Author Notes: Happy Halloween. :D Here is the too-long-to-be-called-epilogue that I dubbed with the term "Bridge" since it leads directly into Goodnight Moon's sequel. Yes, sequel. Notes are at the end. Enjoy!
"How can you save me
When the dark comes here tonight
To take me up to my front walk
And into bed where it kisses my face
And eats my head..."
— Shivaree, "Goodnight Moon"
Bridge: oh what should i do i'm just a little baby
"Hey, this is Sora. I can't get to my phone right now—or I'm ignoring you—so just leave a message and I'll get back to you when I can."
Sora wasn't answering his cell phone.
In fact, as many times as Riku had tried calling it, it always immediately picked up with Sora's cheerful voicemail.
This normally wouldn't be a cause for panic, but Riku knew Sora better than that. Sora's cell phone would have been charged by now, he always kept it on the highest ring when he wasn't at school or at work, and he always answered when Riku called.
So, throughout his morning, during his class and on the walk over here, Riku had come up with a few possibilities as to why he kept getting voicemail.
Sora could be mad at him for some totally illogical reason—Riku was pretty sure he hadn't done anything to warrant that. Sora could have lost his phone sometime since last night, which was slightly more illogical than the last possibility, considering that Sora kept that phone at his side like he needed it to breathe. Or, Sora could have accidentally broken it, or Paopu could have hidden it, or... Well, Riku didn't know.
He decided to vent his frustration into the voicemail.
"Dammit, Sora! Why aren't you picking up your phone! I'm almost to your house!" And then softer, more concerned, "Are you mad at me for some reason, baby? Usually you call me before class, and after, and... Oh never mind, we'll talk about it when I get there."
Sora did remember that Riku was coming this morning to look in the attic with him, right? Sora wouldn't forget something like that...
Feeling a worried flutter inside of him, he flipped his phone closed and stuffed it into his pocket, deciding to hurry the rest of the way.
It was a relatively nice day, so Riku was surprised when he didn't see Sora's neighbors outside as they usually were. Old Lady Winkle was not, in fact, walking her ill-tempered rat terrier, nor was Sora's proclaimed "Mr. Creepy" out making renovations on his home like he did most mornings. Maybe they were having tea together or something.
Riku half-jogged up Sora's front walk and stopped in front of the door, pausing a moment to take a deep breath, trying to be patient with himself so he wouldn't fire off a million questions at Sora and upset him. In all honesty, Riku couldn't remember the last time they had been without contact with each other for so long. Yeah, it had only been like thirteen hours, but still...
Riku didn't like it when his routine was messed up.
Knowing Sora's doorbell didn't work, he pounded a fist against the wooden frame, calling out.
"Sora, I'm here!"
Pretty soon he'd hear the happy barking of Paopu, like usual, and Sora would follow right after his silly dog.
But as Riku stood there, seconds ticking by, he was only met with silence. The eerie kind.
Well... That was okay. Sora should be expecting him, so Riku could just walk in, like he sometimes did.
Pulling out his keys, he swiftly unlocked the door both ways and pushed it open—
—only to be met with the damn chain.
Okay, so maybe Sora hadn't been expecting him (which was weird...). Maybe he was sick in bed or something and had turned off his phone so he wouldn't be bothered...? Then again, if that was true, Sora would have called him and told him he was going to do that. Still, Riku smiled, figuring that if Sora was bed-ridden and didn't want to get up, Riku could pamper him all day, sorta like he had yesterday afternoon.
Those thoughts faded, however, when he again noticed the strange absence of Paopu's barking and jumping at the door, excited to see Riku. The dog never missed the opportunity to greet him, so without him there on the other side of the door, it was kind of... weird.
Were Sora and Paopu were out back or something? Well, Riku sure wasn't going to get in through the front door with the chain on, so to the backyard he went, hopping off the porch to the side fence. He pulled the gate open and hesitated there, frowning when he didn't see or hear Sora or Paopu anywhere nearby.
Maybe they'd gone for a walk...? No, Sora had left his chain on...
Getting a little more worried, Riku closed the gate and crossed the green lawn, stepping over dog toys and rusting gardening tools to reach the back door. He was about to use his key again when, curiously, he tried the knob.
The door swung easily open, surprising Riku.
Why had it been unlocked? Sora always—
Then again, Riku couldn't remember locking it yesterday after giving Paopu a bath.
His stomach gave a sick churn and he immediately rushed inside, fearing for the worst. The one day he leaves the door unlocked, something bad happens? What were the odds...? What if Sora had been kidnapped, or raped, or, or—
Stop thinking about it! Just find him!
The scent of death hung heavily in the air, far worse than it had the previous day. Whatever was rotting in the attic was really getting into the decomposition stage. But then... that wasn't all that he was smelling, he realized.
Tucking his keys away, he stopped in the kitchen, making a disgusted face and trying not to hurl as he tried to pick out the different odors.
Smelling dead animal was awful, yes... But there was also... something metallic—rusty-smelling. And... bile? Urgh, what a terrible combination.
Clamping a hand over his mouth, Riku gagged, feeling his eyes water as he tried to hold back a revolted groan. The smell was so rancid, it nearly hurt to breathe. He wouldn't blame Sora for not being home, with his place reeking this bad...
Still... Sora had kept the chain on, meaning he was here... unless he had suddenly changed routine and started using the back door. Not likely.
As he curled a hand into his shirt, over his churning stomach, he slowly began moving into the hallway, an apprehensive feeling building within him as the stench grew stronger. A peek into the den area uncovered nothing, so he continued, swallowing thickly and momentarily closing his eyes as a shudder coursed through him.
Something was wrong... Very wrong. Too many little coincidences were stacking up, making him sick with dread. No calls, no answering, Paopu missing, Sora not there to let him in, chain still on the door, backdoor open, house too quiet, the smell—oh God, the smell...
And the attic door was open.
Passing under it, he raised his eyes to glance up into its shadowy depths, lifting a hand to cover his nose. The rotten smell was definitely coming from in there, but...
His gaze lowered, focusing on the open doorway of Sora's bedroom. Just beyond it was a few scattered DVD cases, a few of them crushed. Next to them, he saw some discoloration of the carpet... like someone had spilt paint.
His bad feeling grew worse and the blood drained from his face, his heart fluttering, nervous, scared.
His voice sounded totally unlike himself, trembling with worry and a level of fear he hadn't known he was capable of.
He took a step closer, nearly choking on his breath, tears stinging his eyes as the rusty, vomit-like scent grew more intense. Suddenly, he didn't want to know what was in there, how this investigation would turn out... Sora was his only concern, and his instincts were screaming at him, telling him things were not right, that Sora was...
Another step, and Riku had to squeeze his eyes shut, not wanting to look as he drew closer, closer, trepidation rising within him.
Oh God, oh God...
His breath was coming in sharp gasps from behind his shaking hand by the time he felt his shoes hit the soft carpet of Sora's room, one gently kicking a stray DVD case. An unmistakable buzz caught his attention, the erratic movement of familiar insects—feasting flies. Stomach churning, he paused in the doorway, feeling a hot tear glide down his cheek as he slowly slipped his eyes open.
Blood. The room in disarray. The window open. Sheets twisted and dotted with red.
A messy carcass on the floor—
"Oh my God—!"
The cry was choked out in a weak voice as he clutched his stomach, taking in the appalling sight before him. The only comfort was that the shredded corpse in front of him was too small to be Sora. Through all of the reds and browns of blood and spilled entrails, he saw a hint of golden fur, and realized whose remains littered the room.
