Y'know, I actually think this might be the shortest break I've ever had between new chapters. Only six months. Yeah. Anyway. Here's chapter seven - I feel like we're at about the halfway point in this story, or maybe a little past, just so no one's surprised when this wraps up in (hopefully) six chapters+epilogue.

I wanna dedicate this chapter to ItStartedWithAPaopu, my lovely girlfriend/beta/muse, who sat at IHOP with me for three hours tonight to work out the end of this story, and then paid for my pancakes. Yeah, she's a keeper. Enjoy the chapter!

NOTE: It has been brought to my attention that if I keep saying that Roxas, Sora, and Aerith are desperately poor, I need to explain how they have such a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and lots of nice things. These things were all bought BEFORE Roxas's father left, and Aerith uses all of her paychecks to handle the mortgage, which is one of the horrible adjustable ones that make life hell for a single mother.


Sending Demyx off to class with a conspiratorial wink, Axel leisurely moved with the crowd out of the cafeteria. He was not in a good mood. Although he and Roxas did share all of their morning classes, the blond had been too busy making up all of his work to pay him any attention at all. And then at lunch Demyx had demanded that they sit together to deal with the "Riku Issue," so he'd been expected to supply genius ideas and witty remarks as he watched that Naminé girl pant all over his Roxas.

Demyx had a reason to be so insistent that they figure out something to do about Riku. Word had traveled fast through the student body, and overnight the entire school had turned against the silveret, for although Riku was the school heartthrob, Sora was like everybody's sweet, innocent little brother. But Axel couldn't help but feel his own annoyance with his housemate; the redhead had finally felt like he was making progress with Roxas, and now the blond was too preoccupied with Sora's fucked-up relationship to pay any attention to his own. Axel was, however, making sure his support for Riku stayed between him and Demyx; he imagined that if Roxas discovered his mixed allegiance, he'd be banished from his life forever, or something equally dramatic. Regardless, their lunch meeting had been basically useless, with Demyx more interested in passing along gossip and Axel himself torn between glaring at Naminé and sending wistful looks in his usual table's direction.

As he moved through the hallways, he noticed the crowd of students was becoming thicker, exactly the opposite of what usually happened as they filtered off into classrooms. They were louder, too, and due to his advantage in height, he could see over the nearest students to where the throng was thickest.

Great, and now I'll be late for class, Axel mused, annoyed, as a mixture of panicked and encouraging shouts became distinguishable from the general mash of noises. Intrigued, Axel pushed some unimportant freshmen out of his way and finally managed to get a decent of view of what the students were crowded around. The fight – as he was pretty sure it had to be – had moved to the floor, so all Axel saw, between one guy's shoulder and a cheerleader's bouncy ponytail, was a very familiar head of golden spikes.

"Roxas?" he asked no one incredulously, and he suddenly found himself much more capable of moving through the crowd then before, though whether it was from some students struggling out of the throng to go find a teacher or simply because he now had more than a passing interesting in the source of the commotion, he had no idea. He knocked some feebly protesting guy out of the way and saw the whole scene. Roxas had the much bigger and stronger Riku pinned to the ground and, straddling his waist, was punching him repeatedly in whichever part of him was closest. Riku made no move to stop him, or even to protect himself, other than weakly holding a hand over his profusely bleeding nose and making muffled grunts of pain.

"Jesus Christ," Axel groaned lowly, and in one swift movement had the still punching Roxas securely in his embrace and away from Riku.

"Let me go!" the blond spat, furiously struggling to get out of his captor's grip, and as Axel re-secured a fist that had been flying dangerously toward his family jewels, he hoped Roxas didn't know who was restraining him.

"Would you calm the fuck down?" he demanded breathlessly; Roxas had more strength than his small body would have lead him to believe.

At his words, Roxas's attempts to escape paused, and then he began trying to twist around to see him, but the taller teen's grip remained firm.

"Axel?"

"The one and only."

"Oh."

And just like that, the struggle ceased, and Roxas hung limp in his arms.

Seeing that he was sedated for now, Axel turned his attention back to Riku, though he never loosened his hold on the blond's arms. He was just now managing to support himself on one arm, and the sight of the normally immaculate Riku looking so entirely disheveled would have been funny in any other situation. His clothes were torn in a few places and twisted so violently that Axel doubted they'd ever fit right again; his silver hair was in complete disarray, and several strands were matted to his face by the blood still trickling from his nose; and one of his eyes was swollen shut, while the other looked up at him angrily.

