On Words Never Spoken

XXX

XXX

Looking back even to their most distant past, neither Riku nor Sora could remember not knowing intimately the smell of the ocean, the sight of it - couldn't imagine not knowing its peace, turmoil, threat, contradiction. They'd never known any world but one where the ocean kissed the sky on the distant horizon. Their lives were constant, steady - they had always known the ocean, and had always known each other. Almost since birth, they had been Riku-and-Sora; merged, one mind behind two faces.

Sora's first word had been "Riku," stuttered over toothless child-lips with what promised to be a winning smile, someday, and Riku himself mirrored the expression. It never occurred to either of them that things should have been any different.

While Sora was crib-bound, Riku crawled determinedly to him - when Sora could crawl, Riku waddled with him as the ocean licked over his friend's dimpled hands and knees. They wandered across the beach like that, together, until a mother called them back - it didn't matter whose; they called for Riku-and-Sora, not one or the other, and that was the way it should have been.

Love, then, meant Riku's hand holding Sora's as the younger learned to walk. Love meant sharing everything. Love meant Riku-and-Sora, falling asleep together on the beach.

XXX

"Hey, Riku, you missed breakfast this morning," Sora noted as he trotted over to Riku from the street, horizon-blue eyes deep and wondering. "You should have been there. Mom made pancakes." He didn't say "my mother." The two boys shared everything.

Riku made another slash through the air with his new wooden sword - the nails went in at crooked angles that left the heads bent, digging in to the wood awkwardly. But that was alright, and Sora hardly noticed because his own looked much worse. They worked, in any case.

"Sorry," Riku returned, only glancing at Sora quickly, out of the corner of his eye, "I slept late - and then I came out to the beach right away. I wanted to try out our new swords." Riku's awkward movements, built by six years of swimming and inelegant running, seemed to Sora immeasurably graceful. He could only aspire to such skill.

The beach swept around them, white and glistening, and the sun beat down on the two boys - one sea-browned and the other a pale, perfect white. Their houses lay not far down the lane - they were still too young to be let alone for long

"Getting in extra practice isn't going to help you - I'm going to be better than you anyway," Sora teased, crossing his arms like he'd seen the schoolyard boys do and shifting a little on top of the sand. Island children mastered the art of sand-walking fairly early, and it was an art.

"No way, a baby like you can't be as good at swords as me." Riku smiled in a way that shadowed an arrogant smirk - but that expression hadn't been born yet. Even if it had, Sora wouldn't have known what it meant.

The brunette frowned. He wasn't a baby; he had an instinct that he might have to prove it, though. He picked up his sword carefully -"SORA" was scrawled in scratchy blue permanent marker (it had been the only one they could find) along the side - and brought it in front of him, the way they did in the movies.

"You can't call me a baby if I beat you!" Sora declared - whined - and gave his friend a grin that was maybe a little bit like a pout, holding his hands too close together on the hilt.

"You won't beat me." Riku's smile set them apart and together - but Sora's smile had only one meaning.

Love, then, was waffles or pancakes with watermelon honey and margarine (Eww, Riku! Gross!) on Saturday mornings. Love was sand in their shoes and the decision to go barefoot. Love was blue-marker "SORA" clashing against blue-marker "RIKU" and the wood splintering across the beach.

They loved each other. They didn't know how to do anything else, didn't want to. They didn't even realize what they were doing.

XXX

Sora had always been the more physically affectionate of the two - hugging and tackling and giving his love away exuberantly, more than enough for the two of them. So, when he mashed his lips on Riku's cheek one day in what was probably intended to be a long kiss, the elder shouldn't have been surprised.

He was anyway. He stared up at the other with wide tidal-pool eyes. Their play-cave hung cool and dark around them.

"What was that?" Riku asked, freezing in place though their wrestling match wasn't really over and he was pinned to the ground. Usually he couldn't stand to lose - that didn't even occur to him this time.

"That was a kiss, stupid," Sora informed him slowly with a mischievous grin. "Grownups do it all the time when they like someone."

"Well yeah," the elder responded, sitting up and pushing his friend a little bit until the brunette got the hint and got off. "Grownups like our parents. Mom and Dad are the only ones who kiss each other."

"I've seen other people doing it too!" the brunette pouted, looking a little bit disappointed. Riku felt a certain regret nibbling at his stomach, though he didn't know why. "I just thought it would be nice. Besides, I like you at least as much as Mom likes Dad. Don't you like me that much too?" Sora asked.

Something hit Riku then like a wall - he bit his lip and murmured; "At least."

He leaned over to Sora then, and kissed the younger boy on the lips, inexplicably relieved that the other boy didn't seem to mind. They stayed like that for a moment - mouths meeting, warm and chaste, each feeling the heat from the other's body like they never had before. When they pulled apart, they stared at the ground and smiled, not sure why they couldn't meet each other's eyes.

A quiet silence fell between them for a moment - but Sora broke in, as always.

"I think we should draw something on the wall. Y'know, something about our adventures," he burst out, and the elder laughed, the sound free and unrestrained.

"Alright, fine. Let's draw you being beaten by me," Riku teased, picking up a piece of rock from the ground and making towards the wall.

"No, Riku-u! I beat you last time! We should show me beating you!"

In the end, they decided that neither would be winning, and it was best that way anyway. They scratched the drawing away, commemorating that moment together - their first kiss, though neither understood the significance.

Because love, then, meant trying something new. It meant their own, unbreakable pact that the grown up world wouldn't understand and didn't need to. Love meant chalk-rock pictures in a cool cave, with sun laughing in through the tunnel.

They wished they didn't have to leave.

XXX

Like sea and sky in the open ocean, they couldn't pull apart if they tried. Nine, ten years old, maybe - they dreamed about adventure, wished for another world. They wanted to leave the land behind and live - really live - on the open water. They would be able to, someday, they told themselves (they knew it was silly but they just couldn't help but think) - they would find their other world.

But another world came to them.

"Um, Riku…" Sora's eyes glanced over a tiny pink form on their beach, their island - and he saw, for the first time, a frown (a particular frown) on Riku's face, with which the brunette would become terribly familiar. "There's somebody on our beach," the younger declared, to fill the silence - their first awkward silence. They tried not to make a habit of it.

Maybe Riku's first words should have been "Who is she?" - but instead he growled: "What is she doing here?" Sora didn't like the tone of his voice but didn't say so.

They'd never seen her before. She had red hair, though, and she was all wet - a foreigner, then. An adventure waiting to happen.

"Maybe she's from another world," the brunette suggested, watching her sleeping (if he had been older, he would have known she was unconscious) form on the sand. He knew Riku heard him, because the elder's face went blank, and then this light came on in his eyes - his sea-eyes, storm-eyes, adventure eyes. Sora wanted to be, had to be a part of that.

He'd never had to try to be a part of Riku before.

He took off at a jog toward her body, and Riku followed at the same pace. Neither if them wondered if they even needed that third - never wondered if the sea and sky needed the land. They didn't think to ask - land had never been a part of their equation.

"I'll take her to my house," Sora offered as Riku picked her up, head lolling to the side as if her neck had been broken. "Mom will take good care of her until we can find her family."

The light in Riku's eyes went out then, and Sora couldn't for the life of him figure out why.

But Riku had realized what his best friend had not - for the first time, they had found a thing that they could not share. For the first time, he realized that such a thing was possible.

Earth and sky can meet, but the ocean can only lap tentatively around the edges.

In that moment, loving each other stopped being pure, being simple, being alright - and Riku knew it. Suddenly, they weren't Riku-and-Sora. They would have an extra. The realization struck that someday, the extra would split off (two and one) with one of them - and it might not be this foreigner, the girl, who would be left alone.

That's what happened when girls started coming in to your world - and Riku didn't want to be the one left out.

