Actions

Work Header

Paradigm

Chapter Text


"I take one, one, one 'cause you left me
And two, two, two for my family
And three, three, three for my heartache
And four, four, four for my headaches
And five, five, five for my lonely
And six, six, six for my sorrow
And seven, seven for no tomorrow
And eight, eight, I forget what eight was for
But nine, nine, nine for the lost gods
Ten, ten, ten, ten for everything, everything, everything."
"Kiss Off" - Violent Femmes


The air was a pointed innuendo of sticky summer humidity on the afternoon in mid-March when Roxas Strife broke his finger flipping Seifer Almasy the bird. More accurately, the basketball Seifer'd chucked at his face during sixth period phys-ed had been the catalyst for a sound reminiscent of a winter-dry twig snapping under steel-toed boots. To Roxas, the distinction was interchangeable.

He watched the gym teacher and long-time friend Pence sprint toward him in the direction opposite the rubbery weapon's fresh trajectory as Seifer slunk off toward his friends. With detachment bordering on academic, Roxas pondered the physics of required velocity and the force necessary to spawn such an uninspiring sound, now echoing off of Radiant Hollow Senior High's gymnasium walls. He'd offered both concerned parties quick assurances that he was fine. It took just one ear-splitting squeal from a classmate in response to the awkward angle in which the digit had been wrenched and Roxas was being ordered to the school nurse with strict instructions to not so much as consider a locker room detour beforehand.

Christ alive. Fucking girls.

There wasn't much he despised more than empathetic squeamishness, although a close second was probably imminent summer moisture the consistency of watery septic discharge. Soon enough, it'd become more a misery to continue wearing his hallowed detachable arm sleeves than a seemingly eccentric fashion choice, even in the air conditioned indoors, and Roxas would find himself wondering how much sweat his monochromatic armbands had to acquire before his skin officially qualified as biological warfare. At best, he was anticipating a slew of odor-related classmate complaints that displayed far less empathy than he'd just received over something as trivial as a spindly middle finger. Eighteen years and running, everyone in this town was still so painfully predictable.

Deliberately avoiding eye contact and standard greetings with the handful of students he encountered in the halls, Roxas plotted the quickest route to the admin office where the nurse was located. The worn rubber soles of his tennis shoes slapped invariable staccato notes against cheap vinyl that had boasted an uncontested monopoly over RHSH's interior flooring since the early '70s. Irritation rising like a heat blister, Roxas only wished the remedy for his piss-poor mood involved something as straightforward as a light jab with a sewing needle sterilized in a sea of rubbing alcohol. He didn't have time for this over-zealous, concerned authority bullshit.

The admin office's door was open, and likely would remain so until the last bell of the day sounded and students started streaming en masse out into the halls liked panicked wildebeests without an ounce of mother nature-supplied grace. Roxas entered, then made a beeline over to the receptionist, who was typing away at a computer keyboard on her desk with enough enthusiasm that it was safe to assume she was doing something other than reception duties. Shrewdly, he shielded his hand to avoid another unwanted reaction. Sliding a piece of paper out of the pocket of his athletic shorts, he held the gym teacher's note at arm's length.

Grabbing it, the receptionist skimmed the note with more scrutiny than a few lines of basic English warranted, and Roxas tucked his injured finger behind the cupped palm of his good hand, resting both just above the elastic band at the front of his shorts.

"You were in an accident?" Placing stress on the final word, the receptionist looked up. Her gaze traveled down his arm, as he'd anticipated, no doubt searching for any evidence of actionable school negligence.

"Yeah." Roxas nodded. He had no interest in laying blame on Seifer or explaining further. There was enough to focus on without getting the school involved in a longstanding childhood feud with an unsatisfying origin story. "I was playing basketball and fumbled a pass."

The receptionist eyed him, her expression the pinnacle of indifference. "Take a seat. I'll tell the nurse you're here." Without another glance his way, she turned back to the computer.

Grinding his heels into the floor enough to pull a tight one-eighty, Roxas made his way over to a row of plastic chairs lined up against the frosted plexiglass of the office's far wall. There were two others present and waiting. He chose the seat farthest away from them and plopped down, curling his back inward against the chair's pitted plastic, hands resting in his lap, shoulders rounding until his chin was an inch away from fusing with his sternum. It probably wasn't a comfortable position for anyone to look at, but the number of fucks Roxas gave about what others were seeing was equal to the sum of regrets he had for taking Seifer's verbal bait in the first place.

Sensing eyes on him, Roxas glanced to his right, toward the pair a few seats down from him. He allowed himself a second to process the revelation that he recognized neither, brows rising minutely beneath the war-zone of messy blond spikes that passed for hair after nearly fifty minutes of gym class. Radiant Hollow wasn't exactly a destination that strangers patronized by choice, and Roxas could count the number of times he'd encountered someone totally unknown to him at school this year alone on a single hand. Maybe two, he conceded, if he truly happened to be down one working finger thanks to Seifer.

They were mother and son, or so Roxas figured, given the similarity in appearance. The woman's focus was directed at a smartphone cupped in both hands, her manicured fingers scrolling through what looked like email or a website with a dense block of text. It was the boy who'd been studying him, eyes naturally tapering in both corners, hair a manifest shade of silvery-white. If not for the woman's interchangeable features, he'd have assumed color that outlandish required ostentatious amounts of hair dye. Roxas returned the look, brows knitting into an expression of well-practiced recalcitrance. It usually sufficed to put others off their game and get them minding their own damn business, posthaste.

The young man's expression didn't change as he took in the look Roxas was shooting him. His eyes were a garish shade of teal, reminiscent of the Gulf's low-oxygen dead zone, and had to be the work of contact lenses, in Roxas' estimation. Just the same, the intensity of the gaze had Roxas looking away and losing a staring contest for the first time in ages. Irritation was quick to return, rising in a steady swell from the depths of his chest into the tense muscles of his throat. His eyes fell on the offending injury that had necessitated this unwanted detour. Considering the swollen digit and the odd angle his finger now pointed out from at the second knuckle, Roxas supposed he could understand the logic behind being sent to the nurse. With a strained sigh, he pinched the tip of his injured extremity between the thumb and index finger of his good hand and gave it a quick, pitiless jerk.

The finger did straighten, as he'd intended. It also made a grinding, bone-crunching sound rather than the anticipatory popping of a knuckle realigning into its appropriate place. A prickling jolt of what Roxas vaguely identified as pain traveled up his arm, halting at his elbow before retracing its route down his forearm, the throbbing intermittent but undebatable. If he'd been alone, he might have studied the injury with more inquisitiveness. With strangers in such close proximity and the receptionist still typing with unnecessary vigor no more than two yards away, the admin office didn't afford him any such privacy, and Roxas silently acknowledged that he probably shouldn't have let himself fall victim to such vacuous histrionics. Glancing back over at the other waiting visitors, Roxas saw that the boy's eyes had widened in surprise, maybe horror. This time the stranger averted his gaze in the face of Roxas' nausea-inducing theatrics but seemed content to keep quiet rather than questioning the logic of setting one's own finger a mere handful minutes out from an appointment with a trained medical professional.

Well, Roxas thought as he smoothed a fold in his athletic sleeve. No harm, no foul after all. Maybe.

"Riku Kimura?" The receptionist's voice was more hesitation than authority as she enunciated each syllable with careful deliberation. The rest of her sentence was objectively rushed, the words half-stumbling over one another in their haste to leave her mouth. "The principal will see you and your mother now."

The two stood, and Roxas took a moment to consider the foreign-sounding name before deeming it too unpronounceable to be worth further effort. With the receptionist leading, all three disappeared behind a back door toward the halls that housed private offices for the school's higher-up officials.

Looking down at his hand again, Roxas flexed his fingers, noting his patent inability to move one in particular beyond an extremely limited range. With an exaggerated look of impatience directed at no one in particular, Roxas glanced at the office's wall clock. If he didn't get called in soon, he was going to miss his ride home with Hayner, not only necessitating a nearly three mile walk and being late to dinner, but also risking his mother's unparalleled ire. At least his brother Sora had an alternate way home, because this was taking an unnecessary level of forever.

He sighed again and tried to suppress the handful of retaliatory actions just begging for critical consideration.

What a day to break a goddamn finger. Seifer was, without question, a special kind of asshole.

o - o

By the time Roxas' home came into view, he was edging toward an hour late and change, having missed his ride by mere minutes. His body was coated in a sheen of sweat, thanks to the double whammy of athletic sleeves still wound around both arms and Radiant Hollow's unrepentant humidity. It was the gift that just kept on giving, without the perk of being able to return it for store credit. After retrieving his street clothes, he'd opted to remain in gym shorts, swapping out one set of arm sleeves for a clean pair that had thus far avoided seeing the inside of a high school gymnasium. It hardly mattered now though, considering how gross he'd gotten on the trek home.

It hadn't just been his sleeves. His backpack was filled near to bursting with textbooks, an ever-present reminder that finals were increasingly encroaching on his already limited evening and weekend sovereignty. Sweat had also formed between his shoulders in a matter of minutes after he'd exited his air conditioned haven of an educational institution. Before long, it was trickling lower, down the center channel of his back, his cotton shirt sticking to slick skin in awkward places, the band of his gym shorts offering fatal absorption as his body's natural condensation reached its final resting place.

The Strife's house was a modest A-frame situated at the end of a line of residences with near-identical architecture. Most were in various levels of disrepair, unfinished construction projects that ran the gamut from peeling siding to sagging roofs. The neighborhood stood as a testament to the blue collar working class of Radiant Hollow, consisting primarily of workers employed by a textile manufacturer one town over. It was a company whose only idiosyncratic characteristic involved a hell and high water battle waged against workers' unions and other unwanted liberal employment protections that had ultimately been lost decades earlier. The nicer homes were reserved for more affluent families clear across the other end of the city, which wasn't saying much considering the town's median annual income teetered just above the national poverty level.

Steeling himself for a maternal confrontation of epic proportions, Roxas plodded up the ramp connecting the lawn to their front porch, a project his oldest brother and a friend had constructed during their first summer out of high school. It set their home apart from the others on this block, a compulsory eyesore that Roxas had made his peace with half a decade ago.

The main door was ajar, a screen with crusted iron oxide the color of sienna on its topmost hinge the lone barrier between the front porch and living room. Its protesting groan was not all that dissimilar to the high-pitched sound emitted in his gym class that had been the initial impetus for his present tardiness. With the shades drawn over west-facing windows to block out excess sunset heat, the room was dark, but even before his eyes fully refocused Roxas could see that the couch was occupied. The squeaking of old furniture springs and Pat Sajak's resonate voice announcing the theme of a word puzzle was his personalized version of a welcome home greeting.

Roxas approached the couch, eyes on the TV. Shrugging out of the bag's padded straps, he let the backpack drop to the floor with an audible thud. "Before and After category puzzles always blow."

Fingers entwined at his waist, torso a concave curve from neck to mid-chest, his older brother glanced at him without moving his head. "You're late," he noted. "And you smell rank as hell."

"I had to go to the nurse's office. Hayner left without me." Ignoring the body odor comment, Roxas waved his injured hand in his brother's general direction, before dropping heavily into a La-Z-Boy recliner that hadn't been stylish since the Reagan administration. His injured digit was wrapped in first aid tape, secured to its neighboring index finger for additional support. Half a popsicle stick on either side acted as an ad hoc splint.

Cloud eyed his younger brother with only a faint flicker of interest before returning his attention to Vanna White as she glided across the screen with an impressive level of effortlessness considering the paltry support her high-heels boasted. "I always figured you for a lover more than a fighter, boyo. We're not even Irish."

Leaning forward, chin resting on an open palm as his elbow ground an unforgiving hollow into the top of one thigh, Roxas took a moment to consider the Big Bird-yellow dress Ms. White was sporting before contributing a response. He wondered what qualifications a person needed to opine on the singular calamity that was the debatable fashion choices of American television personalities. "You should've seen the other guy," he finally replied.

"Nice." Cloud snorted, lips twitching as though considering a smirk but passing for lack of adequate ardor. He reached over toward the coffee table for a half-finished bottle of cheap beer. As if remembering his role as elder brother and secondary parental figure, he followed the comment with a quick inquiry, eyes still directed at the TV. "It broken? Gonna need me to take you to the hospital?"

"No, all good. The nurse fixed me right up."

Roxas watched as his brother took a long swig of his drink before pressing the bottle to the side of his face, rubbing condensation against day-old face stubble. "Good, good," Cloud murmured, exhaling, expression harried. "Last night's shift was brutal."

While a contestant proceeded to tank his guess on a simple puzzle solution, Roxas turned back to Cloud. "That why Mom's not here?"

Matted blond hair bobbing in tune with an answering nod, Cloud took another sip of beer, this one slightly more restrained. "Mandatory overtime. Two hours."

Roxas grimaced. "That sucks." Except for managing to avoid being utterly reamed out on account of his own delayed arrival home, obviously.

Cloud shrugged. "It's good money."

The show paused for a commercial break, Roxas only half-paying attention as some ad extolling the inherent patriotism associated with gas station patronage ran in the background.

Stretching his limbs, knee-joints popping as he locked and released them in quick succession, Cloud looked back over at Roxas. "Anyway, I cooked dinner. It's on the counter in the kitchen."

"Cool." Roxas hopped up, then ambled his way in the kitchen's general direction, noting the wheelchair folded unobtrusively in a corner near the dining table that was used more for piling up old newspapers, mail, and bills than sitting together as a family unit and breaking bread at mealtime. He turned a corner into the kitchen and found himself face-to-face with two paper bags emblazoned with Arby's logos.

"Ven called earlier." Cloud's voice drifted into the kitchen.

"You have a loose understanding of the word cooked," Roxas yelled back, as he snatched up the fast food bags and returned to the living room.

With a light laugh directed more at the TV set than Roxas, Cloud reached up and yanked one of the bags out of Roxas' hands. "Shut up and eat your curly fries."

Settling back into his chair, saying nothing, Roxas complied.

He shoved a handful of what qualified more as lukewarm, sodium repositories than actual potatoes into his mouth, then pulled his backpack closer and toyed with the idea of studying for tomorrow's rumored physics quiz. "What'd Ven have to say?"

"Something about his summer internship schedule and the dates he can come home to visit." Cloud reached into his bag, hand emerging with more fries. "I still think it's not right, working for free like that."

It was Roxas' turn to shrug. "If it leads to a paying job, I guess it's not a bad thing."

"Yeah." Cloud didn't sound convinced. College and internships were both foreign concepts to him. Only a handful of years separated Roxas' two oldest brothers but it made all the difference. He was pretty sure the high school hadn't even hired a career counselor until two years after Cloud had graduated. By then, he'd already gotten a position at the same factory where their mother had been employed for the last twenty years, first working the line for straight eight hours shifts, sometimes more if they imposed mandatory overtime hours during busier months. He'd been promoted to shift manager a few years back, which meant more money but also additional responsibilities that left him tired and irritable on the evenings the brothers crossed paths.

Hand diving back into the grease-stained bag, Roxas retrieved a roast beef sandwich drenched in its own meaty secretions and took a generous bite. "Has Sora eaten yet?" he asked a beat later, mouth still half-full of oily beef and over-processed bread.

"If your understanding of 'eaten' matches my definition of cooking, then sure. You know him," Cloud said, between bites of curly fries. When Roxas shot him a perturbed look, he reluctantly supplemented. "I took a sandwich upstairs to him awhile ago. He said he had homework."

Crumpling the top of the Arby's bag into his good hand, Roxas slung his backpack over one shoulder, then stood and made his way toward the stairs. "Yeah, me too. I should probably get started."

"Take a shower while you're at it, will ya," Cloud called at his retreating back. "You reek on a blessed level."

Ignoring the barb, Roxas took the stairs two by two, turning a deaf ear on the various groans and creaks his feet elicited from the wood underfoot. He turned a corner, past his mother's room, then entered the second door on the left. It was already half-open as if beckoning interested guests. From his seat at the desk in the far corner, a boy looked up and over a pair of silver-rimmed reading glasses, expression genuine, amply welcoming.

"You're home. I thought I heard you get in."

Approaching his brother, Roxas held out the bag of fries while simultaneously noting the chicken sandwich on Sora's desk. It was in its paper wrapper, still untouched. "Cloud said you'd eaten. One of you's a damn liar."

Sora blinked, gaze shifting from Roxas' face toward the bag thrust under his nose. He didn't reach out to take it. "What happened to your hand?"

"Don't change the subject." As Roxas dropped his backpack and settled into a folding chair, he slid the sandwich closer to his brother. It left a trail of glistening oil in its wake, a food corporation's version of edible snail sludge. Not the best move, in retrospect, if he wanted to make the sandwich seem enticing to ingest.

Brows rising in a virtuoso display of unblemished innocence, Sora reached for the sandwich. "I'll eat this if you tell me what happened to your finger."

"I'll tell you what happened if you eat something," Roxas countered.

They stared one another down, for a moment neither speaking. There was no chance in hell Roxas was losing a second retinal stand-off in one day. With an exaggerated eye-roll, Sora conceded defeat. The sharp line of a narrow collarbone rose beneath his tank top as he responded with a nonchalant shrug. "Okay, fine. Some mothers' children, though…"

Roxas watched his brother unfold the wrapper, then take a minuscule bite. The sandwich seemed twice as big in Sora's skeletal fingers as it'd looked a moment earlier in his own hand. Idly, he found himself wondering how his brother had the strength to hold his own weight and even stay balanced on his customized crutches for longer than half a minute, let alone an entire school day. "Y'know, that jab's more effective on someone who isn't related to you."

