Disclaimer: Not mine.
Summary: Two trajectories spiraling out of control, tearing into each new vice with equal abandon. Despite being lost in the dark, can Axel and Roxas find their way to each other? AkuRoku for Valentine's Day.
Answer Key: 1.) the idealization of the enigma, 2.) the improbability of fairytales, 3.) when life gives you lemons
Warning: Mentions of drug abuse and sex. Sorta predictable, aren't I?
A/N: Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! I urge you to make out enthusiastically with your respective significant others (or random ass strangers) in my celibate honor! Because I am full of love for one and all, please accept my tense-disaster tale of TRU LUV. I say that now, but you'll be out for blood later. All blame can be directed at the musical prompt unwittingly supplied by suddenchangeofheart. If you're interested in why the plot is the way it is, it's because I tried to hold true to the artistic integrity of the prompt in question. DON'T SHOOT THE MESSENGER (I actually sorta cheated at the end).
This almost didn't get written at all, and then, while I was writing it, I changed the narrative about three times. This is the final product. Enjoy!
"Child, your sick smile is the border of sleep." — Franz Wright, Pediatric Suicide
The seats scratched the skin of his back even through his shirt—ugly, stiff material that Roxas transposed onto stuffy academic blazers, a cheap imitation of understated esteem. The kids in the row behind him laughed into their hands, flying carefully folded weekly newsletters at the back of Roxas' head. Used to it after two years of sudden dislike, Roxas stared at his carefully folded hands and waited for worship to start. It was a harrowing ordeal, Sunday morning church, as Roxas braved twenty full minutes of mean-spirited snickering. As it turned out, he should've allowed his mother to home-school him rather than plead, on his knees no less, to attend the public high school. Going to school with "the sinners" served as the last nail in Roxas' metaphorical coffin. Eyes on the dirt lining his fingerprints, under his nails, Roxas wondered if this was how lepers felt.
It might have been palatable, endurable as most things are when you're fourteen and you feel like the only person alive, but trading church for public school taunts proved more of the same, just without the trouble of having to readjust paste and paper halos. Roxas had memorized the exact sound it made as he collided with a row of lockers, a shuddering clang that he felt in his bones, in the roots of his teeth. Remarkably skilled at appearing like absolutely nothing was wrong, it wasn't until Roxas disappeared for two days that anyone—his mother knocking politely on his bedroom door, opening it to find his room empty—realized anything was wrong at all. Five o'clock in the afternoon two days after Roxas went missing, a school janitor was running a broom across the third floor hallway, locker-lined shithole typically reserved for unlucky freshmen, when he noticed a yellow puddle pooled on the ground below locker 394. Closer inspection, the janitor mumbling about drinks in lockers and fucking high school kids, allowed the scent of stale piss to waft into his nose. Ten minutes later, lock cutter snapping away, the janitor opened locker 394 and revealed the sullen, piss-stained Roxas slumped against the back of his locker.
Why, everyone wanted to know, hadn't Roxas called for help? Why, they wanted to know, had he stood there for two days like a mute, had he pissed himself in silence? Roxas didn't know what to tell them, sitting in the principal's office staring at the way his shoes looked—dirty, so dirty—against the faded blue carpet. That he hoped he died in there? The principal said things Roxas heard like the rumbling surf until "school psychologist" tumbled into his eardrums. No, that wouldn't do. If he saw a school psychologist, if he got counseling, then everyone would know. Was it so hard to be invisible?
That same night Roxas shoved a few pairs of clothes in his backpack. $78.32 of saved birthday money, a box of crackers, his bible, and Roxas was out the door; his father vegetating in front of FOX News, his mother out at bible study. Swallowing his fear down with the night air, brushing aside his crybaby tears, Roxas let the road take him up, up, and away. He had no illusions about what the streets would hold for him—small for his age, sweet in the face—but Roxas figured it wasn't too hard to hold out a hand, head down. The movies made it look easy enough, and if someone wanted to fight him… well, assisted suicide would probably land him an entirely different circle of hell than actual suicide would get him. That first night, burning his bible in the dented lid of a trashcan for warmth, Roxas began to worry that holding out a hand would be harder than he thought.
A couple cents here and there punctuated by "go home, kid" became a new taunt to get used to, this one slung by busy adults as opposed to bored schoolchildren. He found himself sleeping under the small concrete bridge at one of the parks downtown, steadily spending his birthday money on street vendor food that left him parched, greasy hot dogs wrapped in bacon and strange foods his mother had tugged him away from when they went shopping, nose turned up distastefully. Hanging around the same spots three days in a row was bound to get him noticed eventually, and when the new boys Roxas met flashed him a roll of bills, letting someone touch him for ten minutes didn't seem like a bad idea at all. On the contrary, it seemed like a great idea, and there was the youth shelter at the corner of 5th and South, and they promised it was going to be great, just great. People hadn't always been mean to Roxas, but after two whole years of nothing more than a sideways glance, he thought it was pretty nice to have friends again, even if the boys were older and looked like they needed baths, smelled like onions and beer.
