[KH] Desperate Reflections 20

Chapter Fifteen – All Along

It was the funny thing about dreams, or honestly not amusing but more like cruel, that they reminded you of your worst fears and guilts when you finally thought life was turning around on you. When you finally held in your hand happiness, gripping it so tightly that you knew, just knew, you would never let go ever again. If you even had it in the first place.

Dreams were vicious, phantasmal creations slyly slipping into your mind with all the stealth of a master thief. They teased you at first, with happy thoughts and reminders of all the good things that you had mercifully been granted. And then the pain came, the death of a loved one, the splash of blood against the scion blue of a cloudless sky, the end of a world, the loss of your heart. A thousand tiny memories that you thought you had forgotten, rising to the surface in your moment of weakness.

Axel, for the record, hated his dreams. He clung to them while in Gaia’s Grotto since they were all the memory he had, but since his escape, he had learned to despise them. Nothing but his failures, his selfishness, things that he could never grasp again. Roxas was in his dreams, but they were visions of the past, a not-so-subtle reminder that he had done nothing to make the blond stay.

Even now, with Roxas in his arms and sharing his bed, Axel hated his dreams. His calm and peace, the easing of his fears, were shattered by those dreams. He saw Reno and Quistis and Vexen and Zexion. He saw everyone he had wronged and he smelled the blood in his nostrils. He felt the heat of the orange flames dancing on the tips of his fingers.

It brought the guilt crashing down on him, like the waves of some vast ocean, until it felt like he couldn’t breathe from their sinking depths. Like hands were wrapped around his neck, squeezing with invisible frozen fingers. Like a heaviness had settled on his chest, the weight of a thousand iron presses. It woke him from his restful sleep, jerking him into wakefulness and very nearly disturbing Roxas.

Axel blinked sleepily, eyes catching the gleam of an alarm clock that informed him he had been asleep for little more than two hours. His usually cold body was actually warm, a blanket by the name of Roxas pressed close to his side. The younger boy sprawled as he slept, arms and legs akimbo but head remaining doggedly against Axel’s chest. Moonlight gleamed silver through the window, illuminating the room in a pale glow and outlining the stacks of books everywhere.

The fire starter shifted, heart pounding a rhythm he didn’t understand in his chest and filling his legs with restlessness. He knew he wouldn’t be able to remain in the bed. Axel eased gently away from the slumbering blond, who mumbled something grumpily but released his hold on Axel anyways.

Rolling over briefly, Axel pressed a kiss to Roxas’ forehead before sliding out of the bed. His bare feet landed on the cold wood and he shivered briefly. Casting a tired emerald gaze over the floor, Axel snagged the pants he was wearing earlier and pulled them up over slim hips, not bothering with any sort of underwear. Dressed enough for public viewing, he crept from the room, his agitation keeping him from remaining within without unnecessarily awakening Roxas.

The door managed to shut without making a sound behind him and Axel paused in the hallway, taking a deep breath. It didn’t ease the clenching in his chest. It still felt as if voices were screaming in his head, and there was a coiling of something faint, something tainted in his gut. Craning his ears, Axel listened intently, but heard no other sounds in the house. It seemed absolutely still and considering that it was near two in the morning, most everyone was probably asleep.

Rather than wandering around the dark streets of Radiant Garden and frightening the residents, Axel opted to borrow Vincent’s favorite brooding spot. Creeping silently down the halls, he headed for the stairs that connected to the roof.

Minutes later, he emerged onto the slated roof, a wash of cool air brushing over his bare skin. He shivered briefly, more surprised by the chill than actually cold. Leaving the trapdoor open, Axel plopped down onto the roof and lay on his back, crossing his arms behind his head. His eyes lifted to the night sky, stars twinkling brightly above him.

He vaguely remembered a time when he had watched them blink out, one by one. Of course, it wasn’t his memory but Lae’s, the man he was before he became Axel. Axel tried not to think of that time, because he wasn’t that man anymore. The heartless side of him when they separated, that was Lae. Axel was just plain Axel. It hurt his head to make it any more complicated.

Besides, he had enough pain just thinking about his own mistakes, much less Lae’s.

He didn’t want to keep running through the same ills in his mind however. He had thought enough about Reno and the Nobodies he had wronged. His head spun with all of the fragile, twisting emotions and frankly, it wasn’t helping the pain in his chest to keep going over the same arguments and thoughts.

It was an awful truth that Axel had made a lot of mistakes. And it was a pure miracle that he had been granted the gift of Roxas’ return. He wasn’t sure what to do about that. It seemed incredibly unfair.

He thought of Gaia’s Grotto then, and what he had suffered there. Though the pain wasn’t as physical as torture, the mental anguish was enough to make him shudder. Yet, he had escaped, which only served to remind him of those he had left behind. Demyx, for one, his only true friend outside of Roxas when they had all been part of the Organization. Quistis, whom he had only known briRateefly but was considered a comrade for the memories she hadn’t been able to save.

Axel now knew that those who had inspired flashes of memory within him were also members of the Organization. Marluxia, Zexion, Xemnas, they were still there as well. And even if he didn’t know any of the other residents, the fact remained that none of them should have to stay under the council’s rule. Axel wasn’t a hero by any definition of the word, but the guilt wouldn’t fade either.

In his mind, he could still see Reno’s grinning face, hopeful to the last second that he would return to the man he loved.

Axel sighed. Things were so much simpler when he was apathetic and selfish.

“That’s certainly not the sound of someone who should be the happiest man in Radiant Garden.”

He tilted his head to the side, surprised by the voice especially since he hadn’t felt or heard anyone approaching. It was Vincent, his head barely cresting over the top of the ladder as he emerged onto the roof. There was a strange and piercing expression in his glowing, crimson eyes.

Emerald eyes returned to the night sky. “I thought everyone was gone or asleep,” he commented lightly. Why Vincent was creeping around Merlin’s house when he should be home boinking Cid was beyond Axel’s comprehension.

Oblivious to Axel’s inner thoughts, Vincent sat down beside him, wings rustling as he settled into place. “They are,” he responded. “I just happened to be awake.”

“Hmm.”

Short claws tapped against the slates of the roof. “I take it things did not go well with Roxas?” Vincent asked once a moment of silence had passed.

Axel shook his head, a genuine smile taking over his face as his eyes sparkled. “No, things are fine… better than fine, actually.”

He could see the smirk on Vincent’s face even from the corner of his gaze. “So I see,” the winged man responded, reaching out with one hand and pressing a finger to the bite marks ringing Axel’s collarbone.

The fire starter lazily swatted him away. “You’re just jealous because I am the happiest man in Radiant Garden,” he countered, words slightly hollow. “Or at least, I should be. Guilt has a nasty habit of tainting everything.”

Vincent was quiet for a moment, watching Axel as if trying to probe beneath the surface. “You mean… about Reno, correct?” he asked, after careful consideration.

He nodded. “He was there longer than me,” Axel responded bitterly, shivering slightly as the cold slats of the roof bit into the bare flesh of his back. “He deserved to return to Rude far more than I deserve any of this but…” he paused, trailing off.

“You’ve been thinking about this for some time.”

Axel jerked into an upright position, through with watching the gleam of the stars. Instead, his eyes fell on the bright yellow lights of Radiant Garden below. “I can’t help it; I have nightmares every night,” he commented quietly, finding it much easier to spill his guts to Vincent than try and explain to anyone else. If there was someone who would understand his guilt, he knew it would be Vincent.

“Reno was such an idiot. He shouldn’t have done that.”

Wings shifted and creaked. “But he did.”

“Yeah, and now I’m happy but he’s dead. Where’s the fairness in that?” Axel sighed in aggravation, raking his hand angrily through his hair and nearly yanking out patches of it. “I keep seeing it, you know, seeing him. And it’s not like he’s blaming me or anything but…”

“No, I don’t suppose he would. Not when you’re doing a pretty good job of it yourself.”

Emerald eyes rolled as Axel shot his friend a firm glare. “Thanks, Vincent,” he sniped sarcastically, one foot idly kicking at a shingle and nearly knocking it loose. “You’re such great support. I’m glad to know that I can come to you in my hour of need.”

Vincent sniffed imperiously. “Don’t be dramatic, Axel. If you wanted comfort, you should talk to Roxas. I’m only going to tell you the truth.”

“Oh, yeah? And what’s that?” he demanded, hating how it came out somewhat immature. For the briefest of seconds, he remarked that he sounded faintly like Riku, which was irksome. The last thing he wanted was to be compared to the silver-haired keyblader.

Crimson eyes shot him a look. “Reno did what he did because he’s Reno. Not even I understand that man. But I will say this… he is free.” When Axel gave him a blank look, Vincent continued. “He might not have made his way to Rude, but he is still free. He’s no longer trapped on Gaia’s Grotto.”

Axel went quiet for a moment as he absorbed Vincent’s words. A wind stirred, causing his red spikes to wave and his skin to goosepimple. “Freedom’s all well and good but that doesn’t make Rude any less alone,” he responded quietly, the guilt clenching his heart into a throbbing mass.

“Well, then you know what you need to do.”

He blinked. “No, I don’t,” Axel replied, somewhat through clenched teeth. “Thus the reason I am up here staring moodily into the stars and mimicking you.”

The annoyed sigh emerging from Vincent’s mouth was worth it. “Keep your promise,” Vincent replied simply, ignoring Axel’s short temper. “Find Rude and give him back those glasses. Explain what happened if you must. It won’t make everything all right, but at least it will assure you that a piece of Reno managed to return.”

Axel huffed and drew his legs up to his chest, resting his arms on his knees as if he planned to go to sleep, right there on the roof. “You’re right,” he responded before adding with a somewhat bitter tone. “You’re always right.”

Vincent hummed thoughtfully. “It only appears that way.” He rose to his feet, wings stretching out behind him as if they planned on taking flight. A clawed hand reached down, playfully ruffling crimson spikes in an uncharacteristic show of affection. “You’ll be just fine, Axel. You should go back inside. Don’t make Roxas sleep alone.”

The fire starter shook his head free from Vincent’s hand and reached up to resituate his hair, watching as the winged male headed to the ladder. He didn’t even make a sound as he walked across the roof and it was only then that Axel belatedly noticed Vincent was actually dressed down and in his sleeping clothes which meant he was sans shirt. His pale skin reminded Axel of Roxas’.

“By the way,” Vincent remarked with an amused curl of his lips, dragging Axel from his wayward, perverted thoughts. “Cid says you owe him a gummi ship. But since he’s such a nice guy, he’ll let you pay it off in hard labor.”

Axel scowled. “Slave driver,” he muttered to himself before raising his voice above the slight noise of the wind. “Tell his cheap ass ‘over my dead body’.”

“I’ve got it memorized,” Vincent replied dryly, giving Axel a half-salute with his hand. “Good night, Axel.”

Vincent disappeared down the trap door, leaving Axel alone on the roof. Scowling to himself for another moment more, the fire starter slowly uncoiled his long limbs and rose to his feet, brushing roof grit from his pants. His eyes gave one last rake over the buildings and their bright lights below before he turned and headed back inside, a slight shiver wracking his body. It was far too cold for him to be wandering around in just a pair of cotton sleep pants.

Within minutes, he was creeping silently down the hallway and slowly cracking open the door to Roxas’ room. The blond hadn’t shifted position in his absence, still sprawled against the covers though it did appear as if he had edged closer to where Axel had once lain, possibly seeking out the warmth of body heat.

Smiling, Axel closed the door behind him and strode purposefully towards the bed, gingerly climbing back into it so as not to wake Roxas. Sleep-mussed blond hair was positively adorable on him. Axel was unsuccessful however, and ocean blue eyes fluttered briefly open, recognizing him in a moment.

“Axel,” Roxas murmured sleepily, reaching out with one hand and grasping onto the fire starter’s arm. He quickly dragged Axel down and before emerald eyes could blink, Roxas was kissing him, dipping his tongue between Axel’s lips and slowly exploring his mouth.

Axel hummed low in his throat, throwing one knee up so that he could have better leverage. His free hand lifted and rubbed along Roxas’ bare abdomen, revealed by the shifting of covers. His skin was warm beneath Axel’s touch, smooth and silky. Roxas shivered, breaking off the kiss.

“Cold,” he mumbled, licking his lips as he lifted bleary eyes to the fire starter.

Axel chuckled, unable to keep from watching his pale hand slide over Roxas’ tan skin. His body began to awaken then, warmth skirting along his flesh. “My turn?” he asked, the words falling from his lips before he realized he actually did mean them.

A moment of silence passed as blue eyes watched him before Roxas purred in his chest, stretching languidly beneath Axel’s touch. “If you think you can,” he countered challengingly, one of his hands rising to tug on the waistband of Axel’s sleep pants.

In response, Axel promptly rolled over on top of Roxas and kissed him senseless, locking his lips over the other male’s and jabbing his tongue inside. One knee edged upwards, though still clothed, finding the slowly thickening length of his younger lover. He nudged forward, smirking when Roxas moaned and arched beneath him, hands rising to cling to Axel’s upper arms.

It was pure instinct for Axel, his experience limited when it came to something like this. But he had a natural feeling that it didn’t really matter what he did. So he plunged his tongue within Roxas’ mouth, tasting deeply of the sweet taste of his new boyfriend while he pushed their bodies together, loving the warmth of Roxas beneath him.

His lips left Roxas’ mouth, trailing desperate kisses along Roxas’ jaw and allowing the blond room to breathe. Roxas’ hands managed to release their clenching hold on his arms, one hand deftly sliding across Axel’s chest and tweaking a nipple as the other flopped out to the side, digging into the rumpled covers. A muttered curse escaped Roxas’ mouth before he could stop it, only it quickly degenerated into a low moan of pleasure as Axel dipped his tongue into the blond’s ear, licking gently on the delicate shell.

A broken moan escaped the blond’s lips, his body arching closer to Axel. His hand slid between their bodies, tugging urgently on Axel’s unnecessary pants. The firestarter chuckled and drew back long enough to discard the garment before returning his lips to that delicious skin.

He dragged his mouth downwards, setting out to explore every inch of Roxas since he hadn’t taken the time to explore. His teeth and tongue scraped across pink nipples, nibbled on a flat belly and left streaks of saliva in his wake. His tongue dipped into Roxas’ bellybutton, ignoring Roxas’ sounds of protests. His hands couldn’t stop touching the blond, skirting along his sides, thumb rubbing gently over the hollow of Roxas’ hip.

“Axel,” Roxas whimpered, drawing out the syllables of the fire-starter’s name. He enjoyed it thoroughly, a trill of desire whispering down on his back as he took his explorations lower.

His tongue swirled over the bone jutting from Roxas’ hip, latching his lips on a small, dark freckle he found there. It was almost like a treasure hunt, finding all the little spots on Roxas’ body that he hadn’t known were there before. He dragged his teeth over tanned skin, sucking and biting, leaving little red marks in his wake. One hand brushed across Roxas’ chest, rolling pink nipples between his fingers. The other slid lower, sliding along the outside of his thigh. His lover shivered, arching even more into the touch.

It was slow this time, sensual and causing the air in the room to crackle with arousing energies. Axel pressed his lips to the inside of a bronzed thigh, not missing the sharp intake of breath as he kissed his way towards the weeping arousal.

His tongue slid out, brushing across the tip and tasting the precum beading at the tip. He considered the taste, grimacing slightly. Okay, so it wasn’t sweet candy but he could live with it. Besides, when it made Roxas make sounds like that breathless whimper, Axel figured it wasn’t that big of a sacrifice. His eyes flickered to Roxas’ face, taking in the flushed cheeks before setting his mind to the task in front of him.

He licked a long line from base to tip, smirking when Roxas arched and purred beneath him, fingers clenching around the bed covers once more. “Do it again,” the blond panted.

Axel couldn’t help but chuckle lightly. Ignoring the glare of doom that Roxas was attempting to send him, despite the need imprinted into his face, Axel dipped his head and closed his lips around the head of Roxas’ length. His tongue darted out, teasing the slit as he moved his lips down, taking in as much as he could. Experienced though he was, there was only so far that he could go. Not that it mattered judging from the needy whimpers locked in Roxas’ throat.

The blond arched up into his mouth and Axel quickly placed a hand on his hip, holding him down. Roxas wriggled beneath his touch, the urge to thrust likely overriding his senses. Axel remembered the feeling well. Closing his eyes, he tried to concentrate on the feel of another man’s penis in his mouth. Hot and velvety, hard against his tongue, with more of that familiar bitter taste. He gradually set his tongue to explore, mapping the contours with his lips.

A hand settled on his shoulder, fingers squeezing in need. Axel tipped his head back, flickering his gaze to Roxas’ face and lips that were just begging to be kissed again. Sweat was beginning to dot the keyblader’s brow as that attractive blush deepened. Blond hair was tousled and wild, sticking up in all directions yet Axel had never seen him look more beautiful.

Something clenched in his chest and with a parting lick to Roxas’ arousal, Axel slid his body back along his lover’s until they were face to face, grabbing the bottle of oil along the way and tucking it in an easy to reach spot. He nudged one knee between Roxas’ legs, one hand reaching up and curling around Roxas’ jaw as he turned the blond’s head towards him.

“Beautiful,” Axel teased on a whisper, though he meant every word of it.

Roxas arched beneath him, hand grabbing for Axel as he pulled their bodies together and ground his need against Axel’s hip. “Sap,” the blond countered somewhat breathlessly.

Emerald eyes rolled and dipped his head, capturing those stubborn lips between his own. He groped for the oil, drizzling it onto the blond’s belly. Roxas hissed as the cool liquid struck his heated skin but didn’t protest, kissing Axel as hungrily as he had before. Lips and teeth and tongue practically devouring the firestarter. Axel groaned deep in his throat, need tingling along his spine and making his body shudder.

He quickly swirled his fingers in the oil and headed south, dipping between Roxas’ legs. The blond seemed to part them instinctively, nearly purring as two fingers circled the puckered entrance. Nearly holding his breath, Axel slowly slipped two within. He swallowed Roxas’ gasp with his mouth, curling his fingers and searching for whatever it was that Roxas had touched last night. He knew he had found it when Roxas’ fingers clenched down on his arm and the blond growled lustfully in his throat. His hips shifted downwards, eager for more.

Feeling mischievous, Axel broke away from the possessing kiss and slid back downwards, wrapping his lips around Roxas’ arousal as he kept a constant pressure on that spot. There were no words to describe the reaction as Roxas writhed to his touch, body arching as he let out a sharp cry.

“Axel!”

The firestarter smirked. “Too much for you, Roxy,” he teased playfully. His head dipped again, closing his mouth around the leaking head. He began a slow rhythm, counter pointing the thrust of his fingers to each suck.

Panting, face flushed, Roxas still managed a glare. “Annoying bastard,” he hissed before it degenerated into a lustful moan. His eyes fluttered shut, hands dropping down to tangle in bright strands of red hair.

Axel continued to drive his lover crazy, flitting touches of his tongue to Roxas’ straining shaft. He brushed his fingers over that spot, making Roxas cry out in pleasure before darting away again. He was only driving the blond to the brink, but watching him writhe below him was the single most arousing action he had ever witnessed.

Fingers clenched in his hair, tightening a few times as Roxas’ hips shifted, not knowing whether to thrust up into Axel’s mouth, or down against the invading fingers. He was poised on an edge of indecision, body dangling on a precipice of pleasure. Still, Axel grimaced when his hair was suddenly gripped tightly and his head pulled upwards.

He winced at the sharp pain stabbing his scalp. “Ow,” the fire starter whined, the sound falling silent when he saw the ardent need in ocean blue eyes.

“Stop teasing!” Roxas growled, leaving no room for argument.

“Fine,” Axel agreed with another wince. “Just let go of my hair.” He might have sounded like he was whining, but damn, that hurt.

Inordinately pleased with himself, Roxas released his hair. Axel rubbed his head as he shifted positions, perched between Roxas’ legs and hovering just over the smaller male. “Stubborn, impatient brat,” he murmured, leaning down to look directly into bright blue eyes with a definite curl of his lips.

“Manipulating, irritating asshole,” Roxas countered without missing a beat.

The former Nobody chuckled and bent his head, kissing Roxas. He wondered why he even thought for one moment that sex between them would be anything less than a battle of some form. He reached down, swirling his fingers through the drizzled oil and quickly slid them across his own aching arousal. Sufficiently lubricated, he guided himself to Roxas’ entrance.

The blunt head of his member pressed against the puckered muscle as his free hand groped for Roxas, intertwining their fingers together. He slowly began to press forward, inch by painstaking inch. Roxas hissed and threw his head back, breaking off the contact of their lips as Axel’s mouth moved to Roxas’ throat. At his sharp cry, Axel paused however, concern overriding his need.

Until a hand slapped down on his back, fingernails digging into pale skin. “Don’t you dare stop,” Roxas demanded throatily, Axel clearly feeling the vibrations on his lips.

“Whatever Roxas wants,” Axel murmured, shifting his hips forward and pressing slickly into clenching heat. He panted, a moan escaping from his lips as he pressed his forehead to Roxas’ collarbone. Any control he might have thought he had went spiraling out the window. There was simply too much to take in at once.

Roxas clenching around him, writhing beneath him. Their sweaty, warm skin pressed together. His fingers entwined firmly with Axel’s. There was a silence that seemed to envelop them, broken only by their voices and their aroused, quick breathing. And with his real and true emotions, those brought about by that beating organ in his chest, it seemed to break over him at once.

That feeling of being lost, of constantly searching, of roaming endlessly through darkened halls, forever seeking that missing piece that he had thought was his heart, it was right here, in front of him. That last puzzle corner, the one that finished the whole picture, had finally been snapped into place. It was there, in his arms, at that very moment. It sounded terribly cliché at best, like the awful romance stories that Axel had caught Yuffie reading, but he actually understood it now. That feeling that they waxed poetic on and on about. It was nearly tangible, palpable in the sex-scented air of the room.

Roxas shifted restlessly beneath him. “Axel… move,” he said in a strained voice.

The firestarter blinked out of his sudden realization. His free hand slid upwards, cupping the side of Roxas’ face and turning it towards him. He kissed the blond languidly, sliding his tongue within the others mouth as if he were something to be tasted and savored. Roxas’ nails dug into his back, a silent communication as his fingers squeezed tighter on Axel’s hold.

Axel began to move, slow and lazy thrusts. It felt so damn good that he wanted to prolong the pleasure as long as possible. Roxas panted, his body rising to meet each thrust, as he trembled, already on the edge of pleasure. It was the only drawback to Axel’s languid teasing and exploration.

“Rox,” Axel murmured, rubbing their cheeks together. “Roxas…” Nothing coherent formed from his lips. Their bodies moved together in the dim light of the room, the sounds of their heavy breathing permeating the smooth quiet. Axel shifted his angle just slightly and was rewarded for the motion when Roxas arched his back, his arousal striking something deep within the other male.

A fire, blistering and all consuming, coiled in Axel’s belly, setting his heated skin already ablaze with need. He felt the pleasure twisting inside of him, taking away all sense of composure. He finally released Roxas’ face and reached between their bodies, wrapping his fingers around the other’s erection. He stroked in tandem to his thrusts, Roxas’ fingers digging into his back tight enough to draw blood.

Yet, Axel didn’t mind in the slightest. He watched as Roxas threw his head back and moaned, losing himself to the pleasure. His face was dotted with sweat, a crimson flush spread across his cheeks and nose. Ocean blue eyes were dimmed with desire, lips glistening and swollen.

“Axel,” Roxas breathed, eyelids fluttering over his eyes, shuttering out the brilliant, almost liquid color. “Kiss me, you dolt.”

It was a request Axel could not refuse, not that he could see himself ever refusing anything Roxas asked of him. He dipped his head, groaning as Roxas claimed his mouth the moment their lips brushed. Axel’s thumb brushed over the head of Roxas’ arousal and suddenly, the blond was shuddering in his hold, spilling himself between their bodies with a muffled shout.

He jabbed his tongue into Axel’s mouth, trying to swallow the fire starter. Axel kept moving, his body surging towards climax. Roxas’ thighs clamped around him, holding him closer and riding out Axel’s speeding thrusts. It was spiking through him in a blazing heat, a trembling coil of need and Axel broke his lips away from Roxas.

His dirtied hand threw itself out against the bed, fingers clenching into the covers for leverage as he buried his face in Roxas’ neck. Axel’s fingers tightened around Roxas’, probably tight enough to cause the blond to lose circulation as his hips surged forward with one last thrust.

He stilled, moaning long and low as he came, Roxas’ name a whisper on the edge of his lips. He spilled himself deep inside of the blond, a small part of him feeling as if he were marking Roxas forever. Axel’s body shuddered and he collapsed in a sweaty, tired mass on top of his lover, madly kissing Roxas’ neck. His chest heaved as he struggled to draw in a breath, his heart beating a quick rhythm. He could feel it pulsing through his veins, the thrum of satisfaction on the edge of his conscious.

Axel didn’t want to leave the comforting warmth of Roxas’ embrace, nose pressed deep into the blond’s throat and inhaling that familiar scent. The moment was simply too good for it too end.

Unfortunately, Roxas wasn’t quite as patient.

“Heavy,” he groaned a few minutes later, though it lacked any real attempt at aggravation.

Axel sighed and gently retracted his softening organ from Roxas’ body, sliding off to the side. “Only you would let the first word from your mouth be ‘heavy’,” he teased softly.

Blue eyes rolled. “And what would you rather I say? Praises to the almighty sex god that is Axel?”

“I love you would be nice,” the former Flurry of Dancing Flames responded before his mind could register what his mouth was so abruptly blurting out. His eyes widened in surprise at himself and he quickly shifted his gaze away.

“I mean…” he faltered and sighed, realizing that he might as well admit it since it was true. “I do . I love you.” He fell silent, waiting in a growing awkward silence for some response, feeling his cheeks burn with embarrassment. “I think… that maybe–”

“Axel.”

He finally lifted his eyes, meeting Roxas’ carefully guarded expression. It always was too easy for the blond to hide things from him. “What?”

“Shut up.” Roxas reached up and dragged him down for a kiss, pressing their bodies together and ignoring the stickiness between them. Their lips moved languidly together, something slow and gentle, different than the hungry need of before. “Love you, too, dumbass,” Roxas muttered against his lips.

Axel’s lips drew into a smile. “Such sweet words,” he countered. “Seriously, I’m turning to mush here.”

Blue eyes rolled once more. “Drama queen,” Roxas teased, nudging Axel with his shoulder. The fire starter took the hint and shifted to the side, collapsing against the bed before turning and dragging Roxas into his arms.

Predictably, the blond squirmed. “I’m a mess, Axel,” Roxas protested, but it was a mild objection at best.

“Shhh,” Axel responded, pretty much ignoring him as he buried his face in blueberry-scented hair which was making him eerily hungry. “Merlin owns a shower you know.”

“Obviously,” Roxas muttered petulantly, but settled against the taller male anyways, thereby proving Axel’s inner argument. That his lover had been protesting simply for the sake of protesting.

A moment of serene silence filtered into the room before Roxas stirred. “Where did you go?”

“To see the other secret boyfriend of mine I pulled out of the abyss,” Axel murmured sarcastically. He was surprised that the blond had noticed his absence at all. As far as he could tell, Roxas had been firmly entrenched in sleep.

Roxas promptly pinched him. “I was being serious.”

The firestarter chuckled. “I know you were.” He paused and considered, remembering what had driven him from the bed in the first place. “To the roof. I had to think about something.” He laughed lightly again. “Then Vincent basically told me to get my sorry ass back here.”

“Vincent?” Roxas repeated, a trove of unasked questions in that one, simple name.

Axel nodded sleepily, staring over a mane of blond hair at the far wall. “Remind me to tell you about Gaia’s Grotto.”

Roxas made a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat. “What did you need to think about?” he asked, almost tentatively as his fingers traced over Axel’s hand, perhaps astounded by the long, pale fingers.

He sighed. “Someone I knew died protecting me. It was stupid of him.” He paused, inching closer to Roxas as if trying to mold their bodies together. “I owe him a huge debt.”

“How are you going to repay it?”

The firestarter shrugged. “The only way I can, I guess. I want to tell his lover what happened. I don’t know where he is but I’ll find him.”

“And I suppose you want me to come gallivanting around the worlds with you.”

Axel squeezed the slim body in his hold, ignoring Roxas’ squirming and protests. “Aw, Roxy. You know you would miss me if you didn’t.”

“Like I’d miss a toothache.”

“Masochist.”

Yet, Axel knew that the blond was smiling, if only slightly. “Fine. But I want to go to Twilight Town… even if they don’t really know who I am.”

Like Axel would say no. “As long as I get to fly the gummi ship.” He had been dying to pilot one ever since Vincent had said he couldn’t. His fingers itched to dive into the steering ruts and dance over the many, shiny buttons.

“Not a chance.”

The fire wielder pouted, his hopes deflating. “What is it with you guys?” he complained. “Want to blow a thing or two up and suddenly, you can’t fly a ship? It’s not fair.”

“Axel. Go to sleep.” The voice was tired and sleepy, already slipping into slumber. Axel knew it had to be part of a result of being ‘reborn’, so to speak. He had slept on and off for three days after he had appeared in Gaia’s Grotto.

“Bossy brat,” he grumbled to himself, though he knew Roxas would be able to hear it as well. He grinned and nipped the back of Roxas’ neck with his teeth, deftly avoiding the lazy swat that came his direction.

It finally felt like home.

– – – – –

Axel was the first to awaken in the morning, mostly because it was his eyes the sun was relentlessly shining directly into. He groaned and flinched away from the oppressive brightness, but the shaft of sunlight refused to go away. Roxas’ lucky ass had his face buried in Axel’s chest, safely away from the brightness. He considered turning over and burying his own head under the covers, but his fatigue had long gone, leaving him with energy to start the day.

With a muttered curse, the fire starter eased his way out of Roxas’ strangle hold and slipped out of the bed. The blond made a murmured protest before curling his fingers into a pillow and proceeding to squeeze the life out of it. Which was kind of cute, Axel decided. Even Roxas’ forehead got that usual pinch between his brows. The one that typically meant he was perturbed, or getting there at least.

Before he got too sentimental, Axel decided it was time to leave the room. The last thing he needed to do was get all sappy. Swiping a pair of pants from the ground, Axel slipped them on. He ran a hand through his hair which was probably sticking up in all directions and crept quietly out of the room, pulling the door shut behind him. He yawned and stretched just outside, hearing bones in his back crack and pop with a satisfying, audible noise.

Around him, the house was silent, a whole lot less noisy than Leon’s would have been. Not that Axel minded the noise. It was quite different than the uneasy silence he had grown accustomed to in the World That Never Was. There, even his footsteps were far too loud, echoing long distances down the halls and automatically announcing his location. He despised it, which was why, more often than not, he was causing trouble of some kind.

The former Nobody cracked his neck then headed downstairs, the wood creaking slightly beneath his feet. A quick search informed him that Merlin was the sole occupant of the house. The magician was in his study, relaxed in a large chair with feet propped up on a stool. He was puffing on a pipe with one hand, while the other held a copy of the Radiant Reader, a small weekly publication.

“Sleep well?” Merlin asked as Axel paused in the entrance way to the study. He seemed to notice the other male’s presence without even looking up from his newspaper. Then again, Axel wouldn’t be surprised if the wizard did have eyes in the back of his head.

The fire starter nodded, unable to suppress his broad grin. “Something like that,” he remarked with amusement. “Where is everyone?”

