He knows that some of them joined the Superior because they couldn't remember, because all they felt was this ripping, aching vacancy in their bones – like they couldn't move without evaporating, not leaving a trace of themselves behind.
Demyx tells Axel this solemnly and Axel says: "Well, yeah, fuckhead, that's 'cause you don't exist."
Axel likes to pick on Roxas.
Axel likes to pick on everyone, really. Xigbar laughs along with him, punches him good-naturedly in the arm, and Demyx whines like a two-year-old. He'd tried to pants Larxene once and she had more or less crucified him, so he leaves her alone now, and, just for the sake of caution, never lets himself catch her on a bad day. But everyone else gets shit from him on a regular basis, to the point where they just shrug it off and swear at him.
But Axel's on a mission with Roxas one day and the kid keeps staring at him unnervingly (everything Roxas does is unnerving, really) until Axel turns and snaps, "Take a picture, zombie boy. It'll last longer."
Roxas only blinks, face blank, and keeps staring. It's not satisfying like short-sheeting Zexion's bed and it's not comfortable at all, but Roxas's gaze is almost tangible: constant, probing, learning. It makes Axel's stomach bottom out. Strangely, he doesn't mind.
Some of them are here because they do remember. Their real lives stay etched on their faces, only you can't tell unless you know what you're looking for.
Axel picks out old scars and distant eyes. He feels sorry for them the most.
The only thing that really gets a reaction out of Roxas is his own carnage, in the beginning. Axel learns this in the slums of Agrabah, sweating and bitching and covered in gunk that he doesn't really want to think about. He's about ten seconds from portaling back to the castle and giving Saïx an earful, but he catches sight of Roxas's face first and it stops him cold.
"Hey," he says quietly, placing himself deliberately between Roxas's wide, panicked eyes and what used to be their target. He wraps a hand around the back of Roxas's neck and squeezes; his glove slides a little in the sweat there, and his hands stutter against the tension.
"Hey," he says again, and Roxas looks up at him then, looking for instruction, for guidance. Looking like a scared little kid. Mommy, I didn't mean to kill him, honest. Axel sighs. "Let's go back, yeah?"
He pushes Roxas through a portal and tries to relax when the darkness closes in on him.
Larxene just likes the violence of it. The thrill of the hunt, the chase, the kill. Axel gets along with her better than he would admit.
Recon is probably the worst thing Axel's ever had to do. Either you follow some poor schmuck around all day, ducking behind bushes and buildings like a tool until you learn what you need to know and put the bastard out of his misery, or you have to do some old-fashioned spy work: disguises, false identities, the whole nine yards. Axel's been snuck into parties as the crown prince of an entirely fictional country. He's been an uninvited but welcome guest of this king or that one on friendly hunting excursions. For one miserable week, he'd been a mermaid ambassador. And he plays his parts well; he excels, because the Superior doesn't like to have things done halfway. And no one wants to be the idiot who upsets the Superior.
Well, Axel kind of does, but not enough to actually do anything.
Thankfully, though, Saïx tells them that this is a mission for the fairer sex. He chuckles and throws his legs across the arm of the sofa while everyone's eyes go to Larxene. He's been hoping for a show.
Saïx isn't as dumb as he looks, though, because all it takes it a casual graze from a well-thrown knife for him to reconsider. He coughs. "As it seems," he begins, "that Larxene is incapacitated, we'll need a substitute."
"Sorry," Xigbar says loudly, "thoroughly lacking in vagina here." A few of them snicker and Saïx makes a face that he thinks is intimidating.
"Naturally, the maiden princess isn't going to let a man into her private quarters," Saïx tells them severely. "If there are no volunteers, I'll choose."
A staggering lack of hands fly up. Axel settles himself deeper into the couch, picking at his fingernails. He doesn't really care one way or the other, because really, wearing a dress is so not the worst thing he's had to do for these psychos.
"Roxas," Saïx says coolly. Axel's head quirks up.
"I'm not a girl," Roxas spits, because he's recently discovered the existence of his vocal chords.
"But you're so cute," Axel coos. Roxas looks murderous. Larxene smiles a little though, so he figures his at least filling his quota of asshole remarks for the day.
"You're also the youngest, which will make you a more believably companion for the princess," Saïx continues, pointedly ignoring everyone.
"Seriously, though," Axel says, sitting upright. "You sure that's the best idea? He's about as smooth as sandpaper. I don't know how well he's gonna be able to pull this off."
"I could kill you," Roxas offers.
"I'll take my chances."
"Are you offering to replace him?" Saïx asks.
Axel shrugs. "Personally, I'm rooting for Lexaeus."
"Roxas," Saïx says, and Axel is so proud that he's managed to make that vein on his forehead stick out. "You have three hours to prepare. Dismissed." The room clears out, Roxas lingering behind with a scowl.
"Chill out," Axel says, slinging an arm over his shoulder. "So you go hang out with a princess. You talk about boys and you braid each other's hair until she tells you where daddy's entourage is headed. It's more or less what you do here, just with more glitter."
Roxas nudges his shoulder off. "You could have taken my place. I'm incompetent, anyway, right?"
"Gotta leave the nest sometime," Axel shrugs, unfettered, and links his arm through Roxas's. He relishes the defeated sigh he gets in return. "The way I see it, you can either flap those scrawny little arms of yours and fly or end up a bloody, crumpled-up pretzel on the ground. It's win-win, really."