Roxas lost his virginity to a man wearing a stuffy academic blazer in a subway bathroom stall, the promise of $100 and a bump of coke electrifying his fourteen year old nerves. Nobody bought his bullshit about being eighteen no matter how tough he tried to look with his hands shoved in his pockets, collar up on a tattered jean jacket he bought for $2.99 at the Salvation Army, his birthday money gone to good use, an investment. Had to give some to get some, Roxas figured, but he hadn't figured people would ask him for I.D. He also hadn't figured they would be guys. But the guy in glasses, leather man bag hanging off one shoulder, he didn't look so bad. The man hadn't even finished saying "hundred" before Roxas lit up, nodding away like an idiot. It was just touching after all, right? One hundred dollars was more money than Roxas had ever even seen in his entire fourteen years of life. Just touching, of course, until it wasn't just touching, the man leaning him forward over the toilet and shoving a spit slicked finger up his ass like Roxas was used to having things thrust into him, like he bent over toilets all the time, hands braced against grimy tile, feeling distinctly like he wanted to be back home, in his bed. The man wrapped a clammy hand around his mouth and pushed into him, Roxas immobile with the pain, stomach heaving. The feeling, Roxas noted between rushed repetitions of the Lord's Prayer—our Father who art in heaven, our Father, our Father—envisioning his forgotten rosary rubbed between the pads of his fingers, was like someone shoving a flaming stick up his ass, igniting parts of him that should never be touched by fire; a terrible, burning throb that he thought he could taste in his mouth. When the stuffy academic pulled out, Roxas thought his intestines had been ripped free, trailed out behind him. The man came on his back, slapped the hundred dollar bill down, pasted it to Roxas with come, and shouldered his way out of the bathroom stall while Roxas dry heaved into the toilet, the taste of burning like pennies in his mouth. His face, reflected back to him in the toilet bowl, was flushed, fevered like he was sick in bed, his mother's cold hands feeling his face, the way her wedding band felt, ice, against his cheeks. Reaching around for the bill stuck on his back, Roxas kept his eyes on his reflection. So this was how it looked to be a sinner.
Dazed, Roxas let his feet take him to the youth shelter, pushed the come-damp $100 bill toward the clerk for the $5 deposit and asked for a piece of tape, reaching up under his shirt in the bathroom and taping his money against his ribs. Though it was warm enough in the musty sleeping quarters, Roxas shivered in his bed, the scratchy sheets like church chairs against his skin—our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy—while he prodded at his backside, feeling the burning between the cheeks of his ass and wondering how anyone could like that; knowing, for $100, he would do it again. Roxas was nearly asleep when a hand clamped over his nose. He thrashed about in the dark, eyes wide and searching. When he opened his mouth for a gulp of air, fingers darted roughly past his lips, covered his teeth and kept his jaw pried open. There was muttering, nonsensical jumbles about Roxas liking it, yeah, the slut he was, and something warm and choking sliding into his mouth, the fingers pulling so hard against his teeth that Roxas thought his head would tear apart. He continued to thrash about, kicking wildly, until he realized, limbs stilling, that it was someone's penis in his mouth, nudging the back of his throat. When Roxas tried to shout, whoever it was fucking his mouth moaned, spasmed against his face, and Roxas felt warmth cascade down his throat, reminded abruptly of the trickle of his own saliva sliding down at the dentist's, the drill whirring away while he closed his eyes and swore he would never eat candy again, wondered if little bits of drilled tooth were okay to swallow. Roxas didn't feel his attacker leave, still and silent in his bed for a long time afterward, licking at his chapped and sweat-salted lips. So this was how it felt to be a sinner.
Judging from the taste, the girl whose pussy his mouth was currently sampling, nose friendly with a tapered tuft of wiry pubic hair, hadn't showered in at least two days. Two days at least, her thighs shaking, hooked over Axel's shoulders. He never got the whole "tastes like fish" thing, though he could stand to be with a couple more girls to find one to prove him wrong. Distinct, certainly, sometimes even pungent, but he didn't know if fishy was a word he'd use to describe it, the blonde flailing her arms appreciatively as he spelled out the alphabet against her clit with his tongue. Axel was pretty sure her name started with a "D", possibly ending in an "iana" or an "aphne," or maybe he was thinking of her cup size, one hand reaching up to grope blindly at said massive tits. Daphne with the Ds, maybe that was it. Tongue fucking was only nice in theory, otherwise exhausting in practice, and Axel was ready for another bowl, hoping Daphne with the Ds would take a hint when he didn't offer greens.
It hadn't always been this uncomplicated. At one point there had been a college education, had been an academic scholarship. There had also been a kilo of pot in his sock drawer, but more importantly, it had been a sock drawer in his dorm room at college, a college he was promptly expelled from for turning in a Genetics term paper about the effects of LSD on the Y chromosome. Axel's family was, to put things lightly, "displeased." Axel thought twenty-one was sort of old to be threatened with a good old Catholic punishment, but his father had other ideas, belt cracking loudly against Axel's bare ass while he counted the loops in the maroon carpet, wincing more from the sound of the belt rather than the actual feeling. Corporal punishment was an otherwise worthless detriment to Axel's bad behavior, having been raised on soap in the mouth, belts on the ass, and 100 diligent Hail Marys for bringing home bad grades, for laughing during communion. There came a point, seven years old and a bar of Zest wedged between his teeth, where Axel wondered if he'd be forced to eat soap if he hadn't had an older, perfect brother. It was hard enough to make a name for yourself in a family of five children, even worse when you were second string to the only other boy in the family. There were nights, hands clasped in prayer, where he prayed God would turn him into a girl. His sisters, with their skirts and just above average grades, had it so much easier.
Fourteen years old, playing basketball in the driveway—"Practice hard enough and you'll make captain one day like your brother"—and his sister, older than him by a year, brought over her first boyfriend. Pointing him out from the front porch, the wind brought Axel pieces of their conversation.
"…and Axel, my younger brother. One more 'A' and he'll be an honor student." He could hear the smile in his sister's voice. Pride swelling in his chest, Axel fired off, and missed, another free throw.
"He's alright," the boy said, hearing rather than seeing the shrug. "But he's sorta faggy, isn't he? Is your other brother home?"
