Hello! I'm back! And I am very very sorry for the delay! So sorry that I am using exclamation points quite liberally!
Seriously, to those of you who have stuck with this fanfic, thank you so much for waiting so long. Again, I promise that I will never abandon this fic. I may leave it for extended periods of time, but it will be finished. I swear upon the life of my Axel plushie. Updates should be especially more frequent now as it's summer break for me. Anyway, please enjoy Chapter Nine.
There were pieces of reality that surfaced up in between the waves of darkness, strangely out of focus, like a bunch of scraped together scenes from a horrible low budget movie.
He was falling to his hands and knees on some random stretch of sidewalk, vomiting in the snow –
Stumbling forward, sharp bite of pain somewhere around his ankle, hand on his shoulder (Axel?) –
A voice (not Axel) saying his name over and over while he thought I don't know you, I don't know you, and maybe he'd said it aloud because the voice said, "'Course you do, Rox, don't mess around," sounding scared –
Being half-dragged through a doorway and out of the cold, elbow knocking against the wall as the voice called out for help –
Sitting down with two pills and a cup of water in his shaking hands, and someone was telling him, "It's Tylenol, Roxas, it'll help your ankle," and he stared at the little red pills.
Come on, Roxas, Axel's voice came suddenly into his head. Red. Picture red.
Instead his vision went black.
"Hi, Demyx," Namine said into the cell phone as she paced around the living room. "Just calling to ask a few questions… What? No, it's not about taxes. Why would I be asking you about taxes? Are you not paying your taxes? Demyx, I swear to god…"
Axel listened from the floor, where he was sprawled out staring listlessly at the ceiling. He kept telling himself he was being a fucking moron to get this freaked out over a kid he hardly knew, but then another part of him kept retorting, Of course I know him. His favorite flavor of just about anything is strawberry. Moo is his favorite cat but he likes dogs more. When he brushes his teeth he spends forever on it like he's determined not to get a single cavity ever, but he almost never brushes his hair. He's afraid of robots, Brazilian wandering spiders, and of being alone. He likes reading the comics and the horoscopes in the newspaper before he reads the news. He likes action flicks and sappy romances but he pretends he likes that intellectual crap more. He likes to sleep with the blankets pulled up over his head. He likes reading Isa's old mystery novels. He likes sunny days and snowy nights. And – me.
"Okay," Namine was saying now, nodding with the same resigned expression she had worn throughout her earlier conversation with Zexion. "Okay, thanks anyway. Call me or Axel if you find anything out. And pay your taxes. No – no, it's not that hard, Demyx, not if you just go to work instead of blowing it off all the time for freaking Guitar Hero. Why do you think Zexion gets so mad at you? If you don't grow up he's never going to – okay. Okay, fine. Just call me if you hear anything."
She snapped the phone shut and sighed, looking at Axel, who blinked miserably back from his position on the floor. "Demyx doesn't know anything."
"What else is new?" Axel replied. He turned his gaze back to the ceiling and imagined painting it, curing it of its blank white banality. He'd use shades of gold, orange, pink – like a sunset. It'd be a never-ending sunset. Ridiculously romantic. Isa would've laughed at him. Even Roxas, who (if you judged by his taste in movies) was secretly sappy as hell, would've laughed at him. Axel's mouth twisted in an attempt at a smile, which turned instead into a grimace. He could feel Namine staring at him but he didn't look back.
"I'm gonna call my cousin Kairi," she said after a pause. "She lives in Twilight Hollow. She might know something."
"Call the coffee shop too," Axel said. "Just in case."
"What coffee shop?" Namine asked, sounding puzzled.
"The one you most recently banned me from. Around the corner from my house."
There was another pause, and then Namine said slowly, "I didn't ban you from that one. I had no idea that one existed."
"Then who –" Axel stopped, thinking suddenly of how Roxas had hurried away to sit down as soon as the barista refused to give Axel caffeine. How he had made suspicious coughing sounds that in retrospect may or may not have been hiding laughter. This time Axel actually did smile. "Manipulative little bastard," he muttered.
