[KH] Desperate Reflections 16

Chapter Twelve – Regretful Revelations

“His name’s not Roxas!” Another voice interrupted, sounding both sharp and angry. A silver-haired boy stormed in front of Sora, slicing his hands through the air and dispelling the strange spell that seemed to have transfixed Axel.

The words echoed from the boy’s lips, which had curled into a vicious snarl. His arm shot to the side, a weapon materializing from thin air into his fingers. Axel knew with just a glance that it was a keyblade, especially since it practically radiated power all on its own.

“His name is Sora, asshole!” Before anyone could blink, or Axel could register what was really happening, the silver-haired kid leapt across the room. In a flash, quicker than was normal, he attacked Axel, blade raised for a high swing.

Then there was a flutter of dark fabric, a brief wash of something spicy and alluring, seconds before a screeching clank echoed in the hangar. The first to regain his senses, Vincent had intercepted the boy’s attack with the sudden appearance of a gleaming golden claw on his left hand.

Crimson eyes narrowed. “Calm yourself, child,” Vincent ordered, tightening his metal grip on the blade of the boy’s weapon. “Think before you attack.”

Axel blinked, surprised by the events as he appeared to come out of his stupor. The boy, however, was unperturbed by Vincent’s apparent speed and skill. He sneered as he growled, ripping his keyblade from Vincent’s hold with another shrieking whine of metal on metal.

“Why’re you protecting him?” he demanded, hand clenching into a fist at his side before finally seeming to notice Vincent’s unusual appearance. “And what the hell are you?”

“You better hold your tongue, kid!” Cid thundered, stepping up on the other side of his lover. “Stop acting like a dumbass, Riku!” He reached out, slapping the boy along side the head in a blow hard enough to make his ears ring.

Aquamarine eyes shifted to Cid as Riku glared, irritably rubbing the side of his head. “What the hell’s going on? Why is there a Nobody here?”

Cid twisted his jaw. “He ain’t a Nobody. Axel’s a friend.”

The boy, Riku, snorted. “Just like Ansem, I suppose. What the hell’s wrong with you people and trusting the bad guys?”

“Riku!” The reprimanding tone belonged to none other than Sora. He pushed his way past the overprotective taller kid and shot him a glare that turned out to be little more than a very cute pout. “You’re being rude.”

With that said, Sora stepped in front of Riku, separating him from the others and shifting his gaze to the firestarter. “You’re Axel… aren’t you?” he asked, a strange gleam in his ocean blue eyes.

Axel was again startled by how much Sora resembled his best friend. And yet, they were so startlingly different as well. Sora was so short and skinny that it was a miracle his body contained such strength. He gave the aura of someone who could easily be beaten, yet Axel knew from experience that the boy kicked ass. Not only that, he had somehow managed to save the universe. Not an easy task.

The firestarter nodded. “You… remember me?”

“Sort of.” Sora’s brow crinkled in thought as he touched a hand to his chest. “Or at least, a part of me remembers things that I don’t, while the rest of me remembers things I did.”

Despite himself, Axel couldn’t help but laugh at that. It was a perfectly Roxas thing to say, perfectly true, and yet, perfectly confusing as well. He covered his face with one hand as he laughed, feeling as if he had suddenly descended into madness. This was what he had been waiting for, finding Sora, regaining Roxas… a part of him was overjoyed but there was still another part of him that clenched with guilt.

He remembered that much of himself now. How he had felt trying to get Roxas back and realizing that in the end, he would have to hurt Sora to do it. It was the only path in which he could not walk selfishly, and in the end, he gave up his life so that Sora could continue his. In some round about way, maybe he had thought he was saving Roxas. Not that Roxas had ever needed a hero.

It was the honest truth. Roxas had never needed Axel as much as Axel had needed Roxas.

“Axel?”

A hand settled on his shoulder, squeezing gently. Vincent’s, if the voice was any indication. Axel drew in a shuddery breath as he shook his head, eyes closing of their own accord. “Nothing. It’s just…” He trailed off, chuckling somewhat madly once more. “I–”

“Sora!”

Axel’s eyes snapped open and he stared with horror to find Sora slumping into Riku’s arms, eyes shuttering closed. His face had drained of all color and for a moment, Axel’s heart stopped. He stepped forward, intending to offer his aid as he reached out a hand but Riku jerked away, carrying his lover with him.

“Don’t touch him,” the volatile boy snarled, turning his body away from Axel.

The firestarter immediately recoiled at his tone, eyes widening in shock. From the side, he watched as Riku brushed a hand over Sora’s face, quietly calling out his name. “Sora?” The brunet didn’t stir.

Cid sighed. “Come on, kid,” he suggested in a gruff tone, though Axel detected a note of concern. He stepped forward, briefly tapping Riku on the shoulder. “Let’s get him to Leon’s. We can talk more there.”

The silver-haired boy nodded and quickly scooped up the smaller male into his arms, Sora dangling limply into his hold. Cid tossed a wordless glance over his shoulder to Vincent as the two exited the gummi ship hangar, leaving Vincent and Axel behind.

Axel still stood frozen in place, his hands clenched at his side as he stared at the ground. He barely registered the other three leaving, too concerned with the strange emotions coursing through him. His entire body felt drawn with tension, taut and ready for something; yet, he didn’t know what.

“Axel?” Vincent’s tentative query barely pierced the fog that had suddenly surrounded his brain.

He shook his head. “It’s the eyes,” Axel muttered, finishing his incomplete statement of earlier. “Those same damned eyes.” His heart clenched, a heavy throb in his chest, and the ache that he hadn’t even realized was building, began to pulsate.

