She wasn't a terribly tall woman, but she wasn't very short either. Her hair was a somewhat blandish brown, and she wore a tired expression to match her plain working clothes. Not a very impressive sight, but her appearance didn't have to be impressive. Residents of the small island town were impressed by her spirit – a spirit that had somehow managed to stand up to the tests of being a single mother, raising a young son by her lonesome, the strange phenomena that had shrouded the town, and more. But the long year and a half absence of the child she'd dedicated her life to was starting to crack that spirit.

The children knew something, she knew that. They were hiding things from the adults, and the whole town knew, but no one could get them to admit anything about that knowledge. None of them would tell what they knew of the two boys who had gone missing, and the girl who'd been friends with them had disappeared just a few weeks ago. Everyone was worried about the two of them, and the strange amnesia which had descended for months only to be lifted just as mysteriously as it had come didn't make her life any easier. So she sat at her kitchen table, staring at the photos of a rambunctious, spiky-haired brunette and letting out the tears she never showed in public.

The front door opened into the kitchen; she heard the trademark squeak of the hinges she'd been meaning to oil and looked up.

She felt the blood drain from her cheeks as she saw the person who'd opened the door; she had to glance back down at the pictures she was still holding, just to make sure.

"Are you real?" she asked, coming to her feet, looking him up and down, taking in every detail.

He'd seemed timid at first, hesitant as he'd stepped through the door, but now his eyes welled up with tears and he threw his arms around her.

"Mom!" he cried, burying his face in her shoulder. "Mom, I've missed you so much."

No doubt about it – this was him. The clothes were different, he was a year and a half older and quite a bit taller, but his voice was the same and so was his face. She couldn't decide whether to cry or scream at him; she decided that for now, she was content to just hold onto him for dear life. Later, they would talk, and she would give him the lecture of his life, but for now, this was enough.

"I'm just glad you're safe, Sora," she said, and he laughed, pulling away and wiping his eyes with one gloved hand.

"Y-yeah," he said. "Me too. Me too…"

Across town, another family waited for its own reunion. They, too, had been waiting a year and a half for their son to come home; everyone had advised them to give up hope, to move on, that the whole island had been searched and no trace had been found, but they knew in their hearts that he was still alive.

She was blonde, her green eyes reading once more the note they'd found half-finished in his dresser drawer.

I don't know when or if I'll be back; maybe this won't even work and I'll come slinking home tomorrow. Either way, we have to go. To find out. Sora and I are taking Kairi home. This is our only chance to

And that was it; it broke off there, without even finishing the sentence. They'd wondered why, what had interrupted him so urgently that he had abandoned the note and left without another word.

Her husband came down the stairs, and his dark eyes were tired and angry beneath heavy, dark brows. Angry at her for dwelling on it, angry at their son for running away and leaving them alone like this. He struggled with his feelings, never really knew how to show them properly. She knew he blamed himself for their son leaving, and knew he could never admit it, which just made him angrier.

That's when they got the phone call. A call that said that one of the two missing boys had returned, and that the other was likely on his way.

After so long, they almost didn't dare to dream that it was true, but they waited for him anyway. Several minutes later, several minutes that felt like an eternity, a young man walked in the door.

He was so different than they remembered him. He walked with somewhat of a limp, and he wouldn't meet their eyes when he saw them waiting for him. His stance wasn't defiant, just simply tired. Patient, too, and calm – he seemed like he were waiting for a blow to fall, but he was ready to accept it, whatever punishment they might give.

"You're in deep trouble, young man!" her husband started, and he stiffened, meeting the challenge with a kind of cool, wary intensity she'd never seen in him before, though the defensive reaction was all too familiar.

"Yes, sir," he said, still almost hesitating to meet the other's gaze.

"How could you just leave your mother and I like that!" continued the older man, anger bleeding out of his words. "How could you abandon your family? Put Sora in danger like that? And then a year and change after you left, Kairi ran off looking for you! You should be ashamed!"

