THIS COMMENTARY IS SHORT I PROMISE TO GOD AND RIKU SO DON'T RUN AWAY FROM THE SHEER SIZE OF THE SCROLL BAR. Danku.

Because I haven't had a disclaimer this whole time and I don't want to get banned but if you think I own Kingdom Hearts you're retarded: I don't own Kingdom Hearts, as much as I wish I did (only Riku probably would've died and Kairi would've gone blind and Sora would've had something tragic happen…you know me). I just own Ms. Nakamura, Mrs. Inoue, Sora's mom, Riku's parents, Aunt Muffy, and Mr. Kotori. Danku! (bow)

Okay, I've been nice, and I haven't clogged the chapters with my own ten pages of commentary. So I'd appreciate it if you listened to a couple things I have to say while I'm on the subject. This story is arguably the funnest I've written (not a word but nobody cares), but also the most depressing. It was somewhat based off a real-life story, which I found years ago right here on ff.n before FictionPress got started (yes, that long ago). Unfortunately, I couldn't find the author—much less the story—but kudos to her, and tears for her suffering.

In fact, the idea of Sora having a dream about Riku (in other words, sufferer having a dream about victim) comes from her story, and if you don't mind a little story about it, I happened to read about that dream while Yanni's song, Whispers in the Dark, was playing. Now, years afterward, I found that same CD, and the same song, and when the time finally came to write about Sora's dream, I listened to the same one for inspiration. (There were several fun variations on that dream to begin with, ranging from Riku running away from Sora to him coming out of Kingdom Hearts to say goodbye.) And thus, the last chapter is christened Whispers in the Dark, as a sort of tribute. Also, Sora is whispering in the dark when he says "Okay," which I thought was an interesting idea. You know, how sometimes you get all weird in dreams and you don't really know why, but later it makes sense somehow.

Sorry if that bored you at all. We'll be proceeding to the main event momentarily, and I can guarantee you'll recognize the title. There may be some minor spoilers to Chain of Memories/KH2, to warn you, but that's only if you've never heard of a certain blonde artist.

I wasn't gonna do this, you guys, but I thought you'd like it. So it's kind of a thank you for sticking with me on this. Been fun, guys. Bye for now!

Sora's story is finished.

It's time to turn the coin over…

XI

Epilogue

Another Side, Another Story

XI

I plucked at the collar of the red turtleneck idly, reconsidering my choice of clothing. The dark colors made my skin look pale and sickly, and they reminded me of…of things I didn't want to remember. But so far, I had made sure that time erased all those things so that they never happened, and I was the only one who remembered them. I had to. Somehow, I couldn't allow myself to forget.

"Riku!"

The shout came from my room, where I knew Sora was probably fooling with the loose threads in my bedsheets or kicking my baggage for no good reason. I considered staying—I was just enjoying peace of mind, and it felt like I didn't ever want to move again—but I smiled wryly and walked to the door. As usual, Sora was sitting on my bed, looking to have just finished a contemplation of the luggage. The hoodie he usually wore was downstairs, so his shoulders were bare and looked even smaller than usual.

I smirked at him from the doorway. "Do I look good?"

Sora groaned my name, obviously due to the lisp I'd adopted. He rolled his eyes and frowned at me, unaware of how his lower lip slipped out into his cute little pout.

But I wasn't done. "Yeth I do," I continued, turning to the mirror with a bit of flair. "I look goooood."

"You better change into something else."

"Or what?" I looked at him over my shoulder, mildly interested in what he planned to do to me if I didn't comply.

"Or I'll attack you and bite off your nipples."

For a moment I hesitated, blinking at him insensibly, since I thought he'd said something…well, something else involving nipples and biting. "Just like the beaver!" I said quickly, hoping he didn't notice the pause. But I was grateful for the opportunity to change out of the clothes that reminded me so much of the darkness, so I started toward the chair where a few choice clothes were left out in case I needed to change.

I heard Sora groan again as I passed, and smirked inwardly. Well, it wasn't my fault I liked to watch television.

Digging around in the clothing yielded the yellow shirt I tended to wear on the islands. There was a lot more about that shirt, but Sora didn't remember all that now. "How's this?" I asked him, holding it up for inspection.

He blinked a total of twice before putting his hands over his eyes with the protest of, "The pants, Riku, the pants! I can see stuff I don't want to."

I watched him there for a moment, slender body so vulnerable in that position. Although it was just a joke, it looked like he was trying to protect himself, just like he had to…before. I slammed a mental fist into the stupid thoughts I kept having about what happened and pushed them to the back of my head. No. That didn't happen. "That'th the point," I told him in a voice that sounded less strong than I wanted it to. Nonetheless, I turned to find the black pants. I was going to wear the blue thingies too—I think they're called "bloozies" or something stupid like that—only I hesitated and tried to imagine what they would look like in public outside of the island. "They'd look kind of goofy at the airport," I remarked to Sora.

