The Longest Day
Disclaimer: While minor facts have been changed in this story, the events are all in proper order and have been researched. This story is not a political statement and is instead meant to bring honor to the innocent civilians and heroic firefighters/policemen who died during the longest day in American history.
Pairings: Axel/Roxas, Demyx/Zexion
Edit: Huge thank you to my beta, Kunoichi21 for going back through this and making corrections where they were needed! Hinthint:you guys should go check out some of her stuff. ;)
Axel woke up, bleary, rolling over to shade his eyes from the sun flittering in the window past the blinds. Blandly checking the clock on his bedside table, he noted that he only had five more minutes until his alarm went off and he'd be forced to actually get up for the day. He hated it when he woke up before his alarm, it made him so much more aware of how desperately he wanted to go back to sleep. It always felt like he'd only gone to sleep an hour ago.
Pressing his palms to his face and kneading his closed eyes, he thought about what he'd have to do that day. It was Zexion's turn to drive via their carpool schedule, and Zexion had his underground parking pass revoked when Demyx accidentally hit a BMW. So they'd have to walk a ways. He had a workshop at eight thirty for the newbies and another after noon. Then the company meeting at three, followed by a dinner/work session with a few stuck-ups at Chamber Street Wines. He hoped they paid this time, that place was expensive.
Ugh, Axel thought, he'd have to help them with the settlement today. This was the last thing he wanted to do on a Tuesday morning.
Slamming his hand down on the alarm as it went off, he scooted around to his other side and let out a small smile. Roxas was passed out; the kid was such a light sleeper even if he was exhausted from his night shift. Axel hadn't felt him get into bed that morning after bar close. The poor blond looked so overworked. The redhead leaned over and pecked the smooth skin of his lover's cheek. Axel let out a lopsided grin as Roxas swatted his morning kiss away with his usual baleful distain.
"Go away," the blond moaned, pulling the comforter up over his face and going back to sleep.
Axel let out a long yawn and padded to the bathroom, scratching his hair.
As he tugged his suit on, the redhead listened to the radio on low volume in the kitchen. Roxas would screech like a bat out of hell if Axel woke him up that early so he had learned to keep his morning rituals as silent as possible. He expertly looped his tie around his neck, checking the mirror to make sure it was straight as he gurgled mouthwash and spat it out. After rinsing the sink and pulling on a pair of what he called his 'fancy work socks,' Axel gave one last glance to the mirror. The smell of brewing coffee wafted through his nose as he walked back into the kitchen.
A cheerful voice was tittering as Axel popped some pastries in the toaster.
"Good morning New York, it's 6:50 on Tuesday, September 11th, and today is a primary election day. What's the weather look like for the many voters out there, Bob?"
"Well Mandy, it's going to be lovely weather out-"
Axel shut the radio off as he slipped into his black shiny shoes, checked over his briefcase once more, pulled the pastry from its toasty machine and snagged a square of paper towel off the stand. Roxas was always fussy when he made a mess, so Axel made sure he didn't leave any crumbs on the countertop. Most people would find OCD clean freaks annoying to house with but the redhead felt it was one of the blond's many adorable quirks — adorable being a word that was never mentioned around said boy, for fear of being maimed.
Pouring some coffee swiftly into a container, he twisted the lid on and left the maker on for when Roxas woke up. Walking back into the bedroom the redhead leaned over and gently kissed the messy, spiky hair that peeked out of the comforter. Roxy hated when he woke him up, but doing this was a comforting ritual for Axel.
"Love you, Rox," Axel murmured, smiling fondly at his lover of four years. No response, which was equally no surprise.
A swift knock on the front door alerted him to Zexion's arrival. Right on time as usual. He munched on his pastry after locking the door. They walked down the stairwell together in their companionable silence. Zexion was even less of a morning person than he was. It usually took him a full twenty minutes to function properly. It was so unlike Demyx, Zexion's own partner, who was constantly hyper and the cheery type. Axel would know; he'd gone to high school with the musician.
Zexion fished his keys out of his suit pocket, the rear lights double flashing as the doors unlocked.
Lower Manhattan traffic was a nightmare. Honking horns, oversized buses, the sound of angry New Yorkers shouting at one another and shaking fists, tourists meandering like retards with their faces turned towards the sky – always gawking at the large buildings without regards to where they were walking. As if that was anything new. Axel lounged, palming his face into his hand with his coffee cradled between his thighs. He wanted another pastry.
Zexion was more awake now; his eyes narrowed in distain as he glared past his windshield.
"Damn bitch," he muttered under his breath as a woman cut him off with her mini-van. Zexion honked aggressively, the women flipped him off from her rear view mirror.
Axel smiled as he cocked his head, "Now, now, shall we try and not road rage this morning?"
Zexion greeted Axel with steely silence. Axel blew on his coffee, watching the sights of early morning. He was feeling a lot more awake with all the caffeine in his system, and was mentally going through the check list of things he would need prepared before the eight-thirty lecture.
"I think we need to park over on Park Place," Zexion finally said, turning sharply to avoid hitting a tourist. "I'm still irritated that I lost my parking pass."
"Yeah, I've heard this before. Park wherever," Axel responded meekly, earning a swat on his arm.
The pair finally found a spot to park, Zexion pulling out his tire-donut so his car wouldn't get stolen during the day. He locked the vehicle and the pair strutted towards their office building in their nine-to-five work suits. Only at their job, it was more like an eight-to-nine job. They really worked too many hours.
"So was Dem all excited about his birthday present?" Axel asked conversationally.
Zexion pulled his briefcase under his arm as he checked the time on his Nokia cell phone.
"Yes, I suppose so. He got all teary-eyed, 'how did you know?'" Zexion gave a poor imitation of his boyfriend.
Axel snorted, "I can picture that. Well, you did get him the sitar he'd been whining about for months."
Zexion held the door open for Axel as they entered the cheerfully sunny West Side Lobby.
