Title: All That You Can't Leave Behind
Pairing: Riku/Sora (wow, really?)
Summary: Looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find.
Warnings: Post-game fic. I don't know, I felt like this might be worth warning about. This was a story I wrote for a challenge on LJ. Some of my friends are still surprised neither Axel nor Roxas is in it.
All That You Can't Leave Behind
There are words floating around the school gossip network about some rock show, a nice little pop show, and when Riku walks into homeroom on Thursday morning, he finds a flyer on his desk with the words SUMMER ROCK SHOW, NIGHT OF DESTINY plastered across its front in obnoxious neon graffiti—and beneath that: Presenting Destiny Islands' Own "The Grounded Seagulls". Every other desk in the room has one just like it, and judging by the faint tittering of curiosity mingled with confusion circulating the perimeter, Riku figures he's probably not the only person there never to have heard of the featured act.
The show is slated for Saturday night, a makeshift stage to be constructed in the Main Island Square in the interim.
"They're going to suck," Tidus announces at lunch, stuffing fries into his already bulging cheeks. "No respectable band playing respectable music would ever call themselves The Seagulls, and for this reason, they're going to totally, irredeemably suck."
Kairi, who has been fighting with only marginal success to keep the excitement off her face since they sat down, now scowls and slaps Tidus's shoulder. "They are not going to suck. Don't say things like that until you've actually heard them play. If anything, I'm willing to bet their music is way better than the head-banging metal stuff you listen to."
"My cousin's friends with the band members," Selphie chimes in, while Tidus is busy sticking his tongue out at Kairi. "He told me they're all really excited about signing the gig. It's their first major live act, and everyone's going all out for the concert. I heard even a bunch of mainland people are coming over to see the show—that's really huge for an island-based group!"
Riku drinks his soda and listens to their chatter, the flow of the conversation running like spilled water back to a familiar vessel. In a room full of adults, mentions of the mainland can lead to heated debates—unavoidable, given the way that body of land creeps closer and closer to Destiny Islands with every turn of the ferry, ushering in a steady stream of developers, holiday-homers, and commuting students. Drawn to the island for the flush of post-reconstruction prosperity, the breathtaking coastline, and the impressive teacher-to-student ratio, respectively, they leave a trail of posh summer houses and kitschy tourist shops mushrooming in their track. To the dismay of the islanders.
All this has been going on since the Darkness receded, Riku learns the first year he's back. It's hard to believe only two years ago he used to stand on that narrow parapet of rock, looking out to the horizon and seeing a world filled with nothing but sky and sea.
But. A Saturday rock show. Surely there's no harm in that.
"Whatever your feelings on the matter," Kairi is saying when he tunes back in, "it's important that we show support for a local band, especially if people from the mainland are going to be coming to the show."
There are two spots of bright red blazing on her cheeks. Riku smiles at her when their eyes catch over the table.
"That's why Selph and I have volunteered to work on the stage tomorrow after school—and you two had better show up, too, if you know what's good for you."
Tidus makes a face, and starts complaining about some soccer match the next day where it is of the utmost import that he makes an appearance. Riku is suddenly reminded of something. "What's taking Sora so long?" he asks, turning to Selphie. "Shouldn't he be out at the same time as you guys?"
Selphie snorts. "Detention in the chemistry lab," she says shortly. "You should have seen Mr. Matera's face when he knocked over that burner. He'll be wiping grease off the table for a week."
But apparently, grease-wiping is not such a time-consuming task, because she has barely finished her sentence when the boy of the hour bounces up to their table and throws himself down next to Riku. Sora immediately makes a—totally unsuccessful—grab for Riku's pudding cup, saying excitedly, "Hey, you guys, so what's this I hear about a rock show?"
It's the second to last day of the academic year, and classes let out not long after lunch. As he walks away from the gate, Riku can still hear Kairi yelling after Tidus to come help out with the stage after school or face her terrible wrath. She and Selphie are heading over to the Square right now to talk with the head of volunteers, and Tidus lives on the opposite side of town, which leaves him and Sora to walk home together. They fall easily into step, taking the outlying path that hugs the sprawling curve of the sea.
"It'll be kind of cool, won't it?" Sora asks, jumping up to take Riku into a headlock. It's his second attempt of the sort, and they're barely out of sight of the school building. "I don't think there's ever been anything like this on the islands. I've never heard of these Seagulls guys, but if everyone's going to all this trouble, they can't be all that bad."
Riku smirks, shrugging himself free with ease. In the year since they came back to Destiny Islands, Sora has settled into a (much-needed) growth spurt, but for reasons having to do with decidedly unfair genetics, Riku still stands half a head taller than him, throwing the outcome of their horseplay regularly in his favor.
"I have a hunch their music won't be much to my taste, but it's not like we have a choice, with Kairi's impassioned call for island solidarity back there," he says, and reaches over to ruffle the spiky hair at the crown of Sora's head. His friend yelps, hopping out of the way like a scalded cat. The sight makes Riku burst into laughter, while Sora glares at him horribly.
"And what exactly would be to your taste, Mr. Dark And Orchestral But Only If It's Instrumental?" Sora asks, punctuating his question with meaningful air-quotes. "I'm sure it wouldn't tarnish your image too much to go slummin' with the rest of us mortals every once in awhile."
He shrieks with laughter as Riku pretends to sock him one.
"Come to think of it," Sora says, folding his arms behind his head and titling his chin to look at the sky: a shock of summer blue in the early afternoon. "It'll be good to have the gang come together for something fun. We haven't had a lot of opportunities for that this year."
They both lapse into silence. Riku doesn't need telepathy to know what Sora's thinking.
