Season of the Dark Horse

by Tenshi

Note: All quotes from Billy Idol's "Buried Alive." Fic plot does not track with later-game OrgXIII canon, because it wasn't out yet.

It's the season of the dark horse
The ocean of night
It's the angel of mercy
Leaving you behind

Axel was leaving.

He had said so before, for years. Every time he walked out of the fortress with checked insolence burning unsaid on his tongue, he told himself he was never coming back. He did not need the Organization to Exist. He could go anywhere he wanted; there was nothing in the Organization to keep him there.

Within two hours he always found himself walking back in the front door.

It was not being hunted down that bothered him. It was not the might of the other members. It was the pure undisputable fact that without the Organization, Axel would be bored out of his ever-loving mind.

Sure, he could find a world to settle on, contentedly outliving all the natives and building up a quiet, comfortable level of power. But it just wasn't his style. And worse, the thought of the rest of the Organization knowing what was going on and for him to be left out in the proverbial dark...

Well, that was maddening.

And so Axel came back, every time.

But not this time, he swore. He could stand to be bored and he could stand to be ignorant of the Organization's plans. He could stand all of that just to never have to listen to one more dose of snide condescension from Marluxia's curled lip, or Larxene's insipid giggling.

Axel was leaving, and as the darkness enfolded him on the precipice of the fortress and then rolled back, leaving him in a rainy alley in the middle of the city, he realized that this time, he meant it. He was not going to go back.

And there was nothing in this world or any other that was going to change his mind.

He took a deep breath, three purposeful strides in a direction chosen entirely at random, and promptly tripped over the body lying in the alley entrance.

He swore, in languages better left forgotten along with the places they came from, and scrambled to his feet again. The city's heartless were worse than rats, and though Axel knew they were barely sentient, he wished they wouldn't leave their snacks lying around when they were done with them.

Though perhaps that wasn't the case, Axel considered, brushing off his coat and looking down at the obstruction in the alley, half-hidden behind cardboard boxes and rubbish. This one was still breathing, and last he checked, only one sort of being washed up in the city like this, naked and helpless.

For a long moment Axel stood, debating, watching the ribcage rise and fall. He was a little one. The shadows really would have him for lunch, if there was anything about the pitiful figure they craved. But Axel didn't need to press his fingertips to the thin wrist to know they would find only silence. There was nothing here the heartless desired; they had devoured it already.

Axel wasn't going to go back. Certainly not for a Nobody he didn't even know. But something tugged at the empty place in his chest: a memory, or the echo of things he had once felt, like compassion and pity.

"Hey." Axel said, toeing the body in the side with his boot. "Go to the castle. They'll take care of you. I hear they got an opening."

There was no response, so Axel repeated his advice, a little louder, and turned around. "I'd take you, but I got things to do. Sorry."

His answer was a faint, unconscious groan.

Axel kept walking. "Good luck, kid."

The boy did not answer, and Axel got all the way to the end of the alley before it started to rain. He stood there, his throat burning and his ears buzzing, chest too tight like he'd been wrapped in iron bars, and listened to the pathetic sound of movement behind him. It stopped soon enough, and when Axel looked back at last, the Nobody was lying crossways in the alley, legs tucked up as though to protect his bare skin from the elements, one arm stretched out in supplication.

Cold rain plunked loudly in Axel's lowered hood. Even from here, he could see the boy shivering. Axel turned in a frustrated little circle, his gaze going from the boy to the white spires of the fortress visible above the skyscrapers, and he let out his feelings in one short burst.


The raindrops slithered like icy kisses on Axel's shoulders as he unzipped his coat, kneeling on the broken asphalt next to the boy. "Looks like your luck is as bad as mine, kid," he said, and folded the newborn Nobody into the black, silent folds of his coat. He weighed more than Axel at first thought; there was muscle in those slim arms and the hand that closed involuntarily on the black fabric was lean and hard, a fighter's hand. His face, once Axel turned him over and saw it, had an innocent, angelic beauty that, in a Nobody, was almost cruel to look at.

