Started writing this years before 358/2 Days came out, so there is no Xion. I don't care, and you shouldn't either.
a cautionary tale
veins full of light, he's one to stray
. . .
Not that Roxas will care enough to remember this later, but it is actually around the time the dreams started that Axel's face began to grow a new geometry. His is an interesting face, interesting but terrible, so it's fascinating to Roxas the way it began taking on a brand new shape, the angle of cheekbones growing more acute, the cruel relief of the nose more prominent, the surfacing rays vectoring out of nowhere, evincing more than ever before a directed hostility. In the end, the tide of his flesh simply ebbs out, leaving two hollow caves where the eyes shine out viciously, interior coals. Perhaps this is the bones' way of accommodating for the secrets that have come to play tenants inside their assemblage.
They're going through a difficult period if you could call it that, but to do so would be implying that things are ever actually easy with Axel. They aren't. At least not as far as Roxas can recall. His memory hasn't been working too well lately.
Be that as it may, something is different this time. This feeling of cold water filling in between is more than the usual bullshit, his guts tell him, and the frustrating part is that he cannot tell anyone of the unsettled feeling that's lodged itself inside his mind; he dislikes the pressure it's created. Axel would have just laughed and called him a basket case. Assuming he isn't elsewhere at the time.
Axel is pretty sweet with the 'elsewhere' these days. Without him the spacious, brightly lit hallways of the castle ring out with a new silence, as if to say: this is the resonance of lonely places.
Not that Roxas will be able to remember this later, but he first meets the prophet in a dream. In it, his footsteps echo unbearably on the marble floor of a gilded hall. There is movement, confusion glazed over his eyes, and when he sees the figure in black he almost mistakes it for a mirror image of himself, but other than the matching outfit this person is taller than him, wider about the shoulders. Roxas has gotten into the habit of sizing up other men in case they might find themselves on opposite sides of a battlefield. I can take this one, he decides. That long pale hair looks good for pulling, plus the blindfold.
Roxas has no idea what sort of a person the prophet is, or why he calls himself one at all. This is alright, he thinks, because he met the prophet in a dream and dream-people rarely offer reasoning for any of the things that they do. Roxas won't remember but the first time he met the prophet in a dream, he ended up stalking around the Dark City for almost twenty-two hours afterward, until Axel came back from Oblivion and hauled him back to the Castle and slammed the door with his body so they could fuck against it not even bothering to peel each other out of their wet grimy clothes.
But that first time…
"The crown prince of the golden kingdom is sickening to death, and no one has any idea what is ailing him," the prophet begins, non sequitur. "The servants and sick-nurses sit up with him every night, but every night each of them would nod off into slumber when the clock strikes twelve, only to awaken at cockcrow to find his condition worse than the night before."
"What the hell?" Roxas says. The prophet ignores him. He has a feeling that, behind the black cloth, the prophet's eyes are burning a hole through him.
"The king, wretched, has offered a peck of silver to anyone who would spend a night watching over the prince in his chamber without falling asleep. The punishment for failure, however, is decapitation. For this reason, no one in the kingdom dares to accept the task—until a young lad who was merely passing through steps forward and takes the offer."
The sound of a slamming door rings out behind them and Roxas snaps his head around just in time to catch a smallish figure disappearing into the thick shadow at the far end of the hallway, the golden glint of an oversized crown flashing for a second before fading into darkness.
"That's him? The prince?"
The prophet nods. "Chase him." Roxas stares. Crazy, he thinks, totally crazy. Or maybe I'm crazy for dreaming up this shit.
"You've taken the reward," the prophet goes on. "Now you have to fulfill your duty."
He opens his palm and there, glinting against the black of his glove, is the peck of silver. The slight weight of it feels sinister in his hand. There's nothing for it. He closes his fingers into a fist, gives chase.
He wouldn't call himself a sleepwalker per se, not in the strictest sense of the word. His dreams end in wakefulness that ultimately occurs in bed, he doesn't go anywhere in the spatial sense. But his sleeping journeys seem real enough that it feels exactly like sleepwalking. Once – and only once – he finds himself staring through the crack of a door into an abandoned hotel room. The first thing he sees is Axel's long, naked back. He's kneeling on the floor beside a bed, head buried at Roxas's navel. Roxas himself is sitting on the edge of the bed right in the middle of a bar of sunlight shooting down from the skylight. His face tilted up in pleasure and thrill, heavy gasps of breath audible in the silent air. His propriety fingers tightly knotted in Axel's hair. His eyes glazed and dopey from sweat and sun.
