Woot! The last chapter is here! it's a very strange sensation - I never feel quite "good" about finishing a story, and the sensation is particularly strange in this instance because I've admittedly been dedicating tome to other writing projects while posting. At any rate, thanks for reading, and enjoy the last chapter.
Chapter 15: Choice
Riku's jaw fell open. "What?"
Xemnas nodded solemnly, though Riku could tell that he hadn't really been that broken up about the whole thing. He had probably been the cause of many deaths both on Destiny Islands and elsewhere, and wouldn't even blink at the prospect of raising the number with a couple of unimportant young men. "I'm afraid that's the fact of the matter."
Xemnas shrugged. "It's simple really: too many witnesses. I simply can't allow you to carry on with the knowledge of The Organization's ministrations, especially since you Sora, are an unrelated third party. It can't be helped."
"What about me?" Riku said through gritted teeth, eyes fighting to stay open, light slipping through the fingers he held at his stomach. "When I'm brought back to life, I'll know everything, too. If you kill Sora, I'll have more than enough information to go to the police."
"And we're willing to offer you a generous compensation package to ensure that you keep your knowledge of this unfortunate situation buried deep within the recesses of your mind, one of which is being granted a second chance to stay out of The Organization's affairs, if you know what I mean. Further interference from you will result in your immediate termination, which, I'm sure would be counter-progressive, given your purpose for standing before me."
Riku's face fell.
Xemnas took a deep breath, appearing as though all of the nerves in his body had been recently pinched."Unfortunately, this unfortunate situation is caused in no small part by some of the members of our organization." He blinked slowly. "Because of our involvement, I am offering this solution to you. Under normal circumstances, both of you would be terminated without question, however, you've been the brunt of two unfortunate mishaps. Consider my generosity before you make your decision." Xemnas paused to give Riku a moment to think. "You may be granted a second chance at life at the small expense of your friend's, or we terminate both of you and keep my generous offer."
Sora looked up at Riku, then back at Xemnas.
He hadn't intended to lose his own life in the process of saving Riku, but then again, he had only set out with the charge to get him put back into his body. He supposed, all things considered, that all other occurrences aside from doing just that were merely additional benefits that he hadn't thought to be optional until then.
Riku glared at Sora, he contemplative look on his face revealing every thought that was tumbling through his mind. If he even heard Sora mutter something as ridiculous as sacrificing himself, Riku would summon every last bit of his strength to slap him squarely across the face. Getting back into his body in order to make up for mistakes of the past, renew lost time that he had spent with Sora sounded great, and was indeed the ideal conclusion to this horrible venture, but asking Sora to sacrifice his own life just so Riku could live his was out of the question. It would completely destroy everything he had worked towards.
Furthermore, Riku had already made his mistake. He was paying for it, wandering around as an apparition until the inevitable close of this existence at the end of the night. It wasn't right for Sora to have to pay a similar price just for offering to help.
He looked up helplessly at Xemnas, his eyes and body burning. "I refuse. I won't let you kill Sora."
"Riku," Sora hissed, but Riku ignored him.
"A lot of things have happened, and I'll admit that the majority of them were my fault. I won't let you enact a punishment that should be mine on Sora."
Xemnas snorted. "You don't have much of a choice in the matter. What's done is done, and I'd rather not have to find a proper burial place for two bodies."
"Let him go. Pretend that I was the one who found out your secret. Offer him the compensation, condemn him to secrecy. I don't care what it is you have to do."
"Riku, cut it out!" Sora yelled, wishing he could grab onto him to shake him. "Listen to what you're saying. We've been trying to find a way to get you back into your body, and this is what you choose to do when you're finally given the opportunity?"
"I'm not going to let them kill you," Riku whispered. "It's not fair. I wouldn't be able to live with myself. The answer is no."
Xemnas interrupted, impatience all over his face. "I'd rather we conclude this matter as quickly as possible. Riku, I'd be willing to grant your request, however fool hearted it may be. There really isn't much left of you to put in your body anyway. On the bright side, I've saved myself a considerable amount of trouble."
Riku nodded, but Sora stepped forward in outrage. "You can't do this! You can't!"
Xemnas ignored him and started towards the back of the warehouse where Axel and Rai were standing. "We're going to need to get rid of the body, but a fire here would cause too much suspicion, even in this obscure of an area. We'll take it with us."
Axel made a face.
Rai looked as though he was about to cry.
Sora fell to his knees; the sharp pain of the landing registering nothing but numbness rippling through his legs. "Riku, you can't just go like this. We have to fight. You have to say something."