In trying to help Vincent so desperately, he’d had little time to stop and think. But one glance at Sora, one brief glimpse into eyes that were, but for a shade of color, the exact same and his composure crumbled. All of those regrets and memories crashed down, filling in all the blank spots that Gaia’s Grotto had erased. In short, anything he had ever forgotten suddenly surged to life within him.

The return was so quick that a spark of pain flashed through his mind. He sucked in a breath, swaying uncomfortably on his feet. Suddenly, Vincent’s voice seemed far away and Axel only briefly registered a pair of hands grabbing him. His body jerked, yet felt weightless at the same time before it all suddenly went dark.

He was in his usual place, their usual place. The clock tower in Twilight Town was a location that the two of them had always shared. Axel chuckled softly to himself. It only made it that much easier to find him.

He quietly snuck up on his best friend. Roxas was sitting on the ledge, looking very solemn as he buried his face in knees drawn up to his chest.

“Finally woken up?”

Roxas nearly jumped at the unexpected voice, unfurling his limbs to look up. His face registered surprise. “Axel?”

The firestarter felt his heart clench when those eyes turned on him. Inwardly, he summoned his composure. “Nope. Maybe you’re going to sleep.” He swept his gaze over Twilight Town stretched serenely beneath them. Maybe they were all going to sleep. “Soon, I won’t even be able to talk to your consciousness like this.” He stopped, sucking in a deep breath.

He heard more than saw Roxas look away, shifting against the ledge. “I…” He paused. With anyone else, Axel would have thought it was uncertainty. “I’m going back to how I was.”

How he was… used to be. Too bad Axel liked how he was now. Then again, it wasn’t like he had the choice in the matter. His chance for choice was long gone.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he commented as he lowered himself down onto the ledge next to Roxas. He drew one foot up to his chest, balancing his arm upon it. “Namine said the same thing. Roxas…” He took a deep breath, turning to look at his best friend, eyes softening. “You have a heart, don’t you? While Namine and I…” His stomach flip-flopped and he had to look away. It was simply too hard. “We don’t really have hearts, do we?”

Roxas’ hand clenched and unclenched for all of a second. “I… I don’t really know either.” He shook his head.

“I guess not…” Axel sighed. It wasn’t fair. It simply wasn’t fair.

“But, the heart’s not really something you can see. I’ve started wondering whether its something you can’t feel either…. if so, then…” He stopped, shook his head again and fiddled with something non-existent on his Organization cloak. He always hated wearing those things… “Nah, never mind.”

Axel tilted his head in confusion. “Hm? What’re you getting at?” he asked, gesturing towards the blond.

Blue eyes like the ocean turned towards him. “I’m sure Sora’ll find the answer.” He paused, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Because he’s me.”

Axel laughed lightly, though it was without cheer. “Yeah, that’s true.” Melancholy, deep and seeded, flooded through them and he clenched his teeth, turning towards the sunset. He was certain there wasn’t much time now.

Digging into his pockets, he pulled out the treat he had brought for his friend. Everyone seemed so excited over this ice cream and while he hadn’t thought it particularly important, it seemed to spark something in Roxas. He handed the blue sea-salt bar over, eliciting another one of those looks that seemed to radiate from deep within Roxas’ eyes.

“This really takes me back,” he commented, with one of his own smiles. “D’you remember? We first met the day you got your new name. And then we watched the sunset from up here.” From then on, it became their special place, where no one else would bother them. Not even Saix or Xemnas deigned to disturb them.

Axel’s non-existent heart clenched again. He simply couldn’t do it. He wasn’t strong enough. It wasn’t fair. Laughter rang in his ears. The sound of friendly fighting, arguments in jest. The ring of metal on metal, memories that haunted him. Memories he refused to leave alone. How could something he didn’t have ache so strongly?

Roxas nodded. “Yeah, this is where I came from. Everyone… Hayner, Pence, Olette… I hope they’re okay.”

“You should go and see them again.”

The blond smiled briefly, taking a bite of the ice cream. “Yeah… So… I have to go.” His gaze moved to Axel, for a single moment, containing a shining amount of regret. “Sora’s waiting for me.”

There was nothing Axel could do after all. His chance had passed. He could do nothing but say goodbye. There were other words, other things he wanted to say, to scream, but the words caught in his throat and he had to swallow down tears.

It wasn’t fair.

“Yeah,” Axel said, blinking back tears that didn’t really exist since Nobodies weren’t supposed to have emotions. “I guess he is.” He noisily chomped on the ice cream, if only to clear the sudden lump in his throat as he looked away from Roxas. “Whoa, this ice cream is really salty.” But his tone was dull, his voice shakier than he had intended it to be.

He knew Roxas had heard it. He couldn’t miss it.

Those eyes turned his way as a strange light began to envelop Roxas, his body fading gradually. “See you, Axel,” he said, a sad smile on his face.

Axel sighed, turning to watch his friend fade away. Something flickered across the surface of emerald eyes. “See ya… partner.”

It took less than a second for light to become nothingness, flitting away on the wind and leaving him alone on the clock tower. His eyes burned as his fingers clenched tightly onto the Popsicle stick. The tear, the first he cried since becoming Axel, fell before he could stop it, dripping to the platform. With a cry that was both rage and despair, he threw the ice cream as far off of the ledge as his strength would carry it.

It was over.

He awoke with regret crashing over him, spilling into his eyes and immediately dampening his face. Not even registering his location or particularly caring, he turned on his side and buried his face into a pillow, weeping as he had not ever before. Finger dug into plush fabric as if it were the only solid object he could cling to. With the memories came the emotions and with those, everything that he hadn’t realized he was suppressing.

