Disclaimer: Not mine.

Summary: Convenience store clerking is an excuse for a life of mediocrity and cellphone data overages until Axel refuses to sell a case of Natty Light to a smart-mouthed blond with a bad case of identity diffusion. Sometimes looking back is the only way to save yourself. AkuRoku Day 2013 contribution.

Answer Key: 1.) the arbitrariness of titles, 2.) savior complexes, 3.) loose literary chiasmus, 4.) you can never go home again

Rating: M for mature themes, language, and situations.

Warning: Woeful amounts of allusion, to which I am endlessly slave to. Allusion: the spice of literature. Also, there is a good to fair chance this story will make you feel sad. I can't tell you why without giving away the ending. If you don't like feeling sad, then you should probably not read anything past the first 5,632 words. Consider yourself warned.

A/N: Happy AkuRoku Day 2013, fandom! I know I'm not much for new material these days, but I still love Axel and Roxas very much, and I'm always keeping an eye on things from my place in the shadows. This particular story is inspired by a character arc in Jonas Akerlund's Small Apartments, which is a fantastic film. Pretty heavy-handed, like always, but that's why I write what I write: to beat you over the head with my personal propaganda.

A Pillar of Salt

So there's some shaky home movie of you at a party as a five-year-old, slaying imaginary dragons with a plastic Excalibur replica you begged your mom for on a trip to Vegas, where you told everyone that you were definitely going to be a hero when you grew up, stubby arms flailing maniacally. They awed and cooed and shit all over themselves with joy, telling your parents how Full of Potential you were. It was clear and inevitable to everyone that you would do Great Things, and like all repetitive conditioning, you eventually believed it yourself. Buying into your own creation story, your own personal mythos. Endless optimism is easy to have when the worst thing that's ever happened to you is your dad drinking too much and your mom not liking it behind closed doors. When the worst thing that's ever happened to you is a "D" in fourth grade History, attempting to alter the grade with a blunted Sharpie before cramming it into the back of your desk, it's easy to have faith that, yes, one day Axel Spence will run the world.

But then life happens. You grow up; you put away childish things for the sake of reserved practicality. You get kicked in the balls by the first girl you try to kiss, some brace-faced honor student with purple contact lenses. Her kitten heels leave a scar on the inside of your left thigh, a trail of destruction before slamming home, driving a pin through the center of your being. All because you told her she looked scary in her Halloween costume. I mean, isn't that the fucking point? When Axel traces it back, he thinks that might've been the start there, on the blacktop by the basketball courts in 11th grade, grabbing his junk and staring at the Empress of Evil or what the fuck ever she was supposed to be, frothing at the mouth with pain and humiliation. He'd inadvertently gotten the smartest girl in school expelled for bodily injury to another student. Last he heard, she was on actual crack, sucking dick in Chicago where his college roommate had "run into her."

"The head was great," his roommate remembered, covering his teeth with his lips, sliding his head along an imaginary, suspiciously well-endowed dick, "because the chick didn't have a tooth in her mouth, dude. Lost 'em all smoking crack."

Life definitely happens. To good people, to bad people. Future lawyers, doctors, and rocket surgeons go from curing cancer to robbing banks. From pharmaceutical engineering to drug dealing. Two sides of the same coin, maybe, except where one is completely fucked. Sometimes he sits behind the register, strung out on his sixth shitty cup of burnt coffee, and maps out his own trajectory. His flightless path into the nameless ranks of the middle had charming parallels to that of Icarus. Of Lucifer.

It's a quarter to midnight when trouble walks in out of the stifling summer night, a blast of humid, dripping heat washing over him as he glances up from his phone to catch the height of the night's newest oddity. With the exceptions of workaholics and sleepy first-time fathers, "normal" people didn't hit up Pogos past 11 p.m. for any reason other than vice and mayhem. Cartons of cigarettes to hopped up truckers, glass vials of novelty paper and plastic roses to feed crack habits, Hustler and Playboy to shifty-eyed baseball caps, and a couple of dumb stoners trying to buy a case of Natty Light with the fakest I.D.s Axel's ever seen.

"It says here that you were born in Hawaii," he says, not a question, to the spotty looking nineteen year old trying to pass for twenty-one.

"Yeah," the kid says, vowels faintly ebonic-tinged. The arrogant, side-swept angle of his baseball cap, the white ribbed tank, the gym shorts slung low across his waist. This motherfucker.

"Which island?" Axel asks, eyes narrowing. Like he wasn't in the middle of a scintillating game of Words With Friends.

"Honolulu," the kid says like the beat dropped in a hip-hop track, some sick rhyme that his friends all look down at their shoes and laugh at. Axel's gotta give the kid credit—he didn't hesitate at all. If Axel was a complete fucking idiot and didn't know Honolulu was a city, this merry bunch of assholes might've walked away with an illegal case of beer.

"Yeaaah," Axel says, scissors rising up to snip the fake I.D. neatly in two, "gunna have to call bullshit on that one. There are maps on aisle four." The baby gangstas bolt before he's finished speaking. All but one, hands shoved in his pockets, glaring in a particularly threatening manner.

"What the fuck, homie? Can't you give a brother a break?" His baggy shorts threaten to fall off his waist, the band held up by his junk.

"You're white," Axel says, making sure there are no weapon-shaped outlines in the kid's pockets.

"No shit," the kid spits, Nike dunks squeaking over the fake tile as he advances. "You wanna fuckin' medal? Captain Obvious manning the register over here, y'all," the kid shouts, drawing the stares of precisely no one, his friends long since gunning it in the getaway '93 Honda Civic, abandoning him for dead, or worse, arrested on their route to animal-style fries at the late night In-N-Out. "It's my birthday and shit today. In fifteen minutes, today."

"What if you were born at 3:45 p.m.? Then, technically, you aren't biologically aged twenty-one years until that exact minute."

"How 'bout I beat your fuckin' face in that exact minute?" the kid shouts, slamming his fists down on the counter. "Gimme the fucking beer, motherfucker!"

Axel is impressed. No weapon, no actual beer in his hands to demand, and all of five foot six at best. "You're not a minor anymore, kid. The mistakes you make after you turn 18? Those are the big mistakes. No one is going to slap you on the hand; they're going to lock you up and let Big Pedro have his filthy way with you." The kid opens his mouth to protest, but Axel just pushes a Snickers bar at him, reaches into his own pocket and places a dollar in the register. "It's not worth it. Over beer? Shitty beer, at that? Come back at 3:45 and I'll sell you all the Natural Light you want. I'll throw you a fucking party." Two cops walk in a nanosecond later, chuckling all over themselves and heading toward the burnt, hours old coffee station. "Go," Axel says, pushing the Snickers bar with his pinky. "Split it with your friends."

