"Hey!" Roxas glances up from where he'd been dribbling a pebble along with the toe of his sneaker. There's no-one around. Just a shock-headed scarecrow in a field of rotting pumpkins. The pebble dances along.
"Hey! Kid!" The scarecrow has climbed down off its post and is gesturing at him, arms flailing black, jagged mouth gaping crooked in a face colourless under a crown of flaming hair. For a moment Roxas is seized with childish panic and almost runs, but he sees breath condensing in the chill winter air, sees the red Chucks sticking out from under the skirts of the long black whatever-it-is and figures that the worst it can be is a Halloween costume. Although Halloween is long gone.
"Yeah?" Roxas squints up into the morning sun silhouetting the spindly figure looming over him. It bends out of the light, and he's almost disappointed to see pale greasepaint, a tatty black coat, a wig. Behind it there's just another skinny kid, all points, not that much older than he is.
"Scared ya, huh?" the kid grins, sticking out a hand, not waiting for a reply. He makes a flamboyant gesture, and two pieces of paper are sticking out of his fist. "Come to the Circus!"
Roxas starts back at the shout. It's obviously meant to be commanding, but comes across as a threat. "Ansem's Awesome Arcade of Amazement awaits you! Witness wonders without…. ah, fuck it…." The boy shrugs. "You wanna come to the show tonight these'll get you in for free. Bring your girl or whoever." He holds out the tickets for Roxas to take and wanders away, towards the first few faded buildings that mark the edge of the town, a few hundred yards behind them.
"You're too fucking old for that shit." His dad has been little more than a grunt from behind the sports pages for about a year now, but Roxas almost prefers that to the lumbering pile of fists and bitterness that sometimes staggers drunkenly in through the door. "And take your sister with you."
All afternoon, Roxas is edgy and restless, chafing against himself like he has a hairshirt under his sweater. He has the feeling that there is someone standing right behind him, almost but not quite touching him, their hot breath brushing the little hairs in the nape of his neck, about to speak. It's as if two identical films are being projected one on top of the other, only just a millisecond out of sync. He catches himself muttering "What? What?", and sees his sister staring at him, wide-eyed.
"Dad said you'd take me to the circus," she says, hopefully, half-afraid of him. Roxas doesn't want her to be afraid (one bastard in the family is more than enough, he thinks), and nods, trying to smile. But the smile is taut and tense, like him, and so he just nods again. "It won't start 'til its dark," he says, "we'll go after supper."
He spends the rest of the afternoon rattling around the house, wondering why he feels so odd, so stretched out and brittle, so ready to split down the middle, so much like he's been plugged in to an electrical socket. Trying to catch sight of the things dancing beyond the corner of his eye.
The circus has pitched up just a mile outside of town, on a big, bare patch of ground that slopes down to the river on one side and has never been used for anything because it floods. In daylight it's barren and dismal, but now – in the growing gloom of the January evening – it looks magical. Someone has hung lanterns on the telegraph poles and in the trees, odd things of paper and glass, star shaped or twisted, some like balloons or painted to look like faces, and here and there an odd, misshapen one that looks like nothing on earth. "Oh, look! Roxas, look!" His sister is tugging at his hand, bright-eyed and excited, pointing to a banner draped between two posts at the opening into the lot. Ansem's Awesome Arcade of Amazement is emblazoned in gold across a scarlet background, letters held aloft by clowns and elephants and strongmen and beautiful withy women with hooves for hands. Roxas lets himself be pulled forward into the throng of people milling around the booth at the entrance, hands the tickets to a man in a top hat and moustaches who raises a pointed eyebrow and bows low, ushering them in. His sister giggles as the man gives her a huge wink; doffs his hat to Roxas.
Inside the circus ground a street has sprung up from the bare earth; tents and booths ranged alongside the wooden sidewalks, each holding the promise of untold treasures. Roxas looks around and sees freak shows and monsters, shooting galleries and candyfloss, Dare you see yourself as you really are in the terrifying maze of mirrors? His sister wants to be everywhere at once, to see everything and do everything, but ahead of them, at the end of the avenue of booths, the Big Top rises blackly against the night sky, pointed and looming, bright light spilling from between the flaps of the door. "Let's go and get seats," Roxas says. "I'll take you round the stalls later." But she wants candy apples, and the stuffed bear you win shying coconuts, and to see the face of her one true love in the shape of the wax in the water, so Roxas fishes his money from his pocket – eight dollars and thirteen cents, everything he has been able to scrape together – and wins her the bear, buys her the apple, and has his palm read by a dark-eyed raven-haired woman with candlelight dancing off the gold hoops in her ears, who tells him that he is standing at a fork in the road and that he must choose carefully because his heart is down one path, while everything else is down the other. His sister laughs and kicks her legs when the lady tickles her palm with her long manicured nail and tells her that she will grow up to be a princess.
