause for shame for all involved.
However, as his eyes again found Roxas, he couldn't bring himself to wish that it had been different. Even had it been better for all involved if he'd been content with being a priest whose mind remained with God in every thought… he could not help but be selfish at heart, and know that this version of events was something he would never relinquish.
Even having held onto Roxas like this… the lie that he told himself and others was that it was lamentable, when his heart desperately begged with him to just – leave – things… be.
With a breath and a piercing cough, his hands upon the Bible and his gaze upon the reaper, lit dimly by the candles, Axel instead began his recitation of prayers. He called upon Hail Marys, Our Fathers, intoned them with feeling and held Roxas in his mind, every word he uttered a plea to God to wipe the slate clean and just forgive. Absolve the reaper of whatever sin he'd committed, using Axel as His medium, and bring it all to an end.
It wasn't long, however, before the meaning behind his prayers began to change, before they became a call to God to make things right again. Gradually, the passion in his voice shifted, morphing from respectful urgings to entreaties, to raw pain. This was the first time in months that he found himself face to face with God, communing with Him directly, and without warning every overwhelming moment of that long period of time welled up and came spilling out. Something started to give way inside of him, with his shadow watching on. His mouth and lips and teeth and breath created these words that he knew from heart, but all the while, inside he was calling, End it! If you're going to take him from me, take him now, and spare me the fear of losing him.
He was breaking down, bit by bit. To be uttering all these prayers, over and over, to be pleading with God on behalf of someone who had done no wrong when he himself was the greatest sinner… He dropped all pretence in believing that it would work, and at some unknown point it stopped even being about Roxas anymore. It became all about Axel. It became about him apologising, it became his unshed tears given voice and his desperation and anxieties and horrible, ripping guilt finally admitted to; it became his anger, accusations levelled at the Almighty, followed swiftly by a frantic supplication to understand the choices he had faced, and made.
This had been a foolish idea, and would never work, but here a priest in name alone stood with his hand on the Bible and his voice soaring up towards God, and he had to use this opportunity to speak. He recited his prayers, over and over, over and over, and throughout the jumble of words his mind was a feverish frenzy of thoughts and emotions sent Heavenward, with a demand, a demand that they be heard.
In the end, he lost the battle, and in the feeble manner of every man and woman before him who had found themselves with nowhere left to turn, found himself screaming, Why?
It was, in essence, a confused child's cry for help.
His final lie, the last he ever uttered, was to pretend that it was God who had forsaken him, when his conscience quietly already knew that he had forsaken God first; and that, even then, God was listening for his return.
He spoke until there was no breath left; until the metallic tang of the blood in his lungs overwhelmed all else. For a while, he eventually stopped speaking, and the next time anyone did, it was Roxas.
"Take my hand," the reaper softly ordered.
Axel had his head in his hands, fingers scrunched tightly over his eyes, one leg bent under the hard wooden bench of the front pew, the other stretched out in front. The sound of the other's voice brought a stillness to him, followed by a wash of dizzy bewilderment. His face jumped back slightly from his hands, eyes studying the creases of his palms with wary puzzlement; he could not remember having sat himself here, nor taking hold of himself like this, this vulnerable, desperate body language. Chin jerking up, the reality of Roxas speaking suddenly piercing him, the red-haired priest stared with widening eyes at the black-swathed, winged apparition looking just as he ever had the first time they had met. A long minute extended between them, silent but for the faint rustle of feathers from time to time. Then, before he could stop himself, Axel's mouth split into a wide smile, a disbelieving laugh erupting from his throat. "It – worked?"
Clear blue eyes bore into him, porcelain features solemn but gentle. With both hands wrapped around the dark shaft of his scythe, Roxas corrected, "No." There was a momentary pause of incomprehension, to which the blond explained, "You haven't freed me, Axel. You've joined me."
Axel… stared. Gazing up at the boy, who looked back so steadily, so calmly, he felt dreadful, hideous uncertainty taking place within his mind. He tried to fight it; didn't want to face it; and when the angel unhooked his left hand from his weapon and began intoning, "Lamb of God, your time has come. Take this my hand –" he leapt up and bellowed over the top of him, "NO!"
Roxas stopped very abruptly, and blinked at him, startled.
Breathing hard, trying with difficulty to not think about the fact that breath was unnecessary at all right now, he barked, "No! Stop that, don't say those words!" When the angel continued to stare, he added sharply, "You're wrong, Roxas. I'm not dead; you're just free. I forgave you on behalf of God, that's why you've appeared here before me. You're confused." Never mind that it had ceased being Roxas' absolution partway through, never mind that Axel felt curiously freer now than he had been since the last time he'd found himself standing before this shadow of death itself, never mind any of it – he was right, damn it. He couldn't be wrong.
