Axel stands in the doorway of her room, watching in silence as she sits in the window seat, head bowed, hair tucked behind one ear, child’s crayon clutched in her hand, drawing, drawing. The sketchbook is balanced on her knee and the tip of her tongue protrudes from between her lips as she concentrates. It is, Axel thinks, almost cute, but then he remembers what it is that she’s doing. Just before she realises he’s watching and glances towards him he shifts his weight onto one hip and lounges insouciantly against the door frame, grinning at her from the corner of his mouth when she waves to him.
“What’re you drawing?”
She pushes her hands down into her lap and raises her shoulders, ducking her head and smiling shyly. Damn, she’s good Axel thinks, and she hesitantly holds the sketchbook out towards him.
“It’s not very good,” she murmurs.
It isn’t. Just some lumpy figures indistinguishable except that their hair and clothes are different colours. One has a spiky brown mess like a withered pineapple top, the other’s in what look like clown’s trousers, hair just lines, some grey, some blue as though she’d changed her mind part way through, smudgy as though she’d tried to work the colours together to make something else.
“What do you think?” she asks, as Axel hands the book back.
“I think they’re incredibly powerful,” he says, and she looks pleased, as though she actually thinks he’s complimenting her artistic talent; as though they aren’t actually having a completely different conversation.
Axel looks around her room. He hates it, and if he’s honest it scares him a little. Whenever he comes here – which he finds himself doing more and more often now – it’s like walking into a bank of fog, pale and grey and blurry, and nothing quite as far away as it seems, and nothing quite as near to hand, and the dreadful childish drawings pinned to the walls floating around the periphery of his vision like hallucinations. He doesn’t know if it’s the fog-bound room itself that scares him, or the fact that he can’t see what it is that the fog is hiding.
He hates it, being in the fog, feeling himself wrapped in its clammy embrace, feeling it suck the fire out of him. When she moves away from the window she’s almost invisible, just eyelashes and sometimes a pink mouth when she laughs. Very little scares Axel, but this tiny scrap of a girl in her horrible foggy room terrifies him.
He looks back at the pictures stuck up on the walls. “How…” he starts to say, but Naminé has taken one of his hands in both of hers and is tugging him towards the window.
“Oh, I wanted to show you!” she whispers, “I tried really hard with this one!” She flips through the pages of the book, lumpy misshapen things capering jerkily across the pages as she flickers the corners under her thumb. “Here!” She holds the book out at arms length.
Axel’s mouth is full of ashes. Two black shapes, one with a corona of scarlet spikes, the other with a tangled halo of yellow; pudgy pink faces and sausage-fingered hands. Normally he would laugh to see himself drawn like this; especially hard at Roxas; only Roxas is half off the page, walking away, a bloodied dripping winged heart flying out of his shoulders, and Axel is reaching out towards him, huge blue tears springing from gigantic green eyes.
“Do you like it?” Naminé asks sweetly.
Axel knows that Roxas can’t remember, and knows why. He feels it himself, dampening him down like rain, every day a little more; every day another naïve, childish, talentless scribble stuck to the wall in the fog-bound room; every day the feeling that he has a heart fading. He stands in her room when she’s not there, looking at the pictures stuck on the walls, and tries to understand how they can do it, how such ridiculous scrawls can eat away at everything that matters. And one day, for no particular reason, he realises that they can’t.
The real irony of it is that this is how he learns that any of it was real. Because if Naminé’s pictures can only alter the memories of people with a direct connection to Sora’s heart then that must mean… Axel is grinning when it dawns on him, but still he doesn’t want to follow the implications where they lead. It’s too frightening; too upsetting; so life-crushingly, soul-destroyingly, hope-engenderingly too late that he can’t bear the realisation.
Once he’s worked out that there is a secret, it’s only a matter of time before he uncovers it. At first he tries to do it himself, to burn the fog away, but after an afternoon of damp squib fizzling and growing frustration he gives up, and blazes off in search of Xaldin, who disinterestedly agrees to help him. And when the fog’s all banked up on one side of the room, torn to tatters and trailing like banners, Axel sees it and wonders how he could ever have been so blind.
