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In the end, after they had beaten Xehanort (again), rescued Aqua and fixed Terra, after Axel had shown up unexpectedly whole and complete, once all the fighting was finished, they brought Ventus' body back to Destiny Island. If they were going to finish this, to put everything back to normal, they were going to do it right. This was the right place, even if none of them could articulate exactly why.  Aqua had him slung over her back, limp and asleep but still breathing, and Roxas couldn't stop looking at him.

Ventus had Roxas’ face, his body, his hair- hell, even the clothes looked a little like what he'd worn, back when he'd been his own person instead of an annoying voice in the back of Sora's head.

It was one thing for Aqua to say: “Your hearts are the same,” and another to see him.

They went to the play island, because no one went there anymore, and the little island with the tree seemed like the right spot for this. Fitting. This was where the adventures had begun, and this is where they would finally come to a close.

“Ready, Roxas?” Aqua asked, laying Ventus on the ground.

“As ready as I'll ever be,” said Roxas, from inside Sora. It was strange to take control, even to say a few words. But it wouldn't be for long.

He took a deep breath- and wondered what it would be like. Would he know, when he was Ventus, that there had ever been a Roxas? Or would those memories just fade away into nothing- an odd dream every once in a while, soon forgotten upon waking?

(“You won't fade away,” Namine had told him once. “You'll be whole.” And he wondered if that was any more true now than it had been then.)

Part of him thought: this isn't fair.

But the rest of him knew that “fair” didn't really apply. Not to him. Not when his heart was Ventus' and his body was really Sora's. The only thing that belonged to him were his memories, and he didn't know if he'd keep those when Ventus' heart returned where it belonged. If there would even be a him to keep them.

Happy endings, he knew, were for people who really existed. But that didn't keep him from hoping.

He spared a glance for the rest of them, but he didn't say goodbye. That would be like giving up, and he hadn't quite done that yet.

Then he thought: this is it, and he touched Ventus' hand.

 

----

 

“Ven,” Aqua said, when his eyes fluttered open. She hugged him while Terra sort of ruffled his hair.

A look of confusion passed across Ven's face, followed by worry. “Aqua,” he said. “Terra. What happened? Did we- is Vanitas gone?”

“I'm so glad you're alright, Ven.”

“So this is Ventus,” Kairi said. “I'm glad to meet you.” She beamed, and Ventus looked taken aback, but then beamed back brightly.

Riku stood back, but there was a smile lurking at the edge of his mouth, waiting to spring up at any time.

And then Ventus turned to look at the person still holding his hand, a puzzled look on his face.

Roxas let go of it, and wondered exactly what had just happened.

His heart was beating alone now- the heart he'd always thought of as Sora's was gone, and he wondered-

If Ventus was over there, while Roxas was still here-

And if Sora was gone- his heart now in Ventus-

What did that mean?

“You okay, Sora?” Riku asked.

(He remembered a moment. There had been a heart looking for shelter, and Sora had welcomed it in. It was one of Sora's memories, old and half-faded-away- but it was one that Roxas had kept, even when all the other memories had been sorted out.)

This hurt his head.
 He realized that Riku was still waiting for an answer, and since Sora wasn't there, Roxas was going to have to say something.

“I'm fine,” he said. “I just... need some air.”

He walked away, excuse sounding weak in his own ears. As though there was some lack of air on the island.

Axel was near- not within eyesight, because he hadn't been looking forward to Roxas disappearing any more than Roxas had (“I'm not going to watch you kill yourself,” he'd said, and Roxas hadn't argued even though that hardly seemed fair- Roxas had watched Axel die once before, after all) but still near. He'd been with them for the whole journey, ever since he came back with his heart inexplicably whole and real and there, and he wasn't going to leave at the very end.

Roxas went to him, and they sat in the sand watching the waves come in and out.

“So that's it, then,” Axel said, hands becoming fists in the sand. “He's dead.”

“No,” Roxas said.

“Call it what you want,” Axel said. “But he's gone. That's the same as dead in my books.”

“I'm not gone,” Roxas said, and if there was some emotion showing on his face he didn't know what it was, because he had no idea- none- what to think of everything. “I'm still alive. I'm here.”

“What?” Axel said, finally, finally looking at him.

“I guess,” Roxas said, puzzling it out as he spoke, “my heart didn't come from Ventus after all. Sora's did.”

There was a pause, then, because what did you say to that?

“Sora is Ventus,” Axel repeated, voice a little strange. “Sora is Ventus. So what does that make you?”

Roxas looked out over the sea at the setting sun.

“Kairi and Riku won't like this,” Roxas said, voice a little dead. “I'll tell them in a minute. I'm sure there's a way to fix this. To switch things around so it happened like they were planning.”

“I don't think that's how it works,” Axel said. “You have your heart. Ventus has his. They're not interchangeable.”