Though his tears were silent, they were strong and his body shuddered. Too many memories, too many lost chances… regret sought to dim his hope. He had found Sora… but what if Vincent’s theories were wrong? What if nothing more could be done?

He didn’t think he could handle another goodbye.

The bed sagged behind him just then and he knew without looking who it was. Only Vincent could understand what he was going through. And he suspected that only Vincent truly cared.

“This was why…” Axel croaked, his voice raspy from both weeping and the emotion that grew thick in his throat. Unconsciously, his body furled even tighter as if experiencing physical pain. “I’m sorry… I didn’t understand.” He paused, sniffling slightly and feeling quite pathetic. “I didn’t know the pain.”

Vincent was silent a moment. “You were once angry with me because of something Reno said,” he replied enigmatically. “Do you remember?”

“You thought I could save you,” came the muffled reply.

There was a shifting of cloth. “And you did. The moment I saw you, something told me that we were alike. That the piece I was missing, that kept me on Gaia’s Grotto, would end up being within you. I admit I was selfish in wanting you to bear that burden.”

Axel considered Vincent’s words, blinking away lingering sobs as he scrubbed at his face. He turned over on the bed, finding that crimson eyes were sympathetic. “Why did you tell me that?”

Vincent sighed, tucking a stray strand of hair behind his ears as he raised his gaze to a nearby window. “Because if Roxas means half as much to you as Cid means to me, then I know that somehow you’ll find a way. I’ll help, of course, but I suspect that like before, you’ll find the answer on your own.”

With his words, that frail hope began to rise once more. Tears threatened to flow again but Axel shoved a hand over his eyes as he moved to sit up on the bed. He hated how much of an emotional wreck he was, but it seemed it couldn’t be helped. His entire body felt strained and weary, as if an effect of his dream. A quick glance around informed him that he was at Leon’s, not that he was surprised.

Realization struck him. “Did you carry me?” he asked incredulously, eying the man who was just as thin if not more than him.

A brief smile flitted across Vincent’s lips. “It wouldn’t be the first time. You’re heavier than you look.”

Axel snorted. “And you’re stronger than you look. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were hiding it.” Feeling stiff, he promptly began to stretch before a yawn escaped him. He didn’t feel any better or worse. The emotions were still lingering, the fear and the worry… but he pulled together his composure. With memories reverberating within him, he couldn’t simply lie around and mope.

Vincent rose from the bed, giving Axel room to move to the edge of the bed. He swung his legs over before frowning in thought. “What’s been happening?”

“Everyone has gathered downstairs. Aeris is cooking, I believe.” Vincent paused as he moved to the dresser, digging around for some clothes for his companion. As he tossed a pair of baggy jeans to Axel, he continued, “I took the liberty of explaining everything to the others, especially Riku. However, the last time I checked, Sora was still unconscious.” He pulled out a plain white t-shirt, chucking that at Axel as well.

The firestarter quickly caught the cloth and pulled it over his head. “What’s wrong with him?”

Vincent frowned, folding his arms over his chest as his wings twitched behind him. “We’re not sure but Merlin doesn’t think he’s in any danger.” He shrugged.

Axel nodded. “Where are my other pants?”

“Don’t worry,” Vincent assured him, dipping one hand into his pocket. “I knew to grab them first.” He crossed the room, depositing the two mementos into Axel’s hands.

The younger man slid the keychain into his pocket but propped the sunglasses on his forehead, just as Reno had always done. It would probably take a while to get used to the weight on his head, but he felt he would need the constant reminder. He wouldn’t allow himself to forget Reno or his promise to him.

“And Riku?”

Vincent grinned. “Still pissed but Cid has smacked him upside the head a few times and he’s reluctantly calmed down. Cid denies it but he would make a great father.” He paused, a chuckle escaping his lips as they headed for the door. “He was gracious enough to tell his story. Apparently, Sora’s been acting strangely, especially the strange and sudden urge to come here.”

They stepped into the hall, a quiet murmuring of voices gradually floating their direction from downstairs. “What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know. I can’t even begin to fathom.”

The two men headed for the stairs, but at the top, Axel grabbed Vincent’s arms, preventing him from descending. Both Vincent’s happier demeanor and the mention of his lover had brought up a point in Axel. He wanted to address it as soon as possible, even if it made him somewhat discomfited. At the touch, garnet eyes turned towards Axel, confused.

“About Cid…” Axel began, hesitating on his words. He stared at the floor, a slightly embarrassed flush flaring across his cheeks. “Did you…”

“No, I didn’t,” Vincent cut in, sounding bemused. “Would you like me to or does it matter?”

His face burned and he refused to look up. It wasn’t as if anyone had ever taught him the protocol on such matters. “Should it?”

Vincent chuckled, causing Axel to raise his head indignantly, only to glare. “I’m not making fun of you,” the winged man assured before laying a companionable hand on Axel’s shoulders. “I love Cid, Axel,” he explained, growing serious. “Nothing could ever change that. But that’s not to say I never cared for you.” He smiled lightly. “You will always be dear to me and because of that, I just feel that it is something he doesn’t need to know. He would probably understand, knowing him, but I prefer to keep it to myself.”

“No regrets then? No guilt for a lie even if it is by omission?” Axel questioned, somewhat skeptically.

The other man shook his head. “None.” His hand slid from Axel’s shoulder as he turned back towards the stairs, stepping down to the first. “Come on, everyone’s waiting.”

Axel nodded as they began to descend but before they reached the bottom, Vincent had one more thing to say. “Thank you, Axel.”

“You’ve said that already,” Axel returned with a grin. “Besides, my motives were selfish.”

Vincent shrugged as they hit the bottom landing and stood just before the entranceway to the dining room. “Even so. I found my way home and that’s all that matters.” His wings seemed to twitch in agreement.

