(A/N): I've debated about putting this up for quite a while - I've been working on this, off and on, since the beginning of the year, and it's sort of become my between-the-projects project, the story I'm working on when nothing else will flow (the next chapter of Burning Bridges, for example). I finally decided to throw up the first chapter as proof that I am still alive and trying to work on new and existing material - a lot of stuff's been hitting the fan, but I'm trying to push through it.
Disclaimer: I disclaim it, okay?
Sora squatted at the water's edge and watched the surf smooth away the ideograms he'd spent the morning practicing. The stick he'd used to trace the strange shapes into the sand rested across his thighs; he poked idly at it for a moment before he rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin in his hands, turning his gaze toward the distant horizon where the sea met the sky, the line almost indistinguishable in the blue haze. "Well?" he asked, voice muffled.
…Better. But you still need more practice.
Sora blew out his breath and shook his head, his brown spikes swaying in the warm breeze. "C'mon, Roxas, I did them all morning," he said. He tilted his head back, squinting blue eyes against the glare of the sun before he braced his hands against his thighs and pushed himself to his feet, letting the stick fall into the waves that were beginning to lap at his bare toes. He threw his arms out in a leisurely stretch before rocking back on his heels and lacing his fingers together behind his head. "Besides, I'm hungry," he added as his stomach rumbled.
When aren't you hungry? came the reply.
Sora ignored him. Roxas was clearly in a dour mood – there were times when sharing his mind with the taciturn god required knowing when to let his occasional caustic barbs slip through him and away like water. Sighing, he turned away from the ocean, the warm sand shifting beneath his calloused feet. His footprints were the only ones on the beach. He followed the lonely track back into the comparative cool of the shade beneath the trees, picking his way through the tangle of underbrush with the ease of long practice. Dappled shadows slid across the surface of his mask; Sora drew it away from his face a few millimeters, the silk lining clinging to his skin.
A rough lean-to appeared among the dense vegetation, and Sora's footsteps quickened. He grabbed up a ripe coconut from amongst its brethren resting in a wooden bowl at the entrance, cradling the fruit in the crook of one elbow as he reached up with his free hand to steady himself as he hopped up onto the lean-to's fibrous roof. Extending one arm for balance, he took the few steps needed to bring him beneath the spreading branch of the kabok tree that sheltered his rough lodging. He set one foot in a slight depression in the trunk and pulled himself up, the bark catching on his simple linen tunic as he balanced perilously on his tailbone before drawing his feet up underneath him. Keeping one arm wrapped firmly around the coconut, Sora scaled the next few branches before settling himself in the cradle formed where the trunk split into several large limbs.
Sora settled the coconut in his lap and reached a hand up to touch the smooth golden planes of the mask. He hesitated, fingers immobile against the soft metal before he slipped it up and to the side, so that it hung crookedly against his temple. He wasn't entirely breaking the strictures, he told himself guiltily. It was still obscuring part of his face.
It's not like there's anyone here to see you, anyway.
Sora frowned. Go away, Roxas. There was a wry snort in the back of his mind, and then he could feel Roxas withdrawing, ebbing away from his consciousness.
Sora sighed and took the coconut between his hands. He raised it above his head before bringing it down on the jutting stump of a broken branch. The impact traveled all the way up his arms, and he quickly brought the sphere back up to his face to catch the water that seeped through the cracked husk. There wasn't much of it, and it tasted slightly bitter, but it cooled his throat and took the edge off his thirst. When the trickle of liquid had dried up, Sora beat the husk against the stump until he was able to pull it apart and scrape the meat out with his fingers.
The sweat cooled on his face as he ate, occasional rays of sunlight peeking through the leafy boughs soaring over his head. Eyelids drooping, he sucked the last of the crumbly white meat that clung to his fingers away and set the empty husk aside, settling further into his resting spot. He yawned, covering his mouth with one forearm as he gazed blearily toward where he knew the beach was, beyond the tree line. "Roxas?" He felt him stir, the lightest touch of the deity's consciousness overlying his own. "Do you think anyone will come today?"
There was a beat of silence, and Sora could almost see him when he closed his eyes – a young man dressed in lily-white robes, his feet clad in soft leather sandals; his hair shone like the sun, and his startling blue eyes appeared far too old for his face. Those eyes blinked, and Roxas's lips quirked into a melancholy smile. …No.
