This fic was written for Versace Frolic, who bid for it and helped raise over 100k in relief donations over at help_japan on LiveJournal. After mulling over her prompts, I decided it was about time I went to play in the Next Life Fic sandbox. Of course, this being me, it ended up being a horse of a different color.

Warnings: boy/boy situations, language, underage drinking, recreational drug use, race issues.


ver·i·si·mil·i·tude
-noun

xxx

Once there was a boy named Roxas.

He woke up abruptly, without sound or movement aside from his eyes snapping open, converting from sleep to full awareness in less than a second. He wasn't startled, or frightened, or anything more than perfectly comfortable and slightly drowsy; he simply woke, and stared at the crumpled sheets under his cheek.

He noted the state of his sheets, the way his muscles were stiff in some places and aching in others, the uncomfortable pull of tension around his jaw and the tacky press of skin against his back. Breath puffed and feathered over the curve of his shoulder. A knee pressed against his thigh and leg hair irritated the sensitive skin there. An arm lay against his, curving around and mirroring it perfectly, a pale, limp hand resting gently atop his own.

It was at this moment, when Roxas was at his most content, most blissful, languishing in the too-warm weight of Axel against his back and the warmer memories of sex in his bloodstream, that he stared at the place their wrists pressed together and wondered if he was losing his mind.

xxx

1. The appearance or semblance of truth or reality.

xxx

The story needs to start earlier.

There was a party. That in itself was a regularity. Roxas didn't mind parties and he didn't mind getting drunk; he did mind the taste of nearly all forms of alcohol, though, and parties in general were known for having particularly bad tasting varieties. So after two shots of cheap vodka, whatever was in a few cubes of jello, and the requisite red Solo cup of the most horrible keg beer the host could locate, he tracked down the rickety house's bathroom and borrowed some poor soul's toothbrush to try and scrub the flavor off his tongue. He could still taste the beer in the back of his throat, and spent the rest of the night chewing on the mints he swiped from someone's jacket in the master bedroom.

He probably didn't know whoever was hosting the party. In retrospect, he wasn't even sure where it was aside from crappy student-inhabited house near the university which is the standard location for every party ever. Some of the people there were from the college, some were from the high school. Some were from the other high school, which was an important distinction. Roxas was from the high school, or had been until he graduated six months before, and wasn't lucky enough to be from the college yet. He hovered somewhere in the middle of the other partygoers, in the halo of sweat and cigarettes and alcohol breath and the tendrils of marijuana drifting down from the second floor, the drinks and proximity slowly turning all his senses fuzzy around the edges. Vaguely, he was aware that Jose was here somewhere and Lauren was somewhere else and he could probably find both or either of them if he cared to try. He wandered, laughed when the people around him were laughing, danced when the people around him were dancing, and enjoyed being in that area of perfection where you were just tipsy enough to feel good about absolutely everything but not enough to be flat-out drunk.

It wasn't really much of a surprise—or maybe he just forgot to be surprised—when a hand grabbed his wrist and he toppled sideways, and when both he and the world righted themselves, he found himself on a couch. Or, more correctly, found himself on someone who was on a couch.

Someone was sitting at a slouch, and turned his head slightly from where it was lolling over the backrest, sharp red spikes ruffled and popping back into place with the movement. After a few slow blinks an even slower, broad grin spread across Someone's face, crunching up the dark tattoos on his cheeks, in a low, brown voice he drawled, "Heeeeeeeeeeey," with just enough of a lift at the end that a shiver ran down Roxas's spine.

"Hey yourself," he murmured back. It should have been a snap, or an annoyed aside delivered abruptly while he removed himself from Someone's lap in cold and decisive rejection. But it was a soft, amused murmur instead, and Roxas had no desire to go anywhere.

"Man." Someone made this observation in another drawl, shifting and propping himself up with his elbows against the back of the couch. "All I saw was your hair. You know, when I grabbed you." He over-enunciated and drew his words out too slowly-he'd probably had more than enough. Roxas probably should have been annoyed, but he wasn't in the least-and was even less so when Axel reached up and ran the knuckles of two fingers down his cheek, reverently, still grinning like he'd won the lottery. "God damn," he added, so close that the end of the word was a puff against Roxas's lips.

