Disclaimer: Not mine.

Summary: The natural progression of celebrity culture has dug its scalpel into the very core of the world, making it impossible for anyone less than beautiful to walk down the street with confidence, let alone hold a job. Axel, love child of revolutionaries, refuses to submit. Oneshot for 8/13.

Rating: T for adult language and content, suggestive use of bananas, and revolutionary propaganda.

A/N: Happy AkuRoku Day! This time it's not as long as last year's contribution, but I wanted to give a little to the fandom that has given me so, so much. I know I can get a little stupid writing angsty scene after angsty scene, and most readers are probably like, "SLIT YOUR WRISTS ALREADY," so I see 8/13 as an opportunity to fluff it up a little.

I love Axel and Roxas and all of you more than I can bare sometimes. Thank you for sticking with me. The final chapter of A Lesser Beauty is coming soon.

Cities of the Future

It started out simple enough, clichéd even, that old adage—You can never be too thin in Hollywood—but what with the steady consumption of reality T.V., a trickle down of starry eyes and Louboutins that swept in a Turks and Caicos surf over the entirety of the country, it soon became difficult to distinguish them, irreverent in their rags that cost riches, from the rest of us. Celebrity culture and the legacy of self-shame as thin became chic became young became the amalgamated total of what it meant to be alive: beautiful. The crown jewel of self-actualization, the new American dream: to be beautiful—proportionately, traditionally, statistically beautiful. With advances in technology and engineering reaching worldwide saturation, cosmetic surgery for social advancement became commonplace, sweet sixteen birthday parties a relic of the past, upgraded to painless, economically-conscious nosejob fêtes, collagen injection get-togethers, lipo and lattes for happy hour. And while it sounds like frivolous spending, who can argue with an immediate hire after flashing a dazzling smile on the first interview? Who can complain of grade inflation directly proportionate to tanned legs and lush cleavage? The beautiful get ahead—table reservations, job promotions—and they look immaculate doing it. You can never be too thin in Hollywood, and you can never be too beautiful anywhere. Beauty, the new currency.

However, despite the generally accepted practice of augmentation—a new, perfected public hacking away at their lives like chiselling away at carbon, cutting diamonds—there are the small, ever smaller, groups of propaganda-hurling activists, protesting outside augmentation clinics with crudely-erected signs of surgery gone wrong. These groups with their sallow skin and flat hair, their yellowing teeth and muffin tops, they are the last bastion of simple biology, the final stronghold of naturally occurring eyes and smiles, an easy coming together of cells. Perhaps not "ugly," but when the ruler of beauty stretches so wide, deities walking around cities, who among us can now tell the difference?

A race of gods, untouchable in their glass and chrome buildings, all flightless birds. It was supposed to have happened differently, for years the improving technology signaling an altogether different future. In the cities of the future there are supposed to be flying cars. Flying cars and tiers of industry, rising massive above the earth, new testaments of progress that dwarf any Towel of Babel. In these cities of the future we've learned to put aside difference and indifference. In these cities of the future we've found peace. Cities of the future. The future, somewhere beyond the horizon, where the sun goes when it disappears. Fiction, futures, and the promise of something more, something better than the present… this is what Axel thinks of as he prepares a neat, orderly row of Molotov cocktails. The nostalgic bottles of a simpler, sweeter time—Coke bottles and milk bottles topped with strips of one of his last good blankets—clinking lightly in a wooden crate, a smoking cigarette in his left hand tempting fate as he measures, pours, and longs for cities of the future.

A little golden god between the glittering high rises, engineered anomaly down to the tips of his hair as he strides purposefully into the revolving doors of the clinic flashing in the afternoon light, doorman tipping a head as one pays homage to a deity. When the boy comes out shining, Axel wants to hurl an incendiary at his grotesquely perfect face, resplendent after his regimented set of clinical "ups," augmentation touch ups, like going to the dentist, an oxygen bar. A quickie. Fingering the strip of cloth clogging the cocktail, Axel thinks of how the boy would look ablaze. Little rich boy, probably a surgeon father comping his prodigal son freebies; a little suction here, injection there. At this clinic in particular—high-profile clientele, extensive cases, completely discreet—the boy is severely out of place, a lit thing in a forest of stilettos and cufflinks. This clinic in particular, an elegant façade that, through pretension, aims to make the perversion of the human race a stylish fad. A post-pregnancy thirty year old walks in, a fit twenty-three year old walks out. Correction: A post-pregnancy thirty year old walks in, a post-pregnancy thirty year old walks out. Except she looks like a younger, slimmer, prettier version of herself. Herself, version 2.0. Herself, upgraded. Herself, beautiful.

