It was a few dark miles before the thought hit him, an acerbic smirk shattering his brittle frown. This was a time when the light of the worlds was overshadowed in every way imaginable; both naturally and unnaturally. A lone soldier facing this shaded tide was unthinkable. Heartless overflowed from inky depths to the previously secure streets, while nobodies skulked at the periphery of the battlefields. Their enemies clamoured for the final battle, unsavory characters congregating to scratch and snatch at the uneasy peace. Every known keyblade wielder, few as there were, gathered to observe the dawn of the New Year from a bright, safe location, content in their solidarity. Every known keyblade wielder, that was, but for Axel. His lean, lissome shadow stalked through the emptiness of the dark corridor, wary of opposition even as his thoughts wandered. Rolling his eyes, the former assassin huffed wryly as he considered the futility of caution. Were he to evade Xehanort himself on this little escapade, Yen Sid was going to murder him anyway.
He’d traversed these winding streets more times than he could count over the last few years. Labyrinthine lanes wove through the nocturnal shadows, disconcerting in their star-studded cloak of night. This world was not quite so dark as the occasional heartless it concealed, however; its iconic eternal sunset already discernable behind the sable of the belated clouds. By the time Axel emerged onto the ledge of their usual spot, the weak strains of light had intensified; molten gold rays beginning to illuminate the patchwork of buildings below him. The darker part of the day was shorter and safer here, in this world of shadows and sunsets. Jaded eyes closed as he recalled times spent in the glow of those lazy afternoons, where bright laughter and unconditional friendship awoke the origins of salty-sweet feelings. Afternoons where lies and half-truths tangled with promises and wishes. The stonework was deathly cold now, the warmth of their fellowship long lost from their usual spot.
One booted foot dangled over the edge of the drop into the winter breeze, but he was apathetic to the icy temperatures around him at this point. Twenty-something minutes to go. With little else available, his thoughts were tugged once again to the three ice creams lying beside him. Axel wasn’t entirely certain why he had decided to buy the desserts, nostalgic as they were, nor why he had been so compelled to purchase three. Then again, after the restoration of his heart, and his subsequent keyblade training, something about the number had struck a forgotten chord deep within his memories. A deceitful haze had crept into his most cherished recollections, winding itself around unconditional smiles and sky-wide eyes. Much of his time spent with Roxas seemed bereft of something, their daily conversations fractured and lacking, or missing altogether. It was his first thought as a somebody, however, that had shocked some fragments to the forefront of his mind.
‘’You made us a promise. That you’d always be there… to bring us back. Got it memorized?’’
…So who was ‘us’?
An eternal supply of endless moments spent reminiscing atop the tower, and now he had but a few minutes until the festivities began. Axel lay on his stomach, chin propped on folded arms as he contemplated the trio of desserts. A wry smile caught at his lips, his gaze softening as he wondered at the possibility of a winner stick. Half-lidded eyes shot open moments later, however, excited shouts in the courtyard below startling him from his reverie. His vantage point awarded him little more than indistinct shapes, although he judged them to be teenagers by their voices, and the lack of adults in the presence of a substantial amount of fireworks. Words stretched and scattered by the breeze awarded him some names; Hayner and… Olette? Two of the three ‘friends’ that had been important to Roxas in the ersatz data world. That left one: the chubby brunette. Pence. The name came to him in a painful flash of clarity, accompanied by a startling bolt of recollection:
‘’ … been introduced. I’m Pence.”
“…guys said you lost something?”
“Some-ONE. A friend of ours.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Hope you find them soon”
The ruckus below him faded into silence as Axel stared out over the lightening horizon, his mouth slightly agape. Glaring white spaces among his memories began to fill with the brightest of colours, unfocused events brought suddenly into a sharper focus, although the most vital points of information still eluded him.
‘’You know… started inviting …. up here … you were gone’’
In the glow of the approaching dawn, he fancied that he saw his best friend perched on their ledge, a melting bar of ice cream clutched in one gloved hand. That easy grin blurred, his vision distorting as the familiar face swirled, seeming to duplicate. He now shared the spot with twin versions of his best friend, frozen in a lengthy instant before one figure began to change. Eyes filled with cloudless blue deepened in colour, the afternoon hue aging to the vivid indigo of the evening sky. Raven wing locks framed a well-known visage. Not Naminé, however, nor Kairi. Her name, her very importance; they wavered at the forefront of his perception, even as he could felt the vision beginning to slip back into obscurity. The Roxas in the illusion appeared confused, brow crinkled under untidy gold bangs.
“I promised… the three of us could… ice cream together”
The girl leaned forward, observing the somebody with an inquiring frown from her fellow nobody’s shoulder. Her mouth opened, as if to question his confusion, then closed as a look of resignation overcame her features. It dawned upon Axel that he could see the coming rays of light through her paling features, although Roxas still appeared as solid as life itself. The blond now looked panicked, ice cream forsaken as he spun towards the dissolving form. Yelping, Axel snagged his friend’s hood, envisioning him tumbling to the unforgiving pavements far below, only for him to crumble away into tiny shimmering crystals. He blinked and his best friends faded away, as a brilliant radiance illuminated the shadowed clouds, the light catching at the diamond trails marring their faces. Blinking again, he could sense a similar trail, marking his cheeks just as he had previously been branded by his tattoos. Stumbling blindly to his feet, he barely noticed the joyful voices in the town below as he searched frantically through his memories. He needed something; anything…
“You both...think you can do whatever you want…”
“It’s best for everyone….”
“We’re best friends….”
…Three! Two! One!
Happy New Year!
Sea-green eyes flooded with tears, their owner collapsing to his knees as he looked out over the glow of the horizon. Fireworks spun webs of light-trails, the massing clouds a backdrop to the celebrations of the New Year. Smiling through his grief, Axel raised one arm to the arching heavens, flames gathering in his palm. Three bolts of flame competed with the intensity of the dawn, as he vowed a silent oath to his closest companions. He was uncaring of any and all retribution when he returned to the mysterious tower: the realization that he now had two people to fight for occupied his thoughts completely. Sora may fight for the worlds, Donald and Goofy to support their king, but Axel emphasized more with Riku or the king. He would battle for his friends, struggle on simply so that he could return to this ledge, but he would bring them both here next time. Glancing over at the empty space, he let out a watery laugh. Gingerly treading along the edge, he crouched next to the pool of melted sea salt and ice, lifting one of the popsicle sticks. Another winner, identical to the last. Of an equal value. Fishing his precious keepsake, Roxas' last gift, from his pocket, he refined the flames in his grasp. Drying the sugary mess off the newer piece of wood, he carefully burned her name into the side bereft of writing, before repeating the task with 'Roxas' on the other stick. Just so that he'd remember his oath.
“Next year, guys. Next year, I promise we’ll all go to the beach.”