Title: Cave Lupum
Fandom: Kingdom Hearts
Characters: Saïx & Axel
Summary: Memory is a blood-drenched game.
Spoilers: Possibly for 358/2 Days? I'm really vague though about it though, so I doubt it. Oh my god, spoilers are the least wrong things about this story, believe me. Anyone who gets through this - who is even kind enough to read this - will earn my eternal gratitude.
A/N: Okay, I feel like I should explain myself a little before anyone reads this and strangles me. Ever since 358/2 Days came out, I've been fascinated by the relationship between Saïx and Axel, and also fascinated with the idea that one or both of them were girls in the past life. That is not canon. That is in no way ever going to be canon. It's just me following a dumb idea to its logical conclusion, as usual.
Memory is a blood-drenched game.
She could have been a dancer in another life. Stealing in on mincing feet, en pointe and ready for a swift pirouette; on stage, weightless in satin shoes and hair swept up in a reserved bun, neck craned and sylph-like; profiled against an indistinct background, crisp as a portrait. These images are clear to him even though she is at present wearing a perfectly ridiculous red hood over her head with an equally ridiculous hand-basket under her arm, trotting down the sidewalk at a brisk pace.
Around them, the parade swirls, grim reapers and skeletons marching to the beat of the carnival drums. When a group of boys pull up their zombie masks to jeer at her as she walks past, shouting about dark woods and grandma's house, she rips off the hood and sends them scampering with astoundingly sailor-like threats. Freed from its restraint, her long hair spills generously along her back, a shocking green that suggests chemical dye.
He holds his gaze for a moment too long, and she catches him staring.
"See something you like?"
He shrugs noncommittally, and she seems to take offense at that. With three long strides, she gets right into his face. She's quite tall, almost as tall as him, and thin as a reed. Her eyes are wine-colored, supernatural in the lantern lights as they crinkle and crease with ineffable mirth.
"My, my, what big eyes you have."
His mouth tightens, eyes narrow. An academic's pride is too acute for mockery. She senses this, and takes a step back, palms raised in a gesture of reconciliation. "No harm done, alright? I'll be on my way."
Only later does he realize that she has made off with his wallet.
In the beginning, there are endless questions asked.
"How much do you remember?"
"An acceptable amount. You?"
"Not much. Don't remember being born—well, 'course I wouldn't remember that. Parents. I remember having parents. I did, didn't I?"
"And I remember being a kid, a little bit of that. What was I like as a kid?"
"I don't know. I didn't know you then."
"Huh. Shame. What about after, then? Tell me something you learned about me after we met."
"You were infuriating. Apparently, some things never change."
"Yeah, you're absolutely right. I do recall you being crabby and furious a lot…"
In a way, this is a learning experience for the both of them. It's natural, when trying to grasp your limits, to sometimes go a little too far, but that's not a problem as long as you remember how to bring yourself back from the edge. It's that part that he has trouble with.
"Hey Saïx, what you're doing in the dark? How's your face?"
Saïx turns, and Axel is a silhouette in the doorway. As the other Nobody approaches him, there is a noticeable cautiousness in his steps. He can easily hazard a guess as to why.
"Let me take a look at that."
He shrugs lightly. "I'm fine. It's already healed."
No blood. That's an interesting discovery he's recently made. Even though he can feel it coursing and warm in his veins, all that come gushing from his wounds are black particles, smoky and insubstantial, dissipating quickly in the open air. One might say that this is a metaphor for this heartless existence.
Axel peers at him closely, a smile playing on the corner of his lips. "It looked pretty serious at the time. Talks about getting lost in the heat of battle, huh?"
Saïx is not listening. He's staring down at his hands, flexing the long fingers experimentally, examining the short, clipped nails. They are just as he remembers them, but he remembers too the pain when they tore into his face, cleaving skin and flesh to get at bone.
"A self-inflicted scar doesn't make for a very impressive origin story," Axel's voice filters in, halting his thoughts. "Maybe you should embellish. Better yet, make up a whole new story. Let's say… mauled by sabertooth tiger. Killed tiger with bare hands in self-defense."
"Is that really so far from the truth?"
"True. Not gonna lie, that back there was some freaky shit. I don't know if I want to be partnered up with you on missions now. Never seen anything like it before in my whole entire life."
Typical. There is no fear within savagery, so there is fear of it instead. In his berserker state, he thinks in arterial spread, his frenzied mind mapped along the skipping pulse of the aorta. Exhilarating, the release.
"Your whole entire life is not a very long time." Discounting what came before—but that's another story entirely. "Anyway, maybe you wouldn't have anything to worry about if you were more competent."
Axel snorts. "Well, at least we know for sure what your, uh, element is now." He reaches out with one gloved finger, traces the air about three inches from Saïx's face. "You know, I think I kind of like it. It has character. Makes you look… distinguished."
Different is the word he should have used. As time passes, Saïx knows he looks less and less like the image of himself that he holds within his mind, and even that image is beginning to slip, blurred out and subtly replaced by the face that appears when he looks into the mirror. The old skin is losing hope, shredding itself and giving way to something more appropriate for the being that he has become: faintly crackling with power, empty and vast as a geologic chasm.