Roxas laughed then, for no reason- this wasn't funny, it was the furthest thing from funny- and the laughs turned to sobs, and he sort of collapsed against Axel's side for a while.

“We can't tell Riku and Kairi,” Roxas said. “We can't, they'd hate me- it was Sora they liked, and he's gone-”

Except if Sora had been Ventus, then Sora had never been Sora at all, had he?

“If you want,” Axel said.

Roxas had Sora's memories. He'd had access to some of them, before- he and Sora had had problems keeping boundaries between themselves, and things had leaked. But now he had all of them, and he wasn't sure what to do with them.

And shouldn't that have been a clue, that Sora's memories had always liked Roxas better than they liked Sora? But he hadn't thought anything of it.

“I can pretend,” he said. “I can just keep pretending forever.”

“If you want,” Axel said again, and put an arm around him.

They stayed like that for a while, sea spray gradually soaking though their clothing, and Roxas wished that he could just stop time right there, and never have to think about any of this ever again.

----

“So you're Sora,” Ventus said later, when Axel had gone- somewhere else, Roxas wasn't exactly sure at that moment. Time seemed to be going by in funny skips and jumps.

Ventus sat heavily on the beach and grinned at him.

“I guess so,” Roxas said. It was strange to see his own face smiling at him. Like some sort of strange cheerful mirror was in front of him.

“I guess I owe you a big thanks,” Ventus said. “For letting me stay in your heart. I don't remember much about it, but, uh- it means a lot.”

“Right,” Roxas said.

And he felt like saying: “About that- do you want to trade places? It's just that I thought I was the one who would disappear, and I'm not sure what to do now that it turns out I'm real.”

But he didn't. He just forced a big Sora smile, and said: “No problem.”

Ventus went to hang out with the others once more.

Roxas didn't move from his spot on the beach until Axel came back and gently led him home.

------

Roxas went home and slept in Sora's bed, woke and dressed in Sora's clothes, waited for Sora's mom to finish making breakfast (while humming a little tune, one that Sora had liked, because it meant she was happy), and went to school, sitting at Sora's desk and taking Sora's exams, with altogether less trouble than Sora would have had. And he did it all while mimicking Sora's stance and words and smile.

I can do this, he thought. He'd been living in Sora's head for more than a year now, and he had all of Sora's memories hanging out in the back of his mind. This was a piece of cake. Easiest impersonation ever.

At lunch, Riku and Kairi tried to talk to him, and he went to the bathroom and threw up.

He left school then, even though it was the middle of the day, and went to find Axel.

“I can't do this,” Roxas said. “Let's go somewhere else. How about Atlantica? I bet Atlantica is nice this time of year.”

Axel sat Roxas down on the couch, grabbed some ice cream from the freezer, and said: “I can tell them for you, if you want.”

“No,” Roxas said. “No, you can't.”

“You have a right to be here,” Axel said. “None of this is your fault.”

Roxas thought about going back to school- about talking to Riku and Kairi- and felt like throwing up again.

“I can't go back,” he said. “This isn't my life. It's Sora's. This whole thing is a lie.”

“But it wasn't your lie,” Axel said. “Your heart belongs where it is, right?”

Roxas could feel it beating, alone in his chest, and it did feel right. More right than he could remember feeling in a long time. His heart. His body. His own memories. All together with no interference, for the first time he could remember.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Then there's no lie,” Axel said. “Got it memorized?”

Roxas still didn't go back to school. He stayed at Axel's, ate ice cream until he felt sick, and watched bad soap operas.

“This,” he said, “is really, truly awful. Ten minutes ago, she was mourning her husband- but now she's making out with his brother? How does that make any sense?”

“They look sort of the same,” Axel said, waving his ice-cream covered spoon in the air vaguely, and looking a little annoyed at Roxas for interrupting. “She's taking solace in him.”

Axel, Roxas decided, was a little more involved in this show than was healthy.

He fell asleep on Axel's couch after eating half of a pizza.

He woke up to knocking.

“I'll get it,” Axel said. “You sit tight.”

“Have you seen Sora?” Kairi's voice said, when Axel opened the door. “He disappeared from school, and I'm worried about him.”

Around the corner, out of sight, Roxas curled in on himself on the couch.

“Whoa,” Axel said. “You think he'd come here?”

“He might have,” Kairi said. “I mean, you two are friends.”

Roxas and I were friends,” Axel said. “Sora is someone else entirely. Look for him somewhere else.”

He shut the door on her without saying goodbye.

“See?” Axel said. “No problem.” He grinned.

“Thanks,” Roxas said.

Axel sat next to him. “I'll do this as long as I need to,” he said. “But you know it can't last forever.”

“No,” Roxas said. “I know it can't.”

He leaned against Axel, because Axel was warm. “...still think we should have gone to Atlantica,” he said, before drifting back to sleep.

He dreamed Sora's memories- building a raft with Riku and Kairi, and drawing a paupu fruit in the secret place, and endless battles with wooden swords on sunny days.