Sora grunted an acknowledgment, eyes falling closed for the final time as he felt Roxas slip away again. In the breathless heat of the early afternoon, Sora slept.
The world burned, flames and smoke everywhere, searing his lungs when he inhaled too deeply, blinding his eyes with tears. A firewheel spun out of the darkness, careening toward his head; Roxas knocked it aside with his blades, staggering slightly beneath the unexpected brutality of the assault. The burning wheel embedded itself into the side of a crumbling building, where it vanished in a flash of flame. Breathing heavily, Roxas drew himself upright and turned to face his opponent.
Axel stepped out of the conflagration, hair and clothing smoking. Flames unfurled around his feet with every step he took, burning away to dead patches of scorched earth behind him. Green eyes burned into Roxas's own, but Axel didn't say a word. Roxas ran a dry tongue over equally dry lips and tightened his grip on his weapons. "I'm not going back," he said in a parched voice. Axel didn't reply. Roxas's eyes narrowed. "I'm not." Axel's continued silence grated on his already raw nerves – there were several things the fire god was, but reticent was not one of them.
Axel extended one of his hands, and a firewheel flared into existence just beyond his outstretched palm. Heart sinking, Roxas shifted, his right foot scraping over the ground as he re-distributed his weight, ready to launch himself at the redhead. He hadn't wanted it to come to this; Axel had no chance. Roxas's blades had been forged by Larxene herself, back when the world was young and the gods were still of one accord – Lightening and Void, captured and given physical form. "Axel…"
Axel flung the firewheel at him. Roxas jerked forward with a shout, spearing the wheel by one of its spokes with his white blade, flinging them both aside as he brought the dark blade up, two hands wrapped about its hilt as he threw himself at Axel's chest and thrust –
Axel didn't move as the blade sliced cleanly through his shoulder, mere millimeters above his heart. Roxas froze, hands still wrapped around the sword's hilt, and stared at him, wide-eyed and panting. Blood dripped from the foot of black steel protruding from the redhead's back.
For a timeless moment, neither of them moved; then Axel's lips slanted into a wry, lopsided smile. "So you can't do it," he muttered, raising his right hand and manacling Roxas's wrist. "That's good to know, Roxas." Searing heat erupted across Roxas's skin, blisters forming and breaking open, raw sores weeping thick, viscous fluid. Roxas jerked and screamed, but the movement only brought a new, scintillating burst of pain. His nerveless fingers slipped from the weapon's hilt and Axel shoved him away. He stumbled and fell, his injured arm curled awkwardly in on itself as he tried to shield it from further harm and simultaneously prevent it from touching any other part of his body.
Axel grimaced, his breath escaping through his teeth in a harsh groan as he grabbed the hilt of the sword embedded in his shoulder and pulled. Inch by bloody inch, the black steel slid back out through his flesh, tearing the muscle further. Sweat beaded Axel's forehead, and his voice swelled into an agonized scream as he pulled the weapon free. Panting harshly, he flung the blade away; Roxas heard it skitter over the stony ground for a few feet until it fetched up against a destroyed wall. Every instinct he had screamed at him to get up, to get the sword back, but by the time he'd struggled into a sitting position Axel had closed the distance between them – he stood over the younger god, swaying, his face bone-white as he dug through his robes with his good hand. "You know," he said, voice thin and thready, "I've had more rewarding friendships than this one, Rox." His hand shook as he removed a small, stoppered phial from his robes. With a tired smirk at Roxas's expression, Axel pulled the stopper out with his teeth, turning his head to the side and spitting the tapered piece of glass carelessly into the chaos surrounding them before he tilted his head back and gulped the Fountainhead's water down. Immediately, the wound in his shoulder began to close, flesh and sinew knitting themselves back together as Roxas watched.
A fatalistic calm crept over Roxas as Axel groaned and flexed the fingers of his left hand. He'd been running for days; he had nothing left. Axel glanced down at him, expression unreadable, and, ignoring the pain that flared in his burned wrist, Roxas made a lunge for his sword. He caught a flash of movement from the corner of his eye, and suddenly Axel's foot was buried in his stomach, tearing the breath from his lungs. Roxas gagged, tasted bile. The momentum of the kick threw him backward, and fresh abrasions stung his skin as he rolled once, twice, chest heaving as he struggled to draw a breath through cracked lips.