Merlin’s newspaper lowered just slightly as he raised his eyes to the grandfather clock, happily ticking away in the corner of the room. He removed the pipe before he spoke. “Being as it is nearly noon, hard at work, I’d say. Riku and Sora are out training, if you’re looking for them.” He popped the pipe back into his mouth, letting loose a puff of blue-grey smoke that immediately formed a trio of animals, happily chasing each other in circles.

Pfft. Magic.

The former Nobody saluted him one-handed. “Thanks, old man,” he responded before turning back towards the stairway. Merlin’s eyes twinkled at his departure, returning to the interesting bits of news in the Radiant Reader.

Axel’s new plans generally consisted of bathing, waking up Roxas, eating, putting on some clothes, though not necessarily in that order. After talking to his boyfriend – what a great word that was – last night, he knew what their plans would be for the day. All that remained would be to talk to everyone and beg the piss out of Cid to give them a gummi ship. Which probably meant Axel would have to persuade Vincent first.

Ah, decisions, decisions.

He crested the top of the stairs, the sound of running water audible in the still quiet of the house. His brow arched as he grinned, nearly rubbing his hands together in glee. There was only one person that could have been.

Chuckling under his breath, Axel slipped into the bathroom. Steam immediately greeted him, nearly obscuring his vision of the shower curtain and tub on the other side. He crept across the floor, only to wince when it suddenly creaked and announced his presence.

The curtain slid back with a faint snap, a wet blond head poking out of the small gap. “Oh,” Roxas said, rolling his eyes. “It’s you.”

Axel snorted, and then nearly coughed on the thick steam. Damn, was he trying to boil himself in there? “Don’t look so happy to see me,” he pointed with an attempt at a pout. He began to methodically pull off his clothes, not that he had that much on to begin with.

His boyfriend disappeared behind the curtain. “You’re not joining me,” Roxas called out, water splashing and nearly drowning out his words. “Put your clothes back on.”

“What if I promise to keep my hands to myself?”

“Yeah, right.” Axel was pretty sure that Roxas was rolling his eyes again. Not that it made much of a difference.

He stepped towards the tub, still naked, and peered around the edge of the shower curtain. Soapy, wet and nude Roxas immediately filled his vision. Like Axel was going to simply turn around and walk out after seeing that. The blond had his eyes closed as he rinsed shampoo out of his hair and emerald eyes watched the suds as they slid down his body.

Ignoring Roxas’ order, Axel stepped into the relatively small shower anyways. The moment Roxas turned to rinse off the front of his body, Axel smirked and slid up behind him and wrapped his arms around him. An unmanly yelp of surprise escaped Roxas’ mouth the moment Axel’s teeth nipped at the back of his neck.

He whirled around in Axel’s hold, trying his best to look indignant while naked and sopping wet. “Axel,” he muttered in a scolding tone, narrowing blue eyes.

The fire starter shook his head. “Guess I don’t follow orders too well,” he commented with a smirk before reaching over the shorter male for the soap.

Roxas, predictably, scowled and stretched for the shampoo. “Here,” he mumbled, “wash your hair, too.” He rose up on his toes, squirting a large amount of the clear liquid in Axel’s hair.

“Hey!” Emerald eyes widened and Axel slapped a hand on the top of his head, trying to prevent the goo from sliding uncomfortably into his eyes. As a result, he loosened his hold on the soap and it tumbled to the floor.

His boyfriend promptly bent over to reclaim it and Axel couldn’t resist such an easy target. He reached out, pinching Roxas on the ass as he tilted his head back.

Roxas yelped again, flushing angrily. Axel chuckled. “Only we would fight in the shower,” he mused, one hand scrubbing at his hair and spreading around the shampoo. The thick smell of blueberries filled the shower.

The blond shrugged, using his reclaimed soap to finish washing down his body. It was nice, how wonderfully relaxed it was between them. As if they had always been lovers. There was no awkwardness or uncertainty.

Taken over by the urge, Axel leaned over and captured Roxas’ slack lips in a kiss. The blond scowled but parted his lips anyways, relenting to the affection. Axel slid his tongue into the smaller male’s mouth, tasting the minty freshness of toothpaste. Roxas’ own slid out to meet him, not shy in the slightest.

The fire starter reluctantly drew back when a stray splash of water caught him in the eye. He licked his lips, eyes gleaming down at his lover. “Now hurry up. We’ve got to go badger Aeris for breakfast.”

“Lunch,” Roxas mumbled just to be contrary.

“Whatever.”

They finished their shower quickly, dressing in record time in clothes that had mysteriously shown up for them. They didn’t even question why the bed had been made and their dirty clothing had vanished. In Merlin’s house, it was probably better not to ask. The former Nobodies threw goodbyes and thanks to Merlin over their shoulders as they escaped the old wizard’s home, his amused chuckles following them out the door.

In short, they were heading over to Leon’s where they knew Aeris preferred to do her cooking. She claimed that Leon had a bigger kitchen, which was just going to waste anyways since the man had the cooking abilities of a rock. Axel, however, knew better. Aeris liked nothing more than mothering them and he also thought that she might have been just a bit in love with Leon at one time. Or maybe it was Cloud who held her affections and she was simply waiting for him to return.

Axel really wanted to meet this guy since he seemed to hold so much sway over the people that had slowly become his friends. He had seen a picture of Cloud once, albeit by accident. The guy didn’t seem like anything special. Spiky-haired, blond, kinda like his Roxas in a way. And a frown, firmly furrowing his brow, with an overly large sword strapped to his back. The picture looked like it had been taken without his permission, likely so since Yuffie had shown it to him.

They showed up at Leon’s a few minutes later, Axel striding into the house as if it were his own and not, in fact, Leon’s. “Honey, I’m home!” he declared without so much as a knock, Roxas glaring at his back as he trailed behind him.

“In here!” Aeris’ voice filtered in from the kitchen.

Axel grinned and slinked into the kitchen, surprised to find that Vincent was there as well, the both of them seemingly conferring over a recipe.

Crimson eyes briefly looked up from the cookbook before returning his eyes to the recipe. “Someone is in better spirits,” he remarked with a hint of teasing to his voice. “Good morning, Roxas.”

The blond blinked. “It’s afternoon.” He slid into an empty seat at the table.

Aeris laughed. “Not for you guys,” she said with a waggle of her finger, a suggestive tone in her voice. “I guess you came here for some food?”

Axel shot her his best puppy eyes as he rubbed his belly. “You read my mind. How about…” he trailed off, putting a finger to his lips as he considered. “Blueberry muffins!” Seriously, he had a crazy addiction for those things.

She chuckled again. “That’s Vincent’s forte, Axel. You’ll have to beg him.

“No.” The negative was muttered before the fire starter could even begin to voice the words.

Axel was not put off in the slightest. “Aw, come on, Vince. Can’t you lighten up now that you’re getting some?”

An eyebrow twitched, eyes narrowing into a glare. “No, Axel.”

The former Nobody was quickly on his way to a pout before he received a sudden burst of inspiration. He moved to Roxas, ignoring the blond’s wary look, and placed his hands on other male’s shoulders. He promptly rubbed cheeks with Roxas, ignoring his attempts to swat Axel away.

“But Roxas hasn’t had any yet,” he cajoled. “How can you say no to him?”

The winged male looked up at the vaguely irritated younger blond and sighed. “Fine,” he acquiesced with a grunt, rising to his feet. “But don’t tell Cid or he’ll just say that I’m spoiling you.”

“You are,” Aeris commented with a grin. She reached over and tugged on Vincent’s hair gently, turning her attention to Roxas. “How are you feeling?”

He shrugged. “Fine.”

“That’s good. Don’t be ashamed to rest if you need to.”

Annoyance flickered briefly across Roxas’ face. “I’m fine,” he reiterated.

“Aeris, don’t badger the kid.” A voice filtered in from the hallway, gruff yet good-natured, as Cid came strolling into the room. “He has to deal with Axel from now on and that’s enough trouble.”

“Hey!” Axel protested as he slid to Vincent’s side and dipped his fingers in the muffin batter the moment the winged man’s back was turned. “I’m not that bad.” He grunted then, an elbow jabbing him in the side.

Crimson eyes glared. “Keep your nasty fingers out of that. Other people have to eat it, too.”

Axel grinned, sticking the batter-covered finger in his mouth and sucking on it. “Roxy doesn’t mind,” he countered with a wink.

At the table, Roxas’ response was quick and brief. “Don’t call me that.” A faint red flush stained the blond’s features, hidden beneath an annoyed scowl.

“I think I’m going to move,” Leon announced, striding into the room and rubbing a towel over his head. “Too many people think that they can just waltz into my house uninvited.”

“Must be lunch time,” Aeris remarked to herself, figuring that the others would begin to trickle in soon as well. “Morning, Leon.”

“It’s afternoon,” he replied dryly, causing the others in the room to laugh in response, though for Vincent it was more of a light chuckle. Leon gave them looks that clearly displayed just how crazy he thought they were before continuing, “Besides, you saw me earlier, when I first left.”

At the window, chewing on a toothpick, Cid grunted. “Another shower?”

Leon shrugged and plopped down in a chair, tipping a greeting to Roxas as he did so. “I was covered in oil and monster blood, neither of which are comfortable.” He eyed Aeris. “What’s for lunch?”

She shot him a look before shaking her head. “Sandwiches,” she responded, pointing to the fridge. “Make your own.”

Cid snorted. “So much for a home-cooked meal,” he commented, nearly biting through his toothpick before he snuck up to Vincent’s side, watching the winged male work. “Whatcha bakin’?”

Before Vincent could even open his mouth, Axel wriggled his way between them, using his hips to shove Cid out of the way. “My muffins,” he informed the older blond, sticking out his tongue when Cid spluttered.

At the table, Roxas sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Moron,” he muttered under his breath. Leon seemed to share the same sentiment.

The sound of a door slamming open interrupted the little festivities. Laughter echoed down the hall, followed by the noise of feet running across the floor. Axel quirked a brow, glancing towards the doorway. Seconds later, Riku and Sora appeared, wrestling each other playfully. Ocean blue eyes lit up when he smelled what was in the oven and Sora neatly elbowed Riku out of the way.

“Muffins!” the brunet exclaimed with glee, moving to investigate.

Behind him, Axel and Riku exchanged glares of hostility across the room, lightning flashing between them.

Aeris rolled her eyes. “Honestly, you two. Can’t you at least try being friends?”

The fire starter grinned widely, displaying not-quite innocent fangs. Riku scowled, though it was promptly wiped from his face when Sora bounced in his direction, holding a much-coveted muffin. One hand held yet another which he graciously gave to Roxas.

“You should try this,” Sora urged around a mouthful of muffin, bits of it already crumbling around his lips. “Vin’s are the best!”

Axel’s mouth dropped open as he whirled on his best friend in shock. “Oy! Why didn’t I–” His words were cut off as Vincent promptly shoved one in his mouth, wings twitching in obvious annoyance.

“Here,” Vincent muttered, ignoring the look Axel was tossing his direction.

Cid laughed. “More than one way ta shut him up it seems.”

“Hey, wanna spar later?” Sora asked, plopping down in a seat next to his former other half and ignoring the chaos around them. Axel heard the query from across the room, instantly reminded of the decision they had made the night before.

Emerald eyes met Roxas’ in a silent message and the blond nodded once in understanding. “I… can’t,” he replied, sounding a little disappointed.

Sora shrugged. “You’re still tired, huh? That’s okay. We can spar tomorrow. I don’t’ have to leave for a couple of days.” He grinned, taking another bite of the muffin. “We’re on vacation.”

A silence descended on the room as Roxas took a breath. “Sora, I can’t because I’m not going to be here,” he said, clarifying his earlier statement.

Sora blinked and Leon’s head swiveled in their direction. “Where are you going?” he asked in the same moment as Cid, their voices echoing in near stereo.

The two former Nobodies again exchanged glances and Axel popped the last of his pastry into his mouth. “Got a promise to keep,” he answered, gathering everyone’s attention away from Roxas. “I have to find someone.”

“And how are you going to do that?” Leon demanded.

Axel grinned and turned to look hopefully at Cid. The gummi ship builder’s eyes immediately widened. “Ah, no! Hell, no!” he swore, shaking his head and jabbing a finger in the redhead’s general direction. “You already left one of my gummies behind. I ain’t givin’ ya another.”

“But Cid,” Axel started to say, attempting his best pleading expression. He was fully prepared to beg, Axel-style of course. Meaning, he would wheedle until Cid finally gave in… or punched him. “It’s not like we can just teleport there or something.”

The older blond remained unmoved, narrowing his eyes and crossing his arms firmly over his chest. He was trying his best to stand his ground. The atmosphere within the room grew a little uncomfortable. Roxas fidgeted in his chair, not knowing that this type of behavior between the two men was quite typical.

“Man!” Yuffie’s cheerful voice pierced the silence as she promptly crawled in through an open window and propelled herself into the room. “I’m hungry!”

“Yuffie!” Leon protested loudly. “That’s my window!”

Brown eyes flickered briefly to him before she completely dismissed his statement and plopped down into an empty seat. “What’s for lunch?” she asked, seemingly oblivious to the strange silence that had permeated the room.

Leon sighed, rubbing a finger over his brow. “Definitely moving,” he muttered under his breath before answering her in a much louder voice. “Sandwiches.”

The young ninja visibly pouted. “Ah, Aeris…. you can’t do that!” she protested. “We have to throw a party for Roxas’ return. We can’t eat sandwiches at a party.”

“Except, ya know, for the fact that they’re leaving,” Riku mumbled quietly, though he meant it to be more sarcastic than it sounded. Axel shot him a glare which was firmly ignored. Someday, he promised himself, he would beat the shit out of that little brat and feel greatly relieved to do so.

Yuffie’s big eyes turned towards the former Nobodies. “What? You’re leaving?” She pouted. “Where are you going?”

“Twilight Town,” Roxas answered softly. “And then–”

Axel chuckled and rubbed the back of his head, disturbing still shower-dampened spikes. “We don’t really know,” he finished. “We’re not exactly sure where we’re supposed to look.” He scowled then, shooting a pointed glance in a certain accessory shop owner’s direction. “And someone’s being stingy with his gummi ships.”

Cid threw his hands up into the air in a gesture of defeat. “Ya fuckin’ left one behind!”

“I said I’d pay for it!”

“When did ya say that, brat?”

“I thought it was implied!”

“Ya still ain’t paid for that damned statue ya broke!”

“That was an accident!”

A sharp whistle broke through their argument, making Cid cut off mid-yell. All eyes turned towards a beaming Aeris, a strained look of peace in her eyes. “I think that’s quite enough, don’t you?” she said, smiling as sweetly as she could. The pink-clad woman set a tray full of muffins down in the middle of the table. “Surely we can talk about this in a civilized manner. Cid? Axel?”

The two men, immediately chastened, grumbled under their breaths, crossing their arms over their chests and churlishly disregarding one another.

Sora laughed at their response. “You’re acting like kids,” he giggled, a wide grin stretching his face as he reached for another one of the blueberry creations. They were addictive. “I thought that was our job.”

Instantly, as if his words were a river of calm, tension dissolved. Even Leon managed a grin. Riku reached over and ruffled Sora’s affectionately. His other hand finally deigned to try one of the muffins, ignoring Axel’s glare of possession as he did so. In fact, he stuck his tongue out at the other before promptly taking a big, overly dramatic bite.

“If it’s any consolation,” Roxas offered. “I’ll be the one to pilot it.” Axel sniffed but didn’t say anything since they had already had that conversation before. Honestly, did they think he would purposely steer into a meteor or something?

Sky blue eyes regarded him searchingly. “Do ya even know how?”

Roxas shrugged. “Can’t be that hard. Sora does it.”

The brunet was indignant. “Hey!”

Riku laughed. “He’s got a point, Sora.”

On the other side of the Dawn key blader, Yuffie sat back in her chair with a disappointed look on her face. “No party?” she grumbled. “This sucks.” Her foot struck out, kicking at the legs of Riku’s chair.

Axel grinned and clamped his hand down on her head, purposefully messing up her hair. “When we get back, okay?” he suggested. She scowled in return, however, and swiped at him, but he nimbly danced out of the way. He was well-skilled in the art of strike-dodging.

“Yeah!” Sora agreed enthusiastically. “I can bring Kairi then, too. It’ll be like a keyblade reunion or something.” Blue eyes sparkled earnestly.

“So you are returning then?” Leon asked.

Axel nodded and shot the man a leering grin, a chance for teasing the stormy-eyed brunet arising. “Don’t worry, Squeon. If we find Cloud, we’ll be sure to tell him to come home since his wife is worried about him. Gotta think of the kiddies after all.” He winked, remembering how he had called the man worse than a pregnant woman. Yuffie burst out into laughter at the reminder of that conversation.

Leon, predictably, glared, all the while looking as if he were trying to fight back a blush, which made the glare look more like an annoyed pout.

Roxas rolled his eyes. “Sometimes I wonder why I’m friends with you,” he pointed out.

“That’s cause you love me!” Axel declared, promptly throwing his arms around his lover and nearly squeezing him to death. Deft movements avoided the annoyed swatting of Roxas’ hands.

“Gah,” Roxas grunted, elbowing the fire starter in the side. “Get off me, fire freak.” There was affection in his voice, however, belying his demand.

“Such love,” Riku remarked dryly, smirking.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Leon’s sigh permeated the chaos. “I need an aspirin,” he muttered, in that moment wishing he weren’t the only one with any sense in the whole bunch. He raised his eyes to Cid. “Please give them a gummi ship. Think of the peace and quiet, Cid.”

The blond chewed on his lip, trying his best to ignore the look that Vincent was sending his direction. Axel heard Leon’s request and stopped molesting Roxas long enough to look up pleadingly.

“Come on, Cid. I promise to pay you back sometime.”

The blond ignored him and looked at Roxas. “Ya sure ya want to be stuck in a small space with that brat?” he asked, jerking a thumb towards the fire starter. Axel tried to look indignant as Roxas sighed.

“I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m stuck with him,” he responded with a half-grin.

The offense wiped away as Axel grinned, looking down at the blond that he had fallen in love somewhere along the way, despite not having a heart.

“That’s right,” he said with a grin, ignoring the looks of everyone around them. “You’re not getting rid of me anytime soon.” He grasped Roxas’ chin with his fingers, rubbing a thumb over the other male’s cheek.

Cid opened his mouth to say something obnoxious but a firm elbow in his side stopped that.

Roxas sighed. “Can’t you take a hint?” he asked softly, eyes gleaming. “Kiss me, damn it.”

“So bossy,” Axel murmured before leaning down and locking lips with the younger male. Their mouths moved slowly. It was nothing special, not even any tongue, but Axel wouldn’t have had it any other way.

He broke away from it, sharing a small smile with his boyfriend. Roxas’ cheeks were tinted pink but even he seemed pleased. Axel was overcome by the urge to kiss him all over again, something alluring about the simple, chaste affection.

Until Yuffie suddenly popped up next to them. “Geeze, you guys forget we were here?” she asked, grinning like a fool.

Roxas flushed deeper while Axel growled playfully. “Why you little!”

He raised his hands as if to strangle her, seriously tempted to do so. Imagine, ruining a moment like that! She laughed and darted out of his range. His face twisting into a mock-scowl, Axel chased after her.

“Come here and let me strangle you!”

“Nyah!” she responded, sticking out her tongue at him. He growled, tripping over a chair, before promptly vaulting over it and continuing the pursuit.

Leon watched them and picked up a muffin, tossing it in his hand before biting into it and tossing Roxas another. “Welcome to the family,” he muttered, looking vaguely pained.

Roxas caught it and smirked. “I think I fit right in.”

“You do!” Sora declared, throwing an arm over Roxas’ shoulder, giving him a big thumbs up.

In the background there was a crash as Axel tripped over a foot that Vincent not so secretly stuck out and stumbled into Yuffie, the both of them crashing into a cabinet of dishes. Ceramic and porcelain fell to the floor, shattering on impact as the wood cracked and creaked. Roxas groaned and covered his face with one hand, a part of him wishing that his boyfriend were just a tad more graceful.

“Axel!”

“Don’t worry, I’ll pay for that!”

THE END

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[KH] Desperate Reflections 19

Chapter Fourteen – Remember Me

Axel looked at the door somewhat apprehensively. He could still remember the probing stares of the council when he had been introduced to them, and the smallest of shivers spread down his spine. They scared him; he could admit that now. In ways he couldn’t understand, those eight faceless shadows behind a television screen frightened him. Far more than Xemnas ever could and that Nobody was powerful.

Vincent must have sensed his hesitation but he remained silent. Perhaps he knew that if Axel couldn’t go through with it, then there was no hope for Roxas. Because Vincent didn’t have that connection with the other male. He wouldn’t be able to remind Roxas of his past.

Taking a deep breath and steeling himself, Axel summoned his chakram and blew out the door with a burst of fire, not even bothering to sneak in. He burst through the doorway, eyes quickly sweeping the room. He counted three guards and the television sets, all turned on.

Fury blanketed his emotions and without even stopping to think, Axel narrowed his eyes and threw his chakram at the eight screens. He ignored the other guards, able to hear Vincent quickly dispatching them. Instead, he watched as his weapons crashed into the monitors, destroying them all in fiery sparkles of electricity and flame.

He realized that he wasn’t destroying the actual evil behind Gaia’s Grotto with the attack, but it made him feel minutely better. That raw clenching of the planet’s mysterious magic on his memories seemed all that lighter. Perhaps it was all in his head. He couldn’t even guess.

“Roxas is not in here,” Vincent murmured, suddenly appearing at Axel’s left side. “He must already be heading to the Cleanser.”

That jumpstarted the firestarter in a second. He whipped his head to the side, keen gaze easily catching sight of the door that he remembered from a little over a year past. The same one that he had crossed through. Roxas had to have been there. He only hoped he wasn’t too late.

“But the gatherer?” Axel demanded, already starting towards it. “Shouldn’t he still be here?”

Vincent shook his head, moving to the door they had entered and barricading it. The flimsy chairs wouldn’t hold for long but perhaps it would buy them some time. He reloaded his gun while he was at it, wishing he had some sort of magic as well. Two were just not enough to storm the Center.

“You were an exception,” Vincent explained. “Because I stayed to plead your case, I offered to be the one to show you your home.”

But Axel was only half-listening. He reached for the handle to the door, growling in frustration when he realized it was locked. Not that it would stop him. Fire surged through his fingers, melting the knob and turning it into bronze mush. He jerked the cooling mass from the door and shoved a shoulder into it, causing the door to slam open and hit the wall.

The firestarter didn’t waste any time in charging through, his heart beating a frantic rhythm in his chest. He was close, so close. Behind him, he could hear the sounds of soldiers approaching, probably summoned by the destruction of the monitors. He left those for Vincent to handle as he hurriedly scanned the overly large room that housed the Cleanser.

And then he saw Roxas. The whole world shrank to a pinpoint, nearly freezing him in place and he swore that his breath caught in his throat. It was him; it was really him. He couldn’t mistake his eyes, or that messy blond hair. And that girl, the eerily grinning girl had Roxas by the hand and was hauling him towards the Cleanser, Roxas following her with a vaguely zombieish look on his face.

Axel’s heart sank with realization. Roxas could not remember.

“Stop!” he yelled, his feet moving before his brain even registered the whole situation. But the girl ignored him. “Roxas!”

They didn’t stop or even pause. Axel put on a desperate burst of speed, surging past them and skidding to a stop, cutting the two off from the Cleanser. He grabbed the girl with the eerily dead eyes and threw her to the side, ignoring her cries of protest as she struck the ground. Axel gripped Roxas’ shoulders, forcing the blond to look at him.

“Roxas!” His fingers squeezed familiar shoulders as he leaned down to look directly into beautiful blue eyes… which held no recognition. His heart clawed into his throat, a worrisome ache beginning to settle inside of him.

What if… what if he wasn’t enough? What if he had only imagined their bonds? What if he couldn’t wake him up?

“Roxas, please?” he demanded, squeezing the blond’s shoulder’s so tightly that he was probably leaving bruises. But his desperation was more than he could take and he could feel it burning through him. There had to be something.

“Remember!”

There was a stirring as the other male blinked at him. “There is… nothing to remember,” Roxas replied, lifting his eyes to Axel and speaking in a dead tone. “Here… is paradise. The past… is forgotten.”

“No, it’s not! It’s not!” He searched his mind frantically but as always, the words failed him. Why couldn’t he ever speak when it was important!?! “This is no future! Please!”

He was pleading now, and he could feel tears prickling at the backs of his eyes. Axel rarely cried except for those few moments recently but now, he could feel them coming. His entire body shook with anxiety and he felt helpless, as if everything was spiraling out of control. What could he do? What could he say?

“Remember me? Me. Axel. Your best friend in the Organization. Try, Roxas! Try to remember!” he urged, shaking the blond a bit in his desperation.

There was no reaction. Roxas said nothing more. He didn’t even blink, as if Gaia’s Grotto had sucked every last bit of life out of him, leaving nothing behind but an empty shell. Clamor in the doorway alerted him to the fact that the guards had broken through Vincent’s barricade. The winged man was doing his best to stave off the hordes of soldiers surging forward but not even he could do so indefinitely.

Axel gritted his teeth, wanting to scream in frustration. It hurt, it clawed, it ripped at him from the inside. Would he come this far to fail? He felt the press of time, knowing that within seconds the guards would come bursting through in more numbers than he and Vincent could handle alone. And there was no guarantee Roxas would come willingly if Axel dragged him along. They just didn’t know.

He released one of Roxas’ shoulders with his hand, flicking his fingers through his hair and resisting the urge to tear it out. His eyes darted past Roxas, seeing Vincent rapid-firing but steadily falling back. And then his fingers encountered something in his hair. The glasses… Reno’s sunglasses.

The idea hit him so fast he believed he was an idiot for not thinking of it sooner. “If you won’t remember me, maybe you’ll remember you!” he said, digging his hand into his pocket. His fingers wrapped around the Oblivion keychain, the sharp edges cutting into his skin in his haste as he gripped it and yanked it out of his pocket.

He grabbed Roxas’ hand. “Remember this, please!” he pleaded as he slapped the memento into it, hard enough to draw blood.

“Remember me!”

He hoped with everything that he had inside of him, praying that this would be enough. He kept his hand clasped over the keychain as he pressed it into Roxas’ hand, smashing the appendage in his grip. The fingers were slack, limp in his hold. The other male felt so cold, his gaze so lifeless. Even that enduring sparkle was fading. Desperation clawed at him, despair gripped him and his knees buckled. Tears banked at his eyelids and he knew, that if this failed he wouldn’t be able to hold them back. He couldn’t… if Roxas… he couldn’t–

Fingers curled around the keychain, brushing briefly across Axel’s own. His gaze, which had fallen, raised hopefully to Roxas’, finding the blond blinking as if coming out a dark daze. Blue eyes dropped to the keychain before returning to Axel, something indistinguishable swimming in his eyes.

“Axel…” Roxas murmured. “I thought… you were dead.”

Axel’s hands left Roxas’ grip, moving to cup the blond’s face. A smile brightened his entire expression, chasing away the dark shadows that were beginning to encroach in his mind. He hadn’t even realized the darkness was creeping in, hadn’t recognized its dark desires until after they were gone.

“You remember!” he cried. “You know me this time!” He wanted to say more, to do more, but he seemed frozen. He wanted to dance a Demyx jig and shout his happiness to the heavens.

He wanted to kiss him.
Roxas didn’t say anything else but Axel understood. He was still reeling from everything, not to mention Gaia’s Grotto was tugging at his memories, trying to pull him back into the fold.

And then a hand gripped his elbow, drawing his attention. Axel stood up straight, glancing to his left to find Vincent had suddenly appeared there. “We’re not going to make it to the gummi ship,” he explained grimly, already pulling the two of them backwards, away from the onslaught of guards. “We’ve got to go now.”

Crimson eyes bore into Axel’s gaze, his meaning clear. “We have to use the portals,” Axel finished for him. Dread filled his heart. He feared those portals, he feared the power used to call them and the pain involved in traveling them. But he also knew that Vincent was right.

Axel nodded. “We’ll use the portals.” They had no choice but to risk it again. His gaze slid to Roxas. “Do you remember how to summon them?”

Blue eyes rolled. “I was better at it than you, Axel,” Roxas retorted stubbornly, his jaw set with that familiar obstinacy. In that moment, Axel wanted to kiss him out of pure joy. Yet, he refrained from doing so. It wasn’t anywhere close to a good time for that.

Axel smirked, his grin widening in sheer joy. “That’s what I wanted to hear,” he replied before grabbing Roxas and pulling him close, muffling the other boy’s protesting sputters. Vincent laid his hand on Axel’s shoulder and the firestarter nodded.

He closed his eyes and searched for the darkness inside of him, the coiling, shifting blackness that he pushed aside all the time. Only now, he invited it closer, cajoling and coaxing the clinging shadows to do his bidding. He concentrated on his fear, his despair from earlier, his desperate desire to leave Gaia’s Grotto.

It curled around his voice, responding eagerly to the long awaited call. And inside his mind, Axel grabbed hold and yanked viciously. He called for the necessary portal with every fabric of his being, wanting to be somewhere, anywhere that wasn’t there. And he could feel it, a tingling in his extremities that crept up his legs, using leech-like holds to crawl up his body and completely surround him.

It was as if he were being eaten by cold shadows, leaving nothing but numbness in their wake. Axel squeezed his eyes shut, the disorientating creep leaving his mind spinning. The darkness tugged at his heart, demanding that he give in, demanding that he return to its lifeless hold. It wanted to make him part of it again, to rid him of his useless heart.

He thought he heard Roxas cry out in pain, somewhere through the dim encroaching of shadows. But Axel couldn’t be sure. He just squeezed Roxas all the tighter and waited for it to be over. He prayed that the journey would be quick. Darkness curled, darkness craved, and darkness swallowed them whole, until there was nothing left but…

…madness, sheer and utter madness. That was the only way to describe this venture. Was he a fool? Or was he a wise man for attempting the possible against impossible odds? Or was it impossible with possible odds?

It was love, everything was love and yet nothing, nothing at all. He was nothing, if he thought about it. Everything was nothing and nothing was everything and he was something but he wasn’t because there was nobody to love him. And love made him him. Love made him be. Love was…

Something that he never expected to see again. Those cold amber eyes, narrowed in anger, narrowed in exasperation. It was a power he couldn’t hope to combat.

And she was beautiful, so beautiful. He fell in love with her all over again. Her face was sweaty, her skin flushed and in her arms, crying from her recent step into reality, was his future, his life, and Lae fell in love all over again.

“No, stop! You can’t leave me!”

“Daddy!”

“Remember! Remember who you are!”

Why? Why was he so useless? Why did he always fail and why, why was he nothing. What had he done? How much had he stolen? There were things he couldn’t give back, things he couldn’t make up for. Burdens on his heart, on his mind, on his soul. They were stains, taints, and no matter how hard he scrubbed he would never be clean.

“Axel?”

Tears. Had he ever cried so much in life? Spilling down his face, snaking through his fingers. He sat huddled on the floor, knees pulled up to his chest, hiding behind his hands. No one could see his pain; no one could see how much he struggled. He was alone, so alone. And there it was again.

The world tilted, it cracked and he fell through into the never-ending darkness. He cried out for someone to save him but his feet found no ground. He was falling, flailing out for a hold, anything really. But his voice was gone, cracked, numb and bleeding were his lips. He didn’t even know if he could feel anymore.

“I’m sure Sora will find the answer. Because he’s me.”

But he was already dead, already fading away into the shadows.

