AN: Man, I hate work. It takes up so much of my time, and for minimum wage! If I could do anything I wanted, I would be sitting at home writing novels and fanfiction, drinking diet Pepsi. Hell, or regular Pepsi that doesn't make me gain weight! Yeah, while I'm fantasizing, why not?? End of random gripe.
Thanks for your patience!! I can't believe I'm posting this at the same time the Harry Potter movie comes out, but it's been too long for me to slack off anymore. I'm thinking of writing more HP fanfiction...I still have a twincest floating around somewhere under a different pen name, I am ashamed to admit. Anyway, warnings for this chapter are angst, language, and allusions to violence. The normal. Thank you all for reading--I really can't say how much it means to me. I literally tear up when I get good reviews. Honestly.
OH! And to everyone who PMed me for the uncensored version of chapter four: I am so sorry, I had a list of your names, but my computer apparently ate it because it's now MIA. Hit me up again? I might take a while to reply, because I'm super-busy for the next week, but I will definitely get back to you!
I talk too much. Okay.
That night, following a grim hour of searching, Riku unearthed the last of Sora's alcohol supply. He emptied nearly two dozen half-filled cups that littered the bathroom counter and the top of the television, sixteen more on the floor, even a few that had been tucked behind the curtains on the windowsill. Sora had stashed some sort of alcoholic beverage in every niche of his tiny apartment. How much would it amount to, if put together? A gallon, an ocean? Riku had been afraid he'd protest, but Sora simply lay down in his bed and pulled the covers to his eyes, watching as he gathered an army from the empty bottles.
"Cold turkey?" he whispered after a few minutes, too exhausted to raise his voice.
Riku glanced at him, disbelieving. "Are you crazy? I'm not prepared to treat delirium tremens. I'm trying to help you, not kill you." The sharpness in his own voice made him flinch back, and he moved to sit on the edge of the bed, suddenly and deeply ashamed. "Sora...I'm sorry. I just...I love you so much, and..."
"My head hurts," Sora said.
"Let me get you some aspirin." Riku stood and went to rummage in the medicine cabinet, determinedly forcing the tightness in his throat to pass. Sora just wasn't ready for love now--it was no indication that they couldn't someday be together again. He hesitated before pulling a stack of paper cups from beneath the sink and pouring an inch of vodka into one. "Here," he said, handing Sora the drink and two pills. "I know you're not supposed to mix meds, but I think depriving you of either would do more harm than good right now."
"Mmm." Sora slowly pushed the aspirin between his lips and sipped shallowly from the cup. The simple act seemed to drain him, and he slumped back against his pillow, his head lolling. "This is bad," he said to Riku, very softly.
Riku wanted to lie, and couldn't. "Yeah, it's bad. We're getting through this, though."
"Someday we'll look back on this and laugh?"
That was an unbelievable sentiment. Riku couldn't imagine ever laughing again. "I don't know what we'll do, Sora. But we'll definitely be looking back from somewhere very beautiful."
Sora closed his eyes. A few tears slipped silently down his cheeks, and Riku wiped them away, trying not to wince at the cold clamminess of his skin. The windows were shut, the air conditioning sparse, he was layered in blankets--so why the hell was he still shivering? It was as if some internal thermometer had been frozen in a permanent winter. It made him nervous.
"Sora, babe? Can I get you something warm to drink?"
"I'll throw it up. Can't hold much down anymore."
"It won't help."
"How about a hot shower?"
Sora finally looked up at him. There were tears in his eyes again, but he was forcing them back--a subtle show of pride that made Riku's heart glow with hope. "Listen, thank you for being here, Riku," he said in a quiet, choked voice. "It means a lot to me...a lot more than you'll ever know. But...I...I screwed myself up. I want to do things again, I do...like drinking coffee or even standing for a few minutes in the shower...that would be incredible. But I can't yet. I feel too da...too tired."
He was going to say too damaged, Riku realized abruptly, and that sickening tightness rose again in his throat. Oh god, Sora, how could this have happened?
Suddenly, without any forethought or conscious decision, Riku pulled back the blankets and gently scooped Sora into his arms. Sora flinched against him, startled, curling his fingers reflexively around handfuls of his shirt.
Riku carried him around the side of the bed and into the lavatory, past the sinks, where the freshly washed bottles and cups were still neatly lined. Sora was heartbreakingly light. As Riku settled him on the edge of the bathtub, he shuffled his feet feebly in protest, showing fragile ankles. "Riku, no," he pleaded. "Please, no, I can't."