Later, when the only sound is the scratching of the lesser heartless in the wainscot, Axel sneaks back to her room to look at it again. It’s all over the walls, and now he knows it’s there he can see it even through the fog. Her door is opposite the window, and in the darkness he watches his reflection step through the dark portal at the back of the cave and walk onto the beach.
The effect is uncanny. Axel lets his eyelids fall, and gazes for a while at the swimming red haze behind them until he feels a little calmer. He wonders how she does it, how she manages to make herself scribble and blot, all day, day after day, just so they think that those are the real drawings. He wonders if any of the others know; if Marluxia knew; or DiZ. He wonders who the pretence is for, and then something else occurs to him and he closes his eyes again.
It’s a kind of mural or frieze, but that hardly does it justice. The room is covered from floor to ceiling with pictures; with one vast picture that seeps out over the boards under his feet and fans out across the plaster above his head. He can’t remember what a lot of it is (although he gets an unpleasant crawling sensation at the back of his nose when he looks at it, as if something is trying to get out), but he recognises enough to know that here – spread out across the walls of her room – is the entire history of…. well, of everything.
It starts way over to his left, with some not-very-clear scenes of the three of them, although they’ve got some really dumb-looking armour and who’s the bald freak they’re fighting? Axel pinches his nose, because whatever it is is crawling around again and he’s starting to feel a little sick. Is that Roxas? Why are you there? Am I starting at the end…? But no, three quarters of the way around the room the paintings begin to peter out, at first into line drawings and then there are just charcoal marks, most of them unrecognisable. She hasn’t finished…
He wants to stay, to take it all in, to try and remember why he can’t remember, but Naminé will be back before long and he can’t let her know that he knows. So he walks back into the cave slips back out of the door and takes himself to bed, where he dreams of Vexen who is shouting at him as he dies on the chakram’s point, desperately trying to make him understand something but Axel can’t quite hear over the fire’s roar that is building up inside him and as he clicks his fingers and Vexen explodes into flames, his pale hair blooming into a twisted mass of cinders, he turns and looks at Axel and says
“Wake up, sleepy head!”
Naminé is sitting on the end of his bed, glancing from his face to the sketchbook balanced on her knees, and back. Axel sits up, one bony shoulder raised like a shield, and pushes a hand into his hair.
“Were you having nice dreams?” Naminé asks, and slips away, book tucked under her arm, sweet little faraway smile just brushing her lips.
Axel stands in the doorway of her room, gazing in silence at the pictures on the walls. She’s been busy, while he was sleeping, and the smudgy charcoal outlines have started to take shape. But something else has occurred to him, an idea like a rotting hulk sunk in the mud, buried by centuries of silt, sucked clean by the endless tides, sticking from the mire like rotten teeth. And again, now he’s thought of it, he can’t understand how he had ever not seen it.
All over the walls, and all over the room, the pictures unfurl. Sora’s memories, splayed out around him like a taunt. There’s more here than one child could ever have lived, more than a single adolescent head could contain, and although Axel can’t quite work out what some of it is (and pinches the bridge of his nose, because whatever that thing in there is it’s on the move again, and seems to have grown some more legs) he remembers enough to know that amongst the stars going out and the encroaching darkness and the plots and pitfalls and downfalls and triumphs; amongst the deadly rivalries and desperate friendships, the love and loss and longing; amongst the whole horrible sprawl of Sora’s story, only one thing isn’t there. And intermittently at first, but more and more as events unfurl, she has pinned one of the crayon scribbles to the wall.
Even once he has worked out what she’s done, Axel can’t bring himself to look. There’s one scene he has been staring at, staring at and staring at until it has burnt onto his retinas and he feels as though he’ll never see anything else again; staring at until the crawling thing scrabbling around in his head has got so far out that he feels as though he has a second tongue and he can’t stand the feel of it any more and it’s going to make him choke or throw up or pass out.