Riku looked at him, the shape of his body now no more than a dim pulsation of light in the darkness. "Sora, I've made my mistake. I can't possibly ask you to be punished for it."
Sora's eyes burned, and he felt the pressure of tears behind them. "Did you think about how I might feel about the whole thing? How am I supposed to live without a best friend anymore? That's not…that's not fair!"
Riku's shoulders lifted in a weak shrug, and he pulled the side of his lips up into a small grin. "Yeah, well, I'm a selfish jerk. That's not news."
"Riku, there has to be some other way we can fix this so both of us can live. There has to be! I can't just let you die!"
"You're not. You're letting yourself live. Now stop crying. It makes your face puffy."
Xemnas was in the back instructing Rai and Axel on the proper way to move he body, but Seifer was watching the whole exchange between Sora and Riku. He wasn't really the most sympathetic people out there, and it would be a far stretch to call himself emotive or even slightly kind.
It was because of these particular facts that Seifer was the most surprised to find that his heart was feeling heavy, and the tiniest bit of regret was starting to blossom in the pit of his stomach.
He hadn't felt guilty for stealing Larxene's knives, or inconvenienced several of the Members of The Organization into a skirmish that actually started all of this in the first place.
He didn't care that he threw Rai underneath the bus countless times that evening, or that he and Axel were probably going to be locked in a bout of conflict for the rest of eternity.
But here, as he was watching the heartfelt regretful exchange between these two friends, he was beginning to think that maybe he had made a few mistakes here and there, and that part of this—maybe all of it—might have been his fault.
He stared at Riku, the light draining out of his body just as quickly as the tears were streaming down Sora's face, and he didn't like it. Killing Riku had been one thing, but killing him a second time in front of his best friend was an entirely different matter. If someone had attempted to do the same to Rai, someone who he admittedly didn't show much to respect to very often, he didn't know what he would do.
He looked back at Xemnas, then back at Sora and Riku. He really should just continue to stand guard, wait for the festivities to be over, and then trudge on back to the boat with Xemnas and the others in preparation for his massive punishment. Interfering would only erase the few points he could have been accumulating for being obedient, and he didn't have many of those to begin with.
Really, all he had to do was stand there for a few more minutes, and everything would be over. Riku would disappear into the night, Sora would be bought off to keep the secret—or maybe Xemnas had a spell up his sleeve somewhere to force him into secrecy—and the four of them would march off to The Organization's vessel with Riku's body where they'd return home, get rid of it, and forget all of this had ever happened. Well, he supposed Xemnas, and Axel could pretend it never happened. Rai and he would be reaping the punishment for this for quite some time, he thought, as he peeked at Xemnas's tense facial expression.
He really should just keep his mouth shut.
But then he felt that heaviness in his heart, at the prospect of doing so, and realized…
That maybe this was what guilt felt like.
Well, that was new.
Guilt wasn't something he experienced often. He didn't like it. Could it be that even he could feel badly about something that was admittedly undeserved? When would it go away?
Did guilt go away?
"…Guilt leads to sleeplessness, ulcers, and headaches."
Seifer rolled his eyes, as he recalled the conversation with Rai less than a day ago, and thought it horribly ironic that his words had come back to bite him in the face now of all times. He didn't have much time to relieve himself of such a cruel fate, if the rate at which Riku was dissolving proved anything.
Well, if he was going to be punished for the rest of his life, he was at least going to make it the most spectacular punishment The Organization had ever seen.
"Xemnas, sir?" Seifer coughed, already regretting opening his mouth.
"You're to stand guard until further notice," Xemnas replied not even bothering to turn around.
"Yes sir…of course sir. It's just that, something occurred to me."
Seifer rolled his eyes, unable to believe that he was doing this. "Maybe getting rid of Riku isn't such a good idea."
Xemnas turned on his heel; Axel and Rai immediately stopped what they were doing.
Axel threw the crates he was moving back to the floor and took a seat on top of one of them, suddenly interested. If Seifer must have certainly had aims to dig his hole even deeper, then he was in for a very exciting show.
"What?" Xemnas and Rai said in unison. Rai quieted and Xemnas continued. "And why would that be?"
Seifer found that his feet were shaking a bit. "Well, Xemnas your Excellency, I was just thinking, that maybe we could alleviate some of the burden you've been under lately. Having to handle a situation like this certainly hasn't been easy on you, and I'd like to make this situation as easy for you as possible."
