Disclaimer: They aren't mine.

A/N: The time has come. Last chapter, kids. Lengthy notes and emo sob story at the end of the chapter. (Closing credits: "Your Hand in Mine" by Explosions in the Sky, link is up on my profile.)

If you made it this far, you deserve a fucking medal. Enjoy; you earned it.

Chapter 18: Fireworks

At five years old there is nothing you can't do. Doctor, astronaut, fireman, lawyer, football player, president. The child knows no bounds, has no fears, grasps indifferently at everything, only seeking. Seeking as an end in itself; the desire to know, to be. As life shapes and scolds, so the seeking congeals into goals, dreams, a definitive self you see yourself becoming. Frost's road not taken, Borges' forked path, a vision of yourself—not just what you do, but who you are. For Roxas, the self he'd imagined himself being at five, the brain surgeon defense attorney firefighter, faded away by the time he reached thirteen. His childhood hopes and dreams hanging by the neck, a noose. By the time he was sixteen, there was only an empty fog where his future was supposed to be, borrowed time and held, fearful breath his only company besides Sora as he blew out sixteen candles. What to do, where to go? Who to be when you don't feel safe in your own skin, when your hands reject your heart, your blood a prison? There was just the fog, pushing at his limbs as he forced through, un-breathing, and sought his self in the emptiness. But how far can you go into the night without the promise of dawn?

The build toward Christmas break accumulated in his head until it felt swollen, bubbled tension like strings suspended up out of him into the firmament. Roxas, a fearful marionette, as he took his midterms and plotted his gifts. For Zexion there would be an electric grill—"Grilled cheese. The terrible, terrible things I would do for a grilled cheese sandwich right now."—though mostly everyone else he knew was getting a DVD. This year promised to be fairly bleak, Roxas' expanded circle of friends reaping the good fortune of his, for lack of a better world, cheerful mood via his woefully dry bank account. Who would have guessed Axel's tongue in his mouth would be such a thorough remedy, Roxas traipsing around campus to his classes with what could only be described as an actual smile on his mouth. He couldn't help it. Axel was…

"Daydreaming again? I think I'm getting you an anchor for Christmas; it'll keep your head out of the clouds." Axel, dropping his backpack off at the foot of his bed and angling his head up toward Roxas' lofted bunk for a kiss. No matter how slight the sentiment, Axel's affection still made his breath catch. Kiss number one hundred and twenty-four. One hundred and twenty-five, this one with tongue, Roxas' grin burning the sides of his cheeks.

"I'm just thinking about all the coal I'm shipping to San Francisco for you. What's the address again?" Apparently the Spence family reunion took place every year on Christmas, this year Axel's eccentric uncle hosting the event in a house so narrow that Roxas couldn't believe anyone actually lived in it.

"Haven't you ever been to San Francisco? All the houses look like this." Roxas had craned over Axel's shoulder, baffled at the delicious architecture as Axel explained his holiday plans. Unable to suppress a slight twinge of jealousy—after all, Roxas had only his estranged friends and his empty house to look forward to—he'd clicked on a picture of candy-colored condos on steeply angled streets.

"Wasn't there an earthquake here?" God, I want to go. Invite me.

"There's earthquakes everywhere." Axel quickly closed the browser, attempting to derail Roxas' line of thought.

"What if there's an earthquake?" Invite me.

"Well, then I guess I'll be dead," Axel had said, flicking his ear. Roxas promptly covered Axel's face in kisses, stopping only after they'd somehow gone from mostly vertical to entirely horizontal, breathing heavily. It was a familiar halt, dick hard and throbbing in his jeans, Axel trembling under his hands. Despite appearing and behaving like an actual couple, they had yet to get busy between the sheets. Axel never brought the subject up, and Roxas never asked. He didn't mind not having sex, of course. They'd already been not having sex for the entire time they'd known each other. Not like Roxas cared or thought about it obsessively every couple of hours throughout the day and especially while he brushed his teeth. Not at all. As long as his unending need was supplemented by long, slow kisses and dry humping, Roxas was all set. Didn't mind much, anyway. It had been two weeks since Axel broke the news, abruptly exploding any and all thoughts Roxas had been entertaining of Christmas blowjobs and sleepy midnight make out sessions. And sex, goddammit, Roxas was completely aware of how saccharine Christmas sex would be for their first time together, but clichéd sapfest or not, it didn't stop Roxas from thinking about Axel fucking him over a mound of presents.

"It's only for the week. We'll hang when I get back in the area, and you can give me my truckload of coal then." Kiss one hundred and twenty-six, this one stirring Roxas' guts.

"You only think I'm kidding," Roxas said, watching Axel crack a history text in preparation for his last midterm. "I fully expect the best barbeque ever." That, or sex. Because it had been good. Fuck, it had been great since Vegas, their return to Kingdom an easy, smooth progression where they walked to class together, ate together, holed up in Axel's bed and watched documentaries on the seven wonders of the ancient world together, Axel's heartbeat steady against Roxas' back. Of course, there was the troubling worry that they didn't have a label, that there had not once been a discussion of futures that progressed beyond the next couple weeks. It should've been impossible, should've been an excuse to stir the storm barely at bay in Roxas' chest, but for some reason it was enough. Just Axel, just having him like this, was enough. One week nicotine-free, and Roxas couldn't remember the last time he had a drink. Things appeared to be on the up and up, a promised dawn on the horizon.

Which was why Roxas was bracing himself for impact.

They had a terrible track record. A year and three months, and every time Roxas came back from being at home, his world had rent itself anew. Roxas would not be fooled by his silent phone and empty inbox. He knew the hellish whirlwind that awaited him a hundred and fifty miles south, knew he'd be charging into the front lines. It wouldn't be so hard if…

Axel's hands on the jut of his hips, keeping him in place as Roxas figured out new ways to make Axel laugh into his mouth, tongue running along ridges, wet and warm as they stood on the curb outside the upperclassmen dorms, illuminated by fluorescence and moonlight.

"Gunna be okay?" Axel murmured into his mouth, dipping a hand under his shirt and smoothing up the small of his back. Roxas hummed against Axel's lips, shivered as the touch spread over his skin. "That mean yes?"

"Just go before I lock myself in your trunk."

"Kidnapper chic," Axel smirked, nipping lightly at Roxas' jaw. "I can get down with that."

Approaching and approaching, the steady march of the inevitable, and it was finally there. For whatever irrational reason, Roxas felt like he would never see Axel again, the fear thundering up his legs, into his arms and fingers where he clutched at Axel's jacket, inhaling and inhaling. Damp happiness, tired with joy, and goddamn he didn't want Axel to go. Such a terrible, terrible track record.