Roxas looked briefly lost for words, slowly folding his hand back onto the scythe and studying the redhead with a curious expression. "…You know," he said, at length, into the space between them, "you are the only person to do this to me. How, and why, do you consistently say such strange things?" Shaking his head faintly, a familiar gesture to Axel after three months of watching it happen, he went on, "None of the other souls are this unpredictable. I expect questions, and demands, and threats; I expect for people to tell me that I am mistaken about their deaths. I even expect them to try and escape me, an act which I will not attempt to counter, as mankind has always acted of its own free will, for better or worse… but you are the first and only mortal to have tricked me, and then anchored me to his flesh, and then the moment we are both freed telling me that he has forgiven me on behalf of God…" He resumed his staring for a moment. "…I don't know what to make of you," he eventually concluded.
Anxiously, Axel waved his hands swiftly through the air between them, then snatched them back as Roxas reached for one. "No, no, you're wrong," he insisted, eyeing the boy's hand like some sort of poisonous serpent. "Because, you see, I really did forgive you, Roxas – God forgives you, using me, a priest, as his intermediary, and now you don't have to be a reaper anymore. Don't you understand? It was Zexion's idea; he suggested that in order to free you from… from being my shadow, I should try and…"
Roxas was shaking his head, slowly and deliberately. His gaze locked grimly on Axel's, he said, sounding remarkably, almost frighteningly like Zexion, "You appear to have developed misconceptions, lamb of –"
"Didn't I tell you not to call me that?" Genuine anger glinted out of the priest, giving the angel pause.
After a moment's consideration, Roxas submitted to his wish, amended, "I am a Reaper, Axel. God has little to do with that. God is what lies at the other end of this journey of yours; I will continue down here, among your kind, as I always have done. I was born a Reaper, and I'll not die until there is nothing within me that God has need of. He is our Master; he truly is our God; and we serve him impeccably." With just the merest tinge of sadness, he said, "There are no tricks this time. I watched from your shadow. You are dead, and there will be no recovery from that." He smiled faintly, the corners of his lips lifting almost imperceptibly. "But I can't say I didn't enjoy my time of being less than nobody. Thank you for that. I felt, for a while, not alone."
Again, a plea this time, Axel said, "No… I swear to you, you are free now," to which the angel responded with a long, level look.
"I know what my existence is," Roxas replied coldly, evidently losing patience. "If you do not, then you will once you have gone to be Judged, and discover all the Truths that ever were. You will know the true nature of me then, and stop trying to change what cannot be changed." A strange look of frustration appeared on his features, out of place with the calm he usually displayed almost flawlessly. "Do not deny me who I am, and do not deny yourself who you are – thus, with this advice in mind, lamb of God, won't you finally take my hand?"
The glare he received appeared to mildly surprise him; his golden eyebrows lifted slightly, the angle of his hand faltering. "Show me my body," Axel challenged, to which Roxas blinked faintly, then turned and looked over at the pulpit. Chest tightening, but with a curious lack of coughing – something that rarely happened during discussions these days, he noted with distinct uneasiness – Axel leaned to the side and peered around the reaper's black-swathed body.
There, having shimmered into existence with the acknowledgement that it was there, lay Axel's empty corpse. It was behind the podium, and this time, there was no Zexion on the scene to hold him up from the blood that shone in a wide, uneven puddle around his head and shoulder. A slow sense of numbness crept through his limbs, but now he was sure it was entirely mental; he wasn't truly feeling anything, was he?
"…I don't remember," he said hoarsely, struggling with the brief spike of shock, but recognising with sinking stomach that he had perhaps realised from the moment he'd found himself on the pew. It was just that… he hadn't wanted to… he didn't want to admit to it. "All I remember is… speaking to God."
"You were coughing all throughout," the blond told him softly. When Axel met his gaze, eyebrows knitted together, he went on, "And now, you are dead. And as I told you last time – the time that you tricked me," a slight edge of hardness entered the blond's tone, though it lasted only briefly, "– the longer that we stay by the body, the greater the chance that darker beings than I will find you. You cannot stay here in the mortal world, Axel, it is a sad and lonely existence, I have seen it happen before, miserable souls consigned to wandering when they could be with God."
Momentarily lost, the priest helplessly asked, "Would you come with me? Are you – still my shadow?"
Roxas glanced away, replying, "No. That was an anomaly that occurred because you returned so abruptly to your flesh while holding on to me; I could not leave you, I was anchored as your soul was anchored."