There’s nothing about the scene that’s particularly striking. It’s just four kids playing in their secret hideout. Although really it’s three kids playing, because the fourth is kind of off to one side, and although he’s kind of smiling there’s a quality to his expression that makes Axel want to cry, because it’s so full of loss, and longing, and an ancient resignation that has absolutely no place in the eyes of a teenaged boy. And just behind Roxas, she’s pinned a picture that’s probably supposed to be Sora, holding something that’s supposed to be a Paopu fruit. The corner of the cheap paper rustles slightly as Axel breathes out, but he doesn’t take it down. Not yet.
Because Roxas is sitting alone on the clock tower, staring into the sunset, wearing a look of uncertainty and doubt that is only partly to do with the sea-salt ice-cream popsicle he’s holding. And to his right, she’s pinned a picture that’s probably supposed to be Xemnas, about to attempt something unspeakable with what’s probably supposed to be Riku. The popsicle that Roxas is holding is partly obscured by the paper, and just above his hand – not quite hidden behind the clumsy drawing – is a fold of hood, and three burning spikes of rose madder, persimmon and tenné. A crown? On the head of a dead princess?
Axel’s hand is trembling as he reaches out and pulls the picture away from the wall, not caring as it rips around the pins, not feeling it as he crumples it tightly in his fist. For some reason, all he can see is the shiny tack sticking out of the centre of his own forehead, and all he can think is you did that on purpose and he starts to grin, but then he sees Roxas, and sees himself, and can’t remember, and the grin goes all wiggly and funny and wrong and try as he might he can’t seem to get it back under control before the tears are scalding his cheeks and the red mist is rising. And when Demyx – drawn by the smell of water – comes into the room and sees Axel staring blankly at the empty wall, fists balled up and flames licking around his knuckles, eyes screwed shut and steaming, he tiptoes hurriedly away singing softly under his breath from what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favour fire over and over and over, like a prayer, or a charm, or a ward, or as if he’s trying to convince himself of something.
Once Axel can see again he tries to smooth out the paper balled up in his hand; tries to pin it back onto the wall. But it’s scorched and creased and torn beyond hope, and Riku has burnt almost entirely away and Xemnas is leering horribly into the empty space where the boy used to be and Axel, suddenly as tired as he has ever felt, and weighed down with disgust, casts it to the floor uncaring. In the space where it had been he sits on the clock-tower, next to the doubtful wondering unhappy doubting wonderful boy, and he can remember nothing. He knows that Roxas meant more to him than anything else ever had, and he knows that it’s more important than anything could ever be that he remembers why he can’t remember, but the thing in his head is writhing again and the fog is thickening and he’s suddenly afraid that Naminé will come back and find him and he puts out a hand to steady himself and as he brushes against the wall some of the paint comes off on his gloved fingers.
It’s like coming up from under water; like being able to breathe again; like being kicked by a horse. A jolt goes through him, and magically Axel gives a sharp burst of laughter because, suddenly, he remembers. Rox had been at the Sandlot, with Hayner and Olette and Pence, and Axel had seen how wistful he looked, and something warm and peculiar inside his chest had made him go over and strike up a conversation. Somehow, they’d ended up on the clock-tower, eating sea-salt ice-cream. Roxas had been so uncertain about everything – about the popsicles, about the Organisation, about Axel. Axel laughs again, because he remembers something else, remembers why he had to sit like that, in that uncomfortable way, one knee up and with his elbow resting on it as if that was why. Roxas had stared fixedly at the popsicle, had refused to look at him, and Axel had nibbled silently on the end of his, glancing sidelong at the kid every now and then, doggedly thinking it’s an ice-cream you freaking pervert, an ice-cream over and over again until he could put his knee back down. And then…
Nothing. The memory just sort of peters out into a blank, like a reel of film spooling out of a projector, images fading into cold white light. Axel raises his hand again, to wipe some more of the picture away, but instead he stoops and picks up the burnt and crumpled paper from the floor. Naminé’s sketchbook and crayons are lying in the window where she left them, and Axel perches on the seat, head bowed, hair tucked behind one ear, child’s crayon clutched in his hand. He balances the sketchbook on one knee and copies the tattered drawing, the tip of his tongue protruding from between his lips as he concentrates on getting the picture right. It doesn’t take that long, and he smirks when he’s finished because his is actually better than hers, but he rips it from the book all the same, and pins it back onto the wall, covering the smudged and gappy painting of himself. He’s about to turn away, but Roxas is sitting there with that expression on his face, and Axel just can’t. He can’t remember how long it is since he’s actually seen him, alive and warm and yearning; how long since he’d said… but the crawling thing has woken up and he can’t remember what he’d said, or why it had needed saying, or if he’d even said anything. And because his eyes are watering as he turns away and stumbles back out of the room he doesn’t see the drifting slip of a girl standing in the shadows under the Paopu tree by the cave mouth.
