For warm.summer.nights's challenge; word: four-leaf clover.

Aww, man, am I sorry that this was so late. I didn't know friendship could be so hard to portray until I tried to write about it. But this is done, thankfully, no matter the amount of hell it gave me, and I hope it's received well by you readers. It's a friendship between Sora and Roxas, as well as one between Sora, Riku, and Kairi. And hey, I tried, at least.

And wow. It's been a while, hasn't it?

Disclaimer: Nope.

-- - --

Glasses clinked around him, smoke pervaded his senses and clouded his head, and voices all about hummed and laughed and shouted raucously. For a bar so innocently named, called Wonderland by the sign that hung outside, it was far from a fairytale-like setting, and this he realized as hesitantly he lowered himself onto the barstool, waiting.

He'd been traveling for a long, long time, it seemed. His hometown was millions of miles away from where he now sat, hunched over, made greatly uneasy by the gleaming stares and crooked smiles that seemed to have a knack for focusing only on him. His sides were devoid of the two best friends he'd ever had, simply because, for once in his life, he wanted to be the one, the hero, who was given the credit. And, because of that rare surge of jealousy, empowered by a love of a girl who seemed only to have eyes for his best friend, he'd left, and now that regret was heavy in his breast, more intoxicating and poisonous to him than the abundance of liquor his eyes met when he stared past the bartender to the shelves.

He missed his friends, he realized with a great, spectacular rush of melancholy as he slumped over the counter and rested both cheeks in his palms, elbows splayed on the wiped-down surface. Beside him, a man who'd downed too many drinks tumbled from his seat and collapsed into a bout of giggles; behind him, two men got into an altercation and fists and glass bottles flew about in disarray; and he, feeling as though a spotlight had been cast on his pathetic form, merely heaved a sigh, lids lowering dully as he fixed the barkeep before him a resigned smile.

"Rough night," he murmured in an attempt towards friendliness.

The man merely cast him a stare and turned to a customer more likely to purchase a drink.

Sighing again, he straightened and spun around on his chair, stare with disinterest falling on the mass of people buzzing about the room. The cell phone in his pocket felt heavier than normal, his hand itching to punch in the familiar numbers, his heart aching to hear their voices as the loneliness set in more painfully. But he knew he couldn't call, knew he couldn't be so weak when it had been his idea to leave, when it had been him who'd insisted that he needed this to find himself, and so with what felt like his umpteenth sigh of the evening, he slumped over again, aimlessly kicking his legs against the stool.

The night was fast becoming a bust, nothing of consequence really capturing his attention, let alone occurring.

Spinning around again, planting his hands flat on the countertop, he settled on drumming his fingertips against the surface, pout forming on his lips. He didn't drink, so the fact that he was in a bar now, waiting for something to happen, to pick his evening up, seemed ironic and very hypocritical, but still he made no motion to move. He had nowhere else to go, after all.

Still, as much as he'd hoped that the clock in the middle of the wall would be an ally, would speed up in time so that he'd have an excuse to retire to his room and just collapse into sleep, the night moved achingly slow, the same sights and sounds fading into the background as he spaced of and thought of Destiny Islands, of Riku and Kairi, and of the times with them that he so intensely missed.

"You, choosing a bar as a get-together. You sure you're the same Sora?"

Back straightening, chin jerking up as he swung his stare to the left, he kept the wide grin forming on his lips at bay as he watched a fair-haired boy with a composed countenance and apathetic stare settle suddenly beside him, finger lifting to summon a drink before he even spared a hello. When the bartender nodded, however, the boy turned to him, blue eyes as biting and turbulent as a winter sea flashing onto his, and features similar to his own registered in Sora's gaze as he waited in comfortable silence.

"Been a couple years, huh?" the blond commented easily at last, disinterest in his tone, his countenance the same composed mask as always. "Haven't seen you since the funeral."

With a wince the darker-haired of the two looked away, brown bangs falling into his vision as hesitantly he gave a shrug, the words spared between them that day still as raw and scathing as an open wound. He'd said things that he hadn't meant to his cousin the day his mother had been lost to him forever under that expanse of ground, and it hadn't been until now that any form of reconciliation was tried. He would've liked better to forget the whole incident, to act now as if they were as close as they'd been when they were young and the best of friends to each other, but this was life, and running from the troubling aspects of it had never been a complete success on his part.

After all, even miles away from Riku and Kairi, on his own with the freedom to be who he truly wanted to be, he still thought about them every minute, on every whisper of his breath and with every beat of his heart.

The silence reigned between them, more of Sora's fault than anything, simply because he didn't have the words to say, knew a simple apology couldn't rectify the hurt he'd caused in his cousin, and couldn't manage even the smallest, sincerest, "Roxas, yeah, it's been a long time, and I've missed you every day."

Roxas, however, didn't seem nearly as affected by the uncomfortable situation. Instead, when his drink was shoved towards him, he exchanging money for the beverage, the bottom of the glass making a hollow sound on the countertop, he contented himself by swirling his finger along the cup's rim, eyes training on the contents inside.

"So, how're Riku and Kairi?" he mumbled dully, cocking his head to the side as if he found the drink before him far more interesting than the friends who made Sora's every day with living – in retrospect, after all Sora had done to distance himself from Roxas, as well, that was probably true.

Shrugging, letting fall his stare to his hands planted still on the surface of the bar, he gave the barest of grins, one tainted with the melancholy and self-doubt he was trying to work through still. "Getting along fine without me, I'm sure."

"'course," the blond at his side muttered now, but the smallest glimmer of contempt caught in his tone captured the brown-haired youth's attention, so that in curiosity Sora looked over to Roxas to find him glowering into his drink. "Because you're just a saint who makes everyone's lives better when you disappear without a word and then don't show up for five fuckin' years."

"I…I never said---" he stammered.

With a quick shake of his head and a guttural sound of disdain, Roxas leaned back and swallowed some of his drink, eyes burning with all of the pent-up anger of which Sora was the cause.

"It's good to see you haven't changed, though," the blond spat hoarsely, the alcohol no doubt affecting his vocal chords for a time or two. "Still as selfless as ever!"


