Edit: OH HOLY SHIT, I AM SO SORRY. I uploaded this to the wrong fic! SHIT, SORRY. SO SORRY. Now I look like a douche who's bumping for reviews. "Ohmahgod, I only got a million reviews for that last chapter, waah." Seriously not the case; I am SO sorry. The order is different on my stories page and my stats page, swear to God. This is the epilogue for THIS fic. Not the other.

I'm really, really sorry to all the false alerts that'll be going out. I'm REALLY sorry.

And please forgive me for missing my deadline, I got called in to work an extra shift yesterday. But here it is! The end. Like, the total end. And I personally think it's a terrible finale, but I'd always imagined a quiet ending…just let me know what you think. I'd really appreciate it. More notes at the end.

Seriously, I'm so sorry about the bad upload. I'm so embarrassed right now.

The Ugly Duckling Effect


Six months. Six long, agonizing, lonely, celibate months.

Riku fished a pen out of his desk and slashed through the day on his calendar, sighing heavily as he settled onto the bed. There were evenings when he couldn't believe he'd survived for so long, but the tally on his wall served as a constant reminder--an army of hatch marks, sloppy with sadness. He counted them again in their neat packages of five, the two leftovers. 187. He'd lived 187 heartbreaking days without Sora.

It wouldn't have been so bad if Cloud hadn't packed up to live with Leon shortly after the summer ended. In one fell swoop, he had lost a soulmate and two of his dearest friends. The house still echoed sadly in their absence, unchanged even by their frequent calls. Sora talked with him almost every night, which helped a little, but it still wasn't the same…reaching third base via satellite wasn't quite as exciting as it was in person. Especially when Sora's mother had the tendency to pick up the phone before she realized what was going on, resulting in many an awkward conversation. ("Oh, um, hello Riku. Who are you doing? I--I mean, how are you doing?")

"Just hang in there, Riku," Roxas encouraged him whenever he visited the house to clean. He seemed unperturbed by Riku's growing piles of dirty laundry, patiently pulling his head out of the toilet week after week. "Listen, one more year of school, and then he's yours forever. Absence makes the heart grow fonder."

"I find that absinthe is equally helpful," Axel added.

Unfortunately for Riku, he was having a very sober night. He paged forlornly through his pictures of Sora--mostly senior photographs, his eyes achingly blue against the sepia filters, and the scandalous shots Sora had sent him as pick-me-ups on his loneliest days. One of them included a cheerleading skirt and tray of heart-shaped cookies. Never again, Ri, my thighs are still killing me, he'd written on the back. As it is, I should probably never try running for political office.

Riku smiled despite himself, lifting the picture and breathing in Sora's fading scent. He had no idea the smell of shampoo could be so arousing. He flopped back against his pillow, absently fingering the waistband of his pants.

Just six more months.

He jumped as his cellphone buzzed on his bedside table, startling him from his daydream. He rolled onto his elbows and scooped it up. "Hello?"

"Hey, Riks, how goes it?"

Cloud. And Leon, judging by the soft strains of classical music in the background. Riku grinned, pushing himself up into a sitting position. "Oh my god, you have no idea how happy I am to hear from you. I'm so lonely I could go insane."

"Too late."

"Thanks a million, asshole."

"Hey, I know Sora's busy with semester finals this week. Just wanted to check in. You're not staging an elaborate death by plunger, are you?"

"Hell no. That's so cliché." There was a shuffle as Cloud covered the receiver and snapped something at Leon, who grumbled loudly. Paper rustled. A door slammed. "What are you guys doing?"

Cloud paused. "Just, you know. Hanging out, trying to have babies. And hey, you think you could get your hand out of your pants when you're talking to me? It's a little awkward. Talking to your ex while you diddle yourself over pictures of your current little cupcake, I mean."

Riku quickly pulled his fingers off the hem of his boxers, his ears flaming. It was scary how well Cloud knew him.

"I thought you'd be talking to him now," Cloud said.

"Yeah, me too, but finals must've really wiped him out. He warned me in advance that he might not be able to keep in touch this week."

"It's Friday night. They should be over already."

"He's just busy," Riku said, a little more curtly than he'd intended.

Cloud hesitated. Then he made a dismissive sound, the cheer returning to his voice. "Maybe he's just on his way to visit you! Maybe he could no longer stand the thought of you alone in your room, the lights shut off, too depressed to even make your bed."

"You know I make my bed every day," Riku argued. He looked briefly down at his rumpled sheets, the solitary glow of his computer in the corner, the hatch marks scraped into his wallpaper. A lump rose in his throat without warning. He tried to come up with some witty retort and choked instead, startling himself by sniffling. The pictures of Sora slid off his bed. He jumped off the bed and began quickly recollecting them into a hasty pile.