The kid swipes a hand across the counter and eases out of the door before the cops even look up from the non-dairy creamer. Axel stealthily pulls a legal pad from below the register, tallying up his Souls Saved to a grand total of three. It isn't exactly work that contributes to the betterment of the human condition, certainly a far cry from his five-year-old heroic aspirations, but convenience store clerking has its… maybe not perks, per se, but certainly its uses. One lost soul after another, Axel figures he'll build up a congregation of followers, brainwashing baby gangstas and masked robbers one Snickers bar at a time.

"That's two coffees," the fat cop says, speaking slowly as if Axel has a deficient intelligence quotient. Right. Because working the third shift at Pogos makes him an idiot. "One," the cop points, "two."

Axel counts to ten in his head as he processes the payment for the one, two coffees, wishing he'd had the foresight to spit in the coffee machine before the pigs showed up. It's the people like this that make his relatively easy job a total nightmare. Other than cleaning up human feces smeared over the walls in the bathroom, being at risk for holdups at gunpoint, and suffering second-rate citizen treatment, there isn't much in the way of difficulty. The cops leave without any sort of acknowledgement, Axel wishing their backs a good night before returning his attention toward his phone to score 133 points on Words With Friends in one fell swoop.

"Yo, you lied." The highly affected voice jolts Axel from his Netflix-induced trance. Tearing his eyes away from his fifth straight episode of Lost, he finds himself graced by the sudden reappearance of last night's fearless gangsta. "You weren't here at 3:45. Some chick sold me my beer. No discount or nothin'."

"No one gets discounts at Pogos," Axel says, pointing to the neon yellow sign above his head: ABSOLUTELY NO DISCOUNTS. EVER.

"So where's my party at?" the kid asks, looking around as if balloons are suddenly going to materialize. He has nothing in his hands to buy, no posse of hooligans to look imposing with.

"I was being facetious," Axel yawns, "but I could, like, sing you that birthday song if you want."

"Facetious? Don't that mean shit?" the kid frowns, shoving his hands in his pockets.

"That's feces. Dictionaries are on aisle six."

"Yeah, smart-ass. I saw 'em over there next to those alligator skulls. Why you wanna sell alligator skulls for? That's animal cruelty, man."

Axel sighs, slipping his phone into his pocket. "Are you… buying something? Because there's no loitering in here."

The kid laughs loudly. "Man, are you an asshole or what."

"I take it that's not a question."

"I'll be back for my party, Axel," the kid says, leaning over the counter to read Axel's nametag. "Kinda name is Axel? Like Guns 'n' Roses and shit? Axl Rose?"

"You're loitering," Axel says, pointing at the door. "And I'm pretty sure you're out past your curfew."

"I'm twenty-one, remember? Man, you gotta whack memory." The kid slides his I.D. over the counter in an almost shy, hesitant shove. Weird, Axel thinks, glancing at the I.D. Roxas Jacobs, 17 Trumpet Lane. Brand new cul-de-sac suburb kid with more money than parental guidance. Why did all these little kids think it was cool to bump dirty rap in their lifted trucks while their parents said grace over their meals? Four bedroom houses with pools and community landscaping, bong rips in the back seat of daddy's Denali. Ah, the luxury of privilege.

"I can see you judging me," Roxas Jacobs, 17 Trumpet Lane, says. Axel can see the cookie-cutter McMansion, pastel-tiled roof upbringing in his eyes. Church on Sundays. Casseroles. "But you don't know shit," Roxas Jacobs says, again the gangsta-in-training, about to bust a cap in everyone's ass.

Axel shrugs. "It's not judgment. Just recognition." Pushing a Snickers bar across the counter, Axel again reaches into his own pocket and places a buck in the register. "I grew up in the suburbs, too."

Roxas slaps a $20 bill on the counter, grabbing the Snickers and walking out the door. "I'll be back for that change, Axel." Axel wants to tell him that's not how it works, and he can't just leave $19 in change on the counter indefinitely, but there is a moment where he sorta wants to see backyard barbecues and manicured lawns in Roxas Jacobs', 17 Trumpet Lane, perfect blue eyes. Just a moment, then Axel is annoyed all over again.

He carries his annoyance home with him, three blocks away and up the derelict staircase of the motel slash apartments he moved into five years ago after he left college and hasn't left since, carries it into bed where he cleaves himself unto the slick, unwashed skin of Heather or whatever her name is, who splits the rent with him sometimes. Her brown roots look doubly dark against her frizzing, bleach blonde hair, new cheek piercings dimpling the sides of her face as this month's excuse for late rent.

"Listen," Axel had said one day just past dawn, coughing around his first cigarette of the morning, "I expect you to pay rent. Like half, at least." Heather or whatever replied by shimmying out of her too-short skirt and riding him to orgasm where he sat, her huge tits bouncing in his face. Habit, maybe, that's what kept him coming to her, coming in her. Condoms, he kept telling himself. He might want to invest in them.

It's not that Axel didn't care. He used to care too much, probably. He was all cared out, gave all the fucks he could've possibly given back in college until he was drained dry. He probably would've killed himself then, a too-healthy dose of nitrous to kill off his billions of brain cells, but he didn't give a fuck enough to do that, either. Walking in on his not-girlfriend sucking the unborn children out of some dude he might've met once, showing up every other day for the deadest end of all jobs on earth. But he definitely did his part to contribute to the human race. He helped baby animals. He recycled. He saved souls, counseled suburban hoodlums. That had to count for something.

"I'm kicking you out," Axel says abruptly, post-coitus. She's busy mopping up between her thighs with a baby wipe, tossing one against his junk. He shudders at the cool shock of it. She smells. Everything smells.

"Whatever," she says, jumping up to hike her too-short skirt over her round hips. Her torn stockings remain slung over the back of a chair as she walks out the door without another word.

That was easy, Axel thinks, feeling the sum total of absolutely nothing as he drifts off to sleep.

He remembers sitting in a leather chair, his dossier of exams and papers open in front of his first choice for a letter of rec writer. Probably his favorite professor, the man regards Axel thoughtfully, critically, with his fingers steepled under his chin. He's balding, not a young man by any standards, but his lectures were filled with youthful charm, a Keating-esque rallying cry that kept Axel entertained, enthralled.

"Well, I don't think you need me to tell you that you're brilliant, Mr. Spence."