"Why the fuck did you call me?" he interrupted wildly, shoulders hunched against the raucous shouting of the background and blue eyes bright and turbulent in the smoky light of the bar. "Thought I could coach you through your depression? Give you advice on how to reconcile with your long lost friends? God, what made you think that I, the cousin you so easily discarded, would want to help you with friend troubles? Are you cracked, So---?"

"No," the older of the two mumbled numbly, taking in the design of his fingerless gloves with a hollow sort of interest as he steeled him against every word – every true word – that had been spoken. "No, Rox, you're not here to fix my mistakes. You've done enough of that in the years when we were still close." Sighing, he offered a nostalgic smile. "And about fixing my friend troubles – well, I wonder if, after all this, I'll even go back at all."

"You're pathetic."

"Always have been," he replied with the traces of a teasing, light-hearted smile. His eyes didn't completely meet the blond's, but they strayed to the left, Sora catching the hardened profile of his cousin twitch into something of concern or annoyance – or a mixture of the two – before he sighed and wore his fixed expression of indifference once more.

"So…why, then? If I'm not here to clean up your messes, what's the point in me being here at all?"

"You're…" the brown-haired boy breathed, faltering on the word, realizing that it had been five years since he'd been that to the blond and the blond had been that to him. "…family." Sucking in a breath, the tension pressing mercilessly down on his heart, he looked off to the right, taking in a couple, the boy raggedly dressed, the girl scantily-clad, involved with only themselves in the far corner. Wincing, he turned his eyes away. "You're my cousin. And it's been a long…a long time…since we were friends."

Exhaling heavily, annoyance taut in his shoulders and alight in his stare, Roxas turned abruptly to him, mouth set into a silent growl as he narrowed his eyes. "Well, you'll have to wait a longer time then, Sora. Just because you're ready to be all cheery and make up---"

"Of course I am!" he commented shrilly, before cringing away from his burst of temper and averting his eyes from the stunned way Roxas kept blinking at him. "God, Roxas, I wish you got these things. That the minute I said that, I wanted to take it back. I wanted to---"

"I've heard enough," the blond said with a sigh, pushing himself away from the barstool and onto his feet, hands shoved into his pockets distantly as he didn't even toss Sora, still struggling with reasons, with excuses, with apologies, a glance. "Just…drop it. And go home. I never wanted you back in my life anyway, so again your attempts to make everyone's lives better screwed up royally." Sora cringed at his words, bowing his head as bangs overshadowed his eyes and pursing his parched lips. "So see you, Sora, and thanks for this lovely reunion."

The brown-haired boy didn't have to watch to know that the blond didn't hesitate, didn't wait for words on Sora's part. He just shifted foot and trudged towards the door, weaving around bodies, never looking back. And Sora, left alone at the bar, shoulders stooped and eyes downcast, waved and ordered a drink, if only to replace the bitterness of dejection and heartache with another kind of unbearable bitterness as a distraction. But, no matter that it was a failure, no matter that his cousin probably meant what he'd said and wanted nothing to do with him, he couldn't chalk it up as a good attempt and go home. He was trying to find himself, he'd insisted, and Roxas was the last stage of the game. If he failed the blond again, if he couldn't return to his life the only other family member that had ever been present for Sora, then, as he'd said, he wouldn't be able to go home. It was his promise to himself that he'd return complete, not scarred and broken and in Riku's and Kairi's ways.

And this failure was his last journey's early beginning.

-- - --

Despite Roxas ignoring his calls and despite his own aversion for the smell of alcohol and tobacco combined, Sora found himself frequenting Wonderland often. So often, in fact, that he'd discovered bits and pieces about the place that he'd never wanted to know. One, the bar was a popular hangout for druggies and alcoholics and open deep into the night, so that some really weird scenes played out that Sora wanted no part in. And two, every Friday night the bar hosted what they called the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, which, despite its name, did not involve tea. As he didn't even want to know, Fridays at the bar were generally the only days the brown-haired youth skipped out on.

But he was there now, the night a slow Monday with the waitress Alice, whom he'd met a few times, weaving between the few and scattered occupied tables. Besides that, the room was blessedly quiet, the bartender with pale locks of spiky hair eyeing him coolly as he polished a cup with a rag, Sora staring calmly back for a few seconds before removing his eyes completely. He didn't know what he was waiting for, really, as he was sure the people who'd viewed him now as a regular didn't know, because Roxas, for the past week and a half, had ignored him religiously and made no attempts to call him whatsoever. So maybe he was wasting his hopes on a smoke-covered room and the gleaming surface of shot glasses, but he didn't want to give up yet, because he wanted to give his cousin the benefit of the doubt.

And he wanted to believe that there was still a chance in all of this that things would work out for the best.

He was rewarded at last, surprisingly, when the clock read half-past eleven, a presence at his left making the brown-haired boy, who'd for the last hour spared clipped yet friendly words with the bartender named Cloud, lift his chin and catch sight of another head of blond hair, more recklessly styled and familiar to his eyes than his newly-made acquaintance. Again biting down his smile, he watched calmly as Roxas ordered a drink, sparing the empty glass before Sora a questioning glance before settling himself onto the stool and staring blankly forward.

"Water," he offered in an appeasing fashion, the smallest quirk of his lips following, but his cousin merely shrugged, as if he hadn't even cared in the first place.

"'m surprised you're still here," Roxas muttered finally upon taking a sip of his received drink, this again being his way of an unconventional greeting. Cloud offered his callousness an irritated stare for a second's passing, and then, flicking his gaze away, walked the length of the counter to another customer, leaving the two cousins to their quiet and lack of peace.

"I told you. I can't leave just yet."

"Oh, just go back and stop bothering me," the blond snapped, placing his glass, which again he'd lifted to his mouth, back onto the countertop with accidental force. Some of the liquid sloshed out, staining his skin and the sheen of the counter's surface. "I don't need you. I never did."

"I never said you did," the brown-haired cousin remarked quietly, softly, his tone a bit broken as he cast his stare off to the slight right, lids lowered in shame and disappointment.

"You assumed it. You always assume it. You think that hey, once our estranged relationship gets mended so perfectly, you can skip back to your friends all peachy keen and everything in the world will be right again. And you can forget once more all about me."

