What do you suppose would happen if I stepped off?
Roxas looks up from the little pile of dirt he’s worked out of the crack between the stones of the ledge with the broken bit of the old popsicle stick he’d picked up. Axel is standing with his bare toes curled over the edge, hanging on to the pillars by the clockface with one hand, leaning out into the void.
I suppose you’d die.
You think so?
Roxas peers over the edge. Far below them, a couple of figures are crossing the square, heading for Station Heights. He closes his eyes, imagining himself Axel, falling forwards into the empty air, feeling the wind tugging at his hair, laughing at the pavement rushing up to meet him. Once, on some stupid mission to some world with too much colour and not enough point, Axel had caught a nasty gash from some clawed thing, a jagged rip across his forearm. Roxas remembers the black blood soaking into Axel’s coat, the harsh metallic tang of it, the way it stuck to his fingers. That night, when he’d fished the magazines out from under his mattress, it was Axel he imagined, torn and bleeding, his life ebbing slowly out, eyes glazing, breath fading.
Roxas swallows heavily, slick-palmed and hard at the thought of Axel smeared across the flagstones.
Could I, though?
Axel is still tilted out from the tower, only just holding on. Roxas reaches up and takes a hold of his coat.
What do you mean?
I mean, aren’t I already dead?
We’re not dead.
We’re not? What are we then?
Axel sits down, suddenly, and grabs Roxas’ hand, opens his coat, presses the fingers against his chest. Saying something about hearts, only Roxas isn’t listening.
Roxas is a creature of habit. Roxas follows patterns. Roxas makes meaning for himself, imposes order on the empty days by letting action become routine. He might not know who he is or why he is, but at any given moment he knows what he is doing, and what he is going to be doing next. The days are like a loop of tape, playing over and again, and each one ends in the same way, with Roxas fishing the magazines out from under his mattress and thinking about Axel, torn and bleeding. Axel takes his hand and places it against his chest, says something about hearts, and Roxas can feel the thing under Axel’s ribs kicking like a horse waiting to be broken. And when Axel kisses him his breath is hot in Roxas’ mouth and his fingers burn Roxas’ skin and when Axel forces him down against the bedclothes and takes him in his mouth all the stars that have been going out come blazing back.
And now his hand is flat against Axel’s chest, and under the cold skin there is nothing.
See? Axel is saying. Dead.
But Roxas shakes his head. I don’t believe you.
What? Tell me what you remember, then. Tell me about the games you used to play when you were a kid. Tell me where you grew up. Tell me about your first kiss.
Roxas looks away from his right hand, pressed against the moonwhite skin stretched over Axel’s left pectoral muscle. My first kiss?
Axel nods. Sure. No-one forgets that, right?
Roxas frowns, and shakes his head.
See? Axel says again. You can’t. You can’t remember anything before you woke up outside the mansion feeling like you’d been drinking rubbing alcohol.
It doesn’t matter which way you slice it, Rox. We’re a fucking cosmic joke.
Roxas follows patterns, but later that night, tatty ink-stained magazine pages spread across his tilted knees, the Axel he imagines isn’t beautiful and dying.
Before Castle Oblivion, Axel had been as constant as the rain. In Twilight Town, with the perpetual evening sun swollen on the horizon, Roxas’ shadow streamed away behind him, a great long jagged thing, and at first he had thought that Axel might be it come to life. At first, Axel had been everywhere, lounging insouciantly in the doorway of his room; grinning as they taught him how to fight; yawning ostentatiously behind his hand while Xemnas pontificated about the importance of their mission, tipping winks at Roxas that everyone could see. At first, Roxas had thought Axel was a jerk. But it had become more and more difficult to pay attention to the endless weapon practice and mission training and explanation after interminable explanation of heartless and nobodies and corridors of darkness and kingdom hearts, when his head was full of Axel’s hands and Axel’s fingers and the long pale curve of his neck.One day, Roxas had come back from the commissary to find Axel slouched in the doorway of his room, nervously summoning and dismissing his chakrams.
I’m not going to be around for a few days.
Yeah. A shrug. Some mission. See you later.
Axel’s eyes. Wine-dark. Afraid.
After Castle Oblivion, everything changed.
