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The first time Axel summons his chakrams and ends up with a Keyblade he actually drops it.

He looks around for spectators, dispatches the swarm of Heartless with a burst of not-entirely-intended fire, and stares down at the weapon on the ground with something increasingly like dismay. It's modeled after his own weapons, the circular design of the handle and the magical fire flickering around the edges, and he just knows if he picks it up it'll fit in his hand like it was made for it. "Screw you," he tells it, and turns his back. "I don't have the time for this."

The Keyblade doesn't move, but when Axel tries to summon his chakrams again it shimmers into his dominant hand. "No," he says, "no, I'm a Nobody, go find someone else or I'll give you to Roxas. Seriously. I can't deal with this right now. Got it memorized?"

He gives it a narrow look and the Keyblade, after a long moment, lets him dismiss it from his hand. His chakrams finally come when he calls them and he exhales as he gives them a restless twirl, his mind whirring. "Damn it," he mutters, half to himself, "Roxas."

Roxas won't know what to do. Roxas barely knows anything about anything, for all that his eyes light up as soon as he spots Axel in a room, for all that his tentative smile makes Axel's chest ache. Axel's got an idea, anyway - there was something when they met, the clench of his throat and the sudden feeling like a bone-deep recognition, nothing to do with how Roxas looks like another Keyblade wielder or two and entirely to do with the way his eyebrows furrow in thought, the way his face brightens with each tentative smile Axel draws out, the way he so easily, so naively drops his guard when Axel reaches out.

Of course Roxas reaches back. But Axel hadn't thought it'd be this.

He stops by the library on his way back to Roxas's room, ignoring Zexion's curious stare from the reading chair as he scans over their spines. There are the fantasy-romance novels, of course, and he flips through one to skim the tale of two of the Keyblade's chosen, heart-bound. Xehanort's - Xemnas's - research doesn't focus on the acquisition of Keyblades, but there's enough there in pages of dry textbooks that Axel will be busy for weeks.

"Are you looking for notes on the Keyblade?" Zexion asks, as Axel passes him to the door. "I hadn't thought you were interested in the research."

"I wasn't," Axel says, truthfully enough. "But we've got one now, and all I remember is the shit from Saïx's romance novels. 'The Keyblade's chosen has the strongest heart - or two hearts bound as one.'"

"Saïx," Zexion repeats, an eyebrow raised, and Axel smirks at him.

"You didn't hear it from me. Did you want something?"

"This may be helpful," Zexion says, unfolding himself from the chair and pulling a book out from the nearby shelf. "And as for our Thirteenth - I believe it may indeed be as your romance novels have said."

"Roxas is a Nobody," Axel says. "No heart to bind there."

"Yes," Zexion agrees, "but his Other lives on still. It's not unlikely their bond functions as in the tales - one heart being enough for them both."

Maybe it's true - it makes sense, except for the part where Axel's decidedly not bound to anything and still has a blasted Key. He doesn't let any of it show on his face. "Huh," he says, "that actually sounds plausible. What did you want from me?"

It's the way of things here, a trade for a trade, and Zexion says, "Vexen was terribly irritated earlier today."

"Yeah?" Axel says. "I'll look into it."

He takes the book from Zexion's open hand, slides it away into his own pocket of darkness, and waves a lackadaisical hand goodbye as he heads back out the corridor to their quarters.

He doesn't quite make it, though. Xigbar is leaning against the wall with a studied indifference that makes Axel think he's been waiting for him, and he pulls off and tilts his head as Axel slows to a stop. "Hey, Axel," he says, "you never said the kid had two Keyblades."

Axel says, startled, "What?"

"Oh, it's new, is it?"

"I'm not an idiot," Axel says. "I like existing, I'd tell someone if it happened on my watch. Two Keyblades?"

"He gave me some backtalk about it when I asked him," Xigbar says, mouth widening into a grin. "I think you're rubbing off on him. You've spent the most time with the kid - any idea what's up?"

"He only had one last week," Axel says. "If anyone knows, wouldn't it be Lord Xemnas?"

"As if I'd ask him." Xigbar pulls a face. "Watch out, though - don't get too attached."

"I'd think a Keyblade wielder on our side would be worth more than any of us, no matter how useful I am," Axel says. "And with two, too. Is he pulling double duty?"

"It's only a matter of time." Xigbar examines him thoughtfully. "But Keyblade wielders are unpredictable. Thought you should know before you get your heart broken."

"I don't have one," Axel reminds him, dry, and Xigbar laughs, short and sharp.

"Sure," he says, "but we remember it, don't we? The kid's with us for answers, purpose, whatever - but there's no way he's getting his heart back, not with the leader wanting to use the other one, too. And once he finds out..."

"He'll stay," Axel says, with a confidence he doesn't feel. Xigbar's eyebrows rise, but he gives Axel an easy grin.

"Yeah," he says, "if you can keep him. But hey, maybe they aren't the same, after all."