Xemnas lifted an eyebrow, eyes shining with just a hint of annoyance. "Are you telling me that you think I've overlooked something in my decision?"
Seifer threw his arms out and waved them defensively. "No! Never! I would never say such a thing, sir. I merely suggesting an alternative that could be beneficial to you. After all, you've done so much for us and the rest of The Organization, that I think it would be reprehensibly disrespectful of me not to point out an area where your comfort can be taken into consideration."
Xemnas did not look pleased, but he lifted his chin as if to invite Seifer a moment to speak. He didn't have much time though, Seifer observed, as he spared a glance at Riku. Whatever he was about to say was going to have to be dazzlingly brilliant.
He cleared his throat. "Well sir, when I first arrived here with The Organization with the intent to teach this brat a lesson, we did have him put to work."
"Well, we had him load a shipment of packages on the pallet." He inclined his head towards the still-wrapped packages not too far away, and continued. "Those are for the Setzer collaboration. Though they weren't supposed to be delivered for another week or so, they were safely put on the pallet without so much as a complaint. In fact, putting that stuff there isn't even part of his normal job, so I was quite surprised that they were packed with such expertise."
Seifer glanced over at Riku and Sora who were just as surprised that he was saying all of this as Xemnas was. He chose to look away, lest he change his mind.
"I'm not sure what you're trying to get to, Seifer, but it would be in your best interest to make your point before I lose my patience."
"Yes sir!" Seifer mentally pieced a few sentences together. "From what I've seen, few here have handled The Organization's materials here so well. Furthermore, he knows what we're capable of. If we create a position in which we make him the Organization's exclusive shipping…eh…guy, we won't have to go through all of the trouble hiding the body and laying evidence for a realistic murder."
Xemnas rolled his eyes. "We've employed Naminé to do such things. It's no trouble at all."
"Even still, we have no one to guarantee that all of our shipments to Destiny Islands will be taken care of properly. Besides, she's still working with Saïx on his latest misdemeanor. We can't expect her to invent and lay evidence for two murders on such short notice. If we leave Riku alive, he can see to it that our packages make it to this warehouse safely, and Naminé will be able to sleep this week."
Xemnas looked incredibly skeptical, and for a moment, Seifer was convinced that he wasn't going to buy it, and was possibly concocting even more hurtful elements of his punishment. When his expression became contemplative, though, Seifer wondered if maybe, just maybe he had stepped out of a nightmare and into am enchanted, sunlit forest.
Before he was yet again plunged back into darkness, Seifer thought it best to continue. "Consider this, sir. He can keep watch over the Setzer delivery for the next few days, just to ensure that they're properly handled. When they are—and I'm sure they will be—we can continue to utilize his…er…shipping skills...and never again will we have to pay for botched deliveries."
Xemnas rolled the thought over in his mind for a moment, looked over at Riku, then to Sora. "That still doesn't solve our problem with him." Waved his hand in Sora's direction. "And I'm not willing to hand out more money to someone who hasn't even gone through the ritual process."
"Then this is a win-win situation!" Seifer grinned, proud of himself for the closing statement he had self-admittedly only considered for a moment. "We can use Sora as a paycheck. Riku works, we let Sora live. If anything should go awry—and of course, nothing will—we can just come back and kill both of them!"
Sora opened his mouth to say something about being utilized as a token, but Riku shook his head against it.
"Sir, really, we don't have much to lose, and only convenience to gain." He nodded to add emphasis. "Preying on desperate people provides the most profitable outcome. I have plenty of experience in this area. I work with Rai."
Rai muttered something from the back of the room, but fear of being heard by Xemnas kept his voice no higher than a whisper.
Xemnas looked thoughtful, then irritated, then neutral, and Seifer imagined a mental game of Russian roulette being played between the two of them, in which only one of the gun chambers was empty and the rest contained deadly, poisonous, explosive bullets.
"Seifer," he said after a moment. "You surprise me. I didn't think you to be the type to display such an act of valor."
"Not at all, sir." Seifer said, straightening up and refusing to blink. "I'm merely trying to benefit The Organization as a whole."
Xemnas sighed. "Well, be that as it may, I'm not so certain that this plan of yours will be fruitful." He looked over at Riku.
Five sets of eyes were locked on his dissipating form. So much of the light had waned that nearly the entire left side of his body had disappeared.
Sora stopped breathing.
Riku closed his eyes.
Xemnas watched quietly.