Metamorphosis can come in many forms, he thinks, studying Axel's smirking face. Sometimes, it is a corrosive process, chipping away at existing lines and angles and forcing new contours upon the gaps. Other times, it is complete inversion.
The day after the carnival, he's thirsty and sleep-deprived, reading a book in the lecture hall while waiting for lessons to start. When she plops down into the seat next to him, he almost mistakes her for an apparition, before recollection swims in and his face contorts into a scowl.
"So apparently, we go to the same school," she begins, selectively ignoring his anger. "And to think I might have passed you in the hall or the Quad without realizing it. We might even have taken the same class at some point."
"I doubt it," he says tersely. He would have remembered. "Can I have my wallet back?"
"Of course." Grinning, she hands over the offending item. "Sorry about that. All your money's still in there, you can count it. I just wanted to find out who you were."
"You could have asked."
"You might not have answered," she replies, voice tapering into a hush as the professor begins the lecture. He glares horribly, but already his ire is subsiding. In time, he will come to learn the extent to which her capricious ways can disarm him.
No red hood and basket today, he notes. Instead: black trench coat over blue jeans and work boots, and a black pageboy cap to match, under which her hair is coiled up and secreted away, exposing her eggshell neck. She looks like a street urchin, almost boyish, thin bones taut at the sides of her wrists.
(And this is something else that he will come to learn, that the reason for her scampish attitude and vernacular is that his initial impression was way off mark, that rather than a dancer, she must evidently have been a sailor in a past life, guessing her way across oceans, collars stiff with sea salt and sun. Trouser pockets always outturned, coat pockets always bulging with coins.)
After the lecture, she follows him to lunch, brazenly ignoring his attempts at ignoring her existence. By the time she's filched the second slice of bread off his plate, he finally acquiesces, and asks for her name.
"Lea. Lee-ah. Better commit that to memory now, I'm not telling you again."
"I have an excellent memory."
"That means you'll be great to copy tests off," she says, mopping up the last of his soup with her stolen bread. Rolling his eyes, he collects his books and starts to walk away.
"Where're you off to?"
"My next class. I have a lecture for Statecraft and Warfare that starts in fifteen minutes."
"Sounds interesting. I've never taken that before. Is it any good?"
He fights a silent battle with himself, which lasts no more than a few seconds. "You could always sit in. Unless you have something else to do this afternoon."
A wave of hand. "Nope. Free as a bird."
She raises a thin eyebrow, smiles coyly. "Well, alrighty then. Lead the way, boss."
Axel is ecstatic, for a Nobody's value of ecstasy, but he will not admit it. He complains about having to babysit Number XIII, but is often found clinging to the blond, slightly vacant boy like a barnacle, like a foundling who has been given a foundling of his very own to tend to. Really, that last one is the most appropriate.
Regrettably, this newfound state of domestic bliss is interrupted by his deployment to Castle Oblivion.
"So, just like that, huh? Five of 'em in one fell swoop? You sure that ain't too much of an overkill?"
"Do you have a problem with that?"
"Not really," Axel shrugs, lips quirking smugly. "No skin off my back, and hey, if all goes right and you make it to the top, you're not going to leave me too badly off, now are you?"
Saïx smiles. It didn't take long at all for the lessons to sink in. Axel proved to be a fast learner (he has retained that trait), and the idle curiosity of the early days soon faded in favor of the sharp, cool veneer of the joker that he affects to mask the observant spy crackling on the inside. A well-trained dog, rabid enough to brutalize, sane enough to follow commands.
It is an accomplishment one can be proud of, but pride lives only in the heart.
He is already turning to leave when Axel speaks up, oddly uncertain, "By the way. I think I remember something."
"What do you mean?" Saïx asks, stopping in his track.
"I remember that you liked the taste of lemon. Am I right? I'm right, aren't I?"
He doesn't even have to think about the answer. "Yes, you're right." If only all things were as simple as this.
"Do you remember if—"
"Do I remember what?"
Axel puts his hand on the back of his neck. "Did I like ice-cream in the other life?"
Is that what you're going to eat for lunch?
Duh. It's the only thing edible in this heat.
What flavor is that?
Can I have some?
Nope. Get your own. This is all mine.
Saïx makes a dismissive motion with his head, tossing his hair over one shoulder. "No. No, you did not."
"Are you sure? Because I could have sworn…"
"Shouldn't you be going?"
The other Nobody snaps to attention. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Moseyin'. You know, not that you actually have the capacity to care, but I may very well die on this mission. Got anything to say about that?"
"If you die, I'll be sure to pass on the message to Roxas, so that he can make arrangements for a replacement mentor."
Axel blinks at him in disbelief. "Man, you are cold," he says, expelling a breath that sounds suspiciously like a sigh. "Sometimes I seriously wonder if we really were friends in the other life. If nothing else, I would for sure have remembered knowing such an evil bastard."