"I know." Grinning, Sora took a slightly larger second bite. "Now don't you go changing the subject, jackass. Explain yourself."

The corners of his mouth rising despite a concerted effort to keep a straight face, Roxas stole another fry from the bag he hadn't yet managed to pass off. "Gym accident. Basketballs are hazardous."

Sora's brows knitted so close together they nearly formed a complete line above his eyes. "Usually not for you, mister varsity athlete. Was it Seifer again?"

"Nah, and fuck that guy sideways." Roxas stood, dropping the paper bag onto the desktop and taking a step toward the door. "I'm gonna take a shower. That sandwich better be gone by the time I get back."

Sora took another hyperbolic bite. "Okay, Mom."

Twisting his upper body back toward his brother, Roxas flipped Sora off with the only middle finger that was still mobile enough to manage the gesture, then disappeared out the door.

Padding down the hall, he made a pit stop in his room for clothes, reminding himself to start moving some of his belongings back into the room he used to share with Sora in anticipation of the weeks when Ven would be home. He slipped into the bathroom, dropping his clean clothes on the closed toilet seat and initiating a stream of hot water from the calcified bathtub tap with a practiced, wrenching twist. His intensions of taking a quick shower only slightly hampered by the awkwardness that was bathing oneself with a single hand in adequate working condition, Roxas was soon toweling off. Without fussing over his appearance, he pulled up a pair of loose-fitting shorts and slid a pair of athletic sleeves back to their rightful place on both forearms. It was still warm enough indoors to pass on a regular t-shirt. He made a beeline for the sink and began rummaging through the medicine cabinet. Locating the sought-out item, he palmed it in his uninjured hand, before exiting the bathroom and poking his head around the door to Sora's bedroom.

"Did you finish it?"

Palms out, as though proving an indisputable point, Sora nodded. "All done, yeah."

"Okay, cool." With a curt nod, Roxas pushed the door open further. "Hey, can I pinch some of your meds?" He revealed the prescription bottle he'd grabbed from the bathroom and gave it an illustrative, rattling shake.

Quirking his head toward one shoulder, Sora seemed to approach the question with critical appraisal. "Is your hand hurting?"

Roxas nodded. "Total agony."

With a heavy sigh, Sora inclined his head in assent, eyes following his brother as he dug into his backpack, emerging a beat later with a bottle of water. Popping the pill bottle's cap off with casual familiarity, Roxas shook out two prescription-strength painkillers and downed them with a single swig of water. "Thanks. Want to catch a ride to school with me and Hayner tomorrow?"

Still silent, Sora nodded, adjusting his reading glasses back onto the bridge of his nose.

Depositing his water and zipping his backpack, Roxas slung one strap over his covered forearm. He passed a trashcan on the way toward the door, wordlessly noting its contents just before aiming to turn the corner back into the upstairs hallway.

"Hey!" Sora called, his voice quiet but carrying enough to stop Roxas in place beneath the bedroom doorframe. Roxas turned, brows rising in an unspoken inquiry.

Sora mimicked the expression with the skill only a twin brother could execute with such adept masterfulness. "Has anyone ever mentioned you're a shitty liar?"

Gaze traveling deliberately back to the trashcan that a barely half-eaten Arby's chicken sandwich now called home, Roxas shot Sora a look that was lordly, knowing. "Pot. Kettle. I'll see you tomorrow, smartass."

Chapter Text


"I'd say that this is the darkest song I ever wrote
No hint of a smile or the usual quirky anecdotes
No, this is a song about someone new
What not to say, what not to do."
"Here Comes the Anxiety" - The Wombats


 

The formal dining room was a mottle of half-emptied boxes and crumpled off-white packing paper, visual evidence of Ayumi Kimura's good-faith attempt at domestic organization that had been predictably interrupted by a text from the hospital. Per norm, it had induced a mad scramble for her purse and the keys to a short-term car rental on her way out the door. She'd left her son to handle the movers, promising a quick return, but he'd heard that platitude enough times over the years to know it carried about as much weight as a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Legs crossed in a seated position next to a box housing heirloom china flatware, Riku watched the movers enter and exit the residence he was expected to call home for the next five months like he genuinely meant it without much interest. In a condemnatory frame of mind, he found himself assessing the mess around him and coming to the conclusion that his parents had vastly overpacked. He suppressed a scowl, then shifted his shoulder, shrugging it upward in a seasoned balancing act between one ear and his latest model iPhone.

"This place is a nightmare."

The admission was muttered, his voice low enough to keep it from traveling out into the foyer where the movers were still unloading belongings his mother had made the executive but ultimately benighted decision they couldn't leave behind for the duration of this temporary relocation. While brilliant in the operating room, Riku was convinced the woman would flunk every single test on a degree track devoted to commonsense domesticity.

Across the phone line, he could hear the precise clicking of rapid-fire typing. "It looked okay in the photo your mom posted to Facebook," his cousin replied. "Maybe a little small."

Pulling another armful of plates out of a medium-sized moving box, Riku exhaled and worked through how to clarify his opening declaration. "It's not the house that's the problem," he said, starting to unwrap the thin paper separating individual plates. "It's the people."

Granted, they'd been in town a grand total of one day, and Riku had admittedly encountered only a small sampling of the town's longtime residents. Between ignorant school administrators, the landlord and her quirky daughter, and even a dubious store clerk who'd bagged their groceries the night before, Riku had noticed enough wary side glances and verbal grandiloquence, canceled out by nearly incomprehensible accented drawls, to conclude that the South wasn't just different; it was a world unto itself that he was in no way convinced harmonized with the sensibilities of his own West Coast upbringing. There were only so many times you could hear the same trenchant "y'all aren't from around here, are you?" utterance in a twenty-four hour period before realizing it was less an eccentrically uniform query among townsfolk than a euphemistic form of downright insult.

"It can't be that bad," Kadaj murmured, still typing, the ruminative hint in his tone giving Riku the distinct impression he was only half-listening while screwing around online with his retina-screen Macbook.

"The principal didn't seem to get that we're fluent in English," Riku countered. "He kept saying things really slowly, making each word sound like three. And this was after Mom had already talked to his receptionist over the phone on, like, four separate occasions to make sure everything was prepped for my transfer."

There was a moment of silence, Riku wordlessly listening as his cousin resumed typing. Apart from the distance in physical proximity, this wasn't that far-removed from their usual in-person exchanges. Kadaj had been diagnosed with ADD back in middle school, along with what seemed like half of their classmates, thanks to the increasing inclination of doctors to diagnose kids with academic performance difficulties and ply them with meds first, then deal with the after-effects of still-existent problem behaviors later, if at all. Even with years of taking the requisite meds, Kadaj could still be a challenge to talk to for more than a few minutes at a time if you didn't know how to approach things. After years of practice, Riku generally did. It usually just involved a shit-ton of measured patience, of which he was in considerably limited supply at the moment.

"Doesn't he know the kind of work your parents do?" Kadaj finally asked.

Grinding his molars as he remembered the exasperating nature of the afternoon meeting, Riku sucked in a harsh breath. "Yeah. At least, I'm pretty sure."

"That's kind of funny, actually." Kadaj snickered, then switched languages, his tone rising in mock sarcasm. "You should've played along, seen how they reacted to claiming you're still inconsolably offended about Japanese internment camps, or whatever."

Pulling the final plate out of its papery packaging, Riku placed it carefully at the top of the pile he'd created on the floor next to him. He balled up the packing paper in an unnecessarily tight fist. "I'd rather not give them any ammunition," he said in English, still irritated. "They already seem convinced I'll have trouble fitting in, like it's me who's the weird one here."

Unbidden, an image of the student who'd sat down near him in Radiant High's administration office earlier that afternoon formed, the guy's subversive expression making almost as much of an impression as the stomach-churning action that'd followed soon after. Given his mother's profession, Riku had never been put off by scenes of blood or gore, but the guy had wrenched the dislocated finger with a casualness bordering on flat-out indifference, which had been another matter entirely to witness. Riku had watched his mother set more than her fair share of broken bones over the years; he'd even seen someone attempt it on themselves once before. He'd never seen anyone manage it without outward evidence of pain though. Putting himself in the boy's place, the thought teasingly encroached on his gag reflex like an enterprising whore offering herself up at a half-price discount in an attempt to entice someone with considerable disinterest in the advertised service.

Talk about weird. That'd been… just…

"At least it's only a couple months before you can come back for college," Kadaj spoke again, his voice pulling Riku away from the troubling thoughts. "Just sucks you're going to miss the senior trip. And Prom, and the last free summer of your adolescent tenure…"

Riku grimaced and raised his eyes toward the ornate light fixture directly above him. "You know, that was almost poetic."

"Don't get used to it. I have a reputation to uphold here."

"As what?" Riku scoffed. "A subpar gamer, or maybe a wannabe gang member?"

His cousin made an offended noise. "That's it. You're an asshole. I'm hanging up."

"Well now I'm offended," Riku said lightly, this time in Japanese. When his cousin didn't respond, Riku ended the conversation himself under the assumption that Kadaj had gotten distracted by something mildly catching his attention yet again. "Anyway, talk later," he said, then hung up, dropping the phone onto the floor by his feet with a heavy clatter.

The husky, congested sound of a clearing throat directed Riku's attention back toward the foyer. Standing beneath the frame that separated the entry from the dining room, Riku regarded the lead moving company employee who'd transported their belongings, noting the clipboard gripped in one hand. "Everything's been unloaded," the man said, "but I couldn't find your mom."

Riku stood, smoothing the distressed fabric on the thighs of his label jeans. "She got called away, but I can tell her you finished when she gets back." The man didn't look convinced. When he also didn't make a move to leave, Riku took a step toward him, eyebrows raised in overt inquiry.

"We prepaid, right?"

Head bobbing, the guy glanced toward a colleague who'd appeared at the front door. "Pack it up," he said gruffly. "We're heading out in a minute."

He turned back to Riku. "I need an adult to sign off on the work order. Is your dad home?"

Shaking his head, Riku slid a hand into his pocket, emerging a beat later with his wallet. "I'm eighteen," he said while concurrently opening the billfold. "Will my signature work?"

Watching the silver-haired teen with scrutiny as Riku pulled out a generous wad of twenties through which he flipped with tempered equanimity, the man finally nodded, then offered up the clipboard and attached paperwork. "I guess that'd be fine."

Riku counted out a few hundreds-worth, separating the calculated sum from the handful of bills that remained with two fingers before reaching out and retrieving the clipboard. He detached the pen that had come along with it, then balanced the board on one hip, quickly scribbling his John Hancock onto the indicated line. Moving to return the materials, Riku slipped the tip money under the metal fastener, handed off the clipboard, and pocketed what remained. He could get more cash from his parents later if he remembered to ask.

At last seeming satisfied, the man offered Riku a quick nod. A moment later, he was retreating from the foyer, heading back toward the truck and the rest of his moving crew.

Riku turned back toward the dining room, eyeing the army of boxes that still needed unpacking. Usually, this was a task his parents would have hired someone else to handle; they just hadn't been able to find anyone offering an applicable service within a sixty mile radius. With both adults already having jumped full-in to work responsibilities for their respective professions, Riku suspected most of the unpacking grunt work was going to fall on him.

Leaning down to pick up the plates, he made his way to the kitchen, depositing them carefully on a faux-granite countertop near the sink. Skirting around the small center island, he slid open the drawer at a built-in desk, then pulled out a boxcutter he remembered seeing his father store there earlier that day, determined to make some headway on as many rooms as possible before his parents returned.

Normally, this type of task would have been boring, or at least felt like it was beneath him. With his first day of school tomorrow looming ever closer and no genuine idea what to expect come morning, Riku was more than happy to take any distractions afforded him at the present moment. Trudging back to the dining room, he reached for the empty flatware box and sliced through its three layers of underside packing tape in one smooth motion.

As he broke down the box, then leaned it up against a free wall, Riku took a moment to scan the room. Of their own volition, his eyes traveled upward, toward one of the room's big picture windows. Across the lawn, the landowner's home rose up in the distance, its wrap-around porch the quintessential standard of Southern architecture. If he squinted, he could just make out a figure sitting on a swing hung on iron links from underneath the porch's wood overhang. She was reading a book and rocking slowly, her dark, chin-length hair fluttering in the gentle breeze of early evening.

This was not an image he'd ever have anticipated witnessing outside of a period film depicted on a movie theatre screen. It definitely wasn't something you saw coming out of an urban West Coast city. Forcing himself to return to the task at hand, Riku slid another heavy box to the center of the room and turned his back on the outside view. It was better not to think at this stage, not to speculate about what lay ahead. He'd take things one day at a time, or break them down further, box by cardboard U-Haul box, if that proved a sounder strategy. Soon enough, he figured, things would normalize, he'd get sufficiently used to this place, and then it'd be time to leave. But really, he tried to embolden himself, high school seniors weren't all that different, no matter what part of the country they went to school in.

That was, at least, his honest-to-god hope.

o - o

The day's first social gaffe arose before he'd even made it through Radiant Hollow Senior High School's double front doors. As his mother pulled up in their Mercedes sedan rental, virtually every pair of nearby eyes turned toward them. Riku exited and said a quick good-bye before realizing the bristling feeling of unwanted attention hadn't even initially been directed at him. Not exactly, anyway. It was the car he'd arrived in that people seemed to be gawking at.

Looking around, Riku scanned the drop-off area, identifying the issue almost immediately. In a sea of American-made pick-ups and beater cars purring with mufflers that had seen their best days when he was likely still in kindergarten, Riku was quick to note just how much his parents' vehicle stood out. This hadn't ever been something he'd needed to think about at his last school. While the occasional student got dropped off by a parent or a paid family driver, most of his classmates simply walked from their homes nearby or took advantage of the city's ample public transit options, Riku included. Now that his mother had driven off, adolescent eyes moved to the next most out-of-place target in the vicinity. Unfortunately for Riku, that happened to be him.

Acutely aware of the weight of their stares, Riku slipped his messenger bag up over his head and adjusted it into a comfortable position on his shoulder as he headed toward the school. He'd always liked this particular bag. Locally made in San Francisco, the materials were high-quality and it was even waterproof to counteract the area's reliably rainy winter weather. Its pedigree hardly matter when everyone around him seemed to be lugging around hand-me-down JanSports.

It got worse. He'd thought he'd shown prudence when choosing clothes for his first day, but wearing even the most modest of his designer jeans and a simple brand logo t-shirt drew scrutinizing looks from boys more routinely sporting torn cut-off shorts and girls in their downmarket spaghetti-strap tank tops. There was, he supposed, something to be said about the level playing field imposed by his last prep school's homogeneous dress code.

Self-conscious, Riku lowered his eyes, unconvinced that there was a time in his life where he'd felt more nakedly exposed.

A sickly sputtering sound followed by a quick succession of colorful, booming expletives had Riku forgetting his plight for a moment. It was accompanied by a medley of classic rock music, set at a volume about ten decibels too loud for any occasion beyond a death metal concert, let alone the drop-off zone at a rural high school. Along with most of the others around him, Riku looked back over to the side of the street curb where the disturbance was in the active process of unfolding.

The vehicle in question was an old pick-up truck. Once likely white, between its oxidized corners and clay-coated exterior, it was now much closer in shade to straight-up orange vomit. A tattooed, knobby elbow hung crookedly careless out an open window, but it was the lurid red hair of the man in the driver's seat that demanded Riku's most pressing focus.

From nude political protestors to seven foot tall drag queens sporting ten-inch high-heels, Riku had seen his fair share of hella bizarre people growing up in a city as unrepentantly quirky as San Francisco, but nothing so much as held a single candle to the radical spectacle of humanity he was gaping at now — or what he could see of it, at any rate.

The truck groaned again and the passenger side door opened, revealing another red-haired occupant, this time a girl whose tresses trended more toward a shade of wine-colored scarlet. She wore a bubblegum pink skirt that didn't particularly match with the off-white of her cap-sleeved blouse — or the electric blue bra that was visible under the fabric of a shirt that wasn't wholly opaque.

Another gurgling pop was followed by a well-articulated 'fuck' and the girl leaned forward over the open passenger-side window to say something to the driver that Riku was too far away to hear, even with the music now lowered to a less deafening volume. Scanning his surroundings, he noted that others seemed just as put-off by the scene, although he couldn't discern whether it was the man's oddball appearance or his creative choice of curse words, which by now were bordering on a veritable work of verbal performance art. By the time he looked their way again, the truck had sputtered back to life and was slowly pulling away from the curb, the girl offering a fluttering wave with the delicate fingers of one hand as her ride disappeared into the distance.

Riku turned back toward the school entrance and shook his head a little, dazed. What the hell kind of messed up alternate universe had his parents just dumped him into? This was well-the-fuck over-the-top.

He entered the school quickly, this time ignoring the looks other students were giving him, simply relieved the administration office was right at the front of the school so he wouldn't have to trek around lost until he got up the nerve to ask someone for help. The receptionist looked up at his entrance, expression oozing a level of disgruntled that was positively masterful. Riku hesitated at the sight, uncertain of the inherent wisdom in approaching someone who looked like she'd take pleasure in strangling the life out of the closest viable option. The moment the door clicked closed, her expression relaxed, and Riku realized it must have been the noise from the hallway that had soured her mood, rather than his arrival.