The slice of light is narrow but has a certain buoyant quality that fills up the entire room with a dusty glow, and all of a sudden Roxas entertains the absurd thought that perhaps this light has the ability to permeate skin and flesh, sinking under and shining out from beneath surface membranes, glowing red with the color of living blood. In this moment, he and Axel seem like diaphanous creatures, two members of a light-consuming, translucent-skinned breed glutted on radiance, veins pumped full of light, to the point they're so bloated on the stuff you could scoop halos from their cracked-open ribs.
He remembers this day, clearly. This mission, and what they did after. He remembers that Axel was mean and selfish through it all. At least he's quiet when his mouth is wrapped around Roxas's cock.
Roxas grits his teeth. He wishes he could look away but he can't. The back of his neck beads with sweat, fine strands of hair clinging uncomfortably to his clammy skin, but he can't look away. This is the impact of remembrance. This memory was almost forgotten – suppressed – but dreams do not discriminate between such categories. So here it is again and this is when he realizes that he is scared.
Roxas wants Axel. It's simple as. Roxas wants Axel, Roxas wants Axel, Roxas wants Axel, and if he could just understand why he wants Axel, he suspects he'll immediately stop, which would probably be a good thing. Good, and marvelously simple. Except nothing is ever that simple for them. His want is terrifying, vicious and ravenous, he has to close his fist tightly around it and keep it hidden in the palm of his hand, out of sight out of mind, but even there it burns like a hot lump of coal. If it were to become common knowledge he expects there would be mass panic. Everyone would be afraid of how much he wants Axel.
They should be.
One thing they don't talk about is that day in the schoolyard under a swarming sky, this glorious afternoon dizzily motion-drunk. His ears are filled with blood and his mouth oily; the Keyblades flashing; the flock of Heartless a dark infinite cyclone all around, exuding menace. Hundreds of them, thousands of them, massed and screeching in hair-raising decibels. Hairbreadth danger. He tells himself it's just a job but it's a lie. This is a hunt, hunting for sport. He won't ever be able to give this up, the taste of thrill and the adrenaline in his veins. A funny hormone, triggering the basest of human responses but for those without hearts it's not a bad substitute. It's easier to lose yourself in this chemical head rush than to chase after the unreliable echoes of dead emotions.
Later, the pointlessness of it all will devastate his mind. He'll realize that it's always him out here on the frontiers, granted the dubious privilege to be the first to offer his blood, and for what? But at this moment in time he hasn't realized that yet, and he won't remember it anyway.
"Hey Roxas! Check this out!"
Axel's in the air, perfectly balanced on an invisible wave as he spins gracefully, gaining momentum. It's beautiful, even Roxas has to admit, coaxing an impatient twitch out of his muscles and stilling him for so long a Heartless almost claws his eyes out. The chakram snaps out of Axel's hand, swings in a deadly fractal arc shredding darkness as it goes. The swarm clears, and there is blue sky.
Roxas smirks. "That was pretty brilliant – "
Wordlessly, they both stare at the serrated blade, lodged deep in the skull of a schoolboy. A real one, in blue suspender shorts. What is he doing there? This area should have been cleared the moment the Heartless swooped in. Axel steps forward slowly, pulls his chakram out. It slides free smoothly, liquid red gleaming against hard steel for a second before the weapon dissolves in a blur of light. Roxas thinks, nebulously, that Axel could have de-summoned the chakram without touching it at all.
The journey back is entirely silent. A faint nameless something jitters and hopscotches inside him. Axel makes straight for his room without a word – without looking at Roxas. He grabs a glass off a shelf and a decanter holding a dark gold liquid, tips it with such force it knocks against the rim of the glass and chips off a fragment that falls glittering to the floor. A light without heat. Cold light, Roxas thinks. Just like me.
"Stop looking at me like that," Axel snarls suddenly, gripping the glass with astonishing force. "How was that any worse than what we always do? What do you think happens to the people of those worlds we herd the Heartless into? Commit to being a monster, or get out of the game."
"I didn't say anything!"
"Doesn't matter. I could tell you were thinking it."
"Oh, so you read minds now? You should have said something, I had no idea."
"Fuck off, you sanctimonious bastard!" Axel snaps, looking like he dearly wants to throw the glass at Roxas's head. His words come out like bullets, viciously defensive, as if it's Roxas who has done him an unkindness. Vowels and consonants strike him right between the eyes, and it is imperative that he leaves the room, right now, so he does, reels into the hallway and sags heavily against the far wall.