They drive into the desert in June. Three days of bottled water and the occasional rest-stop meal, and the cheap rental car sounds like it's about ready to give up. She doesn't seem to care, one hand on the wheel and the other braced along the open window, drumming lightly. The semantics of her restless hands took him months to learn, something neatly mathematical in the long, animated fingers, little bones jumping when the knuckles flex.
The taste of sand streams in with the wind. He fiddles with the broken radio, listens distractedly to the airy banter she attempts to keep up. "It's not the heat," she explains, "but the quiet that gets to you, nothing to hear for hours but the sounds of tires rubbing against the road and this dying engine."
"The engine wouldn't be dying if we had rented the car I chose," he replies snidely. "And maybe we should worry less about the quiet and more about imminent threats. Like dehydration."
Their conversations have grown increasingly snappish in the last fifty miles or so. They haven't come across any signs of civilization since the last gas station, and that was the night before. His irritation rising with the heat, and she is heedless, as always. He accuses her of getting them lost on purpose; in retaliation, she throws his last package of lemon pastry out the window, laughing at his frustrated cry of fury. He debates throttling her and hiding the body in the desert, hoping this is only the beginning stages of heatstroke and not, say, actual homicidal urges.
They are students of history, stumbling their way through the centuries under a parched sky, hungry for any piece of antiquity they can get their dusty hands on. Searching for conquerors and kings and gods, for crusaders and martyrs. But instead of Troy, of Thebes and Babylon, all they find is a dilapidated church in the middle of the desert, ribcaged into desolation by miles of intractable sand.
Still, it has shade, and running water that tastes heavily of rust and earthy moss. He scoops a handful greedily to his lips, relishes the cold shock when the water hits his skin and trickles down his neck, soaking through the front of his shirt. Sated, he looks up to find that she has disappeared from his side, but he is used to this, has learned to follow the crunching sound of her boots as they cover ground.
There they are now, kicking up dust at the top of the steps leading into the church. The sun is pitiless; he has to raise a hand over his eyes and squint to look up at her, a dark edge against all that brightness, shaking out slender limbs numbed by the long ride. She moves like a dandelion: any which way, but always reaching toward light. The sun loves her, and he thinks he does too, in that moment. This, she must never know, for he is certain that the day she makes the discovery would be the day she leaves him. A wild thing cannot be tamed and coddled, only entertained, encouraged.
"I know this trip has been anything but enjoyable," she jokes, "but try to remember it. A few years down the road, you'll feel differently, and it will seem like a good memory."
"Yes," he replies, and thinks, Isn't it already? A memory of the curve of her pale lips; her lazy-lidded eyes that are like wine in a crystal glass, fractured by light, two identical jewels with the sun inside them. He forgets about ancient cities, about conquerors and kings as her gaze strips him to the bone
Everything goes right at Oblivion, but from there, it quickly unravels.
"Do you have to be such an asshole all the time? I did what you wanted, didn't I? What's the deal with you always ragging on poor Xion?"
"That's completely ludicrous," Saïx says disdainfully. "Why would I waste my energy criticizing something that already belongs in the refuse heap?"
Axel looks livid. His red mane ripples with charged energy. "Don't talk about her like that!"
"Why shouldn't I?" Saïx snarls, giving in to the coil of rage curling around his spine. Overhead, Kingdom Hearts shines down on them its usual sickly light, cold and caressing, fueling his icy anger. "You can follow your sentimental notions all you want, but I know only the truth. I don't intend to stray from the plans, whether or not you decide to stay onboard."
"Yeah, the plans," Axel says bitterly. "You make all the plans, but somehow it's always me out there on the front lines, first in line to offer my blood! Do you ever stop to consider that?"
That takes him aback. Cave canem. The dog knows discontent, and resentment. Now is not the time to lose his cool, now is the time to smooth down ruffled feathers and ease away accruing doubts, reinforce wavering convictions. With inhuman effort, he reaches down within himself for the core of calmness, dipping into the waning reservoir of his self-control. Tightening the rattling chains, willing the beast to go to sleep.
"Of course I consider that," Saïx says, keeping his voice steady and even. Trustworthy. "You're not stupid, Axel. If you didn't believe that I did, would you have gone along with it?"
"I just want to know where I fit into your grand design, is all," Axel mutters sullenly, collapsing like a house of cards. "Sometimes I'm not so sure. I'm not even sure if I want to be a part of this anymore."
Not treachery after all, only insecurity. He knows intellectually that this is supposed to mollify him, fill him with relief, perhaps, that his partner in crime isn't getting cold feet, but in truth, it just makes him tired, washed over with an exhaustion that coats the bones.
He thinks about placing his hand over the nape of Axel's neck, then, just above the bumpy knob at the top of his spine. To still the tremor. The idea calls to mind memories of other fingers that once lay on his neck, stealthy like a secret, fingerprints that left traces of motor oil and sweat on the hill of his vertebrae. A thoughtless gesture, wood-grain-warm and full of comfort.
