Christmas was not supposed to be like this.
Demyx was sitting on the floor of the living room, staring up at the brightly lit Christmas tree, a magnificent display of color and light in the middle of the darkened house. There was not a scrap of joy in his heart, and precious little comfort to be had. How could there be? Everything was all wrong. The house wasn't the one he'd grown up in. The living room was all the wrong colors. The floor was hardwood with a couple throw rugs, not the carpeting he was used to. The furniture was arranged wrong. The tree was artificial, not real, like it should have been. The presents neatly arrayed under the tree had strange names on them - "Cloud" and "Aerith" and "Axel" and "Roxas" - with a few haphazard additions labeled "Demyx", as if to accentuate what a mess his arrival had made, and how little he fit in here.
Back at home, there had been a real tree that filled the whole room with the piney scent that meant "Christmas", and all the presents were rather haphazardly stacked, and labeled "Leon" and "Yuffie" and "Demyx" and "Hayner". None of those presents would ever be opened now. Even the ones with his name on them - he didn't know how he could stomach ever opening them. Even if he'd finally gotten the electric guitar he'd been begging for year after year - how could he open it, knowing that his parents would never be able to see his face when he opened it, and his brother would never get to hear him play? They were gone, and he was alone, with an aunt and uncle who barely knew him and a pair of cousins who hated his guts. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. And it felt like nothing would ever be right again.
I can't cry. I have to be strong. I'm the only one left.
It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. Why had his entire family been torn away from him like that? How could one phone call and five words - "There's been a terrible accident" - destroy everything in his world? Why couldn't he be spending Christmas with his family like he always did, staying up until midnight telling stories in their own living room with their own real pine-scented tree with all their presents stuffed under it, instead of in someone else's house with someone else's family, alone at 11:45 in front of an artificial tree surrounded by someone else's presents?
There was one bit of comfort. He hadn't cried even once. No matter how much pain he was in, no matter how utterly wrong everything in the world was, no matter that he thought he would never smile again and that it might have been better if he'd died as well, he'd managed to stay strong and keep moving, and provide some intelligent input on funeral plans and what to do with the family's property and money, and had yet to shed a single tear. There was no reason at all that sitting alone in front of this artificial Christmas tree surrounded by someone else's presents, instead of sitting with his family in front of a real tree with all their presents like he did every year, should make his eyes sting so much. But he wasn't going to cry now either. He wasn't going to let himself cry.
It wasn't fair.
"Beautiful, isn't it."
Demyx just about had a heart attack. He actually did fall over, staring up at the intruder and wondering how someone in a wheelchair could possibly be so stealthy. Axel just gave him a wry, joyless smile, that softened a little when he looked at the tree. "You're up kinda late, aren't you," he said, apparently totally unconcerned with how badly he'd startled Demyx, let alone interrupted his private moment of grief. "Shouldn't you do something intelligent, like, say, go the hell to bed already? Tomorrow starts early, and it'll be even messier with an extra person, just so you know."
Great, because Demyx needed one more reminder of what an added burden he was to this family. If he'd known they already had a disabled child to take care of, he would have preferred to go into foster care. He still did, and not just because Axel was a dick to him. Or because Roxas was a dick to him too. Or because Aunt Aerith and Uncle Cloud were never going to make him feel like a welcome part of the family no matter how they tried. "It's as late for you as it is for me," he grunted listlessly in response, turning his full attention back to the tree. "So why haven't you gone the hell to bed already? Besides..." He trailed off, suddenly unable to continue. He didn't want to talk about his family if he didn't absolutely have to. It just hurt too much.
"Besides, my family always used to stay up until midnight on Christmas Eve and tell stories." Demyx found himself blurting the words out without even meaning to, and resented Axel for making him do so. But he absolutely was not going to cry right now, especially not in front of Axel, no matter how badly it hurt.