Seifer cleared his throat. "Well, we could still give it a try. If it doesn't work, and I'm wrong, I'm willing to give up my…" he gagged on the words that were leaving his mouth. He may have had felt a tiny bit of sympathy for Sora and Riku, but he wasn't crazy. "I'm willing to give up my partner's current status in The Organization. As every good sentry knows, he is only as good as his comrades. Losing Rai would be more of a tragedy than losing my own position."
"Seifer, what's wrong with you, y'know?"
Axel barked out a laugh.
Xemnas rolled his eyes. It was getting late, and he was growing ever more tired of being stalled on the return to headquarters. "I make no guarantees about the success of this operation. I meant what I said."
"Yes sir. I'm willing to accept the consequences for failure."
"I'm not, y'know?"
Xemnas shuffled to Riku's side and gave him a once over. "This…is going to be complicated."
Axel groaned in annoyance. "I just moved all of this junk out of the way. I'm not lifting anything else."
"Quiet," Xemnas muttered, eyes hardening at the fading Riku, certain there wasn't even enough left of him to put back into his body. "You," he looked at Riku. "Come with me."
Xemnas showed no apparent haste in walking back to the body where it was neatly arranged on the dirty ground.
Riku winced. Looking at him made him uncomfortable, so much so that he wasn't sure he even wanted to get back into it. He looked behind him, where Sora was watching with wide eyes and clenched fists.
No choice left, then.
He stared at the body for a moment longer, then looked up at Xemnas expectantly. "Alright then, what do I have to do?"
Xemnas sighed. "I'm going to be perfectly honest with you, which I think is fitting given all off the confusion lately. The likelihood of this being successful is slim. Frankly speaking, there's barely enough of you to fill up a doll, much less your body."
"Well, I guess Rai's going to be jobless then."
"It seems that way."
"Is that going to keep you from trying?"
Xemnas closed his eyes and pinched his eyebrows. "I suppose we owe you that much."
"Good. Let's go then."
Xemnas's upper lip curled, and he sighed in a defeated kind of way. "Stand where you are. Don't move, don't talk."
Riku did as he was told, then watched as Xemnas clasped his hands together, muttered something that sounded a lot like something a child learning to speak would babble, and his hands began to emit a flickering garnet light.
Riku struggled to hold his position, both because he was fading away, and because he didn't know what the light meant. He contemplated inquiring about the show, but before he could open his mouth to speak, Xemnas clasped his hands together, and Riku felt himself crash face-first into his body, as if being fired from a cannon.
Sora watched the display with knees so weak he thought he might fall to the ground. Now he had seen everything, he decided, unsure of what to do. He was torn between moving to get a better look at what was happening, and standing right where he was for fear of damaging something. He didn't trust Xemnas all that well, but he also didn't want to distract him from something so important. It was for this reason that he chose to stand where he was, breath halted, eyes unblinking, and knees shaking.
Xemnas hovered over Riku for what seemed like an hour, light from his hands emitting various colors, the central being the initial garnet. Axel, Seifer and Rai also watched with interest, having never before been subjected to some of Xemnas's more elaborate skills. It was a reminder, Seifer decided of just how powerful Xemnas was, and how lucky Seifer himself was that he wasn't currently more than a mere stain on the ground, given his current organizational infractions.
He sucked in air and continued to watch, and the body below Xemnas's feet began to glow.
A few more moments passed, and Xemnas finally lowered his hands. The light began to fade, and he closed his hands together, closing the source of the light immediately. He was frowning, but Seifer had come to learn that it could be good or bad.
Sharply, Xemnas turned and glared behind him, mainly at Seifer. "We're done here. Let's go."
Seifer's mouth hung open. "…You're done?"
Xemnas didn't say anything, and walked away from the body still lying on the ground. "Seifer, Rai, Axel, we're going to the vessel immediately. Now."
He marched away from the two of them and headed for the garage door in which Seifer was standing in front of.
Sora looked back at Riku, silent and still on the ground, then at Xemnas who was preparing to leave. Riku's ghost was gone, but that didn't mean that it was back in his body where it belonged. He swallowed hard and frowned. "Did it work?"
Xemnas, who was now at the front of a vanguard of unhappy looking members of the Organization turned to him and glowered. "What do you think?" With that, he let out a short, exasperated sigh and pulled open the garage door.
Sora looked after him for a final moment, but couldn't be bothered to ponder his words for long. Instead, he wasted no time in closing the distance between himself and the body on the ground a few meters away.
It was the Riku that he remembered, but he battered from the final fight his body could handle, unmoving, lifeless.
Experimentally, Sora reached out and poked his arm.