And then they were kissing.

There were a number of things that Roxas didn't think about while this was happening. He didn't think about the fact that he was kissing someone he'd known for all of thirty seconds. He didn't think about the fact that he was kissing a boy, which he'd never done before or even considered doing, and neither did he concern himself with the fact that he didn't seem to have a problem with this. He did appreciate that Someone had apparently stuck to hard alcohol and didn't taste at all like the terrible keg beer. He also appreciated the low intensity of the kiss, how it was soft and deep with just a few brushes of tongue, how Someone's fingers traced over his neck and urged him closer without pulling or demanding. He didn't notice how his own arms settled easily around Someone's shoulders, how his fingers traced a little line up and down along the curve of Someone's spine and how this made him shiver. He didn't think about how he knew that trick, or why he felt less like he was kissing a stranger and more like he was kissing someone he'd known all his life.

It ended with a contented murmur—who had made the sound didn't matter—and foreheads pressed together, Someone smiling a wide, pleased, drunk smile and chuckling a little. Roxas offered a wry half-smile back, and said, "Now that we're intimately acquainted, what should I call you?"

Someone's smile became less drunk and more calculating, teasing. "Most people make something up." His eyes were green. Deep, preternaturally emerald green.

"Axel," Roxas said without even thinking about it, the word rolling off his tongue so naturally it barely required movement.

Someone's eyes widened, more lucid for a moment while he took the name in, tried repeating it soundlessly, then smiled in a way that wasn't drunk or teasing or flirtatious. It was real and beautiful, and Roxas didn't think about how it was meant only for him. "Yeah. Let's go with that."

"I'm Roxas," he continued to complete the introduction, and Axel was probably the first person he'd ever met who didn't comment on the unusual name, ask how to pronounce it, or ponder its ethnicity. He just nodded, grinned, and repeated it in a low, sultry voice.

"So," Axel continued, laying back against the couch again and looking up at him through slitted eyes, "Roxas. Other than being blond and eating tic-tacs by the box, what do you do?"

Roxas blinked, twice, processing the entirety of that sentence multiple times and deciding that either Axel was really drunk or had a really bad sense of humor. "I'm a janitor. Currently, anyhow."

"Very glamorous," Axel assured him. "I didn't think you were old enough to be working."

"Eighteen. Just graduated in the spring." Roxas looked his companion up and down, noting his lanky limbs and lean torso; he couldn't tell but there might very well be some muscle under that t-shirt. It was strangely hard to place a definite age on him. "You?"

"Still doing time in day care internment for teenagers. I mean high school." Axel grinned. "Junior. Jailbait."

Roxas blinked again. Wow. He didn't look that young, but it wasn't like Roxas himself looked his age, either. "Well, if anyone asks, you're the one who came on to me."

"That's right, officer," Axel murmured, grin stretching to the corners of his face.

And then they were kissing again.

The rest of the world had disappeared long before, right around the time the hand had closed on his wrist and Roxas found himself on Axel's lap. There was no party, no crowd of people, no one else in the universe and nothing around them but stars and time. They existed in their own small microcosm, fingers brushing back hair, stroking down cheeks, eyes meeting, smiles stretching around kisses, sometimes brief, sometimes deep, sometimes long and slow. Roxas felt too light for his body, giddy and indescribably content, and he would say later that it was less like falling in love and more like remembering that he always had been.

And then, abruptly, someone grabbed him by the collar and dragged him back into the real world.

Roxas stumbled, jarred by the sudden presence of a crowd, roaring music and roaring voices trying to talk over it, too-warm air suddenly cloying with smoke and the smell of dozens of people packed into a space too small for them. Jose had him firmly by the scruff, and was frowning in the directed way that usually meant it was time to get the fuck out because something was going south. He stumbled again as they started moving away, looking back towards the couch, but he barely caught a glimpse of Axel as someone who must be one of his friends hefted his lanky form up off of it and muttered something like, "Come on, let's go walk it off." They were pulled in two different directions. Roxas thought he might have caught the green edge of Axel's stare before the crowd filled the void between them.