He gestured to his red jumper, with its wide pant legs and pear shape. "Your choice, not mine," I reminded him dismissively.

He waved a hand in response and looked toward the door. I followed his gaze as I donned the given clothing, wondering what he was waiting for. Was he…oh, that's right. Kairi. Knowing her, she'd probably want to come and say goodbye, and Sora would want to see her, of course. They were almost inseparable a few months ago, before what I remembered as the big Ordeal and the problems. Likely, she was my replacement. Sora got tired of me and replaced me with some airheaded girl that he could actually fall in love with and marry. I frowned, and my movements became jerky with resentment. We couldn't fall in love, Sora and I. It just didn't work that way, according to everyone on the island. But I did love him, I admitted inwardly, and it could work, if only…if only he loved me back.

"I can't wait to get started on Latin next year," I told him with false enthusiasm, trying to get my mind away from Kairi and what I could never have. "Mr. Katsuya is supposed to be a very good teacher, and I'll be able to somewhat understand about five different languages!" All right, there was definitely a note of sarcasm in my voice.

But Sora didn't seem to notice. His ever-adaptive attentions had returned to the blanket where he was plucking at a loose thread. "Oh—what, the class?" he asked disinterestedly.

I grinned. I have you now. "Nope, the country," I replied brightly, flashing him the victory signal. "Here's Your Sign."

Sora groaned for the third time in ten minutes and lay back against the bed, causing the mattress to tremble with impact. "You're mean."

"You are too." I approached him quietly, forcing my eyes to stay normal so I didn't give away my intentions. "But I'm still gonna miss you."

There was a flash of motion and I had him up in the air, my arms around his skinny waist as he squirmed and laughed. I relished that moment during which he was in my arms, our bodies so close and I could smell the coconut scent of his hair.

"Boys, settle down."

Aw, Dad, why?

A bit grudgingly, I let Sora down next to the largest bag I owned. Feeling it necessary to explain my actions for some reason, I punctuated it with a quick, "That one's yours."

He stuck his tongue out at me impishly. "You wish."

I watched without much interest as Dad walked in with Mom following close behind, obviously intent on fixing every physical aspect of her husband that it was in her power to control. Obsessive-compulsive, I guess.

"Be nice to your aunt, dear," she told me with a harsh look, and I wondered whether she could read minds.

"I know, Mom," I replied with a sigh.

But she didn't stop there. "Mind your manners, look both ways before you cross the street, don't lose your plane ticket—"

"I know, Mom!" I repeated maybe a bit too heatedly. "I've been through all this before," I added in a less angered tone. I absolutely hated it when she treated me like I was five. I was almost as tall as Dad now, and I was more than capable of taking care of myself.

I expected her to get mad at me or something, but she didn't. Instead she smiled, and I could almost see my childhood self reflected in her eyes. "That's right. You've grown up already," she replied wistfully, running a hand through my hair. "I keep forgetting—it seems like just yesterday you were slipping into other people's cars."

A wry smile played about my lips as I remembered that particular occurrence. Mom and Dad both been overwhelmingly worried until I was safe and sound in their arms again, at which time they decided to impose limits on my freedom. I stopped having so much time to myself, and I learned my lesson. I shouldn't get into other people's cars. Unless I'm absolutely sure I can do it without getting caught somehow.

"He still does," I heard Sora remark from beside me, and I shoved him playfully. He shoved back and we almost started fighting, but Mom stopped us with several sharp words.

"Boys," she muttered softly, combing my hair back into place.

"Aunt Muffy's not going to be there when you get off the plane, so you'll have to catch the bus on your own," Dad was explaining. That was the only new thing about this trip—that I would have to ride by myself to and from the house, but that was no big deal. "You know where she lives, so you know which stop to get off."

I nodded. "The fifth from the airport," I repeated to him, watching him nod also. I glanced over at Sora long enough to see that Mom had taken a comb to his hair—never a good idea—and felt a pang of sympathy for him as he grimaced.

"Be careful," Dad continued, straightening his already straight tie. "It's a big city, and there are all kinds of people lurking on a street corner. You know what to do if someone grabs you, right?"

"Scream," I provided. "Thrash wildly. Try to hurt him."

"Right. But if he puts you in any danger, use caution so he doesn't hurt you."

"I know, Dad."

"All right. There should be a porter to help you with your baggage when you go to the bus, so—"

"Baggage claim!" Mom interrupted suddenly, whirling and holding us at comb point. "You know what your baggage looks like, don't you?"

I groaned, rolling my eyes, and gestured plaintively to the tulips. How in the world could I forget the tulips?