Silence reigned for several long moments, long enough for Demyx to hope Axel had gotten the message and retreated as silently as he'd come. Then Axel patted the back of his head, gently, which made him twitch in surprise - he'd seen him do that to Roxas a couple times, as a comforting gesture, but he couldn't imagine what the hell Axel's game was now. "I'm sorry," Axel said, and Demyx didn't know what to think. "Really, I am. I've been thinking of you as a giant inconvenience, which is totally unfair to you. You're a kid who's just lost his whole family."
...Now what could Demyx possibly say to that? Words just...he couldn't...how could Axel...why didn't he...and suddenly, Demyx did exactly what he'd sworn not to, what he'd fought tooth and nail not to do for three weeks, and started to cry. "I'm sorry," Axel repeated; Demyx could barely hear him over his own sobbing. "I shouldn't have reminded you, should I..."
"'S all right," Demyx choked, trying to make himself stop crying long enough for coherent speech, with dubious success. "I mean...'s not like I'm gonna forget...it's just...fuckin' Christmas Eve. They should be here. And they're not."
"Oh, for God's sake, stand up." Demyx obeyed by rote, not knowing or caring what Axel wanted, and wasn't even sure whether he should be surprised or not when Axel pulled him down into a hug. "Sorry, but I kind of couldn't reach you on the floor...all right, now you might want to sit on the couch. It's more comfortable than the floor, for one thing."
"I guess," Demyx grunted, obediently taking a seat on the couch. He was still trying to force himself to stop crying. "Sorry...just...just give me a second."
"Take all the time you need," Axel said quietly, wheeling himself into position next to him. "You know, this is...I think this is the first time I've ever seen you cry."
"Yeah, and?" Demyx snapped without really meaning to. "After I've been trying so damn hard not to..."
Axel only snorted humorlessly in response. "It's worked a little too well. You've been coming across as one of the coldest fish in the sea." Demyx snorted and turned his back pointedly, trying to hide how much pain he was in right then. "Well, at least now I have concrete proof you're human."
"Gee, thanks," Demyx grunted sourly. It was the most intelligent thing he could think of to say. Well, that and "Sometimes I think I should have gone into foster care. At least then I'd be a burden on someone who'd actually asked for it."
He wasn't really sure what he was expecting Axel to do or say in response to that. He just knew that he wasn't expecting him to do and say nothing at all for a long time. "...Well, if it's any comfort to you, Mom wouldn't have let you," he said finally. "I mean...you're her brother's kid. You're family."
"Family's got no room for me."
"Don't say that." Axel rested his hand on Demyx's shoulder, his expression difficult to read in this light. "All right, I admit we haven't...really gone out of our way to be welcoming, but...eh, screw it. There's no good excuse. Roxas and I have been feeling sorry for ourselves because our home has been invaded and Christmas has been set on its ear, and what right do we have?" Every right, Demyx thought but didn't say; instead, he lay down on the couch with his head on the armrest. "I'm sorry. I've been a selfish bastard. I, at least, should know better. I can't even imagine...well. I don't have to imagine what it's like to think you've lost everything that made life worth living. But you've lost even more than I did." Demyx raised his head off the armrest for a moment, trying and still failing to read Axel's expression or figure out what he meant by that. Axel just gave him another humorless smile. "What, you didn't think the chair came standard, did you? I had my driver's license for two months before I spun out on wet roads and wrapped the car around a tree. Woke up a week later in the hospital completely paralyzed below the waist."
Demyx let his head fall back on the armrest again, feeling ill with guilt. Granted, he'd had no way of knowing before, but...now that he knew about Axel's accident, he wondered if maybe the real reason for the obscure hostility was because his presence alone was a reminder of that tragedy. This family had had enough to do with car accidents already...though at least Axel still had his family, and still got to spend Christmas with them every year...Demyx would happily spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair if he could just spend one last Christmas with his family. Even paralyzed from the neck down, not just the waist. Hell, he wouldn't mind dying himself so his family could keep celebrating Christmas, even without him. But the choice hadn't been his to make. Why did Christmas have to be like this? Why did life have to be like this? "I'm sorry," Axel repeated, though Demyx didn't want to hear it anymore. For all he knew, this was all just a big joke, and by tomorrow he'd be the same jerkwad as ever. All Demyx really wanted to do was just curl up on the couch and not wake up for, say, a year or so. Maybe melt into the couch cushions so he wouldn't have to exist anymore. He could just be part of the couch from then on, which would be great, because couches couldn't hurt. "You're very brave, you know."