On that unneccessarily cryptic note he leaves, and Axel stares consideringly after him for a long moment, fingers clenching into a fist. He can feel the Keyblade humming along the edges of his awareness of his weapons, not enthused as it had been around the Heartless, but - something, still. Roxas's room is only a hallway away, but Axel stretches out his fingers and reaches for the darkness the way he's learned, and takes the portal to just outside Roxas's door.

He raps his knuckles on the door and walks in without waiting, because Roxas still hasn't quite gotten the hang of these social niceties. Roxas is sitting on his bed, the black of his coat striking against the empty white room, and he looks up and gives Axel that same sweet, tentative smile. "Hey, Axel," Roxas says, and Axel grins at him.

"Hey yourself," he says. "You look down." And Roxas does, an odd furrow to his eyebrows that hasn't let up, a distance to his gaze that's more questioning than blank. "And, you know, I've got the best fix for that."

"Don't tell me," Roxas says, "ice cream?"

Axel sighs dramatically just to see Roxas's smile. "Well, if you don't want any..."

"If you're buying," Roxas says, and he takes Axel's outstretched hand to pull himself to his feet.

He doesn't let go until they step out at Twilight Town's station plaza, where the sun's already starting to set. Roxas hangs his legs over the edge and by the time Axel comes back he's lit in sunlight-warm golds and reds, like a fire come to life. "Here," Axel says, passing him a stick, and drops down beside him.

Roxas stares down at his ice cream and kicks his feet. "Thanks."

Axel holds his ice cream between his fingers, takes a quick bite. Ice crunches between his teeth, the crisp salt flavour mellowing to a warm sweetness, and he looks over at Roxas, still frowning over his own. "So," Axel says, "want to talk about it?"

Roxas glances over at him, then holds out his hand. Axel feels his breath catch as his Keyblade once again shimmers into view, tiny motes of light coalescing and - it's different. Roxas says, "I don't know why, but today, it just - changed."

It looks like light, like the spells that come so easily to Roxas's fingertips, blue and white and delicately formed. "Let me guess," Axel says, "the other one's darkness?"

Roxas peers at him over his outstretched Keyblade, and Axel lifts his shoulders in half a shrug. "Xigbar mentioned you had two now."

"Yeah," Roxas says, "I guess I do." He closes his hand, the Keyblade disappearing again, and shakes his head. "But - why?"

"Beats me," Axel says, mostly truthful. "It does... kind of remind me of something, though. Here."

He pulls the novel out of the space between, sliding it over to Roxas's lap. Roxas licks the ice cream dripping blue sugar-water down his fingers and Axel can't bring himself to care as he slides his other hand down the page, falling to the bottom corner. "Two Hearts as One?" Roxas says, tone doubtful, and Axel huffs a laugh.

"It's not my usual reading material," he says, "but... here. Let me find the page."

Roxas looks up at him as he leans over to flick through the book. His blue eyes are piercing. "Axel, are you looking into the Keyblade?"

For me, goes unsaid, but Axel still has an odd twinge of guilt at the prevarication: "A little," he says, "but don't think it's on you."

Roxas still does, for the way his smile spreads, careful and startlingly bright. "Sure."

"Ugh," Axel says, "shut up. Ah, this is the page, read it."

Roxas holds Axel's gaze for a moment before his eyes drop to the page, and Axel lets out a breath as he pulls himself back, away from the warmth of Roxas's body and the tempting curve of his neck. "You're the one,' she cried,' Roxas read aloud, "'You must be! The thrill of your touch shows me my heart beats only for you' - is this going anywhere?"

"Just read it," Axel says, smiling despite himself at the bemusement spread across Roxas's face.

"I don't know," Roxas says, "is this a joke?" But his face falls into a curious solemnity as he reads the next paragraph, and the next; "'I've known we were bound,' Zack said, 'since I've had this,' and he brought forth a Keyblade, spluttering darkness. 'But I've fallen too far, Aqua! I can't be with you!'

"And Aqua held out her own Keyblade, shimmering light, and said, 'I could never reach the darkness, but being with you is like - '

"'Coming home,' Zack finished alongside her, and though he raised his Keyblade to fight she ignored it as she ran into his arms, sobbing wildly. 'We're two halves of a heart, then. I'll be your darkness, and you'll be my light."

"Melodramatic, yeah," Axel says, "but the idea behind it - "

"Heart-bound," Roxas says, slowly. When he looks at Axel, Axel feels strange, stripped away; Roxas bites his lip and shuts the book on the inset picture, a shadow of a man and a blazing woman locked in a passionate embrace. "But... we don't have hearts."

"You're already an exception with one Keyblade," Axel says. "Who knows? Maybe your link with who you used to be is strong enough for two."

"Then wouldn't I have started with two?" Roxas says, shaking his head. "No. It has to be something else. Axel... are you sure we don't have hearts? I don't remember anything else, and - are we still missing something?"

Axel leans back on the heels of his hands, watching the dimming sky. "I remember," he says, "and - it was worst when we woke up. Then, it was as though all the light in the world had gone, the color, the life of it - just, in the blink of an eye. But I've gotten used to it. You will, too."

