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Flowers in the Desert
by Edmondia Dantes

Disclaimer: Squeenix and Disney.

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They've settled down against the wall now, a soft tangle of limbs and clothes and teenaged awkwardness, and Donald gives a chiding sigh and casts a minor heat spell to warm the chill section of wall they've picked out as a bed, even if Sora and Kairi seem to have chosen a faintly-squirming Riku to be their unofficial pillow. There's a painful caution to the way they're holding on to each other, even as Kairi's delicate hands crush the boys' to her own and Sora resolutely squeezes himself into the space under the curve of Riku's left shoulder, and even as they start to shove limbs around and poke clever fingers into well-known ticklish spots, it's obvious to anyone who bothers to look that all three of them are holding their breath, half-terrified that they're dreaming.

He casts a sleep spell when it becomes obvious that they're not going to crash from the adrenaline high any time soon, and isn't surprised when Riku shoots him a narrow-eyed glare for the favor, even though he reluctantly settles down into place as the group pillow as soon as Sora and Kairi start to droop over on top of him.

Nearly an hour later, the king casts the same spell, and this time, his eyes actually close.

* * *

Donald will always love Sora, and he knows that the politest term for his own personality is "explosive," but sometimes it's wonderful when the boy will just shut up and sleep, and it's been much too long since they've held a war council, much too long since he could linger in the presence of his king and oldest, if not dearest, friend.

(Sometimes, when he dreams, he is still dancing with Josť and Panchito, and he will never tell Sora that he has Panchito's smile.)

It has been years since this, months since this last quest began, and yet they do not speak of what will come--a madman is a madman, a threat to the worlds is a threat to the worlds, and there is no need to discuss what must be--and for once, his king is actually sitting still long enough to have a conversation that consists of more than a joyful greeting and a few shouted orders.

And since their path is clear and they need no words to understand one another, naturally, the talk turns to the children.

"They've grown so much," the king says softly, tail curling at his side softly, a gentle sweep of agitation he would never allow in front of strangers. "Maybe after this, they'll finally be able to go home."

They look at him for a long moment, and Donald can tell from his silence that Goofy probably expected this, but it still takes a moment to adjust to, the silent question in his king's--in his friend's voice.

"You know we can't take them with us," Donald says, thinking of Daisy, thinking of the excited chatter of his nephews, "they have families waiting for them."

"I know," Mickey sighs, "and they deserve to go home and--"

"Aww, it's okay that you don't want to send him back," Goofy says, "but yer majesty, you know you have to."

Donald blinks at his king, at the slight defensive hunch of his shoulders, many things quickly growing apparent in his stillness and the way his tail twitches to the left just a little bit too sharply. He'd thought it was all three of them, but... in some ways he guesses it's not too big of a surprise.

Even his king's heart is not devoid of selfishness.

"...he wanted to leave the islands," Mickey admits softly, not looking at them, "you know how strong his heart is. It was enough to call to Ansem from worlds away, that's how strong his desire to leave was. And he's never talked about his parents, not once, not even when we were following the Twilight path, not even when he slipped back inside the darkness to guide you."

"Sora hasn't either," Donald points out, thinking about a salt tang in the sea air, thinking about shadows and stillness and fairydust, "They've been busy, and they're young. Maybe they just didn't want to think about it."

Donald is very good at making excuses for reckless children, and has had enough experience that sometimes he can even believe the lies he's so gifted at spinning.

(The picture of Della he painted for the triplets has seeped into the real memories, and Donald doesn't mind it, because the lies are so much more beautiful than the reality he's so deliberately tried to forget.)

"Aww, but you know Sora always ignores personal stuff that way, especially if he's got something else to focus on," Goofy says, calm as always, too-aware of everything as always, and Donald remembers once again how very well he wears fatherhood, for all that Max is worlds and worlds away. "But I don't think Riku's like that."

