“Shot, please,” Axel said with his head hung low. The bar appeared extra bright that night, but it was still early. The smoke hung just barely in the air as the stage set up. Patrons ventured inside in sets of twos and threes.
The blond bartender raised an eyebrow at his usual customer and vanished into the back. Minutes later, long enough for Axel’s hands to twitch at every incessant giggle from the newcomer next to him, he reappeared, moonshine in hand. “You look like hell.”
Axel snatched the glass and downed its contents before Demyx could say anything else. “I think I feel like it.”
“What happened?” he asked curiously as Axel raised his hand for one more shot. The redhead didn’t respond and Demyx’s attention started to wander towards the stage, where the piano chimed notes with no sense of rhyme or reason. He cringed. Heavy steps clicked across the raised platform and the curtain drew over it to cover their terrible noise.
“Larxene,” Axel breathed at last with a bitter laugh. “Bitch caught me off guard. Small girl, lots of punch.”
“That’s because she doesn’t pull punches. Maybe you didn’t believe me when I told you that,” Demyx said as he set another glass in front of Axel. He didn’t care about the money. Axel realized as much as well, and he was in no hurry to let the bartender know he actually had some. “That’s why you shouldn’t have borrowed from them.”
“I had to feed the habit, Demyx. It’s about the only thing I can think of to do.”
Demyx shrugged and looked away from Axel. “That’s why most Nobodies don’t last as long as you and I.” He didn’t place another glass in front of Axel, and Axel wanted to kill him. He was just starting to get a little bit tipsy, and Demyx had to ruin the feeling by saying something he didn’t want to consider.
“So, you’re not playing tonight?” Axel asked with a flex of his fingers. He turned to face the growing crowd. Loose skirts and ties, and the stronger smell of perfume. It seemed that an entirely different crowd had come out of the woodwork that night. Likely because it was Friday. If he thought he could get one of those girls alone, he could think of some other things to do after all.
“No.” Axel involuntarily jerked at Demyx’s eventual answer. He had been so lost in staring at that one girl, all by herself, that he’d forgotten he was even talking to the man. “Not tonight. Tonight, some girl is supposed to be singing. I think her name is--”
“Don’t care,” Axel interrupted smoothly as he watched the strong pair of legs that passed him. She giggled at his stare and waved. He could definitely think of things to do with her. They could pass hours, he thought with a wistful smirk.
“How are you going to pay them back?” Demyx asked with a shrug. Her hair was too curly for his tastes. It looked about ready to eat her head. But he knew Axel’s attention was lost, and it was just like the old days. Axel frowned to himself, his leer suddenly ruined by the reminder of his debt. Roxas had to win tomorrow, he realized. Otherwise, his head would be on a platter by Sunday.
“You say something?” Axel asked without glancing back. Demyx shook his head and chairs scraped roughly against the floor, all over the floor, and laughing people couldn’t decide whether they wanted to sit or stand up. Managers behind the curtains were heaving and sighing and lighting their squished cigarettes moments before the curtain call.
Axel turned and face the younger man. He ran his hand down his face with a grunt, hoping that Demyx would take the hint and fill him up again.
The bright notes of a trumpet rang out, high above the crowd and their ruckus. The curtains shifted and the player smirked from his hidden position. Cheers and whistles sounded, though none of them really knew what they were cheering for. Axel sunk against his elbows with a cry of dismay.
“What’s wrong with you?” Demyx asked with a disgusted frown towards him.
“This might be the last night I’ll get to hear jazz,” Axel said quietly, pensively staring at the far off grooves of the counter.
Demyx shrugged and finally filled his empty glass, though somewhat disdainful of the redhead’s surly mood. “You’re not going to pay them back?”
“No, I’ve got one shot, but there’s a catch. There’s always a catch,” he trailed off as he closed his eyes. The lights dimmed and the curtain drew back with a loud swish. Insipid giggled and inane chatter fell silent to thunderous cheers and vigorous hammering from the bright trumpet. They were transfixed, as if the very pied piper were playing that evening.
The spell broke and everything clattered as people danced and drinks almost passed themselves around the bar. Demyx leaned forward, ignoring the sullen stares of his comrades. “What’s the catch?”
“The will to survive,” Axel said with a note of finality and drank his drink. “Give me some for the road, Demyx.”
“What?” Demyx cried in dismay even as he reached for the bottle to pass it to the man before him. “Why?”
“Because, either I can toast to my success or die a happy man. And I’d suggest we leave it at that.”