Axel tried tracts, tried pamphlets. Sometimes the only way to fight fire…

"Hey." He's running across the street, pamphlet in hand. Two weeks and the kid came in, same over-the-shoulder glances, no less than three times. Axel figures the upping surgeon must be a real pro, the augmentation so slight, so subtle, that Axel can't rightly identify what the boy's been getting done, just that he is better looking each and every time, a fact that Axel begrudgingly admits, forsaking a makeshift bomb for a more literary attack.

The boy, startled, turns to address Axel and freezes, eyes going straight to his hair. There is a glint in the boy's eyes, blue as the sea, that Axel recognizes as disgust.

Heh. Brandishing his pamphlet like a rapier, Axel asks, "How do you feel about contributing to the bastardization of humanity?" Immediately, Axel wishes he'd said a million different things, confusion turning to anger on the boy's face.

"Fuck off," the boy says, turning and hurrying away, hands shoved in his pockets. He beats a pretty path against the sidewalk, sneaking a final scowl over his shoulder before he turns a corner. Axel smiles, takes this as a battle won.

Subsisting solely on plastic packages of ramen for the last two weeks, Axel can feel his body demanding nutrients, led on a cellular level to the produce aisle of the market nearest his barren apartment. After prolonged deprivation of fruit and vegetables, Axel's senses are heightened, nearly reeling as he walks past the oranges, the pineapples, the smells strong enough to turn the insides of his mouth on, a constant swallowing of anticipatory saliva. Pineapples, though, are strictly out of his budget. The wages of revolutionaries are nothing to shake a finger at, of course. He's lucky to make anything at all from the small guerilla printing press, more infantry than paper boy.

He's reaching for a bunch of bananas, smooth and unmarked, when he hears a voice over his shoulder.

"Why aren't you picking the ugly ones?" Hostile, annoyed. And, most notably, teenaged.

The remark catches Axel so off guard that he pauses, struggles for any words at all in the sudden mush that is his brain. "…They… I..."

"Ugly things are worthless," the voice says as the boy materializes beside him and takes the bananas just under his fingers. It's the boy from the clinic, nearly a week since their fiery exchange.

"These are bananas, kid." Collarbones devastating, just visible over the neck of the boy's shirt; mathematical precision, perfection to the point of unassailability.

"And?" Defiant eyes turned up toward him, challenging.

"And so they're completely different. You're talking about humans; I don't eat humans."

"Likely excuse," the boy mutters, carefully selecting bunches of blemish free bananas and laying them on top of the older, over-ripe bunches. "I don't know why they leave these out. They're disgusting."

"Banana bread," Axel says, watching the boy's careful hands. "You need ripe—excuse me, ugly—bananas for banana bread. Banana pancakes, even. They need to be ripe, otherwise it'll taste wrong."

"So the grand total is two? Two uses?" The boy shrugs, shoving the perfect bananas into Axel's stomach. "Hypocrite."

"You're wrong," Axel says, tossing the words out over his shoulder, knowing the boy will stop. "Let me buy you dinner, and I'll tell you a million ways over-ripe bananas are useful."

"Bullshit," the boy says, somewhere over his shoulder. A pause, then, "What kind of dinner?"

Setting aside the nice bunch, Axel unearths a particularly bruised armload of bananas, browning and spotted. "How do banana pancakes sound?"

The boy walks back to Axel's side, a careful survey taken by what really have to be the bluest eyes Axel has ever seen, as if the boy is making sure he really wants to be associated with the likes of him. "I don't eat carbs."

Carbohydrates, sugars, after 6 p.m., red meat, the white parts of lettuce, egg yolks—all things the boy wouldn't eat, his stack of banana pancakes obscuring his line of sight as Axel eats and eats and eats. He figures the kid doesn't need to know he spent a week's worth of money on the stuff he needed for the damn pancakes, figures the kid doesn't need to know he was hungry enough to eat, in fact, humans. As it turns out, there are definitely not one million ways to effectively use an over-ripe banana, several lewd examples by Axel pulling out (surprisingly) small smiles from the boy. "Roxas," he'd called himself, sipping at his third glass of cold water. Roxas didn't eat carbs, but Axel heard the way his stomach growled. Didn't eat carbs, but wanted them, wanted them so much his need had a sound.

