* * *
by Edmondia Dantes
Disclaimer: Squeenix and Disney.
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Sora moves too quickly for the pace of their islands. He's used to running, feet pounding a rhythm of Kai-ri Ri-ku find-you find-you find-you, jumping off of buildings and onto interesting-looking ledges, poking his nose into every crevice he can find, tumbling through holes and scaling the edges of gaping chasms, every step guided by curiosity and recklessness and the keyblade's call.
Sora has been blazing roads of light for so long now that it's hard to stop, and Riku now is a quicksilver thing that melts into one shadow and out the other, and neither one of them is suited to rambling anymore, so they let Kairi lead them, guide them, hold their hands and slow them down, pull them into the ebb and flow of tide and growth, and the sand beneath their feet feels like dust blown off of old memories, like sleepy summer days when they once were small.
Walking like that is time for talking, for scouting and planning, time to indulge and time to reflect, and Kairi and Riku both know it. When they walk together, it's a luxury, all smoothness and the sound of Kairi's laughter, the soft curl of Riku's smirk, and wrapping his hands around them both, tugging at Riku's hair and Kairi's earrings and playing shameless games of keep-away with each other's school briefcases.
In those times, he feels like dancing, spinning and catching Kairi in his arms, curling himself around Riku and tugging at her until she stumbles against them both, giggling and scolding and reaching small clever fingers out to pinch and tickle and yank on his hair. The school skirts are too short and Riku's way too tall, but he fumbles his way along soft cotton hems and the folds of his tie, curls his fingers through theirs and bounces his steps, and Kairi had shrieked with laughter and smacked them both when they'd scooped her up between them and raced down the beach to dump her in the water.
Her laughter makes him tingle all over, and she pulled on his pants leg and dragged him down with her, and between the two of them they managed to get Riku thoroughly soaked even though he never actually fell into the water.
Riku's only ever that silly when he's with them, and they both hang off of him, snuggle up into him, and one rose-gold evening they'd taken the long way home, Riku's arms around their shoulders and their hands interlinked on his waist, and the memory of the mischief in Kairi's eyes and the way Riku's breath hitched when she curled their joined fingers beneath his belt still makes his stomach flutter and his cheeks heat, makes him smile and fidget and feel like he's about to wiggle out of his own shoes, because something is changing now and that something is amazing.
Walking with Riku and Kairi feels like breathlessness and laughter, and he soaks up every moment that he can, clings to them for as long as it's allowed before they have to part, and it always feels a little lonely in the moment they let go.
Knowing they're safe has always been enough to soothe him, calm him, let him pick up and move on, but there's nowhere to move on to, and even the threat of detention can't convince him that doing his homework would be a good way to spend his time, not when there are random synthesis items still lurking in his bottomless pockets, not when there are so many things for Roxas to see, not when there are old clothes to discard and a bedroom to reorganize, hiding spots to find and trinkets to carry, chores to do and a mother to please, and dreams to be dreamed in the absence of their arms around him.
But they can't always be there, because Riku has parents who want him at home and Kairi's always gotten along with the rest of the girls, so sometimes after school he settles in with familiar faces and tries to relearn them. Even if Wakka's gone through the same sort of evil growth spurt that attacked Riku and is even more smug about it, he can still team up with Tidus to trip him, and then run screaming from Selphie when she attempts to beat them to death with her briefcase for "being jerks who are so totally jealous just because they're midgets!"
They have an implicit agreement to never ever under any circumstances mention the fact that she's even shorter than they are, mostly because the little moogle charm that she's got attached to the briefcase has an awful lot of really pointy edges, and her aim's gotten even better in the time since he's been away.
Tifa, he thinks, would like her.
* * *
Walking with Tidus and Wakka and Selphie is a strange, exhilarating experience, fumbling for words and trying to breathe in their realness, careful not to smack the ball that bounces between them too hard, and putting only the slightest bit of effort into avoiding Selphie's cheerful pokes and good-natured abuse, but he clings to that, to their careless laughter and easy comfort in themselves, to friends his own age who don't remember the way it felt to see the world ending around them.
He always listens to Selphie's stories, now, and tries to follow along with the development of Tidus and Wakka's increasingly complicated ball game, even though he has no idea how anyone is actually supposed to play it. In those times, he thinks, he might be able to do it, to sink back into the sun-warmed sweetness of this life, but then his eyes will catch a glimpse of silver or the jerk of shadow and lightness, and he once left them a block and a half behind because he'd seen a flash of crimson out of the corner of his eye, and the way his insides lurched afterwards left him with wet stinging eyes and a conspicuous silence ringing in the back of his head.