It was as if light had disappeared from the world and love… love was a mere memory.

“See you Axel.”

“See ya… partner.”

It was one, just one tear. And a tossed ice cream bar, thrown to the wind, thrown out of the memories. Why did it hurt so much if he didn’t have a heart? Then what was the clawing pain inside of his chest? Why deny what he felt, what he knew?

They were memories. He was swimming through them. Except they were garbled, mixed together. Two lifetimes trying to join as one and then resort themselves out again.

No, three now. Three times to live. Three times to die but only two deaths. Three times to love. He experienced them all, over and over, until he was bombarded with the truth, and the lies, and the betrayal, until he was begging and pleading for something to…

… soften the inevitable landing. The three males were spat onto the ground, as if the portal had twisted itself on its side before depositing them in another world. The three men hit hard, Axel on the bottom with Roxas and Vincent landing on top of him. Fatigue clouded his senses and he groaned when an elbow jabbed into his belly, cutting off his air.

But they were free. They had escaped from Gaia’s Grotto, and this time Axel had saved Roxas as well. He coughed, weariness assailing him as he blearily looked around. He felt so drained and a bit light-headed but he could have sworn that they weren’t in Radiant Garden. In fact, this looked just a bit like…

“Twilight Town,” Roxas exclaimed, slowly removing himself from the pile of limbs they had landed in.

“It is certainly not my home,” Vincent added, extracting himself with ease.

His wings twitched irritably, angered by Roxas landing and nearly crushing them with his body. He stood over them, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared around them somewhat warily. It was understandable, considering he hadn’t received that warm of a welcome at Radiant Garden.

Roxas clambered to his feet, stumbling slightly from weariness but Vincent quickly reached out to steady him before offering a hand down to Axel. The firestarter accepted it and was promptly hauled to his feet, though the ensuing dizziness made him sway precariously. His limbs had that noodley feeling again, as if he were barely holding himself together.

And there were whispers as well, tiny whispers trying to urge him back into the darkness. Anywhere, anything you want, they said. All the power in the world. All that you need to make things right. The damn voices, they knew exactly how to exploit him as well. Guilt exploded and faces flashed before his gaze – Vexen’s terrified bluster, Zexion’s shocked despair, and Quistis’ vacant plea.

“Well, looks like the kid was right after all, eh, Squall?” came a voice from behind them.

There was an immediate response, surly and in a familiar monotone. “It’s Leon.”

The three males whirled around, none more so than Vincent who immediately recognized one of the voices. “Cid!” he exclaimed before slumping just a bit, the darkness having sapped just as much of his energy as it had Axel’s. “How did you… why did you…?”

“Sora,” Cid explained as he strode forward, offering up a shoulder to his weary lover. “He said to come here. That you guys would show up here and not back home.” Vincent leaned on the blond gratefully, the trials of their attempt evident in the strain on his face. His cloak had gotten even more tattered.

A tremendous surge of relief filled Axel but his knees buckled and he felt the black of unconsciousness beginning to creep into his mind. But he couldn’t resist one last barb at Cid. “Hey old man, how attached were you to that gummi ship?”

Cid managed an outraged splutter before Axel’s legs finally gave out and he crumpled, barely hearing Leon call his name as very strong arms caught his body. He was thrust into another memory when he sank into blessed oblivion, one that he had nearly forgotten.

“You want me to kill, Roxas?” Axel questioned incredulously, nearly leaping off of his raised seat in his surprise. He was met with several impassive stares, most hidden by the deep hoods of the Organization garb. Most in the Organization were like that, so enmeshed in their non-existence as entities of nothing that they didn’t even like to reveal their identity.

Saix set his jaw. “He’s a traitor to the Organization,” the berserker declared, a hint of lunacy glinting in his yellow eyes. He licked his lips, displaying fangs as if he wanted to eat Axel alive. “He will die.”

Axel narrowed his eyes, determined to argue himself breathless if he had to. “He did not betray us. He only went to find some answers. That’s all!”

“And if that damn meddler gets to him first we’ll lose all advantage,” Xigbar inputted smugly, for once managing to not sound like a brainless idiot. Axel absolutely hated Xigbar’s faked accent; it irked on every one of his nerves.

However, this petty argument was more than the Superior could endure. “Silence!” Xemnas stood and slashed a hand through the air, cutting off any and all argument. He centered his ocher gaze on the firestarter. “You won’t do it?” he questioned lowly, a hint of warning in his tone.

“I didn’t say that,” Axel argued, straining for something to say. He wouldn’t… couldn’t kill Roxas. But they would strike him down in an instant if he said no and Axel rather liked living. “I’m just pointing out that it’s in our best interest not to.”

Xaldin laughed mockingly. “Your foolish pretend affection for the Key of Destiny is laughable at best, Number VIII. But it will not keep him from his death. He chose to leave the Organization.”

“So make your choice, dude,” Xigbar added, gesturing towards the firestarter. “Kill Roxas or die here, it’s your choice.”

Axel crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the whole of Organization XIII, now significantly reduced thanks to Sora’s appearance at Castle Oblivion. He had nothing more to say to them without somehow implicating himself. He didn’t plan to do either.

“Don’t be so arrogant, boy!” Xaldin snarled, summoning his lances and spearing one of them at Axel. It struck the chair near his head yet Axel didn’t even flinch. “Just do your duty… or will you betray us like you did Marluxia?”

“Relax, Xaldin,” Xemnas murmured, cutting into the tension. “Axel has always been one to choose his own side. But he knows where to return his alliance in the end. He will do his duty. Isn’t that right?” Ocher eyes piercingly returned to Axel.

The firestarter grinned in his usual condescending way. “Yeah, I’ll do my duty. Got it memorized?” he responded. But he didn’t mention what he thought his duty was. They didn’t need to know that his duty was to Roxas. He was all that mattered to Axel. Roxas and no one else.

The memory continued to linger in the back of his mind, even as he slowly stirred into wakefulness. The extent of his feelings, the sheer strength of his determination, even he had been unaware of it until then. He had told Sora long ago that Roxas made him feel as if he had a heart and truly, back then, he had always sworn something was beating in his chest. The Organization couldn’t force him to kill Roxas, because it would have been like destroying his heart, and above all things, a Nobody coveted a heart. It was something he would not give up.

Axel’s eyelids lifted slowly, somewhat blearily as he shoved himself into a groggy, half-sitting position. He rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hand, trying to ignore the pulling weariness on his body and the aching of his muscles. It was a good kind of ache, however, the ache that comes in knowing he had accomplished something. He and Vincent had successfully returned to Gaia’s Grotto and escaped again, this time with Roxas in tow.

Roxas.

At the reminder of his best friend, Axel peered around the room, finding that not only was he alone, he was not at Leon’s house as he had suspected. In fact, judging by all the strange artifacts and more books than even Leon collected, it was Merlin’s home. And honestly, the room was too over-crowded to house more than the thin, narrow bed he was currently occupying. No wonder he was alone.

Biting back a yawn, Axel swung his legs over the side of the bed and rose to his feet, stretching his arms up above his head. He heard several cracks as his bones popped but paid them little mind, already on a mission. He had to make sure Roxas was all right. With sleeping pants draping dangerously low on his hips, making him momentarily wonder who kept undressing him when he was unconscious, Axel reached for the door and pulled it open, stepping out into the hallway.

Silence met his ears. The house was eerily so. It didn’t even creak and groan when it settled, as most houses were known to do. Leon’s certainly made a racket. Axel peered down the hall, but found it empty. From visiting Merlin before, he recalled that there were several guest rooms on this wing and one was just to the left.

Closing the door quietly behind him, Axel padded down the hall and cracked open the other door, determined to peek inside before actually entering. He caught a flash of blond hair poking out from a nest of covers and it was all the proof he needed.

The firestarter edged his way into the room, suddenly feeling as if he were a thief or something similar with the way he was skulking about. But he just didn’t want the questions at the moment. Or the congratulations, or the bounciness or the knowing eyes. He just wanted to see Roxas, to prove to himself that the other male was really there and that he wasn’t dreaming.

Roxas was still asleep, chest rising and falling in equal intervals. Axel perched on the side of the bed, his slim body fitting in the meager space that Roxas left behind. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest as an immense sense of relief overwhelmed him. The dream that he had just had, the memory, and the decision he had made even then, it was as if the fates that had been conspiring against him had finally decided to take a break.

He lifted a hand, brushing a few stray strands of blond hair from Roxas’ face but his best friend didn’t stir. Something surged inside of him, a subtle shuddering of his body and hotness burned at his lids, threatening but never spilling past. His fingers trembled and it was as if an epiphany had suddenly struck like a bolt of lightning straight through the heart. In that moment, he came to a startling realization.

He had loved Roxas all along.

“He is just tired,” a voice announced softly from the doorway, startling Axel. He jerked away from the bed, stumbling over his feet and making a general fool of himself as if he had been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to.

After clapping a hand over his mouth to cover a very undignified yelp, the firestarter turned towards the door to issue a thoroughly blistering glare at Vincent. The winged man, however, was not perturbed. “Merlin says he will awaken soon.”

Green eyes flickered to Roxas for a moment. “How soon?”

Vincent chuckled lightly before tugging on Axel’s arm and practically pulling the firestarter out into the hallway, causing him to stumble. He stepped in front of the door, blocking it from Axel. “Not so soon that you don’t have time to shower, change and eat something before refusing to move from his bedside.”

He could feel an uncharacteristic blush staining his cheeks. He fought it off by producing a very believable smirk, crossing his arms over his chest. “What? You don’t like my manly odor?”

Crimson eyes regarded him for a moment before Vincent shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder why I decide to still associate with you.” He raised one hand and pointed to the last door on the hall. “Go. Shower. I’ll watch over him.”

Axel sniffed haughtily before realizing that he did, indeed, have quite an unappealing aroma. Instead of making a snappy comeback, he turned on his heels and stalked towards the shower, grumbling under his breath. He wouldn’t be surprised if Vincent was smirking behind his back either, but he didn’t want to turn and check. Besides, the winged male had a point.

– – – – – –

The shower turned off with an audible hiss, leaving only the steady drip-drop of the leaking faucet in the background. Axel was surprised that Merlin hadn’t already fixed it, considering he was a magician of sorts. Yet, it also proved that the older man was fallible enough to not bother with a leaky faucet. Made him seem less mysterious and a lot more human, not that Merlin was hard to approach anyways.

As Axel rubbed a towel viciously through his hair, which returned to familiar spikes without any effort on his part, he heard the sound of many voices all speaking in excited tones. Curious, he slid on a new pair of pants that Vincent had so kindly left for him in the bathroom and peered out into the hallway.

People were crowded in the doorway of the bedroom Roxas was currently inhabiting, most notably Leon and Vincent were blocking the door while he could only assume the others were within. Which meant Roxas had woken up while he was in the shower. A bit perturbed with Vincent’s misinformation, Axel slipped out of the bathroom and pushed his way through Leon and Vincent without even an apology.

Past them, he encountered an obstacle shaped like both Aeris and Merlin so he edged through them, feeling desperate to see Roxas awake. Yuffie was talking to Roxas in her excited tone, but he couldn’t even make out her words, his eyes only for the former Nobody. Finally, ignoring Aeris’ bemused stare, Axel forced his way through the cramped space until he was able to see Roxas sitting up on the bed, looking weary and vaguely annoyed, though he was hiding it well.

Bright blue eyes looked up in that moment and their eyes met, a moment of uneasy quiet passing between them. His heart thudded painfully in his chest and once again, that terrifying feeling of being unable to breathe clouded his lungs. It was like they had seen other for the first time all over again, as if that moment back in Gaia’s Grotto had never happened.

Silence descended on the small room, increasing the tension until it was nearly palpable, a strange taste of intrigue and desperation and sorrow and need. There were so many unspoken thoughts, so many unvoiced questions that they practically sang in the air, begging to be expressed, yearning to serve their true purpose. Axel felt them pressing on his brain, knocking on his heart and stumbling on the tip of his tongue.

His eyes fell to the side, unable to keep the penetrating grip of Roxas’ stare. In that moment, he had been reminded of all that he had done.

“Ah, yes, well, I’ve got to go start breakfast,” Aeris announced, shoving both Yuffie and Cid towards the door and by proxy, all of the others crowding around behind them. “Come help me you guys,” her voice held a note of urgency.

Yuffie protested immediately. “Aw, but it looked like things were finally going to get interesting,” she grumbled, kicking at the floor. Yet, she allowed the kind woman to push her out and soon the room was empty. Aeris even went so far as to quietly shut the door behind them, leaving the two males alone to talk.

Yet, neither it seemed was quite ready to offer up any words. Silence descended, broken only by the faint sound of the fan whirring overhead and the constant tick-tock of what Merlin had called a cuckoo clock. Axel fidgeted, watching the swirls in the floorboard. Now that he was here, he didn’t know what to say. He felt like a fumbling idiot.

“What the hell did you think you were doing?”

Axel blinked, jumping a little at the sudden end to the silence. He lifted his head. “Huh?” he responded stupidly, surprised at the range of emotions that he found flitting through bright blue eyes.

Roxas’ mouth twisted and Axel found his gaze captivated by the movement. “That had to be the most idiotic way to try and get me back!” Roxas shouted, distracting Axel from his staring.

What was he… wait a minute… what? Indignation rose up strongly in the firestarter. “Hey!” he denied in annoyance. “You didn’t have to leave in the first place. Of course, I had to do something.”

His jaw set in that familiar stubborn manner as it always did when they had argued before. Suddenly, it felt just like old times, the tension gradually lifting away. “Yes, I did!” Roxas argued obstinately. “I needed to find the truth.”

“Che.” Axel sniffed haughtily, crossing his arms over his chest. He turned his head to the side, staring determinedly at the wall. “What the hell else was I supposed to do then? Sit around and wait for you to make up your damn mind? Like that would have gone well with the Organization. They wanted me to kill you.”

It was Roxas’ turn to blink in surprise. “You’re such a stubborn bastard,” he countered lowly. “And you probably always will be. Why didn’t you just say something before I left?” The blond shifted on the bed, the sound piercingly loud in the questing silence. A spring squeaked.

Axel snorted. “What good would that have done?” he mumbled, hating that it sounded somewhat petulant. He was pouting, for all’s sake, and no one pulled that off except for well, Sora and Roxas. He, however, just looked like a child. It wasn’t cute at all.

There was a moment of quiet before Roxas finally responded, his voice soft. “I might have asked you to come, dumbass.”

Green eyes widened in shock as he whipped up his head, feeling as if he were gaping. “What?”

Roxas threw back the covers and rose to his feet, standing right in front of Axel and staring directly into his face. He looked rather cute like that, blond hair in disarray and a sleepy flush to his face. Axel wanted to kiss him but he refrained.

“I’ve been stuck in Sora’s head for the last dozen months or so, seeing and experiencing everything he does,” Roxas began to explain, his eyes sliding to the side before returning to Axel. “And I understand now.”

The firestarter was quickly losing grasp of the conversation. He wasn’t stupid but Roxas had the annoying habit of speaking in riddles sometimes. “Understand what?” he asked, crinkling his brow.

Roxas shook his head, giving Axel that familiar ‘you’re so damn stupid look’ that he had perfected when they were best friends back at the castle. He reached up and curled his fingers around Axel’s head. “You’ve always been a bit slow for your own good,” he murmured. “And you had the nerve to tease me about it.” With that, he pulled Axel down and pushed their lips together, invoking a passionate kiss.

Emerald eyes widened in complete shock as a noise of surprise escaped Axel’s mouth. Roxas took full and complete advantage of that, slipping his tongue through Axel’s lips and tangling briefly with Axel’s own. Their mouths moved together, languidly caressing as Roxas’ tongue flitted over all the sensitive portions of Axel’s mouth he hadn’t even known existed.

A low purr rumbled in Axel’s throat as his hands settled on Roxas’ hips, pulling the blond towards him and bringing their bodies flush together. It was as if they were a perfect fit, Roxas’ other arm snaking up and curling around Axel’s back. Roxas’ hand felt so warm against his bare flesh and he swore his skin tingled at the touch.

He never expected Roxas to make the first move. Truthfully, Axel hadn’t ever been sure if Roxas returned the same sort of feelings that he was just beginning to understand himself. He had thought it one-sided, and he would have been content with that just having his best friend back. But this… this was so much better than he had anticipated.

And while kissing Vincent had been arousing, kissing Roxas was an entirely different experience. It was more than arousing. Just like before, his senses heightened. He could hear the rapid pulse of his heart, could feel the silky slide of Roxas’ shirt over his bare chest. Roxas’ lips were soft, softer than he had imagined they would ever be and he tasted sweet yet salty, like that damn ice cream he was so fond of.

Roxas’ fingers were curling against his head, entangling in fiery red strands as they continued to kiss, lips and tongues enmeshing as if they were starved for it. And perhaps they were. It wasn’t as if either of them were thoroughly skilled in warmth and fondness… affection. He found himself drowning in Roxas’ taste, giving in to the blond’s subtle directions.

Until a sound in the doorway brought him crashing back down to the ground, restoring his spiraling thoughts to reality. The two former Nobodies broke away from each other as if they were children with their hands in the cookie jar, Roxas dredging up one of his famous glares and aiming it at the doorway. Sora was peeking in, a huge grin on his face.

“They said you were talking,” Sora started to say, his gaze flickering between the two mischievously. Axel turned away from him, raking one hand through his hair as if to rearrange his spikes. “But I told them you wouldn’t mind if I… interrupted.”

Emerald eyes rolled. “By all means,” Axel responded, gesturing towards the brunet though he didn’t turn back around. “Come on in.”

“It’s my room,” Roxas shot back crossly, folding his arms over his chest.

“Temporary room,” Axel corrected, wagging a finger at his best friend.

Roxas sniffed. “Whatever.” He tilted his head towards the door. “You might as well come in.”

Ocean blue eyes beamed in response as Sora pushed the door completely open and bounced inside, dragging along with him an obviously reluctant Riku. “I heard you were awake,” the brunet chirped, finally releasing his boyfriend’s hand once they were fully inside the room. He bounded up to Roxas, sticking out a hand. “It’s cool to meet you for real this time.”

Behind him, Riku rolled his eyes, well used to his lover’s playfulness and boundless energy. Axel glanced over his shoulder, watching as Roxas took Sora’s hand and let the brunet enthusiastically shake it. They really did resemble each other, but only in a distant sense.

“I can take this chance to get to know you now,” Sora said excitedly. “Right Riku?”

The silver-haired boy shook his head, a small chuckle escaping his lips. “Right, Sora. Now stop shaking his hand before he loses it.”

Sora pouted rather cutely but listened to his boyfriend, finally releasing Roxas’ hand. “We were glad to help. Well, I was. Riku was being stubborn but I convinced him.”

“Thank you,” Roxas said, probably glad to get a word in edgewise. It was sometimes difficult to speak when Sora was in full energy mode. He might have saved the universe twice over, but he was still the same Sora. Which was probably the reason Riku loved him so much.

The brunet waved him off before tilting his head to the side, a sudden thought occurring to him. “Now that you’re not a Nobody… can you still use a keyblade?” he asked, crinkling his brow in thought.

Axel shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I use my chakram.”

“Good point.” Sora brightened considerably. “Why don’t you give it a try?”

Roxas nodded and Sora stepped back, putting some space between them. Taking a deep breath, the blond lifted his hand and held it out, trying to summon up the keyblade. There was a brief surge of power, then a sparkle of energy before a weapon appeared, definitely a keyblade, but not of a design Axel recognized. Before he could question it, he was interrupted.

“Breakfast is ready!” The loud shout reverberated up from downstairs, obviously Aeris’ voice. As if on cue, Sora’s stomach grumbled loudly, echoing his hunger. He rubbed it with his palm as he looked at them all sheepishly.

“Guess I’m hungry.”

Riku rolled his eyes. “I think we all are. Let’s go, Sora.” He turned towards the door and was gone before anything else could say a word. Not that Axel minded. Though the silver-haired brat had helped him, he still didn’t like the kid. Something about Riku just rankled on his nerves and he had the overwhelming urge to strangle the kid sometimes.

“Ri~ku,” Sora whined playfully, chasing after his boyfriend. “Wait for me! Last time you got all the pancakes and I–” His voice cut off as the door shut behind them with an audible click, once again leaving the two former Nobodies alone.

Axel chuckled to himself before moving to the dresser, rummaging around for some type of shirt to wear. He could sense Roxas’ eyes watching him as he did so and he couldn’t help but feel as if he should fear for himself. It was almost… ravenous. He was somewhat nervous and excited both, wanting to turn around, grab Roxas, and finish whatever it was they had started before Sora interrupted.

He exchanged glance with the blond from the corner of his eye. “So… does that make you my boyfriend now?” he asked, sliding a hand through his spikes and pulling them back into a tie as he attempted to pass off the question as a joke. But it was far from one and he felt as if he were dangling on a thread, waiting for Roxas to answer.

He didn’t have to wait long. Roxas rolled his eyes. “Yes, you idiot. It does.” The smile that took over Axel’s face was bright enough to light Radiant Garden for a year. “Now, come on. I’m hungry.”

Axel couldn’t help it; he laughed. Gesturing for the blond to precede him, he followed Roxas down the hall towards the massive den. Merlin didn’t have a large dining room like Leon, which Axel still hadn’t figured out why Leon would need one. The magician preferred the comfort of his living room, the floor littered with couches, chairs, and small tables. It was this room that the others had gathered in, scattered among the many furnishings.

Laughter floated to Axel’s first, and as he and Roxas stood in the doorway, he caught sight of Yuffie doing an impression of someone, he couldn’t quite be sure whom. Judging from the large guffaws emerging from Cid, however, it was quite amusing. Roxas paused in the aperture, a bit uncertain about entering. Until he was spied by a certain thieving ninja.

“Roxas!” Yuffie exclaimed, twirling towards the door. She bounded for him, gleefully gripping onto his arm. “Come sit by me! I wanna know all about you!” she continued, ignoring the vaguely frightened look that Roxas was casting back at his new boyfriend. It was almost a plea for help.

Axel snickered and let Yuffie drag Roxas away before he too, entered, taking one of the last empty seats. Unfortunately, it was right next to Riku himself, the boy who could rival Leon for surliness. Without any reason, the two immediately glared at each other and subtly edged away from each other, putting as much space between them as they could.

The sound of a clucking tongue captured Axel’s attention as Aeris swept into the room, plates full of food floating on the air after her courtesy of Merlin’s magic. They glided to the hungry hands of all those scattered around the room.

“You two should quit this foolish and unnecessary rivalry,” Aeris reprimanded as she moved to take a seat, Leon rising to his feet to let her take the chair he occupied.

Axel snorted while Riku crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s his fault,” they managed to mumble at exactly the same time, causing them to glare at each other once more.

Sora laughed, fork already scraping hungrily against his plate. “It’s just ‘cause they are so much alike,” he explained, poking at Riku with his elbow. The silver-haired boy was not amused.

“True.” Aeris nodded, completely oblivious to the annoyed looks both boys were sending her.

Conversation began then, rising and falling around Axel but he paid little attention to it as nothing was directed towards him in particular. Yuffie laughed about something, Cid was teasing Vincent, and even Riku seemed to be distracted, he and Sora in a semi-serious discussion about something. Axel’s eyes kept getting inexplicably drawn to Roxas, watching the blond from beneath his lashes and trying to force down unexplained flushes that rose to his cheeks.

It was almost like a dream. Just a few days ago he had thought all was lost. He never expected to even see Roxas again, except in his memories. And now there he was, sitting there with the rest of the people that were becoming Axel’s friends and subtly trying to guard his few possessions from Yuffie. She seemed fascinated by the Oblivion key chain, which was confusingly not the true chain for the blade since Oblivion hadn’t been the one to appear earlier. Axel couldn’t fathom that.

He felt a stirring inside of him when looked at Roxas, a renewal of the longing that had always simmered beneath the surface, confusing him with conflicting emotions. It was strange how quickly and deeply affection ran, transforming a fond friendship into something deeper, more concrete. It was almost frightening how quickly it had become love.

“So,” Cid cut in, his loud voice cutting through the conversation and gathering everyone’s attention. “Did ya have any difficulty at the Grotto?”

Vincent frowned. “Their security, usually nonexistent other than protection from the beasts, was in full force. It appeared our earlier escape had been noticed.” He shook his head, shifting position from where he sat perched on the arm of a couch near to his lover, and his eyes flickered to Sora. “How did you know we would appear in Twilight Town?”

The keyblade master shrugged. “Instinct, I guess,” he replied. “Sometimes, it’s like the keyblade is speaking to me or something. And I just knew that you guys would run into trouble. Especially after the third day of you being gone.”

Axel blinked. “Third day?” he repeated, a bit surprised by that even as he accepted a plate from invisible hands. The smell of pancakes filtered to his nostrils but he wasn’t really that hungry. He still felt the weariness of using the darkness. “How long were we gone?”

“A week,” Cid responded quietly, a strange expression crossing his face. “We were considering going after you.”

“Except that Sora said to give you a bit more time,” Leon added from where he now stood, propped up against a wall. “So we took the time to prepare for when you got back.”

Axel raised a brow. “Prepare?” He felt somewhat like a parrot, only able to repeat what they were saying. His eyes fell back to his food and he began to eat slowly, half wondering why Aeris had cooked breakfast when it was nearly sundown.

“Yeah,” Leon replied dryly. “I want my house back. We found you a small apartment in town not far from Cid’s warehouse.” A smirk crossed into his expression. “That way you won’t be far from your job.”

The firestarter scowled, well remembering the backbreaking, sweaty work that Cid had so graciously given him. “Why, thanks for the consideration,” he replied sarcastically.

The brunet waved him off. “My pleasure.” Leon was equally mordant. “Except that it won’t be ready until tomorrow so you’ll have to stay here for the night.” Again, that shadow of a smile crossed his usually surly appearance.

“Right,” Merlin agreed, nodding his head as he sagely sipped at a cup of tea. “Then again, it’s not exactly for free. I’m interested in speaking to Roxas… if he doesn’t mind, of course.” Penetrating blue eyes turned to the former Nobody.

Roxas, who was trying and failing to sneak away from Yuffie, nodded distractedly. “I don’t really have anything interesting to say,” he responded.

Those mysteriously ageless eyes sparkled. “More than you know,” Merlin hinted, winking at the blond.

“Pssh,” Yuffie interrupted, blowing air out of her mouth noisily. “You guys only want to discuss boring things. This is supposed to be a celebration!” She pumped a fist into the air, having already finished her own meal.

“So it is.” Aeris smiled at the exuberant ninja. Her keen eyes and senses, however, knew that not everyone was up to snuff. “Perhaps the celebration should be saved for another day, though. All of us are not entirely energetic as you, Yuffie.”

The ninja pouted. “You should be,” she grumbled good-naturedly. “We just got started.” That inspired a spark of laughter from those gathered, though it was muted.

“And it appears Leon has already taken his leave,” Merlin mused aloud as he twirled one finger in the air, his magic collecting what few dirty dishes there were and sending them floating back into the kitchen. “He must have slipped out when we weren’t looking.”

Cid scowled. “That bastard,” he muttered in annoyance. “He knew I was trying to discuss the plans for the water system with him.”

“Leave him alone, Cid,” Aeris scolded. “He was just as worried about Axel and Vincent as you, even if he didn’t show it. He hardly slept the whole week and neither did you.”

The gummi ship builder automatically blustered but his protests were promptly cut off as Aeris rose to her feet. “I think we are all just a bit tired.” She tipped her head to everyone. “Good night. Come on Yuffie, let’s go home.”

Yuffie stuck out her lip but couldn’t hold the pout and ended up smiling cheerily. She bounded across the room to Aeris’ side as she waved. “Good night! See you in the morning,” she chirped as the two women headed out the door.

Gradually, the others said their farewells and went home. Riku and Sora for their hotel room, and Cid and Vincent back to Cid’s house. Merlin disappeared into the study, mumbling something about physics as he puffed on his cigar, letting both Axel and Roxas know that they were free to use anything in his home. The two former Nobodies were left on their own, Axel somewhat suspecting that it had been planned that way. The others weren’t stupid; they probably knew the two wanted time alone.

Still, Axel wasn’t entirely certain how to progress from that point. He was silent as they headed towards their rooms, his mind rapidly churning all of the recent events. They had happened so quickly that he barely had time to absorb them, much less react to them. And now he and Roxas were left alone again and he still had nothing to say.

Where was all his flamboyance, his usual charm and confidence? In that moment it had gone out the window, leaving nothing but Axel behind, just plain Axel. No longer even a Nobody, he couldn’t hide behind a pretense of false emotions. And he refused to admit that he didn’t know what to do. Were there lines he couldn’t cross yet? Having just reunited, was it too early for intimacy? And why the hell was he even thinking so much about it? Shouldn’t it have all been… instinct or something?

A hand grabbed his arm, dragging him to a halt. Axel blinked as he was yanked from his thoughts, surprised to find that it was Roxas that had grasped him. He turned, somewhat confused.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Roxas asked, his brow furrowed slightly.

Axel glanced around. He had nearly passed Roxas’ room, which meant… his face slid into a grin. “Well, I was heading back to my room but I guess not anymore.” He shifted into Roxas’ hold, pulling them together. “Is that your way of saying you want me to stay with you?”

Before giving Roxas a chance to answer however, he leaned down and pressed their lips together, a kiss that was more gentle than he thought he had in him. He understood, after all. Having escaped from Gaia’s Grotto himself, he recognized the fear of loneliness. He was familiar with the raw feeling of something pressing down on you, as if it were suffocating your emotions. He wouldn’t want to be alone either, and was only glad that Roxas had not been stuck long on Gaia’s Grotto.

Roxas didn’t even resist the embrace, hungrily returning the kiss with a voracity that surprised the firestarter. But then again, Roxas had been gradually losing himself with Sora, able to see an outside world that he could never reach again. It was understandable that he would attack life with tenacious desperation.

The blond slid one arm around Axel and dug his fingers into Axel’s back. Roxas’ back hit the wall as Axel pressed him up against it, lips pressing hungrily against his. Axel’s tongue teased against Roxas’, coaxing him to slide the wet appendages together as he settled a hand on the shorter boy’s hip. It was as if he needed an anchor, something to remind him that it wasn’t just a dream.

He couldn’t think either, not when his fingers encountered a strip of warm skin between the hem of Roxas’ shirt and jeans. His thumb stroked the pale flesh, gliding over skin that seemed far too soft. His hips pressed forward, pushing urgently against Roxas’ abdomen as he felt the evidence of Roxas’ own arousal slowly hardening against his thigh.

A purr reverberated in his throat, sounding startling loud in the hallway. Roxas pulled away, leaving Axel somewhat breathless. Emerald eyes were mesmerized by the reddened and slick sheen of his lips, Roxas’ eyes bright with something akin to need and want and… love.

“Of course, I want you to stay,” Roxas responded quietly, one hand groping blindly behind him for the doorknob. “Now come inside before I change my mind.”

Axel grinned, his heart flip-flopping in his chest though the sensation was nothing compared to the arousal threading through his veins. “Yes, sir,” he responded in his typical droll fashion, giving a fake salute.

Ocean blue eyes rolled as Roxas pulled open his door with one groping hand, yanking Axel in after him. The firestarter stumbled a bit, just managing to get inside before he was pushed against the door, the weight of his body slamming it shut. One of Roxas’ hands pinned his shoulder as he was kissed senseless by the younger boy. His other hand was pressed to Axel’s chest, fanning his fingers against the thin cotton material.

