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Better Than Worse
by Edmondia Dantes
Disclaimer: Squeenix and Disney.
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He ignores the front door entirely, and slips around the back, through a garden that smells too strongly of roses, and frowns at the pretty white statues so carefully placed on their little pedestals. It takes a moment to shake off the memory of white walls and white floors and glass flowers, but the back of the house hasn't changed much, and he vaults onto his balcony with barely a thought to the ease of the motion.
He doesn't quite recognize the reflection in the glass, but Way to the Dawn sings quiet shadows in his grip, and the door swings open with only the faintest of squeaks to betray his passage.
He knows, now, why pathways have always been so very easy for him to find, and when he closes his eyes, he can still see them, faintly shimmering, just waiting for him to reach out and touch.
Riku steps into his bedroom for the first time in over two years with his breath held and his eyes shut, and resolutely thinks of absolutely nothing.
- - -
The air in the room is still and cool and smells of too-strong bleach and the staleness of old darkness, and he gags on it, just a little, on memory and regret and the stink of old, furious frustration. Things said and left undone, Riku thinks, and flings open each window and props open the balcony door, leans over the railing and breathes in deep the scent of sand and sun and Sora and Kairi, not too terribly far away.
His clothes are laced with them now, the brush of their hands and the fall of her hair, the ghost of Sora's arm still curled around him, the touch of her fingers to his cheek, and underneath it all, the faint, sharp scent of the king still lingers. His fingers drop to his pocket, slide inside, and he squeezes a carefully-carved chunk of dark crystal and thinks about love in faraway places, about the fall of shadows against brightness, about smiles and emptiness and the faintest trace of crayon wax, abandoned in the dusty stillness of an eternal sunset.
He closes his eyes against the sunshine and feels a little sick when he realizes that he has no idea what his parents smell like. It's clear that this is a human habitation, that two people live and breathe and fill this place with the essence of their souls, but the taste of them is strange, and though the scent is vaguely familiar somehow, in it he can find nothing of his own.
He runs his fingers along the railing and thinks of time passing, the backwards upfall of crystal waterfalls and the smooth black sleekness of endless pathways, and when he curls his hand around the polished stone, he's not surprised at how low the tips of his fingers reach, almost but not quite touching the wall that curves deep and low beneath the ornate carvings.
Taller now, but not quite to that height that should have been unfamiliar, not quite so broad and poised, and the clothes on his back tingle with the faintest touch of magic, not yet abandoned, for all that he'd insisted on practicality and comfort, for all that he knew he was undeserving. Temperatures and weather don't much matter to him anymore, but all black on an island is a silly thing regardless of what you're made of, and gifts from a king should never be ignored.
He steps back into his room and closes his eyes for just a moment, and when he opens them again, he lets a curl of power slip out, just enough to muffle the stink of old darkness, just enough to curl the shadows into something warm and familiar, just enough to calm his own senses and breathe without inhaling the ghosts he's not meant to disturb.
His father has been dusting.
He lets his gaze run over what once was his, bed and bookshelves and desk, neat and crisp and clean, like perfection, like he just stepped out for a moment instead of two years, and realizes he never missed this place. Little things, yes, a pretty shell from Kairi, aged seven, and a book of fairy tales he read to Sora when they were small, but nothing of this is his, and maybe none of it ever was. He's always loved people more than things, and despite the vastness of the house he grew up in, Soul Eater was the first thing he'd ever thought of as his own, and he loved it then and he loves it now, a different shape and song and name, but only ever his own.
He sits down on the bed with utter care, because it's been seven months since he's even been near one, and this one has the same sheets and blankets that he remembers, all crisp corners and neatly-folded edges, the quilt a deep rich blue and a little ill-suited to the climate. He swings a cautious leg up, just to check, but it's true--there's absolutely no way that he's actually going to fit on this mattress anymore. He closes his eyes again, shut tight this time, and resolutely doesn't think of a cozy room with an oversized bed, just the perfect size to fit three growing teenagers, an empty room in a beautiful castle for a heir that's never been born, and Minnie had said "Please," and been utterly kind to step out the door when he first crumpled into the thick bedspread and didn't, didn't cry. He doesn't cry now because he's not feeling anything at all, no pain and no fear and no sadness, just calm and quiet and clear, and if his fingers are digging into the covers a little bit too hard, he's still got control enough to keep the magic tucked safely inside.