The Axel that comes back from Castle Oblivion is a different person, and the whole world seems to have changed with him. No-one will tell Roxas what has happened, but it’s pretty obvious that there aren’t thirteen of them any more. The surviving members skirt around him, tight-lipped and silent, and when he corners Axel in Fragment Crossing, demands to know what’s going on, Axel just looks at him.
Roxas’ fists are balled tight in his pockets, the desperation of not-knowing tense in every fibre of him.
Axel still isn’t speaking, and it’s only because it never stops raining in The World That Never Was that it takes Roxas so long to work out why.
Roxas doesn’t know that Axel is back from Castle Oblivion until he stumbles across him in an alley in the Brink Of Despair, and he doesn’t know that he is gone again until Saïx comes in to the Garden of Darkness and Light to ask where VIII is. Roxas searches from Nothing’s Call to the Altar of Naught, and everywhere he looks Axel isn’t.
Roxas is a creature of habit. Roxas follows patterns. Driven through the Worlds by the disordering power of desire.
In Agrabah he watches the dark-eyed, lush-lipped youths smoking hashish in the bath houses, laughing at the men not rich enough to buy a half-hour of their time or beautiful enough to share it. Smiling alluring smiles at the more fortunate. At Roxas. But there is no sign of Axel, and Roxas takes one step backward into the portal, hating himself.
In Atlantica, the beach is littered with used condoms, the air rank with the acrid tang of rotting sea creatures, dead fires kicked apart on the sands. Although any or all of it could be his doing, Axel isn’t there, and Roxas calls up the corridor of darkness, returns to his room in the Castle That Never Was, curls up under the covers.
For a moment, Roxas thinks he sees Axel in Beast’s Castle, but it is only a rose in vase on a window sill.
In the Coliseum he hesitates in the mouth of the portal for a while, watching the narrow waists and rolling shoulders of the naked youths wrestling in the sand, scrabbling for hand holds on each other’s slick backs. But neither the hands nor backs are Axel’s.
A man speaks softly in a savage tongue, and then the sound is no longer speech. Roxas steps away from the portal, parts the Jungle curtain, sees Tarzan kneeling, gripping the flanks of the kneeling girl as he comes into her from behind, his head thrown back in wild exultation as he thrusts his loins. Roxas watches the moonlight dancing across the muscles of his back and arms, roiling like logs in a millrace, and imagines it is his own contorted face pressed into the rotten jungle floor, Axel who is kneeling behind him. But it isn’t, and it isn’t, and once he has splattered his semen across the undergrowth he staggers away, summons a portal, falls into it.
Destiny Islands are haunted by ghost children racing along the sands and he cannot stay. Axel would never be there anyway.
Nor in Disney Castle. It almost isn’t worth looking, but Roxas is a creature of habit. Roxas follows patterns. No.
In Halloween Town Dr Finkelstein lies drugged in his chair, Jack and Sally a mad tangle of limbs contorting on the table. All the fires in the laboratory are out. No fire in the world anywhere.
In Hollow Bastion, Leon sees him step from the portal, lowers the gunblade, frowning at the boy silhouetted against the portal’s slicker. Sora? Roxas runs; doesn’t know why.
Eventually, he finds him in an opium den in the Land of Dragons, filthy and grinning, emaciated, mumbling nonsense as Roxas tries to rouse him.
Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed. One evening I took Beauty in my arms, Axel sits up, naked, the sole of one foot black with grime, dirty sheet tented over his hard-on, and seizes Roxas by the shoulder – and I thought him bitter – and I insulted him!
Axel! Roxas pulls away, momentarily terrified of the glassy-eyed madman; reaches for him again as he remembers who it is. What the fuck happened to you? A lump hardening in his throat.
I steeled myself against justice. I fled. O witches, O misery, O hate, my treasure was left in your care! I have withered within me all human hope. With the silent leap of a sullen beast, I have downed and strangled every joy.
Axel! What are you talking about? Axel? It’s me, Roxas! Where have you been? The breath he doesn’t even have knocked out of him.
I have called for executioners; I want to perish chewing on their gun butts. I have called for plagues, to suffocate in sand and blood. Unhappiness has been my god. I have lain down in the mud, and dried myself off in the crime-infested air. I have played the fool to the point of madness.
Axel! Roxas cradles the poor mad face in his hands, squeezing his eyes shut as the tears well up onto his cheeks. I love you, you know he murmurs.