Zexion sighed loudly, "At least I don't have to listen to him complain about it anymore. Do you know how expensive those stupid instruments are? Seriously, it cost as much as one month of rent."
"Oh the price of love and sex." Axel earned himself a glare as he punched elevator button. They waited for a long beat.
"You know, I was so happy when I got my job here," the redhead told his friend. "All like, I'm working in the World Trade Center now, I'm so legit. Now it's like, fu~ck, this stupid elevator takes forever."
"Would you rather take the stairs?" Zexion quipped.
Zexion smirked at his own joke while the doors slid open, pressing floor eighty-eight while Axel punched seventy-seven. It was a running joke between them that in order to work in the same building (even if said building was a pair of the largest in the world) they had to be at least ten floors apart. Axel checked his watch for the time, the elevator stopping at several floors on the way up. He thought they should've taken the express elevator. It took nearly nine minutes to finally get to his floor.
Axel waved his friend goodbye, "It's gonna be a long day."
Axel was running late. Well, he was usually running late but this morning he'd gotten there early so he had planned not to be late. Stupid printer.
He was trying to get all the handbooks finished before his seminar. Of course the printer jammed, like the dedicated device it was. And he was reduced to swearing and tugging pieces of ripped paper from the ancient piece of shit. Weren't they supposed to be a super fancy corporation in a super fancy building? So why not fold and purchase a new printer for the sanity of the businessmen? Hell, if a complex of buildings had its own zip code, it deserved nice things.
Finally giving up on the useless endeavor – he'd have to finish them during his lunch break – he ran back to his office and grabbed his work folder. Jogging up a flight of stairs, he opened the door to the large office that would be his workroom for the day. Realizing that he left his cellphone downstairs, he debated going back to get it but he still had some stuff to write on the whiteboard. He usually texted Roxas before he started work, just because it annoyed him, but he'd have to hold on that till lunch also.
"So much to do," Axel hummed to himself. Axel was in charge of teaching newbie employees about the code of ethics in the WTC, and about sexual harassment, and how not to act inappropriate to peoples of other races, religions, and political beliefs. Which was invariably stupid because they live in New York City after all. But policy was policy.
Roxas always gave him shit for his job, saying he was the worse example of an ethical person, but Axel genuinely liked his work most days. A few of the newbies were starting to trickle in, each clutching a cup of coffee like it was their only lifeline. He recognized them from the notepad his boss had given him last Friday.
The redhead began to brew a new pot with the coffee machine in the corner, again mentally notching down his checklist before he uncapped a marker and started writing swirly letters.
Turning around, he began his lecture per usual. He handed out sheets of paper and ostentatious smell-scented markers.
"Write your name on a sheet of paper, your job position, and what floor you'll now suffer on. Great, that's nice, we've all graduated kindergarten." He said sarcastically.
This usually got a chuckle, and Axel knew that it was important to get them relaxed and feeling like this four hour seminar wouldn't be a total waste of time. Only then did it become bearable. If he could get the work done and get them laughing, in his book he was doing everything right.
"Now grab some coffee," he pointed at the brewing pot, "if you don't have any, you'll need it. It's way too early for this on a Tuesday."
Axel smiled at the group, "And this is some pretty boring and straight-forward stuff we are going to suffer through today."
He had just handed out some copies of the schedule for their workshop and was passing around empty notepads and mechanical pencils to take notes. A few newbies were trying to appear attentive, while others were obviously not so thrilled.
Suddenly, from outside the door, they heard a woman scream. Then the loudest crash they'd ever heard came from beyond the window on the other side of the building. Axel nearly toppled to his knees as the building swayed. Was it an earthquake? His teeth were rattling and the sound of shattering glass followed. The newbies looked spooked, and Axel tried to smile, and appear calm and relaxed. Like this shit happens every day.
Then another precarious sway of the building had him lose his cool, Axel clutched the desk in front of him and yelped. The coffee pot smashed on the floor, brown liquid staining the grey carpeting.
A man came rushing into the office, "Oh my god! Something just hit the North Tower!"
Axel didn't understand the words, even if they were plain English. The group stood still for a long beat before they got to their feet.
The group fled swiftly, following older employees who were running across to where they could see Tower One. The windows were already filled with people, but luckily the redhead was tall enough to see over them. He craned his head up, and sure enough huge plumes of smoke were emitting from the top of Tower One. It was hard to tell what was going on, but whatever it was it didn't look good. The tower, which normally looked so close, now appeared a mile away. But the impact zone looked massive, burning embers twisting the metal which was masked with black smoke.
"What the..." Axel murmured, his eyebrows clenching. All around him people were shaking their heads in disbelief.
"It was a plane!" someone finally shouted, pointing their finger ineffectively.
"What do you mean?" another taller African American asked.
"A plane hit the North Tower. I swear! It was huge, like a passenger airline," the first replied.
A short Asian woman was distressed, "How could that happen though?"
"Yeah," a Caucasian man said sarcastically, "like the building is so easy to miss."
There was another flurry of speculation as more people pressed towards the glass. The PA system went off in the background, "Please remain calm and return to your offices. The South Tower is secure. We have received word that the fire is contained in Tower One; the fire department is taking care of it. I repeat-"
"No." Axel said firmly, feeling his gut sink. "They are wrong."
The group of people – some he recognized – was staring at him with apprehension. Axel frowned at the blaze above their heads.
"Look at that fire; it's too high up. With a fire that huge, it'll be impossible to put out. The roof will be too covered in smoke for helicopters to land."
He faced the group, "Everyone move calmly down the stairs. We need to evacuate the South Tower. When that fire gets bigger, the metal girding will snap like a twig and the building could collapse. Look how close it is. It could easily fall and hit us."
"How do you know that?" the Asian woman shrieked, her face flushing.