"Shit." Axel turned his gaze back to Roxas, who was looking at his fist in disturbed awe. "I'm in so much trouble."

"You could say that," the redhead agreed unsympathetically as he scanned the now-dispersing students for a familiar face. "Seifer!"

The bully appeared to have not witnessed the fight and just passed the aftermath on his way to class, and he walked over with a raised eyebrow. "Don't tell me chickenwuss –" Roxas grimaced at his affectionate nickname "– did this."

Axel ignored the snarky comment. "Can you help me get Riku to the nurse?" Despite Roxas's cooperation thus far, he didn't want to risk letting the blond go so he could help Riku – not to mention, who knew when he'd have the blond in his arms again?

Seifer shrugged and hoisted Riku up, pulling one arm over his shoulder so that the teen could lean on him, but Riku didn't. Instead he just glared at Axel until he was led in front of them, and Axel imagined that, had he been in less pain, he would be craning his neck to maintain the vicious look.

With a deep sigh of "why me," Axel manhandled Roxas down the hallway, ignoring the blond's sarcastic insistences that he wouldn't kill anyone until they dwindled off in the face of Axel's threat to carry the blond bridal-style through the school.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Axel finally asked and he slowed down to allow Seifer to pull Riku ahead and into the nurse's office, watching with a critical eye as the injured teen stumbled and swore.

"He deserved it!" Roxas hissed, as if offended that Axel even had to ask.

In response, Axel tightened his grip on the teen's arm, and, hoping he wouldn't regret it but feeling that someone had to say it, replied, "Did he, Roxas?"

The blond was silent, and Axel guessed that he was sulking as they walked into the office, where the pale, black-haired nurse was already bent over Riku.

"Oh dear," she fretted as she gingerly dabbed at his face with an alcohol-soaked swab. Riku's expression was impassive, despite Axel's encouraging grin. Roxas stood mutely beside him.

"Hello!" The nurse exclaimed when she noticed them in the doorway. With a soft, "Just wait right here, dear," to Riku, she went to examine her newest patient. "And what might I do for you?" she asked sweetly, placing her hand against Roxas's forehead to check his temperature out of habit.

Axel interrupted her by holding up the blond's bloody knuckles for her examination.

"Ah," the nurse tutted, less sympathetic, and grabbed a fresh alcohol-doused cotton ball, which she passed not-so-gently across the aching knuckles. He hissed at the sting in a scratch on his third knuckle that he somehow received during his attack, and she tutted again.

"You," she spoke kindly but firmly as she took one last close look at his fist, "will be fine; the bruising should fade in a day or so. I can't say the same about your handiwork over here," she finished with a stern look.

Roxas had the grace to appear ashamed, though Axel doubted his sincerity. Nevertheless, he smiled at the blond's unhappiness, feeling he at least deserved that.

"So," the nurse had returned to Riku, but she spoke to Axel, "Can I trust you to deliver him to the principal? This one will be along soon enough."

Roxas grimaced, and Axel made to lead him back out into the hallway, where he ran into a harassed teacher who must have come in search of the participants in the fight. Seeing his distressed expression and bruised fist, she whisked the blond away from Axel to lead him to the principal herself, leaving the redheaded teen with a reprimand to return to class and a pitiful look from Roxas.


"Mr. Strife."

Roxas was seated across the desk from Principal Lockhart, twiddling his thumbs nervously in his lap.

"Would you like to explain what provoked you to attack Mr. Masaki?"

Roxas looked down at his thumbs. "Not really."

"It wasn't actually a request." The severe woman frowned, but Roxas remained silent, so she sighed and pulled off her glasses. Roxas tensed, fighting off the (he hoped) ridiculous urge to run; there were rumors that before taking the job as principal, Tifa Lockhart had been the leader of an underground fighting ring, and Roxas was inclined to believe them.

"Here's the deal, Roxas."

The blond looked up, hopeful.

"Starting a fight on school property is a chargeable offense. I should be escorting you to the police station right now."

He visibly deflated.

"However–"

His head rose once more in hope.

"You have always been an exemplary student, aside from the chemistry incident last week– "

Roxas opened his mouth to insist that it was not his fault, but she held up a hand.

"I have heard from many sources that that was not directly your fault, though you could've taken measures to prevent it. Regardless, you have never caused any trouble for the school, and your teachers have assured me that you have a lot of potential. In light of this, and provided Mr. Masaki does not insist on pressing charges, I will keep the issue of your punishment between me and you."