Axel was surprised by Roxas’ aggressiveness but found he rather enjoyed it, all of his blood rushing southwards and leaving his thinking processes in the dust. He threaded his fingers through Roxas’ hair and pinned the other boy’s head in place, deepening the kiss with his tongue. Their mouths meshed as Roxas rolled his hips against Axel, their groins making delicious contact.

A moan reverberated in the firestarter throat before he could stop it and he practically felt Roxas smirk against his lips. Treacherous hands reached for his shirt and started to slide it upwards. Fingers brushed against revealed skin and they broke off the kiss long enough for Axel to throw his shirt to the side before it began anew.

He dipped his head, dragging his lips and tongue from Roxas’ mouth and over to his jaw, nibbling gently on the flesh right below his ear. Roxas tilted his head to provide him more space as Axel’s hands wrapped around the blond’s waist. He rubbed along the younger boy’s sides, pulling Roxas flush against him as blood burned in his veins. And then Roxas’ fingers found his chest, splaying across the bare skin before brushing over one of his nipples, which hardened immediately.

Axel groaned. It was only getting harder to think logically. He forgot that they were at Merlin’s home and that there were probably others still downstairs. He simply didn’t care. He finally had Roxas with him, at his side, and kissing him. He didn’t need anything else.

“A bed,” the firestarter managed to gasp out, biting down on a very unmanly whimper. “To the bed.”

Roxas smirked and took a slow step backwards, dragging his taller boyfriend with him. “Good idea,” he responded.

It was only three steps to the rather small bed, but along the way, they shed garments as if they were serpents, clothing slithering down to the floor in abandoned piles. It was strange. There was no awkwardness, no faint blushing as skin was revealed. Axel was too lost in the kisses and the touches to even think about it and Roxas, it seemed, didn’t mind either.

They fell onto the bed, a tangled mess of limbs and for a moment, there was a small fight for position. It was an entirely unconscious struggle that Axel didn’t mind losing in the slightest. It hurt his pride but it seemed that whenever it came to Roxas, he didn’t have any in the first place so it didn’t matter when the blond emerged on the top, perched between long pale legs.

Roxas attacked his neck, lips and tongue hungrily sucking up marks that Axel knew would show up on his pale skin for days. The firestarter sighed beneath him, one of his hands clutching at Roxas’ hip while the other snaked between their bodies and reached for the younger boy’s arousal. He wrapped his fingers around Roxas and stroked him, pleased when the blond arched his back and moaned in his throat. Roxas grew more ravenous, one hand tangling in fiery red strands and pulling Axel’s head back to reveal more of his throat.

Balancing on his elbow, Roxas reached down and removed Axel’s teasing hand and began grinding his groin against the taller male. Sparks of desire flashed through both males, dissolving them into masses of want. Limbs rubbed and grabbed, fingers sliding along flesh and gasps filling the air. Reason, conscious thought, all such useless things were tossed out the window, leaving nothing but instinct and lust behind.

It occurred to Axel that they had just been reunited and that nothing had really been discussed between them. Nor did they really know each other since so much time had passed since the last time they had spoken. Axel hadn’t told Roxas how he truly felt, hadn’t told him anything and neither had the blond returned the favor.

But there seemed to be something entirely instinctual about the whole encounter, something needy and desperate between them that could not be denied. Each was like a starving man for affection, starved for the taste of bare skin and the warmth of another person’s body. Axel couldn’t stop himself from wanting to touch Roxas, from feeling the blond with his own fingertips, as if to assure him that his best friend was really there.

All of the words and such he would save for later as they were unimportant at the present moment. Right now, Axel only wanted one thing – Roxas’ lips back on his. He reached up with his free hand and tilted Roxas’ head towards his, claiming the blond’s mouth with his own hungry lips, tongue stabbing inside and dueling with Roxas’.

It was a needful kiss, tongues sloppily slurping together, their lips turning red and bruised from the force of it. Teeth knocked together jarringly and a moan slipped free from someone’s mouth but it was a toss up whom. One of Roxas’ hands slid along Axel’s slim hip before easing its way between his legs. Axel instinctually parted them, vaguely realizing what was to come even if a part of him wanted to war against it.

A warm hand flitted across his length before it delved lower, cupping his scrotum then venturing towards his hidden entrance. Fingers brushed the puckered muscle and though he was prepared for it, Axel jumped in surprise nonetheless, a whimper of need escaping his lips.

Roxas smirked, pulling back slightly to look at Axel’s face while his finger continued to trace the fire starter’s anus with teasing touches. “Not a sound I expected to ever hear from you,” he commented huskily.

Emerald eyes rolled, struggling to find coherence but losing it amid a haze of desire. “Keep doing that and you’ll hear more,” Axel practically purred, wondering if it was too late to turn the tables and change places with Roxas. He would love to see the blond sprawled against the sheets, face flushed with desire.

A slight hint of red decorated Roxas’ cheeks before he suddenly pulled away, a strange look on his face. Axel was a bit miffed, uncertain what to make of the desertion until he realized Roxas was digging about in his pants pockets, obviously looking for something. After a second, Roxas returned, holding something in his hands which Axel belatedly recognized as unscented lotion.

“Your friend Vincent is a weird guy,” Roxas commented with a half frown, more of confusion than irritation. “He pressed this into my hand earlier.”

Axel’s brow climbed upwards. “I can’t argue with you on that,” he replied, as his fingers automatically rose, reaching for the bottle as Roxas clambered back onto the bed with little grace. However, the blond jerked his hand back, dangling the lotion just out of Axel’s reach.

“You don’t think you’re getting this, do you?” Roxas asked with a hint of mischief, perched on his knees between Axel’s legs with desire sparkling in ocean blue eyes.

Emerald orbs were serious. “I’m supposed to be on top,” Axel commented, a smile curling at the corner of his lips. Mostly because he knew he was just teasing Roxas, and it was always fun to bait the blond. It was as if they were dueling again, blades locked and wondering who would break first.

“Why’s that?”

Axel gestured with his hand vaguely. “Because I’m bigger and older and stronger… well, maybe not stronger but yeah, bigger and more experienced,” he responded smugly, watching as a strange flash of emotions played across Roxas’ face.

“Oh?” the blond demanded, just a hint of possessive jealousy creeping into his tone. “With who?”

“Does it matter?”

Roxas frowned slightly, his gaze shifting to the side as he appeared to contemplate the question, lotion dangling nearly forgotten from his fingers. “Not right now,” he finally answered, dragging his eyes back towards the firestarter. “Especially since I’m on top.”

The red-haired male squirmed slightly, his body flushing under that intent gaze. Arousal was stirring within him, making the petty argument seem like it was just that. Still, on principle alone, he felt he had to fight back. “But I’m taller and…”

“And what?” Roxas folded his arms across his chest, lifting a brow.

“And you’re more Sora-like,” Axel argued back sensibly, certain that it was the winning argument.

Unfortunately, he was the only one in the room that thought that. Roxas shot him a dead stare. “You think Sora bottoms more than Riku?” he asked, using that tone of voice that proved he knew exactly what he was talking about and Axel had no idea what he was getting himself into.

“Umm, yeah?” It didn’t come out so certain however.

For a moment, there was silence in the room before Roxas suddenly laughed, making the fire starter grin happily, loving it just as much now as he did in the past. There was something about that throaty chuckle that made his blood stir, bringing up the memories and reminding him of why he had fallen in love with the blond in the first place.

“You’d be surprised,” Roxas said in a slightly erotic whisper, one hand seductively sliding forward and wrapping itself around Axel’s straining erection. “Besides, I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.”

Emerald eyes glinted. “Is that a challenge?” Axel asked, desire burning behind his gaze.

Something passed between them, nameless and primal before Roxas suddenly dipped forward and slammed their lips together, mashing their mouths in a hungry, desperate kiss. Their bodies moved together, skin sliding slick with sweat and hands groping what could be reached. It wasn’t until then that Axel realized nothing had changed between them nor would it.

They were still themselves, still arguing and fighting, still challenging each other over the littlest thing. There was no awkwardness between them, just pure emotion and need, cresting over them in waves that didn’t seem to end. The heat in the room ratcheted up several degrees and Axel knew that if someone were to barge in, neither of them would even care to stop. A fireball would be flung and one of Roxas’ famous death glares, but heaven help them, they wouldn’t stop.

Axel moaned beneath the possessing kiss, Roxas even purring in his throat before the blond reluctantly drew away. He slid one of his hands along Axel’s side before locking eyes with the firestarter. “Roll over,” he murmured, unable to resist the urge to lean down and run his tongue across the taller boy’s rippled abdomen.

Emerald eyes blinked as he shivered from the feel of the warm tongue. Then a smirk fought its way to his slips. “Roxy wants to stare at my ass,” Axel teased before doing as he was told, wriggling his ass slightly once it was propped up in the air.

A warm hand settled on his left cheek, squeezing it in the same moment that he heard the sound of a lid snap open. “Don’t call me that.”

Axel chuckled lightly. “I’ll call you whatever I want tooooo…” the last word trailed off on the end of a moan, his back arching as a pleased rumble reverberated down his spine. Two fingers had entered him in that moment, slickened by the lotion and cold, but unerringly curling to stroke something inside of him that burst with pleasure. Axel didn’t know what it was but it felt damn good, completely overriding the slight pain of the unexpected penetration.

His fingers curled against the covers as he panted, his hips unconsciously moving backwards to meet Roxas’. Inspired by his response, the blond curled his fingers again, watching with satisfaction as Axel arched his back invitingly, hard shaft bobbing between his legs and wanting desperately to be touched. Roxas’ free hand slid along Axel’s hips before his nails gently raked down the fire starter’s back, leaving light lines of red behind. Axel could only guess that he had learned so well from being stuck within Sora for so long.

“Roxas,” Axel panted, turning his head to look over his shoulder so that one eye gleamed invitingly. “I won’t break.”

Something shadowed and formless flashed across Roxas’ face before it was quickly replaced by desire, burning hot and deep in ocean blue eyes. “Are you sure?” he teased lightly, curling his fingers one last time over Axel’s prostate before withdrawing them. His other hand groped for the lotion, squirting some of the cool liquid onto his fingers and slathering it over his own aching erection.

Axel felt hands settle on his hips as Roxas pulled him backwards, until the blunt head of his arousal nudged at the fire starter’s entrance. Without verbally answering, the older Nobody merely shifted his hips back, taking in the first few inches of his lover. There was a hitch of breath, a tightening of the fingers on his hips before Roxas finished the distance, pressing deeper inside of him.

Everything inside of the fire starter immediately tensed at the penetration, clamping down on the intruder. A stabbing pain shot through him, which would have been a lot worse if Roxas hadn’t prepped him a little first. But Axel clamped down on any cries of pain, after all, he had claimed he wouldn’t break. It didn’t stop his body from tensing, however.

Behind him, a low moan escaped from Roxas’ mouth as he panted lightly, fingers spasming in their grip on Axel’s hips. “Relax,” he breathed. “Or it will be worse.”

“I am relaxed,” Axel countered through clenched teeth.

“Stubborn,” Roxas murmured, one of his hands leaving Axel’s hips, rubbing gently up his spine and causing goosebumps to pop up over the fire starter’s flesh.

Axel moaned lightly, something inside of him easing and uncoiling as the pain in his ass lightened into a dull throb. That he could handle. “Bet you’re ass I am,” he panted.

“No, I bet yours,” Roxas smirked. Then, as if going by some silent cue, he chose that moment to slowly withdraw before sliding in again, deep and full.

A shiver raced down Axel’s spine as the blond’s cock rubbed against that spot again and he arched backwards, body rising needfully to meet the next slow and deep thrust. A throaty growl rumbled in the fire starter’s chest, his fingers curling into the plush covers.

“H–harder,” he cried, practically growling out the demand. “Don’t hold back.” He pushed backwards, shoving Roxas deeper inside of him with each thrust.

A light moan echoed from behind him. “As if I could,” Roxas panted, leaning forward and dotting kisses down Axel’s back. The firestarter could feel the brief flickers of his tongue along his sweaty skin and purred lightly. The sounds of flesh slapping flesh filled the air, the heavy scent of sex musk filtering through to Axel’s nostrils, yet, he couldn’t find it in him to care.

Suddenly, Roxas let loose a growl of need and annoyance all swirled together. Hands grasped Axel’s hips and the hard shaft penetrating him disappeared before he was abruptly flipped over, bouncing onto the bed on his back. The blond was on him in an instant, lips and mouth and teeth clashing and sliding slippery together. Axel’s legs lifted and wrapped around Roxas’ hips as the blond thrust into him again and his back arched, a light whimper escaping his lips before he could stop it.

There was desperation in their movements, a sweaty, exhausting and frantic need to reach that plateau. Axel’s fingers unconsciously dug into Roxas’ back, leaving half-circle marks behind as something familiar coiled and tightened inside of him. Warmth flooded down his spine.

“Axel,” Roxas moaned, drawing out the last symbol of his name as he panted breathlessly in the fire starter’s ear, warm puffs of air blowing teasingly over Axel’s skin. “Mnnnn.”

The blond’s hand wormed its way between their bodies, grasping onto the fire starter’s aching arousal and stroking him firmly, in counterpoint to his frantic thrusts. Axel gasped, his body arching into the touch as he threw his head backwards and moaned his pleasure. He was close, he could feel it, hovering on the edge and just waiting for something to push him over.

Roxas dragged his lips over, latching his mouth onto Axel’s and jabbing his hips forward, unerringly sliding over the fire starter’s prostate in the same moment that he stroked Axel’s erection. It was the last that Axel could take, pleasure spiking up and down his spine. He came with a low moan that rattled in his chest, Roxas’ name muffled by their lips. He spilled his seed all over Roxas’ hand, splashing between their bodies.

His body clenched around Roxas and with several more thrusts, the blond followed him over, pushing his face into Axel’s neck and crying out his release. His hand tightened on Axel’s hip, leaving red handprints behind as he spurted deep within the taller male’s body. Roxas moaned deeply before collapsing limply on top of Axel, his breath coming in sharp pants.

Axel lay limply on the bed, his limbs feeling drained and weak as he accepted Roxas’ weight above him. “We should have done that a lot sooner,” he remarked on the end of a pant, heart pounding a fierce rhythm in his chest.

Roxas stirred, sliding off to the side and pulling out of Axel gingerly, shifting until he laid on the bed and not forming on a human blanket on top of the fire starter. “Yeah,” he agreed, throwing an arm over Axel’s chest and idly tracing lines with his fingers. He ignored the mess they had made of the bed, simply too exhausted to do anything about it at the moment.

The redhead couldn’t help but smirk. “Speechless are we?” he teased in his usual manner. “With my skill, I’m not surprised.”

Ocean blue eyes rolled. “Your ego never ceases to amaze me,” he responded dryly. “Now go to sleep, I’m tired.”

“Bossy,” Axel countered, slinging an arm over the bed, his fingertips just brushing the corner of someone’s t-shirt. Paying no attention to who it belonged to, he dragged it closer and used it to make a half-hearted attempt at cleaning them up. With that finished, he balled it up and tossed it to some obscure corner of the room.

Roxas pressed closer to him as if desperately needing his warmth. “Thanks,” he mumbled in a sleepy tone, fingers twitching where they lay sprawled against the fire starter’s chest.

Axel watched those fingers, a part of him astounded by the simple sight. Because it was proof, proof that Roxas was there, with him and not simply some memory he was struggling to keep. It was an intimate picture, the darker tone of Roxas’ arm against the pale of Axel’s chest and it made his heart swell with affection for no reason at all.

All of the sudden, he had a million things he wanted to say, a thousand questions he wanted to ask, and no words to speak of them. He had things he wanted to share and hurts to express. He wanted to scream that he loved Roxas a million times. He wanted to press their lips together and feel the warmth of Roxas’ skin beneath his fingertips once more.

Axel simply wanted.

“Roxas?”

The blond stirred. “Hmm?” he asked, somewhat sleepily, cutely shifting closer and throwing one leg over Axel’s pale, long limb. One hand groped for some sort of cover, throwing the comforter haphazardly over the both of them.

The former Nobody shook his head. “Never mind,” he murmured, sliding his eyes closed and tipping his head to the side until his nose was buried in blond hair, smelling faintly of raspberries, Aeris’ shampoo he recognized.

There was always tomorrow.

[KH] Desperate Reflections 18

Chapter Thirteen – Empty Hands

The heavy knocking woke him up first thing in the morning. It was a loud, rapid, and annoying beat that reverberated all too painfully in Axel’s head. He groaned as he rolled over in the bed and out of the direct glare of the sunlight as it shone on his face. He had forgotten to close the blinds last night it seemed. And he was certain that it was far too early to be awake anyways.

He had spent most of the night tossing and turning, worrying himself over what Sora would choose to do. As a result, the sheets were rumpled and twisted and he had accomplished barely any rest. He was certain there were bags under his eyes and his head pounded from the lack of rest.

What little sleep he did manage to catch was fraught with nightmares, or more accurately memories of his own failings. They replayed over and over in his mind, as if some sort of punishment. Everything was so clear, the smells and the sights and the sounds. A gasped breath and the sharp, acrid odor of freshly spilled blood. He could see the rising ashes of each defeated memory beast. He could see the splash of the last of Reno’s life as it sprayed into the air.

He relived that moment countless times, like a record player stuck on a crack. It would stop, pause, rewind, and replay until he memorized every little detail, until it was ingrained on his heart. The guilt settled in, taking up residence and he couldn’t fight down the urge to weep. He had been so stupid and yet, he hadn’t paid the price. He couldn’t help but wonder if it was even right of him to find his happiness when he had so blatantly robbed it from someone else.

Not when he had blood staining his hands. It didn’t help that when he looked down, they weren’t as clean as he would have liked. And no amount of scrubbing could wash them of their taint either. Axel wasn’t normally one to dwell on his mistakes or his past or his failings, but there were times that it all built up inside of him, caught up with whatever was going on in the present. As he worried over whether or not he had done too much shit to be worthy of the good stuff, all the terrible things he had done reminded him of his undeserved existence.

He had no right, no right, to desperately seek happiness. One by one, he had manipulated, played with emotion and turned them on each other. They had been like playing cards, and he held the deck in his hand, smirking as he dealt them out the final blow. His companions, those he dared call allies… he‘d had no emotions and no morals. Axel didn’t even know if he truly felt regret for his mistakes. There was too much emotion, too much feeling. He couldn’t handle it.

Everything knocking around inside of him, his past mistakes stuck on automatic repeat. He felt like the blood stench would never leave his nostrils and he would be forever dreaming of leaving crimson stains wherever he walked. He had held no allegiance except to himself and what had it been for? In the end, nothing at all.

The knocks echoed again, louder this time and even more determined. Groaning, Axel lazily rolled off the bed, his head swooning from the rapid position change, before he staggered towards the door. Dreams lingered at the back of his conscious, making his entire self ache. One of his hands swiped at his eyes, trying to clear his blearily, sleep-fogged vision as he blindly reached for the handle. He fumbled a few times, making the knob jiggle, before he finally remembered how to turn it and opened the door.

He stared into not one, but two faces, only one of which he vaguely recognized. It really was too early for thinking. He was forced to lean against the door to remain in an upright position, only half-aware that he was wearing a pair of boxers and little else. Oh well, if they woke him up this damn early, they deserved the show.

“Wha’ do you want?” he growled, or at least tried to. It came out more of a sleepy drawl as he yawned, belatedly attempting to cover his mouth with a free hand and failing miserably.

Crimson eyes regarded him intently. “Well, aren’t you a burst of merry sunshine this morning,” Vincent remarked dryly. “You look like shit.”

Axel scowled, managing to somewhat focus on his winged friend. “Thanks for the compliment,” he muttered, dropping his hand from the door frame as he turned away from his visitors, determined to drop back down onto his bed. Another vicious yawn attacked him.

“You’re gettin’ a bit like Vince there, Axel,” another voice commented, one that the firestarter belatedly recognized as Cid. “Lookin’ a bit broody.”

The former Nobody snorted as he flopped down onto the bed face first. He sprawled across the comforter as he responded, his voice muffled by all the fabric. “Hardy, har, har,” he replied sarcastically as he pulled his pillow over his head. “You’re just a bundle of laughs, old man.” He shifted on the bed, his entire body feeling weighted down and tired. He didn’t have the urge to do much of anything at the moment, other than return to sleep.

Behind him and outside his line of sight, someone sighed. Axel assumed it to be Vincent. After all, it sounded like an exasperated Vincent sigh. He was getting pretty good at interpreting the man’s nonverbal cues, it seemed.

“And I thought my pity parties were bad,” Vincent replied, chuckling softly. Axel heard footsteps on the floor, heading his direction moments before the pillow was grabbed off his head and tossed away somewhere. “Now get up and quit moping around,” Vincent ordered as Axel let out a sound of protest from the loss of his cover.

The firestarter curled further into his nest of blankets, quite aware that he was probably acting much like a child. It was his right. Vincent had lounged around for the better part of the month, languishing in despair. Now it was Axel’s turn. Besides, what good was it to have emotions if he didn’t get to experience every one of them?

“Give me one good reason,” Axel muttered, flailing about blindly with one hand to get his pillow back before giving up and letting it flop down to the covers.

There was another chuckle behind him. This one he was certain was Cid. “You really are a brat,” the blond commented with a snort. “How about this then? Sora and Riku are waiting downstairs for you to get your sorry ass out of bed.”

His interest piqued, but only slightly since he didn’t want to be set up for another disappointment, the firestarter barely stirred on the bed. He turned his head and cracked open one emerald eye, regarding Vincent suspiciously. If karma were real, by all accounts Axel should have been tortured and stabbed through the heart by Roxas himself. It would have been the least he deserved.

“Why?” he asked dully. “Someone want to storm out of the room again? Seems a lot of that’s going on lately.” He slid his eye closed again, turning his head away from the winged male and heaving an exasperated sigh.

There was silence for a moment. Cid muttered a curse, more to himself than any real comment as the sound of a toothpick being chewed in half echoed in the stillness. A flutter of webbed appendages and whispered conversation, then boots across the floor followed by the sound of his door opening and closing with a quiet click. If he didn’t know Vincent better, he would assume he had been left alone. But alas, that was not the case.

“Axel,” Vincent began, his tone commanding and curious both. How the other man managed that was beyond the firestarter’s understanding. “Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?” came the muffled reply. The tone was dangerously close to boredom. Unfortunately, Axel did not pull off nonchalant as well as he had hoped.

There was a screech as Vincent pulled up the chair, lowering himself into it with a quiet squeak of the wood. “Riku and Sora are downstairs,” he repeated. “And yet you are moping up here. Have I been wrong then? Roxas meant that little to you?”

That deserved a straight glare. Axel raised his head and stared ocular, jade fire at the man who could probably be considered his closest friend outside of Roxas. He opened his mouth to respond bitingly, but Vincent quickly interjected.

“Then why, Axel? I’m having trouble understanding this.”

Another moment of silence passed before Axel sighed and sat up on the bed, shoving back strands of crimson hair out of his face. “It’s complicated,” he mumbled, having the strange and uncomfortable realization that he might just be pouting… which was cute on Roxas but quite pathetic on himself.

“When is it not?” Vincent replied dryly. “Not once but twice dead, given more chances to live than seems fair…”

Axel nodded but only half-heartedly. “Yeah, something like that.” He shifted position, pulling his knees up to his chest and draping his arms over them. “You never asked me about before.” Vincent remained silent, waiting for the former Nobody to continue on his own. Axel sighed again. “They’re right about me, you know. Riku and Sora.”

Vincent’s brow furrowed, having some difficulty following the conversation. “What?”

“I don’t deserve this,” Axel clarified, waving a loose hand around the room to signify everything, as though that made it all the more clearer. He realized he was babbling, but he didn’t quite know how else to put it. “In the past, I wasn’t anything close to a good guy.” He paused and frowned, able to recall with perfect clarity what he had done.

Zexion and Vexen, one had died by his own hand, the other by his own manipulation. It had been nothing for him to turn his fire on the Chilly Academic. He had smirked at Zexion’s demise, easily pulling the strings of the Repliku’s unstable mind. It had been his meddling that turned Sora on Marluxia, shattering the Graceful Assassin’s plans like glass. And if he hadn’t been stopped, he would have killed Sora in an instant, just to have Roxas back.

Axel was no better than Xemnas and Saix… probably worse.

“What are you talking about?” Vincent demanded, breaking into Axel’s guilty recollections.

Emerald eyes rose, regret shimmering in the verdant orbs. “You would hate me if I told you.” A bitter laugh escaped the former Nobody’s lips, sounding harsh in the morning calm. He shook his head as he added, “but probably no more than I hate myself.”

Silence descended on the small room, though the noises of people moving around faintly came up through the floorboard. And outside, a bird chirped noisily, proving that the world did in fact move on, even if Axel himself felt as if it should stop at that very moment.

In the grand scheme of things, he wasn’t really that important, was he? So why should his actions matter? Had he regretted them at the time? No. Why had he done it? Not even he was sure he understood the answers himself. He had always done what he wanted regardless of what was asked of him. He had his own plans, his own methods and manipulations. Perhaps it was because Vexen annoyed him, maybe he was just trying to protect Sora… it might even have been that he just didn’t like the Organization and was trying to be a thorn in its side.

He had wanted his heart back, he had once believed in all that Xemnas had offered him on that day he was found in the drizzling, dark alley. But somewhere along the way, he stopped hoping with his fake hope, and stopped dreaming with his fake heart. They were Nobodies, they could imitate emotion but they never actually felt it. And he had long suspected there was more to Kingdom Hearts and Xemnas’ plan than just the restoration of their hearts.

Maybe somewhere in all his scattered thoughts and memories was an answer but one thing remained startling clear, Axel wasn’t the sort to care much for others. Except for Roxas. He had always been the exception.

“I know you may not believe it now,” Vincent began quietly, disturbing Axel from his morose and wandering thoughts, “but everyone has secrets, Axel. Things that they regret doing, or things that we thought were right at the time, heavy nails in our heart that can never be removed.” He paused, crimson eyes feeling as if they were boring into Axel’s soul. “And maybe you don’t deserve it… maybe you don’t deserve anything, but doesn’t that mean you should fight all the harder to keep it? To eventually prove your worth?”

Axel blinked, somewhat skeptical. Vincent’s words rang true but… it wasn’t as if he could merely push aside the truth of the matter on a whim. This wasn’t something that could go away with a few sudden realizations and it certainly wouldn’t make the nightmares cease.

Sighing softly to himself, Vincent continued, “Even if you don’t believe yourself worthy, don’t you think Roxas still deserves his chance to choose?” His voice lowered as he dropped his gaze to the ground, shifting slightly as if uncomfortable. “Don’t make the same mistake as me and try to choose for him. I almost lost Cid because of that.”

It made perfect sense and Axel belatedly realized what he had inadvertently done, nearly the same exact mistake as Vincent. His reluctance to accept the chance and reveal his identity because of past mistakes had very nearly resulted in losing Cid forever. If not for Axel being his usual self, their chance would have been wasted.

A smirk found its way to Axel’s face. He couldn’t help it; it was in his nature to poke and prod at sore spots. “I think your stupidity rubbed off on me,” he commented, the mischievous glint returning to his eyes. “I nearly made your mistake.

Vincent glared. “Cid is right. You are a brat.” He rose from the chair, wings rustling as they stretched before settling back into place. “Maybe next time I won’t offer you any advice.”

“You know you love me,” Axel countered as he languidly unfolded himself and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Besides, it’s in your nature to poke your nose in my business.”

The winged male sighed and shook his head. “Only because you cannot handle it yourself.” He turned towards the other bed, rifling through piles of clothes that Yuffie and Aeris had dumped there when Axel and Vincent first showed up. They were cast-offs from Leon and Cloud both, but at least the firestarter wouldn’t be forced to wear the same outfit everyday.

Vincent pulled out a pair of jeans and a tank top, vaguely matching, and tossed them at his younger friend. “Now, come downstairs before Riku changes his mind.”

Axel caught the tossed items effortlessly, already sliding the tank over his shoulder. “Yes sir,” he replied, rolling his eyes, but Vincent was already heading out the door. He didn’t fail to miss the slight smile on the other man’s face though. He was happy that Axel was no longer sulking.

Truthfully, everything wasn’t all right. His words didn’t magically erase Axel’s guilt or his confusion. His words didn’t make the world sunshine and flowers. But they were excellent motivators, enough to encourage him to at least get out of bed and move on with the day.

A few minutes later found Axel heading downstairs, fully dressed and hiding a yawn behind his hand. He scrubbed at his eyes to force himself to wake up, realizing he looked a bit like shit warmed over… twice. He felt it, too, but wasn’t willing to let Riku change his mind, if indeed he had decided to help Axel.

Everyone was waiting in the dining room as usual, it seemed to be the prime meeting place. And when he appeared in the doorway, the low murmur of conversation completely ceased, and eight pairs of eyes looked at him.

“You look like shit,” Leon commented from where he stood, leaning against the wall with arms crossed over his chest. It was a typical, nonchalant position for him.

Axel waved a hand of dismissal. “Yeah, that’s been established already, emo boy. Something else obvious you want to point out?”

“That’s quite enough,” Aeris inserted sharply, glaring at both men with enough force to cause them to clamp their mouths shut. “This isn’t the time for fighting and besides, everyone knows you two are friends anyways so shut it.”

Leon opened his mouth to argue, but another firm look from the redhead and he fell silent, slumping sulkily against the wall. Axel had the graces to look smug, though he didn’t care much for being called that man’s friend.

“I agree,” Merlin quickly replied, well aware that an argument of some kind was likely brewing. He shifted where he sat, at the table with papers, charts, and graphs lay out in front of them. He appeared to be perusing the documents thoughtfully. “After all, time grows short.”

Vincent frowned. “What do you mean?” he asked as Axel stepped inside the room and chose a spot against the wall, refusing to look at anyone. Instead, he twirled a chakram on one finger, occasionally sending spurts of fire to dance on the rim. It was childish, but a part of him feared looking at Riku and Sora; he didn’t want to see the apology in their faces.

“It’s in the damn research,” Cid replied, chomping noisily on a toothpick. He gestured towards the papers in front of the magician. “It takes time for the two to bond fully but once it does, to separate them again creates an entirely new Nobody.”

“In other words, Roxas will cease to exist… forever,” Aeris finished quietly.

There was a quiet ping and a clatter as Axel’s fingers missed the next twirl and his chakram tumbled to the floor. He didn’t even notice when he subtly dismissed it. “What?” he asked, far louder than he had intended. Could that have been why he felt the urge to rush, as if time was slipping through his fingers?

Merlin’s eyes were sympathetic. “It depends entirely on the Nobody, of course, how long precisely it takes… some more than others. But Sora has already expressed that he’s felt Roxas less and less lately.”

Emerald eyes slid to Sora in confirmation, the keyblader nodding his response. Axel slumped against the wall. “How long?” What if it was already too late? What if this method failed and he only had twenty-four hours to find a new answer? The questions whirled about in his brain, cycling over and over in a never-ending demand for answers. Yet, he could only voice the one, slipping strangled past his lips.

Sora shook his head, shrugging. “I don’t know. A month, maybe? I can’t even hear his voice anymore and the weird dreams have stopped.”

Beside him, Riku stirred as if he finally found cause to pay attention to the conversation. Maybe he was sulking, Axel wasn’t quite sure. “Dreams,” he repeated, sounding a bit confused. “This is the first I’ve heard of dreams.”

