He had sort of always been the odd one out.
Consistently the excessive number five that no one really needed.
That extra something one stuck somewhere and forget about.
He was the last in a long line of children. There were pictures of all four of his brothers all over the house. Every step of their development caught on perfect film with smiling faces and adolescent triumph. Not so much of him.
He was the last in a tight-knit group of friends. They had memories stemming from each other's very births. Not so much with him.
He had never lived in one place long enough to even make a proper best friend.
…And he had no clue why it was they let him in that day.
It might have been something about the way he'd looked.
The way he'd exploded on Seifer and his gang and taken on all four of them without any regard for his own safety.
Maybe it was the wild way he'd swung, the way he hadn't noticed the blood splattering off his knuckles, because he was too focused on holding together.
Hah, yeah, he'd done well there.
Break Seifer's jaw; keep yourself from drifting out to sea.
They were close enough for rock and roll.
The bruises on his body, his swollen eye, his split knuckles, they didn't mean anything.
Except to them.
The girl was pretty, he noticed as she approached him. Her hair matched the blood and her eyes matched the bruises.
She reached out for him with a tremulous smile, like she didn't want to encourage him, but she still thought what he'd done was just right. Like beating Seifer up was the perfect thing to do.
He didn't take her hand because he didn't need anyone's help, but when she looked hurt he muttered something else.
"Don't want to get blood on you." Like he was ashamed.
That made her expression deeper.
She snatched up his hand, making sure to dirty her pretty white skin as much as possible.
Then she smiled.
"Yeah, well, too bad."
Then the others had come, ambling with the lazy unconscious gait of boys on the cusp of almost convincing the world they're badass.
Her brother, the tall one with the witch-fire green eyes, clapped him on the shoulder. While the other two boys with the twin faces watched him with differing expressions.
The brunet was smiling and extending a hand to him in congratulation.
The blond had his arms crossed over his chest, his face impassive but his eyes betraying.
Riku felt uneasy around Roxas from the start. The blond always seemed to be watching everything around him.
When he spoke, he spoke bluntly and never indulged anyone with false platitudes.
He took on problems head on, logically.
He was reasonable.
He was unsympathetic.
He was fragile and vicious in his way.
Riku always wondered when he would break apart under the strain of being reasonable for everyone else.
When another vapid girlfriend would dump his brother, it was Roxas who would assure him things would be all right.
When Kairi found herself taunted by their classmates for keeping company only with boys, it was Roxas who would tell her it was pointless to listen to them.
When Axel was mere inches away from murdering his pretentious co-workers, it was Roxas who told him he would only get caught.
Every waking moment was spent consciously being calm and collected, honest and trustworthy.
Riku found it unnatural.
His brothers were home for the weekend.
Out of all four of them, only Loz bothered to say hello.
Riku sneered at him, probably hurt his feelings, and then left the house with, what he thought was, impressive poise. Except for the door slamming, which echoed up and down the street like a gunshot.
It took mere seconds for the redheads to appear across the street and for the brothers to materialize next door. All five of them convened at their front porch, even though Riku tried to insist he really just wanted to be alone.
"Where do you want to go?" Axel laughed.
He was good at that, laughing away other people's feelings.
"Nowhere, not with you—"
"Let's drag him to the park and throw him in the lake." Sora smiled.
He was good at that, smiling away people's pain.
"I'll buy sodas." Kairi assuaged.
She was good at that, soothing out situations.
Roxas took off his jacket and threw it at Riku and then started walking.
Riku didn't know what that was.
But from the look in Roxas' eyes most of the time… Roxas thought he was weak and an idiot and… as Riku pulled that coat on nonetheless, he agreed.
He was always the awkward man out.
Except when Kairi wanted to go roller-skating.
Except when Sora wanted to go to the arcade.
Except when Axel wanted to go see a movie.
"You wanna come, Riku?"
And things always just came out of Riku's mouth, vomited forth like a gag reflex.
What about the others? Do you have money? Is there enough room in the car?
"They can come if they want." Kairi smiled.
"Yeah, I'll pay for you too!" Sora grinned.
"The car seats ten if we squish, get in, you retard." Axel smirked.
Roxas watched him silently, in that peculiarly scornful way.
In Toledo the boy next door had been named Tidus.They hadn't been friends.
In Middle Town, the girl three blocks down had been named Selphie. She'd invited him to a birthday because she felt bad. He didn't go.
In Whitehouse the captain of his soccer team had been named Wakka. They'd spoken to one another only twice.
In Bowling Green, the boy who sat next to him in all his classes had been named Leon. Leon had offered to help him with his homework once, and then never again.
In Crown Point, the boy who would come over to fight with his brothers in the front yard had been named Cloud. They'd never actually been introduced.
In Sorrel Hill…
In Opal City…
In Another-One More-Moving Again City, Hill, Town, Village, Urban sprawl, Rural expanse, Suburb, Neighborhood, Alphabet city ghetto…
In Twilight Town? There was a girl named Kairi with soft fingers who took his bloody hand.