"Hey, Riku," Cloud said, his voice suddenly gentle. "It's okay."

"No. No, it's not okay. I'll be perfectly fine in June, but right now, I feel like I'm dying a little more each day." His trembling hands paused on an old picture of Sora. They were in high school together. Sora was radiant in his lack of self-consciousness, those damn orange rubber bands on his braces. "Cloud…I didn't think it would hurt this much. Help me get my mind off him, okay? Say something. Anything. Even if it's totally--"

"He's hiding in your closet," Cloud blurted out.

Riku stopped. "Huh?"

"He's, uh, he's hiding in your closet."

Long pause.

"Listen…I'm actually worried he overheated in there and passed out." Cloud shushed Leon, who started to say something. "Seriously, Riks, he really hasn't come out yet? He's been there ever since you left to hang out with Roxas and Kairi."

"You're a piece of shit," Riku snapped. "Stop making fun of me! I really, really miss him, okay?"

"No! No, I mean it!"

"Cloud, grow up!"

Cloud yelled something in outrage, but Riku could only make out 'untrusting' and 'whiny little girl' before Leon plucked the phone out of his hands. His voice was blessedly composed, and for the first time, Riku heard the crackle of static. They were on a cell. "Hi, Riku, it's Leon," he said calmly. "Sora caught an early flight after his tests and hid in your house. Have you seen him? We lost reception a few hours ago."

"I don't know what you guys are trying to pull," Riku said coldly.

"We're outside your window with the lights off. You're sitting on the floor with your pictures. Just get up and check the closet, please, we're worried about him."

Riku's breath caught. He stood up to look out the window, jumping when a car flicked on its lights once in affirmation. His heart began hammering wildly in his chest. "Oh my god. You really mean it? He's supposed to be here?"

"I told you!" Cloud shouted.

Leon pushed him away. "He probably just fell asleep. There's no chance of anyone kidnapping him, is there? You keep all your doors locked."

Riku froze, slowly turning to stare at his silent closet. Axel and Roxas had been visiting frequently, and he had taken to keeping the front door open whenever he left the house. He hadn't gotten around to giving them the spare key. His eyes frantically scanned the room for any signs of a struggle, any sign that someone had even been there. Feeling sick to his stomach, he raised the phone back to his ear. "Leon…I…I need to call you back. I need to check the house."

Even Cloud quieted for a moment. Then his voice again, considerably more sober: "You don't think someone else is in there?"

"Oh god. Oh, Christ."

"Riku, be careful. Grab a weapon or something. That thing on your dresser?"

Barely able to feel his body, Riku grabbed the can. It was actually pepper spray, something Axel had got him as a gag gift a few months ago, after Riku complained about being hit on at work. He shook it as he slowly made his way to the closet, walking on tiptoe, his finger poised on the button. "Talk to me," he whispered, his voice shaking. "I'm so freaked out."

"It's okay, we're on our way in," Cloud said. The car door slammed behind him.

Riku touched the doorknob. It was cold in his palm, which had broken out into a sweat in the last few seconds. "Someone broke in," he moaned softly, unable to help himself. "Someone broke in and kidnapped Sora and is waiting to kill me."

"Don't worry. Sora's too chubby to sell into prostitution."

"He--what? What kind of theory is that? Ugly kids get murdered, too!"

"Riku, go!"

He wrenched the closet door open on that fresh wave of adrenaline and confusion, dropped his phone, screamed, and discharged the contents of the can straight into the darkness.

It wasn't pepper spray after all.

It was silly string.

He'd squirted a good sixteen feet of the stuff before he realized what was going on. Sora shouted and sputtered, holding his arms up against the onslaught of foam, then launched himself furiously out of the closet and smacked Riku hard in the chest with both fists. Riku toppled backwards over his computer desk, losing both of his shoes in the process.



"Holy shit!" Riku cried, ecstatic. Then he faltered, his joy quickly consumed by confusion. Sora wasn't smiling. In fact, Sora was advancing on him, looking more outraged than he'd ever been in his entire life. Riku slowly backed against a wall. "Sora?"

"I hate you," Sora said.

"What the hell is wrong?"

"God, how can you even ask that?" Sora screamed, stunning him. "Every single time, Riku, every single time I walk into a room or see you for after years of separation! I'm homely? Ugly kids get murdered, too? Well, fine, that's totally fine with me, hideous creatures like me should just be living under rocks or something! I get the drill! Wash, rinse, repeat, Riku, I'll say it because you're too much of a chickenshit to! Kiss my repulsive ass! It's over!"