Axel made his way home, his treasure tucked tightly beneath his arm. Heartless clicked and chirped, subdued by the occasional gunshot and shout. They weren’t quite hungry enough yet. Their beady eyes looked away and vanished as the pink began to settle on the far edges of the sky.
He entered the hotel room and sat in the uncomfortable chair, waiting until the sun had finally fully risen to wake the sleeping boy.
Roxas struck out at the attacker, the person shoving his shoulder with a complete lack of care. He heard a loud cry, something about a nose, and string of colorful curses before he was unceremoniously thrown out of bed. His wounds seethed and he cried out in pain, finally opening his eyes. Axel’s shoulders were hunched and his face was unusually red.
“Get up!” Axel shouted breathlessly. He blinked back the tears in his eyes and stormed to the center of the room. He wished he could have knocked the kid around some more for punching him in his nose of all places.
“You ass, that hurt,” Roxas said as he pushed himself up against the bed. Axel could have laughed and wept at how pathetic he looked. His clothing was in shreds, and anyone who didn’t know any better might think the haphazard bandages were really designed to hold his bloody shirt together.
“You’ve got a big day today,” Axel said slowly, forcing himself to smile. He looked evil, Roxas noted as he took an uneasy step. “I know you can wow them all at the tournament.” Hopefully he’d last long enough to beat everyone else. Whether or not he died afterwards, Axel didn’t care.
“Axel, I don’t think--”
“I don’t care what you think,” Axel cut him off sharply, sweetly. Fake. “You’re going to have a good day. We need to go now.”
“What?” Roxas asked, confused by Axel’s tone. He didn’t seem the same smooth talking man from before. Was he nervous, Roxas wondered to himself as he walked towards the man, even though he wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep. Before he had time to react, Axel was dragging him out of the room, the cheap motel hiding by the light haze of smoke. What was burning, Roxas couldn’t tell. He pulled his arm away, roughly. “Stop it. I’m not doing this.”
Axel stopped, his hands balling up into fists as he resisted the urge to hit that lucky homeless man without a care in the world. He looked over his shoulder where Roxas waited uneasily, still there by some miracle or maybe a sense of guilt. Axel smirked and pushed his hair back as he turned to face the boy. “I understand that you’re scared, Roxas. Hell, I’m a little on edge, myself.” He placed his hands together in steeple fashion, as his smile waned under his frustration.
“But what option do you have? Think hard, and don’t just throw out some half-assed, half thought answer. What other opportunity is knocking you in the head?”
“But that guy said no one’s ever survived,” Roxas said, ignoring the jump in pitch his voice had just done.
“No one has ever had a keyblade. You’ve got the best trump card of them all, and you’re panicking over Marluxia’s words?”
“I’m hurt,” he muttered as he cast his glance to the wet gutters.
“You want to live. In a fight to the death, what the hell else matters?” His fingers twitched and his face looked stretched, as people pushed past them. Curses surrounded them and some people stopped to stare at Roxas’s bloody clothing.
From windows above, angry widows cried out their dismayed greetings to the birds eating at their lovely flower boxes and youngsters from below laughed, hoping that would never be them.
Roxas looked at Axel, taking him in and the world around them. Flies buzzed over their heads and children picked helplessly through halfway hidden piles of garbage. The lively timbre in the faces of the crowd around them and their every stinking breath and the proposition before him had never seemed so out of place. He swallowed and nodded, mouthing the word “okay.”
He hated Axel as the man smirked and parted the crowds with a triumphant, “What are you all staring at? Get lost!” As quickly as they had come, so they went and Roxas had no choice but to follow the redhead before him. He hated him for leading him to think, or to realize, that he really had no choice now.
Once at the stadium, Axel gratefully separated from the boy, glad to be free from his sullen stare that hurt his shoulder blades. He was glad to be among the equally heartless, the gamblers, thieves, addicts, and occasional murderer. He patted the wad of cash laying in his wallet, and he couldn’t help the smile of satisfaction.
He approached the counters, where three indolent book keepers were writing down bets and collecting cash. He frowned at the man ahead of him, the man who only lived at the casinos.
“My my, what do we have here?” he said as he turned to face Axel, leather glove resting against his grizzled chin. Marluxia stood next to him.
“Luxord, Marluxia,” he said, curt, dismissive. He took out the money and shoved past them.
Marluxia waved his hand airily, saying as mockingly as he could, “Why it’s Axel. Come to bet on your man? I hope you’ve got something up your sleeve, because his performance last time was utterly pathetic. Even the scrawniest negro can do better.”
“Shut up, Marluxia.”