He doesn't say, it's gotten better since you've been here, but perhaps Roxas hears it anyway, his startlingly wide eyes on Axel's face.

"It... was a bit like that, when I woke," Roxas says, tentatively. "I was so - empty. But then I saw you, and - "

"Hey," Axel says, warning, but Roxas reaches for his hand anyway, and Axel can't pull away. "Roxas..."

"Axel," Roxas says, implacable, and starts to peel off Axel's glove, fingers around his wrist. "Why have you been so - so nice to me? You took me out for ice cream even then."

"You were a total zombie," Axel says. "I felt kind of sorry for you."

"If we did have hearts," Roxas says, "do you think it'd be the same for us, too?" He tugs on the leather, pulling Axel's fingers free, and then presses their palms together. His hand is warm, and the skin-to-skin contact sends Axel's nerves skittering wild. And it's more than that, this terribly warm sensation, the odd fullness in his chest every time he takes a breath. "I... I recognised you, then. It was the first thing I knew, that I knew you."

"Look," Axel says. "We're Nobodies - it's actually impossible for any of this to be what you think it is - "

"I thought, you looked the same," Roxas says. "Like we knew each other - or whatever was left of our hearts did."

"Hey," Axel says, "let's be clear here, I don't like your heart, I like you. Got it memorized?"

"Axel - "

Axel sighs. "Yeah," he says, "I felt it, too."

Roxas's hair is golden-red like flames in the sunset, his slow-growing smile like a breath of fresh air. "We can't let anyone find out," Axel says, but Roxas shakes his head, still looking at Axel like he hung all the stars in the sky.

"I know," he says. "But - it's enough, isn't it? That we know?"

"Roxas," Axel says, and sighs. "Finish your ice cream."

Laughing, Roxas pulls his hand away from Axel's to cup the melting sugar running down his other hand, and he bites off the last icy chunk of it, fingers sticky, tongue tainted blue. "Happy now?"

"You know I don't have a heart," Axel says, but with an overblown drama that makes Roxas's smile widen, grinning up at him as Axel shifts, pressing their shoulders together. "Come on, then. Your day wasn't all weird Keyblade nonsense. Tell me how the rest of it went."

Roxas does, growing slowly more animated over the tale, and Axel watches him and wonders what it would feel like if he did have a heart. This can't be it, the slow familiar warmth of Roxas's blue eyes, but, Axel thinks, it's the closest he's got.

 


 

Vexen's laboratory fits in perfectly with the decor here in the World That Never Was: long steel tables in a glaringly white room. Axel peers around at the person-sized pods around the room, the complicated reagents kept in ice, until Vexen finally cracks. "What do you want?"

"Just checking up," Axel says. "Heard you wanted to interrupt the boss's alone time. Really? What could be that important?"

"Nothing," Vexen snaps. "Get out of here."

"What," Axel says, widening his eyes, "no hints at all? Let me guess, you screwed something up."

"Get out."

"Or you'll make me?" Axel fills his tone with a calculatedly derisive edge as he walks around the tables, trailing his fingers along Vexen's notes. "I'd really love to see you try."

"Remember your place," Vexen says. "Number Eight."

"Oh, of course," Axel says, "I have the... utmost respect for you." He's scanning the pages as he goes, the crossed-out words and crumpled sheets of paper, and discreetly swipes a few that look promising as he gestures with a flourish. "Which is why I'm concerned. You of all people must know it's not good to get on our boss's bad side."

"Your insolent mouth will get you there faster than any of my miscalculations - and it was regrettable, not unexpected." Vexen grits his teeth, obviously fuming, and Axel grins, showing his teeth.

"Even so," he says, "continual failure - not a good look. It's not me who's bringing him bad news."

Axel takes a portal away from Vexen's hard stare, retreating to his room where he flattens out the notes he took. Not all of them are useful, scientific diagrams beyond Axel's ability to parse, but from the others - "The Replica Program," Axel says aloud, the words like ashes in his mouth, and wonders how much, exactly, he should pass on to Zexion. Not the parts about Roxas that turn Axel's stomach, not the parts about the Keyblade, but...

He's just folded the notes away when someone opens the door without warning; Axel startles, snaps his fingers and sets the rest on fire. But it's only Roxas, looking bemused at the smouldering pile of paper turning into ash on Axel's bed.

"Was that... important?" Roxas wonders, stepping inside and closing the door behind him as Axel hurries to douse the flames.

"Nah, not really," Axel says. "Done for the day already, huh?"

"I think I'm doing better," Roxas says, and holds out his left hand like he might summon a Keyblade, peering at it thoughtfully. "It feels... I don't know. Like I should have two."

"You rush through missions too quickly, they'll just have you do more," Axel warns him, rising to his feet. Roxas quirks a smile.

"Yeah, I know. But - that wouldn't be so bad, would it? All the hearts I collect are important, right?"

"Supposedly," Axel says, and spares a glance out the window, a half-shaped heart gleaming like a moon in the black of the endless sky. "But - ah, whatever. We were going for ice cream, right?"