On his better days, Axel remembers that the world still exists. When he wakes up and feels Roxas’ absence like the throb of a pulled tooth – feels him there next to him like a phantom limb – then he can almost take his old delight in laying snares and setting traps and sending his hapless colleagues blundering into them. Sometimes, he can still smile when Xaldin – almost enthusiastic – talks about the Nobody and Heartless he wants to breed from the Beast. Sometimes, he can almost enjoy threatening to boil Demyx’s Dancers, and hearing the desperate voice crack in panic as he pleads with Axel to stop, steam rising around his shoulders. Sometimes, being cruel to Demyx is the only thing that makes him feel like he felt when Roxas was around: vital and alive and as though anything could happen. Sometimes, he wants to pick him up and snap him across his knee like kindling. Sometimes, the only music he wants to hear are screams.
On his bad days, in Virtual Twilight Town, he rages around the non-existent streets, his silent shout refusing to echo off the insubstantial walls. He gave up trying to change anything here long ago, after watching everything he’d tried to burn dissolve into a blizzard of static and reform, dissolve and reform, the only other real thing here the one thing he couldn’t touch. Kill him, or bring him back, they had said, and Axel had nodded, grinning because of all the things in the universe they could have told him to do, they had somehow managed to pick the only two that were actually impossible. On the bad days, he sits in silence on the tram and catches glimpses of him playing with his friends, and this is more like a dream than any dream could ever be: watching Roxas trying to be a normal boy in an unreal town filled with the ghosts of imaginary children. Axel has never wanted to burn anything as much as he does at these moments, but he can’t bear the puzzled unhappy confusion on Roxas’ face when the town dissolves into static and reforms, dissolves and reforms.
On his very bad days he stands in front of Roxas, huddled silently in his hood, and pours his broken heart out, mute and muffled, while the maddened angry boy screams who the fuck are you? What do you want from me? and runs from him and kicks and bites and punches at everyone and everything that gets in his way.
Everyone except Axel, who is the only one who wants it.
On the dead days, he goes to see Naminé.
Naminé knows, of that there can be no doubt. Whenever he rubs out a picture, whenever a memory comes back to him like a slide dropped into a magic lantern, whenever he pins the picture back up over the empty space next to Roxas, he knows that the next time he comes here she’ll have painted it back in again and the memory will be gone. But he’s slowing her down – the charcoal marks and pencillings are spreading across the remaining bare section of wall much less quickly, and the parts she’s worked on most recently are noticeably hurried.
But there’s one section that she’s working on, in the centre of the final wall, that is clearly a kind of key to the whole design. They are all there, in a montage spread against an impossible sky, and she has poured her heart and soul into this because when he sees the ones that she’s completed, he feels as though he’s seeing ghosts. On the far left, black-robed and blindfolded, Riku stands gazing away into nothingness. Next to him, there’s a sketched-in girl that is clearly going to be Kairi, standing in front of something he can’t quite recognize. A camel, perhaps? But it doesn’t matter because there’s Roxas. Roxas Roxas Roxas Roxas staring out of the frame at whatever it is that Riku is watching. There’s a smudge of charcoal on his chin, and Axel reaches out a trembling hand and brushes it away, as gently as ever he can, almost surprised that there’s no response, nearly taken aback by the lurch in the pit of his stomach at the remembered feel of his face beneath his fingers.