"It's only cos I'm dying to know who your Other is," Axel explained, even though the boy could not hear him. "It's not like I feel sorry for you or want a brat to look after, so don't get the wrong idea."

Axel willed the darkness to open and a gate boiled up from the pavement, drawing them both in out of the rain, comforting, but somehow still cold.

In this moment
You ache for the cure
You're pleading
Save me
Give me some more

Axel's rooms in the fortress were more functional than an outsider might suspect. While the Organization endeavored to present an air of complete otherness, the fact remained that they were still corporeal bodies and souls and subject to all the bothersome eating and sleeping required thereof. Only the niggling trouble of heart and conscience was lacking.

Axel dumped the soggy nameless nobody in an unceremonious pile on his equally unmade bed, and went rummaging in his closet for a towel. That the boy would wake up and be able to tell him not only the name of his other, but where he came from, what he was doing, and his shoe size was never a matter of doubt for Axel. Nobodies, of perhaps all the sentient creatures in the worlds, were from the instant of their birth acutely aware of their origins.

Axel scrubbed at his hair and sprawled in the one chair in his room, thoughtfully stripping off his gloves. Full-form nobodies were rare, though some of them lived quietly in the shadow of Memory's Skyscraper. Full-form nobodies with skills and brains enough to slip an X into the scrambled syllables of their Others' names, well.

Those were even rarer.

Xemnas would want to know about the boy. Axel was surprised that Zexion wasn't lurking in the shadows of the room already, eager for some tidbit of information to twist to his own purposes.

Axel spent a contented moment despising the lot of them, and resolved that he would keep the boy quietly for a little while, at least. Xemnas would have no interest in him until he woke anyway, and that could be some time. there was a hollow breast to heal, and memories to sift through.

The boy rolled over in Axel's rumpled bedsheets, borrowed cloak sliding away to reveal long lean limbs and a flat belly, legs spread in wanton oblivion. that he had passed the mark of childhood was evident, but it wasn't long behind him. Axel's suddenly dry throat worked for a long moment, eyes devouring delicately flushed skin and dark honey curls, the inviting tendon and shadow of the boy's inner thigh.

A good guy, at least by the definition Axel bothered with, would have hurried to cover the boy up and tuck him in warm. A good guy would never for a second have entertained any notion of taking advantage of such helplessness, no matter the scene presented him. A good guy would have looked away.

There were moments when Axel was supremely gratified not to be a good guy.

The bed tipped down with Axel's added weight, making it seem as though the boy rolled towards him in invitation. His lips were parted, eyelashes feathery half-moons resting on the perfect tanned skin of his face. The boy was practically golden all over, a strange sight in the endless night of the World That Never Was, and in the pale, blue light of Axel's room. Whoever he had been, light had been his first lover.

Axel traced the surprisingly stern line of one eyebrow, the delicate curve of an ear. In what he thought a romantic gesture, he bent down and brushed the open mouth with his own, drawing the boy's breath into his own lungs.

He would be deadly when conscious, Axel knew. The beautiful ones always were. Better to have him this way now, before the boy became an enemy. Axel's hand traced the satiny crease of the boy's thigh, slipping underneath him. Part of him was awake, at least, flushed and heavy in the palm of Axel's hand. For a moment #VIII felt something that, in a whole being, might have been called guilt.

Luckily, it didn't last.

"Something you want to tell me?" Axel murmured, stroking the swollen cock in his hand, pressing his face into the sweet summer-grass smell of the boy's hair. "Maybe, thank you for saving me, is that it? Ah, well." Axel's hand slipped a little lower and found something sweet, secret enough for the boy to make a noise in his sleep, his head moving restlessly on Axel's shoulder. "You're very welcome."

Axel could be cautious when needs demanded; after all, he hadn't picked the boy up off the streets to hurt him. The fact that Axel wanted to fuck him so badly that he couldn't breathe was really no excuse to get sloppy, so he took his time getting him ready, even if it risked waking him. Axel didn't have a pulse, but something was roaring in his ears, the darkness in his veins rushing like hot blood in a way that belonged to another man's memories.