Mickey sighs. "He broods," he admits, folding his hands over his knees and fiddling with his gloves, a nervous habit left over from a time when he couldn't sit still for longer than a minute and a half without accidentally destroying something. "He talks to me about it, sometimes, but..."

"He's still just a boy," Goofy reminds them, "they're all kids. They don't wanna let you know what they're really thinking. Sora hides it, and I bet Riku just laughs it off, right?"

Goofy is always right about these things, Donald thinks, and it's only affirmed when their king nods. It's hard to remember, sometimes, that for all of his cleverness, for all of the mischief of his youth and the strenuousness of his training, that the king has never really dealt with children before, not the way Donald has kept an eye on his own nephews, and definitely not the way Goofy raised his son. No soft laughter and sweetness, no time for pranks and lullabies, no time to hold a tiny life in cupped hands and shield it from the rest of the world.

(No time for a boy in a war to be a child.)

All of them are too young for this, and he's seen it in Sora's casual arrogance and single-mindedness, his aggression and viciousness, and the way he likes to show off, to pull and tug until he gets what he wants, and if he weren't such a sincere and vulnerable thing, if their enemies weren't so numerous and so dangerous, it would be much more aggravating than it already is. He's barely seen Kairi and Riku, but he remembers the wildness and jealousy so painfully evident back at Hollow Bastion, and the possessive way Kairi had reached for him, the fierceness in her grip as she grabbed Riku and kept him from slipping away again, and the fact that she's here now, running on sheer bullheadedness and a fierce clarity that makes all too much sense coming from a princess of heart.

(The princesses are lovely, but so was Maleficent, once.)

The Light is rarely kind, the Darkness is crueler, and the universe by far the worst, especially to those with power, especially to those just learning to wield it. Someday, he thinks, once the last of the Organization falls and they can spare a moment to rest, someday he will sit down with the king and interrogate him on everything he knows, search all the legends of the keyblade to find out why these children are so different from the last, the inheritors of a tragedy that they all are too young to remember.

(Untrained and unknowing and innocent in ways that he can scarcely articulate, and somehow, somehow these children will save them all.)

Even in a dozing pile they radiate to his mage's senses, thick elemental magic clinging like an echo to the curves of Sora's fingers, Light spilling out from underneath Kairi's skin, and Riku between them is a paradox of Dark and Light so pure that they should rip him apart or meld together, not exist in a thick resonant harmony that he's never sensed anywhere else, not even in the realms of in-between, because those places stand in between the Darkness and the Light, not right on top of both of them at the same time without any care for the seeming impossibility of it all.

Maybe that's why his king is so intrigued by the boy, or maybe that's how it started, but it's clear from the way he's staring now that he's tired of having to let him go. This time, Donald thinks, it should be different, because now he's finally going to where he belongs. Except one keybearer's longing was enough to rip apart his world, so really, should they be going back home at all, once this is all over? Sora wants it, he knows, but looking at him now, tangled up in the two of them, makes certain things shift and settle in the back of his mind, and he thinks, ah, that's what he wants.

He's seen it in the wrenching way Sora looks at beaches, the times his nose has scrunched up in his sleep, his half-dreamy smiles for the girl he left behind, every time a ragged whisper of "Riku" has slipped past his lips, and if home is where the heart is then he's already there.

(Sora's love is sincere enough to burn a world to ashes.)

But Sora's too young to know that the reason he wants to go home so badly is that it's the only place he can imagine being safe, because it's where his memories of his precious people were formed, and all he wants is to keep his precious people close, because it's gotten so idealized in his head that he doesn't realize how very much he's changed, how much they all have, and it will be a painful realization buried in all that joy if he ever does get home.

(They will win this fight and there will be no more hearts lost to darkness, there will be no more children murdered in this war, and they will be done with Xemnas--with Xehanort--for good.)