In Twilight Town, there was a boy named Axel who had manes of hair and sharp green eyes, always overflowing with mischief and mirth and cheer.
In Twilight Town, there were two brothers.
The brunet with his laughing face and the blond… the blond with the searching eyes.
"Why won't Dad just keep his fucking job?"
"Riku, it's more complicated than that."
"No, it isn't! He's a selfish son of a bitch!"
"Riku! He keeps food on our—"
Riku had never owned a yearbook.
The family always seemed to move mid-school year and when he was old enough to care, he didn't. He couldn't have remembered any of their faces in the first place.
He didn't understand why Twilight Town was different.
He didn't understand why he let them pull him in.
Not when he would just lose them all over again.
They'd forget his name and face while he struggled, lonely miles away, to do the same.
"Three whole fucking months!"
"Riku, watch your mouth!"
"When do you plan on quitting your job, Dad?"
"Riku, watch how you speak to me."
Sometimes Riku had to laugh.
Sometimes something tugged tight, from his heartstrings to his throat, till the only thing left to him was to throw back and laugh.
They'd all learned to recognize the sound of Riku's front door slamming.
They all convened at Sora and Roxas' doorstep.
They never expected Riku to tell them what was going on. He spoke rarely, in fact, but it was a good excuse to go out and have some fun.
They piled into Axel's car and put the radio on; chattered like close friends do.
Never expecting a word out of their surly fifth friend.
"Senior pictures…" Riku's unexpected voice said.
Kairi glanced back at him and Axel turned down the radio.
Sora gave him a confused stare, while Roxas was just quiet.
"What about 'em?" Axel called.
"Are you having them taken?"
Axel and Roxas were a year older, and they'd be graduating… They'd have to go through ceremonies and they'd have to pose for pictures and order memorabilia…
"Gotta," Axel shrugged. "Mom wants something nice to put on the mantel."
"But not because you want to."
"I guess I do?"
Riku looked to Roxas and didn't know what it was he saw there. The blond didn't make things easier for him by offering so much as a word for his relief either.
"We could finally get a nice picture of you when you take your senior photos…"
"Why the fuck would I do that?"
"Riku, please, control your language!"
"I'm not doing any of that senior bullshit. Maybe I'd give a fuck about it if you hadn't moved me around twice every fucking year. There's no one I want to remember and there's no one who will remember me. It's a waste of my fucking time and your fucking money!"
"Half a year. About time to move, isn't it."
Riku didn't really understand why this place was so different.
He didn't really understand why, when he pulled away, they pulled him back in again.
He didn't really understand why his father wouldn't quit his job and stop this before it was too late.
"Your brothers are out of the house and out of college, Riku, we don't need as much…"
It was a stupid excuse.
A stupid excuse to hurt him again, and Riku had to smile like he was dying.
"Your friends stopped by the other day, they said they hadn't seen you for—"
"They aren't my friends."
Riku didn't really understand and neither did they.
But they were nothing if not a tenacious group.
When they combined together they could be downright—
Riku didn't really understand why on Earth they would convince his mother to let them set up a party in his living room.
"How did you even know my birthday?"
Axel crowed excitedly, pressing presents and cake into his hands, creating an epic mess. He laughed mockingly as he said, "Roxas dug it up! He can be a sneaky little fucker."
"Why are you doing this to me? Why are we still here? Why don't we just leave?"
"Your father found another job in town this time, sweetheart, we don't have to go anywhere."
The drunken graduation party made it a lot worse than it really should have been. Cause Axel and Roxas held their liquor, like good illicit mentors, and the rest of them all puked.
Roxas slapped his back roughly, muttering something about how it was better to puke it up than let it sit there till morning…it was better to puke it up than let it sit there till morning…it was better to…it was better to…
Riku wasn't really wholly conscious when Roxas began pouring water down his throat. It was sort of like drowning, and he scrabbled for blessed relief at Roxas' arms. He knew it was Roxas, couldn't have been anyone else, what for the way he was so calm and collected about it.
"Sunnava bitch…" Riku was pretty sure he had sobbed.
But… It was better to puke it up than let it sit there till morning.
"You were wasted!"
"Riku, you aren't a very happy drunk."
Yet, squished up tight in his pocket, still smelling vaguely of vomit and permeated with booze, were two pictures.
Axel's violent features screamed out from one.
Roxas, crumpled and quiet, waited on the other.
By the time it was right to leave again, it was too late.
A repetitive year, another birthday, cheer forced down his throat by the foreign framework of friendship.
"I don't have to go with you."
Carefully controlled elation.
Put names to voices.
Define existence, if you please.
Repetitive, tap dancing days of social acquiescence and metaphorical sunshine in that lukewarm naïve way. Dinner after work, graciously smiling faces of the people he had come to love.
"Roxas couldn't make it," Sora announced vaguely, for the third time, still thumbing the strange ring around his finger. Kairi never was one to let the boy do all the work.
The news of Roxas was not terribly surprising and so Riku shrugged.