Roxas woke up to three anxious faces peering over him. In other circumstances he probably would have been at least a little freaked out by this, but at the moment all he felt was an overwhelming numbness – and so he accepted this turn of events without much of a reaction. He looked from one face to another – there was a pensive brown-haired girl, a wiry blond guy who looked inexplicably like he sort of wanted to punch Roxas in the stomach, and another kinda pudgy dark-haired guy with deeply worried brown eyes. Roxas's gaze finally settled on the girl. There was something calming about the pale, sea glass green of her eyes. They were nothing like Axel's eyes, which burned like they could singe straight through the ozone layer if they wanted to. Or through him. Neither scenario was comforting.
He let out a shaky breath, touching a hand to his forehead and closing his eyes briefly. He didn't want to think about Axel. He didn't want to think about anything, actually. If he just – just kept his eyes closed for a little while longer, maybe –
"C'mon already, Roxas," said a voice he was pretty sure he had heard earlier. So that part hadn't been a dream or a fucked up memory. Good to know.
He focused his gaze on the blond guy, whose eyes were still narrowed almost threateningly. "You've been out for hours. You gotta wake up now," he said, and Roxas noted the ill-concealed fear behind the boy's bravado.
Roxas sat up slowly, wincing at new bruises – had he fallen, or had that been a dream? – and blinked at the pink flowered bedspread he was lying on, then at the matching pink and yellow walls. "Where…is this?" he said. His tongue felt thick and heavy.
"My room," the girl answered, like it was perfectly natural to wake up in a stranger's bedroom. And hell, for him, maybe it was. This was the second time it had happened after all. "What happened, Roxas?" she asked urgently. "Where did you…"
He couldn't focus, couldn't concentrate on what she was saying, and her voice faded into the background while Roxas gazed around the room. There were photographs on the wall beside the bed, photos of the two guys and the girl, and someone else too, someone who looked a lot like –
He froze, staring.
"Who is that?" he asked at last, throat scratchy, looking at the three strangers in bewilderment.
The girl frowned. "You. Who else would it be, silly? Are you feeling okay? Do you have a fever or something?" She laid a hand on Roxas's forehead and he flinched.
"I don't think I know you," he said quietly. Her eyes widened, and she looked hurt.
"I told you, Pence!" the blond kid said, his harsh voice a sharp contrast to the girl's soft tones. "I told you! He kept saying that when I found him. Maybe he hit his head. Hey, Roxas! Didja hit your head?"
"Shut up, Hayner!" the girl snapped. The blond kid frowned but obeyed, looking cowed. "Roxas?"the girl said hesitantly, turning back toward him. "Are you sure? Do you know my name?"
He shook his head. "Sorry," he told her, feeling a sudden guilt as he watched the hope disappear from her eyes.
"It's okay," she said, after a pause. "So…I'm Olette. The annoying one's Hayner and the quiet one's Pence. We're…well…um…"
"We're your friends," Pence said, blinking at him with wide, sincere brown eyes.
Roxas shifted, uncomfortable with the familiarity with which they were all looking at him. His head pounded and it took a moment for him to recall his ability to speak. "I've been…gone…a while," he said, still struggling to force his words into an order that made sense.
"No shit," Hayner snorted. "You know how long we've been looking for you? It's been weeks, man. Nobody knew where you went. We heard about your dad and we thought –" He stopped, his expression abruptly becoming unreadable, and shook his head. "I dunno what we thought."
"We thought you got hurt," Pence said, looking as uncomfortable as Roxas felt. "Or – um, or something."
Olette looked away, biting her lip, and Roxas looked up at the photos again. There was no getting around the fact that that was him, standing there and smiling with these people who were strangers to him now.
"Look," he said at last. "Can I just ask you something?"
Hayner only blinked at him but Pence and Olette nodded.
Roxas swallowed hard as the numbness began to fade and his heartbeat began to quicken. "Who exactly do you think I am?"
