AN: This one took a little longer than I would have liked. Oh well. Once again, credit for the idea goes to rubyd, for what is possibly my favorite piece of KH fanart ever.
Another Day in Paradise
Chapter Twelve: Ghosts
Sora was bone tired. Today had been a lot of things. Exhausting, for one, especially the morning, during which he'd gone from feeling particularly cheerful and ready to face the world again to bruised, confused, and worried. The bruising had come from Riku's brothers, who had been about as thrilled to see him as they had Riku. Sora had grown up with Riku, so of course he'd known Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo. To a little boy, the brothers had been like distant gods, always in clothing that was coordinated and totally hip according to the style of the time, who were always good at everything they did, and who could bring down the always confident, haughty Riku with a dog pile and a triple-noogie. Now that he was older, Sora could understand a little bit of why Riku had acted the way he had when they were younger. After all, with brothers who everyone saw as so perfect, who more than likely treated him like…well, like the baby of the family, how could Riku not want to be the one in charge, the perfect one, every now and then?
As an only child, Sora could only guess at what Riku's feelings were, but he knew that it wasn't all brotherly bullying and living in his siblings shadows. Riku had said it himself, hadn't he? He missed his family. Not just his grandparents, but his family. Sora had been able to see a little of it, that thing Riku had been missing, as Kadaj had grabbed him in a headlock, fist ruthlessly digging into Riku's hair until he got the information he wanted. Riku had always been all about looking for the subtle cues in order to figure out what he was really feeling. So despite his desperate struggles and pleas for help from his friends—Sora had tried to defend him, only to be waylaid by Loz—there had been something in his expression that was more than dread.
Relief, maybe? Sora hadn't had the time to ask him afterwards. In fact, he hadn't even seen Riku since then. The brothers had dragged him into an empty classroom for interrogation, Sora left dumbstruck in the hall and wondering if Riku would come out of it in one piece. Kairi had kept Felix and Principal Eden outside, though she'd been surprisingly reluctant to do so. Sora's confusion came from that discontented look on her face, the way she hesitated to go to her father. Sure, it had been a little weird how he'd been standing with the principal, but that didn't mean that…it just seemed so unlikely…
Laying in bed and staring up at his ceiling, Sora came to a rather uncomfortable realization. Two, actually. One being that Felix and the principal had…had something going on. It was the only explanation. The other being the embarrassing and awkward knowledge that when he was younger, or just a year or two ago, he would have never noticed any of the clues that pointed towards people having a relationship. He was still slow on the uptake it seemed, but back then he'd been totally clueless. That he wasn't so clueless now was strange and perplexing. Sure, he'd changed, but not in that way, right?
Sora didn't know who he was asking, but having all these questions and complexities running around in his head were all coming together to cause his incessant worry. He'd only just gotten his previous concerns out in the open—with Riku, anyway—yesterday and now there was even more to deal with. He couldn't figure out what to do with himself, he had no idea how much Riku would've told his brothers and what his brothers would do with what they learned, Kairi's father was somehow involved with the principal, and he was noticing far, far too much about the people around him.
Oh, and school. Rolling slightly on his side, Sora gave the papers on his desk a dirty look. Everything had been worked out for him. His parents had arrived right after Riku had been claimed by his brothers, and between his mother and Principal Eden they'd decided on what was best for him. Sora was lucky he'd gotten a few words in, but the truth was, he didn't know what he would've picked if it had been entirely up to him, anyway.
Classes were just the basics, for the most part. Language and literature, first stage, world history and physical activities, starter math and problem solving, and basic biology. According to Kairi, that's what most freshmen had their first year, along with at least one elective and some kind of guidance plan. Sora didn't know anything about the guidance plan; maybe it wasn't decided for him yet? He sure didn't know what he'd want, or even what he was really good at besides what he'd been doing for the last couple years. And he doubted there was a career niche for "Keyblade Master."
What made Sora the most uncomfortable, however, was the last choice. His father had been silent during registration for the most part, but when it came to Sora's elective, he had voiced what he thought might be best. Even before his adventure Sora knew his father had had it in mind for him, but the Destiny Islands Naval Cadet program just seemed so…weird for him to be in. He couldn't really say why. It wasn't like it came as any surprise to anyone else; his father was famous in his own right as a captain, and before him his grandfather, and then his great-grandfather. It had been expected of Sora since he'd been small and listening to all the exciting tales of his family's accomplishments had meant that he was more than eager to try.
Yet now it just…it didn't feel the same. Nothing did, not really. It was normal, yes. School and home and family were normal, and entering the Navy certainly sounded like the logical thing to do, even more so now than before. After all, he had experience! In a manner of speaking. He knew how to fight, his body was trained to handle difficult conditions and extended travel, and he could work well with new people on relatively short notice; all kinds of things he had picked up during his journey.