"I know enough about fire-" Axel was cut off when the whole group began fleeing, obviously panicked. At least they were taking his advice. The newbies who were in his seminar were the first to run full speed towards the elevator. Axel glanced back at the fire, watching the plumes of smoke roll off into Upper Manhattan. He needed to get out of here too, and fast.
He'd taken enough college physics and chemistry classes to know how Tower One was going to end. This must have been a serious mistake on the part of an airline – a horrid accident.
Then he felt his breath hitch – Zexion. Demyx would fucking kill him if anything happened to Zexion. Axel went to the stairwell; most people were slowly filing down so he had to push his way up. He was panting by the time he reached the eighty-eighth floor. He knew Zexion well enough that the man wouldn't leave his office. He would trust what the PA told him and remain working.
Sure enough, Zexion was standing at his window watching smoke and papers fly past.
"Zexy!" Axel rushed forward, grabbing his arm, "We need to go."
Zexion looked annoyed, "Axel, calm the hell down. They just said-"
"I know what they just said," Axel interrupted. "But look at that fire, and think for a moment. What will happen if that building collapses and hits us, from this height and from that angle?"
The slate-haired man blinked; he obviously hadn't thought of that. It was profound logic from the redhead, which he immediately distrusted. Zexion hesitated, but without another word Axel pulled Zexion from his office.
"Hey! Wait- my phone-" Zexion tried to say, but Axel was already hauling him down the stairs. Hundreds of people were flocking down, more orderly than expected. Every so often the building shook. It felt like the aftershocks of an earthquake. Security guards on sixty-five were telling people to go back up to their offices, but Axel aggressively shoved them out of his way and kept pulling Zexion down behind him.
For once, Zexion wasn't fighting, and the only sound between them was the pattering of their footsteps and the pounding of their hearts. Zexion's hands were clenched, sweaty. Axel had a vice-grip on Zexion's suit so they wouldn't get separated. They heard a woman's cry in the background, but kept descending.
The pair was on floor fifty-five at the observation deck. Zexion finally managed to get Axel to take a breather because they were both panting. Going up the stairs was one thing, but Zexion was afraid that at the swift rate they went down, they would fall and tumble several flights. Axel was chugging water from the fountain, Zexion moving to face the North Tower on the other side of the observation deck. The windows were packed with people, many tourists taking photographs and gawking, and again security guards were trying to get workers to go back to their offices. Every so often the elevator would ding, and people would get on or off. It was like business per usual at the South Tower – only right now people were dying in the North.
Axel came over to stand by his friend who was frowning out past the window. He couldn't see the fire anymore – they were too low – but every so often it looked like little black dots were falling from Tower One.
Zexion squinted. Was it debris from the fire?
"Good god," Axel's jaw dropped; he felt his throat clench as his palm tapped again the window.
Zexion looked up at him, "What?"
"Those-" Axel gulped, "those are people."
As soon as he said it Zexion knew it was true. They watched the blurs fall, so very fast, until they were out of sight. Those were human beings jumping from the tallest building in New York City, a building over one hundred and ten stories tall.
"It must be hell up there," Zexion whispered, "for those people to feel like they are better off jumping."
A security guard was coming toward them. He had a Staten Island accent, "Now, everyone clear out and get back to work. The incident is contained in Tower One-"
"The people in Tower One are jumping out." Axel stated grimly, shrugging the man's hand off his shoulder.
The guard blinked, looked out the window, and crossed himself, "Good lord in heaven."
Just as the guard said that, another burst of screams. Axel turned around just in time to see a large object heading towards them through the clear view of the observation windows. Then the glass blew in and they were pounded into the floor. The air grew hot like an inferno and noise shattered against peoples' ears.
It took him a minute to get back on his feet, but once he did Zexion noticed that all the windows in the observation deck were blown. There was glass everywhere. Zexion brushed himself off and shook his head, trying to determine what had happened.
Axel groaned from his left – the guard landed atop him. Axel helped the guard up, but nearly fell again as the building swayed. These buildings were never designed to sway so precariously; it felt like they would tip right over. And the noise, he'd never heard anything close to the noises around them before; it was like a gurgling sound echoing fire sirens. Burning pieces of metal were falling outside the window, papers flung thousands of feet up into the sky like balloons.
The redhead rushed to his feet, and directly towards the stairwell. He wasn't the first, and when an Asian man tried to open the door he shrieked and clutched his hand in fierce pain. The skin was burned black, scorched.
"The handle!" The man howled, "It's on fire!"
"Back away from this door!" Another woman shouted.
Axel quickly spun and went to the direction of the other stairwell – he was first this time – and quickly shimmied off his suit jacket to test this door. The handle was cool, but it wouldn't twist open. Axel threw the jacket down and tugged harder, but the damn door wouldn't budge. Some were trying the elevator; it wasn't working.
People were crowding behind him. A bulky guy came forward and tried to get the door. He was sweating as he pulled but the metal wouldn't budge. Suddenly it got harder to breathe; it felt like little shards of glass were climbing down their throats. Glancing around, Zexion noticed that embers were falling outside, that smoke was entering the room, and that the smoke sparkled queerly. It was like watching a horror movie, only he was in it, suspended on the fifty-fifth floor of a building that was burning down.
People around him were screaming but he barely heard them. He simply watched the commotion as if he was in a trance. It was like time was slowing down as he stared out the framing of the building. That's when he saw them again, and it made Zexion's whole body go numb.
The jumping people. Only now they were falling from the South Tower.
Roxas was making himself some breakfast, his fingers twined between the mystery novel he was currently reading. Unlike his dipshit boyfriend, he preferred to keep his mornings nice and quiet. Axel got up at the crack of dawn and Roxas inwardly knew that the man attempted to be quiet, but he still always woke Roxas up every morning with a kiss. The blond lived with it because, hell, there were worse ways to wake up and he found it secretly endearing.
Roxas hummed as he flipped his eggs in the pan, enjoying the smells mixing with the coffee Axel left in the pot for him. Glancing at his cell phone he noticed he hadn't gotten his usual morning text from Axel. Frowning absently, he turned a page in his novel.