In his memory Axel coughs quickly to cover a smile. "Aw, shucks."

"And modest. At least peripherally; your work speaks with such command. Undergraduates rarely have such finesse. I didn't match the man to the work, initially, and you can imagine my amusement when I finally did." He smiles, nodding. "It's unwise to judge books by covers, of course of course, but after teaching for twenty-five years, it's easy to pick out the stars."

Axel doesn't know if he should be flattered or insulted. It took years of cultivating, his punk rock chic look and stalwart attitude. Sitting in a mid-level English class in high school and being told his writing "lacked discipline." Discipline? No, maybe his mother never made him eat soap and his father never cracked him on the ass with a belt, but he knew discipline, knew what it meant to adhere to standards. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't fuck. Edge 'til death, etc. Axel knew all about discipline, forsaking his youthful experimentation with drugs and alcohol as necessary casualties of suburban disenchantment. By the end of his senior year his writing followed criteria so strict that he was called on to tutor incoming freshman on the finer points of outlining. Topic sentences, bitch, and don't forget the goddamn thesis.

"We're nominating your paper on dyadic relationships for an award. Outstanding Scholarship and Service to the Psychology Department. I say 'we' because, after I submitted your name, it turned out several other professors had already brought you into the discussion. Needless to say, Mr. Spence, we're very happy with your work. You're an asset to this program."

Axel chooses his words wisely, having planned out this meeting three weeks in advance, miming the conversation before bed, in the shower. "I'm very humbled," he says carefully, bowing his head in what looks like gracious acceptance of praise. "I've been thinking about how I'd fit into the graduate program here… and whether I could come to you for a potential letter of recommendation?"

"I'd be honored," his professor says, and in his memory Axel resists the urge to pump his fist in the air. "Consider it written."

When Axel wakes up from his dream slash memory slash nightmare, his palms are sweating, heart racing. Anxious gulps of breath shatter the shuttered daylight heavy in the room, and there's no Heather or whatever to fuck him back to sleep.

"So what's your story?" Roxas Jacobs asks, taking liberally from the counter display of Snickers. He's become a semi-permanent staple after midnight, coming in for his change again and again, one dollar at a time, annoying Axel with questions about nothing. "I got store credit," Roxas declares before Axel can object, eying the security camera overhead. Kid was trying to get him fired, for sure.

"I work here," Axel says unenthusiastically, resisting the urge to unwrap a candy bar for himself. Fired, for sure. "Where's your merry band of misfits?"

"We aren't a band," the kid says, chomping off half the bar and chewing obnoxiously. "I have Math and shit with them at school. City College, muthafucka," Roxas says, contorting his hands into the approximation of a gang sign. City, a controversial two-year community college that bred equal amounts of transfer student pre-meds and dropout mall employees, was the first step for kids in the suburbs who burned too much herb and didn't have the GPA or SAT scores to test out into the Real World. Everyone else filtered through City College with hopes of transferring out.

"Yeah? What's your major?" Psychology with a minor in Ethics, Axel remembers. So close to that degree. Textbooks and secondary material fill the space under his bed, hidden from view so as to avoid starting a conversation. His dirty little secret. So close. So very close.

"Narcotics," Roxas nods, smiling indulgently. It's the sort of shit-eating grin, the exact level of repulsive smugness, that Axel can't stand in anyone, least of all privileged white kids from the suburbs pretending to be hard thugs. Life happens, but not to people like Roxas Jacobs.

"That's not a real major," Axel says, unsmiling and pointing at the door. "You're loitering again. Go do your homework."

"Why you so butthurt, Axel? Yo, my major is Undeclared. I am majoring in the art of not making declarations."

"Yeah? Well, you should declare. Quit talking like you're illiterate and figure your life out before you end up pushing candy bars at juvenile delinquents. You think I meant to end up here?" He gets these moments of pure rage sometimes, some halfwit with a drawl ordering him around like a slave, or a suit too busy and too rude to put down the phone perma-stuck to his ear to address Axel like a decent human being. The urge to bound over the counter and Hulk out, smashing aisles into each other like a roid-raging brute occurs to Axel in flashes of fury, but to his almost-Ethics minor credit, he's always resisted the siren song of savagery. "I'm not complaining, but… it's not saving the world, let's just say. I'm never gunna win any awards for counting change correctly."

"I don't need a therapist, homie," Roxas says belligerently, heading for the door. He pauses on the threshold, shoving his hands in his pockets. "And I ain't no fucking juvenile."

Roxas makes a nice outline against the night, gas pump overhang illuminating his shoulders, the back of his head, with fluorescence. Someone could've talked to me like this. All those times he bought booze with a fake I.D., all those times he smoked out in his backyard, mom making dinner in the kitchen, stomach growling deliciously with anticipation. Maybe it would've made a difference. Had he smoked one less bowl or drank one less hard lemonade, would he have been built of better insides, ones more suited for scholarly pursuits? Would he have meant every bashful smile, every meek acceptance of praise? Your life is meant to hammer you into shape, refine your spirit in the hellish furnace of life until you sparkle, shine, and fit into that space where you're meant to be: the brain surgeon, the electrical engineer. But steep too long in the heat, take one too many beatings to the soul, and you're helplessly dented, just one hammer fall away from perfect. Axel stares around the empty convenience store, at his worn hands, at the collected occupants of his life—a staggering number of zero—and wonders if that's him: one drink wrong and wrecked for life. An ill fit.

This time, when the cops come in, their one, two coffees are seasoned with a healthy dose of Axel's spit.

Officially Axel is one incomplete shy of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology with a minor in Ethics. Officially it wasn't Applied Social Responsibility or Neurolinguistics that served as his Achilles' heel, though several tortuous texts and six shoddy papers later, he could've stood to have taken them credit/no credit. No, it was a run-of-the-mill 20th Century Art History class that stalled him out on the tracks to what should've been a happy, fulfilling career.

You have meaningless sex one time with one dude you don't know, then you show up for your first day of lecture and find your one night stand expounding the virtues of Dadaism and Neo-Pop Art in front of the class. Because he's teaching the course. And then, sitting in the last row of a dark room, how he still picks you out to read from the secondary text about identity politics. Never mind that prior to that night you'd considered yourself mostly heterosexual, that "coming out" wasn't something that even needed considering because there was nowhere you had to come out from. Suddenly the catalyst for your self-imposed, years long denial is in your face, demanding your attention and active participation. Understandably you want to disappear, want to vanish from the face of the earth; so you do, upending a row of desks during your hasty retreat.