Sora turned towards him, but before he could respond, Yuffie’s voice rose above all the others. “Which means we shouldn’t waste time talking!” she interjected, rising to her feet and sending her chair careening backwards into a wall. Leon winced as a sharp crack filled the air, yet the ninja didn’t seem to notice, blithely continuing, “Riku and Sora said they’d do it…. so let’s do it!” She finished, pumping a fist into the air and cheering loudly. The fact that no one joined her liveliness didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest.

Aeris, however, smiled. “I agree, Yuffie, though here is probably not the best place. We don’t know what kind of power we’re dealing with.”

She had a point, Axel conceded. The keyblade was one of the strongest weapons in existence and when used deliberately, could invoke a power none of them had even seen before. A lot of its properties still seemed to be unknown, if the research was to be believed at least. Not even the owners knew their full potential. Still, a surge of hope threatened to rise in Axel. The boy heroes had agreed… now all that was left was to try.

“…. would be the canyon,” Leon was saying as Axel returned his attentions to the conversation. He gestured with one hand in the vague direction of Hollow Bastion. “Nothing is out there but some remnant Heartless that have been hiding.” Stormy eyes flickered over those gathered. “That is… if we are all still going through with this.”

When no one objected, Leon nodded. “Good. Let’s go.”

– – – – –

For all the heat of the summer sun, it was strangely chilly in the canyon. Of course, the tension ratcheting up around them might have also had something to do with it. Axel shivered slightly as he shifted position, everything inside of him feeling as if it were coiled in knots with anticipation and worry. It didn’t help that Riku had the look on his face that expressed he felt the same way.

The three of them, himself and the two keybladers, were inside a barrier set up by Aeris and Merlin, in hopes to contain whatever sort of power might explode. The others – Yuffie, Vincent and Leon – were observers on the outside, waiting to see what would happen.

“Are you ready?” Riku asked, a strange note to his voice. He stood facing Sora, a good eight feet of distance between them. Axel was just behind Riku, arms crossed over his chest.

Sora nodded, his face set with determination. “Yeah, Riku. I’ve made my decision.”

The silver-haired boy took a deep breath. “Okay,” he replied quietly, somewhat nervous. “Here goes nothing.”

Riku thrust his hand out to the side, fingers tingling as he summoned his keyblade. Axel watched in fascination as the Way to the Dawn materialized in a sparkle of dark tendrils, quite the contrast. The boy’s fingers wrapped around the hilt, gripping it a bit too tightly. He swung the blade towards Sora, only to gasp softly, Leon’s sharp hearing catching the sound.

“What is it?” the stormy-eyed man questioned, sounding somewhat anxious. He shifted position where he stood outside the barrier, obviously wishing to be within it. Axel was sure he felt quite helpless on the exterior and it made him wonder why Leon was so desperate to protect the keybladers. Did it have something to do with Cloud? Or the reason that everyone couldn’t decide whether to call him Leon or Squall?

Riku shook his head, raising aquamarine eyes to his lover. “I can feel it,” he answered, voice barely above a whisper. “The pulse of two hearts, one fainter than the other, but both there.”

“That is good,” Merlin commented, nodding his head in affirmation. “That means not only is Roxas still present, but he can be extracted. Now’s the perfect time, Riku.”

Obviously reluctant, Riku lifted his shoulders before squaring his stance. The keyblade raised to the air, poised before Sora and Axel held his breath. Ocean blue eyes full of trust gazed continuously at Riku as Sora gave one final nod of agreement. Riku swallowed thickly, loud enough for Axel to hear before he jerked his blade forward, burying the tip of Way to the Dawn deeply in Sora’s chest.

The brunette jerked, a gasp falling from his lips as his eyes widened, but he managed to remain standing. The keyblade took on a dim, purplish-onyx glow as Sora’s name popped out of Riku’s mouth, the tone both surprised and concerned. And then Axel felt it, the sudden surge of power rippling through the air that was strong enough to cause him to release the air he had been holding.

It expelled in a breathy whoosh at the same moment that the Way to the Dawn seemed to pulse in Riku’s grip and Sora’s entire body jolted again. He took one step backwards, before crumpling forward, forcing Riku’s keyblade from his chest and wrapping his arms around his waist. His lips parted, emitting a silent scream before what appeared to be the same colored light as before began streaming out from behind his body.

Roxas began to take form, indistinct and hazy, with eyes closed as if merely contemplating. He wasn’t even substantial; yet, Axel dared to hope. For all of a second, those eyes popped open, the ones that had been his lifeline while stuck on Gaia’s Grotto and they locked onto Axel, causing a shiver to spread throughout his entire body.

He took an unconscious step forward, hand raised as if to touch the boy he was certain he loved, if he held true understanding of the word. Yet, before his fingers could even grasp a tendril, Roxas began to dissolve into nothing, dying and withering away like a pure Nobody would. It was as they had expected but that didn’t make it any easier for Axel to bear. It was like saying goodbye all over again.

Sora collapsed to his knees and Roxas was gone, nothing but a faint imprint on Axel’s eyelids. Still, the firestarter didn’t move, not even with Riku ran forward, concern etched into his features. Emerald eyes continued to stare at the empty spot where Roxas had once stood, as if believing if he stood there long enough, somehow it would make the blond mysteriously return.

“Sora? Sora!”

“It’s all right, Riku! He’s only unconscious.”

“You did fine. Don’t worry. He’ll be just fine.”

Words washed over his consciousness, mechanically registered but little else occurring. A strange feeling of deja vu attacked Axel, as if he were experiencing Roxas walk away all over again. It wasn’t really the same circumstances, but for some reason, it felt the same to him. Something hot prickled at the back of his eyeballs… even if he knew that Roxas was going to be reborn.

Suddenly, he felt a presence at his side and a hand on his arm. He blinked in surprise, looking up to find Vincent standing directly beside him. There was a curious expression in those crimson eyes, one that Axel had seen before but never could interpret.

The winged male nodded. “Let’s go,” Vincent suggested quietly. “Roxas is waiting.”

Axel nodded almost mechanically, glad that someone had retained their senses. He glanced around the canyon, finding that Riku was preoccupied with Sora. The words for gratitude were on his lips and he vowed to say them later, but at the moment, there were more pressing matters. He hurried after Vincent, ignoring the others, as the other male headed for the gummi ship docks.

Cid was waiting for them there, with a ship that he had been tuning up since the night before. And from that morning on, he had been making last minute calibrations as well as programming the new coordinates into the navigational system. They hadn’t wanted to take any of the others with them. Vincent was uncertain what effect Gaia’s Grotto would have on someone who wasn’t originally a resident of the world. He worried for their memories.

Even as they hurried through the outer rim of the town, wasting no time in their quick trip to the docks, Axel couldn’t help the feeling as if he were walking in a dream. Everything felt so surreal, as if he were expecting to wake up at any moment. It seemed too easy, for everything to go so perfectly.

Then again, there was no guarantee that Roxas was at Gaia’s Grotto. Even the research claimed that it could take months before he would arrive. It was different for each person. Axel had figured out that it had taken him a year to appear. Vincent had claimed his was five weeks.

“I can guess by the looks on yer faces, it worked,” Cid’s voice commented, disturbing Axel from his thoughts. The firestarter blinked away the almost nervous daze he was in to find himself standing in the gummi ship hangar next to Vincent. “I only wish I could go with ya.”

Vincent shook his head. “I won’t risk it. We’ll be fine so don’t worry.”

“Can’t help it,” the blond replied with a shrug. “You’re the type that causes a guy to worry. No sacrifices, okay?” he added, reaching up and removing his tags from around his neck. He moved to slide them around Vincent, the chains clanging softly in the nervous air as his fingers brushed across Vincent’s neck and lingered soothingly. “And no forgetting, either.”

The winged male nodded, swallowing thickly. “Promise,” he said softly, dipping his head to accept the tags.

They would be a constant reminder, just as Axel kept the Oblivion chain in his pocket. He even brought Reno’s sunglasses and they were currently propped in his hair, just as the redhead had always worn them. If Gaia’s Grotto tried to pull them back in, it would have a hard time of doing it. Both men were making certain of that.

“Good.” Cid jerked a thumb towards one of his gummi ships, a sleek and shining thing that looked as if it was brand-new. “I’ve got the Highwind all prepped for you. It’s the fastest one I have so take care of her.”

Vincent smiled. “Knew I could count on you, chief,” he said before gesturing towards Axel. “We haven’t any time to waste.”

“Good luck!” Cid called to them as they climbed aboard. Even Axel could hear the worry in his tone so he couldn’t resist a friendly jab,

“With this skill, we won’t need it!” he boasted loudly, a short chuckle escaping his lips as Cid blustered and spluttered. The door to the gummi ship slid closed without him able to make even the smallest retort.

Inside, Vincent slid into the pilot’s seat with his usual grace, wings resettling to resituate themselves in the somewhat cramped confines. Really, the ship was so small Axel was certain they could not have brought anyone else except maybe Yuffie. She could probably fit in all sorts of tiny spaces, that damned thief. She had tried to pilfer him on a few occasions.

Axel plopped himself down into the other seat opposite Vincent as the other male began flipping switches and gadgets that the firestarter couldn’t even begin to contemplate. “I’m impressed,” Axel remarked. “You can fly these things?”

He was met with a scowl. “It’s not that hard,” Vincent responded shortly, flicking another switch and causing the entire gummi ship to shudder as it powered up. “I’m sure you could do it if you tried.”

The grin tried to split his face. “Oooh, let me fly it then,” Axel pressed, already reaching for the wheel in front of him.

Until a clawed hand rapidly shot out and cut him off before he could even so much as touch the damned thing. “No,” Vincent stated simply, shooting Axel a firm stare.

“Why not?” He wasn’t pouting. Nope, that was not him pouting.

The winged male sighed. “I’ll show you some other day, Axel. Now we have more important matters.” He removed his hand from in front of the younger male and placed his fingers on the console, clawed digits easily sliding into steering grooves. The ship literally hummed around them as if feeling the same flurry of excitement and anxiety of its passengers.

“When we get there, we have to first check the system to see if he has arrived yet. If not, then its patrolling the Forgotten Plains. I don’t know–”

“–how long it will take, I know,” Axel quickly cut in. “We’ve gone over this before.” He waved a hand of dismissal, sitting back comfortably in his seat. He wasn’t sure how to trust Vincent’s driving. “I’ll wait there however long it takes.”

Vincent eyed him thoughtfully before his fingers twitched on the controls. “Are you ready?”

A cocky grin spread across the former Nobody’s face. “Just go, vampy,” Axel teased, the strange feeling that they had to hurry again attacking him. At this point, he had begun to trust his instincts. Somehow, he just knew that Roxas was already there and waiting. He couldn’t explain it… he just knew.

Vincent breathed a heavy sigh in slight exasperation, rolling his eyes. “Some days I wonder why I put up with you,” he replied with a scowl before quickly causing the ship to rise into the air, the Highwind shuddering slightly.

The firestarter felt a treble of excitement run through his body. “I’m coming, Roxas,” he murmured more to himself than to Vincent. “I’m coming.”

– – – – –

They arrived in Gaia’s Grotto at what would have been twilight, if the daylight ever changed in the world. It was raining as usual, hard and heavy droplets that splattered noisily against the windshield of the Highwind. Axel and Vincent exited the gummi ship and landed in a noisy squelch on the grass of the Forgotten Plains, which looked, for the most part, deserted.

“Try not to kill anyone,” Vincent suggested, clawed hand reaching for his gun and automatically checking to make sure it was loaded.

Axel twirled a chakram on his finger. “I’m not making any promises,” he responded as they started forward, heading immediately for the huge, dark gates looming just beyond them. Vincent had landed as close to the gates as possible, to shorten the amount of walking time.

The gates were wide open, the two guards standing at the aperture asleep on their feet as Reno was prone to doing. Axel felt a twinge of regret the moment he saw them, but was glad for the opportunity to slip by without having to hurt anyone. He would resort to force if necessary but was loathe to actually killing any of the residents.

They managed to sneak by those guards without a problem, slipping into the gatehouse with nary a problem. Vincent seemed concerned by this, his forehead pinched with worry and a frown pulling at his lips. “I suspected more difficulty,” he commented quietly as they passed down the silent corridors. “Considering your explosion of power and us disappearing in front of dozens, I would have thought security would tighten.”

Axel shrugged. “Why would it? You think they’d expect us to come back?”

“No, I suppose not.”

Vincent stopped at the first doorway and tested the handle. It slid open with nary a creak and the dark-haired man peered inside, finding the room to be completely deserted. He gestured for Axel to follow him and the two slid inside, closing the door behind them and throwing the lock so that they would have some warning should an attack commence.

Inside, Axel allowed himself a brief sigh of relief. Despite the fact that they were at Gaia’s Grotto and he could already feeling the subtle tugging at his emotions and memories, he knew he was that much closer to Roxas. He watched as Vincent sat down at one of the many consoles in the room, sliding his wrist under the scanner.

The computer beeped and trilled before the monitor blinked into life, bringing up a scrolling screen of some sort of language the firestarter did not recognize. Curious, he moved to stand at Vincent’s shoulder, ever mindful of his wings. He peered over the other man at the screen.

“What is it?” he asked, slightly fascinated. As a Guardian, he never had to take part in any of the computer work. Nor did he have any use for learning any of the different languages that were spoken on Gaia’s Grotto. Other than the universal tongue, there were a few that he had not known… residents from worlds that didn’t seem to know common.

Clawed fingers began clicking over the keyboard, opening and closing windows on the monitor faster than Axel could even contemplate them. “This is Gaia’s network,” Vincent explained succinctly. “The Council keeps records of all of the arrivals on this world and we gatherers use the network to track newcomers as well as check the status on them.”

“Meaning?”

Vincent sighed in slight exasperation before his hand moved to the mouse and he clicked a symbol on the monitor that Axel thought he recognized. “I can find out whether or not Roxas has arrived and if he has, where he has been taken or which stage he is at.”

The computer bleeped and brought up a new screen, this one with a series of charts on it in the common tongue. Axel’s eyes immediately scanned it, realizing that it was a list of people, and next to their names was their current status. Vincent’s hand rose and tapped the display, claw clicking against the thick glass.

“There,” he stated, pushing back his chair and rising to his feet. “Roxas is already here.” Vincent frowned slightly, his brow furrowing in deep thought.

Green eyes widened. “That quickly?”

The winged male nodded. “Yes, I am surprised as well. It took us less than six hours to get here by gummi ship. I can’t help but wonder what the defining factor is.” He paused before shaking his head. “But… it doesn’t matter now. We have to hurry. He’s at this moment being taken before the Council.”

Axel shivered, remembering the eight monitors, the sneering voices and the shadowy figures. The power behind Gaia’s Grotto… those unidentified people, they were who he had to both blame and thank. He was grateful for the second chance but he hated them for the time he spent suffering on their godforsaken paradise. And he couldn’t deny that the eerie feeling they practically exuded made him believe they were far from the good guys.

“Is there any possibility he was like me?” Axel asked as Vincent headed to the door, pulling it open and peering into the hallway before gesturing for the firestarter to follow him.

Vincent’s gun returned to his hand as he started to creep into the hallway. “He was not found by one of the enlightened Gatherers… he probably doesn’t remember anything,” he replied quietly. He regarded Axel over his shoulder with one crimson eye. “It is up to you to remind him.”

The former Nobody nodded, one hand dipping into his pocket to double-check that he still carried the Oblivion key chain. It was his trump card. The one item he had of Roxas’ past. If his voice was not strong enough, or his face forgotten by Roxas, then he would use the key chain. Outside of that, Axel had no other hope.

They stepped out into the courtyard of the gatehouse, able to plainly see the Council headquarters less than a block away. The rain was falling heavier now, in thick sheets that made it difficult to see. Still, they could clearly make out the forms of a multitude of guards patrolling the grounds.

“Nothing to it,” Vincent muttered grimly. “We’ll have to fight our way.” His finger thumbed his gun, sliding a bullet into the chamber with an audible click that gathered attention.

One guard turned their way, whipping his body around before immediately raising his weapon, a dual-bladed polearm towards them. “Intruders!” he yelled, already moving to attack. “Stop them!”

A fireball surged past Vincent as the winged man darted forward, gun raised and firing off rounds faster than Axel could count. The blazing sphere took out the guard that had raised the alarm as more and more nameless faces called out battle cries and attacked. Emerald eyes looked desperately towards the building just steps away and he wondered if they would make it in time.

Then his senses flared and he was forced to duck the swing of an impressive hammer that looked as if it could squash his entire body within seconds. Axel whirled around, shooting out a chakram in the same moment and successfully striking the hand of his attacker. The overgrown hammer flew out of his grip, flipping through the air and taking out another rock.

Axel gave him no time to recover as he darted forward and jabbed a fist in the guy’s gut, a whoosh of air escaping his opponent’s mouth as he doubled over and collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath. The firestarter smirked and stepped over him, smoothly intercepting his chakram as it returned to his hand.

Another approached from the left and Axel twirled to the side, avoiding the long reach of a spear. Were all their weapons that massive? He couldn’t help but wonder as he nimbly leapt to the right. His opponent’s eyes flashed and he altered his attack, suddenly swinging the large spear horizontally rather than jabbing it.

Axel leapt into the air, high above the swinging spear and twisted his body. He landed nimbly behind his opponent and brought his chakram up, smacking it against his attacker’s head. It was enough to knock him out, but not kill him. As that guy crumpled to the ground, Axel darted forward, plowing through a crowd of three more, two men and a woman, not even bothering to fight them properly. A quick burst of fire had them scurrying out of his way.

He paused, turning to find Vincent and was surprised that the winged man was actually just behind him, practically on his heels. A gunshot rang out as Vincent shot one of the guards in the leg, disabling him. Those eerie crimson eyes turned toward Axel as he hurriedly reloaded, their steps taking them closer and closer to the council building.

“Don’t bother fighting,” Vincent urged, snapping his clip in with an audible click. “Just run and stop what gets in your way.”

Axel nodded, already twirling his chakram on his hands as he turned and burst forward, slipping into a slinking run. Vincent’s bullets flew past him as he backed the firestarter up, clearing what few dared to step into their path. His chakram flew from his fingers, knocking more weapons to the ground. Some guards had given up as they saw them approach, fright a dull emotion on their face before they turned and run, unwilling to face what appeared to be two demons.

They broke through the meager guards in front of the doors and shoved their way into the main building, slamming inside. Axel immediately turned as Vincent slipped inside and sent a flash of searing heat at the doors, melting the metal and sealing them together. No more guards would be coming in through that method, which would buy them ten minutes at least and save them a short worry about being attacked from the back.

Axel smirked and turned back around, his eyes widening when he was met with ten guards, dead expressions and serious weapons in their grasp. Yet, he was not even the slightest bit concerned. His lips curled into a sneer as he exchanged glances with Vincent, who was equally unimpressed.

Something passed between them that needed no words before the two males sprang forward, Vincent to the right and Axel to the left. Three successive bangs echoed in Axel’s ears and he smiled, knowing that three of the guards were already down for the count. Their opponents hadn’t even had time to attack first.

Green eyes centered on his own enemies, sending each of his chakram out to intercept two attacks before he met one in the middle head on. He grinned into the woman’s face as his hands wrapped around her wrist, stopping the attack of her chain before she could even whip it towards him. Belatedly he realized that he knew this person.

It was Quistis.

He startled in surprise, his hold weakening. “Quistis!” he exclaimed, heart beating a mad rhythm in his chest. Don’t hurt them, Vincent had said. And now Axel could see why. Because they never knew if the person they were fighting was someone who had just wanted to be saved.

For a moment, there was the vaguest flicker of recognition, the tiniest fraction of some sort of hint that Quistis was buried beneath the mind warping but then those beautiful eyes narrowed and the woman used his hesitation against him. She jerked her weapon out of his hold and kicked out at him, putting some space between them.

Axel sprang backwards, hands shooting to the side as his chakram returned to them in a swirl of flame.

Quistis wasted no time in attacking, no sound emerging from her form as she swung the chained whip in his direction. Axel smoothly avoided it, raising one hand so that their weapons met with a clang of steel on steel. She squared her jaw and jerked the whip back, each link sliding with a grating noise over his chakram’s points. He was loathe to hurt her but he felt the press of time on his back and shoulders. He had to get to Roxas.

Two more bullets fired in the background. He had no time to waste. Mentally apologizing to Quistis, Axel darted forward, easily catching the whip when it came whipping towards his head again. The chain’s stung as he caught it in his bare hands, but he ignored the pain, jerking on the links and causing her to stumble towards him.

He took that opportunity to snap the whip in his hold, stepping forward in the same movement so that it wrapped around Quistis, pinning her arms at her side. She was restrained by her own weapon and collapsed over on her side, unable to even stay on her feet. He dropped the end he held to the floor with an audible clank.

She looked up at him with what might have been annoyance and anger. Had she been a creature without muted emotions. But here on Gaia’s Grotto, it could only be described as impassive resignation. He wanted to save her but he didn’t have the time.

“I’m sorry,” Axel whispered, shaking his head as he moved past her. Guilt surged up thick and stifling, reminding him that he was truly no better than before. Just the same selfish, reckless kid that had ended the existence of Nobodies and manipulated others to satisfy his ends.

Another guard stepped in front of him, but Axel didn’t even look at it before sending a fireball in its direction. He couldn’t bear to see their identity. He didn’t want to know who else he was leaving behind just to save one person. It didn’t matter that Roxas wasn’t just a person to him, he wasn’t just a being that needed saving. Roxas was his everything.

But that didn’t make the guilt fade. And Axel couldn’t help but wonder when he started thinking beyond himself. When had he started caring about his actions in terms of others?

That ended the short battle, and Axel turned back towards Vincent, finding that the winged man had easily dispatched the rest of the guards. But shouted voices and the sound of boots stomping across the ground alerted them to the fact that more were coming. They couldn’t afford to linger.

His eyes finding the elevator he had used on his first and only visit to the center, Axel started towards it. But Vincent grabbed his arm, tugging him off to the right, away from the elevator.

Confused, Axel furrowed his brow. “What are you doing?” he asked as he was pulled across the floor, ignoring the gaping stares of those that weren’t some sort of soldier or guard. “The elevators–” He was cut off as a loud and piercing siren suddenly sounded throughout the center

“They’ve activated their defense systems,” Vincent explained as they burst through one of the side doors, it swinging open with a loud screech. Axel looked around, finding that they were in a stairwell, which was mostly silent.

“Which means they’ve shut off the elevators.”

Axel groaned when it became apparent that Vincent meant for them to take the stairs, running the entire time. “All eight floors?” he complained as they began their climb, boots echoing hollowly in the empty stairwell.

“Think of it as exercise,” Vincent responded in his familiar monotone. Though the red-haired male thought he detected a hint of amusement. “You were getting rather flabby.”

Emerald eyes narrowed as Axel resisted the urge to stop and glare at the other male. “Was that a joke?” he demanded tersely as they continued climbing, his gaze catching sight of a sign that declared they were passing the fifth floor. “Because you’re the one that was lying around moping.”

“I don’t make jokes,” Vincent denied, but there was a sparkle in crimson eyes that hadn’t been there before. Not while they were in Gaia’s Grotto and not before the reconciliation with his lover.

Axel grinned, unable to resist teasing the closest person he could consider a friend outside of Roxas. “Cid’s good for you. The sex must be great.”

Vincent immediately bristled, the sparkle in his eyes turning into a full glare. Yet, before he could even formulate the proper counter, they were at the eighth floor landing.

The winged man was the first to step forward, jerking open the door with little subtlety. Axel headed in first, hands ready to spray flame at anything that dared cross his path. Even as he did so, however, he could feel his energy beginning to lag. Perhaps there had been truth to Vincent’s teasing.

But the hall in front of them was completely devoid of any persons, enemy or not. White-washed with grey tile, it was wide open and spacious, yet completely empty. It was strange since Axel couldn’t even sense the presence of any enemies. There was no subtle trill of danger in the air. Perhaps the council was arrogant enough to believe that they didn’t have any worry about enemies making it to the eighth floor.

Behind him, Vincent stepped out of the stairwell, pausing to close the door quietly. “Head to the right,” he calmly directed, wings twitching restlessly. “The council room is close to here.” A strange, solemn look crossed his features. “I only hope that the battles did not make us too late.”

Axel nodded, a strange feeling coiling in his belly. It sang like anticipation, but carried with it a note of trepidative discord. He stepped down the fall, following Vincent’s directions. His fingers curled tightly around his chakram, driven by the continuous, unsettling notion of something.

He could feel it, the subtle pull of Gaia’s Grotto on his heart and wondered if Vincent did as well. It was no easy thing to ignore, curling with tendrils around his soul, trying to leech into his memories and steal everything that was important to him. Axel swallowed thickly and clung tightly to his memories, even going so far as to recall one that was really important to him.

It wasn’t that something important had happened that day, or even that it was a special day. But he retained it nonetheless, one of those small memories that fought to keep him sane before he ever could begin to hope to ever see Roxas again.

Clang! Clank! Screeech!

Axel jerked backwards and grinned as he and Roxas separated, the blond panting just as heavily as Axel. They had been at it for over two hours, exchanging blows and barbs until both of them were coated in sweat, in desperate need of a bath. Axel’s hair hung limply on his head, no longer in its familiar spikes and Roxas’ hair clung to his forehead and neck.

“Giving up?” Roxas was breathless, his skin flushed from their exertions. He stood in his battle position nonetheless, always ready for Axel’s next attack. They both knew how crafty the firestarter could be, sometimes attacking when the battle was believed to be done and over.

The firestarter grinned, twirling a chakram on one finger. “Pfft. Against you? Never.”

Roxas’ eyes glinted with that hint of feeling that Axel always thought he detected even though they weren’t supposed to have them. “You can barely hang onto your chakram,” he argued sensibly, idly letting one keyblade disappear as he pretended to inspect Oblivion. Roxas was always able to pull off nonchalance so well, as opposed to Axel who always looked like he was up to something.

And usually he was, but that was besides the point. “And?” Axel countered, waiting for Roxas to give him a good reason. Except, his stomach chose that moment to give a very audible protest, rumbling and proving that he was indeed starved.

The blond gave him one of those stares; Axel was quickly learning to identify them. This particular stare was one of bemusement. “You wouldn’t happen to be hungry would you?” he questioned dryly. He tilted his head to the side. “Though I think Vexen is supposed to be cooking today.”

Axel made a face of disgust and dropped out of his fighting stance, letting his chakram disappear in a short flash of orange flame. “Everything he cooks is raw and cold.” After all, what did he expect from someone called the ‘Chilly Academic’. He stepped towards Roxas, joining the other Nobody who was letting Oblivion disappear as well.

And everything you make is burnt.”

The firestarter stuck his tongue out at him as he reached and poked Roxas in the shoulder teasingly. He towered over the blond by a good foot but somehow, Roxas held such a presence that they seemed the same height. It was strange but Axel rather liked it that way.

Then the perfect suggestion came to mind. “Maybe we can sneak out to one of them other worlds and get some real food, hmm? Whaddya say?” Axel was always one ready to escape from the castle. It was stifling and more often than not, someone was looking for him just to ask who exactly had set their robes on fire, etc.

Roxas scowled. “You just want to cause trouble. You’ve already been scolded once for shirking your duties.”

Emerald eyes rolled. “That was Marluxia and he was only pissed because he thinks I’m the one that set fire to his green house.”

But you were.”

That’s not the point.”

The two Nobodies shared a short glaring contest, which Roxas won before they started down the hallway, ignoring the shadows that always seemed to be reaching for them. Axel did, however, kept a firm eye out for Vexen, the Chilly Academic always one for spying. Sometimes Zexion was creeping around in the darkness as well. No one was quite sure what he did and frankly, no one really wanted to ask either.

So you wanna go or not?” Axel asked, turning towards Roxas. “We can head to that one world… you know, the one that had those cakes at that fair. It was a desert town.” He paused putting his hands on his chin in consideration. “Was it Aveh?”

Yeah it was.” Roxas looked at him with amusement. “You’ve got a memory full of sand, “ he teased. “And you’re going to get fat if you keep eating those things.”

If Axel had a heart, it would’ve skipped a beat. That strange sensation in his chest, some sort of something surged when Roxas looked at him like that. There wasn’t even anything unique about it but for some reason, it made Axel feel a minute measure of happiness, or his rendition of happiness. It made him feel alive; it made him feel for a moment that there was something beating in his chest. Like his existence was more than just… being there.

Roxas had the most vivid eyes, a shimmering, ocean blue that always betrayed his true thoughts. The Key of Destiny had the amazing talent of keeping his face schooled into a lack of expression. But his eyes, he could never quite keep it from his eyes and Axel had already learned how to interpret them.

Axel?”

It took a minute for the firestarter to realize he had completely stopped walking and had been staring at his best friend, almost in complete rapture. He blushed before he could stop himself, turning away from Roxas slightly and hoping that his friend couldn’t see the faint red staining his pale skin.

He blinked before grinning, feeling sheepish. He raked a hand through his hair. “Sorry about that. What were you saying?”

Roxas gave him a strange look but continued. “I said, let’s go then. And hurry about it. Before Xemnas finds us missing.”

Axel laughed again. “I knew you’d see things my way.”

“Axel.”

Vincent’s voice disturbed him from his memories and he blinked, suddenly returning to reality. Axel regarded the winged man with cool green eyes. Vincent stared back impassively, gesturing towards the door with his head. Axel hadn’t even realized that they had stopped walking, and followed his directive with his eyes.

“We’re here.”

 

[KH] Desperate Reflections 17

Interlude Five – Here In Your Arms

~ Part One ~

A mouth covered his, bringing with it the familiar flavor of tea that Vincent had never forgotten, not even in the sixteen year gap. It had been one of those memories that he had clung to, reminding himself over and over of the tiny things that struck a chord inside him of his lover and his past life. He parted his lips to let the slick tongue inside, enjoying the slow and gentle slide of Cid’s mouth over his.

Earlier had been the frantic and hurried lovemaking, the reminder of what they were to each other. The relief that they had found each other again. It was the hurried movements of men starved for the touch of one another, of being without one another for a time that seemed beyond comprehension. But now it was the time for something slow, something that would finally ease the loneliness that it seemed they had lived in for so long.

Vincent sighed contently, the sound issuing from his throat as he reached up and threaded his arms around Cid’s neck, arching his body closer to the warmth that hovered just above him. Cid was more than happy to comply, shifting his weight so that he pressed their erect groins together. He had to be careful not to apply too much weight lest he crush his lover’s delicate wings. One hand slid along the pale man’s side, calloused thumb ghosting over scars that weren’t there before he disappeared.

“You’re beautiful,” he whispered against Vincent’s lips, words nearly lost in the sounds of their heavy breathing.

Vincent’s hand traced along his lover’s back, ever mindful of his claws. “I’m not human,” he responded. He pressed himself closer to Cid, still unable to let go of the truth that they were finally together again. It seemed like a dream, that he had finally been freed from his nightmares.

“Doesn’t matter,” Cid answered succinctly as he pulled back far enough to look into uniquely colored crimson eyes. “You’re human where it counts.”

A surge of emotion for the man he had loved since he was old enough to understand what that meant rose up inside of Vincent. He swallowed back tears of pure relief, even if he didn’t really believe Cid’s words. He reached up with one hand, lightly cupping the side of Cid’s face. His fingers slid roughly over an unshaven jaw, but Vincent preferred it that way.

“Where it counts,” he repeated, the words coming out more of a question.