Who exactly they thought he was turned out to be Roxas Tomianson, a nineteen-year-old high school graduate and lifetime resident of Twilight Hollow. Roxas Tomianson worked fulltime at a local hardware store to help support his mother, who, as Olette delicately put it, was "a little bit troubled." His father was, as Hayner not-so-delicately put it, "an alcoholic douchebag" and according to the local papers had recently driven his car into a tree while intoxicated, remaining largely uninjured but landing himself in jail for the time being, mostly because he'd tried to fight the cops who came to help him. Roxas Tomianson wanted to be an architect and had been saving money for community college classes. Roxas Tomianson had three best friends from grade school, Hayner, Pence, and Olette, with whom he was still good friends. In short, Roxas Tomianson had a life.
After listening to this Roxas couldn't help but feel just a little bit like his head was about to implode. It sounded vaguely familiar, but it was like listening to someone recite to him a summary of a dream he'd once had. He ran a hand through his hair, deliberately keeping his gaze averted from Hayner, Pence, and Olette. They kept looking at him like they expected him to jump up off of the bed and exclaim that yes, of course he remembered now, and then they'd all go get ice cream and ride ponies into the sunset, wearing matching Best Friends Forever bracelets.
It was ludicrous. How was he supposed to just take their word for it that he was this person, this Other Roxas?
Roxas knotted his hand in his hair, tugging at the roots in frustration. There were pictures. There were the weird dream-memory-things. There was a vague but certain knowledge somewhere within him that he had lived in this town – in that house – and that he'd had friends in this town. It made sense. Logically, it made sense. The problem wasn't exactly to do with logic; it was more to do with the burning ache in his chest and the overwhelming desire he had to run straight back to Axel's house, where at least things were more or less simple.
"Roxas?" Olette said gently, her hand brushing against his arm like she wanted to comfort him but was afraid to actually touch him. Like he was some feral animal she didn't want to spook.
He looked up, and she smiled sympathetically. "You're really pale," she said. "Is there anything I can –"
"What happened to my mom?" Roxas interrupted, his words sharper and colder than he'd meant them to be. In fact he hadn't meant to say them at all; they just forced their way out. But this was important. If they could explain this then maybe – maybe he could accept the rest of it or at least try to. He swallowed and softened his voice. "I know she's – dead. I know that. What happened? Was it – him? Something to do with him?"
Olette had gone pale now, too. "Oh, Roxas," she said quietly. "I'm sorry."
"What?" he demanded, feeling a little bit panicky under the deeply worried looks they were all giving him.
"Your mom was…" Hayner started. "Rox, your mom, she…" He shook his head, apparently unable to continue.
Pence cleared his throat and spoke slowly, reluctantly. "She overdosed. On heroin. It was – it was in the paper. It happened right before your dad – uh, you know. Before that."
Roxas remained very still for a moment, staring at Pence. Then he slid his legs over the side of the bed and started to stand.
"Don't – !" Olette warned, but it was a second too late. Roxas nearly cried out at the stabbing pain in his ankle, staring down at his leg in utter bafflement.
"You twisted your ankle when I was trying to get you to Olette's," Hayner said, looking guilt-stricken as Roxas, wincing, braced himself against the wall. "I didn't have a car and Olette's house was closest so I thought we could make it… And I didn't mean to hurt you or anything but – you kept slipping in and out, man, you were just gone one minute and then the next you were all fighting me and shit and meanwhile I'm trying to drag you along and..." He sounded shaken and more than a little accusing. "And you scared me."
"Oh, I deeply apologize," Roxas said bitterly, unable to help himself. He was just too tired, tired of being lost, tired of being in pain, tired of being tired. "I didn't mean to scare you or anything. I was just a little bit busy having, I don't know, some sort of psychological meltdown, probably due to the fact that my mom's a dead junkie and my dad's a drunken convict who apparently, if these irritatingly persistent nightmare visions are trustworthy, had a habit of slicing me up with broken beer bottles – but you're right, I really should've been more considerate of your feelings at the time despite the fact that I still don't really know who you are."