I missed this place he thinks, but he'd missed sand and sun and laughter and the salt of the sea breeze, not this empty room in this empty house that's too far from the shore to hear the waves rolling against the shore.
When he leans down and pushes the comforter up, the old box is still there, but the lock is missing, and when he lifts the lid, it's empty.
...he has been gone for two years. They must have thought he ran away. Of course they would look. Of course they would. That only makes sense. He knows this and almost approves of it. It's okay that they went looking. They might even have kept some of it safe for him, the shell necklace and the fairy tales, if they...
...that wall's a lot flimsier than he remembers it being, he thinks, and shakes plaster dust from his fingertips.
It's all real, every single thing, childhood memories bound in fabric and plastic and paper, and he thinks of cards and crayons and fake things, chain links scattered across the floor in messy scribbles and careful portraits, half-captured and half-free, and wonders why everything feels so strange, like he's caught in a memory half-forgotten, or a dream he lost somewhere to the shadows, or burned up in the light.
The clothes in the closet are hung in plastic and he knows without looking that not a single one of them will fit him now, and the mirror's hung low enough that if he stands up straight he's too tall to see his reflection in the frame. He thinks of how well he used to fit it and feels a little sick, even though he's not really sure why, because when he slouches down he doesn't look anything like Ansem, and with his hair this long he doesn't look like the not-boy who died wearing his face.
He'd stopped smashing mirrors about six months after Castle Oblivion, anyway.
- - -
He steps out into the beautiful, empty hall, and remembers spaces to be filled, an aching void filled with the scent of heartless and not-a-human, back before he knew those ones with blue blue eyes and empty empty chests, back before he learned that maybe he wasn't made of poison. White and cream and pale, because it's elegant, because it's spotless, because it's made of bleach and fragile lies, and maybe this is why he hated those blank white castles so much, because they reminded him of home.
"Shadow-child," Sephiroth had whispered once, black feathers and madness and eyes like a wild thing, "precious little one, why aren't you my own?"
He won't think about it, not now, maybe not never. There's no place for wondering when he's planning lies, all the little evasions they're going to have to weave, and if he can fake amnesia, maybe it will all be magically better somehow.
Riku's not very good at magic.
Neat little bookshelves and walls and the stink of realness, but he can see through it now, every whitewashed corner and every paintjob half-bungled by childish enthusiasm and distraction and frustration and boredom, and there were more reasons than one that his parents always made them play outside, more reasons than one that he's so good with his hands.
Too much brightness plastered on top but he sees right through it, and too much shadow that can't hide what's beneath it, and he misses the coolness of the twilight, the swath of cloth against his closed eyes that hid nothing but the truth of everything he was meant to hide. Shadows to protect, shadows to claim and guide, and he remembers a secret and a promise whispered to still cool glass and the boy trapped beneath it; a whisper to a girl empty in his arms and still sleeping; a whisper to a girl soft and warm and vibrantly alive in his arms, still empty; a whisper to an empty boy lying still on the rain-slicked street; a whisper to a dead boy and a whisper to a king and a madman and a whisper to the darkness alone.
He talks too much to the dead and the people they haunt, or to the mad, or to no one at all, and Naminé's hands had been gentle and her body warm and her chest empty and aching, and he thinks he must love her still, for all that she isn't and all that she is, but that time had been bittersweet and brief, and they'd both known it was never meant to last.
He thinks of Kairi's smile and Sora's tears, the way they'd both clung so tight, the tiny miserable keen deep in Sora's throat when they'd left him standing there in front of his house all alone, the way Kairi smiled up at him, so fragile in the moment before she'd let go, and not for the first time he wonders if it's selfishness at all, or the farthest thing from it.
"Love will make and break the worlds," Mickey said once, low and calm and still beside the evening's fire, "You're not wrong to love them. Please don't ever think that's wrong."
Riku thinks of his mother, slim and graceful, the appraisal in her carefully made-up eyes, and the quiet, calm complacency of his father, and the wide stretch of land that bears his family's name. He thinks of Kairi, age eight, lips pursed as she practiced ill-fitting grace, pudgy fingers fumbling with the finely-carved tableware, and the way she'd cried, later, curled in that coat closet and sniffling all over his nicest clothes. He thinks of Sora's cozy little half-mad disaster of a house, so close to the beach, and Sora's mother, warm and distant as a summer breeze.