"Yeah… yeah, that would be fine," Riku agreed, voice hoarser than it should have been. "Your mom will take good care of her."

Sora didn't realize what was wrong until that evening, when he was huddled in a blanked by the girl's pallet. In one, crystal moment, he knew that it wasn't right because for the first time, Riku had said "your mother."

He didn't pay the moment much attention after that, and soon forgot it. Riku didn't, not then. Later he would have more important things to dwell on.

XXX

Finding creative ways to escape from their houses ridiculously early in the morning always had been the primary challenge for the two boys - except on Saturdays, their pancake-days, they always raced to the play island on summer mornings. The day after collecting the new girl was no exception - they met at the play-island dock, as usual, this time with fishing gear in hand.

"Her name is Kairi," Sora blurted out happily like a greeting, and Riku could feel his face twist to a scowl. He didn't want to hear about the girl right now.

"Great," the elder responded, not even bothering to pretend enthusiasm. "So did you come ready to fish or are you going to sit around jabbering while I catch all the good ones?" On another day, that question might have been completely friendly - but his unfounded irritation got the better of him, like it often did. It never had with Sora before, though - but the younger didn't notice this sudden change. He'd started bringing his worn tackle boxes up out of his gently waving boat, and wasn't watching his friend.

"I'm going to fish, of course. I brought a bunch of bait, too, but you can't have any unless you ask nicely," Sora laughed, displaying half of a sawed soda can full of dirt and worms.

"I have my own, thanks."

"I know where to find the best ones, though!" the brunette returned, buoyant eyes puppy-wide. "C'mon, you know you want them." He shook the can a little, and the elder noticed that those sun-brown fingers still had dirt on them from digging the worms up. Something about that was so right, so normal, so Sora that a certain weight (he hadn't even known he'd been wearing one) lifted off of Riku's shoulders.

"Alright, may I please share the fruits of your dirt-digging expertise?" he asked, giving the younger a grin.

"Of course you may," Sora chirped brightly. "So are we fishing here on the dock or on the boat?"

"You got sick last time we went fishing on the boat," Riku pointed out as he took a worm from the soda can. "So I vote we stay here for now. What do you say?"

"I did not get sick. I was just a little uncomfortable with the storm, is all."

"Aww, is the baby afraid of a little rain?" he fake-cooed, impaling the worm on his fishing hook, then doing it again, and a third time.

"I'm not a baby and I'm not afraid of the rain," Sora pouted, sitting down on the edge of the dock with his own pole and worm. "I'm not stupid, though, either."

"What, so I am? I don't think so. You were violently seasick." The brunette had been, of course - he'd been hanging off the side of the boat over the ocean like he was offering his guts as a sacrifice. Riku had pretended not to be worried as he paddled home frantically through the cutting waves.

"Only a little." Sora's face had lost its pout by now, and he was laughing again - the elder preferred this expression. He sat down cross-legged next to his friend, before casting his line into the blue. Sora's feet dangled off the side and into the ocean, though only his hemp ankle-bracelet (I wonder where my matching one is?) could be seen above the water.

They sat like that for a moment, comfortable, before Sora broke the silence again.

"Do you think we could invite Kairi here tomorrow?" he asked, voice happy but distant. Riku froze and clenched his teeth together - that hadn't been the question he'd been expecting. He counted to five - one two, (screw it) - before responding.

"Invite Kairi?" he asked, trying not to sound sad or disappointed or anything because he wasn't but he could see how it might sound that way.

"Yeah. I mean, she's new here, so she doesn't have any friends or anything. She'll be alone all the time. So I just thought…" He drifted off, and turned his innocent, pleading gaze on his best friend. "I just thought it would be nice, you know?"

The elder's throat clenched, remembering the last time he had heard those words.

He could do this. For Sora. Just the once.

"Yeah… Yeah, that would be fine," Riku agreed, hoping Sora didn't notice the tightness in his voice.

This time, loving Sora meant pretending he didn't hate her.

XXX

Once turned into twice, and three times, four times, ten times, and then they lost count. Sora started leaving their play fights to go talk to Kairi, sometimes - not that often, but often enough. In those times, Riku liked to sit on the edge of the smaller island, glowering at the two children (aren't they perfect together - even the boy's thoughts had a sarcastic drawl) and hoping Sora got the message.

Their play island wasn't large enough that he couldn't hear what they were saying - talking about school or people or one thing and another. He tried not to listen - he didn't want to think of her as anything but an usurper, the enemy.

Something changed days later, the first time he heard them laughing together - really laughing. He realized that with every moment they spent apart Sora was breaking off from him (they'd be Sora-and-Kairi soon) and it occurred to him that he wasn't even trying to stop it. He listened to them for another moment - another second, ten - and watched the clouds fade across the sky from his bed on the paopu tree, before making his decision.

He stood up all in one motion, and jumped into the abyss, not sure if he would land on his feet or stumble.

He wasn't a coward ("What, Riku, are you afraid?") so he turned around and walked towards them, and his smile had morphed into a smirk but it wasn't an unfriendly one. (Not yet.) Sora turned to see - and that look of happiness (it was that smile he missed), of gratitude, made everything worth it.

"What are you two laughing about over here?" he asked, pretending like he wasn't jealous. "I kinda feel like I want to hear any joke that's so funny."

Then Kairi smiled, watching, and her soft eyes welcomed him - she had a little impertinent smile that he could appreciate.

"I don't think we've been properly introduced," she said, and she was right - their introductions before had been halfhearted, at best. (Had he even met her eyes?)

"I guess not. I'm Riku," he informed her, extending a hand a bit awkwardly - they weren't old enough to shake hands as a greeting, and he realized how ridiculous it was when she took it with a little laugh.

"Kairi," she responded, and Sora beamed over the handshake like a priest at a wedding. "Nice to meet you."

"Same." A pause - they let go of each other. "Now, what was that joke?"

Sora fairly fell over himself to start explaining, but Riku only half-heard it, laughing when appropriate. His mind wandered a little, gaze flicking from Kairi to Sora and back - and he thought for a moment that they were sitting a reasonable distance apart, like friends. Just friends. Maybe she wouldn't split them apart, after all.

For a moment, Riku let himself hope.

XXX

School in the fall felt that much worse after such a liberating summer - and worse than it would have been even then because the three of them had been split for classes. Riku being a year ahead meant that he moved up to the sixth grade middle school before the other two.

It didn't take him long to be resentful of what Sora and Kairi had - the way they stood a little bit closer to each other every so often, and Riku would draw away, walking off to the side with his hands crossed behind his head.

It wasn't so bad, though, because he and Sora could spar together, and she didn't. Their swords were stronger now, better put together, but the principle was the same as it had been when they had been five and stumbling around in the surf. Some things hadn't changed - they could still laugh at each other, hide around the island with squirt guns and make guerilla attacks on the other.

They still snuck out to the play island together, just the two of them, and sparred until neither of them could breathe.

They hadn't kissed since they were eight and nine, when they gradually came to understand what it was that they had been doing and that it wasn't normal, wasn't okay. But, in those moments after fighting, when they were both panting on the ground and drenched with sweat, Riku realized with a cold rush of adrenaline that he still very much wanted to repeat the experience.

He had never realized that sometimes, love could mean watching from a distance. He'd never had to before.

Some days, he wished Kairi had never come.

XXX

Others, he found her wonderful - one weekend she took it upon herself to learn to cook, and they were there through her first attempts. Her kitchen glowed warm with firelight, because their stove was broken and she thought it would be fun to cook over an open fire, anyway.

"This," Riku proclaimed, countenance stately, "is disgusting." While not perfectly accurate, it was close enough - the glob of what she had called stew congealed somewhat around the edges of his bowl, though the taste was quite adequate. (He wasn't about to say so, no matter how much he liked her.)