Outside, the barker is shouting ladies and gentlemen! Take your places! Not one moment should you waste! Make haste dear lady; kind sir, make haste! and the fortune teller looks him in the eye and says quickly, Roxas, it's already starting. You won't want to miss this…
Afterwards, he carries his sister – curled up asleep in his arms, a smile of absolute contentment on her face – home through the pitch darkness. She wakes as he tucks her into bed and says thank-you, Roxy, kissing him on the cheek as she falls back to sleep. In his own bed he lies on his back, exhausted and alive, certain that he won't be able to sleep, mind full of the blare of horns, the stamp of feet, horses neighing over tumbled clowns, strong men whirling women around their heads, and in the centre of it all, a man in a scarlet frockcoat and towering black top hat, cracking a long whip and twirling a long moustache, lightning crackling around his shoulders, laughing madly at the wonders he has orchestrated all around him. And as Roxas finally falls asleep, his dad snoring on the other side of the plasterboard, his last lucid thought is what kind of circus doesn't have a fire breather?
He thinks he's going to the diner, to eat cherry pie and drink coffee and not talk to Olette about his dad, but his feet know better. His feet know the way through the culvert into the barrens and along the paths that lead along the river to the dead plot where the circus has pitched up. Coming at it this way, he smells it before he sees it – an acrid animal stink that comes downstream on the wind, but faint, as if whatever it was that had made it had passed by and gone, leaving only a ghost of itself behind.
Ahead of him, up the hill, a Ferris wheel has been built. In the bitter morning air, Roxas can see someone clambering over the spokes onto the felloe, banging and hammering at the joints, a giant spider in a steel web. Roxas crouches down on the low scrubby slope and hopes no-one has seen him.
There's no alarm, no shouts, no rattle-chain slavering bay of rabid dogs, so Roxas creeps forward onto the fairground. In daylight it's a completely different place, flat and empty, just thin wooden fronts and a few tatty tents; no magic, no mystery, no fire. Litter shifts about over the muddy wooden walkways; torn handbills, abandoned paper cups, a child's sock.
Ahead of him, the figure on the Ferris wheel has stopped hammering and is making his way down towards the ground. Squinting into the glare Roxas can't be sure, but he thinks it might be the scarecrow kid from yesterday. Suddenly, and for no particular reason that he would care to explain, he feels disappointed. He's only a machinist, he thinks, only a machinist in a crappy travelling circus, and turns away, thinking that coffee and cherry pie sound like a good idea after all.
"Hey!" Roxas feels a hand close over his shoulder and starts, struggling wildly. "Hey! Hey! It's okay, settle down!" The voice is one he almost recognises. Whoever it is, at least it's not his dad, and he swallows his heart and tries to breathe.
"Sorry. Made me jump."
"No worries." It's the scarecrow kid, and he's grinning, breathless from his climb down the Ferris wheel. Even though the January morning is cold enough for Roxas to see their breath and for the rims of the puddles to still be rimed with ice, the kid has no shirt on, and his pale torso is slick with sweat. There's a rag draped over one shoulder, grimy with oil, and a fat smear of grease smudged across one of his narrow pectoral muscles. Roxas feels his hands jump at his sides, and only just in time stops himself from reaching for the cloth and wiping the grease away. Something about the shining skin and the smooth twitch of the little muscles in his midriff as he breathes are mesmerising, and because he needs to stop looking, Roxas squints up into the boy's face. He's still in greasepaint, eyes heavily Kohled, and there's an inverted teardrop beneath the centre of each. A pretty half-hearted clown, Roxas thinks.
"Making people jump's my job." The scarecrow is staring back at Roxas. "Kinda."
"Umm." Roxas isn't sure what to say, and daren't say anything anyway because his voice is going to betray him if he tries. He doesn't want to keep looking at the bottle-green eyes, doesn't want to see the lump of grease that his thumb is itching to smooth away, daren't drop his eyes to the sweat-slicked skin. The smell of the oily rag is in his nostrils.