He opened his mouth to explain his presence, but was cut off by an arm slicing with sharp acuity through the air before returning to its previous position, prone on the desktop, in conjunction with a curt, "please take a seat." Without a word, Riku complied, retracing his recent steps and lowering himself into the seat his mother had opted for the day prior.

A few minutes passed, the receptionist clicking at the keyboard of her computer, an unconscious smile playing on her lips. Idly, Riku wondered if she was chatting with a friend on Facebook or something. In his estimation, no one could enjoy the uninspiring work required of a high school receptionist that much. There was a rising temptation to pull out his iPhone, to text Kadaj or another friend, but he quickly repressed the urge. The time difference alone meant that, at best, his friends would still be asleep and wouldn't reply. At worst, he'd end up waking them before their alarms and irritating them into giving him the silent treatment for an indeterminate period when all he was really longing for was a sympathetic ear. The thought of that possibility just about slayed him. Riku kept his hands well away from the pocket of his pants where his phone was stored as a direct consequence.

The office door opened again, and Riku felt an initial moment of relief to have a distraction from the persistent allure of his phone before realizing that this was probably the student who'd been assigned to guide him to his classes. The nerves returned in short order. A boy in baggy camo-colored shorts and a sleeveless vest situated over a loose-fitting tank stepped forward, his dirty blond hair spiked up with way too much hair product. As he made his way up to the main desk, the receptionist spared him no more than half a glance before her eyes returned to her computer screen, and Riku was reminded how much a difference $50,000 a year of private school tuition made in school employees taking the effort to give a single shit about the students in their daily care.

"Take a late slip if you need it." She inclined her head toward a stack of thin paper strips at the edge of her desk without redirecting her gaze from the computer screen. "His schedule's on the printer."

Without a word, the boy reached out and grabbed a couple slips, then turned, stealing a look at Riku as he made his way across the room. He pulled a single sheet of paper up off an old-school Xerox printer before angling his way back to the door and his new charge.

On cue, Riku stood, and both boys exited the office and into the flow of student traffic in the hall adjacent. Studying the schedule, the boy looked up as he continued to walk. "English is first period," he said, gaze traveling back and forth between his new classmate and the piece of paper in his hand, brows subtly pinching above the bridge of his nose as if he was considering something.

"So, how d'you pronounce your name?"

His accent was prominent, but a lot more palatable than some of the adults. Relieved he could understand the question without having to parse each individual word, Riku enunciated the two syllables of his first name, but didn't elaborate on his middle or last.

His new classmate looked over at him, expression still inquisitive. "That Asian or something?"

The question was posed a little crudely, but Riku wasn't exactly in a position to complain. "Yeah," he answered. "Japanese."

"Sweet," the boy replied, his expression relaxing as he led Riku around a corner into another wide hallway. There was a palpable sense that some invisible tension had broken the moment Riku answered his question. "I'm Hayner, and I've gotta stop at my locker. Yours is across the building, so I'll take y'there before lunch, if that's cool." As he talked, his words flowed together, one filtering over to the next as he spoke at a steadily increasing pace.

As Hayner looked over at him, Riku nodded in an attempt to stall for time as he tried to sort through the twangy jumble of words. Clearly, he was no match for more than one sentence at a time when it came to the local vernacular. "Yeah, that's fine," he murmured, thinking he'd gotten the gist of it, even if not all of the words had been totally comprehensible. "Thanks."

They walked in silence for a few moments, both boys stealing an occasional glance at one another. The hallways were a loud cacophony of the usual high school sounds, with students chattering, laughing, and locker doors slamming all around them. The turbulence of an unfamiliar school-day cadence was slightly unsettling to Riku, but the noise also gave him an out in terms of having to keep pace on a conversational level. As Hayner arrived at his locker, he passed off the schedule, giving Riku his first opportunity to scan it as his guide entered the combination to his lock, then jimmied a protesting handle upward, the locker door swinging out and away from him. The first period bell rang out deafeningly above their heads, but Hayner waved it off, unconcerned. "I got us late slips," he said, speaking over the high-pitched wail of metal on jangling metal. "We're covered."

Not waiting for a response, Hayner began shoveling textbooks and note-taking supplies into his backpack, and Riku took a moment to look down at his schedule. It was fairly straightforward, with basic core math, science, and language arts classes spread throughout the morning that mostly seemed like they'd be review for him. His afternoon schedule was mercifully light, with only one substantive course, then gym and a free study period to cap off the day. He'd already known he wouldn't be taking a foreign language. Back home, he'd been studying fourth year Mandarin, but his new school only had two years' worth of classes and they were in French and Spanish.

Hayner slammed his locker closed, and Riku started, suddenly aware of how quiet and empty the hall had gotten. With a jerk of his head in the direction opposite where they'd come, Hayner headed off again, Riku following a half-step behind.

After a few quiet seconds, Hayner looked over at him. "Do you play any sports?"

"Yeah," Riku said, grateful to field a question with an easy answer. "Water polo. I've been on the school team since ninth grade back in San Francisco."

"Polo…" There was an undertone of puzzlement in Hayner's voice. "Don't that involve horses or something?"

"Um. Not the water version." The conspicuous grammatical error had thrown Riku off and it reflected in the less than confident tone he'd employed in response. Before today, Riku had never realized people actually spoke like this outside of YouTube videos uploaded for satirical purposes, and it took an impressive level of willpower not to default speak up to correct what to him was an oral error of glaring proportions.

Somehow, Riku thought that wouldn't be the best route toward endearing himself to a new classmate.

Increasing his pace, Hayner made his way further into the depths of school, chattering with enthusiasm about the school's football, basketball, and track and field teams, Riku managing to follow the topic with only about three-fourths sum comprehension. Angling his way over to a set of double doors, Riku watched in surprise as Hayner pushed them open and exited the school building. While he did follow along, Riku hesitated under the frame, fingers curling around the metal door handle as he tried to make sense of Hayner's intentions in leaving the school. Was his classmate seriously planning to skip out before first period?

"Hey," he called. "Can I ask where we're going?"

Hayner stopped and turned back to Riku. "Senior English," he said, as if it were obvious. "The lesson's in one of the trailers out back. It's not a huge class."

"In one of the trailers…" Riku echoed the words, tone mildly incredulous. "You've got to be kidding. That's pretty much the biggest redneck stereotype in existence." Still half convinced Hayner was in the active process of aiming to play hooky straight off the RHSH school grounds, Riku remained where he was, tucking a stray strand of hair behind one ear, a sign of habitual uncertainty in new situations. "I kind of assumed stuff like that was a myth." He kept his tone light, intending the comment to be taken as playful banter.

One look at Hayner's expression and Riku realized he'd missed the mark, and possibly the whole damn target in the process.

Arms crossing over his chest, Hayner regarded him with a look that bordered on categorical affront. "Look," he said, the word clipped, "I don't know how they do it back in Frisco." He pronounced the final word with an exaggerated drawl that forced Riku to lock his jaw and stifle a grimace. That was a term only uninformed tourists generally used to describe his city.

Unperturbed by the look Riku hadn't managed to wholly suppress, Hayner forged on, still visibly indignant. "Here, team sports are life, and that's where most money to the school goes. We've got a great gymnasium and one of the best football fields and teams in all of Cœur Paroisse. There's even a damn nice swimming pool next to the indoor gym, for your information." Although Riku suspected Hayner had used the French variant of the town's parish name to sound more sophisticated, or maybe even in an attempt to confuse him, he held his tongue, simply noting the tinge of pride in the guy's voice as he rattled off example after example of the high school's apparently impressive list of sports arenas.

"So, yeah, we got trailers for some of our classes." Hayner's tone turned from lecturing to mutinously curt. "Get used to it. Around here, that's just how things work."

Turning heel without waiting for a response, Hayner made a beeline for a cluster of nearby trailers raised up from the ground on thick wooden posts. With a quiet growl of frustration, more at himself for the misguided comment than at Hayner for taking offense, Riku sprinted to catch up but remained quiet. It hadn't been his intention for his comment to be taken as an insult. The last thing he needed was to make an enemy on his first day at a new school.

Jaw set, expression grim, Hayner speed-walked over to the trailer located closest to the school's exterior wall. He took the steps up two at a time. Hand curling around the door handle, he paused and craned his neck back toward Riku who stopped at the first step and looked on up. "Oh, and you might wanna reconsider your clothing options if you don't want to get sweat stains clear through your over-priced Hilfigers," he said, eyes passing over Riku's Ben Sherman shirt and Armani Exchange pants with what felt like freshly premeditated disinterest. "This place's got humidity like no other."

Without another word, he yanked on the door and entered, leaving Riku to scramble up the last few steps alone, trying to suppress the myriad curses that were just aching to be given verbal form under his breath.

o - o

By the time last period study hour came around, Riku was fielding a volatile amalgam of emotions, ranging from exhausted and overheated to out-and-out frustrated, with a debatable level of success. In his sincere estimation, he was also one phone call away from demanding his parents book him the next flight straight back home via SFO.

Despite his attempts to get back on the right track with Hayner, his new classmate had remained steadfastly stony, continuing to perform his duties as Riku's guide for the day but not lifting a finger above and beyond what was required of him. They had encountered a few of Hayner's friends between classes. Their initial reaction to Riku had been polite, even interested. In the face of Hayner's overt hostility, their enthusiasm to engage Riku in any form of verbal communication had soon dwindled to negligible levels.

Worst of all, Riku had no idea how to redeem himself.

The divide between new student and guide was only compounded when Riku had taken one look at the lunch options and passed on everything but a piece of fruit and bottled water. Not only did everything look unappetizing to him, each option contained some form of perceptible meat product. Seeing this, he hadn't had much of a choice but to politely opt out. Given the hardened expression Hayner shot his way the moment he placed his less than heartfelt order, Riku sincerely doubted the guy would've accepted any explanation for his choice of cuisine, however reasonable it happened to be.

And gym class. If there was ever a time Riku had wanted to develop an ability to disappear completely, sixth period would have been it. Granted a day's exemption from participation to give him more time to unpack his belongings, including acceptable fitness clothing, Riku had been consigned to the gym's spectator section to watch as others aimed balls at basketball hoops with varying degrees of precision.

It got better from there, if better was in any way synonymous with increasingly awkward. The boy with the dislocated finger had also been present and benched same as him. If Riku had hoped their mutual presence in the admin office yesterday offered any common ground from which to start a conversation, the boy's disinterested gaze and his purposeful choice of bleacher seat as far opposite Riku as physically possible offered a definitive answer to the question of whether he wanted to play nice with the new guy. The guy had ignored Riku for the entire period, first watching the activity on the floor below them without investment, later pulling out a textbook that he hadn't ended up turning so much as a single page in. Occasionally, students at floor level would steal clandestine glances Riku's way, then turn back to talk to their friends, eyes traveling toward his general vicinity before darting away a half second after he noticed them looking.

Now, as he entered the library, Hayner having checked out the moment he'd pointed to the hall where it was located, Riku scanned his seating options, noting first and foremost that there really weren't any easily identifiable open contenders. A few tables had seats occupied only by student backpacks or other belongings. Each time he approached one of these spaces and tried to make his need for a seat implicit, the students were quick to avoid eye contact, the sudden interest in their homework increasing a noticeable tenfold. Short of tapping on shoulders and outright asking for bags to be moved, which he assumed wasn't going to win him any future friendship awards, Riku realized he was going to have to resign himself to browsing the book aisles or just plain give in and settle down on the floor for the long haul.

Just great. He'd gone from generally getting along with everyone at his last school to being well on his way toward complete social pariah status in the span of a single day at this one. And, unless Hayner had been busy shit-talking him every moment they weren't together, Riku suspected some other force was at work in making students unwilling to do more than gawk and whisper whenever he passed within a ten foot radius.

"Hey…"

The voice originated from behind him, speaking in a loud whisper, but Riku didn't turn toward it. Enough other students were speaking to one another, keeping their voices low to skirt the librarian's ire, that he didn't have any reason to think this one in particular was being directed at him. He scanned the area once again, losing confidence that he was going to have time to get any homework done before the school day came to an end.

"Heya, over here."

Again, the voice. This time, it was followed by an inelegantly flailing limb that Riku caught sight of out of the corner of one eye. He turned, quickly locating a pair of students at a nearby study table. Like the other students, these two had their books liberally scattered across the table's surface, a mess of texts, handouts, and wide-ruled spiral notebooks. The single unoccupied chair was taken up by a large purse.

Riku would be the first to admit he didn't know a lot about women's fashion. With an undue number of stringy fringes and its faux leather exterior though, he knew enough to make an educated guess his female friends would be more likely to consider it one hell of an eyesore than something worthy of toting around in their own homes, let alone out in public where others might see it.

Slowly, he approached the two, eyeing both with cautious scrutiny, initially surprised when he could place the girl from the morning truck drop-off spectacle. He probably owed her some expression of thanks, come to think, considering how effectively her arrival had turned attention away from his own. With a slim frame and messy brown hair that could have filled a novel-length book with myriad examples of illustrated cowlick whorls, the boy was someone he vaguely recognized from one of his morning classes. That alone was deserving of light praise, Riku figured. He had been so distracted trying to get back in Hayner's good graces throughout most of the day that none of his other classmates had made much of a lasting impression.

"You need a seat?" the boy asked, his brows rising with the inquiry. Eyes meeting Riku's straight-on over the rim of thin-framed glasses, the open expression stood in stark contrast to everyone else's otherwise ready avoidance of direct eye contact. In the dim lighting of the library, the boy's eyes seemed unfathomably blue, as if the color had spilled from his irises and extended well past their natural optic boundary. It gave him an intensely doe-eyed look that, despite himself, Riku unconsciously began to study. A moment later, he dropped his gaze, realizing with mild chagrin that it probably seemed like he'd been openly staring.

"Yeah," he finally responded, keeping his voice at the same quiet volume. "That would be great."

Turning to the girl next to him, the boy gestured toward her purse. "You heard him. Move your bag."

With an exaggerated sigh that seemed more weary than annoyed, the girl complied, sliding a wrist underneath the purse's shoulder strap and lifting it up. She deposited it on the floor next to her sandaled feet and inclined her head to indicate Riku should sit.

As Riku pulled the chair out enough to lower himself into it, the boy busied himself with gathering his schoolwork into a more contained pile of books and note-taking materials in front of him.

"I'm Sora," he said, then turned, gesturing across the table. "And she's Kairi."

Riku slid his messenger bag into his lap and fished out his math textbook, opening it to the lesson they'd gone over in class that morning, before offering his name in return.

"We already know." The girl's tone had a prolonged drawl to it. Resting her elbows on the table, she propped up her chin in both palms. Riku noted the neon yellow nail polish without comment. It clashed with every article of clothing she wore, not the least of which happened to be the bright blue bra he'd noticed earlier that morning, hidden beneath shirt fabric that was too transparent to adequately conceal it.

"It's, just, we don't get transfers very often," the boy jumped in, "especially not from out of state. When we do, news spreads like wildfire so everyone knows about it lightning quick." Although Sora was speaking with the same accented twang that Riku had heard employed by virtually every other student today, there seemed to be a deliberate slowness to the way he spoke. Unlike the principal and other school officials, this speech pattern seemed more polite courtesy than a resounding lack of confidence in Riku's ability to understand fluent English.

When Riku didn't initially say anything, Sora tilted his head, expression turning thoughtful. "How're you settling in?"

Still feeling off-kilter from encountering students who seemed genuinely friendly — or at least not put-off by his presence, he thought with a quick glance at Kairi — Riku shrugged, the gesture about as non-committal as Switzerland during times of political upheaval. "Okay, I think," he said. "It's an adjustment from my last school, but I'll get used to it."

Twirling a thin strand of hair between her index finger and thumb, Kairi shot Sora a crafty look. "Selphie told me at lunch that he called Hayner a redneck."

Eyes widening, Riku shook his head so hard he supposed he should've been grateful he hadn't ended up with instant whiplash. "I did not."

As Kairi shrugged, apparently indifferent to Riku's assertion, Sora looked between the two of them, a hint of a smile playing at the corners of his lips. "Well, go on. Don't leave us hanging. If that wasn't right, then what did you say?"

Riku remained silent, expression impassive, and Sora didn't seem put off in the least.

"Everyone knows Hayner's been pitching a silent fit over something today, and misinformation travels just as fast as news about transfer students," he pointed out. "You might as well tell it to us straight before we hear another version from someone else."

Kairi nodded. "Or twelve."

Great. This again. Even though Sora seemed to be approaching his questions in a good-natured manner, Riku had to wonder how long it'd last once he found out what had actually been said.

"I made a joke that I didn't realize was in poor taste. That's all."

Kairi made a dubious sound at the back of her throat. As she shifted her weight more forward onto her elbows, the thin blue strap of her bra slid down to mid-arm. Uncomfortable enough to find prudence in averting his gaze, Riku glanced back at Sora and noted a steadily rising smile.

Although neither was being particularly accusatory, Riku suddenly felt foolish in their combined presence. Not only was he out of his element yet again, it was two against one and he'd never liked unfair odds.

"I made fun of the trailer classes," he said, tone just as clipped as Hayner's had been after the utterance that had instigated this entire social mess. "I already told him I was sorry. I know I made a mistake, but I feel like I've been paying for it all day."