The two men turned into the dining room, where nearly everyone was sitting around the rather large table. Not for the first time, Axel wondered why Leon was living in such a big house. Not only did he have room enough for guests, as well as having Cloud live with him when he was there, but he also had a table large enough to fit all of his friends and extras. For all the man’s gruff posturing, he really was just a softie at heart.

Aeris looked up from where she was setting out plates, flashing both men a smile as they entered. “Good afternoon,” she greeted pleasantly before turning to Yuffie at her side. “Set the potatoes over by Cid’s plate. You know how he eats them.”

“Got it!” the ninja chirped, flouncing over to the opposite side of the table.

She returned her attentions to Axel as he and Vincent found two of the remaining seats, far away from the currently glowering Riku and next to Leon, who had a slightly annoyed expression on his face. “How are you feeling?”

Considering that he had just fainted dead away for seemingly no reason at all, pretty good. But Axel wasn’t about to snipe so rudely to Aeris. “Fine,” he responded succinctly, dropping down into his seat with enough plop to rattle the silverware and glasses on the table.

He could practically feel aquamarine eyes trying to burn a hole through his scalp. Not that he was scared of the little brat. It was annoying, frankly, and on principle alone, Axel looked up and made sure to flash Riku the biggest, friendliest smile in his arsenal. The glare intensified. Inwardly, Axel laughed.

“Stop provoking him,” Vincent hissed under his breath, reaching under the table to pinch Axel on the leg.

The firestarter jumped at the unexpected pain and shot his friend an incredulous look. “What are you, my father?”

A hand swiped across the back of his head as someone passed him from behind, only later identified as Cid. “Don’t be ridiculous, brat. If Vin had any kids, they wouldn’t be as bad as you.”

“I’m well-behaved,” Axel countered, the smell of the cooked food wafting to his nostrils. His stomach grumbled hungrily, reminding him that it had been quite some time since he had last eaten. At least seven hours if his glance at the clock had given him indication.

Across the table, Leon snorted. “Well-behaved my ass,” he muttered under his breath, looking surlier than usual. Axel’s usual urge to poke and annoy Leon welled up inside of him but he refrained from doing so. He didn’t need the situation at the table to get anymore tense.

So he resolved to start dishing up the food that Aeris, and surprisingly Vincent he would come to learn, helped prepare. At least the winged man hadn’t been sitting by his side all afternoon like some worried lover.

Aeris and Yuffie sat down at the table, leaving an empty seat on the other side of Riku just in case Sora showed up sometime soon and the meal commenced with little ceremony. True to Aeris’ words, Cid dished up half the plate of potatoes leaving little to share with the others. Leon hogged all of the bread and Yuffie scuffled with Riku over the choicest piece of chicken breast. Axel watched all of this with interest.

They were like a big family, he noticed. And now that Vincent had come out of his melancholic funk, he seemed to fit right in. Even going so far as to swipe one of Leon’s hoarded rolls off his plate when the other man wasn’t looking. Uncharacteristic behavior for Vincent, in Axel’s opinion. Then again, Vincent had been so close-mouthed, he couldn’t really say what the man’s personality was.

It was several minutes into the meal, when everyone’s plates were full and their mouths occupied with food that the topic of Axel and Sora and Roxas and all things associated with them finally came up. Merlin was the first to break the ice, which was probably a good thing since he was perhaps the one most respected out of them, right on equal terms with Cid.

“Vincent, you said that you believe there is a way to separate Roxas from Sora without harming either of them, yes?” he questioned.

The winged male inclined his head. “If my memory serves me correctly. I picked up the basic gist of the lot of the research not only from Lucrecia’s excited conversations, but the other scientist’s mumbled ramblings as well.”

“Wait,” Cid interjected as Merlin nodded in understanding, “What happened to Lucrecia?”

Vincent frowned. “I honestly don’t know. Both she and Hojo disappeared shortly after Ansem’s apprentices began their darker experiments, the ones that would eventually lead to their doom.”

“Do you think that they are dead?” Leon asked, his interest perking considerably. “That maybe they were used in their experiments?”

A strange expression crossed Vincent’s face, one Axel wasn’t sure he could identify. Like a dark shadow that flitted all too quickly. “I do not think so, no.”

“All right,” Merlin began, trying to redirect the talk to his prior line of thought. “But … what do you think will happen to Roxas if this does work?”

“It is my opinion that he will return to Gaia’s Grotto,” Vincent replied easily, his expression back to normal. “Without Sora officially losing his body, Roxas will not have a body to return to and effectively only be a soul. In essence, he will die and when a Nobody dies, he is automatically sent to Gaia’s Grotto.”

Leon sat back in his chair, a frown deepening the lines on his usually sour expression. “Simple enough,” he agreed. “But how do you plan to rescue Roxas from there?”

“Do you even know where Gaia’s Grotto is?” Riku inputted, somewhat heatedly. He had yet to touch his food, his eyes still darting towards the door as if he expected Sora to show up at any moment. Concern was shining deep within his eyes.

Axel shook his head. “No, we don’t. It is somewhere on the border of dark and light but that is about all we know.”

“Like Twilight Town,” Riku muttered.

Vincent nodded. “Yes. Other than the dawn keyblade, the location of Gaia’s Grotto is our only obstacle.” He paused, reconsidering as his gaze flickered to Riku. “That and Sora’s consent.”

“Do you think it’s possible Ansem’s lab might hold clues?” Leon asked thoughtfully, tapping his fingers on the table.

With a clatter, Aeris set a new platter of rolls on the table. “His computer holds a lot of knowledge, surely there is something,” she suggested as she took her seat once more.