He laughed it off too loudly, and Tidus gave him a sharp glance, and Selphie's eyes were thoughtful and her lips were pursed, and Wakka looked a little bit too old for the moment, and in a heartbeat he wondered what they'd really been thinking all the time that he was away.
So many worlds, so many moments, so many battles and so many precious people, and it scares him just a little that settling down seems like such a foreign thing, when all he ever wanted was to come back home again.
He wanted to keep his friends safe and the worlds safe and he wanted to protect them and find them and go home and he did and it's wonderful and he has no idea what he's doing, but the one time he mentioned it Kairi rolled her eyes and told him that he never had any idea what he was doing but saved the world anyway, and that takes some of the uneasiness away, to know that it's okay this time, that his ignorance won't hurt anyone or cost a heart or a life or a friendship.
Kairi once asked him to never change, he remembers, and he doesn't think he has, not really, because the people are the same and the rest of the kids are the same if a little bit taller, and the buildings are the same and the beaches are the same and the sunsets are the same and her smile is almost the same, but a little wiser, a little calmer, a little more sure and stubborn, and he thinks she must have changed her mind because she makes him feel young, sometimes, which is strange, because he feels disturbingly like a grownup whenever he's with his mother.
There are fine lines on her face now, and he doesn't think they're from smiling, and he's pretty sure that's his fault, because he's not blind and he's not stupid, and she looks at him now like he's almost a stranger. He doesn't like that, he wants to fix it, and he's not really sure how, so he does his chores unasked and keeps his room tidier than he used to and holds her arm when they walk down to the market, and tells her she's pretty when she laughs.
He learned chivalry from Goofy and passion from Donald, and from his mother he's relearning gentleness, a strange soft thing that makes him feel like his skin doesn't fit right, like there are too many calluses on his hands.
Walking with his mother is a careful, delicate thing, shaded in memories of being small and the ever-present need to curb his reactions, to be slow and patient and kind, and even if she doesn't understand why he's so eager to carry her things, to chatter to her about his day in all of the ways teenage boys aren't supposed to, it still makes her smile. He hangs back when she interacts with the other islanders, tucking the sight of her smile and the faint lines of silver in her hair away into a soft empty space inside his memories, to be protected and cherished for the strange painful sweetness that it is, and thinks maybe he's a little bit more like a grownup now, and maybe she likes that even if she thinks it's weird.
"She lived a year without you," Riku told him once, soft and calm and cool, and even though he's always been the most grownup of all of them, there's something about him now that makes him seem older, "it was to keep you both safe, but she can't forget that you didn't exist for her, once. It's gotta be weird for a mom, to think that you could forget your own kid."
Riku can see in the dark now, Sora knows, and that's why he doesn't let anyone look him in the eye, but Sora and Kairi both lean up on their tiptoes and stare because it's like looking into forever, like looking into his soul, and one soft sweet night Kairi had leaned over with Naminé's eyes and whispered that Riku could see in the light, too, and that's why he won't look at anyone else the way he looks at them, because he can see right through everything and fragile things collapse when they're examined too closely.
Maybe that's why his mom flinches, he thinks sometimes, like he's a ghost, but the sad kind, not the laughter-dancing-shrieking kind, but when she scolds him, she looks right into his eyes, and he knows that shouldn't be as reassuring as it is, that she can see him and realize that he's still himself, even though things are a little different now, even though he's a little bit older, even though she's a little bit unused to him.
Crumbling things are meant to be rebuilt, Sora thinks, and runs his fingertips along the crisp plastic outlines of his now-outdated Hollow Bastion Restoration Committee membership card.
She made him chocolate-chip pancakes for breakfast the first weekend he was home again, and he remembers the curious, cautious way Roxas had peered across the table at her, and the way they both pretended they couldn't see the faint glitter of tears in her eyes.
Roxas has never had a mother before.
* * *
Everything is a little bit strange now, for all that everything is the same, and there are others, sometimes, people whose names he once knew and half-forgot and then remembered, and if he's a little awkward and clumsy sometimes in his greetings, that's only to be expected after such a long absence, and he's always glad to clear up a mixed-up memory, to seal a familiar face back into place and to think, yes, I know this place.