The boy moaned faintly into Axel's pillow as Axel curled up behind him. He wouldn't sleep for much longer, and somehow that thought only turned Axel on more. "You like this?" Axel whispered, wrapping his arms around him, nestling into the boy's warmth. "better than a cold rainy street, huh?" Axel's arms tightened, as though of their own accord, and something like a curse left his lips. "Terrible," He said, mostly to himself. "Not even awake yet, and you're already getting me in trouble." His knuckles brushed the velvety skin between the boy's thighs, working a cock that was all too eager for the attention. "You're gonna be nothing but grief, I can just tell." Axel shifted his hips, moving up into a warm welcome. "Your body knows what it wants," He hissed, pressing against a resistance that would not stand a concerted attack. "Even if the rest of you doesn't."

"...Who are you?"

If Axel had had a heart, it might have stopped. As it was he merely checked himself, and leaned down to meet one hot blue eye, glaring up at him through tousled, golden hair. For a moment he thought about explaining himself, or smartassing his way through such an exchange, but then he realized that was not the question he had been asked. His grin sliced clean and white across his face. "Axel," he said, and he pushed forward into tight, honest heat, grinding his hips against the soft curve of the boy's ass. the boy made a soft broken sound, not so much a word as a strangled gasp, and suddenly the body curled in front of Axel was pressing back against him, greedy as any Nobody. "Got it memorized?"

"Axel," the boy said, as though it were a plea or a curse, and he said it over and over until their tangled hands were sticky with proof of his existence, and Axel let out a long slow sigh of satisfaction. He pressed a kiss to the boy's damp temple, tasting salt, watching him struggle to slow his breathing.

"What about you?" Axel said, as though the scene were commonplace. "What's your Other's name?"

The boy opened his eyes, and something about them was blue and burning and wholly unsuited to the world of shadows. "Sora. His name's Sora."

And Axel wondered why that name sounded so uncomfortably familiar.

There's no shelter tonight
Escape from the pain
There is nothing
No end to this game
You're so wicked
Evil and cruel
It won't save you
From what I'm gonna do

Demyx was a man who was prone to small, localized explosions, especially where Axel was concerned.

"You did what to the keyblade master's Nobody?" he repeated, at a volume loud enough to be heard probably all the way through Betwixt and Between. "Do you know what Xemnas is going to do to you?"

"If I knew that, I wouldn't be standing here waiting to find out," Axel snapped, looking sharply around the white antechamber. "And why don't you speak up, I think some deaf old ladies in Twilight Town might not have heard you."

"He won't stop at re-routing your nerve endings, that's for damn sure." Demyx continued, as though he was the one about to be punished, and not Axel. "You won't walk for a week once he's--"

"Look," Axel said, what little patience he possessed long since gone, "You aren't helping me out here, so why don't you go be fatalistic somewhere else. You might give Luxord a laugh."

Demyx's wounded response was cut short as the gateway to Xemnas' chambers bubbled with energy, and a Dusk wriggled up out of the opening. Low-form Nobodies lacked any capability for speech, but that seemed to be an advantage when the Superior didn't want any overeager ears going along with his messages.

The creature wibbled and batted its soft, handless tendrils against Axel's coat; Axel knocked them away with a noise of disgust. "I know, I know, I'm coming. Stop touching me."

"Nice knowing you," Demyx intoned, as Axel stepped up to the looming gate.

Number VIII wasn't feeling particularly charitable. "Yeah, wish I could say the same," he said, and passed through the doorway. Demyx was left alone in Proof of Existence, with only his worries and the closed crypt-like doors of his comrades.

The first thing Axel noticed on entering the chamber of the Superior was that they were not alone. The Keyblade Master's Nobody stood a small distance away from Xemnas, his arms folded, his back to the magnificent view of the city presented from Xemnas' balcony. He was no longer dressed in Axel's borrowed robe, but in one of his own, dark folds clinging like shadows from his shoulders.

Axel thought, for a brief moment, that the color didn't really suit him at all.

"Axel," Xemnas said, without taking his gaze from the small, heart-shaped moon flirting with the clouds above the fortress, "I wanted to thank you for giving Number XIII such a warm welcome."