"So are you going to tell me your name?" Roxas, surrendering to the sounds Axel pointed out his stomach was making, picked at half of a banana. He looked like an aberration against the backdrop of Axel's apartment, asking as they walked in if Axel was staying there legally.

"Are you… do you, uh—" the boy had tried, nodding around the small studio.

"Have bodies in my freezer? No. Not whole ones, anyway. I just keep the heads."

"That's so funny," the boy said, rolling his eyes. "I mean do you pay rent."

"Yeah, of course." Depositing the groceries on the table in the corner, Axel watched the boy out of the corner of his eye, the way he stood very still, eying the furniture wearily. "Why, you think I'm squatting?" Or maybe it was more elaborate than that, Axel still trying to work out why the boy agreed to dinner in the first place. The possibility that Axel could have drugs, black market ups, maybe wanted someone killed. None of the reasons, of course, had anything to do with the boy actually wanting to get to know him.

"It's really clean in here," the boy said, dragging a fingertip against a table. No dirt, no dust. "But it—"

"Doesn't look that way? Yeah," Axel shrugged, "I know."

And so it went for four, five hours. It wasn't a long measurement of time, but there is something to be said about anyone willing to spend four or five hours in the company of a stranger. The conversation had been at turns light, at turns intense, but not once did the boy ask him for a hit of something illegal, ask him for anything other than more water and his opinion.

Axel decides Roxas looks like an erasure, a rubbing away of things. "No."

"No what?" Without appearing to realize it, the boy lifts a piece of pancake to his mouth, chewing.

"No, I'm not going to tell you my name." Axel smirks around a mouthful of food.

The boy looks absolutely furious for a moment before standing and walking out, the apartment door gaping after him. Smirking at the space the boy occupied, Axel reaches over and forks Roxas' stack onto his plate.

A week later Axel throws open his apartment door on his way to work, five minutes late and still seventy percent asleep, and finds Roxas standing there, two boxed salads in his hands.

Though they have remarkably little in common, the conversations grow exponentially, Roxas spending long hours finding new positions to look lordly on his bed while Axel slides around the concrete floor, shifting from one side of his body to the next, unable to find comfort, unwilling to ask to share. What started off as nothing at all grew into an illicit insistence, a desire to share proximity—the strange fixation with the invisible breath three inches in front of Roxas' mouth. Axel attributes it to physical hunger, starved for fruit, for the yield of the earth, the goodness.

Despite cozying it up in private, Roxas staunchly refuses to be seen with him in public, explaining a handful of different ways why it's not that he's "embarrassed," he says, eyes out on the tops of buildings. It's 1). His friends will start shit, or 2.) His family will think he's on drugs, or 3). They might get hassled on the street by disapproving strangers, or 4). He kinda likes Axel's apartment (this one has Axel laughing, sprawled over the floor). Not that any of it mattered in the end; Axel enjoys the company, enjoys agreeing to disagree when Roxas shows no signs of budging: hot dogs are gross non-food, it is possible to live without music, beautiful people have easier lives because they're beautiful.

Didn't matter, of course, until it did.

One day the boy showed up with hair distinctly not elegantly disheveled. After Axel collected his jaw from the floor, eyes wide for just the right amount of time for Roxas to pour himself a glass of—holy shit—juice, concentrated, processed, sugary juice, he also registered the off brand clothes Roxas was wearing.

"No catwalk today?" he'd asked as casually as he could muster, eyes drinking in this new, less stick-of-godly-perfection-up-his-ass Roxas. As far back as Axel could remember, every day the boy wore some photoshoot-ready ensemble, hair styled to pointed perfection and face dusted with what Axel suspected was bronzer. To see him like this felt like he'd accidentally opened the wrong door, wasn't supposed to know what the other side held.

Roxas, ever tactful, rolled his eyes. "Fuck you."

And the world didn't end and a symphony didn't strike up, but there it was, something new, something surprising, and Axel hoped they'd go see a movie or something, maybe get something to eat that didn't come from his small kitchenette, but Roxas didn't volunteer, still lording about his apartment. And that is the really troubling part, isn't it: that, despite descending from Olympus catwalks, Roxas is no less beautiful than he had been before. Sometimes, in the stillest moments of the night when sleep is not an option, Axel despairs over the idea that, pulled down from his pedestal, Roxas is even more beautiful.