The basketball bounced into the street, Axel standing under the basket as the offhand comment rattled around his ribcage. Sorta faggy, isn't he? Sorta faggy. Faggy. Though Axel had decided then and there to try harder to become a person worthy of being related to his brother, Axel "Half-a-Fag" Spence became a title he had to tear from his name, wore his fingers down to blood and bone with the effort. He was benched most of the season after making it on the basketball team, but girls knew his name. Granted, they fucked him in order to sleep their way to his brother, but as far as Axel was concerned, he was no longer standing outside looking in. Or, at least, not all of him was. It was a strange feeling, being able to see himself as he was at the same time he was able to see the self he offered up to everyone else. It was a compromise of his identity Axel had to make in order to keep it together. Of course it sucked, of course there were the nights where he stared up at the ceiling and hated every last cell in his body, but who he really was—average Axel, unremarkable—was simply not good enough. He wanted a good life, a normal life.
It was no wonder when, senior year of high school, two years after his older brother went away to college, Axel finally snapped. Resigned to never being basketball team captain, resigned to dating one of the more average looking girls in school, resigned to having a limited social life because, yes, he really did need those five hours of studying every night in order to keep up his grades… four solid years of breaking his back, "practicing hard enough" to fight his way to the spot everyone told him he deserved. For what? It was ridiculously easy to take his first hit off a joint, bottle of beer dripping between his thighs. Underage drinking was the norm, of course he'd stolen sips of sacramental wine during his time as an altar boy, of course he'd paid off some older, homely looking girl to legally purchase a case for his friends. But smoking pot was universally frowned upon in Axel's small, northeastern town. Smoke pot, and next you'll be shooting heroin. Smoke pot, and you'll end up dead in a ditch. After four years of being someone else, Axel didn't think dead in a ditch sounded so bad. It was for this reason that pot wasn't a "gateway drug" for Axel's ultimately downward spiral; it was just an excuse, a friendly face as he gave the finger to whatever future he'd been headed toward. Being a fuck up proved closer to Axel's blood than being basketball team captain, than graduating from college. Being a fuck up was Axel's excuse for walking off of campus after his expulsion, getting in his shitty tan '69 VW Bug and driving west, stopping off at his then girlfriend's house for a quick farewell fuck. A bad idea, it turned out, since he got back in the car to find every last one of his cassettes lifted from under his passenger seat. Feeling relatively proud of himself for keeping his stash of rolled joints in his locked glove box, Axel set off singing songs in his head and never once looked in his rearview.
Though Axel had been within a semester of graduating with his bachelor's degree in Biology, expulsion has a way of kicking your chest in, so Axel made due with a paper route, riding a rusty piece of shit bike with faulty brakes. It wasn't the most prestigious career, but it paid for his rented guest house on some old lady's property, kept him supplied. Sure he didn't know the names of the girls he fucked, looked emaciated as all hell, and made it a goal to have no goals, but Axel did what he could. He was a fuck up; he had no expectations for himself. He wondered if his family would call him if he had a phone, wondered if they'd be too embarrassed to even admit his existence. Baa baa black sheep.
One sunny Saturday Axel's landlady went at him with the hose, passed out just in front of the door to the guest house. For a few moments, water warmed by the summer sun, Axel figured he'd just pissed the bed again, too drunk or stoned to bother with getting up, but the water quickly turned frigid, Axel sitting up soaked through.
"Young man, you are renting my guest house, not my lawn."
"S-sorry, ma'am," Axel said, post-slumber stuttering, defenses lowered and reverting to his good Catholic boy upbringing.
"What do you plan to make of yourself, son?"
"Ma'am?" Axel asked, squinting up at the lines in the lady's face. She'd probably been hot once, dressed well for her age, had nice hair. Axel shuddered, wasn't able to stop the images of fucking her from flashing through his mind.
"Your life," the woman said, gesturing at Axel's appearance, abominable clothes and hair, smelling strongly of garbage.
"I—"Axel began, looking at his hands.
"How about you come to work with me today, hmm? Get some eggs and bacon in you."
Axel swallowed a lump down his throat. "Yes, ma'am."
After spending so long fighting for everything, helping hands were novelties to Axel, accepted with no small amount of childlike awe. The woman worked for a non-profit youth organization downtown, took in what they called "at risk youth": inner city kids with no homes, no families. The organization fed delinquents, clothed criminals, taught the unruly. The ultimate aim was assimilation; help them get jobs, put them on the right path. Axel had never felt better suited to a job, seeing slivers of mirrors reflecting himself in every new kid's eyes—defiant, doomed. He wanted to help them all, the wayward youth, wanted to stop them from becoming him or worse. As the years slid past, Axel finally crawled from his hole in the ground, got an apartment, got a whole new ramshackle life that he hammered at, attacked with wrenches and saws with hopes of building a home for himself, something to house his soul. A string of failed relationships and weekend flirtations with stubborn bad habits, but Axel had long ago resigned himself to substandard fare. How to find love when you don't love yourself? Axel, a stranger in his own body, went through the motions. Almost happy, and as far as he was concerned, that was good enough.
The patter of rain is muffled almost completely by the buzzing of his overhead office fluorescents, Axel typing away over a messenger service and wondering how fucked he'd be if he got caught with a hand in his pants. Two seconds before Axel decides to throw caution to the wind in favor of what was building up to be a great orgasm, there's a knock on his office door. Swearing, Axel cuts off the slutty brunette he's chatting with and exits the messenger, heart thrumming rapidly in his chest. At twenty-four, he's easily the youngest night supervisor the youth organization has ever seen, but Axel's rapport with the wayward was hard to disregard, and he'd soon worked his way to a position of fair esteem, supplementing his paperwork and observation with meeting the new kids every now and again.
"Ax, we got a live one. Jack's on lunch." Clipboard in hand, the underpaid orderly winces through a smile. "I know how to do the intake, but I'm not—" the boy trails off. Axel wonders if maybe he'd be in a different place had he been as driven as the orderly currently tapping the clipboard against a knee. College classes all day, piss poor paid interning at a youth shelter all night… a head on his shoulders, and a nice smile, too, though Axel didn't notice. Shaking his head to loosen the orderly's smile from behind his eyes, Axel rubs his temples before taking the clipboard off the kid's hands.