“You said it was called Gaia’s Grotto?” Riku asked, looking for confirmation. When Vincent nodded, he sighed and raked a hand through his hair. “I think I have heard of it.”

Axel’s brows rose nearly to his hairline. “You have?” he queried skeptically. Riku was being unusually helpful. Whether that had anything to do with the presence of Cid at his side or that he actually wanted to aid was left up for debate. Axel was leaning more towards the former.

“Maleficent sometimes mumbled when she thought I wasn’t listening,” Riku began to explain with evident reluctance. “She spent a lot of time in Hollow Bastion’s labs, fascinated by Ansem’s research and even adding to it some of her own. I once heard her mention a place called the Grotto and how their plans were coming together perfectly. Up until now, I hadn’t recognized the reference as belonging to anything else.”

“I’ll bet we can find something out at the castle. It can probably tell us stuff about the keyblade, too,” Axel suggested, forking more of the meal into his mouth. “Finding Gaia’s Grotto means nothing without the keyblade.”

Riku sighed and looked at the table. “I already know who has the dawn blade.”

“Really?” Yuffie sat forward in her seat excitedly. “Who?”

Without raising his gaze, Riku merely held up a hand above the table. There was a brief surge of power, similar to the one Axel had experienced earlier right before Riku attacked before a keyblade materialized in Riku’s hands. The same one that he had wielded earlier.

“Me,” the silver-haired boy answered succinctly. “Meet the Way to the Dawn.”

A chorus of gasps echoed around the table but Vincent remained unimpressed. Crimson eyes narrowed. “Why didn’t you say something before?”

The blade disappeared with a dim twinkle as Riku’s hand fell to the table. “Because I have no intention of using it. I’m not putting Sora’s life at risk.”

The hope that had been steadily building within Axel, crashed and shattered before he could even grasp onto it. He stared at the broken, fragile pieces and wondered why he had even bothered in the first place. “W–what?”

Riku shook his head, sitting up more firmly in his chair. “You don’t know if it will work. You don’t even know about the risks. I won’t kill the only person that matters to me just so you can have yours back!” His hand, resting on the table, clenched slowly into a fist. “I fought through too much to get back to him,” he added, in a much quieter tone.

“Then you should understand,” Axel argued. “I don’t want to kill him. If I wanted that, I wouldn’t even bother with your damn keyblade!”

Riku folded his arms over his chest. “I don’t care. I won’t let him do it.”

“Don’t you think Sora should make that choice?” Vincent asked. “You yourself have said that he’s been acting strangely.”

Aquamarine eyes flickered in the winged man’s direction but didn’t soften in the slightest. “Yes but… that’s not life-threatening. And lately, it’s been happening less and less.”

“I would have to agree with Riku. I don’t think we should delve into things we don’t understand,” Leon said, putting in his two munny worth.

Aeris turned thoughtful, a somewhat apologetic expression on her face as she turned towards Axel. “I am sympathetic, Axel, but they have a point.”

It wasn’t that Axel didn’t understand Riku’s fears, or that he was ignoring the risks. He damn well knew that it probably wasn’t a safe process. He knew all of these things. But he couldn’t help being selfish, he couldn’t help wanting to try anyways. Was that so bad?

The firestarter shook his head. “But you won’t even consider it… or try?” he asked, hating how much it sounded as if he was begging. It wasn’t his style to be this pleading or needy, but dammit, this was the closest he had come to his second chance. He couldn’t and wouldn’t easily give it up.

Yet, the look on Riku’s face spoke plainly on his decision. It was over before it even got a chance to begin.

With a growl, which sounded more pained than angry, Axel slammed a fist into the table, rattling the dishes loudly before he jerked to his feet. He turned towards the door, ignoring the looks being sent his direction. Tears prickled at the back of his eyes but he fought them down, refusing to weep ever again. It hadn’t done him any good before, and it wouldn’t now.

He shook his head silently to himself as he headed for the doorway, only to suddenly come up short. His eyes widened in shock as his gaze fell on the figure blocking the exit.

“I’ll do it,” Sora said quietly, a strange expression on his face.

Behind Axel, someone sucked in a sharp breath. “What?” It was Leon. The feet of a chair scraped across the floor as he stood. “You can’t be serious.”

Ocean blue eyes flickered past Axel, in the direction that the firestarter knew Riku to be sitting. “I said, I’ll do it… but not without some research first. I’m not stupid; I wouldn’t blindly jump into something like this.”

“B–but, Sora…” Riku stuttered, but his words were quickly cut off as Sora shook his head, stepping further into the room. He left the exit open, but Axel no longer felt the need to escape, too stunned by the turn of events.

“I had nearly forgotten him… Roxas. He’s almost completely a part of me. And now I realize what the unexplainable melancholy was. I thought I was missing something.” He stepped past Axel and the firestarter turned to follow his movements, watching as Sora placed a hand on his chest, directly over where his heart would be. “But it’s actually him who misses someone. It’s his sadness I’ve been feeling.” He cast a glance over his shoulder, a sad smile tugging at his mouth. “And he thought no one would miss him.”

Axel’s eyes widened as his heart literally leapt in his chest. That alone was proof that Roxas was within Sora. That was Roxas’ memory, not Sora’s. Unless the blond was present within Sora’s mind, and able to speak with Sora, there was no way that Sora could have known to say that.

“You could die!” Riku argued, jerking to his feet and sending his chair clattering backwards. “I won’t do–”

“Not if we do some research first,” Sora inserted easily, not at all bothered by his boyfriend’s short temper. He turned towards Leon. “Ansem’s experiments and data are still in the computers, right? Maybe Tron can help us find something.”