"She's just worried, son," Dad put in, and moments later I wished he hadn't. "I mean you've got, what, your CD player, your Gameboy, your iPod, all of that in there. That stuff costs money, remember."

"I know, Dad," I said quickly, glancing at Mom and looking away. It was no use. Her hand was already extended pointedly, and her eyes ordered me to hand over my precious electronic devices. Trying to look sincere, I pointed to the big bag next to Sora. "They're all wedged between my socks and the alarm clock."

Mom's eyes softened then, either because I would be away or because she remembered how messy I was when it came to packing, I don't know. "All right then, dear," she said in that same, reminiscent voice. "Just be careful with it, and don't you dare lose your luggage," she added in an iron tone.

"I won't, Mom," I told her, and leaned over long enough for her to land a motherly kiss on my cheek.

"In that case, we'd better get going," Dad stated, leaning down and picking up one of the larger bags. I started for one of the lighter ones—no need to strain my muscles, after all—but I heard Sora grunt suddenly as he let the largest bag slide to the floor. I saw him rub his spine, grimacing, and then he turned an accusing look on me. "You'd better double check, Riku. I think you forgot the kitchen sink."

"Hey, now," I told him in a warning tone, slinging the two lightest bags around my shoulders, "I could've packed the laptop, but I didn't. I was thinking of you and your skinny spine."

"Shut your face, Riku!"

I smiled inwardly at the pout on his face again, those deep blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully in the direction of the laptop. "I'm getting it when you die."

"Fine." Small price to pay for his happiness. "Too bad I'm not gonna die."

We struggled downstairs with the heavy baggage. Ah, no—let me rephrase that. Sora and Dad struggled downstairs with the heavy baggage while Mom and I walked ahead quite easily. I chucked the two bags into the trunk and went back to hug Mom goodbye, since she was looking like she wanted to come but I knew she couldn't because she had her day all perfectly segmented out. "Don't mess up your schedule for me, Mom," I told her, smiling. "I'll see you in a month."

"Be careful, dear."

"I will."

I plopped down in the passenger seat, regretting it a moment later when I realized I could have sat with Sora. And he wasn't going to let me forget it, I realized when he kicked the seat sourly. "Stop it," I told him, sorely tempted to smack him in the head. I heard the engine rev up as Dad started the car, and the road started flickering by. I waved to Mom.

"I'm really gonna miss you, Riku," Sora stated in reply after a thoughtful silence. I could tell from his voice that he was pouting again, but the words were warm with compassion. "Kairi's gonna miss you, too," he added, obviously looking for reasons for me to stay behind, "and Tidus and Wakka and probably Selphie. But I'm gonna miss you like hell."

"Language," from Dad.

"Sorry, sir," Sora replied grudgingly. "I'm gonna really, really, really miss you."

"I can't stay home, Sora," I reminded him, even though right then I wanted to. I really wanted to stay behind and be with him, or let him come along. But it warmed my heart that he would miss me. At least Kairi hadn't torn apart our relationship completely. Oh—right. That never happened. I tried to focus.

Dad started talking about something, but his voice was clearly geared toward Sora, so I tuned out almost automatically. Instead I turned my eyes on the passing scenery, watching the wide expanse of sea pass us by as we drove over the bridge. Faintly in the distance, I could see the paopu island, alone and forlorn. I had a sudden inclination to go to it, to pick up one of the two wooden swords and challenge Sora to a duel. As usual. As always.

I drummed my fingers absently along the brown interior of the car door, which was softening with age and use. It occurred to me that I once sat in the car doing the same thing, feeling my thin, frail fingers pressing against it while I knelt on the seat. I looked up and right through the window of the car next to ours, so close I could have reached out to bang on the other door. In that car I saw two bright blue eyes for only an instant before they turned to look away. I pressed my face against the window, willing that stranger to look at me again. Those eyes suddenly seemed to sense that they were being watched and turned to the window again, catching mine and holding. They blinked once and then stared, brimming with their own special light in the darkness.

Well, I couldn't leave it at that. So I opened the door as quietly as possible, listening to Mom and Dad talk about numbers obliviously. The sliding door closed almost soundlessly behind me, and I spoke with him. His name was Sora—a pretty name, I thought. Sounded a bit like a girl's name. But I didn't say that, knowing those blue eyes would fill with pain if I did. And me? I was Riku, of course.

Time passed too quickly for comfort, and then he looked up, alerting me that his mother was returning and he had to leave. Ah, but he was my treasure now. I wasn't going to let those gleaming sapphires out of my sight, at least until I knew where he lived so I could go there anytime. Being a devious little boy, I decided to play the same trick I had only a few months ago, and slipped behind him, putting on the seatbelt like a good child. I heard him protest once, but the car started almost immediately after that.