There was a sharp knock on the door, "ROXAS!" Demyx was shrieking frantically from the other side and kept pounding.
Roxas rolled his eyes; that idiot was lucky he wasn't still asleep. Demyx always acted hysterical and melodramatic. He wondered if the boy's favorite soap opera was cancelled or something equally as trivial. But when he swung open the door he was surprised that Dem was trembling, in tears.
"Oh my god," Demyx shook his head, nearly hyperventilating as he entered Roxas' apartment. "Oh my god, what do we do, Rox? Are they okay? Oh my god."
Roxas looked concerned by his antics, "What are you freaking out about Dem?"
That's when Demyx turned to him in disbelief and demanded, "How can you NOT know?"
Roxas narrowed his eyes, "What the fuck are you on about?"
Demyx scrambled past the couch, turning the TV on with a flip of the remote. Red warning alerts were going off. There were buildings on fire, huge plumes of smoke. That's when Roxas knew what Dem was talking about. He walked towards the TV, his eyes trying to take the images flashing across the screen.
"Is that...?" He asked, fearing the answer.
"Both towers were hit, Roxas." Demyx's voice was a few octaves higher, "By planes."
Roxas stared in disbelief at the television. The smell of burning eggs permeated the room. Roxas ignored them turning black on his frying pan.
"They're calling it Ground Zero," Demyx whispered.
The door hadn't budged, and the people assembled on floor fifty-five were panicking. Three security guards attempted to calm people down but it frankly wasn't working. The only two stairwells connecting their floor were impassible. Fear was making people jittery. Tourists holding their children tightly, friends were hugging equally as fierce.
Axel felt his heart race. They'd been stuck for fifteen minutes. What if nobody came to help?
A woman was pounding on the door, "Help! Help!"
People were huddling around the wall – it was not only too dangerous but also painful to get closer to the building facing the south side. The smoke was getting heavier; it felt like swallowing embers. Even if the windows were blown out, it was still hard to breathe because it felt like the air wasn't fresh. Larger chunks of metal were falling at a more rapid rate. Zexion wondered what floors had been hit.
Axel fell to his butt against the wall then remembered his cellphone. Others were talking fast into theirs – he could call for help. Scrambling frantically and not finding his phone in his pants pocket he leaned over and searched his suit jacket lying on the floor. Nothing. Then he realized with a sting of finality that his phone was on the seventy-seventh floor. And Axel realized that he hadn't let Zexion grab his phone before pulling him out of his office. Axel felt his eyes sting with a combination of regret and tears. He frantically wanted to snatch someone else's phone, just so he could make one single phone call.
Because otherwise these facts meant that if they weren't rescued he would never get to say goodbye to Roxas. Axel brought his shaking hand and covered it over his mouth. He would die and Roxas would never know. And Zexion would never be able to send a message to Demyx.
Just as this train of thought was wracking his mind, they heard shouts from the other side of the door. Pounds against the door were heard, people inside hushing down quickly to hear better.
"This is the New Yo'k Fire Department!" A voice shouted, "Is the'a anyone in the'a?"
"Yes!" The group cried, Axel getting to his feet. Zexion was by his side in a moment. Again their hearts were pounding painfully in their chest.
"Ba'ck awa'y from tha' door," a man said assertively.
The firefighter started hacking away at the wall next to the door. A large hole formed, and he kicked hard, loosening the framework and popping the door open. The firefighter was sweaty, covered in gear. He was Italian, beefy, and muscular.
"Is the'a anyone injured?" He shouted, his Staten Island accent swift. He glanced around, the group remained silent in awe.
"Good." The firefighter grunted and turned to face the upwards stairwell. He pointed his thumb downwards, "Then get tha' hell outta' here."
The firefighter disappeared climbing up the stairs – while the group started heading downwards. Axel glanced up and thought to himself, 'That guy's a hero. Here I am, running down with my tail between my legs, and he's going up to the inferno.'
Months later, Axel found out that this man's name was Robert Cuatolo from Ladder 16. He was one of three hundred and forty three firefighters who lost their lives. If Cuatolo hadn't been doing floor sweeps and discovered the budged door; if he hadn't stood at the door long enough to hear the yells inside – Axel's story would have ended here.
They were pounding down the stairs again, and Zexion never realized how many there were. The floors passed slowly, thirty-five, thirty-four. People were nearly tripping every moment. Axel was clutching an older woman who kept losing her footing. Her large chest was heaving, trying to gasp for air. It sounded like she had asthma.
The building was swaying hard again, that gurgling sound. Every so often another firefighter would be heading up; the stairs got so quiet when they passed.
The older woman was clutching on Axel's shirt, so he swooped his arms around her and tugged her onto his back. She was heavy, but Axel didn't care. Step by step, just a blur going by, faces of scared people, faces of sweaty people, they were all headed down. Twenty-three, twenty-two.
They got stuck on fourteen. The floor was completely impassible from debris, and men were guiding those from this stairwell to switch over to another and leave from the east side of the building. Axel was panting from the weight of the woman. He finally let her down and had to rest with his hands on his knees.
Zexion was also sweating. While Axel rested he helped usher people down the hall to the separate stairwell. Every so often a thud would resound outside the building. Another jumper. This got Axel moving again. The woman he was helping was already gone so Zexion let Axel lean on him.
The floor was filled with ash and it covered Zexion's finely tailored coat. Axel's nice white button-up was already filthy, a mix of sweat and dirt. Their shiny black shoes were already scuffed and dirty from the soot.
After what felt like a lifetime they finally reached the lobby floor and another set of firefighters were pointing them not out to the east side, but out the west. It was disorienting, even for people who had worked in the South Tower for twenty years. The thuds of bodies landing on the east and south were good incentives for not mixing up directions. Chunks of metal debris fell without regard to human life. Axel grabbed Zexion's wrist; he wouldn't lose the man in the crowd. The people inside were thinning out, but he felt like it might be crowded outside. Stupid tourists sticking around for the show. He hoped that the air outside would be cleaner, his lungs ached.