"Dammit, Rox!" Sora yelled, slamming his fists down onto the counter so abruptly that he surprised not only the sleepy inhabitants of the bar but himself. Cringing against the newly-added tension, he bowed his head swiftly and grumbled out through gritted teeth, "No one's ever good enough for you, are they? They make one mistake, and you realize they're human and can let you down, and that's it, isn't it? You're through letting them in. You'll just wash your hands of them, like you're doing now with me."

"Fuck you," the blond seethed, twisting away, hopping off of the barstool with his hands clenched at his sides. Spinning to face the blond in wounded anger, he matched his cousin's glare to a tee, the only weakness showing in him the terrible tremble of his shoulders, which immediately gave away his remorse. "Just because I'm not open-hearted and optimistic and all fairytale shit like that, it doesn't mean I'm any less than you. I, at least, don't give my heart out to anyone who asks, whether they deserve it or not. I value my friendships – you leap right into them, which is probably why they're all coming crashing down around you now, isn't it? It's why you ran from Riku and Kairi, isn't it?! You gave too much and they gave nothing back, so you feel betra---"

"Leave them out of this!" he screamed, tears in his eyes as he tried to repress the horrible shudder of his limbs, the chatter of his teeth, the clench of his heart. Still, no matter how much he fought, all pain was evident, and the words kept replaying in his head, as insistent to him as the scheme of memories that his heart never let him forget. "I-it's my fault," he choked, turning his head from the look of shock on his cousin's face as a tear slipped past his defenses. "Mine. You leave them out of this, Roxas."

"Don't tell me what to do, Sora," the blond commented stiffly, though it lacked the feeling and rage he'd previously exuded. It was hollower, more mechanic. "You lost that right when you walked away."

"No," he said forcefully, the anger still in his voice but gone from his eyes. "I lost more than that. But, in typical Roxas fashion, you don't even care, do you?" Sighing, shaking his head and then turning around, he slumped over miserably, cradling the glass cup between his two hands without any will to fight further. "But go on. Leave if you want. Who am I to make you stay, right? 'm just another person who let you down."

"Sora…" the blond tried, and the brown-haired boy, facing away from his cousin, did listen, but Roxas failed in his words and merely heaved a sigh after that. With a shuffle of feet, a fumbling through pockets, the blond finally gathered himself up and walked towards the door with hesitance, all of which Sora caught from the corner of his eye. Dejectedly he slumped over, too, when he realized that he was alone, and, feeling the weight of his cell phone press more heavily than ever against his thigh, he longed to call Riku, to call Kairi, hell, even to call Roxas and ask him to come back, if only any option would appease his misery.

But, instead, he merely created a pillow out of his forearms and then rested his cheek in the crook of its hold, aware fully of when Cloud came over and reclaimed his empty glass, lingering there in a kind of watchful state as Sora wasted the hours he had remaining in a bar that he'd forcibly grown accustomed to. And he wondered, with a sudden pang in his heart, if Roxas would come back this time, as it had been clear that today he'd had to force himself to show up.

And, without further prompting, he allowed the tears to flow from the white hot pain that had seized his eyes, Cloud busying himself just across from Sora as he retained his guardian-like watch and merely wiped absently at the stains of liquor on the counter.

-- - --

"So, why do you keep coming?" the blond bartender asked dully as his hand wove rhythmic circles with the rag, blue-green stare focused away from the task and on Sora's cloudless-sky eyes. Shrugging noncommittally, however, the boy with unruly brown locks managed a rueful smile, then flipping another card as he engaged himself in solitaire.

"I don't know," he offered at last, a sigh tumbling past his lips with the words, no smile able to be summoned up at this point as he lifted his gaze to Cloud's relentless stare. It had been about a month since he'd attempted to break down the barriers between himself and Roxas, and in that time they'd only met twice, so what was the point, really, in trying for something that so obviously wasn't going to happen? "I just…I hope, you know? And I don't stop hoping that maybe, this time, we can be friends again. Because family…well, you have to love each other, but you don't have to like each other, or something, right? And I don't want that."

"You have other friends," the blond commented in a detached way, looking off to the side as he reached out and rubbed absently at a stain. "Better friends, right? The people who keep calling you?" Self-consciously, Sora touched the cell phone he hadn't once answered in his pocket and winced. "People who are actually worried about you. Who care. Shouldn't you be trying to keep that one instead of reestablishing one that's so obviously dead?" All of this he said in a bored, matter-of-fact tone, at the end looking up with slightly-arched brows in disbelief at Sora's skewed logic.

"And what if they stop needing me?" the brown-haired boy murmured softly, voicing his fears aloud for the first time as he halted in his card game, glancing up sheepishly through overgrown bangs at the mildly astonished Cloud. "Just like Roxas did. If I can't figure out how to fix that kind of situation, then what---?"

"Call me an idealist," the blond began sarcastically, "but shouldn't they want to be with you instead of just needing you all the time. That's kind of how friendships work."

Shrugging weakly, he muttered, "It's like Roxas said. I've always given everyone all I've had. And it's never been enough. So, what if it's not enough for them? They've been my friends forever and if I lose them---"

"It's your own fault at this point; you turned away," the bartender remarked curtly, causing Sora to lift widened eyes towards the blond. With a nod then towards the door, he focused his attentions on another customer, and as the brown-haired youth rounded in his seat he caught sight of Roxas walking with great hesitance towards where he sat.

"You're just making friends everywhere, aren't you?" his cousin grumbled bitterly as he shrugged off his coat and slid into the seat as always to Sora's left, his blond locks carrying into the bar the chill and snow falling over Twilight Town. Drumming his fingers onto the countertop as he entertained himself with nothing, Roxas avoided Sora's presence from then on out, the silence settling in as the brown-haired youth attempted to form an answer.

Spreading his fingers idly as his palms cooled on the counter, he cocked his head and murmured, "How're Hayner, Pence, and Olette, Roxas?"


"A-and…are you…still going out with Olette?"

"Nope." He slid across his munny to Cloud, who'd returned to take the blond's order, and an unusual twist of emotion – disgust, from what Sora could tell – affected the barkeep's countenance.

"And is Seifer still---?"

"Jesus, Sora," he snapped, shoulders growing tense, "what would you care about any of this, huh? I'm twenty years old, goddammit," this he hissed so Cloud, out of earshot, couldn't hear, "so why would my life be the same as it was when I was fifteen? Wake up, huh? You don't know a damn thing about me, so why don't you just---?!"