"Hey!" she returned, a little bit petulant even though she wasn't quite serious. She'd learned enough not to let his dismissive attitude bother her by now. "I'd like to see your attempt. Where's your soup? The last time you tried to make pancakes -"

"We're not talking about this," Riku muttered, and Sora gave a laugh beside him.

"Oh, come on, Ri. You're embarrassed, aren't you?" the brunette teased while Riku pretended to glare at his soup. "In any case, Kairi, your first cooking attempt actually tastes pretty decent."

"If you like poison," the eldest muttered, though the laugh in his eye made his words alright. He swirled his spoon through the soup experimentally, just to prove a point. The mass moved like algae in the ceramic dishware.

"At least it doesn't taste like whale oil," Kairi shot back, hands on her hips - though she had forgotten to set down the ladle. It flung drops (globs) of her stew onto the floor, and she didn't seem to notice.

"Well, better whale oil than -"

Suddenly, Riku was taken in the face by a glob of the muddy mass, and he could barely wipe his eyes in time to see Sora grinning impishly before Kairi followed her friend's lead and landed a much less accurate catapult onto the brunette's shoulder.

There was a moment of silence. (He just threw stew at you. What, are you going to sit around and wait for him to do it again?)

"Alright, that's it, free for all!" Riku growled, and grabbed his bowl even as the others scrambled for their own and began to take cover under tables, behind chairs, behind the cabinet.

An hour or so later, Kairi's family kitchen had been quite thoroughly wrecked, and three exhausted but exhilarated preteen children sat proudly in the middle of their tempest's leavings.

Looking back, that had been perhaps their only perfect moment - in any case, the only one he remembered. After they cleaned up, they had gone to the beach together, and fallen asleep on the sand, hands locked in each other's comfortably.

Riku lay, still, on his back - he held his breath, committing every perfect detail to memory; everything. The warmth of Sora's hand in his, the smell of brine and old wood, memorizing how each full breath grew and mingled together with the others.

Love, then, meant three together - the smell of the ocean, an impish smile, and the rhythm of their breathing.

That moment occupied all of his thoughts. He wouldn't think about any tomorrows.

XXX

Growing older brought with it this instinctive sense that Kairi was somehow meant to be Sora's girlfriend, his - he'd almost said other half, but the brunette knew that wasn't right. Riku was his other half - but sometimes it took a moment to remember that. Sometimes he missed the old days a bit, missed Riku the way they had been together - but not too much. Not overwhelmingly. Kairi was wonderful too - and the three of them together; well, nothing could be better.

But Kairi was going to be his girlfriend some day, he knew it - so when she asked to go out to the island with him, alone, he didn't even think twice before accepting. The play-island belonged to all three of them, now.

They tied their boats up to the dock quietly, Sora's expert seaman's knot languishing by Kairi's awkward one on the wooden pier. They stood and looked at each other for a moment, her girl-child's smile warming him comfortably.

"So, were we going to build some sandcastles or what?" Sora asked, buoyant. The sun hadn't quite hit midday yet - a modest, temperate Sunday afternoon.

"No, actually…" Kairi began, hands clasped coyly behind her back, "I was kind of hoping you'd show me that place that you and Riku disappear off to every so often. You know, that cave by the waterfall?" Her smile was so sweet and inviting that it took Sora longer than it should have to realize that he ought to be feeling a certain misgiving by that point. That place, at least, belonged to Riku-and-Sora. Everything they had done together was chronicled on the walls in white rock-chalk, inscribed memories of a past time.

He wasn't quite sure yet if they were ready to share - if Riku was ready to share. Sometimes, the brunette caught his friend watching Kairi with a distant coldness that made the younger shiver.

"The cave?" He paused, watching her for a moment. "I'm not so sure… I don't think Riku would."

"Oh," Kairi responded. Her expression grew dull, and Sora could feel that knowledge tapping at his heart. "If you don't want to share that with me, I guess that's okay too."

"No, that's not it at all," he responded before realizing that her words described the situation perfectly. He forced his doubts to the side determinedly, taking her hand and setting off at a jog before he had a chance to change his mind. "Come on, let's go."

They couldn't be Riku-and-Sora forever. Kairi changed all that.

XXX

When Riku realized that Sora's boat had disappeared from the mainland dock, his natural curiosity - not suspicion - got the better of him, as it often did. It never even occurred to him that he might not want to follow.

The boat shifted violently on the water as he cut through the waves, but his eyes didn't waver from the play-island despite the chaos. A feeling, a knowledge, had clenched in his gut and wouldn't let go.

The island was empty when he arrived, wind echoing across the expanse of mirror-bright sand and rustling through the trees like a promise. Riku arrowed towards the cave, picking up his wooden sword along the way - maybe Sora would want to swordfight.

When he heard voices at the mouth of the cave, he found himself disturbingly unsurprised.

"So this is from the day when you got your first boats?" a bright, feminine voice asked, and Riku clenched his fist around the wooden sword hard enough that it strained under his grip.

"Yeah. And this is the day when I tried to eat a mushroom from behind this rock on the back side of the island and got sick. And this one -" Riku pictured every chalk drawing in his mind as Sora's voice went through them. "- this one was the day I first beat Riku at the race."

"I didn't realize you'd ever won," Kairi's voice teased, and he could hear the brunette splutter in indignation.

"Of course I have. Once," he added, voice meek, and Kairi laughed. "Hey! That's why it got its own picture. It was a special event."

"Do you have one for the day I came?" she asked.

That's when Riku realized he wouldn't be welcome. He turned to leave, but not before he'd heard Sora say: "No - but here, let's add -"

He walked away before Sora could finish that sentence.

Sora and Kairi had broken off from him, and away - he could only watch, green tidal-pool eyes storming, from below.

XXX

The girls in Riku's class had noticed that he was gorgeous long before he himself did - but on Monday, walking through the middle school yard, he saw their looks because he was watching for them. Sora-and-Kairi lingered ("Here, let's add you") in his memory like a vice, and he was Riku-and----.

Riku-and-someone. Riku-and-anyone. Sora would learn what that felt like. He would learn what he had done.

He sidled up to one of the girls, making a point to pass his gaze over her breasts with a half-veiled interest. He couldn't be too obvious. Her friend giggled.

"Hey," he drawled, smirking, and loved the feeling of their smiles on him. They wanted him, he could feel it. He wanted what they could give him. "Do I know you from somewhere?"

"Third period English. Cari Johnston," she returned with a slight smile. "I've been sitting two seats behind you all year." She seemed interested, but not passionately so - he wished he could say she was simpering, but he figured she must have an actual personality down below the pretty face and the eyeliner.

If he had been looking for an actual relationship that might have been perfect. But this one might prove to be too much effort - so he turned to her friend. This one wore far too much makeup and had bleached her hair platinum, but she looked fair enough underneath it all.

"And you are?" he murmured, looking her directly in the eye.

"Mikaila," she responded, not shy at all about where she was looking. He liked that.

"I'll see you two in class then," he told them, trying out a wink and finding it awkward - but the girls didn't seem to care much. They appreciated it, awkward or no, and their own returning waves were no more experienced than his own gesture.

He knew Sora wasn't watching, but he would be. Riku would make sure of it.

XXX

Kairi-and-Sora seemed to make it a point to hang out with Riku much more often after a while - and no matter how hard he tried, no matter what he resolved, the eldest could never bring himself to be Riku-and-someone, Riku-and-anyone, on the island. Not in Riku-and-Sora's place.

Sora didn't watched when he kissed his and-someone. He wondered if that was because the younger didn't care. He pretended it didn't matter to him either way. He told himself it didn't matter when he saw Sora and Kairi talking together, alone - it happened less often, now, and he could almost forget.

He wished he could hate her - but she had learned to cook properly, beyond the reach of even Riku's boiling criticism, had been there when she was shivering with nervousness before her first choir concert, when she buried her family dog. He'd been there when she realized that she couldn't remember anything about her past life - on another world, the Riku-and-Sora Riku murmured - and had started to cry at the dawning knowledge.