Charred earth scraped beneath the fire god's sandals as he moved toward the blond, and Roxas heard him sigh. "That's right, Roxas. Fight, fight, fight."
A paroxysm of coughing seized Roxas, ripping through the tender flesh of his throat, and he curled more tightly into himself until the wracking tremors ceased. Forcing watery eyes open, he glared up at Axel. "Just do it," he snarled. "It's what Xemnas wants, isn't it? So do it." Axel paused and ducked his head, regarding Roxas intently from beneath lowered lids. Roxas drew a deep breath and sighed, closing his eyes against the sight of his once-friend's face. "No one would miss me."
There was a long silence, and Roxas wondered, with a detached sort of interest, where the killing blow would come from. He heard Axel shift above him before he snorted. "That's not true – I would."
Sora woke suddenly, half-rising from his supine position before he recognized his leafy surroundings. With a grunt, he leaned back and squinted up at the canopy above him, scratching idly at his left temple. Roxas?
There was no reply. Tentatively, Sora probed at the edges of his mind, seeking the dark thread of consciousness that twined through his own like a shadow through sunlight-dappled water. Roxas still slept, and Sora hastily retreated from the god's dreams, his futile remembrances of a past that had been ancient long before Sora had ever been born. Even reduced as he was, he still deserved his privacy.
Sora knew what came next, anyway. Roxas had dreamed of it many times before.
He sighed and pushed himself upright, raising his arms over his head and arching his back in a long, leisurely stretch before he tossed the empty husks of the coconut (which had attracted ants while he slept, he noted with a grimace at the black insects scurrying over his legs) to the ground and swung himself out of the tree's cradle. He paused with both feet planted against the trunk and one hand wrapped around a thick branch, reaching up with his free hand to settle the mask securely back over his face, inhaling the scent of damp silk and his own stale breath.
He descended quickly, dropping lightly onto the lean-to's roof before lowering himself to the ground once more. He circled the kabok's massive trunk until he located the coconut husks. Ignoring the ants still scurrying over them, he gathered them into his arms and moved away from his rough shelter, passing in and out of shafts of sunlight.
The chirr and chirp of insects filled the humid air, enveloping him as he picked his way through the trees by memory and instinct. He was almost on top of the refuse pit when the smell hit him – a pungent mixture of sickly sweet with a sour undertone. Screwing his face against the odor, he walked to the edge of the pit and dropped the husks in. They made an almost repulsively fleshy thud as they landed on top of the layers of rotting fruit and plant matter.
He wiped his hands against his tunic as he stepped back, tilting his head to the side as he considered the light slanting through the trees. He felt for Roxas, found he was still sleeping and drew away again, not wanting to become tangled in his memories a second time. He glanced back at the canopy of leaves before he turned away from the crumbling earth of the pit wall and headed back into the trees. Underbrush crackled beneath his feet and caught at the hem of his tunic, thin grasses crushed underfoot springing back upright after he'd passed. The lean-to appeared among the trees off to his right, swelled and then receded behind him as he walked on. The earth angled downward, and Sora followed the slope of the land to a small spring half-hidden by lush green fronds.
He paused at the edge of the water, dipping his toes in and stirring them slowly, watching the ripples spread before he stepped back and pulled the tunic over his head. It tangled briefly in his hair, but he tugged it free and shook his head, spikes swaying. He draped the clothing over a convenient bush before bringing his hands up, fingers tangling themselves in the silky knot at the back of his head, the smooth material slipping and sliding against his skin as he untied the ribbon and lowered the mask from his face. He stood for a moment with the warm metal cupped in his hands, staring down at the sweat-stained lining before he shook himself and laid it carefully atop his tunic.
The world reflected in the pool bent and shivered as he waded in, though he stuck to the edges of the pool, avoiding the center where the water grew dark. Bending, he scooped up handfuls of water and brought them to his face, sloughing away the dirt and sweat, gasping as he raised his head from his hands and let the water drip from his chin. He shook his head with a breathless laugh, spraying drops of water in every direction before he crouched and began to bathe in earnest, sluicing water over his shoulders and down his back, scrubbing at his skin until it turned red. He dunked his head under, running his fingers through the messy brown strands, combing out the worst of the tangles and scraping gently at his scalp with his fingernails. When he was finished he rose, water streaming down his skin, and made his way back to the bank.
