Roxas, more so than anyone else, remembered everything.
First, he remembered the turquoise glint of the sea and the sway of his father's red and white fishing boat bobbing along atop it. The words 'Our Lady White' flaked away black paint along either side of the stern, and his father said he'd named it for his mother. She had died, he said, in some accident when Roxas was a baby; she was in heaven now, resting until it was time for rebirth. He said that Roxas might meet her again someday, though neither of them would remember--but, he said, when two hearts have known love, they never fully forget.
Nocturne sat upon a peninsula that curved out into the waves, and the little boat would carry them out into the bay in the early mornings. His father would cast out his nets and tell stories until the fog dissipated under the sunrise, and Roxas would listen while lowering the crawley traps hand over hand, careful not to lose hold of the ropes.
When the sun rose and the fog burned away, he could look across the bay to the green of the far shore and see the speckled shadows of the ruins of Alta. The angled sunlight drew the crumbling towers in color, sand and silver and charred black, walls a quarry of rocks that trailed down into the sea.
His father would tell him that once Alta was the grandest city in the West, a gem upon the seaside, the kind of city that young boys would dream of leaving their plain hometowns to visit. The sort of place that spawned romance and adventure. It was beautiful and flourishing, tended dutifully by the House of Twilight and their lavish court. Some of the stories he told, Roxas thought he must have made up, or maybe someone else had told him once, when he was a boy on a fishing boat, too, because the city had always been in ruins.
Sometimes at night, when the floodlights were lit outside the walls of Nocturne and on the perimeter around the little village where the fishermen lived, bright and reflecting white on the waves, there were flickers of flames among the ruins, visible only in the dark. His father called it a bad omen; he would bar the door on those nights, lock all the shutters, douse the lights and build a blanket fort in the living room. They would stay up late with storybooks and a torchlight. His father would get a cup of water and make the fluid dance up into the air, forming into words and shapes, and Roxas would laugh and clap and demand he make the ocean with the fish jumping out. He always did, but not until Roxas asked.
They would sleep through the morning instead of fishing.
He asked his father one day, when he kept drawing his nets back empty, why he didn't command the water to spit all the fish into their boat. His father smiled, and laughed a little, and said that it would be cheating. Said that working hard and doing the right thing was more important than fancy magic.
Roxas was five years old when he last saw his father.
There were loud noises outside, in the village, and they disturbed his dreams but he didn't fully wake until his father was gathering him up and carrying him downstairs, blanket and teddy bear still clutched in his arms.
"We're going to play a game, Roxas," his father said, soothing one hand over his hair because the noises outside were getting louder. "It's like hide and seek."
The mana rifle that his father usually kept locked away in a metal box in his bedroom closet was propped against the wall in the living room. When he set Roxas down on the floor, tucking the blanket around him and smiling to assure him that everything was okay, Roxas saw that there was a knife on his belt, the one with the crest of the House of Twilight on the hilt.
"To win the game," his father explained, "you have to hide in the closet and be as quiet as you can, for as long as you can. Okay?"
Roxas nodded, though he thought it was a dull game and it was a strange time to be playing, in the middle of the night with all that noise outside, but his father looked happy when he agreed. Told him he was a good boy.
The closet his father opened was strange--Roxas had thought it was full of coats or something, though he'd never looked inside it before--but now he saw that the inside walls were all metal and the door had strange tech devices on it. His father urged him inside, with his blanket and bear, and knelt to take his face in his hands.
"You understand the game?" Roxas nodded vigorously, stared up at his father's smile and wondered why his eyes looked sad and watery. "Remember to stay quiet, okay? Try to sleep if you can. It'll be morning before you know it."
He nodded some more and wanted to ask where his father was going. If he was going to hide somewhere and be quiet, too. He was tired, though, and those noises were really loud now. His father kissed the top of his head, and told him not to be afraid.
The door closed with a hiss and for a moment afterward it was so dark he wanted to cry out. He remembered the game, though, and hugged his bear tighter instead, and then a small green light turned on somewhere overhead. It was dim, but it was better than the dark.