He didn't hate her, though he wished she'd never come.

But she had come, and he wouldn't try to displace her, not anymore. She had become wedged between the two of them, tight and resolute.

As they sat together on the paopu tree one evening, watching the sun set, Riku saw her put her head on Sora's shoulder - and worse yet, the brunette didn't protest.

A dark burned inside Riku as he watched, and he looked away.

Maybe the and-Someone wasn't enough, not enough to make Sora hurt like he had hurt. Not enough to make Sora jealous, show him what that girl - what that betrayal (no longer Riku-and-Sora, but something else) - had done.

Just wanting what the two had wasn't enough. He couldn't just wait for it.

He clenched his teeth at Kairi, who had what Riku himself never would - and bile rose up in his throat at Sora ( who had those eyes that determination that love everyone's love), at Sora who was what Riku could never be. The eldest of them all could only be strong, stronger than the other two - so he was. So he tried to be.

His thoughts grew bitter as the dark drew around them - and that sour taste in his throat, in his eyes, didn't leave.

Love, then, was the angry sickness he felt when he watched them together. Love, then, was what hurt him most.

XXX

Riku turned his practiced appreciative gaze on Kairi, this time, and wondered why he'd never thought of it before.

"You're looking good today, Kai," he drawled with his half-smirk-half-smile, though both of them knew that she didn't look any different than her usual.

"Thanks," she replied with a slight blush, holding her hands behind her back like she did when she talked to Sora. "I'm glad you noticed," she declared, teasing, eyes crinkled with silent laughter.

"Oh, I always notice," Riku returned, and she blushed even harder. It was a good look on her, maybe - but not as good as the frown that tore Sora's face in two. "Just thought I'd comment today, is all."

His next smile held more vindication than amusement. He didn't feel guilty when he realized that. He had no reason to be.

"Guys," Sora whined, and his eyes were (not hating, not jealous) clear blue again, "Hurry up, or we're going to miss the storm!" Sudden afternoon storms were hardly uncommon in the islands, and they had started a tradition when Kairi arrived: they watched from the tallest tree house, whenever they could, as the storms swirled across the ocean.

"Don't throw a tantrum, Sora. We're coming," Riku shot back at his friend, only barely catching the smile that Kairi flashed him before he had jogged over the dock's creaking wooden planks to the boat.

"What was that?" Sora whispered to his friend as they both bent over to untie their own knots. "What were you doing?"

Riku also kept his voice low - Kairi was only barely out of earshot.

"That was flirting. What, you didn't notice?" he returned, bitterness turning his teasing words cruel.

"No, I noticed," Sora returned, though his air had a fair hint of desperate. "But what were you doing flirting with her? It's Kairi! Your friend."

"What, and I'm not allowed to flirt with friends? What about Tidus and Selphie, hm?"

"That's different! Selphie isn't Kairi! And besides, don't you have a girlfriend already?"

"Did. Don't anymore. Besides, you obviously don't have any interest in her, so I figured that I've got quite as much right to her as anybody," he lied as he finished untying his knot and tossed the rope into the boat. Sora did the same, and straightened up - yet Riku still couldn't bring himself to feel happiness at Sora's troubled expression.

They both held out a hand to Kairi, to help her onto the boat, and after a slight hesitation she took neither, laughing a little at them both.

He wished Sora hadn't smiled at her like that, and the memory of it disturbed his thoughts enough that he didn't see the frown that troubled his friend's face whenever he thought no-one was looking.

XXX

The next day, Sora asked Kairi to stay behind on the mainland on instinct. She agreed, though she sounded a little bit worried when she asked why - and the brunette felt a little bit guilty when he couldn't answer her. He couldn't even put the feeling into words himself, so he certainly couldn't explain it to her.

Kairi required those words. Riku didn't - which was why the younger knew that he had to go to the play-island alone with his best friend that day.

He didn't tell her that this had been a long time in coming, because thinking on it, he realized that "a long time" coincided roughly with Kairi's arrival. He didn't tell her that he didn't want Riku to break away from them - from him - because he didn't want to tell her why he was worried about the possibility in the first place.

So he showed up at Riku's house - he knew he was always welcome there, even if he'd been using that open invitation less often lately - and dragged his halfheartedly protesting friend out of his house and onto the dock.

"Seriously, Sora, what's up?" he asked, and Sora knew he must have caught the other on a good day because the elder smiled a little when he said it. Riku had been frowning all too frequently lately.

"Nothing, nothing. I just wanted to go out to the island with you today," Sora replied, and the "only you" went unsaid.

"What, no Kairi today?"

"Nah, not today. She doesn't have to come with us every day, does she?" Sora questioned, nervous for a moment that he had misread Riku, that this really wasn't about Kairi at all -

"No, it's fine," the elder responded, though his tone had grown suspicious and the smile fallen off. "Did she decide -"

"No, no! That's not it at all," Sora protested, eyes wide. "I just - there's some rot in the tree houses here and there and I thought we should replace some of the planks, that's all. I just wanted to spend some time with you, Riku, is that not okay?"

The look on Riku's face softened a little, and Sora gave a sigh of relief, releasing a breath he hadn't even known he was holding.

"It's fine," the elder said, stepping down into the boat easily. "It was just a little strange. Not in a bad way. I'm glad you thought of this," he murmured.

Sora followed him into the boat, and smiled.

"I am too."

XXX

On the islands, the sun was a merciless enemy, and the two friends found themselves wandering towards shade of the tree house after replacing only one or two planks in the great open area out front.

"Well, we sure accomplished a lot today," Riku muttered as they walked in, wiping the sweat off his face with the back of his hand. "Fantastic work ethic."

"Oh, shut up," the younger returned with a laugh. "We'll get it done when the sun goes down a little bit more. It's just so hot."

"Wow, Sora, really? I hadn't noticed."

"Oh, good! Since you didn't notice the heat you can go right back out there and keep working while I watch from the cool, wonderful shade. Sound good to you?"

They both plopped down by the wall and began to strip off their shirts, because even in the shade the temperature had to be hovering around a hundred. The heat had always been, and would remain, one of the island's less attractive features.

"…You ever think about going someplace cooler?" Riku asked, without really thinking about it first. "I mean - remember when we used to talk about going and having adventures? Not that baby stuff we used to play at, the real thing."

"Yeah. We used to want to get off the islands, go somewhere new." A pause. "Yeah, I still think about it sometimes. I guess you do too, huh?" Another pause - they watched each other. "I still wish we could go, you know."

"Why don't we?" Riku asked in a fit of inspiration - it was all starting to make sense. "You, me. The three of us. We can build a raft, go look for other worlds." He had been caught up so completely, so thoroughly in the thrall of his idea that it hadn't yet occurred to him to leave Kairi out.

"You mean it?"

"Of course I mean it. We're going to find another world. We're going to find the world that Kairi is from -" and leave her there, a bitter voice added, but he ignored it - "and we're going to travel all over all the worlds, any of them. We're going to get strong, really strong, and we'll be able to fight anything."

"Protect anyone," Sora added, and Riku almost winced.

"Yeah, that too. Just think about it, Sora. We'd go together."

The younger smiled at him, and it felt for a moment like all was right with the world.

XXX

That night, Riku dreamed: a monster writhed in black before him, and Sora - not the boy of his childhood, but taller, wiser - stood beside him, innocence burned out of his face and replaced with the determination of someone much older.

That image was replaced by a vision of Sora watching the tide roll away, Sora playing soccer with Tidus on the island, Sora making breakfast, doing a thousand little mundane things. Then, uncounted miles in the future, Sora growing old, never having known the air of another world - Riku growing old, never having known the taste of power.