But when he woke up, the feeling was gone. Because they still weren't his memories. They belonged to Sora. To Ventus.

He had a growing certainty that he would never be able to pretend to be Sora. Even if this body was supposed to be his, even if this life was supposed to be his, it wasn't. Ventus had lived here. Ventus had laughed and smiled and made friends and gradually reshaped Sora's life until it couldn't be Roxas's ever again.

He sat in Sora's body, and felt like a thief just for existing.

Axel had to go to work the next day. He was working at some pizza place, making minimum wage and supplementing his rent with munny he'd stockpiled when he was part of the Organization. He left Roxas with some food in the fridge and orders to chill out.

When the next knock came on the door, it was a lot more forceful. Roxas didn't answer it. He just continued sitting on the couch, and wondered if it would be more suspicious or less if he turned off the TV.

“I know you're in there,” Riku's voice said. “I saw you looking out the window earlier. Open the door.”

Roxas said nothing. He left the TV on. Who was to say that Axel hadn't left it on by mistake that morning? It could have happened.

He heard the metallic sound of a keyblade, and then the door opened.

Roxas continued staring at the TV, and wondered if Riku would go away if Roxas ignored him for long enough.

“I knew you were here,” Riku said, satisfied.

Probably Riku would just hit him if he ignored him too long, Roxas decided. He was going to have to make some kind of effort.

He looked at Riku. Not quite in the eyes, because that was hard, but just looking at his face took an uncomfortable amount of effort. Sora's memories were full of Riku. They sort of buzzed in his head, full of facts but not how things were supposed to feel.

“I'm not going to ask if you're okay, Sora,” Riku said. “Because it's pretty obvious that you aren't.”

Riku had been Sora's friend since they were two, Roxas remembered. That was before Ventus' heart had been there at all. So did that mean Riku was Roxas' friend, really?

No, he decided. The first two years didn't mean anything. Not now. Not another 11 years later. Riku was Sora's friend- Ventus'. Not Roxas'.

Had Riku noticed anything, when Sora had been four and Ventus had come? Had it been a gradual change, or sudden? Roxas didn't remember much about being four. He didn't remember losing himself. But Riku was a year older. Maybe he remembered something.

Roxas suddenly didn't want to know. What did it matter, how his life had been ripped away from him? Why would he want to know the details?

“I don't want to talk right now,” Roxas said.

“Why not?” Riku said. “It's obvious that something is wrong. You'll feel better after talking about it.”

“I doubt that,” Roxas said.

“Why?” Riku said again, and a flash of anger crossed his face. “We're best friends.”

All the words that Roxas wanted to say were caught in his throat. He couldn't very well shout, “No, we're not,” could he?

“I didn't mean for you to find me,” Roxas said. “You should go- I don't know. Go find Ventus. You guys should hang out. I bet you'd get along.”

“I don't want to hang out with Ventus,” Riku said, giving him a weird look. “I want to hang out with you, dork. Don't tell me you're jealous of Ventus, of all people.”

And Roxas thought, simply: yes. I am jealous of him because he seems to have lived my life for me, and done such a good job of it that I didn't even know he had done it.

He could end this at any moment. All he had to do was say three simple words:

I'm not Sora.

But even those words were a lie, weren't they?

“I'm not jealous,” he said instead. “I just think you two would get along. And I need some time to think.”

Now Riku was looking at him even more strangely. Right- Sora had done all of his thinking out loud. He didn't ask for time alone. He just talked about whatever was on his mind until he felt better.

Roxas really was crap at this.

“He can't replace you,” Riku said. “If you think he can, you're an idi- Sora?”

Roxas was laughing again, and he thought he might never stop. He was laughing so hard it hurt. And maybe that was good, because hurting was better than the quiet dread he'd felt for the last few days.

“That wasn't supposed to be funny,” Riku said, and he sounded alarmed but Roxas didn't care.

He didn't know how long he sat there, laughing painfully, Riku standing nearby and worried.

“When did we become friends?” he asked Riku, when the laughter had sort of abated.

“Thirteen years ago,” Riku said. “More or less. Sora, I'm going to take you home, okay? You'll sleep better in your own bed.”

“I don't have a home,” Roxas said, mouth now running more or less independently of his brain. “I don't have my own bed.”

He was shaking now, he noticed absently. That was probably a sign of something. Shock, maybe. Could you get shock from laughing too much?

Riku was asking him questions. About... his home. His mom. If something was wrong. But Roxas was only half listening to him, and he certainly wasn't responding.

“I'm real,” he told Riku, over the stream of questions. “It's kind of scary.”

And then he probably passed out, or maybe time had just gone funny again, because the next thing he knew he was lying in Riku's bed, staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars that had been on Riku's ceiling since Sora had stuck them there, one summer when they'd been young and glow-in-the-dark stars were the closest they could get to actually going to other worlds.