"If you're okay with this, I'm okay," said Riku. He turned on the taps, watching Sora carefully for reaction. When the water was sufficiently warmed, he cupped a handful and trickled it over Sora's curled-up toes. He cringed away. Riku repeated the motion, slower. "How is it? Too hot, too cold?"
"No, you've already done too much," Sora whispered, but he was already weakening. When Riku placed his hands under the faucet, he closed his eyes, the tension melting from his shoulders.
Riku let him stay like that for a minute. Then, awkwardly, he touched Sora's arm.
"Did you--want to take off your clothes?"
Sora shrugged, straining for nonchalance. "I can't leave them on."
Their eyes met briefly, then jumped away, guiltily. Slowly, without looking at him, Sora began to tug on the blue flannel pajama top he had put on earlier that afternoon. His clumsy fingers just wouldn't cooperate. They kept slipping around the buttons, even the coarse fabric sliding free from his grip, and he cursed under his breath and closed his eyes in frustration and embarrassment.
Because he knew Sora would never ask, Riku made the first move--an inept brush against the shirt's hem. "Is this okay?" he whispered.
Sora hesitated for a long moment, then gave him a barely perceptible nod.
Gingerly, trying not to touch him at all, Riku undid the top few buttons and motioned for Sora to raise his arms. He did so, and Riku gently tugged the shirt off, watching as it rustled through his perceptibly darker hair. The lack of sun was evident in other places, too...the paleness of his skin, an absence of rosiness in the usually flushed hollow of his throat. When the air touched his skin Sora shivered and crossed his arms over his chest, doubling over. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," he whispered. The shame in his voice was unmistakable.
"You're beautiful, Sora," Riku said, softly, "but I'm not looking at you like that right now."
It was the right thing to say. Sora glanced up at him but did not straighten, still shaking faintly. "I was just thinking about how many people have seen me this way," he said, his voice cracking. "Before she died, my mother used to say, 'the body is a temple.' It's one of those things I just remember, like 'don't step on a crack' or 'find a penny, pick it up.' I always tried to imagine myself as a temple...I swept metaphorical floors, dusted all the altars...but I never reinforced my architecture. I relied on other people to do that for me. Now I realize how...how fragile I was inside."
"You were fragile because you're intricate," said Riku. "But some things are stronger once they've been put back together. Better glue. Second chances. Axel and Roxas--they're never going to fall apart again, I guarantee it."
Sora was quiet for a moment. "How has Roxas been?"
Not great. But "bad" wasn't the word, either. "He's healing," Riku answered simply.
"I miss him. I've been thinking about him a lot." Another pause, this time lengthy enough that it was disquieting. Riku opened his mouth to prompt him to continue, but the words died in his throat. Sora was trembling again; violent tremors that racked his entire body. "I wonder if things will ever be normal between us again," he said rapidly. "With what happened...god...I don't know if we'll ever be able to look at each other or...or...go out for coffee or talk or...and that's what disgusts me about it, is that Roxas was there, not just them, but one of my best friends, someone who's a brother to me!"
"Have you spoken to him at all? Did he tell you they made me beg for it? They told me they would kill me if I didn't, but I should've let them try! I can't live like this, in my own skin, in this filth!"
He suddenly flung himself at Riku, sobbing, almost knocking him off the edge of the bathtub with the vehemence of the embrace. Riku clung back to him as tightly as he could, wincing as the Sora's tears fell against neck. Now he could see the remnants of even more bruising along his bare shoulders and down his spine--some of them hadn't even yellowed yet; dark fingerprints stood out like exclamation points on the pale skin of his lower back. He stroked Sora's hair and held him close, mentally cursing himself.
"I'm sorry, Sora, this was a bad idea. Let's get you back to bed."
"No," Sora pleaded, pulling away from him. "No, don't take this away from me! I want to feel clean again. I need to feel clean."
"What you need to rest. Your body is..."
"Weak--I know. But you can be strong enough for the both of us."
The words from Sora's last letter suddenly came back to him, so vivid they made him ache: I love your integrity, the kind that holds you up, and still finds enough strength to hold me up next to you. I love you with 200 percent of my clumsy heart. And when Sora abruptly touched his face, desperate for consolation, Riku nodded and kissed the corner of his mouth. "Okay," he agreed quietly. "I've already decided I'm never going to let you down again...but you need to tell me if I'm scaring you. Promise me."
