You're Back on tumblr
The Doll, or Who Will Come To Take You Away?
Uneasy Spirit, Let Go Of Me on AO3 or FFN
Through Your Eyes on FFN
Some Temptations Are Too Much To Bear on FFN
O You Whom I Often And Silently Come on FFN
Monsters on FFN or tumblr
In The Ruins on FFN
Frankie and Tic-Tac at the Royale Hotel on FFN
Delivery Boys on FFN
69 on FFN
Like A Clock With A Single Hand, Like Honey
Corn King, Winter King
The Wind That Blew The Ash Away
Quartet For The End Of Time
In The Fall Of A Sparrow
A History Of Silence
Hearts Struck Blind on FFN
Cupbearers Of Wine And Hellebore on FFN
And The Cake Got All Over The Walls on FFN
Other Kingdom Hearts
Tin Angel (Kairi, Riku, Sora)
The Monsters Who Did Not Bark In The Night (Jack Skellington, Organization XIII)
Promise Me Something (Kairi, Riku, Sora)
Love, In A Glass, Darkly (Axel/Larxene)
Like Eating Glass (Kairi, Riku, Sora)
Final Fantasy VIII:
Come Over Here And Make Me (Quistis Trepe/Selphie Tilmitt) on tumblr
Snowballs (Orphanage Gang) on FFN or tumblr
Ragamuffin Gunner Returning Home Like A Hungry Runaway (Selphie Tilmitt/Laguna Loire) on FFN
Iron In The Soul (Quistis Trepe/Seifer Almasy) on FFN
Red (Mikasa Ackerman/Annie Leonhart) on FFN
Fucking Jean Kirstein (Mikasa Ackerman/Jean Kirstein) on FFN
Open The Bruise Up (AkuRoku)
A Little Mouse With Clogs On (AkuRoku/Strifehart)
A Song To The Siren (Vexen/Ven)
KH drabble (Riku, Sora)
KH drabble (AkuFa)
KH drabble (Riku)
Mikasa -twice orphaned- refugee hungry for language to attach everything in the world to its place. Knows the power of words to wound and so keeps them close to herself never wastes them.
Annie communicates with kicks, talks with her training, words weak. No one can misunderstand a punch in the throat.
At first it is their silence that brings them together. Or rather their silences that set them apart, isolate them, two hard glittering crystals. Alone together. Neither says anything, at first.
Neat-ankled glancing women
The unwearying sea
These are the things Mikasa remembers from before.
The latches of her being.
Annie thinks of when she was a bruiseless child
The root silver river
The moon middle night stuck
Cream black killings
- x X x -
Mikasa was a monster, a freak entirely alone. The last of her kind, peering over the brink of extinction. Everything about her red. Red hands red dreams waking in the red morning. Red light flowing out from her too bright to see. Mikasa the orphan girl and no-one knew what she knew. What she was. Until the little outrage of a boy came and wound the red wool around her throat, put the blood mark on her, the mark she could never remove. The debt she could never repay.
Beast, Annie called her. Seeing what no-one else could. Making her her mirror.
- x X x -
Because there are no words, they fight. Mikasa feels her skin split under Annie's fist, sharp skid of blood blooming on her cheek. And everything red red red red hands red mist red around her throat Annie grim tongue bitten red lipped beautiful Mikasa stops. Beautiful? Beast, Annie called her. Knocks her down.
- x X x -
Annie grim tongue bitten red lipped beautiful long neck stretched skin taut as the rain before it falls Mikasa's tongue drum taps drum taps Annie silent determined red lipped trembling poppy head tilted petal shed snaps suddenly gasping Mikasa clasped to her crying out wordlessly
Fucking Jean Kirstein.
Eren stormed from the room, only vaguely aware of Mikasa behind him. And fucking Mikasa. Always looking out for him like he was a child. Like he was Armin. Like he needed looking after. He could still feel the sting in his palm from having slapped Kirstein's hand away. What did he think? That they could just shake and be friends like nothing had happened? Like he hadn't called him an idiot. Like he hadn't called him scared. In front of everyone. Too far ahead and too wrapped up in his own anger to notice Mikasa pause in the doorway, turn back. But not too far ahead to hear Kirstein tell her her hair was beautiful.
Fucking Jean Kirstein.
"That could get in the way," he'd told her, "in manoeuvrer training." Too wrapped in his own anger to notice the expression that flitted across her face as she picked a long lock out of her eyes, toyed with it between her fingers. The one thing about her that anyone had ever told her was beautiful.
"Fine. I'll cut it."
Too full of hate and rage and the desire for vengeance.
-x X x-
Fucking Jean Kirstein. Always there to witness every little slip, every small humiliation, smug and smiling and tall. Fuck, if only he wasn't tall it wouldn't be so bad, looking down his nose at everyone, and Eren holds on to the thought of the headbutt that had floored him, the one time he had been brought down in public.
Every fucking time. When he failed the aptitude training - the basics of the basics - couldn't even ride the baby bike with the stabilisers still on - there he'd been. Mikasa to his left, looking as though she were somewhere else entirely, far-away look in her eye like always, some other thing that only she could see far more important than whatever stupid hoop she was supposed to be jumping through. And to his left, fucking Jean Kirstein, frowning in concentration, but upright, while he - self-appointed saviour of humanity and slayer of all Titans - hung upside-down listening to the mocking laughter behind him.
"Give up on becoming a soldier," she'd said. And just for a moment, he hated her; walked away while she was talking. Never heard her tell the empty space where he'd been how she felt about him.
"I'd rather you tell me how you're able to stay sane after humiliating yourself like that," Kirstein had laughed when Eren had asked - begged - them all to tell him how they stayed upright.
-x X x-
Too full of a mad ecstatic joy when Thomas had given him his belt and he had finally hung there, Titan's falling before him in his imagination, to notice her expression change. To see the lost and broken look, her world in ruins about her.
-x X x-
"What… what are you doing? What if someone sees us?"
Mikasa, blunt and flat as she always is. Jean, flustered, almost scared-sounding.
Jean? Fucking Jean Kirstein?
From where he is crouching behind the cannon, Eren can see her silhouetted, Jean lost in shadow, the moon behind the clouds. Kirstein?
"Mikasa…" his voice more breath than word, and Eren - tense and trembling, wide-eyed with fury - wants to leap out from where he is hidden, to drag them apart. Don't even say her name, you bastard! Because they are close together - far too close together - and she is pushing him back against the parapet. Moonlight in her eyes, black and hard and glittering and Jean is pushed back against the parapet, her hand on his chest, his hands against the stone and Eren closes his eyes and thinks of teeth biting down on living flesh.
"What if someone sees us?" Jean says again. "What if Er.." Before she presses her mouth against his, silences him with a kiss.
Eren discovers that even the moon hates him, slipping out from behind the clouds, everything bleached and silver and illuminated.
He sees the moment Jean stops fighting, gives himself up to Mikasa, to Mikasa's mouth. Hears his protests turn into little inarticulate sounds of pleasure, gasping as she bites his lip, her hands everywhere on him, in his hair, on his shoulders, tugging at his shirt, scattered buttons skittering across the flagstones, Kirstein's fingers pulling at her hips, Mikasa pushing him down onto the cold ground, hunched over him, what's left of her hair as black as a raven's wing. Small jerky movements of her hips, Kirstein pinned, his hands under her clothes, one of hers pressed against his chest, white in the moonlight, the other to her mouth, one cocked knuckle caught between her teeth as she grinds against him. And Eren doesn't even know that he is mimicking her, biting into the flesh behind his thumb.
Eren doesn't know if it's his voice or Kirstein's. Closes his eyes so that even the traitorous moonlight can't make him see the expression on her face as she shrugs out of her clothes, Kirstein's mingled fear and desire as she fumbles at his. But nothing can stop him hearing the breath hiss between Kirstein's clenched teeth or Mikasa's soft cry as she lowers herself onto him.
-x X x-
"Why did you do that?"
It's a while before Jean speaks. She has been sitting with her back to him, staring in silence towards the cannon on the emplacement where the wall widens out.
"Why did you do it?" She's scared him a little, before.
"Because." Still not looking at him. Still looking away. Shrugging. "I like you."
"No." Much as he wants to believe it, Jean isn't stupid. "I mean, you… the three of you… he…". Can't quite bring himself to say it.
"Look." Mikasa half turns, and he swallows at the sight of her profile. Beautiful. "Just be glad, can't you?"
Jean pulls his shirt closed around him, buttonless. "That thing, before," he says.
"With the aptitude training." Waits for her to stop him. Waits.
"What about it?"
"That was you, wasn't it? All of this," he makes a strange shrugging gesture, long face lost in thought, "this - all of it - everything is about him, isn't it? About Jäger?"
For a long moment Mikasa doesn't answer. "I need to keep him safe," she says at last, quietly, not really talking to Jean. "Whether he wants me to or not." Stares in silence towards the cannon on the parapet.
Quistis flashed from fuel to flame to embers while the rest of them were smoke rising from green wood. Collapsing back to ashes and on the cusp of failing, turned to him to meet - silence. Swaddled in his own shadow; unwilling.
But the bright girl – buttercups, canaries; lemons in the spring sun - tripping over every obstacle and up again with her smile spreading wider, finds her in the corridor by the monster’s lair with her eternal question - wanna join the Festival Committee?Quistis, moon-dark in her gloom, hears the unquenchable laughter, thinks why not? Crooks a crescent finger.
Or not quite nothing. As Cloud crosses the Bailey he hears the steady chink-chunk-clink of someone working in the Restoration Site. Almost without thinking, he changes direction.
It's Leon, down among the fallen masonry and splintered timbers, his hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, his jacket hanging on the rough end of a beam jutting drunkenly out of the skewed ruin. Cloud squints into the light, watching the shadows gather in pools under the muscles behind Leon's arms as they swell with the strain of lifting the blocks of rubble. It's hot, and as Cloud watches Leon drags the back of one big hand across his forehead, smearing aside the stray strands of hair that are plastered there, the back of his white t-shirt dark with sweat. His hands are coated with dust, and he balls the front of his shirt in his fists, wiping his hands clean on the thin cotton before pulling it off over his head.