Roxas could almost- almost- remember how it had felt.

“Feeling better?” Riku asked.

“I'm fine,” Roxas said, and he wondered if Axel was back yet. If he'd be worried when Roxas was gone. If he'd come looking.

“Stop lying,” Riku said. “Look- I don't know what exactly is wrong, okay? But I promise you can talk about it with me.”

Roxas closed his eyes again.

“Hey,” Riku said. “Stop that.”

Roxas wished he could still open dark portals. He could fall into one, right now, and go somewhere else. Anywhere.

But the portals weren't something he could do now. He should never have been able to do them at all. He hadn't been a Nobody. Not really. All he'd been missing was a body, because Sora had had that.

He opened his eyes.

“It's something to do with Ventus, right?” Riku said. “Or maybe Roxas? Was it hard losing him? I mean, he was in your head for nearly two years now, it must be hard-”

“Roxas isn't gone,” Roxas said, and wondered exactly how much he was going to be able to spit out.

“He isn't?” Riku said. “I thought he would disappear when Ventus' heart left.”

“Roxas was never part of Ventus' heart,” Roxas said, and decided that was as close to the truth as he was willing to get.

“So you're both in there,” Riku said, and he sounded puzzled but a little relieved. “Good.”

“Good?” Roxas asked.

“Well, yeah. I mean, he was starting to grow on me,” Riku said. “I never disliked him or anything.”

Roxas waited another moment before speaking. But ultimately, the hope in Riku's eyes was a little too much to bear. “We're not both in here.”

“But you just said-” Riku said, but Roxas shushed him.

 “There were two hearts in Sora,” he said, after too long a pause. “But the one that was awake and in control for the past twelve years... was Ventus's. Not mine.”

He rolled over on his side, facing the wall, and didn't watch Riku's reaction.

When Riku walked out of the room a moment later, Roxas figured that was answer enough, and he wondered at the fact that Sora's memories- lifeless as they were now- were enough that he felt sick to his stomach.

He climbed out Riku's window because that was easier than going down the stairs and seeing his face.

He went to Sora's house- not because he especially wanted to, but because he wasn't paying attention, and Sora's feet remembered the way.

“You're home,” Sora's mother said. “Where have you been? You didn't sleep in your bed, and the school said you hadn't come in, and not even Riku or Kairi knew where you were. I thought you might have run off to save the worlds again, without so much as a goodbye.”

Roxas shrugged, and started to walk up to Sora's room.

“Where are you going?” she asked. But Roxas didn't feel like answering any more questions today. Not from Riku, not from Kairi, and not from Sora's mom.

This really, really wasn't going to work. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself, and started packing.

“What are you doing?” Sora's mother said from the doorway. “Are you going somewhere? Sora, talk to me!”

Roxas looked up. “I'm going again,” he said.

“Is something dangerous happening?” she asked.

“There's always something dangerous happening,” he muttered, even though it wasn't true anymore. He threw some underwear in his bag.

“What's the matter this time, then?” she asked. And there was something soothing in the way she looked at him. Like he did half-remember what it had been like, to have her as his mother. Like she could be again, if he just let her.

He didn't mean to start crying. But it had been a long day.

“Sora,” she said, and she wrapped her arms around him, and he put his head on her shoulder. She ran her hands through his hair (she'd done that for Sora when he was upset a hundred times and now he knew how it felt even if he couldn't remember)-

 -and she said, “This isn't about saving the world this time, is it?”

“No,” Roxas admitted. “It's just about me.”

“You don't have to talk about it,” she said. “Not until you're ready. But don't go. I feel like I hardly ever see you anymore, and you've only just come home.”

“Okay,” he said.

“I'll make you some hot chocolate,” she said. “Come down when you're ready.” She didn't leave right then, though. She lingered long enough to squeeze him tight for another moment.

He put his things back in their drawers, wiped the tears from his face, and went down.

The cocoa was soothing. Sora's mom- his mom- talked about her garden, and how rabbits kept trying to eat her vegetables no matter how hard she tried to keep them away, and Roxas let the words wash over him like waves.

When he put the empty cup down, he felt a little better.

“Thanks,” he said.

She smiled at him, gently. “Is it girl trouble, then?”

Roxas's mouth fell open. “What? You can't be serious,” he said, and wondered how she could be so spot-on one moment and so deeply, utterly wrong the next.

“Not yet, then?” she said. She touched his shoulder. “There's plenty of time. Don't worry.”

“This isn't about that sort of thing,” Roxas muttered.

“What is it, then?” she asked.

Sora had never explained much about hearts to his mother. He'd told her the sweeping outlines of his adventures, but never the details. It was “I had to find Riku and Kairi, and then we beat this guy Ansem to make all the worlds come back. Only I got a little lost on the way back.” Usually followed by a little grin so that she wouldn't get mad at him.

Roxas wanted to explain.  But how could he tell her that the son she'd raised for fifteen years hadn't always been the same person?