But the gesture holds no meaning to him now—is, in fact, beyond his understanding, like languages he has forgotten how to speak—and he shudders into awareness to find himself standing awkwardly with one hand half dangling in midair, mouth open to shape the beginning of a promise.
Luckily, Axel doesn't seem to notice. He's leaning out over the balcony, fingers curled around the edge of the marble banister, eyes fixed on some invisible object in the thick, undulating darkness below. When he speaks, it is in a voice almost too low to be heard.
"Did I like sunset in the other life?"
"Yes," Saïx says hollowly, his mind already elsewhere. "Yes, quite a lot."
There are whispers of a nameless threat, travelers being snatched off the road at night and spirited away into darkness. The inhabitants of some distant town in the east vanish without a trace overnight, and nobody can find a single shred of evidence that might explain why. Radio signals are being intercepted by strange disturbances, shadowy, static-filled transmissions that rake at the nerves.
They are living together by then, sharing a two-bedroom loft in one of the most rundown neighborhoods in town. Driving to class in the morning and coming back in the afternoon to the café just around the corner, where the blue walls peel and the ceiling fans cut the air lethargically, barely providing any circulation, much less relief. It is almost summer here, in the city.
"We should go out there and investigate," she announces, emptying packets of sugar fine as sand into her cup. "It'll be like a road trip, except with an element of mystery and danger to it."
"Why?" he finds himself asking. "We're in the middle of exams. Don't you want to finish your degree?"
"I don't need a degree," she says flippantly. "I've wasted enough of my life buried in books."
In that sentence, he hears: I've wasted enough of my life with you.
"Listen," he tries, modulating his voice carefully. "It's not safe. I hear people have been dying."
"Rumors," she scoffs, dismissing his concern like someone batting away a noisy fly. "Anyway, nothing will happen to us. Why are you so afraid of living?"
He remembers then how awfully stupid he finds her at times, how reckless and pigheaded and trollishly arrogant. Her casual defiance, which was what originally drew him to her, now seems exaggerated and foolish. It's not that he's grown resentful of her as the months went by. Just less forgiving.
"Well, if you're going to be a wet blanket about it then I suppose I'll just have to go by myself…"
His chair scrapes harshly against the floor. "Get up. We're leaving."
"What? I haven't finished my coffee—hey!"
The cup tips over, spilling brown liquid everywhere as he drags her out of her chair, gripping thin wrist that is just this side of breakable. The whole café turn to stare at their little game of tug-of-war. She's losing badly, and then they're out on the street, still locked in struggle. Their car—his car—is parked just outside the apartment building. He unlocks the passenger side and practically shoves her into it.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Get in the car."
"Now wait just a minute—"
"Just do it. I need to show you something."
The flaw in her contempt for authority is that no one has ever come along with enough gravitas to enforce that authority. All that's about to change.
The ride out of town is long and filled with her accusatory silence. She glares out the window sullenly, refuses to look at him. Her left hand drapes over the dashboard, fingers drumming out an angry beat against the wooden surface. Tap. Tap. Tap. He almost reaches over to make her stop, but sees the ring of bruise already forming where his fingers were clamped around her wrist, and doesn't.
"Where are you taking me?"
He doesn't answer. The rows of pastel houses recede, and the sea appears on their left, jewel-color in the softening daylight. He has the sudden urge to swerve off the road and drive them straight into the ocean, so that they both drown with the seatbelts still strapped around their water-filled torsos.
Instead, he goes right, taking the trail that leads up to the top of the trap lock ridge that buttresses the eastern side of the city, and parks on the high point, right next to the 366-foot drop.
"Well, now that we're here," she spits, slamming the car door, "pray tell, whatever it is that you want to show me so badly?"
"Look," he orders, and points to the distant horizon. Or rather, where the horizon would be if it hadn't been eaten up by shadows, a thick line of solid black superimposing itself over the edge where land meets sky and encroaching upon both, drawing closer by the day. It is a darkness that seems alive, writhing with malice and sponging up light like a vacuum in space.
"You want life? That's the life you're so desperate to chase. Take a good long look."
"I don't see anything," she argues. "That's just the twilight."
Willful blindness. That's the secret of her existence, he realizes with a lurch. In the bridge of her rickety nose, he has just now seen the self-sufficiency of statues, the kind that he studies, unearthed from thousand-years-old dust to be placed in museums for thousands of years more. Resilient. Artifacts that care for nothing but themselves, simply because they need nothing but themselves.
"You only see what you want to see," he says quietly, mostly to himself. She glares at him anyway.
"You know what," she grinds out. "Fuck you. I've had enough of this, I'm going back."
"Wait," he yells, and flings out an arm to catch the back of her shirt, but misjudges the distance and grabs a fistful of her green hair instead. She yelps in pain, jerked backward by the sudden loss of momentum. Caught by surprise, he forgets to release his grip, is in fact, holding on even harder. She stumbles, almost losing her footing—if she falls they will both tumble down the cliff to their death.
"Let go," she whispers, eyes wide. "You're hurting me."