"Hey," Axel said, kissing under his eyes. "It'll be different this time." Kiss one hundred and forty-nine, this one sweet, for courage. "I want to hear you say it."

Axel, blazing in his arms. "It'll be different this time." A serious nod, then Axel turned and hopped into his truck, motoring off. Five minutes later, Roxas restarted his heart and climbed into his idling car, crossing his fingers before letting his memory lead him home.

The unwinding of streets, traversed so often he swore he could navigate the roads in his sleep, and thank God for that, Roxas listing toward the center divider before righting himself, shaking his head a couple times to get the sleep off. They'd stood in the center of their dorm for an eternity, and Roxas never knew how endlessly you could savor another person, just Axel's breath a wonder all its own. Of course, a tired, treacherous drive home was his consequence, stereo increasing in volume as he felt his limbs still, dwindling down to just his thumb on the steering wheel. When he finally took the off ramp toward his sleepy seaside town, Roxas thought he might already be dreaming, might have already barreled off the road or rear-ended a semi, now blissfully unaware of his own demise. The streets looked fake, awash with mist and the glitter of stoplights and lampposts.

Despite being tired enough to be in the midst of a REM cycle, Roxas sat in his car, head against his seat, sinking into the slight incline of his driveway. In here, a bubble of unreality. Out there, everything he'd been ignoring for the last two months. Without the distractions of class, without Axel in his face every second, there was nothing to disguise the fact that he no longer had a best friend. When someone tells you as often as you can stand to hear it that you're worthwhile, special, beautiful—when someone fills you to the brim with adjectives, it's easy to stuff the gaping hole in your chest with sunshine and daisies, thick wads of cotton candy, easy to build a bridge one supportive word at a time. But without that steady stream of positivity, the chasm comes screaming back; the loss of Sora a stinging taunt that Roxas felt like an itch in his chest—inside his ribcage, next to his heart.

Don't be weak. You're toxic for each other. You know it; everyone knows it. But what you know weighed against how you feel, that's rarely the same thing, his heart issuing a painful throb as Roxas drove past the route to Sora's house. Shouldering through his front door, mother passed out on the sofa with a half-empty glass of wine on the table in front of her, Roxas crept up the stairs, avoiding the ones that creaked. He didn't know when it happened, if it was worn away by time, but home had stopped feeling like home. His dorm room didn't feel like home, but neither did his house, his own bed a foreign entity against his back… one that crinkled lightly as he shifted. Frowning, Roxas reached behind himself and found a piece of paper. Shit. A piece of paper from Sora. Roxas debated storming downstairs, rousing his mother with a shout. How dare she allow the enemy into his fucking bedroom? Firing off a quick text to Axel about making it home alive, Roxas flicked on the lights and scanned the note quickly.

We need to talk. — Sora

And that was it, one line after two months of dead air. Shit. Roxas would've liked to ball the paper up and light it on fire, would've liked to fold it up and sail it out his window like he didn't give a fuck. But I do give a fuck. I will always give a fuck. How could he not? Sora, who he knew better than he knew himself. Sora, who would stopper the sands of time if Roxas asked. Reaching for his phone, Roxas fired off a single character to a number he wouldn't have been able to forget even if he lived a thousand years. The response was nearly instantaneous, as if Sora had known, had his phone already in his hand:

I'll be there in 5.

Sighing, heartbeat strangely audible in the stillness of his room, Roxas sat on the edge of his bed and waited.

It always happened like this, no matter how hard Roxas raged against it. Once, back in high school, Roxas had to miss one of Sora's birthday parties, his mom strong-arming him into a tagalong trip to Miami with her flavor of the week. Sora had been furious enough to get into a screaming match with Roxas at school, shouting about being betrayed, about Roxas not giving a damn, and no wonder Roxas didn't have any other friends. Roxas swore he'd never talk to the clown-shoed freak again, wished him a "nice life, while it lasts," a final barb at a condition neither one of them could help. When he got back, tanned golden, limbs easy from sunshine and quietude, neither Roxas nor Sora could keep from smiling, pulling each other into a hug so intense Roxas felt the air go out of his lungs. It was no different now, Sora pulling up on a bike, throwing it down on Roxas' lawn, beaming. Roxas, too, smiling so hard he thought his cheeks might stick like that. Happy, so happy to be forgiven, to forgive.

"You asshole, I'm going to fucking kill you," Sora said, launching himself into Roxas' open arms. That's the glory of real friendship, of course: no sin unpardoned, no grudge held, no back turned. There was very, very little Sora could do, short of murdering his mom and his friends, that would keep Roxas from him. He knew that before the fight, and he knew it again now.

Sora's hair like chocolate cake in his face, some ridiculous shampoo his mother insisted on buying, and Roxas was choking out his apologies into Sora's neck. "I'm so sorry. I can't tell you how sorry, how fucking sorry—"

Sora, quaking lightly in his arms, shook his head. "Nothing to apologize for. I fucked up, you fucked up, we fucked up." For anyone else, even for Riku, Roxas would've been suspicious of the speed with which all was forgiven. But with Sora, it was different. Why it was, or how, Roxas didn't know, the complexities of their relationship mystifying to him, as if they'd been made for this express purpose, put on earth to be the end of each other's sentences. There was no one in existence that came close to occupying the same space Sora took up in his head, his heart.

"So," Sora said, pulling away long after Roxas' arms had begun to tire from the fierce hold he had on the other boy. "Tell me everything."

So Roxas did, starting from the first silhouette against the bonfire, to underage barroom banter, to midnight meth habits, to coming clean between sheets and barely-there whispers of lips. "He is the most beautiful, broken person I've ever known," Roxas said, the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes. "And it's fucking scary, man. I know you're not supposed to lose yourself to another person, but Axel—he is what I set my fucking clocks to, Sora." Fighting off the tremor in his voice, Roxas whispered, "I can't believe he likes me. I can't believe he fucking likes me."

"Of course he does," Sora said, knocking his shoulder into Roxas'. They sat on his bed, eating cold soup out of cans. The same bizarre eating habits they'd had when they were thirteen now a clean comfort, the ease of familiarity, the coppery tang of processed tomato sauce on their tongues. "You're awesome; what's not to like?" Sora tapped Roxas' nose with his spoon, stole a spoonful of soup out of Roxas' can.

"Uh, my face," Roxas said, stealing some from Sora's.