There was a strange tension to the party that he didn't remember it having before, and he felt it all the way through the house to the front door, onto the porch where the smokers spilled out into the lawn, and continued as they moved on down the sidewalk. Jose had a cigarette smoking in his mouth and one heavy arm firmly around Roxas's shoulders, as though to assure both that he was going in the right direction and that he couldn't change his mind. Occasionally his stare would shift over to Roxas, and then he'd spit out a stream of smoke and grumble to himself in Spanish. After three years of high school language classes Roxas could still only make out a quarter of the things Jose said when he was pissed off.

The road widened out and brightened into downtown, small knots of people in various stages of intoxication moving to and fro, scampering across intersections, pausing to light cigarettes, calling to each other across the tops of slow-moving cars. Hayner steered them deftly through the revelers, past the lines outside the nightclubs and finally into the all-night cafe. He didn't bother waiting for the hostess, just waved to the dark-brown mustached line chef behind the order counter and pushed Roxas into a booth, turning both their coffee cups right side up.

In the greenish light of the cafe Roxas started to come back to his senses. He still felt too warm, his skin was still tingling everywhere Axel had touched him, could still taste Axel in his mouth, cranberries and vodka mostly. It was like coming down from a high, looking at his hands and dumbly watching the waitress pour their coffee, inhaling the smell of it to clear his head.

After that, he started thinking all of the things he hadn't thought before.

Jose waited until the waitress was gone and he had another cigarette smoking in the ashtray to lean over the table on his elbows and hiss, "Okay hermano, what the fuck was that? Since when are you into guys?" Jose's accent got thicker the angrier he was. Right now he was about 4.3 on a scale of five.

Roxas turned the coffee cup between his fingers, pushing it around idly until his thumbs were resting on the handle. "I don't know."

"You don't know." Jose's voice was a hiss and he took a long drag off his cigarette to dispel some of the tension tightening around him. "You were about five minutes away from causing a fucking riot, entendito? You don't just sit down on a couch in the middle of a fucking house party and start making out with another hombre. Every racist homophobe in the entire fucking place was seconds from meltdown. There were frathouse bros coming down the stairs with baseball bats. You're damn fucking lucky I was taking a shot with one of his amigos or I wouldn't have saved your sorry ass in time." He drew another breath of smoke, stabbing the cigarette out in a gesture of finality. "So don't sit there and tell me I don't know."

Roxas stared back, stunned into silence for a long moment and refocusing, instead, on Jose's sharp Latino features, the harsh cut of black hair. How he'd been curly-haired and baby-faced back in elementary school and how Madre would have slapped his mouth and scolded them both in harsh Spanish for using such language. It was easier and quieter to think about that than to consider his tryst with Axel being interrupted not by Jose's hand on his collar but by a baseball bat to the head.

(Once in junior high a posse of gringos jumped Jose on his way home, fists raining like iron hailstones while they told him to go back to his own country and stop taking people's jobs. He needed four stitches in his face. Roxas had washed the blood out of his shirt in the kitchen sink while Madre took him to the doctor. Jose never looked like a baby again.)

Fingers snapped under his nose. "Oy, loverboy! Wake up!"

Roxas sucked in a breath and sat back in his seat, arms crossed defensively over the table. "I don't know. It was..." Strange. Uncanny. Overpowering. "You remember kindergarten, when the teacher sat us next to each other?" He could still smell the classroom. Crayola crayons and graham crackers. "For a minute, you just stared at me. And then you said, You must be my brother."

Jose was frowning, head turned to the side in denial of the emotional air of the memory, too hardened by life and masculinity to admit such a thing willingly. Finally, though, he looked down at the table, one hand scratching through his hair. "And you said, Yeah."