It's a testament to his shame at sleeping with a student—not as despicable as professor and student, though graduate instructor and student wouldn't be winning any department accolades—that he doesn't turn you in to the disciplinary committee for misconduct. You could've blackmailed your way to a workless, examless "A" if it hadn't been for all those damned Ethics courses talking to you in your head all day. Between value theory and Axiology—I mean, come on. Really? Axiology: the study of value? Of what it means to be good? Too easy. God's cosmic joke—there's no way you can even think about holding his substandard blowjob above his head as an incentive for a good grade. Not without feeling guilty, at least.

So you take an incomplete. You take an incomplete and never have to look at his smug, aesthetically pleasing face again. Axel Spence, the almost college-degreed. What with his registration lapsing, he doesn't even know if any of his past coursework even counts anymore. Maybe it all just disappeared, erased like it never happened. Funny how that turns out with good, hard work. Gone in a puff of smoke, a snap of the fingers. But easy, bad work? Breaking the law and fucking shit up? You can work the rest of your life and never rid yourself of one quick, easy, unutterably stupid choice.

Sometimes Roxas brings in a few members of his not-band, Axel watching them peruse the aisles for nothing before Roxas sidles up to the counter where Axel pauses whatever he's doing on his phone (recently: making his Sims WooHoo, crushing metric tons of candy, and looking up the Latin roots of his favorite words) and entertains a small gathering of wasted youth for Socratic orations the likes of which ancient Greeks would've made grabby hands at in envy. The inevitability of death, the sociological "I," social scientific approaches to "evil." He thinks about charging tuition.

Sipping on a 69 cent Slurpee, Roxas says, "I guess you're like the smartest guy I've ever met. Why the fuck do you work here?"

Axel experiences a brief swell of pride before shrugging with what he hopes looks like nonchalance. "It's not about me, kid. It's about you. Do you want to be the guy sitting here in ten years?" Do you want to see the ruin of your hopes and dreams with each pack of Camel Lights you sell? Watch the seconds turn to hours turn to days. Years. Do you want to watch the youth piss away their lives for a case of Natty Light? "Do something with yourself. Go. Like right now, go out and take it. This is your time."

Roxas mimes giving it to an orifice, slapping said orifice around. It's erotic. It's the complete antithesis of what Axel's saying. "This is our time, but you keep calling me a kid. I don't see what's so wrong with your job. You get to talk to cool people all night."

"You telling me this is how I know I'm failing. Please go cure some disease so I know my work here is not in vain." Axel waves a hand melodramatically, sweeping over Roxas sucking the dregs of his Slurpee.

"You cure it. I know you're smart. Or like you're book smart but actual life dumb. Only a dumbass as smart as you are would be in here talking to a fuck-up like me every night."

Oh, out of the mouths of babes. "It's different. I know too much." Roxas throws his hands up in mock defeat, rolling his eyes practically off his face. "It's true. I picked the path of my own choosing; I walked down it. I can't ever be where you are again, Roxas Jacobs."

"Don't use my full name like that," Roxas tells him for the hundredth time. "It's creepy." Roxas aims a shot at the trashcan near the door, the empty Slurpee cup sailing perfectly through its opening. "You keep alluding to this mysterious past that's keeping you chained to Pogos like it's your own personal prison sentence."

Axel smiles down at his phone, crushing candy at the speed of light. "You know what 'alluding' means? Full of surprises, Roxas."

Roxas glares, and the effect is quite becoming. Axel takes a quick capture of the picture-worthy scowl with his phone before Roxas bats his hand away. "I want to know your story, man. I want the details, the 4-0-1."

"That's 4-1-1."

"Why are you like, that?" Roxas asks, exasperated. "You know what I mean; what does it matter how I'm saying it?"

"It matters because it does. Mean what you say. Mean it every time. Know exactly what is coming out of your mouth. Know what you mean, and say it like you know. You're telling me you know what 'alluding' means, but you want to pretend that '4-0-1' is what you dial for information, even though you and I both know that you are smarter than that. You are smart, period. You don't get to be so good at pretending without first being an excellent observer and second an excellent liar." Roxas stares at the candy bars in orderly rows underneath the counter, eyes sliding blankly over tabloid headlines. "They might not be your friends anymore, but that benefits you. Your life will be one hundred times easier once you stop pretending to give a fuck about things you don't."

"I get the impression that you've stopped talking about me," Roxas says, and it's just a normal, corn-fed white kid talking. Roxas Jacobs, 17 Trumpet Lane. Completely suburban, white picket fences.

"I told you it was recognition," Axel says, shrugging. "I always mean what I say. Now I do, anyway."

Roxas shivers like he's cold, Axel's eyes darting over to the thermostat where it sits at a corporate-controlled 78 degrees. "It's easier. People to hang out with, stuff to do. It's easier to be all hard when the alternative is being that fucking kid who still lives with his parents at 21."

"Totally acceptable," Axel tries to say before Roxas shouts over him.

"BULLSHIT! Tell that to the kids who didn't spend all night watching fucking Naruto instead of doing Chemistry homework. Tell that to the kids whose parents took out loans for their four years at Northwestern. You know what kind of kids live in the suburbs and go to City?" Roxas reaches into his sagging Levis, pulls out a baggie of weed, and throws it down at the counter. "This kind. I've been selling out back every night for the last month." Axel's expression falls, hands weakening. "What did you say earlier? You picked your fucking path? Yeah, man, me too."

"You picked your path, huh?" Axel asks, smiling quietly. He pushes the baggie of illicit substance back over the counter, watches Roxas stick it securely in his too-low jeans. "Mr. Undeclared, majoring in not making declarations, has picked his path." Roxas stares at him, arms crossed over his chest. "That sound right to you?"

"You're real smart, you know that?" The bitterness Roxas speaks with colors the air around them, the fluorescent lights suddenly cold, sterile. A pair of junkies walk in, scampering down the aisles aimlessly, bringing with them the buzzing of flies.

"So I've been told," Axel shrugs. His phone has 17% battery life left and it's only 1:30 a.m. One mindless distraction after another, a steady stream of sensory input to lull him into a false sense of contentment. Souls Saved at three; Souls Lost at some unfathomable, innumerable number. Too many to count anymore, just one more made up meaningless meaningful act. His imaginary role as savior, and all for what? To pretend that he matters? That his re-routed continued existence can have any meaning at all now that he's not Axel Spence, master of the universe? Master of Ethics, Doctor of Psychology. Imaginary, made up titles trying to impart relevance to specks of dust, of animated ashes, on a spinning rock in space. The titles we give ourselves, trying to convince the demons within that we matter, that we're worth it. Father, friend, musician—just words, just letters strung together. Scientist, Poet Laureate, chef, architect. All these labels, all this import to be. And what is Axel? Convenience store clerk. Failed Psychologist.