"So." The scarecrow is still looking at him. "What're you doing here?" He scratches at his mad mane of hair. "You came last night, I thought? Today's show doesn't start for hours."
That was a wig, Roxas thinks, thankful of something else to stare at. Yesterday, I'm sure, it was a wig. "Yeah. Well, I was bored and my dad…. Well, anyway I thought I'd…"
"Snoop around, huh?" the scarecrow is still looking at him, but he isn't grinning anymore. "You sure that's wise?"
"Why? It's just a circus isn't it?" Roxas winces inwardly, wondering why he's provoking the kid.
"Oh, sure," the scarecrow nods, and he's grinning again. "Just a circus, sure. And it's just a satyr, nothing to worry about. And it's just the Hound of the Hedges. Just the Sphinx. Just the Werewolf. Just Medusa. You can handle that lot, easy…"
Roxas isn't sure whether to laugh or not. "And who are you? The ringmaster?"
"Shit, no!" the scarecrow looks almost taken-aback. "He's the worst of the lot. If the Medusa's not your thing take the Sphinx over the Ringmaster any day." He is looking at Roxas again, and all the laughter has gone out of his eyes. "You haven't any idea, have you? Well, remember how you jumped when you felt my hand on your shoulder? If you feel his hand, run." The scarecrow is behind him somehow, and the long fingers close over his shoulder again. Roxas feels the boy stoop, feels his breath against his ear, feels the gooseflesh rise across his ribs as the kid whispers "How'd you like to try the Big Top, son?"
Roxas shakes the hand free, blushing. "Stop it! Jeez, what's wrong with you…." He can feel the skinny kid standing too close to him; his breath still toying with his hair like the wind in the wheat; the imprint of his long fingers still burning on his shoulder like a brand. Almost against his will, he starts away, not quite running, too fast to call it a walk. He hears the scarecrow laughter behind him, but doesn't turn around.
"I'm Axel, by the way," the scarecrow calls. "And you can't get out; not that way. Not now."
Behind him, Roxas can hear Axel doing something with something on the ground, and as he turns around he sees him straighten up, hears a long wincing breath escape him. There is a long red welt running diagonally up from left to right across the swell of his shoulders. An image of the ringmaster, whips flailing, comes unbidden into Roxas' mind.
"Why weren't you in the show last night?" he asks, and gestures at the Ferris wheel. "Is that what you do? Fix stuff?"
Axel wheels around, and bursts into a high, wild laugh. "Yeah, yeah I guess you could say that," he manages finally. "I fix stuff."
"But you're not like a human cannonball or a trapeze artist or anything?" Roxas can still feel a little pool of disappointment bubbling under his diaphragm.
"Hell, no!" Axel rears up to his full height, and looms over Roxas. "What do you think I am, a performing monkey? No," he shakes his head, scratching at the back of his hair. "what I do is I breathe fire. Look." He steps forward, doing something with his hands. Little green and blue flames – almost invisible in the morning light – start to lick around the fingers of his gloves. Gloves? Roxas thinks, was he wearing gloves? Axel waves his gloved hands in front of his face and breathes out. A gout of scarlet flame shoots over Roxas' head, billowing around Axel's chin.
"Pretty good, huh?" the redhead grins, wiping the fire from his fingers.
Roxas is trying not to stare. "I… how… wow, yeah," he manages. "How do you do that? That's incredible! Why isn't it in the show?" Axel is agleam with sweat again and casually flips the oily rag off his shoulder, drags it across his chest. Roxas sucks in his breath with a small hiss.
"You want me to tell you?" Axel grins. "Want to join the circus?"
Roxas can't tell if he's joking, but nods. He can't tell if he's joking either. Axel laughs. "No. Fucking. Way." he says slowly. "You need your own trick. And to answer your other question, it is in the show. Just not the one you saw."
"Which, then?" Roxas queries. "Can I see it?"
"The real show," Axel says. "The real show with the real performers done for an exclusive audience who attend whether they will or not. Who pay to watch whether they think they can afford it or not. And no," he shakes his head again, "you can't see it. Because you're in it."
He looks at Roxas, sees the boy's confusion, and grins again. "I told you, didn't I? I fix things. Well, this time he wanted you. That's why we're here. To fetch you."