In direct opposition to the influx of mainlanders, a much more unsettling trend has also popped up, only it is their people who are leaving the islands in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Just last quarter, Wakka's father signed with a construction company on the mainland, and he promptly transferred from their school. Riku still remembers the expression on Sora's face when it came time to say goodbye—it was, he thinks with a jolt, to some lesser degree the same one he had worn when they had first found each other in Xemnas's castle a year ago.
The memory makes his throat go dry for a moment, a lump of unease lodging itself into the suddenly hollow space and refusing to slide away.
He shakes off the odd feeling, and says, "What are you on about, doofus?" striving to keep his tone completely casual. "We see everyone all the time. Aren't you sick of being around the same people you've hung out with for the last sixteen years?"
"And who do I suggest I hang out with instead?" Sora laughs. "The mainland kids?"
For some reason, he seems slightly embarrassed to utter these words. His ears go bright red as Riku looks on in confusion. What is this about? There are plenty of mainland kids who go to their school. Out of earshot, the island students call them "The Ferryboaties"—Riku had no part in picking this nickname: he would have been much more original and scathing—and while it's no great secret that the two crowds don't mingle, he doesn't see why an offhand mention should elicit such a reaction. In Sora, of all people, who probably wouldn't mind hanging with the mainland kids at all, given half a chance.
"What I mean is," Sora continues, still not quite meeting Riku's eyes. "This could be one of the last times we can get everyone together for something like this. You'll be done with school in a year, and that means you'll probably be really busy planning post-graduation stuff next year."
At this, he brightens suddenly. "Hey, Riku, you never told me what you're planning to do after high school. Come on, spill it! What'd you have in mind, huh?"
Now it's his turn to shuffle around uncomfortably. "Well," Riku prevaricates, "my dad was talking about college at one point, but I haven't really thought about it that much."
Sora wrinkles his brows thoughtfully. It's an extremely strange sight. "Hmm, didn't you once say something about Mickey wanting you to be his apprentice after you were done with normal school?"
"Yeah, but that was a long time ago," Riku covers quickly. He walks a little further ahead to avoid having to look Sora in the face, and hopes his friend doesn't notice this awkward change in pace. "Say, you don't happen to have heard from those guys at Disney Castle recently, have you? How's the situation with the Heartless coming along?"
His careful hedging pays off. Behind him, Sora heaves a long sigh, and launches into an involved, slightly exasperated tangent, "Well, I got a letter from Donald not too long ago, but he was mostly just complaining about being overworked and Goofy not pulling his share, not that that had anything--"
When Riku gets home, he finds the house steeped in darkness, every curtain pulled shut. Toeing off his sneakers at the entrance, he walks through the parlor, throwing open all the windows as he goes. Sunlight streams into the living room, brilliant and blinding for a brief instance before his eyes readjust to its sudden glare, and slowly, his surroundings resurface from the shadow, a mellowed clutter of braided rugs, gaudy-looking mirrors, and tiny end-tables with colored beach glass glittering their surfaces.
Everything lovingly out of place, everything familiar, suffused in sun.
His parents built this house twenty years ago, when Riku was still nothing more than a distant glimmer in their five-year plan. White clapboard, creaky floorings, and a veranda looking out to sea. That last one was his mother's decision; Riku knows she loves to sit in her rocking chair, pretending to read but really just watching the expanse of blue water curling up to meet the edge of the sky, as seagulls, sometimes hundreds in number, circle and weave overhead. He knows that's where she is, at this very moment.
Having put away his books, Riku goes into the kitchen and heats up some milk in a pan. He pours it carefully into a mug, one of the mismatched dozens that litter their cabinets, and places it on a tray with a plate of butter biscuits. As he ascends the stair, he makes a mental note to start making a dent in the laundry afterward, maybe change the sheets in the bedrooms. Yes, he will change the sheets.
His mother is asleep when he comes out onto the balcony, a book still splayed open in her lap.
Her long hair has come out of its bun and fallen all over her face in sleep. Her breaths flutter the strands of fine blonde stuff, creating soft ripples like moving grass. Riku places the tray on a small wicker table, and carefully brushes his mother's hair out of her face. His fingers linger deliberately on her cheekbone.
Sleep. These days, that's where she lives most of the time. In sleep, she seems peaceful. He knows he should wake her, give her milk and the same brand of biscuit she used to feed him as a kid, daubing disinfectants on his scraped knees and wiping his tears with her sleeve. He should wake her, then go clean the dishes, do the laundry, start dinner. His dad will be home soon. He should change the sheets.
But he stays where he is, with his back to the sea and his shaking fingers now curled around the balcony railing. Still the seabirds are wheeling over their heads, trading with one another their white, shrilly cries.
"Those two idiots," Kairi storms, hands planted firmly on her hips. "They totally scabbed, didn't they?"
"Hey, now," Riku says, shrugging helplessly. "It wasn't like I could stop them."
"That's such a lie," Kairi says, but her expression is softening already, so he figures he's in the clear. "Well, thanks for coming out, anyway. Practicing for the interisland soccer tournament my ass, it's not like our team doesn't wipe the floor with everyone else every single year or anything."
Up on a scaffold, Selphie pauses in the middle of working on what looks like a precocious child's arts and crafts project to giggle at her friend's testy outburst. Riku finds himself smiling in synchronization, thinking of the pleading look on Sora's face and the defiant one on Tidus's as they begged him earlier to ditch the girls in favor of a pickup game on the beach. "It's the last day of school, Riku," Sora had said, hugging the soccer ball feverishly to his chest. "It's practically tradition."
Kairi shakes her head, and makes an exasperated noise. "Well, all I'm saying is they'd better come to the show tomorrow night, or there's going to be hell to pay come Sunday." She grabs a paint bucket and a brush, and motions him toward a ladder, "Can you help me hold that in place? Thanks, Riku."