Almost pleadingly. But there is cause for fear. He's stronger than her, capable of brutality that, even if she has never personally witnessed, may at any moment rear to the surface. I would never hurt her on purpose, he thinks, but it doesn't sound true even in his head.
When he finally lets go, a part of him wonders if she'll throw herself at him like a feral cat and claw out his eyes with her fingernails. Instead, he catches a flash of flaring nostrils and misty eyes before she pivots away from him, shoulders shaking. She doesn't want him to see her cry.
The sun is a dying flare in the water behind them. Strands of her hair are still tangled up in his fingers, and as he stares at their dull glint in the waning light, suddenly everything about her seems ridiculous, from the pageboy cap to the long trench that she insists on wearing even in the balmy air of this seaside town, to her obsession with beating the system, a system that possibly exists only in her head.
"I hate this time of day," she says out of nowhere, voice thick and watery, but ruthless. "And sometimes, I hate you."
He thinks that was supposed to hurt him, but it only fills him with derision. He has no problem with hate: hate simplifies things.
"What a coincidence. I feel the exact same way."
As Saïx has long suspected, when Roxas finally shows his true colors, Axel is predictably upset.
"So, apparently, I mean nothing to him now. He doesn't give a shit about me, I might as well be dead to him!"
He's a petulant child, kicking at walls and stamping his feet on the floor for a toy he can't have. He huffs and puffs and revels in posturing, convinced he can blow away the world, but at the end of the day still retreats to the one supporting structure that he knows. A throwback to the early days, when he used to lounge around on Saïx's bed and sing Blue Moon off-key at the top of his lungs after a bad mission.
But, the truth is, Axel is simply heft, sacked grains, an awkward burden that ought to have been discarded long ago, and whatever little concord still exists between them is only so out of long habit. Still, the old ways never die. With each passing day, Saïx loses more and more of his former conviction in Axel's potential usefulness, yet even now, he wants nothing more than for the other Nobody to get his act together—get his act together, or just die.
"I do wonder sometimes," Axel begins thoughtfully, and all of a sudden it's like he's performed a complete one-eighty, "if Roxas is right about this whole thing. How would you get anywhere at all if you aren't willing to question the things you're told?"
"There's nothing wrong with asking questions," Saïx says, stunned. "But these are the wrong questions to ask."
"Oh yeah?" Spitting and vehement again. "Xemnas told you that? 'cause lately you've been toadying up to him quite a lot. What happened to all your wonderful plans, Saïx?"
He has become too complacent—sometimes, he forgets that his lies aren't true. "Nothing's changed, Axel."
A bitter laugh, outward rush of air that brooks no argument. "No, you're wrong about that. Everything's changed."
"It's the girl." It fills him with revulsion to ascribe even that much humanity to the obsolete vessel, but it wouldn't do to set Axel off in his agitated state. "It's her you have to focus on now. Bring back the girl, and your friend will surely follow. That's what you want, isn't it? The three musketeers, together again."
He steps forward, lays one benevolent hand on Axel's face, palming his cheek—his finest display of pantomime. Strange, how affections and machinations can be so similar.
"This has nothing to do with the Organization, Axel," Saïx says firmly, his tone full of assurance. "This is about us. I only ever want the best for you. Now and before."
Axel is by no means gullible, but Saïx knows that he, too, is susceptible to the old ways. Even this late in the day, he doesn't want to stop trusting Saïx, not just yet, and there is time enough for second chances. Crippled with doubts, the bird that so desperately flew its coop is reeled back in.
First, they strip him of his clothes. Then, they strip him of his will.
He is given a number, a black coat to wrap over his shoulders, is made to swear fealty to a mad man. His new name, he already knows. Disoriented, he grapples for a moment with liminality, but the heart-shaped moon spills its benign light over him, and his purpose is clear.
The darkness portal is difficult to control that first time, but eventually he manages it. There is only one object on his mind, one pinpoint destination, and it blocks out Xemnas's delirious words, blocks out even the heady intoxication of new promises.
The way begins, like all ways, with a road.
The village is dead, and it knows it. In the wake of their bloodless death, the dark, empty houses row the streets like hollowed-out carcasses of great animals, like an elephant's graveyard. Even the sun peeling out of the dark clouds above seems cold, heatless, exuding leftover light. On the branches, the dogwoods have withered to browned wisps, but their sickly sweet scent lingers in the resigned air, soft, rich molecules spiraling like a sort of delicious madness.
He knows this place well, remembers this village when it was in bloom, remembers the stooping house with the tallest dogwood tree, a courtyard papered with yellow petals in spring. He can probably find his way there blindfolded, but it doesn't matter, because as soon as he arrives at the gate, it becomes apparent that there is nothing waiting for him inside. A fool's errand, in the end.
It is on the crossroads leading out of town that he meets a demon.
Papered flat and brought to life again: a ghost with bones and meat. At the sound of his approach, the changeling looks up. In the poor light, its inverted eyes blink owlishly. It is holding in its hand the stump of a candle.