"It was like that." Just thinking back on it made his stare reverse itself, look back through time to that moment, staring into eyes too green for reality and smiling. The memory made him float up from the seat, made the core of his being shiver in contentment. "I just knew."

xxx

2. Something having merely the appearance of truth.

xxx

Damian had gone to the other high school, but Roxas never held that against him. He lived in a converted townhouse flat on the lower end of downtown with pocket doors and brass radiators and no screens in the windows and a fusebox that blew whenever he had too many amps plugged in at once. Mostly Roxas showed up and walked in unannounced through his eminently unlocked front door, padded up the stairs in time with a thrumming bass guitar and flopped down on a beanbag or a floor cushion and napped or scribbled something on whatever paper was available or dug through the Bohemian detritus of Damian's apartment until he found a bong.

On Wednesday, he'd gone with the third option, and after finding a nickel bag stashed in the Cheech & Chong DVD case he was lolling on a beanbag in utter contentment, staring at the textured pattern of Damian's ceiling as it crawled and whirled around itself. He was thinking about strawberry ice cream, and water, and listening to the wave and crash of voices and instruments drifting through the half-closed pocket doors, and then the beanbag sighed as another body flopped onto it. He turned his head and Axel was there.

That was pretty awesome.

The first thing he did—no, the first thing he did was grin wide enough to split his face, too high to be demure or stoic, and then he wound his arms around Axel's neck and kissed him. It was several minutes after that before he thought to breathe, and then thought to pull back and trail his fingers all over Axel's face, marveling at the softness of skin and the grit of stubble tickling his nerve receptors. Everything felt so cool. "How do you know Damian?" he asked, as it finally occurred to him that he would not have expected Axel to appear in this particular space.

"School," Axel replied simply, eyes fluttering closed as Roxas's touch trailed over his lips. "You?"

"Oh, you go to the other high school," Roxas drawled and chuckled, painting imaginary lines down Axel's chin to his throat, then spreading them out to trace along his collarbones. "He's a friend of a friend who ended up being a better friend than the original friend." Roxas managed to say this both quickly and without stumbling, somehow, and he traced around the edges of Axel's collarbone up to his shoulders, frowning a little. "Did you wear black last time I saw you?"

Axel's eyes opened abruptly. "What? No."

"You look good in black," Roxas said, having a very clear mental image of this for no particular reason. "You should wear it more often."

"Stoner," he chuckled, but didn't seem to mind much since it was followed by a kiss.

"Roxas." The sound of the name on Axel's lips made him open his eyes, and he didn't remember closing them. "I know you're pretty baked right now, but..." Axel's smile quirked up on one side and then faded away, thumb brushing back and forth over Roxas's chin. Staring. "Last weekend, after I sobered up I started thinking." He paused there, mouth still open, but after several seconds passed he still didn't continue. Like he'd gotten stuck in time.

Roxas chuckled, not really meaning to take it lightly but physically unable to do anything else. "This is pretty weird, huh?"

The look of immense relief that washed over Axel at that moment made his eyes close, his breath escape his body in a rush. "Yeah. Yeah, that's it. You... it's the same for you too, right? You get what I'm saying?"

"Mm." Roxas hummed to himself, letting his eyes fall closed again, enjoying the fingertips tracing his cheek. "Like we've known each other forever."

"Yeah." Axel's voice was soft, fingers trailing up into his hair, dragging slowly down the side of his face. There was a small smile on his lips when Roxas cracked his eyes open again. "Pretty wild, huh? I never would have thought..." He paused as though he was going to continue the thought and hummed instead.

That I'd fall for a guy, Roxas finished in his head. "I don't mind if you don't."

"Not at all." Axel's voice was almost painfully soft, suddenly close, so close their noses were brushing and he could feel Axel's breath on his lips. "Not if it's you."

If he was in a sober state and not so close in Axel's proximity, Roxas might have wondered why he out of all the billions of people in the world was so particular.