Roxas' feet know that they should be running, away from these crazy people and their crazy talk, but his head doesn't believe it. This can't be real, any of it, it's just some carny trick to separate him from his money. But he can't quite forget the gloves that appeared out of nowhere, the wig that wasn't a wig, the little flames dancing along the backs of Axel's hands.
"I don't…" he says.
"I know," Axel grins. "No-one does, not at first." He shrugs. "But come on, I'll show you 'round if you like." He turns away, rolling his shoulders under the tight skin. Roxas watches the ropes and knots of muscles in his back coil and loosen, and wonders what it felt like when the whip cut into them.
"One of the tension cables snapped," Axel says over his shoulder. "I was lucky. It could have cut me in two."
Axel leads him down the makeshift street, kicking at the fallen clumps of popcorn and discarded little plastic gewgaws that lie frozen on the ground. Roxas is shivering in the cold, but Axel is steaming gently in the morning air as the sweat warms off him. Roxas reaches out, wanting to touch his shoulder, but daren't. Across the millimetres separating the tips of his trembling fingers from Axel's pale flesh, Roxas can feel the heat radiating from his skin.
"Go on and touch him, he don't bite!" A coarse voice, as thick as crows, cuts through the morning. Roxas freezes.
"Oh, hi Missy," Axel says, and turns to look at Roxas, squinting a question down his long nose. "I might," he mutters from the side of his mouth.
Turning to look, Roxas can't at first see who called out. But then, in the gloom at the back of the deep shade under the awning, he sees the flare of a match and the sputtering red suction of someone lighting a pipe; hears the creak and complaint of a porch seat straining.
"Come in, come on! Let Mamma get a look at you," the woman calls out, and Roxas feels Axel's hand against his shoulder, pushing him forward.
She is immensely fat, engulfing the seat in rolls and mounds of flesh, and has a clay pipe stuck in her toothless mouth. Her long black hair is thick with grease, piled into elaborate constructions and stuck with combs and needles. Her hands and feet are bare; both swollen around a myriad of rings and trinkets. "Sit down, pretties, sit down," she cackles approvingly, tipping a sharp eyebrow at Axel, leering at Roxas. "Oh, he's picked one this time!" she laughs, before settling her face into a heavy pout. "Never a morsel over for Mamma, though? You don't want me to give him a trial run I don't suppose?"
Axel laughs, but Roxas is staring in horror at the fat hand crawling towards his knee. "No, I s'pose not," the woman sighs. "But what's a red blooded woman in her prime to do around all you dainty things?" She shifts in the groaning seat again. "I wouldn't mind it so much if they didn't have to flaunt it all the time. All night I hear him, that sword-swallower, taking the hired hands behind the tents with his pretty hair and his pretty hands, promising to teach them the trick. No wonder it's so hard to get help around these parts. But no," she sighs again, "I'd like as not crack a pair of sticks like you in to two." She pats her stomach not uncontentedly, sending ripples dancing under her aprons.
Axel laughs again. "You get quite enough Missy, and don't think I don't know it. What with the man beast and all."
The fat lady giggles, a horrible simpering girlish noise from somewhere deep within her, and tries to hide her face behind her hand. "Oh, don't Axel! Don't! If he finds out he'll feed me to the freaks!"
Axel waves and wanders away, Roxas following a little way behind. "Axel," he says, but Axel is holding up a hand. "Quiet!" he hisses, and drops into a crouch. "Shit, they're awake. Come on, we need to get inside."
Off to one side, away from the fake street front, a cluster of tents and caravans huddle together amongst the litter of awnings and makeshift enclosures. Even from this distance, Roxas can see that most are just tatty old vans, broken and beaten and boarded; or simply sheets pegged out on wires. But amongst the shanty huddle stand ten or a dozen that are entirely different; older, larger, built on an entirely different plan, strange and dark and grand and painted with black and gold stars, or cascades of flowers, or lightning. These are scattered around the compound seemingly without order, but Roxas can't help but notice that it's almost impossible to be out of sight of at least one of them, and that Axel is trying very hard to not pass particularly close to any. He is muttering under his breath, and seems to be counting his steps, and at one point he takes hold of Roxas' arms and says no, not there, here pulling him sideways from one identical patch of ground to another.
Axel picks a route through the tents and tarpaulins, heading for one of the strange vans. This one is painted a matt black and there are scarlet flames licking around from under the wheel arches. On one end there is painted a giant circular something, spiked and spoked like the blade of a buzz saw designed to cut dreams. Axel hops up the steps and holds open the door. "Welcome home," he says.