"Listen," Sora said, setting the cans aside. "It's scary; I know it is. You think I don't wonder about Riku sometimes? After he," Sora's eyes going out the window, soft and sad, "told me about you two, my whole heart felt shredded. But look. Here we are. When you love someone, you have to believe in them, trust them, to take care of that love." Sora's hand went to Roxas' neck, tracing a circle there, fingertips cold from the night. "And yeah, loving someone without trusting them is scary as hell. That shit'll never work." Sora ruffled Roxas' hair quickly, grinning. "So trust him. And if he hurts you, I'll kill him." Sora's fingers in his hair were playful. Familiar, yes, and warm, but just playful. The lust of them, the tension and the pressure, had been written out, fizzled into smoke and burned away with rage and consequent time. The difference between love and sex, between love and Love, the way an entire room brightened when Sora walked in and the way the entire world brightened when Axel did. Roxas knew now, knew without a doubt.

"I didn't get you anything," Roxas admitted. Until an hour ago, he was sure Sora would never speak to him again. How easily we forget. His arm up against Sora's, comfortable in a way that he'd never had with anyone else, sharing an armrest with someone in a class for an entire year and still feeling an awkward shock when his bare skin brushed theirs. Pressed tight in the backseat of a car with Zexion, his roommate for two years, and Roxas felt weird if their legs touched, squeezing himself toward the door, trying to compress his body into nothingness. But no part of his body felt estranged from Sora. Not even my dick, he thought, smiling wryly as Sora peeled the sheets back from his bed.

"Well, we'll call it even and do something together to make up for our horribleness," Sora said, diving into the bed.

Sliding between the sheets, Roxas' arms went around Sora, felt a mirrored heartbeat against his own. "I missed your horribleness."

Sora murmured sleepily against his shoulder, hand resting against Roxas' throat. This is too easy, Roxas thought, staring up at the ceiling. Where's the catch? Axel, Sora, everything falling into place. Cool dread coiled up inside him, spilling along the outside of his spine. It was only a matter of time, wasn't it? It was always only a matter of time. Negative. Roxas frowned, hand going into Sora's hair, twisting strands between his fingers. So negative all the time, waiting for the worst. Do you want something bad to happen?

"No," Roxas whispered quietly, Sora shifting slightly at the sound. Of course he didn't want the universe to take a dump on him, but wanting, hoping, wishing—what had these ever gotten Roxas? Axel, his heart whispered. Not to be done in, his head thundered, Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. You know how much of a fuck up you are. Him, too. You're all fuck ups. What makes you think you deserve this? Why do you deserve anything? Swallowing the sour taste of panic, Roxas held tight to Sora and waited for sleep.

The idea was to drive around, to go cruising, check out some Christmas lights. It had been their holiday pastime in high school, having somewhat fallen by the wayside in the last couple of years under the more favorable route of holiday cheer: getting obliterated. Roxas pulled up in front of Riku's house only slightly nervous. He hadn't seen the other boy yet, home now for two days, but Sora assured him everything was cool. They'd hop in Riku's Benz, roll the windows down, and hunt the lights. It was supposed to be uncomplicated, easy. But there was nothing uncomplicated or easy about Riku's help shutting the front door in Roxas' face, shaking her head in alarm when she saw who'd rung the doorbell.

"Riku!" Roxas called up at the balcony, stopped short of hurling rocks. "Riku, what the fuck!"

Riku emerged looking entirely unruffled, skin ethereal in the fading sunlight. "What the fuck do you want, traitor?"

Roxas didn't know what he'd been expecting. Didn't know if, now that his world started and ended with Axel, Riku would suddenly have all the allure of a desiccated cactus. This, unfortunately, was not the case. Riku was still glorious; sharply sexy, the lines of him like minute pricks of pins up and down Roxas' arms. "Don't be dramatic," he called up, frowning. Hadn't Sora cleared it with him?

"I don't spend my time in the company of sell outs," Riku said, turning away.

"I didn't sell you out, Riku," Roxas said, feeling the rise of indignation in his chest, demanding he defend himself. No. I won't play the game his way. "I have a life. No one can fault me for that."

"Oh, is that what they're calling it these days? Telling your best friends to go fuck themselves, leaving one of them so fucking hurt that he locked himself in his boyfriend's pantry for three days and ate his way through most of it?" Riku's dislike of him, his actions, his entire continued existence was plain on his elegant, precise features.

Quiet, Roxas reached for his phone. "He didn't tell me that."

"Yeah, well, you'd be the fucking person he learned it from, wouldn't you? Or did you think he wouldn't know about your pill cache? Did you think he wouldn't notice it was empty, that you were missing for two days?" Roxas saw Riku's hatred crack. "We aren't stupid, Roxas. We know what you fucking tried."

"Riku," Sora said, materializing beside Roxas and brushing up against him, a familiar greeting. "Don't be a prick."

"Nah, man. I'm not being a prick. Being a prick is trying to kill yourself and telling your friends jack shit. Being a prick is surviving an overdose and acting like it never happened." Directing his increasingly loud soliloquizing toward Roxas, Riku shouted, "You think we wouldn't care? Nah, dude. I'll fucking show you what not caring looks like."

"RIKU," Sora said, voice cutting through Riku's rage. "Stop being a fucking dick, get in the fucking car, and let's go see some lights."

It was a dynamic Roxas had never seen before, wondered if it was something that had happened in the last two months. Riku's fury didn't wilt under Sora's determination, but he did strut out his front door like an arrogant prince, keys in hand. They drove in silence as they took roads Roxas knew by heart, windows down, cold December air stinging his cheeks as he slit his eyes against the whip of freeway wind. Riku had thrown on something loud and fast, Sora turning it down to hand something over to Roxas sitting in the backseat.

"Greens," Sora said, pressing the button to roll up the windows with one hand, the other holding a packed pipe and lighter out to Roxas. This, too, had been part of it, high as kites and watching elaborate Christmas decorations sail by, house curtains and blinds thrown wide to reveal ornate Christmas trees, triangular shadows decked with miniature fires of color as they drove past. In a way, that nostalgia called out to Roxas, made a part of him ache with memories.

Chest heavy, Roxas shook his head. "I quit."

The stereo was quickly off, Riku's eyes on him in the rearview mirror. "You what?"

"Quit. I'm off everything." Roxas didn't mean for it to sound defiant, but it came out that way, sounded like a challenge in his own ears. They pulled to a stop, having wound their way up to the Crest, the city and the sea clamoring below them.

"Well aren't you a fucking poster boy for purity," Riku said, turning the ignition off and twisting in his seat to face Roxas. "What about these?" he asked, pulling out a pack of Parliaments. "You quit these horrible life-ruiners, too?"

Roxas stared at the cigarette Riku held in front of his face, eyes dangerous. Sora watched, quiet and curious. Call your dog off, fuck. Deciding against mouthing off, determined not to make an issue of it, Roxas merely opened his mouth and leaned toward the filter. Riku flicked a lighter and Roxas inhaled. There goes one week sobriety. "Satisfied?" Roxas asked, exhaling a cloud of smoke in Riku's face. He'd meant it as a taunt, but Riku studied him appraisingly, eyes drifting down Roxas' hoodie-clad body.