The top button of her white shirt is undone. When she moves, he can see the stripe of sweat gleaming at her throat. She cants her hips to one side and balances the bucket on the jutting curve, stretching her skirt to the point where it bites into her skin. The pleated hem sways as she moves up the ladder, flashing her long, thin thighs, the tanned skin at the hollow of her knees over the top of her dark stockings.
A group of teenage boys—mainlanders, chiefly—choose to walk by at that moment, and immediately stop dead in their track to goggle at Kairi in a hugely conspicuous manner. Riku turns to regard them with an arctic look. They take in his narrowed eyes, then the way his arms move under the rolled up shirtsleeves of his uniform, and quickly scurry off, exchanging loud whispers among themselves.
Selphie once told him, struggling to keep from bursting into laughter, that a lot of people in school seemed to think he and Kairi were dating. It's probably stuff like this that feeds that particular misconception.
"Hey, Riku?" Kairi says suddenly, cutting into his wandering thoughts. Her voice is soft, barely audible over the confused chattering of the crew working on the main stage.
"How's your mother doing?"
Riku considers this for a moment, rolling the answer around in his throat. "She's alright. Treatments are going well. It's been over a month since the last one."
"But you guys are still…"
"Yeah. Pretty much."
There's a long silence. He can tell Kairi is struggling with herself, from the minute tension needling itself into her shoulders to the way her red hair falls slightly forward, shielding her face from view.
"And when are you going to tell him?"
"You know what I mean. Your family is moving at the end of June. Why haven't you told Sora about it yet?"
Riku feels his fingers digging into the sides of the ladder. The end of June. He himself only found out in March. The sky the color of smoke, and his father had taken him down to the wharf under the premise of fly fishing. No such thing to be done. The fish hadn't come back to the islands since the Darkness left, and no one could explain why. They had specialists ferried over from the mainland to conduct studies, measure the salinity of the water, the motions of the tide—all to no avail. No fishing, no port traffic, no income. The islands hemorrhaging jobs, and people went with them. Only the hardy stayed behind, those who could not bear to live out of sight of the ocean.
But that day on the jetty, with the sea glass-colored and sullen before them, his dad had turned to him—laid down the fiberglass rod and turned to Riku—and there had been a startling moment of understanding passed between them before his dad had said, "I reckon by the end of June, your mother and I will be leaving the islands. I've got a job offer on the mainland."
Riku blinked. Set down his own fishing rod and waited.
"I figured it'd be for the best. As it is, we already make the trip every other month, and moving around like that can't be good for her. All the facilities are there, all the doctors. They're even talking about upping the frequency of the treatments in a few months. Me and your mom, we talked about this."
Riku said, "What do I have to do?"
"You," his dad started, then fell silent, eyes darting out to sea; the horizon milky with fog. "We wanted to leave it up to you. I know you only have one year left in school—if you want to finish it here, you can stay. I'll ask around, find you a place, somewhere nice and small…"
"I want to go," Riku said. He thought about the pale curve formed by his mother's slim neck as she had bent, heaving, over the bowl of the toilet, one dreadful night last January when she had thought the rest of them asleep. "I want to go with you."
His father nodded. It occurred to Riku that this had been expected of him. "I think that's for the best too," his dad said, running one hand through his hair. "She hasn't said anything, but I know she would want you to be with her. Between the two of us, she took it the hardest. That year when you were away…"
He stopped, and blinked hard, as if to force clarity into his eyes. In the murmur of the sea, Riku could hear all the unspoken words. They had given him up for dead, he knew, and he would have done the same, but somehow he had returned to find his bedroom exactly how he had left it that night when the Darkness had come in through the window and swallowed up everything. Everything dustless, everything in its place, and for a moment, standing in the room he'd slept in since childhood, he'd thought of his mother. Coming in there every day with a feather duster, perhaps sitting on his bed, staring out the window. Toward the water.
"It's just Star Port, isn't it?" Kairi says, and his awareness is abruptly dragged back to the moment.
Kairi sighs softly, and starts to climbs down from the ladder. Riku steps aside to let her get off.
"Your family is moving to Star Port," Kairi says matter-of-factly, laying down the paint bucket and turning to look at him properly. He's never failed to be amazed by just how exquisitely blue her eyes can be, stilled into seriousness as they are in this instance, fittingly like twin oceans of thoughts. "That's not very far away. An hour on the ferry at most. Two of the kids in my class are from there, and they commute to Destiny Islands everyday for school."
"That's not really the point," Riku says.
"No," Kairi agrees, to his surprise. "No, it isn't."
"Riku, you up there?"
"Yeah, the usual spot. Climb on up."
The sound of scrabbling, and then Sora's sweaty face appears over the top of the big branch. His cheeks are flushed with exertion, strands of flyaway hair clinging to the sticky patches of moisture.
"You missed out on one hell of a game," he says excitedly, grabbing the branch to pull himself up. Riku scoots over to make room for him by the trunk. "Our team just completely slaughtered Yarada's crowd. It was phenomenal."
"Maybe that'll prepare you for when Kairi does the same to you and Tidus for bailing out on her today," Riku says ominously, and smirks as Sora scrunches his face up in mock horror.
"Did you guys get a lot done?"
"Everything's pretty much ready. They're bringing in the equipment from the mainland tomorrow."
Sora whistles, impressed. He swings his legs back and forth in the emptiness below, back and forth, back and forth. "So. It's really happening."
"Yeah," Riku says, faintly surprised. Something seems off about Sora, but he can't put his finger on it. He himself is roiling up inside, waiting for an opening to spring his news. It feels cowardly, like a sneak attack. The sun is a dying flare in the pit of the sea, slowly sinking. Twilight is still hard for him.
He's just about to swallow his crippling sense of insecurity and spit the whole thing out, messy consequences be damned, when Sora turns to him abruptly and says, in a flustered rush, "Hey Riku, can I tell you something?"