A terrible groan escaped him and he tore his eyes away, stumbling back and spinning to the corner of the room where he retched right onto the carpet.
Pressing a hand against the wall to keep himself up didn't work, his knees shaking too badly, so he crumpled to the floor, his body quaking with sobs as remained stooped over, breath hitching inside of him as he tried to keep from heaving again.
What had happened...?
Holy shit... HOLY SHIT!
His mind reeled with panic, clouded with worry, and he cradled his head to try to clear it, but...
The hum of flies and the acrid stench of blood and vomit strangled the air.
Oh fuck, he couldn't breathe—he had to get out of there—!
Weakly, he got to his feet, staggering a few steps before managing to get out the door, partially choking, half sobbing, coughing as he paused, clutching himself in the hallway, his tears dripping onto the wooden floor.
A million questions whirled through his scared mind, none of his logic making any sense, nothing coherent forming as he replayed the image of Paopu's mutilated body over and over, feeling sick down to his very bones.
All that blood—Paopu dead—
Where was Sora!
The room—complete mess, disaster—break-in, maybe? Sora's phone, on the floor, broken...
Riku buried a hand into his pocket, grabbing his phone as he stumbled down the hall to the front door, feet hurrying as panic escalated, every bit of him fearing the worst. His fingers fumbled as he pulled the cell open, tears blurring his eyes as he looked down at it, hands trembling too much to punch in the right numbers.
He staggered into the entryway, pushing delete to try the numbers again—
But strong fingers suddenly pulled the phone from his quivering hands.
He gasped, raising his pale face to meet the tall figure now standing in front of him.
Behind him, the front door was standing wide open, its chain dangling from the slider, broken.
Oh no. This was not happening! His fucking phone was in the maybe child molester's hand, who had broken in through the front door, and the guy that was probably behind all this mess—Sora's disappearance, Paopu's body—
Riku's stomach lurched again and he grimaced, taking a step away from the man, knowing how downright terrified he probably looked, but he didn't care. He just kept gaping at his cell phone as Mr. Creepy calmly snapped it shut and narrowed his dark eye at him.
"You should always lock the front door," was what he said, his deep voice giving nothing away. When he saw the direction of Riku's stare, he added, "The cops won't be able to do anything."
Was that a threat!
Oh God, Sora had been right all along!
Gut twisting with despair, Riku slowly backed away, eyes wide. "Y-Y-Y-You—!" he started stuttering, pointing a shaking finger at him.
Mr. Creepy was already moving toward him, strides long and purposeful—and Riku tensed, holding his breath, fearing what this large man could do to him—
But the man moved right past Riku, entering the adjacent hallway. Heart hammering in his chest, Riku slowly turned, feeling himself shudder as he watched Sora's neighbor. The man had paused just beyond the entryway, his hardened face raised into the air. He took a long, intent sniff—
—and then, as if finding something, he proceeded towards Sora's room.
What What the hell was going on?
In front of him, the morning sunshine poured through the front door, warming his damp, pale face. His escape was right there, open and waiting for him. All he had to do was walk right outside and make a run for the nearest phone, let the world know what he had just seen, that his boyfriend was gone, probably hurt and scared somewhere, if he wasn't already dead.
But something stopped him from leaving.
As sick as he felt and as hopeless as his situation seemed, something nagged at him.
Mr. Creepy was letting him go. He was letting him choose whether to stay or not. That was not what a criminal would do. Wouldn't Riku be considered a witness?
Unsure of himself, Riku slowly turned, glancing toward the hallway where the man had gone. Fear, poisonous and cold, twisted inside of him, but he had to know. That alone made him do what he did.
Footsteps soft and insecure, he followed Mr. Creepy and returned to Sora's bedroom, pausing in the doorway and feeling nauseous. The man was bent over Paopu's carcass, studying it with a straight face, his gaze a bit grim. When Riku's feet stopped at the threshold, the man acknowledged his presence by raising his head, but he didn't turn to look at him. Instead, he spoke, his voice firm.
Riku swallowed thickly, practically tasting the smell of death. "Y-You didn't do this..." he said in a weak voice. It wasn't a question.
"Do I look like I eat dogs, kid?" he replied in a dry voice as he straightened his back and rose to his feet.
"Actually..." Riku paused, trembling and staring. "...y-yeah."
The man didn't even bother replying. He glanced around the destroyed room, taking in the open window, overturned furniture, twisted sheets, and other evidence as if it was nothing new to him, as if he had been expecting it all. A morning breeze was softly brushing a corner of the blood-dotted sheets, and Riku noticed for the first time that not only were they in disarray, but they were also slightly pulled towards the window.
"This kill is too fresh to be smelling this bad," he commented as he finally turned to Riku, dark eye narrowing in question. "Where are the other corpses? How long has it been smelling?"
Kill too fresh? Other corpses?
"That was our dog, you asshole!" Riku snapped, green eyes stinging with tears. Furiously wiping them away, he once again felt a sharp fear stab at him, worry for Sora's fate... He was scared to ask, if the man even knew at all.
He should have run away... He shouldn't have stayed. None of this made any sense and it didn't seem like it would start piecing together any time soon, not here, not like this...
He just wanted Sora. What was he doing here...? This creepy asshole couldn't help him.
"I'll find them myself, then," the man said simply as he moved towards the bed. "Probably the attic..."
Riku gritted his teeth and clenched his eyes shut, feeling queasy as a shudder coursed through him.
"This was where he did it..." Mr. Creepy muttered to himself as he inspected the sheets and around the mattress. Riku couldn't help thinking about the monster under the bed that Sora had always been afraid of. "No body. He must have taken him..." A murmur. "Window..."
Riku listened to the man for a long moment, uncertain of what to do, if he should ask, or if he should have already taken off running for the police. Only when he heard a familiar snap of plastic did he lift his face again, green eyes wide as he watched the man dial in a number on his cell phone.
"Hey, that's mine, you assh—"
"This is Auron," the man said into the phone, completely ignoring Riku as he went back to inspecting Paopu's messy corpse. "Yeah, last night. He got him. I need a clean-up crew—ah, get me number eight if you can. That's right. Tell him I need the works." He paused, raising only his eye to glance at Riku. "A few witnesses, some dead pets, a missing person..."
A few witnesses? Some dead pets?
Nothing was making any sense... ARGH. By now, Riku's fear was settling, overcome by frustration and the kind of anger associated with complete confusion and desperation.
"Mm-hm. I'll take responsibility," the man named Auron continued. He paused for a long moment, listening to the other line, and then gave a short nod as he got back to his feet again. "After I look around some more, I'll erase my presence and start tracking again. Right. Understood."
The cell phone snapped shut and Auron's gaze focused on Riku, who was almost seething.
"I need to ask you a few questions," he stated calmly as he moved around Paopu's remains and approached Riku.
Green eyes dangerously narrowing, Riku curled his hands at his sides and decided he would be asking questions too. "Where the hell is Sora!" he demanded, his voice shaking only a little as he glared at the man. "And what the hell is going on and who the fuck are you?"
Auron gave him a very degrading, unimpressed stare, and said nothing.
Releasing a frustrated growl, feeling more helpless than he'd ever been in his whole life, Riku grated his teeth and lowered his head, feeling utterly stupid and alone and—
Sora, what happened? Where are you? What the hell is going on!
He honestly couldn't remember the last time he had cried, and here he was today, trying to hold back the tears once again welling at his eyes as his whole life crumbled in front of him. If Sora was really gone, he didn't know what he'd do...