"Do you... not want to tell me?" Roxas says, tentatively.

Axel can taste guilt on his tongue as he shakes his head. "Nothing like that," he says, trying for reassuring. "It's just politics, you know. I think I might have to go to Castle Oblivion with the move."

"A new assignment?"

"It's complicated," Axel admits, "and - yeah, it's a mess. Amusing, but a mess. But it'll sort itself out, one way or another." Probably with Axel doing the sorting, but that's not something Roxas needs to hear.

Roxas seems to take this in with a bemused consideration that makes Axel grin. He slings an arm around Roxas's shoulder as he pulls him toward the portal he summoned, says, "This time you're buying."

Roxas squawks and shoves him off, but with a gentle touch and a slow-growing smile. "Excuse me?"

"You invite me out," Axel says, "it's your munny we're spending. Haven't you gotten a pile from all those missions you've been doing?"

"If I'm buying," Roxas says, "maybe we should try another flavor - "

"Did I say something?" Axel interrupts quickly. "Ice cream's on me."

Sea-salt is the speciality of Twilight Town, and Axel's gotten a taste for it, something sweet and oddly nostalgic. Roxas seems to like it, too; when Axel says, "Hey, if you wanted something different," he shakes his head.

"No," he says, "it's good."

Axel raises his eyebrows but buys him one anyway, passing it to him as they head up to the clock tower's roof. It's mid-afternoon this time, with the whole evening to spare, and Roxas seems content to enjoy his ice cream in simple silence as Axel watches the sun inch its way down the sky, lost in thought.

It was like this the first day, Axel remembers, and slides a glance over to Roxas, watching the kids running around down below. But every time he looked Roxas came into himself a little more, and now he's not even sure when he could say they started to be friends.

Maybe they always were, considering the Keyblade tucked away, waiting for his call. But Roxas's second -- Axel thinks about Vexen's notes, Keyblade studies and Replicas, and bites his tongue.

"Something on my face?" Roxas asks, and Axel huffs a laugh and drags his gaze away from the curl of his smile to his bright sky-blue eyes.

"Yeah," he says, "now that you mention it..."

He reaches out to swipe a smudge of melting ice cream from the corner of Roxas's mouth, then tastes it off his thumb; Roxas's cheeks are faintly pink when Axel looks over and, startled, he grins. "What," he says, "did I miss a spot?"

"You - " Roxas swings at him, wide and ineffective, and when Axel catches his fist he lets it drop, shaking his head. "You're terrible," Roxas says, sounding fond. "Just awful."

"Ouch," Axel says dryly, leaning back, "I think I might be hurt. You're heartless."

"Yeah," Roxas says, "but then again, so are you."

Axel shakes his head, still smiling despite himself. "Is that all you've got?"

"I wouldn't want to hurt you too much." Roxas slides his hand over Axel's on the ledge, and Axel twists his hand so it's resting palm-up and interlaces Roxas's fingers with his. "You said you were going to Castle Oblivion - does that mean you're... going away?"

"For a while," Axel says, mouth twisting. "I don't know how long. And I haven't been officially assigned yet, so who knows?"

"You think you will, though, don't you?" Roxas sounds conflicted as he meets Axel's gaze and looks away. "I guess we won't see each other much."

Axel considers the tightness to Roxas's eyes, the lurking knowledge of what's waiting for him when he goes. "I might be able to stop by," he says, after a long moment. "I couldn't leave you to eat all that ice cream all by yourself."

Roxas's smile is worth the compromise. And Axel has the feeling he'll need the break.

They stay there until the sun sets, the sky a quiet purple-red as it falls below the horizon, and Roxas doesn't let go of Axel's hand until they're at his door.

 


 

Axel keeps his word. He stops by Roxas's room the first-second night, watches as Roxas stirs and squints at him in the dull light of Kingdom Hearts. "Hey," he says, "sorry I'm late," and Roxas shakes his head, holding out his hand.

Axel steps forward and takes it, letting Roxas tug him onto his bed. "What happened?" Roxas asks, muffled around a yawn, and Axel studies him in the silvery light, the colour of his hair, the shape of his eyes. They're not alike, not entirely, and more than that - the warmth Axel feels is entirely for him alone.

No. He's not Sora. It has to be enough.

"Nothing," he says, too late, to Roxas's drooping eyelids. "I thought I'd see you, that's all."

Roxas hums a tired agreement, not seeming to hear him at all.

And then there's a later evening, when Axel finds Roxas still eating ice cream under the darkening sky. There's nothing to do about all of it except what he's already doing: balancing the machinations of the Organization, Saïx's plans, Marluxia's goals.

Axel has only one of his own right now, and he's sitting right beside him, finding shapes in the stars. "Hey," he says, "want to spar?"

"Now?" Roxas says, startled. "Why?"

"I need the practice," Axel says, and it's not even a lie. "And I haven't seen you use those two Keyblades - can you even handle more than one?"