"Hey," Roxas says. Axel looks up from where he's been staring at his own hands, picking at his nails like he'll uncover some hidden truth under them. "Don't hurt yourself with all that thinking." Feeling the closest to despair he's felt in five years, he stares at the other boy. No, maybe he, himself, isn't the savior at all.

"Do you drink anything else besides Slurpees?" Axel asks, driven by a sudden compulsion.

"No shit," Roxas says, going very still. He has a habit of fidgeting, kicking his legs around, drumming on the counter with his fingertips. Seeing him turn silent, pupils dilating, Axel wonders if…

"Maybe we could drink coffee tomorrow," Axel says, and it's not even a fully formed question.

"I'm straight," Roxas says quickly.

"Uh, cool," Axel says, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "Do straight people drink coffee?"

Roxas orders some hilarious sounding ice-blended drink and sips steadily through a purple straw, flicking around his phone. He looks not unlike other twentysomething coffee drinkers, occupied with their gadgetry and unsocial social networking. Axel savors the muddled mint in his iced French press. The barista, a curvaceous brunette careless with winks, suggested it to him over his traditional iced black coffee. The way her lips shape her smile, mascara-drowned lash fluttering in a wink. Goddamn, if he isn't an appreciator of aesthetics.

"Stop," Roxas says, setting his phone down on the table between them.

"What?" Axel asks, tonguing a piece of mint out of his teeth.

"Checking out that bitch's ass. I thought this was a date," he says, words all clipped like he's actually insulted. Axel checks, notes the other boy's posture and twinkle of hurt in his eyes.

"Do straight guys normally go on dates with other guys?"

"Yes," Roxas says in a strangled voice. "It's called hanging out. No homo, man."

"No homo? Is that still a thing people actually say in real life?"

"Homophobes and rappers, I guess," Roxas shrugs.

"And you're a homophobe," Axel says, wondering when he forgot the intonation typically used for questions.

"I'm a rapper. Duh." Roxas slurps happily at his blended coffee, eyeing the barista as she walks over.

She licks her lips before she speaks, easy, gracious smile brightening her eyes. "Like it?"

"Definitely," Axel says in the same moment Roxas deposits himself unceremoniously in his lap, heaving an arm around his neck.

"It makes his breath all minty and shit," Roxas says, inhaling deeply an inch in front of Axel's mouth. It takes all his willpower not to erupt in laughter. He's had a problem with his laughter before, sudden loud outbursts of it typically causing people to drop and break things. The brunette's smile falters almost imperceptibly as she gives a short nod of her head and returns to the counter. Other baristas watching from a safe distance giggle into their hands. "Yeah, bitch," Roxas whispers. "Walk away."

"She's a nice lady," Axel says, nuzzling the razored edges of Roxas' hair.

"Hey, hey, what did I tell you about that shit? N-O."

"But what about my minty breath?" Axel asks, faux innocence, blowing serenely into Roxas' face.

"I'm possessive." It's all Roxas offers as explanation, picking up Axel's coffee mojito for a sip. Disgust etched plain over his features, Roxas stands and stretches. "Gross," he says, just a decibel short of shouting. Running a hand across the back of Axel's neck, he heads toward the door. "Come on. There's something I want to show you."

Cityscape gives way to tree-lined suburbs under the fading sunlight, the leather seats in Roxas' parents' Range Rover soft to the touch, air conditioning on blast though the night is mild enough for windows down enjoyment. Axel hasn't owned a car in years, more given to city transportation and walking. He never needs to go far: home and work, work and home—an endless cycle with minor adjustments for food and entertainment. Riding around with some blond delinquent is not typically his idea of a good time, but there's something to be said for the ease with which Roxas navigates the sleepy suburban streets, climbing higher into the foothills surrounding the city. It's a luxury, riding shotgun with your life in someone else's hands, memories of sitting in the backseat on some aimless Sunday drive, your father singing along to "Sloop John B" on the radio. Axel is enemies with nostalgia—it only ever brings imperfect replicas of what was, all bittersweet. Axel does the singing now, sharp on every note, as Roxas skips radio stations with rapid fire efficiency. Rap, indie, pop, and a minute straight of classical while Roxas explains being forced to endure cello lessons before they come to a stop on, predictably, a cul-de-sac with impeccable landscaping. Before they turn on the street, Roxas cuts the lights, rolling to a stop with the stealth of a drive-by shooter. Completely silent as they press closed and bump hips across the doors for slam-less exits, Roxas wordlessly motions for Axel to follow him across the street.

Theirs is a treacherous path, scaling the chain-link fence sequestering off a narrow storm channel that runs between the backyards of two different streets' houses. Axel's pretty sure he's seen people on the news stuck in these things during flash floods, helicopters coming down to airlift out their lifeless corpses, but he keeps his mostly irrational fears to himself and opts for following Roxas at a close pace. Fallen branches crunch underfoot as they trace the trickle of condensation and run off under several chain-link fences, a subterranean journey that Axel doesn't question the obvious illegality of. The concrete path empties out into an enormous quarry that Roxas inches along the edge of, eyes reflective in the approaching gloom.

"Is it okay to talk like humans again?" Axel asks, voice rasping with disuse.

"No," Roxas says as he ducks around an outcropping of rock.

Axel darts after him and utters a soft exclamation of surprise at what lies around the corner. "…Whoa." Before them is the largest flood channel Axel's ever seen in person (again, those worrying thoughts of flash floods and dead bodies floating in turbulent water), a concrete mountain rolling down under their feet—a corridor toward the sea. "This is…"

"Awesome as fuck, right?" Roxas says, picking up a skateboard thrown against a garishly graffiti'd wall along with a bunch of smashed old school television sets. "We come out here sometimes to let off steam." He skates around in a smooth arc, circling Axel with lazy skill.

Axel sits roughly on the floor, eyes on the broken glass glittering faintly in the rising moonlight. His pulse throbs in his ears with the thrill of trespassing somewhere he knows he shouldn't be, watches Roxas skate around the mouth of the concrete canyon. It's an idle, simple pleasure.

"So," Roxas says, tossing the skateboard back against the wall where it clatters, echoing around them. "I think you should quit your job."

"Okay, Oh Wise One. And your reasoning for the sudden rejection of my only livelihood?"