"One day, man. You'll be qualified one day. Soon, too, if you keep at it."
The orderly smiles too bright for 2 a.m. "Thanks, Ax. He's in 4A."
Axel nods and heads for the small examining room, frowning at the preliminary notes on the boy they found vomiting into a dumpster four blocks south of the shelter. The boxes for intoxication and malnutrition were checked, a quick note about the boy being soaking wet and resistant to having his clothes removed. Standing in front of 4A, Axel closes his eyes, doorknob in hand, sees himself clearly in his head—remembers what it's like to be alone, desperate to be unalone—and opens the door.
He notices the discoloration first, pale skin mottled with bruises and abrasions. The corners of the boy's mouth are scabbed over, the left side a bloody trickle that the boy makes no attempt to wipe away. The boy's eyes, painfully blue and focused at the level of Axel's knees, are empty, glassed over as if the boy weren't even alive. Sitting on the examination table, the boy looks like nothing more than a blonde swirl of matted, dirty hair sitting atop a mound of dripping clothes. Axel pulls a rolling chair in front of the boy and takes a seat.
"Hey." He sounds friendly, accepting, smiles as he says the word so that the positivity is in his voice. The boy doesn't look up. "Okay, well, my name's Axel. Do you know why you're here?" More silence, the blonde shifting slightly on the table. "Our organization takes in teenagers who need help. We're not sending you back to your parents or throwing you in jail. We're just here to help you. If you're hungry, if you're cold. We want to give these things to you, and we want to teach your how to earn these things for yourself." At the mention of being hungry, Axel notices the blonde swallows, Adam's apple bobbing slightly. "Does that sound okay with you?"
A minute goes by before the blonde shrugs, almost imperceptibly, and rasps, "I guess." His voice is soft under the disuse, and the timbre makes Axel scratch out the projected age on the clipboard, twelve, and adjust it to around fifteen. The possibility of an older boy was less horrifying—the idea of a sweet looking twelve year old on the busy streets was almost nauseating—but at the same time more worrisome. How long had the boy been on the streets? Frowning, Axel pulls the intake questionnaire from the clipboard, clicks his pen.
"Sounds great. I'm going to ask you a few questions, okay? Try and be as honest as you can. I promise, we won't sell you to the cops." The blonde shrugs again, and Axel begins. Yes to homelessness, yes to homelessness in excess of two years, yes to thievery, yes to thievery in order to feed oneself, yes to thievery in order to clothe oneself. By question twenty-five, Axel's heart starts to beat harder, the blonde—called "Roxas, Roxas Jacobs. I'm not from this city, so don't try looking for my parents"—keeping his eyes trained on Axel's knees, shrugging every now and again. Yes to drug use, yes to drug use in the last twenty-four hours, yes to sexual favors, yes to sexual favors in exchange for money, yes to sexual favors in exchange for drugs. Axel goes down a laundry list of narcotics and various illegal substances, tries to keep his expression neutral as the boy, Roxas, nods to crack, meth, heroin, and weed.
"I like junk the best," Roxas notes, staring down at Axel's scribbling. "Think I can get something for that?"
Axel nods slowly, listening to the awkward cadences in the boy's voice. "We'll get you on some methadone, just to make sure you stay with us."
"'Cause I tried going off, but I was shaking and dying, so I had—"
Axel smiles, places a hand on Roxas' shoulder. The blonde flinches, cowers slightly. "It's okay. I've been on heroin before. I know it's hard, but that's what I'm here for." There's finally the hint of a smile on Roxas' mouth, the first inkling of trust, and Axel pushes on with the intake, hopes the next question doesn't shatter the illusion. "I know this next part might be hard, but I'm going to need you to undress." Rolling over to a cabinet, Axel pulls out an inpatient uniform—a nearly formless shirt and pants set, dusty blue and vaguely medical. "We try to be fashion forward," Axel jokes, handing the clothes over.
Roxas accepts the clothes wearily. "I can't—I can't just keep mine?"
"Well, I'm required to strip search you, but I'll keep your clothes safe. Scout's honor." Axel winks, tries to be winning though his heart feels sick. That face, he could only imagine what fucked up things that face had been through. Sexual favors in exchange for drugs. Axel feels sick to his stomach when Roxas peels off his coat, something dark and thick that is clearly about three sizes too big. The boy's arms are lined with junk, Axel staring very hard at his pen, willing it not to shake. The boys they got were usually hardened, tough sonsofbitches that Axel had to threaten, body check into the wall in order to complete the search. Watching this slight, blonde child undress, seeing all the marks of the world's indifference… Axel feels like pulling the boy into a hug, squeezing hope back into him. Hypocritical though it may have been, it was clear the boy needed something. The boy's damp skin glowed in the fluorescence, looked sickly and ethereal as Roxas pulled down his pants, slid down his underwear. Axel frowns at his projected age, fifteen a little on the young side for what looked like fully developed genitals. "Okay, Roxas, I'll stay way over here, but can you bend over for me?" A simple check for drugs hidden away, but it had earned Axel a punch to the face more often than not. The blonde bends obediently, and the effect has a slightly disturbing affect on Axel, a terrible churn in his stomach at the sight of smooth, rounded skin. The rest of Roxas is ravaged, but here his skin is pristine. Coughing, Axel says Roxas can dress in the uniform, excuses himself to file the paperwork and put in a call about running something in from the cafeteria.
"By the way," Axel asks as he's stepping out the door. "You're not twelve, are you? Your intake form has your age as twelve."
Roxas, head sliding through the opening in the shirt, finally meets Axel's eyes. "Seventeen."
"Ah, right. Seventeen. See you in a bit."