Suddenly, the feeling of being trapped on the islands that had plagued his whole life had burst into a terror that strangled him, caught him, tried to kill him - and as he fought back, he saw Sora strangled by it, saw the boy lying dead as he was consumed by -

It's coming. Are you ready?

You're strong. You can escape in time. Can he? Would he even want to come with you?

He felt the wave coming at his back, roaring up above him in a threat - it screamed, it would destroy the islands and he didn't care; he, Riku, would survive, and maybe the wave would carry him off to somewhere, any-

- Sora stood on the beach before him, and saw the wave coming but he ran forward just the same, feet pounding away through the water.

Riku reached out a hand - he would bring Sora with him. With him, Sora would survive the coming wave. They would be carried away together. Together -

The wave crashed on top of them, and Riku stood firm (the water had no power over him, it never had, he was the water) and Sora - Sora swam forward - Riku's hand still stretched out for him - and the boy couldn't reach it.

Riku watched the water pull him away.

XXX

He forgot the dream, but not what it meant - the memory bore in him an obsession, a determination, to outstrip the wave, to leave together, all three of them.

Kairi would find her world, would decide to stay there, and then he and Sora would go back to the way it had been, to Riku-and-Sora without a third, without a wedge.

Riku informed Kairi of the raft idea the day after, knowing instinctively that they'd have to be quick because something was coming. He didn't tell either of them - he knew they wouldn't believe him.

"A raft? To find another world?" she asked, and she looked hesitantly at Sora and then back. "I'm not so sure…"

"Come on, it'll be fun!" the brunette wheedled, and Riku graced him with a brilliant smile. "Maybe we can find where you were born."

"That… would be nice," she admitted, and he was relieved to hear a note of interest in her voice. Maybe, maybe this would work. Everything would work out now, he was sure of it.

"No more school, no more homework." Sora sounded really, genuinely thrilled by this, and Riku's heart leapt.

"What about our parents?" she asked, one final misgiving making itself known. Riku could feel her about to give in to their excitement.

"Well, we'd be back," the eldest returned, not sure if he was even telling the truth anymore. "We'd tell them where we're going."

"We'd send letters and stuff," Sora added.

There was a moment of silence.

"…Well, then, what are we waiting for?" she laughed after a moment, and Riku smiled - really smiled - at them, and felt the expression returned.

They weren't going to wait. They were leaving, together.

XXX

A mania took hold of Riku that day, as the three of them raced out to the island on their own separate boats (he won, of course - he was older and stronger) and began to scour the island for any spare wood, for rope, for anything they could build a raft out of, anything strong enough to hold them for long enough to find another world.

Sora and Kairi helped at first - they did, really, he reminded himself - but they lost interest eventually and went to their own games, leaving the eldest alone with a driven look in his eyes and hands that wouldn't stop moving. He didn't stop until long after they left - until the echo of Wakka's ball could no longer be heard against the wall, until after Sora and Kairi had stopped building sandcastles together, until the sun had also gone and left him to his work.

Alone, he carried wood and rope to the building site, hammered them together into a workable state.

He knew the wave was coming, and they didn't know: so he supposed it was forgivable, but that didn't cure his bitterness at being left alone as Sora and Kairi went to their own games. He was the only one who cared about this, who wanted to get the three of them out of this trapped island monotony, wanted to stop them from growing old without ever having known the feel of adventure coursing through them.

He'd do it himself, if they didn't want to. They would appreciate it one day.

XXX

Their first raft sunk when they put it on the water.

Riku kicked the ground in frustration, and when he was sparring with Sora afterwards, he stole the younger's sword and wouldn't give it back. Blaming his friend for the failure came naturally, an instinctive solution.

"Come on, Riku! Stop it. Give it back."

"And if I don't want to?" he smirked, using his superior height to hold the weapon just out of Sora's reach. The boy's brow furrowed into a frown. There was a time when Riku would have done anything to make that frown disappear.

"Then I'll make you," the brunette declared with all his determined confidence before tackling his best friend to the ground and scrabbling for the sword. There was only a moment of that before the elder flipped them and pinned the other to the ground.

"What was that about making me, again?" he drawled, holding himself maybe a little bit closer to Sora than was strictly necessary. "I think I might have won that, don't you?"

After a moment, he stabbed the stolen weapon into the ground next to his head, loving the way the brunette didn't even flinch. He didn't think Sora knew how to flinch.

"Here's your sword back," he told the other as he rolled off, not noticing the way Sora stayed there, immobile, for a moment.

He stood up, then, and walked towards what was left of his raft, feeling Sora's eyes - questioning or burning, he couldn't tell - tearing into him as he left.

XXX

They built their new raft together for the rest of that day, Riku making it a point to flirt with Kairi as much as he could throughout without making his intention painfully obvious. She smiled and flirted back - she wasn't nearly as clueless as Sora, nor as irredeemably childish.

The eldest watched the brunette out of the corner of his eye as he did - Sora pretended not to notice what was going on between the two of them. Wakka, playing on the beach with his ball, gave Riku a conspiratorial wink (like they were sharing some secret) and Riku smirked back. Maybe the other boy wouldn't have smiled at him if he'd known that Riku was watching Sora through the corner of his eye even as he complimented Kairi's eyes, her face, her -

It didn't matter what he said, and he knew it, as long as he said it the right way - the words of flattery came automatically out of his mouth now, practiced so many times in his classes and in his lunch hour with girls he barely even remembered, just so they could be used in these moments, with Kairi. Against Sora.

"Well, you're being friendly today," she noted, a star in her eyes as she watched him lash more wood together. Sora didn't even turn his head up as he worked a little nail into a plank at the edge.

"Especially so? I thought it was just my natural charm and warmth shining through," he drawled, finishing the knot with an unnecessary flourish.

"Oh, really? Give me a minute - I'm trying to imagine you with charm," she giggled, one hand up by her mouth like she was demurely trying to hide it - but not trying too hard.

"Ouch, Kai, I'm wounded," Riku told her with one of his smirks that just dripped with confidence. He'd grown into an expert at faking it by now.

"Self-delusion must be one of your many talents, then."

"Come on guys," Sora interrupted, voice petulant. "We should be working faster. As soon as we caulk this and finish up these two planks she should be ready to test," he informed them, and Riku's sense of vindication only grew.

"Oh, you care so much now, when Kairi and I are having a good time?" he bit out. "Where were you yesterday? And the day before?"

"Oh, stop it, Riku - he didn't do anything wrong," the girl shot back, and the look in her eyes told him that play was over for just then. He'd lost ground.

"Yeah Riku! We're just a little ways from being done. I bet this one will float, too!" Sora added excitedly, and stood up to stretch - his sun-brown skin glistened with the sheen of his effort.

"Yeah. Sorry," Riku responded unsympathetically, though the brunette, unsurprisingly, took the apology at face value, smiling in return. In that moment, the elder almost felt bad for what he'd done - but the long list of worthless injuries inflicted by that bright smile rankled silently at him.

"It's okay," the younger told him, taking a handful of caulk out from its container and slathering it between the planks. Riku joined the other, smoothing it in effortlessly, strangely glad for the camaraderie.

Kairi watched him from the edge of the craft, eyes suddenly cold.

XXX

The raft floated the next time.

Sora started cheering, Kairi clapping - but Riku smirked like he had known all along what would happen (he hadn't) and climbed on once it was far enough at sea to really test it. Sora joined him almost immediately, paddling out through the water and clambering on with quite as much expertise as Riku.

He was glad, for some reason, when Kairi stayed on the shore.

"You think this thing will take us all the way to another world?" the brunette asked, awe in his voice.

"Maybe. I don't know." A pause. "I'm going to try, though… You're with me, right?"

"Yeah, of course," he responded, watching Riku with his huge sky-deep eyes. "Why wouldn't I be? I said I was, didn't I?"