Inside, Roxas just stands, gaping, not noticing what Axel had said. It's quite dark, and all he can see is the ceiling, which has been painted as black as the exterior. But rather than being dull it has a sheen, like antique velvet worn smooth by the press of a million kisses. It doesn't reflect, but neither does it seem to absorb light, which just seems to skitter across the impossible surface. It's like looking into an infinitely deep pool of absolutely pure absolutely still water, fretted here and there with flashes of gold – stars or suns or scintillant fish, Roxas can't tell. He stands paralysed beneath it, his senses struggling with the experience, half afraid that he is about to fall up into it; half afraid that it's just a painted ceiling. Axel is doing something at the end of the room, and as he moves from place to place little patches of dancing shadow gather around him. It is the shadows that Roxas sees, rather than the glowing tongues of the candles casting them.
Axel is behind him again. Roxas can hear him breathing, and he can feel the narrowing gap between them as he approaches. Roxas tenses, not knowing what to expect, or where to run, or if to run, and then it's too late because Axel's long arms come snaking over his shoulders and drape around his neck. In the candlelight he can see that there is a ring of violet bruises around Axel's wrist, where someone has gripped him, hard. "What do you think," Axel murmurs into his ear. "Do you like it?"
Roxas can't move. He is transfixed, with no idea of what he is supposed to be feeling. He doesn't know if he is afraid, or just so far out of his depth that he has lost all sense of bearing. All he knows is that Axel is breathing into his ear, his arms are draped lightly around his shoulders, and that he has a hard on that's pushing painfully against his pants. Axel squeezes him in his arms, ever so quickly, and turns him around.
"I can hear you heart, Rox," he says. "Are you going to be okay?"
Roxas looks up into the bottle green eyes that in this light are just dark sparks dancing in the shadows. Standing this close, he has to tip his head back to see into Axel's face. Axel is bending forward, and Roxas can feel the hot breath coming from between the slightly open lips.
He has no idea what is happening. This is – he supposes – lust, or desire or maybe some irresistible love that's wormed its way under his skin from the fairground freaks. He thinks about Olette, and about Naminé and the other pale things drifting aimlessly around the town. He remembers the odd little catch in his throat when he would brush his fingers accidentally across a soft breast; remembers the giggles and the little stolen kisses and the running away. Fires trying to burn on green wood, only ever making smoke.
This – here – now – this isn't fire at all. This is the molecules that make him driven to ever faster motion, a chaotic dance in the very fabric of him, threatening to break the bonds that hold him together and scatter him into one last desperate burst of pure energy.
Axel is speaking, but he can't hear him. He is, he realises, trying to keep his hips away from Axel, trying not to let him feel how hard he's got. But Axel's long irresistible fingers are pulling at his sweater, and he is breathing "Rox, oh shit, I thought I'd lost you, I thought you were gone for good," into his ear and Roxas can't stand it any longer and reaches up into the blazing crown of hair and pulls the face to him, the taste of him bitter and salty under his lips.
"I don't know what's happening," he mumbles. "Tell me what's happening."
A great broken dragging howl cuts the air. Roxas feels Axel start, but not pull away. He opens an eye and sees Axel poised on the brink of the kiss, a jumper at suicide's fulcrum. Another long lolling bay rolls through the morning, and this time Axel snaps into awareness, pulling Roxas to him, wild eyed and ragged. "Shit!" he hisses, "shit! Shit! Shit! The fucking midget has loosed the hound. Look," he holds Roxas away at arms length, "I know how this must seem to you, and I can't fucking believe the timing, and I promise I'll explain everything when there's chance. But now we've got to go. He knows you're here, and that I'm keeping you from him, and he's going to try everything to not let you get away again. Shit!" he mutters, rubbing his hand over his eyes, "I can't believe he's set the Hound of the Hedges on me!" He turns for the door, fingers trailing out of Roxas' hand.
"But what is it?" Roxas feels like he's about to cry. "What are we running from?"
"Christ, okay, the Hound, it's like… well, it's a dog, obviously. It's a big, green friendly dog. It's beautiful and gentle and graceful and all it wants to do is tumble you onto the ground and play. It's a great big happy lump of nothing - it has no lust, or instinct, or ferocity or guile or sex and it will suck all of that out of you and leave you a hollow puppet, grinning and stupid. But it won't actually hurt you. And once the hound's got you He'll keep you in the circus forever. And now that you know shut up and run."