But as soon as they got outside it was a world that he did not recognize. Streets were empty and it was smoggier, thicker, and harder to breath. The groups of people sprinted, some trying to careen their heads back and see above to find out what was happening, but the smoke was too thick. This time Zexion clutched Axel's hand as they jogged, their adrenaline making the fatigue unnoticeable.
There were papers and other trash caked across the streets. The plaza in the usually chaotic Lower Manhattan was oddly quiet. The only sound was the gurgling of metal, the shrill cry of sirens, the sounds of footsteps pounding atop papers. And oddly enough, outdoor music was still playing from loudspeakers in the plaza.
Axel kept looking backwards and could only see more people running behind him, firefighters rushing back inside. The towers were smoldering. There was a scream in the distance. How many people had already died?
He felt certain that they were all going to die.
They were bee-lining it down West Street, heading past Tower One as fast as possible, trying to avoid large piles of burning junk strewn across the street. Fire trucks and ambulances littered every inch, some of the vehicles were smashed by falling metal. They were all covered in ash, but there was no time to think about that. They could only run. The blocks blurred but they weren't getting very far. They had barely gotten past Barclay Street – there were people now pouring out of surrounding buildings and into the streets. Some were running, some were crying, some were holding others up.
Then this noise started, and it was unlike anything they had ever heard before. It wasn't the whine of burning metal, or the gurgle of flame, this was something so unique and indescribable and utterly dreadful.
Zexion paused, squinting his eyes, peering up into the sky. The sound was ricocheting off building sides; it seemed to be coming from the top. Then he saw it, and his stomach lurched. It was from the South Tower, the building he had worked in for three years.
The building began to fold down on itself, the plumes of smoke rushing towards them. Zexion didn't watch for long – he barely saw it collapse several stories when Axel began pulling at his arm and he needed no more encouragement.
They had never run faster in their entire lives. It was as if their feet didn't touch the ground. Harsh screams surrounded them. Zexion dared a glance behind him; the smoke was so close. It was shooting towards them like a bullet.
A police officer was shouting, his voice soft with the roar around them, "Come around here!"
They dove around the building, quickly slipping inside a convenience shop. The lights were shut off inside, people were crammed together. Every race, color, or size of person were hugging one another, strangers. Suddenly it was even darker, the glass of the shop rattled and outside was black.
It was like a nuclear winter. Dust so impenetrable and covering everyone and everything. Axel began coughing; the smoke was entering the building. Zexion pulled his own coat off and pushed the fabric against his nose. The dust made it hard to inhale, it felt like he was never going to be able to breathe again.
Tears were entering Axel's eyes from coughing when a pink sweatshirt was pushed in front of his face. A pretty young teenager was standing next to him, a handkerchief pressed to her nose. He nodded his thanks and took the pink sweatshirt; the fabric smelled sweet like perfume.
A man entered the store – he was a police officer but it was hard to tell because he was so covered in ash. He was panting, his tongue was gray. He spat on the ground and, an older woman quickly uncapped a water bottle from the store's shelf and handed it to him. The man gulped it, spitting on the floor.
"We have to get out of here," the man croaked. "If the North Tower goes down, we are too close. I know it'll be hard to see, but we need to keep in a group and we'll head towards Hudson River Park."
An African American man grumbled, "Why the park?"
"There are emergency ferry services getting people out of Manhattan, all of the subways and tunnels in the city closed about forty minutes ago." The officer replied.
Axel shoved the fabric closer to his nose, wrapping the sleeves around the back of his head. He knew that he would need both hands because it was going to be impossible to see.
"Everyone!" A redheaded girl from the back shouted, "Take a pair of these sunglasses," she was handing them around. "They will protect your eyes somewhat against the ash."
The owner of the store was nodding, quickly passing pairs between them. The owner was also offering cloth coverings for bare faces, and bottles of water to any officers or civilians who needed it.
Axel was able to shimmy the pink hood over his hair, that way the top of the glasses were covered.
Finally, one by one, they filed out of the store and into the terrifying streets beyond. With Zexion's hand clutched tightly in his, and his other in front of his face, they meandered out. It was a slow pace, but keeping the officer's words in mind, they pushed on.
Block by block the air was the same density. The buildings weren't recognizable, the signs impossible to read. Cars were abandoned, bikes littered the sidewalks. Yet Axel knew Lower Manhattan like the back of his hand. He'd grown up wandering around these streets, he'd even met Roxas out here at a club.
People were creeping slowly away from the WTC, each in disbelief and pain.
Only firefighters, police officers, and ambulances dared to venture closer to that hell.
Roxas never wanted to abandon his pride and sob with wild abandon before. Usually he felt that tears were weak and inappropriate, but his mind wasn't working properly. He felt like the world wasn't working properly, that it'd been tilted on its edge and somehow morphed into a terribly desolate place. Watching the footage on the screen of those towers at first had been painful. They showed close-ups of people falling, of blazes burning, of the panicked streets.
They both tried to call their lovers, almost a hundred times in total. But it was soon obvious that there would be no answer. That was like a kick in the gut for both, but somehow, Roxas remained calm on the exterior. Demyx was getting frantic at this point, his eyes glued to the news station as the information just got worse and worse.
The news correspondent explained the second plane hit between the seventy-sixth and eighty-fifth floors. People above the point of impact were doomed; there was no way for them to travel below. Right before the plane hit, there was a PA announcement in the South Tower telling staff that the fire was contained, and to return to work. There was no evacuation of Tower Two until after the second plane hit. Nobody anticipated this to be a terrorist attack – they initially thought it was an isolated incident – but it was now obvious that's what it was.