"Look," he managed to get out, pressing a hand over his eyes so Auron couldn't see his pained expression. "You obviously know what happened to Sora. If you could just tell me..."
"And then what?" Auron asked, tone dark and rigid. "There's nothing you can do, kid."
Riku clenched his jaw, stopping himself from snapping at the man again. After a moment, he lowered his hand and continued softly. "Sora's my life... I've always been there for him. I love him. I'm the only one he really trusts..." He hesitated, glancing at Paopu's body and feeling sick again. He needed to get out of this room. "...if you know what happened, tell me."
The strange man was silent for a while. A hand rose to scratch his stubble before he started to move past Riku, whose heart sank with despair at the silent dismissal.
But Auron actually paused right next to him and reached out to give him something. Two somethings. His cell phone and Sora's butterfly knife.
The knife was no longer a weapon, a short nub there where the blade had once been, like it had just been snapped off.
Unreal, was all Riku could think as he stared down at it. How...?
He wasn't sure why, but somehow, it was starting to piece together, but he wasn't sure what it all meant, or if he wanted to believe it. This wasn't just a random kidnapping. There was a lot more behind this.
The room looked as though a pair of tigers had been let loose in it, things thrown off bookshelves, furniture torn apart, CDs scattered everywhere, bloody footprints... And Paopu's body, shredded, a lot of it missing as if it had been eaten, like a velociraptor from Jurassic Park had gotten to it or something! Then the knife... Sora's knife, the blade cleanly broken off like that. It was weird. Too weird to be real.
"You were the last one with him," Auron said, interrupting his thoughts. His voice was completely serious, as if he handled this kind of catastrophe everyday. "What do you remember?"
What do I remember...? What the hell was there to remember! He hadn't been here last night. The last thing he remembered was Sora's voice telling him he'd see him tomorrow, this morning, and what Riku had gotten was this fucking nightmare!
Trying to ignore the desolate feeling threatening to overwhelm him, Riku realized he wasn't going to get anywhere if he continued panicking like this. Maybe if he calmed down a little, took things a little at a time, played along with Mr. Creepy Auron's charade—
Maybe he'd find out what had happened.
"If I tell you what I know... will you answer my questions...?" Riku asked quietly.
Auron studied him for a moment before responding. "Best save the trouble of memory wiping you," he said as he turned toward the hallway. "Though we might have to anyway..."
Memory wipe? What the fuck was he going on about?
Gritting his teeth, Riku followed after him—I can't believe I'm doing this!—and tucked his cell phone and Sora's once-knife into his pocket.
Auron came to a stop beneath the open attic door, where he lifted his arms to pull down the ladder. He was tall enough, which intimidated Riku slightly more, but he knew that if Auron was going to hurt him, he would have done it already. Riku had given him plenty of opportunities. Unless Auron was waiting for that information... Not that Riku had it anyway.
Once he unfolded the ladder and made sure it was firmly secure, Auron then looked at Riku again, adding onto his earlier statements.
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe it."
Oh man, how cliché. Then again... It held a lot of truth.
Lips pulling into an impatient frown, Riku actually thought back to all the times he hadn't believed Sora and that all of this had probably happened because he had led Sora into a false sense of security.
Sora had been so scared that night, and Riku had been too scared for Sora's sanity to want to believe him in return... Whether these incidences were related or not—Sora's disappearance and Sora's hallucinations the day before—Riku should have known, Riku should have stayed with him, helped him, done something. He might not have believed Sora, but... Maybe he could have done something.
Now here he was with Sora's creepy-maybe-child-molester neighbor, trying to figure out what had happened. It was unreal. Like it was just some freak nightmare... and when Sora called him, he'd wake up from all of this and hear Sora's cheery voice again, teasing him for being such a lazy ass bum and sleeping all day through classes... or something...
He could have avoided this if he had believed Sora, so he didn't want to make the same mistake again, no matter what he heard... UFOs or mafia business, or monsters or something.
"No," he said at last, just as Auron was beginning to climb the ladder.
The man paused to look at him, face giving away nothing. Riku lifted his eyes, feeling the heavy weight inside of him sink even more, apprehension making him shiver a little.
"No," he repeated, more resolute this time. "I didn't believe Sora. If you tell me, I'll listen."
Something accepting flickered in the man's dark eye, and he slowly nodded, starting up the ladder again. "Follow me."
So Riku did, licking his lips nervously as he began to climb. As his head lifted into the attic, he nearly gagged, the smell of death catching in his throat. He pulled himself into the attic and crouched right there, afraid to move any farther, for fear of what he would bump into. Auron had moved to the center of the attic and located the light, which gave off a weak illumination when it was tugged on.
As he swept his gaze across the dimly-lit space, Riku remembered discussing the smell with Sora just yesterday, and how they had figured it had just been a dead squirrel or something.
No, not a squirrel.
The attic was now a small graveyard of nearly a dozen small corpses.
"As I thought," Auron sighed, calmly stepping around the bodies to study the corners of the attic more thoroughly.
Riku remained rooted in his spot, eyes wide as he studied all of the mutilated bodies of cats, dogs, and yes, a few squirrels. It was like some wild animal had ripped them apart, feasting mostly on their stomachs and not caring what a mess it had made of things. He gagged again, a hand over his mouth, and made a face, but didn't retch again. By now, the shock had already worn away, leaving him in a kind of numbed state of fear, his curiosity greater than his immediate sense of danger.
He even noticed the remains of what looked like a few of Ms. Winkle's pets—including her annoying rat terrier. Riku suddenly felt guilty for never liking that damn dog of hers. Maybe that was why Riku hadn't seen the old woman outside earlier—she no longer had her precious pup to walk...
And whatever had feasted on it had made sure to clean out its innards well, along with the other unfortunate animals whose remains littered the attic. Hind legs, tails, chewed-off heads...
All the bodies... even the poor old lady's favorite pet... Terrible...
"All of these kills were recent. Some from last night, others from the night before at most," Auron explained. He sunk to his knees to inspect something. "Hmm... Turn off the light."
Something had been living in Sora's attic for at least two nights? Oh God...
The sick feeling returning, Riku got to his feet and carefully stepped over a cat carcass to pull the string from the dangling light bulb. The attic fell to shadow again, and for the fear of stepping on something he didn't even want to touch, Riku stayed in that one spot, waiting for further instruction.
"Take a look," Auron stated from his position in the corner.
At first, Riku wasn't sure what he was looking for, but it was right there in front of him, all around him.
Scattered around the floor were little holes in the boards through the ceiling below them. Nice, strategically-placed holes, and Riku could see light from the actual house shining through them into the attic. Almost like... Peepholes.
Whatever had been living up here had been spying on Sora—and Riku, now that he thought about it—and it hadn't been just a spontaneous thing. It had been planned. And animals, even animals that mutilated pets, did not premeditate stuff like this. That was a human characteristic.
Something—someone had been watching Sora all this time. When they'd played games, ate lunch together, had sex in the shower and on the bed, or just watched TV together... someone had been watching them.
These peepholes were so small and perfectly crafted that they probably wouldn't have been discovered for a very, very long time.
A sense of total and complete, utter violation washed over Riku and he groaned, burying his face in his hands and shuddering.
"Holy fuck..." he whispered.
"This was their hideout."
Auron still sounded totally calm.
Riku listened as the man got to his feet and started back towards him, his heavy shoes scraping against the dusty wood until he stopped right in front of Riku and turned the light on. Riku didn't lift his head.