“There's a lot I never told you,” he said. “About where I've been. The things that have happened.”

She sat down near him, and didn't say a word.

“I- I don't think I can explain a lot of it,” he said, after a moment. “I don't understand a lot of it myself. But the important thing... I'm not the same person I was, before.”

“I knew that,” she said.

He looked up at her. “What?”

“I don't expect you to stay the same forever,” she said. “That's what growing up is about.”

She would be a good mom for someone who had normal troubles, Roxas decided. It wasn't her fault that his problems were anything but normal.

“Thanks,” he said, because the thought was nice. And because he didn't feel like explaining after all, suddenly. “I feel a lot better, now. I'm going to go work on homework, okay?”

She smiled sadly at him. “I love you, you know. Don't go away without telling me first. I refuse to believe that the worlds are in so much danger than you can't spare five minutes to come tell your mother where you're going.”

“Okay,” Roxas said, and even he wasn't sure whether he was lying. “I'll do that.”

----


He was suddenly exhausted after that, and he went to bed. Sora's room seemed a little less strange now than it had that first night. It wasn't hard to fall asleep.

He was woken by a pebble on his window.

It was Axel.

“Roxas,” he hissed.

Roxas opened the window.

“You okay?” Axel asked.

“Yeah, Roxas said. “Sorry I bailed on you.”

“You feel a little steadier?” Axel asked.

“A little,” Roxas said. “I'll be down in a second.”

He climbed out the window and shimmied down the drainpipe, which was how Sora had always escaped unnoticed in the middle of the night. It worked, even if it was a little silly-looking.

“I sort of told Riku,” Roxas said, before Axel said anything. “

“How did that go?” Axel said.

Roxas shook his head. “I don't know. I didn't stick around.”

“Why do you care so much, anyway?” Axel asked. “They weren't your friends. They were his.”

“Yeah,” Roxas said, and wondered why the thought of losing them made his stomach hurt. “I guess they were.”

----

 
He went back to school on Monday, and didn't try to talk to Riku or Kairi. He could just about handle Wakka and Tidus, because they'd known Sora but they hadn't been his entire world and he hadn't been theirs.

So he made conversation, and listened to them obsess about who to ask to the dance that was coming up. He didn't try too hard to be Sora, because he wasn't and he never would be. If people thought he had changed since he'd come back again- well, he had.

“You're asking Kairi, right?” Tidus asked.

“No,” Roxas said. “No, I don't think I am.”

He made his way mechanically through his classes, and wondered why Sora had had so much trouble in math. It wasn't that hard. None of the classes were. If Roxas had been in charge all along, he would have gotten better grades.

If Roxas had been in charge all along, he probably would never have found a keyblade, and all the worlds would have been doomed.

After school, he thought about calling Axel, but instead he just went home and went to bed before he'd even had dinner.

“I don't belong here,” he whispered to himself as he fell asleep, and he hated that it was true.

Axel came by to walk him to school the next morning. “I didn't see you yesterday,” Axel said. “Thought you might have run off to Atlantica after all.”

“No,” Roxas said. “I was just tired. Besides, I wouldn't run off without you.”

Again, he didn't say.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He kicked a rock. “I'm ready to go anytime. Just say the word.”

“It's not that bad here,” Axel said. “There's air. Air is a quality I like in a world.”

Roxas laughed a little. “It doesn't have to be Atlantica. We could go to- I don't know. Radiant Garden. That's where you're from, right? Before all of this started?”

“It is,” Axel said. “Give this place another month or two, okay? Maybe things will get better.”

“Why?” Roxas asked, stopping in his tracks. “What's here for me? This was his life. I don't fit here. A couple of months aren't going to change that.”

“You mad at him?” Axel asked. “I know I would be.”

It hadn't occurred to Roxas, to be angry. Not at Ventus. He hadn't known what he was doing, Roxas was sure of that. He'd honestly thought he was Sora. He'd thought he was the real one.

Roxas could be mad at the world, at Xehanort and Vanitas and all the people who had made this happen- but it seemed wrong to be mad at Ventus.

“It wasn't his fault,” Roxas said.

Axel's expression was unreadable. “Come on, you don't want to be late for school, do you?”

They hurried the rest of the way, and Axel left him at the door to school.

“Come to my apartment after school, okay? I'm going to make you dinner.”

Which Roxas took to mean, “I'm going to burn something and then we're eating pizza.” But the thought was nice.

He went through this day as mechanically as the previous one. He didn't even make an effort to talk to Tidus or Wakka. He didn't turn in any homework because he hadn't done any.

At one point during the day, he caught sight of Kairi, and he ducked into a side hallway to avoid her. But otherwise, he was successful in arranging his day to stay as far away from them as possible.

“What about Twilight Town?” Roxas asked as he walked into Axel's apartment without bothering to knock. “It's a nice place. Quiet.”

