Axel felt so much better without the bloodstains on his shirt. He almost looked normal, except for the bruises and swelling on his face. However, he didn’t attract stares anymore. The stadium for the battles rested in the middle of the city. As he and Roxas neared it, he couldn’t help but notice how clean the outside looked.
In a world of brick and wooden buildings, the sunlight glaring off the metal was enough to blind the unsuspecting at just the right angle. The pavement was free of the typical weeds and cracks, looking as if it had been set just the day before. It stood tall and bright among the dismal surroundings, and everyone avoided it. Roxas wanted to avoid it too, but Axel’s guiding arm wouldn’t let him.
They stopped outside the doors, where a man sat in his chair, asleep. His hat rested over his head, and long brunette locks could be seen flaring out in the wind. Axel kicked his leg while Roxas pressed his face to the glass. He couldn’t see inside the building. Darkness was well kept inside. He frowned and looked back at the yawning man.
“What do you want?” the man asked as he lifted his cap from his eyes. He blinked sleepily and stood up, dusting his pants off. Roxas thought it was a wasted effort. There was no dust. “Axel. Been a real long time. What do you want?” he narrowed his eyes.
“I’m here to register a competitor,” Axel replied, sticking his chest out. “Is that a problem, Marluxia?”
Marluxia’s turned to look at Roxas. He walked over towards him and grabbed his wrist. Roxas pulled it away quickly with an angry, “Hey!” Marluxia chuckled as he pulled out a set of keys from his pocket. He looked at each key individually, slowly, and precisely.
“You must be out of your mind this time,” he commented with a glance towards Axel. “Rather skinny to be a real entry.” He turned the key sharply and the door responded with a click and opened slowly. Marluxia walked inside, followed quickly by Axel.
“Why’d he do that, Axel?” Roxas demanded, not having moved from his spot outside. Axel and Marluxia stopped and turned to face him. Marluxia smirked with narrowed eyes, his hands lazily at his side.
Axel shrugged and said with reassurance, “It’s because he’s an opinionated bastard. Now let’s go, we can’t wait all day, for God’s sake.” He walked towards Roxas and grabbed his arm to pull him along. Roxas glanced around at the shrouded surroundings as he was led along.
“I’m starting to think this isn’t a good idea. What are these fights, Axel?”
“Oh, did he not explain what the fights are?” Marluxia asked gleefully as he stopped in front of a door. He turned to look at the pairing. Roxas’s stubborn frown, and Axel’s hand covering his frustrated brow. “Because that’s really not fair that he’s entering you. Really, for someone like you, it’s almost a death wish.”
“A death wish?” Roxas echoed, his eyebrows raising and his frown vanishing.
“Yes, a death wish. These fights, kid, are not meant to be survived. They’re the cruel, cruel cousin of the Roman Coliseum.” He laughed at Roxas’s mortified face, ignoring the fury shaking within Axel’s shoulders. “In fact, no one has survived yet. Mostly we get down and out negroes that--”
“Will you shut up?” Axel demanded as he shoved Marluxia against the wall. “You know me,” he said saccharine sweet. “I wouldn’t drag a kid to his death. Now open the damned door so we can get this registration finished.”
Roxas folded his arms as Axel backed away from the shocked man, who quickly turned around and opened the door. Roxas immediately covered his nose, because the smell was terrible. “What is that?” he demanded as he backed away.
“Blood. Human blood and the smell of starved heartless,” Marluxia replied, though lacking his former relish. “There’s only one part to the registration. We have to make sure that you’re not a Nobody.”
Roxas’s shoulders tensed and his eyes widened. His hands dropped away from his face and he quickly shook his head. “No, I don’t want to do this. Count me out.” The clicks and chirps of the heartless in the room beyond stirred to life. Roxas backed farther away, leaving Axel and Marluxia to stare at him in confusion.
The sounds grew louder, escalated into what Marluxia assumed was the horrifying cries of hunger. The larger heartless began roaring and shouting and raging. The cages could be heard buckling, and he could swear something was tearing and snapping. The kid looked pale and frightened at all the utter racket. Marluxia was surprised that he hadn’t run away yet.
He was shocked when Axel snatched the door from his hands and slammed it shut. The next thing he knew, a small heartless had thrown itself at the boy, and was tearing at his chest. Some of the gashes were deep, and the boy was just too shocked to respond. The little black thing latched itself into his skin and would not let go as Axel grabbed it and yanked it away from Roxas with a ripping sound.
Roxas fell forward to his knees. Somewhere, someone was shouting. Kill it, God damnit! Shoot it, Marluxia, shoot it!
“You’ll be okay, right? You’ll be… Please be okay. I’ve got to help Sora… Please be okay,” he heard the feminine voice in the back of his memories, tinged with worry and regret.
Axel held the squirming heartless in his hands. It bit him and he threw it against the wall, where it bounced back and ran towards Roxas again. “Shoot it, Marluxia!” he shouted with frustration even as the man produced the gun and pulled the trigger. They looked at each other, Axel breathing more heavily than he should have.
“You’re bleeding,” Marluxia said at last and Axel looked down at his bitten hand. “That’s funny. They’ve never went so far as to bite a Nobody to get at a human heart.” Axel covered the wound with his hand and turned to look at Roxas, who had not moved. The boy’s breaths came in labored gasps, and Axel could tell he really wasn’t seeing them.