A strange feeling curdled in the pit of my stomach as I felt the car move out onto the road. I almost wanted to sit up and cry out, give it all up, because in my heart I was afraid. I was afraid we would go somewhere completely different, and I'd be lost out there all alone. But those sapphire eyes were worth it. They were worth anything, I decided. Even if Mom and Dad were…a little…a bit…angry when I…ahhh…

"Kah—chu!"

I rubbed my nose, jerked suddenly and jarringly back into the present. "Bless you," Sora said absently, although he sounded strangely subdued. Dad must have said something to him about Aunt Muffy. Her movements were slowing, I'd noticed over the past few visits, and her limbs shook sometimes when she had to pick things up. This was probably the last time I would get to see her, according to Dad. And, I thought to myself sadly, it wouldn't be enough after that.

The car rolled smoothly into the parking lot, and we stepped out as Dad clicked the keypad to open the trunk. I started around to it, but Sora got to it before I did.

"GAWSHAMIT!"

Ironically enough, the bag that landed on Sora's foot was the same one he'd tried to carry. But, of course, it was hard to tell these things apart. I was at his side moments later, since I knew how much that thing weighed, and I worried. "Did you break anything?" I asked him, helping him get it off his foot.

"No, I'm okay." There was a bit of confusion in his eyes when he looked at me. I wondered vaguely why that was, but the situation was beginning to strike me as humorous, so I turned away before I hurt his feelings.

We waited in line for a long while, chatting mildly and discussing words that sounded faintly like curses. "When are you going to schmuck Kairi?" I asked him once, grinning.

"I'll schmuck you!" he threatened, raising one of the bags in preparation to swing it at my head. The pout was on his lips again, and there was even a slight blush on his cheeks. On the whole, he looked so cute I wanted to grab him and squeeze him until his little eyes popped out. Scary as that sounds.

Dad finished up and Sora wandered off somewhere. I went to one of the shops and requested a jelly roll. Jelly rolls are awesome things. Because they had a new paopu flavor—and I'm fond of the things—I requested that, and then looked for Sora. He was sitting over by a garbage can, looking troubled, so I quickly bought a milkshake and approached him. "Thirsty?" I asked, offering him the thick drink. He blinked up at me for a moment, his eyes still glazed over with thought, but then he saw the milkshake and bolted upright enthusiastically.

I sat down next to him, munching on the paopu jelly roll. It was artificially flavored, so it wasn't as good as the real thing, but it was pleasantly mild in the stead of the usual tangy taste. The question came to mind again as I weighed it in my hand, looking at the sugary inside. When do I ask him? I thought I'd made it obvious in the few days before our adventure that never happened, but Sora's skull was clearly a tough one to pierce when it came to that sort of thing. Unless he thought I meant Kairi, I mused. I had been pretty ambiguous on the subject, and there was a reason for that. I hadn't wanted to get hurt. If only I hadn't gotten so mad, blindly attacking him and blaming him for replacing me. But I hated the idea of being replaced!

"Riku," he said suddenly, and I returned to reality and the fact that none of that had happened so I still had a chance. I turned to look at him, blinking curiously. "Remember the dream I told you about?"

I hesitated, a smirk crawling up my face. "The one where your pancake was trying to eat you?"

"No! The other one," he replied, frowning. "The one with the doors."

Ah. Right. I looked away, up at the lights of the large room. Those doors. That dream. Sora had remembered a few things for some reason, but I had told them they were only a dream. A simple nightmare, about some child's story of darkness and light. Nothing that happened was real. And it was partially true, now that the entire journey had been erased from history. Namine had done that much.

"I'm worried. That dream was just so real, and I don't want…" I chanced to look at him and saw that his eyes were on his hands, twisting together in his lap nervously. "…I don't want anything to happen to you."

A black fear darted across my heart then, and I realized. What if it happened again? What if the Heartless came back while I was away, and took my Sora from me? I pulled one leg to me, staring at the ground and taking in the tiles. Black and white tiles. Light and darkness. One can be only if the other is, and both cease to exist the moment one is gone. Meaning what? That the Heartless would always be there? I sighed, wiping a crumb from my face. "It was just a dream. Only a dream," I said as much to him as to myself. "Nothing like that would ever really happen, Sora. I'll be okay." But you might not. And what would I do if that happened?

He sighed as well, sounding a bit frustrated, and I felt the prickly strands of hair against my skin as he leaned his head against my shoulder. My first instinct was to stiffen nervously, but I quelled it as best I could, leaning close to him as well. I needed very badly to wrap my arms around him at that moment, pull him close to me and stop time somehow so that moment would never end. But I couldn't do that. Not to him. He wouldn't understand if I moved too quickly, and he probably wouldn't…he wouldn't accept it, anyway.

"It can't come out if you chew on the straw," I said then, not really sure why I did. It seemed to violate some sanctity in the silence between us.