His father said it would be morning soon, but the night seemed to stretch on forever. He couldn't sleep, because he could still hear the noises from the village, and sometimes the ground would shake so hard the light would flicker and Roxas felt like he was bouncing on the floor.
Worse than that was when the noises stopped. There was so much silence, and it was so long and heavy Roxas thought it might crush him if it continued. He wanted to yell, then, ask when the game was supposed to be over, but he thought his father would have told him. He thought his father must be coming to get him when it was over, and if he'd been good and quiet maybe he would get a sweet from the bakery.
So he didn't make a sound, even when the black, searching fingers squeezed underneath the door.
His father had told him about the Shadows. They slithered into the world through the crack in the sky and the people had to make rings of light around their towns to keep them away. His father showed him pictures in some of the storybooks, where a hero with a weapon of light would carve through them and rescue the townspeople from their searching claws and glowing yellow eyes.
The black fingers wiggled, and pawed at the metal, and Roxas thought that his father had always said the Shadows couldn't get him, in their house. That the lights kept them all safely away from the village.
He didn't like this game anymore.
There was a torchlight in the corner, and he turned it on and aimed it at the crack under the door and the fingers disappeared. He slept like that, feverishly, propped against the wall with the blanket wrapped around him, bear in one arm and the other hand holding the light steady. Light to drive the darkness away.
When he woke up, the torchlight had run out of power, but there was a strip of light shining under the door. It was morning. That had to mean that the game was over.
He called for his father to let him out. He said he'd been good and stayed quiet. Said he was hungry and his legs hurt from sitting on the metal floor and he didn't want to play anymore. He called and he called, but the door never opened. He beat his hands on the metal surface, kicked at it with the balls of his bare feet, struck it with the dead torchlight, but the door never opened.
Roxas sat back down, finally, and hugged his bear, and cried.
"Hey," a voice said. "Hey, is there someone in there? Can you hear me?"
The voice wasn't his father. It was too young, and danced around brightly like music or a leaping fire. Roxas tried to scrub the tears away from his face and stood up, banging on the metal with one fist. "Lemme out!"
"Okay, listen." The voice was very close, and he could see a shadow passing in front of the light under the door. "You have to get as far back from the door as you can and cover your face. Got it?"
Roxas was tired of doing what he was told, and this wasn't a fun game, either. But the voice was going to let him out, so he said, "Okay," and shuffled back into the corner and pulled the blanket over his head.
There was a strange, grating sound and sparks shot through the door on one side. Metal creaked and Roxas sank down further in the corner, curled around his bear and wrapped both arms over his head. The noise stopped after a few minutes, and then there was a jerk and a creak and the sunlight spread over his toes.
The voice belonged to a boy. An older boy, maybe six or seven, in clothes that were a size or two too big for him, and he had a brilliant smile and messy, spiky hair the color of ripe red pinellos, and a smoking firewedge clutched in one fist. "Hi," he said, still shoving the door open and Roxas didn't remember all that debris being in the living room, or the sun shining that brightly from overhead when they had a perfectly good roof to block out the elements. He stayed in his corner and hugged the bear tighter.
The boy stopped pushing the door when it wouldn't budge any further and dusted his hands off on his pants like he had intended it to only open that far, then crouched in the doorway and peered at him. "You hurt?"
Roxas shook his head.
"Good." He smiled again, like this all really was a fun game. "Wanna come with me?"
"Where's my dad?"
The boy pursed his mouth thoughtfully, shrugged. "I dunno. We came from the temple. You know, in the city."
Roxas knew about the temple in Nocturne; it was broken and ruined sort of like the city across the bay. The temple was where the orphans lived. Roxas wasn't an orphan.
"Hey, tell you something. If you come with me, your dad'll know for sure where to find you." The boy smiled eagerly, reached out a hand to take his, waiting. "All the kids go to the temple after there's a war."