Damian wandered in at some point, red-eyed and good-humored, and stared down at them in puzzlement for a protracted minute or two, scratching his head. Finally, though, he shrugged, apparently deciding to accept this unexpected development on his beanbag without question. "We're going to the store. You guys need anything?"

"Water," Roxas said reflexively, mouth muffled against Axel's neck. "Cheetos."

"Grab me a hoagie, bro. I missed dinner," Axel added, reaching up to bump knuckles before Damian made his exit, hand waving over his shoulder.

"No prob."

There was a mess of noises and voices and feet tramping down the stairs, then the door swung shut and the apartment was silent. Roxas snuggled closer and sighed, pausing there longer than he intended as time escaped him for a moment. He shifted up onto his elbow when it came back to him, propping his head up and smiling softly. "Wanna smoke a bowl?"

Axel looked like he was considering it, but shook his head. "Not right now. Maybe in a bit." His tongue wet his lips and Roxas could see a hint of his teeth, white and dangerous. "There's something I want to do first."

The flow of time around Roxas seemed to be in slow motion, his mind moving several steps ahead of what was happening. He could feel Axel's hands on his stomach before he'd even lifted away the t-shirt covering it. He knew exactly which way to turn his head when Axel's lips slid down along his throat, knew that Axel would bite down on his skin if he slid his fingernails down his back, that his fingers would tighten in Roxas's clothes if Roxas arched into his touch and moaned softly. When Axel pushed his shirt further up, kissed slowly down his chest until his lips and touch melted into the hypersensitive skin just above the band of his boxers, he knew exactly what Axel's mouth would feel like, minutes before he felt it.

His vision blurred. He was sure Axel was dressed in black.

"...not the first time," he murmured, groggy and incoherent, right before gasping and burying his hands in Axel's hair.

He didn't mean that it wasn't his first time. Roxas considered himself mostly a virgin by virtue or lack thereof of a few unfortunate encounters with girls back in high school, mostly characterized by prematurity, and he wasn't talking about age. He didn't mean that it wasn't the first time someone had gone down on him, either, because that would be a fucking lie. To be honest, he wasn't entirely sure what he meant, and less than a second later whatever he meant didn't matter, because his mind had gone white and blank of anything but shuddering pleasure and the rough feel of Axel's hair against his palms.

It was possible that he passed out after that, or fell asleep. It was possible that after bringing him to a shivering, soundless orgasm Axel loaded them a bowl and he was just too high to remember what happened from that point on. It was possible that after that shivering, soundless orgasm he simply wasn't capable of further thought. For whatever of the above reasons, Roxas only remembered bits and pieces of the rest of the evening, and most of them involved Axel laughing, or smiling, or kissing him gently on the forehead, the cheekbones, the lips. He woke up sometime late in the morning on Thursday, mind thick and cloudy, body thrumming with kinetic memory.

Damian had coffee in the tiny, cramped kitchen, a cup already waiting for Roxas on the two-person table, potatoes frying on the gas stove, bread waiting to be pressed into the toaster. No one else seemed to have stayed, so he shuffled in and sat down and watched Demyx hum to himself and pull a carton of eggs out of the fridge.

"Did Axel leave me his number or anything?" It took a few sips of coffee to work up enough brainpower to ask the question.

Damian paused and threw a confused look over his shoulder. "Who?"

Roxas didn't even remember until that moment that Axel wasn't actually his name. "You know. Tall, skinny, lots of red hair."

"Don't know anyone by that description."

"He was just here last night." Roxas grumbled, dropping his coffee to the table with a thump. "The guy I was with on the beanbag, you were looking right at us. You know who I'm talking about."

The frown Damian was wearing was kind of eerie, and he had frozen in place, egg against the rim of the frying pan, looking Roxas over as though searching for a fatal wound. "Yeah, I know Lee, and I remember that, believe me. It was fucking weird. You two don't exactly make a complimentary couple, you know what I mean?"

"Why," Roxas scowled, years of practice throwing up his defenses automatically, hurt that Damian would immediately go there. "Because he's white?"

