Once upon a time, there is Axel, and there is Roxas. They read Dickinson and Plath and wind their misery through books and back out again as quotations, as if literature can take the sting out and make it feel a little less like theirs. They swap horror stories – and it's up to you what those stories are, what their pasts are, what part they're going to play in this story. To tell them would be to cheapen them, to call for cries of 'it's not that bad' from others, and this isn't that sort of story. For now, give them yours, give them every silent hatred you've found deep in those dark nights, every moment where you've realised that the darkness is pressing in and you can not escape, every helpless silenced sob alone in bed, knowing that even if you made a sound, no one would come for you. All that matters is that these were their feelings, their fears, their pain, and that is was real, and strong enough to cause this. All that matters is that it was true.

It is summer, rich and bright, the contrast of the seasons painted on every teen's skin where tan gave way to stark white, when Roxas meets Axel. Axel's got a pierced nipple, and a pierced tongue. Axel dyes his hair bright red so that no one could ever miss him in a crowd. Axel doesn't go to school, or church, and smiles at strangers in bars. Axel smokes, and does weed, and gets drunk at parties in warehouses where you can be arrested even if you are overage. Axel's got black tattoos under his eyes. Axel is a fount of rebellion, of telling the world to fuck off in a million different ways, uncaring and still so cool, a fucked-up teen who shows the world his middle finger, raised to the sky. And Roxas' one form of rebellion is Axel, is sliding his short, pale fingers between the skinny, nicotine-stained ones of a glorious boy, and being taken along for the ride. Axel always says that when Roxas rebels, he does it in style, and it feels like it, on the backseat of a broken-into car that neither of them can drive, as Axel slides his mouth over him and makes him feel better than he knew was possible.

Roxas reads iThe Virgin Suicides/i when he's fifteen, and the titles still appropriate, Axel hanging over his shoulder and underlining the good bits, the horrible bits, by reading aloud in his soft tenor; iProzac Nation/i is similarly applied, with the two of them chanting lines like a mantra, a slow, solemn relish that here, at last, is someone who understands them, someone who sees exactly what they're going through, and just how hard it is. Plath's words echo from their lips, delicate and soft, yet so, so final, and Dickinson is chorused as if in prayer. Roxas reads iLolita/i alone, because Axel can not stomach Nabokov. Kesey and Kerouac haunt their steps, make them force themselves to whisper soft words at night, to keep each other close. These are their prayers, their hymns, their gods, the only people who know their hardships, their troubles, their depth of feeling, and can express it in words: young and desperately miserable in the Southwest, where it is impossible to be one without the other.

It's a revelation when they decide to do it, when they decide that it has been long enough. They whisper the fate of the Lisbon girls, their 'refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws', and Axel's laugh cracks when he calls Roxas a thirteen year old girl. Their hands don't drop for a second, wound tight around each other as the only lifeline, the only living company in a grey world of despair and impossibility. They sit on the deck by his parents' pool and silently salute each other, the bottle of pills and the whiskey, taking swallow after swallow to chase the tablets, and eventually lying in each other's arms, Roxas faintly trembling and Axel still, eyes wide. When Roxas opens his eyes, he can hear screaming, a long, heart-rending wail, and sees as he's carried past his mother, twisting and clawing at himself, into the ambulance. He sees Axel's parents, silent, by a gurney with the bag zipped up and - no. No, if one of them had to die, let it be him, if one of them had to live, let it be Axel, who had so much life in him. If one of them had to carry on, it shouldn't be like this.

The funeral is closed-casket, and so Roxas doesn't get what he wants, doesn't get to see that red hair one last time, doesn't get to see what death has done to already pale skin, doesn't get to know if death changes you, if you stop being the person who was loved, the person who existed, and become a cold, dead creature with no attachments at all, or if he would have still looked and lusted, loved, needed. Eight days after the funeral, where Roxas can not look at Axel's parents as they sit beside him and don't cry, just as he can not, his mother finds him out on the deck, in the same spot, bleeding out. He always believes he must have looked peaceful and soft, lying there where his love had died, where his life had ended, it must have done. His heart stopped beating with Axel's, and what is left and walking around is a dead shell, a body waiting to become a corpse. He spends two weeks staring at the ceiling in a psych ward, and refusing to talk.

Three months after that, he's picked up by police, dressed in black and lying in the middle of the road on a dark stretch of highway where no one would even see him until they were right on top of him, and six weeks after that, he's intercepted trying to get onto the window-ledge of the sixteenth floor in an apartment block he used to hang out in sometimes with Axel. That gets him longer in the psych ward, where nothing touches him, nothing pierces him, because he's alone, alone in a room of crazy people who don't understand that he's not breathing, he's dead already, and keep trying to tell him to live. There's nothing left ot live, that's what they can't see, there's nothing left in him to carry on. He's been dead six months, and it feels like nobody's even noticed.

He moves out to another, bigger town, away from the places of memory, away from the streets they ran together, the fucking pool and the fucking deck, the bedroom, the shower, all the places Axel had him and all the places he never did, and now never will. Being somewhere else gives him places to get lost, and it's six months before his next try, on to anniversary, because it seems fitting – it's familiar, another window ledge, another long drop beneath him, but there's a hand on his, an arm pulling him back in, and a stranger snarling at him, bristling with rage, who drags him into his apartment and pours him a drink, holds his hand – and Roxas cries. For the first time since he was carried past Axel's body, he cries, sobs, allows himself the tears he's been keeping inside – and he knows he is not as dead as he thinks, or wishes, that he is.

It's hard to adapt to a life, after so long, after that last year of vicious self-hatred combined with a complete inability to see reality, but the stranger hangs about, driving him to job interviews and not laughing when he comes over in a Denny's uniform, scowling and snarling about the food service industry. And whilst Roxas has always wanted red hair and green eyes, he finds there's something compelling, too, in dark hair and sharp eyes, a scar that he won't talk about and a sexual history more complex than the Bayeux tapestry. Eventually, his place becomes their place, his food theirs, his furniture theirs, and though Roxas moves in all those books, all those well-thumbed and oft-remembered pages, he doesn't move to read them. He sees, now, that he has a choice, and that on that window-ledge, the choice was made for him – and he doesn't regret the path that was taken.

Though Roxas knows that, no matter what, he's never going to forget his first boyfriend, never going to be able to shake that catch in his breath whenever he sees red hair, or green eyes, or hears a laugh that's a little like this, he's never going to be able to stop looking for Axel in every beautiful moment of the world – but he's stopped looking for the misery in that. There is no more Axel, there will never be anymore Axel, but there is Roxas, and Roxas has chosen to keep on moving, keep on facing forward, to get up every day with the bleeding tatters of his body lying around him, and pull those together, stitch them up tight and go out to face the day. It isn't perfect, and it isn't right, and for those few seconds an evening, when he's driving home on the freeway, and the sky goes the exact colour of Axel's hair, the sensory memory is always going to hit him like a hammer. But when he comes home to Leon, he's always smiling, a spring in his step as Xion runs to him, slamming into his legs and giggling as he picks her up and spins her around, before propping her on a hip and kissing Leon softly, by the stove. Once upon a time, there was Axel, and there was Roxas – and now, there's only Roxas – no, not only Roxas, Roxas and Leon, Xion and the two cats, Riku and Sora hosting dinner parties across town, the guys at work, Rude at the auto shop – and it's not Axel. It won't ever be Axel. But, Roxas thinks, with his family around him as the dying rays of the sun filter in through the windows, maybe it's just enough.