Roxas felt tears finally blur his vision. Demyx was staring wordlessly at the screen, obviously absorbing the information at the same rate. Both men were trying to forget that their lovers could still be inside, hoping almost desperately that they had gotten out before the plane hit. But if they did, why weren't they answering their phones? Axel always answered his phone.
Then both of their fears were confirmed as the South Tower was encased in smoke and collapsed. It was hard to tell at first because Tower One was blocking the vision of the second, but eventually the camera found another angle and the devastation was clear as day. The smoke looked like an atomic weapon hit. Demyx began sobbing, Roxas ran to the bathroom and threw up immediately.
His world was spinning, his mind racing. "Love you, Rox," Axel had told him that morning. He'd smiled like always with his beautiful green eyes and his stubborn red hair and his lanky frame. Why hadn't Roxas said those words back to him? Those simple, truthful words?
"No," Roxas whispered, crumpled on the floor in front of the toilet. "No, no, no."
Tears began falling, silent, unbidden.
"Not him," he pleaded.
They finally reached the entrance for the Holland tunnel. Axel was exhausted and Zexion looked about to collapse. They were worn out, both physically and emotionally. The walk had been more difficult because of the ash and debris. Hundreds of other people were heading away, just like them, supporting each other. It was like wading across jagged, rigged fields of bombs. Any wrong step, which you couldn't see, could cause you injury. Sometimes you would trip over your feet and swear you saw a person lying dead in the ash.
Axel had to keep wiping his sunglasses off. They would fill with soot every few minutes.
Both of their lungs were beyond burning, their bodies absolutely covered in the ash. The pink sweatshirt that the teenager gave Axel was now grey and pathetic looking. Axel's normally vibrant hair was limp. Zexion's face was pallid and drained. But the pair clung to one another and kept walking.
The towers seemed to be so far behind them at this point, but the ground was shaking again. Axel grabbed a telephone pole to steady himself. Then that goddamn noise. The North Tower was collapsing. They couldn't see it, they simply knew that noise. Another shoot of smoke rushed towards them but at this point they were used to the ash. It fell over them in another layer, but thankfully they were several thousand feet away instead of one block away. They heard another set of ear-splitting crashes; the Towers must have crushed several buildings around them. The sirens roared equally loud and Axel wondered if Tower One pancaked on itself like Tower Two.
He also wondered about the firefighters inside, the people stuck above the fire who didn't even have a chance. As the ground shook beneath their feet, he pushed those devastating thoughts away and told himself he just had to keep moving his feet.
So they kept walking past the Holland tunnel and football field, tired eyes scanning for any ferry that had been promised. However the harbor only held television news ships and emergency boats to take injured people away.
As they kept walking Axel mused how he was practically hugging Zexion. This would never happen normally; the man was so touchy about his personal space. Only Demyx was ever allowed to cuddle up next to him, and even then Axel had always assumed they kept it to a bare minimum. Axel idly wondered if Roxas would be jealous, and snorted inwardly. Because it would be a cold day in hell when someone like Roxas would admit to being jealous.
Zexion was thinking about how the car he hadn't even finished paying for was probably totaled or crushed. If it was still around, the chance that they bulldozed it to clean up rubble was more than likely. It was odd how he didn't care that he'd just bought it, he didn't pay it off. All he wanted to do was see Demyx again, and hear his voice.
Both of their thoughts spun back to the fact that they were alive. Somehow, unfathomably, they were still alive despite the odds.
Axel wanted to get on a pay phone and call his lover and tell him everything was going to be okay. But Axel's wallet was probably nothing but scraps under a pile of rubble, and he had no cash on him. The power grids were already shut down in the city, so the pay phones wouldn't work anyway. It was still sunny (well above and far away from the smoke) so they could see well enough now, but Axel wondered how long it would take them to get home without a subway. They lived in the same apartment complex in Laconia, which was a good seventeen miles from where they were currently standing.
Ambulances were taking care of civilians several yards ahead. They were passing out bottles of water. The air around them finally cleared enough so they could see. Thankfully the wind was blowing in the opposite direction, towards the towers. Axel was so parched, his mouth tasted filthy. They walked towards the Red Cross van and collapsed on the sidewalk, drinking the proffered water and alternatively spitting out muck from their mouths.
They tried to brush off ash but it clung to them like mud. They were finally able to take off their sunglasses and shake their hair. Axel pulled off the pink sweatshirt, which was still perfectly clean on one side. He thought about throwing it away, but instead pulled it around his lanky body and wore it. It was fit for a girl, but he'd always had slim hips.
Zexion let out a weak smile, "That color really fits with your hair."
The roads were packed with people, it didn't look like cars were going very far. But after they rested long enough, Axel began asking people in their cars if they were heading to the Bronx. Normally that would be an incredibly dangerous endeavor – hitching a ride in Upper Manhattan – but he was too exhausted to care.
Zexion didn't like the idea of hitchhiking but he was so tired he could barely function. They found a ride with a small Mexican American woman. She had a cross hanging from her rear-view mirror and the radio set to the news.
She didn't complain about how dirty they'd just gotten the inside of her car — and down E125th she found several more middle-aged people covered in dirt trying to get home. The mini-van was filled with extra riders, all of which were covered in filth.
It was odd watching the streets as they drove slowly, halted to a standstill in traffic. New Yorkers were usually so aggressive, yet not one horn was being honked. Not one fist was being shaken at another. Instead it seemed everyone was turning their head in horror back to the smoky skyline and the buildings that stood there that morning but were now gone.
Reports came on the radio that the government classified this as a terrorist attack. The Pentagon also had a plane crash into it, along with another that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Authorities suspected that the final plane was heading to the White House.
The Stock Exchange and Capitol were already evacuated. Commercial and private airplanes had been grounded across the nation with foreign flights towards the US being diverted to Canada. The only planes in the sky across America right now would be military.