Riku stares at him, nods dumbly. He and Sora do not typically have long, heartfelt conversations about intimate issues unless either one or both of them are injured and/or stranded on a darkened beach doomed never to see the light of day again. This is, apparently, a very special occasion.
"How do you feel about," Sora begins, and immediately seems to think better of it. He holds his hand up in a confused motion, apropos of nothing. "Have you ever found yourself—I don't know—having strange feelings for someone you never expected to feel that way about?"
Riku opens his mouth, then clamps it shut, blinking rapidly. That way? "I'm not sure I'm catching your drift," he says, trying to sound appropriately sympathetic.
"Okay, I'll just start from the beginning then," Sora says quickly, running one hand through his messy hair. It looks almost honey-colored in the dwindling light. "Around Christmas last year, Kairi and I started going out."
His eyes slide over quickly to Riku's face, filled with a half-pleading half-terrified look, like he's expecting Riku to freak out dramatically in a fit of abandonment complex and start chopping down Paopu trees with the blade of Way To Dawn or something. Riku feels his lips curl up in an amused grin.
"Sora," he says slowly, and almost laughs when his friend very nearly flinches away. "It's okay. I'm not going to freak out and start chopping down Paopu trees with the blade of Way To Dawn. I'm really happy for you two." In a snide stage whisper, he adds, "Took you long enough."
"That's just it, though," Sora replies, sounding almost mournful. "We were only together for, like, a week, tops, and then we realized something was just missing." He pauses, and stares intently at his feet, swinging steadily below them. "O'course, half the reason it was so awkward was because we were both worried about breaking the news to you, you know?"
Riku rolls his eyes, fondly.
"But mostly, it was because something didn't click with us," Sora goes on, eyes still riveted at his colorful chunky trainers. "I didn't really understand why—I liked her forever, you know. In the end, we decided it was better to be friends than try too hard at something that wasn't gonna work out."
"Have you been reading your mom's magazines again?" Riku asks, just to clear the air, and Sora punches him on the arm, shouting, "Riku, you suck. I'm being serious."
"Sorry," Riku says, chuckling. For a moment, it's like the words "end of June" have temporarily evaporated from his mind, for which he's rather glad. "Well, I'm sorry it didn't work out with Kairi. But what does this have to do with having weird feelings for unexpected people?"
"I'm getting to that," Sora says. "So, then, around February, I went to this house party hosted by one the mainland kids. You know, in one of those big summer houses they built out on the eastern beach?"
Riku nods. He receives at least one invitation to those parties a week, usually from the mainland girls in his class who rock strappy stilettos with their school uniforms and giggle mysteriously every time Riku walks by. Riku has no real interest in such adventures, and he honestly didn't think Sora would either.
"I didn't really want to go," Sora says, answering Riku's internal question. "But Tidus had a crush on this girl who was friends with the host, so he made me go along for moral support." He scrunches his face up in annoyance—though the effect is frankly more along the lines of adorable. "Not that he ever worked up the courage to go talk to her or anything, just stood on the fringe and made moon faces at her all night."
"Sounds like you two had an awesome time," Riku comments dryly.
Sora smiles, somewhat abashed. "Well," he says, "I ended up going off on my own and talking to some of the people there. They're actually kind of nice." How typical. "And there was this—this one particular person."
Ah. "So you met a girl."
"Sort of," Sora says cryptically. "We got to talking, and—I can't remember much of what we talked about, actually, they gave me this reddish drink in a cup and it made me sort of lightheaded. The point is, we got to talking, and then we went into one of the empty rooms and sort of—made out a bit." He smiles. "That was really nice."
Riku cocks his head in thought. "So the problem is you like this girl, but she's from the mainland?"
"No," Sora says firmly. "That's not it. And I don't like h—I don't like this person. I did, at the time, but not anymore. But even if I still liked them, I wouldn't care that they're from the mainland."
"So, what is the problem, then?"
"I wouldn't really call it a problem," Sora says. For some reason, his cheeks have gained a shade of red not unlike ripe cherry tomatoes. "It's just—this person. It wasn't a girl. It was a guy."
Riku falls out of the Paopu tree.
Luckily, he manages to grab on to the branch at the very last minute, thus saving himself from an embarrassing concussion. "Riku, you okay?" Sora shrieks, scrambling over to pull his dangling best friend back up to solid landing. There's a moment of tense silence as they both struggle to catch their racing breaths, making absolutely no eye contact.
"I knew you'd freak out about this," Sora says sadly. "I shouldn't have said anything."
"No," Riku chokes out, and wheezes as a rib makes a valiant effort to poke through his side. "No, it's not that. You just surprised me, that's all. I don't have a problem with—with that at all." He pauses, biting his lip for a moment, then clears his throat and says, "Not unless I was a huge hypocrite."
Riku's first sexual experience of the alternative kind was at the age of fifteen, on a rare occasion when he got briefly separated from the King on their long travel. There was a dingy pub, where the flirty barmaid seemed a little too liberal about giving drinks to obvious minors (his black leather get-up probably helped matters along), and some smirking guy in a midriff-revealing spandex outfit who seemed a little too invested in sidling right up to people sitting by themselves at the bar and clamping his large paw around their thighs.
Then there was the backroom, the dirty slide of a hard muscled body against his own—but mostly what Riku remembered from that night was loneliness, the sense of being utterly isolated from his friends and everything he held dear. It was, all things considered, more than a little fucked up.
He pointedly pares most of the more sordid and depraved details from his final account, chiefly to spare his friend the cost of brain bleach, and when he's done telling it, Sora's eyes are as round as dinner plates. Riku doesn't know whether to be pleased or insulted by that.
"Wow," Sora says, a little breathy. "So," he goes on, sounding unsure and completely heartbreaking as a result. "It's okay?"