"I promise," Sora whispered.
Slowly, Riku resumed undressing him, tugging the drawstrings on his pajama bottoms and sliding them carefully down his too-thin hips. More bruises. Stark bite marks on the inner thighs. He had to lift Sora marginally to remove his underwear, and Sora clung to his neck, squeezing his eyes shut as he was tenderly vested of his final garment. Riku moved a little closer to him, trying to thwart the impending chills with his own body heat. Sora shuddered anyway. Riku paused a beat to breathe, frightened by the delicacy of this operation. "Sora..."
"I'm okay, I'm okay."
Letting out a tense breath, Riku reached for the toe of his left sock.
"No, wait!" Sora cried. "Let me keep my socks--please, my ankles--"
His fucking ankles, that was right--the only places he had never offered to let Riku touch. "Sora, fuck, I'm so sorry. I forgot."
"Stupid hang-up," Sora muttered, clearly embarrassed by his reaction.
"Everyone has them."
Riku removed his own socks and stepped into the tub, then reached down to help Sora up next to him. Sora took a few seconds to find his equilibrium, clinging to him hard under the arms, and as soon as he had his footing Riku secured an arm around his tiny waist. With the other hand, he pulled the curtain closed and turned on the shower to a fine mist.
Sora drew in a sharp breath when the water touched his skin, hugging him closer. His bare body pressed immodestly against Riku's, but incredibly, Riku felt no answering response in his own--Sora's nakedness seemed more than literal, and it broke his heart. He was seeing his lover stripped of clothing, inhibitions, hopes, confidence...but what remained, even in its tiny percentage, was beautiful. Pale contentment. The possibility of recovery. Trust. Sora didn't flinch as Riku wet a washcloth with soap and touched it lightly to his back, working up a sweet-smelling lather. His fingernails dug briefly into Riku's back, then relaxed.
"It feels so good," Sora whispered.
Riku trailed the cloth up his spine, scrubbing the arches of his neck, down his arms. Sora stretched his hands so he could get the soft places between his fingers, then placed them on Riku's shoulders, tentatively staring into his eyes. Riku met the gaze unabashedly.
"I love you," he repeated plainly.
Sora nodded and lowered his gaze.
Better, this time--it was not yet a return of his feelings, but it was an acknowledgement, a huge improvement from the unashamed sidestep he had taken earlier. Riku let go of Sora briefly to soap his calves, silently marveling at the fragility of the limbs. Tiny muscles jumped under his skin wherever he was touched. His reactions became more and more pronounced as Riku neared his knees, so he stopped there and resumed cautiously at his hips. No protests, so he worked slowly into neighboring areas. The small of his back was a terrifying procedure, but after tensing once, Sora stilled, his eyes squeezed so tightly shut that Riku could feel his lashes fluttering against his collarbone.
"Tell me when to stop, Sora," Riku warned him desperately. "Please, don't let me hurt you."
"It's not hurting."
But even through the shower's light rain, he felt Sora's tears bleeding hotly into his shirt. His hands tightened on his back again, and he suddenly pulled Riku closer, trembling.
"Oh god, Sora." He buried his face in Sora's hair, breathing in his clean scent as his own breath hitched. "Sora."
Sora sobbed in his arms for a long time, a reckless, open grief that spilled dark poison from his wounds. It was as if he'd finally removed a part of himself that was infected, like an unknowable cancer trying to eat away at his life's impetus. And though it killed Riku to see him hurting, he understood it was a necessary hurdle--a good hurt, thorough, clean, one that would fade as he woke up each day to find himself still breathing, still living. Riku held him as he cried, supporting him steadily in his sorrow as the warm water washed gently over their unified form.
He toweled Sora off afterwards, swathing him in one of the clean shirts he'd retrieved from his suitcase downstairs before carrying him back to the bed. Sora finally let him reopen the blinds, and both of them were shocked to see the sun just beginning to light the horizon. "We made it past yesterday," Riku said, uttering a small, disbelieving laugh. "Shit...I didn't think that day was ever going to end."
Sora just stared up at him silently in response, his eyes huge and defenseless in the face of a new dawn. Riku quieted, touching his cheek briefly with the backs of his fingers.
"We can do this," he assured Sora quietly. "I know it seems impossible, but it's nothing you're not strong enough for. One step at a time. It's the only way."