Indeed, "see you in a bit" became Axel's new motto when it came to Roxas, checking in on the boy even on his days off, spending absent hours reading Roxas' charts, grading his homework. Though the boy was bright, he'd clearly never seen much of a high school math class, or any high school class for that matter, testing abysmally low for a seventeen year old. When Axel is actually scheduled to work, he sits in on the evening Narcotics Anonymous group, coerces Roxas into a game or seven of ping-pong before the kids have lights out. They build a comfortable camaraderie, Axel slipping Roxas cigarettes or gummi worms ("The sour kind, can you get the sour kind?"). Three weeks into Roxas' treatment, Axel shows up with "good news" on one of his days off.
"The psychologist is coming tomorrow. Budget's been sorta tight, we only get him every now and then, but he's promised me you two get some one on one time. Start to work shit out, y'know?" At the time, Axel thought it was normal for kids to be apprehensive about seeing shrinks, tried not to obsessed over how Roxas' body tensed, eyes flicking toward the grounds' walls. When he showed up for his evening shift the next day, he was nothing short of devastated.
"Jack, what the fuck do you mean he 'just left?'" Heart beating painfully in his chest, senses reeling, Axel slapped the counter of the nurses' station. "Goddamnit, Jack. Does Penny know about this? Maybe we can—"
"Ax," Jack interrupted, shaking his head. "There's no way, man. The kid took off with about half our supply of methadone. I'm betting the only reason he didn't take it all is because he couldn't carry it."
"What the fuck," Axel swore, shoving away from the counter and storming down a hallway toward his office. "You'd think we leave the doors wide fucking open here or something." There was a bottle of Vicodin in his top drawer; if he could get to that, maybe he'd keep all his blood vessels intact. Just needed to calm down a little, just a little. Axel slammed into an orderly as he rounded a corner.
"Whoa, sorry," the orderly said. The cute brunette college student. Peter, Axel's reeling senses supplied.
"You hear about Roxas?" The blonde had been a frequent topic between the two of them, long after lights out, Axel rambling away about how absolutely tragic it was that "a good kid, such a good fucking kid" could end up on the streets, forgotten.
"Yeah. Can't believe it. I really thought he was turning around."
"What?" Axel asked, indignant frown narrowing his eyes. "He was turned around. But we can't just expect them to stick around forever. We need to do our fucking jobs, and be a little fucking diligent about it."
"Hey, hey, I know," Peter said, hands up, placating. Honest, college student Peter. Axel didn't know when it started, but he'd been having inappropriate dreams about the brunette. Been having them about Roxas, too, not that he'd ever, ever admit to them. "But… maybe it's for the best, huh?" Peter leaned forward, eyes serious. "I mean, I envy how you work with the kids, man, but… you know we aren't supposed to have patient relationships, Ax."
"Fuck you." The response was nearly automatic, Axel shrugging the other boy's hand off his shoulder and slamming his way into his office. What fucking relationship did he have? Sure, the kid was cute, but he just wanted… just wanted to help him, to save him. Head buried in a hand, Axel searched for the Vicodin in his desk, popped two and sunk into his chair. There had to be something he did wrong, or something he didn't do at all. Stupid worthless fuck, Axel repeated again and again, willed the opioid to silence the aching in his chest.
four years later
With nothing to look forward to, life has the habit of taking on a single, muted color. All food tastes the same, all music sounds the same, all days feel the same. In order to break up the monotony, a desire for chaos originates in the fingertips. Idle hands, the devil's playthings, and Axel has never been a stranger to vice. It is now only more pronounced, long hours traipsing the streets looking for a fix. Having fallen in, quite literally, to a crack addiction (a misstep at a club landing him in a pretty stranger's lap, the illicit promise of orchestrated glory on his lips, and Axel hit a crack pipe for the first time in his life in a men's restroom at a gay club, the air smelling faintly of perspiration), Axel was much the worse for wear, apartment lost after he "forgot" to pay rent three months in a row. It wasn't so much about excuses any more as it was about ending his life in tiny, purposeful increments. Identifying clearly as gay, Axel had yet another string of failed relationships, this time alcohol-fueled same-sex romps that left him despairing of all human contact. That is, despairing until the next charming, lithe body writhed against him, asked if he liked blow and sucking dick. In terms of gradual suicide, it wasn't a bad way to go.
His job duties fell by the wayside, victim to his unending desire to feel something, and Axel no longer felt merely kin to the kids filtering in to the youth shelter; he was now one of them, a failed adult, failed member of society. Instead of going home to an apartment he didn't have, after his shift ended at six in the morning, he snuck into one of the farthest dormitories, found an empty bed, and slept the day away, waking only to shit and shower, smoke crack in an overlooked corner of the organization grounds. It was a meager existence, existence being the operative word: Axel existed, moved meaninglessly through life without actually living. This was how, after nearly a year of sleeping where he worked, his one time savior sought him out again.
"Axel." The worn voice at the foot of his bed sounds sorrowful, top notes of anger and disappointment plain as day.
Hauling his eyes open, crusted over with sleep, Axel yawns, arches in bed and collapses in a heap. "Morning, Penny. Thought you were in the Bahamas?"
"It's two o'clock in the afternoon. I haven't been in the Bahamas since April." Patience wearing thin, an arthritic hand rooting through his hair until it finds an ear. "It's September."
"Already?" Axel asks, sitting up as the hand on his ear pulls sharply. "I need that, you know. Gives my face character."
"I was in the Bahamas in April of last year, Axel. Dear Lord, look at you. You're not fooling anyone, you know. The orderlies run checks every hour. Did you think no one would notice we had an extra headcount every night?" Axel shrugs noncommittally, wonders where he dropped his pants. "I thought we were past all this, son." At this Axel grumbles, piles the blankets around his unwanted erection. "What was that?"