But it still didn't feel right. And the more he thought about it, the more frustrated Sora became. He was going around in circles! One day he would feel like he had gotten it all figured out, or under control, or at least less than it was, and then by the next day he was back to exactly where he had been before, if not worse off. Sora didn't like that at all. He was used to doing by now, going forward. That's how he'd always been, or at least that's what it felt like…
Maybe he shouldn't think about it so much. Laying here like this certainly wasn't helping anything and the more he thought about it, the worse he felt, anyway.
"Could do something," Sora said to the air, seriously considering it. Sure, it was…well, the sun had gone down a while ago, so it wasn't early by any means. And the last time he'd snuck out at night things hadn't exactly gone very well. But he knew better this time and he could take care of himself. He didn't have just a wooden sword anymore, after all.
Mind made up, Sora slipped out of bed, sneaking to his dresser. He wouldn't go very far. Not as far as Destiny Islands, but there were nice spots on the shore near the lighthouse that he hadn't visited in ages. It was calm outside, the warmth from the day lingering in the rolling breeze that rustled the curtain of his windows. He wouldn't need anything fancy or heavy to wear, then, Sora digging around for a minute or two before finding a simple shirt and his swim trunks to replace his pajamas.
A few moments later he was out the window, dropping onto foliage gritty with sand and salt, then navigating down onto the path behind the lighthouse, the sweeping band of illumination from above lighting his way. Damp wind heavy with the scent of the night and the sea caught at his hair and clothing, Sora pausing as he reached the first turn in the path, placing him in the shadow of the low cliffs. He'd forgotten how it was here after dark, near summer's end when the worst heat was gone and the autumn rains were on their way. A person could go out on a night like this and watch lazy waves sway back and forth, foam rippling against the rocks beneath the path, the trees at the top of the cliff murmuring in the wind while the stars peeked out from behind the thin, dusty steaks of cloud cover.
Sora was surprised, a little. Not by what he saw, but by how it made him feel. It really had been a long time. It was just now occurring to him that despite all his world-hopping, he had never visited a place that had a scene quite like this. It was enough to make a person think a little more seriously about just how "dull" and boring this world really was.
But he had already made up his mind about things like that! No more thinking right now. Nodding to himself, Sora continued on his way, navigating the downward slope with ease, the path dropping down onto the crest of the lighthouse bay. The bay was tiny compared to some, the cliff casting it in shadow so that the beam from the lighthouse was only a small outline that pulsed slowly behind the trees on the cliff. That left just the quarter moon to illuminate the pristine white sands that curved in a perfect arc, a couple yards at most between the cresting waves and the line of trees and sea grass. Most people didn't come here during the day because low tide left it looking a little less than perfect, but if you were willing to come at night it sure was pretty to look at.
Sora had to smile. It was definitely worth it to sneak out. All his worrisome thoughts were gone, pushed aside, and his smile shifted into a grin as he pulled his shirt off and kicked off his sandals, making for the waves at a dead sprint. They lazily rushed up to meet him, breaking against his legs with a warm splash. Sora wasted no time, breathing deep and diving in, eyes closed against the salt and arms out to keep himself from doing anything dumb, like hitting the bottom with his head. The balmy water closed over him, the wind suddenly muffled, replaced by the steady, deep sound of the swells as the moved above his head. His dive didn't carry him very far, the waves catching him as he surfaced and gently urging him back towards the sands. Sora let them carry him along, leaning back and sighing happily, then laughing and sputtering as his head hit sand and the water moved over his face.
He was still laughing as he sat up, shaking his head and running his hands through his hair to get the grit out. He hadn't done that since he was a little kid! With a mirthful glare, he dove back into the surf, smile challenging as he measured his strength against the waves. It was an old game, one he never did win, but that didn't stop Sora from trying. By the time he was done he was laying bonelessly on the sand, water washing back and forth over his feet, sand clinging to his back and hair as he panted from happy exertion. He hadn't done that since he was a little kid, either.
It helped to remind of all the things he hadn't done in so long. He hadn't explored the familiar caves in the cliff side for new animals and plant life, he hadn't buried his friends in the sand, and he hadn't worked weeks and weeks to construct intricate tree houses and forts to pretend in. Sure, it seemed a little kiddy now, but what was wrong with that? It never hurt to be a kid now and then, even when you got older. Sora wanted to do the things he'd always done because they were familiar and comfortable and eased the troubles in his mind.
Thinking about it, he remembered something he'd discovered about the bay way back when. One section, a bit further down, dipped inward more than the rest, the waves tapering off and leaving only ripples; a perfect place for floating and relaxing and sneaking up to shove Riku under, if Riku didn't get him first. It became a fantastic tidal pool at low tide, the water crystal clear and the crabs and starfish and mussels and snails and all manner of things wriggling and swimming about the sun-dappled water during the day. Of course, he'd learned that at night, during high tide, it was a good idea to not step down on anything, not unless you wanted a painful surprise. But he'd be careful.