"Did I know you?" A pause. "I think I knew you."
He didn't expect that. What to say? What is there to say?
"Yes. Yes, you did."
"Oh." Flatly spoken, with a conspicuous lack of surprise. "Well, you'll have to excuse me, my memory's a little busted up right now. Was a lot worse when I just woke up, though, so maybe it'll come back. Lots of stuff have been coming back while I've been sitting here."
"And how long have you been sitting here?"
"How long? A couple days, maybe? Can't tell very well, now can I? No longer than a week, I bet."
"Got a minute? Take a look at what I can do."
Palm out, with the candle stump smack in the middle. Another pause, stagnant with dead air, then without warning, a minor conflagration erupts at the very tip of the tiny wick. In the dancing amber light, those eyes seem almost mercurial. Then the long fingers snap back in upon themselves again like a bear trap, and the little flame is extinguished.
"Wick's almost gone. Been practicing with it all day, see? Trying to refine my control. 'course, if I wanted to, it could all just go down like that."
A jerk of the head, indicating a charcoaled heap that was once evidently a large tree. Sharp smile, but with a preening, childlike sense of accomplishment. Almost innocent. A being caught in a liminal stage must be forcibly brought out of it one way or another, before it loses all identity altogether. The window of time for deliberation is visibly shrinking.
A seed of an idea germinates in his mind, sinking its roots in deep. He pulls off his hood, looks his companion in the eye. "My name is Saïx. What's yours?"
"Le—wait, no… No, that's not right." Confusion. A slowed tongue fumbling around a foreign word: it's obvious he has never been asked this question before.
"Axel. My name is Axel." Completely certain now, as if the earlier stumble never even occurred.
Tabula rasa. What was lost cannot be reclaimed, but what remains is alive with possibilities. He can undo wayward decisions. He can begin anew.
One plus one is two.
"Do you have somewhere to go?"
"Not particularly. You?"
"Good for you, then."
"Will you follow me?"
Axel cocks his head. "I don't see why not." He rises to his feet in a fluid movement, brushing dust from his clothes. "I'm a free agent, and you're not exactly a stranger."
A coy smile, cracking open a doorway to the past. "Well, alrighty then. Lead the way, boss."
It is uncanny, and almost disquieting. Still, there is a degree of comfort in knowing that, from here on out, he calls the shots.
What goes around comes around.
"You liar! You fucking liar! You told me everything would be okay, and look what happened! It's all a goddamn mess!"
It's always convenient to blame a person, when really it's circumstances that did the damage. "What I say and I promise are two entirely different things. As far as I can see, everything is where it should."
"And I don't factor at all into any of your calculations, that what you're saying?"
"Don't lose your mind over trifles. You will still get what you want. The Superior said…"
"Fuck what the Superior said. What about what I said? What about what you said?"
"Strange of you to bring it up now, having made a point to flagrantly dismiss my advice all this time."
"Advice, huh? That's funny, because I wouldn't call it that. No, I wouldn't. I would call it something else entirely."
Something within Saïx snaps, and when he speaks, his voice is noticeably colder, showing its edge, "Your sense of humor has always been sorely lacking."
Axel, still caught in his storm of righteous indignation, pays him no mind. "You know," he says, gesticulating wildly. "You've always told me these things about our past, all these things that I can barely remember, and that's supposed to mean we're friends or something. But I don't even know if any of that's even true—and even if it is true, all true, it wouldn't matter a damn bit. You know why?"
Saïx narrows his eyes. "Enlighten me."
"Because it's pointless! The past, whatever it was, makes no difference now, and the future hasn't happened yet. If you get all caught up in the past and the future then—then you lose sight of what's in the present, what's really important. And I…"
Here, he pauses, visibly trembling as though waging a terrible war with himself. Saïx watches this bizarre display with near-fascination; how is this even possible, in a Nobody?
"I let you get to me," Axel continues, shaking his head as though to clear himself of hesitance. "And because of that, I lost what was important to me, and what was important to me was Roxas and… and…"
"The problem with you, Axel," Saïx cuts in blithely, "is that you only see what you want to see." Where has he heard that before? "If you only take the short-term view, you have no one to blame but yourself when things don't go the way you wish."
"And what about you?" Axel retorts, eyes blazing. "What do you see outside of your dogma, Saïx? What would you even do with a heart anyway? You have no idea how to use it. A heart couldn't help you."
Still asking all the wrong questions. He never learns the lessons that he ought to learn, only the ones that have no meaning, that can't possibly matter in times like this. He has, for example, never learned what to fear. He's about to receive a crash course on the subject.
"No, Axel," Saïx intones, all venom. The moon's too bright tonight, the beast won't go to sleep. "It is you who is beyond help. And it's time you realized that."
It's almost too late for you, he doesn't add. There's no need.
And Axel, observant spy that he is, cannot possibly fail to see the unsheathed warning, the danger barely coated in semantics. He casts Saïx a brittle look, full of dismay. The lost boy looking down the abyss of broken convictions, trust placed in the wrong hands, and knowing the woodsman would not come.