Once he was sure Sora had digested his words, he nudged him over and slid into the cool sheets beside him. Sora immediately put his arms around his shoulders. Riku kissed his neck and pulled him a little closer, staring out the window as morning flirted with the still-dark sky. Sora's breathing became calmer. He spoke up a few minutes after Riku had assumed he'd fallen asleep, startling him. "Your shirt is soaked," he murmured, lifting his head and touching the places where the fabric was sticking to Riku's skin, revealing the smooth expanse of his chest.
"Sorry, I'll change the sheets tomorrow. I'm too tired to do it now."
"The soap will set in. Let me wash it...it's a nice shirt."
"It's just a shirt," Riku said, sighing. "Sora, in the last few weeks, don't you think there've been bigger casualties?"
There was a pause. Riku listened as Sora settled back onto the pillow, his hair rustling. Suddenly he could feel Sora's lips on his collarbone, kissing him lightly through the wet white cotton. His fingers danced along his shoulders and twined in the hair near the back of his neck, cradling his head as he leaned forward to brush their cheeks together. "No casualties yet," he whispered, nuzzling his smooth jaw line. "We're still breathing, aren't we? We're here, and we're together. Please tell me that counts for something."
"It counts for a lot, Sora."
They brushed lips twice before Riku pushed him away, gently stroking his face. They stared into each other's eyes for a while, maybe a few minutes, examining each other silently.
"So what happens now?" Sora asked softly. "Do I fall into your arms, laugh, cry...what? What happens, and when do I forget?"
Riku did not answer immediately. "You don't," he said finally.
"God." Sora let his eyes flutter shut in exhaustion, dropping his head against Riku's chest. Riku kissed his forehead, then his trembling eyelids.
"Tomorrow night," he said, stroking Sora's still-damp hair, "I'm taking you out on the town. We can do anything you want...see shows, lose ten thousand in the slots, go to a dozen fancy restaurants and order nothing but desserts...it's all up to you. Just as long as you're having fun and getting better."
"Riku, be reasonable. It's going to be a while before I'm able to do anything but drink and wallow."
"No, you be reasonable. What you've been through is enough to bring anyone to their knees. It's enough to kill a person, Sora, but you're still here. When I think of what's happened to you in your life, the things you've been forced to do...and how...how lucky I am that you're strong enough to...to keep..." he had to stop. His chest hitched with sobs, and he had to choke them back down. Sora reached for him tentatively, and he squeezed his hands hard. "Don't you dare sum yourself up like that again," he finished, shaking with anger. "What you're doing is living. Give yourself some fucking credit."
The following silence seemed to tingle with thin despair, a furious passion felt only between lovers. Riku balled his fists and pushed them against his eyes until he saw stars, clenching his teeth hard against the sudden onset of emotion. He thought he had been making progress.
Then Sora rolled back over onto his pillow, staring out the window.
"The view's not very good here," he said.
"We're too close to the ground," Riku agreed.
Sora twined his fingers firmly with Riku's, a strong, confident gesture that dispelled the last remnants of his despondency. He turned to find Sora looking at him again, his dim eyes contemplative and tender.
"Tomorrow, when we go out, I want to go someplace high," Sora said quietly. "As high off the earth as we can get, and as close to heaven."
Unable to hold himself back any longer, Riku captured Sora's lips with his own. Sora tensed briefly before cautiously opening his mouth, allowing Riku to explore him in full. He tasted different, Riku realized. Not quite as sweet. He tasted a faint saltiness of his tears on his tongue, a sadly mature grief, the lingering warmth of alcohol. Riku pulled back slowly, torn between the conflicting emotions of hope and uncertainty. It was Sora he was lying with in bed. Sora's scent. Sora's hands in his hair.
"I swear I'm going to get you there," Riku promised, his breathing ragged. "To heaven, I mean."
Sora kissed him again. "You already have, Ri. I just...want to get back."
And at that last, Sora broke into a faint, hesitant smile, settling into the blankets and closing his eyes. He was asleep before Riku could even react. Riku watched him for a long time, his pulse fluttering, paralyzed by his perfection. Only when he was sure that Sora was secure outside the realm of nightmares did he let his own eyes fall shut, feeling his boyfriend's warm presence beside him--close, solid, and real, like their love...and like his sudden confidence that they were going to make it.
End of chapter seven
Reviews are love, but I've already received waaay more than I deserve...so hit me up with criticisms, if you want! I am always looking to improve. Thank you so much for reading.