Walking by himself is strangest of all, because after two years of constant companionship, Sora doesn't quite know how to handle being alone. In those times, he can't even chatter to himself, because Roxas pulls back until he's a quiet and distant curl of stillness deep in the back of his mind, and even though the island folk are friendly, even though passers-by will wave and smile and greet him by name, it still feels strange. He stops and chatters to everyone just the same, offers to carry things for old ladies and run errands and do whatever he can to help out the other islanders, but everyone tells him to relax, to take it easy, to get used to being home again, and even when he presses, pushes, says it's no problem and that he's happy to help, he's always being gently rebuffed, sometimes with people laughing softly in the way that adults always do and saying "My, you've grown up so much, haven't you?"
My friends would let me help, he thinks, and then scolds himself for being petty when he knows they're not trying to be condescending.
And that ties his tongue and stills his hands, because he doesn't know how to explain that unless he can connect again, unless he can reach out and dig in, it'll never feel right, and every soft refusal leaves him a little more at a loss, because being at home should feel like a vacation and it does, but he's not sure how to reconnect with this place when there's nothing here for him to do except play and work and slide back into the Sora-shaped void that he made when he left, but he's grown a little since then, and he's beginning to think he doesn't quite fit anymore.
"Three hundred days," Riku told him off-handedly once, and it made his breath seize too-tight in his throat, to think of so much time wasted sleeping while the worlds spun on without him. "...we missed each other at Castle Oblivion by a couple of hours."
"Three hundred days," Kairi whispered, fingers twisting in his shirt, teeth biting into her lip, and he wanted to apologize even though he wasn't sure why, "...she's sorry. You don't know how sorry she is."
Were you ever alone like this? he asks once, and Roxas is quiet for a long time before he says mostly after I left and the silence that comes after tastes like cool ashes and sea-salt melting on his tongue.
He's never dared to use that spoked little keychain, the one that burns bright-hot when his fingers brush against the metal, the one that doesn't belong to him and never will.
Missing Donald and Goofy is a quiet, steady ache that he does his best to block out most of the time, but the emptiness at his side only seems to fill when Riku or Kairi are nearby, and it only goes away completely when they're both there. So he runs, because that's what he knows how to do, but even he can recognize that if he moves full-out he's too fast and he's too strong, so he can only run when no one is looking, and being forced to walk to wherever they are is a slow and inventive sort of torture, because when he's alone he can't stroll, he can't laugh and banter and get distracted by interesting sights and sounds and smells and people, because there is no one there to talk to.
Roxas pretends that he's not looking for sunshine smiles and gentle laughter and dark hair and vendors selling ice cream that doesn't exist here, and Sora pretends not to notice him pretending.
* * *
Even though he tells himself it's safe here, even though the world is locked, even though everything is calm and collected and normal here, even though everything smells and tastes like paradise, as much as he tries to squash the feeling, as much as he tells himself that he's being irrational, he can never quite shake a vague uneasy feeling that unless he hurries, unless he rushes pell-mell across the roads and down long stretches of sand, by the time he finally gets there, his precious people will be gone again.
He once caught a glimpse of Riku through a closing door, somewhere between his house or his own, and he doesn't remember which one it was because he spent the next half-hour with his face buried against his chest and sobbing nonsense while Riku stroked his hair and said nothing, because there were no words to say; and when Kairi is too still for too long Sora has to toss crumpled balls of paper or paopu rinds or random bits of whatever is in his pockets at her just to see her move again; and sometimes he watches Riku's curling fingers and the way the shadows seem to bend just so in the afternoon light with his heart beating a little bit too fast; and when she's there with them, Kairi holds their hands and wraps herself around their arms and sets her jaw and digs in with nails that are steadily growing more ragged by the day and a brilliant, blinding light that sharpens with every breath she takes.
On their first night back they split a paopu three ways, and his lips still tingle from the brush of their fingers, from the tang of the juice, and he still feels heat rush to his cheeks every time he thinks of the way her eyes had darkened as she'd bitten into the soft flesh they'd held out for her, the way Riku had peered at them through thick lashes and long pale hair before leaning forward to nip at the piece suspended between his and Kairi's fingers.
The play island is the one of the few places where he can forget himself and completely relax, and he thinks that it's ironic because that's the place where the world went away, but no one else goes there anymore, and so they're free to run, to brawl and to play and to tumble like they did when they were small, and Kairi's getting stronger and faster every day, with every swing of a summer-bright keyblade and every flare of pure white light as she learns to focus her power.