The light had taken on the warm hues of late afternoon, gilding the world in gold. Sora squeezed the water out of his hair, smiling as he inhaled deeply. The smile dimmed slightly as he reached for the mask, running the dark ribbon through his fingers before he sighed and brought it to his face, tying it securely in place. He wiped the remaining water clinging to his skin away with his tunic before he slipped it back over his head, tugging at it until it hung comfortably once more.
Clean and refreshed, Sora sighed happily, tilting his face upward and lacing his fingers behind his head as he considered his options. The sun had begun its descent toward the horizon and his stomach was beginning to complain that his last meal had been many hours ago. The lean-to lay behind him, but contained only gathered coconuts and paopu fruit. With one last tug at his tunic, Sora turned and followed the small stream that led away from the pool, bits of soil and leaves already plastering themselves to the soles of his feet. The trickle of water widened as he followed it, finally feeding into a swift-flowing brook. Sora altered his course to follow the bank of the new watercourse until he came to two large boulders that jutted out into the water from opposite sides of the bank.
Nestled in the shadow of the nearest boulder was a fishing weir, held in place by the braided rope anchoring it to a nearby paopu trunk. Sora bent and hooked his fingers around the slim cable and reeled the basket to shore. He pulled it partly out of the water, studying his catch – two fish and a miniscule crayfish. He grinned and muttered a thanks to the water god as he reached a hand in and removed the crayfish, tossing it back into the water; then he pulled the basket up onto the bank and stepped away, crouching with his chin in his hands as he waited for the fish to cease their death throes.
When they finally finished thrashing, he pulled them out and tossed the basket back into the brook, checking to make sure the rope was still secure before he grabbed both fish by the tail. Clutching them in one hand, he scrambled to the top of the boulder, hopping the short distance between the two rocks and sliding down to the opposite bank. He grunted as his feet connected with the ground, knees bending slightly to absorb the impact before he straightened and headed in the direction of the beach.
A small breeze picked up, stirring his hair as he walked. Sora hummed tunelessly in the back of his throat, punctuating the tempo with the rhythm the fish beat against his thigh with each step he took. Mind elsewhere, he almost missed the small patch of shadow that detached itself from the growing pool of darkness beneath a cluster of trees. Sora paused, frowning, and squinted as something dark and low to the ground scuttled through the underbrush and into the leafy fronds of a low-lying fern. "What…" A line furrowed its way between his eyes as Sora stared at the fern, watching intently for signs of further movement.
The fronds rustled gently in the breeze.
Hefting the fish uncertainly in both hands, Sora advanced on the fern, eyeing it warily. He jumped when the thickly clumped stems rattled against one another, then let loose a nervous laugh. This was ridiculous. It would probably turn out to be a rabbit or…or a really big frog. Certainly nothing to be getting all worked up about. His mouth thinned into a determined line and he squared his shoulders, nodding once to himself before he bent and parted the leafy curtain.
There was a flash of lantern-yellow eyes, pulsing like witchlight, and then a small black blur leapt past him, one clawed limb scraping against the left cheek of Sora's mask, missing his eye by mere inches. Sora fell backward with a shout, the fish flying out of his hands and thumping down beyond his reach in the dirt. His breath was knocked out of him in one explosive rush as his back collided with the ground, and multi-colored stars burst across his vision.
The pain didn't have time to properly register before Sora was scrambling back up, twisting to face behind him, eyes wide as he scanned the ground frantically, trying to determine the path the creature had taken. The only fresh tracks in the soil were his own, and the only motion among the plants was caused by the wind stirring their leafy boughs. Sora blinked, hard, and looked again, but there was no sign of the black animal. It had just…vanished.
Sora drew a shaky breath and pushed himself back to his feet, wincing as he rubbed gingerly at the back of his head.
Definitely not a rabbit.