"Said I'm not your son."
"That may be the case, but Lord knows you need a mother. Now you get your scrawny ass out of this bed and have yourself a cold shower. This ends today, right now."
Axel has to hand it to Penny. For a 62 year old former elementary school teacher, she sure knew how to make your blood run cold. After his shower, and after explaining on his knees that he'd given up the crack after he'd lost his apartment, he swears to God, Penny allows him to keep his position with the organization if he agrees to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
"And you're taking a leave of absence. Forced, and that's on your record. I'll put you up until you clear your head." Penny tuts quietly, shaking her fair hair and brushing aside a few stray tears with a gnarled hand. "You'd be a fine young man if you'd just let yourself."
Nearly suffocating under the good old Catholic guilt, Axel circles the nearest Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the pamphlet Penny provides, promising he'll be at her place for dinner.
Axel is no stranger to substance abuse meetings, has sat in on his fair share at the shelter, but this knowledge does nothing to alleviate his crackling nerves as he parks outside the non-descript office building. Seventh floor at 7 p.m., and he'll be just another addict, neuroses and all. Chewing desperately on his gum, self-consciously checking his rearview for any unruly strands of hair, Axel assures himself that he doesn't look like an addict at least, cheeks hollowed out, eyes vacant. There is nothing to fear, no label to assume. He's already kicked his habit, for fuck's sake, and this is just to keep Penny off his case. Right? Right. Axel nearly locks his keys in his car as he straightens his clothes in the reflection of his car window. Steeling himself, Axel strides into the building.
The meeting space is innocuous enough, circle of uncomfortable looking metal folding chairs arranged haphazardly as if addicts' spatial perceptions were slightly skewed. The standard coffee, decaf and regular, brews noisily in a corner as addicts and assorted disgruntled looking people shuffle in. At least one or two, Axel notices, have had a recent fix, eyes over bright and hands fidgeting. There is a sudden robotic screaming in his head-CRACK NOW, MORE NOW-that Axel stifles by flipping open a brochure and scanning its contents. "Crack is whack," the brochure tells him in red, angry letters. "Addiction is not your fault. Addiction is a disease." The same steady stream of positive propaganda bullshit he feeds the kids at the shelter, except this time he can't pretend he isn't a hypocrite.
The meeting progresses with little fanfare, one or two addicts expressing their contempt for the police, for rehab, for detox clinics, for their shit lives. At one point Axel thinks he can feel the collective eyes of the group on him, clearly a new member, and he finally lifts his eyes from the brochure. It isn't natural for him to look where he does, across the circle of chairs and to his right, but his eyes go straight to the sweet-faced blonde sitting there staring at him with curious blue eyes. Axel's breath catches, heart constricting.
"We notice we have a new face with us this evening." The group leader nods encouragingly at Axel, his bulbous nose nearly purple, voice rough with years of smoking. "Mind sharing your story with us, son?"
All these people calling him their son. Axel wonders if his own father would even call him that. "Uh, sure." Axel coughs once, has to forcibly tear his eyes away from the blonde staring at him expectantly, and begins. "Name's Axel, and I'm a... well, I mean, I used to be a crack addict. Pothead, too, at one point, though I guess..." Axel trails off as a series of whispers and chuckles resonate around the group. "Is that—wrong?"
"Well, son. The first step is admitting you have a problem. Sounds to me like you're still working on that."
"Well, I mean," Axel says, shrugging defensively. "Yeah, sure, I'm an addict or whatever. I guess I have an addictive personality. Anything to keep the demons down, know what I mean?" There's a rustle of agreement as Axel presses on. "I come from a big family back east. Haven't talked to any of them in years. And while I think that's probably a good thing, it also makes me feel—" a swallow, a shrug—"like shit, y'know? Like they don't give two shits what happened to me after I left college. I mean, I got kicked out for writing an 'inappropriate piece of literature.' So it was about acid, big fucking deal. It's not like I sat there illuminating the glories of LSD. I wrote a cogent, clinical analysis, and I got my ass handed to me for it." Closing his eyes, Axel can see himself sitting in the dean's office, term paper tossed before him like he'd sacrificed virgins on an altar. "I think that was the real start of it. I'd used before, but that's when it really went south. I lost my shit, picked up everything I needed that day and drove out west. Smoked pot, smoked pot, had sex with girls I didn't give a damn about. Got a job," Axel pauses, eyes flashing up to the blonde staring at his shoes and picking at his cuticles. It's this image that cements the idea in Axel's mind: yes, that's him. That's Roxas. "Thought shit was working out for me, but I have too much... inside. Too much build up, too much I'm trying to ignore. I had this brother that was like the second coming; everyone died for him, fell at his feet, like. How in the hell was I ever going to compete with that? Not even compete; just to be associated with him I had to make myself into some minor god." Axel laughs mirthlessly, shakes his head. "Look at me. I'm as far from godlike as it gets. I'm a piece of shit. I knew it all along. I guess you could say my addiction was just my attempt to get my outsides to match my insides. My addiction was my white flag to everyone else. Y'know? I give up. I surrender. It's not fun being someone you're not, but now? I lost my apartment, almost lost my job—I got a fucking saint for a boss, a real fucking saint. It's not fun being someone else, but it's even worse being me."
Someone blowing their nose into a tissue, a sad trumpeting of shared grief, and Axel finally looks up. Addicts nodding encouragement to him through tears, Roxas looking at him with what amounted to shocked awe. "I guess... well. I guess I'm here now. I'm ready to let it go, all that shit I've been carrying around with me. I'm tired of fighting ghosts and shadows. The past is the past, gotta let my demons go before they tear me apart."