Axel takes the steps at a single bound and hits the ground running, twisting around to make sure Roxas is behind him.
"But… where are we… going?" Roxas calls breathlessly.
"Hall of Mirrors. It's the only place the hound can't go."
"But then what?"
"Fuck knows, but at least we'll be safe there for a while."
Axel runs, and Roxas runs behind him. Out of the encampment, and up the slope towards the wooden street. Axel keeps casting little glances over his shoulder as if he's afraid Roxas won't be there, and it's at one of these moments that a big man steps out from behind a pile of boxes, sends Axel tumbling to the ground. The man grabs Roxas and drags him into a tent while Axel is still spitting blood and shaking his head.
It's a shooting gallery. In front of him, the big man – black and grey hair pulled back from his head in a ponytail – is holding a hunting rifle, grinning down at Roxas. "Want to play a game?" he says.
Roxas gets to his feet and backs towards the tent flap. Through it, he can see Axel reeling around, as if swamped by invisible enemies, mouth open as if he's shouting. There is absolutely no sound, and try as he might Roxas can't push his way out of the tent.
"It's no use," the big man says. "You have to win if you want to get out."
He holds out the rifle to Roxas who takes it, raises it to his shoulder and shoots him straight through the eye patch.
"Ah, ha, ha that's good," the man cackles, "shoot Xigbar with his own gun! Idiot!" He laughs again, shaking his head. "No, son, to get out of here you don't shoot me." He gestures at the back of the booth. "You shoot him."
Roxas' father is sitting in his armchair, almost hidden behind the sports pages. He tilts one corner of the paper down, and glances at Roxas. "Oh, it's you," he grunts. "What are you doing standing there with that thing? You don't know how to shoot, worthless little fuck." He raises the paper back up in front of his face. "Well, go on, shoot me then. You'd better, because the next time I get my hands on you you're going to wish you'd never been born." All of this he says calmly, as if he's reading out the weather forecast. "But you ought to know," he says, folding the paper into his lap, "that there's someone else here." Roxas' sister is sitting in his father's lap, wide eyed and terrified. "Roxy, help me!" she squeals.
Roxas looks behind him to where Axel is still fighting invisible enemies in the silent street; in front of him to where his father's pudgy fingers are digging into the flesh of his sister's forearms. He thinks of what the fortune teller had said to him - your heart down one path, everything else down the other – remembers the violet bruises on Axel's wrist, raises the rifle to his eye and squeezes the trigger.
His father explodes in a great cloud of pulverized pumpkin flesh, seeds raining down around him, and his sister flops lifeless to the floor, just a bag with some old rags stuffed inside.
"Roxas! Rox!" Axel is shouting from away up the road, waving urgently. "Come on, keep it together." He sees the expression on Roxas' face. "What? What happened?"
Roxas shakes his head. "Never mind," he says, looking around for the vanished booth. "Nothing. It was nothing."
Roxas is lying on his back, trying to force air back into his burning lungs. Axel drops the mirrored flap down over the opening, shutting out the light, and sits down next to him in the unexpected darkness. "Okay," he says, "we're safe for a while. The hound can't get us in here, and He's not going to risk wasting any more of His tricks on us while we're holed up."
"So… so… what do we do?" Roxas gasps, propping himself up on his elbows and peering around him as his eyes adjust to the gloom.
"We wait," Axel says.
"That's it. There's nowhere for us to go, and we're safe while we're in here, so we wait. And see what happens." Axel picks at a tooth with one long finger, wincing. "I think he knocked one loose," he frowns. "Am I bleeding?"
Roxas glances up at the bruised and swollen lip and nods. "Yeah." And glances away again hurriedly because he finds himself wanting to know what it tastes like. He feels a red flush crawling up his face.
Axel is grinning. "So tell me," he says. "Why doesn't any of this seem odd to you?"
"What? Odd! Shit, Axel… I… I mean… odd isn't anywhere near it. A magic dog that steals your sex and a guy with one eye that made me shoot my dad? Never mind all this you can't get out that way crap everyone keeps spouting."
"Mmmm," Axel rubs at the back of his head, absently. "Yeah, I can see that might be a bit weird. That wasn't what I meant though."
"Then what the fuck did you mean? I wish everyone would just stop talking in riddles!"