"I'll show you," Roxas says, smiling, and draws them both when they're back in the World That Never Was, far outside the castle in the dark, empty town. Axel spins his chakrams, leaps forward, and the game is on.

Roxas doesn't fight like Sora. Axel hadn't thought he would, but now with two blades he can't think it's anyone but Roxas when a Keyblade swings toward his face. Axel blocks it with a chakram and they both drop back, sizing each other up. Axel's grinning wide, the rush of adrenaline a delight as he meets Roxas's incoming swing, dodging the followup Keyblade an inch away from his head and sends out a blast of fire. Roxas catches it on crossed blades, bouncing it back to Axel alongside a flurry of dancing light, and Axel banishes it all with a rush of magical fire around him, reacting only just in time to parry Roxas's Keyblades with both chakrams, his ears ringing from the blow.

Roxas is grinning, too. "Still think I can't handle them?"

"I don't know," Axel says, teasing, "you haven't beaten me yet."

Roxas seems to take it as a challenge, and Axel finds himself on the defensive as he struggles to block every hit. It's fast-paced and thrilling and they leave magic behind, just the clash of blade against blade and the knowledge of each other and when Axel misjudges an opening and finds himself knocked down, Roxas's Keyblade at his throat, he feels - content.

No, he can't really feel anything, but perhaps it's the memory of a feeling that makes him want to reach out and summon his own Keyblade, to see the look on Roxas's face at the confirmation, to take some of that delight for his own. "Had enough yet?" Roxas says, and Axel lets his grip on his weapons go.

"Yeah, okay," he says, "maybe you're not so bad at this after all."

Roxas's smile grows, his eyes bright, but whatever he was going to say is interrupted by someone clapping, slowly. Roxas drops his Keyblade and Axel rises to his feet to see Xemnas stepping out of the shadows, pushing his hood back as he does and watching them with a little too much interest for Axel's peace of mind.

"Yes," he says, "you have improved. Roxas." He looks at Axel then, and Axel looks back; not quite deferential, but then he's never been the type. "Axel. You're not at Castle Oblivion."

"No one'll notice I'm gone," Axel says. "I was just getting in some practice."

Xemnas glances at Roxas, and Axel knows he's thinking of someone else entirely. He doesn't know how much Saïx has been telling him, whether he knows Vexen died at Axel's hand or that Sora was the one to end Larxene, but he inclines his head in an obvious dismissal. "Very well," he says. "I, too, would like to test your strength, Number Thirteen."

Roxas gives Axel a startled glance and Axel claps a hand on his shoulder as he passes him by. "Don't hold back," he says, voice low, "but don't win."

"I'm not stupid," Roxas mutters, but his mouth curls into an unwilling smile as Axel turns away, knowing that Xemnas won't stand for him staying there to watch.

He'll have to trust Roxas to hold his own. It says something about him, Axel knows, that this is easier than telling Roxas the truth.

 


 

Axel returns from Oblivion with the Organization in shambles, with Saïx watching his every step, and wonders when his non-existence relied so much on Roxas's quiet optimism at the end of every day. Roxas doesn't know the details of what happened - no one else does, from what Axel gathers from Demyx's unfocused curiosity - but Axel still wonders if he did the right thing, moving things to that end.

Sora might not remember anything now, but he's still a problem, and Xemnas has no stake in keeping Roxas alive when other Keyblade users exist. Saïx might if Axel appeals to him, but from the way he's being watched he wonders if he's already tipped his hand.

"A world entirely underwater, though?" Roxas says, and Axel's drawn back to him, looking up at the stars in the Twilight Town sky.

"Yeah," he says, "sounds terrible, right?"

"You just hate getting wet," Roxas says, and flicks Axel's side when he opens his mouth to offer a token protest, making him yelp. "How would you even go there?"

"Magic?" Axel offers doubtfully. "What do you think?"

Roxas's eyebrows furrow in thought. "I... do people live there?"

"Stop listening to Demyx," Axel says. "That's what I think."

Roxas makes a brief noise of disagreement but leans back on his hands, peering up at the stars. "Are all of those other worlds?" he says, after a moment. "Where do you come from? Where did I?"

"Don't look back," Axel says, a mantra half-forgotten. "It's not important, who we were. Just who we are. Got it memorized?"

"But when we complete Kingdom Hearts," Roxas says, "won't we go back there? To... whoever we used to be?"

"Hey," Axel says, "what'd I just say?"

"Yeah, I remember," Roxas says, but his tone is strange and distant. "But... I finished reading that book you gave me, you know."

"A book?"

"The romance one," Roxas says, "about the Keyblade. About - the heart-bond."

Axel's stomach drops. He swallows, his mouth dry, and says, "Roxas, about that - "

"What we have," Roxas says, "it's not complete, is it? Because we're not complete. Does that mean when Kingdom Hearts is full and we get our hearts back, it'll be better?"

"Roxas," Axel says, but there's no easy way to say anything, let alone if you get your heart back, you'll disappear. His mostly-dormant Keyblade seems a problem that pales in comparison to this. "I like you, now. And - hey, are you even sure you don't have a heart?"