Cloud is meaning to call out to him, meaning to head on into the Dark Depths, meaning to not stare. But he's remembering the feel of Leon's back against his; the susurrating rattle and clatter of the heartless massed around them; the broad swell of flesh and muscle behind him as he readied himself to fight.
Down in the Restoration Site, Leon stretches, and wipes at his front with the balled-up t-shirt before shaking it out and hanging it over the beam alongside his jacket. Cloud is meaning to not stare, but the muscles in Leon's back are sliding over each other as he moves, and across his shoulders - tanned to the colour of cherry wood - is a spatter of freckles. When he was a boy, Clopud had lain with Tifa in the forests outside of Nibelheim, and they'd talked into the night about how one day, somehow, they'd not be here anymore, stuck in a dead backwater that wasn't even in the middle of nowhere, staring at the stars smeared across the vault of the heavens until the afterimage was burnt into their eyes. And that's what Cloud is seeing now, constellations dancing across Leon's back; galaxies spiralling across his shoulders.
Cloud is strong, but his strength has been forged in suffering and disappointment. A poisonous strength for which he is more conduit than container. Cloud's strength flows through him, and it takes as much as it gives and leaves him hard, and narrow, and as taut as a drawn string.
Leon's strength is different. Cloud doesn't know too much about his history, but he knows there was a boy called Squall, and he has a suspicion that that boy is still there, wrapped up inside the armour that Leon has built to protect him. Leon's strength is a shield, a warning, a barrier between Squall and the world, thick and tough and impervious, built to hide the boy inside the man.
Below him, in the Restoration Site, Leon turns, straightens up and stretches, and Cloud - still meaning to not stare - sees the sheen of sweat glistening on his skin, the swell and roll of the muscles in his chest and shoulders, the jump and twitch of his midriff. Cloud swallows heavily, feeling a little churn of something uncomfortable wriggling in his gut.
Back in Nibelheim, the streams jumped and tumbled down the mountain, rolling boulders over their rocky beds, and in the summer, when the rivers started to dry, heaps of wet boulders would lie gleaming in the sun, their honey colour fading as they dried. Round and wet and every surface curving into the next, dark pools of shadow nestling between them, and Cloud looks at Leon and feels the velvet drag of his fingers over the wet rocks, the smooth hard arcs beneath his palms, the comfort of something solid in a world that wouldn't stay still. Remembers the sensation of Leon's broad back pressed against his own narrow shoulders as the Heartless gathered around them.
Below him, in the Restoration Site, Leon turns back to his work, hesitating for just a moment as he squints into the sun, peering up towards the parapet Cloud has ducked behind as if he's not quite sure if there's something there. But everything is still, the Claymore's idling in the rare early afternoon calm, and with a shrug he turns back to his work.
Cloud stills the tremor of his heart and for the Dark Depths, very badly needig to fight, hoping for Sephiroth.
Cloud hesitates in the doorway for a moment, looking at the spread of Leon's shoulders, the swell of his triceps, the inch of neck showing where he's pushed his hair behind one ear, and steps up behind him, wrapping his arms around Leon’s hard midriff.
Leon feels Cloud’s breath in his ear, his fingers knotting in the front of his t-shirt, his knees pushing into the backs of his knees.
Defences to be mended… Cloud’s hands move to cup the knobs of bone at Leon’s hips… rota to organise… his teeth closing over the back of his ear lobe… oh, god…
Leon gropes behind him blindly with one hand, burying his fingers in the soft spikes of Cloud’s hair, turns around inside his arms, leans back against the lectern. “Yeah,” he mutters, “w...”
Cloud covers Leon's open mouth with his own, tongue pushing in, fingers under fabric, pulling at his flesh, up over the taut muscles of his stomach, up onto the heavy slabs of his chest, thumbs rough on his nipples. Leon gasps against Cloud's urgency, again as Cloud's teeth close on his lower lip, again as he pushes his hips into Leon, hard against him.
Leon drops his hands to cradle Cloud's ass, pulls him closer, mashing his mouth against him, teeth and tongues and saliva and Cloud's breath short and quick in his nose.
"Fuck me," Cloud breathes, fingers tugging at the belts draped around Leon's waist. He is making a little sound in his throat, feral and needy. "Fuck me."
Cloud has the belts undone and Leon's trousers down around his thighs, both hands pulling at him. "Fuck me, Leon. Fuck me. Fuck me."
Leon takes Cloud by the shoulders and turns him, bends him forward over the curving desk. Cloud has his own trousers around his knees, is fumbling at Leon's stiff dick behind him, almost dragging him in. Leon feels the tight nub of Cloud's muscle, pushes forwards, and forwards, and forwards. Cloud shouting.
Leon means to go slow, but Cloud is screwed to the sticking place, taut and tight around him, yelling and bucking under him. Cloud comes on Leon's fifth thrust, stuff stuttering across the top of Ansem's desk. Leon is only seven panted breaths behind, growling through gritted teeth as he falls forwards over Cloud's shaking shoulders.
"So what was that about?" Leon asks, when he can speak again.
Cloud shrugs, pulling the disordered spikes back into place on his head. "Nothing."
"Nothing?" Leon raises an eyebrow.
"Okay. Well, in that case," Leon pulls his pants up, fastens the belts around him, "I should get back to work."
"Okay," Cloud shrugs. "See you later." Starts to pull his pants back on.
"Wait," Leon says.
Cloud's lusts are mercurial, as quick and fierce as a summer storm, and over as quickly as they come. Leon's smoulder, slow to catch but once caught burning hot and long.
"I thought you were busy?" Cloud takes hold of Leon's hand, presses it against him.
"I was." Leon flexes his fingers, stroking the soft skin below Cloud's navel. "Now I'm busy with something else."
"Mmm," Cloud says, shivering as Leon kisses him again, long and slow and lingering. "Woke the sleeping lion, huh?"
"Squa-aaallll!" Faint and away down the corridors, Yuffie, calling. "Squaalll-yyy!"
Cloud feels Leon tense and pull away slightly.
"It's okay," he says, "she's only just out of the Postern by the sounds of it. There's time."
"Time for what?" Leon manages a small smile; kisses Cloud again; feels him getting hard, pants still rucked around his knees. Hears the door handle start to turn.
"Shit!" Cloud hisses, and dives for the chair. "Quick!"
Leon glances around the room. The door is starting to open. No time to get into the secret passage. Only one thing for it.
"Leon? Leon are you there?" Tifa's voice. Yuffie, still calling, still away in the distance. "Oh. Cloud."
Leon is on his hands and knees beneath the desk. Cloud is sitting on the edge of Ansem's throne with his pants half-way down his thighs and his erection pressing against the underside of the desk. Above him and behind him he can hear Tifa's questions; Cloud's curt responses. Leon reaches up and takes hold of Clouds erection, pulls it down away from the desk an inch or two, lets go.
Cloud makes a small strangled noise and Tifa stops saying whatever it was she had been saying. "Cloud?" she says, and Leon can hear the uncertainty creeping into her voice. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Cloud mutters. "I'm just a bit stiff is all."
"Oh, you poor thing! Has Leon been working you too hard?" Certain members of the Restoration Committee had the impression that a full day's work was too much to expect from anyone.
Under the desk, Leon inches Cloud's pants across his thighs, over his knees, down around his ankles; drops his head and runs his tongue slowly over the rucked skin of Cloud's balls.
"No," Cloud gasps, "don't... don't think... that. He hasn't anything I... can't handle."
"You boys," Tifa laughs, but the laugh sounds forced, as if she's half certain something is going on at her expense. "You're so competitive. Always trying to out-do each other."
"It's not much of a fight," Cloud says, before he can stop himself.
Under the desk, Leon takes Cloud's balls in his mouth, sucks on them gently, and then harder, rolling them under his tongue.
"Cloud?" Leon can hear the suspicion in her voice. "Are you sure you're alright? You’re shaking."
"I'm f... I'm fine," Cloud stammers. Leon has let Cloud's balls flop out of his mouth and taken hold of his dick in one hand. He squeezes it, hard, and starts to slide his hand up and down the shaft, slowly.
Leon hears Cloud's breath hiss out between his teeth, cutting off as he drags his tongue along the underside, long and slow until he meets his own descending hand and drops back down to push around again at Cloud's balls.
"Are you sure? Maybe you should get Merlin to give you a potion. You look flushed."
Leon takes Cloud's dick in both hands, opens his mouth wide and lowers his face, sliding his wet tongue over the exposed glans. Cloud's fists come down on the table with a thud and one knee starts to knock against Leon's shoulder. Leon starts to move his head backwards and forwards, taking Cloud's dick into his mouth until it bumps against the narrow constriction of his throat. Leon pulls back slowly, sucking hard at him, tongue rasping over the glans again.
"I... can't..." Cloud says, "stop..."
"Looking...." Cloud gasps.
"Oh, Cloud! Not that again!" Tifa sounds genuinely concerned. "You're making yourself ill over this obsession with Sephiroth. Look at you! You're flushed, you're shaking, you can barely speak, you're clearly in some kind of pain. And as for Leon, making you wait for him here, he should know better! Where is he, anyway?"
Under the desk, Leon has Cloud's twitching dick in his hands, tip rubbing against his face as it jumps and jerks as Cloud tries not to come.
"Oh, you know L... Leon," he hears Cloud moan. "He'll have his hands full taking c... care of someone somewhere."
"True," Tifa nods. "He is a kind man. Well, tell him I was looking for him will you, if you see him."
Leon give two fast tugs at Cloud's dick, takes it into his throat as Cloud starts to orgasm, buries his nose against Cloud's belly, pushing into him as he comes, back off him to catch the last of it on his tongue.
"Ah... I... huh.. ah.. will," Cloud splutters through gritted teeth. "And if you see him first, tell him I'm going to kill him."