Glinting eyed Axel peered over the rim of a glass, "You never seemed to like Roxas much." Sometimes he was shrewder than he let on.
To which Riku desperately desired to reply, what do you want me to say to that? Do you want me to denounce your best friend to your face? Do you want me to insult Sora's brother like he can't hear? I value what I have too highly to let it be ripped away.
Value. Define value, if you please.
"He never seemed to like me," Riku said, somehow controlling his tongue in a way he'd never learned to control his fists.
"Are you kidding me?" Axel laughed wildly, all those forest-fire lines flaring up from the sudden friction of his laughter upon his tinder throat. "Roxas likes you! Roxas likes you because you can stand on your own two feet!"
The puke stained picture sat mutely on the bedside table of his empty apartment.
The walls were still there.
He would always be an islander at heart, it seemed.
Especially if he continued to keep his eyes carefully away from that picture sitting mutely upon the bedside table.
Especially if he continued to murmur,
"No, ridiculous, ridiculous…it's…ridiculous…."
The telephone confession was too weak for him and would never, ever impress Roxas, but it was all he had.
"I miss you."
"…Why should I?"
"Because you want to and I know it."
Goodbyes had always seemed a waste of time to Roxas.
Once he owned something, to him, he owned it for good.
What was a dial tone or two in his way?
There was something painfully unsatisfying. Roxas never was one to pander, never was one to play games, and never was one to participate in mindless ritual.
Riku wanted to say there was nothing but sex, no words, no assurance.
There was no sex; there was only Roxas' quiet presence and strangely gentle eyes. The way he had always been, the way Riku had unknowingly fallen in love with him.
It killed Riku to want something more, when stability itself sat before him.
Wasn't that what he'd always wanted?
"Break my armor, and I'll make everything right," Roxas said without preamble and without context. He said it in that beautifully austere way which belonged only to him, his voice soft like gold, heavy like chains.
His methods of attraction became suddenly clearer.
Break his armor? His armor?
Riku could not understand, even as he rolled those cryptic words over and over through the sloshing gray matter in his head.
Finally, he took another bash at his ego and took his boat out to shore once again. Wiser counsel than his own could be found, just by knowing whom to ask.
Riku's circumstance was simple and so he laid it bare.
"Axel, I don't understand him."
Axel's teeth had always seemed too pointy, all because of his slim face. Now the feral imagine was enhanced as the man worried speculatively at the toothpick between his teeth, grinning around the clench of his teeth.
"Well, he's not a faggot, for one thing," he began with disgusting aplomb, "He's not a girl either. You've gotta be violent with him sometimes, and that means his sensibilities too. Not just breaking his face, though that one has been effective... He thinks he's high and mighty sometimes… but he's easy to embarrass."
Axel noticed the stunned way Riku was watching him speak. The redhead had naught but to laugh again, else he choke on the splinters of Riku's brain, that is, the toothpick.
"How does that… how does that help me?" Riku demanded, always too ready for that quick fix. Always far too ready.
"It takes time. Roxas may be the kind of guy who can understand people right off the bat, but you sure as hell aren't, you misanthropic freak."
Riku found a good-natured punch to be infinitely cleansing, if nothing else.
Roxas' face matched the color of the roses.
Riku smiled grimly. "Happy Valentine's Day," he continued, making sure that Roxas' hand gripped firmly upon the fake velvet coating of the chocolate box.
He had no idea if Roxas even liked chocolates, but that was beside the point. Roxas' bright red face was the point, Roxas' flaming cheeks and the way he was staring at the gifts… and the ridiculous, pointless gifts.
Roxas laughed happily, shimmering eyes peaking across the tops of meaningless offerings.
"This is idiotic," Roxas grinned.
Riku continued to smile vaguely as well. "You're blushing. Your face is like a cherry."
"Got through to you, didn't I."
Roxas tossed the fiddle-faddle to the ground, the vase of roses shattered, the chocolates scattered.
People all around them on a soggy street watched in mute fascination as an island made room for two.
Other-sometimes-lovers felt cheap balloon ribbons slip from the sweaty palms of their hands.
Momentary emotions became momentarily more meaningful.
Because Roxas was that way. If anyone knew how he felt, it was Roxas. If anyone knew how Riku felt, it was Roxas.
And that was enough.
The face of contentment, in an existence understood, was peculiar and singularly nauseating.
"I like you, Riku," Roxas murmured pleasantly against his mouth. "I like you because, even as you float free, you're yourself. And people who still know who they are, even despite everything else in the world…that's all that matters to me."
"You could have said something sooner," Riku protested, wrapping steady arms around a willowy waist and swinging the pretty blond about once and twice, right there at the rain soaked corner on Valentine's Day.
Roxas laughed again, open, simple and free.
The rain began in a sudden downward stream.
Roxas' words were lost somewhere in the squall.
But maybe his smiling face was enough.
Maybe the satisfaction building in Riku's lungs was enough.
Maybe an island can never escape the sea.