There's polite applause as Axel finishes, smiling, embarrassed, at his lap. He knows the feeling well enough, saw it happen a million times: a kid shares his story thinking he's the only one in the entire world shouldering all that pain, but in reality, there's a room full of people who know exactly how he feels. Situations change, sure, but the emotional core is the same. You aren't alone in your darkness, eyes closed tight against the pain, against the world. No one wants to reach out in the dark, fearful of what they'll find, fearful that there's nothing there at all. But even blind, lost—all you need to do is reach. They're out there. Have faith, have hope, reach.
As the meeting winds to a close, addicts folding up the chairs and stacking them in a corner, Axel greets a slow trickle of supporters thanking him for sharing his story, telling him he's done a brave thing, that they were touched, that he needs to work the program. Eyes casting around the room, Axel spies the blonde standing by the coffee, blue eyes regarding him over a steaming styrofoam cup. Axel takes a breath for courage, feels his planets aligning, and walks over.
"Hey," he says, pulling a cup off a stack and filling it with coffee.
"Hi." The blonde waits for Axel to straighten before extending a hand. "I'm Roxas."
I know. "Hey, Roxas. Axel."
"You had a great share."
Axel smiles, his insides screaming. "Thanks. You know, it's funny. I work in a field where we teach people that they aren't alone, that it's okay to feel lost. Funny how sometimes it takes someone else to see yourself clearly."
"Yeah," Roxas says, rocking on his feet. An awkward pause, Roxas sipping at his coffee while Axel gulps his ridiculously, scalding his throat. "This might sound weird, but I feel like I know you."
You do. "O-oh?" Axel sputters, suffers a minute coughing fit, choking on his own forged incredulity. "Th-that's weird, because I—"
"Hey guys," the meeting leader says, resting a hand on Axel's shoulder. "We're closing up for the night."
There's tangible tension in the elevator ride down, Axel sneaking glances at the blonde next to him. In the parking lot, they loiter around Axel's car making small talk, an evident reluctance to leave. When the lights in the building flicker off, Roxas looks up at the sky and sighs.
"Well. It was nice meeting you. I'll see you at the next meeting?"
"Yeah," Axel nods enthusiastically, knowing he must look mentally deficient. "Of course, next week." Axel turns to unlock his car before turning back. "Can I, uh, give you a lift somewhere?"
"Nah, I'm good."
"Okay." Axel can't help but feeling a smidgeon of disappointment. Fairytales are bullshit, anyway. "See you."
For the next month, Axel sees Roxas' parting wave—back turned, parking lot illumination casting a polished copper halo around him—at the forefront of his mind nearly every minute of the day. A month of one image seared into his retinas because, for one month, that's all he has to remind himself that Roxas was real at all, the blonde not showing up to the next meeting, nor the next, nor the next. At first Axel worries something terrible has happened to him, raped or killed or dead in a ditch, but after the third Roxas-less meeting, he begins to think the boy merely turned tail again, fled from him like darkness from the sun. It is certainly a strange feeling to have blossoming possibility ripped from your fingers as if by a gale, indifferent cruelty not giving a damn about your poor, sputtering heart. The sense that he'd done something wrong, scared Roxas off yet again, threatens to devour Axel whole. The first NA meeting after his planets aligned, Axel was so shocked at the boy's absence that he found himself crying quietly during an addict's share, someone patting him on the back, telling him to let it out. That feeling he'd had a week ago, had that been nothing more than chemical hope? Just the biological fabrication of a dream come true? Axel's every cell cried out for this boy he barely knew, felt that his body was meant to be against Roxas'. Even then, four years previous, his body had known, far before he'd been able to admit or accept his attraction to the same sex. How, then, was this possible? He'd been dealt a perfect hand, glowing with the strange, fated triumph, only to wake as if from a dream, hands clasping empty air.
It is nearly beyond Axel's control to drive to Penny's home every night as opposed to hightailing it for some bar or some club where he can score or get plastered out of his mind, fuck the next thing with legs just to blot out the image of Roxas—haloed, perfect—in his head. After a month, Axel stops going to the NA meetings, sick of looking up expectantly at every addict walking in the doors, hating the stupid, hopeful expression that he can't manage to keep from his face, fingers crossed. After a month, sitting in his car and shaking with the effort of not driving downtown to score something, anything, Axel decides his sobriety takes priority over his high hopes. Sitting at Penny's feet, pouring hot, bitter tears into her carpet, Axel says he thought Roxas was it, was his sign that things would finally be okay, that it was hard to be alone, in the dark, with only the memory of dawn to see him through.
"I don't get it," Axel chokes, fist pounding against the carpet. He'd driven to Penny's after the meeting, had all but thrown himself at her feet where she sat at the dining table, dinner waiting and ready for them. "It was all there, it was like fate. What are the chances?" Axel refuses dinner, retreats to the same guest house that had once been his home, and asks the same question over and over. What are the chances? There is no sign from God, no curling of wind, no divine knowledge whispered to him in the stillness. No rhyme and reason to why Roxas had not come back, only that he hadn't.
Trying to talk himself out of his worthless infatuation with hardly even the idea of a boy, since, after all, that's as much as he really knew about Roxas, Axel works himself ragged, spends nearly all his time at the shelter. He's too pre-occupied with paperwork to think about using, and when there's no paperwork, there's charts to read, or homework to grade, hands to shake, grants to write. He's all set to work himself into an early grave when his frenzied pace comes to a crashing halt. A Thursday afternoon, the sun angling gold into the common room when a blonde boy, fresh off the intake examination, walks up to be braceleted. Axel looks up from filing forms and falls, literally, to pieces.
"Ax." A male voice, hands slapping at his face. "Ax, come on, man." Axel's eyes flutter open, his head spinning. Why was he on the floor? "Christ, we thought you had a fucking heart attack and died."
"No 'we' didn't; I knew he had a pulse." Peter, now a licensed psychologist, helps Axel sit up. "We've been telling you that you're gunna kill yourself with these hours, Axel."