"How so?" Demyx grunted, though he wasn't really interested in hearing it. He didn't feel especially brave right then, just sad, sick, and hurting.
"I mean...after all you've been through, it has to take a lot of courage just to get out of bed in the morning. And you're not just getting out of bed, you're actually functioning like a normal person. You're still capable of making an intelligent, rational decision, even when it's gotta hurt like hell. And I swear, Mom is almost disturbed with how helpful you insist on being."
Demyx grunted wordlessly and shifted a little, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. Well, more uncomfortable; actual comfort had become a pipe dream. "I don't like being a burden," he said after a moment. "Even when I went over to a friend's house, I always felt compelled to help with something." It was a plausible enough excuse, and true enough, and served well enough to cover the real reason - as long as he could keep himself busy, and do something useful, he could keep some of the pain back for a while. It was times like now, when he didn't have anything to do or think about besides...besides that...when he was truly in agony. He knew Axel was at least pretending to try to help, in a rather awkward way, but God, it hurt. How could they all be gone? Just like that? Why wouldn't Hayner be allowed to grow up? Why couldn't his parents see their sons become grown men, both of them? It wasn't fair...
"Well, if I were you...even if I could still walk, I'd be totally worthless. Like I said...I admire your ability to just get out of bed in the morning." Despite what were no doubt meant to be words of comfort, Demyx couldn't keep the tears from his eyes, and all the tricks he'd used to stop himself from crying for three weeks were failing him. Axel rested a hand on his shoulder, which he largely ignored. "It's all right. God knows you've earned the right to cry."
"But...I have to be strong," Demyx choked, when he could catch a breath between sobs. "For the rest of them...I'm the only one left..."
"Shh," Axel whispered, rubbing Demyx's back gently. "You've been strong. Now it's time to be human."
Demyx tried to protest, to explain himself better, to just say something coherent, but all that came out were more sobs. It was as if every tear that he'd carefully repressed for the past three weeks was now bound and determined to force its way out all at once, no matter what he did. All he could do was sob helplessly, while Axel sat by with a hand on his shoulder and let him. He sobbed until his chest ached and his throat burned, until his nose clogged completely and his eyes stuck themselves shut, until he ran out of energy completely and could do nothing but lie there, limp and weak as a ragdoll.
"Feel any better now?"
"No," Demyx answered thickly, then actually thought about the question. Well, the pain was still there, as much as it had ever been. He missed his family so much that the grief was almost physically painful. It wasn't fair; all he wanted was a chance to see them again, and he knew he never would. The funerals had all been closed casket, so he hadn't even had a chance to see them then. All he had was half a dozen photo albums that it hurt too much to open. But...for some reason, the pain just seemed a little less sharp now. Maybe it was just because he was finally willing to admit he was in pain at all, but... "Yeah. Maybe a little better."
"Good. Think you might be able to sleep now?"
"I dunno. I don't feel like moving." Demyx rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand, trying to unglue them so he could actually see the tree again. "...Is Roxas into Struggle?" he asked, not caring how random the question might seem.
"Is he? Is he ever...but why do you ask?"
"Because...because Hayner was too," Demyx said with an effort, forcing the words out no matter how much it hurt. "I got him a copy of the Ultimate Struggle Handbook for Christmas, just never got around to wrapping it, and...it ended up getting packed with my stuff, instead of sent to charity with the other presents. I was just thinking...maybe Roxas would like it. I mean...I'm not into it, and...might as well go to someone who'll enjoy it..."
There was a very long pause after that, and Demyx began to wonder if he'd said something horribly offensive or something. "That...sounds like a good idea," Axel said finally, his voice unbelievably cracking a little. "I...I mean...if something happened to Roxas suddenly...I - I'm sure he'd want his stuff to go to people who'd actually want or need it..." Demyx rolled over and looked at him, just to make sure Axel really was on the verge of tears. Yes, it seemed he really was. "Sorry. I just...started really thinking, what if...damn, for you to still get up in the morning, you must be superhuman. I'd be suicidal."