Riku gaped at him, too shocked to say anything. It was only when Sora began storming out of the room that he could move again, making a desperate leap at his boyfriend and catching him tightly around the thighs. Sora stumbled into the doorframe. The two of them crashed to the ground, flailing.

"Get off of me!" Sora yelled. "Get off, you might catch my ugly!"

"That's not what I meant!" Riku shouted.

"How many different ways can someone take that?"

"You just heard the wrong thing! Trust me!"

Sora kicked him. Riku managed to pin him down, much to Sora's intense frustration. He waited until he'd stopped thrashing before relaxing his hold on his arms a little, letting himself collapse in his exhaustion. The two of them lay there panting for a few moments. Riku's face brushed inadvertently against the soft curve of Sora's neck. He couldn't help it--despite the situation, he still had that scent, that warmth. 187 days away from this perfect, writing body; it was absolutely uncontainable. He shuddered, stilling above Sora as a rush of blood and lust awakened a certain, unmistakable part of his anatomy.

Sora noticed this change and looked up at him. His eyes were huge and vulnerable, torn between fury and careful hope. "R-Riku? I think something's come between us."

"Sorry," Riku mumbled, burying his face in Sora's hair. "It's just…you're so…"

"You think I'm--?"

"How many times do we need to go through this, honestly? You're a god. People stop you in stores just to see if you're real. You've always been everything I--"

Sora cut him off by laughing. Then he was kissing him furiously, pressing his body hard against his, forcing him over so Riku's waist was straddled between his knees. Riku kissed back feverishly. Sora's teeth scraped against his jaw line. "You…really don't think…I'm ugly," Sora muttered between kisses. "You…"

"I love you. Love you so much. Your timing is just shit."

Suddenly, Sora pulled back. Riku's mouth followed his as he moved away, groaning in protest. Sora seemed to remember himself, smoothed his hair, and smiled with as much dignity and politesse as he could manage. He had changed a little in the last few months. The winter had paled his skin, bringing out the delicate roses in his cheeks and lips. He looked a few inches taller. His hair was a shade lighter, golden under the soft glow of the moonlight. But he still had the same smartass grin on his face as he touched Riku's face, then looked deliberately down at the bulge in his jeans.

"So you're saying you only love me this much," he said, holding his fingers about three inches apart.

Riku twitched in outrage. "Hey!"

"Whatever," Sora said loftily. He nodded into the room, indicating the duffel bag he'd lost sometime during their tussle. "Sorry I fell asleep in the closet. I hope you're planning to clean up the house a little, and give me the bed. Because I like to sleep with a lot of pillows."

"You're visiting for winter break?" Riku said hopefully.

"He's moving in," Leon announced from the doorway.

He whirled around. Cloud and Leon had let themselves into the house, both of them hauling heaps luggage with one hand, subtly linking fingers with the other. They each wore a ring on their left hand. Cloud looked ready to burst with excitement, and even Leon was smiling. "That worked out well," he said, sounding pleased.

Riku was still floundering for words when Axel leapt out from behind them, armed with dual cans of silly string.

"Happy fucking reunion, have some pepper spray!" he yelled, dousing them recklessly with the pink and green froth. "Congrats, good job, can't wait to see the children!"

"You!" Riku shouted, staring at the empty can on the carpet.

"Me, O Smart One! You're very unobservant when you're crying in your beer!"

"Underage drinking alert," Roxas grumbled, stumbling to join them. "Yell it louder, I don't think China heard."

Tidus and Wakka appeared to have made him their personal pack mule. He was laden down with gifts and plastic bags of junk food. Axel waved to him cheekily, making no effort to help him, still scattering silly string down the hall. Kairi caught Roxas by the shoulder an instant before he collapsed, relieving him of a few of the grocery sacks and tossing something to Riku. He fumbled it in his surprise.

"Make merry," Naminé said, leaning down to kiss them both quickly on the cheek. "We're going to be up all night, celebrating true love."

"Two instances, even," said Cloud, winking at Leon.

Axel smiled at Roxas. "Three."

"Two," Roxas corrected him, scowling, but he didn't move away as Axel inched an arm around his waist and pulled him into an affectionate hug.

Riku glanced down at the object Kairi had thrown at him. It was a huge tin of Folgers. "Coffee," he said, disbelieving, and broke out into laughter. "Oh my god. Brew it, bitches. Let's get ready for those caffeine comas."