"Why don't you just tell me?" he murmured calmly, coolly, focusing his attention again at last on his halted game of solitaire.

The blond hesitated, obviously startled by his cousin's change of tone. Finally, he gritted out, "Oh, yeah, that's rich, Sora. Let me just open my heart up to you and---"

"No," he interrupted with an easy smile. "I just want to hear what you've been doing. Y'know, how life was after you ended high school as the Twilight Town's top Struggler, how college is going for you, what new relationships you've ha---?"

"How'd…you hear about that?" Roxas mumbled in confusion, his drink touching his lips, his eyes suspiciously peering over at Sora from the top of his glass.

Smiling still, as calm as ever, the brown-haired boy glanced up and shrugged, then turning back to his game. "I watched every game broadcasted on the television set. It was that and then Tidus's claim to glory in the Blitzball Hall of Fa---"

"You watched?"

"Why not?" Idly, he flipped a card. "It's not like just because we fell out of touch I stopped caring. And I don't think you did, either," he said with a little more hope, letting his fingertips rest for a lengthened moment on his ten of clubs. "After all, you came here the first time I called, right?"

"I wanted to give you a piece of my mind," he admitted with a growl, turning his face away, looking off into the abandoned left corner of the bar, where the restrooms were located. As Sora watched, too, a drunken man teetered close and then disappeared inside, his countenance appearing a few shades too pale. "To make you suffer like I did and then leave for good, while you're left thinking I just might come back. Y'know, revenge and all that jazz." He waved his hand dismissively, then moving it to hold his glass.

"So…" Sora began, lifting his head, tilting his head. "What happened?"

Snorting, Roxas quickly drank some of his beverage, eyes closing as he held himself away from the world around him, probably hoping to put both space and time between himself and the question that he would inevitably answer. And, as the blond downed his drink, hopped off of his seat, and worked his arms through the jacket far too light to even hope to withstand the cold of such late-winter weather, he shrugged absently, tugging the wings of the jacket closer to his chest.

"You hadn't changed," he muttered at last, pain for the first time washing across his features, there for only a second before Roxas walked away and the view was lost to Sora, only the back of his frame and his quickened step left for the older of the two to watch. And Sora didn't know what to make of that answer, didn't understand if the blond meant that as a good thing or a bad thing, and so he slumped against the bar, feeling utterly spent and rather defeated as the doors swung closed behind the blond at last.

-- - --

Sora had grown to find it more funny than anything else, that Cloud had opted to give him advice. The blond bartender, whom the brown-haired youth had come to see as a kind of older-brother figure, was more skillful at keeping people at arm's distance than even Roxas, and he had no qualms with walking away from problems that he didn't want to face. Still, despite the irony that this kind of man was trying to advise him to return home when he wouldn't take his own advice, Sora appreciated the blond's guidance and grudging friendship, so that on the nights when Roxas wouldn't show he would gladly accept the frosty man's words.

He also found it funny, however, but in a sadder way, that on his escape for a time from the best friendships he'd ever had, he'd found another one in the most unexpected form, and not from the person he'd set out to discover it in. Sometimes such knowledge dampened his hopes, too, made him doubt that there was even a point to all this effort anymore, but still he tried, and he would keep on trying until he was satisfied with some end result.

"You're persistent," Cloud mumbled as time wore on yet another slow-for-business night, shaking his head as he worked away stains in a glass, eyes skating every so often towards the door; whether he was looking for potential customers or sign of Roxas, however, Sora wasn't sure. "Could drive a person crazy if you weren't so obnoxiously happy and big-hearted."

Sora laughed jovially, he offering a nod as he sipped from his coke. As he'd quite rapidly become a regular at the bar and wanted to add to the place's income, he'd switched from only waters, which were free, to sodas to quench his thirst. "I know Rox hates me and stuff, and I don't blame him, but I'm not about to stop trying now that he's answered my calls."

Sighing, the blond paused what he was doing, leaning his right forearm confidentially against the counter as he inclined his head towards Sora. "Kid, if you're doing this to fix past mistakes, or just because you live by this stupid motto of family should always be there for each other, don't keep---"

"No," Sora said, shaking his head with a bright smile as he leaned back, hands holding the edge of the counter as he rocked backwards on the last two legs of the barstool, ankles hooked around them for balance. "I mean, there are always going to be smaller reasons for doing this, y'know, but most of all I just want him back. I'm twenty years old and haven't talked to my cousin since I was fifteen; it's not something I'm exactly proud of, Cloud."

The man merely sighed, turning his head away as he looked straight, blond locks shaking into eyes tinted with a mix of blue and green. "He's not gonna save you from sinking, if that's what you believe. People aren't all good, and this cousin of yours…" He shrugged and closed his eyes. "Well, I can relate, and that's not a good thing."

Shaking his head with playful tiredness, Sora allowed the barstool beneath him to drop down once more on all four legs, his arms splaying out before him as his hands curled against the countertop. "That's a stupid reason to give up, isn't it? Just because someone doesn't open up to you first off?"

Cloud twisted in mild surprise, though he kept his emotions carefully masked and simply turned away from the brown-haired youth with an indiscernible mutter, moving farther down the bar to spare harsh words with a drunken man who'd for some time been raising a bit of a commotion. Tilting his head calmly, settling into his solitude as he tried to occupy himself with the sudden lack of things to do, he reached instinctively for his cell phone and pulled it from the depths of his pocket before he realized that he'd done it. Thumb tracing the scratched and worn surface of the device, head tilting further as past his lips a resigned sigh slipped, he closed his eyes momentarily and then, blinking them open, began to search through his list of contacts. He couldn't help but still for a lengthened moment on Kairi's name, her voice so close with that number already ingrained into his phone, but at last he moved along, calling Riku's home before the realization registered in his mind.

With hesitance, he listened to the ring resounding in his ear, eyes glancing habitually to the face of the clock hanging over the bar, he noting the time with a wince. Twilight Town was hours ahead of Destiny Islands, and, since it was still only day there, there was a great possibility that Riku would be home to talk. He didn't know if he was ready for that, despite the sudden instinct he'd had to call his best friend.

And, just when Sora believed that maybe, just maybe, he'd only have to leave a message, a voice, irritated and just slightly sarcastic, muttered, "Yeah?"