"Oh, you boys, you do love to fight," Tifa says, leaving the study.
Chapter : 1 Like A Clock
Sometimes it strikes him as so fucking clichéd that he laughs aloud. He knows it's a boy he's watching, although it took him a while to work it out, and the strange feeling that had scrabbled up the back of his neck the first time he saw him climb back out of the woman's car into the pyramid of streetlight is still with him.
Axel knows it's a boy down there, across the street, alone on the wet sidewalk under the lamp post, almost every night. He's taken to standing by his window, watching, and can stay there for hours, until a car pulls up to the kerb or someone saunters down the street, switches sides just a little too soon, stops just a little too casually to ask the time or for a light for a cigarette. And the flare of the match against the rain-darkened brick throws the faces into sharp relief, and Axel closes his eyes and turns away, wondering why the hell he does this to himself.
Sometimes, once the liaison has been made, Axel leaves his room. Sometimes he can't stay by the window, watching the rain falling through the empty cone of light, listening to his heartbeat measure out the time until a car pulls back up to the kerb, or the slight figure comes shambling back down the street, hands jammed in pockets, shoulders up collars up, hunched against the night. Sometimes he has to get out, and he walks the same streets; feels the same rain against different skin, the same chill numbing different lips; aimlessly wandering through the night. Not looking for him.
Night after night, like a single reel from an old B movie, played over and over until Axel can almost see the dust and scratches on the decaying print, the ghosts and gaps in the emulsion. He doesn't know what he's waiting for, or can't admit it if he does.
It doesn't start straight away. The boy isn't there when Axel rents the apartment. All he remembers is driving home one night, later than usual, after a worse than usual day, and noticing the figure slouching under the street light across from his block straighten up and glance in his direction as he slows to turn onto the ramp to the parking lot. He remembers thinking a whore – that's just great and worrying about his car; about pimps in the stairwell; syringes in the mailbox. He remembers glancing down into the street from his window and seeing the figure under the street light talking into a cell phone; remembers twitching the curtains shut.
Axel stands by the window, staring with empty eyes at the empty puddle of light under the street lamp. He's been looking into it for a while, trying not to see the dark shape humped just beyond its edge, against the wall. Trying to forget the ugly drunken laughter; the squeal of the over-revved van pulling away; the thud of the body hitting the asphalt. Trying not to worry in case they come back. His hands are shaking so he jams them into his armpits.
Somehow he's in the street, looking up at his own apartment window, half expecting to see himself silhouetted there against the glimmer. But nobody is watching as he squats down on the edge of the circle of light.
"Got a cigarette?"
The voice is hoarse, and Axel winces to hear it, but he can tell that the boy is younger than him, if only by a year or two. He tugs a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of a pocket and sends it skimming across the sidewalk, out of the light.
"Thanks," the boy grunts, and then "Can you take it out for me? I think they broke my fingers."
"Shit." Axel stands up slowly, as if the air has congealed, and takes the three paces that separate him from the figure on the ground, following the cigarettes into the darkness. Just for a moment he stands over the boy, wonders what the fuck he's doing, and drops back onto his haunches, groping for the cellophane-wrapped packet glinting softly in the darkness. His hand knocks against something and there's a sharp intake of breath.
"Sorry. Here." He lights the cigarette, holds it out. The faint flare of the inhale illuminates a curve of lip; a jut of nose, cheek and chin.
"Can you stand?" He hears the shrug of the boy's jacket against the wall, the ragged whistle of his breathing.
"I'm okay, don't sweat it."
Axel closes his eyes, wanting this to be easy, wanting this to not be happening, wanting to grab onto the lamp post because he feels like he's falling.
"Come and get cleaned up, at least," he says flatly. "I live there." He nods towards the dark apartment building across the street, and in the darkness he can feel the boy smiling, I spite of the pain.
"I know where you live," Axel hears him mutter, and reaches out a hand.
Axel sleeps on the couch, or rather doesn't, but lies awake listening to the knocks and taps of the faulty air conditioning unit; to the indistinguishable drone of a million lonely TV sets; to the perfunctory few minutes of headboard banging as the couple in the apartment above him have their otherwise silent fortnightly fuck. When it's over he opens his eyes and looks at the boy asleep on his narrow bed, sheet tangled around his knees; at the shadows that cling to every bony hollow of him; at the skin stretched like waxed paper over his protruding skeleton, purple where the bruises are starting, almost transparently pale everywhere else. Shit, that's beautiful, Axel thinks, and immediately hates himself.
Later, Roxas – awake in a strange room, panic starting – sees the scarecrow silhouette against the dawn-dark window staring down into the street, and falls back to sleep.
Axel never asks, and Roxas never tells.
Axel still leaves for work in the mornings, but it's getting harder, and he's starting to feel the boy tangled up in nightmares like a physical drag. He feels as if he's wandered too close to a collapsing sun, and wonders how something so small, so fragile and incandescent can be so powerful; so inescapable. He moves through his days at the plant like an automaton, the Bud-boobs-hey-how-'bout-that-Ramirez-
Back at his apartment, Roxas is never there waiting, and he stands by the window until a car pulls back up to the kerb, or the slight figure comes shambling back down the street, bandaged hands jammed in pockets, shoulders up collars up, bruised and broken ribs hunching him against the night.
While Roxas mends, Axel sleeps on the couch. Or rather doesn't. Roxas, looking up into the bottle-green eyes dulled with exhaustion, says "You and me need to go out."
Axel sits at his kitchen table, striking matches with his thumbnail, lost in the dancing cobalt, emerald and orange, trying to understand what Roxas means, trying to remember how to breathe.
"Yeah," Roxas says. "I've been wanting to show you some things. Are you fit to drive?"
The match sputters out as Axel exhales.
They take a cab. Axel has no idea where they are going, but Roxas leans in to the driver and mutters something into his ear, passes a fistful of crumpled bills through the glass, and slides back against Axel's shoulder.
Axel sits motionless with his hands splayed against the fake leather seat, feeling the sweat grow chill between his fingers, feeling Roxas shift against him, feeling every one of the boy's vertebrae pressing into him from armpit to hip as Roxas settles against him. Axel is on fire, blazing, burnt through in an instant, and every jolt, every bump in the road, every breath filled with the smell of Roxas' hair threatens to crumble him to a pile of smouldering ash.
"Where are you taking me?" he finally manages to ask.
"There," Roxas points out of the window.
Axel stands on the beach on the edge of the city where the grey boxy factories peter out and the sprawling railroad yard unravels into a wilderness of scrub and sand running down to the lakeshore. He watches Roxas picking his way through the line of debris at the water's edge, sees him stoop to pick something from the litter, stares back into the slate grey water merging imperceptibly with the ash grey sky, and walks slowly back to where he left his boots and socks on the edge of the broken foundation behind him. Roxas had insisted that they paddle, and now there's coarse grit and sand jammed into the spaces between his toes. It's painful, but he leaves it, relishing the caustic grind of it against his skin. A horn sounds, and he turns to where the cab is waiting a hundred yards back, where the concrete service road runs out, under the skeleton of a dead tree.
Roxas wanders up to him and hands him the thing he's found in the litter. It's a torn photograph, with edges charred and surface melted and obscured by smoke. "Time to be getting back," he says cheerfully.
It's dark by the time the cab pulls up outside Axel's apartment, and Roxas has fallen asleep against him, goosefleshing the side of his neck with his breath. Axel pays the fare and half carries Roxas up the stairs, feeling the boy's ribs grind beneath his hand.
"Is everything mended now?" he asks, as Roxas sits on the end of the bed, pulling off his boots.
Roxas nods. "Everything's back where it belongs," he says as he unbuttons his shirt and slips it off his bony shoulders. Fading purple and yellow blooms blotch his jutting ribs. Axel stares at him, thinking of the painted candy skeleton someone had brought him once from some Mexican death carnival. He looks up and meets Roxas' gaze. "Except for you," Roxas says, and drops his eyes.
Axel pushes a hand into his hair and kisses him, hard.
"Who did you think I was waiting for?" Roxas murmurs.
Axel never asks, and Roxas never tells.
Chapter : 2 Picnic On A Frozen River
Axel stands by the window, staring down at the empty puddle of light beneath the street lamp. Roxas isn't there, but still Axel watches, night after night, remembering. Remembering when the slight figure bleached by the lamp's flicker had pulled on him like dark matter, vague, unknown, possibly not even real. Remembering how much it had hurt to stand here, invisible and silent, seeing the chauffeurs take him away to be pawed over by bored society matrons, or by their fat husbands. Remembering how his fingers would jump and his shoulders hunch when the collar-turned-up, cap-pulled-low construction workers would stoop to tie their boot laces and – straightening up – notice him under the light; sidle over; lead him away. Remembering how it felt to sleep.
That first night, afterwards, while Roxas lay curled and sleeping, his slow breath making the fine hairs on Axel's midriff dance, Axel had lain propped against the headboard, gazing into the middle distance, feeling the last tingling ghosts of what had just happened evaporate. He had been hesitant, a little reluctant, not wanting to be another of the demands under the streetlight, but Roxas had called him stupid, and had wordlessly, imperatively, irresistibly, let him know just how different this was.
Propped against the headboard; Roxas asleep against him. In his sleep, the hard lines of his face relaxed; his pinched brow softened; and his eyes became pools rather than stones. The first time he'd seen it, Axel's heart had been in his throat, hammering madly, oh shit he's dead, oh Christ don't let him be dead, but the second time he'd realised that when he wasn't dreaming, Roxas slept with his eyes open. It was disconcerting, seeing those great dark eyes swimming in the sleeping face, staring at nothing, or more often at him.
"What do you see?" Axel wondered. "Can you see me?" But Roxas was asleep, and in the morning laughingly refused to believe him. Axel – unable to sleep while this was still so new, and fragile, and transient - stayed awake, watching Roxas asleep against him, marvelling at the fragility of him, measuring the passing of time by the fading blooms of the bruises on his ribs. And when his eyes closed, and the pinched-up look came back, and he stirred and cried out softly, Axel would murmur secrets into his ear, and settle him under his gentle hand.