Axel shot Sora's Nobody a glance that was pointedly not returned, though it seemed the boy had the good grace to flush either with anger or embarrassment. Remembering the encounter, Axel found it unlikely to be the latter.

"So he's one of us now, is that it?" If Xemnas had ever wanted respect or titles out of his followers, he never asked for it. They feared him, and some of them may have hated him, but his number was rank enough and beyond that, they were all Nobodies alike. They offered no obeisance, and no titles with his name. Zexion was the only exception to the rule, and he used every oily bow and poisoned 'sir' like a knife against his fellows. As far as Axel knew, it was the only weapon Number VI carried.

"Of course," Xemnas purred, sparing his two followers the barest turn of his head. "Surely you don't think I would have let such an asset escape us."

"He's that valuable?" Axel asked, as though he didn't know the answer. Sometimes one could get a lot more information with just a small amount of playing dumb. It had worked wonders for Demyx, after all. "What can he do?"

Xemnas turned around, and he smiled. Axel's stomach made a funny sideways shimmy. "I don't doubt even you might be impressed, Axel," Xemnas said, and waved one hand lazily at the boy. "Roxas, isn't it?"

The boy looked up at last, but only at Xemnas, and nodded. "That's right."

"An elegant mix, if I ever heard one," Xemnas leaned back on the balcony rail, as though expecting something pleasant. "Very well then, Roxas. Why don't you show your doubting rescuer just what he has found?"

Roxas turned blue eyes at last on Axel, and it was only through years of practice that Axel kept his own expression blank. There was something burning in that boy's face, some emotion no empty-chested Nobody should ever have, and even Xemnas seemed to pale in comparison. It was more than pride and it was less than rage, and when he made a careless gesture with both hands and his weapons shimmered into being, Axel saw why.

Keyblades. Not one but two, one as heavy and twisted as iron wrought with shadow, hard and unforgivingly black, sharp even against its wielder's hand. The other was too bright to be looked at directly, no mere white but a thousand colors of light smelted into a blade that had no place with something so vulgar as slaying heartless. In between them Roxas stood, shadow in one hand and light in the other, and Axel felt his soul shrink back inside him.

Xemnas, you're a fool, he thought. We stand in the presence of our own undoing.

But all Axel said aloud was, "Impressive," and conceded a slight raise of his eyebrows. The only emotion Axel made a habit of showing was the one inked onto his face, lest he be dismissed by colder Nobodies with less clear memories of humanity, but he began to think even that was about to change. "I expect you can tell us a lot about your Other's movements, too."

The blades winked out, and Roxas turned away. Axel let himself breathe again.

"Unfortunately, no." Xemnas did not seem too disappointed. "It would seem his Other only stayed a Heartless for a short while, long enough to cast Roxas here, but little else. Roxas knows only his name. And of course, how to use those keyblades." Xemnas looked at Roxas' gloved, empty hands with a kind of hunger. Axel had to fight the urge to step protectively between them.

Keep thinking like that and you'll be looking down at one of those shiny keyblades sticking out of your own chest, Axel, he reminded himself. That one could eat you and Xemnas both alive, and probably will one day.

"I expect you'll want to fill him in, then?" Axel said, trying not to think about the sweet clean pain one of those keys would cause, and if he would rather it was the light one or the dark one that split him open, and let the stale smoke out of his empty middle.

"I don't feel it would be of any use, right now," Xemnas demurred. "After all, I've often wished all Nobodies were born as clean and pure as this one, with no troublesome memories to hamper what that they might become."

Roxas at last seemed to take interest in the small bruise the heart-moon made in the sky, or maybe he was only trying to turn away from Xemnas' blazing eyes and velvet voice.

"So you're not going to tell him?" Axel asked, as though Roxas wasn't right there, listening.

"Of course I will. But we have discussed this, and agreed that once Roxas proves himself as someone in his own right, I will be delighted to fill him in on his origins. Provided he even wants to know."

Axel looked for some sort of confirmation from the Keyblade Master's Nobody, but got nothing save the shape the boy's shoulderblades made under his coat.