As Kairi rolled her eyes and reached for a flip-phone that seemed like it'd taken a quantum leap direct from 2008, Sora offered a light shrug. "It's a touchy word for some people. We call each other stuff like that all the time, but when it's coming from an outsider, it's just different…you know? He'll get over it eventually, I bet." His words offered gentle encouragement. "You just might want to keep apologizing 'til he does, or find some other way to make it up to him. Pride runs strong in these parts."

Although the explanation didn't offer as straightforward of a resolution as he'd have liked, Riku nodded to indicate he'd heard but didn't otherwise speak.

"Besides, you know what they say about people in small towns…"

Riku opened his mouth, a knee-jerk response nearly tumbling out. A moment later, he clamped it shut. The last thing he needed was to offend two more people in the span of a single day.

Sliding his glasses downward with a thin finger to regard Riku over their frame with an expression bordering on hawkish, Sora drummed his palms lightly against the table. "You were going to say something," he said, voice still a whisper, but rising enough to elicit a grumbled "hush up, will ya" from the next table over.

"No, I wasn't." Riku shook his head to drive home the point.

"Actually, you were," Kairi replied, eyes still fixed on her phone's small screen. Idly, she swiped at her cerulean bra strap, pushing it back up under her shirt. "It was right blatant."

Sora nodded, expression emphatic. "It really was."

When Riku's only reaction was to press his lips into a thin line, Sora leaned forward. "What's the worst that could happen?" he said, his tone a quiet entreaty. "We already know about the spat with Hayner."

Was he being tested? After the day he'd had, Riku wasn't sure he could tell the difference between polite interest and a flat-out demand for an answer, but neither of them seemed to be on the defensive, from what he could tell. If anything, Sora was just curious, Kairi less invested but certainly not acting hypersensitive.

"I was going to say they have small minds," Riku finally ventured, hugging his messenger bag closer as his voice tapered off so much the last word was almost inaudible.

Kairi looked up from her phone long enough to shoot Riku a dirty look without credible conviction but said nothing. Next to her, Sora laughed, covering his mouth to muffle the sound with one hand. Nearby, a few students glanced over. This time they all pointedly pretended to lose interest the moment it was determined that Riku was the one who was returning their gazes.

"And I was going to opine on how small-town locals can be shitheads to outsiders," Sora said, now outright grinning. "But your take works too, and is way more incisive."

As he turned back to Sora, Riku found himself momentarily speechless. Incisive? Opine? This was the first time since arriving that he'd heard an instance of what he considered heightened language — or seen such an openly friendly smile, for that matter. With his quirky sense of humor and considerate inquisitiveness, Sora didn't really remind him of anyone from back home. That being said, he had gotten Riku to at least marginally drop his guard for the first time that day, and quite effortlessly at that.

Still smiling, Sora reached for one of his books, Riku noting with surprise that it was a college-level text. Rather than an RHSH label, it displayed a stamp that declared it property of Radiant Hollow Public Library. "Anyway," Sora said, flipping back to his bookmarked page, "I just wanted to say welcome, and feel free to sit with us sometime again." With good-natured grin, he clasped his hands together, expression turning exaggeratedly humble as though accepting praise from imaginary onlookers. "You're actually in luck 'cause I'll be here all week."

"Longer than that," Kairi said, her attention drifting back to her phone. "Boy don't graduate 'til June, just like the rest of us."

Offering one last smile, Sora bobbed his head. "Well, that too."

Without another word, Sora pushed his glasses back up in line with his eyes and turned toward his book, eyes scanning the text attentively as he left Riku to replay the recent exchange in stunned silence, all the while pretending to skim a mathematics lesson he'd completed in his former school well over a year before.

Chapter Text

 


"It's not that we don't talk
It's just no one really listens and honesty fades
Like a politician lost in the course
All smiles and no one remembers our names."
"Alexithymia" - Anberlin


He woke to the smothering heat of his own fetid, sweat-stained bedsheets, the name of his dreamscape provocateur teasing the tip of his parchment-dry lips. Sucking in a breath that seemed to add more moisture than oxygen to his struggling, straining lungs, Roxas fumbled in the darkness, blindly seeking the insubstantial, jutted shoulder bones that hadn't rested next to him in nearly three years.

Hands fisting his sheets, he flung them away, swinging his legs out of bed and teetering precariously while he waited for his equilibrium to kick in. The static sparkle in his peripherals indicated a momentary low blood pressure-induced loss of eyesight. It hardly mattered. Not only was the room still ink-dark, it was a familiar setting, one he could navigate blindfolded or even in a right state of fucked-up intoxicated. Over the years, he'd had experience with one more than the other.

Sidestepping a bed-table, Roxas made his way over to the window, the fingers of his left hand curling around the sweat-dampened arm sleeve on his right, then releasing and repeating the action, an intimation of a claw seeking fleshy purchase. He threw open the window shade in much the same manner that he'd handled the bedclothes, and squinted into the dim pink of an early, windless dawn.

Closing his eyes for a long moment, he swayed in place, an unbalanced reaction to the lingering effects of his brother's pain meds. In this purblind state of semi-consciousness, the girl returned to him, hair fluttering in imaginary wind.

Roxas

Voice smooth and rich, her inflection was airy with a twang reminiscent of old-time Creole French.

"No one is real," he murmured, eyes still closed.

Arrete toi, they are, the girl assured. It's you who doesn't belong.

The declaration, though gently delivered, forced the air from his lungs. Eyes flying open, Roxas jerked away from the mental apparition, body twisting as if reeling from a direct punch to the deepest part of his gut. His elbow nicked the window frame and Roxas accepted the reverberating sensation that followed from his tricep up into his shoulder, noting with objectivity that it should have hurt more. Chest heaving like he'd just run a relay on the school's newly paved circuit track, Roxas dragged his hands through the tangles of blond follicles just above his scalp and chided himself. The trend toward theatrics was better left to those who were actual members of the school drama club.

He turned away from the window, the girl's words dissolving with his increased wakefulness as he scanned the small space that made up the whole of his bedroom. Sora's room was unquestionably larger. Once, it'd held two twin beds when Ven still lived at home. The moment their older brother had left for college, they'd divvied up his living space, Roxas conceding the bigger room without much fuss. Delighted, Sora had spared nary a minute getting friends to help him relocate his desk from the living room. Like the ramp outside their home, it'd been homemade, a gift from Cloud that'd taken countless hours to construct.

Roxas hadn't needed much space beyond room for a bed and dresser. His brother had offered him one of the two bedside tables from their old room, Roxas having accepted it only on account of his shrewd observation of the unjustified guilt that had followed, the offering Sora's own debatable rationale for having walked away with the larger room.

Ambling over to his dresser, he dug through a drawer of unfolded clothing, emerging with a white t-shirt, two black arm sleeves, underwear, and cut-off shorts. Retrieving his unopened backpack off the floor by the window, he made his way out into the hall, avoiding floorboards he knew were ornery on an auditory level. It was still early but he had no illusions of returning to sleep, restful or otherwise. Between Cloud's overnight shifts, Sora's everlasting study sessions, and the insomnia that stalked Roxas with the casualness of a childhood friend, it was an indisputable fact that the Strife household kept unconventional hours, all-around.

Slipping into the bathroom, Roxas shut the door. He turned on the sink faucet, then peeled off the arm sleeves and dropped them both to the floor. The makeshift finger splint came next, Roxas scratching at the two day old medical tape until a piece of it peeled at the behest of his fingernail's dogged rutting. From there, it was simply a matter of paring the rest off like the skin of a sweet potato, and he was tossing the tape and both sweat-bent popsicle sticks into the trashcan a second later. His finger was an array of purplish bruises, swollen near to twice the size of his other digits, but at least it was straight now. To Roxas, that qualified as a reasonable cutting of losses, and he decided to call it an improvement.

Eyes rising to the mirror on the front of the medicine cabinet, Roxas squeezed a generous glob of soap into one hand and thrust both arms under warm running water. He scrubbed up to his elbows, with thoroughness rivaling a surgeon prior to operating, fingers traveling the precipitous, uneven surface of one arm from wrist to elbow without looking down.

His eyes were tinged a mild blood-shot red that would dissipate as the day wore on, features otherwise spotless. While his friends had endured the social agony of pubescent acne, Roxas had kept his perfect complexion, one of the only concessions of a genetic makeup he found otherwise unpardonable. His head was a tangled bird's nest mess of hair so thick that no amount of wetting would ever succeed in flattening, face cherubic, his full lips forming a natural hint of perennial pout. These were some of the few features he shared with his twin, apart from a short stature he'd lost hope in ever growing out of after junior year came and went without so much as gaining an inch. Like their distinctive personalities, the brothers' appearances otherwise seemed nothing short of divine irony. Despite Sora spending most days indoors studying while Roxas was outdoors with friends noodling around, Sora's skin was an olive-tone that tanned pleasingly on his occasional forays outside the house. It was Roxas who remained pale, his skin prone to uncomfortable peeling and irritant sunburn.

Straightening, Roxas reached for a towel, drying his arms, eyes lowered, studying the white-blond hairs that formed a narrow path from his navel downward. His stomach was flat, the hint of abdominal muscles not as defined as the year before when he'd been more physically active as a member of Radiant High's track and field varsity team. As he reached for his shirt and shrugged it over his head and shoulders, he made a mental note to resume the core workouts he'd once engaged in daily. Maybe the exertion would counteract sleepless nights enough for him to more easily pass out, or at least give him something with which to occupy the time. If not in either case, toned abs were an acceptable consolation prize.

He swapped pajama bottoms for cut-off pants, ran a wet comb through uncooperative blond hair, then slid on new arm bands before grabbing his backpack and making his way toward the stairs.

Sora's room was dark and silent as he passed it, the only light discernible a dim flicker from the bottom of the steps. He descended with care, thoughts still sluggish enough to warrant one hand on the banister. The rail wasn't particularly stationary itself and wobbled under anything apart from the lightest pressure. It was just one of the many home improvement projects Cloud had yet to get around to, but it provided a measure of stability that he wouldn't otherwise have possessed this morning.

The living area was empty, save for ghostly imprints resembling Pompeii bodies on the recliner and couch, the hollowed-out indentations a sign that both pieces of furniture should have been replaced well near a decade earlier. Light was filtering in from the kitchen, but Roxas only had to look as far as the dining room table to spot his older brother. Shirtless and in grey sweatpants, Cloud was sitting, shoulders rounded, as he read a week-old local newspaper. As Roxas got closer, he noticed a coffee cup, half-full and blocked from his initial view by one well-angled elbow.

"You're up early," Cloud commented without looking up. "Again."

Roxas approached, scratching an itch at the edge of his sleeve. "And you haven't gone to bed yet."

This was more observation than accusation. Cloud worked a late shift, from five in the evening to 2am, sometimes later if mandatory overtime got called. Apart from the two weekdays he got off in every seven day period, the man was on a schedule contrary to most office workers. Or high school students, more relevant. Even on days off, his brother tended to stay awake through the night and sleep during daytime hours. At some point, he'd gain enough seniority to bid on one of the coveted day schedules, just like their mother had managed about five years ago. Considering the woman had worked the same job for two decades strong, that day would be a long time coming still for Cloud.

Not responding, Cloud turned a page. His eyes remained at the bottom right of the new sheet of low-grade recycled paper, giving Roxas the distinct impression his brother wasn't actually reading anything.

"Any coffee left?" he asked.

Cloud glanced down at his mug, as if just remembering he'd even brewed any himself. "No."

Well, shit. Roxas chewed on his lower lip, reminding himself a moment later that if this habitual gnawing continued, the incisor-ravaged line of flesh was going to end up bleeding again.

Cloud took a long sip, downing the last of his coffee. "There're more grounds in the kitchen." When Roxas didn't initially move from his place behind his brother's shoulder, Cloud sighed and spoke again. "Or I could make you something, I guess."

"Nah," Roxas replied, shutting his eyes tightly, then opening them wide and blinking rapidly in an attempt to jumpstart his idle mind. He made his way toward the kitchen. "I'll whip something up myself."

True to Cloud's word, a tin of cheap coffee was on prominent display on the kitchen counter. Roxas made a beeline for it, tucking it into the crook of his elbow and prying its plastic top off with his good fingers. His eyes traveled to the drip coffee maker nearby, noting the ample coffee and hard water stains that had built up on its exterior with more scrutiny than he generally afforded most humans.

Maybe now wasn't the time to wake full up if it was going to induce undesirable, acute observations and put him off his morning drink choices, especially when they were so limited. Still, it was undisputed that he was in need of a serious caffeine fix if he wanted to survive the horrors of a midweek school day.

Eyes returning to the tin, Roxas idly considered the merits of freebasing Folgers coffee grounds crack cocaine-style over the Strife family stove.

Abandoning the idea as soon as it'd formed, then depositing the tin where he'd first spotted it, Roxas approached the refrigerator. He rummaged around until he found a package of pre-cooked bacon still within its ante-expiration period, then tore a paper towel from a roll above the sink. Opening the microwave oven, he laid the towel down flat and placed four strips of bacon on top of it before slamming the door shut and setting the timer for sixty seconds.

"Mom's been asking about your plans after graduation," Cloud said, his voice low but easily traveling from the next room over.

Returning to the refrigerator, Roxas bent down and yanked the door to the freezer open. "Tell her I've decided to enlist in the Army," he returned, voice muffled as he stuck his head deeper into the frozen receptacle. "Been feeling real patriotic of late."

Cloud's newspaper crackled at the behest of a sharp snap of both wrists. "Oh, shut the fuck up and tell her yourself. It's college she wants to know about."

Roxas was aware. He also knew that his decision directly affected Sora's ability to attend anywhere himself, per their mother's explicitly stated wishes. Despite his brother's urging, Roxas had refused to apply to any four year school, Tulane included. It might've worked for Ven, but Roxas knew he didn't have the grades to qualify for enough of a scholarship to make it a realistic option. He'd already managed to fuck his brother over in this regard, and he was well mindful of it, considering Sora was two weeks shy of securing the RHSH valedictorian title he'd coveted since ninth grade, give or take. His school marks had always been near to pristine. On the other hand, Roxas had a report card that rivaled the Wall Street stock market in the direct aftermath of 2008's shitstorm economic downturn.

He had applied to the closest community college and been accepted, but Cloud didn't know that and Roxas wasn't in a sharing mood at present. The thought of leaving Radiant Hollow, even just temporarily for day classes and returning straight home after, left him nervy as all get-out, although if asked he'd be hard-pressed to express why. To date, no one had.

As if on cue, he heard the familiar sound of Sora's crutches plonking on the floor above him, a sign that his brother was awake and in the process of getting prepped for the school day. Finding the item he was seeking, Roxas straightened, kicking the freezer drawer closed at the same instant the microwave timer went off.

Retracing his steps, now with a pint-sized container that had once contained butter pecan ice cream, Roxas pulled his bacon strips out and dropped them onto a plate he'd found on the counter that looked more or less clean. He dug a spoon out of the pile of dirty dishes that was in the process of forming a small rotten food mountain in the sink, then flipped the faucet on, scrubbing it with a soapy sponge before wiping it dry on the thigh of his pants. Breakfast prep completed to adequate satisfaction, he ambled back into the dining room, food in hand.

"I haven't figured that out yet," he finally answered, balancing the frozen container on top of his plate as he shoved some old junk mail to the other side of the table with one forearm before taking a seat.

With the newspaper serving as a physical barrier between both brothers, Cloud sighed again. "You'd best do so soon if you want to avoid her righteous anger. She don't work herself to the bone just to have you hanging around here after high school makin' nothing of yourself but sorry. I don't either, point in fact."

He lowered the newspaper and fixed Roxas with an unshakable stare.

Raising his hands up, palms out, a piece of freeze-dry rigid bacon clutched between two fingers, Roxas inclined his head. "I know, I know. God as my witness, I'm aware."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Blessed hypocrite. That's what you actually are." Gaze traveling up his brother's right arm, it came to a halt at his injured hand.

"Did a number on that finger, I see." His voice softened, a subtle look of pride crossing his features before he seemed to remember himself and schooled his expression back to something more impartial. "If your grades were half as good as your right hook, we wouldn't be talking this talk."

Arms still up, Roxas shrugged his shoulders and shoved the brittle-crisp bacon piece full into his mouth. "Preach, brother Cloud!" His voice aped the exuberance of Radiant Hollow's local Baptist reverend with befitting accuracy. "Say it again for the people in the back."

Shooting his younger brother a look that had Roxas envisioning himself two seconds away from a wallop of epic proportions, Cloud ultimately glanced back at the newspaper in front of him and made a disgruntled noise instead. "With you, someone's gotta repeat it as often as possible. That skull of yours is thicker'n brick, I solemnly swear."

Upstairs, a door creaked open and both brothers lapsed into listening silence. Footsteps echoed from where Sora's room was located above the kitchen, slow but measured. The bathroom door clicked shut a few seconds later.

Glancing toward the nearest wall, Roxas followed Cloud's direct line of sight as it fell on the wheelchair folded up in a corner.

"That chair hasn't been getting much use of late."

"His crutches neither," Roxas returned. "If you wanna keep talking about stubborn, be my honored guest, and let's start with that."

Cloud folded his arms onto the table over the newspaper, watching as Roxas stuffed another overcooked strip of bacon between his lips, his crunching audible as he ground it up at the back of his mouth. He remained silent, simply observing as his younger brother reached for the ice cream container, pressed down on the top to pop it off, and reached for his spoon.