The brown-haired youth swallowed, words sticking to the roof of his mouth as he cringed. He didn't know what to say. He'd been gone for months, without word of his whereabouts or how long he was planning on being gone, and he didn't even know if Riku ever wanted to see him again. What could he say, really? He had no answers, because, in a deep part of his heart, he didn't even understand now why he'd left.

"Dammit," his friend cursed softly, temper coming shorter as the silence reigned. "I swear, if this is a prank call I will frickin'---"

"I'm sorry." Wincing at the slip of his tongue, at the fantastically inane choice of words he'd used as his first upon speaking to an old friend, he waited in the silence, as on Riku's end the irritated muttering and distant shuffling had frozen into nothingness. The time between them stretched painfully, and Sora began to wonder if Riku had hung up.


"I shouldn't have left like that. I'm…I'm sorry."

"Jesus Christ, Sora, where are you?" Riku exploded as the previous shock so obviously wore off. "You know how fuckin' worried we've been? Kairi…she…she was crying and we didn't know…" Sora winced. Riku was fumbling; he never fumbled. "You could've been dead, and we wouldn't have known. Great friend you are, keeping us in the dark like---"

"I'm in Twilight Town," he said in a soft, fragile voice, feeling every bit the small child Riku was making him out to be. Squirming in his chair, ankles hooking around the stool legs, he cringed, head bowed, bangs overflowing in his vision.

Silence followed again, followed by a very heated curse on Riku's part. "No. You're coming back, Sora, you hear? Roxas is only gonna make your life a hell of a lot worse."

"I need to talk to him," he murmured just as sheepishly as before, eyes downcast, fist clenching and unclenching in discomfort. "I just want to try, Riku. You know Rox is like a brother to me. I can't just never speak to him aga---"

"What about us? Your real friends. The people who put up with this stupid crap of yours every day. You can just leave without telling us a thing and head millions of miles towards a cousin who won't give you the time of day, but you can't answer one of our fuckin' phone calls, Sora? Christ, a little loyalty would be nice, you know."

"I just…need to sort through a few things," he mumbled weakly, eyes falling to stare onto the counter's surface, left hand of its own accord touching on the object he'd taken to carrying with him everywhere, a thing which had been the final device in directing him towards Roxas. "I'll be home when this is done, Riku." He sighed and flicked his gaze to the side, starting mildly to see Cloud watching him unabashedly. "Whether you want me to or not, I guess."

His best friend sputtered angrily, and Sora cringed to hear something crash in the background. "You idiot!" he shouted into the mouthpiece, Sora wincing and holding the phone just a small way's from his ear. Muffled curses and insults filled for a time the brown-haired youth's head, and then, at last, after what seemed like an eternity, the silver-haired twenty-one-year-old on the other line managed, "Of course we want you back. No matter the countless idiotic, inane, careless, thoughtless---"

"I get it," Sora murmured with a hesitant smile, amusement sparking at his friend's seemingly endless derogatory remarks.

"---things you do," Riku continued with a sigh, "we're still your friends, Sora. We always will be. You should've known that. Why don't you?"

Sad smile twisting his lips into an awkward line, he tensed his shoulders, shrugging. "It's not like you guys need me or anything," he muttered softly, moving his left hand to trace uncomfortable circles into the surface of the counter.

"You're so stupid," his friend breathed tiredly, a groan following soon afterwards. "That's why you left? Because you got one tiny, stupid little notion in that empty head of yours that Kairi and me could possibly be better off without you? Are you retarded, Sora? God…"

Giving a hesitant laugh, he eased the nervous motions of his hand and then sighed heavily, a great amount of relief filling him. "It's not the only reason," he admitted, hand again inching towards his left pocket. "But I'm glad, Riku. Thanks…for this."

"You really are soft in the head," his friend muttered, and the brown-haired youth's lips slipped up further, the tension in his body easing. "You actually thought we didn't…" Riku sighed, grumbled a bit, and then let it drop. "And for God's sake, hurry it up, you hear? I've been waiting a while to kick your ass for this."

Sora laughed again, tears pricking his eyes, sadness clogging his throat. "I'm sorry, Riku. I'm really, really---"

"Just come back," the silver-haired youth said shortly, the thickness of his voice also indicating increasing emotion. "That's all I want. Not a goddamn apology, nothing, okay?"

He nodded and then, realizing that this couldn't be seen, quickly blurted out, "Promise." And then, with more hesitance, "Tell Kairi I said hi…okay?"

"Tell her yourself when you call again," Riku said easily, and Sora bit his lip, eyes blurring, remorse crashing over him in the hardest waves yet, nearly drowning him in misery. It was as if he was finally realizing that he wasn't home anymore, that he'd left it all behind, that his friends weren't there to help him through his problems. And, at the mercy of such intense feelings, he bowed his head and let fall the tears that were making his eyes burn, breath coming short as he inhaled sharply.

"I-I'll…talk to you s…soon," he swore, smile belated on his lips as his hand holding the phone shook.

"Yeah," Riku muttered softly, composed now, his tone docile and calming. "Until then, Sora."

"Bye," he whispered, and, pulling the phone back, smiling sadly as he ended the call, he wondered when 'soon' would be. Now, more than ever, he wanted to find his friends again, make his personal world right and not so turbulent and full of darkness, and just fall asleep in the comfort of his own bed surrounded by the privacy of his own home. Twilight Town wasn't where he belonged, and as he avoided Cloud's stare and came to realize that Roxas wasn't coming again, his heart ached and throbbed terribly, so that the bitter taste of homesickness filled his mouth.

For the first time in a long while, he felt like he was at the end of his rope.

-- - --

He shivered, blew the steam from the top of the hot chocolate settled thickly in his mug. Cloud had gotten used to his weird orders now, raising not so much as an eyebrow as he turned away to ask the waitress Alice to head off to the small kitchen, and it was yet another reason the dark-haired youth had come to find a kind of second or third home in this bar. It was set away some from the slums of the town – though not without its share of the crazies – and it was warm, comforting, as far as a bar could be. The smoky scent hanging perpetually in the air still bothered him, as did the acrid smell of liquor, but he'd grown to love the brooding atmosphere, swapping life stories with unexpected companions as he waited each night out for a sign of his cousin to come.