Roxas twitches, and Axel cannot logically explain the warm, tingly pride expanding in his chest. "I'm leaving now," Roxas says flatly, and nearly dislocates Axel's arm.
"Are you going to wear lipgloss?" Axel calls down the hall. "Oh, hell, please! It could be the shiny kind!"
Roxas doesn't turn around, and Axel goes back to his room and stares at the ceiling for a long time.
When he wakes up, Roxas is standing in front of him, wearing what used to be a dress and also quite possibly a tiara.
"Don't ask," Roxas says, almost pleadingly. "Just. I can't get out of this by myself." His eyes stay cast on the ground.
Axel sits up on his bed, rolling the kinks out of his neck before gesturing Roxas over. Roxas slouches in front of him awkwardly, facing away. He rucks the dress up over his shoulders, so that he's just standing there in a corset and a stiff bunch of underskirts that echo the tension in his shoulders. Axel swallows.
"What happened?" he asks, because of course he's going to, especially if he was told not to. Roxas makes a very pretty girl, he thinks, starting in on the corset. The laces whisper through his fingers and every now and then he brushes against the too-warm skin of Roxas's back.
"She's dead," Roxas shrugs. "Apparently it's not customary to be fully dressed all the time. She saw more than she needed to." Oh, so that is blood on his cheek. Axel thought it might have been lipstick, smudged too far over. Roxas had been wearing lipstick; he'd noticed it when he'd woken up. It was too bright, garish and harlequin. Axel would bet that most of it ended up on the back of Roxas's hands, or on napkins hidden away in pockets. Roxas doesn't like bright things.
"You always have to take a third option, don't you," Axel doesn't-ask, almost fondly. He's nearly done with the corset, and his focus is now on Roxas's pale shoulders, the vulnerable line of his neck. He counts his breaths as the last of the laces give way and he can help Roxas shimmy out of the corset.
"She didn't say anything useful, anyway," Roxas says behind a mouthful of fabric. "Just kept talking about some boy who was always an ass to her."
"I bet she liked him, though, huh?"
"Yeah," Roxas says, breaking free of the corset with a relieved noise. "He liked her, too, is the weird part. Why would you try to hurt someone you like? You're supposed to be good to the people you care about, right?"
"That's just how some people are," Axel says absent-mindedly, reaching out a brave hand to trace the angry red lines crisscrossing Roxas's back. The flesh under his fingers shudders and Roxas spins around face him, too close, too close.
"Axel," he says, low, and lays a hand against his chest. He's wearing false eyelashes, Axel notes, too heavy; they make his eyes droop and flutter. Roxas's breath is warm against his throat. "What am I supposed to do now?" he asks quietly, tilting his head up. "I don't—you have to tell me."
And then Axel laughs: loud, raucous, obnoxious laughs, because what the hell are any of them supposed to do? "Nothing," he tells him, "nothing, nothing."
He leaves and Axel is still smiling. There's no mirth in it.
Roxas makes a pretty boy, too. It's not like Axel doesn't notice.
Sometimes one of them will try to pretend that they're here because they're afraid.
Axel doesn't buy it for a second.
Historically, Axel does a lot of stupid shit.
He used to screw around with Larxene, just because he could, and it was nice in a hurting sort of way. Eventually he stopped, because Larxene was less about sex than she was about pain, and that was the biggest difference between them: Axel could appreciate pain on someone else, find the tragedy in the tautness of someone's limbs, in the color of their blood; Larxene worships it in all its forms. So, somewhere in the part of his mind that moonlights as a pretentious hipster dumbass, that's why he and Larxene are strictly clothes-on coworkers now. Really, it's probably to do with the fact that he was starting to wake up too sore to go on mission, but one truth doesn't negate the other.
He used to like to piss off Saïx a lot, too. In the beginning, he just did it because he always saw a quiet, calm little boy instead of a raging psychopath. He'd push and push and then push a little bit more for the sake of trying, and for a while, Saïx put up with him. One day, though, he throws Axel across the room and nearly sends him flying out the window. It took three days to get all the glass out of his back and it took less than a minute for Axel to realize that they weren't the same, after all.
Sometimes he'd stand on top of the building, teetering on the edge and looking down into the monochrome below. That was probably the safest thing he ever did; no one ever found out about it, and if he's going out, it's gonna be with a fucking show.
Mostly, though, he's just stupid in the usual way. Tripping over carpets stupid. Adding two and two and getting five stupid. It's not that he's dumb. He's just careless. So when there's a heartless sneaking up behind him, he doesn't have the common sense to look around, doesn't have the intuition to know it's there. (In all fairness, he was a little preoccupied with the treasure chest.)
But he does hear Roxas slicing through the air, turns around quick enough to see the wispy black smoke rise and eventually disappear.
"Thanks," he murmurs, looking at Roxas appraisingly. Roxas shrugs.
"What are friends for," he says, and what gets him is that he's completely and utterly serious.
Axel kisses Roxas; it tastes like blood and sweat and seawater and Roxas fidgets underneath him, but he doesn't pull back.
Axel first shacked up with the Organization because they gave him room and board and a snazzy black coat and it was better than the streets.
He stayed because there wasn't a Roxas in the world outside, and that didn't seem quite right.
(And then he stayed because there's not enough room for Roxas and Sora. He doesn't want to be around to watch.)
When he goes out, he goes out blazing. He thinks of the bright red lipstick on Roxas's mouth and grins; the flame burns hotter.