"Yes," Riku says with conviction. Time was, he couldn't be so certain himself, but for this purpose, he can fake it with the best of them. "You like who you like, right? What's wrong with that?"
"Funny," Sora says, and to Riku's immense relief, he's smiling again. "That's exactly what Kairi told me when I asked her how she felt about this."
"You told Kairi first?" Riku asks, narrowing his eyes—tamping down the sudden urge to play lumberjack with Way To Dawn in the Paopu grove.
"It was only fair," Sora says defiantly. "I was going out with her only, like, two months before. And if you must know, it took me three months to decide whether I should tell anyone at all. You're the second person I've told so far. Even my parents have no idea."
Riku has to smile at that. He turns over to tell Sora something—that everything will be alright, this too shall pass, any trivial variation thereof—but loses the thread of it completely at the sight of Sora's face, halfway open into a tentative smile. Sora's eyes are very, very blue, the same color as Kairi's but somehow different, and for some reason Riku has never properly internalized their impressive capacity to hold light, so that every other bright thing just seems to refract their illumination. Their faces maybe ten inches apart, and in the ambience of the late afternoon, Riku can feel his breath snag. He remembers, then.
"I have to go," he mumbles, and swings himself down from the Paopu branch. The palm of his hand scrapes roughly against tree bark, drawing blood, but he doesn't care. "Dinner time," he calls vaguely over his shoulder, running off. "I'll see you tomorrow night at the concert, okay?"
Sora's reply parses as garbled nonsense through the blood pounding in his ears. Riku plunges blindly into the deepening twilight, the back of his eyelids a cold, persistent hurt.
Saturday afternoon. Riku spends the entire day out on the wharf, surrounded by the sea and the enormity of his thoughts. The morning starts out dourly, weighty gusts of wind wrinkling the surface of the water, thunderheads massing in the distance. The dark, fleeting threat of a storm. It dissipates throughout the day, and by early afternoon, the sun is back at the crown of the sky, scorching and pitiless. The lack of cloud cover promises a clear night ahead, and Riku can just imagine the collective relief likely coursing through the hearts of the concert planning committee members—and, for that matter, Kairi.
By three, he has seen the ferryboat lumbering over from the mainland, carrying the equipment for the show.
When he comes into the living room, his mother is lying on the threadbare divan. She smiles upon his entrance, and pushes herself up into a sitting position, wrapping a light afghan around her shoulders. "The jetty again? I could see you from the veranda."
"It is the best view in town," Riku says, kissing her on the cheek. He tries not to think about the way the edge of her bone presses sharply against his flesh. "Where's Dad?"
"Down at the post office. He's sending out the last of the papers for our new place."
They're getting a fully-furnished apartment in Star Port, overlooking a small park. It's nice, functional, and completely devoid of personality. Most of their possessions—some twenty years worth of accumulated knick-knacks—are being left behind to raise the market value of the house. No baggage, Riku thinks, fingering the mosaic top of an end-table, and the image of his father's face on an ashen day slides into his mind, the wind crusting his hair with salt. Unlike Riku, he's never learned to hate the sea. That day, the sudden sharpness deepening his feet of crow seemed to say, I will give up so much for the two of you.
"How are you feeling today?"
"Good." But her breaths are low and notched, jagged like the edge of a saw. "It hasn't been bad at all today."
"Are you sure? I could stay home tonight if you want."
"No," his mom says firmly. "Your father will be home any minute. You should go have fun with your friends. Speaking of your friends, Riku, one of them came over again this morning." Kairi, Riku thinks with a weary grin. "You have wonderful friends."
Her voice drops to a near-whisper, and as she coughs into her hand, he can detect an apologetic note. "I know you'll miss them when we leave here."
"It's okay," he says, digging up a smile for her. He's getting very good at it these days. "We can always visit." Even though deep down inside, he knows it can never be the same again.
His mom nods at him lightly, lying back onto the divan and closing her eyes. Gradually, her dead droops sideways. A year since the return, and he's still not used to seeing her like this, spread thin like diluted paint, ashing away into pale sickness. The episodes are the worst; she makes him promise not to tell his father about them, so he knows he himself is privy to only what he gets to witness. The monthly treatments keep them at bay, her existence shrinking into itself, confined to a doctor's office in Star Port.
Two years ago. Several months into Riku's disappearance, he learns, just after the Darkness receded and the islands emerged to find everything awash in missing memory and devastating casualty. There has never been a real diagnosis, just an inexorable downward spiral that started with faint nausea and has since settled into this strange constant drowsiness, eating away at her strength, her bones, her formerly inexhaustible energy. The doctors, helpless, prescribed shock therapy. For nearly twenty years, they'd lived the ideal life, but two years ago, Riku's dad quit his job down by the dock; started working in town to be near the house.
She's not the only one. Others on the island have cropped up with the same affliction, albeit to lesser degrees. Most have left. It is whispered that when the Darkness retreated, it took something from them, something from deep within and irreplaceable, without which both heart and body can only begin to wither.
"I'm going to take a shower," Riku announces around the sudden bitter taste in his mouth, knowing she can't hear him wherever she is.
Later, he will think, I'll make this right, warm water sluicing its way down his body. Please forgive me. I will do everything to make this right for you.
He shows up at the Square about twenty minutes before the show is due to start, and notes that for an event of this scale, the turnout is fairly respectable. It's early and there's not a lot to do, but already a sizeable crowd has formed, shadowed faces half-illuminated by the glowing lanterns thoughtfully strung across the area.
Up at the front, the main stage is still quite dimly lit, gleaming instruments strewn about unattended. Long black wires cover nearly every available surface. The band is probably still getting ready in the back, Riku guesses. A large cloth banner hangs above it all, NIGHT OF DESTINY emblazoned across in the same neon lettering previously seen on the advertisement flyers—centered with a stylized picture of a Paopu fruit.