Sora will be happy there, with them, if the worlds would let them have peace for a time, and Kairi will be too, but he's not a wizard because he's blind, and just because he gives his temper free reign (the Duck temperament is famous on more worlds than his own) doesn't mean he isn't capable of insight.

Looking at his king now, he can see the longing and the frustration and the understanding, and he thinks that of the three of them, Riku would be the one to come back with them in a heartbeat, if not for Sora and Kairi. Sora's capacity for love is overwhelming, and Kairi's, he thinks, must be radiant, but Riku's must be intense enough to drown in.

He finds he can't begrudge his king for not wanting to let that go, not when there's a curl of reluctance deep in his own heart that's only soothed by Sora's happiness, the desperate way he's clinging to them even in sleep, and the way they're holding him back, clutching hard enough to bruise.

"It's not really a surprise," Goofy says, carefully not saying out loud words that would be too clumsy for what he actually means, and those who don't watch really have no idea how graceful he is, why someone so simple on the surface has the king's endless and precious trust, and always, always will. "They're just a little too young to figure it out, that's all."

And that's the real trouble, that at this young they've already discovered what they are, even if they're not quite sure what it means.

Storybook love is real, Donald knows, real enough for falling and redemption and shattering and saving the worlds, but it's dangerous, so dangerous, and it's worse when they're so very young. It might be sweet and pure when it's born, but immaturity and insecurity wreak havoc on good intentions, and that's why everything went wrong for them in the first place, because young love is never sure even when it's strong enough to rip down world-walls and tear apart hearts and bodies and minds.

(Sora has never once realized that his smiles are not actually fooling either one of them.)

Watching Sora has been enough to make him fear for his nephews, for the future when they'll fall so hard that there will be no recovering from it, because everyone in his family loves long and viciously, and even when it will never work, even when worlds and sheer bullheaded stubbornness keep them apart, that love will never fade.

(Somewhere out in all of the worlds Goldie still sparkles, somewhere she must still shine, because his uncle still lives and laughs and breathes, and someday he will find her again.)

Sora will never abandon his allies, never turn from his duty to the worlds, but he won't stay put either, not forever, he won't belong to any of them except Kairi and Riku no matter how hard they love him, and they won't belong to his world no matter how much the idea of having the three of them living in the castle appeals.

Two keybearers and a princess of heart, the darkness in his own heart whispers, oh how greatly our kingdom would prosper, and how many more would heed our king's warnings when more keys than his own answer to the will of the worlds.

(Of the three of them, Donald has always been the most cynical, and of the three of them, he is the darkest, but a mage must know balance above all things, and destroying the darkness is just as foolish as destroying the light.)

The part of him that loves Sora wants him safe and happy, and that would mean that Kairi and Riku would be safe and happy too, and he's seen the way Riku glows around the king, the way she lights them both, and since he's found them Sora has become almost blinding in his quiet joy, and there is no refuge safer for young heroes than the halls of Disney Castle.

Daisy would love them, he thinks, and Max would be thrilled to meet the hero of the worlds, and from what the king has said Queen Minnie already knows about Riku and would take him as her own in a heartbeat. And it would be good for them, too, for Kairi to learn how to use the Light and the pretty, gleaming keyblade that Riku gave her; for Sora to refine his magic so that he wields control instead of just power; for Riku to grow accustomed to people again; for all of them to learn a little discretion and tact and how to play politics, so that they don't just keep blundering their way towards saving the worlds, one minor disaster at a time.

It would be safer, then, for the three of them to figure out how they balance against each other, how they will fight together, because it's clear that Kairi has never held a weapon before, and that Riku isn't used to having this many people around him all at once, even though it's obvious that he's missed them both, even though it only took a heartbeat for he and Sora to fall into rhythm again.

They are children in age and maturity, and adults in everything else, and from all of Sora's words the home they left behind was a refuge, a golden safe space where children could grow up in safety and in leisure, and that is not a place for a warrior to live until well past the time in which they should retire to raise little warriors of their own.