He shook the cup so that the straw struck against the sides hollowly. " 'S empty," he told me, chucking it into the trash. It's empty. A sudden feeling of anxiety fell over me, and I knew that time was running out. Water was seeping through my hands at an alarming rate, so I needed to do something. I needed to say something before it ended.

"I'll be fine," I promised, even though my voice sounded dead in my ears. "I wish you wouldn't worry, Sora. Then you make me feel bad." You make me worry about you.

The close feeling vanished as his head came away from my shoulder and he grinned at me, that awkward, goofy grin that I'd seen so little of during the Ordeal. "Sorry, Riku," he apologized, cocking his head to one side adorably. "I'll try not to be so pessimistic." It was then that I realized that the grin didn't have its usual, natural feeling. But I was glad he decided to make an effort, for me and no one else.

"That's right," I told him, smiling back. The boy was infectious in his emotions. "I need you optimistic, all the time!" I added in a largely genuine voice, punching him in the shoulder. I expected him to punch me back, or shove me, or something, but I hadn't expected he would reach out to touch one of my long silver bangs. His blue eyes were slightly wider than usual in a strange fascination as he twirled it about his fingers, sending pleasurable sensations down the ends. And he didn't stop with just that one, so I was suddenly inclined to close my eyes against the feeling. But then I looked up and saw a strange woman looking at us, short, with brown hair and narrowed green eyes. Her mouth was twisted into a sneer at seeing us sitting so close together, her eyes filled with hatred. If Sora ever saw that look on her face, I wasn't sure what I would do to her. To avoid his pain, I quickly ended it.

"People're gonna think weird thoughts."

I hated the words the moment they were out of my mouth, if only because a strange look passed over his eyes and he pulled away quickly, a faint blush on his cheeks. I regretted having said anything, and I was going to remedy it right then. I was going to tell him, finally. Everything. I turned to him, opening my mouth to speak.

"Okay, son. Time to get to the gate."

Fate shot down my every desire and hope in those words as Dad walked up to us. I couldn't confess now, not in front of him, but I had to do something. I had to tell Sora that…that…

"I'm gonna be sitting there for an hour and a half!" I protested quickly. "Can't I stay with Sora for just a little longer?" I heard the wheedling tone in my voice and hated it, but there was nothing I could do. I had to tell him.

Dad's gray eyebrows drew together pointedly. "They're likely to reschedule. From what I've heard, the plane's making an early return. I don't want you to miss your flight."

Screw the flight. But I sighed, getting to my feet. Maybe I should go to the bathroom, I mused. Get Sora to follow me and tell him then. But who knew what kind of weirdos would hear that in the bathroom? I turned a yearning look on Sora, and noticed the dread on his face. He probably wasn't looking forward to our separation. But at least he'd be with Kairi, I thought bitterly. He'd have precious, perfect, Princess Kairi all to himself.

"This is as far as we can go," Dad explained, and there was something strange in his words. They echoed hollowly throughout my mind. Something was wrong. "I didn't get gate passes this time, so you'll have to go the rest of the way on your own."

You'll have to go the rest of the way on your own.

My ears hummed with something strange and I looked at him blankly, trying to divine from his expression what was going on. But he kept talking, cocking his head to one side concernedly. "You won't get lost, now, will you?"

"I know the way, Dad." The words fell heavily from my lips. I was leaving. But where was I going? To Aunt Muffy's? For some reason that didn't seem right.

"All right, then." And the blessed words yanked everything back to normal. "You're at Gate 15."

"Right."

"You're coming home on flight four-thirty-seven, nine-thirty P.M. sharp."

"Gotcha."

"Don't lose this ticket."

"Nope."

Dad nodded, patting me on the back in a fatherly manner. "I'll see you in a month, son. Remember to call."

"I will." I said it almost absently. Of course I would call. I always called.

I turned to Sora as Dad seemed to retreat, almost going so far as to leave us alone. But Sora wasn't there—he had run forward and locked his arms around me, his face buried in my chest. "I'm gonna miss you so much, Riku," he told me in a muffled voice before he turned to look up at me. I relaxed, putting my arms around him. "You get back here safe, okay?" he asked, his voice starting to tremble.

"You know I will, Sora. Somebody's gotta take care of you." I smiled and moved one hand to his head, letting my fingers slip through that messy brown hair. God, don't let this moment ever end. "I'm coming back," I said almost in a whisper. "I promise."

I squeezed him tight, feeling my own ribcage creak under his arms, and it was almost as if we were trying to squeeze every bit of each other to ourselves, to somehow leave some sort of residue. But it was over far too soon, and we drew away. I felt like part of me had been left with him, but I couldn't stay to retrieve it. Feeling a hard lump in my throat, I walked away, blinking back tears. I stopped before I was out of view, smirking back at them like none of it mattered, and waved once. My footsteps heavy, I walked on to the gate alone.