Outwardly, Axel's life settled back into routine. Almost, it was his old life, the only difference being that the hooker who had worked the street under his window had moved into his apartment. In the mornings Axel would stumble and curse and not come alive until he was halfway to the plant, singing off-key to the rock music blaring from the dash, still drawing looks – even after all this time – as he manoeuvred the red '68 Z28 convertible through the rush hour traffic. Almost like always, except that now there was something more valuable than his car.
Still he would move through his days at the plant like an automaton, the clock-on grumbling and sore-head grimaces of his workmates slowly giving way to the Bud-boobs-hey-how-'bout-that-Ramirez-
Almost the old routine. Axel wakes up in the morning and goes to work and comes home and there's Roxas. Only now he knows his name, and can smell the odd dry scent of him like pencil shavings, and he doesn't have to imagine their conversations anymore, or what it feels like to be kissed by him.
"So what does it feel like?" Roxas asks him one day.
Sharp-tongued Axel is floored, momentarily. "It feels like…. Like…" Standing by the window, staring down into the street at the figure under the light, Axel had taken a kiss from him a thousand times, in a hundred different ways. But in the end, when Roxas had half-fearfully invited him back into his own bed and he'd just grabbed hold of the back of his head and felt their teeth click together in their shared urgency, it had felt like…
"…like the time is out of joint." The only thing they'd ever tried to teach him in sixteen years of school that had stuck, and it turned out to be a fucking play from a million years ago. It had got inside him somehow, and gnawed at him, and for a while he had thought himself Hamlet. "Like… at first… it felt like sand falling through an hourglass." Axel grins shyly and glances at the floor; at Roxas; at the floor. "Like one of those clocks that only has an hour hand. And when you watch them they never move, but if you look away and back, time has passed." Axel breaks off, blushing.
Roxas is sitting on the stool by the bathroom mirror, his back to Axel, applying mascara. The wand is poised halfway to his eye, and there's a smudge of black on his cheek. His hand is shaking. "Go on," he breathes, transfixed by the laughing, sardonic, blazing man behind him who cannot be saying these things.
"It feels like honey. It feels like the seasons changing. Like… like… dirt working its way under your finger nails. It feels like…. What?" Axel falls silent as he catches sight of Roxas' reflection. He's staring at him, lips parted, his breath clouding the glass ever so slightly. The flush on his cheeks and his darkened eyelashes heighten his pallor and make him look like a photograph of a silent film star, hand-tinted colour over black and white.
"Did you have any plans?" Roxas asks.
Axel laughs, almost the old knowing smirk back again, but now the laughter's not cruel. Now the laughter is shared with someone.
There is a biting wind blowing off the lake and the sky is a dirty leaden grey. At the plant the clock-on grumbling is about frozen fuel tanks and transformers exploding, but Axel is worrying about Roxas. Axel never asks, and Roxas never tells, but neither of them is stupid, and Axel knows well enough that Roxas doesn't just sit around the apartment all day while he's at work. He imagines the fragile figure standing on a corner in the freezing air, wearing the same thin t-shirt and jacket as always. He imagines him stamping his feet and blowing on his fingers, face pinched and red in the sub-zero morning; imagines him climbing into the front of someone's car, thawing in the heat of the dash blowers, little grin of thanks from under his frozen fringe.
There's a pawnbroker's that Axel passes every day on the drive home from work. Before, when it was just him, and he spent hours wandering the streets, he would look through the grimy window at the rows of obsolete TV sets and locked cases of tarnished wedding rings, and every so often he'd venture in to laugh at the boys pretending to be old enough to buy the throwing stars and knives that lined the walls behind the cash register. There's a headless mannequin wearing a huge shabby fur coat, and Axel buys it, his car suddenly full of the smell of lipstick-filtered Turkish cigarettes, illicit encounters in hotel lobbies, telephone numbers scrawled on fifty dollar bills.
Outside his apartment he waits under the streetlight in the cold, smoking cigarettes, lighting the next off the butt of the last, every fifteen seconds glancing from his window to the corner, the corner to his window. When finally Roxas appears, shuffling along the sidewalk, hands jammed in his pockets, he's wearing a tatty green sweater that he doesn't own. Axel throws the smouldering cigarette away and holds out the coat, fur beginning to rime with frost in the evening chill, and Roxas silently slips into it, blue lips curling into a grin.
"Don't go to work tomorrow," he breathes into Axel's chest.
"Okay. If you don't."
Roxas squints up into Axel's face. "I think I just quit," he murmurs.
A horn sounds in the street, and Roxas peers out of the window, naked from the waist up. "The cab's here," he calls, pulling the fur over his bare arms. Axel watches the narrow shoulders and jutting planes of his back vanish into the heavy folds of the fabric. The bruises have gone now, and the skin of Roxas' torso is as translucent as alabaster, smudged with shadows under the angles. Sometimes, looking at Roxas, Axel wants to hold him in his hands and squeeze; wants to crush him into himself until their bones grind together. He closes his eyes. "Why won't you let me drive?" he asks, for the thirteenth time.
"Because you've got your eyes shut," Roxas laughs. "And because the cab's already here."
Downstairs, in the street, Roxas has Axel wait while he talks with the driver. Axel has no idea where they are going, but Roxas tells him not to worry, it's a surprise, and settles back against his shoulder. He picks one of Axel's hands up in both of his, playing idly with the long fingers.
Axel leans back into the seat, feeling Roxas shift against him. Roxas drops his hand, bends into his lap, and Axel is on fire, taut and blazing, gripping the handle of the door with one hand, so tightly that his fingernails pierce the fake leather. His other hand is buried in Roxas' hair and he doesn't know whether he's holding him down or pulling him away or just desperately trying to keep hold of something real before the whole world flashes into a heap of shimmering cinders, and every jolt, every bump in the road, every ragged gasping breath that Roxas drags out of him threatens to crumble him to a pile of smouldering ash.
When Roxas sits up all of his teeth are tumbling out of his grin, and there are little sparks dancing in his eyes. "I've done that a million times, you know," he says, looking at Axel sidelong. "Only never with you. Expect… always with you."
Axel sits silently for a moment, waiting for his heart to still, waiting to understand what Roxas is saying. Neither is happening, so he shrugs and lights a cigarette, holding out the packet to Roxas, who pulls one free with his lips. The driver glances at them from his mirror; glances away.
"I know you're never going to ask me about it," Roxas says finally, exhaling a stream of smoke through the cracked window. "And I don't know if it's because you don't want to pry or don't want to know, but…." He holds up a hand to stifle Axel's protest before he can make it. "But I want you to understand. I don't want you to think I'm just some kid who's using you for what he can get."
Axel looks down into the blue eyes and suddenly realises what an idiot he is; that he probably knows already. There's a look there that he's only ever seen in the mirror, in the bottle green eyes that stare back at him. A look filled with longing, and desire, and tinged with the weariness that comes from holding on to both for too long, and growing accustomed to the idea of never having them fulfilled. Suddenly, Axel remembers all of the unanswered questions that they had asked each other over the past weeks. The carefully worded, half-joking, just-being-silly questions that people ask when they are in love with someone who can't possibly love them back. The not rhetorical, walking along the knife edge, take-this-the-right-way-and-you'll-
Axel opens his mouth to speak, but Roxas kisses him before he can. His mouth tastes of toothpaste, and cinnamon, and ever so slightly bitter, like the faintest trace of wormwood.
The asphalt had run out and the cab had lurched to a stop over the pitted concrete. Snow lay in banks and dazzling drifts around them, iridescent in the low morning sunlight, and Roxas runs laughing into the glare, shouting inarticulately at Axel to follow. The lake has frozen in the night, only a strip of brilliant blue water way out where the thinnest ice has already melted. Roxas seizes Axel by the hand and drags him out onto the frozen surface; jumps up and down to prove it's safe.
"Come on, scaredy-cat," he mocks. "Even you aren't hot enough to melt this." Crossing his fingers in the fur's deep pockets against the lie. He lies down on the ice where the snow is deepest and starts to move his legs from side to side, his arms up and down, straight out from his sides. Axel frowns at him.
"What are you doing?" There are three completely different images of Roxas alive inside his mind. In one, he's curled up against rain-slicked brick, bruised and broken, trying to smoke a cigarette through swollen lips, trying not to let the shaking redhead squatting beside him see how much pain he's in. This one breaks Axel's heart, but owns it as well. In another, he's curled up against sweat-slicked skin, naked and sated, staring silently with liquid eyes at the trembling redhead pressed against him, while Axel watches, trying to spot the moment that he falls asleep, always failing. This one takes a hold of his heart and twists, filling him with the horrible empty feeling that somehow, suddenly, like he found himself here, he will wake one morning to finding it gone again. But this one owns his heart as well, even while it breaks it. And the third is here before him now, laughing and happy, making snow angels on the frozen lake, and it seems so innocent and childlike that Axel can't make the three go back together and he just smiles and lies down next to Roxas, a second angel beside the first.
"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.
I'd better be getting home.
Axel's car is parked way out on the highway, and Roxas can see the lights of the little town twinkling against the desert darkness. Cigarette smoke drifting back in the window.
I think I could keep moving forever and still never find it Axel says.
Roxas feels all the nerves in his body wake back up.
What do you mean, find it?
I don't know. Just - find a place I fit.
Something runs across the freeway, just beyond the splash of headlights.
You know. Satisfied.
Roxas sits in silence, thinking hard. Fires twisting through him.
Is there a way for people to know each other that isn't sex?
Roxas is fifteen.
If there is I haven't found it.
Do you think about it every day?
I think about you every day.
So do you know me?
Axel fires the ignition, drives Roxas back to town. Drops him a block away from where his girlfriend lives.
See you tomorrow?
There is a party. Kids too young to drink and Roxas is making out with this girl. His girlfriend. Her hand is stuck in his pants. His hand is up her blouse. Not really doing much of anything.
Is it me?
What is it, then?