Roxas. Disquieted, Sora sought the other's consciousness, gaze flicking uneasily from fern to bush to tree, hands curled into half-claws at his side. His mind snared on a dark thread, followed it to a sleeping shadow, and he reached out to touch it –
– and the ropes that bound him cut cruelly into his flesh, severing the flow of blood to his extremities, while too much flowed to his brain; he hung suspended in a perpetual dream state, only distantly aware of how his chest labored for each successively difficult breath –
With an effort that almost caused his knees to buckle, Sora wrenched himself up and out of the god's dreams, panting as he sagged forward, resting his hands on his thighs. Roxas remained too deeply asleep for Sora to reach him, and Sora had no desire to relive his misery with him. He straightened as his heartbeat receded from his ears, glancing mistrustfully at his surroundings. Features twisted in a thoughtful frown, Sora reclaimed the fish from their dusty perch beneath the shade of a nearby flowering bush and walked on, gaze ceaselessly probing the lengthening shadows.
He reached the beach without further incident, lifting an arm to shield his eyes against the light as he stepped out from beneath the shadowed protection of the trees. The sun sinking toward the horizon painted the sky in broad strokes of color; far off to the east, charcoal-colored storm clouds blurred the line between sea and sky.
A shallow fire pit rested at the halfway point between the tree and high tides lines – Sora angled toward it, pace increasing the slightest bit. Kneeling, he set the fish aside and bent to scrape the dead leaves and other detritus that had blown into it away. When the sand was clear once more, he straightened and turned to the small pile of haphazardly stacked driftwood on his left and wrestled out an armful of kindling. He bent over the fire pit once more, quickly building the wood into a keyhole fire ring and using the flint and steel spear tip he'd smuggled from the shrine to tender a flame. The kindling caught, and he sat back on his haunches and fed the growing flame handfuls of the cleared detritus.
Once the blaze was burning strongly, he speared the fish on two sharp sticks and raked the brightest coals into place; he nestled the fish on top of the coals and stepped back, the sweat on his face making the silk lining of his mask cling uncomfortably to his skin. He moved around the fire, circling it until its warmth pressed against his back and his face was turned toward a distant shore, watching lights flare into existence as the sky continued to darken. He felt a familiar ache build in his chest, but he pushed it back into the black places it had crept out of – it was useless to dwell on what could never be. Besides, the priests would probably visit the island soon; perhaps he could even speak to Ansem about the black creature he'd seen.
The smell of the fish drew him back to the fire, and he raked more hot coals into the keyhole before he turned the fish over. The action caused sparks to fly up, and they drifted briefly in the twilit air before dying away.
When the fish were finished he pulled them from the fire, waving them lazily in the air as he waited for them to cool. He tilted his head back and watched the stars flicker into existence above him, searching for the constellations that had been so pleasing to the All-Mother in her flight across the heavens. The clouds in the east, closer now, blotted out a larger portion of the sky, cutting the constellation of the warrior in half, and thunder rumbled in the distance as the wind picked up.
Sora grinned into the coming storm, hand only hesitating a moment before he tilted the mask askew, peeling the heat-cracked skin of the fish aside so he could sink his teeth into the meat beneath, careful not to swallow the thin bones. He watched the stars as he ate, the lights in the city across the water, and the black clouds, rolling toward his small island with perhaps more swiftness than was natural.
The surf was throwing itself against the shore in increasingly violent surges as Sora finished off the second fish, wiping the greasy residue from his mouth and chin with a forearm. Gathering the bones together, he slitted his eyes against the wind and walked down to the water, where he scattered the remains in the waves, intoning the water god's name and thanking him for the meal.
He lifted his face to the sky as the first sporadic raindrops began to fall. The clouds flashed sickly greens and purples, and he could feel the thunder reverberate in his bones. At the back of his mind, he felt Roxas stir, unconsciously reacting to the proximity of another bound deity. There was a moment of silence after the god fully woke before something rippled through the shadows of Roxas's mind that was too complicated for Sora to name.
A bolt of lightning seared the sky, filling the air with the heady scent of ozone as it struck the sand a few feet in front of Sora, and the brown-haired boy could almost see the mirthless smile that curled Roxas's lips. Hello, sister.
With a muted roar, the rain began to come down in earnest; in seconds Sora's tunic was plastered against his skin, the fire behind him drowned and the pieces scattered – he lifted his arms as if to embrace the sky, closing his eyes against the water raining down on him before he set the mask in place once more. Thunder rumbled from one end of the world to the other, and Sora ran the length of the beach beneath the blackened sky, delighting in the power and beauty of the storm.
When at last he returned to his lean-to and dropped his soaking garment to the ground, he wrapped himself in cured animal hides and drifted immediately to sleep, and his dreams remained his own.