"Their hideout...?" he asked quietly, voice weak.
Auron's large hand rested on Riku's shoulder a brief moment before slipping away. The man then crouched and started heading down the ladder. His touch had suggested that he didn't want to tell Riku anything, but understood and sympathized with the boy's situation.
If he asked again, maybe answers were going to be given. Though, the words of warning were left unsaid this time.
It could have been a joke, but considering all of the freaky shit he'd seen in the past half hour, Riku was beginning to suspect the same kind of things people called Sora crazy for believing.
Sora had known something was wrong in his home, someone was watching him, things were out there and wanted him. Sora's suspicion had just been in the wrong place—Sora had thought Mr. Creepy had been the problem. No, the problem had been in the attic the whole time. Mr. Creepy—Auron—was a good guy?
The dread that had been gnawing at him since he had arrived was now more of a burning curiosity—with still fear, yes, terrible fear, but... Riku had to know now. So, seeking the answers, he followed Auron again.
Unfortunately, they had a bit of an interruption.
As soon as Riku stepped off the ladder, the front door practically slammed closed, startling him. He hurried after Auron to the door, watching as someone just bustled right into the entryway as if he owned the place, whistling a cheerful tune and dragging a huge trunk behind him.
Under a black Jack Skellington beanie, the guy had layered scarlet hair, some of it pulled into a tight ponytail, low and out of the way. Strange diamond-shaped tattoos graced his cheekbones just under each green eye, and though his face was young and cocky, the smirk that stretched his lips hinted at silent authority—or power—and cruel amusement, as if he knew everything that was going on and wasn't going to share it. He looked a bit older than Riku, but he dressed far younger, almost Sora-like with his black hoodie, baggy green cargos, and untied shoelaces.
"Yo," was his greeting when he spotted Auron standing there. He gave a mock-salute with one hand as he easily pulled his large trunk forward with his other. The thing gave a resounding heavy bang as he dropped it onto the tiled floor of the entryway. Totally unnatural strength.
"Axel," Auron greeted sternly, giving a small nod. "That was fast."
The man named Axel gave a grin so pleased it was kind of frightening. "Yeah, well, with last night being a full moon and all, we're kind of busy with all these requests," he laughed, completely casual as he squatted beside the trunk and easily flipped its latches. "How'd it go with you?" The question was like they were talking about something over coffee and donuts. "Guess you lost your target."
Full moon? Target?
Riku glanced from Axel to Auron—weird names—and watched the two men speak to each other. It seemed like they knew one another very well, and both were so casual about the situation that it was really unnerving.
"Mn. Working on it," Auron replied. There was a bit of obvious disappointment in his tone and that he didn't want to discuss it.
"Too bad," Axel commented as he swung open the trunk's lid. Inside, Riku saw the strangest things—from mops and other cleaning supplies, to odd-looking devices he'd never seen in his life and could only guess the purpose of. "So you need everything, huh?" Axel said as he dug through the trunk, pulling out a few things. He paused, raising his head and giving Auron a knowing look. "From the gritty stuff right down to the—hey, who's the kid?"
Riku blinked at the sudden acknowledgement, and then felt a flash of indignation at his presence seeming totally unimportant to this newcomer. This was his boyfriend's house, and these people were strangers for fuck's sake! Sora was missing and possibly hurt, Paopu was dead, Riku was confused as hell, and this guy Axel was acting like all of this was a fucking ride in the park for him!
"Witness," was Auron's curt reply.
Riku shot both of them nasty looks, wanting to scream at them from the top of his lungs until he got some answers, but he knew, somehow he knew, everything would be explained if he just remained silent for a little while longer, and that these people would help him find Sora if he didn't get in their way with whatever the hell they were doing.
Did they even care about the fact Sora was missing? Or were they only here to track whatever it was that had taken him? What the hell was going on!
"Should he be here?" Axel wondered, his sharp gaze giving Riku a very studious twice-over.
Auron nodded. "I still need to question him."
"Ah. Usually you get that done first," the other man commented as he went back to digging through his trunk. "I guess you won't be needing a purging yet, then?"
Purging? What the hell did that mean!
"No," Auron said. "Later."
Axel paused to study the two of them a long moment before he shrugged, waving them off. "Just call me over if you need me, then. Time to get to work..." And he proceeded to pull a few more things out of his trunk, lifting them as he got to his feet. He breezed past the men in the hallway and almost cheerfully headed for the attic. "Let's see what we've got today..."
This guy was completely unfazed by the situation, as if he really did handle this kind of thing several times a day. Even Auron did.
"Who's he?" Riku quietly hissed as he watched after Axel.
"We should stay out of his way for now," Auron said, his voice stern and leaving no room for argument as he suddenly grabbed Riku's elbow, his grip strong and unyielding.
"Hey—wait! What about Sora!"
"Come with me."
Too confused to protest, Riku let himself get pulled out the front door.
Auron's home had the bare necessities.
It was mostly unfurnished except for a simple table with one chair for the dining room, with a stack of newspapers and a portable TV on said table. From his seat there, he could see a small fridge in the kitchen and some scattered dishes on the counters, and down the hall was the bedroom where he saw the edge of a bed and three large suitcases.
The room next to it was closed off, and its door looked a bit splintered, as if some heavy force had repeatedly slammed into it. All the windows had been boarded up from the outside, almost like Auron had wanted to keep something in, not out. Riku hadn't seen the other rooms, but the unlived-in state definitely told him that Auron hadn't expected to live in this place long, like it was a hotel and not a house.
As he sat studying the interior of the home, Riku was given a cold, brown bottle—root beer—and he had to wonder if it was an attempt at a joke. Riku was old enough to drink, but he didn't really like doing it often, and especially now it seemed really unappealing. A lot of people drowned themselves in alcohol to forget their worries, but Riku didn't want to relax or do any forgetting. Maybe Auron knew that. Maybe Auron was trying to be cruel by not giving him alcohol. Or maybe Auron was just cheap...
Tracing his fingers over the cool glass of the bottle, he wondered if he could even stomach something right now... He could still taste the effects of seeing Paopu's remains, when he had hurled onto the floor. Man, he felt like shit...
"What are you thinking?" Auron asked as he settled in the other creaky chair at the table. In front of him, he had alcohol—something called Goldschlager that was clear with flecks of what seemed to be real gold floating in it. It reeked of cinnamon and was probably really strong.
"I don't know," Riku replied honestly. Then, a mutter, "Just want to know where Sora is..."
"We'll take turns then," he said as he poured himself a shot, the clear liquid sloshing over the edge. Little gold leafs floated in it. He set the glass bottle down again, creating a heavy thunk that made Riku flinch a little. Auron noticed it. "Look, I'm not going to hurt you," he muttered as he lifted his shot. "Go ahead and ask a question."
Frowning, Riku curled his fingers around his root beer bottle and didn't meet Auron's face. His hands were trembling. He hadn't even noticed until he'd looked at them, his skin looking so pale against the dark glass of the bottle. He felt calm, but... Obviously he wasn't okay.
With Sora gone...
Tightening his grip on the bottle, Riku felt his stomach knot. His voice was weak when he spoke at last. "Is Sora dead?" He had to know.
Auron drained his shot glass in one go and then set it down again to pour himself another. "My guess," he said, his voice thick from the alcohol, "would be... Not yet." He paused, taking a deep breath and relaxing back in his chair, a large hand rubbing at his left arm as if to soothe the muscles. "You were the last one with the kid. What do you remember?"