Sora is barely sixteen, Riku is brushing a too-wise seventeen, and Kairi is somewhere between them, a girl's natural maturity hampered by her lack of training, and they'll probably be all but married within the next few years, but children--and there will be children, Donald knows with a mage's foresight, ridiculously strong brilliant children, with their fathers' fierceness and their mother's clear calm understanding-- actual children will take much longer, because none of them have grown up yet, but after the vacation ends those little islands will stop being a refuge and start to stifle them again.

Not for Sora, not really, and probably not for Kairi, but Riku is another matter, and there's no hiding it, and of course they'd never let him go.

(Now that they have a kingdom, now that they are warriors and statesmen instead of dockside brawlers, they are supposed to act with grace, but Donald remembers his youth, and he remembers Mickey before he was a king, and all of the legends say that keybearers are harbingers of chaos, and his king has always, always loved dangerous things.)

Donald thinks of his nephews again, and sweet pretty pink Webigail, wherever she is, and thinks of what any of them would do if she came back with two warrior boys attached to her arms and the will and power to never ever let them go, and thinks that might be a problem, too, because some worlds are more accepting than others, and he's not quite sure what sort of place Destiny Islands really is, to have borne Sora and Riku both, and drawn Kairi to itself, and then the darkness.

(There are no gummi routes that allow passage to that shining world.)

He thinks he would like to see their home one day, but only for the people there, and for the chance to dabble in unfamiliar magics, to seek out what made them into what they are--and, he thinks, it would make Sora very happy to share something of his own with them, nothing borrowed, nothing won, but just his own.

(He cried for home once, in his sleep, called names neither he nor Goofy recognized, but somewhere along the way all the names slurred into Riku, and every smile became threaded with the promise of Kairi.)

Assuming that home is still his, of course, and Donald is well aware that he's being cruel, but he doesn't like all the secrets in the silence, and a graveyard for those foes they've slaughtered is a poor place to take a rest, but he hopes, at least, that they've found some semblance of peace, if such a thing can be granted. He whispers a prayer for them just in case, because in the old old days mages were priests, too, before the worlds began to understand what they were made of.

Compassion has its limits, and destruction has its place as well, so he has no regrets for the ones they've killed, only pity, because no-one in the Duck family has ever been kind.

Max has been raised in the palace, knew he was going to grow up in his father's footsteps, and his own nephews take after their Uncle Scrooge and are more than capable of managing on their own, but from what little Sora has said of his childhood, his islands weren't ready for a war.

No one is ever ready for a war, and yet here they sit, the best hope of the worlds a softly-snoring tangle of barely-trained teenagers, a magician with a temper problem, a knight who hates violence and a king who is giving serious consideration to child-stealing.

"It would be so easy," Mickey sighs, and draws himself to his feet, strides over to the pile of teenagers and crouches down. Riku doesn't so much as twitch when Mickey runs one gloved finger along the fall of his hair, and that is evidence enough that they must not keep them, that they have to let them go, and Donald doesn't mind the bitterness on his tongue.

(In his own thoughts, a mage must always be honest, and he is always sincere in his rage.)

"Yer actin' like a king," Goofy says approvingly, and Mickey smiles, but it's with resignation, not joy, and when he rises to his feet again, it's with a lingering glance backwards, a smile that slides into the gentlest kind of grief, thick with love and regret, promises unmade and dreams unwritten, and there's a mess left in that room in the palace, the one made for the heir that cannot be the boy lying there, even though it's his things that are scattered around that room, even though the bed is big enough for three.

Sometimes, responsibility must come before the demands of the heart.

(And Donald will always envy that Sora will never understand this.)

* * *

When they wake, they feed them and scold them and check their armor, pass around elixers and hi-potions and weigh them down with ethers, cast a few surreptitious spells, and then accompany their children to war.

(They will never be their children.)

* * *


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