Roxas shrugs, laying back against the ground and focusing on the stars winking into the visible plane. "Are you down with hypocrisy? You're always going on about me not 'loitering' around a gas station convenience store and doing something with myself. So why don't you do something, too? Or is it do as you say, not as you do?"

"It's different," Axel says, toying with television debris. Wires and glass—the technology of distraction.

"That's bullshit and you know it," Roxas huffs, kicking out at him with a Nike-clad foot. "That's an excuse for inactivity. You're smart enough to do something else. Selling me Snickers and Slurpees every night is a waste of your ability."

"You don't know what my abilities are," Axel says quietly, thinking about social cognition and Kierkegaard. "You have no idea what you're even talking about."

There's the quick shik of a blade coming to attention before Axel feels a prick of refined metal at the base of his neck. "Oh?" Roxas says and it is danger and red flags and air raid sirens blaring to life from the silence. "You come to a deserted area at night with a relative stranger, and you're telling me that I have no idea what I'm talking about?"

"What are you—"

"Shut the fuck up," Roxas says, pressing the switchblade against his neck, drawing a pinprick of blood that Axel feels roll down into the back of his shirt. Well, shit. This isn't how he envisioned his night going. "Gimme your fucking wallet."

"I don't own a wallet," Axel says, hating the way his voice wavers. This is Roxas, sleepy suburban Roxas Jacobs, 17 Trumpet Lane. This is late night conversations and thoughtfully related curriculum under Pogos' fluorescence. This cannot be fucking happening right now.

"What kind of adult are you?" Roxas asks, all disdain, before rising to his feet and kicking Axel squarely in the back. He goes sprawling forward, skidding over the sloping concrete. Roxas' hands are in the back pockets of his jeans. "An I.D. and forty bucks? Talk about a cheap fucking date," Roxas spits, aiming another kick at Axel's ribs.

It hurts. It hurts on his body and it hurts elsewhere, some nameless place that he doesn't want to identify. Hurts too much. "Please," Axel says, just short of begging. "Please."

"PLEASE, WHAT?" Roxas shouts, kicking Axel again. "Please don't end your meaningless fucking excuse of a life? You keep telling me to cure cancer and shit while you play on your shitty phone and jerk your albino dick like you're some seventy-year-old dying of decrepitude."

"I fucked up," Axel whispers into the ground, the tip of his nose bleeding from the contact. "I should've finished my degree. It's too late now." The sum total of his entire life reduced to complete helplessness at the hands of an irate sociopath disguised as a wayward blond.

"If you're still alive, then it's not too late," Roxas says, straddling his back and gripping a fistful of his hair, yanking his head up off the ground. "So you're going to quit your fucking job." The knife slides into place across Axel's neck, the thin edge of metal all that separates him from this life and the next. "And when I come in for a Slurpee next month, it's gunna be some other faggot hating his life for the sake of a shitty paycheck."

Axel thinks about the last five years, having sex with bodies and consuming the barest minimum he can get by to continue bodily functions. He wasn't depressed, not properly anyway. Resigned is a better word for it, accepting of his lackluster fate. Living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck, as he watches the brightly lit backdrop of his life give way to the credits. Then there was Roxas, vivid the way young people often are, so alive with his unpretentious, unironic gangsta act. It kick-started something in him, pulled back a layer of filmy grime and gauze where he'd hidden away the parts of him that knew how to give a damn about anything. He'd woken up after a long, wasteful slumber and started imagining hazy, soft-focus What Ifs. What if Roxas was into guys? What if Roxas secretly hated his boring life and wanted to see the world and live like gypsies in a 14-passenger van? What if Roxas liked piña coladas and getting caught in the rain? What if Roxas actually liked him liked him—that was the real question, all those nights shooting the shit until it felt like his heart would break under the weight of hypotheticals.

"I really liked you," Axel says, Adam's apple rubbing up against the blade of the knife.

"Yeah," Roxas says without missing a beat, "and you'll like it when I slit your fucking throat, too. Tell me you're quitting your job or die here tonight. Pick your path."

Touché, he thinks. His own silly speech turned against him. Axel also thinks he might feel an erection digging into his back, but this realization is slightly outweighed by the knife slowly dragging across his throat, his ribs aching with each inhale. "I'll quit. You win, I'll quit."

Roxas jumps to his feet and grabs Axel by the arm, nearly dislocating his shoulder, and jabs him in the palm. Blood pools in Axel's hand as Roxas watches. "It's not a game. This is your fucking life, man. Right here, in your hands. Now swear that shit in blood. Swear you'll quit."

Axel is silent long enough for Roxas to wrench his arm upward again, drawing searing agony along with it. "I swear, I swear," Axel chokes out, blinking back tears. For a confusing moment Roxas' tongue is in his mouth, his hand carefully cradling the back of Axel's neck, teeth teasing the curve of his lip, and then he finds himself eating concrete again, nose filled with blood.

"Count out loud to a thousand," Roxas says before retreating footsteps and Axel's own shaking syllables are the only sounds filling the night air.

Hitchhiking is increasingly more difficult proportionate to the level of blood you have on your body, a strange bystander effect wherein each car that passes along his trek into the city thinks the next car will stop and render aid. In the end it's a Korean lady who speaks in halting phonetic English who drives exactly the speed limit toward the hospital before Axel can articulate with careful use of hand signals and a spattering of nouns that he can't afford a visit to the emergency room, and he'd like to go home, please. So she takes him to her house instead, an army of doting Korean children bowing their heads around him as he's offered soup and tea in copious amounts while the Korean lady tuts over his shoulder with a sheet she tears into bandages for his bruised ribs and bleeding neck. His nose is hopelessly swollen, crusted over with dried blood, and all Axel can do is blink and see another fragment of this blond monster he thought was his friend (he thought, he thought, he thought…) beating him black and blue, spitting sense littered with truth, all of it punctuated with violence.

When he finally makes it back to his own apartment slash motel room three days later, nose a shiny pink with new, healing skin, the first thing Axel does is unearth his cellphone and call his last attended university.

"I'd like to speak with an academic advisor, please," he says into the phone, shuddering at the memory of Nike dunks embedded in his ribs. "I have an incomplete I'd like to see about completing."

It's not as easy as that, of course, a simple 30-minute phone call. No, there's a lengthy written proposal for reinstatement, there's days of phone tag and three minute voicemails, there's petitioning the chair of the Psychology department with an explanation for his prolonged absence, and doesn't he know it's not typically their habit to extend registration for students past a year of deferment? If it wasn't for his prior good standing, he'd probably have to apply all over again, and it's his once favorite professor he credits with saving his literal neck.