Leon nodded, the faintest of smiles twitching his lips. “Tron will be ecstatic if you ask for his help. I’m sure–”

“I don’t care,” Riku interrupted frostily, shooting an angry glare across the table. “I won’t do it.” With that, he turned on his heels and stalked from the room, hands clenched into fists at his side.

Sora watched his exit with an unreadable expression. “I’ll talk to him,” he sighed.

“Even so, this is an interesting turn of events,” Merlin commented as he sat back in his chair, running a wizened hand through his white beard. “I think it is time I look at these records. Perhaps together, Valentine and I can uncover something of use in Ansem’s research.”

The meal on the table apparently forgotten, Leon turned away as well, heading towards the other door out of the dining room. “I do not agree with things as they stand, but I will help. I must admit my curiosity is strong,” he said before shifting to throw a look at Cid over his shoulder. “Don’t forget to take a look at the defense system, Cid. I’m heading over to the Bastion.”

“I’ll help, too,” Aeris quickly volunteered. “Outside of Leon, I’m the most familiar with the computer system and Tron anyways.” She smiled companionably.

Axel dipped his head, the surging feeling of helplessness and rage flitting away in the wake of their offered aid. “Thanks,” he managed, voice weaker than he would have liked. He was unused to depending on other people, so this was a new experience for him.

Aeris beamed. “We’re glad to,” she commented before gesturing towards the food in front of him with her fork. “Now eat!”

The firestarter grinned and picked up his own utensil. That was a command he was willing to obey.

– – – – –

“Explain to me again why I’m stuck with you,” Axel grumbled, cutting his eyes at his unfortunate travel companion. He shoved his hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders against the slight chill that seemed to permeate the air in Hollow Bastion no matter how hot it was outside.

The entire castle was creepy. He didn’t like it in the slightest. Clinging shadows, monstrous statues, cobwebs, creaking lifts… it was nothing like the clean, crisp lines of Castle Oblivion. For only the briefest of moments, he missed Marluxia’s anal-retentive personality that required everyone to keep everything clean. The pansy-assed bastard.

To his left, Leon let out an aggravated sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t particularly enjoy it either,” he countered as they ascended the stairs to the highest rooms of the castle since they had already searched all of the ones below them. “But Aeris and Cid are already working on the computer together and Merlin and Vincent are in the basement lab. Riku and Sora are in the library. That leaves you and me to the upper levels.”

Axel blew air out of his mouth, fluffing one of the spikes that was dangling limply in his face. They had woken him up far too early in the morning and as a result, he hadn’t even brushed the tangled, scarlet mess. Not that he particularly cared what he looked like. It wasn’t really important at the moment.

“The division of labor makes little sense to me,” he grumbled, just for the sake of grumbling. Leon was sullen in a different manner than Vincent, and his silence was aggravating not companionable. “Like Riku and Sora are going to do research when they’re alone in the library.”

They crested the top of the stairs of the topmost floor and headed towards one of the first doors, throwing it open to reveal a dusty, long unused bedroom.

“I don’t want to think about them and such things,” Leon mumbled, raking a hand through his messy brown hair. He shook his head, casting a quick glance through the air. “This is a guest bedroom… I doubt there’s anything in here.”

“Fine with me.” Axel whirled on his heels and stalked out, already heading to the next in a long string of doors. He had the sinking feeling it was going to be a long ass day. Why couldn’t he have gotten one of the more interesting assignments, like the laboratory? Or even the computer room? Surely pounding buttons all day would be more intriguing than wandering around with Leon.
Then again, needling Leon could prove to make the rest of the day interesting, if Leon rose to the bait as easily as he hoped.

The next door revealed a small study, desk in one corner, a short row of tall and well-stocked bookshelves on the other. A large window was heavily covered by a thick curtain, blocking out any and all light. Axel found the light switch quickly, flicking it on and sending a flood of pale light across the room.

Leon headed for the desk, sitting in the plump chair before digging around in the drawers. After observing for a moment, Axel wandered towards the bookshelves, idly scanning the titles. At first glance, they appeared to be nothing more than fantasy novels or books on mythology. Still, that didn’t mean nothing could be found.

He randomly selected a book, something about princes and frogs, and started leafing through it. The silence was unnerving, rankling in the back of his mind, and he racked his brain for some topic, any topic just to fill the silence.

“Did it ever occur to you that you are being selfish?” Leon suddenly asked, his voice accompanied with the sound of a desk drawer being shoved shut with a sharp bang.

Axel looked down at the book in his hands, a somewhat guilty feeling causing his heart to pulse. “Yes,” he answered quietly. Of course he had considered it.

“And yet you are still–”

“Yes!” Axel interrupted, snapping the book shut and turning to glare at the suddenly loquacious man. “Yes, I’m still going to keep trying. Because I’ve been searching and I’ve been waiting and I’ve been wanting! Roxas has always been the only thing that’s ever mattered to me. I don’t care if I’m selfish. I really don’t.”

Stormy eyes blinked though the look on Leon’s face remained impassive. “He means that much to you?”

Axel snorted, his mind instantly recalling the memory or dream or whatever it was he had experienced yesterday. “That puts it lightly,” he muttered, turning back towards the bookshelf. “You would understand if you had any room in your cold heart to care for someone else.”

He knew, without having to look, that Leon immediately bristled. “Don’t presume to know–”

“I already know about Cloud,” Axel interrupted, cutting him off with a sharply waved hand. He shoved his book onto the shelf and grabbed another one, something called The Heart of Darkness. “Yuffie can be quite the blabbermouth when she gets started.” He cast a glance over his shoulder, smirking when Leon’s face started flooding red. “So you have no right to preach to me about selfishness when you are too scared of what you feel to help the person that probably means the most to you.”