"Aren't you jealous, Axel?" Xemnas continued. "Wouldn't you relish the chance to be only yourself, instead of steeped in the memories and obligations and bothersome remnants of Éla?"

Axel flinched.

Xemnas recoiled, his face serene, his point and his advantage driven home. "Roxas wishes to be his own person, Axel. Really I think we of all people should respect that. Think what you yourself could be, were you not intent on deceiving yourself with phantoms of emotions you no longer have. You're so much more deadly when you forget him and remember you don't care."

"I don't care," Axel said, but his voice gave him away, and Xemnas knew it as much as Axel did. Fine. Keep me by the balls, you bastard. It's the only thing I still feel for myself these days. "So," Axel said aloud, when he had wiped the anger from his voice, "are you just feeling talkative tonight, or is there a reason you're telling me all this?"

"I didn't mention?" Xemnas tossed back his hair, vain in more than his voice. "I'd like you to look after our newest, Axel. Make sure no one ruins his blissful ignorance-- unless they'd like their identity stripped and their tongues stitched down-- help him out with the ins and outs of things, how to go about with gates, all that."

"That's very generous of you." Axel growled. "To what do I owe the honor?"

Xemnas chuckled, a noise that was truly terrifying in its pleasantness. "I should think it obvious, you are the only one remotely suitable. Xigbar has the manners of an inebriated peasant, Xaldin despises anyone under the age of twenty. Darkness only knows what Vexen would do with him, open him up to see what makes him tick, likely as not. Lexaeous is useless for anything except brute force. Zexion needs no one to enlist in his schemes, Saïx I have other uses for, Demyx can't be trusted to zip his own boots or his mouth. One gambler is more than unmanageable enough, and I have no desire to place an impressionable boy in Marluxia's reach."

There were times, Axel realized, when he remembered exactly why he had joined the Organization in the first place. Xemnas could be dangerously disarming, when he wanted to be. "And Larxene?"

"I assume you're joking. I'd sooner put him in the hands of a ravening dragon. The woman has all the maternal warmth of a razorblade."

"Basically," Axel said, "I'm the only one you trust."

Xemnas showed a row of perfect white teeth in his dark face. "I don't think I'd go so far as to call it trust, Axel. Suffice to say you're the only one with any traces of honesty left in you. Don't for a moment think it an advantage. It will be the end of you, but until it is, I will use it to my best advantage. You are both dismissed."

Roxas turned away from the moon and strode back through the door towards Ruin and Creation's passage without so much as a backwards blink.

"Don't let him out of your sight, Axel." All the cool pleasantry had fractured away from Xemnas, leaving him ice-hard and sharp. "If he fails me, if you lose him for us, I will unravel your entrails out in front of you and hang you over the side of this balcony. I'm well aware you can still feel enough for that to be truly unpleasant."

Axel tilted his head and spread his hands in a mock-bow, not unlike the gesture to summon his chakram. "Always a delight to chat with the Superior," he said, and followed his charge out of Xemnas' presence.

You're just a victim
You're just a number
A dead man walking
Buried alive

"Hey, wait up, partner."

Roxas was stomping down through the passage so fast that the ramp between platforms barely had time to materialize under his boots. But Axel's legs were longer, and he had caught up to him long before Roxas had made it down to the edge of the platform.

"You're in a pretty big hurry for a guy that doesn't know where he's going," Axel said, casually placing himself between the new member and the next ramp trigger. "You late to meet somebody?"

"I don't think I ever gave the impression that we were friends," Roxas answered, in tones frostier than the atmosphere of Vexen's basement lab. "So maybe you need your hearing checked. And you're in my way."

"I don't think I'm the one having hearing problems--" Axel began, and was interrupted by the very sharp black tip of Oblivion materializing just under his jawline. Roxas might not have had the height to meet Axel eye-to-eye, but four feet of keyblade was more than enough to make up for that.

"Oh?" Roxas tilted his head back. "Maybe I'm not being clear enough for you, #VIII. I'm not interested in your brand of 'friendship', if that's what you want to call it." Roxas glared up the length of twisted metal at Axel. "And I'm not unconscious now."