A flurry of information was being broadcast, but neither of the men could understand it. Their minds were still in Lower Manhattan, still in those endless stairwells, still in their offices on the upper half of the building. They were still running frantic from the devastation, still tripping over slabs of metal, still clinging to the fact that they were alive.
Eventually Axel asked the driver if he could use her cellphone to inform his family he was alive. But she shook her head and explained that the cellphone and emergency lines were jammed and unusable across the city. Even landlines were down in the better part of New York State.
The car moved at a snail's pace, and Zexion was antsy to get back and comfort his Demyx, who would most certainly be frantic. He could only imagine if their positions had been reversed. Zexion wanted to shower the ash of the fallen buildings away and grab his boyfriend and pull him under a blanket and simply hug him and hear their hearts beating in unison. As cheesy and cliché as that sounded aloud, inside Zexion's mind it was utopia.
Crossing the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge took more than forty-five minutes, but still the surrounding cars didn't honk. The only sounds were radios and prayers and crying.
Axel's brother called Roxas when they'd heard the news. Cid, Axel's stepdad, gruffly asked him if Roxas had talked to his son. The blond tried not to tear up on the phone, and barely choked the words out before he couldn't help himself anymore. Even cynical Reno had nothing to say when stoic Roxas began sobbing aloud.
Sora was next to call him before the phones cut out; his twin was freaking out. Demyx took the phone and told Sora that Roxas needed some time, they weren't positive if anything happened. Their boyfriends may not be... dead.
For whatever reason, after his first burst of heart wrenching sobs, Demyx seemed to calm and become very analytical. It made Roxas envious because he knew that Demyx loved Zexion as much as he did Axel, so why was Dem able to stay calm when he felt like a baby?
That afternoon had never felt longer or more bleak. The power cut out around noon, leaving his apartment quiet. Demyx found a battery-powered radio up at his place, and the two sat companionably together trying to forget about everything. The news all blurred together after a while, recapping what they already heard.
Roxas couldn't look around his apartment. All Axel's stuff mixed with his. How would he survive something like this? Roxas always prided himself on being a strong person, but with Axel gone... life would be devastating. And empty and lonely and unbearable. The blond was trembling as he thought about this, without knowing that Demyx had the same thoughts racing through his mind.
Without Zexion there to steady him, to support him, to let him be goofy. Without his stable, reliable, dry, and witty lover, how could Dem stand firm to face a crowd? How could he make music in a world without his muse?
Outside the day was still bright, shining. You couldn't see the destruction that they knew was out there, and the world didn't come to a standstill even if they felt like it should. Time passed for both men slowly, tick by tick.
A knock on the door had their heads lifting curiously.
Roxas got up reluctantly, "That's probably Sora."
When Roxas opened the door and looked up at him, Axel nearly started crying.
He'd never seen his blond so franticly worried yet dull and unresponsive. The kid looked like he'd been through a worse hell than Axel, but it warmed the redhead's heart nonetheless. Roxas slowly took in his appearance – which was appalling – and brought his shaking hands up to his mouth. Before he knew what was happening, Roxas tackled him to the ground just outside their hallway and let out a frantic sob. Slender fingertips were clenching into the pink fabric of his new sweatshirt.
Axel finally let a few tears drop – they made lines in the thick ash on his face – and he clutched Roxas in his arms so tightly just to make sure he was real. Roxas didn't even notice when Zexion walked through the door to stand next to the musician.
Roxas finally pulled back and his eyes were shining with tears. He brought his clean hands up and held Axel's face, shaking his head in disbelief. Axel leaned down and let their foreheads bump together; he was positive that his face was a mirror reflection of his lover's.
"I thought-" Roxas choked out, unwilling to say the words.
Axel shook his head and whispered, "Almost."
Just as Roxas opened his mouth to say something else, they heard Demyx screeching from behind.
"Why the hell didn't you answer your cellphone?" Demyx demanded, his hands on his hips.
Zexion looked sheepish as he answered, "Axel pulled me out of my office before I could grab it."
"Is that ANY excuse?" The man continued his tirade, "Do you realize, even an inkling of what kind of afternoon this was for Roxas and I? All because you forgot to grab your phone?"
"Now Dem," Axel coughed, holding his hand out while still clutching Roxas, "we were a little busy trying to stay alive."
Demyx didn't seem to hear him. Zexion flinched when Demyx almost started screaming again, only this time the man burst into tears and flung himself into the slate-haired man's waiting arms.
"I-I- thought you were dead!" Demyx cried, burying his face into the filthy suit jacket until his face was streaked and dirty.
Axel sighed, letting his own face bury into Roxas' clean hair. He breathed in deeply. It was hard to believe he'd been so scared, so terrified that he'd never hold this boy again.
Roxas pulled back, his nose wrinkled, "You need a shower."
Axel gave a baleful smile and attempted at humor, "Will you wash me?"
Zexion nodded towards his friend as he pulled a hysterical Demyx towards their front door, "Why don't we shower and reconvene down here, so we can tell them what happened?"
Axel threw the pink sweatshirt off as soon as the door was closed and tossed it on the floor. Then he took his white button-up, black suit pants, socks, and shoes off. They were destroyed beyond repair so he quickly shoved them straight into the garbage and walked towards the bathroom.
Roxas pursed his lips and followed, helping the man get the thick muck of ash out of his hair under the shower head. Roxas finally stripped himself, and clung to Axel naked under the warm water. The blond began crying again, weakly pounding his fists into his lover's torso.
"Don't you ever do anything like that again!" Roxas' voice was muffled against wet skin as Axel encircled him.
"I won't forgive you if you ever scare me like that," Roxas repeated.
Axel remained silent.
Demyx and Zexion made their way back downstairs more than an hour later. They were lucky that even if the power was off the hot water still worked. Zexion wore his usual neat, casual button-down and jeans, though his face appeared to have aged a decade. His hair was frizzy from being washed too many times; Axel supposed his own looked the same.