“Two months,” Axel said, walking at of the kitchen. “You said you would give it two months.”

“I didn't,” Roxas said. “I just didn't disagree with you. What are you making?”

“Pasta,” Axel said. “I figured we could eat early, since I was pretty sure you skipped lunch.”

This was true. Roxas had spent his lunch period in the library, because the cafeteria was only so big, and he couldn't avoid people there.

“How do you even know that?” Roxas asked, putting his bags by the door and taking off his shoes.

“I have my ways,” Axel said, now back in the kitchen.

Roxas followed him.

“Have you been spying on me?” he asked.

Axel gave him a Cheshire Cat smile, which could have meant yes, or just as easily no, or wouldn't you like to know.

 A timer beeped, and Axel turned off the stove. “Go sit down. I'll bring you food.”

Roxas sat on the couch. There wasn't a table to eat at in the apartment. Considering how much he knew Axel was spending on the place, it was a miracle that there was even a real kitchen.

 Roxas was hungry, and the pasta wasn't bad, though it was sort of stuck together.

“You have homework?” Axel asked.

“Yeah,” Roxas said.

“You planning on doing it?” Axel asked.

“Not really.”

“Okay,” Axel said, and turned on the TV.

They caught the second half of the day's episode of that ridiculous soap opera that Axel liked. Somehow the dead guy was back-

(“No,” Axel said. “That's his twin-”

“He didn't have a twin,” Roxas said.

“They were separated at birth and he was found just now. Shush.”)

-and now the woman was forced to choose between him and the brother that she'd been sleeping with. Also, she now had a baby.

“This doesn't make any sense,” Roxas said. “Why are we still watching it?”

Axel continued staring at the screen.

Roxas sighed, and went to rinse his plate off.

They watched the rest of the episode, and then some anime with giant robots. Axel made popcorn. It wasn't a very eventful night, but it was a lot better than going back to Sora's house and sitting alone until he was tired enough to sleep.

He went back to Sora's house before it got too late, because he didn't want to deal with Sora's mom worrying about him. He brushed his teeth, and stared at the face in the mirror, which was still startling even though he knew every time that he'd be seeing Sora's face.

Maybe if I got a haircut, he thought, trying to imagine Sora's face without the ridiculous amount of hair. At least I would look different then.

He woke up too early for school the next day. The sun hadn't come up yet. The thought of getting a haircut still lingered in his mind, and he thought: Well, why not?

He wandered until he found a place that was open, by which time the sun was fully risen. He still had more than an hour before he had to be at school

On a whim, he bought some bleach for his hair. The style was right now, but the color was still Sora's. If he was going to do this, he was going to do it right- and if looking like himself meant looking like Ventus, so be it.

The end result, when he finished up (and had ruined the bath mat in Axel's bathroom by dripping bleach on it), was actually pretty good. He didn't look exactly like (Ventus) himself- Sora's face looked younger, somehow, even though the shape of it was right- but the hair made a big difference.

“Looking good,” Axel said, when he woke up and saw what Roxas had done.

Roxas was late to school, and people stared at him for the rest of the day.

It was worth it, though. He finally felt like it was his face looking back at him from the mirror, and not Sora's.


---- 

Sora's mom was strangely thoughtful when she saw the hair later that day. “I almost didn't recognize you,” she said with a wistful smile. “But it suits you.”

“Thanks,” he said.

He had an even weirder moment the next day, when he was walking back from school and heard a voice behind him say “Ventus!”

He turned, and saw Aqua, and said, “Nope, sorry.”

She looked at him for a moment, and said: “Sora?”

He shrugged.

She laughed a little. “With your hair like that, the two of you look exactly the same, you know.”

Roxas shrugged again. “Yeah,” he said. “I know. But it just seemed... right.”

She stared at him for a moment. “Roxas,” she said.

“Huh?”

“You're Roxas,” she said. “Not Sora. Aren't you?”

He shrugged again. It wasn't like he'd been pretending very hard. He and Sora weren't that similar, once you got past the face. Aqua had never seemed especially confused by the whole thing.

“I thought you'd be gone,” she said. There was a challenge in her eyes.

“So did I,” he said. He looked her straight in the eye, and said: “I guess I was stupid to think that I was the one with the heart full of light. That was always Sora.”

He turned, and he would have left, but Aqua said: “Roxas?”

He didn't turn back. But he didn't walk away.

“I'm sorry,” she said.

“It's not your fault,” he said, and then he continued on his way.
 

----
 

Ventus showed up at Axel's apartment the next day, face ashen. “I came to say sorry,” he said. “Aqua told me what happened. I never meant to hurt you. I don't remember any of it, and if I'd known-”

“Don't,” Roxas said. “Just... stop.”

Ventus closed his mouth.

“I can't talk about this,” Roxas said. “Go away, Sora.”

He realized his mistake a second too late. Ventus had gone even paler, and backed away a little.

“I'm not Sora,” he said. “You are.”