"Is that some type of…coffee?"

Roxas nodded. "Grounds at the bottom, water and a bit of milk on top, all shook up. Six hours in the fridge and one overnight freezer pit stop."

Cloud's lip curled in response. "That's disgusting."

Reaching for his spoon, Roxas took a clumsy stab at the frozen confection with his uninjured left hand. "No," he corrected. "Pretty sure it's French pressed something. That makes it classy."

His phone vibrated within the pocket at his thigh and Roxas caught the spoon in his mouth, lips pursed to keep it in place as he pulled out the epileptic tech. He skim-read the text that had just come through, blind to Cloud's responding glower. "Hayner's heading over," he said, his words a garbled mess of near incoherence around the utensil in his mouth. Pulling it out, Roxas hopped out of his chair and sprinted to the foot of the stairs, gripping the banister and almost losing his balance as the rail bowed inward with the force of his weight.

"Sora!" Roxas yelled. "Get a move on if you wanna ride with us."

Cloud twisted in his seat to face his brother. "Pipe down, will you?" The words came out in a low hiss. "Mom's still tryna sleep up there."

Shrugging, Roxas glanced back over toward the dining table, unconcerned. "I wanted to make sure he heard me."

Cloud's expression could have written a full book on exasperation. "You've got two working legs in your possession. You could've just walked up and told him without letting the neighbors know your business in the process."

"I'm coming." Sora's voice drifted downward, quiet in comparison to his brother's. "Just a second…"

Eyes shifting upward, Roxas conceded begrudging defeat and lowered his voice. "Need help?"

"No," came the mild response. Sora appeared at the top of the stairs, crutches under one arm, backpack straps pulled snug around his shoulders. He descended carefully, Roxas watching at the foot of the stairs, the muscles in his legs tensing as he forced himself to remain still and let his brother make his way toward him on his own. Sporting a t-shirt and long, baggy pants that dwarfed his already modest frame, Roxas couldn't help but empathize with how miserably overheated Sora was going to be by mid-day, all on account of wanting to conceal the braces that cupped the back of each leg from ankle to knee.

Unconsciously, his fingers fluttered over one of his own arm sleeves. With dedication that rivaled some of the most God-fearing-consistent churchgoers in Radiant Hollow, every day Sora covered his legs, and Roxas his arms. Polar opposites, they were, from the womb on forward.

With three steps remaining, Roxas extended his arms toward his brother, fingers flexing. "Give 'em here," he said, inclining his head toward the crutches held in a tenuous grip under one of Sora's arms.

Rolling his eyes in unknowingly perfect mimicry of his oldest brother's earlier expression, Sora reluctantly complied.

"Your finger looks terrible," he noted as he conquered the final step. "Please tell me you're not going to subject everyone at school to a picture of that all day." Eyes traveling to the dining room, Sora offered a quick wave. "Morning, Cloud."

Cloud returned the gesture without a word, content to watch his younger brothers as they exchanged familiar banter.

Crutches in hand, Roxas headed back toward the dining table. "I'll stop at the nurse's to wrap it up before first period. No point in paying for what they give away free." Slinging his backpack over one shoulder, he popped the third piece of bacon into his mouth and wrapped the grease-laden paper towel around the fourth. He stabbed the spoon back into the erstwhile ice cream container, and plodded on over to Sora.

"Breakfast," Roxas declared, holding up his leftovers as though offering a physical form of salvation in two open palms.

Cloud's eyes widened. "You are not seriously going to subject him to tha—"

"Ooh," Sora trilled, inadvertently cutting his brother off as he reached toward the pseudo-nourishment. "You made café français? I love that stuff!"

Shooting a smug look over his shoulder, Roxas half-skipped himself over to the door and opened it. Sora followed a beat behind him, eyes on the frozen confection cupped between both hands with an expression of plain appreciation.

As his younger brothers exited the house, Cloud reached up and slid a hand through the thick mess of blond hair that so closely conformed with pre-ordained Strife genetics. He shook his head minutely, waiting for the screen door to creak shut. Only then did he allow a small smile to form. Fatigued but silently conceding amusement, Cloud reached for his empty coffee mug and the plate that Roxas had abandoned on the table. He carried them to the kitchen, bare shoulders still subtly hunched. Depositing them in the sink, he made a mental note to leave enough time to wash the dishes before heading out for his work shift that evening.

"Two peas, one pod," he muttered as he made his way through the living room and to the stairs. He paused at the first step, hand resting on the banister lightly enough that it didn't sway. The uplifted expression at both corners of his mouth remained. Cloud took a moment to look skyward, then finished the rest of his softly spoken observation. "Whether either likes it or not."

Then, pondering the prospects of even a small degree of uninterrupted sleep, Cloud ascended the stairs without another word.

o - o

Hayner's van had seen better days, as had his mood.

As the group of four drove out of their neighborhood, aiming for the town's center and toward school, he remained silent, features set like stone in a display of undiluted resentment.

Feet crossed and propped up on the dashboard, right arm hanging half out the passenger-side window, and bucket chair reclined as far as Pence's knees would allow in the seat behind him, Roxas glanced over at his friend. "Still pissed about yesterday, I see."

The scowl deepened. Without uttering a word, Hayner thrust his arm toward the van's center console and twisted the volume on the radio up to a borderline deafening level. Country music blared out of the speakers, assaulting the inner membranes of Roxas' ears with the eagerness of first-year fraternity pledge. Something told him his ears weren't going to have much success surviving Hayner's hissy-fit version of a freshman hazing ritual if this endured for any real length of time.

Roxas cleared his throat, aiming for maximum verbal amplification. "Please change the station. I hate this shit-stick genre."

When Hayner didn't make a move to comply, it was Pence who jumped into action. Unfastening his seatbelt and sucking in his gut to clear the back of Roxas' chair, the boy leaned forward between the two front seats and batted at the dial until the nubby tips of his fingers succeeded in lowering the volume to a more humane level. Next to him, Sora slid closer to the window to give Pence more wiggle room, his eyes never leaving the most recent book he'd checked out of their local library. Wedged between oversized shoes used to compensate for his bulky bracings, the half-finished pint of iced coffee sloshed quietly with the sway of the vehicle, having already begun melting from the fatal combination of Sora's natural body heat and the van's lack of working AC. As Pence fell back into his seat with an audible huff, he offered Roxas an apologetic shrug via the passenger-side mirror. "I couldn't reach the station dial."

"Yeah, let's cater to him," Hayner spoke on the heels of Pence's words. "What does Roxas want to listen to, if my music's too redneck for your oh-so sophisticated tastes? Iggy Azalea, maybe? Nicki Minaj?"

Teeth working their way unforgivingly over his lower lip, Roxas suppressed the urge to tell his friend to fuck the hell off, get over himself, and reevaluate his definition of sophistication if he thought either singer qualified in that regard. Hayner was taking this entire redneck name-calling business way too serious, as far as he was damn well concerned.

Bobbing his head in tune with the country song still playing in the background, Pence's expression turned thoughtful. "I think those singers are closer to Olette's preferences, actually."

Like a sudden pressure change in an airplane's main cabin, the atmosphere within the van became stifling at a near-instantaneous rate, Hayner's upper body going still as rigid stone in the aftermath of Pence's comment. Wholly engrossed in his reading material, Sora was the only rider who made no indication that he'd noticed.

Hayner's jaw clenched then released as he glanced behind him. "Change the subject."

Roxas poked his friend's shoulder. "Keep your eyes on the road."

"We should probably talk about it at some point," Pence returned half a beat later, brows rising in a flicker of consternation.

Again, Hayner craned his neck, fixing Pence with a dour expression. In front of him, one of only six stoplights located in Radiant Hollow's downtown district turned from green to yellow, then settled on red. Still in a pain med-induced partial mental haze, Roxas processed the impending chain of events without fully connecting them to himself. "Actually," Hayner said, still glaring at Pence, "you should probably shut the fuck up about h—"

"Brake, you ingrate!" Roxas bellowed, finally rendering the mental warnings into actual wording.

If there was one thing Roxas could give his friend credit for, it was Hayner's reflexes. No more than a second later, Hayner had switched his foot from gas pedal to brake. The force of the action had the van tires squealing, and Roxas took a split-second moment to calculate how much the inevitable brake pad replacements were going to set his friend back out of involuntary high schooler algebraic habit, before the van jerked to an abrupt stop just inches behind the car in front of them. The squealing tires against heat-warped asphalt was almost loud enough to make Roxas wish the stereo had remained at its former volume.

Almost.

A quiet yelp sounded from the backseat while the car driver in front of them shot the teens a nasty look in his rearview mirror. Knuckles blanching as he clutched the frame of the van through his open window, arm throbbing as a direct result of the added pressure to his broken finger, Roxas turned on his friend. "What the righteous fuck, Hayner?! My brother's in the backseat."

"I'm fine," Sora called in a small voice. "It just caught me by surprise." Roxas glanced back, scrutinizing him with unconcealed severity. Slipping a hand underneath his seatbelt, Sora was gingerly pressing against the line on his chest where the belt strap had been resting. He offered Roxas an assured nod. "Yeah. All good."

"You'd better damn well be." Roxas inhaled sharply, then turned toward Hayner, set to verbally ream his friend a new one. Or four.

"Sorry. I'm sorry," Hayner muttered before Roxas could jump in. His eyes were now trained on the road ahead of them, expression a picture of chagrin. "I got… distracted."

"No. Shit." Roxas gnashed his teeth. "You don't fucking say."

The light turned and Hayner pulled the van forward. For the next five minutes, he drove in silence, Roxas staring darkly out his open window, rapping his swollen finger against the side of the van door as Hayner's expression filled with progressive guilt.

A few minutes out from their destination, Hayner cleared his throat, eyes rising to the rearview mirror to steal a glance at Sora. They darted back to the road ahead of him a quick beat later before Roxas could find it in him to say anything in reprisal.

"No ride from Kairi again, huh?" Hayner's voice sounded strained, his question posed with an awkwardness he didn't seem wholly acquainted with as he performed the verbal version of flailing for opportune wording. When Sora didn't initially answer, he forged on, apparently determined to raze the tension that had built up over the past ten minutes. "She sick or something?"

Out of the corner of one eye, Roxas saw Sora look up and shake his head. "No, just family troubles. I didn't want to add to it by making her tote me around, so thanks for the ride if I didn't already say it." He offered Hayner a small, grateful smile.

Ever the peacemaker, Roxas noted. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Sora truly angry about anything, even when an occasion was well past justifying it.

"What kind of troubles?" Hayner asked, voice a tense falsetto that Roxas might have been inclined to home in on and rib about if he'd been in a lighter mood.

"Not my place to say," Sora said, attention drifting back down toward the book in his hands.

Roxas snorted half a full breath of air, expression turning well-practiced smug. "Wait, I got this in five words." Left palm up, he ticked off each successive locution with the index finger of his other hand. "Her… daddy… violated… parole. Again."

He looked over to Hayner. "Happy now? You're no longer the hickest in discussion. Be sure to thank little miss hooker nails the next time you see her."

Mouth closed, Hayner's lips thinned, the edges twitching like he was trying to suppress a concessionary smile. He ultimately succeeded in holding his tongue, probably on sole account of Sora's enduring presence in his direct line of rearview sight.

Roxas glanced back at Sora, brows rising. "So, am I right?"

"You're unkind is what you are," his brother replied. Not even affording Roxas the most fleeting of glances, Sora sighed. "Now lay off her. It's not like she got to choose her relations. I know that tragic scenario all too well myself."

Pence snickered as, brows rising even higher, Roxas pressed a hand to his chest in mock-offense. "That hurts deep down. Who's being unkind now?"

A smile played at the corners of his lips, but Sora didn't deign to look up or reply further. In front of him, even Hayner finally gave in and conceded defeat to a grin.

As Radiant High's main building came into view, Hayner angled the van into the student parking lot, traversing speed bumps with more care than he typically aimed for.

"Anyone got weekend plans?" he asked as he trolled down a row of parking spaces looking for an unoccupied spot.

Sora didn't respond, and Roxas shook his head.

"There's supposed to be some sort of get-together out at the marshes Friday night," Pence spoke up. "I think it's pretty close to the Usual Sp—"

"Don't say it," Roxas cut in, eyeballing Hayner for any inkling of a negative reaction without moving his neck from the bucket seat headrest. His friend's expression remained carefully neutral, and Roxas supposed there was something to be said about having been able to so recently guilt-trip the shit out of him for the morning's pitiful excuse for responsible driving. He turned back to Pence. "And who's gonna be there to make it worth the drive?"

Pence shrugged. "I'm not totally sure. I overheard Tidus and Wakka talking about rounding up some of the senior class to roast hot dogs and s'mores and…" He hesitated a moment, stealing a glance over at Sora whose nose remained buried halfway to China in his book. "Other stuff, probably."

Running the fingers of his good hand through a tangle in his hair, Roxas exhaled. "That sounds real tempting and all, on account of how much I love activities as well defined as 'other stuff'. I think I'll pass."

Locating a spot as close to the school entrance as possible, Hayner turned into it, switched gears to park, and twisted the ignition off.

"It was just an answer to Hayner's question," Pence said. "I don't know if it'll be any fun." He unbuckled his seatbelt, then reached for his bag before grabbing the interior latch and pressing a shoulder against the van's sliding door. In front of him, Roxas grabbed his backpack, opened his own door, and hopped out. He helped Pence slide the door open as far as it would go, ignoring its agonized protests as the rusted trackline ground against the connecting slide bolt.

Stepping aside to let Pence hop out, Roxas poked his head into the van's backseat and made a grab for Sora's crutches. He watched as Sora unbuckled himself, then leaned down to retrieve the sweating ice cream pint. Roxas reached forward and, without a word, Sora passed it to his brother, who wasted no time in popping its top open a crack and allowing the freestanding liquid to leak out onto the asphalt ground next to the van.

"Waste of some perfectly good iced coffee," he muttered as Sora scooted himself across the van's padded seat bench.

His brother looked over at him, brows furrowing. "Hey, I ate some." One leg after the other, he carefully exited the vehicle. Pence and Hayner waited a few feet away, gazes directed opposite the van over toward the edge of the RHSH football stadium.

Eyes traveling back to the van's interior, Roxas let out a harried sigh. He leaned forward onto his knees and reached the length of the vehicle's floor, emerging a moment later with the greasy paper towel in which a sole slice of bacon remained nestled, uneaten.

"Right," Roxas said, one brow arching in skeptical expressivity. Holding what had once qualified as food prior to an extended stay on the dusty van floor out away from him and back in Sora's general direction, he followed the look up with a full roll of his eyes. "The same as you ate this too, I suppose."

o - o

He made it out of the nurse's office in record time, ignoring the annoyed look the receptionist seemed bent on skewering him with for the mere act of existing in her general proximity. Even so, Roxas had missed Hayner who had followed him so far as the reception area to wait for his new student charge with barely concealed irritation.

It was probably for the best, Roxas reasoned. He wasn't really in the mood to play nice with some over-dressed outsider who looked like he'd just stepped straight off an album cover for the newest J-pop boy band.

Making his way down one of the school's main corridors, Roxas turned a sharp corner into the hall where his locker was located — and just about collided straight into another student.

"Oh! I'm sor—" The girl stopped mid-word when she saw who she'd nearly run into, her gaze shifting as though she suddenly didn't know where to look. "Roxas, hi."

Roxas inclined his head in acknowledgement, then glanced at a wall clock above her head to gauge the time. "Olette."

He sidestepped his friend and increased his gait back to its previous pace, only to hear the clicking of Olette's kitten heels following a few steps behind.

"Can I walk with you?"

Roxas shrugged. "It's a free country. God save the Queen."

She drew up along one side, clasping her hands together and wringing them. Idly, Roxas wondered what it'd feel like for her to do that with a broken finger. He theorized that it'd probably smart to high hell, and she'd be all the luckier to experience a sensation that to him was as remote as the nearest city with a headcount higher than 9,000.

"There's going to be a party out by St. Bastion's Friday night," Olette said. The final words of her sentence rose as though she were asking a question. "Are you guys… I mean, do you think Hayner will be there?"

Reaching his locker, Roxas let his backpack slide off his shoulder and drop with a heavy thud to the vinyl beneath his feet. "Why don't you ask him yourself? I don't exist for the sole purpose of being your go-between." He turned back toward his locker, and twisted in the first two digits of the lock combo.

Olette hung her head slightly. "I know that. But he just keeps being avoidant. At least you're talking to me."

"That's because you stalked me down a school hallway," Roxas pointed out. "Guess I could've run off, but I'm not really jonesing to relive my track and field glory days at the present moment." Sliding the handle up, Roxas swung his locker door outward and caught just enough of a glance at Olette's crestfallen expression to wish it was more socially acceptable to tell people what he really thought about their pedantic high school dramas.

"Look," he said, deciding to throw her beaten-puppy look an inch of bone. "It's going to take some time for him. It's weird enough for me," he said, waving his splinted finger past her face before dropping it back down to his thigh. "I know it's not your fault and so does Pence. Hayner probably too. But that doesn't mean we can just flip a mental switch and leap to break bread at maison Almasy hardly two weeks removed from that train-wreck travesty."