As everyone headed towards the kitchen, chattering and shoving each other, Sora grabbed onto the elbow of Riku's shirt and pulled him back into the hallway. His eyes were shaded with shyness and uncertainty. "I graduated early," he explained, seemingly unsure whether or not he should be smiling. "I took seven classes, plus a few at the college. I don't really mind missing the actual ceremony--I mean, everything I want has always been here. Except for Leon, but he and Cloud need their space."

"You don't know how happy I am to see you," Riku said, kissing him gently on the lips. "The thought of being without you for six more months…it was unbearable."

"So…I can really move in with you?"

"Yeah. Absolutely."

"What will we do?"

"Ride on the stars. Make love all day." He paused to regard Sora's unimpressed reaction, then laughed. "Or set to work on your college applications? I've been working a few jobs, just saving up and all."

"Right, Cloud told me you're working at the grocery store?"

Riku winced. "Uh. Actually, that was more of a community service thing…to prevent a certain incident from going on my record or--"

"Forget I asked," Sora said, snickering. He pushed himself up onto his toes and kissed Riku again, threading his fingers through his hair. His hand lingered there a moment. Sora rubbed his lips softly against the corner of his mouth. "I don't care what we do or where we go. We're together, and we're going to hate each other in a few months, but…I think I can put up with your stupid shampoo and your insults and law problems. I mean…no matter what, I'd rather live with them than without you."

They both paused to regard Leon and Cloud from across the room. Leon said something under his breath. Cloud glared at him and shoved him away, but Leon caught him by the shoulder and pulled him back. The two of them scowled and kissed. Their hands linked, the twin rings glittering starkly in the darkness.

"I've talked to them about it," Sora said. "They feel as right as we do. I mean, they fight all the time, but they've really got something."

"That sounds familiar."

Sora paused, chewing nervously on his thumbnail. Then he straightened. "Guess what, Riku? I won a class superlative at my high school."

Riku stroked his bangs behind his ear. "The most changed?"

Sora smiled widely, his eyes falling shut. "The happiest."

"Toast, toast!" Kairi hollered from the kitchen. She brought out the ten mugs on a tray, filled with iced coffee and whipped cream, and handing them out. Riku paused to kiss Sora one more time, eyeing him meaningfully, then took his arm and moved to join them. The group formed a loose circle around the table. The breadth of their friendship was a little overwhelming, and they stood there for a long moment, trying to find the words.

"So, what? To true love?" Tidus finally proposed, raising his glass.

"In all its forms," Naminé agreed.

"To all the good, and all the bad," Leon said, squeezing Cloud's hand.

"Don't forget the ugly," Roxas chimed in with a smirk, elbowing his boyfriend. Axel glared at him and thrust his own mug upwards.

"To the love of chocolate."

"To the love that takes way the hell too long to realize," Wakka said.

Riku felt Sora's momentary hesitation, then watched him slowly raise his mug, his eyes glittering with emotion. "To the love that's worth it. The love that's worth everything," he said, looking up at Riku with a shy smile. Riku nodded. Happiness flooded him in great waves, and he drew in a deep breath, tasting the cleanest air in eighteen years. Coffee. Silly string. The sweetness of Sora's shampoo.

"To beauty," Riku said softly. "Which doesn't mean a goddamn thing."

They drank.

"Unless you're as ugly as Sora," Axel added, as soon as they'd all lowered their cups.

"Homely, jerk," Sora said, grinning. He squeezed Riku's hand. "Isn't that right? I'm homely?"

"You're perfect," Riku told him, and Sora broke into smile and leaned in to brush their lips together. He dimly registered his friends oohing and aahing sarcastically in the background, but as Sora's arms curled around his shoulders, the rest of the world disappeared. It had taken him six months…and every second had been worth it.

He had finally gotten it right.


That's it, that's really it. I feel so weird right now.

Thank all of you so much for sticking with me for so long. It's been over three years since I started this, and I'm clearly one of the slowest writers ever--thank you all for your patience and your support. And for those of you who came in later in the fic, thank you so much for taking the time to give me feedback. I realize that I'm a grossly over-reviewed author, given the low level of my writing skill, but I will always be working hard on improving. Maybe someday I'll actually deserve all the kind words…though I doubt it. You have all been so phenomenal.

Again, thank you so much for reading. It was a pleasure to write this, and I can't wait to try my hand at another fic. The next one will be updated more than once every four months, I promise. XD

My love goes out to all of you!


P.S. You have no idea how sorry I am for updating on the wrong fic. Really. I can't get over how stupid that was; please give me a chance to prove I'm not just an attention whore. I'm seriously, seriously sorry.