The elder couldn't help the feeling of relief that rushed through him at that.

"Yeah. I guess you did," he murmured, jumping back off of the raft so he could begin to pull it back to the shore.

"Yep. Me and Kairi both," Sora murmured. He watched the sky, perfectly content, and Riku watched him, walking against the tide.

XXX

"What should we name it?" Sora asked, admiring their work with his hands, smoothing along the raft's knotted driftwood in silent worship. Riku didn't think it a half bad construct himself, but he refrained from saying so. "I like 'Excalibur.' What do you think?"

"I think we should call it the Highwind," the elder returned, just to be difficult, lobbing a coconut from hand to hand because he had nothing else to do. A nailed-down wooden chest on the side of the raft contained all of their provisions, everything that they would need to survive until they'd reached their destination. Success was their only option.

"What?" the younger exclaimed, looking genuinely shocked at his friend's suggestion. "I think that 'Excalibur' is a much cooler name."

"Of course you do," Riku responded, his smirk coolly (purposefully) patronizing. "But I did most of the work, so I get to name her. It's only fair."

"We shared the work about equally this time!" the other protested, and the elder laughed.

"Fine. I'll race you for it - whoever wins gets to name the ship," he finally conceded, tossing the coconut expertly into the provision chest.

"And Kairi will be the referee," Sora said, hopping off of the raft and losing his balance a little bit in the sand - the awkwardness of adolescence made his movements less graceful than they might have been - less graceful than he had been once, as a child.

"If you want." Watching the leaves of their wind-bent tree flutter in the wind, an idea burst on Riku suddenly. "And," he added, in his fit of inspiration, "whoever wins gets to share a paopu fruit with Kairi."

There was a long blank space between them.

"What?" the brunette asked, clearly not comprehending - he hadn't been listening, earlier, when Selphie had been talking.

"A paopu fruit. You know - it ties your destinies together if you share it with the person you -" He choked on the word, swallowed it - "if you share it with somebody you care about." Another pause. "So, you on?" The elder's pointed grin returned this time, and there was no warmth in the expression.

"I'll win," Sora responded, and they met each other's eyes just once, then left.

XXX

Riku won the race, and thought about taking his prize (he would hurt Sora, hurt the other boy maybe irredeemably) but for only a moment - Sora's look of horror was enough to make him repent. He wouldn't make that split - wouldn't break them, wouldn't make that decision. (Not yet.) Riku-and-Sora, Sora-and-Kairi, would be gone - there was nothing to replace them.

"Oh, come on," the elder began as he walked away from the finish line, "you didn't actually take that thing with the paopu fruit seriously, did you?" (What if he had? Does that thought scare you, Riku?) "It was a joke," Riku drawled, only barely looking back over his shoulder.

The brunette didn't respond, his face turned down into a frown.

(Do you want to hurt him, Riku?)

XXX

That night he dreams again, then dreams waking - the voice that calls to him in the silence of his sleep wakes him, speaks to him, pulls him from between the sheets and onto his feet and leaves a madness in Riku's sea-green tidal-pool storm eyes.

He stands, blank-faced, by his window, facing the town - cloying darkness covers it like a tar, silencing the world even as the black tendrils curl (welcoming him, loving him) outside his room. They wait for him, whisper for him, and he opens the cloud-paned glass to touch it -

Come with us.

He finds himself clothed, purposed, in sheer moments. His head holds little but that echoing voice, and he jumps (himself, this time, his own self) out of the window because he knows he has been gifted with a knowledge that makes it all right, makes everything he does alright. He can make the world bend for him.

Footsteps carve across the ground as he lances towards his boat - steadily, rhythmically, never flagging or increasing in his thunder-slow stride. In moments, he finds that his feet have taken him to the dock, and he stands for a moment -

The storm jostles his boat, turning and moving the craft on its own whims; and the rope strains - he reaches for it, pulling it, snapping it, watching it fray. He would only need it one more time anyway - after that, he would never tie the boat at the island dock again. He would never need to.

He doesn't tell Sora where he's going. (A thirty second run down the street, and he's with you.)

He won't. He wants to come back and bring Sora once he's already found something, doesn't want Sora to be there if it's not what he thinks it is, if he can't go to another world.

Riku will be back to the island. Just once. He knows he won't say goodbye.

Then suddenly he finds himself with no in-between (gods, what's happening, I'm not scared, I'm not) in front of the Door, the one in the cool-dark cave, his cave, his and Sora's cave, waiting there -

It promises him everything he ever wanted. It promises him strength.

Curls of dark slip into the walls, seep through and around the cave until they've swept around him too. He sees, without warning, a chalk-pale drawing on the wall - chalk-Sora sharing his destiny with chalk-Kairi, smiling and giving everything -

Do you see what will happen if you leave them here, together? They'll forget (forget, could he? Could they?) about you, they'll share their destinies together and you'll be left alone.

The wave is coming (he can feel it, he can stop it, if he wants) - everything about it ignites him with a breath like lightning.

He extends a shaking hand to the door, willing it open with every last bit of strength he possesses- and it does, disappears, and for a moment he thinks that he was wrong, that nothing is coming. Then, without warning, the darkness bites out in one crushing blast, consuming the cave and the chalk drawings and Riku himself - smiling, laughing, against the rush.

XXX

The crash of thunder woke Sora from his deep dreams, and he flashed open his eyes to see a torrent of rain at his windows, sliding down the glass in silverbent waves. Lightning split the sky, and he blasted up from his bed, throwing his sheets off in the same motion - and he found himself sweating, despite the oppressive, humid island cold. He barely found the chill strange for even a moment, never stopping to think about it, though the day had before been blindingly hot - he turned instead to watch the rain through the windowpanes.

It was quite the storm, he had to admit, and he had seen more than his share - the dark clouded enough of the town that his first thought was hurricane, even though the winds weren't nearly so strong as those of the last one that had come through.

His thoughts hovered for a moment around the winds, on the day before and their plans for the next day - and then another thought came, intruding.

Gods, the raft.

He shot to the door, barely remembering to dress on his way out because he had to check on the raft, had to make sure it was alright - Riku will be so disappointed if the storm destroys it, we worked so hard on that - and he was out the door, springing across the pavement in an adolescent's long frantic leaps. His boat waited on the water, knocking against the dock until the scrapes could be seen, raw and splintering, across its sides.

The storm didn't deter him for even one moment - he took to the water with a careless abandon, taking an oar in each hand and pulling himself and his boat across the water, cresting over the waves lightly, twisted from side to side in the water's fury.

The island drew nearer - smoke hazed from the ground like darkness given form, and he wondered for a moment (yellow eyes stared at him from the abyss) if it wasn't darkness. A worry (a fear, a terror) grew in his stomach as he approached the dock and saw Riku's boat - maybe he's come to check on the raft, too -there, and Kairi's. He sprang onto the dock effortlessly - and then the ground opened up, and all around him shadows began to throw themselves into quivering shapes, those same yellow eyes watching him from their nothing-bodies.

The world was breaking up around him, and all he could do was find Riku. Sora's wooden sword lay, abandoned, by the dock, and he ran towards it - picked it up - and something told him if I can find Riku, if I can bring him back, everything will be alright again. He slashed his weapon through the creature, but found that, like a shadow, it had no substance, no body -

He ran towards the raft, where Riku would be - and the shadows trailed after him in ribbons of black.

But Riku stood on the smaller island, across a bridge, and as his feet pushed him over the ground Riku turned to him-

- slowly -

- he couldn't move fast enough, the world fell away around him -

- and Riku extended a hand.

The black tendrils swirled all around him, steaming with anger.

"The door has opened." The darkness had taken Riku's eyes too.