Olette blinked, her eyes shining in a way that looked to Roxas suspiciously like the genesis of tears. Lord save him, if there was ever a time to find religion, it might be now. Then again, maybe an iota of patience would suffice in the Christ child's stead.

"Give it time." He stressed the final word, then allowed his tone to rise to what he hoped was an encouraging level. "He'll come around."

Olette nodded, a jerky motion that seemed an attempt to embolden herself. "Okay. I can do that. Thanks."

She turned as if to leave. Roxas only had the opportunity to release half a breath before she spun back around to face him. "I'm really sorry about your hand." She did look sorry, Roxas noted, although girls seemed preternaturally disposed to flipping the switch from one emotion to another at breakneck-expert pace, so he wasn't convinced this was saying much.

"Seifer only got a doctor note to stay home sick for two days, so he'll be back in school tomorrow," she added. "I just thought you might want a heads up in that regard."

She was gone into the sea of milling high school students before Roxas could even assess whether he wanted to formulate a response to the information she'd just presented.

Expression dropping into an unconscious scowl, Roxas turned back to his locker and began balancing an increasingly heavy pile of textbooks on one forearm. Around him, the crowded hall began thinning out as the five minute warning bell sounded. Shifting the weight of his textbooks to a more even distribution between both arms, Roxas reached up for his locker door and swung it shut.

A girl came into view in the space that his locker had just been blocking. Startled, Roxas' shoulders jerked upward before he could stifle the reaction. He swore under his breath.

"Sweet Jesus, you know how to sneak up on people. Consider a career in espionage after you graduate."

Offering him a small smile, the girl stepped forward, traversing the invisible boundary between her personal space and his own. Her long, dark skirt swished gently around pale, stick-thin ankles. Rising to the pads of her flat-sandaled feet to bypass the books in his arms, she planted a lingering kiss full on his mouth, which he returned with lukewarm enthusiasm. Her dark hair fell forward with the action, concealing her features and tickling the side of his face, and Roxas endured the momentary cognitive flicker of another girl entirely in the back of his mind, hair rippling in chain-response to a hint of sultry breeze. The image made his stomach drop and he was only half aware of the small ziplock bag slipped into his hand beneath the cover of textbooks as a direct consequence.

She took a step back, hands rising to her shoulder and adjusting the long fabric strap of an over-sized bag that looked like it'd been cobbled together with at least three separate fabric patterns. Knowing Xion, Roxas thought, the probability was high that she'd made it herself, despite having a mother with enough of a healthy-strong guilt complex to allow for a roomful of much nicer, store-bought carrying accessories.

"I've been tasked with inviting you to dinner tomorrow night, all cordial-like." Xion looked up, head tilting as she regarded him without pretense from beneath dark lashes.

Balling the ziplock bag even tighter into one hand, fingers traveling over the fistful of small capsules in its confines, Roxas silently considered the offer.

"We could study after if you'd like," she suggested. "Or… other stuff."

Roxas crouched down by his backpack and began loading it full with books, careful to tuck the baggy into a deep pocket within the bowels of its interior.

"Okay," he finally responded. "That should work."

After all, he was already on record about his affection for engaging in the nebulous concept of 'other stuff'. Might as well keep himself consistent, he figured.

Once packed, he zipped up his bag and stood. Without a word, he began walking, Xion trailing closely by his side. He felt their shoulders brush and wondered if it'd been a purposeful action on her part. Probably, he wagered, considering that it was followed by the delicate fingers of her hand trailing down his covered arm and tracing an outline of his splint, then finally curling around it. He felt the heat of swollen pulsing across the tendons on the back of his hand, a direct response to the light pressure she'd applied, but said nothing. In a world like the one where he'd grown up, comfortable silence was a commodity in enduringly short supply. Like an addict, he'd seek it out in whatever form he could find it, and he shamelessly acknowledged that Xion was just his latest narcotic of choice since she'd arrived as a transfer student junior year. As far as he could tell, she was more than willing to play the part and keep his habit fed as long as he had the appetite for it.

Hand-in-hand, they made a path down the corridor on their way to class, each outwardly silent to counter the voices of ghosts that followed them both. Although their thoughts likely differed, Roxas couldn't help but feel they were one and the same where it ultimately mattered, which was unfortunate. It spelled self-destruction far too accurately for the both of them as inevitable consequence. At this point, even Roxas vaguely realized it was only a matter of time.

Chapter Text

 


"His redolent iniquity
Reflects in every corner of the room
Maybe it's the treason
Maybe it's decay
Maybe it's the reason
Maybe it's the words you say."
"The Western Boy" - Little Comets


Deep breathing was supposed to be a calming sensation, but Riku was finding it ineffectual at best midway through the school day in the face of the overt hostility he'd encountered that morning. Eyes fixed on the interior of his locker, he deposited textbooks from his first four classes and reached for the materials he'd need to finish off the day. He'd thought that no longer having Hayner as a guide after yesterday would work in his favor and offer a fresh start; it hadn't taken long after the teacher had dismissed first period English for him to learn just how misguided that assumption had been.

Hey, newbie…hey. Yeah, I'm talking to you.

Shouldering his messenger bag, he closed his locker with an unassuming click, then made his way toward fifth period Physics. None of these classes posed any challenge for him; they were covering materials that were either completely basic or outright review, which had Riku initially believing he'd be able to float by, turning in homework but remaining otherwise unnoticed. Instead, it'd just left him looking like a smartass every time he got called on and was practically guaranteeing that the last three months of his high school experience were sure to bore him astral projection-style straight out of his idling mind.

Hey, newbie. Where're you from?

That didn't even account for the revisionist history he was getting a crash course in, posthaste. In the midst of its Civil War unit, his US History class had yet to acknowledge the minor detail that the South hadn't actually prevailed. When he'd raised his hand to clarify an associated point, the teacher had regarded him with such unconcealed disdain that Riku had quickly redefined his criteria for feeling idiotic and small. He supposed he probably should have noted that the majority of cars in the school parking lot sported some variation of the Confederate flag, be it via fabric attached to a side window or something more pseudo-artistic like a decal covering the whole of a back bumper. It shouldn't have been difficult to work out from there how testing a centennial and a half's worth of Southern pride was about as effective as showing up to a gunfight sporting a knife as his weapon of choice.

Not for the first time in the past three days, Riku found himself grateful that he'd already been accepted to his top choice college. He just couldn't see himself feigning ignorance about common-knowledge facts on even something as trivial as a US History test at an ass-backwards rural high school like RHSHS.

California…? No, I mean where are you really from? What third world nation did your parents boat over here from, takin' jobs meant for actual Americans?

Sora had been the school's one saving grace thus far, Kairi in her own quirky way to an extent as well. While Southern through and through in speech and manner, Sora never failed to make light of Riku's myriad miscalculated comments and actions in a way that also subtly steered him onto a path the students at Radiant High seemed to find more socially palatable. It wasn't so much that Sora had been willing to give him a pass on his missteps over the past few days; he was simply more patient about explaining why others might see them as problematic, as opposed to simply shooting Riku a dark look and leaving him wondering how it was even possible for one lone person to step on so many toes in such a short span of time.

It was unfortunate, then, that he was in only one of Riku's classes beyond study hall. Even then, they were seated on opposite ends of the room from one another, and the classes Riku had immediately before and after were located in the outdoor trailer area completely across school grounds. With only a seven minute break between each period, he hardly had enough time to speed-walk his way to and from where he needed to go, let alone being able to stop and chat for more than a handful of seconds.

You think you're better'n us with those fancy clothes?

They didn't even have lunch period together. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Riku had sat with Hayner and his friends. On his own from here on out, he'd seen no reason to endure his classmate's silent treatment and thinly veiled glares for the span of thirty excruciating minutes that were supposed to be relaxing and social. During today's lunch period, he'd sat off on his own, somewhat relaxed, he supposed, but in no way remotely social.

So much for that.

At least he'd started eating better since he'd made the concerted effort to pack a his own lunch. As inconsequential as it felt in the face of so many other new experiences, a homemade meal was something that didn't change, from San Francisco to even middle-of-nowhere here. He'd had to improvise on a few of the ingredients that the local market hadn't carried, yes, but it was close enough to suffice under the circumstances.

That hair's so gay, Hollywood. We got a fag in our midst?

It was evenings when he was loneliest. With his father spending full weeks further down the Gulf Coast for his legal work and his mom working long hours at a regional hospital a handful of towns over, speeding back to Radiant Hollow for the sole purpose of picking him up from school before often making the return trip, Riku had been left primarily to his own devices. The two hour time difference hampered the majority of his efforts to keep up with his friends back home, and their rental house was far enough away from town to make it impossible to even entertain exploring their ant-sized version of an urban center. He'd even considered making his way over to the landowner's home and introducing himself more thoroughly to her daughter for a hot minute. Riku wasn't overtly social to begin with though and he wasn't confident he'd have much in common with someone as book-obsessed as the girl seemed to be, if her hours-long stints on the porch swing were any indication of overall personality.

There was always the possibility that he, Sora, and Kairi could hang together outside of school at some point. That might offer some form of reprieve from the gnawing ache of new-kid isolation that, despite best efforts, Riku hadn't been wholly successful with keeping at bay. It felt like such a cliché to him, this entire situation. The relocation wasn't even permanent, and he knew it. But try as he might to approach his temporary living situation in a more cogent light, his mind seemed hellbent on cheeking whatever pills of rationality he kept trying to encourage it to swallow.

Every. Single. Time. It almost wasn't worth the effort expended at this point, he couldn't help thinking when he was at his testiest.

He refused to believe it had more to do with being made to feel hopelessly vulnerable than simply being irritated about the unenlightened viewpoints flung in every direction around him by teachers and students alike.

Arriving in his Physics classroom with a few minutes to spare, Riku glanced around the room at the students who'd already arrived. Most ignored him, their eyes down or fixed on people they were already chatting with. The few who did return his gaze kept their expressions unreadable, blank slates hiding any number of thoughts about the outsider with strange clothes and an accent that simply screamed affluent West Coast.

At the far end of the room, a boy with mussed blond hair sat slouched, eyes trained at the nearest window but not discernibly focused on anything, all the while rapping his splinted finger to an unidentifiable tempo directly against the sharp corner of his desk table.

I dunno know how they do it out west, but here, we got our own effective way of handlin' queers.

It wasn't enough to just be quiet, to try to slide under the radar. He could acknowledge that the mess with Hayner had been completely on him, but it was just as true that some people seemed to take offense at his mere presence, and there was nothing he could feasibly do to rectify it, regardless of how much Sora was trying to help.

Without a word, Riku slid his messenger bag up over his head, then deposited it at the foot of the table he'd been assigned on his first day. It could be worse, he thought, trying to buoy the belief that none of this was as awful as it seemed as he pulled the chair out and lowered himself into his seat.

No matter how ostracized and misunderstood he felt now, he reminded himself, it could always, invariably, get so much worse.

o - o

If there was ever a high school experience that transcended provincial differences, gym class had to be it. There were probably a few athletic activities that were region-specific but for the most part, PE was like math — universal, no matter what part of the country you hailed from.

A fluent grasp of the English language wasn't necessary for it either, Riku noted with a touch of cynicism, still mindful of some of the ignorant comments he'd fielded since his arrival.

It wasn't that he was great at basketball by any means, but there were sports he was definitely worse at. He had developed good hand-eye coordination training in water polo over the years, so at least he'd be able to catch any balls thrown his way, he figured. He'd changed out of his street clothing before class without speaking to anyone in the locker room, tying his hair back behind his head with a small band to keep it out of his way just like he did back home, then made his way into the adjoining gymnasium area.

Students were congregating in small groups in the general location where the instructor was standing, clipboard in hand. From Riku's vantage point, it seemed that there was a subtle social hierarchy among his classmates, much like in his last school. He just didn't know enough yet to take a stab at which group equated with each traditional high school trope. Again, he hung back, close enough to the instructor for him to be aware of a new student's presence, but not making an effort to insert himself into already-existing groups or conversations. Apart from Pence, a boy who'd sat with Hayner at lunch on his first two days, Riku didn't initially spot anyone he knew by name beyond simply recognizing a good number from periods when he was scheduled for more substantive lessons.

A quick glance toward the bleachers also confirmed that the guy with the injured hand was still benched. Having just entered the gym through a different door still in street clothes, he was making his way into an area about midway up a row of seats.

It wasn't until his gaze traveled away from the bleachers and back over toward the instructor that Riku spotted a student who made him freeze in place, the neutral expression he'd been trying his best to maintain momentarily faltering before he could catch himself.

He was coming from the locker room, a small cadre of other students trailing closely behind. His blond hair and well-defined physique were the picture of an Abercrombie ad about half a decade out of date. Given how much he'd been heckled by the guy over the past few hours, Riku was honestly surprised he hadn't noticed him before today. He'd remained quiet all morning, suppressing the urge to respond back with anything beyond one or two word answers to what he'd initially thought were legitimate questions posed out of curiosity. Once he'd realized they were more realistically lead-ups to what amounted to bile given verbal form, he'd been less forthcoming, had just let the pointed taunting wash over him while trying his genuine best not to react to anything. It'd have been different if this were happening in California where he had his own group of friends to back him up. In a new, unfamiliar social environment, he'd thus far had to deal with it quietly and hope it didn't develop into something more physical over time.

Spotting Riku, the boy's expression darkened. In light of the gym teacher's proximity, however, he said nothing.

As the period got underway, the gym teacher wasted no time in sorting Riku into a preexisting team of students, which thankfully didn't include the racist Abercrombie model or any of the people he seemed to consider friends. At the teacher's instructions, each member of Riku's newly assigned group introduced themselves. Still distracted by the vestiges of insults from earlier that morning, the only names he managed to commit to memory were of a girl named Selphie, who he recalled from Kairi's mention on Tuesday, and Tidus, a guy with sandy blond hair.

They headed over to their assigned area of the gym, complete with a basketball hoop all their own and boundaries that were outlined in colored tape across the floor. Where other teams yelled and whooped at each other during gameplay, Riku's group practiced in relative silence. He tried to recall if he'd seen this set of students being more talkative over the past two days prior to his inclusion, but between paying attention to the game and the distraction of his earlier encounters, he couldn't remember. He also wasn't sure if it mattered in the long run. They were including him in gameplay, at least. It was a start, however small.

Over the course of the hour, they fell into a pattern of quiet cooperation. None of his teammates made much effort to engage him in conversation, but Riku couldn't really say he minded. It was harder to get insulted or called an uncreative but still biting slur if no one felt inclined to open their mouths to talk to him at all.

Before this morning, Riku had never encountered anti-gay attitudes held with such apparent fervor. The term queer in particular was one he'd never heard used in a pejorative sense. He'd always assumed it was just another way to define someone as something other than straight. At least, he'd heard it used at LGBT demonstrations and events back home relatively often, and the participants had seemed proud to refer to themselves under that definitional framework.

The tone that guy had used when directing it his way hadn't been accepting or inclusive. No question. It'd made Riku bristle, felt like an unequivocal, pointed insult. In a place like San Francisco, Riku hadn't felt the need to label himself, and his parents were progressive enough that he'd never spent sleepless nights debating what they might think if he ultimately came to the conclusion that he was something besides straight. They were more likely to ream him out over a less than acceptable exam score than who he chose to date. As long as it didn't interfere with his studies, he didn't have much to worry about. The notion that something as immutable as sexual orientation might be seen in a negative light somewhere else in the country, quite frankly, had never crossed his mind, at least until now.

Not to mention that it was hella misguided to assume anything about someone based on their clothing choices or hair length, in his view. People here were a decade behind the times, maybe more.

Trying to force his attention to remain on the game, Riku watched Tidus pass the ball toward Selphie, throwing it more gently than he knew his classmate was capable of. She caught the ball a little clumsily but held onto it, dribbling toward the hoop in front of her as her teammates gave her some space. Coming to a stop almost directly under the hoop, Selphie furrowed her brows and stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrated and took aim.

Bending her knees in the midst of a projected wind-up, Selphie threw the ball more like someone might pitch a baseball rather than aiming and using her wrists to direct the ball toward the hoop.

She wasn't even close, unless you counted the fact that the ball did manage to impact the hoop's metal rim. It ricocheted in an unanticipated direction, off toward the bleachers lining the far wall of the gymnasium. She glanced at Riku out of the corner of one eye, and he noted the corresponding flush forming on his classmate's cheeks without a word. Nearby, Riku caught sight of Tidus and another member of their group. Both seemed to be attempting to stifle grins at what had just taken place rather unsuccessfully.

Shooting Selphie what he hoped was a friendly, non-judgmental half-smile, Riku turned to the rest of his group. "I'll go get it," he offered. When no one objected, he turned and sprinted over toward the bleachers where the ball had ultimately ended up rolling. For someone as small as Selphie, she had certainly put enough force behind her shot to send the ball completely across the sizable room. It was a thought that was followed by a tinge of amusement and the realization that this was the first time he'd found himself enjoying something about his new school beyond study hall with Kairi and Sora. Riku supposed it was a subtle sign that he just might be making some form of progress.

He didn't look up as he neared the ball by the bottom bleacher seat, even though he was aware of the student a few rows above him and even sensed the boy's eyes on him. They had the majority of their classes together, except for English during Riku's first period and maybe one other lesson, but neither had yet said a word to one another, despite Riku's impression from the boy's repeat presence at lunch that he and Hayner were friends.