Desire simmered behind sky blue eyes as Cid nodded, turning his head to draw the claw-tipped fingers into his mouth. He gently rolled three of the digits around his tongue, nibbling on the skin and taking care not to cut himself on the sharpened nails. Vincent’s eyelids fluttered at the extremely sensual sensation and he shivered, his free hand tightening on Cid’s shoulder.

“I never stopped dreaming of you,” the winged man whispered, feeling the sudden need to say such things. They never were quite the lovey-dovey, sickening sweet couple like others, but they cared for each other in their own special way.

But with what Vincent had endured, what he had suffered and how much he had longed to be with Cid again, he felt the need to express his true feelings. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you and Zack.”

Cid let Vincent’s fingers slip from his mouth as he dipped his head down and kissed his lover, a slow and lingering kiss. He gently explored Vincent’s mouth with his tongue, sliding among each crevice and reminding himself of Vincent’s own unique flavor. He leaned forward on one hand before reaching between their bodies with the other.

His touch slid along Vincent’s side, fingers caressing over scarred skin as he glided down to rest on Vincent’s hip. His thumb dipped into the small hollow at the hipbone, calloused fingertip rubbing a circular motion. A murmur of content echoed in Vincent’s throat at the teasing touch as he arched closer to his lover.

“Wha’d I tell you bout ‘pologizin’?” Cid muttered as he drew away from the kiss. His fingers danced over pale flesh, sliding around to cup a shapely buttock. He shifted his hips forward, rocking their reawakened shafts together and sending a warm flush of arousal throughout his entire body.

Vincent moaned and tightened his grip, lightly digging his claws into Cid’s skin though the man didn’t seem to mind. “I’ve forgotten,” he panted, desire surging up inside of his body once more. Blood began to flood southwards, making it difficult to think.

Cid chuckled. “Then I’ll just have to remind you,” he murmured before drawing back from his lover.

The sudden loss of draping warmth startled Vincent and his eyes popped open. He hadn’t even realized he closed them. He shot his lover a strange look, trying not to pout in a far too prissy fashion, but Cid merely patted him on the thigh.

“Sit up,” he asked nicely, shifting on the bed slightly.

Still somewhat confused, Vincent rose to his knees, his wings fluttering behind him. They stretched with slow movements, as if glad to not be trapped beneath his body. Sometimes he swore they had a mind of their own. The bed dipped and Cid appeared behind him.

Calloused hands settled on Vincent’s hips as he was gently tugged backwards, his ass finding itself nestled on Cid’s lap, directly over a burgeoning arousal. One hand remained planted on Vincent’s hip, a thumb rubbing soothing circles, as the other rose up and brushed dark strands of hair aside. Stubble scraped along pale skin as Cid placed a warm, open-mouthed kiss to Vincent’s shoulder.

“Did I ever tell you that I have a secret fetish for fangs?” he wondered aloud, nudging at Vincent’s cheek with his nose.

The crimson-eyed man interpreted him correctly and turned his head, lining up their lips directly. Cid pressed forward, closing the mere inches between them and sealing their mouths together in a kiss. He slid his tongue into Vincent’s warm and moist mouth, striking the wet appendage across fangs which were like new territory for him to explore.

He could feel Vincent’s wings brushing against the bare skin of his chest, warm and velvety soft and Cid didn’t feel repulsed in the slightest. The appendages were as beautiful as the rest of his lover. And he planned on proving just that, sensing that Vincent was reluctant to believe he was human still.

Vincent moaned into his mouth, the sound coming out more like a deep-throated growl as one of Cid’s free hands worked between their bodies. His finger rubbed across Vincent’s anus, stroking along muscle already loosened from their earlier excursions. The digit slid inside easily and Cid crooked his finger, barely brushing it across Vincent’s prostrate.

His lover surged in his lap, shifting his hips to press backwards on the welcome intrusion as Cid continued to kiss him senseless, their tongues sliding on one another in a languorous fashion. Vincent’s hand fell on Cid’s thigh, gripping tightly and nearly drawing blood. His lover’s other hand crept around his body, skimming over ivory flesh before his fingers sought pale, pink nipples.

Cid brushed across the flattened discs, applying feather-light touches as his sex hardened swiftly. The head of his penis brushed across the soft skin of Vincent’s ass, leaving a streak of clear precome in its wake. His lover moaned encouragingly in his throat as Cid added a second finger, causing shockwaves of pleasure to reverberate through Vincent.

The winged man broke off the kiss with a wet smack and a sigh, his teeth nipping gently on Cid’s bottom lip. “Is this a new fetish?” he questioned teasingly, his body moving sinuously against Cid’s. Even his wings seemed to have picked up on the rhythm, settling gently on his back rather than moving restlessly.

Cid chuckled, trailing his lips over the exposed column of Vincent’s neck before moving to the nape, nuzzling the finer hairs there. “Does it matter?” he asked, removing his fingers from Vincent’s anus with a parting brush over the man’s prostrate.

Vincent surged in his lap, growling appreciatively. His tongue tracing light circles on the succulent flesh in front of him, Cid quickly stroked a palm over his arousal, spreading the precome. He was far too lazy to find the lube and truthfully, Vincent was still slick from the first time around not but moments before. His belly quivered in anticipation, his cock leaping with the remembrance of feeling Vincent’s tight heat wrapped around him.

“Less talking, more touching,” Vincent muttered, arching backwards towards Cid. Every muscle in his body was tensed in waiting, hovering on the precipice of desire.

Cid’s hand settled on Vincent’s hip, moving to guide his lover. “As you wish,” he murmured, pressing his lips to Vincent’s shoulder. He thrust upwards, pressing the head of his sex to Vincent’s stretched entrance. He teased the opening for several seconds and Vincent impatiently surged backwards, taking him deeply inside in one quick movement until he was seated on Cid’s lap.

A low mutter of curses escaped Cid’s mouth before he could stop them and his fingers tightened on Vincent’s hip. He panted, his mind ablaze with the consuming feeling of Vincent’s inner walls clenching around him. It felt right, entirely like he had finally found that missing piece of himself. Vincent moaned, low and throaty as Cid settled deep inside of him.

“Gods, Cid. Move,” he commanded after a moment, an attractive pink flush spreading across his ivory skin, accompanied by a light sheen of sweat.

The blond was more than willing to obey. Flexing upwards with his hips, the position enabling him to little more than small rolling movements, Cid thrust inside of Vincent. The winged man shivered, matching him thrust for thrust.

“So beautiful,” Cid couldn’t help but comment, dipping his head slightly to brush his lips over the spot on Vincent’s back where darkening skin gradually gave way to wing. The response was electrifying.

Vincent’s fingers flexed against the flesh of his leg, digging in as his entire body shuddered with arousal. A wordless cry of pleasure emanated from his mouth. Cid smirked.

“Hmm, feel good, did it?” he questioned, following up the words by running his tongue lightly over the edge of one velvety wing. It shivered in response and he was surprised by how smooth the flesh of the appendage was. Not leathery like they appeared and he expected, but coated in a very light brushing of fine hairs that felt silky to the touch.

Not ceasing his steady rhythm and receiving only incoherent replies from his lover, Cid decided to attempt a little experiment. He slid his hand from Vincent’s hip to gently trace the outline of one wing. His lips followed the line, the scent of his lover rising up around him in steadying waves. It was intoxicating.

When Vincent groaned, thrusting his hips sharply against Cid’s, it was all the proof the pilot needed. He felt a groan of need escaping his own mouth from hearing all the sounds from his lover. And Vincent was indeed beautiful. Muscles shifting strongly beneath delicate, ivory skin. He moved sinuously, always as if he were dancing or something equally graceful.

Vincent’s head fell back onto his shoulder as Cid’s fingers ghosted over nipples before gliding downwards to wrap around Vincent’s straining erection. His hands encountered Vincent’s other hand and he entwined his fingers with his lover’s own. His fingers continuously smoothed over the delicate flesh of Vincent’s wing as he stroked his lover, determined to prove that he still loved Vincent despite the changes.

“I love you,” he murmured in his gasping lover’s ear before curling a tongue around the shell, eliciting another sharp cry of arousal.

“Always,” Vincent responded, turning his head to quickly capture Cid’s lips before pulling back. Crimson eyes burned with passion and adoration, a sheer joy in having returned to his lover. “I never stopped.” He shifted his hips backwards, forcing Cid to go deeper.

The blond groaned, releasing Vincent’s wing before he crushed it and sliding his arm around Vincent’s waist, pulling him closer. “Mushy stuff,” he muttered good-humoredly, burying his face in the back of Vincent’s neck and brushing his lips across the flesh there. He could feel the subtle tightening and flexing of Vincent around him that indicated his lover was close and increased the rate of his stroking.

“Get over it,” Vincent gasped in response, a burning hot fire racing through his veins and curling in his belly. He could feel the heat of Cid’s body against his, the continued assault of Cid on his prostrate and the loving touches across a body he thought he would forever hate. His heart literally swelled inside of him.

His entire body stiffened as he came, spilling his seed over he and Cid’s combined touch. The warm liquid splashed out onto the comforter but neither seemed to care as pleasure wracked his entire body. Vincent moaned something wordless, it might have been Cid’s name, as he pressed his hips backwards, taking his lover as deep as he could do.

One, two… perhaps three thrusts later, pulled in by the tightly clenching muscles and his lover’s abandoned cry of release, Cid groaned and released. He spilled himself deep inside of Vincent, a primal part of him feeling as if he were making a claim, reminding the winged man that they were meant to be together. His arm tightened around Vincent’s waist, holding him close and crushing the man’s wings against his chest as he rode out the last of the spasms.

Vincent turned his head, capturing up Cid’s lips in an almost desperate and hungry kiss, sliding their tongues together. He relaxed against his lover’s hold, molding himself to Cid’s body as they came down. Teeth gently nipped on the flesh of his lip before the kiss gradually became gentler, slower.

He carefully retracted his hold on Cid’s thigh, his muscles relaxing as the rest of his body cooled, his heartbeat returning to a normal rhythm. Cid’s mouth left his, pressing to the back of his shoulder. It was quiet, calm between them for the moment and Cid gradually relaxed his touch, enabling Vincent to grab their combined hands and bring them up to his mouth.

His tongue flicked across their soiled fingers, cleaning up the spatters of cooling semen that had flecked there. Most had landed on the bed. Cid groaned at the erotic display, unable to help a little payback as he uncoiled his free hand from Vincent’s belly and reached to slide it along the edge of Vincent’s wing.

Vincent shivered before lapping up the last of the droplets and turning to shoot his lover an amused look. “Pervert,” he teased affectionately.

Cid grinned. “Of course, I am. But I’m allowed to be. You’re mine,” he retorted, flexing his fingers in Vincent’s grip.

His lover rolled his eyes. “Glad to see that possessive streak hasn’t faded,” Vincent responded before moving to slide gently away from Cid. He let his lover slip out of his body as he stretched, muscle shifting beneath his skin. “We made a mess of the bed.”

A laugh echoed around Cid’s bedroom. “After eleven years, do you think that bothers me?” he asked rhetorically, unable to resist groping Vincent’s ass as he shifted position, stretching his legs out across the bed. He winced as his muscles protested the action.

“Sixteen,” Vincent corrected quietly as he shoved the soiled comforter down to the floor. One of them would clean it later, he was sure. “For me it was sixteen.” He turned to regard his lover, their eyes meeting.

Cid’s heart thrummed a heavy beat inside of his chest. “And yet, ya never forgot me,” he responded.

“I made a promise, remember?” Vincent moved to sit on the bed, his wings settling into a comfortable position behind him. He grabbed his hair with one claw, idly twisting it into something that would stay out of his eyes. “You kept yours.”

Cid grunted. “Yeah, and it’s killing me.” He gestured towards the nightstand and the small cup of wooden toothpicks resting on it. “Those things just ain’t cuttin’ it.”

“Your lungs are thanking me,” Vincent retorted, his hands falling back down to his sides as he swept his gaze over the room, taking in details he hadn’t bothered to register earlier.

Truly, nothing had changed in all the years he had gone. Cid was still messy and gummi ship parts littered much of the available space. Though this home wasn’t the one Vincent remembered, their shared home had been destroyed when the Heartless attacked apparently, it still carried that familiar Cid aura. Carefully controlled disaster.

Beside Vincent, Cid rolled his eyes, sensing that his lover had gone into his mind again, as he was wont to do before disappearing. At least in that, nothing had changed. He reached forward and wrapped his fingers around Vincent’s arm, dragging his lover into his hold before Vincent could even work up a protest.

“You took too long,” he muttered, relishing the feel of Vincent’s warm skin against his. He might not have remembered Vincent during the absence, but the unmistakable sensation that he was missing something was always present. His bed always felt too cold, no matter how many blankets he used or how the heat was turned on. And he never felt whole.

He might have forgotten Vincent’s face and his voice, might have forgotten the boy he had grown up next to, but he hadn’t forgotten how he felt. A certain part of him still knew that he already loved someone. It was why he had shied away from all relationships, why he had given up smoking despite not remembering who he had made what promise to.

In his hold, Vincent sighed. “You didn’t even remember.”

“That’s not the point,” Cid countered. “I didn’t have to remember everything because all I needed to know was that I missin’ somethin’, waiting on somethin’ to happen. I didn’t have to remember your name to know that I didn’t want anyone else.”

Vincent shifted, unhappy memories cropping up in his mind. He didn’t want to, but he did. It built up within him before he could stop it, the memories that he wished he could forget, that some shadow beast would come along and consume them. Gaia’s Grotto had been his own personal hell and only his desire to keep his promise and return to Cid had saved him.

“You kept me sane,” he admitted quietly, unconsciously furling closer to his lover. He didn’t know if the nightmares would ever fade. “In that hell, without anything to hold on to, I would have become just like the others… a mindless slave to some system.”

Cid’s arms tightened around him. “That damn Hojo,” he hissed angrily, blue eyes narrowing. “It’s his fuckin’ fault. I’ll wring his scrawny neck when I see him next. You shouldn’t have gone through that.” He paused, reconsidering his actions as Vincent listened quietly, warm puffs of air ghosting across Cid’s bare chest. “Hell, that damn brat shouldn’t have either.”

It went without saying whom Cid was referring to.

Vincent smirked at the thought of Axel and Cid actually becoming friends. The blond was a softie, after all; he just didn’t want to admit it. He and Axel were both stubborn like that, probably why Vincent had been attracted to the younger boy in the first place. He and Cid had a lot in common, though he didn’t think it would go over too well if he told either to their face.

“You only pretended to dislike Axel, didn’t you?” he questioned.

The blond snorted. “Kid’s too cocky. Needs to be taken down a notch.” His fingers twitched against Vincent’s back, suddenly feeling a need for a cigarette though he hadn’t picked up one up in several years. He would keep his promise.

“Maybe you’re right.” Vincent nipped Cid gently on the shoulder before sitting up, Cid reluctantly allowing him to slide from his arms. “How about a shower?”

Cid could only grin in response, naughty thoughts running through his mind. He grabbed his lover and quickly pressed their lips together, slipping his tongue inside of Vincent’s mouth in a kiss that would make the winged man melt. Predictably, Vincent molded against him, no less aggressive as he pressed forward to deepen the kiss.

“We aren’t going to make it to the shower if you keep doing that,” Vincent murmured against Cid’s lips, unable to resist the urge to lightly trace his fingers over Cid’s abdomen. The muscles quivered under his touch quite invitingly. “Then again, I haven’t had my turn yet.”

Cid groaned, fingers flexing against Vincent’s hip. “Did I happen to mention how glad I am that you’re back?” he asked, his eyes beginning to darken with emotion.

“Not recently,” Vincent whispered, dipping his head to trace his tongue over the shell of Cid’s ear. His fangs nipped against the cartilage and Cid shivered. “I wouldn’t mind hearing it again considering that I feel the same.”

Cid hummed approvingly, a deep-throated purr that rumbled in his chest. “Love ya, Vin,” he replied, already moving to pull his lover closer.

“Love you,” Vincent returned, nibbling one last time on the curve of Cid’s jaw before pulling away from Cid’s reaching hold. “Shower first. The rest later.”

Cid’s legs reluctantly slid to the edge of the bed. “Tease,” he accused good-naturedly, his eyes sparkling with happiness. It was the same look that Vincent remembered, one that he had kept close to his heart in Gaia’s Grotto, and his heart flipped at the sight.

It was so damn good to be home.

~ Part Two ~

With Vincent and Axel occupying the only guest room in Leon’s house, though both boys doubted Vincent was actually staying with Axel anymore, Riku and Sora had been remanded to either staying with Cid or taking up one of the rooms in the local hotel. They had opted for the latter, both for privacy and because Riku and Cid tended to clash like oil and water over the smallest of things. Sora liked to think it was because they were so much alike, in some weird and vague way. Riku always bristled when Sora told him so.

There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the hotel room. In fact, Sora found he quite liked the quaint decor. It sort of reminded him of home. But even better was the small balcony that faced the setting sun. The sky was a rosy splash of orange hues and to no surprise, it was there that Sora found Riku.

The silver-haired boy was standing at the railing, staring out at the far horizon with his fingers gripped so tightly that Sora suspected he would later find marks in the metal. His shoulders were set with a firm line of tension and all of Sora’s senses went instinctual. He knew with just one look that Riku was in brood mode at present.

Steeling himself for what was certain to be a tense atmosphere and likely argument, Sora took a deep breath before stepping out onto the balcony. The silence of a sleeping town greeted him, along with a brief wisp of cool wind. Riku, however, did not. Sora wasn’t the least bit surprised.

He moved to stand beside his boyfriend, laying both hands on the railing. His left was inches away from Riku’s right. There was still no response. Which meant Riku was really upset about something, not that Sora didn’t already know what. His handsome features had tightened further.

Sora sighed. “Are you going to sulk for the rest of your life?” he asked.

Riku’s jaw worked soundlessly before he gritted out, “I’m not sulking.”

“Okay. Then you’re pouting,” The brunet amended, shifting his hand to lay it over Riku’s. Yet, the other boy slid free of his touch and turned away from the railing, most likely intending to head inside.

“You’re acting childish,” Sora called after him, wondering why he always seemed to be the more mature of the two of them.

Riku halted, one hand on the sliding door. “I’m being childish?” he repeated lowly, sounding slightly strangled. He shot Sora a look over his shoulder, aquamarine eyes filled with emotion. “You’re the one who is willing to jump headfirst into anything,” he finished.

The brunet chewed on his lip. “You don’t–”

“No!” the other boy interrupted, slicing a hand through the air as he whirled on his heels. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand!”

Ocean blue eyes widened at him in confusion, a silent gesture for Riku to explain. Riku let out a growl of frustration, resisting the urge to tear out his hair from sheer aggravation alone. It seemed he could never find the right words to say. It always came out wrong, crueler than he had intended.

“It makes me sick,” he finally admitted, staring down at the ground as he swallowed thickly. “The thought of deliberately cutting you with my keyblade makes me sick, no matter what it is for.” He paused, taking a deep and shuddering breath. “I’ve tried to hurt you before and I won’t do it again.”

Understanding flooded Sora as he stepped forward. “It’s not the same, Riku.”

“It feels the same to me!” Riku argued, still refusing to look up. “You don’t know how stupid I was, and how easy it was for the darkness to within me. I have control now, somehow balancing them both, but I won’t go back to when it was just darkness.” He paused, hands tightening into fists at his side. “I won’t.

“I’m not asking you to,” Sora insisted, trying to keep his tone soft and even. He didn’t want it to seem like he was attempting to force Riku. Not to mention he understood. There were even moments in Sora’s life when he had thought to turn to the darkness. There were seconds when he thought he would give up anything if it would get his friends back.

Riku’s head snapped up, a growl echoing in his throat. “Why do you want to help him so damn much anyways?” he demanded, aquamarine eyes flashing. “He was trying to turn you into a Heartless! He wanted you to die!”

“Not in the end.” Sora paused, reconsidering his words as he tried to find something that would make Riku understand the strange and conflicting emotions that were circulating through him. “Besides, I see him and I remember something he once said to me.”

“Oh yeah, what?” Riku asked, an unattractive sneer taking over his features.

Yet, Sora was not perturbed by the look. He understood Riku’s pain just as easily as he understood Axel’s desperate desire to reunite with Roxas.

“That we are not quite so different. When he first said it back in Castle Oblivion, I didn’t know what it meant and then my memories of the castle were broken apart so it was nearly forgotten. But now, I know.”

Riku snorted. “You two aren’t alike at all.”

“We are,” Sora assured him, taking a step closer and closing the distance that was all too great between them. A whisper of wind blew across them, bringing with it the pleasant scent of someone baking in their home. “Because while he was desperately searching for the person that meant the most to him, I was, too. I would have done anything to get them back. I can understand why he’s being selfish.”

What was it about Riku that made Sora turn into such a sap? The romantic words flowed from him so easily, mostly because they rang so true inside of him. And knowing Riku’s fears, about being abandoned and being left alone, it was even easier to tell him how much he loved him. It was as if they were right, just meant to be. Sora never put much stock into myths like that until he had fallen in love with Riku. It was something inexplicable.

Riku blew out an angry burst of air and looked away, however, the expression in his eyes haunted. He wasn’t quite convinced by Sora’s words, not to mention the reminder of his own part in the Ansem mess. He didn’t want to think about how he had been a bastard or how he had actually raised his sword against Sora. He didn’t want to think about all the bad decisions he had made.

Shaking his head, Sora sighed and closed the distance between them. He wrapped his arms around his best friend and lover both, laying his head against Riku’s chest. He could feel the older boy trembling in his arms, the only betrayal of his true feelings.

“You trust me, right?” he asked.

Riku exhaled noisily. “You know that I do,” he muttered.

“Good.” Sora smiled, the low pulse of Riku’s heart a welcome sound to his ears. “Because I trust you, too. With my life even. I know that this will work because you won’t let it hurt me.”

Silence descended for a moment as Riku stiffened in his grasp, mulling the words over in his mind. Beneath them on the balcony, someone shouted to someone else in the street. People moved by, heading home for the evening. The sky began to smell faintly of rain as the sun finally dipped beneath the horizon, casting Radiant Garden into a cerulean twilight.

Finally, arms slid around Sora, returning the affectionate embrace. “I don’t deserve you,” Riku murmured, his body relaxing slightly as he hugged Sora’s warmth to his own.

“Funny, I was kind of thinking the same thing,” the brunette countered cheekily, glad that the tense atmosphere was gradually beginning to disperse. He hated it when they argued with each other.

Riku rolled his eyes. “You’re an idiot,” he retorted, laying his chin on top of Sora’s head. “And a sap,” he added, almost on an afterthought.

“Mmm.” Sora tilted up his head, dislodging the chin and brushing his lips across the bare skin of Riku’s neck. “But you love me anyways,” he stated in a matter-of-fact tone before running his tongue over Riku’s adam’s apple. The faint flavor of sweat mixed with that natural Riku taste washed over his tongue.

The silver-haired boy shivered, tilting his head slightly to allow his perpetually horny boyfriend more access. And everyone thought he was the perverted one. They had no idea how voracious Sora was behind doors. Not that Riku minded his little secret. He had the feeling that if they knew, they’d try to steal him away and he was not going to let that happen. His arms tightened around Sora, one hand sliding down to rub across Sora’s back.

“You really want me to do it?” he asked.

Sora snickered even as he arched into the touch, his motions cat-like and lazy. “Of course I want you to do it,” he teased, nibbling lightly on the sun-kissed skin, not darkened like Sora’s but tasty just the same. “But if you’re talking about what Axel wants, that’s your choice.”

“You’re such a pervert.” Riku sighed, trying not to be distracted by the warm tongue currently causing tingles to spread down his spine. Blood began to rush southwards, making it increasingly difficult to think. “Can you really feel him? Roxas, I mean.”

Sora nodded, one hand slipping under Riku’s white shirt and gliding along the warm skin of Riku’s back. “It’s not like speaking with a voice in my head or anything like that,” he explained as his fingers traced scars that he knew hadn’t been there before the whole keyblade business began. He struggled to find the right words. “I just know he’s there. It’s a lot of more obvious now… ever since I saw Axel. And it’s just not fair.”

The other boy tilted his head to the side in slight confusion, half of him wanting Sora to explain while the other wanted Sora to continue his distracting movements and take it further. “Not fair?” he repeated, a growl of desire reverberating in his chest as Sora pressed closer to him.

Ocean blue eyes looked up at him in that moment, significantly closer than they had been before since Sora had managed one growth spurt. Sora hoped it wasn’t the last. “Roxas had no choice in being born a Nobody. But he was given his own thoughts anyway. And he tried to live with what he had but was then forced to give up his life. I can tell… he really cares for Axel.”

Riku looked skeptical. “I thought Nobodies didn’t have hearts.” Fingers danced along his spine, causing his skin to goose pimple and he unknowingly shivered once more, his eyes momentarily flickering past Sora to gauge the distance to the bed… or at least, somewhere indoors and more private.

Five steps… maybe less.

Sora rolled his eyes. “You can’t really believe that,” he retorted, no sign that he was currently trying to molest his boyfriend in his innocent expression. The boy was a devious mastermind, Riku was certain of it.

The silver-haired boy hummed thoughtfully. “Maybe. Maybe not.” He paused, attempting to consider Sora’s words before regarding him calculatingly. He wanted to clear everything up before stumbling towards that bed. “You really think it will work?”

“Just about certain,” Sora replied with no hesitation. His eyes gleamed in the dim light of the hotel, that familiar grin on his face. He lifted his head then, curling his tongue against the shell of Riku’s ear.

Riku closed his eyes, surrendering to his boyfriend’s touch. “Fine,” he acquiesced. “I’ll do it. Not for Axel,” he inserted hastily. “But for you.” There was no way in hell he was going to help that arrogant bastard.

Sora beamed up at him. “I knew you’d come through, Ri~ku,” he teased before rising up to look lips with his lover.

Riku accepted the kiss greedily, his hands sliding down to cup Sora’s shapely buttocks with one hand. His slid his tongue inside Sora’s mouth, soaking up the flavor of some sweet candy that Sora had been sucking on earlier. A low moan of encouragement rattled in Sora’s throat setting Riku’s veins afire.

His worries for what he was going to do faded in the face of Sora’s confidence. Some god out there had a favorite in Sora. If the brunet truly believed they were going to succeed, then Riku could only believe as well.

[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.

[KH] Desperate Reflections 15

Chapter Eleven – Enlightened

He and Leon never did reconcile, or even get along too well, but they managed to not argue over the next few weeks. The cold bastard still got on Axel’s nerves and riled him all too quickly, but Aeris was a quick deterrent any time they even thought about getting started. Yuffie was cheerful and excited about the new strangers, often asking the two of them to spar with her or constantly bugging Vincent about touching his wings.

Vincent never would allow her, even after three weeks.

Relations between Axel and Vincent were strained as well. The firestarter still couldn’t understand why his friend spent all his time hiding in his room without even attempting to restore Cid’s memories. Vincent was slipping further and further into a depression and no matter what Axel said, he would not come out of it, leaving Axel feeling as if he would tear his hair out simply to relieve the frustration.

And as for Cid… he was as cold as ever to them.

Yuffie had told Axel that it was unusual behavior for Cid and that he was usually willing to help out anyone. But she had also tried to explain it off by saying he was suffering from withdrawals. Axel wasn’t really inclined to believe her, not when he was certain he caught flashes of something in the older blond’s eyes. Being around Axel made Cid uneasy, as if he feared what memories Axel had to offer him.

With nothing else to do but bide his time until the blond changed his mind, Axel made it his mission to shadow Cid and see if he could remind the man about Vincent. He figured he had a debt to pay. And the sooner he could convince Cid to help them, the sooner he could find his way to Roxas. There was a driving, desperate desire inside of him to do so, as if time was running out for him and Roxas. He didn’t understand it and wasn’t even going to attempt to try. It only served to push him forward all the more.

His first attempt was a complete and utter failure. While Vincent remained cooped up in Leon’s house, Axel was content to wander around Radiant Garden. He quickly learned all the paths and was often found visiting Aeris or Merlin, sometimes even Yuffie when he was in a mood to spar. And despite Cid’s obvious displayed dislike of him, Axel found himself wandering over to his shop and his gummi ship hangar on occasion. That was where Cid was most often; working on fixing several of the ships.

Once, in a moment of spontaneity, Axel had been watching Cid fix some part on a gummi ship, a model called the Highwind. Cid had been tolerating his presence as he mumbled something to himself under his breath, cursing every now and then when his tool slipped or the broken part remained busted. Out of the blue, with little warning, Axel had spoken to him.

“Do you ever feel like you’re forgetting something?” he asked, his voice carrying easily over the silent stillness. It seemed Cid preferred to work in silence which was a strange contrast to the man’s loud and blustery demeanor.

There was a clank and a muttered curse before Cid’s head popped out from beneath the massive machine. “What the hell are ya talkin’ about?” he demanded, a definite frown on his face.

Axel tilted his head to the side before gesturing vaguely with one hand. “Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve forgotten something important? Like when you lose your keys or something. It nags and nags on you.” He paused, sighing dramatically. “I get that feeling a lot, especially since Gaia’s Grotto stole so many memories from me. I can’t help but wonder what I don’t remember. People that could be important to me or something.”

Sky blue eyes stared at him for a moment, blinking only once before Cid snorted and shook his head. “Psychological babble,” he grunted, sliding back under the gummi ship. “Don’t ask me dumb shit like that, kid. I don’t even like you.”

“Aw, c’mon, Cid. You know you love me,” Axel countered, unable to help the slight smirk that spread across his face.

The blond snorted again, the sound echoing through the hangar. “In yer dreams, kid. Now go bother Yuffie or sumthin’. That damn ninja’s been dyin’ to fight ya.” There was a clank and a rattle as Cid started back up on his repairs. “Quit buggin’ the hell out of me.”

Axel frowned. He was certain something had flashed in Cid’s eyes when he had spoken to him but the blond was obviously denying it. Still, at this moment, he could do nothing but concede defeat and try again. He didn’t even bother telling the other man goodbye as he left the hangar, deciding to check on Vincent again.

The winged man was predictably sullen, giving Axel nothing more than muttered one-word answers before Axel gave up and left him alone. Vincent didn’t even bother to acknowledge his departure, merely stared out the window with the same lost and forlorn expression he had kept since their first conversation after arriving in Radiant Garden. It was ten times worse than anything Axel had witnessed when they were on Gaia’s Grotto and he was damned if he knew how to help.

A week later, Axel attempted to get through to Cid once more. He had foregone his usual personality of being a jerk by abiding Vincent’s wishes in not straight out telling the blond, but Cid was being particularly stubborn. Every flash of memory that Axel caught was quickly tampered down by the other man. Almost as if he didn’t want to remember, or maybe it was something else keeping him from retaining hold of the memories.

Leon had been an unknown instigator of the second attempt. He decided that Axel needed to start earning his keep, and so he sent him to Cid for help lugging around some parts and accessories that the other man had ordered. Some of it was supplies for the town. Either way, it was manual labor, back-breaking work that was little pleasure for Axel, especially since Cid seemed to stand on the sidelines and smirk as he gave directions.

The bastard.

With a grunt, Axel set down one of the larger boxes and wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. He had been working for three hours already, and couldn’t help but shoot a glare at the stack of containers that seemed to never shorten. A hand clapped down on his back, nearly causing him to tumble to the ground. With a frown, Axel leaned on the crate in front of him before looking over his shoulder.

A smile broke out on his face as he saw the glass of iced tea being handed his direction. “Here,” Cid muttered, frowning as if it were the most difficult thing in the world for him to do.