Out on the desert highway, the stars had been spattered across the top of the sky.
Sticks his tongue in her mouth. Thinks about how Axel tastes.
In school, Roxas sits staring out of the window as the first snows of winter fall down like eyes closing and cover the branches of the bare trees and silence all trace of the world.
Roxas' girlfriend wants him to take her to the movies to the mall to the beach so that they can hold hands and people can see her with her cute little boyfriend and her cute little outfit talking to her friends on her cellphone. Roxas holds her hand and buys her cinnamon mocha with the money he's taken from his mom's purse and smiles and nods and kisses her and thinks about Axel.
In school, the assignment is to write an autobiography of the rest of your life. Roxas' girlfriend stands up at the front of the class reading from her book about coming back from the beauty parlour to the neat white house and the neat mown lawn and Roxas loosening his tie. Kissing his wife on the cheek their two girls and a boy on their thistledown heads. Eating supper. Growing old.
In Roxas's book there is a blank page.
Roxas' mom has to visit her sister in the hospital. Roxas and his girlfriend make out on the couch until it's time for her to go home then he walks her home. They hold hands by her gate and she kisses him on the cheek and says I love you into his ear before running into the house and Roxas walks home through the snow.
Axel rattles pebbles off the window until Roxas opens it.
I want to give you something.
By the railroad tracks the black wind cuts Roxas but Axel takes his freezing hands and puts them under his shirt against his skin. Roxas can feel him burning burning and stretches up on his tiptoes to kiss him and the burning is in his mouth and in his veins and Axel's fingers are pulling at him and they drive back out into the desert.
Come away with me.
Axel pushes him back against the worn red leather of the back seat of his car and Roxas arches his back as the fire speeds up his spine and blooms in his brain, hips twitching as he comes and they lie together kissing for a long time before even Axel is too cold and they drive to the all nite diner in the next town where the waitress calls them newlyweds and they drink coffee until they're warm.
Roxas feels Axel like the drag of magnetism; like a drug. In school, Roxas sits staring out of the window, wondering what Axel is doing.
So who is this new kid you've been spending so much time with?
His mom knocks the ash on the end of her cigarette into her coffee mug. Roxas stares at the little ring of orange, smouldering.
I hear he's older. Does he go to your school?
Roxas licks his lips, shakes his head.
He lives in a trailer park? Is that true? Is that where you go?
Roxas shakes his head.
Are you taking drugs?
Is obsession a drug? Does that count?
Roxas doesn't say it.
Roxas' girlfriend wants him to take her Christmas shopping so he takes her. She picks out a basque and a camisole and can't choose so Roxas pays for them both.
Someone is going to get an early Christmas present she murmurs.
Roxas' girlfriend likes holding hands and cuddling and long fumbles that don't really lead to anything. Discussions about the future. Plans with every and then snapped into place.
Axel presses him into the brickwork behind the dumpsters, hot and hurried and urgent, footsteps passing by the end of the alley. Roxas feels like the rain before it falls.
I have to go to Florida for Christmas.
Her dad invited me.
You should go.
I don't want to.
I don't want you to either.
Roxas feels Axel's rough fingers against his bruiseless flesh, consuming him.
On Christmas Day Roxas calls his mom and then locks himself in the bathroom and calls Axel, jerks off to the sound of his voice, goes back down the stairs.
Later, his girlfriend's father takes a photograph, camera balanced on the porch rail, runs back into the frame, arm around his wife, one hand heavy on Roxas' shoulder, imagining grandchildren.
When he was small, Roxas wrote stories about Roxas being brave and heroic and dying from brave heroic deaths, and everyone being very sad. Now when he imagines not existing he hopes that no-one will notice, or care. Except for maybe Axel.
Roxas writes a note to his mom and sticks it on the fridge door.
Where are we going?
I don't know.
How will we know when we're there?
We just will.
Axel accelerates up the on ramp to the freeway, climbing closer to the sky.
“Kairi!” The older woman’s voice came from somewhere in the house below. “Kairi, are you there?”
The girl kneeling in the centre of the room gave no sign that she had heard.
“Kairi?” The voice was closer now, almost at the door. “Kairi, sweetheart?” A gentle knock. “Are you resting?”
A shudder shook the slight figure on the floor, and she gave a sobbing gasp, as if she had been holding her breath. Resting..? Never again.
“Sweetheart? Are you there?”
“Okay, just give me a moment,” Kairi called softly, not wanting her voice to give her away. Don’t come in, please don’t come in. She looked around at the litter of boxes, bags and jars scattered across the floor; at the jumble of flowers, beads, letters and leaves strewn across the rug, like the stars in the night sky, or flotsam on the beach. All she had left of them; of him. Stars and flotsam. Please, don’t let her come in…
“Oh, darling…” the woman was behind her now, stooping, gathering her up in her arms and rocking her, singing soft comforting words into her hair as she sobbed uncontrollably; as endless tears poured down her face.
I feel as though I’m dying. Am I dying?
“There now, love; there now. It’s okay my sweet. Cry it out. I’m here…” Kairi let herself be borne away on the swell of gentle words as wave upon wave of sorrow broke over her. Will I ever be able to stop crying?
“But he’s gone! I’ve lost him!”
“Shhh, dear. Be still, now. I’m here.”
“I’ve lost him!”
The strong reassuring arms tightened around her, rocked her, but could not heal her.
“Where is he? Where has he gone? Where’s Sora?”
To that, there was no answer.
Destiny Islands had been a paradise. In the years she had spent here she had been almost entirely happy. Sometimes she had been troubled by the blankness that surrounded the edges of her memories, but always when she had felt the vague terrors of unknowing creep up on her there had been her friends to cheer her: carefree, madcap Selphie; imperturbable Tidus; courteous Wakka. Sora. Riku… But now, after all this, with the two of them gone, something had changed. No-one said anything, and everyone was still perfectly friendly, but an insurmountable barrier had grown up, a gap no-one could cross who hadn’t been where she had been. And the only other people who had been where she had been were…
Gone! She could feel the tears threatening to return, and dashed a hand angrily across her eyes. How could you do it? she railed silently. How could you leave me again? How could you let me be here on my own? Where are you, Riku?
Riku, who was bright and strange and fine, yet dark with darker moods that had sometimes almost scared her. She looked about her, at the painted stones, the eggshells, and pictures scattered around; at her keepsakes and mementos, and the letters she’d written to Sora but never sent. Letters in which she’d written I love you. To Sora, and yet so much of this was not him.
She picked up a leather box, one which Wakka had given her on her thirteenth birthday. The surface was tooled with intricate whorls and spirals, like the inside of a shell, or an ear, and Wakka had told her that they were secret powerful marks. She’d thought it very beautiful, and Wakka had been pleased, but she could never tell him why it meant so much to her. For within it’s satin-lined cavity she had laid a thing more beautiful than any she had ever seen, a necklace of coral beads, twisted into a pattern which had fascinated her eyes and fingers for months on end, and which – when she knew it as well as sight and touch could allow – she had put into her mouth, tasting the intricacies of the shape. Riku had made it, although he’d shrugged it off as a nothing, and for one blazing moment she had loved him more deeply than she had ever thought she could love anything.
The beads were as cool against her skin as her tears were hot. Setting the leather box carefully aside, she took up another, larger one, wooden this time, and filled with beautifully fitted trays which – as one lifted out – revealed another beneath it. This was her name box, and each tray was filled with the treasures of the sea; with brittle, dry starfish; with crystals growing like plants; with branches of natural coral; with driftglass; with sea urchins. He’d called her that, just once, when first the two of them had found her. Washed up out of the ocean, like a sea urchin, he’d said, fixing her with his questioning glacial eyes; before he’d even known her name.
After that she’d begun to find these things, placed in the hollow in the tree he’d shown her. Casually, almost off-hand, as if it were of no importance, but again and again over the years, there would be a thing, placed carefully in the middle of a bed of moss lining the cavity. And amongst the magpie jumble of things she’d found there, two kept recurring. Time and again, over and again, amidst the others, there would be shells, and there would be stones.
The shells were here, in the middle tray. Shells of every kind; fan-shaped and spiral; some marbled with mother-of-pearl, others as pale as rose petals; as crisp as ice; or heavy; or fine and feather-light. Each was a joy to handle, some large enough to lie across her palm, others so small they would vanish into the cracks between her fingers. She knew what these shells were – they were her, washed up from the water.
She lifted out the tray. And there, in the gloom at the bottom of the box, was Riku. Row upon row of stones, pebbles; moonstone and agate, amber and alabaster, quartz, marble and slate; all worn to their perfect shape as only the sea rolls them; each a thrill to touch, warm or cold, as smooth as glass or pulling on her finger like a kitten’s tongue. She had not understood the stones at first, but she’d taken them, and kept them, and cherished them, until one day Riku – fretting under the lash of one of his black moods – had teased and tormented and argued and fought with Sora, but had come to her quiet, and still, and contrite.
“It’s like there’s a storm inside me, sometimes,” he’d said, “and Sora just makes it worse. He can’t help it,” he’d added quickly, noticing her expression, “it’s my fault, not his. But you calm me down, Kairi. You take off my rough edges.”
Your rough edges, she thought, turning the smooth pebble over in her hand. Worn away by the sea.
She dropped the pebble back into place and closed the box. You were my anchor, Riku, she thought. Sora was my boat, but you were my anchor. Now we’re all just adrift.
Riku was her dark knight, Sora her golden prince. Laughing, head-in-the clouds, butterscotch sunshine Sora, who made her heart dance. While her love for Riku was deep and troubled, her love for Sora had always been a buoyant, innocent thing. Riku – if she were perfectly honest with herself, there had always been something unsettling about Riku, a look in his eyes, a curl to his lips, something ever-so-slightly provocative about him. Riku’s very existence seemed to be a challenge somehow, not to her, but to the universe. And while she loved him, in her heart of hearts she knew that there was something about him she feared as well.
Oh, Riku! I needed you!