As he sighed deeply, turned the mug a fraction in his grip, and stared through pleasant, hooded eyes at the far right of the bar, a rustle at his left caught his attention, and in anticipation he turned, only to have a bit of disappointment rush his gut when the shade of blond he saw was not identical to Roxas's.

Sighing, twisting around so that he rested his elbows on the counter, he just swung his legs and slumped his shoulders a bit, the minutes ticking by as he held himself away from conversation that night, only wanting to clear more up with his cousin, whom he hadn't seen once in the week that had passed.

"He ain't coming."

Surprised, Sora jerked his chin up, swinging his head to the right as he twisted to get a glimpse at the person who'd settled beside him in his cousin's place, knowing that it was the blond whom he had heard speak. Leaning over his drink, face shrouded in the darkness, Sora couldn't distinguish his features, though the voice sounded familiar, and so slowly he turned, cautiously asking, "Pardon?"

Bored, the male ran his finger around the glass lip of his drink, letting his head loll to the side. "Rox. He ain't coming tonight. He's too good for the likes of any of us, it seems."

"I'm sorry," Sora said, turning further, resting his palms now on the counter as he cocked his head curiously. "But…do I know you?"

This time, as the person looked up and over, he recognized the face before the blond even smirked and drawled, "What? Has it really been that long that you don't recognize your cousin's bestest friend in the whole world?"

"Hayner!" he said cheerfully, straightening himself up, grin wide on his face. "It's been---"

"Five years," he said with a curt nod, and then he side, a growl interlaced with the sound. "Through no fault of your own, though."

Eyes lowering, joy ebbing away into the shadows, he gave his head a shake in the negative. "It was all my fault. I chased him away, and I didn't run after him. I just did what I could do deal with losing her, and I completely forgot about him."

"Oh, who gives a fuck?" Hayner grumbled, surprising the brown-haired youth into lifting his eyes. Confident that he had Sora's attention, the boy with dirty-blond hair and hardened brown eyes grinned, waving exaggeratedly as he leaned back on his stool, right-side legs lifting up and left arm anchoring him into balance. "Five years of that crap has left you not talking still? I mean, what you said couldn't have been that bad. You were miserable. Now just suck up your pride and ask him forgiv---"

"I have," he whispered, looking away. "I don't deserve it."

Hayner rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on."

Rubbing at the bridge of his nose with an impatient hand, Sora shook his head, willing him to understand. "No, no, you don't get it, Hayner. None of you do, all right? What I said…" His voice failed him as he thought back, mouth going dry, heart jumping in fear. "Wh-what I said…"

Hayner sighed. "Might as well get it out instead of keeping me in the dark, y'know. You'll feel better."

Lifting his chin, but keeping his eyes averted, he muttered, "Yeah?" but he listened not for his companion's answer. Instead, he thought back to that day – the sun peeking through the clouds and seeming to illuminate his mother's grave specifically; Roxas and he, clothed in identical tuxes, flanking the tombstone as Sora trembled with tears and his cousin remained stonily silent, murmuring half-hearted empathies as he twisted his hand in his only sign of discomfort; words growled out by Sora in a momentary lapse of sanity and a fight that soon followed, the two screaming and scuffing at the dirt of his mother's newly-covered grave; Roxas walking away.

Inhaling sharply, breath hitching, he mumbled finally, "I said…'And what the hell would you know, Roxas? Get better? She was all I had. She was more to me than…'" Faltering, bowing his head, he tried again hoarsely, "'She was m-more to me than you, who was only there for me when it was convenient, who cared more about himself than anyone else, even if they were in trouble. And you know what, Rox? You wouldn't understand that. Because at least my mother loved me. Yours doesn't even care if you're alive.'" Tears burning down his cheeks, he shoved insistently away from the bar, barstool pitching with slight peril before righting itself as Sora pushed at someone in his way, not willing to see Hayner's face. "It's what I said," he continued, whispering to himself, shoving his hands desperately into his pockets as he fingers searched out that flap of paper, that reason why he was still hear, waiting for Roxas to talk to him completely. "It's what I…s-said. 'm sorry. S-sorry, Roxas. Really, really sorry."

And he stumbled out of the door, running before his feet even hit the snow.

-- - --

"So, you managed to piss off Hayner, too. Congrats. Alienating yourself from my life and everyone in it. It's an accomplishment for you."

He didn't lift his head at the sound of the voice. He'd stopped looking for Roxas to come, only frequenting in the bar now because it was the only comfort he had in Twilight Town. And so, as his cousin dropped himself onto the stool and ordered some kind of alcoholic beverage, he turned his head slightly away, trying to conceal from the blond the tears that had started a good time before the youth had even showed up.

"I have to say, though," Roxas droned on in a bored tone, "I still just don't get why you're here. I already told you there's no salvaging our friendship or relationship or whatever; you've made it pretty obvious that you don't belong here; you're friends keep calling you on your stupid cell, asking for you back, from what I gather. So why stay, huh? Think of it as doing me a favor, stepping out of my life completely."

Nodding mutely, numbly searching through his pockets as Roxas took up staring at him, Sora turned his head further away, lowering his eyes as Cloud glowered at him, no doubt expected him to stand up to the blond. But all he could do, as he took the verbal slanders, as he shouldered his pain in silence and didn't try any longer to beg for Roxas to see it differently, was extract from his left the wrinkled sheet of paper he'd had for so long on his person, worn from travel and use. Placing it on the table now, he slid it without looking towards the blond, not even daunted when his cousin snorted and refused to pick it up.

"Your mom's will," he started softly, staring at the ring of moisture beneath his glass of water, the drops of condensation slipping down its sides in elegance. "All that she left you on the Islands. It's intact, if ever you want to stop by, sell it maybe. I don't imagine anymore that you'd want to live there, where I am."

As the blond finally fell into a stunned silence, Sora dug through his pocket again, pulling out another piece of paper, another document, as it were, and gently brushed his fingers over the crinkled edges as he flattened it out in front of him, then sliding it again towards Roxas. This time, the blond tentatively reached for it, opening it up as Sora kept his stare in his lap, sigh held at bay.