"You fucking that asshole yet?" Riku asked, nonchalant.

"Riku," Sora warned, pushing his pipe into the boy's chest.

"No," Roxas admitted. "It hasn't come up."

Riku smirked around a hit of the pipe, shotgunned the smoke into Sora's open mouth. "Oh, it hasn't come up?"

"That's not what I—" Roxas began, warm flush washing over his face.

"They're waiting for the right time," Sora said, offering the pipe to Roxas again. Roxas shook his head resolutely. "'Kairos,' or something. I learned that." Smiling sheepishly, exhaling smoke out the open window, Sora wrinkled his nose in Roxas' direction. "I didn't want to tell you so you wouldn't laugh. I've been taking classes at the city college."

"We've been taking classes," Riku said, fussing with a spire of Sora's hair. "And 'kairos,' since I know your punkass wants to know, is 'the opportune moment.'"

"For example," Sora said, raising a hand as if to issue a decree. "We have reached a state of kairos in which I believe cheeseburgers are necessary."

Too pleased to speak properly, Roxas merely nodded. Sora in school. Sora doing something with his life. Roxas' heart leapt in his chest as he leaned forward and squeezed Sora's shoulder, grinning so hard his mouth hurt. Pretty standard, lately. Guess I'm making a habit of it. Riku's eyes met his in the rearview mirror as he started the car.

"Yeah," Riku said quietly. "I'm proud of us, too."

Nerves dulled from a slight contact high, stomach burbling happily with the cheeseburger Roxas scarfed down amidst a slight war of flying fries between Riku and Sora—"Sora, you got ketchup in my hair; I'm going to fucking kill you."—and Roxas was pretty sure even his weird, not-home feeling bed sounded like the best idea ever, Riku rolling down his street after they'd decided he'd pick Roxas up to get his car in the morning, Sora snoring away in the passenger seat. They hadn't left the house until 10 p.m., hitting at least five cities in their aimless driving, and, just like they had when they were all seniors in high school, they'd planned on dropping themselves into bed at 4 a.m., unofficial bedtime for teenage fuck ups with class in four hours the world over. Except, Riku uttering a slight, "fuck," under his breath, two houses away from Roxas' house, that didn't quite fit into the memory.

"What?" Roxas asked, lifting his head from the seat like hauling concrete slabs.

"You got company, man," Riku said quietly, rolling to a standstill at his driveway. Roxas' heart stopped dead in his chest. That was…

"Axel," he said, nearly ripping the door off its hinges in his haste to get outside. Roxas would know that green truck anywhere, would sometimes dream about driving back a freshly-fucked, wrecked Axel back to the dorms. The sight of it here, at his house, threatened to tear a seam in the fabric of reality. Oh god, please. God, please, oh, god, please. And there, sitting behind the wheel, was Axel, staring at his cellphone. Shit, Roxas thought, pulling out his silenced phone, seeing he had no less than fifty-eight missed calls from Axel. When Roxas tapped on the window, the pad of Riku's shoes as he walked up behind him, Axel turned, expression blank, lost.

Axel stared, uncomprehending for a moment, before he unlocked his door and slid out, poured himself into Roxas' arms. He stood upright, but Roxas could feel him sagging against him. The boy's entire body felt weary, muscles soft, bones brittle. "Riku," Axel said quietly, nodding his chin at the other boy. His fingers clung to the back of Roxas' shirt, gripping the cotton like he was slipping away.

"Hey," Riku said quietly, meeting Roxas' eyes. What's wrong with him? his eyes asked. Roxas shook his head. "Alright, well. I'm taking off." Making a quick addendum to their plans, Riku added, "We'll drop your car off in the afternoon."

"Thanks, man," Roxas said, leading Axel to the front door. As soon as they were in his living room, Roxas pushed Axel down on the couch, the redhead giving in, unresponsive.

"Hey," he said, heart drumming frantically in his chest. Something was wrong, something was very wrong.

"I called," Axel said, two soft words, before he started shaking visibly. Roxas crawled into his lap and pulled Axel close. "I called and called and called the entire way down here. I was—we'd just gotten to the place, I was hanging my mom's coat up. And he was there."

Oh my god. Not… "Who?" Roxas squeezed Axel into his chest, felt the slow, weak thudding of Axel's heart battering against his ribcage.

"My dad," Axel said, hand going into Roxas' hair. "I didn't stick around long. I was there maybe an hour." Axel spoke as if he were asleep, voice stripped of inflection, of life. "He treated me like a stranger."

"An hour?" Roxas asked, shuddering. "I don't know how you made it that long. I would've walked out as soon as I saw him."

"He's my dad," Axel said quietly.

"He's a fucking monster," Roxas said, holding tight.

Despite being several inches taller, Axel was thin and lean, fit easily into a pair of Roxas' pants that he wore to sleep. It looked like he was getting ready for a flood in the middle of the night, something Roxas decided against mentioning. Maybe tomorrow, after Axel rejoined the living. For the night, though, Roxas bent the silence around them, fingers dancing idly against Axel's chest long after the sun came up, the haunted look fading from Axel's eyes as daylight warmed Roxas' room, caught in his hair. When Roxas began to drift off to sleep after a particularly difficult round of thumb war, Axel brushed a kiss against his mouth, then again at his temple. One fifty and one fifty-one, both full of awe. "Thank you," Axel whispered, a small prayer, before sleep claimed them.

As Roxas was witness to time and time again at school, Axel really was a remarkable student, listening carefully as Roxas explained this significant spot, that important landmark. Lot K, where Riku taught him to drive stick, where he and Sora smoked and worried about getting cancer. Sunshine Drive, where he and Sora used to pretend they could fly, suicidal and hopping at the overhang of the city like they could dip their hands in and take home the glittering buildings and hazy skyline. The country club, where they would drink until they were sick, where a dense fog stranded them for hours in the middle of the night. And the Crest, reverting forever back to that one fateful speck on the face of a mountain, a return of the repressed, the place Roxas had jumped the tracks, tempted fate by racing trains with nothing more than his fists, his lips desperate.

"I can't believe you lost your virginity in the dirt," Axel mumbled against his neck. Secretly Roxas had always wanted this, to drive up to the Crest like all the other teenagers did, necking in a car after prom. The Angeles Institute didn't have a prom. No sports teams, no cheerleaders, no homecoming games, no school dances. There was a lot of this—fumbling fingers and inebriated hormones—Roxas had missed. The giddy high, the pinwheeling, dizzying sensation of falling, falling, falling.