XXX

Riku's heart pumps nothing but pure adrenaline, beating through his body heavily until he can almost taste his own, raw power, his own anticipation. He knows on instinct that another world lies close, beyond the veil of reality, the sheet of light that gives a too-pale cast to the world - it invests every tenor of his being with a certainty, a determination, a purpose of its own. He is not the master of his own will, now.

He will walk into the other world, and the other world will take him. He is strong - he gives his strength to the dark, and the dark gives back.

He will not take the bright life - growing old, growing complacent and following in his parents' - their parents' - footsteps. Now, after tasting power, the thought reviles him.

"The door has opened, Sora," he calls to that wide-open face, a boy recoiling from the welcoming dark. For a moment, his own words speak through him: "We can go to other worlds now, together. We may never see our parents again, but it will be worth it. We can't let fear stop us."

The silence grows between them, not long enough for Riku to grow hopeful - but his best friend's next words leave a break inside him that words may never fix.

"Where's Kairi? I thought she was with you," the younger cries, and so Riku doesn't think (he rarely does - Sora's look of fear stabs at him almost as much as the hurt) but instead shoots back mindlessly:

"Kairi's coming with us." But he doesn't take a step forward, doesn't make a move to go find her. This is about them - about the two of them, about Riku-and-Sora the way they should have been. This isn't about her.

"Come with me." His words are his own, now - and he extends his hand again to Sora, knowing the power of what he does, from what fate he's rescuing his best friend. He knows.

So he smiles when the younger runs towards him - the boy isn't running for Kairi, he doesn't turn and look for her. Instead, he reaches towards Riku, towards his best friend - and the smile (smirk, but he doesn't know it) grows because they're going to leave together, through the door, without her.

But Sora is not as strong as he himself is - the boy strains, reaching towards his friend (Riku doesn't move towards that hand; he's not sure why.)

Maybe you just want him to come to you. Maybe, you're sick of always being the one reaching out, always trying to hang on to what you had. Maybe you're sick of always being the one who makes the effort.

- (Are you?) -

Maybe you're scared.

- (Terrified, shattered like marble. You are.) -

Sora's not going to reach you. Will you forgive that?

Before he knows how to answer, the shattering world tears them apart.

XXX

When Riku found out that his world had been destroyed, he pretended it hadn't bothered him at all - this was what he'd wanted. He'd made the choice never to see them again when he walked through that door; they were dead to him now. Everyone but Sora.

And Kairi, a voice whispers, reminding him of their one perfect day.

But he had chosen to leave her behind, and had no call to her now. Sora, now - Sora had escaped. He couldn't escape with Riku, true enough - but he was too strong not to.

The younger had tried to reach his friend. He had strained and reached for Riku's hand, stretching himself across the distance between them - and even if, in the end, it hadn't been enough, it still meant that he didn't want to break them. Sora had still reached for Riku, not Kairi, even if his last words had been -

Riku wouldn't think about it.

When the darkness offered him the ability to go look for his friend - in exchange for just a little, a reasonable amount of his soul, his allegiance - he took it. He walked through the darkness, on the dark paths, without - (I'm not a coward) - without fear.

He wouldn't let the dark prey on him. He used it for his own purposes - he was too strong to let it control him. He had too much life, and Sora even more.

Your friend is now the Keyblade bearer, the voice from the dark whispered, and Riku did not flinch under her hand. And yet, you are the stronger.

He bit his lip and told himself that his mind didn't boil with jealousy.

You are the stronger.

XXX

A warm window in a pathetic little Traverse Town house separated Riku from his best friend, this time - and the elder watched from the outside, stoic, as Sora laughed and joked with people he'd never met before, people he'd known for the entirety of a day. He smiled, unrestrained, uninhibited, and apparently completely unaffected by Riku's absence. The brunette looked no different that day, with his new friends, than he had only days ago (and yet forever ago), on the islands, with Kairi.

I should have known. (He had seen it coming). That one moment as the islands broke apart was not enough to make up for the years that came before. Sora had his keyblade now. He didn't need Riku to protect him from the world and so -

"He quite simply went and replaced you with some new companions," her dark voice said, and Maleficent's words dripped with honey. He didn't trust them, didn't trust her - but that was alright, this time. He didn't mind - he would (he was determined) never have to patch over that same empty hole again. He would never again be left as an unpaired piece of a broken whole.

(Yes, it's so easy to exploit insecurities that are already there.)

(It would be so easy to walk through that door, to where they're laughing together.)

He turned away from the window, her hand on his shoulder.

XXX

Since Kairi had broken Riku-and-Sora in the first place, she was the elder's last tie to Sora. The younger boy had left Riku with no choice - he would take her from Sora, like she had done in reverse years ago. He would take her from the other, he would be with her, together, and leave Sora on the outside.

(Do you really think that?)

He would make Sora feel that same loss. If he didn't feel it for Riku, for his best friend, maybe he would feel it for Kairi.

But this wasn't about her, this was about them - about Riku-and-Sora.

He tried to forget that.

XXX

Kairi's body lay, limp, in his arms, and he felt a strange sort of pity - not overwhelming, not unbearable, but pity and sadness just the same. Laying her down in his room, in the Castle at Hollow Bastion, he ran a hand through her silk-soft hair, and tried not to think that it was no wonder Sora lov-

"Hey," he told her awkwardly to break his thoughts, though her eyes hadn't opened once. Her heart was gone - she couldn't hear him. "I'm going to make you alright again. You'll be alright, and then the three of us will go back to the way it was," he lied, telling himself (for the moment) that it wasn't, trying to believe that it wasn't her fault.

A wooden sword - Sora's wooden sword - watched him from the wall; Riku didn't know how it had come with him, that night when the islands were destroyed, but it had. It had no blue-marker "SORA" scribbled on its side - this one was older, more refined. It remembered, too well, a sun-browned hand on it.

"Yeah - back the way it used to be."

He never wanted to go back, and could only stem the flow of guilt which that knowledge brought.

XXX

The dark voices began to sound in his ears, not just his mind, after a while - they spoke to him, told him things, and eventually coalesced into just one voice. He never named himself.

Riku knew that the voice - all of the darkness - fed on that bitterness in his heart, but that was all right because he had enough of it to go around.

"Do you want power?" the voice asked, tone deep - melodic, powerful. "I can give you power enough that no-one will ever stand against you again. I can give you power enough to defeat anyone. I can give you power greater than the Keyblade master's."

"And what would you want in return?" Riku asked the blue-painted unlit room, canny as always. He was alone - but that hardly mattered anymore, did it?

"Nothing but what you would give me on your own - a vessel through which my power may manifest itself. A way to have some small control over this world."

Something about the words or the tone made the boy freeze.

"Not on your life," he shot back into the emptiness.

"Suit yourself," the voice responded, sounding more than a little bored - and Riku wondered if his had been the right decision.

XXX

At some point, he started telling Maleficent - and the voice - that he didn't care about Sora anymore. He made himself, forced himself to believe it. (He didn't).

XXX

Somewhere in the game he had been playing - hide and seek ("Or are you too cool to play games, now that you have the Keyblade?") - with Sora and his little puppet, his puppet with a heart, he realized that he did care. He realized, watching his friend fight against the heartless in the whale's belly, that those awkward adolescent movements had grown graceful and precise, grown powerful.

Watching Sora then, he knew that he was in love, despite everything. He was in love with a boy who had never made terrible decisions - a boy who had never destroyed his home with his own actions - and was nonetheless stronger than him.

"Heart or no heart, at least he -" at least the puppet "- still has a conscience!" Those words burned.

Sora hated him now.

But he could hate better than Sora ever could. Riku's hatred, at least, was stronger - and if that was stronger, then he could be too.

He opened himself to it, welcomed it, let it burn everything else away.

XXX

The next time they met, fueled by anger, he took the keyblade from Sora at the gates of Hollow Bastion - and in mockery, he left the other's old wooden sword ("Here, play at being hero with this") in exchange. (He remembered, blue-marker "RIKU" clashing against blue-marker "SORA" with sand beneath their toes.)