"A job offer. From my business. Pence…he told me from the bank, when I talked to him before coming here, that you weren't doing so well, since you'd refused your inheritance and hit a rough patch in college, almost dropping out. He wanted me to talk to you, set you straight; I thought I'd do one better, but you probably only see it as pity. I don't expect you to understand."

Courage minute and only that because Roxas still hadn't spoken a word, Sora retrieved the final objects in his grasp, one an envelope, and a small bag. Dropping them unceremoniously in front of him, he fingered the envelope bitterly, looking further away. "Tickets to Destiny Islands and back – so you can tie up loose ends with your house and come back whenever, with no illusions of ever having to stay there. Use them, trade them in for somewhere, do what you want." Unwillingly, as the tickets stayed before him, pinned under his stare, his hand curled around the gift bag in the traces of affection he couldn't conceal, his eyes softening despite his inward promise to stay cool, so that he could deal with the final ties being severed. "And I finally found a good enough thank you for that chain-and-crown necklace you gave me on the last birthday of mine you came to. Good enough for a goodbye, too, I guess."

"Wait. What?" Finally Roxas found his voice, slapping the papers onto the counter so that they crinkled beneath his grasp further, his whole body next to Sora's stiff with alarm. "All of this? All of this fuckin' bravado, with your big-hearted gifts and no need for a thank you because you're doing it out of the goodness of your heart, and now you're actually leaving? You decide overwhelming me with guilt is beneath you now? You honestly decided that leaving was for the best?"

Sighing, standing up, keeping his eyes away from burning blue, he shrugged half-heartedly, the wetness of his eyes still unseen by the blond to his left. "I never expected us to make up, Rox," he admitted with a kind of painful softness in his voice, one that paralyzed any angry words in his cousin's throat so that, for yet another rare instance, he listened without complaint. "I came to give you the documents. I stayed because I'd hoped I could finally do something to earn your forgiveness. But that's not going to happen," he murmured tiredly. "We're always going to be like night and day, too different to exist at the same time. Aren't we?" A bittersweet smile lit his lips, and then it was gone. "I haven't tried hard enough, I guess. And now I've ruined our chances, and I'm tired. So, like you wanted, I'm going home."

Turning finally to the blond, who was staring straight at him with unabashed shock, eyes wide, body immovable, Sora leaned down and clung to the blond's body tightly before he could wake up enough to move away, before his mind woke up to reality and insults again assaulted the older male's ears. Letting tears fall without shame, ignoring the way his body shook as he relieved every moment he'd gone wrong with his cousin and apologized for it, he steeled himself to admit that this was goodbye, that every second chance he'd been given over the years had faded into this, this kind of hell he was granted because he hadn't achieved reconciliation.

He didn't want this to be the end, and yet he knew it was, knew he hadn't been strong enough, hadn't tried hard enough, and so in his last attempts to make Roxas understand how sorry he was that this was it, he murmured, "I'm so proud of you, you know. You've always been stronger, could always just say no, Rox, like I never could. You're my brother, my other half, and I'm sorry I screwed that up. It was my fault, because I said things I didn't mean. You were always there, Roxas, for me. My first best friend…and I wish I could've been more to you then a reminder of what you'd been denied. I wish I could've been a friend to you, and I'm sorry."

Pulling back now briskly, turning away without sparing goodbye to Alice, to Cloud, to nameless friends he'd made and good times he'd had in a bar that had kept at least his outsides warm, he ran his forearm over his eyes to try to clear away the tears that just kept falling, and he hurried out into the winter night, the cold swirling around him. As the white danced coldly beautiful ballet, the cloak of black above enveloping him with emptiness, he felt lost, defeated, pathetic. His sneakers trudged through snow that slipped into his socks and froze his feet, and his fingers chilled to the point of pain as he shoved them into his pockets, eyes vacant, destination the gummi ship port a good many miles away.

And he would walk every mile, if only to use the pain and cold to distract him from the torment ripping him apart from the inside, bit by bit by bit.

-- - --

Homecoming for him wasn't a big bash, wasn't a heartfelt celebration, because Riku and Kairi just sensed in him, the moment he stepped off the ship, (maybe even before that), that he hadn't found the things he'd so desperately been searching for. Instead, he was carted off to Riku's house, Kairi's arm linked closely in his, her body pressing against his as if to warm away the snow that had melted from his body hours and hours ago. And he appreciated it, because even under the tropical sun he felt like he'd never be completely warm ago.

In no time he was sitting on his best friend's couch, like the months he'd been away had never passed, like it was just another ordinary afternoon and he'd stumbled over to Riku's after having just awoken from a deep sleep. Only now, as Riku fretted about in the kitchen, cursing and slamming his fist against the wall, and Kairi knelt before him, desperately clasping his hands as she tried to jerk him back into the present, he felt as if that sleep still lingered, as if, somehow, he was caught in a bad dream.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled as Kairi sighed in frustration and jumped to her feet, towering over him with her hands digging into her hips. At his words, his tone, her hard look crumpled, and desperately she looked away from him to the kitchen, worrying her bottom lip. It seemed that all he could do anymore was feel sorry, apologize for the wrongs he'd done, and he was sorry for that, too, because he was hurting the two people he loved as much as family. "Kairi, you don't have to---"

"Sora." Her voice was stern, blessedly so, and as he hushed she took his face in her soft hands, leaning down so that he could see her tears, her pain, her suffering. All things he'd caused, because he'd left and then come back as someone else. "Stop it."

"I'm trying," he whispered, smiling through tears, trembling as she tried to smile back and wiped away the moisture that had fallen down his cheeks. "I've been trying so hard for months, too. Trying to be stronger, trying to be worth every bit of your kindness and Roxas's attention and Riku's protection and I just…c-can't find ways to deserve it."

"You're you. That's enough. We want you back, Sora, so just stop---"

"But you have Riku," he protested. "Riku has you. You two are happy, and I'm just…just in the way. Like I got in Rox's way. Like I'm in everyone's way. I'm never strong enough, Kairi. Playing hero's all I can do, and even then I lose, to shadows and nightmares and bad memories. I'm nothing, nothing at all, a-and---"

"Shut up!" Riku snapped as he leaned against the doorway, and Kairi bent down and pressed against him, pressing her face into his neck as she started sobbing, insisting that it wasn't true, what he said. "This is why I didn't want you to go. Why you shouldn't have fuckin' left in the first place. Roxas always screwed with your head. The mind games are too fucking much, Sora, and you should let him go, you understand me?"