"Well, it is a Carny," Axel grins. "But I kind of meant this." Slowly, he leans across Roxas, who is still propped up on his elbows, and kisses him. It's slow, and lingering, and both of Axel's hands are planted firmly on the floor and Roxas has plenty of time to get away, but instead he finds himself straining upwards into the kiss, Axel's crushed lip burning against his own; finds himself with his eyes closed and lips ever so slightly apart, breathing in Axel's breath, tasting his blood.
"That," Axel says from millimetres away. "I meant that." Roxas feels him sit up, and opens his eyes. "You can't honestly tell me that you make out with the boys at the coffee shop, now, can you?" he grins at Roxas' little moue of distaste. "Thought not. So how come this is okay? I mean… it is okay, isn't it? I'm not, like, making you or anything?"
Roxas doesn't say anything for a moment, looks up into the dark green eyes – huge in the gloom - that are still only inches away. Axel's expression is almost unreadable, such a tangle of longing and worry and desire and uncertainty and lust and loss and hope. "I don't know," Roxas mumbles, and watches the eyes narrow. "I don't know what's happening, or why it's okay. It is, though. More than okay. It's actually stupid – you keep saying all these things that make no sense, and I guess that I'm actually in real danger, but all I can think about is…" he drops his eyes, blushing. "All I can think about is how fucking good it feels kissing you."
Axel makes a small sound, but Roxas is staring at his shoulder, imagining what the sharp angle of his clavicle and scapula would feel like under his teeth. Axel is still naked from the waist up, still filmed with sweat, and it smells sweet and slightly burnt, like chestnut honey. Without raising his eyes he says "so I don't know. I don't know why it's okay. I don't like guys – not like this, I mean – and, um, well, girls…. I dunno…." he trails off. "I guess I always thought I was waiting for the right one I suppose. I just didn't expect it to be you." He laughs, nervously.
"The right girl," Axel says with a chuckle. "Nope, can't say I was expecting to be that, either."
"So…." Roxas finally glances up again, and Axel is still there, only inches away. "Um… you said you'd explain what was going on when there was time. Is now a good time?"
"No," Axel says, "no, now's not good at all."
Roxas wants to ask why, but Axel is pressing him backward and his nose knocks against his nose and he bites Roxas on the lip and there's another tongue in his mouth. Long fingers are pulling at his hoodie, burning against his flesh, maddening like the bites of ants, tangling into the top of his jeans, fumbling at the buttons and Roxas lets a small cry slip out as Axel breaks the kiss, slips an arm under his waist and pulls his hips up off the floor, tugging at the waistband.
For a moment they are both motionless, before Roxas says "what? What are you waiting for?"
"Tell me to carry on," Axel says, his voice tight with alarm. "Tell me its okay. Tell me you want me to."
Shit, Roxas thinks, he's as out of his depth here as I am, but he just nods and says "I want you to, Axel. I fucking want you," and his voice cracks into a dry husk as he feels Axel's trembling hand sliding over his skin, as Axel's teeth close over the jut of his ribs.
"Ah, shit!" Roxas gasps and arches his back. Under his fingers he can feel the raised welt snaking across Axel's shoulders, hears him suck in a sharp breath as he drags a nail across it, and then he cries out as Axel slips a hand into his shorts and takes hold of his hard-on. "Oh, Christ, Axel," he mumbles, and amidst the unimaginable sensations that are shredding his nervous system he feels something blossom across Axel's back. Opening his eyes, he sees flames – emerald, cobalt, and crimson – ebbing and surging over Axel's skin like the time Hayner had doused his boots in lighter fluid. The flames are licking at his fingers where he is gripping Axel's shoulder blades, but there's no pain, just a strange tingling warmth that he can feel creeping up his fingers and spreading into his hands.
Around him, the mirrored walls of the tent catch Axel's pale light and reflect it until Roxas feels as though he is being carried along in the tail of a comet, just another fragment of starlight. And behind the glimmer all he can see is himself, wide-eyed and enraptured, and Axel hunched over him, the two of them reflected backwards and forwards, forever.