Throat dry, Riku realized that the drink in front of him was looking really good right now. "Sora's... always been scared of little things," he started. "A lot more than regular people. A lot of times it gets so bad that he'll go nights without sleeping. This past week has been like that..." he explained slowly, and then quietly admitted, "Even I was starting to think he was crazy." Riku dragged the brown bottle closer to him, fingering the ridges of the words on it. "Two nights ago, he ran out of his home screaming and crying. I took him back to my place where he told me he'd seen someone in his bathroom. Another him."
Auron's dark eye narrowed at this and he nodded. "Go on."
Riku licked his lips nervously. "I-I told him he'd just been seeing things," he said. "I mean... I had believed him right up to the part he said that the other person had been him." He paused, closing his eyes and shaking his head, speaking quickly. "Like maybe he was seeing double, or... hallucinating, like he's been doing lately. Sora doesn't sleep well, and... yeah..."
"And last night?" Auron asked, never mind that it wasn't his turn to ask a question.
Riku didn't notice. "Last night... he was alone, just with Paopu. The dog," he explained. "I had class. Yesterday we made plans to check out the smell in the attic this morning."
Auron gave a soft grunt, as if he understood everything now, and then he drank his second glass of Goldschlager.
Glancing up at him, Riku licked his lips again, realizing it was his turn to ask. "You know what happened to Sora," he said, certain, eyes narrowing at the older man. "What happened last night and who are you?"
Clearing his throat, Auron ran a hand across his stubble and leaned forward, setting his shot glass down and corking his bottle of alcohol. "Fine," he said at last. "First off, you should have listened to the kid."
"Stop patronizing me! I did what any normal person would have done!" Riku snapped, feeling frustration boiling inside of him. Frustration and icy, dreadful fear—the real kind, not like the short adrenaline rush at a horror flick. Real fear. The kind when someone realizes that, in this one moment, his life will never be the same.
"Maybe," Auron said, waving a hand. "But because no one believed the kid—Sora, right?—he learned first-hand what I'm about to tell you."
"What?" Riku asked. This was the last thing he needed, the last thing he should be hearing. Oh God, please don't let this be real. There should be perfectly good reasons for all of this.
"That, second off, he hadn't been seeing things," Auron said calmly. "What he said he saw, had really been there."
No fucking way—I really am hearing this!
Riku gave the man a skeptical look and frowned, his logic ready to stop trusting this guy's sanity—and then he recalled that Auron had said that Riku wouldn't believe him, and Riku was supposed to be making an effort. But... how was he supposed to believe something as crazy sounding as that?
"So you're saying there's two Soras, then," Riku said, sounding unconvinced.
Auron pushed the bottle of Goldschlager aside and shook his head. "More than two," he stated. "More than what's been recorded."
Riku's lips drew into a thin line as he waited for an explanation.
Auron actually smirked a little at his expression, dark eye glinting with strange amusement. "I'll start simple then, from the beginning," he said as he reclined back in his chair again. Its back creaked under the pressure and he sighed. "Alternate universes—multiple universes. You know what those are, right?"
Looking even more disbelieving, Riku narrowed his eyes. "Sort of."
"Well, there's thousands of them," Auron said. "We still don't have all of them recorded or under surveillance."
Auron's smirk spread a little. "Stop asking questions and pay attention, kid."
"My name is Riku," he muttered in response.
"I know," Auron said, giving the boy a calculating stare. "And before you ask, let me explain. The Sora your Sora saw was from one of these alternate worlds. In these alternate worlds, you exist—people with your name, your looks, and sometimes very similar lives." He paused, taking in Riku's skeptical expression. "It's hard to believe, but it's very real, kid."
Real. Right. Whatever.
But Auron wasn't done yet. "I've been tracking that other Sora for years now," he said calmly, as if he actually believed all of this, "and I followed him to this world, to this neighborhood. Imagine my surprise when I saw that he was hunting another Sora, your Sora."
Riku shook his head, closing his eyes, swallowing thickly.
He couldn't believe this was happening to him—that he was here, listening to this stranger spout off this nonsense.
The Riku of yesterday would have called the man a drunk—the Goldschlager was evidence enough—and already would have left. But today... Well, after what Riku had seen, he wasn't so sure his straight logic and safe little life was so real anymore.
It could have been an elaborate joke—a cruel joke, but he didn't think anyone would go through such effort just to prank him. Not with the dead animals, not with someone as paranoid as Sora behind it all.
Something was going on, and a large part of Riku's instincts was telling him Auron knew what the fuck was going on, as crazy as it all sounded. Riku didn't want to believe, but the situation wasn't giving him any choice or anything else to build theories off of.
So... Playing along, Riku contemplated Auron's words.
"So this other Sora... is some sort of criminal then?" Riku asked, wondering about all the terminology Auron was using. Hunting, tracking and all that.
"It's slightly more complicated than that," Auron admitted gruffly. "In his world, Sorah is a vampire—"
Then again... the blood...
"—and a powerful and old one at that," Auron continued without letting Riku really interrupt. "Vampires, especially elder ones, have the power to manipulate darkness somewhat."
"Older ones like Sorah can slip between the shadows of the worlds—sort of like keyholes or doors—into alternate realities."
Darkness, shadows of worlds... What?
But because Auron was explaining this without waiting for reactions, it told Riku he explained this kind of stuff a lot... which meant he could really work for some organization or something... which meant this might actually be real. Or Auron could just be a fucking psycho who said this kind of crap a lot (though if that was true, it was great wonder why he hadn't been locked in the loony bin by now).
Feeling that sick weight inside of him again, twisting at his stomach, Riku quietly asked, "So in another world... Sora is a vampire... and that vampire came to this world... And he was the one who killed Paopu and lived in the attic and took Sora?"
Auron held up a hand and shook his head. "That was the Riku of that world."
Whoa, hold on a second.
He blinked, the reality of the information sinking in. If there were alternate worlds, like Auron said, then... he wasn't the only Riku that existed. What a creepy concept.
Oh God, he wasn't actually seriously thinking about this, was he? It's for Sora, only for Sora.
"So... that Riku's a vampire too, then...?" he asked, not really believing his own words. He was talking about this like it was normal, real, not something out of a fairytale or off a movie or something, like it should have been. This was crazy. He was starting to sound crazy.
"No," Auron said, and Riku was a little surprised when he noticed how grim the man's face had gotten. "Not a vampire. More of a pet," he said. "That's a story in itself."
Brow furrowing, curious, Riku leaned forward a little, clutching his untouched root beer. "What do you mean by pet?"
"A zombie, kid," Auron said in a dark voice. "Sorah's personal bodyguard, sidekick, pet, whatever you want to call him. The fact is that he's nothing like the living dead you're probably imagining, so stop thinking about that."
Riku's lip curled a little at the word zombie, as he had indeed been thinking about the groaning, staggering undead from movies. So, zombies and vampires. What was next? Frankenstein's monster? Werewolves? Oh man...
"So then... what are zombies actually like?" he asked, quite confused as he tried to soak in all of this weird information.
"He's under Sorah's complete control, like a robot," Auron explained. "Bound by blood. He can still pass off as mostly human, with some disfiguration... But for being dead, Rikuh has the strength and agility of twenty mortals."
"Imagine a creature like that scaling walls and hunting its prey. That kind of monster runs completely on his hunger."