It was cold.
Eyes wide with fear of the unthinkable, Sora gripped the limb and shook it. Coldness was wrought throughout. He grabbed for Riku's hands, his shoulders, his chest. Everything was cold and hard, just as was the way with death.
Heart hammering against his ribs, Sora pushed back onto his knees. Xemnas had done something wrong. Riku hadn't been fixed. Trying not to let the panic overcome him, Sora took in a few deep breaths. If he hurried, he would still be able to get back to the boat, catch the four of them before they returned to wherever their headquarters was, and force them to…do something.
Yes, he thought, standing to make a run for the garage door. He still had time. If he could stop them, he would force Xemnas to find another solution. Then Riku would be alive again, and they could make up for all of the lost time, and correct the things he had told Kairi, and scold Riku for being a self-righteous jerk all the time, and…
Then suddenly, Sora felt something cold and fleshy wrap itself around his ankle.
And he smiled.
Because that coldness felt awfully similar to the hands of the dead.
"Have I told you before that you're made of magic fairy dust?"
"Have I told you before that you're an idiot and I hate you?"
Riku grinned, and accepted a proffered ice pack, placing it gingerly on his head. "Maybe a few times."
Sora frowned, sitting down in a chair adjacent from his couch, watching Riku as he had so many times before. The ice pack was a welcome change from the frozen vegetables he had used up during Riku's usual injuries, but he supposed upon further thought, that he rather liked that his friend was still capable of receiving the bumps and bruises from his frequent squabbles down at the harbor.
If a few puddles of melted ice and a package of peas were his only sacrifice for having a real, living, breathing Riku back in his life, he supposed the sacrifice was worthy.
"What happened this time?"
Riku shrugged one shoulder, the other having been recently relocated. "One of my co-workers this time, believe it or not. Got angry that I insisted on moving the shipments to the warehouse instead of just unloading."
Sora wrinkled his nose, remembering the conditions of their arrangement; the arrangement that allowed both him and Riku to sit here and discuss things, and not float around as weightless images of their human selves. He tried to take some of the scolding tone out of his words as he spoke. "How'd that go?"
Riku snorted, insulted that Sora even had to ask. "The load is where it needs to be, if that's what you're getting at. Totally worth a black eye and a busted shoulder."
"It's not like this is anything new," Sora rolled his eyes. "Glad to see that you're in one piece, though."
"Yeah, me too."
Sora picked himself up out of the chair and wandered off towards the kitchen. "I'm going to get you more ice for your shoulder. Don't move."
"I'm not going anywhere."
Sora sighed as he walked into the kitchen, stepping over toys and newspapers, odds and ends that had accumulated there over the course of the years. It seemed strange going back to the way things were. He knew that Riku had only been a ghost for a day, and had already been back among the land of the living for a solid week, but there was still a nagging tension pulling at him. It happened every time he saw Riku—which had been frequent since their conquests with Seifer and the others. Sora was hard pressed to let Riku out of his sight since then—every time he went to work. It pulled at him when he went to sleep at night, and when he woke up each morning. It was there, an ever present signal that finiteness was real; death was real. Life was real.
He peered over his shoulder at Riku lounging on his couch, picking at the medical tape Sora had used to splint two of his fingers, and was vexed. The broken bones and bruises were once again a part of Riku—and subsequently Sora's lives, despite how much he had silently hoped Riku would quit working at the harbor after everything was over. He supposed though, that the harbor was destined to be a part of his life forever, much like what Sora had intended for his friendship with Riku.
On the other hand, though, he was glad. The injuries were a symbol of many things, least of them being a successful fight down at the harbor. It meant that Riku was once again back in his body, that he wasn't a ghost wandering around and shifting between walls, making sugar packets dance, and pushing Sora into awkward social situations. It meant that he was real, and whole, and able to be part of a relationship that wasn't separated by the chasm of life and death. The two of them could exist as they once were, better than they once were, and maybe things were going to be okay.
Sora collected the ice, and closed the door to the freezer, and returned to the living room.
Riku grinned. "Were you in there counting the cubes? How many do I owe you?"
Sora arranged the bag on his shoulder and pulled his face into a glower. "Thousands. Then we'll factor in the amount of money you owe me in vegetables and frozen steak. Looks like you're accruing quite the debt."
"I'll make it up to you. Dinner on me?"
"You'd better believe it."
Thank you all for staying with this story. While it is complete, I would very much appreciate any and all feedback. Please take a moment to offer a review. Thanks!