"You think I wasn't at any point?" Demyx grunted listlessly. As the only surviving member of his immediate family, he knew he had some obligation to, you know, survive, but that hadn't stopped him from at least thinking about it. Especially now, when the shock had worn off and the pain had set in so deep he doubted he'd ever be rid of it.
There was another long pause after that, though Demyx had kind of expected it. "...You haven't actually tried, have you?"
"Of course not," Demyx grunted, keeping his eyes on the glowing tree. Hopefully Axel would keep the fact that he'd mentioned it at all to himself; the last thing he needed was more counseling and therapy. "Doesn't mean I never gave any of the kitchen knives a good, hard look or two."
"...Oh. Well. I guess I can't blame you for just thinking about it. I mean, like I just...never mind." Another awkward pause, though Demyx barely cared about the awkwardness. "Anyway. I think it's a good idea."
"Giving Roxas that book. Not - not killing yourself. Sorry if that sounded wrong."
"...Were you suicidal?" Demyx felt compelled to ask, though he knew full well it was a bad idea. "After your accident?"
Thankfully, Axel took the question in stride. "Was I ever," he snorted. "It took a very long time before I stopped feeling sorry I'd survived the crash in the first place. I mean...I felt like half a person, all of a sudden." He fell silent for a moment. "I guess...eventually I realized that there had to be some reason I was still alive."
"...Oh," was all Demyx said. He was sure Axel wasn't telling him the whole story. He was sure Axel probably had a lot to say about the unwavering support and love of his family helping him learn to move on. But hearing that would hurt, worse than just thinking it, and he was grateful to Axel for leaving it unsaid. "So...you think there's some reason..." Some reason he hadn't been in that car? Some reason he'd randomly decided he'd rather stay home and do homework than attend the Struggle meet his family had never reached and Hayner had never competed in? He'd heard that they'd canceled the meet halfway through the first match when the officials heard about the accident, and that an impromptu fundraiser had been held to start an annual Struggle tournament in Hayner's memory...but it was all so remote now, so far away, just like Hayner and the rest of his family. And Demyx was here, in someone else's house with someone else's family, staring blankly at someone else's Christmas tree surrounded by someone else's presents. "Why am I still alive?" he wondered aloud.
"I can't tell you that," Axel said with complete candidness. "Maybe the first thing you have to do is find that reason. Maybe it's just to press on and live a normal life in spite of everything. But if you can do that...then I'd say you've got nothing left to prove. You've done enough." There was a pause. "Your parents would be proud of you, I think. If they could see you now."
Would they really? Demyx wondered. If they could see him now...what would they think? Would they be able to see how much pain he was in? How hard it was just to keep moving, keep breathing, keep going? Or would they see that he had been robbed of home and family, everything that mattered most, and been sent five hundred miles from everything he'd ever known, to live with near-strangers who often didn't seem to want him around - and kept going, and was still taking care of himself and making intelligent decisions and surviving? Would they see that he'd done anything to be proud of? Or would they just see that he was still alive - and would that be enough?
"Thanks," he murmured to Axel. The pain was still there, and would most likely be there for the rest of his life. But now, it was a pain he could learn to live with. And that was enough.
AN: The Demyx-muse is not best pleased with me. The first time I give him a good family in an AU, I kill them all off before the story even begins. My response is, just wait until I get back to canon.
Anyway, this is for a holiday contest for The-RAD-Fad on deviantART, with the theme "Christmas Tree". Admittedly, this only sticks loosely to the theme.
The title is from "Toy Soldiers" by Carbon Leaf, especially these lyrics:
I've learned that people come and go
I've learned that families break and grow
Toy soldiers brave away those tears
Toy soldiers hope for better years
Axel, Demyx, Roxas, and all other characters mentioned belong to Square Enix and Disney. "Toy Soldiers" belongs to Carbon Leaf/Constant Ivy Music.