Leaning over, he reached for the ball that had come to a stop a few inches from the bottom row of bleachers. Its velocity had slowed upon impact, and the ball was now making lazy, erratic loops in place as its momentum gradually dissipated. Without further consideration, Riku grabbed it in one hand and straightened up.

He saw the orange blur of an airborne basketball in his peripherals but couldn't completely dodge out of its speeding path in time to avoid it. The ball connected with his shoulder, his neck snapping back in a reflexive chain-reaction. It was nothing short of a miracle that he'd managed to keep the basketball secured in his arm given the unanticipated nature of the impact he'd just suffered.

"Not as light on your feet as a cocksucker rightly should be, Hollywood, are ya?"

That voice. By now, it had the ability to cut the distance from his shoulders to ears almost in half in one tense, rising motion if he wasn't paying requisite attention to his body's own involuntary movements. Neck aching, Riku turned to face his assailant. Arms crossed over his chest, expression openly smug, the guy was flanked by a couple other students who seemed to be in the active process of stifling laughter with varying degrees of adeptness.

Riku let his eyes travel past the group, over the heads of others still playing basketball games, until he finally located the gym teacher far across the room. Chances were next to nil that the instructor had heard the inflammatory comment or even seen the action that had preceded it.

Fucking great.

Eyes narrowing, Riku took a step forward, the fingers of his free hand flexing into a fist before releasing as he reminded himself that initiating a fight on school grounds would not do him any favors. There was also a high probability that a physical altercation was exactly what this guy wanted.

"Seriously?" The word was spoken with incredulity, a quiet expression of his disbelief that anyone would stoop to such juvenile conduct. This extended beyond fielding insults and bordered on actionable behavior in his view. He wanted to say more, to give this guy a true piece of his mind, but Riku's throat constricted, his inherent reticence holding him back with a subtle but effective warning that continuing down this path most likely wouldn't end well if he didn't want to add a school suspension to his record.

Before he could determine the most appropriate course of action, someone cut in.

"Last I checked, it takes two to suck dick, but only one to be a righteous hypocrite."

The voice had come from behind him, its tone a languid drawl, emphasizing the message in the most indifferent way possible. Out of the corner of his eye, vision still blurred with the heat of ire he'd forcibly internalized, Riku saw a mottle of blond hair, blue eyes, and white, athletic arm sleeves.

In front of him, his assailant's expression turned dark. "Stay out of this, Strife, unless you want another broken finger."

Unsure how to respond, or if he should even consider jumping in to fight his own fight, Riku took a few half steps back. It allowed him to better keep an eye on both classmates. Neither made a move toward the other, although the benched student did rise from his seat. Riku watched as he hopped a few rows of bleachers down, closer to everyone else involved.

"Oh, Mr. Almasy." The boy sighed, brows rising until they almost disappeared beneath a crown of flaxen hair. "You don't call. Never write." His face turned mock-sorrowful. Nearby, Riku found himself staring as a student he'd hardly heard say more than a handful of words over the past couple days went into full-on snark mode.

"With all this indecorous talk of blowjobs and the like, I just don't rightly know what to think 'cept that maybe you've got someone else on the side." Blue eyes widening, his register rose in perfect mimicry of a distraughtly lovesick Southern belle. He clasped his hands in front of him, the gesture almost comical in light of his splinted finger. "Tell it to me straight, hun. I need to know — are you cheatin' on me? Is this the end of us?"

A few feet away, the boy he was addressing had gone rigidly still, eyes narrowing as his friends looked between the two speakers with overt uncertainty. Although he didn't know them, Riku had a sneaking suspicion the baffled expressions implied that they weren't quite catching on to the sense of satire woven with indulgence throughout the boy's words. Riku found himself holding his breath, somewhat stunned by what was taking place, wondering if he should speak up before he or his blond interlocutor got another basketball thrown straight at their faces.

The gym teacher beat him to it.

"Roxas Strife!" the instructor hollered, voice carrying with impressive force from the opposite end of the gym. "It's not called sittin' out if you're standing there flapping your mouth."

A bare minimum of three sets of eyes redirected to where the teacher stood, arms crossed and expression stern, but no one initially moved. Riku noted the curious gazes of the other gym students and a notable lack of the standard sounds associated with continued gameplay. By now, it was abundantly clear that everyone was watching. With one last murderous glance in his direction, Outdated Abercrombie and his merry band of fashion-sense rejects retreated back to the other side of the gym.

And then there were two.

The student who'd just been dubbed Roxas glanced over at Riku. "Hey, Pikachu, here's a tip you can take to the bank." His voice was low, tone thickening into an almost incomprehensible inflection that seemed nothing short of a performance for Riku's express benefit. Briefly, he wondered if his classmate was a theatre enthusiast, given his penchant for exaggerated dramatics. "Don't take things so personal," the boy continued. "Seifer calls everyone a queer. He'd say it to his own mamma if she weren't dead and it suited his present agenda."

Across the room, the instructor's expression hardened, Riku noting it out of the corner of one eye with increasing apprehension.

"You that eager to get a write-up, Strife, this close to graduation?"

"No, sir!" Roxas looked up, saluting the teacher as he hopped a few rows upward and settled himself back into his previous seat. His eyes met Riku's a moment later, expression just as impassive as ever. All the energy and emotion he'd put into his little act of love unrequited had vanished, his eyes reflecting back Riku's way as inhospitable now as they'd always been blue.

As Riku tucked his group's basketball under one arm more securely, he gave his classmate one final, bemused look. "Thanks," he said, the sentiment genuine, albeit hesitant.

With a subtle roll of his eyes, Roxas moved his gaze elsewhere, dropping his chin into his palms seemingly without regard for how it bent back his injured finger as he looked back down toward the other side of the gymnasium. "Yeah, whatever."

Glancing back toward the instructor, acutely aware of the increasing irritation in his body language, Riku turned and made his way back over to his assigned team, actively avoiding a look over to where Seifer and his friends stood silent and observing. He could feel the intensity of their gazes well enough by now to know that he was still being watched.

o - o

He arrived in study hall in a mood darkly dense enough to rival a black hole's crushing void. Both Kairi and Sora looked up at his arrival, Sora offering him a smile and Kairi nodding minutely before returning to what looked like assigned reading for English. A pair of earbuds snaked down from each side of her head and connected with her flip phone on the table, although if she was listening to music, it was on a volume low enough that the sound didn't travel.

Riku made a half-hearted attempt at returning Sora's smile as he slipped out of his messenger bag and placed it on the table, drawing back the flap to its main compartment and pulling out his own English text and notes. He didn't think he could stomach dealing with history readings right now when he was already tempted to want to scribble out each ambiguously described reference to the Confederacy's resounding virtues with the reddest pen he owned. He supposed he should feel relieved that he hadn't had to endure Biology. At this point, he wasn't convinced he'd deal well with the potential of class lectures covering concepts in direct opposition to the well-established facts of evolution.

Taking a seat and moving his backpack to the floor, Riku opened his English textbook to the first page of assigned readings, his eyes traveling over the words without processing any of them. By his side, Sora audibly shifted, and he could suddenly sense eyes on him, a feeling that was beginning to rankle considerably in light of his experiences throughout the rest of this endless day. Nearby, Kairi sat, bare knees folded on the chair underneath her in a position that didn't look remotely comfortable given that she was wearing another short skirt. Her forearms lay flat on the table as she leaned forward to study her textbook, a hint of cleavage peeking out of another noisy-colored bra visible to anyone who glanced in her general direction.

"How's your day been?" Although his voice was a whisper, Riku could hear a smile in Sora's spoken tone. Even Sora's upbeat optimism wasn't going to get him out of his current funk though, as far as he was concerned.

He offered his classmate a light shrug but didn't look up. "It was fine."

The words hung in the air between them, thick with sentiments unspoken. Despite Riku's attempt to keep his tone neutral, it was far more difficult to school his body language to match it. He wasn't a gift to the dramatic arts like Roxas, couldn't feign a level of indifference that toed the line between sincerely-held and merely Oscar-worthy. The silence persisted long enough for Riku to feel it could realistically undergo its own form of evolution into a perceivable substance between them. The nebulous prickle of Sora's gaze remained fixed on him, and now more than ever Riku could see the merit in developing the type of external shell that it seemed like Roxas had already perfected long ago.

"You look tired."

Riku glanced to his right, took in Sora's appraising look. "I did just come from gym."

Brows almost meeting one another at the bridge of his nose as they furrowed, Sora quirked his head, still seemingly considering something. "Is that all? You seem pretty athletic to be tired out by an hour's worth of shooting balls."

More like dodging dicks with a low rate of success, actually

"It's been a long week," Riku murmured, eyes returning with determination to his text as he reached out and pulled the hardbound book closer to him. "I'm still trying to get used to the daily schedule, I guess."

Riku didn't for a second believe Sora bought the explanation, and for once he found himself wishing the one guy who'd been outwardly nice to him so far here at school didn't have the mental acuity to turn theories about his current frame of mind into unequivocal verities. On his other side, Kairi hummed quietly, her upper body swaying in time with a song only she could hear, either oblivious to the tension building between her two classmates or otherwise indifferent to its obvious existence.

They lapsed into a silence as strained as Riku's aching neck, Sora ultimately returning to his own study materials while Riku unsuccessfully tried to focus on English. His thoughts drifted, making it difficult to concentrate. Between a full day's worth of traversing school grounds and trying to remember routes between classes without the benefit of a guide, coupled with how unprepared he'd been to handle the outright bile in verbal form from that Seifer guy, Riku couldn't help but feel like he was taking more steps backward rather than leaping in the direction of social acceptance at this school. It was nice that Sora was friendly and seemed genuinely interested in getting to know him, he conceded, but one person who showed up in a small minority of his classes couldn't counter the encroaching feeling that all he really had in store for him promised to encompass the longest, most trying few months of his life to date.

Graduation, a one-way trip back to the West Coast, and a return to an overall mentality that he was more accustomed to couldn't come soon enough at this point.

The period had almost fully expired by the time Riku heard Sora clear his throat. As with countless other times today, he felt eyes on him. This time, Riku glanced up.

Sure enough, Sora was regarding him, his front two teeth visible over his bottom lip as he bit it lightly, probably an unconscious action performed while he seemed to be thinking something through with considerable care.

For an extended moment, the two boys regarded one another, Sora working over his lower lip, eyes wide and trained directly on his new classmate. His eyes still had a fathomless quality to them that Riku found disorienting. Their coloring struck a chord of inexplicable familiarity, but it was more than that. They were just …so blue. Even beyond the irises, Sora's eyes seemed full of the color, giving the boy a preternatural mien. Riku was having difficulty deciding whether it was mesmerizing or something closer to unsettling.

Nearby, Kairi's soft humming resumed. It broke the attentive spell both boys had fallen under with unconscious efficiency, and it was now Riku's turn to clear his throat, the sound further adding to the air of developing awkwardness between the both of them. Sora's gaze dropped a few inches, and Riku was treated to the sight of delicate lashes, in tandem with a better view of his classmate's messy crown of sienna-brown hair.

"There's going to be a party outside of town after school on Friday," Sora said, still not meeting Riku's eyes. It was the first time he'd seen his classmate look doubtful in his delivery of anything from crucial school information to joking observations about Riku's social solecisms. "It's just for seniors," he forged on, words tumbling out at a faster pace and with more Southern inflection than Riku was accustomed to hearing from him. "Kairi and I were thinking of going, and I thought you might want to join us?" Sora stole a glance up at Riku. "It might be a way to get to know people better," he added. "Maybe even relax."

Expression neutral, Riku noted that Kairi had pulled one earbud out and popped a piece of chewing gum into her mouth as she listened to their exchange without a word of contribution on her part.

Riku tried to choose his words carefully. "I'm not really sure if I'm going to have the energy for a party after this week."

Sora's expression dropped in response, and Riku felt the immediate urge to kick himself as a direct consequence. He'd never felt bad about turning down plans with friends before, but there was something about that disappointed look that hit him deeper than he was used to. His only guess as to its origin was the simple knowledge that Sora was going above and beyond anyone else at this school to make him feel welcome. Now Riku was deflecting another idea that might help him better assimilate, and for what reason? So he could mope around a house that didn't feel like home, with nothing to do beyond continuing to unpack or trying to reach a distracted Kadaj via iPhone?

Yeah, that was real mature on his part.

"It's not that kind of party," Kairi cut in, her words spoken around a wad of mint green chewing gum that performed a gelatin peep show every time she opened her mouth to contribute.

Both boys looked at her. She stared back at Riku specifically, expression subtly arch.

"You're imaginin' lights and dancing and clubs, right?"

When Riku didn't immediately respond, she blew a small bubble. As it popped, she directed her eyes skyward in a clear demonstration of exasperation.

"This won't even be in a house. We're just going to the marshes outside of town to let off some steam, and smoke, and eat."

"…oh." The word was spoken softly, Riku's mouth forming more a hint of what he'd said than his actual voice. Like a devoted dog, Sora's eager nod followed closely on the heels of the single word utterance.

"There'll probably be some music, maybe even dancing if people end up drinking enough," Sora conceded, "but it's meant to be low-key. You don't even have to talk to anyone outside the group you go with. Not if you don't want."

Riku looked between the two of them, noting Sora's increasingly hopeful expression along with Kairi's lip-smacking indifference about his decision one way or the other.

Still, Riku hesitated. "I …don't exactly have a way to get anywhere. We have a rental but my parents haven't gotten around to car shopping yet."

Sora clasped his hands together, his smile widening. A few students nearby looked up at the sound. By now most seemed accustomed to Sora's exuberant responses, particularly in Riku's presence. Unlike on Tuesday, no one bothered to hush him this time.

"Leave the ride stuff to me," he said, expression eager, excited. "I can let you know all those details tomorrow."

Riku only made it through half a nod before Sora started chattering again.

"Or…" He paused, features turning thoughtful. "I could text you tonight, if you want to swap numbers?"

This time Riku did get a nod in. "Sure. That works."

They passed off their devices, Sora pausing to examine Riku's iPhone between two thin hands. "Is this the model that just came out?"

"Yeah." Riku inclined his head in affirmation, before glancing at Sora's offering now in the palm of his own hand. It was also an iPhone but at least three generations behind his, practically an artifact by Silicon Valley standards. Not commenting on it, he set to work creating a new contact with his information while Sora did the same on his end, even going so far as to snap a selfie of himself on the forward-facing camera to include with his details. Once done, he held the phone out toward Riku with a bright smile and they exchanged devices, hands briefly touching before they returned to their rightful places in each boy's respective lap.

Riku turned toward Kairi to offer her his phone but was waved off. "I'll get it later from him." She inclined her head toward Sora without more than a minute glance up from her textbook.

With his phone screen still lit up, Riku looked down at the information Sora had entered, eyes skimming the number's local area code and passing over the goofy expression gracing the area reserved for the contact's photo, before rising up to the name that'd been typed in. As his eyes traveled past the familiar letters of the first name, he paused, then looked back up at Sora.

"Your last name's Strife?"

Thick tresses of brown hair bobbed in response with Sora's nod. "And yours is …Kimura." He enunciated the three syllables carefully, then looked up. "Did I say that right?"

"Perfectly, actually." The smile that followed was his first genuine expression of the day. It wasn't a difficult surname to pronounce by any means, but every single school administrator and teacher who'd tried to say it since his arrival had treated it like they were trying to decipher hieroglyphics from a long lost civilization. Leave it to Sora to be the first person in this town to get it right. It seemed somehow appropriate.

Looking down at his phone again, his eyes settled on the digital clock at the top of the screen, noting it was just about the time when he was supposed to be out in front of the school waiting for his mom. Her schedule was so inflexible, she couldn't really afford even a few minute's delay on his part.

Standing and retrieving his messenger bag, Riku shoved his English text into its main compartment. "I have to run," he said, speaking more to Sora than Kairi. "But yeah, definitely text when you have more info about tomorrow night. Or just for whatever." He paused long enough to see Sora's eager nod and to offer a quick wave to Kairi before shouldering his bag and walking hurriedly in the direction of the front of school. Already out of the library and well on his way toward the pick-up area, it was only then that Riku finally remembered he hadn't actually managed to get any form of clarification about Sora's last name.

o - o

The text from his mother arrived when Riku was halfway to the student pick-up area, the only reason he even saw it with his phone on silent being that he still had the phone out, staring at Sora's small picture while still considering the unexpected surname.

Reading the single, apologetic sentence, Riku turned and found himself making his way back toward the library and texting his mom simultaneously to let her know he'd circle back to the school's front entrance in a little under an hour.

It wasn't unusual for her to get caught up at work; back home, it happened with mundane regularity. In San Francisco, Riku had never relied on his parents to pick him up from school though, and he had a handful of options at his disposal to pass the time if he didn't feel like heading straight home. More often than not, he'd meet up with Kadaj or some of his friends, they'd go grab dinner together, then find a cafe to sit down in and chat, maybe even get a head start on the next day's schoolwork.

Here in Radiant Hollow, with the current rental residence miles away from anything other than the landlord's own home and the humidity already impressively oppressive despite it not even being summer yet, Riku's only realistic option was to return to the library.

At least now he might have the opportunity to actually do some English homework, he thought. Or maybe just talk to Sora again to wile away what time remained before his mother arrived.

And Kairi, his mind helpfully supplied.

Yeah. Kairi too, he supposed.