“Thanks, boss,” Axel drawled with fake cheer as he accepted the drink. He downed half of it in two gulps, surprised by how much effort it took to simply move a bunch of boxes around.

Cid snorted. “Don’t thank me,” he muttered. “Thank Aeris. She’s the one who insisted I let ya rest,” he added, jerking a thumb in the direction of the door.

Axel’s eyes followed his movements, finding that the auburn haired woman was indeed standing in the doorway, smiling brightly. He saluted her with a glass as she waved at him and disappeared back outside, letting the door slam shut behind her.

“Good woman,” he commented with a sigh. “She should make someone a good wife one day.” He turned back towards Cid, finding that the man had already stepped away, picking up a clipboard.

Then it occurred to him.

Axel climbed up onto the stack of crates, setting himself up for a well-deserved break. “Ne, Cid?”

“What?” Cid grunted. How very charming. Not for the first time, Axel wondered what it was his seemingly cultured friend saw in the man.

He propped his chin on one of his hands, balancing the elbow on his knee. “Why aren’t you married?”

Cid snorted, not even bothering to look at him as he tapped his pen on his clipboard and rifled through a crate. Axel could only assume he was checking to make sure all of his stock arrived. “Don’t want to.”

A red brow rose. “That’s it?” he prompted. “You don’t even have a girlfriend?”

“Don’t want one.”

A mischievous smirk tugged at Axel’s mouth. “You don’t want a girl… or you just don’t want to date?”

Predictably, an irritated glare was sent his way. “It’s none of your business.”

“Aw, come on,” Axel pushed, waving his hand towards the other man. “I hear it’s all the rage these days.” He paused with a dramatic air. “Or maybe you’re just waiting for your one true love.” Emerald eyes glinted impishly.

“Don’t you have work to do?”

The firestarter frowned playfully, crowing at the slight hint of edginess to Cid’s voice. Clearly, this was a topic he was not comfortable with. “It’s true, isn’t it?” he continued, sliding down from the boxes. “You’re waiting for someone,” he finished as he moved to stand beside the blond.

Until he was met face to face with the pointy end of a pencil. Not really threatening but Cid’s meaning was clear. “Leon sent you here to earn your keep, not badger me with questions, kid,” Cid growled, something indiscernible shining behind blue eyes. “So get to work before I have to kick ya or sumthin’.”

Axel backed off with a grin. “Fine, fine,” he acquiesced, turning on his heels. He waved a hand through the air dismissively. “Not that an old man like you could hurt me or anything,” he added on a quieter mumble as he returned to his stacks of boxes.

Downing the last of the iced tea, Axel set the empty glass on the floor and moved to pick up another crate. He hefted the heavy box into his arms, grunting with the weight. It was probably books or something similar, knowing his luck. As he set it down on top of the other stack, on the other side of the room, he looked over his shoulder at Cid.

A brief smile fluttered across his lips.

The other man was staring at his clipboard as if it would hold all the answers. He hadn’t even moved since Axel had last spoken to him, his mind locked in some sort of mental conflict. Perhaps those memories were surfacing after all.

They spent the rest of the afternoon in silence.

– – – – – –

A third opportunity came when he was trailing along at a safe distance behind Cid. Aeris had sent the both of them to the market and although the blond had grumbled loudly, he allowed Axel to accompany him. That woman was a remarkable peacemaker and Axel was quick to notice that she had every one of the men around her wrapped around one little thumb. Unfortunately, he had been caught within her snare as well.

The blond was chomping noisily on his toothpick, as if it were the only thing keeping him from making unnecessary and most likely shameful comments. He steadily ignored Axel, despite the firestarter’s attempts to drum up conversation and seemed inclined to do so the entire trip to the market and back. Irked by this, Axel was searching for some way to make Cid take notice of him when his eyes caught something of interest.

It was a building, nothing particularly spectacular considering they were in a town, but unlike most of the others, this one was boarded up and the sign that should have been hanging from the post, was propped up beneath one boarded window. There were very few establishments in Radiant Garden that were untended and this one immediately sparked Axel’s interest. He drew to a halt, moving closer to the building to try and peer in through one of the slats covering a front window.

“Oy, Cid!” he called out, smirking when he heard the man’s muttered curses beneath his breath. “What’s this place?”

He heard Cid’s steps pause in their movement, boots clomping noisily against the cobblestones. “Gun shop,” the man answered gruffly as Axel tried to peer through the dim, seeing very little in the small gaps. “If I ‘member correctly.”

Axel immediately perked, instantly recalling one of the few instances Vincent had been particularly gregarious. He had spoken of his old life in Radiant Garden, how he had been the owner of the only specialized weapon shop in the city. It was obvious which weapon had been his area of expertise.

“Been closed up since we got back from Traverse Town,” the older man added with no prompting whatsoever.

The firestarter frowned, turning away from the building and regarding Cid curiously. “Why?” he asked.

The other male furrowed his brow, switching the toothpick from one corner of his mouth to the other as he considered the question. After a moment, he shrugged. “Didn’t no one come back to claim it.”

Sensing he was onto something that might or might not open up the way for Cid to remember his lover, Axel pressed forward. “Well, whose shop is it?”

Cid tilted his head to the side, sky blue gaze raking over the shop and the emblem etched into the front of the door, barely visible beyond the two boards that crisscrossed the front.

“Heh,” Cid commented, biting down hard on the wooden stick in his mouth as he propped his hands on his hips. “I can’t remember.” He paused, reconsidering his statement as he wracked his brain once more.

Axel watched this silently as Cid seemed troubled, trying to lock onto a memory that was firmly eluding his grasp. It was just as frustrating to the firestarter as it was to Cid and when the blond finally gave up, turning on his heels and stalking away with a muttered, “hurry up, brat”, Axel sighed. Yet, another failure to add to his rapidly growing list.

Casting one last look at the abandoned store, Axel turned and followed after Cid, heading further into the market. He quickly caught up to the man just as they entered the crowded portion, people bustling everywhere around them. Judging by the slightly stormy and confused expression on Cid’s face, it was better if he stayed silent. Though he’d rather have fun poking and wheedling at the irascible man, if he upset him too much, Cid might decide not to let them borrow a gummi ship.

And above all, Axel still had plans to get to Roxas.

The past few weeks had left him with nothing but time to think. About Roxas, about his old life… hell, about everything. While he wasn’t prone to bouts of contemplative melancholy like Vincent, not since his emotions were finally starting to even out, he had a lot he needed to sort out. And lying awake on his bed, sleepless for reasons he had yet to understand, there was little else to do but contemplate.

And relive the memories that were finally starting to resurface. They came in bits and pieces, slices of his old life and memories that he had thought he had lost forever. Vincent had been right. The longer they were gone from Gaia’s Grotto, the more the things they had lost returned. He relished in them, even the ones that were not the least bit comforting.

Reno’s death weighed all too heavily on his conscience. He knew that rationally he shouldn’t consider the other man’s death his fault, but it didn’t stop him from believing it. Especially since his dreams were haunted by memories of blood staining his face… and the last vestiges of hope that had echoed on Reno’s face. It was for that reason he planned on finding Rude, no matter what. As soon as he located Roxas. That was his first priority.

Suddenly, having been lost in his own thoughts and paying very little attention to what Cid was doing, he tumbled into Cid’s back, nearly knocking the man down. A glare was tossed over the blond’s shoulder as Axel quickly stepped back, holding his hands up.

“Sorry,” he muttered. But Cid wasn’t even looking at him any longer. Instead, he was staring quite resolutely at a display in a shop window, completely ignoring the other people that were bumping his shoulders.

Curious, Axel moved beside him. It was an antiques and art shop, or so he assumed, guessing from the types of items he could see within. Objects of stylized metal, precious gold and silver and embossed with jewels of all colors sparkled prettily within. Adorned mirrors and delicate jewelry lay on pillowed stands and figurines precisely painted were placed in evocative poses, meant to inspire passing strangers to part with their munny.

Still, the firestarter saw nothing of note, until he caught sight of one figurine in particular posed near the back. It wasn’t anything special truthfully, unless one wanted to count the gleaming garnet stones that had been used for its eyes. They shone a dark red, almost crimson, instantly reminding Axel of Vincent.

His gaze flickered to Cid, who seemed transfixed. But before he could even question anything, Cid licked his lips and spoke. “Scarlet… ain’t a normal color fer eyes,” he commented. “But I remember there was a family that lived here and they had ‘em naturally.”

“Was?” Axel prompted, sensing they were drawing close to something.

The blond nodded, eyes lingering on the figurine before he turned away from the window with a barely concealed sigh. His hands disappeared in his pockets. “Grew up next to them,” he began slowly, his tone faintly reminiscent. “The husband, he was the one with them blood-red eyes but the mom had crystalline blue eyes, like their youngest son. Oddest family if I e’er saw one.” He paused considering his words. “I think they had another kid but I’m drawin’ a blank on the face.”

“You said was,” Axel pointed out again as he wiped a thin stream of sweat from his brow. Some days it was quite balmy in Radiant Garden. It was a pleasant change from the lukewarm, tepid weather of constant rain on Gaia’s Grotto. Axel wasn’t about to shoot the proverbial gift horse in the mouth.

“Yeah,” Cid confirmed, his lips twisting in something that might have been a frown, Axel couldn’t be sure. “No one really knows what happened. The boys showed up at the neighbor’s house covered in blood and when someone went over to their house, it was empty. Their parents were gone.”

Axel’s eyes widened with shock. Vincent hadn’t ever been forthcoming with information regarding his family. He hadn’t even wanted to speak about Cid. “What happened to the boys?”

The blond shrugged. “I don’t really remember. I think it was only a year later that the oldest was enough to live on his own.” He tilted his head back, looking up at the sky. “Strange tho’, I can’t seem to remember him clearly.”

“Yeah… strange,” Axel echoed.

As Cid fell into contemplative thought, no more was spoken between them that day. Axel eventually left Cid alone at his gummi hangar and headed back to Leon’s house.

The house was oddly quiet which meant Yuffie must have gone somewhere else, and Axel could never quite be sure what Leon did from day to day. He knew there were times that the man wandered around with a lost expression on his face, and occasionally, he would visit the abandoned castle, as if hoping something would show up there. And if he wasn’t helping Cid with plans for the town, then he was off training in the bailey.

As he passed by the kitchen, Aeris called out to him. “Axel? Did you get the turnips?”

He nearly smacked himself in the head for that. “Ah, sorry, Aeris,” he answered, leaning in the doorframe. He raked a hand through his hair. “Cid might remember though. He said he was coming in later.”

She smiled, turning back towards whatever she was mixing in the large bowl in front of her. “That’s okay. I decided not to make that soup after all. What happened?”

He frowned. “You know that gun shop?”

“The boarded up one in town?”

“Yeah. We got distracted looking at it.”

She laughed. “That sounds like Cid all right. Normally I would send Leon to go shopping for me but he’s busy right now. I hoped that sending you along would help Cid remember.”

Axel tilted his head to the side, a grin pulling at the corner of his mouth. “What’s Mr. Fur up to right now?”

She turned to shake her spoon at him, attempting to sound reprimanding. “Don’t call him that, Axel,” she scolded. “It makes him frown even more than he does now.”

He ignored her scolding, his eyes instead following the waving motion of her spoon. “Are you making chocolate chip cookies?” he asked, pushing himself off the door frame and stepping into the room. He knew he sounded hopeful but he couldn’t help it. After nearly a month of living there, he had grown addicted to her cookies.

Aeris nodded, returning to her mixing with one hand as she reached on the counter to grab a bag of the small chocolates. “They’re your favorite aren’t they?” she questioned as she ripped open the package and started pouring them into the dough, stirring the entire time with other hand.

“Second only to Ceran’s blueberry muffins,” he answered, crossing the floor to appear at her side.

“Ceran can bake?” she asked, unable to hide her surprise.

He nodded. “Believe it or not, yeah.” He slid nimbly to the other side of her and dipped a finger into the batter when he thought she wasn’t looking. He had no sooner popped the digit into his mouth then her hand came up and slapped his lightly.

She shook her head. “Don’t go sticking your fingers into my cookies.”

Axel attempted a pout, which didn’t quite work so well considering the mischievous expression on his face. “That hurt,” he groused, putting on an act.

“It didn’t even,” she countered, rolling her eyes. She shoved the plastic bag at his chest, still one-quarter full. “Now take these and go see if you can drag Ceran down from the roof.”

He groaned as he took the bag, pleased to find so many of the little chocolate chips inside. “He’s up there again?” he asked rhetorically already heading for the door.

Aeris hummed her answer. “Since earlier. Apparently, he doesn’t take to questions very well.”

He nodded as he slipped out the door. “Never has. Thanks, Aeris.” She didn’t respond and Axel headed upstairs, immediately seeking out his depressed companion. Why the other man found comfort in high places, especially when it was getting to be unbearably hot during the day, Axel would never understand.

Minutes later, he was pulling himself back out into the hot sun and climbing onto the roof. He quickly spotted Vincent, perched on the highest peak and staring out over the city with his usual melancholy expression on his face. Axel sighed.

“You’re going to melt if you keep this up,” he called out, spider-walking across the roof to plop himself down next to the winged man. He grunted as he flopped before reaching into his pocket and withdrawing the plastic bag of chocolate. It crinkled in his hold.

Vincent’s gaze flickered to him for all of a moment, briefly registering his presence before returning to the skyline.

Emerald eyes rolled as Axel popped a few bits of chocolate into his mouth before offering some to his companion. “Want some?” A negative shake of the head. “Suit yourself.” He shrugged and chewed thoughtfully, sitting for a moment of silence and enjoying the view that Leon’s roof offered.

“Is there a reason you came up here?” Vincent questioned, shifting slightly on the roof. His wings stretched and popped before settling back into place. At least on the roof, no one could see him and accuse him of being a monster.

“Maybe,” Axel mumbled around the mouthful of chocolate. “Talked to Cid today.” He paused, waiting for a reaction. Predictably, there was none. “You two were neighbors?”

“Yes.” He didn’t elaborate, causing Axel to grit his teeth in irritation.

The firestarter sighed and stretched out his legs, noisily crinkling his bag of sweets as he dipped his fingers into it once more. “So… you wanna tell me what happened to your parents?”

“Not particularly.” He wasn’t even sweating, the bastard, despite the stifling heat that was pressing down on them. It was much hotter on the roof, with nothing to block the sun’s intense rays.

Axel swiped sweat from his forehead. “Didn’t think so. Aeris wants you to come down.”

“…”

“She’s making cookies.”

“…”

Rolling his eyes, the former Nobody reached out and punched Vincent in the shoulder, just to get a damn reaction even if it wasn’t particularly painful. “I’m talking to you man.” The winged male instantly glowered at him, swiping a clawed hand over his shoulder as if he had somehow been dirtied by the action.

“And I was ignoring you.”

Axel snorted. “You’re not doing any good for yourself brooding and sulking alone, Vincent. It’s not going to make him remember any faster.” He paused, considering his words as he idly munched on more of the chocolate pieces. “Come out to the market with me tomorrow. I want to show you something.”

“Axel–”

“I’m not taking no for an answer,” the firestarter cut in. He flashed the exasperated man one of his typical smug smirks. “Don’t make me drag you out.” He was prepared to aggravate the man until he agreed and Axel was quite good at it. He was going to make Vincent leave the damn house if it killed him. The man had to see there were other things out there.

A moment of silence passed before Vincent sighed. “What is it?” he asked, with evident reluctance. He reached over then, his hand finding its way to Axel’s bag of chocolate chips and dipping inside, withdrawing a good bit of what was remaining.

“It’s a surprise.” Axel grinned.

Vincent rolled his eyes, a small spark of his old self starting to peek through. “I can’t wait,” he replied dryly, popping the chocolate into his mouth.

– – – – – –

Despite the heat of the mid-afternoon day, Vincent’s dark cloak was a necessary accessory, having been borrowed from the absent Cloud Strife’s room. Effectively obscuring his large wings along with the added and borrowed pair of black gloves, it was perhaps the only way he could venture into the public without worry that he would be attacked for being a Heartless once more. Not that Vincent seemed to mind the concealing clothes. Axel was quick to grumble when he noticed his companion not even sweating when he, himself, felt like he was panting for breath in the thick and humid air.

Nevertheless, Axel was determined to stick it out, if only to make sure Vincent spent as much time out of the house as possible. They had been in Radiant Garden for the better part of a month and Vincent had done nothing but skulk about the house, hiding in the shadows during the day and perching on the roof at night. Even if Axel’s attempts were proving to be failures, he simply refused to admit defeat. Vincent had done far too much for him.

He was pressed inside to go searching for Roxas, an unexplained urgency causing a treble of anxiousness to constantly trill through his body. But he would not leave until he had repaid his debt. He feared that with every day that passed, Vincent would slip further and further into his melancholy until nothing could drag him out. He didn’t want to think that their risk to escape had been for naught.

And a part of him was beginning to grow angry at well. Irritated with Vincent for being a stubborn dumbass, and pissed at Cid for being a clueless loser. How he could forget his lover was beyond Axel’s comprehension. And though it was obvious that Cid was struggling with something, he refused to question it or even voice his concerns. It was both infuriating and frustrating. If it hadn’t been for Vincent explaining the risks involved in simply coming out and telling Cid, he might have already gone up to the man and slapped some sense into him.

As it were, however, Axel had to simply settle for being as subtle as possible. Unfortunately, subtlety hadn’t always been one of his specialties. Thus, the much needed break and attempt to pull Vincent from his depressed shell.

With little else to do in a town still struggling to rebuild, they had taken to exploring the market. Axel pointed out a few things of interest, mostly things he had noticed the last time he had been there with Cid. Vincent’s responses usually consisted of one word or silence, but at least he wasn’t cooped up in Leon’s house and at the present moment, that was all that mattered to Axel.

Despite the sweat rolling down his back, matting his bright red spikes and causing them to dangle limply, Axel was glad for the sun. It was a constant reminder that they were no longer on Gaia’s Grotto. Not to mention that the press and bustle of people around them held so much expression. They hurried and looked harried, or walked hand in hand with their loved ones, or bartered loudly for an item they particularly wanted.

“I still find it hard to believe that you grew up here,” Axel commented, gaze sweeping over a quartet of kids playing tag in a small square, decorated by a small fountain. They ran in and out of the water, a nice game considering the oppressive heat.

Beside him, Vincent continued staring at the ground, his dark hair obscuring a good portion of his face. “Radiant Garden was a bit different when I was a child,” he answered quietly. “Ansem was a good king.”

Emerald eyes rolled. “Until he wrecked everything,” Axel thought it necessary to point out as he gracefully avoided a woman who was dragging away one of her children and scolding him in loud tones. The boy didn’t appear too contrite however.

“Perhaps,” the winged man responded, but didn’t elaborate any further.

Axel hummed thoughtfully and fought back the heaving sigh that threatened to spill from his lips. It was tiresome trying to speak to his companion. With a slight nudge to Vincent’s side, he shifted their course, turning to the right towards another section of the market. At a glance, he instantly recognized a slightly familiar street.

Apparently, Vincent did as well. Because the moment they approached the boarded up building, he paused in his steps and shot Axel an accusatory look. “You led me here on purpose,” the gunman intoned, a dangerous note to his voice.

Axel shrugged, unable to help the smirk that crossed his expression. “Maybe, maybe not,” he replied vaguely. Truthfully, it had been unintentional, but Vincent didn’t need to know that. Let him think that Axel had some other motive. It kept him on his toes.

With a sigh, Vincent shook his head and returned his gaze to the structure that had once housed his own business. It hadn’t fallen into disrepair, just simply looked abandoned. Axel watched his friend’s reaction avidly, hoping that by the sight of it, some measure of hope would spark itself in Vincent’s mind.

“What’s that symbol mean?” he asked, pointing towards the etched design that was outlined in a sparkling silver paint hidden just behind the boards the closed off the main door. He could see a half moon with a cross jutting out from the bottom curve and dangling from the center of the moon was a small star. Somehow, though he didn’t understand its meaning, he thought it appropriate.

Vincent’s gloved hand fell to the holster at his waist, fingers skimming the grip of his gun. He had refused to leave it behind, despite the fact that hostilities in Radiant Garden were pretty much zero. “It is the name of the shop,” he explained, his tone faintly reminiscent. “The moon and cross mean “Cerberus” while the star roughly translates to ‘lament’ or as I preferred ‘dirge’.”

He stepped forward, tilting his head to the side as one hand lightly placed itself on a boarded up window, rising to his toes to peer through the slats. “It was called Dirge of Cerberus.”

“Was?” Axel raised a brow as he moved to lean against the side of the shop, not minding the slightest the cloud of dust the action raised. He gestured towards Vincent with one of his arms before crossing them both over his chest. “You don’t want to pick up where you left off?”

Vincent frowned slightly, the expression obscured by his hair. He didn’t look at Axel, instead keeping his crimson gaze trained on the building. “There is little point in that right now,” he responded.

The firestarter scoffed. “You’re beginning to sound like emo-boy Squeon,” he commented sharply and was relieved to notice when Vincent immediately bristled. At least there was something of the man he had known on Gaia’s Grotto beneath the melancholy.

“Don’t call him that,” the winged man countered. “And I believe we’ve had this discussion before, Axel. Drop it.”

Axel immediately scowled. “What are you going to do then?” he pressed. “Spend the rest of your days moping in Leon’s house until he finally kicks you out?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Vincent snapped, beginning to lose patience with the younger man. “I wouldn’t be so–”

Emerald eyes widened in a delayed reaction as a small group of kids came barreling out of the alley to the right of Vincent’s former shop. Without looking where they were going, and laughing over whatever game they were playing, they barreled into Vincent, catching him by surprise and cutting off his words. Axel hadn’t even the time to shout a warning, instead watching with shock as the winged man tumbled to the ground, two of the kids landing on top of him.

Vincent hit the cobbles with a barely restrained grunt, striking his back harshly. His wings immediately protested, sending sharp stabs of pain radiating throughout his entire body. In the scuffle, his cloak slipped free from one shoulder, revealing the black webbing of his right wing.

“Oh, gosh mister, we’re sorry,” one of the kids muttered as he scrambled to his feet and off of Vincent.

Crimson eyes narrowed. “You need to watch where you are going,” he admonished with a death glare.

The kids instantly flushed with embarrassment, shifting from foot to foot as Axel chuckled lightly, pushing himself off of the building with ease. “Give them a break, Vincent. They’re just kids,” he commented as he strolled towards his companion and offered a hand to Vincent.

The other man shot him an annoyed stare but took the proffered limb and allowed Axel to haul him to his feet. Almost immediately, emerald eyes were drawn to the wing poking all too obviously out from beneath the black cloak. His brow raised slightly, and it was enough to alert Vincent to the peeking appendage. He hurried to cover it but it was far too late.

“Wow!” One of the kids exclaimed, a red-haired boy with unnaturally bright eyes that reminded Axel all too eerily of Reno. “Is that real?” he asked.

Instantly, the other children were drawn by his amazed tone and swiveled their heads to catch sight of what their buddy was excited over. Axel stepped back, amusement tugging at the corner of his lips as the kids crowded around the bewildered older man.

“Stop,” Vincent protested, edging away from their curious stares as he began to get flustered. “It is real,” he answered, hoping that would satisfy their wonder. Clearly, he had never dealt with children before in his life.

Axel snickered, folding his arms over his chest. One of the children got a bit too exuberant and tugged on Vincent’s cloak, revealing the other wing which seemed to move of its own accord. It broke free of the clinging dark fabric, twitching faintly in the bright sun. Vincent gasped and took a step back, frantically trying to gain control. He looked towards Axel for help but the firestarter simply shrugged and snickered under his breath.

“Cool!” A little girl breathed, her eyes wide with awe. She reached out a slightly grubby hand. “Can I touch it?”

Without thinking, the winged man reached out and grabbed her arm, preventing her from grasping one of the more delicate portions of the appendage. “No, you cannot,” he said firmly.

Crash!

“Heartless!”

Axel’s head snapped up at the screamed word in the same moment that Vincent did, both of their gazes immediately locking onto the source of the screech. The kids instantly scattered, everyone except for the girl’s whose arm Vincent hadn’t thought to release yet.

A woman had dropped her recently bought items to the ground and was now pointing at Vincent with a shaking finger, horror etched into her features. She was frantically trying to gather someone’s attention. “It’s got a kid!” She screeched.

It was like the first time they had arrived all over again.

Vincent abruptly released his hold on the girl’s arm, the child looking very confused as he stepped quickly away. His deft fingers grasped onto the cloak, tucking his wings beneath it with hurried, almost frantic movements. Axel frowned as he put himself between the woman and his companion.

“He is not a Heartless,” the firestarter snapped, slicing his arm through the air. “He’s human just like you and me.”

She narrowed her eyes, not in the slightest bit convinced. “Humans don’t have wings!” she spat.

Axel sighed, scraping a hand over his forehead, only to belatedly realize that Vincent was already slipping away. The man had slid into the shadows of the alley to the left of his shop and was disappearing around the corner. The firestarter shook his head and tossed the woman a scowl, wanting to curse her thoroughly. He refrained from doing so however and turned to hurry after his companion, leaving her and the child standing there, a crowd already beginning to form.

Dammit, just when he was beginning to get Vincent to open up a little, something inauspicious had to ruin everything.

He was forced to chase the rapidly walking man through several of the dark and enclosed alleyways, half wondering where Vincent thought they were going. Axel was no expert in Radiant Garden but he did know that the direction they were heading was nowhere near Leon’s home where the winged man typically sought his refuge. Nor was there anger in Vincent’s steady steps; his shoulders weren’t set with tension but something more like… resignation.

Suddenly, Axel’s eyes widened in understanding.

He put on a burst of speed and managed to catch hold of Vincent’s arm just as they stepped out of the alley. He was half-surprised to find they were standing on the outskirts of the town as he drew his escaping friend to a halt. The path in front of them Axel vaguely recognized as leading to Crystal Canyon, which he dimly remembered being in as a Nobody.

Blinking, Axel returned his attention to Vincent and reluctantly released the man’s arm. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked, glancing around them just in case he had missed something else of importance.

Unsurprisingly, there was nothing but the gaping opening to their south. Just beyond, he could faintly see the ruins of Hollow Bastion’s spires rising up from the crater they now occupied. It was somewhat eerie, the combination of metal and stone, making it vaguely resemble a house of torture. Unintentionally, Axel shivered, wondering if it was the fault of the designer, or some strange magic.

Vincent’s voice dragged him out of his eerie ponderings. “It is time for me to leave,” the winged man intoned, a strange note to his voice that Axel wasn’t quite sure how to interpret.

The younger man’s brow furrowed. “What?” he asked. Where did the other man think he was going? If he wasn’t able to get off Radiant Garden to go to Destiny Islands, how the hell did Vincent expect to get anywhere?

Crimson eyes looked past him, just over his head to the beginnings of the town and the multi-colored rooftops. “My fate is clear,” he explained briefly before resignation fluttered across his features. He sighed. “A monster does not belong among humans.”

Axel snorted. “You’re not a monster. That’s just stupid, Vincent,” he retorted, waving a hand through the air. Trust the other man to make a big deal out of nothing. “So what? A bunch of ignorant know-nothings made one comment. Are you going to let what they say keep you from the very reason you returned?”

Vincent’s gaze flickered to him for a moment, as if slowly coming to a decision before a clawed hand dipped into his pocket. He shook his head. “It does not matter since I have been forgotten,” Vincent replied, stepping closer to the younger man as he pulled a familiar string of metal tags from his pocket. They jingled faintly in his grasp.

The briefest of smiles crossed Vincent’s face, gone so fast Axel barely registered it before the military tags were thrust in his direction. Warily, the firestarter accepted them with much reluctance, finally realizing exactly what it was Vincent planned to do. The damn coward.

“You’re just going to give up?” he demanded, beginning to grow angry despite himself. “You haven’t even tried anything! Just buried yourself in your room and moped about your bad luck.”

“It was enough!” Vincent hissed, crimson eyes flashing with a mixture of both desperation and despair. He abruptly turned away from Axel, resolutely staring at the path towards Crystal Canyon. “It was enough to live for sixteen years, to cling to nightmares and haunting touches. It was enough to live when all I wanted to do was die and this is what it brought me.” At his side, claws clenched into fists and beneath the cloak, his wings twitched more violently than Axel had ever seen before.

Trembling shoulders were painfully obvious under the dark fabric as Vincent shook his head. “I’m going.”

He took a step forward, his intentions obvious, but Axel wasn’t about to let him go without a fight. “Coward!” he snarled, gripping onto Vincent’s shirt and roughly jerking him backwards. “You fucking liar! What about everything you said to me, huh?”

With his usual grace, Vincent quickly caught his balance from Axel’s clumsy yank and whirled around. Before Axel could even register what was going on, the winged man shoved him with both hands. His greater strength easily dislodged Axel’s grip and sent him tumbling backwards, landing on his ass and skidding a few feet away. The firestarter coughed as the force of the blow was enough to push the air from his lungs.

Incredulous emerald eyes rose to find Vincent giving him a look that was dead enough to make him shiver on the inside. “Give up, Axel. It’s over,” Vincent stated coldly, his tone lifeless. “Not everyone gets a happy ending.”

With that said, Vincent turned on his heels and stalked away, an overdramatic swish of black cloak accentuating his exit.

Axel watched his exit for all of a moment, anger seething beneath the surface. In an instant, his mind flashbacked without his permission, reminding him of someone else he had failed. Because of him, Reno would never get the chance to see Rude again. There were no third chances. And if not for a hell prettily disguised as a heaven, there might not have even been a second.

His gaze flickered to the military tags lying loosely in his palm and his fingers clenched around them. He angrily clambered to his feet, determination raging a bright inferno inside of him. Fuck Vincent and his fucking happy endings. Axel was through listening to him and he shouldn’t have done it in the first place.

He had taken the chance for the both of them to get out of that hellhole and he would be damned if he let Vincent keep suffering. His hesitancy in taking risks had led to Reno’s demise and he wasn’t about to let it happen again. Casting one final glance at Vincent’s departing form, Axel’s jaw set with determination as he whirled on his heels and strode back towards the town. Luck was on his side for once.

The hangar for the gummi ships was located on the edge of the town itself. It would only take a few minutes for him to get there. And this time, he would not hold back. He let his anger and irritation stew within him, knowing that it would only drive him forward. His fingers clenched all too tightly to the tags, enough that they were digging into his skin but he didn’t care.

He was tired of pussyfooting around. And perhaps it was a bit of selfishness as well. Because a part of him feared on the inside. Feared that if he couldn’t get Cid to remember Vincent than perhaps there was no chance for him and Roxas. He didn’t want to face that bitter truth so he put every effort into proving that Vincent and Cid’s relationship was strong enough, if only to give him hope for his own.

It was Cid’s sheer luck that he had no customers when Axel stormed into the hangar, furious green gaze sweeping the wide open space and instantly spying the blond man on the other end. With a clipboard in one hand and a well-chewed pen in the other, Cid appeared to be doing inventory. Not that Axel cared. With his target locked, Axel made his presence known.

“Cid!” he bellowed, stalking into the hangar and letting the doors slam shut loudly behind him. Both were enough to cause Cid to whirl towards him in surprise, blue eyes instantly darkening in anger and irritation. But it was nothing compared to the frustration that seethed within Axel.

“What the fuck ya think yer doin’, kid?” Cid demanded, chomping noisily on his toothpick. “Comin’ in here bellowin’ and shit.”