"Riku! Over here!"
He turns, and there's Sora running up to him, pushing through the dawdling throngs of concert goers. Immediately, Riku feels something flop weirdly in the pit of his stomach.
"The rest of the guys are over that way," Sora says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. He seems oblivious to Riku's unease. "Kairi and Selphie got us a spot right by the stage, the best view in the house."
Riku nods vaguely, then does a double-take. "What do you have on your face?" he asks, staring at Sora in puzzlement.
"Oh, this," Sora laughs, touching his fingers to his face and tracing the lines of luminescent dust circling his eyes, spiraling out in fascinating patterns. There's even glitter on his eyelids, sprinkling the long lashes. In the dark, it glints at Riku like stars, diamonds cut out of the sun. "The girls forced it on me and Tidus. They'll probably do you too when they get their hands on you. Look, there's even some on my arms!"
Said limbs are summarily shoved into his face. Maybe it's his imagination, but Riku has a strange suspicion Sora is deliberately making excuses to get into his personal space, standing closer than necessary. In the muggy night, Riku can feel his friend's body heat breathing lightly on his skin, achingly alive.
"Come on, the show's going to start soon," Sora says, and grabbing Riku's wrist, starts dragging him into the thick of the crowd. Bodies bump into him roughly as they bulldoze along, until they reach a spot near stage right and the soft light from the stage falls upon three familiar faces.
"Riku, you made it," Kairi greets, throwing her arms around his neck. Behind her, Selphie and Tidus wave at him ecstatically.
Both of the girls are wearing glitter on their faces and bare shoulders, the same gracefully looping patterns in silver and gold and green and purple. Tidus, on the other hand, looks as if a tub of pink fairy dust has been dumped over his head. Kairi's revenge, Riku notes, must have been thorough and swift.
"Well, come on, get over here," Kairi says, brandishing what looks like a glitter pen. "You don't want to look out of place, do you?"
Riku looks around, and to his surprise, it appears that most of the people around him are also wearing glimmering patterns on their faces, or else sporting glow-in-the-dark necklaces and bracelets, luminous accessories. He shrugs to himself, and holds out his face for Kairi to dab at with her pen.
At this moment, all the lights suddenly go out on the stage. The effect is impressive. Total darkness, and as the crowd degenerates quickly into a confused undercurrent of whispers, a sudden chorus of bone-rattling bass starts up from the general direction of center stage. It is immediately undercut by the sound of explosive drum, heavy and yet with a metallic coolness, like a rush of summer rain. The beats spread out over the crowd, which steadily falls into anticipating silence as though under the spell of a snake-charmer.
Then, without warning, a shock of cerulean spotlights snaps onto the stage, illuminating The Grounded Seagulls, all five members dressed to the nines in the zipper-and-buckle-heavy fashion of Destiny Islands, instruments at the ready. The air is suddenly saturated in the screams and applause of the audience.
"Destiny Islands," says the lead singer, leaning into his microphone and grinning down at the crowd before him. Outlined in blue, and half-hidden in artificial fog, he looks beautiful and otherworldly. "Are you ready to ROCK?"
One thing is for sure, The Grounded Seagulls do not play head-banging heavy metal.
Neither are they of the Dark And Orchestral But Only If It's Instrumental stock, but for some unclear reason, the moment that the first few chords start shivering through Riku's body, his mind seems to lose all forms of inhibition. His voice eagerly joins those of his friends and the rest of the audience, cheering the band on as they move through catchy and upbeat indie rock tunes to sweet, sentimental ballads with the same energy and enthusiasm, all five faces gleaming with sweat under the multicolored spotlights.
He checks himself short of the decidedly epileptic sort of movement Sora and Tidus are engaged in, jumping around as though their shoes have been exchanged with burning ironshods, but does not hesitate to bop his head along to the music. At one point, Kairi and Selphie suddenly come up and flank him, one on each side. Riku finds himself looping his arms over the girls' shoulders, all three of them swaying along in synch as the notes wash over them and soar high into the summer night.
Most of the people in the audience are jumping in the air, but some are hanging back, either slow dancing with their significant others or doing the same thing as Riku—slowly letting the music course through them and dictate the movements of their muscles. As the current song draws to a rousing end, Sora and Tidus spin around simultaneously and collapse heavily onto the rest of them with a loud scream, forming an impromptu dog pile, flailing arms and shocked giggles flying everywhere.
Nearing the half-set, the lead singer drags his fingers away from the strings of his bass guitar and taps the microphone, one, two, three times. As the crowd grows quiet, he says into the speaker head, "Well, we've been singing our songs all night, and you guys have been a fantastic audience. But now how about something a little more recognizable?"
As the audience break their vocal cords screaming their agreement, the young man grins widely, and shouts, "This is a song from one of our favorite bands!"
Then his fingers are moving along the frets and strings of his guitar, strumming as though with a mind of their own. As the rest of the band follow suit, a familiar rhythm begins to take shape. Riku could have mimed along the words when the singers begins to croon into his microphone, and he knows the rest of the crowd feel the same way because the entire Square erupts into loud cheers, islanders and mainlanders joining together for one single purpose.
"And love is not the easy thing…"
"Oh my God, I love this song," Sora shouts, his entire face chopped up in an ecstatic grin. The glitter and sweat on his face make his eyes seem enormous. He turns back to the stage, and starts singing along to the music, "And if the darkness is to keep us apart…"
The words send a shock of shivers up the length of Riku's spine. He finds himself staring sideways at Sora's moving lips, coated in a sheen of moisture and tinted blue from the stage light.
"Hey Sora," Tidus yells, slinging an arm around his friend's shoulder with a mischievous expression. "I dare you to crowd-surf!"