Axel threw on an old college t-shirt and pair of faded jeans. He also put on a sweatshirt to hide all the scratch marks Zexion's sharp nails produced on his arms. Roxas was soon seated atop Axel's lap, curled in a blanket.
Demyx was a little awed at this external PDA, which Roxas normally despised, but understood implicitly the motivations behind it. Roxas was still spooked, for lack of a better word. He kept reaching up to check and make sure Axel was real.
Demyx cuddled next to Zexion as well, the smaller man's fingers wrapping around his stomach.
"Have you guys talked about it?" Axel asked.
Zexion shook his head, "No, but first I would rather hear what they know."
Demyx looked confused, "What we know? You were there."
"But we saw the news," Roxas responded, his eyebrows furrowing together. "Demyx came in here while I was making breakfast. We turned on the news and both towers had been hit... We tried to call you guys."
"Like a hundred times." Demyx added.
"The news lady..." Roxas curled his arms around Axel's, his expression pained and distant, "said that Tower Two's plane hit between the seventy-sixth and eighty-fifth floors."
Zexion silently met Axel's gaze. They both knew what was better left unsaid. If Axel hadn't come to get Zexion, he would be dead.
"Minutes later," Demyx continued for Roxas, "the second building just collapsed. It was just a blur of smoke. About thirty minutes after that Tower One fell. It was hard to see through the smoke, but it looked like a huge area."
"We continued to watch the news," Roxas said. "The Pentagon was hit by a plane, all of which were commercial airliners that had been hijacked. A fourth plane was headed to Washington D.C. but something happened and it crashed."
Zexion nodded, they'd heard about that in the car.
Roxas finally twisted around, watching his lover intently. "Now your side."
Axel grimaced, sorting through the memories of that morning. How could such a morning feel like a lifetime?
"We heard the plane hit the North Tower," Zexion stated. "Axel came upstairs to get me, and dragged me down the stairs. Security guards were telling us to go back to work, but Axel kept saying we needed to get out."
"We ended up on the fifty-fifth floor, the second observation tower," Axel continued, his voice low. "We only stopped there to rest for a moment. This time when the plane hit, the whole building shook back and forth. One of the stairwells caught fire, the other had a stuck door. We waited for about fifteen minutes, watching these people jump from the buildings."
Roxas twined his fingers between Axel's. Axel decided to skip over a lot of gory details; he knew his lover would hear about them in days to come.
"A firefighter came, got us out. We literally ran down the steps with hundreds of others, we were only a block away when the building pancaked." Axel's voice shook.
"There was ash everywhere," Zexion stated. "We couldn't breathe, we couldn't see. It took us nearly forty five minutes to get several blocks down and we finally hitched a ride with some lady, but the traffic was so backed up."
"The phones were out by then," Demyx said softly. Zexion nodded.
"The electricity in Manhattan too," Axel added.
The group sat around silent for a very long time, minds reeling over the events and their particular thoughts.
"We are lucky to be alive," Zexion whispered.
Axel nodded bitterly, clutching Roxas tighter to him, "So many others didn't have that chance."
Demyx and Zexion went back upstairs for the night after the group ate a quick dinner of cold cucumber sandwiches and strawberries.
Axel was still on the couch, the memories of the day whirling around his head.
Demyx took his radio with him, for which Roxas was thankful. He didn't want to think about what could have happened any more than he already had.
The redhead looked so tired. Roxas felt equally drained. He sat down on the couch, his butt barely on the edge as he traced the bold features of his boyfriend's face.
"This morning-" Roxas whispered, earning Axel's full attention. "This morning you told me 'love you.' And all I could think about was how I didn't say it back, and how I might never get to say it to you again."
A tear rolled down his cheek. Damn was he sick of crying for one day. He let his head fall down atop Axel's chest, "I love you so much."
Axel smiled softly, his fingers brushing through the silky hair he adored and the head and mind beneath it. Roxas rarely said such sappy things, which only attested how terrified he must have been.
"I was thinking about you while we were stuck up there," Axel whispered back. "I realized I'd forgotten my phone. I wanted to steal one, I was so scared. I thought about how I'd never get to say goodbye to you, and you wouldn't know how I died."
"I love you so much," Roxas repeated, this time leaning up and firmly kissing him. There was no lust in this kiss, just simple comfort from the gesture. "I would have searched for you forever in that rubble."
Axel wound his arm around Roxas' neck. "I'm so tired."
His lover nodded, grabbing the comforter that fell to the floor and bringing it back around them. Roxas tucked his head underneath Axel's chin and closed his eyes, treasuring the scent he never understood that he cherished so completely.
The next few weeks were a blur. Information came trickling in; the blame had been placed on several terrorist organizations. Names like Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda would be thrown around, death counts estimated. Firefighters and volunteer workers would slave over the rubble just to find one single body. A war of terrorism would commence, which warped into a war of confusion.
Without a job, both Axel and Zexion floated in uncertainty. America as a country didn't know how to proceed with its existence. The pre 9/11 and post 9/11 became a very different place both for survivors and firefighters. Many families were devastated by these attacks, and a few were lucky enough to have their loved ones come home.
So called 'truthers' or conspiracy theorists came forward in the months ahead. Roxas treated them the same as holocaust deniers, people wishing to start dirt and make drama in an already tragic event. Roxas was almost arrested for punching a truther, when they told him America had bombed the buildings while sending the planes to punish the godless country.
Demyx and Zexion eventually left New York City for a small suburb in the Midwest. They both had had enough of big cities, and Zexion's health was failing because of dust inhalation from their hours of running away.
Roxas and Axel ended up leaving too, but they left for New Zealand instead. A country without war sounded like a grand place for the both of them. By 2011 Axel held dual US and NZ citizenship, and Roxas created a successful web business.
For years and years after that, on the fateful morning of September 11th – whatever day of the week that may be – Zexion would find himself on the phone with his old redheaded friend, thanking him for pulling him from that office on floor eighty-eight.