“For such a small heartless, I’ve never seen so much damage.” Why didn’t he call his keyblade? Axel wondered. “Marluxia, get some bandages. Quick, he’s gone into shock.”
“Alright, Axel,” Marluxia said with a smirk as he turned to the first aid kit near the door. “He’s not a Nobody. Sure you’re not leading him to his death?” The door rattled and the dents made from claws on the other side could be seen. A loud cry of rage could be heard.
When Roxas woke up, the first thing he noticed was the aching pain in his back where the springs of the worn mattress pressed into his skin. The bandages around his chest restricted his movement. He couldn’t quite sit up, so he rolled over. The blazing pain in his chest flared, and he could almost feel himself bleeding. Axel stared over him.
“You awake kid?” Roxas grunted in response. “Good. You’re all set for this weekend. Just try not to let today happen again.” Roxas glared at the lamp by the bed, at the broken burned shards of the broken light bulb.
Axel shirted the weight on his feet. It could be heard against the scratchy carpet. The seats were ripped and cheap foam was pouring out of them. The one bed was stained, and not from the bandages on Roxas’s chest. He noticed Roxas’s glare and rolled his eyes. Really, the kid should be thanking him.
After all, despite the strange stares of the cab driver, the hotel manager, and even a few pedestrians, he rented the room so Roxas could relax and, hopefully, get better. It was a lot for the boy, after his pathetic performance that afternoon. He went into the bathroom to hopefully find some way to give the boy water.
He wondered dimly how he always seemed to choose the most broken down places. The sheer grime covering the entire room was enough to send him back into the bedroom. He could hear Roxas’s hacking cough from the bed. It would be his luck that the boy was allergic to mold.
“So does this have anything to do with your debt to the Organization?”
He frowned at the memory of Marluxia’s question.
“I see Larxene’s already been to see you about that. I don’t think this boy will be any help to you.”
“Why do they have to see if you’re a Nobody?” Axel almost didn’t hear the question. It was quiet. Roxas hadn’t intended to say it out loud.
“Because the heartless won’t attack a Nobody,” Axel replied as he took a seat in one of the broken down chairs. The air conditioner clicked on and hummed brokenly. The room reeked from the humidity and the lack of cleaning. Axel could feel the precipitation on his forehead. Never quite enough to form sweat.
Roxas rolled onto his back with a small cry. He hoped Axel didn’t hear it. “Why… Why won’t they attack Nobodies?”
Axel sighed and rested his chin in his hand. He looked at the faded flower wallpaper. Roxas frowned, wondering why he didn’t answer. “Axel?”
“It’s because they don’t have hearts. Heartless only kill to survive, and they feed off of hearts. Nobodies are a waste of space to them.”
Roxas smiled to himself. He felt happier than he had in ages, and he wanted to hug Axel. He should hug Axel. But he couldn’t forget that Axel wanted him to throw away his life. And for what? Money. He frowned at the ceiling. That was right.
“One more question,” Roxas said was as angry a tone as he could affect.
“Why didn’t you take off my shirt before bandaging me up? It’s kind of itchy.”
“It would have been itchy anyway, kid. Wounds tend to do that.” Tell that to his tender nose. He leaned forward and clapped his hands together. “This Saturday, you need to use that keyblade. Save it for when everyone thinks you’re down and out, and then bam!” he grinned. “They’ll be knocked off their feet and we’ll be rich. You wanna know what the odds are against you? A thousand to one, that’s what! If we bet the money we have, we’ll get back over ten thousand. Doesn’t that sound great?”
“Whatever,” Roxas said with a sigh as he slowly forced himself to sit up. “I’m gonna die, aren’t I?”
Axel wagged his finger and shook his head with a mischievous grin. “You say it like that, and you will. But you forget that keyblade of yours. You just pull it out and--”
“I don’t know how to call it,” Roxas interrupted.
“What?” Axel asked, dumbfounded.
“I don’t know how to. It just comes, sometimes. Most of the time, I run.” He frowned at the covers.
“Why didn’t you run earlier today? When I met you, I watched you. Most people would have run, but you didn’t. That’s why I thought--”
“I was starving this morning.” He was starving now, his stomach reminded him angrily. “I didn’t want to run. So, why do I have to die so you can get the money?”
Axel opened his mouth to respond, but quickly shut it and stood up to pace. Roxas watched him curiously before he turned to him and snapped, “It’s not just for me.” He paced some more before stopping in the center of the room and running a hand through his hair, though it really seemed more like he was pulling at it.
“ You aren’t doing it for me,” he said through clenched teeth. “You’re doing it because you don’t want to go back to the way it was before. Because there is no other way.”
“There’s the mills--”
“You think that that won’t kill you? Oh, how deluded you are. How wonderfully deluded. And that’s the only place you could go. You’re doing it because I know you can survive if you… Ugh.. Go to sleep!”
He yanked the sting to the light above them both, and the room was dark. Roxas watched him walk to the door and throw it open angrily. He vanished into the hall and pulled the door shut behind him.
Well, he didn’t have to throw a temper tantrum about it, Roxas thought in annoyance. He wasn’t the one who was going to fight. In fact, Roxas wondered why he was still going to do it, himself. He laid back and frowned.
He didn’t owe Axel anything, he thought as he closed his eyes.