XI

The charter bus was crowded and noisy, but there was a porter who helped me get my luggage put away and then helped me get it out again when I got off on Aunt Muffy's block. I walked up to the familiar house with the miniature stone gargoyle seated on a shelf above the door, knocking with the slightly scratched brass knocker. Aunt Muffy didn't look much older, but I wouldn't let her carry in the big bags, handing her only the two light ones.

I got set up in my usual room, one with a view of the street. I was always talking about it with a simpering smile, since Mom and Dad had a lovely view of an open dumpster. But now they couldn't come, so it was a bit awkward being with her all by myself.

The weeks seemed to fly by as we went out to eat, to ball games, and to generally have fun. I grew closer to Aunt Muffy, as I had two years ago when I went alone, but I still missed Sora terribly. Never in all the times we called one another was there enough time for me to tell him what I needed to. My mood began to worsen, and I finally I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling dizzy and nauseated, with a major case of the runs. Aunt Muffy heard me in the bathroom and at once scuttled around getting things ready, so that I had a warm bowl of soup and then rest. I was just falling back to nice, thoughtless sleep when—

RING

Oh, God. Why did somebody have to call now?

RING

I hoped fervently that Aunt Muffy would get it, but she was probably in the kitchen where it was hard for her to hear the phone.

RING

Fine. I got up groggily and walked to the phone sitting on the table across from me. The answering machine clicked on, but I picked up anyway.

"Nice time to call a guy," I muttered sourly, not really caring who it was until I heard the voice on the other end.

"Huh? What's going on?" Sora. Clueless as always.

"Nothing, it's just too early," I replied, glancing at the digital clock. Like magic, my voice had returned to normal, and I wasn't mad at him. I couldn't be. He was Sora.

I heard the sound of flesh on flesh, and imagined that Sora had probably smacked himself in the head. "Sorry."

"No big. I'm a little cranky because I've been sick."

"Are you okay?"

I couldn't resist. "Yep. Couldn't be better."

Sora groaned loudly. "You're not dying or anything, are you?" he asked sullenly.

"No, minor case of nausea." I decided not to mention the rest. "Aunt Muffy's been treating me like an atom bomb."

"Riku?" I heard quietly from the doorway, and I looked up to see that Aunt Muffy had come in with a glass of water. "Are you sure you're well enough to walk around? You're not feeling bad, like you're going to throw up, are you?"

"She'll want me to get off the phone—it's okay, I'm just talking to Sora," I explained to her in a louder voice, putting a hand over the mouthpiece. She frowned and put a hand to her ear. "I'm talking to Sora," I repeated, and she hesitated, but nodded and put the glass on the dresser before leaving. "Geez," I muttered, even though I felt bad for it a moment later. "Sorry 'bout that. Is everything okay?" Maybe I had imagined it, but there had been a stiff tone to Sora's voice.

There was a pause. "Yeah." I wanted to ask him again, but he pressed on. "Kairi wanted to talk to me today."

"Oh?" I forced interest into my voice, even though I would rather have shouted at him to get away from her. Don't let her get to his heart, because he was mine!

"She wants to know where our relationship is going."

My heart sank, but I whooped exuberantly all the same. "Sora's got a girl!" I forced a smile, knowing that would change the sound of my voice. "What'd you say?"

"I said I needed to think about it." Sora's voice sounded profoundly disinterested.

"You idiot!" I said, and I knew I was talking to myself. Tears were forming in the corners of my eyes, but I didn't let them into my voice. "You should've just said yes." Yes, I should have. I should have just told him. I should have said so right from the beginning, and then…then, maybe…

"Yeah, well…" Sora sounded undecided. "I don't think she's really my type. That and I don't want her…" My heart leapt. "…to mess up our friendship or anything."

Friendship. That's right. Just a friendship. I kept forgetting. I hesitated, not sure what to say at first, but then I laughed, trying to make it sound natural. "You don't have to worry about me, Sora," I assured him. "I don't mind if you get a girlfriend." Like hell I don't. "Really. I'm happy for you." About as happy as a bird with a cactus halfway up its ass.

"But I…"

Love you. But I love you. I waited for him to finish, but those two forlorn words hung in the air between us, digging into my heart like two tiny daggers. "Yes?" I pressed, berating myself for pushing him, but the damage was already done. I waited for those sweet words to fall upon my ears.

There was the sound of fabric rustling. "One more minute," I heard Sora call back to someone. "Listen, Riku," he continued, and the mood of the conversation changed abruptly. As he spoke, his words came faster until they tumbled over one another, like a dirty secret. "Mom hasn't been telling me, but I just listened in on her conversation, and apparently we're in debt and she might not be able to send me to college. We might…we might lose everything," he finished in a lost, broken voice.