And, she supposed, he’d needed her too. Otherwise why all this? Why all these things? Surely all this meant that… but what did it mean? Were all these just reflections of memories of a love that hadn’t ever existed? Was it real, or not? Sora had loved her, had lived for her, had kept her heart alive and had sacrificed himself so that she might live again. She had been alive in him and she knew. She knew his thoughts, the very fibres of his being. His heart. But Riku? Who ever truly knew what was in Riku’s heart?
With a sigh, Kairi began to gather up the varnished flowers, the wooden beads, the boxes, letters, leaves and bags. The enormity of what she was about to do weighed on her like stone, dragged at her heels, pulled at her, trying to keep her in the house, away from the sea.
Slowly, sorrowfully, Kairi made her way to where the small boats bobbed along the water’s edge. The distance to the small island – our island – wasn’t great, but the growing pain in her chest, the swelling knot in her throat made it difficult to row. But at last she stood on the jetty where – how long ago now, it seemed – they had all three stood and looked into the storm’s heart, into the darkness, and first lost each other.
I’m sorry, Riku! she cried silently.
I love you, Sora!
With her eyes screwed shut, she began to scatter the contents of the boxes, bags and jars, the jumble of flowers, beads, letters and leaves onto the water, where they bobbed like the stars in the night sky. All she had left of them; stars, and flotsam.
Come back to me, both of you!
When everything else was gone, she took up the tray of polished pebbles and began to remove the stones one at a time, kissing each one before casting it into the water, where it sank, along with her tears, into the swell of the waves which echoed with the beating of her blind, broken heart.
Like his life, Axel’s dying wish is about Roxas; is to protect Roxas. It’s so stupid that he can’t help grinning. All he wants to do is to keep him safe, this boy who is now quite literally killing him. There’s a bruise blooming on Roxas’ forearm where the chakram had glanced off, and Axel fights the urge to roll back his sleeves and delve under the darkening skin; to feel the bones grind; to fix it.
He wants more than anything to tell him, now, before it’s too late. Now, at the last, when it can’t possibly matter anymore, to tell him the truth even though it might hurt him. To tell him that this is all there is, that there is nothing after this, that there is no more. To tell him, finally, how much it had hurt that Roxas had never been able to take what he had wanted to give him. But when it comes to Roxas he’s a coward, and has always been a coward, and he can’t do it, so he just says “let’s meet again in the next life” and hates himself.
He watches Roxas; can’t take his eyes off him. Sad, he thinks, sad sad sad, always so sad. I always wanted to make you laugh; to help it to stop; to make you proud. To scream at you and cut you to into ribbons and break you into pieces, just so I could make you whole again and hope again.
He wants to tell Roxas how unfair it is, that they had to suffer for so long; suffer something that could never be; that was impossible not because of who they were, but because of what they were. He wants to tell Roxas that he’s glad that it’s finally over, that there can be no more pain, no more longing, no more helpless, hopeless desire. But Roxas says “I’ll be waiting” and he can’t do it.
He wants to tell him how much he’d longed to make him stay; how much he’d wanted to convince him that he’d be loved; was loved, even once they were torn apart. Now, finally, at the very end, he wants Roxas to understand how he’d always wondered which one of them would be the one to break the other’s heart. But he feels the emptiness in his chest, and can’t let it end on a lie.
“Silly,” he says…
[and waits for the wind to come and blow the ash away]
“Whoa, there! Whoa!” Jack Skellington brought the sleigh to a clattering halt, sack full of danger and wriggling leggy things on one shoulder. “Have we been good boys and girls this year?” he chuckled gleefully, straightening the beard dangling beneath his chin.
He was finally getting the hang of Christmas. After the first disaster and Sandy Claws’ injunction that he stick to Hallowe’en, Jack had adopted a surreptitious approach. Dr Finklestein had been an unexpected ally and ingenious creator of unusual gifts, and he had suggested they reward the good boys and girls of Organization XIII. Jack wasn’t sure who they were – a scout troop, perhaps, or a glee club? The thought of happy shining faces and glad little voices raised in festive song filled him with a warm glow. “Here, Zero! C’mon boy!” he called, pushing his way through the gates.
It was nearly midnight. By now the inhabitants of the castle would be sleeping in their beds, dreaming of the morning’s surprises. Quietly opening the heavy door, Jack tiptoed through deserted corridors. The place was a labyrinth, and dark, and very soon he was lost. “They must be tucked up tight, Zero!” he whispered, shushing the dog with an elaborate gesture as they came to a door marked XII. “I wonder who lives here, boy?” Jack pushed the door open, just a crack. The dog slipped through the gap and suddenly reappeared, ghostly tail between insubstantial legs. “What is it boy?” Jack pushed the door a little further.
The glare of an unshaded bulb made the scene anatomically brutal. A young woman lay spreadeagled on a table, whisky bottle in one hand, glass in the other, both spilling their contents into a reeking pool. She was barely conscious, and had clearly been crying, mascara and lipstick smeared across her cheeks. As the skeleton king stepped backwards away from the wreckage she began to struggle and moan. “agzl at yu,” she mumbled, “basd’d.” As he hurriedly pulled the door shut, Jack heard the glass shatter against it.
A puzzled look crossed his face, and for a flicker of an instant his smile faded. Who could that horrible woman have been? Not the kind of good little girl that deserved toys at Christmas!
Across the corridor, a gale of laughter came from behind a door marked X. Jack turned towards it with a grin. Good humour! And song! This, surely, was where the boys and girls were playing.
Four were seated at a table, cards spread before them, three in various states of undress. A fifth opposite them, naked, and pleading for mercy.
“The maelstrom of avarice is once again your undoing, Demyx,” the only fully clothed member chuckled.
“But… I’ve nothing left to take off!” the boy cried. “What can I do?”
“I can think of something,” a shirtless dreadlocked man flexed broad shoulders and glowered at the boy. His companions – one with electric blue hair, the other an eyepatch – sniggered. Hurriedly, Jack closed the door.
This wasn’t at all what he had expected. Hurrying through the corridors, Jack stopped by door VIII, but the room was dark, cold and empty, a litter of snuffed candles and the cold ashes in the grate the only signs of fire. XIV was boarded shut, and from behind XIII came the sound of sobbing and something hard hitting something soft.
“Do they know it’s Christmas time at all, Zero?” Jack wondered, sadly. The dog gambolled around his legs; danced up against door XI. “Here? You think this one?” The dog barked silently.
The room was filled with golden light and flowers’ scent. By the bed, a very nice looking boy knelt, head tipped back towards the ceiling, an expression of concentrated rapture on his graceful face, hands folded in his lap. He was speaking quietly, but Jack couldn’t hear what he was saying, other than the occasional muttered ‘God’.
“Look, Zero, the good little boy is saying his bedtime prayers. What do you think he’d like for Christm…”
“Oh, God!” the nice little boy shouted suddenly, collapsing forwards into a shuddering heap, and Jack realised that his hands hadn’t been folded in his lap at all, and that he certainly wasn’t praying.
“Come on, Zero,” Jack said sadly. “If we want to see that we can visit Lock, Shock and Barrel.”
A faint light illuminated the head of a stair descending into darkness. In a small room at its foot, a giant was asleep on a sofa, a much smaller figure beneath a mound of blue hair slumped amongst dishes at the table. Beyond, an archway opened into darkness, and someone, very faintly, was singing.
Jack turned to Zero, eyes glinting with joy. “Carols, boy! We’ve found them!” Jack pushed open a final door.
Not even in his nightmares of Oogie Boogie had he imagined this. A blond blindfolded boy was strapped spreadeagled against the wall, and it was a much older blond man who was singing to him. Jack didn’t want to hear the words because he could see what the man was doing, but the crooning cut through his revulsion. “I think you know,” the man was intoning. “I think you can show me. I think you can take this pain. How encouraging.” And he would twist with one horrible implement, or sear with another, before turning away to heat something or sharpen something, crooning all the time under his breath “I think you know…”
Jack never found the door marked I. Behind it, curled up in his bed, thumb jammed in his mouth, the only good little boy in the whole castle dreamed quietly of Christmas, and of what Santa might have left for him when he woke up.
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.
At the end of that lifelong, unending, horrendous day, after all of the heartbreak and betrayal and empty victories, when everything that had been lost had been found, only to be lost again, and nothing seemed as though it could ever be right, eight words played over and over in his head.
Eight words that he carried cradled like spun sugar, afraid to breathe unless they melted away into the air and left him entirely alone. Eight precious words, worth more than all of the worlds.
Eight words, two voices, one promise.
“Take care of her.”
“I know you will.”
She feels his hot breath on the back of her neck, her nostrils filled with the stink of whisky. His burning skin is pressed against the length of her, and she can feel him taut and trembling, like an overwound watch spring about to break.
“Oh, fuck…” he groans, “oh, fuck, fuck, fuck…” and she screws her eyes shut, pretending that this was what she had wanted; that this was what she had always wanted.
It had ended like all the best parties do, with just the two of them and a bottle of whisky, and by the time the bottle was half empty they were laughing together over some stupid thing Marluxia had tried to do to Zexion and she was starting to think that this time… maybe… this time… But by the time the whisky was two-thirds gone he was staring silently into the middle distance and gripping the edge of the window frame so tightly that the seams on his gloves had started to split. And before she could stop herself she’d said
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, give it up already! He’s not coming back!”
And just because he was drunk, and only because he wanted her to shut the fuck up and be quiet, he had grabbed the back of her head and kissed her savagely. And just because this time she didn’t want him to be able to change his mind and back away and run, she bit his bottom lip, hard, and stuck her hands under his coat, feeling the little muscles of his midriff tense as he flinched under her fingers.
She can feel him like electricity; like a storm about to break. She can feel his scalding tears wetting her shoulders and she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care that the name he’s about to say isn’t hers, and will never be hers. She feels like a sheet of paper laid across embers, twisted and charred and about to burst into flames at any second. And she doesn’t care.
Like she doesn’t care that to him all she is is just another way of forgetting.