"So the prodigal son returns," the professor says on a conference call with Axel and the dean of admissions. And this time when Axel expresses his sincere thanks, he means it. Bones nearly broken, a pint of blood washed out to sea, he means every word.

All that's left is giving his two weeks notice at Pogos, securing some kind of funding for his final quarter of undergraduate studies. So close. So very close. In fact, that's what he's doing, working through his two weeks until his unsubsidized federal Stafford loan comes through, when he runs into a pastel polo blond accompanying a Stepford Wife mother to pick out a Slurpee while she pays with a $100 bill for gas. Roxas' Sperry Top-Siders don't squeak over the fake tile as he walks up to the counter beside his too-perfect mother, staring at Axel in an approximation of shame.

Axel wants to tell his bottle-blonde mother how much of an angel Roxas Jacobs, 17 Trumpet Lane, actually isn't, has to will himself not to flinch under the burden of moonlit memory, but instead he opens his drawer and pulls out seventy dollars in change. His mother doesn't speak, and Axel can't see her eyes under her Chanel sunglasses.

"Would you like one of these twenties broken down?" Axel asks, his voice catching on the last syllable. Roxas looks very suburban today, very Sunday brunch at the neighbor's. Preppy country clubber one day, swagged out gangsta the next. Ever the chameleon, lost in an endless shuffling of selves. Axel almost feels sorry for him. Almost.

"Yes," Roxas answers for his mother, looking entirely too defiant all of a sudden, shame stripped away with Axel's coward's (read: gentleman's) way out. Maybe he's looking for some ballsy display of self-righteous anger? Maybe a threat or two, expletives used for good measure? Yeah, Roxas wants a fight, wants to have it out in front of his robotic, Diazepam-dulled mother. As Axel recalls, muscle memory of arousal and aggression seeking purchase across his skin, Roxas certainly enjoys a good struggle. "And we don't have all day."

Axel stares at his hands as they pass the money across the counter, the blonde lady gathering up the bills and tucking them neatly into a Coach wallet. Her heels click across the tile and she and her son-of-a-bitch exit the building… but then Roxas is stopping, turning.

"You know what? No. I'll be out in a second, mom." He marches back up to Axel, proud as you please, reaching into his pocket at the same time. "Didn't I fucking tell you—"


Axel's heart lodges solidly in his throat in the same instant Roxas drains of color and hits the deck. He ducks below the register, shoving a hand at the silent alarm. It's what he watched approximately 2.5 hours worth of video training for. Natural disasters, blood-borne illness, and robberies. Not every would-be hooligan comes in with a switchblade and a bunch of dumb stoner friends. Not every crackhead looking for a fix jumps around with broken bottles and skinny, crack-starved arms. No, sometimes the guys that show up have guns. Sometimes they can't be turned away with wise-ass remarks and philosophical prodding. Sometimes they can't be saved.

"You," a voice says, and Axel feels the barrel of a gun pointed at the back of his head. The barrel of a gun is the tip of a knife is the stare of an instructor he fucked in the dark. His entire life collapsing in on itself, every wasted second spent flicking around his phone, every pair of lips he never should've kissed. He'd been asleep for so long. "Open the register. Do it slowly." The voice is even, speaks calmly in plain juxtaposition to the chilling shout that sent him diving for the floor.

Axel feels the gun migrate around his neck, settling under his chin. "Okay," Axel says, "okay." He gets to his feet and sees Roxas face down on the fake tile, hands over his head like they're in a movie, just your every day average Hollywood bank heist. Except the flesh warmed gun smells oily under his nose, well-cared for. Whoever it is knows what they're doing, knows how to aim at a person's face without shaking, ostensibly knows how to shoot without missing. The register springs open and the person holding the gun carefully collects the bills and deposits them in a black backpack ready and waiting to receive the carelessly spent money of gas-guzzling motorists and Slurpee-sucking suburbanites.

Time has yet to re-start when the voice next speaks, backpack expertly zipped with one arm, gun barrel securely at the back of Axel's head once again. "Did you see my face?"

"No," Axel says as steadily as he can manage. Roxas chooses this moment to glance up from the floor, his eyes connecting with Axel's in the instant the next question is asked.

"Did you hear my voice?"

It's a simple enough question, and Axel has long since decided to make a habit of telling the truth. He answers without thinking, automatic, relying on an Ethics-shaped understanding of the world to direct his every honest action. "Yes."

Too late he recognizes the alarm in Roxas' eyes. "Wrong answer."

Being shot at close range with a small caliber weapon feels like being poked with a thunderbolt from Zeus himself, searing heat and then nothing, nothing, nothing sliding to the floor and taking a display stand of Mentos and Snickers with you. It doesn't hurt because you didn't get shot in the guts, he totally missed you, he missed you by a mile, but lifting your arm to the burning at your back brings blinding hot agony that makes the lights too bright and everything else too cold.

"You stupid motherfucker," Roxas is saying, and it hurts like lava being poured into your body through an exit wound where he's trying to push his hands against your blood, a river of your blood, your life, your fucking life. "You stupid, stupid motherfucker. I told you, Axel. I told you to quit." He's crying all over his beautiful face, eyes like blue planets in bloodshot red space.

"I'm cold," Axel manages, and it's colder and colder, the pain meaningless as his blood and his memories and his personality flee from him and speed through Roxas' pressing hands, his past and his future cooling in an unruly puddle on the floor. He knows what panic feels like—the suffocating feeling of having lost something that you will never find again—but it's too much effort. The blood won't stop, his heart beating stupidly in his chest like it doesn't know, like it can't comprehend that something is wrong. How like the sightless heart; all it knows is onward, onward. Even when your body and soul are broken, begging for relief, it marches on.

"Don't go to sleep," Roxas pleads. "I didn't mean it before. I just wanted to scare you into living again. I didn't want to hurt you like that. I didn't want this to ever happen to you." His voice is hysterical, a reverberating whine that Axel feels less and less, sense replaced by frigid finality. "I didn't want this ever to happen," Roxas sobs, a spoiled suburban child with his toy taken away. Maybe life happens to people like Roxas Jacobs, 17 Trumpet Lane, after all.