It's difficult to properly apportion blame. Is there any at all? It was just a job after all. Things happen. Who is he to pass judgment? He's nobody at all.
He feels terribly alone.
He's sitting in a wooden coal cart running on a rail at an unbearably slow pace. Far ahead, he can see another cart ricket-ricket-rickteting along carrying a crowned silhouette. He'll never catch up this way. The prophet sits beside Roxas, hands folded demurely in his lap. He hasn't shut up for hours.
"One of the things I use to document the progress of my atrophy is the fact that I no longer long for the sea. I've almost forgotten what it smells like. It's strange to think that the illusion of endlessness always used to call up in me a sense of unrest. Cold, wet sand gritty between my naked toes, the snapping, salty wind, these things seem to me like memories out of a past life, pastel-colored, unbearably remote."
"What does any of that even mean?" Roxas says irritably. "What the hell are you trying to say to me?"
"I'll tell you another story," the prophet says maddeningly, and launches into it before Roxas can voice a protest. "A long time ago, Princess Cottongrass lived in the Dream Castle, with her father the King and her mother the Queen. Princess Cottongrass was a beautiful blond and slender girl, and she had spent her entire life in the castle. One day when she was playing in the fields a large elk wandered by. 'Who are you with such a splendid crown?' asked the princess. 'I am Long-Leap the Elk.' 'Please carry me into the world and let me see the life outside the castle.' Long-Leap hesitates, warning the princess that the world is dark and dangerous, but the Princess is certain he can protect her, and climbs onto his back and holds onto his antlers. Long-Leap carries her into the forest towards his home."
On and on he rambles, his monotone drilling a hole into Roxas's skull. "Soon, the Princess and the Elk come to a dark tarn in the deepest part of the forest. 'Hold on, there are dangers lurking in the waters.' But Princess Cottongrass is already on the shore looking into the water. As she leans close, her gold heart slips off and disappears into the tarn. The Princess is inconsolable and looks and looks into the water to see if she can find her heart. The Elk asks her to come, but the enchantment already has her in its grip, and she doesn't notice anything around her. Many years have passed, but still Princess Cottongrass gazes longingly into the tarn, looking for her heart. The girl is gone – by now she is just a flower, bearing the Cottongrass name. A small white flower at the edge of the pool."
"What does it mean?" Roxas asks, but as usual he is ignored.
"Now and then the Elk comes to visit. Pauses for a moment and looks at the little one. He is the only one who knows who she is. Cottongrass – the princess. But she no longer wants to follow him back into the world – not for as long as the enchantment binds her. The enchantment lies far beneath the surface. On the bottom of the pool lies a lost heart – a heart of gold."
"I haven't even figured out what's wrong with the prince yet," Roxas says, with as much sarcasm as he can dredge up. "Now you're going to tell me to find this Princess Cottongrass too?"
"No," the prophet says. "That was only an analogy." He might be fucking with him but Roxas can't tell at all. The hardest part of living without a heart is the dissonance. Sometimes Roxas would walk through the seething streets of a town or city on a patrol beat and overhear laughter, raucous and bawdy, in response to some joke or other, except it takes some time for him to recognize it as a joke and even then the humor completely eludes him. For this reason, he stays with the Organization. If you think about it they're not asking for much; just the ability to fucking laugh at something funny.
The cart lurches, and Roxas suddenly feels very ill between his eyes. He fights the urge to lean over the side and retch, fearing that he might topple right out. The prophet is actually smiling. He's never realized how unnerving, how fucking creepy it is to see someone smile at you when you can't see their eyes.
Axel wakes him up with a heavy hand on his neck and an unreadable expression. He's saying Roxas, Roxas over and over like a prayer and when he opens his eyes the room wavers and all he can see in the dark is the faint gleam of red hair on the pillow next to him. Axel's eyes are narrowed to slits, glowing absinthe between pale lids and very focused. He has a feeling he has forgotten something.
Far, far under the water lies a lost heart.
Roxas has a tendency to walk out in the middle of their arguments and Axel has a tendency to follow. To ensure it doesn't happen this time, he opens up a portal and slips down a darkness corridor, tracing steps assured by long habit. He can see perfectly well but it's simpler to let sense memory do the navigation. The corridor ends and a slice of sea wind cuts right across his face, brisk and stinging, sighing in a long, harsh moan that presses up heavily against his ears and rattles his bones.
It smells… dead.