Roxas stopped, aware of an abrupt shift in the already uncomfortable atmosphere of the room. He surveyed The Other Roxas's friends. Hayner's eyes had gone very, very wide. Olette was now nearly as pale as the snow visible outside her bedroom window. Pence could've been pictured next to the dictionary definition of the word "horrified." Not quite the proper reaction to mild verbal abuse.
"What?" Roxas said, his anger temporarily washed over by confusion.
"We didn't know," Pence said weakly, at last.
"Didn't know what?"
When Olette spoke it was in nearly a whisper. "That your dad was hurting you."
"I have cats," Axel announced to Namine's quiet kitchen, standing over the counter and sipping his third mug of coffee slowly. His foot tapped erratically against the tile floor. "Hungry cats. Extremely hungry. Famished, probably. Hungry, hungry cats. Do you know how dangerous a hungry cat is, let alone three of them? By now they're probably terrorizing the entire town. The carnage will be devastating. I'll have to hire one of those constructiony guys with the things – the bulldozer sort of things except they have shovels on the front? – one of those things, to get rid of the carnage. Devastating. Namine. Listen to me. You're my friend, you have to."
"Unfortunately I am listening to you," Namine said dryly from her seat at the kitchen table. She'd just hung up with Kairi, who hadn't been much help but had promised to keep an eye out for blond spikes. "And as I've told you twelve hundred times already, it's better for your cats to go hungry one night than for you to kill yourself on those roads and leave them with no home. We have a severe winter storm warning according to the news and you're a terrible driver and – will you sit down?" she snapped as he started striding toward the front door for the billionth time. "I swear I'll chain you to the couch if I have to."
Axel paused to grin and raise his eyebrows at her. "Kinky."
Namine dropped her face to her hands. "Oh my god, why did I caffeinate you?" she said, voice muffled through her fingers.
"Because I need it," Axel said, shoulders drooping, suddenly looking mournful. "Because I'm all alone and Roxas ran away and he hates me probably and I don't have a life and I'm becoming a crazy cat lady-man and/or kidnapper of amnesiacs and I have deep horrible emotional issues and I can never be a normal person and no one will ever love me and I should just go out there and build an igloo because what's the point anyway, and speaking of igloos I've been thinking lately, where do the ducks go in winter when the pond freezes ov –"
"Oh my god," Namine repeated, lifting her head to fix him with a glare of epic proportions. Well, not really, but it was a pretty bad glare. "You're quoting Holden Caulfield now? Are you fucking kidding me?"
"My misery comes in stages," Axel informed her with a woebegone stare. "This is the Catcher in the Rye stage."
"No, this is the Babbling Incoherently But Even More Than Usual Stage," Namine sighed. "Don't try to tell me how your stages work. I know all your stages. The next one is –"
"Namine," Axel interrupted, suddenly deflating, a knot of anxiety tangling in his chest. "Namine, I'm a complete failure."
"…The 'I'm A Complete Failure' stage," Namine said, so quietly that Axel just barely caught her words. "No, Axel," she said more loudly. "You're not. You're a successful freelance artist. You're doing the best you can with the life you have, and that's all. You know that."
"That's not enough," Axel muttered, a rare shadow of solemnity falling over him. "You remember what I said to you when we met?"
"'Sorry, I didn't mean to hit you in the face with my elbow, I'm just freakishly tall and clumsy?'" Namine suggested.
"No. Later than that. I said I wanted to work for Disney."
"Yes, you did," Namine said cautiously. He could tell she was watching him closely, unsure whether or not to allow this line of conversation to continue.
"Isa wanted me to work for Disney," Axel said, after a pause, feeling the usual sickening of his stomach that came with any mention of Isa's name. He stared out the kitchen window at the blur of snow still falling.
"Isa wanted you to do what made you happy," Namine said, speaking slowly and carefully. "If being a garbage collector was what you'd wanted, he'd have wanted you to be a garbage collector."
"Yeah, but –"
"Axel," Namine said calmly. "You're not happy."
He stared at her for a long moment. "No," he said finally. He'd never actually thought of it in those terms, oddly enough. It seemed so obvious but – no, he'd never thought of it like that at all. "Not…usually. But – Roxas…"
"Makes you happy."