Lowering his eyes, he nodded mutely.

"Sora…" Riku sighed, slumping over, covering his face as in a momentary lapse of strength he let his body shake. "Let's go for a walk, okay? You, Kairi, and me."

"Riku?" Kairi questioned, pulling away from Sora with a tear-stained face, the brown-haired youth sending his own questioning glance his friend's way. But the silver-haired male offered no explanation, only started towards the door, expecting both to follow. And they did.

Kairi leading him by the hand on the sand now, squeezing his grasp reassuringly every so often to let him know that she was there, would not let go, he allowed himself to fall a little bit back into the calm home always brought him, the sun on his face and the whisper of the palm trees soothing away his pain. But what really settled him most, what dried the tears in his eyes and allowed a smile to flicker onto his lips, was just the fact that Riku and Kairi were there, Riku leading in a manner of confidence, Kairi being their middle, their support, their light as she grinned playfully whenever the silver-haired male glanced back with lessening irritation and smiled gently at Sora when he felt himself getting lost every so often. Easier than he'd imagined, he was falling back into their graces, adjusting to a life he'd left behind unthinkingly, and he felt warm again, no matter if still the emptiness wouldn't completely leave.

Because they were his friends, he recovered, felt the traces of his nature rise from the ashes reborn.

The Secret Place was where he was let to, too, Kairi and Sora exchanging speculative glances as without hesitation Riku disappeared inside, confident in his plan, expectant of them following. And again they did, crawling into the darkness with identical smiles of anticipation, all three of them coming to nestle close to one another as they set before the wall of murals, their memories carved into stone.

At the same time Sora and Kairi reached out to touch the carving they'd done together, their unspoken profession of love completed, much to Sora's surprise. As he looked over, caught Kairi's calm stare focused back on him as her fingers trailed to light on top of his, he felt his heart skip a beat, tears prick his eyes with regret. He'd left without knowing, without asking, assuming that the two friends he'd entrust his life to in a second could just move on without him. And he'd been wrong, that he knew, that he apologized for silently as he caught Kairi's fingers in his own and leaned closer into her, watching as Riku in concentration carved an object onto the wall which he couldn't make out clearly.

"We," he started to say as he scratched against the stone, tilting his head and allowing silver strands to tumble in his vision, "will never be separated again, you clear? And if that means Roxas showing up, much as that pisses me off, so be it."

Sora knitted his brows. "What do you mean? Rox isn't coming back. I mean, not to stay. He's only going to sell his house and---"

"Would be true," Riku drawled as he leaned back on his heels, sending Sora a wry look, "if I hadn't called him and ordered him to get his sorry ass over here before I murdered his sulking cousin."

Kairi smiled secretively, but still Sora found himself confused. "But I just got here. When did you---"

"Come to think of it," Kairi began, in a voice that suggested that she knew more than she was pretending to know, "Riku was in the kitchen long enough to make a phone call before rejoining us."

Sora sighed heavily, sending the two co-conspirators a withering stare. "You planned this. When I called you. This was your plan since then, wasn't it?"

Riku smirked, shrugged, and focused back on the stone wall. Kairi giggled and leaned into him, pulling his hand into her lap as she nuzzled her grin into the clothing cloaking his arm. And he sighed in amusement this time, gaze warm and gentle as he looked on at the both of them, accepted that they were always going to make his life hard, if it meant making it better in the end.

"Thanks, I guess. For trying."

"Yeah. So don't screw it up this time. Because, like I said, we're not being separated again, huh? We're a trinity, dammit, and if you go and be stupid again I will personally---"

"I get it," Sora said with a laugh, and, satisfied, Riku nodded and leaned back, dropping the rock.

"A four-leaf clover?" Kairi asked, leaning closer and away from Sora to better see it. In curiosity, Sora leaned over, too. "Why not a paopu fruit? Those things are said to bind destinies together, intertwine your souls."

"'cause we're luckier than that," Riku stated simply, proud of himself as he crossed his arms over his chest. "We don't need a stupid fairytale fruit to keep up connected, do we?" Kairi, upon looking at him, smiled, and Sora allowed himself to laugh in amusement. "Plus, one leaf for all of us. To stay connected, rooted to the same place."

"But there are four." Sora was the one to say this, his voice softened by confusion.

"Guess that means it's up to you," Riku said, pinning him with a look. "To bring us all together, like you always do." And Sora was about to ask further what he meant, but he meant sharp, aquamarine eyes, intellectual beyond their years, and then he knew, as he knew seconds later who was on the phone as his cell suddenly rang, the sound echoing off of their childhood walls: Roxas. His newest chance to bring Roxas back into his life. He might not have another one; not ever. So he might as well make this one count.

Riku stood, led Kairi hand in hand towards the exit as Sora fumbled for his phone and hesitantly turned it on. And as he murmured hello, glanced up, suddenly scared, towards where his friends had exited, he saw Riku lingering, waiting for Kairi to exit first, leaning against the wall of the cave as he watched calmly. And that fear left him as Riku nodded once, Sora smiling in reassurance and looking away as his best friend turned his back.

"Hello? Sora, look, if you don't want to talk, I don't care. I don't even know why I called, since your asshole friend's opinion doesn't matter to me at---"

"Hey, Rox," he said softly, and this was enough to quiet his cousin. Shuffling backwards, stretching out his legs as he sidled towards the floor leaf clover on the wall, he leaned his back against the cave rock and read their names, only one leaf empty, pensively waiting for a purpose. And he smiled. "Want to talk."

There was silence. The cave filled with it, the memories flooding back, the doubt, uncertainty, guilt, happiness, sadness, anger, and joy all meshing together, so that there wasn't one moment of life he could suddenly discern and be sorry for. It all just was, something he couldn't take back, wouldn't take back, now that he'd found where he belonged and was back with the friends who let his life continue turning.

And maybe, just maybe, Roxas would help him with that, too.

Because finally, after minutes passed, he said with a short, uncertain laugh, "Yeah, Sora. I really do."

-- - --

Blech. Okay, whatever, it's done, I'm satisfied with that, haha. Hope it wasn't too terrible, and please review.