[or not forgetting]
Sora lay on his bed, hands behind his head, heavy boots propped on the footboard, staring at the ceiling, seeing nothing.
She kissed me…
The thought glistened and darted like a shoal of silver fish, scintillant, teasing, impossible to catch.
She kissed me…
The raft was finally finished, lashed tightly to the jetty, the few things she’d made them collect stowed away in readiness. He had wanted to leave there and then, and had run laughing and wide eyed into the foam, shouting and waving, but Riku had pulled him back, saying there was something he needed to do first. He’d trudged sullenly back out of the surf, head hanging, and Kairi had laughingly mussed his hair and told him they all needed a good night’s sleep. He hated it when she did things like that – like she was his mother or something – but then she’d dropped her hands onto his shoulders and
She kissed me…
Just once, a simple kiss, fresh and precious like a child. The fleeting pressure of her lips against his, gone almost before he’d felt it, like snow falling or a gloved hand against the wind. The memory of it glistened and darted, a trout in a stream.
She kissed me…
“Good night, Sora,” she’d said. And then, turning away, “Goodnight, Riku.”
“Sweet dreams, Kairi,” Riku had said, and she’d dragged the toe of one shoe slowly through the sand behind her as she reached out timidly to take his hand in both of hers. Sora had tried to look away, to not see, but his stupid eyes wouldn’t close and his stupid brain wouldn’t turn his stupid head and now the angle of the wooden sword propped against the foot of the bed was the tilt of her head as she raised her face ever so slightly to him and the shadows under his jacket hanging on the door post was the darkness under Riku’s hair as it fell forwards and the curve in the small of her back under Riku’s hand was the sliver of moon in the window and the starlight dancing on the ocean was the look in her eyes when finally she broke away.
…like a child.
Outside the window, a storm was coming.
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.
Larxene hesitates just for a second before slipping through the door marked XIII. A leer that’s meant for a smile cracks her face, and she pauses to admire herself at Roxas’ dressing table. Mirror, mirror, on the wall she thinks, who’s the most dangerous bitch of them all? She frowns, wondering if it wasn’t actually Marluxia, before the sound of voices in the corridor brings her back to herself. Little bitch, I’ll teach you to try and steal my man.She giggles at the thought of what’s coming, and slips under the bed.
Peering out from under the valance, she sees the door open, and pulls back into the darkness, trying not to notice the cast-off socks and boxers among the dust bunnies. The mattress above her creaks and sags, as someone sits down on it. Someone else closes the door. Oh, shit….
Larxene stops smiling.
“Roxas, please.” Please?
“What?” and this voice is as bruised and ragged and helpless as all of Vexen’s failed replicas rolled into one. “What do you expect me to do, Axel?”
“Stay.” Larxene’s lungs are on fire, about to burst, but Axel finally speaks again. “Stay, Rox.”
Shit, he’s crying. Larxene wants to turn her head, because there’s dust in her eyes and they’re starting to sting.
“What? We’ve what?” Now his voice is shaking, and Larxene can tell that he’s trying not to shout. The dust in her eyes is making them water, and she wants to wipe them, but she daren’t. “We’ve this.” She can’t see his gesture, but she’s watched him for long enough to know exactly what he just did. The bed creaks as Roxas shifts, sags as Axel sits.
Roxas is crying now too, and it’s the worst sound she’s ever heard, worse even than when she beat the other Riku to death. She wants to get up, to hold them both, tell them it’s okay, that they’re Nobodies for fuck sake and it isn’t supposed to be able to hurt, that the jealousy and lust and revenge are just games they play, just ghosts of things they used to feel, just memories. And the fucking dust under Roxas’ bed is getting in her eyes and it’s really starting to piss her off and “I’ve got to go,” Roxas says.
Larxene feels something in her chest that should have been her heart missing a beat.
“I know,” Axel says. “I know. I know. Stop saying it. I know. Just shut the fuck up and stop saying it.”
The bed creaks again, and sags again, and Larxene squeezes her eyes shut as tight as she can because they’re stinging too badly from the dust, and watering too badly from the dust, and she tries not to listen to what’s happening because she feels like she’s intruding at a funeral, and normally with funerals she’s the cause, not the mourner, and even though she’d wanted to be the cause of this one, she hadn’t wanted it to be like this.
Not even she had wanted it to be like this.
Leon has been watching him for about twenty minutes before Cloud notices he is there, sitting quietly just inside the tent's porch. It is early still, the pale light only just beginning to lift the heavy darkness with its weak fingers; dawn still just a grey promise hovering above the horizon. Below them, Radiant Garden glows against the night, red and orange and white, scintillant, a net of light spattered across the emptiness like the embers of a fire kicked apart. Somewhere down there, out on the edge where the lights fade out into the surrounding dark, is the little house on Twilight, empty now and waiting, and one of those lights, Leon knows, is their porch. Cloud never remembers to turn the porch light off, no matter how often Leon reminds him.
Behind him, in the tent, one of the twins stirs in his sleep, and Cloud - turning at the sound - sees Leon in the moonlight, watching him. Leon sees the moon shining in Cloud's eyes, sees him blink once, twice, and pulls himself up onto his feet.
"Hey," he says. The bench creaks under him as he sits, and Cloud's hand is cold when he picks it up off the table. "Can't sleep?"
Cloud smiles, and inches along the bench towards him; snakes an arm across his shoulders; a hand into his hair. Leon shivers.
"Aren't you cold?"
"I like it," Cloud says. "I get fuzzy. The cold helps."
Leon frowns. "You'll catch a chill."
"Here." Leon pulls his jacket off; hands it to Cloud. "Put this on." Shivers again as the night air bites him.
Behind them, in the tent, one of the twins stirs again. "You should go back in. If they wake up and we're not there…"
"No." Cloud shakes his head and wraps Leon's jacket around his shoulders, sleeves hanging. "I'm awake now. It'll be light soon. You go back to sleep."
"Okay." Leon clambers to his feet, plants a little kiss on the end of Cloud's nose, hopes he can't read his expression through the gloom. "Come back in if you want."
Inside the tent, Roxas whimpers in his sleep as Leon climbs back into the bedding, wriggles in against him as soon as he is down, takes hold of Leon's big hand with his little fingers. "Hey, buddy," Leon says quietly into his hair. On the other side of him, Sora sits up from a tangle of his own arms and legs. "Where's Cloud?" he mumbles, not really awake.
"He's just outside," Leon whispers. "Looking out for us."
"For the boogyman?" Sora says, falling back to sleep.
"Yeah," Leon nods. "Keeping us safe from the boogeyman."
It had been Cloud's idea, to take the twins camping. Leon had been dubious, worrying about snake bites and spiders and Cloud's geostigma, but Cloud had decided, and everyone knew that Leon never stood a chance when Cloud had made up his mind about something. And anyway, he'd already booked the camping spot out by Fort Baker. Forts were the twins' new thing.
"It's only one night," Cloud had said, winding an arm around Leon's waist; kissing the back of his neck. "It'll be fun."
"What if there's…"
Cloud slipped his free hand over Leon's mouth. "Shush. It'll be fun."
Leon wakes in the darkness with no idea of where he is. He can hear the soft sounds of other peoples' slow sleeping breath, the billow and slap of fabric as the night breeze fills it, the creak of whatever it is that he is lying on as it moves beneath him, and for a moment - still only half-awake - remembers they're on the ship. "Cloud?" he says, and his groping hand finds the tousled head tucked under his armpit, feels the familiar shapes of the cheek and soft lips, not Cloud's but Roxas', snuggled up in sleep against him.
Properly awake now, Leon lies still for a moment, listening to the flap of the tent's walls in the wind and the air mattress creaking beneath him as he shifts. The twins are pressed in against him, Sora curled against the small of his back, Roxas in the crook of his arm.
"Cloud?" Leon says again, and sits up, gently disentangling himself from the boys' arms and fingers, careful not to wake them. Cloud isn't there.
Leon edges his way into the porch, willing the zip to be quiet as he pulls it back up, shutting the twins in behind him as he shrugs into his clothes.
He's about to call Cloud's name again when he sees him. Just a dark shape against the darkness, but Leon knows Cloud's every contour, even in the star-spattered blackness of whatever time this is. Motionless in the silent night, and Leon thinks that maybe he's fallen asleep where he's sitting, chin propped on one hand, but then the clouds move away from the moon and Cloud turns his head.
It's cold, but that's not why Leon is shivering. Silvered in the moonlight, Cloud looks almost inhuman, pale and fragile, etched with exhaustion, impossibly young, and there's something caught in Leon's throat and he can't quite seem to breathe.
Once, he had thought that he would get used to it, seeing Cloud like this. But as the years passed and they had gone from being friends to being lovers to being a family, it is the single thing that has never changed. Leon still feels like he had always felt, protective and bewildered and scared and helpless. Leon fixes things. It is the rock beneath the foundations of who he is. Fixes things, builds things, rebuilds things, helps things mend. And here is the one thing he wants to fix more than anything. The one thing he can do nothing about.
Leon loves Cloud with a fierce piercing love, so sharp that sometimes it hurts him. He sits in the porch, watching the eggshell boy with moonbeams in his hair sitting in the darkness beneath the wheeling stars, and feels what he never ever allows himself to feel. Small, vulnerable, afraid.
Behind him, in the tent, one of the twins stirs in his sleep, and Cloud - turning at the sound - sees Leon in the moonlight, watching him. Leon sees the moon shining in Cloud's eyes, sees him blink once, twice, and pulls himself up onto his feet.
Cloud had driven them there, taking the turns on Shoreline Highway just fast enough for the twins to cling on to each other, their grins spreading wider with each bend. Leon had kept them occupied with stories of the Gold Rush, tales of covered waggon times, frontier days. By the time they'd got to the camp ground at Kirby Cove everything was a sidewindin', bushwackin', hornswagglin' cracker-croaker.
"Just remember, when the school call, this is your fault," Cloud had laughed, and Leon could only shrug helplessly.
Leon had driven them home. Sora and Roxas had fallen asleep almost as soon as they were in the car.