I stopped thinking, letting the words zoom around in my head. First that, now this. It was hard for me to change gears. But Sora needed me right now, and I had to give him some sort of support. "It'll be okay, Sora," I promised after a moment. "I'll tell my folks when I get back, and we'll help you get back on your feet. You better think twice if you think I'm not gonna help you get to college—we're gonna be roommates, remember?" Yeah, roommates. And it might just go on from there, if Sora and I were the only ones behind the door when it locked. Then Kairi could never get in the way again. But I had a funny feeling that I would never get that chance. I tried to pinpoint the source of my concerns, but I couldn't seem to grasp it. Maybe the college wouldn't let us be roommates, I figured, and left it at that.

"Yeah. Okay." Sora's voice was immensely relieved. We said our goodbyes and he hung up, returning to his life with new hope. Because I wouldn't let him sink below a mountain of debt—he was going to college, even if I had to go into debt to make it happen.

I stared at the phone for a few moments before I hung up. Oh, Sora. If I could only tell you.

XI

It seemed like it was shortly after that that I was packing, talking to Sora on the mobile phone as I did so. He had just mumbled something incoherent while I was putting away a few shirts, and I sprouted a sudden question. After all, it had been a month, and I still cared about her. Sort of. In a way. "I guess Kairi's still mad. How is she, anyway?"

Silence.

I waited quite a bit, wondering what in the world Sora could be doing if he ignored that question. "Sora!"

"Wha—?" Oh. He was probably just daydreaming. "Sorry, Riku. What were you saying?"

"I asked you about Kairi," I repeated, sniffing at the underarm of one of my used shirts and making a face. I threw it into the laundry pile. "Is she doing okay? Not still upset about the little mishap in January?" I smirked as I stepped over some other stuff and started for the dresser again. On an unrelated note, Mom would faint if she saw the room in this state.

"I think she's forgotten all about it."

Like hell. Can't fool me, Sora.

"When are you coming home, Riku?" he asked wistfully.

I laughed, sprawling into a chair and leaning against the cushions. "Tomorrow, Sora. I already told you that," I reminded him, thinking with starry eyes to the day when I arrived and we were together again. And then, I realized, then I would tell him.

"That's too long," Sora groaned.

"It'll be okay," I told him, smiling. "I miss you, too, but I'll be there soon."

"Soon?" His voice was faintly muffled.

"Tomorrow, Sora! Focus!"

I heard him laughing into what sounded very much like his pillow.

Aunt Muffy called to me with a comment about the time. "I have to go now, Sora," I explained, feeling a sigh build up and billow out of my mouth. A sudden feeling built up in me, and I wanted to say it. I wanted so badly to say it, but I didn't. "I'll be thinking of you," was all I could manage, and I cursed my own weakness. Why couldn't I just tell him? "Bye."

"Bye. See you tomorrow."

Click.

It occurred to me then that I hadn't told him I would see him tomorrow. For some reason it seemed very important that I say it, but it was just three words. Three little, insignificant words that paled in comparison to the ones I wanted to say.

XI

I hummed calmly to myself as I sat on the bus, tapping my fingers against the seat in front of me. Aunt Muffy had bid me adieu quite a while ago, so I was bored, and waited anxiously to be dropped off at the airport. It wasn't until I went up to the bus driver and asked how many stops since I got on that I got the scare. "The seventh stop?" I asked.

"You were supposed to get off at the fifth, weren't you?" the bus driver asked, looking worried. Aunt Muffy had told him to keep an eye on me. "I can drive you back after my rounds, but I'm afraid you'll miss your flight."

"Just let me off, I can walk," I told him. "It's only a few blocks, so I can get directions."

"With all that baggage?"

"I'll be okay," I assured him. "Thanks for the ride," I added as I swung down the steps and helped the porter get my bags out. Damn, if I missed the flight! I didn't want to hold off seeing Sora any longer. It had been a month already, and I had yet to tell him. I'd make it up to him, I decided. I'd buy a big dinner out in some fancy restaurant, with candles and nice seafood like he loved, and then I'd tell him. And it'd be perfect, just us two. No Kairi, no anyone. Just me. Just Sora.

Those were the thoughts that kept me going as I struggled down the sidewalk toward the airport, five bags hanging off me as my muscles began to burn with fatigue. If only I had asked to borrow the porter or something—he could probably catch a bus to the bus station, and I could pay him.

"Excuse me, sir," I said to a small man who was walking in the same direction. "Could you…could you help me carry these to the airport?" I asked, panting and pointing in the direction of the large building. It wasn't that far away, but I was still worried I'd get stuck and miss my flight.

The man looked me up and down; smiled; nodded. Speaking in a language I couldn't understand, he gestured to the alleyway, where his hulking companion was lurking. I looked from one to the other with apprehension. Was the hulking guy going to carry the bags? And who were these people? What language was that?