"There was... a war?"
The boy nodded. "Yeah. There were mana bombs and everything, must've been scary, huh?" He edged a bit closer. "The floodlight perimeter broke down, too. It's not safe here anymore." His hand reached again, waving for him to come along. "Hey, it's okay. I'm Axel, what's your name?"
He was going to answer, but heard a noise somewhere past Axel that sounded like running feet, and then a shadow fell across them both. "Oh, you found one, huh?" Another boy, this one much older--maybe ten or eleven. He towered over them both and made a face at Roxas, cowering in the corner with a stuffed bear as he was. The boy made a snorting noise and rolled his eyes, reaching over Axel's head. "Jeez, what a wuss. Just grab him."
"NO!" Axel jumped up faster than Roxas had ever seen anyone move, shoving the older boy roughly in the stomach with both hands. "I found him, I'll take care of him!"
The older boy stumbled backwards into the door, surprised for a moment before straightening and shrugging like he hadn't just been shoved around by a kid four years younger than him and four inches smaller, at least. "Whatever. Just gimme the firewedge, there's another shelter down by the beach."
Axel handed the device over, mumbling something halfhearted about it still being hot, and stared at the older boy with a scowl until he walked off with another scoff. Continued staring even after Roxas couldn't see him anymore and only turned back to the little metal room when he was satisfied the other boy was gone. Axel smiled again, then, and shrugged. "Forget that guy, he's a jerk. So, you want to come with me, right?"
Roxas wasn't sure. The boy said that the lights were broken, and that meant the Shadows could get into the village. He certainly couldn't stay! But his father would be looking for him now, right? Because the game had to be over, it was morning and the noises had stopped. What if his father was out here looking for him and nighttime came? What if he was supposed to stay here? But he couldn't stay until dark! Roxas chewed on his lower lip, hugging the bear and wishing his father had explained the rules a little better.
Axel was crouched in the doorway again, hands on his knees, watching Roxas intently and waiting.
"You're sure he'll come look for me at the temple?"
A nod, and a brilliant smile, white teeth like a crescent moon. "Positive."
This time, when Axel reached out his hand, Roxas took it and wrapped his fingers tight around it, and stood up.
Outside the little metal room and beyond the door the world was strange and broken. Roxas was almost certain that the room had transported him somewhere else, a place with smoking ruins of houses and piles of rubble and gray ash craters that spread across the ground. At the docks the boats were overturned or blackened or simply gone, a few planks and splinters the only sign left of their possible existence, the dock itself jagged spikes of wood pointing out of the ragged waves. Roxas tilted his head back as far as he could but the sky was clear and blue in every direction, the sun slowly climbing in the east and highlighting the crack like a white-streaked rainbow.
Roxas didn't think the day had any business being so nice.
Axel found a safe path through the debris for Roxas and his bare feet, wrapped in his blanket and clutching his bear, and when the safe paths ended Axel carried him piggyback over the splintering boards or scattered glass until they reached bare dirt or cobbles again.
Once, as they were turning past the charred corner of a building that still had one lonely wall standing, Roxas saw a pair of boots on the ground. Axel hissed and tugged him against his side, hand clapping down over Roxas's eyes. "Don't look. We're almost there."
And after a few more paces, when Axel dropped his hand again and Roxas almost looked over his shoulder but didn't, he heard someone humming a song. They were on the outskirts of the village now, in the grass where the floodlights stood on poles only the poles had fallen or were tilted against each other, wires dangling limp and the lamps they were holding shattered, just a bit of jagged glass showing where the bulbs had been. There was one space where the poles were still upright, though, just two of them, and in the grass there a woman was sitting with a basket of fruit and flowers, dressed in pink and green and her curling brown hair tied back in a tail. A little girl much younger than Roxas was in her arms as she rocked back and forth like the waves swaying a boat on the open sea, humming a soothing tune.
Axel bounced on his heels and hurried forward, one hand up and waving now, grin bright on his face. "Aerith! Look, I found someone!"