"You were right."
"I usually am," Cloud smiled. "What about?"
"It was fun."
"Told you." He leaned across and kissed Leon under the ear, resting his head on his shoulder for a moment. "I love you, you know."
"I know. You doing okay?"
Cloud nodded. "Just a bit tired."
"Try and get some sleep?"
Cloud nodded again, sitting back in his seat. "If I sleep, don't drive the whole way back in one go. Take a break at Timber Cove or something?"
Cloud slept, and Leon kept his word, but no-one woke up to see it.
Cloud was still asleep when Leon pulled up in the pool of porchlight outside their little house on Twilight, and didn't wake up until Leon had both of the twins out of the car, one sleepy head on each shoulder, a six-year-old in each arm and juggling his keys to get the front door open.
"Here, let me take one." He climbed out of the car into the yellow glow of the light, stumbling sleepily, one hand out against the door to hold himself up.
"Or maybe I need to get these two to bed and then come back for you." Leon looked at the figure slumped against the car, Cloud's eyes heavy-lidded with sleep, all his angles softened under the warm light, smiling.
"Are you going to carry me as well?"
"I might." Leon smiled, hefting Roxas back up onto his shoulder. "Just let me see to these."
"I'll be on the sofa," Cloud smiled again, pushing his hair out of his face. "Keep looking at me like that and we might not make it to the bed."
Merlin snapped the book shut, eyebrows bristling with irritation. His one rule – his only rule – that he not be disturbed while he was reading. That wasn’t too much to ask, surely?
On the other side of the study door something teetered, toppled, shattered, shards skittering across the flagged floor. The door shook as something heavy hit it. Beyond it, voices; low, surly, clipped.
Muttering under his breath, Merlin lay the book aside and clambered to his feet. He was almost sure what he would see – Leon, arms folded across chest, staring in feigned disinterest at something in the middle distance; Cloud, fist clenched at his sides glaring at the ground. The old wizard gestured wearily and the door banged open.
“I never said I’d join your stupid gang!” Cloud was by the window, eyes fixed on the street outside.
“I never asked you to!” Leon on his hands and knees, picking up the pieces of the retort flask that glistened wetly among the dark liquid splashed over the stones.
“Don’t touch that!” Merlin snapped.
Both men turned towards him.
“All I ask… all I ask is that I be left alone to work! Is that too much? Well?”
The wizard peered over the tops of his glasses at the two young men.
“But he…” Leon started to protest.
“I don’t want to hear it!” Merlin snapped.
“I didn’t…” Cloud muttered.
Merlin’s bristling eyebrows silenced him.
“Well. Neither of you have anything to say for yourselves? Hmmm?” Merlin raised a warning finger and both Cloud and Leon closed their mouths, shooting each other angry glances. “That’s better. Now. If you’re quite sure you don’t mind, I have work to do.” The old man turned back towards his study door, poking at the wet stain spreading across the floor. “Neither of you got any of this on you, did you? Well?”
Leon shook his head, wiping furtively at the long scratch snaking along his forearm where the flying glass had cut him. Cloud made a little gesture of denial, licking his lips.
“Good! Good! I was thinking of trying it out on some Shadows once I’d made a few more adjustments. No telling what it would do to them if I tried it now!” Merlin chuckled.
“What is it?” Leon asked, frowning.
“Eh? Eh? Oh, just a new spell I’ve been working on. Empathga, I call it. I thought if enemies could be made to understand who they were fighting against, they might lose the will to do it. Clever, eh?” Merlin paused, waiting for the two men to be impressed. “Yes. Well. Remind me to try it on you two when it’s finished. Now get out and leave me to work.” The study door slammed to behind him.
Leon turned to Cloud. “You didn’t…..?”
“No. Well, I’ve got a town to rebuild. Have fun doing whatever it is you’re so busy doing.”
When Cloud woke up the following morning he noticed two things straight away. One was the scratch on his arm, itching and inflamed. The other was his hard-on. Pushing the covers away, Cloud took his dick in his hand, smiling a little at the feel of it. Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed he stopped, frowning.
“What the?” he muttered, looking at the dark pubic hair curling at his groin. “What the fuck?” at the voice coming out of his mouth.
He looked again at the dick in his hand, thick, long, raddled with veins, at the hand gripping it, the chewed down nails and the skin calloused by hard labour. Cloud didn’t chew his nails. Cloud didn’t have that much dick.
“Fuck,” he said again. Then “shit!” letting go of what he was holding, wiping his hand on the sheets. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck.”
He lifted a hand to his hair – hanging into his eyes, much too long in the back – and pushed it from his face, rubbing at his eyes and cheeks in an effort to wake up, feeling the scar that shouldn’t be there, rubbing harder until he remembered what he had just been doing with that hand.
“I’m dreaming,” he said, trying not to hear Leon’s voice. “I’m dreaming is all. Just some stupid nightmare.”
He clambered to his feet and stood for a moment, trying to get used to feel of everything being different, of his feet feeling bigger against the floor, of everything being just that little bit further away.
“This is fucking weird,” he said, opening the door to the bathroom.
Leon was looking at him out of the mirror above the basin, hair tangled from sleep, stark naked, dick stiff. Cloud raised his hand and Leon did too. Cloud put the hand on his head and Leon did too. Cloud turned away from the mirror, peering back over his shoulder to see Leon doing the same.
Cloud turned back to the mirror, leaned towards it.
“What the hell?,” he breathed, watching Leon’s lips move behind the fog of breath on the glass. His balls were itching, and he scratched at them absent-mindedly with his thumb. Leon’s dick swung in the mirror.
Cloud looked at it, mouth part open, glanced up at Leon, naked and tousled, looking back out at him. He had to admit that Leon was one fine looking man, and that rebuilding a town kept him in shape, no matter how stupid it was. The heavy muscles of his chest and shoulders rolled as Cloud shifted, the vault of his ribs expanding and falling as Cloud breathed.
Cloud took his dick in his hand, watched the long muscles in Leon’s forearm jump as he ran his fist along the shaft, breath hissing out between his clenched teeth as he peeled the skin back. He could feel Leon’s heart hammering, the pulse quickening in his neck. Cloud rested his hands on the wall, one either side of the mirror.
“If this isn’t a dream then you’re one fucking lucky son of a bitch,” Cloud muttered, and took hold of it again, closing his eyes, his other hand cupped around his balls.
“I don’t think it’s done quite what he expected, do you? And just what are you doing with that?”
Cloud opened his eyes. In the mirror, behind the curve of Leon’s shoulder, he saw Cloud standing in the bathroom doorway, wearing Leon’s jacket. He turned around.
“You didn’t come here dressed like that?”
“Dressed like what?”
“In your jacket!”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Of course in my jacket!”
“Did anyone see you?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“What would you think if you saw me walking around in your jacket?”
“Oh. Oh, right. Well, I guess you better hope no one saw then.”
“This isn’t a dream, is it?”
Leon raised an eyebrow.
“A dream? Exactly how often do you dream about masturbating me? Although,” he made a vulgar motion at his crotch, “I can see why you would.” He took a step back. “Is that how I look? Weird. I’m used to being the other way around.”
“You’re not kidding,” Cloud nodded, looking at his hair spiked in all the wrong directions. “Merlin?”
“I guess.” Leon frowned, looking at Cloud’s arm. “That’s a nasty cut I’ve got there. Want to put something on that before it gets infected?”
“Sure, sure.” Cloud turned to the cabinet, looking for cream. “So now what?”
“I’ve got a couple of ideas.” Leon shrugged his jacket off Cloud’s shoulders. “You look like you were in the middle of something there.”
Cloud felt Leon’s cheeks flush. “Shit. Man, I just…”
“Don’t worry. It’s not like you were sticking pins in it. Just as long as I get it back in one piece.” Leon dropped to Cloud’s knees. “Anyway, I’ve always wondered how this would feel.”
He took hold of Cloud by his dick, turned him around.
“Oh shit!” Cloud hissed, as Leon ran Cloud’s tongue across the engorged head of his dick. “Oh, fuck, man, that’s my… ah… f…fuck…. that’s my mouth.”
Leon pulled back. “Yeah. So? Want me to stop?” Forwards again.
Cloud could only make inarticulate noises until Leon came up for breath. “Man, how do you know how to do that?”
“You’ve never imagined the perfect blow job? I guess I just know what I like,” Leon grinned. “Also, you have a very… uh… versatile tongue.” Forwards again.
“Don’t come in my mouth,” Cloud whispered, a little later.
“Try and stop me,” Leon mumbled, mouth full.
Cloud did, but like Leon said, he did have a very versatile tongue.
“How long do you think we’ve got ’til this wears off?”
“No idea,” Leon turned away from the basin, drying Cloud’s chin. “Man I should get you to suck me off more often, you were like a hose there.”
“About that,” Cloud glanced at the floor, still feeling the ache in Leon’s balls.
“Yeah. That is kind of awkward.” Leon nodded. “But we can worry about that later, right?”
“Sure.” Cloud said uncertainly. “So…”
“I was wondering. That is, I sort of wanted you to… Fuck it, I don’t even know who’s who anymore!”
“Maybe just tell me what it is?”
Cloud reddened again. “I want you to fuck me.”
Leon frowned. “Let me make sure I’ve got this straight. Are you saying that you – Cloud who looks like Leon – want me – Leon who looks like Cloud – to fuck you ? Or are you saying that you want the one of us who looks like me – looks like Leon – to fuck the one of us who looks like you – like Cloud?”
“What I’m saying is that I want you to fuck me. I don’t know which way ’round that is.”
“Well then,” Leon grinned. “We’d just better do it both ways, to be sure.”
When Cloud woke up the following morning he noticed two things straight away. One was the scratch on Leon’s arm, yesterdays redness faded to a dull line. The other was his hard-on. Pushing the covers away, Cloud took Leon’s dick in his hand, smiling a little at the feel of it. Leon stirred sleepily, wrapped his fingers around Cloud’s.
“Morning,” he said.