Grinning, Sora pushed himself to his feet and sloshed through the water, wriggling his toes in the damp sand as he made his way to the spot that he remembered. Much to his delight it was bigger than he remembered, its far end encroaching upon the trees, sea grass rustling at its edge. The moon outlined the ripples on its surface in silver as Sora came up to it, shivering and disappearing only to reappear when the clouds shifted. He went towards the sandy edge near the trees, where the pool life was the sparsest, hoping to avoid any nasty surprises when he was already so relaxed. Unlike the actual waves, the water he slipped his feet into had a lingering warmth, gathered during the day while it was confined.
Sora's grin shifted to a softer smile as he waded in up to his waist, muscles relaxing, breath slowing. It was a little surprising to realize that he hadn't exactly relaxed like this since coming home. Maybe it was because he was so uncomfortable…? Without Donald and Goofy, without some kind of purpose, he had been on edge, expecting them to come, expecting something to happen. When it didn't, it left him frustrated and tense. But here all that agitation just faded away, any lingering worries going with it.
He was so preoccupied that he didn't see them at first. But Sora eventually spotted the…sparkles? They made him think of sparkles, though when he actually paid attention he realized they were fireflies, casting their glow on his surprised features. He was startled to see them, considering the season for them was practically over, but then, there weren't that many, so maybe these were all that were left? They rose off the water's surface as he disturbed it, each one a delicate color somewhere between yellow and green. Sora couldn't quite keep the awe from his expression as he watched them float and dance around him, flickering like stars dipping down to touch the sea, rising and dropping playfully.
How many where there…? Sora tired to keep track of them, picking one to follow, voice playful as he pointed to it. "Sora!"
Another crossed his vision, seeming to chase the first. "Riku!" And then another, following those two. "Kairi!"
Sensing a game, Sora kept on, doing his best to name each one only once, turning and laughing as he followed them. "Donald, Goofy…Mickey! Leon, Cloud…Aerith…Yuffie, Cid! Tidus, Wakka, Selphie!"
He knew he was probably repeating by now. There really weren't that many, though it seemed like there were with him spinning around and around, trying to keep them all in sight. Sora was having fun, though, so he didn't see why it mattered. He kept going, memories flickering in his mind, the excitement of past adventures bubbling up in his chest.
"Belle, Beast! Tarzan, Peter, Alice, Simba!"
It didn't feel so long ago. And it had been grand, hadn't it? He'd saved so many worlds, met so many people.
"Mulan, Jack…and Jack! Aladdin, Jasmine, Tron!"
Okay, a little part of him wished he was still on an adventure. Was that so bad? It had been…well, it had been everything. The whole point had started out as finding Riku and Kairi so he could come home, but…he wouldn't have changed anything.
Nope, not anything! Sora was happy with how it had turned out, in the end. He had found his friends, the worlds were safe, and now they were home. Everyone had had their happy ending.
…well, not…not everyone. Sora's smile faded a little, the sloshing of the water quieting as he came to a gradual stop. The fireflies seemed to match his pace, drifting slowly back down, the light a little easier to see as the clouds drifted in front of the moon again. When he wasn't moving so much or so quickly he could actually keep track of how many there were, the tiny dots drifting around him, slowly but surely descending back towards the dark surface of the water. Not quite sure why he was doing it now, Sora started counting again, using only numbers this time.
It…wasn't like he'd completely ignored it. It hadn't been like that. It was just…he'd had to do it, hadn't he? There wasn't any choice about it. Sure, he hadn't exactly questioned Yen Sid, or thought about what it all meant, in the beginning…
They had been hurting people. The worlds had been put in danger because of them and they were stealing hearts away. That made them just as bad as the Heartless. Sora had never had any problems fighting the Heartless; they were mindless, seeking out everything by instinct, serving power. And the Nobodies were just as bad.
Just…the Heartless didn't pretend that they were normal. They hadn't been capable of it. Heartless didn't remember things, or want things, or changed their minds about what they were doing. The Heartless didn't act like people. Sora had been told the same about Nobodies. They weren't normal. They weren't people. He only had to beat them.
Then one had saved him and told him that Sora had made him feel. Nobodies weren't supposed to do that.
He hadn't thought about it. He couldn't, back then. If he'd stopped, if he hadn't kept going, would he have been able to do it? He tried talking to Xemnas, he really had. He had! But Xemnas had said that he didn't remember anything else, and had gone on fighting, and Sora had stopped thinking about it again.
Sora wasn't moving at all now, one hand slightly outstretched as one of the tiny lights, the last one, drifted onto his palm. It was warm. Or maybe his hand was cold.
The others were disappearing one by one, fading into the shadowed ripples like the ghosts of fallen stars. Sora looked down at the last, still there because he held it aloft, kept the light going. Quietly, quietly, in the back of his mind, he began to wonder.
Maybe…maybe it wasn't such a good idea to stop thinking, sometimes.