Roxas makes a face, looking over at Axel with an expression that makes his throat hurt, his empty chest ache. "I don't think so. I'm still the same as I was, and... wouldn't I know if I did?"

Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't; it's couched in an understanding Axel, with all the books in the world, couldn't hope to reach. "You're my best friend," he says, instead. "This you, Roxas the Nobody, heart or not. If we're bound together by more, it's you and me, not your heart and mine. And - whatever happens, we'll be friends. Got it?"

"Yeah," Roxas says, and gives him the faint edge of a smile. "I've got it memorized."

"Good," Axel says, but for all his reassurance, Roxas still looks up at the stars like he's expecting another sky.

 


 

Saïx corners him, later. "A new mission for you," he says, "extended."

"What's it this time?" Axel says. "No chance of me taking my day off?"

"I wouldn't think you would want to." Saïx's voice is dispassionate but there's something like disapproval in the lines of his face. "It does, after all, involve Number Thirteen."

"Roxas," Axel says, "or Sora?"

Saïx doesn't answer. "There has been a character impersonating one of us, wearing our uniform, asking about the one with the Keyblade."

"A character," Axel repeats. The possibilities are slim, and all seem to lead back to Castle Oblivion. Axel hadn't imagined it'd come back to bite him quite so fast.

"Indeed," Saïx says. "This is your mess, Axel. Clean it up. For your... friend, if not for the state of the Organization."

"I'm committed to the Organization," Axel says, "as you well know. My friendship with Roxas - "

"Is a lie." Saïx examines him. "You cannot say you are friends in truth; friendship does not exist for beings like us. You should not forget all we are are our memories, Lea."

"And what exactly are you trying to say?" Axel says, keeping his tone light. "Aren't we friends, Isa?"

"Perhaps you should remember that," Saïx says. "Roxas, after all, has no memories - no true being."

"I'm on your side, Isa," Axel says dismissively, turning away, "but if you're going after Roxas - well, let's just say I've learnt a lot over the years. Do you really want to test me?"

He opens a portal in front of him, is one step through when he hears Saïx's voice: "I already have. Axel."

Axel's failed, no doubt. He seems to be failing at everything lately; Roxas's friendship, their supposed heart-bond, even using a damned Keyblade - he's beset by Heartless whenever he draws it, but this time, he thinks, it'll be nice to let off some steam.

Even after, though, all he's left with is the empty feeling in his chest, the space where there should be a heart.

He asks around about the cloaked imposter, but gets little in return. Each new day drags a little longer, makes his fists curl a little tighter; he misses him once by a handful of minutes, and, seething, punches the wall. It does nothing but bruise his knuckles, but there's something about the cool of the brick when he rests his forehead against it that makes him feel like he's suffocating. By now, the imposter must know Axel's onto him; by now, if Axel heads home, he'll lead him straight to Roxas's door.

He returns sometimes, anyway. Maybe a confrontation forced is better than this constant chase, but it doesn't seem to happen regardless of what he tries.

And when he does, he notices Roxas looks increasingly distant. It could be the other members of the Organization; "Is caring really such a weakness?" he asks Axel one evening, long after the sun has set in the sky, and Axel can't help studying his profile, wondering when Roxas stopped being - free. Is it the Organization that weighs on him, or is it something worse? Axel doesn't ask; he's not sure he wants to hear the answer.

"Sure," he says, "but having something to care about - it makes people stronger, too."

"Can we care about anything without hearts? If we had them..."

Axel steers the conversation away from dangerous waters, but he's worried the damage is already done. It feels like Roxas is slipping through his fingers like sand, and Axel's struggling to gather up the grains left behind.

"About your second Keyblade," Axel says one evening, on the verge of desperation into a lingering silence, "Vexen was doing studies on Replicas in Castle Oblivion, copies of people - copies of the Keyblade."

"A copy of me," Roxas repeats flatly, and Axel doesn't know what he's thinking at all.

"It didn't take. But it was around the time you got that second Key."

"...Vexen was doing this?"

"Roxas," Axel says, and Roxas looks away.

"Did you kill him, Axel?"

"He was a traitor to the Organization. Traitors are eliminated." It's enough of an excuse, Axel thinks, except for Roxas's swiftly closing expression. "You can't care that he's dead, I just told you he was - "

"I can't care at all, you mean," he says. "None of us can. Did you even think twice about it? Would you, if it were me?"

"Of course I would!" Axel feels - dazed, and then startled that he can. "Roxas, what are you saying? You're a part of the Organization, the same as me."

"Everyone's always said that I'm... special, because I have these," Roxas says, quiet, distant. He holds out his hand, bring a Keyblade to the fore; it's sharp, spiked and unforgiving. "But the Keyblade only comes to those with strong hearts. Why do I have one in the first place? Why - why does losing a copy of me mean I get two?"

Axel says, "I don't - "

"There's something all of you are keeping from me," Roxas says, rising to his feet. "Would you tell me, if I asked?" He looks at Axel, his expression tight and unreadable. "Axel, what happened at Castle Oblivion? Who the hell is Sora?"