She sighed. "Okay."
He blinked. "What?"
"I said okay. It's okay. It's not going to be perfect and you can't just assume he's going to make everything all better. Maybe he's going to go back to his life and it won't work out. But it's okay for you to at least try to stay in contact," Namine said, looking thoughtful and gazing past him toward the window. "Or at least get closure. If we haven't heard from him before the weather lets up, I'll drive you down to Twilight Hollow."
Axel stared at her for a moment, then glanced outside to make sure fire and brimstone wasn't falling from the sky or anything. Nope. Still snow. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Namine. "And you've suddenly decided to support my pseudo-relationship with an amnesiac because…?"
"Because he makes you happy. And, as you so helpfully keep reminding me, I'm supposed to be your friend."
Axel scoffed. "Sentimental bullshit. Not buying it."
Namine tilted her head to study him. "Axel, you haven't brought up working for Disney in forever. You haven't really particularly wanted to leave your house in forever. You're…different. At first I thought it was just obsession or something, but I think this might be a good thing for you."
"Thanks, Namine," Axel said after a brief pause. "You know, for carefully considering and approving each and every one of my life choices before you allow me to actually make them. That's really –"
"The Sarcasm Stage," Namine muttered. "Fantastic."
"You know who's sarcastic? Roxas is sarcastic," Axel said tragically, once more enveloped by an overwhelming sorrow. "Roxas is probably being sarcastic somewhere right now. All alone in the cold. Or maybe not alone, that would be weird because he'd be talking to himself, but I guess he could be sarcastic in his head, so…"
"Great. Now you're mixing stages." Namine stood up and took the half-full coffee mug forcibly from his hands, ignoring his growl of outrage as she poured it into the sink.
"You know who likes coffee?" Axel said after a few seconds of quiet. "Roxas likes coffee."
Namine's eye actually appeared to twitch slightly, which was a new and fantastically amusing development. "I changed my mind," she said. "Roxas is terrible for you."
"You know who changes his mind?" Axel responded. "Roxas –"
Roxas sat alone in Olette's room, where The Other Roxas's friends had left him to change into some clothes that weren't soaked from snow or covered in grit from an abandoned house. Apparently the clothes belonged to Olette's older brother, Seifer, who was at work. Hayner had made a face at the mention of Seifer's name, but Roxas of course had no recollection.
"We hate him," Hayner had informed Roxas, upon noticing his lack of reaction. "Just so y'know."
"Noted," Roxas had replied wryly as Pence and Olette rolled their eyes at each other. Olette was still pale – in fact all of them were still displaying the symptoms of a bad shock as they left the room.
In retrospect, Roxas thought as he folded Axel's coat, perhaps he hadn't responded all that well to their concerns. "Oh, don't worry, I had no idea my dad was hurting me until today either. You know. Because of the traumatic flashback. Did I mention I've been told that I'm probably experiencing a dissociative fugue? That's pretty much amnesia by the way. I may never remember you! Weird, huh?"
Not exactly all that consoling.
He sighed and tugged his shirt up over his head, wincing when the material rubbed against new bruises. Shivering, he went to undo his belt and stopped when his fingers brushed something in the pocket of his jeans.
It was the cell phone Axel had bought for him after he'd gotten lost. That felt like years ago now. He'd shoved it in his pocket purely out of habit. His heart pounded as he hit the power button and turned the phone over in his hands, examining it closely as though he'd never really seen it before. He thought about how he'd felt not that long ago, drowsing on Axel's couch after their date, reaching down to hold Axel's hand even though it wasn't all that comfortable – how he'd felt safe, and warm, and like he fit somewhere, even if that somewhere was just somebody's couch.
Roxas took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He found Axel's name in the phone's contacts list – not difficult, as it was the only name there – and hit the call button.
Notes: Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed it and I'd love to hear from you regardless, so feel free to leave a review. Stay tuned for Chapter Ten in which Axel gets a phone call! (Who could it possibly be?)