A cold shudder ran through Riku as he listened, picturing Auron's descriptions in his mind. If this was all real, was that what had happened to Sora? It was just all so out there, completely unbelievable to someone like Riku, who spent most of this time studying facts and trying to be logical. Vampires, zombies—those weren't reality. Yet here this Mr. Creepy was, trying to convince Riku it was reality.
If Sora hadn't been missing, and if Riku hadn't seen all that evidence with his own eyes, he wouldn't still be here.
Something was telling him Auron was right.
"As you're probably figuring out," Auron said, "Sorah was the one your Sora had seen that night." Pausing, he traced the rim of his empty shot glass, his dark eye distant as he spoke. "He and his pet zombie had probably been stalking the kid for weeks, and had only more recently made a nest out of the attic, maybe a week or so. Animals don't do much for their kind—it's the human hemoglobin that sustains their bodies. That's why there were so many corpses."
Okay. Human hemoglobin.
That right there made a shiver run up Riku's spine. Not because of its implications, that these vampires and zombies liked humans a lot more than animals... No, it truly frightened him because Auron was even bringing science into his fairytale. What kind of fucking psycho brought biology terminology into his elaborate storytelling?
Auron really knew what he was talking about. Riku could tell he was even holding back information, like he didn't want to confuse Riku. Crazy people didn't do that, did they? Either Auron was a really good actor and had this whole thing planned out, or...
Or this was real.
Releasing a sigh, Auron's voice turned grim. "The dead animals you saw were relatively fresh, from two nights at most, which means Sorah had been keeping his pet zombie very close at that time, ready to strike at a moment's notice."
Following the story, Riku nodded, a part of him really understanding all of this. A vampire and his pet zombie had been living in Sora's attic for a while, spying, waiting to attack...
Paopu had probably just been in the way, Riku realized. Wondering how long the fight had lasted, if there had been one at all, he swallowed again, staring at his perspiring root beer bottle. "Why come here?" he asked softly. "Why my Sora?"
"Probably was coincidence," Auron admitted. "He probably sniffed your Sora out and decided to have some fun. As a dark creature, Sorah is particularly notorious for raping, torturing, killing... you get the idea."
Everything made sense. Everything made far more sense than Riku trying to be logical about the situation. As sick as all of this was, as much as he didn't want to imagine it being real, he was beginning to accept it.
"And you?" Riku asked, raising his eyes to Auron's dark gaze. "Why are you here? Are you some sort of vampire slayer?" The last part was kind of a joke, but a large part of Riku was being serious. He really wanted to know.
Auron gave a dry laugh at that, shaking his head. "It's not my job to kill vampires," was the simple answer.
Oh, okay, so things weren't too weird now. Riku relaxed a little.
But then Auron added, "It's my job to kill the ones that break the laws."
Riku's throat went dry and he started chugging his root beer, needing something normal in all of this insanity.
Hesitating a moment, Auron watched Riku and sighed a little before he continued his story. "No, I'm not a slayer," he repeated in a grim tone. "Those would have gone right after the bastard and gotten their stomachs ripped open by the zombie. My job is more subtle," he said with a curl of his lips. "Since dark creatures and shadow manipulators—the ones who can illegally cross the boundaries between worlds—are natural trouble makers, someone has to be there to keep them in check."
"And that's what you do?" Riku asked, eyeing him strangely as he put his bottle down. "Kind of like... a cop?"
"More complicated than that," he replied, rubbing at his left arm again. "To have a job like mine, you have to know far more than just normal slayers."
Oh great, here we go, Riku silently groaned. He was surprised that the growing headache he had hadn't already flared into a full-blown migraine yet. Insane, insane, this is all insane
And maybe real.
"Not just vampire hunting, zombie hunting—" Auron was stating. "You have to know the different races of vampires and zombies, which to expect in which world, what their weaknesses are and how to fight them, how to make different healing potions, who the local necromancers and healers are, and whose territories you're treading on when you set up stakeouts." He paused, reaching for his Goldschlager again. "There's more than that, but you get the idea."
Riku blinked, eyes widening, unable to comprehend just how powerful and intelligent this guy sitting in front of him was, if he actually was what he said he was. If all of this was really true. "So you living here is just so you could keep track of this vampire Sora and his pet, right?"
"We knew he was messing around in this world," Auron said. "They were tracked to this area. The Organization feared an encounter with the Sora and Riku of this world, so I was sent on a minor infiltration mission to keep an eye on you two and intercept if the criminals attacked."
And those criminals had attacked. Sora had seen another Sora, and Auron's story fit right in with Sora's. Oh, wait... but hadn't it been in the mirror?
"But... Sora said he had seen this other Sora in the mirror," Riku pointed out. "I thought vampires didn't cast reflections."
Unfortunately, Auron had an answer for that too.
"Maybe in your world," was what he said. He uncorked his alcohol and poured himself another shot before pushing the bottle away again. "The legends you probably know are different from reality, kid."
So that was the grim truth, huh? That left one important factor standing clearly in front of them, unsaid. The most important factor.
It had been Auron's job to keep an eye on Sora and make sure the bastards from the other world didn't attack. Well, if everything Auron said was true, he hadn't been doing his job. Sora had been attacked.
Riku was beginning to understand everything. The helplessness and fear that he had felt not too long ago was still there, growing with all of the information Auron was giving him, but anger was overtaking his confusion now as he glared at the other man.
"But you didn't intercept," Riku pointed out with a soft hiss. "You didn't save Sora last night!"
As usual, Auron looked completely unaffected by Riku's anger. "I know," he said, brusque.
"And how the fuck can you be so calm about it?" he demanded, fitting the man with an accusing glare. His hands curled into fists and he brought them down into his lap, shaking his head and looking away, hiding the aggravated expression on his face. "If you were supposed to be keeping an eye on Sora, why weren't you there last night?"
"Last night was a full moon," Auron said as he kneaded a hand into his left arm. Riku watched, wondering, as the man flexed his free fingers as if he were having problems with his arm muscles again. Those dark eyebrows drew together as he continued the one-handed massage, his face guarded, but Riku could tell the man was in pain. "Sorah planned his attack well. He knew I was the one on his tail, and that last night I would be too... preoccupied to watch him."
"So... what does that mean?" Riku asked. "So what if it was the full moon?"
He wasn't exactly expecting the answer that he got, but somehow he'd known this was coming.
"No matter what world it is," Auron said, "werewolves always fall slave to the moon."
"The Organization provides a serum to sedate the wolf's power," Auron explained evenly as he rubbed his arm, "but it dulls the senses. I wouldn't have been able to protect anyone last night."
Riku's gaze shied away from Auron and glanced down the hallway again, again taking note of the splintered door next to the bedroom. The wood was bowed out, like something had slammed into it from the inside. And all the windows boarded from the outside... Auron had locked himself up last night. No, he wouldn't have been able to protect Sora like that...
Things were making too much sense now. Even Auron's misanthrope behavior, his bad arm...
Riku raised his eyes to the man's face, studying, wondering. "Is that how you got that scar?"
"It's not necessary for you to know that," was the man's quick reply. For once, his dark eye wasn't on Riku, focused instead on the clear bottle of alcohol.
Riku was a bit miffed about not getting an answer, but if Auron really was a werewolf, Riku understood that the subject was probably really touchy for the guy... If Riku had been in his shoes, he wouldn't want to tell some bratty kid about it either.
Shit. He was beginning to believe it.
Last night, the situation now, all this information—everything came crashing down on him. He shook his head, burying his face in his arms on the table, wanting nothing more in the world than to have Sora there with him again, safe and smiling and being cute.