There are other figures, but he hardly looks at them. The Organisation are lined up across the bottom, and he wonders what Xemnas had to threaten or how much he paid her to make him look that good. They’re nearly all there – there’s one or two missing, he’s not really paying attention – because right in the centre of the design, at the heart of the whole thing, is him. He has his head to one side, finger raised to his temple, and almost without thinking he mimics the pose in the picture. Commit it to memory… he mutters, and notices something.
His hair isn’t finished. She’s painted in the outline, and inked detail onto the individual spikes in black, but there’s no colour. White hair yellow hair goldenbrown. The colours of the plaster behind him, flecked with shadow and the low evening light filtered through the forest outside the window. She hasn’t finished. He sneaks out of her room almost happy. Because hidden under his coat are her paints.
In his mouth, there is a taste of rot, mingled with the sharp metallic tang of blood. His nose is filled with the rich smell of newly-turned earth, of decades-deep drifts of leaves decaying. He shakes his head and opens his eyes, trying to stand, but the earth is still pitching like the deck of a ship tossed in a tempest and he knows that if he’s slow he’ll only get knocked down again. He probes with his tongue at the back of his mangled lip where the blow mashed it against his teeth, and the lancing pain helps to clear his head a little.
“You hit me,” he mumbles, through a mouthful of blood.
The silence lasts just long enough for him to think that he’s alone, and he starts to push himself up from the wet ground. But he hears the shuffle of feet in the litter just in time and drops back onto his face.
“Fucking stay down Ax, or I swear I’ll do it again.”
He rolls onto his back, gesturing weakly with one hand to indicate submission, and looks up at Roxas who is standing over him, wild-eyed and with a terrible tangled smile, fists balled up and thrust out in front of him like they aren’t his and he’s scared of what they might do, every inch of him wound as tight as a wire one twist away from breaking.
“It’s all your fucking fault, Ax,” he snarls, and normally in the dream this is where he breaks down, sobbing, and Axel wraps him up in his arms (folds him in his wings) and rocks him until it’s all gone away, and everything that should follow on from that if only the world were perfect actually happens. But this time Roxas kicks him under the ribs, hard, and the stars that had gone out all come blazing back at once. And Axel, curled around himself and crooning, never sees him walk away and never gets to say I would I would goddamn you I would have.
And Naminé sticks a crayon in his ear and laughs “stop it! I can’t draw you properly unless you keep still.” Axel comes up spitting blood, and she catches it in a saucer.
He realises how far she’ll go to finish the picture, and sees the only course of action left to him. One by one, he hunts down every heartless in the mansion and burns it. Outside, he sets the forest on fire, and watches in grim satisfaction as the flocks of birds circle madly, unable to roost in the blazing trees; as the manticore and mice and moles and maggots flee the smouldering undergrowth. When there isn’t a single spider left alive within a smoking mile of the place, Axel sits down by the portal, chakrams clanking at his knees, and waits.
The fog has started to seep out from under the door and Axel can’t remember. He is beginning to have trouble finding his way around the mansion. There doesn’t seem to be anybody else there, and he stands in the basement chewing on his nails trying to work out which side of the portal is which. Eventually he just follows the fog, ploughing ever deeper into the thickening murk until he staggers blind and senseless through the door into her room. He can’t really remember where he is, or why he’s there, or what it is that’s so desperately important, but he pushes himself up against the golden boy on the wall which is all he seems to have ever been able to see.
the golden boy the golden boy I used to know your name I used to
Axel is crooning to himself. A little dry rattling cough starts to accompany him, and he turns his back to the wall and slumps against the horrible mess of gore in the middle of the picture, smearing it beyond recognition as he slides down onto the floor. Through the fog he can only just make out the dessicated lacerated husk of a girl, paler than the clouds around her, scalpel in one hand, brush in the other, who is leaning against the wall opposite him, drained and bloodless. She might be trying to speak, but all he can hear is the wind in the blackened trees beyond the window.