But that isn't true. In truth, it is merely dying. This nameless world is finished, slowly collapsing if you will, but it hasn't seemed to realize that yet. The ley lines are still snapping, charged with negative energy, anti-matter. The horizon is receding inward, suddenly becoming a chartable thing, though it's safe to say any map of this place wouldn't stay the same for long. An unstable reality. He pulls up his hood and strides to the edge of a rocky shelf overlooking the grey water. Sometimes a person just needs a scrap of sea and some good old-fashioned solitude to get his head back on straight.
The next thing Roxas knows he's being dragged out of the surf, gasping and choking up stale brackish water. His eyes sting so badly he wants to cry and the funny thing is if he does it would be the first time. Ever. Someone's saying his name frantically. They're too loud and his water-logged ears ache, he opens his mouth to tell his rescuer thanks and please shut up but only garbled noise comes out. Drowning is traumatic. Trauma can induce memory loss. Speech may be affected. This could be mild aphasia.
They sag down together on the brown, gritty sand and Roxas scrubs at his eyes until Axel floats into focus. His face is wet and pallid, ashen under an ash-colored sky. The black stains underneath his eyes seem more pronounced that way, running down his face in streaks. Crocodile's tears.
"Hey, Roxas," Axel says, voice shaky. "Buddy. You're not allowed to do that to me ever again, okay?"
"I," he croaks. "Fuck. I wasn't trying to kill myself."
"Yeah? Care to explain? Because that's kind of what it looked like from where I was standing."
"I was—" Sleepwalking. "I blacked out for a moment. I must be tired."
"Shit," mutters Axel, rolling over onto his back. He throws his arm over his eyes and laughs. It's not the pleasantest of sounds. "Don't tell me I'm gonna to have to start fighting your dreams too."
He must have opened the wrong door. It is the only possible explanation. There are only two categories to his dreams—pseudo-memories and the chase for the runaway prince, he has never been inside this huge white room before, and the prophet is nowhere in sight. He hears suddenly the rustling sound of paper. It reminds him of fire. When he turns around there is suddenly a long white table in the middle of the floor, a girl climbing out of a big white chair. She is, fittingly, wearing a short white slip. A white sketch book tumbles out of her hand, falling with a quiet whisper of white pages.
"You shouldn't be here," the girl says, voice fluttering like a birdsong.
Roxas stares, fascinated by the soft light of her pale blonde hair gleaming against the glare-soaked, chalk-dusted air around them. "Are you her?"
"Am I who?"
"Princess Cottongrass. Are you her? Are you looking for your heart?"
The girl puts her hand over her mouth. Says, "You can't stay here," even though her big sad eyes look as though they're inviting him to do the exact opposite. She could be a princess, with her flaxen hair and linen limbs and cherry mouth and gripping need for protection. She could be his princess. He takes a step toward her and reaches for her trembling hand to pull it away from her pink lips. Someone grabs his shoulder.
The prophet has arrived. There is bleak tension in his touch. He notices suddenly the way their dark garments seem to drain brightness from the room, like a black hole so dense light can't escape. "You shouldn't be here," he says, much more forcefully than the girl, "We must go now," and pulls Roxas through a door, the girl's despondent face vanishing as it swings close. Roxas imagines that image will stay in his mind forever, the weak glossy blue of her wide, lonesome eyes. He hopes he'll see her again.
Once they're out of the white room Roxas shoves the prophet up against a previously nonexistent wall and crushes their mouths together, digging his teeth into his bottom lip, tasting blood and bitter spit.
"Don't," says the prophet when he breaks away for breath.
"Then stop me." He reaches up and drags his fingers across the blindfold, irrationally peeved. "Why do you wear this?"
This time, the prophet does stop him: he grabs Roxas by the wrist and drags his hand away roughly.
"My eyes cannot lie."
"Oh, that's real funny because I don't think you suffer from the same limitation."
The prophet drops his head, pushes lightly at Roxas's shoulders until he lets up. Roxas rubs his wrist, chasing a phantom pain. "I won't come to you again. Not like this," says the prophet, almost sad. "But we will meet again."
"When the time comes, you'll know."
"Do you ever say anything that makes sense?" Roxas spits.
The prophet looks at him for a moment, and raises his hand to Roxas's face in an improbably tender caress. "I will tell you whatever you need to hear," he says, leaning in to breathe softly against Roxas's neck. "But if you want that, you'll have to go back to the start."
He wakes up aroused and struggling to breathe.