Now recently, when I found myself ready to croak! I thought to seek the key to the banquet of old, where I might find an appetite again, Axel says, and plants a cracked dry kiss on Roxas’ lips, the taste of wormwood filling his mouth.
I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t killed him.
Roxas glances away from the sunset he no longer sees. Towards the man he thinks no longer notices him. Wrapped up in silence. The part of him that does the talking somewhere else. Dreaming.
That I hadn’t killed him.
Roxas watches Axel shrug. Notices the way the folds of the hood slide across the hump of his shoulder. The way that his hands that were never still have become still. He can remember the feeling that these things used to give him. The hot, urgent rush of whatever-the-hell it was that pushed him up out of his chair and made him want to run around and punch things. To argue with Axel about stupid little things that they actually agreed on, just so Axel would get angry and they could spend five minutes yelling at each other and then another five in white silence, fists and lips clenched, wide eyed and breathless.
Axel – who never answers questions; who never uses three words when three thousand will do – glances up from where he has been staring at the cracks in the balustrade.
You killed Vexen?
Axel nods. I wish I hadn’t. Vexen was an interesting man. Insane, but interesting.
Roxas bites his lip, hopes that his dilating pupils don’t give him away, ducks his head.
You know that stuff you said? About appetites and stuff?
Axel glances up from his lap, nods.
What was that?
She left me a book. Before S… before she died, she left me a book.
I thought you hated her?
I don’t understand.
You kissed me.
Roxas nods, watches Axel’s eyes narrow.
Reads the unspoken question in the tilt of his head, the arch of his eyebrow, the first flicker of interest he’s seen since before Castle Oblivion.
… want you to do it again.
In Agrabah, they smoke hashish in the bathhouse until Roxas feels as though he has turned to water, only surface tension holding him to a form, ready to scatter in a spray of a million droplets. He already knows that Axel has no heart, and when their tongues trail apart it isn’t the need to breathe that has him gasping. And Axel’s fingers on his skin don’t burn, but he feels the press of them left behind wherever they alight, until he feels like he is being fondled by a thousand fingers all reaching for him at once. No hearts, and no breath, but something is making the pulse surge in his ears, and the passion still feels like passion, the lust like lust, and when Axel finally forces him down against the sofa and takes him in his mouth it feels real enough. Axel sucks him until the clamour of his incoherent shouts bring the dark-haired lush-lipped boys running to praise the legendary lovers, eyes flashing as they call out in praise of the one god and his prophet.
The two of them are like cobwebs spread across the hedgerows on an autumn morning. Shimmering, transient, beautiful. About to break.
Roxas feels his hot breath on the back of his neck, his nostrils filled with the stink of sweat. Axel’s burning skin is pressed against the length of him, and he can feel him taut and trembling, like an overwound watch spring about to break.
“Oh, fuck…” he groans, “oh, fuck, fuck, fuck…” and he screws his eyes shut, pretending that this was what he had wanted; that this was what he had always wanted.
I answered my own question didn’t I?
They had been sitting on the Coliseum steps, Roxas staring at the dark stains in the scuffed sand, blood and sweat, imagining. Trying to avoid seeing the blank dead look in Axel’s eyes.
I’m not dead. I can’t be dead. If we’re dead I couldn’t have killed him.
Roxas, lost in his imaginings of straining flesh, hardly hears him.
I can’t make it make sense. I thought we were in hell. It feels like a punishment, being able to remember what feeling feels like, wanting to feel, not knowing if you’re feeling or just remembering how you once might have felt. But if we’re not dead it can’t be hell. Unless it’s a little death. Maybe this is purgatory. Maybe this is our chance to choose. Maybe if we…
And just because he was horny, and only because he wanted Alex to shut the fuck up and be quiet, he had grabbed the back of his head and kissed him savagely. And just because this time he didn’t want him to be imaginary and melt away into soiled sheets, he bit his bottom lip, hard, and stuck his hands under his coat, feeling the little muscles of his midriff tense as he flinched under his fingers.
Roxas can feel him like electricity; like a storm about to break. He can feel the scalding tears wetting his shoulders and he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that this isn’t how he has imagined it; that this isn’t how it was supposed to be. He feels like a sheet of paper laid across embers, twisted and charred and about to burst into flames at any second. And he doesn’t care. That all this is just another way of forgetting.
Or not forgetting.