"No. Fuck no, man, that's not it at all. Come on, I'm not like that." He cracked the egg finally, moved the potatoes to the side so it had space to fry. "I just mean that you're this little grungy emo kid and he's..."

Roxas shrugged. "A punk?"

Damian had that look again. "Dude, the way you describe him isn't even remotely close to what he looks like. How much did you smoke last night?"

It hadn't been that much. He'd been pretty baked when Axel showed up, but he'd seen him before, looking the same way. "It's not like this is the first time I've met him. I know what he looks like."

Damian's eyebrows drew together until there were three wrinkles between them, and he turned back to the stove. He didn't speak again until he was scraping the contents of the frying pan into the plate in front of Roxas, and then it was just a quiet, "Hold on a sec."

Roxas picked at the food in front of him while Damian disappeared back into the living room. He returned a minute later with a thick green yearbook in his hands, flipping through it as he walked. He stopped at the same time he arrived next to Roxas's chair, and flipped the book around for him to see, one finger against a black and white photo. "There. Brian Lee. It's from last year, but you get the idea."

Roxas squinted at a picture of what was probably the most generic jock ever. Regulation blond-tipped mall-salon haircut, square jaw, broad shoulders, probably played football in the fall and track in the spring and spent his weekends with his parents at the yacht club. Fake-charming smile and sparkling eyes and everything. There were millions of him in the world. "Okay. So? I've never seen him before in my life."

"Dude." The wrinkles between Damian's eyebrows were getting more pronounced by the second, mouth turning into a frown that was equal parts concerned, disturbed and mildly terrified. "That's the guy you were cuddling with on my beanbag last night."

xxx

3. The semblance of reality in dramatic or nondramatic fiction.
The concept implies that either the action represented must be acceptable or convincing according to the audience's own experience or knowledge
or, as in the presentation of science fiction or tales of the supernatural, the audience must be enticed into willingly suspending disbelief and accepting improbable actions as true within the framework of the narrative.

xxx

Roxas ate lunch sitting on a floor buffer, plastic-wrapped sandwich in one hand and phone flipped open in the other. Jose was sitting on another buffer at his side, deeply involved with a styrofoam box of take-out. It was uncanny, sometimes, watching a Mexican kid eat chow mein with chopsticks. American multiculturalism.

"If you're going to call, call," Jose grumbled around the food in his mouth. "If not put the goddamn phone away."

The night shift was halfway over at nine o'clock PM. Roxas stared at the number in his contact list, entered under the heading Axel because he didn't want to consider the alternative. Damian had recited it to him somberly, biting his lip afterwards, and hadn't said anything else until Roxas left.

"Look, this isn't my area." Jose licked some juice off of his thumb and tossed the box into the trashcan on the cart nearby. "It's already long past the point of Way Too Fuckin' Weird for me. Justin is the one who knew all the occult paranormal shit, and he was lucky enough to leave this hole of a town for college. If you want answers to that, call him or something, or have Lauren call him." He stood up suddenly and paced to the side, facing out towards the stairs to the third floor that still needed their attention. Trash taken out, bathrooms cleaned, floors buffed to a high gloss.

"I'm gonna level with you, Matt," Jose used the name deliberately, to get his attention, to prove he was serious. "It's not just all this psychic illusion past life bullshit. I never expected to deal with something like this, with you. I mean, you with a hombre?" He made a tutting sound between his teeth that ended in a hiss, shaking his head. "I guess that's what the political kids call being heterosexist or whatever. But you're my brother. If you love this guy, if he makes you happy, I want you to be with him. So fucking call him. Don't just give up because you need an eye exam." Hayner finished his speech and folded his arms, shoulders tight. "Or a head exam."

"I don't think it's just me." Roxas ran his thumb over the keypad, flipping the phone closed with a snap. "When I met him at the party, he said something about me being blond."

Jose turned slightly, eying him up and down, and broke into a barking laugh. "Dios mio, he was fucking wasted."

"That's what I thought, too." And then he saw the picture in Damian's yearbook.