Axel's voice sticks in his throat. "Where did you hear that name?"

"It's mine, isn't it?" Roxas says, his eyes luminous with the reflected light of a million hearts hanging dormant in the sky. "My heart's. Won't you tell me?"

Axel says, too late, "Roxas - "

"It's fine," Roxas says. "I was leaving, anyway."

"No, don't - "

Axel reaches out, but his fingers close on air as the portal closes on Roxas's back. "Don't go," he says, and squeezes his eyes shut, pressing a hand to his face. "Shit."

He doesn't know where Roxas will go. But he has to find him.

 


 

Finding two people isn't any easier than finding one, for all that the Organization's cloaks set them apart. Axel sends out Dusks and lurks around corners, waiting for news as Saïx starts looking at him, altogether too smug, whenever Roxas's name comes up.

"Lost the kid, huh?" Xigbar says, eyebrows quirked. "What'd I tell you?"

Keyblade wielders are unpredictable, Axel remembers, but he's one, too. "He just needs some space," he says, as dismissively as he can manage. "Think about it. He's got nowhere else to go."

The thought has him send out Dusks here, too; around the silent city streets, along the outside of the castle walls. Roxas's room is empty except for the tiny souvenirs Axel'd brought back for him lined up on the windowsill alongside a single ice cream stick with 'WINNER' printed on it at the end, and Axel leaves before it feels too much like a shrine.

It's a long few days before one of his Nobodies returns with news: Roxas, back again in the World That Never Was. Axel has an apology on the tip of his tongue when he arrives, something that's more truth and less of an excuse, but when he steps out -

Roxas is falling to the ground. His blond hair is bright against the darkness, splayed across the ground, and Axel's mind goes blank.

He teleports without thinking, fire in his hands, and blocks the Keyblade swinging toward Roxas's head. It belongs to a kid Axel hasn't seen in months, looking older with an all-new blindfold covering his eyes, and he's stunned into stillness as Axel gives him a cool smile.

Of course this one would be Axel's imposter. He should have killed him when he had the chance.

"Axel," Roxas says, from behind him, and Axel pushes forward as Riku stumbles back. "Axel, you - "

"How?" Riku says, voice cracking on it. "How do you have one, too?"

...Axel knew he was forgetting something. He swears at the flame-encased Keyblade in his hands and looks back at Riku, falling back as Roxas steps forward. "I don't think it's any of your business."

"I'd like to know, too," Roxas says, voice sharp, and Axel meets his accusatory eyes and tries to convey not now. If Roxas gets it, it doesn't show. "Are you here to hunt me down?"

"What?" Axel says. "Shit, Roxas, I've come to apologise - sure, it'd be great if you came back to the Organization, but - "

Riku takes a careful step sideways; Axel, irritated, sends out a burst of flame toward him and he stops in his tracks. "How do you have a Keyblade?"

"What do you want with Roxas?" Axel snaps back. "Roxas, come on, this isn't - "

"You know, don't you?" Riku says. He's facing Roxas, now, and Roxas is watching him: eyes narrowed, brow furrowed in something more than straight confusion. "You're remembering."

Axel's mind goes blank, and the empty place in his chest drops to his stomach. "No - "

"Sora," Roxas says. "That's what you called me."

"Don't you want to know who you are?"

"Get lost," Axel says, his voice rising, his muscles trembling. There's something he can't describe, a feeling worse than half-remembered anger or fear, his magic like a volcano quaking under his skin. "You can't have him, you'll never have him, get the fuck away right now - "

"Axel," Roxas says, but Riku steps back, into a portal that's opened up behind him.

"You know where to find me," he says, and the darkness closes around him with a rush of displaced air and magic. It leaves them standing there as Axel closes his eyes and takes a breath of cooling air, the fire in his veins slowly banking to charcoal.

"Axel," Roxas says, again. His voice is tight, accusatory. "Why do you have a Keyblade?"

Axel lets the blade go, watching it disappear from his hand. "You know why," he says, and looks at Roxas, still with his weapons in hand, before casting his gaze across the area. The skyscraper looms, the darkness encroaching, and Axel says, "We shouldn't talk here."

"Then where?" Roxas says. "I'm not going back with you to the Organization."

Axel's barely able to hide his wince. "I know a place," he says. "If you'll come." He pulls up a doorway and holds out his hand, empty, palm-up. "Roxas. Do you trust me?"

Roxas studies him. Axel doesn't know what he sees: the friend, the Organization's enforcer, or maybe the Keyblade wielder bound to him by their empty non-existent hearts. "Fine," Roxas says, and closes the distance between them in a handful of steps, taking Axel's hand. "But if you lie to me again - "

"Yeah," Axel says, "I know," and takes them both through.

His portal opens into a place he hasn't been in years, and it shows; dust covers the shelves and the countertops, layers heavy and thick. There's a book with a bookmark laid on on the couch, a dirty glass in the kitchen sink, and Axel tips over the photograph on the mantle as he passes it by, wondering not for the first time why he hasn't yet set this place alight.