So far, the paopu tree on the little island has been set on fire three times, frozen twice, and once charred by a particularly poorly-aimed Thundaga.
Laughter and the tang of new-spent magic and sweat and sun and bubbling joy, and he'd do it all over again just to win one more day of this, just one more moment to be with them.
Sometimes, rarely, Riku laughs when they're playing, clear and careless and free, and every time he and Kairi both freeze and stare, because it's so hard to breathe when he's like that, so suffocatingly beautiful that even Roxas goes shocked-still and silent in the back of his mind, because he's spent so long chasing after him that having him here still makes his eyes sting sometimes, still makes him reach out for no reason at all, just to be able to touch him and make sure that he's real.
Heartless and darkness and flashing neon and pouring rain, spinning on slick ground and sliding closer to panic and he needs to escape, before the others come, before the Heartless shred him to bits, no matter that he has no heart, and his head snaps up and his not-breath chokes in his chest as Oblivion screams joyful recognition in his hand.
Kairi tackles them both with the force of a keybearer in the making, and even though she's still learning, she's the only other one on the islands who's fast enough and strong enough to knock them down. But they have to treat her like she's an ordinary girl when they're around other people, curb every motion and plaster politeness on top of meekness so that her father doesn't act on his very clear desire to murder them both, because, as he's slowly realizing, Kairi is actually a girl, and that means things that he doesn't really want to think about, except maybe how pretty she is when she's all flushed with exertion, and how the smooth lengths of her arms and legs are starting to harden into sleekly curved muscle, and how nice it would be if they didn't have to sneak her out of her room every night just to keep her beside them, and how pretty it looks when Riku's got his arm around her waist and is whispering into her ear.
Taller and smoother and sharper and brighter, sleek hair and sly smiles and clever eyes, and Kairi turned beautiful when he wasn't looking and people stare at Riku now and he thinks sometimes that they know what this thing is, and just haven't gotten around to telling him yet.
He wants to touch them all the time now, to tug at the eight million zippers on Kairi's dress and flick Riku's hair out of his eyes, because the prettiest thing he'd ever seen was Kairi in the World That Never Was, stretched up on tiptoe and pushing back long silver bangs while Riku smirked down at her, and the memory of that alone is enough to make a warm knot curl up in his stomach, to make him want to fling his arms around them and clutch them to himself and never ever let them go.
But their parents look at them warily now, because they forgot him and thought Riku ran away and panicked when Kairi disappeared, so he can't do it, can't catapult himself out of the doorway and into their arms, can't pull Riku into a full and proper brawl, can't pick up Kairi and twirl her around, can't do anything that will give away just how strong and how fast he's become, or how nervous he gets whenever they're not around him.
"I can smell you," Riku says once, sleepy and content sometime long after midnight, Kairi drowsing against his chest and Sora tucked against his side, beneath her outstretched arm, "and Kairi can sense our hearts from really far away. You just need to pay more attention."
I do, Sora thinks, and nestles closer, curls his fingers into the fall of Kairi's hair and rests his cheek on Riku's shoulder, I do I do I do but it‘s so hard to see anything but the emptiness when you're not there beside me.
* * *
They sneak out every night that they can manage and curl up together, on the roof of the school, in the treehouse, on the play island, on the beach, and in the Secret Place, and every night that they don't he lies on his back in his bed and stares out the window until his eyes water, staring down the sky. He names every world that he knows and imagines all of the ones that he doesn't, reciting names and places and hearts and ships and puppies and precious things, and even then, it sometimes takes him hours to fall asleep.
It's too quiet without the sound of Donald snoring or the low crackle of a fire or Goofy's off-key humming as he takes the first watch, without tents straining against the wind and creaking boats and the low hum of the gummi ship's engines, without the rustle of seaweed in the currents and tall grass on the savannah, and his house is just a little too far away from the beach to really hear the waves crashing on the shore. It's lonely by himself, without Riku taking up way too much room and Kairi stealing the pillows, and he worries about Riku's insomnia and Kairi's nightmares, for all that Riku takes catnaps during lunch, for all that Kairi squeezes their hands in the morning and insists that she's fine, really, she and Naminé talked it out and they're both okay, stop worrying, Riku; and Sora you look really dumb when your face gets all scrunchy like that.
Sometimes they exchange odd glances and then catch him between them, tumbling down onto his bedroom floor or the soft soft sand, his back pressed to Riku's chest and Kairi warm against his own, her arms around him, her fingers curled in Riku's shirt, Riku's breath against his ear and his arms around them, cradling them both, and he breathes out and breathes in and everything falls into perfect stillness, perfect warmth, and Riku doesn't even make fun of him when he cries, and Kairi's a girl and a princess so he knows she'll never tell.