"Roxas," Axel whispers, eyes scanning frantically for the blonde.
Peter's expression darkens, a hand going to Axel's forehead. "You mean Ryan? He's a new kid. I sent him over to get braceleted, and he came running back to me screaming about a heart attack." A pause, Peter helping Axel to his feet. "You feeling alright? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Axel takes the opportunity to promptly vomit all over the floor, shakes visibly as Jack leads him to his office. In the time it takes Penny to rush over, a pill of Xanax she attempts to force into Axel's unwilling mouth, he decides that he can no longer work at the organization.
"You just need a break. You can go away, I'll send you anywhere you want to go," Penny insists, hand pressed to Axel's cheek.
"It doesn't matter where I am," Axel says, pushes the Xanax resolutely away from him, shudders at the sound it makes as it scratches against the top of his desk. "Nowhere feels right."
"You have to fight, son." His piecemeal family, people bound to him deeper than blood; the hands he found in the dark.
"I am," Axel says, standing. "This is me winning."
It feels like a loss, feels like the weight of a continent on his chest as he boards a plane headed east, but Axel knows the catastrophe of real loss, the loss that would come with staying to be haunted. As the plane chases the moon 35,000 feet above the earth, Axel closes his eyes and tries to forget what it looks like to see a halo in the dark.
At 7:15 p.m. Roxas asks the guy next to him again if he's sure Axel was in last week. Yes, he was, and yes, he'd been to every meeting for the last month. Coffee rapidly cooling his hands, Roxas curses himself for the thousandth time for not getting Axel's number a month ago, curses himself for being too chickenshit to say what he'd really wanted to say. Remember me? I was at the youth shelter. Yeah, I know it was shitty of me to ditch you like that, but I hate psychologists, man. I really hate them. Anyway, I just wanted to say that you're gorgeous and I'm sorry and I'm fucking stupid. Do you like coffee? Do you want to get some with me right now? A million scenarios in Roxas' head where he admits that Axel doesn't just look familiar, that he remembers his time at the organization fondly, that Axel was even better looking than his memory had supplied. Sighing, Roxas debates how to handle the inevitable "where the fuck were you for the last month?" question that Axel was bound to ask. What could he say? Oh, right after I met you I decided that I wanted to change my bullshit life so I flushed the heroin I was supposed to push down the toilet. My dealer didn't take to well to me flushing $3,000 down the toilet, so he stabbed me. Roxas could see himself sitting across from Axel in a coffee shop, pulling up his shirt to show Axel the stitches. Right there, got me right in the ribs. Lucky he didn't get a lung, huh? Otherwise… anyway, I got away, headed for a hospital. I was in the emergency room for three hours, bleeding puddles into my hands.
Roxas re-fills his cup of coffee, can hardly keep his eyes off the entrance in case Axel shows up late. I almost died in the waiting room. I didn't get seen until I passed out on the floor from blood loss. They stitched me up and I crashed with a couple friends. My dealer wanted me dead, I couldn't just walk around. I wanted to call you, I must have called fifty Axels in the phonebook, but none of them were you. And then the guys I was staying with said Reno turned up in a dumpster. Reno, that's my dealer. Was my dealer. Roxas sips his coffee, chuckles wryly into its depths. Funny thing, actually. I only met him at all because I couldn't get you out of my head. I felt really bad for ditching you like that, and there was Reno, had hair that reminded me of yours. Anyway, he was scum. He stabbed me for that 3k, but fuck knows I sucked his dick enough to more than cover it. Apparently his supplier wasn't happy with the flushed junk, either. Shot him for it, so I was good to go. And here I am, I guess. Roxas surveys the faces in the room, can hardly tune in to the pretty brunette sharing her sob story. But you're not here.
Roxas dutifully went to each and every Narcotics Anonymous meeting for six straight months. Six straight months and Axel never showed, the general consensus in the group being that he fell off the wagon, picked up a habit again. Despite the likelihood of this—Axel was an addict just like the rest of them, after all—Roxas couldn't shake the feeling that his month long absence had something to do with it. He showed up early to every meeting, stayed late just in case. He made it a point to call new Axels in the phonebook every day (who'd have thought there would be so many?), even spent some time chatting idly with a couple of them, eyes squeezed shut, willing himself to believe that it was the right one on the other end. How could Roxas have known that Axel wasn't listed because he hadn't had his own place of address in two years? How could Roxas have known that the name he should've been looking for was Penelope Anne Clarke?
After six months, sober but no more sane for it, Roxas wanders into the youth shelter on a bright, frigid morning, the sun barely over the horizon. They mistake him for much younger, ask him if he'd like to be admitted. Roxas smiles, asks if Axel is in.
"Wait a second—are you—?" The brunette at the nurses' station peers into his face, squints at the fleeting familiarity. Shaking his head, the guy, nametag reading "Peter," continues, "Actually, Axel quit a couple months ago."
Roxas' mouth goes dry as he thanks the guy, lets his feet take him out and away from the disappointment. Where did you go? The feeling of having missed something, as if he'd just walked past Axel and hadn't noticed, stirs up the desire for a fix, a fevered irritation that Roxas feels tightening in his chest. Panic, real panic, that he's forgotten something important, leads Roxas to the side of the curb, gasping at the asphalt. Where did you go? Where? Where did—oh. The memory of Axel speaking, articulate and animated, gestures that Roxas had watched as if Axel were conducting a symphony, explodes into his consciousness. "I come from a big family back east. Haven't talked to any of them in years." I come from a big family back east, back east, back east.
It isn't much to go off of, but Roxas is used to having nothing, has built a life out of crossed fingers and held breath. Stopping by his friends' apartment to pick up his few possessions and say his goodbyes, Roxas walks, thumb extended, toward the ascending sun.