The blond wasn't sure whether to be relieved or not.

"You will be suspended for the week, with no opportunity to make up your missed work, you will do five hours of community service to the school outside of school hours, and you will write Mr. Masaki a formal apology."

The sentence was not nearly as bad as it could have been, and, except for the apology, Roxas had no complaint. Considering the woman's leniency, he decided to press his luck a little further. "Couldn't I just miss two weeks, or do ten hours of community service, instead of the apology?"

Her harsh glare was answer enough. "You are in no position to bargain. I am already being extremely kind."

Roxas nodded, dismayed, before standing. He was reaching for the door handle when she spoke once more.

"You should know that I expect you to be the very image of perfect behavior from this moment until you cross the stage and I hand you your diploma. If you so much as make me wonder if I have misplaced my trust, I will see to it that no person will ever make my mistake again." She ended with a kind smile and Roxas fumbled futilely at the door for a moment before escaping, still intact.

Riku was leaning against the wall when he exited. Their eyes locked for a split-second before the blond looked away, jaw tense. They stood a moment in silence, and then Riku went into the office. Roxas was hardly alone long enough to wonder why Riku had to see the principal; the receptionist poked her head around the corner to tell him his mother was here to pick him up.

Dreading her reaction, Roxas waited patiently as Aerith signed some papers, tight-lipped. A few minutes later they were in the car, and Roxas was getting increasingly worried the longer she remained silent.

"Look, Mom –"

"Save it, Roxas," Aerith replied tersely, green eyes sharp and narrowed at the road. He decided to wait until she started the conversation, staring at the scenery passing by as they turned down their street.

Turning more sharply than necessary into the driveway, Aerith braked and put the car into park before finally letting out a frustrated noise.

"What in the world is wrong with you?" she demanded.

Roxas crossed his arms defensively. "You don't understand," he began, intending to explain why exactly his attack against Riku had been merited, fully aware that she had no idea what had happened, but he didn't get the chance.

"You're damn right I don't! You've been sullen and difficult for weeks, skipping school and getting detentions, and Sora locked himself in his room the whole weekend, blaring his music while I'm trying to get whatever sleep I can manage between shifts, and then you go and start fights at school, with Riku of all people, when his family has been so helpful and supportive these past four years! Jesus, Roxas, does it ever occur to you to think about anyone else? My boss docked my pay because I had to leave during our biggest rush to come pick you up from school, and I'm surprised he didn't just tell me to not bother coming back tomorrow! We're barely managing as it is, and you can't even comprehend how hard that's going to make this month! You and Sora are so consumed with whatever teenage drama you're dealing with, I doubt either of you have taken a single moment to consider how your behavior is affecting anyone but yourselves!"

She glared at him accusingly, breathing labored after her long rant, waiting for a response.

Roxas simply stared at her for a moment, incredulous, before getting out of the car without a word and heading toward the house.

He heard his mom follow mere moments later, shutting the car door with a bang. "Get back here right now, Roxas Strife, I'm not fini–"

He slammed the front door, cutting her off, and headed for the kitchen, trying to focus on getting a glass of milk and going to his room.

"Where do you think you're going, young man? Get back here and talk to me!" She yelled, and the door was slammed once more before she followed him to the kitchen. "What on earth is this about?"

The teenager slammed the expired milk carton down onto a counter and whirled to face his mother, seething.

"You want to know what this is about? Fine. Maybe it's about me being a teenager and getting upset over a fight with Hayner. Maybe it's about Axel moving in next door and changing everything in my life whether I want it or not. Or maybe," here his voice dropped down to a low, furious hiss, "Maybe it's about how Sora walked in on Riku having sex with some other guy three days ago and how you're never around long enough to have any idea what's happening in our lives!" His blue eyes flashed with anger and he stormed from the room without a backward glance.

He made it halfway to his room as she stood stunned in the doorway of the kitchen.

"What… what did you say?" Her voice had risen a few octaves in disbelief and she almost sounded pained.

Roxas was glad.

"Oh, so now you'll stick around? Now you care what's going on? Jeez, Mom, how very considerate of you." The venom in his words was palpable, and he faced her once more, speaking slowly. "I said that Sora walked in on Riku fucking another guy. Three days ago. You want your mother of the goddamn year award now or later?"