Axel stood in place for a minute, thinking things over, Roxas patiently waiting for the eventual conclusions to take place. He was again surprised, however, by the short, hard shake of the man's head. "No," Axel muttered. Lifting his chin, facing the angel squarely, hands bunched into fists by his sides, he announced, "The whole reason that any of this happened, all of it, is because I wanted to encounter a reaper, Roxas. And I found you." Glaring, he demanded, "Do you honestly expect me now, after all I've sacrificed to meet you and finally free you from my shadow, to give you up? The instant that you're no longer trapped, you try to abandon me?"
He crossed a line. Roxas scowled, slammed the wooden tip of the scythe's shaft onto the ground with a crack and began firmly, "Now, you see here, don't you dare to presume –"
"You were my shadow, Roxas," Axel cut in angrily. "You were with me, always, and I was happy. Is it really so impossible for you to accept me as your shadow? That is all that I want: to be with you, to trace your steps!"
Roxas rocked back, stunned, then snapped, "You have no idea what you're talking about! Don't be so foolish, such things can't be done!"
"Riku did it!" Axel shouted back. "He did it, and spent his entire lifetime communing with your brother! I read about it, he wrote books all about Sora!"
"Riku was alive," Roxas replied, obviously becoming bewildered by the argument. "And on top of that, he was an idiot; he dabbled in things that no human ought to, and you would follow in his footsteps? Angels belong to angels, and humans belong to humans, and all belong to God; why try to blur those lines?"
"Why?!" Axel seemed to choke on the word, seemed to swell with a combination of rage upon other emotions, seemed to hover briefly between explosion and complete capitulation – then grabbed the wide-eyed angel by the sides of the face, ignoring his hiccupping inhalation of shock, and kissed him full on the mouth.
Time froze. Neither of them moved, not the first his lips nor the second to fight; the press of their mouths together like this obliterated all thought or instinct. They simply, for a moment, existed, joined together by spirit.
Dimly, Axel was aware of the crash of the scythe falling to the floor, but still Roxas didn't twitch from his grasp.
When he opened his eyes, the world was hazier, he was sure; as though touching some part of Roxas opened pinpricks of other worlds, unknown universes the living were not privy to. But then, perhaps it was just… because he was touching Roxas, and never mind whatever threads of the angel touched against other realities. Just the fact that he was holding the blond between his hands, and that Roxas' eyes were half-lidded, a dazed, small quality to him all of a sudden.
Pale throat bobbing as he swallowed, Roxas finally began to compose himself, tried to carefully pull away, but Axel would not let him go; instead touched their foreheads together, green and blue gazing into one another, tightened his grip. His fingers were in Roxas' hair; his thumbs scraped slowly along the boy's cheekbones.
"Um…" The reaper's voice was hardly above a whisper, dark lashes flickering briefly.
"This is why," Axel told him, determined, breathless, only now realising it fully for himself. "This, since the moment we met. Roxas. My reaper." When the angel made no further attempts to draw back, Axel hesitated, kissed him again, very softly, then inched away a little to inspect the boy's expression. Unable to stop himself, he reached up to touch some of the hair he had been watching for three long, contactless months, Roxas closing his eyes a little further.
Struggling to keep his focus, his purpose, he weakly protested, "But… God…"
"I don't need to be with God," the priest whispered, lips brushing near to his ear. "As long as I am with you."
Roxas' eyes widened, body stiffening as he muttered, "…Blasphemy…"
With a soft laugh, the man wrapped his arms around the angel, hands going beneath his wings, Roxas awkward inside them. "Yes." Pressing the side of his face into the blond hair, holding his reaper close, a seed of desperation entered him as he asked, "So please – don't turn me away…?" Eyes closing, he murmured, "Take me with you, anywhere you go. Just… not the gates of Heaven."
Roxas remained within his grasp, ill at ease, but… only because the sensation of touch was so very unfamiliar to an angel of death.
47 Years Later
"It was I who found him. And again, I… who drove him to it. Please… Father… please, forgive me."
In the small dormitory room, a withered old man lay upon the bed, the blankets tucked carefully in around his slight body, his bones slender and delicate with age. His head upon the pillow was heavy, the flicker of the candles throwing shadows of he and his companion across the room, both of them thoroughly human; any other sights had long since vanished from the world, along with a piece of its warmth. The chill left behind had been felt by the elderly scholar for so, so many years now. Zexion closed his eyes, feeling a sting, and when he opened them again, found that they were damp.