Axel smiled and spread his hands, very carefully. There was already a very fine thread of blood gleaming down the point of the keyblade, where he had taken his first surprised breath a little too deep. He laughed, cautiously, so as to avoid giving the metal another taste of him. "Are you still sore about that? Listen, kid, I don't know what you were expecting, maybe a birthday party, but I can tell you up front that you're damn lucky I'm the one that found you, because around here, I'm the nice one." Axel watched as Roxas considered, a long uncomfortable moment in which the ticklish razor edge of the keyblade hovered around Axel's jugular.

"Besides," Axel added, as bits of flame licked along the fingertips of his gloves, in case a more solid argument was needed, "it seemed to me like you enjoyed it."

Roxas' eyes flashed; for a second Axel thought his chakram might be needed after all, if he could even bring them into being before Oblivion got lodged in his spine. But one second stretched into another, and at last the keyblade was dismissed, imploding into shadow.

"Don't for a second think I'm really that easy," Roxas said, almost smiling.

The fire lingering along Axel's hands winked out. "If you were easy, Roxas, you wouldn't be standing here in that coat. Xemnas doesn't recruit weaklings."

"Hmph." Roxas side-stepped Axel, one panel of energy lighting up under him as he stepped into the thin air between platforms. It didn't bother to spread downwards, waiting for Roxas to take another step before forming the rest of the ramp. "Which is a nice way of saying you aren't one."

"I'm not like the others, Roxas." Axel didn't follow this time, as #XIII stood with the toes of his boots hovering over a dizzying drop. "I'll let you find that out for yourself, but you'll remember it's something I told you up front."

Roxas looked down at the emptiness beneath him, the bottom of the chasm lost in darkness. "I guess you're going to tell me you're the good guy, and you're gonna look out for me, and be my best pal, while the others only want to use my skill... and that will be true right up to the point where you stab me in the back for your own reasons, right?"

Axel laughed, a short, cynical noise. "Boy are you ever off. I won't tell you any of that, because it's not true. I'm not a good guy, and I'm already in this for my own reasons, and if I need to stab you in the back, then don't wait for me to shake your hand first."

Roxas tuned, his heels jutting over the edge, energy rippling along the segment of path under him. "And that makes you different from the others because...?"

"Because they're the ones who would lie to you first, Roxas." Axel brushed one hand against the tattoos on his face, the inverted tears that would never fall, and could never be wiped away. "I'm the only person in this outfit that always tells the truth."

"Hhmm." Roxas rocked backwards, fearlessly tipping towards empty space. "In that case, why are you interested in following me around?"

Axel gave the easy answer. "Xemnas ordered me to."

"Oh, so you're a lap dog too."

Axel bristled. "Hey, I don't follow orders just because they're orders--"

"Then why are you still here talking to me?"

Axel's mouth closed with a snap, while Roxas stood there rocking and smiling, like a golden angel on the edge of a knife.

"Fair enough, then," Axel said at last. "I think you're interesting You're not like the others either, and I haven't figured out why yet." He waved a hand at the fortress, as though summing up the entire Organization. "I don't like any of them, you know. They're all self-absorbed or sadists or just plain boring. Maybe Demyx is okay but he's not like you... he goes around with his tail between his legs and doesn't think for himself. But you're already sharper than the rest of them put together. You might be fun to hang out with." Axel hesitated, and took a long moment to fondle Roxas with his eyes, lingering on the open teeth of the silver zipper, just at the indentation below Roxas' exposed throat. "And I'd like to screw you again."

One side of Roxas' face got away from him, quirking up into a half-smile. "You have to catch me first," he said, and fell away backwards over the edge.

Axel's shout died before it managed to get all the way out of him, as Roxas righted himself on nothing, slanted sideways, and glided down towards the doorway far below. He landed with a gentle plop on the last platform, as though he had done nothing more remarkable than slide down a banister. Axel was still standing with his arm out three platforms above. Roxas smirked up at him over one black shoulder, and waved his hand in a way that was both a taunt and a command for the door to let him through.

Axel watched the passage swallow him, while the ramps warped in and out in confusion. "Oh I will, Roxas," Axel said, his eyes glinting with the reflection of the room and a good challenge. "I will."