"Who do you see when you look at me?"
And beneath that…
Who do you want to see?
Late night. Penitent Lea shuffling back into their apartment after the argument in the car, sheepishly releasing the death grip on her pride as she crawls onto the sofa next to him and holds out her peace offering: a box of lemon pastries. You were right. I was being an idiot. Sorry, sorry. Forgive me?
But these lapses in memory come less and less frequently, and it is easier to drag himself away from their clutches than it might once have been. Saïx turns to meet Axel's expectant gaze, to stare down those round irises that mock him with their false shade, their crowding doubts.
"What do I see when I look at you?" he hisses, in the most withering of tongues. "I see a drowning man."
"You don't have to go."
"Of course I have to go. They're my family, I've got to make sure they're alright."
From their balcony, they watch as power lines snap out of the sky and tall buildings topple over one another in the distance, changing the geometry of the skyline. The destruction has already reached the next town. Down in the streets, there is pandemonium as people rush frantically to find shelter, to raid supermarket shelves for supplies. Public transportations have stopped running. On the radio, scattered voices broadcast panic and delirium, until an hour ago, when they too were finally silenced.
She stands, he paces: for once, their roles are reversed.
"Is it because of what happened the other day?"
"No, not at all. Why would you think that? I apologized. Everything's fine."
"Let me come with you. You might need help, if something happens…"
She shakes her head, smiles thinly. "You have to stay. You need to finish your degree."
His own words thrown back in his face. Even with no malice, they lash at him nonetheless. Out of the corner of his eye, another crop of skyscrapers are swallowed up by the Darkness.
"I don't care about that." This is, perhaps, what baring one's soul feels like. "What's the point now? The university is probably already closed. Biting his lips, he adds, "You're my best friend."
An almost-confession. It flusters her for a second, but no longer than that. "Well, who's going to feed Anatolia if you're not here?"
The obese feline in question brushes up against his leg on its way to the edge of the balcony, where it eyes the horizon in vain, looking for pigeons. The birds were among the first to go.
"Anyway, I don't know what you're so worried about. Dogwood Gap is thirty miles south of here, and the Darkness is approaching from the east. If anything, it'll be safer there."
"So then why don't you want me to come with you?"
Her eyes widen, then slant away toward a nonexistent sunrise, and in that simple gesture, he already has his answer. Perhaps he has always known. Yet, somehow, he refuses to give up this little cat-and-mouse game of hope. Set against the backdrop of a dying world, a man is still a man, still understandably human even with his lover's tinny heart-issue caught between his back-teeth. If the world is crumbling to ash, where is the wrong in just admitting one's rank longing? Here, in the last moments of the heart, spinning to a stop as it stutters: I want, I want.
Don't go. Stay here. Stay with me.
Instead, he says: "The sun doesn't come out anymore. Without any light, how will you find your way back?"
He might be going mad, he can't be sure. But he remembers that she has always been his accomplice in madness, because she opens her heavy duffel bag (already slung around her shoulder) and pulls out two small objects. Little candles, candycane-striped, that he recognizes as leftovers from Christmas.
"By candlelight. Good for threescore miles and ten, right? One for you, and one for me."
He nods dumbly as she presses the candle into his hand, carefully folding his fingers around the hard wax. Her palm finds his shoulder, clamping down tight, thin wrist propped by the side of his neck. Warm. They stand together, face to face, under a sky threatening to collapse.
"Listen. I'll come back. No, really, I'll come back once I've seen to it that my parents are okay—or maybe I'll bring them back with me."
(Maybe we can all run away together. Maybe it's not too late.)
Dazedly, he follows her back into the living room, Anatolia traipsing after them and making a beeline for the food dish. She picks up a glass of water left on the table and drains it in one draught. Her arms are around him then, sudden and desperate with the urgency of parting, of decay, her collarbones knocking sharply into his. She smells like summer grass. Cinnamon and sawdust, hot and dry all over.
"Take care," she breathes into his neck. "And look to the south."
And just like that, her sunlit warmth is just an echo next to his body, already melting from the room.
Left alone, he picks up the empty glass on the table and presses his lips to its cool rim, his mouth where hers was just a minute ago. Does that count as a first kiss? Does it count as the last?
In retrospect, it should have been obvious that Axel should never have been the one sent to retrieve XIII. It is partly his fault, Saïx deduces, for sparing the rod one too many times. He should have immediately divulged his knowledge of the changing allegiances in the other Nobody, should have perhaps obliterated him on the spot. Instead, his failure to act has cost the Organization precious time and resources. The Superior is displeased. This mistake must not be repeated.
Running rogue, causing so much trouble, then having the audacity to waltz back into their fold, telling such obvious lies. Behaviors like that cannot be tolerated, much less indulged.
So here the road comes to an end, in the vast white room with the cage.
"I've been waiting for you, Axel."