So what is it, then? Axel is ugly, un-augmented. He is a walking, talking, subversive freak, and the only reason Roxas even hangs around is because he pities him, or he can see how he is starving, is starved. It didn't matter until it did, Axel snapping in half one day, warm orange glow of the setting sun pouring in through his curtains thrown wide, both of them dancing to an old record Roxas brought over, the forgotten fragment of someone's great-great-grandfather's record collection. There had been a series of these breathless moments, where they would be standing too close to each other, Axel staring down at the tips of Roxas' hair, Roxas staring at their shoes. There would be a slight dragging touch—up an arm, down a cheek, across the nape of a neck—then Axel would lean, and Roxas would…

"Pretty late." Roxas already halfway to the door, Axel's fingers twining empty air.

"Don't worry, your hands won't get dirty." Too late, Axel can't bite back the words. Roxas freezes in the doorway.


Axel recognizes the moment for what it is: the muscles bracing themselves before impact, 70 miles per hour at a concrete divider. "Nothing. I mean, I'm not stupid, Roxas. Sure, I'm ugly, but I'm not stupid."

"What are you talking about," Roxas says, voice icy, back still turned toward Axel, one foot out the door.

It would be so easy to just let it go. Let it go like the countless times before; Roxas would just leave, and Axel would just let him. But he is so, just so...

Sunlit, the outline of his shoulderblades through his shirt, and Axel sees the last ten months for what they really are: a study on falling in love with a god. "I can wear a bag over my head, if that'll help."

Roxas slams the front door closed as Axel looks on with an uneasy crescendo building beneath him. "Is that what you think this is? Because the last time I checked, friends did not sleep with their friends."

"Is that what we are?" Axel lets the words get away from him, no longer any point in trying to stuff his fingers in the funnel, the stillness of midnight seeping out into the space between them. "Because the last time I checked, friends actually did shit with their friends. The last time I checked, friends weren't embarrassed to be seen with their friends in public."

Exasperated, Roxas throws his hands up. "I already explained to you, this has nothing to do with—"

"With these?" Axel asks, voice rising, thumbing the tattoos on his cheeks. "Or this?" tugging on a spire of his hair. "Or is it not any one thing? Is it my entire fucking face? My body?" Hands gripping Roxas' forearms, the only substantial touch he's been allowed in ten months, Axel shakes him. "Well? What the hell is it, Roxas? I spend all my time with you, all my money on you, all my—" Axel closes his mouth abruptly at the look on Roxas' face. He rationalizes it as anger, but the contempt there is clear; no sadness, no regret, just pure, perfected hatred.

"Yeah, that's it," Roxas says, voice low. "It's all that and everything else." Spinning toward the door, Roxas spits, "Maybe if you didn't look like such a fucking psychopath, someone would give you a real job, and then I wouldn't be so embarrassed to be seen with you."

Axel can still feel Roxas' arms under his hands—warm skin, golden and soft. "That's all I was asking for. A little honesty." For the first time in twenty-three years, Axel feels unsafe in his own skin, feels the suffocating pressure to change himself. To be better, smarter; Axel, version 2.0. Upgraded. Roxas makes a small noise of fury before he slams a hand against the door, nearly ripping it off its hinges on his way out.

For one endless day Axel can't find the thing inside him that normally makes his body get out of bed. The impetus to move, the courage, is simply gone, and he stares up at the ceiling without a single thought in his head. With his curtains drawn, it's hard to discern the passage of time, his only measurement the blood he feels pumping slowly through his body, heart contracting away in his chest like it doesn't know, can't comprehend. Laying there, sheets abandoned, Axel thinks he finally understands what it was that drove his parents apart, what it was that inspired a hunger in the world. To be desired by a person, by a company, an industry—to command armed only with a smile: attention, a promotion, a date. It didn't matter at first, angry at his dad, unable to think about his mom. It didn't matter until it did, staring at the phone and wondering why he'd never thought to get a number for Roxas, trying to remember the house address he'd seen on Roxas' I.D.