"So, is that it?" Jose took a few steps back, arms still folded. "You're afraid he thinks you're a white boy?"

"Wouldn't you be? Say you met someone online and got to know her really well, and maybe you know she's white and from a privileged family that probably wouldn't approve of you at all. Maybe you really think you're falling for her and want to meet her in person. Maybe she says she loves you and wants to meet you, too." Roxas shrugged, the motion of his shoulders going up and down tight against his skin. He reached up and pulled a lock of razor-straight black hair down between his eyes, barely visible in the cross of space between them. "Wouldn't you be terrified of how she'd react when she saw you?"

Jose stayed where he was for a minute, eyes trained straight ahead. After that minute he dropped his arms and stalked back over to his buffer, kicking it back to wheel it towards the stairs. "If she loved the color she thought my skin was more than me, she wasn't worth it to begin with."

The buffer disappeared slowly up the steps behind Jose, cord bumping along behind it like a limp tail, and Roxas waited until all three had vanished before murmuring, "Easy enough to say so."

xxx

Roxas called Axel a week later and asked him out to dinner on Friday. Up until that point his thoughts were haunted by green eyes and a black and white photo and the idea of blond hair and the question What do you know about past life regression? that he almost but never quite called Justin to ask. He sat at his rickety aluminum desk and scribbled image after image of the person he saw when he looked at Axel and wondered if he would ever have the heart to show him. Finally, though, he flipped open the phone and dialed the number before he could stop himself, and the moment he heard Axel murmuring his name in that low, sultry tone Roxas's mind was occupied with altogether different thoughts.

He had never done things like this before. Had never thought about them. He was practically a virgin. In the shower he bit his lip and leaned back against the wall, reached down between his legs and back as far as he could and knew exactly what it would feel like if Axel touched him there, if Axel's fingers slid inside him and stretched him open, if Axel pushed inside and fucked him deep and hard and fast, teeth against his neck, hands squeezing his hips. He choked on his breath and his body shivered and shuddered as the memories washed over him. He came into his hand and slid down to sit limp under the spray of cooling water and knew that he was going to do it. That he was losing his mind.

That he was too fucking in love not to.

xxx

They got burgers and fries and milkshakes at the drive-in and sat in the middle of a crowd of college students and talked about television and chess and drag queens. They took their half-finished shakes and walked from there to the docks and talked about family vacations and dog shows and aluminum foil. They sat with their toes brushing the tips of the waves while the sun set and talked about starfish and politics and card games until the fading light turned to red and talking became less important than gentle touches and soft kisses.

Roxas pulled away and sat with his back against a wooden pile, watching the halo of sunset around Axel's edges. "What do you see when you look at me?"

Axel's smile was lopsided, teasing, eyes flashing with desire. "The most gorgeous creature on the planet."

Roxas balked, flushed, almost lost his nerve. He was going to ask this, though. He had to know. "Okay, if you say so."

"You want specifics?" Axel asked, grinning when he nodded, and moved closer, fingers brushing down his cheek, breath puffing against his lips. "I see golden blond hair, too thick to lay flat." Axel ran his hand through it, ruffling, tugging gently at a lock. "Soft pale skin that you can only see the freckles on from up close." One finger trailed across the bridge of Roxas's nose and along his cheekbone for emphasis. "Eyes so blue it almost hurts to look at. Is that good, or do you want me to be more poetic?"

Roxas's eyes started stinging at blond, and by the time Axel breathed the word blue with a rich and deep devotion Roxas had to jerk his head away, look down to the side and try to catch the tears sliding down his cheeks before Axel saw them. It had to be some kind of cruel joke.

"Hey." Axel's voice was a soft murmur. "Roxas? Hey."

He drew in a breath, rubbing a wrist across his eyes ineffectually and looked up at Axel and the harsh shadows around him. "Let's go to my place."