"Better than behind the bleachers," Roxas recalled, Axel giving it to a girl when he was in the 8th grade. "What was her name again? Cherry? Lily?" Roxas shifted a hand to the front of Axel's pants, rubbing lightly.

Axel moaned into his mouth, easily the most exciting thing Roxas had ever heard. "I don't—nn, fuck—I don't remember."

Roxas laughed lightly, nipping at Axel's jaw. Christmas Eve, and Sora agreed it was the opportune moment to break their annual tradition of opening presents.

"Spend it with him," Sora had insisted, pillaging a box of chocolate. "Riku's dad's in Singapore this year, so I finally get to spend it with him." Sora promised there would be a substance-free marathon of Guitar Hero at Riku's house, maybe a celebratory fuck or two. "He got us tickets to a magic show on Christmas," Sora laughed, eyes on Riku tearing his way through a guitar solo on expert. "Just promise me one thing," Sora said sternly, mouth set. "USE PROTECTION." Roxas, all smiles, shoved him before taking off to pick up Axel for their tour of the city. He'd found him nestled in his bed, reading a book on pyramids Roxas didn't know he owned.

"Anything special you want to do?" Roxas murmured, wanting nothing more than skin on skin, his entire body floating, electric.

Axel grinned, unlocked his door. "Sure. Let's take a walk."

Picking their way down the mountainside proved only slightly treacherous in the moonlight, Roxas directing them toward a flat outcropping of rocks that overlooked a sheer drop off into a valley, Axel's hand at the small of his back, light chatter. His gift to Axel was taped securely into the inside of his hoodie, frequent touches to make sure it remained intact as they slid and stepped over the hazardous loose earth.

"So," Axel said, tucking his hands into the back pockets of Roxas' jeans, tugging the boy up against him. "I had a rough time thinking up what to get you." A kiss, slow and dizzying. Roxas had lost count, had given up keeping track of Axel's adoration. He didn't need to remind himself anymore, didn't need the proof. "But, after talking it over with a couple of your favorite people in the world—"

"A.K.A Zexion and Demyx, who both have huge mouths," Roxas added, grinning.

"Yes, A.K.A Zexion and Demyx, who I will shortly be murdering for saying anything to you," Axel said, laughing. "After talking to them, I decided that the one thing I could get for the boy who has everything is this." Axel pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to Roxas.

A small rectangle, shining faintly in the moonlight. He got you a piece of paper. "A… business card?"

Taking out his cellphone, Axel tipped Roxas' chin up, placed a kiss on his mouth, and flipped his phone open, illuminating the card. "There's a recording studio by school. I got you a demo package, on-call studio musicians, soundboard, mixers, the whole deal." Roxas went very quiet, felt his breath catch. "Demyx already agreed to do the guitars, said he could call up this guy he used to room with. Said you knew him." Roxas found that he'd forgotten every word he'd ever learned. "I figured it would be nice to have, easy to burn copies of if you ever wanted to play a show." A kiss on his forehead, Axel stroking down his shoulder blades. "And you should. You have a gift, Rox. A real gift."

Not trusting himself to speak, Roxas nodded, pulled Axel down for a kiss wet with mist and desperate, happy tears. Reaching inside his hoodie, Roxas pulled out Axel's gift with shaking hands. "Merry Christmas, Axel." Taking Axel's phone from his hand, Roxas flipped it open to illuminate the two tickets that had just come in the mail earlier that day. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, three thousand miles away, in city they'd both never been in. Axel was frozen in his arms, un-breathing.

"Roxas," Axel whispered. "I can't—"

"Don't get too excited," Roxas said, shaking his head. "I couldn't afford the airfare, so these are just tickets to get in." The tickets trembled in Axel's hand, the other hand at his mouth, pressing there in what Roxas hoped was shocked pleasure. "I know you like history, and they have a lot of good history… stuff," Roxas mumbled, stumbling over his words. "And more than anything, more than the actual tickets, my gift to you is… is like a promise," Roxas said, crying with abandon now. There was no use holding it back; why should he? This meant very, very much to him. It wasn't easy to let himself go, to put his whole heart in Axel's hands. "I promise to be there, whenever you decide you want to go to New York, I promise to be there. With you. I promise to go anywhere with you."

Axel held him as he cried, whispered a quiet, simple litany over the night wind. "I love you. I love you, Roxas. I love you."

"You don't think I'm stupid?" Roxas asked, his voice hysterical. "I know it seems like a lot to give you, but I would give you the whole world if I could." His throat hurt, tense and struggling, unwilling to obey him. "I know I'm cursed, and I know we might not ever make it there, but I thought—"

"Stop that," Axel said, putting his hand to Roxas' mouth. "You don't mean that."

"But I do. I know this is too good to be true. Nothing this good ever happens to me, Axel. And so," Roxas cried, Axel's jacket gripped tight under his fists, "and so I want you to know now, before something happens, that I love you so much, so so much, no matter what happens."

"Nothing's going to happen," Axel whispered at his temple, fingers smoothing down his hair, lingering at his neck. "You're not cursed. We have some bad days, babe, I know that. But you're it for me. This is real. There is nowhere to go after you, nothing left." Roxas, gasping from the sobs, buried his face against Axel's chest, nose running, eyes stinging. "It's not you that's thinking something bad's gunna happen. It's not you thinking you don't deserve to be happy."

"B-but," Roxas stammered.

"No, Roxas. It's not you; it's whatever's inside you. It's the same thing that tells you that you're anything less than beautiful. The thing that tells you everyone hates you, that no one would miss you if you left." The thought seemed to kickstart something in Roxas' head, his breath quieting. "That voice, the one telling you to watch out, that's not you, Roxas."

"Self-fulfilling prophecy," Roxas said, mind supplying a textbook term. "It's sabotaging me." His pulse pounding wildly, taking up arms against the thing that sat in his head, that took him hostage all those long years ago. A battle between the heart and the synapse, a war of all against all, and Roxas' whole life, his whole love was at stake. Whereas Roxas used to be convinced that his body was merely a cage, that he was trapped and defenseless against a tyrant's demands, Roxas saw now that his body was battleground. Yes, there was something hell-bent on destroying him, but there was also something fighting back, something that had been muted, dimmed, kicked aside in favor of the sweetness of oblivion.