Ten months and he knew everything that mattered, knew that Roxas was jealous of his brother, that Roxas thought he was fat, that Roxas felt inferior not just sometimes, but all the time, wore his cloak of good looks and charm less like armor and more like a blanket, huddled away from the world. All that, and no phone number. Axel could name five things Roxas would order off a menu, knew he had a laparoscopic adjustable gastric band augment when he was fifteen, knew the way he rubbed at his cheeks after he laughed or smiled like he thought he could rub away the onset of laugh lines. All that, and no phone number. Roxas had always just shown up; arrived unannounced like clockwork, a regularity that Axel could've set a watch to. Punching his pillow until he thinks his hand will break, Axel throws himself against the bed, presses his face into the mattress until it hurts, wishes he could take his ribcage apart or rewind time and have starved to death when he was seventeen, spending the night cowering in storefronts, hungry and cold because he wasn't good-looking enough to get a job.

How the mighty are fallen, all his grand proclamations about the purity of the human race, about the divinity inherent in the self without the aid of surgery. Pamphlets and tracts and leaflets and a whole fucking life for this cause that would've saved his parents and would've saved him. That would've kept him from ever knowing Roxas.

Exhausted with despair, Axel sleeps. Axel sleeps and dreams of a world where everyone is faceless, a city of the future.

On the seventh day, Axel experiences acute déjà vu, nearly plowing Roxas down on his way out the door. His heart lurches in his chest, threatening to burst out of him to get to Roxas, but the confusion quickly floods in, weariness trailing behind it.

"Hey. Late for work." It's dark in the hallway, looks for all the world uninhabited, like Axel clings there, hidden.

Uneasy, Roxas nods, hands lost somewhere in his pockets. "Oh, right. Sorry. I just came by to see if—"

"If I still look like a psychopath? Yep, still psychopathic." His voice sounds Tired Of This Bullshit, but all Axel really wants to do is laugh again, talk and dance and eat again.

Now looking at the floor, distinctly sorrowful, Roxas addresses their shoes. "I wanted to see if maybe you wanted to get coffee, maybe." It comes out in a near incoherent mumble, Roxas looking up quickly to gauge Axel's reaction before looking down again. How the mighty are fallen.

Axel chews his lip for a moment, Roxas finally raising his head to meet Axel's eyes. There is hope, yes, and something apologetic, but there is also defiance, the sight of which makes Axel's heart beat a little harder. "You drink coffee?"

It's easy enough to fall into the same rhythm, pulling Roxas' coffee away from him, "talking" (Roxas' code for arguing) about bumping up the age limit of elementary augmentation to the first grade, something about schoolyard taunts shaping the entirety of children's lives. If Axel focuses on the conversation hard enough, it's like he doesn't notice how bright Roxas' eyes look, how soft his hair looks when not set by rigid architecture. Halfway through the conversation, three "accidental" touches as Axel handed back Roxas' stolen coffee, the boy gets distracted by something behind Axel's shoulder, his eyes flicking over and over to the same spot. Half-annoyed, half-intrigued, Axel fakes a yawn, arms stretching wide, and casually turns his head, extending in a stretch. There, behind him, is a rift in reality, the fabric of time come unstuck, folded back on itself. Three tables away someone just a few years older than Axel nods, smiling. When the man shows signs of approach, Axel staggers up out of his seat and all but runs toward the door.

Three blocks down, Axel halts his retreat, hands on his knees, doubled over and choking, choking on the afternoon air. A patter of racing footsteps to his right, Roxas' shoes. Axel is sure that one look at Roxas' face will ease the horror, but he can't find it within himself to stop dry heaving at the sidewalk. When his body quiets enough for him to stand upright, he sees that Roxas is pale, hands fisted at his sides. And angry.

"What did he do to you?" Yes, fury, distinct and heavy on the eyebrows, in the pull of his lips.

"Who?" Axel asks, finds himself examining the newsstand beside them like this is where he meant to end up all along, eyes looking at headlines, unseeing.

"That guy. What did he do to you? Did you date? Is he your ex?"

Before the words are fully out of Roxas' mouth, Axel is bringing up coffee all over the newsstand counter, body convulsing, convulsing, convulsing like just the idea—into his ears and his lungs and poisoning him, invisible—is too much for him to take. "Don't," Axel mutters, wiping a hand across his mouth, stringy with spit and saliva, the regurgitated remains of his pitiful breakfast.

"If he," Roxas says, and his voice is trembling, one hand held out to Axel like he means to touch him on the shoulder, but his hand hovers, millimeters away, unable to descend. "If he hurt you, or touched you, I—"

"Stop, stop, stop," Axel says, more to the images in his head than anything Roxas is saying, an assault of memories blurring just beyond his conscious reach. "I didn't—we didn't date. That's my…" a swallow, burning in his throat, "…my dad. That was my dad."