Roxas shut the door on him.

It was strangely satisfying.

 ------

The stupid dance was going to be on Friday, and Roxas was ignoring it as much as possible.

On Wednesday, Tidus said to Roxas: “You know the new kid in the year below us? He looks exactly like you. Especially with the hair.”

“His name is Ventus,” Roxas said, with a sigh.

“Where is he from?” Tidus said. “Is he a relative or something?”

Roxas shrugged. They should probably come up with a cover story for that, or something. If he was going to stay here. Which he wasn't.

“I heard he's going to the dance with Kairi,” Wakka said. “Is it true?”

“I don't know,” Roxas said. “I haven't talked to Kairi for a while.”

“Are you fighting or something? I thought you two had a thing.”

“No,” Roxas said. “Kairi and I never... She can go with whoever she wants. I don't care.”

It made sense, he thought, as he went through the rest of the day. Kairi was a princess of heart. And if Ventus didn't have any darkness, that sort of made him a prince of heart, didn't it? So they were a matched set.

And they had had a thing, when Ventus had been Sora.

Everything was working out. Ventus was slotting into life nicely here. He'd fit in to his old spot in no time.

And then Roxas could just disappear, and let Ventus continue living the life he'd been living, when he'd been Sora.
 

----

 
The dance came and went, and Roxas didn't go. Twice in the next day, Roxas caught sight of Riku when he was walking around, and twice, Roxas successfully turned a corner and avoided him. Once he had to duck into an alleyway, and he'd stood there for a full five minutes before he'd been certain Riku was gone.

On Sunday evening, as Roxas was about to sleep, a pebble hit his window.

It was Riku. Again.

“Come on,” he said. “Come down. I know you're awake in there, Roxas.”

Roxas opened the window with a scowl. “What do you want, Riku?”

“I want you to stop being stupid,” Riku said. “Come down here and talk to me, or I'll come up there.”

Roxas sighed. But it wasn't like he could really get away right now. Short of ducking out the back door and running away, there wasn't a lot he could do.

He climbed out the window. The night was chilly, but he didn't really care.

“What do you want?” he asked Riku, as they fell into stride next to each other walking down the street.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Riku said. “But you keep running away. I thought you were braver than that.”

“You don't know squat about me,” Roxas said. “I'm not him.”

Riku poked him in the chest. “I may not have known you as long, but that doesn't mean we aren't friends. Even if things aren't... what we thought they would be.”

“You been hanging out with Ventus at all?” Roxas asked.

“Some,” Riku said. “He's not exactly Sora, either, you know. The heart isn't all there is to a person.”

“You mad at me?” Roxas asked. “I would be. If someone had replaced Axel, I'd be pissed.”

“It's not your fault,” Riku said, looking away.

“Doesn't matter,” Roxas said. “I'd be pissed anyway.”

Roxas was good at anger. A lot better than Sora had been.

“Maybe a little,” Riku admitted. “At first. But then- it's hard to keep up that kind of anger, when I know none of this is your fault. You got a raw deal.”

“Yeah,” Roxas said. “You could say that again.” He kicked a stone into a bush. “I've been trying to live his life, but it isn't mine. It isn't going to be, no matter what I do.”

Riku was silent, and Roxas figured he probably agreed.

“It's stupid,” Roxas said, “but I kind of feel like I've stolen it from him.”

Riku was absolutely the wrongest person to talk to about this.

“He would have given it back if he'd known,” Riku said. Which wasn't quite the same thing as saying it wasn't stealing, but Roxas would take his comfort where he could find it.

“Axel said you might go away,” Riku said.

“I've been thinking about it,” Roxas said. “About going somewhere where no one knew Sora.”

“It won't change anything,” Riku said. “It'll just make you a coward.”

Roxas kicked another stone. “I know,” he said. “But that doesn't stop me from wanting to.”

They walked another few steps, and the pools of light from the streetlights disappeared. The sidewalk under Roxas' shoes gave way to sand.

“Hey, Roxas,” Riku said.

Roxas looked up. The Way to Dawn was in Riku's hand, glinting a bit in the half-light from the stars and the moon. There was half a smirk on his face.

Roxas nodded, and summoned Oblivion and-

and-

and-

Oathkeeper wouldn't come.

He tried again, and again, no matter what he did, his other hand remained empty.

“Are you okay?” Riku asked, Way to Dawn disappearing as he walked to Roxas' side.

“It's gone,” he said. “Oathkeeper is gone.”

“You only have one heart now,” Riku pointed out. As though Roxas didn't know.

“They were both mine,” Roxas said. “My keyblades. Not Sora's. Mine.”

At least, he'd thought so. Until now. Now, he just felt a little lost.

“You afraid to fight me with just one?” Riku asked, the challenge in his voice a little unsteady. Like he was trying on the teasing rivalry like a shirt, and he wasn't sure it was going to fit.

Roxas took a breath.