Axel dropped a kiss to his shoulder, unzipped his hoodie, pushed aside the neck of his shirt, and pressed his lips to Roxas' skin, kissing a semi-circle across his clavicle, lips and tongue and teeth as Roxas' chest quieted. When Axel slipped a hand under the hem of his shirt, Roxas sighed, eyes closing. Despite the night air, nature's hum the soundscape, Roxas felt flushed, a fire growing inside him, leaping up to meet Axel's mouth. When Axel rubbed at the front of his jeans, Roxas' staggered into the other boy, legs weak. There was a moment of unspoken questioning, Axel's hands rubbing and rubbing at him, Roxas the opposite of quiet as his body called out for the other boy's touch.

Then: "Do you," Axel began, hands imploring. "Do you want to?"

Before Axel had even finished speaking, Roxas' mind was screaming YES. He didn't think he'd ever wanted anything else in his entire life. Couldn't remember being called by food, by drink, by lust, by oblivion. There, in the darkness, was a light. Nodding, nerves ignited, Roxas led Axel back to the car.

Halfway back to Roxas' house, Axel's hand on his knee, skittering up the inside of his thighs, there was a mention of the word condom, and while Roxas had a generous supply of lube, condoms had never really been an issue. As it turned out, he was the least active sexually active 20 year old on earth, and Axel was also woefully condom-free.

"You fuck, I know you planned it like this," Roxas said, body shivering under Axel's hands as he pulled into the parking lot of a market. "You knew I'd be pissed if you had condoms, because it would be like you planned it all along."

Axel smiled devilishly, hopping out of the car. "I admit to nothing."

It was an enthralling experience, having never been inside a store with Axel before. Roxas had to keep reminding himself that school was not real life, that these kinds of things—going to buy groceries, going to the dentist—were things that happened in reality. Except now, superimposed onto his reality, was Axel. Axel, keeping a running commentary on this brand of ice cream, that stick of deodorant. It was disturbingly domestic, Roxas smiling in clean fluorescence, and he found that it was… nice. Being here, with Axel, it was a snapshot of a real life. Something to look forward to.

Roxas was standing ridiculously close to the shelves, trying to obscure the rows of condoms from view. What size? Isn't there a normal size? What's the difference between ribbed and ultra ribbed? What the hell does 'ribbed' even mean? Eyes flicking toward Axel, Roxas swallowed noisily as the redhead eyed a pack of Trojan Magnums, "LARGE SIZE CONDOMS" emblazoned on the front of the box.

"Those won't fit me," Roxas said, horrified at the frightened whisper that came out of his mouth. Oh, fuck. Oh my god.

"You want to take turns?" Axel asked, surprised.

Face burning, Roxas shook his hands and head in tandem. "N-no, no. I mean, i-if you want, then we can, but I can do—"

Smirking, Axel turned and took his LARGE SIZE CONDOMS toward the checkout counters. "Let's try it this way the first time." Tossing a look back over his shoulder, Axel actually winked at Roxas. "Then we can switch it up."

Palms sweating, clothes uncomfortable against his skin, Roxas nodded, mouth too dry to speak. The need to have Axel against him Right Now ate away at his perception, standing in line as Axel forked over some bills. He saw Axel fucking him on the grocery conveyor belt, saw Axel fucking him over a line of shopping carts, up against the firewood, over the glass display of birthday cakes in the bakery. Legs trembling as he slid back behind the wheel, Roxas realized his jeans felt very, very tight.

"You're fun," Axel said into his neck, licking at his pulse.

"I'm not going to be able to drive," Roxas said, hands shaking with excitement.

"You're so out of it, you didn't hear that checkout guy, did you?" Axel asked, running two fingers up and down Roxas' arm. Goosebumps had erupted over his entire body, dick hard and straining in his pants. "He told us to 'have fun' and gave me like a ten percent discount."

Sparing a quick glance at Axel, busy laughing at their obviousness, Roxas saw he was rubbing at himself, stroking through his jeans. Oh, fuck. "Axel," he said, voice tight with want, like the desire was clawing its way out of his throat.

Leaning his head back against the seat, eyes lowered with lust, Axel really went at it, spreading his legs and rubbing down the front of his pants with the heel of his hand, breathy lick of exhalation trailing over Roxas' skin. Some part of him knew he was supposed to keep his eyes on the road, but how could he not watch this? Axel, popping the button on his jeans, teasing his zipper down. "Look what you do to me," Axel said quietly, boxers tented as Axel rubbed above his waistband. Roxas thought he might scream, slamming his car into park and hopping out into his driveway, practically running to the front door. Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck.

Peeling his clothes off, Roxas was sure he'd just had some profound realization about himself, about his life, that needed thinking (read: obsessing) about, but he couldn't think about anything past Axel's dick inside him. His mouth, his ass, in his hands—anywhere. It was the only thing he could think about aside from needing to put his hand on his own dick and start tugging as Axel toed off his shoes, pulled his shirt over his head.

"In a hurry?" Axel asked, smiling as he slid his jeans down slowly. Roxas, already on his bed, tugging at a furious pace, could only shiver under Axel's eyes. He meant to feel embarrassed or shy or something, anything other than plainly begging for it.

"I want you," Roxas said simply, licking a finger and pressing at himself. Axel's eyes devoured him for a minute or two, standing naked in the center of his room, erection ridiculous. Roxas never thought male anatomy was particularly exciting, didn't see a hard dick and get turned on, but this was something else. Looking at Axel aroused, aroused for him, was an entirely different animal. The desire screamed through his veins, hips twitching as Axel approached him, sliding between his legs. It's not like Axel hadn't put his mouth on him before, but that was both of them buried under alcohol; that was dulled, delirious, and desperate. But this, Axel's mouth slow and thorough, lips wrapped around him and dragging back and dragging back—Roxas saw nothing, heard nothing, lost inside Axel's mouth, against tongue, against teeth. Leave it to Roxas to have lube out in the open in his room, Axel popping the top and pouring into his hand, his head bobbing steadily in Roxas' lap. The lubricated slide of Axel's finger into him, Axel's finger into him, tore a hole in the silence, Roxas suddenly babbling. "Yes, oh fuck, god, Ax. Oh, fuck," as if he couldn't believe what was happening, Axel nursing an orgasm out of him. "Nn, I'm going to… if you don't stop, I'm going to—" Roxas whispered, eyes closing, back arching up. Axel pulled off, licked a wet stripe up to under his ribcage, and added a second finger, Roxas squirming under him.

"You're so hard," Axel murmured against his mouth, fingers sliding gently in and out, Roxas sweating into his sheets. There was an air of unreality about it, the scenario one he'd jacked off to a million times, but removed, as if his body had gone into shock at the impossibility of it finally happening. Roxas watched, boneless, as Axel tore open the condom wrapper with his teeth, eyes hungry, mouth practically watering.