"I didn't know, Roxas," she said hollowly, looking at Sora's bedroom door, shaken. Roxas had never seen his mother look so exhausted, but he couldn't care less.

"No, Mom, you didn't." He hesitated for a second, before continuing, "I'll be in my room," and leaving her alone in the hallway.


Around two-thirty Roxas took a break from his Mount Everest of makeup work. Knowing that he'd be forced to take zeros for all of his assignments and tests this week, he'd have to make perfect scores on whatever he could to keep from pulling dismal grades this quarter.

I don't need to give Mom another reason to freak out, he thought ruthlessly, but honestly, the mindless reading assignments and short essays had given him a chance to calm down and feel bad for speaking so harshly to his mother. He just didn't feel bad enough to wish he could take it back. She might have been justified in being angry, but Roxas didn't feel that anything he said had been uncalled for in the face of her accusations. After all, it wasn't his fault that she didn't know what was going on with her sons. It was her fault, and their father's fault for leaving and making her work two jobs in the first place.

Leaving it at that, and ignoring his grumbling conscience, Roxas stretched backward against his chair until he heard (and felt) a satisfying pop. The rest of his work could wait, he decided, rubbing his spine. Knowing that Aerith would have left for work by now, he decided to forage for food, which would be even more difficult than usual, knowing that Ri – the Bastard wouldn't be bringing over take out, or inviting them to dinner with his family.

Not that I'd accept anything that cheating man-whore had to offer, Roxas mused self-righteously. As he walked out of his room, he heard the front door open, and a glance at his watch confirmed that it was Sora. Roxas felt a small twinge of guilt for abandoning his twin at school, and hoped he'd managed to find a ride home – surely Axel or Naminé would have offered.

"Rox?" Sora called from the entryway, just as Roxas emerged from the hallway.

"Hey, Sora. Any trouble finding a ride?"

The brunet snorted, and Roxas was glad that he seemed to be in a better mood. "Definitely not. I had people I haven't talked to in years offer, though I think they just wanted some first-hand gossip." He made a face. "But Hayner and Seifer, Olette, Axel, and Principal Lockhart all offered."

Since Sora didn't seem surprised by the intimidating woman's offer, Roxas decided not to remark on it, though he did raise an eyebrow. "So who had the honor?" he asked teasingly.

"Kairi and Naminé, actually. They asked first." His expression suddenly became defiant as he noticed Roxas's narrowed eyes. "Hey! Don't give me that look. I know you don't like them. But it's been years since we've spent any time with them, and you don't know that they're even the same people anymore. Not to mention they've been really nice and considerate all day while you weren't around, so… yeah."

He seemed to lose steam toward the end, and Roxas snorted, leaning against a wall while the brunet made a big fuss about removing his backpack and setting it down, obviously hoping to distract him from the lackluster finale.

"There is nothing in the world that Kairi could do to make me see her as anything but the crazy psycho bitch she is. God, you should have seen the way she treated me and Axel at the diner the other night. It was…"

Sora's sudden frozen expression reminded Roxas that one of the best nights of his life was Sora's worst.

"But Naminé, she's totally different," he began again, feebly. "I mean, she doesn't do any of that fake charm that's Kairi's specialty, and she's totally down to earth. If they weren't identical, I wouldn't believe they're related. Did you know she's an artist? I bet she's one of those quiet artistic geniuses. When I see her again I'm gonna convince her to let me see some of her work." Roxas was completely aware that he was rambling in his effort to distract Sora, but judging by the brunet's raised eyebrows and comically agape mouth, it had worked anyway.

Sora seemed to regain control of his features and was now looking at the blond mournfully.

"You've got to be kidding me."

"What?"

Sora dropped dramatically onto the couch, shaking his head.

"There's no way."

"What?" He demanded, completely bewildered by his twin's weird behavior.

"You have a crush on Naminé."

Silence fell.

"I – What?" Roxas asked again, sure he'd misheard.

"You heard me."

"But that's ridiculous!" he laughed, but faltered when Sora didn't join in. "Isn't it?"

"It is," the brunet assured him, "but that doesn't have an impact on whether or not it's true."

Roxas could only stare blankly, so Sora continued.

"Look, I've known you for almost your entire life–" Roxas wondered what part he hadn't known him for, "–and I've heard you talk about a lot of people, and I have never heard you talk about anyone like you just did about her."

Roxas blinked. "But that's not fair! I was just rambling, so I could dis–"

"Doesn't matter."