Hold out for a better hand
Wait for better days
You can feel it coming
The fury of my rage
My vengeance
Will rain down on you
There's no mercy
In what I'm gonna do

Axel was leaving.

He had disobeyed orders before, but not like this. Even he had to admit that there was a spur at his heel that made his other attempted exits look like a pleasant evening stroll. If Axel let himself think he could still feel anything, he would have said he was afraid. But that would mean he had a heart, and Axel knew the rules better than that.

Or at least he had, before Roxas had broken them all.

Axel was always comfortable in the fact that he would be the first one to leave. He never thought he would be the one to burst into Xemnas' private rooms unannounced, to tell their leader that XIII had defected, and requesting immediate permission to pursue. But had the scenario even crossed his mind, Xemnas' laughter would have been the last reaction he expected to get.

"I know," Xemnas had said, without getting up from his desk, busy with his journal. "Roxas lacked any desire to exterminate heartless, and Kingdom Hearts needs a keybearer with that insatiable, righteous need for destruction." Xemnas coolly turned a page and kept writing, while the hot fury in Axel's belly turned cold and heavy, like molten lead thrown into icewater. "He's gone to wake up our sleeping prince. I expect that foolish old man will be after him in an instant, for his oh so clever completely obvious plan."

"But--" Axel began. His hand, clammy in his glove, was still clutching Xemnas' doorknob. "If he does, Roxas will--"

"Sora will simply be twice the keyblade master he was before he went to sleep. Twice as capable, twice as deadly," Xemnas smoothed the page, signing his name with a self-aware kind of pleasure. "We have only to wait, Axel. Kingdom Hearts will drink deep, and then we will be whole. Roxas is an unknowing martyr to our cause... and he was as simple to manipulate into that role as his innocent Other ever was." The journal was closed, and Axel was fixed with the Superior's gleaming eyes, like embers that fed on nothing and were never extinguished. "You are not to interfere."

"Roxas will cease to exist," Axel said, and wondered why those words made him feel so hollow. There was no reason at all that he should care. Roxas, in leaving, had said as much.

Xemnas raised elegant pale eyebrows, looking for all the world like there was emotion behind his mask. "And do you honestly expect me to care? It was his reason for being in the first place, Axel. You should be happy for him, were you even capable of it. He'll get to be whole again. At least until the time to eliminate Sora comes, once there is no further use for him."

Axel made a sound, involuntary and not yet a word, black-lined eyes flickering.

Xemnas smiled. "If you're very good, Axel, maybe I'll let you be the one to do it. As a present, for your old friend. I'm sure Roxas would appreciate that." He bent his head back to his work, as ever a scientist at the place where his heart should be, busy with notations and records and carefully conducted plans. "You are dismissed."

For the first and last time, Axel bowed before leaving. If Xemnas suspected something in the gesture, he gave no sign. Once the door was closed, Axel began to run. Darkness made a gate before him and he was through it without breaking stride, emerging again in the shadow of the skyscraper where he had last seen Roxas. There had been conflict since then, black smears on the pavement smoking quietly in the rain, all that was left of countless heartless. The road and the buildings wore long score marks from a keyblade's tip; at the foot of the tower steps were a pair Axel knew, parallel marks where Roxas had dragged his double keyblades along the ground before leaping to meet his attacker.

Of the combatants, there was no trace.

Axel closed his eyes, lifting his head to the wind, a hound on a scent. Nobodies developed senses to make up for their loss of heart; like a blind man with sharpened hearing. Axel knew the twilight smell of Roxas, found the metal sharp flavor of his adversary.

He opened his eyes. Roxas had not won or lost in any obvious sense. Both parties had withdrawn. There was a clean sweetness in several places: bursts of light where the fabric of worlds had been torn. All of them had been closed up tightly behind in a message as plain as a heartless' emblem, do not follow.

Axel reached out for the nearest one, feeling space and time yield under his gloved hand like the heat of Roxas' body. His lips were pulled back in a feral grin as he ripped darkness and passed through.

What the hell, he thought. I was gonna leave, anyway.


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