"Where are we?" Roxas says, his voice edged with curiosity now more than anger, and - yeah. That's why. Axel shakes his head.

"Hollow Bastion," he says, "as it's now called. No one knows about this place - well, Saïx does, but he won't look for us here."

"Why not?" Roxas asks, and Axel gives him a grimace of a smile.

"We said we wouldn't look back." He sits down on the couch, sending up a plume of dust, snaps his fingers and burns it away. It's a flurry of cinders, then ash drifting through the air, and though the room smells slightly burnt Axel finds it easier to breathe. Holding out his hand, he reaches for the Keyblade and it comes; Axel lets it fall until he's holding the dull blade, the hilt toward Roxas. "Here. You wanted to see it, right?"

Roxas takes it, fingers curling around the hilt. He has a furrow between his eyebrows as he looks between the Keyblade and Axel. "How long have you had this?"

"Would you believe I don't know?" Axel watches Roxas carefully as he spreads his arms out along the back of the couch. "Sometime after meeting you, but before I got the Oblivion assignment. I don't fight Heartless by myself if I can help it."

"Were you ever going to tell me?"

Axel exhales a sigh. "One day. I don't know."

"Then why should I listen to you?" Roxas bites out. "You've kept this from me - what else do you know? Do you know about Sora? About who I am?"

Axel looks away. "Roxas - "

"Don't," Roxas says. "How long have you known? Why didn't you tell me at all?"

"Because I didn't want you to go!" Axel shouts, and then feels hopeless for it, his chest tight, frustration burning under his skin. "Because you'd do exactly what you've done now - up and leave and go to your precious Sora - "

"My heart - " Roxas says, but Axel doesn't care.

" - yeah, whatever," he says, "is your heart worth your existence? Roxas, you can't both live at once. You'll disappear."

"...Wouldn't that be better?" Roxas's voice is quiet. "Maybe we're bound together, but not properly, not like we would be if we had hearts. It's my heart and yours, not the empty shells left behind from the darkness - "

"Roxas," Axel says, "I got this Keyblade from meeting you, not Sora. It's you, not Sora, that I'm bound to, that I - that I want to stay in my life. Don't you remember?"

"You like me, not my heart," Roxas says. "Yeah. I remember. But..."

"Please," Axel says, hopelessly. Roxas is still standing a foot away that feels like an ever-growing chasm, and, Axel thinks stupidly, they haven't even kissed. He puts his head in his hands and stares at the tiny pieces of ash still floating to the floor. "When I'm with you, I feel like I have a heart. Isn't that enough?"

"Axel," Roxas says. Axel lifts his head as Roxas steps toward him. He's getting taller, Axel realises, as Roxas stops in front of him, and Axel looks into his face, the diffuse light casting shadows across the angles of his cheeks. His eyebrows are furrowed and there's something terribly vulnerable about the uncertain line of his mouth. "I..."

"Hey," Axel says, gently, "I'll always be your friend. Got it memorized?"

He peels off his gloves and holds out a hand. After a moment, Roxas takes it, and there's that same feeling again - like nothing he's ever felt before, or something half-remembered; like their breaths fall in-sync and there's nothing at all that matters between them. Axel feels a strange, terrifying elation and Roxas looks the same, as though he, too, suddenly felt his non-existent heart in his chest.

"You might have to remind me," Roxas says, "one more time."

"Roxas," Axel says, but his chiding tone misses the mark completely, and Roxas is still smiling when Axel sighs and pulls him in for a kiss.

It's tentative and careful, hesitating and uncertain, but when Axel pulls away Roxas's blue eyes are liquid soft. "Thank you," Roxas says, and Axel shakes his head and pulls away, smiling without thought.

"Hey, what'd I say?" he says. "I'll be your friend for as long as you want me. But Roxas - are you going to come back?"

Roxas bites his lip, gaze turning to Axel's dusty window. The town's quiet, low-lit, with only the occasional sound of Heartless in the dark. "No," he says, "the Organization isn't for me, and - I still want to see him. Sora. Not - to lose myself to him, or anything, but... he gave me this existence. I think I need to."

Axel says, "If you go - there's only one reason he's hunting you, you know. It's to take you back."

"I won't," Roxas says, and he smiles, fleeting and sweet. "I couldn't leave you to eat ice cream alone."

"Good. Then I'll come with you. No," Axel says briskly, plastering a hand over Roxas's mouth when he opens it to protest, "no arguments. Worst case, I distract them with my shiny Keyblade while you get the hell out of there."

Roxas licks his hand and Axel makes a startled sound and pulls it back; he gives Axel an arch look as Axel narrows his eyes at him. "You're always stealing my thunder."

"I couldn't leave you to eat ice cream alone," Axel says, in a terrible imitation of Roxas's tone, and Roxas bites back a laugh. "See, I've got it memorized. Do you?"

"Yeah," Roxas says, smiling despite himself. "I'll remember it just for you."