"So let me get this straight." It's afterwards – in Roxas' mind time has divided itself into two; into before and afterwards, and no other measures of anything seem to be particularly important – and because he's never done this before he doesn't know that what he's feeling isn't something uniquely theirs and infinitely precious. Axel is grinning like an idiot, and he keeps getting up to pace around the tent, watching Roxas reflected in the mirrors as if he's half expecting him not to be there each time he looks; sitting back down against him as if he needs the feel of another bony naked shoulder against his own to convince himself that he isn't dreaming. Roxas is beginning to shiver, but Axel is too full of the incredible mind-fuckingness of what's just happened to notice.
"What you're saying is… is… No, I still don't get it."
Axel sprawls out beside him. "Ansem sent me to bring you back," he says. "You with me so far?"
"No!" Roxas has his fists balled up and his eyes screwed shut. "What do you mean 'bring me back'? I've never seen any of you people before in my life."
"Not in this one, no," Axel shrugs.
"Oh, fuck off!" Roxas shouts. "You seriously think I'm going to swallow some reincarnation bull? Please."
"Whatever. Just believe you shot your dad in front of your sister and then fucked a total stranger – a guy – for no reason if that's easier for you to get your head around."
Roxas doesn't say anything.
"Rox…" Axel begins, but Roxas interrupts him.
"No. No. Whatever's going on here makes no fucking sense at all, so let's just say you're right, okay? Ansem sent you to bring me back. Why the fuck did he send you? Why didn't he send the guy with the eye patch or one of those other fucking freaks?" He doesn't ask why did he send you to get me?
"Most of them can't leave the circus," Axel smiles. "Most of them are too fucking weird to go out. Some of them look normal enough – more than me, even – but there can be, uh… problems. Larxene looks enough like a regular chick, but she has a nasty habit of turning anyone who looks at her to stone. Demyx looks okay, too, but his singing drives people mad."
"And the others?"
"Shit, you really want to know?" Axel sighs. "Just avoid them, okay? Especially Vexen. Whatever happens, keep away from that guy. And anyway, we were talking about me, and I'm a whole fuck load more interesting than them."
"Okay," Roxas grins. "So, he sent you because you're – what? Most normal? Least freaky? What?"
"Nah," Axel shakes his head. "Nothing so simple. I'm bait. He figured that even if you didn't remember – which you didn't – some part of you would still feel something – which it did. Whatever he is, Ansem's not stupid, and he knows his shit when it comes to hearts. And besides, it's worked every other time."
"Every other time," Roxas echoes, flatly. "So, what? As well as this being some reincarnation shit, you're saying it's all happened before?"
Axel nods. "He's been trying to get you back for aeons. Every time, he nearly manages it, and every time, something fucks it up at the last minute."
"Me." Axel pokes himself in the chest. "I do. Because I'm a sneaky, conniving son-of-a-bitch and I want to keep you for myself."
"Why does he keep sending me?" Axel clambers to his feet and paces the tent again. "Because he likes to hurt me. Because he likes to tear my heart out and taunt me with it. Because he knows that every time I steal you away from him I condemn myself to losing you again as well. And he likes that. It makes it worth the wait. Because one day he'll work out how to change the rules, or he'll find a joker to play, and he'll win. But until then, we just go round. Round and round and round."
"But what about me?" Roxas is wild-eyed and angry. "Don't I have any say in it? I'm not just a fucking puppet you can jerk around for your entertainment. What about what I want? Doesn't that matter?"
Axel stops pacing, and looks at his reflection in the mirror. "And what do you want, Rox?" he says.
"You," Roxas says, without hesitation. "I want you. I want you and me to not be here. I want to be a thousand miles away from this fucking freak show and my fucking dad and to be with you. I want to live in a cabin on the beach and watch the fucking sun go down over the water like a fucking sissy and then fuck you in the surf while the tide comes in. Forever." He's on his feet, his entire being a challenge, bright and trembling, daring Axel to laugh. "Well?" he demands.
Axel is staring at him, and runs a finger over the tattooed tear on his cheek. "Why the hell not?" he says at last, almost too quietly to hear. "But I've got to warn you, there's going to be an awful lot of running."
"I don't care," Roxas says. "I'll run forever."
"We might not make it."
Axel pauses, chewing his lip. "I can remember every one of them," he says at last, "and just in case I screw this one up as well, try to remember that I'll see you in the next one." He smiles sadly at the futility of it.
"You'd better," Roxas says, "because I'll be…"
Axel buries the word beneath a kiss, before he can say it.
"Ready," Roxas nods.
Axel lifts the tent flap, squeezes Roxas' hand.
They duck out into the bright morning sunlight.