Wrinkled features creasing into a scowl, he reached up with one shaking hand and pressed his fingers to the inner corners of his eyes, banishing the moisture with a quick swipe, muttering, "What a thing, what a thing to do at this age. I am no child."
Beside the bed, holding his other hand tightly, his blond colleague smiled sadly. "C'mon, Brother, you know we're all children of God. It stands to reason we get to act like it sometimes, right?"
The old monk shook his head slowly, painfully, exasperation managing to work its way into his features even despite his difficulty in breathing, the slight dizziness that gripped the world. "Demyx, you will always be a child of God no matter how old you get."
The younger man laughed lightly, replying, "That makes two of us, then." Gradually, watching the scholar sink back into his pillow looking as frail and fragile as if a stray breath would separate him and sweep him away, the blond priest's expression sobered. His grip tightened carefully around Zexion's narrow hand, a twitch of pain flitting across the monk's face, unrelated to Demyx's gentle grip. When he closed his eyes again, Demyx knew he was trying to keep from crying. "Zexion…" His voice was soft, compassionate. "You knew Father Axel better than anyone around here – you've spent so long blaming yourself for his death, but don't you recognise that it was his own actions that led to the events of his life? You're such an intelligent man, even now, surely you understand this much?"
Sharply muttering, Zexion demanded, eyes remaining closed, "What do you mean, 'even now'? Age brings wisdom, Father, and don't you forget it."
Demyx snuffed a little laugh, casting an affectionate look down at the Brother. "You are deflecting my words, Zexion. Don't think I didn't see what you did there. I'm not a kid anymore, I won't start stammering apologies and scuttle away. Even an old man like you should remember that much."
When the wizened monk finally opened his eyes and shot over a narrow look, the priest winked. With a sigh, Zexion said, "Demyx – only you could hear my confession of inciting a priest to sin and blasphemy of the highest order and still be so cheerful."
Abandoning his Bible on his lap, the blond wrapped a second hand around Zexion's, and just as he did every time the priest showed him any sympathy, Zexion promptly again winced and looked away, the understanding almost more than he could stand. "Zexion, you have such a burden on your heart, I can see this. But it never reached your soul; there is no sin to forgive, and God knows this. I could forgive you on behalf of God, but we both know, and He knows, that it would just be said for your peace of mind." He smiled down at the monk. "Are you really that desperate for peace of mind, Brother?"
For a long minute the old man didn't respond. His gaze was on the wall, where his shadow lay beside him as it always had done; waiting for him. He stared, until Demyx hesitated, squeezed his hand cautiously and ventured, "Zexion…?"
"…Yes." When he turned back to the blond, Zexion's eyes were once again wet. Voice hoarse, he repeated, "Yes, I am so desperate for peace of mind. Please, Father, grant it to me, as your last act as my dear friend of nearly fifty years."
There was a pause, before Demyx inclined his head, returned his left hand to his Bible while keeping the grip of his right firm around Zexion. "Anything for you. You know that."
His voice came steadily as he began intoning prayers for the dying monk, but as Zexion watched him, he saw the small, already-lonely tears running down the priest's face as he prepared to see his friend off into God's arms. Despite himself, Zexion smiled faintly, a swell of fondness rising slowly within him, and he felt gratitude that during his last moments he could be granted such a peaceful emotion.
As Demyx reached the end of his litany, he raised his eyes from his Bible to see a terrible stillness drift slowly over the monk, a new paleness gripping his sallow flesh. He bit the inside of his mouth, holding back the earnest weeping that would have to wait until later, and nearly squeezed his eyes shut against the stab of loss – but stopped as he saw Zexion's expression suddenly change. So close to death, halfway between the end of one existence and the beginning of another, a smile lit upon the old man's lips, brows lifting as if in surprise. Even as the glassiness crossed his eyes and made them blind, Zexion murmured, "Ah… There…?"
A second later, he was gone, the priest left with his cooling shell, everything that had made him Zexion vanished into the night. Demyx gazed at the familiar face, now forever in repose, never again to scowl at him, reprimand, or smile faintly in approval. No more conversation would come from his lips, no more educating or sighing. His hair would not be brushed aside, his eyes would not read, he would no longer consume tea and spend long afternoons pondering old truths and new. Especially, he would never again gain that faraway look that spoke of hard-edged memories and pointed regrets. Demyx would never know these things from him again. But still… even so… in that one moment, he could not bring himself to feel the sorrow which would come later, when this memory began to fade.
Rather, he turned his eyes up into the air, squeezing Zexion's hand on last time, and murmured, "Guide him well, Father. And your reaper as well."
With that, the priest closed his Bible, and waited for his tears to return.