Each glass of whiskey ends far too soon to be fair, Axel getting up to pour another and another and another, mumbling through his sob story while a black and white movie plays on his small television, cut through with static. There was a happy family once, one of fighters and believers. A happy family with a beautiful mom, a strong, happy dad. But one day the dad made a mistake, mistakenly slept with this other, even more beautiful lady, but how could his mom not be the most beautiful woman alive? Beautiful, hair the color of apples, hands rough from hard work, fighting against the things that were wrong with the world. What happened next wasn't a surprise, his mom going under the knife to fix this or fix that, except she was an activist, a hypocrite. Where else to go other than to the black market, cash upping, a little suction here, a lift there. When she died from infection, Axel's dad became a stranger, wasting away in his study while Axel went to high school. Wasting away while Axel fed himself, clothed himself, paid the bills.

Emerging ancient and watery-eyed, a broken shell, his dad went out. A week later he came back, and a passerby would've mistaken him for Axel's older brother. An old man walks in, a young man walks out. Correction: And old man walks in, an old man walks out, but he is younger, better. Axel's father, version 2.0. Upgraded. Turning back the hands of time, back before his wife died, before he slept with a great set of plastic tits, before, before, before.

Axel, too drunk to talk, watches Roxas watch the movie, flickers of light over his face, his hair. Roxas smiles at something on the screen, the edges of his eyes softening, and Axel thinks it is the single most beautiful face he has ever seen, the mere lines alone defying any sort of dictionary, any page of poetry. Ineffable—not just a lack of words, but an erasure, an obliteration of what came before, leaving just awe and want in the after. For the last thirty minutes Roxas' fingers have been laced with his, and beyond anything else he has ever wanted, more than he wanted his mom back, more than he wanted his dad back, Axel wants Roxas to want him, wants to feel desired, admired.

So this is why, Axel thinks, thumb rubbing at the space between Roxas' thumb and forefinger, people do what they do, cut away at themselves. Even if he never decides to get an augment, if he never gets lasers in his eyes or into the follicles of his hair, never implants inserts or breaks away slivers of bone… he's already changed for Roxas, hammered out his imperfections, his bitterness, his desire to burn, break, and pillage the world that had taken away his family, his health, his home.

In between one flicker and the next, Roxas moves closer to him, eyes on his eyes past the fuzzy layer of alcohol Axel attempts proper vision through, and it looks like Roxas is… taking off his pants. Taking off his pants. Axel's sluggish brain attempts to catch up to his giddy limbs, mouth saying something insane like, "What are you doing?"

The joy is brief, fleeting. Roxas pulls his pants down and shows Axel the inside of his left thigh, shows him the angry, swollen marks. "When you saw me, when we met, this is what I was getting done."

Roxas flinches as Axel attempts to trace the words lightly, mostly ends up dragging his rough fingers across the scabs. T-R-A-S-H, jagged against Roxas' smooth skin. "I don't… understand. If you got it done, then why…?"

Roxas stares deliberately into Axel's face, eyes burning away in the semi-darkness. "I do it again and again. Sometimes I can't help it, sometimes I have to." Axel fumbles drunken kisses around the wounds, a perimeter of adoration, feels foolish and stupid and ecstatic when a hand goes into his hair, Roxas' fingers petting lightly. "I don't think you're ugly," Roxas says quietly, stroking. And then, impossibly, "Do you think I'm ugly? Now, I mean. Now that you know."

The credits roll on the film neither of them has been watching, Axel sitting up, drawing Roxas close. Just being able to touch him like this—unsteady hand running up an arm, tucking under a sleeve to smooth down the shoulder, Roxas very quiet against him—is enough, comfortably exciting. When it's just the three inches of invisible breath between them—Roxas staring at him in that quiet way, like he's seeing Axel for the first time; new eyes curious, blinking—the excitement takes on a fevered rush. "I don't think you're ugly," Axel says, slurring the words together, knowing under all the whiskey and panic that he sounds like an idiot, wishes he were better with words, hopes he doesn't smell too much like loss and liquor. The sheer power of Roxas, just his presence demanding elaborate orchestrations, Axel desperate to be more, to be better. Not because he has to, but because he wants to. You want to be perfect for the person you love, want to fit against them like you were cut from the same stone, rough and ragged edges matching up and making something indistinguishable as having once been separate.