He left Sora there, on his knees.

He, Riku, was the stronger - he had always been the stronger, and because of that the keyblade came to him, now. That power he sought - the power to win against Sora, always, the power to save Kairi and make the boy watch, helpless - came to him, validated his anger and his every hateful thought because he had won, and that power made everything alright.

XXX

Their blades crossed each other in earnest the next time - in earnest, for the first time in their short lives - and their indomitable wills burned away at the other's defenses, crackling darkfire blistering the air with every crash of steel on steel, will on will, heated stares lancing at each other from across the room - too close - springing away - coming together - dancing, binding, breaking, burning.

They pretended that their bodies were the only things tearing apart.

A final clash - a look of shock in Sora's eyes - a crack of pain through Riku's chest, and the elder found himself on the ground, kneeling - a perfect mirror. A perfect retribution.

"Riku…" Sora's voice said - and the sound of that pity was worse than any hatred, it brought everything Riku had ever done to dust and ashes.

He ran, and the shame of it dripped poison through his gut. He never looked back.

XXX

"It seems, this time, you have lost to that boy," a satin, familiar voice noted, and Riku barely even started in surprise. The gothic-arched room around the boy was cold-dark and empty - but that hardly mattered anymore, did it? The voices could reach him anywhere.

"What, are you saying he's stronger than me?" Riku shot back aloud, challenging the voice to give him an answer.

"Yes - he is, now. But I can give you the power to defeat him."

This time, unlike the last, Riku hardly even hesitated.

"What do I have to do?" This time, he would win. He would prove that he was the stronger.

"Open yourself completely to the darkness. Let it fill you, every part of you - become the darkness itself."

He felt another consciousness swirling around him, into him, felt himself filled by another mind - another mind that wanted control of him, wanted anything Riku could give him.

"Let go. Let me take your burdens from you," the voice murmured (promised) from inside Riku's head.

He didn't want them anymore - so in one, swift moment, he surrendered to Ansem's power.

Riku's body moved without his permission, now, under another man's control - and, strangely enough, he couldn't bring himself to care.

XXX

Sora didn't feel bad for what he had done, he didn't - Riku was on the wrong side, even if he was trying to help Kairi - and like the other forces of darkness, he had to be defeated. He'd be beaten, again, and then Sora would bring him back to the light, where he belonged - the three of them, together. The islands were waiting for them.

The question of forgiveness never even entered his mind - he wouldn't know how not to.

But the next time he and Riku met, only hours later, Sora couldn't see even a hint of his best friend behind those tidal pool eyes, and he hurt for it.

Moments later, a white-haired dark-faced man - Ansem - had appeared in Riku's place, taking over that boy's body and shaping it for his own purposes.

This time, not even Riku's face was left to remind him.

XXX

From beyond the dark veil of Ansem's powerful consciousness, Riku heard Sora's voice, speaking - but it wasn't enough to hear that voice, not enough to hear the boy cry, "Let Riku go! Give him back his heart."

(It's your fault it's gone. You took it, Sora. You still have it.)

"Yes, but first, you must give the princess back her heart," Ansem intoned, and Riku didn't care (didn't understand what those words meant, what Sora would have to do.) The power that coursed through his adolescent's body was enough.

He felt his body move, possessed, with his mind nested safely behind the man's darkness - he didn't have to hear anything, didn't have to see Sora -

Before he could think it, a shattering knowledge wrested him from his safety, because suddenly he knew - he knew - that gods, Sora was dead, and that had never been the plan, that had never been what he wanted but it had happened now and it was his fault -

- Sora was dead and the Islands were dead and now everything, everything in every world was about to be swallowed because of Riku, because he had wanted power at any cost, because he wanted Sora and wasn't content with what his best friend - the boy he was in love with - was willing to give him.

Everything was going to die, if he did nothing now. It probably would anyway.

But he wasn't afraid to die himself. He never had been, and so he had nothing to lose by trying.

"NO! You're NOT going to use me for this," he cried - (he screamed, words tearing at his throat until he was hoarse) - to his possessor, and he thrust himself outwards from Ansem's body with all the power he had left to him, all the power that his darkness hadn't sapped away from him. His own power was all that could be left to a boy possessed by the power of dark.

"You have to run!" he yelled, and he knew that the fear of darkness had lodged itself in his voice. Kairi stood there, bewildered - (stupid girl, listen to me)- and he tried not to feel betrayed when she nodded her head and left. He'd had enough of that already.

Sora's heartless writhed, shifted, on the floor where the boy had died, and Riku couldn't even take a step toward him.

XXX

The moment defied all logic, all possibility - but then, Sora had never let himself be bound by expectations before. He had become a heartless, and was reborn again.

Only he could ever be that strong. Finally, Riku could accept that.

XXX

Sora freed Riku, in the end, like he had always known would happen - and always, always hoped it wouldn't. The last strike of the keyblade punched into Ansem's stolen manifestation, Riku's own body - then, the Door to Darkness opened and the blinding light of Kingdom Hearts burned away everything -

- and he was free.

He floated in the dark realm only for a moment - his body couldn't yet move, he couldn't even breathe - because he couldn't just watch as Sora and his friends strained to close that fateful Door. They forced themselves against it, that white marble door to Kingdom Hearts, the door to all the dark, the passage from which the destruction of all the worlds was coming.

He couldn't let Sora struggle alone. Not anymore.

He forced his body to move - (one step, then another, you can do this) - and Riku reached for them - (for Sora) - pushed towards them, because this door was so similar to the one that had been his first mistake - (Gods, you have a list). It had cost Sora so much, cost Riku everything that they might have had, together.

He finally reached the door, only just ahead of the incipient darkness, and forced his hands to the white stone gate.

"Come on!" he yelled, and Sora (on the other side of the door, on the side of the light) shot his head up at the sound. "I'll close it from this side. Together, we can do this," he told his friend, determined never to slip again.

Sora nodded.

He pushed it shut, separating the light and dark irrevocably, and with that motion Riku pushed away everything that had ever meant anything to him, pushed away his own happiness for maybe - (you selfish bastard) - the first time in his life. He let it all (Sora, his power, his love) go - in some small penance for all that he had destroyed.

In return for opening a door, now he closed one - and still, it could never make up for what he had done.

It could never make up for the fact that Sora still loved him, now - for the first time, he could see clearly, knew that everything he had ever thought was wrong, knew that Sora not only loved him but (gods help him) forgave him.

As the door fell shut, Riku didn't even try to step through. Through the last sliver of that path, he watched Sora and he smiled - like he hadn't in so long, like he'd been so afraid to - and with that one look tried to say everything (I love you, and I'm sorry) that he'd never been able to.

He'd spend the rest of his life trying to pay those debts. He wouldn't put Sora in harm's way - wouldn't hurt him, wouldn't let him be hurt - ever again.

Riku could have said a million things - those words that he'd never spoken (I loved you, so much, and I haven't stopped) and things he had never thought to (I was always so jealous of you), but those were words for his own benefit. Sora's benefit was the only thing that mattered now, after everything. Riku wouldn't voice any of his thoughts, not this time - this wasn't about him anymore.

Instead, he said: "Take care of her."

And for the first time in his life, he really meant it.

XXX

XXX

fin

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This is what happens when you read James Joyce and E. E. Cummings both in one day after having played Kingdom Hearts with your little brother. Please forgive the confusion of the parentheses and italics and ellipsises and everything - they were what came of reading James Joyce. They had a purpose, and I hope they served it…

For some reason, I'm kind of nervous about this story - my quality-checker seems to have broken, so I honestly don't know how it is. If you read this far, I would love it if you would send along a review and tell me what you thought. Just to soothe a writer's insecurities, you see.

Thanks ever so for reading, and indulging my crazy whims.