I stopped thinking this as the first man, a small, mousy guy with greasy black hair, took a fervent survey of the empty sidewalk—there were mainly broken down buildings on this street, I realized—and made a quick motion. The bigger man's fist collided with my head, sending me crashing to the ground. I tried to stand, dazed, but the smaller man dug his heel into my back, barking commands to the other man. Tough cords bit into my wrists as he tied my hands behind my back, still talking to me almost soothingly. I opened my mouth to scream, but then I felt something cold and circular digging into the back of my neck. A gun loaded.

Oh my God.

The bigger man jerked me roughly to my feet and over to a car, pulling open the trunk long enough to shove me inside. I could hear the sounds of the smaller man pillaging my luggage as the large man gagged me with a sour-tasting gray cloth. Then the lid of the trunk closed, and I was plunged into darkness. I started struggling, trying to pry the cords from around my wrists, but I only succeeded at hurting myself. All too soon, I felt the car bounce with the added weight and the doors slammed shut.

And I was afraid. I was more afraid than I wanted to admit, ever. I was the strong one, right? The one with the good looks and the unusually buff body. I certainly looked like I could take care of whatever life threw at me. But for possibly the first time in my life, I started wishing there was someone there to protect me.

We drove for what felt like forever, taking several twists and turns that sent me into the walls of the trunk. I was battered and bruised, and my bound hands began to throb with pain. It occurred to me to kick at the side of the trunk, but my legs were squeezed together so tightly in the small space that it wasn't long before they cramped and grew sore.

When the trunk finally opened, it was growing dark. The big man pulled me out, forcing me to stand on my aching legs, and marched me into the forested area around the dirt road. I struggled and tried to protest, but he punched me harshly in the mouth, splitting open my lip. We came to a dirt clearing, where a shovel was leaning against a tree beside a shallow hole in the ground. My stomach writhed when I saw it—I knew what that hole was for.

Now I didn't have anything to lose. I struggled and tried to run, only to have the bigger man knock me down and kick me until I stopped. The smaller man ran over with the gun, barking orders again, and they forced me to stand in front of the hole. Cold shock ran down my spine, much like the rivulets of blood from my various scratches. This was it, I realized. The end of the road, and it was such a short one. Tears started in my eyes and a sob came to my lips unbidden. I wanted to run, but they were both faster than I was. I could have cast a spell, only I never learned them—all just a memory.

Sora, I thought fervently as I heard the gun click. Sora, Sora, Sora, Sora, Sora. My beautiful Sora. My Sora. I hope you can go on, Sora, don't linger on this. It won't do any good. Sora, I'm so afraid, I wish I could have been with you for longer. My body began to shake with grief. But it wasn't enough. It would never be enough. Sora, I just hope you can find someone to…to replace me.

I didn't hear the first shot, but I felt the bullet when it bit hatefully into my shoulder. I cried out sharply and the smaller man yelled to silence me. He muttered something that sounded like a curse and readied the gun again.

My heart was beating loudly in my ears, frightening me with the thought of it stopping for good. I was even more afraid now, numb with paralyzing fear. But I had to stay strong. I had to get through this, alive or dead, and either way I would be with Sora at the end of it. Sora, I'm sorry, I thought, hoping my words would somehow reach him. I know someone has to take care of you, and I hope someone does. But I can't anymore. So I'm sorry I broke my promise, Sora. I'm sorry I left you all alone, but there's nothing I can do. I hope you find happiness, Sora, and I never told you. I meant to tell you, so many times, but I just couldn't. I know what I said on the phone to you—the last thing I will ever say to you. But it wasn't what I should have said. I should have said—

The second shot went through my back—I think it may have pierced my heart. The sacrifice for love. Time slowed and I fell forward. The ground took forever to reach me, and white light flashed before my eyes as my head hit the dirt solidly. My heart, beating so fast a little while ago, was fluttering feebly. I clung desperately to life. Just one more time…let me see him one more time! I can't break my promise…! But already my heart was slowing, my thoughts turned foggy…it was harder and harder to fight it, almost like I was slipping into a dream that would never end…

A sudden sense of floating took over as the feeling left my body. I looked down once, seeing the poor boy dead in the dirt as the killers began to bury him, and then turned away from the sight. I watched it all happen—Sora crying, Sora in pain. So many times, Sora—you'll never know how many times I wanted so badly to reach out to you, comfort you, tell you that everything would be okay. It was like I was right there, and I could've helped you if only I was still alive. If only I hadn't died—and suddenly I was back home, just once more. I promised. I looked at you, watched you calling my name above the howl of a storm as the tears ran down your face. And I smiled. I smiled because I knew what I should have said, and because I think you know it now, too.

I am with you always, Sora.

I love you.