Silence descended between them, an uncomfortable stillness that didn’t perturb Axel but remained there nonetheless. A moment passed before Leon suddenly stormed from the room, a strange expression flitting across his face. Axel didn’t figure that Leon would open up to him. The man was as closed off as a prison and just as cold.

Axel watched his exit with impassive eyes before returning to his book. The words blurred in front of him as his mind turned to other thoughts, to memories that resonated within him and tears that he had shed. Roxas wasn’t just his best friend… he was so much more. And Axel had never told him.

He was such a bastard.

“Axel!”

The door to the study flung open, hitting the wall with a bang that was loud enough to cause Axel to drop his book and jump with surprise. His head swung towards the door, finding Yuffie standing there with the biggest grin in the world on her face.

“We found it!” she exclaimed before he get a word in edgewise. “We found the coordinates for Gaia’s Grotto!”

His eyes widened. “What?” he questioned, moving towards her. Excitement began to well inside of him.

She nodded excitedly. “And that’s not all,” the ninja added with an impish grin. “Riku and Sora found research on the keyblades and their properties, done by some guy named Hojo, but research nonetheless!”

“What does it say?” he asked, already following her out into the hall as they headed towards the nearest lift, the quickest method to the lowest floor. Axel hated how they creaked and swayed but his excitement far overrode his anxiety.

The ninja beamed. “They think Vincent’s right. Riku’s not too happy about it but…” She shrugged before suddenly peering around him. “Where’s Squall?”

“He took off,” Axel replied nonchalantly as they stepped into the lift. He waited for the gut-clenching feeling to attack him as it thrummed to life.

Yuffie eyed him disapprovingly, something gleaming behind her brown eyes. “You weren’t teasing him again, were you, Axel?” When the firestarter didn’t respond, she huffed and brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “He gets so grouchy when you do that. I’ll bet you brought up Cloud again, didn’t you?”

He couldn’t help the lazy smirk as he leaned against the side of the lift, folding his arms over his chest. Not only did the annoying things creak but they were slow as hell, too. “He needs to get his head of his ass.”

She waved a hand of dismissal. “I know that. Everyone knows that. Even Leon knows that.” Yuffie shoved a finger towards him, wagging it in a reprimanding fashion that eerily reminded him of Aeris. “But he doesn’t need you constantly wheedling him about it either.”

Axel snorted. “You guys baby him too much. What he needs is a good kick in the ass. Leon is a grown ass man, he doesn’t need to be tiptoed around like a pregnant woman.”

She stared at him in a moment before bursting into laughter. “I can’t believe you said that.” She giggled. “Wait until I tell Leon that you called him pregnant.”

The lift dinged just then, jerking to a stop with a shuddery shake and Axel barely restrained himself from clinging to the sides in sudden fear. He shot Yuffie an annoyed scowl, which she never took him seriously for, before following her off the lift towards what he assumed to be the computer room. It only made sense that everyone would gather there.

He waved off her earlier statement with a flip of his wrist. “Come on, Yuffie. Tell me what else they found,” he prompted.

The ninja shook her head as she pushed forward, through brightly lit rooms cluttered with books and archaic paintings. “You’ll find out soon enough,” she responded. “Besides, a good bit of it I don’t understand.”

“That’s not surprising.” A voice commented, emerging from just behind them and dripping with sarcasm.

Axel whirled around in surprise, finding Leon leaning against a wall with a very bored and schooled expression on his face. He had his arms crossed over his chest.

“Leon!” Yuffie exclaimed. “How did you get down here before us?”

Stormy eyes briefly flickered to Axel before returning to Yuffie. “The other passageway,” he informed her with a shrug before pushing himself off the wall and striding towards them. “There were a few stray Heartless in there.”

“Ah! I forgot about that,” Yuffie responded as they started walking again, drawing closer to the computer room.

They approached the open door, bright light seeming to emanate from just beyond. Axel could hear the low murmur of conversation and the sounds of fingers clicking over a keyboard. He couldn’t help the surge of excitement, of hope, that started to grow within him.

As they stepped into the large, open space of the computer room, Axel’s gaze swept over everything in slight awe. The console seemed to take up one entire wall, while a monitor encompassed the other opposite. Wires and cords crisscrossed over the ceiling above him, connecting the two systems. And scattered around the room was everyone who had offered to help.

Aeris and Vincent stood at the computer with Cid and Merlin was peering through some papers with Sora and Riku over at a table that had been shoved into one of the few bits of available wall space.

“I found him,” Yuffie sang as they entered, immediately attracting everyone’s attention. “He was skulking about in the one of the upstairs studies.”

Emerald eyes rolled. “I was not skulking. I was researching,” Axel countered, giving her a playful tap to the back of the head. His gaze flickered to Vincent and Aeris at the computer, interest immediately taking over as he ambled towards them. “What have you found?”

Across the room, Riku snorted. “You don’t have any patience, do you?” he questioned rhetorically.

Sora shook his head and shot his boyfriend a disproving look, though it was hard to actually look reprimanding when his eyes practically sparkled. “You’re being mean, Riku.”

Rolling his eyes again, Axel turned towards Vincent and the smaller monitor embedded in the control panel in front of him. “Well?” he prompted, admittedly feeling very impatient.

Vincent gestured towards the screen, a clawed finger tracing the outline of a few files. “These all contained information on research done on the keyblades. It wasn’t completed by Ansem alone, but started by another scientist, Hojo and his assistant Lucrecia.” He paused, frowning intently. “Hojo was a bastard, but he was meticulous. He kept careful records of everything he did, which worked in our favor.”

“And?”