"It does so!"

"Does not!"

Roxas gritted his teeth, fully aware from lots of experience that Sora would win if they kept on like that, and took a moment to consider it. Did he have a crush on Naminé? He knew he liked her – she was nice, funny, smart, and talking to her was practically effortless. He hadn't found something not to like. But like like? He wasn't sure, but even if he did…

"Why is that a bad thing? If it were true, I mean," he hastily tacked on.

Sora looked up at him incredulously from his prone position on the couch.

"Oh, I don't know, maybe because the boy next door is in love with you? Why do you think, dumbass?"

"I'm not a dumbass!" He shot back petulantly, "And you're delusional. It was just some silly crush, and he's obviously completely over it," Roxas replied, recalling his day, which had been free of Axel's almost expected flirting.

Sora sent him an annoyed look.

"Even if that were true, which it is most definitely not, as is obvious to those of us who aren't dumbasses, it'd still be bad. You're gay."

Roxas scoffed, exasperated. "That makes less than no sense, Sora. Wouldn't having a crush on a girl be proof that I'm not gay, and thus actually be a good thing?" As Roxas said this, he suddenly found himself reexamining his feelings for Naminé with less skepticism.

"No," Sora returned in his own exasperated tone, "because you are gay. I'm your twin; I know these things. It's bad because now you're going to think this crush gives you hope for being not gay, and will just lead to more self-denial and, in the long term, heartbreak."

Roxas tried to ignore how much sense Sora's seemingly illogical statements made, and instead jumped on his one weak point. "But if I'm gay, wouldn't that make it impossible for me to have a crush on a girl? I mean, you're as gay as they come; have you ever had a crush on a girl?" He asked, already knowing the answer.

Sora sat up with a serious expression and replied level-voiced, "You know I've never had feelings for anyone except him."

The blond swallowed hard, immediately regretting the question, and sat down beside his twin. "Yeah, I know."

There was a pregnant silence.

"I thought he felt that way toward me, too, y'know?" Sora's voice was quivery and Roxas knew they were in dangerous territory, but didn't know which would be better for Sora – ignoring the problem or letting it all out. He waited for him to make the decision.

"Have you eaten yet?"

"No," Roxas replied, relieved at not having to fumble through an emotional conversation with Sora after all the other drama of the day, and he followed him into kitchen, where the milk carton still sat on that counter, definitely spoiled now if it hadn't been before. Sora turned to Roxas with a questioning look, and the blond grimaced.

"Sorry, my fault. Mom and I got into a huge fight and I forgot it in all the commotion." He dumped the carton's contents down the sink drain, trying not to look in case they had already curdled.

Sora nodded, "Yeah, I wondered how she would take your suspension. Not well, I'm guessing."

"You heard about that?" Roxas asked, though he'd expected the gossip to travel fast.

"Duh. What'd she say?"

Roxas chuckled nervously, knowing his twin would not approve of what he said to Aerith. "Well, she basically went on a rant about me being selfish and too focused on silly teenage drama, and I told her she is a bad mom and explained why. I think I shocked her out of punishing me."

Sora tutted disapprovingly, but otherwise made no remark, and the pair settled in to eat canned low-sodium soup and toast for dinner.


After they ate Sora produced a secret stash of candy from his room and they popped The Princess Bride, Sora's favorite movie, into the DVD player. Snuggled together under a small blanket – it had begun to rain outside and the temperature had dropped fifteen degrees, but neither felt like moving to shut the living room window – Roxas couldn't remember Sora ever crying so much during any previous viewing of the movie, but he allowed the brunet to lean against him without comment. (He still laughed at the "Inconceivable!" scene, so Roxas was pretty sure he was handling it alright, overall.) After that ended, they watched Finding Nemo and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, throughout which Sora compared the couple's dysfunctional relationship to his and Axel's to Roxas's annoyance (and secret amusement).

When Aerith came in from work hours later, exhausted but with a new sense of accomplishment and determination, the Phantom was serenading Christine as he led her into the bowels of the opera house, and her two sons were a mass of spiky hair and limbs that occasionally emitted snores and mutters. She smiled to herself and disappeared, reappearing a moment later with the large blanket off Roxas's bed. After doing her best to tuck the pair in, Aerith dropped a quick kiss on each forehead, shut the window as quietly as possible, and, with one more quick, loving, motherly glance at her babies, headed off to bed.


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