Roxas thought, in the moment that the woman looked up at them and smiled, one hand raising to wave them over like welcoming them into an embrace, that she was beautiful, and he wondered if his mother had looked that beautiful and kind, too.
He hoped she did.
Axel let go of his hand and tumbled into the grass, all limbs and red hair and too-big clothing. Roxas followed more demurely, settling down with the blanket on his shoulders, bare feet tucked under him. The woman pulled a small, round whitefruit out of her basket and offered it to him, still smiling. "What's your name?"
"Roxas," he said, still looking at her and not the fruit between his fingers at all.
She was like the ocean, he thought. All water and waves, slow moving, gentle rocking, the soothing stretch and pull of breakers rolling over the beach. "It's lovely to meet you, Roxas. My name is Aerith."
"She looks after us," Axel interjected, nodding in a way that assured Roxas he knew what he was talking about. He bounced on his knees in the grass and leaned forward to gain the woman's approval. "I found him in a shelter and got him out all by myself."
"That's very good, Axel," she assured him, and the way he grinned could have powered a floodlight perimeter all on its own. In her lap the little girl had turned to observe the newcomers, tear-streaked face just visible from amongst the folds of Aerith's dress, one small fist clutching the fabric tight. She stared at Roxas with wide, watery eyes for a long moment, then her attention dropped to the bear in his arms.
"Can I have a whitefruit?" Axel asked, still bouncing and hope made his face go round and open.
Aerith shook her head, and the purse of her lips was kind but firm. "You've already had three."
"There will be other children, and they're going to be hungry. You're a big boy now and you can wait."
Axel slouched a bit, excitement deflating for the moment, and sprawled out on his stomach to pick at the grass. Roxas took a bite of his fruit and his stomach growled, and he took three more before he noticed the little girl staring again.
He thought about his father and the gun and the knife, and the noises and shaking and where he might be now, and wondered if something very important had happened last night. A war, like Axel had said. He thought, and he wondered if his father had known they would be separated, and remembered that the last thing he'd told him was not to be afraid.
Roxas picked up the bear from his lap, and held it out to the little girl. She blinked at him a few times, eyes huge, then cautiously reached out both hands to take it. When the bear was securely in her arms, Aerith hummed in approval. "That was very kind of him, wasn't it, Olette? Can you say thank you?"
The girl murmured something muffled into the bear's cottony head that sounded like it might have been 'thank you'. Roxas mumbled something that sounded like, "You're welcome," at his knees, because he figured that was what his mother would have wanted him to say, and Aerith probably did, too.
It felt so strange, sitting here on the outskirts of what used to be his home, shivering under his blanket in the dew-covered grass and learning to be polite from a woman he just met, who wasn't his mother but might have been a reflection of her, like the watery visage he used to see when he looked over the side of his father's boat into the ocean. It was strange, but turned like this with his back to the village, maybe he could pretend he was with a caretaker his father had hired to mind him for the day while he went out into rougher seas to fish. Such things happened from time to time, and whenever it did Roxas felt small and sad and sat somewhere by himself with a storybook instead of playing with the other children. His father always told him that he should try to make friends at times like these, but he didn't like to play their rough games and if he tried telling them stories, like the ones his father told, they thought he was strange or boring and left to do something else.
Now, though, he didn't know how long it would be until his father came back, and Roxas didn't want to sit alone in a corner until he did. So when he took another bite, he noticed Axel fidgeting again, shifting on his elbows and eying Aerith's basket, and Roxas watched him thoughtfully before holding out his half-eaten whitefruit.
"I'll share," he said softly, then made his voice stronger because his father had said not to be afraid. "If you'll be my friend."
"Roxas." Aerith's voice was soft but admonishing. "You mustn't bargain for friendship."
"That's okay," Axel said brightly, and that tone was back in his voice--leaping and dancing like fire. He pushed the fruit back towards Roxas, rejecting it but smiling just the same. "I'll be your friend, anyway."