The winged man turned away from the console, grabbing up a few papers that were scattered across the keyboard. “Come over to the table. I’ll show you what we found,” he ordered, already moving across the room and leaving Axel no choice to follow as he continued speaking. “Most of what I remembered was accurate indeed. All keyblades can redeem the Heartless, but the keyblade of light can open them, open anything really. The keyblade of dark frees hearts. And the keyblade of dawn… separates hearts. And Hojo hypothesized that the keyblade of twilight… locked hearts but he cannot be sure since he has never truly seen one for himself.”

Axel frowned as they approached the table, finding a seat between Sora and Merlin rather than near to the rather surly Riku, who still seemed to hold much animosity for him. “Open? Free? Separate? Isn’t that all variations of the same thing?”

“Technically, but no,” Aeris answered with a smile. She rustled a few papers as she took her seat, finally producing one that she tapped with a finger. “This one explains most of everything. It’s a bunch of technical jargon that makes my head ache but basically, there are three different components of any living being – a heart, a soul, and a body. “

“Truthfully,” Merlin began. “The keyblades of the light and dark are essentially the same. The differences are in those that walk the path between, dawn and twilight. This method only works on those who have already turned into a Heartless once and are now bound to their Nobody.”

Axel’s brow furrowed as on the other side of him, Leon frowned. He held up a palm. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You’re telling me that someone has performed these experiments?”

Vincent nodded, crimson eyes gleaming with some indescribable emotion. “Hojo was not known for being an ethical man. His only interest was in science and the pursuit of. He cared very little for the safety or health of his subjects.”

“Then it worked?” Sora ventured.

Again, the winged man nodded. “It did. Every single one of the twelve times he tried it.”

A collective gasp echoed around the table. “Twelve?” Cid repeated, sounding completely flustered. “You mean he turned twelve damn people into a Heartless and Nobody… then bonded them… then separated them? Does that mean he knew of Gaia’s Grotto?”

“Undoubtedly,” Aeris answered quietly. “Because if a Nobody is killed, that is where he ends up. And it is considered a death when they are separated from their other. He would have had to go there to reclaim them.”

“Then you found it?” Axel suddenly interjected, having a little trouble following the technical conversation and overload of information. “You know where it’s at?”

Riku sighed as he reached over Sora and plopped a large document on the table, obscuring the others. He quickly unrolled the parchment and pointed a finger to a certain spot on what appeared to be a star chart. “There,” he declared. “Unsurprisingly, not that far from The World That Never Was and Twilight Town.”

“Not just close to them,” Sora added. “But right smack dab in between.”

A grin spread across Axel’s features before he could stop it. “Then… it’s possible? The method works?”

Vincent nodded. “All that remains is whether or not Sora is willing to do it.”

“Which he’s not,” Riku declared loudly. “And neither am I. I can’t… I won’t…” He paused, hands clenching to fists at his side. “I’m not going to stab him in the chest with my keyblade.”

“Riku!” Sora interjected, turning towards his boyfriend with an uncharacteristic stormy expression on his face. “I never said I wouldn’t. I said I would think about it! You can’t make my decisions for me!”

When the silver-haired boy opened his mouth to argue, Merlin quickly interrupted before their argument got out of hand and they said things they didn’t regret. “We don’t have to decide this right this moment,” he hurriedly stated, his calm voice sweeping through the room. “It is not a decision to be made hastily. There are still risks, of course. It is not a risk-less procedure.”

“See?” Riku pointed out, gesturing towards Merlin. “Even the old man says it could be dangerous. I don’t see why you want to keep risking your life for that Nobody!”

Sora’s jaw clenched as he stared at his boyfriend, lips pursing in irritation. His eyes narrowed seconds before he whirled on his heels and stalked from the room without another word. The older ones present watched him leave with some concern, knowing that a depressed Sora was a rare event.

“Sora?”

When no response was forthcoming, Riku sighed in irritation, shooting a somewhat poisonous glare towards Axel. “This is your fault,” he hissed before hurriedly taking off after his lover. “Sora, wait!”

Axel snorted, crossing his arms over my chest. “My fault?” he muttered under his breath. “I’m not the one acting like a jackass.”

Behind him, Leon shook his head. “No, you’re just being selfish,” he corrected in a surly tone. “You don’t know anything about those boys or Riku… especially not Riku. If you did… you would know why it’s hard for him to agree to something like this. Sora’s all he has.”

The words struck a chord inside of him. Almost as if they were echoes of his own.

“Sound familiar?” Vincent pressed, something glinting behind his eyes.

Axel sighed, raking a hand through his hair. “Fine,” he acquiesced glumly. “I’ll stop pressing.”

“Don’t worry,” Yuffie soothed, placing a comforting hand on his arm. “I know Sora, it will all work out in the end. He’ll find a way, I’m sure.”

“He always does,” Leon added as he started gathering up the papers. “That boy’s got more luck than all of us in this room.”

Axel listened to their encouraging words, wanting to believe that they genuinely hoped to help him. But he knew that their loyalty was to Sora first. He came in pretty low on the list. If Sora said no, then that was the end of it.

He would never see Roxas again.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. Sure… he could kill Sora and get Roxas back that way, but he couldn’t do that the way he was now. Before, as a Nobody without emotion and guilt he still couldn’t go through with it. And Leon was right, he grudgingly admitted. Perhaps he and Riku rankled because they were far too much alike.

Axel was a selfish, selfish man… but he couldn’t live with himself if he actually killed Sora. And he didn’t think Roxas would ever forgive him either. Which still left him with not knowing what to do if Sora said no. In all likelihood, it was a farfetched hope, but it was the only one he had to cling to.

He would save all ponderings for what to do for afterwards. Because if he actually started considering it now, it would shatter the last of the dream inside of him.

It was in Sora’s hands now.

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