“You wish,” he said, his own challenge just as uncertain, and he raised Oblivion.

“That's more like it,” Riku said, and now his smirk was real.

The next few minutes were all about the crash of blades in the dark. The footing was bad in the sand, and it was hard to dodge, so Roxas didn't bother- he just attacked, over and over, keeping Riku on the defense and putting all his strength behind each blow. It was a stupid way to fight, but it was satisfying.

“Is that all you've got?” Riku asked.

It wasn't, of course.

The minutes after that were about the clash of light and dark and magic in the night. Roxas let loose every attack he knew, beams of light and rushing assaults. And he was glad that those, at least, he hadn't forgotten.

His eyes were a little dazzled by all of it, but there wasn't time to recover, because Riku followed with moves of his own- both light and dark. Keeping on his feet and uninjured took every single bit of his concentration, and he liked that. He'd been thinking too much lately. A fight was better than that, even if it was sparring and not real.

(It was a little realer than either of them would admit. There was no holding back, no pulling of punches, no softness. They hurt each other and Roxas's arms ached with the effort of attack and blocking, and his brain felt like it was going to mush out of his ears from using too much magic too fast, and it was amazing)

In the end, neither of them really won. By some sort of unspoken agreement, they both put away their keyblades before they did one another any permanent injury, and Riku said: “It's getting late.”

“Yeah,” Roxas said, stretching out a little and wondering how many bruises he was going to have later.

“See you tomorrow, Roxas,” Riku said, and walked off into the night.

“Sure,” Roxas said. And then, when Riku was gone, he said: “Wait, what?”

 ------

Sure enough, when Roxas went to Axel's the next day, Riku and Kairi were waiting.

There was a tense moment, and then Kairi said: “How have you been, Roxas?”

Kairi's voice was very rarely that unsure.

“I'm fine,” Roxas said.

“I like the hair,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said. And then, to be polite: “Did you have a good time at the dance?”

She looked at him for a moment, like she wasn't sure if she should answer or not, and then said: “I did. His heart's the same as before. And I guess... that's what matters, to me. The feelings. Not the memories. Even if he isn't Sora, exactly.”

She raised her chin a little, as if daring him to argue. He shrugged. “Whatever,” he said. “I'm glad you enjoyed yourself.”

Axel came in from the other room and flipped on the TV, and they all watched the terrible soap opera together until Riku left in utter disgust.

Things still weren't okay. But Roxas had a feeling that they might become okay, someday, and that was the best he'd felt so far.

 ------

“I'll make you a deal,” Roxas told Ventus, after cornering him in between classes Wednesday of the next week.

“Huh?” Ventus asked. He'd lost the sick grey look, which was good, at least.

“I'm going to forgive you,” Roxas said. “Absolutely, one-hundred percent. Okay?”

Ventus' eyes were wide. “Really?”

“Yeah. But you have to do something for me, okay?”

“What?” Ventus looked too eager. He really was like a puppy.

“You have to forgive me,” Roxas said.

Ventus looked confused. “For what?”

Roxas wasn't sure how to explain it.

“Not- not as Ventus. As Sora. I want you to forgive me for- for taking everything back.”

Ventus looked at him, and the look was sad.

“I have dreams, you know,” Ventus said. “ Weird ones. Sometimes I think they're memories. Yours. Mine. I don't know.”

“Sora's,” Roxas said.

“Yeah. And they're- sad, sort of, right? Because that isn't who I am, even if it sometimes feels like it should be. We had the same heart, and I have his feelings for people here, but without the memories, it's not the same. It's just- impressions.”

Roxas wasn't sure what the point was.

“I'm not the one who should be forgiving you,” Ventus continued. “But... if it helps, I think he would have forgiven you. If I were still him, I would. I think you're a good guy.”

“Good enough,” Roxas said, after a moment. “Then I guess I forgive you, too.”

Ventus smiled, and Roxas smiled back.

Things were going to be alright.

 

----

Roxas started doing homework again with about a week of school left until summer. It wasn't enough.

He had a talk with the principal, who said things about responsibility and the future, and Roxas just sat there.

“We're holding you back a year,” she told Roxas, a disappointed look on her face. “You've missed most of this year, and I'm afraid your coursework wasn't good enough to show us that you're ready to move on.”

“Okay,” Roxas said. “Whatever.”

“I'm not sure you understand the gravity of the situation,” she told him.

He shrugged. “I'll do it. I screwed this year up. So I'll fix it.”

Sora would have cared more. He would have hated being in a separate grade from Kairi, for one thing.

But Sora had never been real.

This was Roxas' life now.

 ----

This wasn't the happy ending he'd been planning on- hell, he hadn’t expected to survive that day on the play island- and part of him knew his life was always going to feel a little stolen.

But sitting next to Axel on the beach- while Riku and Kari and Ventus all tried to splash each other with water, while Aqua and Terra watched them fondly- he was pretty sure he could live with that.