Axel's control over his fire, Saïx will admit, has improved immensely since that first day, but his judgment surely has not, because he has the gall to look surprised when the tongues of flame flick uselessly at Saïx, failing to register damage. The first nascent traces of terror are building behind his green eyes—he is starting to realize, much belatedly, that he cannot win. Still the ring of fire rages on, surrounding them as they stare each other down in this final confrontation.
But something else is at work here, a strange sensation scritch-scritch-scratching at the back of Saïx's mind, begging to be let in, pleading to be remembered. An image that, once upon a time, jovially requested to be catalogued, and his is an excellent memory.
A slim silhouette framed in the white glare of a desert, supple-limbed and lanky-bodied, crowned with loose tendrils of mermaid hair. Lea. Lea in the sunlight with rubies.
But he has long forgotten how to miss the sun, and the artificial light of the castle houses no mawkish illusion. Sharply, as sharply as the dawn breaks on a bleak winter morning, the sun-seared memory flickers and vanishes. The changeling opens its venom-lined eyes and snarls at him from within the desecrated cradle, wailing its piteous banshee cry and leaping for the moment when it will shimmy up the chimney and flee to its true home. This is his world, the word as will and representation, and there's no use perpetuating this bad faith any longer. A child, elfin or feral, is still a child, and he knows now what must be done. With iron and resolution, this child he must destroy.
This is the last lesson; appropriately, a lesson in ending.
The air around them crackles with fire and electricity. He can see Axel clutching his chakrams, knuckles knotted and painfully white, as white as the skin of his blood-drained face. His eyes are enormous, dilated by the fear he has always stubbornly refused to acknowledge as it rises at last to consume him whole. Saïx is disgusted with himself to find that looking at those frightened eyes—still green, still geometrical and treacherous—somehow threatens to undo his resolve.
But where his cruelty fails there is refuge in savagery, and even without the aid of the moon, he can feel the shifting of bones avalanching within his body, and it goes like this: vertebrae after popping vertebrae, the lengthening and arching of the spine pointing toward an inevitable conclusion. Boiling blood breaking into a run the flesh can't keep up with, canines remolding into a shape more suitable for biting out throats and tearing raw meat from shoulders. Readying themselves for the most intimate homicide.
Over the screams of the human girl, he raises his weapon and charges.
My, my, what big eyes you have.
The lights flicker out one by one as the town beds down nervously for sleep, wary of the danger that lurks beyond the rapidly dissolving borderlines.
In this fear-swept city, one man alone is immune to the plague of terror. He lies in bed, snap-tangled in the sheets, eyes wide open and listening to Anatolia's pitiful meowing outside the door. His mind spins like a wheel. On the windowsill above his bed, a single candle burns, the last light in the city. A bloody orange ember that he can only hope mirrors another some thirty miles away.
Tomorrow, he will take the car and drive those thirty long miles to a village in the south that he has seen bursting with yellow flowers. He will find the house with the tallest tree, find the only face he knows in this dying world and crawl to her on hands and knees and plead his case.
It will go something like this:
Come back with me, and we will fall together into bed. I will savage you with the cries of headhunters in my ears, my hungry wolf-mouth tearing at your white throat. Your still-pulsing heart will be my gift to you, thrust at your staring face in my bloody fist. Passion is revenge, love is a cannibal game, and this is how we make it. It won't be nice but we're not nice people. The taste of your flesh thick on my breath, I will swallow gallons and gallons of your blood until it makes me sick and you poison me from inside out.
Or perhaps it will go like this:
Come back with me, and we will fall together into bed. I will relearn the words sewn in the angle of your wrists, we will go into the empty streets and eat pastries left behind on bakery shelves, and I will listen to your bad music while you chase the cat around the room. We will kiss, morning, evening, night, where we want and whenever we want. It probably won't last, no, not now the world's ending, but we'll lie together and fade together and I promise you'll love it, every minute of it, right up to the very end.
But that night, the last light goes out in the city, and he'll never know for sure.
Axel doesn't die under Saïx's hand. Instead, he dies several hours later, of his own doing. Perhaps it is his way of asserting that he has managed, once again, to get the last word.
Saïx wonders if whatever it is he was fighting for was worth it in the end.
These thoughts are nowhere he knows anymore. The future he predicted is now the past—and different. Today, he has never felt more powerful. Today, he has never felt more alone.
What would you even do with a heart?
It doesn't matter. Here in The World That Never Was, the choking wind still blows with a single-minded intensity that erases all doubts, erases the phantom voices of old lives. Axel plunges below him now into black dirt even as he rises upward, carried higher and higher on the cold, dead wind, moon-drunk and soundlessly floating toward Kingdom Hearts—toward the only truth he's ever acknowledged.
Two minus one is one, but one heart is better than none.
When you find the butcher knife under my pillow
When you're tasting the iron of your own blood in a goodbye kiss
A chunk missing from your heart that matches the pound of flesh in my middle
When the impression of my teeth haunts the hollows of your collarbones
You will know that I love you
Notes: Cave lupum means 'Beware the wolf'. Cave canem means 'Beware the dog'. My OOC Geiger counter is completely broken, and I'm so, so sorry. Please still love me.