The dreams come to an abrupt end one night, inexplicably, in a lush meadow bursting with spring flowers and life. Roxas finds himself treading through a field, the ground beneath his feet carpeted with red and white and pink and blue. His steps leave a bruised, fragrant trail. He's sick and dizzy and lightheaded from the thick scent, butterfly dust and incessant cries of birds, slogging toward an ending he cannot see. It's hot, he's suffocating, he wants to take off his coat, wants this to be over with already.
Finally, he finds the small figure curled up in a patch of lilac, the big gold crown glittering in the sunlight, studded with emeralds and rubies and so heavy it should crack that slender neck. The hair is brown and mousy. The eyes are blue and bright, the light of a brilliant golden soul shining out from behind them.
"Will you please open the door?" the prince sobs, looking up at him imploringly. "I've tried and tried, but no matter what I do it wouldn't budge. It's dark in here and I'm so terribly cold."
Roxas looks around, blinking like a headlight-struck owl. He can't see very well, the glare of sunlight is too bright, too hot, searing his eyes, but there is indeed a door some ten yards away, solid gold with a gilded handle, as ornate and extravagant as anything else he's seen on this journey. Maybe it will lead back to the king's castle. Perplexed, he moves toward it, blindly grasps the knob and turns but it resists his efforts and will not budge. Why does this feel so familiar?
"Hurry, hurry," the prince cries behind him. It rouses in him a sense of irrational panic, he pushes at the door, then pounds on it. Throws himself against it, sick and sobbing, hammering at it with his fists, ramming it with his shoulder – as if he is the one desperately wanting to get out, to escape – and finally it jars open but it opens outward. A blast of freezing air slaps against his face and he finds himself standing before an abyss, cold and dark, a void, a living nightmare. He recoils from it. He wants to run.
"Thank you," the prince says, coming to stand beside Roxas. "Now I can go home." Just like that he throws himself into that gaping maw. Roxas screams and dives forward to catch him. There is a moment when their not-quite-solid hands brush and the incorporeality of their flesh sends a startling jolt up Roxas's spine, but immediately it is gone and the darkness swallows up the crown prince of the golden kingdom in one gleeful gulp.
The city moans under a thunderstorm. The fingers clamped around his throat are brutal and tight but Roxas can't feel a thing through the bitter cold of the rain streaming down his face and neck. Axel has him pressed up against a wall down some rank alleyway, shaking him, hurting him, earnestly and violently and hypocritically furious.
"What is the matter with you? What is wrong?"
Roxas doesn't answer. Instead, he stares sullenly at the ground. He won't look up; he already knows he won't like what he'll see, and sure it's already raining but fuck if he doesn't miss the cockiness. The highhanded jackassery. The irritating smirks that always make him want to bare his teeth right back. Not a trace of those exists in Axel's voice now, crackling in and out like a miserable radio broadcast. "Talk to me, you asshole. Look at me when I'm talking to you."
Face-to-face, that's the only way they've ever fucked. But if Roxas looks up now – if he looks at Axel, what he'll see will be his cheeks wrapping tightly around the bones of his face, and immediately his throat will close up with what might well be the afterimage of heartbreak. The truth you withhold is the grain of salt you balance in your throat, never once swallowing. It keeps the flesh tender, agitates the wound and prevents it from healing properly, but you learn to live with the pain because to do otherwise would mean accepting that you're living a lie.
They suffer each other, to have each other awhile.
A week later, Roxas leaves.
He goes back to Dark City, where the sky is blubbering still. For three days, he wanders around the gnarled roots of the desolate skyscraper forest, slaying Heartless with zero enthusiasm and getting dirty rainwater in his boots, just as tired and lost as ever but hungering for something more.
On the fourth day, he finds it.
Or rather, it finds him.
Roxas wakes in shackles and pain and delirium and for a moment before the dark figures of his captors throw shadows over him he remembers oh god he remembers. I will tell you whatever you need to hear. Things are pure but they're flawed too; if you want something perfect you have to mix them together. Children who are snatched from their beds in the dead of night offered up as sacrifices for unnamed idols, empty gods have but a single truth to learn. Frightened and disoriented, with the words of false prophets rising in their minds, the old, boring life they so desperately ran from suddenly doesn't seem so bad. But the worst is yet to come, for the worst is the knowledge – of how terribly lonely a person can be, how profoundly and helplessly alone. Behind the grand golden door, a peck of silver in their pocket, each of them will learn that they have been inside what they have wanted all along.
But by this time, he has already forgotten.
"In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, 'Is it good, friend?'
It is bitter — bitter,' he answered,
But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."
— Stephen Crane