It must be after sunrise, traces of orange on the ground nearest the curtains. His entire body is sore, one arm asleep from having draped over the back of the headboard all night. Squinting in the gloom, head blissfully hangover-free, Axel sees the bed looks very slept in, but his small bed companion is nowhere in sight. Axel busies himself with thinking absolutely nothing until the front door opens twenty minutes later, Roxas padding in quietly, a box of something in his hands. It's the first time Axel has seen Roxas in the same clothes two days in a row. Roxas toes his shoes off and slips back into bed before he realizes Axel is awake.

"Morning," he rasps. "You snore like a bear."

Axel lets loose a hoarse shout of laughter, realizes it sounds appalling. How has he never noticed he has a braying laugh and atrocious morning breath? Neither of these seem to bother Roxas much, the boy reaching up and running fingertips down over the marks on Axel's face, thumb sliding across Axel's mouth. "I'm fucked up." There is sorrow, also fear, but it is shot through with that same stubborn defiance, Axel's heart pulsing at the sound like it's swallowing the sentiment whole.

"You say that like I couldn't already tell. No one normal willingly spends time in my company." From the small table by the kitchenette, Axel smells something baked.

Roxas slides from the bed, brings the box over. Banana pancakes—warm, fluffy, as godly as pancakes could ever be—and two forks. Stabbing at the top layer, Roxas brings a forkful to his mouth, wipes a tear away at the same time. Axel is too stunned to eat. "I had a dream about rocks. In the dream, everyone was throwing rocks at me, trying to kill me, I guess. The last person to throw a rock, the one that should've killed me, threw it at my feet, instead. He felt like you. He looked different, but I could tell it was you." Roxas cries quietly, and if Axel couldn't see the glitter of the tears rolling down his cheeks, it would've been impossible to tell, Roxas' voice calm as he speaks with his mouth full. "The rock he threw fell at my feet and cracked open. There was a diamond inside." Roxas pauses for half a second, takes the box out of Axel's hands, crawls into his lap, and presses their lips together.

Tears, butter, and maple syrup, his mouth sticky against Axel's. "And I've always known that diamonds come from rocks, that the most valuable things on earth come from under the ground, from the dirt." A flicker of tongue, Axel's hands on his waist, his senses reeling as Roxas presses on. "These pancakes are the best thing I've ever tasted, and I bet they came from the worst looking bananas ever." A break for laughter, Axel wiping a trace of syrup from Roxas' chin.

"Are you trying to say that even though I'm ugly, my dick is probably huge?"

"No, jackass," Roxas says. He hums against Axel's mouth, bites lightly at his bottom lip. "Just that nothing beautiful can come from something that's not already beautiful. Start with trash, end with trash… even if that trash is diamond shaped."

Hands against Roxas' legs, remembering scrawls of cruelty, Axel asks, "And what about you? Do you think you're beautiful?"

Fingertips roaming lightly, eyes studying the lines of Axel's throat, Roxas is silent, thoughtful. Running his hands up to Roxas' back, Axel feels the boy drawing breaths—quiet, steady pulls. The sound itself has a magic to it, Axel convinced it's the most charming thing he's ever heard. "I didn't used to think so," Roxas says, thumbs stroking Axel's cheeks. "There were times I looked in the mirror and saw someone completely different. Fat arms, fat legs, bad skin, teeth, hair. Everything about me was wrong, no matter how many ups I got, how many times I went under. You can't make something worthless into something of worth." Roxas' eyes on him, the bluest eyes Axel has ever seen. "But when you look at me like this…" quiet delight pulling up the corners of his lips, "…I don't know how I could be anything less."

The tangle of them is messy, the sheets on the mattress coming up on a corner as they feast, sticky with syrup, strings of it in Roxas' hair and across his lips as Axel searches for traces with his tongue, Roxas laughing away. Axel doesn't know how it will work, a world of beautiful, empty faces between him and this sticky, laughing, defiant boy. He doesn't know how it will work, but he's spent most of his life trying, shouting above crowds at people to see, see the beauty there. At a distance it must look disastrous—Axel's hair a tumble of red, Roxas dripping sugar—but seen closer, the jumble of arms are instead intersections of angles, mathematically inspired, a sailing arc of maple syrup spiraling, the golden ratio, before splattering on Axel's cheek where Roxas, blind to both the mess and the glory, presses his lips.