"Can I," Roxas breathed, swatting ineffectually at Axel's arm. "Before you put it on, I want to—"

Axel went quiet, eyes reverent. "I would love that, but you should probably do it with this on." Axel's hand went to Roxas' neck, thumb tracing his jawline, pressing at his mouth. "I haven't been tested since… him," Axel said, having the sense of mind to have a little tact, knowing how fucked up the addition of Cloud had made the both of them. "I should be clean, but you never know. I wouldn't want to…" Axel trailed off, staring into Roxas' eyes, pleading.

"I want your sickness," Roxas said, taking Axel's erection into his hand. "I want your disorders, your disease. Anywhere you're going, I'm coming," Roxas said, his skin tingling with conviction.

"Rox," Axel whispered, kissing his forehead. "That's romantic and everything, babe, but please do this for me. I wouldn't be able to live with myself." Imploring, Axel held up the unwrapped condom, eyebrows raised. "Please, Roxas."

Twisting the tip, Roxas shook his head. "Fine, fine, I see you're determined that I continue to manifest on this shithole planet." He unrolled the condom slowly down the length of Axel's dick, delighted at the way it twitched and dipped in his hands. Pushing Axel lightly back against the headboard, Roxas pressed the boy's legs apart, lowered his head to Axel's cock, taut against his stomach, curl of pubes slightly darker than Roxas expected. Like warmed skin and something low and earthy, Roxas inhaled, memorizing the still, simple complexities found at this level, this close to Axel. Taking Axel into his mouth, the stick of latex against his lips as he worked up spit in his throat, pushed it to the front of his mouth, Roxas thought about sinking into Axel's bloodstream, knowledge on a cellular, basic level: what made his heart beat, his breath catch. What made him pet lightly at the back of Roxas' head, drunken, easy smile plastered on his face. Roxas swore he was drugged, both of them intoxicated on sheer proximity, his own dick weeping between Axel's legs.

Curiosity satisfied, Axel wiping sweat off his brow with trembling limbs, Roxas sat up and inched forward. "How should we…?" the question dying in his mouth as Axel wrapped a hand around both of them, stroking once, twice, obliterating all speech available to him.

"Just like this," Axel said, pulling Roxas down to his lips, mouth burning, every muscle tensed with hunger, coiled and ready to spring from thirst. The sheet of white static descended again as Axel rubbed at them, tonguing the inside of his mouth. There was the pop of the lid from the lube somewhere behind him, Axel whispering something Roxas no longer possessed the capabilities for understanding, then fingers in him, coating his insides in an ecstatic, delicious slide. When Axel settled him higher up on his waist, leading Roxas backwards until he felt the head of Axel's cock prodding at him, the static died down abruptly, replaced by a shaking, shattering want.

"Ax," he whined, voice high in his throat. Axel's cock filled him with a slow, agonizing slide, his own erection burning against his stomach. "Oh, god, I can't, Ax, I'm gunna," Roxas babbled, body shaking, hands pressing down against Axel's stomach to stop the descent.

"It's okay," Axel said, words oddly choked off. "We can do it again."

"I'm sorry," Roxas whispered, shivering. God, this is embarrassing. When Axel, hands at Roxas' waist, finally settled him all the way down, impaled and helpless, he gave the most miniscule thrust, more a nudge of muscles tipping Roxas over the edge of a cliff, and he lost it, leaned backwards, gripping Axel's knees as his come splattered weakly above his stomach, his body bucking involuntarily, riding through the spasms of wave after wave of pleasure. Dammit. Goddammit. Should've jacked off before. Shouldn't have made it such a big deal. God, what are you, fourteen? FUCK. You should just— the stream of furious thoughts disintegrated as Axel wrapped a hand around his dick, Roxas quivering as Axel lubed him up with his own come, his hips thrusting lightly as he rocked against the other boy, Axel's dick impossibly hard inside him.

"That was amazing," Axel said into his mouth, Roxas blushing furiously. "You sure you've done this before?"

"Yes," Roxas bit out. "I'm just excited." His cheeks flamed dangerously, feverish as Axel wiped at the sweat on his cheeks.

"I can see that," Axel said, low and full of want, Roxas' dick hardening in his hand.

Pouring more out more lube, Axel reached behind Roxas, tapping him upwards so he could slide out and coat his length, open-mouthed breathing as Roxas quaked above him. Leaning back, intake after intake of breath, Roxas felt the universe coalesce around them, the stoppage of time, of thought, as Axel slid in and out of him. Fire ignited in the pit of his stomach, swirling tendrils of flame reaching out to his extremities as Axel whispered in his mouth, curses and blessings as they rocked against each other, writhing in sweat and slick lust. Roxas felt the tension build in Axel's legs, eyes focused on his face.

"I love you," Axel whispered, hair damp and curling at his neck. He looked gorgeous like this, tired and aching, his hands trembling at Roxas' hips, pulling him down and down, the backs of Roxas' thighs coated with a sheen of sweat. Eyes hazy with lust, lips bitten, his abdomen spasming as he got closer and closer, the flame giving way to an inferno in Roxas' stomach, burning through his last stores of reserve as he swore to God, to the ends of the earth as Axel reached his peak, slamming resolutely into Roxas with two stiff thrusts before sealing their mouths together, eyes squeezed tight.

He would've liked to stay like this, Axel softening inside him, plastered with sweat and spit to Axel's chest as the other boy ran fingers through his hair. The world was soft, hushed, as Axel smoothed his hands down over Roxas' back, sealing whispers of praise over the curves of his face. "Bathroom," Roxas whispered, surprised at the effort it took him to open his mouth and force the sounds out. A year and three months of unresolved want, finally at its culmination here in Axel's arms, his senses maxed out, full to the brim with sensation and unrestrained joy. Axel slid out of him, one hand holding the condom in place, and helped Roxas to his feet, navigating them toward the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, the lube dripping down out of him, Roxas watched as Axel stripped the condom off, washed his hands and his face. The lines of him, hunched over Roxas' small sink, were glorious, the way Roxas imagined coming home felt after a long time away. The idea struck a chord inside him, washing away the stickiness from his body while Axel kissed down his spine. His house had stopped feeling like a haven, a victim of growing up and moving on, but in Axel he'd found a place to come home to.

Crawling into his bed, skin on skin, tucked under Axel's arm, Roxas saw something in the night. For the first time, a light on the horizon, the breakage of dawn. Where there had been a swirling gloom before, there was now him and Axel, hand in hand at the Met. Him and Axel in a city they'd never been, in an apartment they didn't yet rent, in a bed they didn't yet share. But it was there before him, dawn filling each room of this promised place, each chamber of his heart. "I love you," Roxas said quietly, nearly devastated at the force of such a simple truth. How he had lived his entire life without knowing Axel, how he had spent twenty aimless years wandering, blind, over a barren expanse, Roxas didn't know. It felt like he'd always been here, swollen with awe, breathlessly happy, as he and Axel drifted off to sleep.