He thinks that Kairi's father will grow to hate them very quickly once he gets over the joy of having his daughter back.
This is no castle, no crumbling ruin, no mountaintop or endless sea. This is the island he was born on, and the house he grew up in, and this is the stairwell, wide and deep, stone imported from the main island and white stucco and there, in that little recess in the wall, the shelf of trophies that's still standing, a monument, maybe, to the boy that went missing, that boy who got swallowed up in the night and never returned.
He stands there and stares and wonders if they've put up a stone, maybe, in the little yard that's meant for the souls of those lost at sea, with the shells strung around the plank of wood that's meant for Sora's father, with the carved roses that's all the mother Kairi's ever known. He wonders if there's one for Sora. He wonders how long they've waited, if they've waited, if they've found someone else, but the only scent of boy he can detect is his own, and the traces of Sora still lingering on his skin.
At least he hasn't been replaced, he thinks, and then has to shake off a shudder, because this world and these people aren't like that, even if that's only because they don't know any better, even if that's only because they haven't the means to make it so.
...he's being unkind.
Riku knows just how easy it is to slip, now, a faded broken echo of memories in his head that aren't his own, even if the voice is nearly silent, now, even if that shredded heart's been halfway swallowed by his own.
Still listening to shadows, but it's better than being deaf or blind, and in all the time that's passed, sometimes he thinks he must be a little bit mad, or maybe he was born that way, and it was just destiny, tearing at his throat again.
Only Mickey knows that he was six years old when he first saw the keyhole.
- - -
The stairway leads down to the greatroom, all wicker furniture and natural light, and he shivers a little, struck by the sudden memory of dinner party after dinner party after endless dinner party, the plastic smile on his face and the breathless sweetness of escape, Kairi under one arm and, rarely, Tidus on the other, Selphie too loud to accompany her parents and Wakka and Sora so far away, in those cozy seaside homes where all the laughter's real and the children are expected to play instead of get tucked away while the grownups talk business and plans and maintanence and upkeep, talk of organizing and community politics and all those other things that don't matter, all those other things that he's mostly forgotten until now, all those old trappings rusted and dusty and creaking, for all that this home has always been polished, for all that everything in his life has always been kept neat and clean.
Jecht's laughter echoes in his memory, too-loud and boisterous, and he remembers the way Tidus flinched, the way his mother frowned faintly with disapproval, remembers taking them away to his room and his balcony and a thousand little dreams they shared, out and away from the chatter below, talking of the friends that they wish were there, even though in the long still quiet that stretches in the in-between of words they all know that they'd rather be sleeping over in those messy little homes, fading paint and creaking wood and shabby couches that are so much more comfortable than the smooth plush perfection that lurks in each of their living rooms, with pillows big enough for small imperfect things like them to drown in.
He blinks at that couch now and wonders if he'll still know how to talk to them, the ones who have always been whole, to those ones who never felt the soul-deep pull of the worlds calling, to those ones that were left behind, the ones he missed for all that he never really understood them. He thinks of Tidus' wide smile, of Wakka's laughter, of Selphie's mischievous grin and capable hands, and feels just a little bit sick, to know that so much has changed here without him, for all that nothing ever has. He loves his friends, he does, remembers tumbling with them when he was small and brawling with them as he grew, and he remembers pulling away when the call got too loud to ignore, when every shadow and moonless night started to whisper his name.
In the end, it has always been Kairi and Sora to break through, to hold on, to pull him to themselves and to keep his feet on the ground, and he knows he doesn't deserve how much they love him.
He thinks of falling stars, the taste of sea-salt on his lips, and feel of rain falling from empty skies. He reaches up a hand and runs his fingertips along a pretty picture frame, the waves and the sea and the sky at night, and thinks of that dark beach and a future alone, if not for Sora at his side.
It's so much easier, now, to recognize how thick that love is, how much of a battle it's going to be, and his parents have never approved of Sora, not once, not even when they were still tiny and didn't understand what it meant that Sora's toys weren't as nice as his own, or why his mother always frowned and made him change his clothes after he'd played over at Sora's house, why Sora's own mother watched Kairi with such careful eyes, and why she pursed her lips but said nothing when he pushed Sora just a little too hard, coaxed him into games he didn't want to play and fights that he could never win.