"Hey," Axel says, his fingers like ice cubes where he reaches into his back pocket, wincing at the lick of flame that pushes a torrent of warm color out of his body. "Hey, look," he whispers, tossing his new wallet at Roxas. It isn't much, one of those kitschy industrial paper wallets stylized to look like a mixtape. It cost him $15 just yesterday. Just yesterday, when his body was more than blood and bones, capable of laughing, living. Just yesterday he was writing out the scene, chewing concrete with a demon on his back, trying to purge himself of the memories, the stain of them in his consciousness. "Open it," Axel says, and he knows this is it. This is what his entire life has led him to, his entire future coalescing on the floor of Pogos, perfect blond pooled in his hopes and dreams, his every virtue and countless fault slick on the fake tile. So maybe he isn't an ill fit after all, the battered key sliding home and turning with a divinely engineered click. He's spent so long raging against immoveable facts, distraught at his own imagined destiny, that he's been ignorant to the possibility that the answer was never a firm "No," but merely "Not yet."

Roxas' mother is pulling her son back by the shoulders, clearing a path for emergency medical technicians to push pain-numbing soaked oxygen into Axel's lungs, but they haven't done anything about putting his blood back in his body. Every good thought he's ever had, everything he's ever been, just cells and platelets hardening on the floor. His brand new life, just within reach. So close. So very close. Axel has just enough time to watch Roxas pull his brand new student I.D. from his brand new wallet, realization coloring Roxas' hopeful eyes, before there is nothing left of Axel to name anymore, just a painfully thin body with hair the color of blood.

It's not a great moment for him, looking up from Axel's student I.D. to find an empty gaze trained on his face. He's restrained by officers before he can shove another EMT, screaming with a fury borne of privileged indignation. Why didn't they try? They were just like him, giving up before the end. All of them, lazy motherfuckers, and he would save Axel himself with his bare hands, covered in the blood of someone he ruined his own chances of knowing.

He leaves a bloody trail over three blocks of sidewalk, Axel's state issued I.D. telling him where to go while hardened city dwellers cross the street to avoid issuing police statements about having seen a probable murder accessory. There's no one at the address, so Roxas pulls the screen loose from the window and tries opening it—unlocked, which he easily slides aside and climbs through. What he's doing there, he doesn't know. Maybe if he moves fast enough, goes far enough, he can catch up to where Axel went. He's never known anyone who died, certainly no one he might've maybe had a thing for, hoping for three weeks straight that Axel would show up at 17 Trumpet Lane and touch Roxas senseless, tell him to be a lawyer and a dentist and a theoretical physicist while tracing the goosebumps rising on his side like pointing out stars in the sky. But Axel never showed up. It was just him and his hand and the memory of violence. That was his fault.

He wonders if the smoky, sour smell clinging to the bedsheets is what Axel smells like, touches the toothbrush in the bathroom to his mouth, systematically holds each and every thing in the fridge like there is something left to learn, ideas left to impart, from this person who could've been his friend (could've been, could've been, could've been…) if he hadn't acted on a ridiculous impulse to play God. It is the bare bones of a life, the ramshackle idea a child might have as to what constitutes "living:" minimal furniture, a poster tacked up here and there, a single pot, a single pan, and just one pair of cutlery. Roxas stays for as long as he dares, long enough to find college textbooks crammed under the lumpy bed, long enough to take the jacket Axel wore when he saw him last, bloodstains on the collar. That was my fault, Roxas thinks, touching the brown smear of dried up memories.

There was Axel's phone sitting on a table by his too-small bed, but it was password protected, and no matter what he tried, the phone kept locking him out. He thinks maybe he should go back for it, as if cracking into it would reveal all the hidden things he's ever wanted to know, as if it would bring him back. But there are police cars headed that way now, Roxas ducking behind parked taxis, into a restaurant where the hostess stares at him like he's crawled up from the bowels of the earth.

What does he miss? Arms full of books, walking aimlessly toward where he thinks a bus stop might be, Roxas doesn't know what he misses. Is there anything to miss? You hang out one time with someone you meet fifteen minutes before you turn twenty-one, you listen for weeks to his smart-ass voice tell you all the things you're doing wrong. At first it's a game, showing up to act superior and stubborn, to put the punk loser in his place… and then all of a sudden it isn't, showing up to hang out with the most interesting person he's ever met, listening like an empty cup ready to be filled. And how Axel would pour into him, ideas and words that made his heart beat hard, head hurting from wonder. Drinking in that rasping voice and those wild eyes until his cup runneth over. Yes. Yes, there is something to miss. Roxas takes a minute to throw the textbooks at the ground, screaming at the sky. He'd been so full, brimming with possibility and gratitude. He'd wanted to show Axel he understood, that Axel had passed on his Will of Fire. That day, hurting him like that… maybe he hadn't understood after all, carried away by belief that Axel, too, needed saving. He should've known better than to think someone so patient with him could abide fundamentalist violence. His fatal flaw then is the same one that courses through his veins now: wrath. At war with what he knows, Roxas wants to hurt the whole world, the whole fucking world.

"I picked the path of my own choosing; I walked down it," Axel's voice says to him in his memory—a rendering not quite right, voice smoother in his head than it ever was in life. Roxas, undeclared after three years in a two-year college, is not in the habit of making lasting decisions. "This is your time. Go out and take it." Axel's voice in his head like an audible bruise, sense littered with conviction, all of it punctuated with the memory of his almost-friend bleeding to death in his hands.

There is a memorial service at some point, Roxas finding out a week after the fact. There is no final resting place he can visit, So-and-So Spence laying more claim to Axel's ashes than Roxas apparently has right to. He wonders if he should feel angrier, wonders if he should expend energy doing research, making phone calls. But that is a body. That is cold, colorless flesh burned into handfuls of gray nothing—the opposite of what Axel was, what Axel meant. All the best parts of Axel, all the cunning and all the intellect, that's been bleached away by the crew of hazmat suits at Pogos. But that is behind, all of that is behind.

He reads, maybe for the first time ever, outside of school. Words he can hardly understand by people with names he doesn't know how to pronounce, but that's progress, isn't it? It's progress coming across a nearly illegible scrawl by thin, quick hands. Often just a word or two—"clever" or "!" frequently—and Roxas feels like he is following a map that was left behind. A map to a better life, the instructions for survival where X doesn't mark the spot because there is no X. The map is the reward, the instructions the purpose. It's not about rejecting contentment, Roxas learns, but understanding that you never have to settle. He might never cure cancer or extract an impacted tooth, might never discover an elementary particle, but that wasn't Axel's point, was it? The imperative to do something, to matter, that's what Roxas takes with him one foot after the other, one heartbeat to the next. He pushes himself until he feels like he'll break—muscles aching, spirit spent—until he's so close. So very close, his heart beating blindly on.