Four figures standing on the shoreline in the dead of winter amidst the crashing surf and clink of Coronas, fingers numb with cold and stinging from slices of citrus. The kiss of the crisp, chilled air against their cheeks as they stood, waiting. Not far in the distance, the end of the pier had begun to spark, the cheer of hundreds roaring out, tumbling over the drag of waves against the sand. He didn't know what it was about the start of a new year, a day like any other, just at the start of the calendar instead of lost somewhere in the middle, but Roxas felt a sunrise in his veins, tapping into the shared hope of an entire world waiting with bated breath for the final ten seconds of another year given to the past. Sora, spinning circles with Riku, laughed recklessly over the tumult, a rocketing, "Get ready! Get Ready!" as the roar on the pier expanded across the sky, charged seaward, propelled with lungfuls of hope and crossed fingers: for a new day, a new dawn. Axel's hands in the pockets of his hoodie tugged him backward, the back of his head resting against Axel's chest as the noise built, towering as the countdown began.

Ten, Sora and Riku running up to them where they stood swaying to an unheard waltz.

Nine, four figures shouting at the top of their lungs at the sky.

Eight, Roxas' hands finding Axel's, fingers like ice as they linked together.

Seven, the end of the pier illuminated by hundreds of stars.

Six, Axel dropping a whisper in his ear.

Five, Roxas' heart straining in his chest, bursting with anticipation.

Four, the build at the bottom of his feet, up out of the earth.

Three, knees bent and waiting to spring, Axel laughing against him.

Two, breathless, forever breathless…

One, a jump. And for the first time in Roxas' life, there is no aching want coiled inside of him, no desperate need. To be taller, to be stronger, smarter, better—the need is gone, disappeared into the glare of the sun as Axel kisses him, swaying to the song of the swelling sea, rained down upon by explosions in the sky.


Final Thoughts and Thank Yous:

Let me give you some numbers.

130,242 words

400 reviews on the dot

274 single-spaced pages

23 months

18 chapters

6 lost friends

1 attempt at account deletion

1 suicide attempt

These are the numbers, the statistics. These things, and an infinite amount more, went in to making A Lesser Beauty. I would never, ever have guessed, sitting in a graduate seminar on Milton, that a simple line from an archaic Christian mystic would spark such a devastating, life-changing monstrosity. In the pages of this fic you can see my past, my present, and what I hope with every cell in my body will be my future. I have poured my entire soul, my entire sanity into this story. I have cried into it, bled over it, spent hundreds of sleepless nights and fuzzy, tired mornings over it. I've spent years and years in therapy, have taken dozens of different kinds of psychotropic pills to battle the thing inside me that tells me that I don't deserve to live, but nothing has come as close to being a cure as A Lesser Beauty has. I found myself in the pages of this story, unraveled all the pain and all the sorrow and all the secrets I had let build up inside me until they spilled out, ejaculatory and desperate. The parts that are the hardest to believe, the parts that seem the most like plot devices… those are the parts that are the most unchanged, the most true.

Axel's love for Roxas, canon or un-canon, has redirected the course of my life. As dark as LB got, Roxas fucking himself up over and over again, I knew before I wrote the first word that I wanted to write a love story with a happy ending. Even when he was chewing pill after pill, sobbing and alone, I knew he would make it out alive. (How does Dante get to heaven except through hell?) I know there are going to be people who disagree, but my aesthetic remains: you cannot know true joy without knowing true sorrow. The cut of the pain juxtaposed with the sweetness of ecstasy, throwing each other into sharp relief, a study in what is striking. Who wants easy, silver-plattered love? Not me. I want to know it is deserved, that it was earned, that it is not given freely and with abandon. But once it is there, as we see with Axel and Roxas, there is no lessening of the force, a faucet on full blast all the time, every second of the fucking day. Love heals, love transforms. Like the Beatles said: all you need is love. It's love that fishes Roxas from the depths of his despair, love that carves Axel out of his stagnant prison of hedonism. And it's love that saves me, every second of the fucking day.

Of course, though I started writing this story a total stranger to the fandom, I met a lot of people on the way here. A Lesser Beauty wouldn't be what it is without them:

Dayna / zippo (dA) You were the first person to believe in me. You were also the first person to find in me the ruin of that belief. Without you, though, Sora would've never taken as prominent a role as he did. So for that, I thank you.

Chloé / pouikee (dA/lj) Thank you for sharing so much of this experience with me. Without you, LB would've ended at Chapter 14. It was your belief in me and in Axel and Roxas that brought me back from the void, and I can't thank you enough for being that lifeline when I needed it the most. I'm sorry that you couldn't believe in the happy ending.

Zheyne I miss you. I read over your long, beautiful reviews sometimes, sitting in my inbox, unable to delete them. I'm sorry you never got a chance to see the end.

Brie / sharpersoul (lj) Thank you for being the voice of reason. In the past couple of weeks, you have been solid, a structure of support, for me. It means, very, very much to me to have you as part of my life.

Matt / suddenchangeofheart (ffnet) I miss you every day, you fucking bastard. Every fucking day.

Kaila / tsubasa_yume (lj) Your youthful enthusiasm and heartache have been a true joy to share. I don't even know if you still read this, lol, but I'm glad I know you.

Jen / everworld2662 (lj) Your unwavering support and beautiful, empathetic reviews have meant more to me that I've let you know. Thank you so, so, so much for existing.

Koke / kokanshu (lj) It was a true honor working with you on 117 Days. I remain in awe of your talent and your courage in the face of the bullshit life slings at you.

Mai / quillslinger (ffnet) There was something you said to me once, when I was in a very dark place: "I read somewhere that writing isn't about writing what no one else can write, but writing what only you can write. And by that same token, you can only write what you can, there are limits." I repeat this to myself, a mantra, when I look at everything I've written and it looks like nothing but ash; burnt up sorrow and empty air. I still believe you are the gold standard, and I am eternally thankful for every kind word you've said about my work.

Sam / gold_panner (lj) Thank you so much for all the kind and beautiful things you've said about my writing and me. You had a bigger impact on me than you think you did. Your light remains, like a real-life Sora. It is my loss, having lost you.

EVERYONE who drew me fanart My heart hurts from gratitude. I am so, so grateful for your time and effort.

And, finally, you, yes you, the person reading this. Without you, this is lost in the ether. Without you, silent though you often are, this story is just words in an empty room, a forgotten Word document buried on my hard drive. Thank you for reading. Thank you so, so much.