Axel didn’t even blink. “How can you forget him?” he snarled, not even bothering with politeness or even really explanations. He was far past that point. “He fought through hell, clinging to your memory and the best you can do is forget?” His hand flipped out and he flung the military tags at Cid’s head, daring the man to catch them.

Metal glinted as they soared through the air, only to be deftly plucked by Cid’s hand. They clinked lightly in his hold as his brow furrowed in confusion, only to be replaced by complete and utter shock. Recognition flooded his expression as his clipboard clattered to the floor, clearly forgotten.

“How did you get these?” Cid shook the items at the red haired man. “I gave them to… to…” Axel remained impassive as sky blue eyes widened, gaze flickering to the tags in his hand, his name glaring bright in the silver metal.

“Vincent,” the firestarter stated flatly. “You gave them to Vincent.”

The blond jerked his head upwards at the name. “Vince…” he repeated before shaking his head negatively. “But… I thought he was dead,” he commented, voice still registering his complete and utter shock.

“Do you honestly think he would let himself die and not come back to you?” Axel questioned coldly, drawing closer to Cid. “To him, sixteen years passed and he never forgot how much he loved you. It was the only thing that kept him going.”

“How was I supposed to know?” Cid argued, voice rising unnecessarily loud as his hands clenching into fists at his side. “He fuckin’ disappears one day, the Heartless come and all hell breaks loose! I was fighting to stay alive just as much as him. Hell, all of us have forgotten things.” He gritted his teeth as he shot a glare towards the other male.

Unperturbed by Cid’s rising irritation, Axel was far angrier. “That’s not my problem,” he spat, slicing a hand through the air. “It doesn’t matter what I think! All that matters is what Vincent believes and what he thinks!”

Normally tanned, Cid immediately paled. “Where is he?”

Axel sighed and raked a disturbed hand through his hair. “I don’t–”

“Dammit, kid!” Cid growled, interrupting him. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know!” Axel yelled out of sheer frustration, feeling as if he wanted to tear his hair out. “Something happened in the market. This kid and this woman, it doesn’t really matter but Vincent blew everything out of proportion and took off. Last I saw he was heading towards Crystal Canyon.”

The blond’s jaw set as blue eyes suddenly gleamed dangerously. “Stupid bastard,” he muttered harshly under his breath, storming past Axel. “Close to eleven years and ain’t nothing changed.”

Narrowing his eyes, Axel whirled around to follow after the man. “Where’re you going?” he demanded, hurrying to catch up to Cid.

“Where do you think, genius?” Cid snorted as his boots clomped loudly on the cobbled stone. “Knowing Vincent, he’s probably convinced he doesn’t belong here anymore. I gotta go drag his stubborn ass out of the Bastion.”

Confusion flooded the firestarter’s face. “Why would he go there?”

“Why else?” Cid demanded, shooting him an annoyed glare as if it were Axel’s fault that Vincent decided to run away. “You lived with him for how long and you still don’t know how he thinks? Che, some friend you are.” His quick steps were leading them rather rapidly in the same direction that Vincent had followed earlier. They had already passed beyond the last line of buildings and houses and were now on the path that led directly to Crystal Canyon and the Bastion beyond.

“He’s a close-mouthed bastard,” Axel snapped back indignantly as they practically ran through the corridors formed of blue stone and quartz, glinting in the dimming sun as it neared the horizon. “I’m lucky I know his name.”

Cid snorted, perfectly ready to retort, when his eyes caught something just ahead of them. The words died on his lips as he drew to a halt, Axel stepping up beside him. His keen gaze had also noticed the darkly cloaked figure standing on the edge of the canyon, staring wistfully down into the abandoned castle. A moment of silence filled the air, accentuated by a brief wisp of wind that stirred, carrying with it snatches of noise from the town behind them and lingering traces of some flower.

Axel’s eyes slid to Cid, noticing that the man’s shoulders were shaking as his jaw tightened. Suddenly, Cid began to stalk forward. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he growled, loudly enough for Vincent to hear him clearly. Axel hung back, preferring to watch the proceedings from a distance.

Vincent whirled around, his mouth falling open in shock as his eyes widened impossibly large. “C–Cid?”

“Damn right,” the other man continued, not lessening his pace in the slightest. “You selfish bastard.”

The winged male stuttered, completely baffled at this change of events. “Why did you…? How did you…?” His words trailed off as his eyes helplessly flickered to Axel before hardening in sudden realization. “You…”

Axel shrugged, unable to help the self-satisfied smirk that painted itself onto his expression. “I don’t give up.”

Vincent glared at him, but was unable to keep the irritation as the man he had been so desperately wanting to touch came to rest just in front of him. “Ain’t nothing changed, Vince,” Cid commented, his voice just loud enough for Axel to pick up from his fair distance away. “Ya still act like a coward and run away when you get scared, just like when we were kids, always involving everyone else in your problems.”

The winged man flinched. “I didn’t ask Axel to–”

Cid waved him off. “You never ask, do you? Even when it’s obvious you need it.” He took another step forwards, closing the distance between them. “You stupid bastard, why didn’t you just say something?”

His gaze fell to the ground, filled with misery as behind him, wings twitched as if to announce their presence. “Look at me,” Vincent muttered, a voice filled with unmistakable self-loathing. “This is my fault. If I had listened to you and Zack, I wouldn’t–”

“Shut up!” Cid snapped. “Just… none of it, Vince. You honestly think that I don’t love you enough to accept whatever it is you are?”

“You forgot me! What else was I supposed to believe?” the other man, demanded as his hands clenched into fists at his sides. They were clamped so tightly that Axel wondered if Vincent was cutting himself with his claws. However, he detected no blood dripping to the ground.

Cid huffed in annoyance. “I didn’t forget ya… I just couldn’t remember. There’s a fuckin’ difference, Valentine.” Abruptly, his hand shot out and before Vincent could even register what was happening, he was jerked forward. Fingers clamped tightly onto his shoulders, squeezing tightly enough to make him wince. “You didn’t even give me a chance before you started running away.”

“I’m sorry,” Vincent sighed, finding it safer to keep his gaze centered on the ground.

Sky blue eyes rolled. “Don’t tell me you’re fuckin’ sorry. Tell me you ain’t going anywhere.” He released one of Vincent’s shoulders and gently grasped the other man’s chin, forcing the man he loved to look at him. “Almost eleven years… do you really want to make me be alone any longer?”

“I shouldn’t have in the first place,” Vincent whispered, voice barely loud enough for Axel to hear as he stepped closer and slid his arms around Cid’s waist. He laid his head on the blond’s shoulder as Cid’s arms slid around him, settling just beneath the base of his wings.

The gummi ship builder snorted in agreement. “No, you shouldn’t have. And now you get me sayin’ all this pansy, mushy shit. I hope yer satisfied.”

Axel watched as Vincent’s claws tightened when they gripped the back of Cid’s shirt and a self-satisfied smirk took over his expression. Mission complete. Smug, he started clapping, thoroughly pleased with himself.

“See?” he pointed out, striding towards them. “If you had listened to me in the first place, none of this drama would have happened.”

Vincent raised his head, glaring potently at his friend as Cid laughed robustly. “Kid’s got a point,” he pointed out, chuckling even harder when his lover turned that crimson glower onto him as well.

Cid snorted. “I had good reason,” he thought it important to point out.

“And now you don’t,” Axel inserted easily. “So how about it, hmm?” he questioned, striding up to the both of them and throwing his arms companionably over their shoulders. It was times like this he loved his greater height, well taller than both of them. “Lend me a ship, Cid?”

The blond sighed as he reluctantly released his hold on Vincent and ducked out from beneath Axel’s arm. His gaze slid towards his newly reunited lover and Axel was quick to notice Vincent’s slight nod.

Cid raked a hand through his hair. “All right, Kid. Let’s go see what I have in stock for you,” he suggested, one hand sliding into his pocket to withdraw another toothpick and pop it back into his mouth.

A wide grin broke out on Axel’s face as an uncharacteristic urge to whoop with glee and dance a Demyx jig filled his heart. He refrained from doing so, however, and settled for sticking out his hand, offering Cid a manly, mature shake. Cid eyed him warily for a moment before taking it as Vincent smirked on the side.

“Great!” the firestarter exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “Now that we’re all bosom buddies, let’s get me a ship.”

Blue eyes rolled as Cid scowled and reached back to take Vincent’s hand, ignoring the other man’s protests. “Come on then, brat,” he muttered, already heading back towards the town with hurried movements, pulling Vincent along behind him. “No time then the present. Let’s see what I got.”

“Cid…” Vincent began, a protest on his lips. “I need a cloak or something.”

The blond waved him off. “No, ya don’t. If anyone’s got anything to say they can come to me,” he responded, jerking the thumb of his free hand to his chest. “This town owes me and Leon a lot, they won’t do anythin’ to ya.” He looked over his shoulder, a strange glance that Axel couldn’t quite interpret. “Maybe from now on you’ll learn to just ask for help.”

“Doubtful,” the firestarter mumbled under his breath. He ignored the furious glare that Vincent sent his way.

The threesome were at the hangar in no time, Cid pushing open the small side door and ushering them inside with eager movements. Axel understood perfectly. He was certain that Cid and Vincent wanted time to get… reacquainted.

Once inside, Cid started mumbling to himself as they passed by a few gummi ships, noting the current condition of those he had. Most looked to be in a state of mid-repair, as if Cid had started on one, then gotten bored and moved on to another. Obviously, they weren’t flyable. Suddenly, just as they passed one that looked as if it had been blown up by a field of meteors, Cid paused and cocked his head to the side.

“Huh,” he commented, chewing noisily on his toothpick as he propped both hands on his hips. He was steadfastly gazing at the only gummi ship they had encountered so far that was fixed. It was actually gleaming, as if it had been recently cleaned and polished. That, or hardly ever used.

“What is it?” Vincent questioned.

The blond gestured towards the gummi ship. “That’s the Excalibur,” he answered with a slight, confused frown, his eyebrows drawn together in contemplation. “Sora’s ship,” he added, clarifying.

“There you are, Cid!” A young male voice announced as if on cue. The sound of two pairs of feet clomping noisily across the ground accompanied his voice, causing Axel, Vincent, and Cid to whirl around in shock. “The ship’s makin’ weird noises and…” Sora trailed off, his face registering complete surprise when he caught sight of the three of them.

Emerald eyes widened as a sharp stab of something pierced Axel right through the chest. He saw Sora but he didn’t see him, instead he looked through him. Not brown hair, but blond, blue eyes but a shade darker, a shade more resonant. And instead of an open, smiling facade, he saw a stubborn set to a jaw, a familiar glower that he had always teased him for.

He couldn’t explain, the surge of emotion that practically clamped down on him from the inside, making him feel as if he were staggering backwards. His breath caught in his throat and his heart, his true and real heart now that he had one, beat a faster rhythm.

The name fell from his lips, almost like a whispered, granted prayer.

“Roxas.”

[KH] Desperate Reflections 14

Interlude Four – Realizations

~ Part One ~

He spent most of his cognizant time observing Riku and Sora. He watched how they interacted; he felt everything Sora felt. It was both weird and yet… strangely revealing as well. He could not distinguish between his own emotions and Sora’s yet, but there was something that rang true inside of him. Something that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was his and his alone.

Maybe what he had always wanted when he looked into emerald eyes and felt a strange twinge, was the same thing that Riku and Sora shared. Friendship was simply not enough and even though he knew it was impossible, that Axel was dead and gone, there was a part of him that still dared to hope.

The foolish, foolish beat of his heart.

There had always been something undeniably gravitating about Axel. He pushed his way into Roxas’ life without permission and without apology. He was arrogant and he was rude, he was fire to Roxas’ ice and never took no for an answer. In many ways, he was the perfect balance for everything Roxas was.

Roxas had tried to push him away at first. Too consumed by his own concerns, such as his identity and his purpose. He had been wrapped up in the feeling of aching inside of him, the longing for something, even if he didn’t know or couldn’t remember what it was. He always felt unwhole, incomplete, as if he was constantly searching for a piece of something that had been forgotten.

But Axel never took no for an answer. That was they type of guy he was. He would lug Roxas out of his misery and broody thoughts, and into the world, often times dragging Demyx along for the ride. Axel was nothing if not persistent and Roxas had learned quickly that as much as he considered himself stubborn, Axel had him beat. He stopped trying to run Axel off and started accepting his presence.

It wasn’t until it was much too late that he realized the only time the aching faded was when he was with Axel. The firestarter was spontaneous and fun, he was the very epitome of his element and he was very nearly fearless. He didn’t care what others thought about him and he had his own goals, his own designs.

Roxas could still remember the night Axel told him about wanting to find a way to leave Xemnas and the others, to exist somewhere on their own. He had been idealistic like that, thinking that a part of them truly did exist and that there was something better out there for nothings like them.

Watching Riku and Sora together, experiencing everything even though he didn’t want to… it gave him ideas. He wondered what it would have been like to kiss Axel. Would the flavors be the same? Would Axel have soft lips, would it be like trying to tame an inferno? He had to admit to himself that he wanted to find out. There were times he cursed himself for being too rash and never taking the chance before he left.

He wondered if Axel would have returned his feelings, or if he only ever considered them as friends. But now, it was much too late, and he would never get the chance to find out.

Axel was dead and he was trapped within Sora, alive and yet not. Forever bonded to his other half and slowly losing himself as their minds melded into one. He couldn’t help but wonder how much longer it would last. How long it would take before his thoughts wouldn’t be his own anymore.

What would be the last thing on his mind before everything that made him ‘Roxas’ faded away?

He wondered why he even bothered to care when there was nothing left for him in the world anyways, other than freedom. He wasn’t like Axel; he didn’t have those ideals, those hopes. He preferred to cling to what was rational, what was right before his eyes, and what was plausible.

He didn’t dare hope for fear that his fragile dream would shatter.

Wishes had been broken, left into shambles and he didn’t even bother to make them anymore. He stopped looking at the stars, even when Sora’s eyes were watching them with his own special brand of hope and happiness. He stopped reminding himself of things that could have been or should have been, stopped berating himself for mistakes that he had made since it was likely he wouldn’t remember there had ever been a person that quasi-existed to make them.

Namine was right after all. There really wasn’t anything left for him to look for. Not with his best friend dead and gone.

Why bother trying to find his own heart when he had no one left to give it to?

~ Part Two ~

It woke him up in the middle of the night, knocking in his chest and sending him gasping for breath. It wasn’t a scary feeling, or one of worry, like the world was coming to an end sometime soon. No, it was more of a pressing matter, or an urgent, desperate desire to be somewhere else but his bed in Destiny Island.

Riku hadn’t woken up at first, murmuring something intelligible and mumbling back into his pillow. His hands had groped at empty air, as if missing Sora’s body but he seemed oblivious to his lover’s plight. To the strange urgings that wracked Sora so badly he couldn’t even sleep.

He couldn’t explain, he wasn’t sure he could even try. Something was resonating inside of him, calling strangely, and it was similar to what he had experienced nearly a year ago. When he’d had that strange dream.

Sora rolled out of the bed, feet taking him automatically to the window where he threw open the two panes. He sucked in gulping breaths of the fresh air, smelling of seawater as always, but it couldn’t ease the knocking deep inside of him. There was longing there. And urgency. And a desire to leave.

He suddenly wondered how Leon was doing. The want to travel fluttered strongly in his belly; a desire to jump into his carefully hidden gummi ship and go immediately to Radiant Garden, despite the fact that school was scheduled to begin in just a few weeks. He didn’t know how to explain it. It wasn’t the flaring instincts of battle, nor did he believe that the heartless had returned, but still…

“Sora?”

Hands slid around his waist from behind as Riku set his chin on his boyfriend’s shoulder, concern etched into his features. “You couldn’t sleep,” he murmured softly, gazing past him at the darkened night sky, the moon reflecting off the ocean’s water.

The brunet didn’t speak, however, as he continued to breathe raggedly, one hand still clutched onto the filmy curtains.

Riku’s brow furrowed in worry. He stroked a thumb over his lover’s exposed belly, trying to capture his attention. His boyfriend had been acting strangely lately and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. And there were times he looked into Sora’s eyes and swore someone else was staring back at him. Enough that it sent chills down his spine.

“Sora?”

Ocean-blue eyes blinked, as if coming out of a dream. “We need to go,” he said softly, a strange timbre to his voice as he stared out the window. A brief breeze fluttered through, ruffling sleep-limp brown spikes.

“Go?” Riku repeated, slightly confused.

Sora nodded, the tips of his hair brushing against Riku’s face. “To Radiant Garden. I don’t know why but,” he paused, sucking in a deep breath before turning to face his boyfriend. “Something inside me tells me that something is waiting for us there.”

Riku tilted his head in thought before nodding slowly. “Okay,” he agreed unhurriedly, hands unconsciously tightening around Sora’s waist. He didn’t know why, but a strange fear that something… difficult was coming suddenly attacked him and he didn’t want to let go. He didn’t know how to explain it, but he had the terrible notion that everything odd that had been occurring recently was about to explained. He had the feeling he wasn’t going to like it in the slightest.

“You know I trust your instincts. When?”

A smile broke out on his lover’s face, the familiar joyful grin that he was used to as Sora leaned in for a quick kiss. “As soon as possible,” Sora murmured, his lips brushing across Riku’s as his eyes sparkled with the familiar Sora glow.

Inwardly, the silver-haired boy sighed with relief. He was never quite sure how to act when Sora was in one of his strangely behaving moods. “Can we go back to sleep first?” he returned jokingly, nipping gently on Sora’s bottom lip in retaliation.

Curious, questing hands slid to the band of Riku’s sleeping shorts, giving them a none-too-subtle tug. “You sure you want to sleep?”

The sudden change in personality, from dark contemplation to playful seduction would have startled Riku if he hadn’t already been getting used to Sora’s strange behavior. He just accepted the return to Normal Sora with as much grace as he could muster and smiled wickedly, yanking their bodies together. His eyes darted to the clock, a little after three in the morning. Eh, who needed sleep anyways?

“I’m sure you could convince me otherwise,” Riku muttered, dipping his head to run his tongue up a bare expanse of tanned neck.

Sora shuddered in his hold, the slight moan that escaped his mouth enough to send a warming shiver straight down Riku’s spine and all his blood rushing downwards. It spurred him onwards, causing him to forget for the time being of the foreboding that hung over his head or the odd feeling of standing on a precipice, simply waiting for something to happen.

Instead of considering all of those stressful things he pushed his boyfriend forwards with gentle movements to the window seat, his mouth devouring inches and inches of summer-tanned skin. For people like him, keybladers with a constant task of saving the world, Riku was one to take every moment he could get.

Even if he would be leaving in a few hours to do it all over again.

~ Part Three ~

He didn’t think it would be easy.

But he never thought it would be this hard either.

He was so close, within an arm’s reach, and yet, Vincent couldn’t touch him. He could look, but his clawed fingers remained firmly at his side. He could stare with hungry eyes and an aching heart, he could long with every inch of his being but in the end, it didn’t really matter because he had been forgotten.

Eleven years. Only a little under eleven years had passed for Cid while Vincent had wallowed in depression and struggled to live for almost sixteen. It made him feel as if there was some cruel god out there that truly hated him and his existence. Because surely, no man deserved as much as he had been forced to suffer.

And yet, Cid looked well, he was glad for that. In his absence, the gummi ship builder had stopped smoking cigarettes and had gotten in shape. He did look more tired, but that could be due to all the troubles that had wracked the world. Cid and Leon were working hard together to restore everything that Ansem in his curiosity had destroyed.

Everyone blamed Ansem, Vincent had noticed… but no one seemed to remember the mad scientist who had led Ansem on his path. Everyone had forgotten the man and the woman that had started it all. Vincent was the only one who remembered the truth and he had the proof on his body, the wings and the claws and the fangs that would never fade.

Lucrecia had been the one to ask him to take part in the experiment. He had been interested by what they had explained to him. He had thought he was benefiting mankind.

He hadn’t known that Hojo held an irrational hatred for him.

He should have listened to Zack and Cid when he had the chance. But Lucrecia had been his best friend. They had grown up next to each other their entire lives and she was like a sister to him. For the good of everybody, what was his time but a small price to pay? He hadn’t known that he would have to give up his humanity as well.

To the outside world, Vincent had simply gone missing. They didn’t know that it wasn’t by choice. True he had not wanted to return out of fear for their responses to the changes, but even more important was that he hadn’t been allowed to leave. When Hojo and Lucrecia disappeared not but three weeks after Xehanort started his secret experimentation, he started making his plans for escape.

But it had been too little, too late.

Not long after their world had been swallowed by the Heartless and in his rush to return home, desperate to be sure that his brother and lover were safe, some citizen had struck him from behind. In the panic and the confusion, it was easy enough to understand why he had been taken for a Heartless. He didn’t blame the civilian. No, his hatred rested with the missing Hojo, a man whom he strongly suspected was part of the power behind the new council on Gaia’s Grotto. He had no proof other than the cold shudder that raced down his spine every time he heard the man’s voice.

Either way, it was his connection to Hojo and Ansem that gave him access to so much information regarding keyblades, Nobodies, Heartless, everything. It was through listening to one of Hojo’s many rants while wallowing in the misery of his situation that he had learned of the properties of the keyblades. How there were four different types, the keyblade of light which could purify a heart, the keyblade of dark which could separate a heart, the keyblade of dawn that walked the path of in-between and the keyblade of twilight, which no one had yet seen. The properties of the twilight were still unknown.

He sincerely hoped that Axel would find a way to Roxas. If one good thing managed to come out of their escape, then Vincent could consider his existence a worthwhile venture. It was hard to accept that the very reason that had driven him forward no longer remembered his name.

He knew that Axel didn’t understand why he didn’t just come right out and tell everybody whom he was. There was the risk that they still wouldn’t remember if he did so, which would hurt even more. But the pain of that wasn’t what he feared. The rejection in those startlingly bright sky blue eyes. The subtle recoiling of the only man he had ever loved. They were things he knew he couldn’t bear.

Sometimes love wasn’t enough. He had learned that from watching his parents.

Axel considered him a coward, and perhaps the boy was right in some way. He had a point in that if Vincent didn’t take the chance, then he would forever hate himself for doing so. He was probably right, but that didn’t make it any easier for him to speak the words or even allow Axel to do so. Not to mention that there was always the risk that if Cid was reminded before his mind was ready to accept the return of the memories, it would cause his mind to shut down, possibly forever.

No, he preferred that Cid remember on his own. Perhaps it was selfish of him to want that. After all he had suffered to find his way back home, clinging to nightmares and tortures because they helped him remember and pretending to be an emotionless being… he felt somewhat cheated. That while he had endured the distance between them, endured being without Cid’s touch, Cid had forgotten about him.

He’d had it easy.

Vincent didn’t want to admit it, but it was the truth. A part of him was angry with Cid. Angry that the man he loved didn’t seem to hold the same depth of love for him in return. Or maybe he was underestimating the power of whatever magic held Gaia’s Grotto in thrall. But he had wanted to believe that Cid wouldn’t forget him, that when he came home, there would be arms there to welcome him.

Only there hadn’t been. He had been greeted with weapons and expressions of hatred for his appearance.

It was strange, he had escaped from Gaia’s Grotto but he was left essentially in the same position. Clinging to memories of what had been and hoping for what might be, if he ever found the courage or if those eyes ever turned to him in recognition. He remembered calloused hands sliding over his body, murmured words in his ear late at night, laughter over a hastily cooked breakfast… talk of building their own house together on the edge of Radiant Garden.

He even remembered the promise. Which was odd. Because despite not remembering him, Cid had stopped smoking. He had kept his part of the bargain subconsciously, and it was that which Vincent clung to. That hope that maybe, somewhere buried deep beneath and inside Cid, he remembered his lover.

That Cid remembered the boy he had saved and helped turn into a man.

So Vincent watched from a distance, watched as Axel failed time and time again to remind Cid of his past without directly telling him. And with every failure, he died a little more inside.

Hope was a fragile dream, at best and he couldn’t help but wonder how long he had the strength to cling to it.

He wondered how long it would take for him to fall.

 

~ Part Four ~

Leon sighed as he looked out the window, watching Axel valiantly stroll determinedly after a very annoyed and equally determined Cid, the two of them heading towards the gummi ship hangars. Axel still hadn’t won over the other man, and Leon wasn’t entirely too sure that he was trying particularly hard. As it seemed, Axel was focused on asking Cid strange questions that tended to make the blond even surlier than usual.

He had accidentally eavesdropped on one such instance, when Axel had doggedly questioned Cid about the abandoned gun shop in town. It had been boarded up since they had returned since no one came to claim it. And strangely, no one could quite remember who had owned it either. Leon thought he might have recalled someone, on the edge of his memory. But it was all too fleeting and he couldn’t grasp hold of the face.

Not that it mattered. It wasn’t high on his list of importance.

A frown flitted across Leon’s face as Cid and Axel disappeared over a rise in the road and he idly wondered where Ceran was. The winged man had taken to hiding in his room, or within some darkened corner, often refusing to come out and speak to anyone. Aeris could usually coax him into conversation if she tried and Merlin was particularly gifted at convincing him to join the others for civilized meals at the table. But otherwise, Ceran kept to himself.

Leon still wasn’t sure what he thought about his guests and their rather abrupt appearance into his life. Merlin said to trust them and Aeris, usually the most intuitive of them when it came to others, seemed to believe that there was something to trust in them as well. But he couldn’t deny that Ceran gave him odd echoes of familiarity, despite the fact that he couldn’t place the man’s face. Not to mention his similarity to a Heartless.

How did a human come to possess wings and claws? He was certain there was a story in it, not that Ceran was being particularly forthcoming with the information. Honestly, the other man was downright surly when anyone asked. It was about the only time he showed emotion. Other than when he was staring at Cid with a look that Leon almost believed was longing.

Axel was a different story. He was rude and annoying, pressing when he had no right and seemed to take great pleasure in pushing Leon’s buttons, much like Yuffie. He was startlingly perceptive and just one look into those sharp emerald eyes made Leon feel as if he was silently being appraised and found wanting. There was something familiar about Axel as well. Not the man himself, just his… presence, for lack of a better word. It was hard to explain to anyone, so he refrained from doing so, but Leon was bothered by what Axel wanted.

He still didn’t trust that the red-haired man was not going to hurt Sora. There was something alluringly dangerous about Axel and it was that which kept Leon constantly on edge yet he had no real proof.

It made him half-wish that Cloud was there. The blond always had a different way of looking at things, a strange way of evaluating people. Leon couldn’t help but wonder what the missing man would have thought of the strangers. Often times he had relied on Cloud’s senses rather than his own and it was with a slight frown that he realized he wished Cloud was there with him. It simply didn’t seem fair.

He always did such things, rushing off into battle with no thought as to what or whom he was leaving behind. Leon didn’t understand, especially since Cloud never thought to explain anything. Sephiroth was his darkness; Cloud was searching for his light. It was ludicrous. Everyone knew that the silver-haired man was only baiting Cloud, trying to draw him into his vicious and seductive little web but the only one that couldn’t see it was Cloud himself.

He was blind to the so-called light that had always been standing right in front of him.

Leon wasn’t about to reveal the truth to anyone else, but he did miss Cloud and probably wished stronger than any of the others that the blond would return. Without Ansem, without a king, there was no one left to lead the people of Radiant Garden and Leon had been thrust into that position without his permission. He was left tottering on booted feet, wondering how the hell he was going to feed and protect everyone. How the hell he was going to make sure that everyone had clothes and rebuild homes. It was tiring, it was depressing… and it was lonely.

While the others were very good support and very dear to him, there was still that element of connection that was missing. Aeris was like an older sister to him, Yuffie the younger sister that annoyed him. Cid was the gruff uncle and perhaps the one Leon was closest to while Merlin was like a matronly grandfather to their entire lot. Cloud had always been different for him, even if Leon never told him, which was probably his biggest mistake.

Perhaps if he had, Cloud would have been more inclined to stay.

Behind him, the door swung open with a very loud creak only to slam against the wall, announcing the presence of someone. With very little options, Leon could only assume it was Yuffie and heaved an insufferable sigh. He really wasn’t in the mood to put up with her antics at the present moment. Not that anything he would have said would have deterred her in the slightest.

“Leon,” she chirped happily, strolling into his bedroom as if it were hers and not, in fact, his. “Whatcha doin’?” Her query floated towards him as she stepped up beside him, her brown eyes gazing out the same window as he.

He grunted and shot her a look, hoping that his wordless reply would be enough to send her away. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It was a gamble either time.

The silence lasted for all of a minute before she bouncily pulled her body onto the window seat and perched there comfortably, a strange look on her face. “Cid’s even grumpier than usual,” she announced, as if there was nothing more important in the world.

“So I’ve noticed,” he responded dryly.

“You’re not worried?”
Leon shook his head, turning away from the window. “Cid’s crankiness is none of my business.”

She eyed him curiously. “Even if it has something to do with Ceran and Axel?”

“Especially because of that.” He paused as he stood in front of his dresser, eyes inexplicably falling on an old picture. So old it was from before King Ansem discovered the Heartless. It was a miracle he had found it in his old home, completely unharmed. The picture itself was really nothing special. Most of them weren’t even looking at the camera, yet they were all there and it was the expressions in their faces, in their bodies, that told the tale.

Yuffie clinging to his leg, Leon trying to get away from her and looking towards Cloud in exasperation, who was laughing, generally more carefree than the sulky and depressed man he was now. Aeris was sitting beneath a tree, painting a picture. Cid was in an argument with someone off camera. Leon cocked his head to the side in sudden question. Why it hadn’t occurred to him before, he wasn’t sure. But he realized that he didn’t even know who it was that took the picture.

“You miss him, huh?”

He was startled as Yuffie’s voice appeared right at his side. He jerked, turning to find her standing right next to him as her eyes raked over the picture. Leon’s hand came out before he knew what he was doing, slapping the frame so that it was face down. He winced as it snapped loudly and hoped that the glass didn’t crack.

“Didn’t Aeris tell you to help her make dinner?” he muttered, shifting away from the self-proclaimed ninja to head to the door.

Behind him, Yuffie humphed as she followed. “It’s noon, Squeon. Not quite time to start dinner just yet.” She was right on his heels as he headed down the stairs, boots clomping loudly on the uncarpeted wood. “Why won’t you just admit it?”

“Admit what?” he mumbled, only half-listening to her.

She rolled her eyes at him. “You males are impossible,” she grumbled before abruptly reaching up and smacking him across the back of his head. “Cloud, of course, Leon. You miss him. We all see it so stop trying to hide it.”

He rubbed his head, shooting her one of his potent, icy cold glares.

Yuffie, predictably, was unperturbed as she frowned and planted her hands on her hips. “I’m young but I’m not stupid. Maybe if you tried giving him a reason, Cloud would give up on Sephiroth and come back,” she reprimanded him in a tone that eerily reminded him of Aeris. Perhaps the two females had been spending too much time together.

“But I know that won’t happen,” she continued as she whirled on her heel and began stalking towards the kitchen. “You’re a coward and hard-headed to boot,” she threw over her shoulder with a departing snort.

He watched her go with mixed feelings of relief and unease. She was right in many ways. Were it not for his fear of rejection, he would have said something to Cloud a long time ago. Instead his feelings had grown silently and steadily stronger as he longed from afar, always acting the part of the broody, fragile man.

With a sigh, Leon rubbed a few fingers across his forehead before heading out the front door. There was work to be done; he hadn’t the time for idle thoughts of things that could have been. All he had was the future and with any small measure of hope, he believed that he still had a chance.

Even men like him were allowed to dream.