The sound of his mother moving around and settling down for the night brings him some measure of comfort and familiarity, makes his eyelids droop and reminds him of being small, but it made a small sour thing turn over in his stomach when he realized that even parental affection isn't what it once was. It makes his skin itch and his fingers curl sharply into his pants and his teeth clench, because holding still is so close to impossible, but he's learned the hard way that even careless touches are enough to make his mother flinch away from his hands.
He tries to think of handling the puppies, all soft fur and tiny bodies and warmth, and it helps, somewhat, even though he knows that she's stronger than that, but they're all a little bit paranoid now, ever since he slammed the screen door behind him hard enough that it fell off its hinges, ever since Kairi splintered her own windowsill when she was scrambling back inside at four in the morning, and Riku adamantly refuses to tell either one of them how exactly he wound up with a hole the size of his fist punched all the way through his bedroom wall and out the other side.
Sora does not think "my hand slipped" is an adequate explanation for it, but Sora also knows that Riku's house is very big and very empty, and that Riku keeps his precious things safely tucked away in a box under his bed, and he and Kairi have been very careful not to mention the distinctive shimmer in the air that tastes of a lock sealed with a keyblade and not a key.
Kairi hides her growing ferocity beneath sweet smiles and stubborn gentleness, laughs it off as a result of her training, but Riku is the best at it, pulling careless stillness around him like a cloak, every movement a study in graceful restraint, which Sora finds hilarious and also tremendously unfair because Riku also hits the hardest out of all of them.
They teach Kairi to fight dirty, because Sora learned from mercenaries and nobility born of a scrappy riverboat town, and Riku learned from witches and madmen and warrior kings and the Heartless have no conception of fighting fair, and their keyblades have a viciousness that is all their own, even in Oathkeeper's delicate grace, even in deceptive fragility of the ribbons that entwine around Kairi's blade.
Sora is well aware that he is all elbows and impatience, and that this at least has not changed since he was a child, but every time he walks down the road to school alone he eyes handholds and ledges and rooftops, and remembers the feel of weightlessness and the acrid tang of spent magic burning his nose, the sharp rush of wind accompanying a knight's charge, and the smooth comfort of a keyblade singing in his hands.
* * *
There are no Heartless here, no Nobodies, and the only Darkness is what's naturally carried in people's hearts, in his own heart, in Riku, but it's safest there, in the hands and heart of someone who knows how to use it, and the first time he snuggled up close he had to swallow down a really nasty curse that he'd learned from Cid, because Riku's heartbeat had an echo, and he hates that reminder, hates that shadow on his soul, hates that he ever hurt enough to let him in.
He would kill Xehanort's Heartless over again if he could, over and over and over and over again, because the only thing as horrible as Kairi's empty shell was Riku's too-full one, and even though he has no regrets he knows that they both made her cry.
Maybe that's his darkness, his rage, but power is power and he's been able to channel it, shape it, make it for protection and not aggression, and maybe that's a good thing for a hero to know.
Sora knows better than to think that he's perfect, especially when everyone is too-quiet when his vision swirls with blackness, when Heartless fall to fang and claw and Darkness instead of the keyblade's shining light.
Sometimes he reaches up and pulls Riku down to him, rests their foreheads together, entwines their fingers, breathes in his breath and the shadows beneath his skin and thinks yeah, this is okay too.
Pencils snap and paper crumples and books stacked on books stacked on books are nothing but an interesting thing to try and balance on his head, not quite like the colorful water jugs he remembers on the women of Agrabah, and sometimes that is enough to slow him, to take the edge off of his impatience and to ground him once again.
And it makes Kairi laugh and Riku smirk, and even before he'd reached them he'd already known what he would do to win that again, when everything and everything and everything was battle and power and searching, always searching, always seeking, and he's dropped to his knees for them both, again and again and again, because he loves his friends and he loves the worlds and he loves the light and the darkness, but he's always, always been theirs.
Sora needs to run, and everything is okay when Kairi and Riku run with him.
Every night, they race down empty lanes and across soft damp sand, and if he closes his eyes, it feels like flying.
Someday they will go back to Neverland and make it right again, wipe away the mistakes and bad memories and play with the mermaids and the lost boys, and then, then they will fly.
* * *
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