The changes that passed across her son's face were astonishing. Rage built, his posture stiffened… and then came the accusation, the mentions of his friends' names, and all of that left him as suddenly as if he had been struck. A deep-seated guilt surfaced, one she could now tell he'd been carefully hiding the whole time. He looked away, eyes closed, fists clenched.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, but his voice was raw with the emotions he'd never learned to show properly. She desperately wondered what had happened between the three of them, to cause him so much pain, but she knew that this wasn't the time to ask. Instead, she stood and put a hand on his shoulder. He'd grown, she realized, quite a lot, in fact. He looked up at her, then flinched away, as if he couldn't bear to look her in the eyes. For the brief moment that their eyes met, she could see something dark in them, something troubled – and troubling.

She pulled him into a hug.

He seemed surprised, but gently, desperately, hugged her back.

"We were just so worried about you," she said, feeling tears roll down her cheeks. "We're glad you came home, Riku. And that you brought Sora home safe."

He laughed softly, brokenly, but it didn't matter – she could tell that things would be alright now.

"I'm glad we're back, too," he replied.

It hadn't even been a month since the Mayor's adopted daughter had gone missing, but coupled with her friends' disappearances, and the strange events of the past year and a half, the residents of the town were in an uproar about it. Life in the manor atop the hill just wasn't the same without her, admitted the Mayor quietly to himself as he looked at the family photo. He was middle-aged; dealing with any sort of change was difficult at his age, especially when it involved his daughter. He'd been worried for the past year and a half that she'd become distant after the disappearances of her friends, that she and he had grown apart.

The phone calls from Sora's mother and Riku's family had given him a little time to prepare before she came home, time in which he'd struggled to decide how to deal with the situation. Should he scold her? Offer her comfort? Demand answers as to what had happened to her? He'd worried she'd been kidnapped, but the phone calls, explaining the summarized versions of the limited truths told by the other two boys, proved that indeed she hadn't. That she'd left of her own will. How was he to respond to that?

He was still trying to decide, to figure it out, when the front door opened and she came in, wearing the dress she'd been wearing when she disappeared, his birthday present for her fifteenth birthday. She looked both happy and sad, and somewhat sheepish, as she approached him.

"I'm so grounded, aren't I?" she asked with her usual good humor, and it was all he could do not to break down right there, though whether into a quivering mess of tears or rage, he wasn't exactly sure.

"You certainly are, young lady," he replied, but it lacked bite, lacked meaning, and he felt his self-control start to slip.

Always one to know exactly what to do, Kairi gave him the biggest hug she could. "Daddy…" she said softly, and it was all that needed to be said. He lost it, sharing the first private moment with her he'd had in a long time.

"Why?" he asked. "Why did you leave? That's all I want to know."

He couldn't see her smiling, but he could sense that she was doing so.

"They left because of me. I had to bring them home."

Complete and utter truth, he could tell. So like Kairi to preserve everyone's well-being, everyone's happiness above her own. And for now, he didn't care that she didn't seem to be telling the whole story; he was just glad to have her back.

"I missed you."

"I missed you too, daddy."

Things quickly returned to normal in the little island town; uproar disappeared and settled back into the calm, complacent drift of lazy days that had preceded it. Nothing changed here, really; nothing ever would. The three friends had to accept that, just as they realized their parents would have to come to accept their search for something greater. Eventually, someday, they vowed, they would tell the whole story; eventually, someday, they knew they'd have to leave again; but for now, they eased back into their old lives.

No, thought Sora, the spiky-haired brunette. Not their old lives; their old lives would be an uncomfortable fit, now, But something new, something better, similar yet unique.

Another group of friends rushed over, a brown-haired girl cornering Kairi for interrogation while her two guy friends, a blonde and a carrot-top, rushed over to Sora and Riku, demanding to know what had happened. If their raft had actually worked, if they'd actually managed to cross the ocean, what they'd done and seen, and whether they were interested in learning a new sport.

Nothing had changed, thought Riku, the oldest of the three. Nothing except them. But somehow, that change had led him to new understanding of this quiet way of life.

Their three friends chatted, pestered, and nagged; their parents had cried and yelled in turns; but they were back where they belonged.

They were home.