"This is all so fucking insane... I can't believe this is happening. Rrrgh..."
"Call it what you want, kid," Auron said with a complete lack of sympathy. "It's real. Accept it if you want."
Riku gave a dry laugh, not raising his head. "Like I have a choice..."
He heard Auron's loud swallow as he downed his third shot of Goldschlager. The glass clunked onto the table and the man cleared his throat, but didn't reply.
Tugging at his hair, Riku kept his face lowered, eyes squeezed shut as he tried to comprehend everything. In actuality, the problem was that he did understand it—but he wasn't sure if he was ready to fully trust the story. It was just too much to take in all at once, but too much to be some guy's fairytale... All this supernatural shit... Werewolves, zombies, vampires, slayers, alternate realities, underground organizations...
Fuck, he had a headache.
"Fine," the boy mumbled at last, peeking over the edge of his arms. He slowly reached out to take his root beer again. "So where's this Organization? Who runs it and all that? Government or...?"
"You're safer without that knowledge."
Riku felt that frustration rising again. Lips pulling into a stubborn frown, he lifted his head and glared. "Why not? Why not tell me?"
You've told me all this other stuff, his mind wanted to point out. What was the point of telling him if he wasn't going to go all the way?
Speaking of which... That reminded him.
Eyes hardening with resolve, Riku bitterly muttered, "I won't be remembering it long anyway, right?"
"The Organization will want to purge you, yeah," Auron confirmed. Pitiless. Like he didn't care at all.
"Is that the memory wipe you mentioned earlier?" Riku's tone was sullen, angry. "Like hell. Why the fuck are you telling me all this if I'm not going to remember it later?"
Silence reigned for a long moment as Auron rubbed a hand into his left arm again, his dark eye watching Riku with unwavering intent. They both knew Riku had a good point.
Then, as if coming to a conclusion about something, Auron started to get up from the table.
"You don't believe it anyway," he told Riku in a somber voice. His fingers curled around the neck of the Goldschlager and he took a step away from his chair, giving the boy a jaded look. "The vampire who took your friend is merciless, kid. He's one of the underworld's most notorious criminals. The Organization has been after him for years and he's never been caught. He's called unkillable." He paused there, dragging a hand through his salt and pepper hair, and he suddenly looked so weary. "You're not the first one to lose someone to his whims. He'll have his fun with your Sora and get rid of him. The chances of someone recovering the kid before then is close to none."
Riku's heart felt like it was in a vice, being squeezed until he couldn't stand it anymore. He clenched his eyes shut and twisted a hand into his shirt, the sadness inside of him so overwhelming that he couldn't reply to Auron. Even if he had the voice, he didn't have the words. What could he say? The guy had practically spelled it out for him.
Sora might as well have been dead already.
"There's a few reasons I told you all of this," Auron said. His voice was getting distant, like he had turned towards the kitchen. Riku didn't look to find out. "It was something to do while I waited for the Cleaner to finish his job."
Riku cracked his eyes open, his vision swimming with tears.
"I also told you because of who you are," the man continued. His heavy boots shuffled against the wooden floor as he paused in the doorway. "My own reasons," he added quietly before speaking up again. "Finish your drink. We're leaving."
The sound of footsteps moving into the kitchen announced Auron's temporary departure. Riku sagged in his seat and rested his head on the table, feeling the cool surface against his cheek. He stared distantly at the root beer bottle perspiring in front of him, as if it were from another world and not something ordinary... or real.
Maybe it would be better to forget. That was what a part of him was whispering. His logical part. After all, if he forgot, he wouldn't have to worry anymore... He wouldn't be scared of vampires coming for him in the night, or another him wandering around out there eating people's pets.
What about Sora? He wouldn't remember what had happened last night, or even that Sora was missing and in trouble...
Or would he actually forget Sora completely? Or would this mysterious Organization somehow come up with a believable death for him and cover up the truth? Would he live the rest of his life believing a lie...?
He hated the thought of that, not having Sora anymore. He hadn't had time to think about it yet, but there it was.
Sora was practically dead now. He was going to have to start accepting it.
Riku bit his lip and lifted his head, staring down at the surface of the table where some of his tears had pooled. There were an entire reality out there that no one else knew about, and when he got his memory wiped, he wouldn't know what had really happened to Sora... That Sora had been right all along. That Sora hadn't been crazy. That... everyone else had been wrong. He hadn't been a boy who cried wolf.
"They're just your imagination playing tricks on you. Always have been." "I'm NOT crazy, Riku!"
Sora had known.
Riku couldn't just forget... There was no returning to his old life now. If he went home, he'd find packed boxes waiting to be taken to Sora's place, because he was supposed to be moving in with Sora. He'd get a call from Sora's mom, totally clueless, her cheery voice asking him to come over and try her new cookies or something. Or Tidus, calling to ask if Sora was okay, why he hadn't shown up for work...
In a few hours, everyone would know of Sora's disappearance... but it would be covered up, and he'd become just a memory.
There was nothing Riku could do about it.
"Ready to go?"
Auron's voice was empty, comfortless, just like the rest of him.
The last person Riku could rely on was himself now. Giving a sharp sniff, he rose from his chair and violently wiped his eyes with his sleeve, not turning to face the older man until his heart had somewhat settled.
The trip across the street and into Sora's home was almost surreal. Everything felt so different now, knowing what he knew, knowing that he was going to forget and live the rest of his life without his best friend, boyfriend, love... It was like walking death row, his stomach sinking with dread each step he took, obediently trailing behind Auron, except it wouldn't be his life he was losing. It'd be Sora's.
Somehow, that hurt even worse.
When they passed through the front door, Riku noticed that the house smelled significantly better—still bad, yes, but not overpowering. Axel's trunk was still in the entryway, and a lot of items were scattered across the tiled floor. Axel himself was whistling a rather mellow tune as he came out of the hallway and, without greeting them, picked up a few things from his trunk, and then left the men to return to work.
The Cleaner. Axel.
"He's awfully casual and... happy..." Riku noted in a somewhat acidic voice. There were vampires and zombies and werewolves, dead animals ripped to shreds, a missing person, and the guy seemed completely undeterred. He was even whistling.
"It's his job," Auron replied.
"What exactly does a cleaner do?" Riku asked softly as he glanced at the random gadgets Axel had discarded around the area.
"It's their job to go around and cover up any supernatural mishaps in the worlds," Auron answered. "Putting things back together, erasing traces of accidents, fabricating stories to hide the truth, and memory wiping the witnesses."
So that was the guy who was going to make Riku forget about Sora.
Swallowing thickly, the boy moved into the hallway, anxiety rising. Two foul-smelling bags sat to the side; they were of a thick, black, and opaque material, marked with a red symbol that looked like it could mean caution or hazardous or something, even though Riku had never seen it before. No doubt the animal carcasses were in those two bags... Paopu among them.
Without thinking about it, Riku reached out and touched Auron's shoulder, stopping him from leaving the hallway after Axel. "What's going to happen to our dog's body...?" he asked.
"It's going to be decontaminated," was Auron's response, his eye lowering to regard Riku and then the two bags. "By incineration. It's crawling with zombie virus."
Axel was suddenly there beside him, a crooked smirk on his face as he narrowed his eyes at Riku. "I can clean up the collar for you if you want a memento."
Ignoring him, Riku studied the black bags, remembering all the times he and Sora had played with Paopu, how loyal the dog had been to them... How he should have seen the signs of something wrong, when Paopu had been acting weird the last two days.