Roxas's place was a crummy apartment in the university ghetto, a single room separated with a curtain hanging over an old rolling chalkboard he'd found at a thrift store. He made half a pot of coffee and drank half a cup without saying much of anything, then went to the bathroom and stared in the mirror wondering what it would be like to look the way Axel thought he did. The ultimate Americanized ideal of beauty, pale and blond and blue-eyed. There was no way to superimpose such a thing over what he saw in the mirror, and he stood there staring until he had to lean over the sink and wait for his body to stop shaking, wash his face with cold water to clear away the redness and the salt streaks. When he finally emerged Axel was leaning against the wall across from the door, hands in his pockets, mouth turned down in a pensive frown.

"I'm sorry," Axel murmured, head turned to the side. "Whatever I said that was wrong, I'm sorry." Please don't cry anymore.

There were a number of things that Roxas wanted to ask but didn't. Would you still love me if you could see me the way I really am? was the one that echoed around inside his head the most. Would I still love you if I could see you the way you really are? was smaller and darker and clung to the edges of his heart, gnawing at it, drilling holes into the best feelings he had there and threatening to pour poison inside. There were other logistical questions having to do with why neither of them could see reality, what had happened to forge such a bond between their souls that defied the limits of memory and personality and life itself.

Who either of them were, really.

"It's okay," he murmured, moving closer to Axel until arms came up and wrapped tight around him. "It's okay, just..." Love me.

Axel did.

There was a point that was reached roughly twenty minutes later, knees digging into the mattress, Axel's palm on his chest, back arching, feeling the slide and burn of Axel inside him for the first time, only not. The sweet churning anticipation in his stomach wasn't fear or anxiety but the sheer excitement of getting this back, finding the feelings he already knew and drowning himself in them. It was at this point, eyes closed, head falling back, Axel's fingers brushing over his lips and that rough, sultry voice stuttering oh god, oh god that Roxas knew this had nothing to do with appearance. It was physical but deeper, it was pulse and blood and breath and nerves and the electrical impulses of pleasure and feeling, and it was this that tied them together, merged them into one body of sensation.

It was at this point that Roxas shuddered, moaned softly, and the thought rose up into his mind, This is what I've been waiting for.

xxx

In spite of the air of fable ... the public were still not at all disposed to receive it as fable. I thence concluded that the facts of my narrative would prove of such a nature as to carry with them sufficient evidence of their own authenticity.
Edgar Allen Poe

xxx

Once there was a boy named Matthew Villanueva. He was short and skinny, dark-skinned and plain-faced and after his twelfth birthday he started letting his bangs grow out too long in an attempt to hide the epicanthic folds in his eyelids. One day he was looking at the translation of his mother's birth certificate and his attention zeroed in like a simulation target on the name of the city in the Philippines where she was born. He stared at the word for over an hour, entranced and fascinated, and after that day he started insisting that all his friends call him Roxas.

When he was fifteen, in the grip of an unknown compulsion he found a needle and ink and a fortuitous body of instruction on the internet and stabbed a tiny tattoo of the Roman numeral thirteen into the fleshy pad of his left wrist. It hurt more than he expected and took longer than he thought it would to heal, and his mother thought it was some kind of gang symbol and used it as an excuse to kick him out of the house for good. He lived with Jose and Madre after that, graduated from high school against all odds, and got a crummy college ghetto apartment and a crummy job cleaning a corporate office five nights a week.

When he was eighteen, he woke up in his bed with a boy two years younger than him named Brian Lee, and stared at the place their wrists pressed together, pale white against burnished gold. He had a tattoo in the exact same place, the exact same size and most likely equally homemade, of the Roman numeral eight.

What do you know about past life regression? Roxas thought, tangling their fingers together and knowing that if Axel saw the same thing he'd see their fingers in the same pale color with only a shade or two of difference. Could he accept the possibility that Brian Lee and Matthew Villanueva might love each other as much as Axel and Roxas did? Could he accept that more or less or equally as much as the possibility that what Axel and Roxas loved was the image and illusion of what they used to be?

"I suppose it doesn't matter," he whispered, to the silence of the room and the breathing against his back and the sheets under his cheek, "if it means I'll always know who you are."

There was no good way to answer such questions.