Kairi and Selphie burst simultaneously into a peal of laughter, as Sora raises a challenging eyebrow and shouts back, "You're on!" He turns to Riku, still grinning. "How about it, Riku?"
"I don't know about this, Sora," Riku says.
"And if your glass heart should crack… And for a second you turn back…"
"Oh, come on, don't be a chicken," Sora goads, and with that, he disappears into the gyrating crowd. Seemingly seconds later, he emerges, riding on a wave of outstretched hands and shoulders, spread-eagled above the heads of the people supporting him. His shriek of delighted laughter rings through the air, audible even above the loud music, as the familiar chorus of the song explodes all around them.
"Walk on, walk on… What you got, they can't steal it…"
As Riku stares, mesmerized, at the sight of his best friend floating above the frenzied crowd, he feels a hand descend softly on his shoulder. "Come on, Riku," Kairi says with an encouraging smile. "He's waiting for you. What are you still standing around for?"
For a moment, he's struck dumb by the flickering stage light reflected in her bright eyes. But as the song enters the bridge portion, Riku promptly stops thinking, and, stopping just long enough to send a grateful smile at Kairi, he too plunges into the moving crowd.
"You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been…"
Then he's rising in the air, body supported by a dozen eager hands, seemingly being elevated up above the entire world and toward the dome of the velvet sky, dotted with ice-chip stars. His heart thrums with an intensity previously found only in the most hair-raising of battles, and through the blood rushing in his ears, he can still hear the song, at once powerful and heartrending.
"You could have flown away… A singing bird in an open cage…"
"Riku!" He jerks his head around at the cry, and sees Sora reaching a hand out for him, fingers waving in midair. Without thinking, Riku shoots out his own hand and reaches for Sora's outstretched one. Their fingers brush, then fall away, missing by inches.
"Home, I can't say where it is but I know I'm going home… That's where the heart is…"
Somehow, the faceless crowd below them seems to catch the drift of the message, because the next thing Riku's aware of is being shifted steadily sideways, as though by an ocean wave, and then he's right there, hand clasped with Sora's. Their identical smiles threatening to split their faces, caught together in an electrifying moment, a snapshot in time.
The spinning sky above, the heaving crowd below, stage light, glitter—and above everything else, that pounding music, soaring furiously over the din of people and tapering into a high and beautiful needlepoint finish.
"And I know it aches… How your heart it breaks… You can only take so much… Walk on, walk on…"
While the band pauses for a breather, Selphie announces that all that screaming and cheering back there is giving her a sore throat. Immediately, Sora volunteers to go fetch her a soda. Before Riku could say anything, he's already being dragged away, wrist captured in an iron grip.
As they weave away through the madding crowd, he can swear he sees Kairi's lips quirk up in a cryptic smile.
They circle around to the empty lot behind the stage, where some of the local vendors have set up shop. The area is nearly deserted, save for a group of teenagers smoking under a tree, dressed in black and eye-makeup that looks smeared on. One of the girls sends over an inviting wave with her lit cigarette. For a moment, Sora seems entirely too curious in the possibility—Riku smirks wryly, steering him away from the cancerous haze.
He's very acutely aware of the fact that Sora's fingers are still curled tightly around his wrist. The heat they generate sears his skin. He wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find branded marks if Sora were to pull away.
He doesn't want Sora to pull away.
Riku blinks, all his thoughts coming to a grinding halt. He can feel himself unraveling at that realization, and now, now would be a good time to leave. Selphie's soda. He's going to get it, he's turning right now and heading resolutely for one of the vendors and he's going to get that soda if it's the last thing--
"Wrong way," Sora says, pulling him back by the wrist he's still got clutched his hand. His eyes are half-lidded, the light of the irises almost feverish under the sleepy curve of his glittered lashes. Letting Riku know that this is deliberate. "I'm over here, Riku."
"Sora," Riku says, barely above a whisper. He tries to make himself step away from Sora, who just keeps wandering in closer, seemingly unaware that his body has somehow transfigured itself into a furnace.
"Don't run away from me like you did yesterday," Sora says, his breath hot and close on Riku's skin. "You never even let me finish talking."
"Don't," Riku says, not trusting himself to look up straight. "I can't."
"Can't," Sora says evenly, "or won't?"
"I want to," Riku says. His breath hitches on the last word, blurring the consonant. "I want to, but I can't."
Sora frowns, a thread of tension coming to rest between his eyebrows. "Because you're moving in June," he says, with the exact same inflection as before.
Riku's stomach twists violently. "Who told you that?" he asks, jerking his wrist away. "Was it Kairi?"
"Your mother," Sora says, his frown deepening by the second, so Riku can tell the anger is building behind his eyes. It is a side of Sora he's only ever seen when they stood opposite each other on a battlefield: waiting to make the first cut. "Kairi did confirm it, yeah. I never said anything since I figured if you wanted me to know, you'd have said something by now."
"You've been coming to my house," Riku says, stating a fact. God. Sometimes it feels like he's still wearing the blindfold.
"I have," Sora says, still in the same tight whisper. He doesn't flinch, doesn't move away. "So what?"
"Do you know why she's sick?" Riku asks, and now his voice has gone all tense as well, controlled and cutting. "You know what they're saying over on the mainland? They're saying she never recovered from the Darkness—from losing her only son!"
"Riku," Sora says quietly, and all of a sudden, his face is solemn, spiderwebbed with a deep sadness. It catches Riku off-guard, like the sudden jerk of the silver hook slicing into the fish's mouth, brutal and quick. "You're not the reason your mom got sick," Sora is saying. "You know that."
"It's not only about my mom," Riku argues. "There's other stuff too. Wakka's dad--"
Sora makes a frustrated face, like he can't believe his ears. "Wakka's dad made a choice to leave. Are you going to start blaming yourself for every crappy thing that's happened on the islands since the Darkness came?"