"Hey Paopu. You've been a good boy and've been protecting Sora when I'm away, right?"
Had he protected Sora well? How long had he lasted?
"You're so cute I could eat you up." "Maybe if my dog was actually made out of fruit, you sicko."
Riku suddenly felt sick again.
"Most of the things Sora sensed and feared and was called crazy for... were probably real then, right?" he said, his voice hoarse as he tried to keep himself calm.
"That's how it is with a lot of Sensitives," Axel commented as he moved past Riku towards the bags. He easily hefted both black sacks into his arms, completely casual despite the smell, and continued talking. "They see, hear, feel, sense stuff normal mortals can't, but they have to repress their power to fit in, or they get called nuts."
"It's a social wrong to believe in such things," Auron agreed. "And it seems like Sora failed to force his preternatural sensitivity away..."
A Sensitive? It had been right in front of him the whole time. Knowing Sora had been right the whole time only made Riku feel more miserable. He should have been there more for him... He'd tried to support him, but... How could he have really helped Sora if he hadn't sensed what Sora had? How often had he really helped Sora? How many times had Sora lied to him and told him he was okay, when he hadn't been okay...? All those times... All those years together... No wonder Sora had been scared of the dark. He'd been completely alone.
"Neighbor is a werewolf... Boyfriend was a Sensitive... Boyfriend kidnapped by a vampire... Dog eaten by a zombie..." Riku sighed and looked up, glaring at Axel without much bite. "And what are you?"
The red-head merely smirked his mysterious smirk and turned, carrying the two heavy bags toward the entryway, the foul stench of death drifting after him in the air. Too despaired to really care, Riku watched after him silently.
"Axel's race isn't one to mess with," was all Auron said, and Riku wasn't going to object.
He glanced down the hallway, much like he had earlier that morning, and instead of scattered DVD cases and discolored carpet, Riku saw Sora's room as it usually was, as if the nightmare that had taken place last night had never really occurred. As if he could walk right into the room and see Sora sprawled out on the bed, grinning up at him.
The Cleaner had done a good job.
When Auron left to return to the front door, Riku followed, his heart sinking as if he were leaving his memories of Sora behind, not just his room. No, he'd try to preserve the image of Sora—the real Sora, not the imaginings of what could have happened to him. As long as he could, that's what he wanted to remember, before he was forced to forget.
He felt empty inside as he and Auron watched Axel toss the black bags into the bed of his truck. The Cleaner returned to the house, hopping onto the porch and clapping his hands together when he saw Auron and Riku standing there waiting for him.
"Alright then!" he said, his grin a little wicked. "So, I've noticed that the kid knows next to nothing about the supernatural, and he's definitely not on record in headquarters."
"Yeah, he's a witness," Auron confirmed again.
"Great, does he need a memory wipe?" Axel asked. He almost sounded excited, like this was a highlight of his day or something.
Not wanting to hear it, Riku was silent as the two men spoke to each other.
Sliding a hand into his pocket, he pulled out the broken butterfly knife, studying it with a grim expression. Just three days ago, the weapon had been brand new, polished, and Sora had been a little nervous about it. Riku remembered trying to show him the ice pick drop, and teasing him about not being able to wield even a small knife like this.
"A butterfly knife won't do much good against the boogeyman."
And it hadn't. The blade had been snapped right off.
"So, bait then?"
"Something like that."
Axel sighed, at which point Riku started paying attention again. He tucked the knife back into his pocket and watched the two men, wondering what they were talking about.
"So it's a no, then?" the Cleaner asked, looking a little disappointed.
Auron's eye leveled on Riku, who blinked, confused. Something understanding flickered across the man's face as he gazed at Riku, and then he slowly turned back to Axel, shaking his head.
"That's a no," he confirmed.
"Damn, I was looking forward to a purging too."
Riku frowned, cutting in. "Wait, what?"
The red-head gave him a sharp look, apparently sizing him up. But then that smirk spread. "Well, I don't believe in it, but good luck, kid. You'll need it."
"What's going on?" Riku asked, glancing from Axel to Auron, something scared, uncertain, and hopeful building within him. "I'm not getting a memory wipe?"
Axel laughed and reached out, grabbing Riku's wrist, whose heart started racing in panic—was this it? the memory wipe? what was the guy doing? fuck, his grip was strong!—
But Axel just slapped an item into Riku's hand and released him.
"A present," he said. "Since you won't be forgetting."
Paopu's collar. Clean. Like it had just been bought... not been pulled off a mutilated corpse. Riku ran his fingers over the collar, the familiar jingling of the metal tags bringing tears to his eyes. He brought the collar up and clutched it to his chest, lowering his head to hide his tears as he fought back an audible sob.
"Nope, no memory wipe." Axel's hand ran through Riku's perfect hair, messing it up before he turned away, leaving the boy. He started picking up his tools from the floor. "Maybe some other day," he said as he tossed a few things back into his trunk. "I gotta get out of here fast and start taking care of the cover-ups."
As Auron remained silent, Riku continued to stand there, holding the collar to himself, just listening to the clunk of tools in the chest as Axel packed up. After a long moment, when the Cleaner began to drag his chest out onto the porch to leave, Riku turned to Auron and looked up at him, eyes misty but hopeful.
"I do believe you. It's hard not to believe," he admitted, voice sounding so weak and tired. He hesitated, swallowing the lump in his hoarse throat, and then licked his lips nervously. "If I'm not going to get a memory wipe, what do I do now? Without Sora...? I mean... how am I supposed to fit back in if I know the truth?"
"You're not going to fit back in," was Auron's simple reply as he headed for the open door. He paused in the threshold, gaze raised as if to take in the soft blue sky. From beyond him, the warm mid-morning air drifted into the house, easing some of Riku's uneasiness away.
"What do you mean?" Riku asked as he started to follow Auron, Paopu's collar clutched firmly in his hands.
"You have two hours to pack and return here. Minimum essentials. If you're not back by then, I'm leaving you behind."
Riku's breath caught in his throat as those words registered, and a cruel hope rose within him. "You're... taking me with you?"
Framed by the bright street beyond, Auron slowly turned to face him again, dark eye narrowing, serious. "There's a slim chance we might be able to get to Sora in time to recover him."
Riku's face immediately lit up, a desperate kind of hope swelling within him. "Seriously!" he cried, grabbing Auron's elbow and staring up at him with wide eyes. Please don't be joking. Oh God, I'll do anything to get Sora back!
"Calm down, kid," Auron warned, calmly tugging his elbow back. But despite his grave tone, something quirked at his mouth, something almost... amused. It vanished quickly, however, the man's face darkening considerably. "This will be more than just dangerous."
Dangerous. Yeah... Of course it would be.
Riku was just a nobody. But with Auron's help... or maybe a slayer or two, or whatever else they had at this mysterious Organization, Riku might be able to see Sora again. Anything for that. That's all he wanted.
"I know," Riku breathed.
"Sora might already be dead," Auron added.
That too... But... Still, there was hope.
Riku nodded, closing his eyes and curling his free hand over his heart.
"And if he is dead..." Auron continued slowly, voice laced with caution. "We'll have to kill him a second time. Permanently."
Riku froze at that, the gravity of the situation hitting him again.
This was real. All of it was real.
And now, Riku wasn't afraid to believe it.
Now there were more terrifying things awaiting him.
That was reality.
Yup, for Goodnight Moon. But—
Look for the sequel, a co-write written with Dark Ki under the group penname "the machination" (links in profile)—
The prologue for the sequel has been posted as a double release! See you there!