Riku doesn't much like who he used to be, anymore.
- - -
There's nothing much new in the kitchen, rare and underused for all of its gleaming perfection, and he remembers the caterers coming in, flooding through the wide open spaces and filling them with life, and he remembers standing in the corner and watching his father direct them, quiet and solemn and still as they ebb and flow around him, and he remembers breathing in and breathing out and being invisible, darting in and out to sneak a taste here, a rare sweet there, the young ones indulgent and kind, the older ones inevitably shooing him out the door with an expensive sliver of candied fruit and promises for more later, but there's never a later, and all of the leftovers get thrown out before he can snatch them for his lunches, before he can even think about sneaking a few away to share with Sora.
He doesn't fit on the stool in the corner anymore, legs too long for where he used to sit, and watch, and wait, on those rare occasions in which the food was made by hand instead of carried inside, for those rare rare times when they didn't eat in the formal dining room, when his mother let her hair fall long and loose and his father mixed her drinks and leaned against the counter to eat, when he looked at them and saw only strangers, the echoes of who they must have been when they were young.
He remembers thinking that they were almost like a real family in here, soft and laughing and gently indulgent, the brief caress of her hand against his hair before he was forgotten again, the rare delicacy of grilled fish and fragrant rice, so much simpler than their usual fare, neat little slices of pineapple heavy with sweet rum, burning down his throat with a pain that tastes like love.
Sephiroth once spent three hours smoothing down his hair, whispering of planets and shadows and sweet bright souls lost forever, and Riku had stayed still and just let him, because in the oldest languages of the dark beloved means the same as betrayer, and child has never been about blood.
- - -
He looks up as the door creaks, as the scent peaks, as the soft sound of sandals shuffle across the mat, and doesn't mean to hold his breath, but all the same, he does.
There are deeper lines on his father's face, now, and his mother's wearing a new shade of lipstick. It makes her look older, more like a stranger, and he stares at them and thinks You are not my parents but they are, they are and always have been and that's always been the problem, because Riku possesses every inch of his mother's glacial beauty, but everyone on the island knows he looks nothing like his father.
He always thought it sounded ridiculous, in books and stories, when people were so shocked that they dropped what they were carrying, and he knows he could catch the bags before they hit the ground, but he's not moving right now and he doesn't know why, doesn't know why they aren't moving, why they're just letting tonight's dinner fall to the ground.
His name doesn't even sound like his own when it slips past his mother's lips, and he stands there and stares as they leave the bags where they've fallen. He's never seen his father move this fast, this awkwardly, and the necklace around her throat clinks with soft chimes of seashells and sea-glass and it doesn't look anything like the light, or the twilight, or anything at all, and there's the faintest trace of sawdust-scent lingering in the air, half-drowned by sick-sweet perfume and the delicate scent of dusting powder, and the carpet skids a little when her feet catch on it, and when did she get to be so small?
"Mom," he says, and is amazed that his voice doesn't crack, that he can even say the word even though it tastes like blood and rust on his tongue. "Dad," he manages after a moment, and that doesn't even taste like anything at all.
She reaches out one delicately manicured hand and rests it on his arm, and he stares down at it, because that's easier than trying to look them in the face, because he doesn't know what to do with that touch, because he doesn't know what he's supposed to feel anymore.
I killed you, he thinks abstractly, even as his mother's grip on his arm tightens, even as his father takes another step closer, and he doesn't know what he's supposed to do when they close in around him, because he's looking down at the top of his mother's head and that's never happened before, because his father's stepping closer and he doesn't know what he's supposed to do now, when every instinct he possesses is screaming at him to strike them away.
There's a cautious, wary fierceness to his mother's posture when her arm slides across his back, and his father steps up to his other side and reaches his own arm out. "Riku," he breathes, slow and uncertain, "...it's really you?"
"Yeah," Riku says, standing very still, "it's me."
They don't cling like Kairi, don't cry like Sora, don't curl against him like Naminé, don't glare him down like Roxas, don't murmur like Ansem and don't watch like DiZ, don't laugh like Mickey or smile like Sephiroth, and he closes his eyes and swallows down hard against the nausea rising in his chest.
It's the first time his parents have hugged him in at least five years.
It shouldn't feel like he's drowning.
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