"Maybe I am," Riku says stubbornly. He needs—he needs to get away from those eyes, more than anything. Everything has fallen so far out of hand that the only thing he can do is try to hold on to the only resolution he's even remotely sure of. "Maybe I am, and maybe I'm not, what the hell does it matter? I have to go. It's what I have to do." I will sacrifice so much for the two of you. That will always be the way, the only way, right?
"It's only Star Port," Sora says softly, echoing Kairi's words from the day before. "You were going to leave for college or something in a year anyway. We can deal with you being in Star Port."
"That's not the point," Riku says, because what else has he got to say?
"Then what is the point?" demands Sora. He steps in closer, fingers coming to rest lightly on Riku's forearms. The solemn warmth, the tangent possibility of heat.
"I can't," Riku chokes, the words tinny and insubstantial in his throat, "because I don't want you to leave a hole in me when I go away from here."
Sora's eyes, smeared with glitter, are like shattered glass in the charcoal darkness, every piece of light ever collected now scattering like knife-edged shrapnel. Riku can feel each and every one of them pierce his battered heart, cutting too quickly and brutally for the pain to immediately register, even as Sora jerks his head down and turns away from him, walking away quickly into the dappling shadows.
Riku waits, head down so that his long hair falls over his eyes. This is for the best, he tells himself, and waits, counting the minutes until enough time has passed for it to be okay to go back to the group.
He looks up sharply, at the same time that Sora barrels into his chest, grabbing a handful of his shirt and sliding their mouths together. Riku grunts, and thinks about pulling away, but mostly his body just reacts of its own accord, pressing closer and smoothing his lips against Sora's, yielding easily to the tongue tip that demands for an in, teeth that scrape cruelly over his bottom lip.
God, did he say he wanted to—wanted this? He had absolutely no fucking idea how much.
"You don't make any sense at all," Sora says, panting against Riku's mouth, fast and ragged. "You know what I think, Riku? I think you're just scared."
"You don't know what you're asking of me," Riku says, running his fingers distractedly through Sora's hair, palming the warm scalp, the curve of his skull. "Really, you don't--"
"Yes, I do," Sora says, shaking his head stubbornly. "I'm asking you to be happy. I'm asking my best friend to please let me make him happy, and to stop acting like him moving across the strait is the most terrible thing in the world when we have gone to the freaking end of the world to find each other."
"I--" Riku begins, but is cut off when Sora leans in and kisses him again, the taste of his mouth sweet and now achingly familiar. More than this night, more than the rush of riding the wave of the crowd, Riku knows with a bone-deep certainty that this is what he will remember the most. Even as he's thinking that, he's tipping himself into the kiss, running his hands over Sora's neck, dipping into the back of his loose T-shirt and finding the flesh there damp and burning up, electricity humming beneath the surface of the skin.
They pull away, briefly, and Riku takes the opportunity to slide his thumb along the wet curve of Sora's mouth, making him moan into it, grip Riku's shirt and hiss. Sora retaliates by raking his fingers down the front of Riku's pants, making his breath snag painfully in his throat. Just where did he learn to do that? Riku makes a mental note to make it his first official act as a mainlander to track down the identity of Sora's house party drunken paramour and beat his face in—then maybe give the guy his heartfelt thanks.
He's kissing Sora's face, his neck, his eyes, anything and everything he can reach with his lips, nipping lightly at the edge of Sora's chin. "You're getting glitter in your mouth," Sora says somewhere near his left earlobe, laughter threading playfully under the words.
"Don't care," Riku mutters against Sora's skin, tangling his fingers into the sweaty hair at his nape and pulling him in closer—like all of a sudden he can't get close enough, and maybe it's true. "This way you won't have to wash your face when you get home."
"Gross," says Sora, and they both dissolve into laughter. Easy as easy. In this moment, everything seems like it should be just that—easy. Everything makes sense.
Dimly, Riku becomes aware that the band has started playing again on the other side of the Square, some slow, bashful tune where the notes linger in the air and pluck indiscriminately at guitar strings and heartstrings. Sora wraps his arms around Riku's shoulders and pushes his face into Riku's neck, swaying softly against his body. Riku feels his eyes sliding shut, the skin of his face tickled by strands of spiky hair. Not for the first time, he gives his weight over to Sora entirely. Sora, who only wants him to be happy.
It's not enough, Riku knows, just as it's never enough simply to say you want to balance darkness and light. Some days, there's no bottom to the night, no end to the deep plunge, and he can only hope that, on those days, the memory of happiness bubbling up his throat at this moment will manage to hold off the emptiness, scars of old grief, even as he falls soundlessly towards it.
But how does the song go? The only baggage you can bring is all that you can't leave behind. Sooner or later, they all have to walk on, and maybe after all this time, he's just now starting to learn that it doesn't always have to be hard, doesn't have to be completely horrible.
-x- -x- -x-
U2 - Walk On
And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring
And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind.
And if the darkness is to keep us apart
And if the daylight feels like it's a long way off
And if your glass heart should crack
And for a second you turn back
Oh no, be strong.
Walk on, walk on
What you got, they can't steal it
No they can't even feel it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight.
You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen
You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly for freedom.
Walk on, walk on
What you got they can't deny it
Can't sell it or buy it
Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight.
And I know it aches
And your heart it breaks
And you can only take so much
Walk on, walk on.
Home, hard to know what it is if you never had one
Home, I can't say where it is but I know I'm going home
That's where the heart is
I know it aches
How your heart it breaks
And you can only take so much
Walk on, walk on.
Leave it behind
You've got to leave it behind
All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you feel
All this you can leave behind
All that you reason
All that you sense
All that you scheme
All you dress up
And all that you seem...