“So he’s betting on that Roxas kid? With what?” Luxord asked with an intense stare at the cash in Axel’s hands. He smirked as the bookkeeper wrote the number down, waving the amount away. “You would do better trying to bribe Larxene with that, Axel. Of course, she’s just dying to get her hands on you again. You know how she is.”
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” Marluxia added with a merry chirp.
Axel narrowed his eyes at the two of them. “Keep talking, but by the end of the day, you’ll both be wishing you were me,” he said, mustering up all the bravado he could. He would really, really hate to eat his words.
“I highly doubt I’d ever, ever want to be you,” Luxord commented dolefully as he turned to walk away.
“That’s not what you said in the old days,” Axel shouted, furious at the retreating figure. He glared at Marluxia, who didn’t seem as eager to taunt him without an audience. “Get away from me.”
They went their separate ways as the announcer began shouting statistics, egging the crowd on with the occasional insult here and there. It worked beautifully. People every where were shouting and screaming, tearing their hair out, ready to see the first unlucky contestant. They all wanted a little blood.
The dark skin of the first one gleamed, and he wore the face of a man already dead. His gun was held at his side, the dreadful six-gage looking so insignificant. The crowd sneered, knowing what his fate would soon be. He lasted not even a minute. The heartless, once released from their cages surrounded him.
Their shapes were indiscernible, simply a ring of darkness growing ever smaller. His blood spattered as they ripped at him, attempting to get their grubby claws on the heart inside, and feeding off his every dark heart until he was dead, a corpse with a newly emerged heartless standing over it.
They all went the same way, though some put up more of a fight. One shot himself before the heartless could ever get near him. And then there was Roxas. The only contestant to be greeted by laughter and jeers. Axel leaned forward in his seat, clutching the railing with his hands. Roxas couldn’t hear any of their shouts. He could only see the heartless and know he was going to die.
Seconds it seemed the world had paused. If not for the jeering crowd, Axel would have thought it had. The heartless didn’t rush at their new bit of food, and Roxas did not rush forward to them. The crowd grew impatient as their laughter died and angry shouts arose. Some started shouting ‘nobody’ as some sort of chant, a story of unfairness.
Then the heartless stirred, and with a a cry of rage, they surged forward. The early one latched onto his shoulder and Roxas flung him away, with steps back. Axel covered his face with his hands, uttering an awkward prayer. Please, use the keyblade. Now’s the time. He won’t last more than a minute.
He heard Roxas cry out in pain and his shoulders started to shake with anger and frustration at the hopelessness of the situation.
They were upon him, and Roxas had never realized how atrocious they really looked before. He fought them with his hands, throwing them away, but he was surrounded and they latched onto any unguarded spot. He’d never realized how painful they were, their claws burned into his skin like poison.
People shouted the boy’s death, even as he was struggling. Laughter and jeers resumed and Axel felt a headache growing in the corners of his mind, a migraine. He stood up to walk away, but was stopped by the scream of a heartless. Shouts of awe and curses of cheating, never mind it was just chance. He looked back to the fight below, gleaming metal could be seen amidst the darkness.
Roxas swung furiously, the heartless that were poured on top of him gave one final cry before vanishing completely. He was a bloody mess, wounds atop the old, burning with the sand of the floor. The heartless surged forward again, and he fought.
The crowd gave an agonizing yell as time passed further and further on. As soon as Roxas’s time had passed all the others before him, Axel laughed and ran to the bookkeeper. He was home free, he thought with a grim smile. Oh, but wouldn’t Larxene be disappointed?
“Quite a streak of luck there, Axel. Just when I thought your luck had completely run out,” Luxord said as he placed a hand on his shoulder. Axel grinned smugly, as the bills were counted and handed to him.
“Just the luck of the draw.”
“I think your boy might actually survive this fight. Really unbelievable.”
“Marluxia must be having a fit,” Axel said with a shrug, the money firmly in his hands. He turned to face Luxord, and eventually to push past him.
“You know, there’s an even bigger prize for a fight like this,” Luxord trailed off and Axel stopped. Angry gamblers were pouring in around them and out of the stadium, cursing their luck, heartless cries growing ever more quiet.
“Really?” He glanced over his shoulder.
“Yes. For a heartless that is immune to gunshots. They call it the unbeatable heartless. Whoever beats it gets a very nice chunk of cash.”
“I always was one for the money,” Axel said, placing a thoughtful hand to his chin before he walked away from Luxord and back out to the stadium in time to see Roxas collapse in an exhausted heap, the battle ground devoid of any heartless.