He returned to the library, making his way through the stacks by retracing his steps to the table he, Kairi, and Sora had been studying at. It was down one brown-haired, blue-eyed, perpetually optimistic, Sora-shaped classmate.

Kairi looked up from her textbook and eyed him. "You're back."

"I am." Riku nodded, then pulled out the chair he'd been sitting at just a few minutes prior. He took a moment to scan the area immediately around them. "Sora left for the day?"

Eyes drifting back toward her book, Kairi smacked on her bubblegum for a few vigorous chews before answering. "Had an appointment, of sorts. He's riding with me and mine when he gets done."

"Ah." Riku reached for his own English homework, fishing it out of his bag and flipping to the assigned reading for the second time in the span of an hour. "I think I saw you get dropped off on my first day. Was that your brother?"

It was possible he was being intrusive, but Kairi didn't strike him as someone who had anything to hide — or someone who would have any hesitation telling him to butt out if she didn't want to talk about something in particular.

To his relief, Kairi glanced back over at him with the same placid expression she'd sported prior to his question. Sliding off her knees and smoothing out the third pink skirt she'd worn in as many days, she leaned forward, treating him to more cleavage than someone her size should realistically have been in possession of. Mercifully, her arm blocked the view a moment later as she placed her elbow on the table and propped her chin up in the cupped palm of one hand.

"Not my brother," she said, jaw still working over the chewing gum, her quiet words slightly distorted as a direct result. "He's a cousin, once removed. Goes by Axel LaChappelle."

With one brow rising of its own volition, Riku leaned a little closer to catch each word of her response. He wasn't entirely clear on what 'once removed' meant, but there was something else about her explanation that struck him as odd.

"You're not on a first name basis?" he asked, finally pinpointing what had seemed off about the familial reference.

Kairi popped a bubble, then shrugged. Riku was close enough to her now to notice the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and peeking under the sheer fabric on her cap-sleeved shoulders. He might have noticed days ago, but her collection of neon colored and animal print bras had been distracting enough to have provided more than enough motivation to keep his gaze directed elsewhere whenever possible.

"It's just what he goes by on account of his profession."

In the silence that followed, Riku considered the possibility that he was speaking to someone whose cousin cooked meth out of a double-wide trailer with questionable ventilation. He wasn't sure whether to laugh at the image or simply be glad he'd caught himself before he had actually given voice to the thought. Something told him that would be an effective way to make an immediate enemy out of someone who might otherwise be edging more toward the border of potential friend territory.

"What does he do?" he asked instead, biting the inside of his cheek to keep his expression more tolerant than mockingly indulgent.

Another few beats of chewing her gum, then Kairi responded. "He's an artist."

Well. That cleared everything up.

Riku actually knew his fair share of self-proclaimed artists in San Francisco. They were usually hipsters who wrote bad poetry or painted abstract designs they liked to think conveyed messages of deep profundity. He was having a difficult time imagining a guy with fire hydrant hair and a penchant for classic rock fitting neatly into his conception of what most artists claimed to encompass.

Then again, he also couldn't imagine friendly, articulate Sora being even distantly related to someone who seemed to be comprised of equal parts indifference and outright snark, yet they both seemed to be inexplicably linked by that one identical surname, so Riku was willing to acknowledge that his assumptions might not be infallible. He just wasn't interested enough to clarify further at this point — at least not when it came to Kairi's cousin.

Sora, on the other hand…

Riku leaned back in his chair, eyes still on his classmate.

"Can I ask you an unrelated question?"

Raising her free hand and forming a two-fingered gun, Kairi closed one eye like she was taking aim directly at Riku's heart. "Sure, slick." She dropped her thumb as though pulling an imaginary trigger. "Shoot for the stars."

"Okay…" Riku drew out the word, uncertain whether the gesture was a light-hearted joke or if it was a veiled warning not to pry into the wrong subject, because, of all the people he'd met, Kairi sure had one hell of a superb poker face, and he already had no doubt that half of his classmates were proud, card-carrying members of the NRA. The Second Amendment seemed on par with supplemental biblical reading material in this town. In light of that, Kairi's mimed gesture held a slightly more ominous note.

Yet, Riku really wanted to know.

"So, there's this guy in my gym class. His name's Roxas."

Kairi dropped her hand and regarded him straight on. "That's not a question."

Pursing his lips, Riku inclined his head in acknowledgement before continuing. "I was wondering if he was related to Sora. Like a cousin, maybe. Or something?"

"They're brothers," Kairi said without preamble. "Twins actually." Eyeing Riku, she shot him a sly smile. "Why? Can'tcha tell?"

Trying to pull up the image of scowling, sarcastic Roxas alongside Sora's smiling, openly welcoming expression, Riku found himself floundering. The only thing the two had even remotely in common was eye color and even that differed somehow in his estimation.

"Not…really…"

When Kairi didn't respond, Riku hurried to supplement.

"I mean, I don't know much about either of them, obviously, but Roxas just seemed a little…"

Kairi raised her eyes, fluttering her lashes in a way that seemed a put-on characterization mixing crafty with a pinch of demure. "Like someone's just rammed a stick straight up his backside, but it's a permanent fixture?"

Unable to help himself, Riku felt a small smile form. "Yeah. That sounds about right, actually."

Shrugging again, Kairi made a grab for her phone, then sat back. "That's our Roxas. He's got a mouth on 'im, no one's denying. I'm guessing you know that by now too."

Without a word, Riku confirmed her statement with a quick nod.

She clicked on her phone's display and eyed the time. "Precious, innit?"

Precious wasn't exactly the word he would have chosen, personally.

Riku didn't have a chance to answer what had seemed like a rhetorical question anyway, because Kairi was rising out of her chair a beat later. "Time for me to get goin'," she said, gathering up her textbook and notes and shoving everything into her over-large purse without apparent concern about crushing her other belongings. "See you tomorrow."

"Yeah, see you…" Riku echoed, although she'd skipped off so quickly he couldn't be sure Kairi had even heard him.

He glanced down at his own phone, and saw that his mother had texted an estimated time of arrival a few minutes earlier. Her ETA wasn't so far off from now that he couldn't start prepping to leave himself. Accounting for the extra time it'd take for his mom to get here, even if Radiant Hollow's concept of rush hour traffic just meant six more people on the road than on off-hours, Riku took his time to pack up his belongings.

Sliding the messenger bag over his head, Riku began retracing his steps back toward the front of the school. He spent the time traversing the mostly empty halls considering the new information he now had at his disposal, but still couldn't wrap his head around the revelation that Sora was not only related to Roxas but that the two were one another's apparent counterpart. They seemed so different to him that no amount of asserting the information as an unassailable fact was helping Riku get any closer to actually believing it on more than the most superficial of levels.

As he turned the final corner into the school's main corridor, Riku made a beeline for the double doors that would be his portal back home — or at least what amounted to his home in this foreign milieu. Beyond the glass doors, he could see an old rusted pick-up truck idling at the street curb. Even at this distance, the faintest hint of unnaturally red hair was visible on the driver's side of the vehicle.

A movement caught his attention and Riku directed his gaze toward its origin over at the gym building on the opposite side of the school. Hands on the metal door latch, he froze mid-push the moment he processed what he was seeing.

Releasing the handle and allowing the door to click back into place, he moved to the corner of its frame not only to conceal himself but also to get a better glimpse at the pair of students approaching the truck.

Kairi and Sora were easy enough to recognize. It was the slowness of their plotted course that gave him pause. With Kairi standing directly in Riku's line of sight, Sora was blocked almost completely from view at first as they walked side by side. Even so, Riku could tell something was off with his classmate's gait; it was uneven and labored, in direct opposition to what he was already accustomed to seeing as a natural facet of Sora's upbeat demeanor. As the two arrived in front of their ride, Kairi moved a few steps ahead. She reached for the truck's door, opened it, and then turned back to her friend. It was only then that Riku got a good look at Sora full-on, only in that moment that he realized the lopsided pace was, quite plainly, the result of his classmate's reliance on a pair of forearm crutches clutched tightly like a lifeline against both attenuated arms.

Chapter Text


If I get tired and say that I wanna
Change my mind
Pull me in a circle, so I can change it
One more time
Pull me in a circle.
“Circles” - machineheart, Vanic


"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am."

I am, I am, I am.

Though nearly a whisper, Xion's voice echoed off the walls of her second-floor bedroom, then turned on him, piercing the membrane of cloudy thought in the upper reaches of Roxas' mind with her measured inflection.

Shirt off and belt undone, cut-off pants shoved below angular hip bones, Roxas lay on his back on the oversized duvet covering Xion's bed as she rested at his side in a similar state of undress. Her long skirt was hiked up to mid-thigh, the straps of her dress having already taken identical detours down each elbow. In the languid haze of a full stomach from dinner and a makeshift dessert of subsequently swallowed sedative capsules, it seemed to him somehow appropriate that he was half-naked and she was curled against him reciting Sylvia Plath with reverence usually reserved for biblical verse.

A homemade mobile turned above them both, its spindly-limbed wire appendages twisting in inebriated asymmetry from a light breeze that was working double duty on the dangling art piece and a nearby window shade, both. Roxas watched the mobile, eyes traveling between every twinkling bead at the end of each wire piece, his gaze finally settling on a sparkling shard of blue bottle glass. Xion had somehow threaded the wire through its center to connect it to the overhead creation, a cohesive but abstract work that revealed universes of starburst luminescence across her dark bedsheets without compromise at each and every daily sunrise.

Roxas wasn't an artist and didn't particularly appreciate the effort that had gone into it any more than he cared to admire the hours Xion had spent choosing fabric, cutting material, and sewing together her own flowery clothing. He had no discernible talents of his own, save for enduring in seeming perpetuity despite half-assed efforts to convince Life with a capital L of the sincerity behind his apathy. At his most introspective, Roxas could acknowledge how much he and Xion were the antithesis of one another — while she breathed healthy life into others' worn discards, he approached objects and people and wore them to their absolute breaking points almost as if for sport. If Sora's frail constitution was added to the mix, it wasn't that difficult for Roxas to define yet another differentiation between someone else and himself.

Generally, Roxas was no more inclined to entertain comparative thoughts like these than he was predisposed to pay lip service to the philosophy of self-examination on the whole; it seemed a combination of prescription narcotics and a full dinner plate of trout meunière were all it took to induce introspective torpor. Lucky him.

He felt a hand on his bare stomach, fingers sliding a deliberate trail downward to the edge of his boxers. There Xion's hand remained, flat-palmed against the skin of his abdomen. In his current state, Roxas couldn't tell if the gesture was meant to be a form of teasing temptation or something more affectionately benign.

"Mamma told me this morning she thought we'd make beautiful babies." Xion's voice was as light as the breeze, a vocalization of reflective thought made audible. Face resting against one shoulder, the words were muffled by the impermeable barrier of his own flesh and muscle. He felt the vibrating of his phone against the fabric of his pants, but made no move to reach for it.

Eyes still fixed on the slow, hypnotic spiraling of blue glass above him, Roxas drew in more air than he needed to form a response. "They'd be short." His voice was flat.

Two of Xion's fingers slipped underneath the elastic band that separated an insubstantial layer of fabric from the bare skin sheltered beneath. Breaths remaining steady, Roxas didn't so much as twitch. Beside him, Xion sighed, then lifted her chin to rest at the curve of Roxas' shoulder where it connected with his neck. "I don't want kids anyway."

Well. That was one thing they were in agreement about, he thought.

They lapsed into silence, Xion watching Roxas and Roxas imagining infinite worlds within the mobile's crystalline shards, along with the statistical probability that at least some of them didn't blow as much as the one he was currently stuck in. He envisioned worlds where the laws of physics differed so drastically that life as people knew it there was virtually unrecognizable here, even considered places that were identical to their own that offered better outcomes for choices made long ago.

Roxas imagined a world where he didn't even exist and thought he liked that conception out of all of them best.

"Do you ever feel like you're somehow wrong, that everything's off by just a little but it makes all the difference?"

Yes, yes, yes, he silently answered. All the time. Every moment of his damn life.

Without moving, he glanced to the right, watching the measured rise and fall of Xion's chest beneath one bare arm.

"Do you ever feel like you were an erroneous outcome of birth?"

The affirmative mantra continued, echoing in the vacuous atrium of his mind. All around him the air grew heavy as the outside breeze died down to almost imperceptible levels.

Roxas turned his head toward her and resisted the urge to answer outright. "How do you mean?"

Without a word, Xion slid her hand up Roxas' stomach, then off to one side. Pressing onto her hands, she sat upright, then vacated the bed.

Zipping his pants, Roxas twisted onto his stomach, legs dangling in the air above him. He followed her path to the window with his eyes, listening to the soft padding of her bare feet on floorboards that creaked only half as much as what he was accustomed to in his own house. Expression vacant, he only half-processed that she was closing the window shutters and reaching for the knob to the air conditioning unit beneath the sill.

"I mean," she said, flipping the knob with two delicate fingers and pausing as the unit purred to life, "that I don't really feel like a girl."

Watching as she spread out her hands in front of the stream of newly generated air, Roxas crossed his arms one over the other in front of him and rested his chin on the glossy fabric of the sleeves he had yet to remove. "I'm not following."

"Why can't I try on different lives, like dresses, to see which one fits best and is more becoming?"

Roxas watched as she twirled once in place, her skirt following a quarter of a rotation behind her. It took him the time between her rhetorical inquiry and the lyrical movement that lowered her onto the floor cross-legged in front of him to realize she was probably quoting Plath again.

Xion didn't wait for a response before forging on with her current line of thought.

"We spend our whole lives around people who think they know us well enough to say who we are. Do you ever feel like they're just flat-out wrong?"

When she framed it like that… actually, yes.

"No." Roxas shook his head. The word was clipped and hung heavy between them in the fresh chill of artificially produced air.

Xion looked down and shook her head, the lightest hint of a smile at the edges of her mouth. Her dark hair swished on either side of her face, and Roxas was reminded of how it had tickled as she'd kissed her way down his stomach earlier, before proceeding even lower. It sent a subtle jolt of heat back into his groin, the feeling only partially registering in his present dazed state. Uncrossing her legs, she shifted onto her knees, leaning forward until she could place a hand on either side of Roxas' face.

She offered up a gentle, affectionate kiss, first to his lips, then trailing along the side of his face to one ear. "Liar," she breathed. The word felt uncomfortable and hot against his cheek.

Scowling, he moved away, back toward the center of the bed, knees bent in toward his chest, arms wrapping around the top of his shins. "So, what you're saying is you wanna be a boy," he deadpanned, expression impassive and unwilling to address her single word claim. He'd always been better at deflections than tackling others' assertions, about himself first and foremost. "Could've fooled me, what with your penchant for frills and dresses."

Her only initial response was a subtle thinning of lips. They regarded one another in silence, Xion's expression perturbed, Roxas' unintentionally unfocused.

"Wearing a dress doesn't make you a girl by default," she finally said with a curt nod of her head as though offering herself personal reassurance.

One eye rose pointedly in response. "Yeah? I'd say it's a good start."

Xion wasn't known to be quick to anger, so when her expression visibly darkened, Roxas managed to catch the hint that he'd possibly gone too far, straight through the haze of his current codeine-laced mental impediment.

Sighing, he slid a few fingers through his hair, the medical tape on his splinted finger catching against an unanticipated snarl. "You could always go out and buy some boy clothes, if that's how you feel," he conceded, trying to play along. "It's not like your mamma's on much of a budget at present."

Xion scoffed. "Not with that hush money, I won't. What I sew already suffices real nice, byen mærsi."

Feeling another vibrating text notification, Roxas shrugged but didn't respond to her. He reached into his pocket and pressed the phone's power button with a combination of splinted index and middle fingers, then scanned the messages while Xion looked on.

A moment later, he laughed, a low derisive sound at the back of his throat.

Xion looked over at him, expression inquiring, and reached out as Roxas tossed the phone over to her. She caught the device, then let her eyes travel over the text he'd left open, silent for an extended moment, before she inhaled and recited Hayner's message out loud.

"Any particular reason half the school is saying you're gay for Seifer?"

Weaving his fingers together, Roxas flexed them downward and cracked no less than three knuckles, ignoring the flinch on Xion's part as her eyes moved to his injury. "See?" he said lightly, redirecting her attention back toward his face. "Here you thought you had problems."

Xion looked back at the phone in her hands, her thumb scrolling further down in his messages inbox. "Sora wants a ride to that get-together tomorrow night." She glanced back up at him. "He doesn't really impress on me as the partying type."

Another shrug from Roxas, and Xion was returning to the bed. She perched on the foot of it, crossing her legs once again, careful to smooth her skirt far enough down to cover her knees. To anyone else, it would have seemed nothing more than an action of modesty in mixed company, but Roxas knew her too well. He also had no interest in bringing up something that could just as easily be turned around and thrown back his way. Everyone in a town as small as Radiant Hollow bore some sort of sordid cross; it was the bread and butter of rural locales to hide more secrets and conspiracies than the federal government. Theirs just happened to be similar enough that he found himself actively invested in not attracting attention to either one of them.

"We could all ride together, if you can get your brother to lend out the truck."

Roxas tightened his grip on both shins, pressing his knees to his chest in bruising fashion. "Yeah, except I'm not going."

The thin-lipped expression returned and Xion crossed her arms loosely over her chest as she looked at him from across the bed. This time, none of the dark undertones Roxas understood so well as a reflection of his own moods were present, from a cursory glance. She just looked dispirited, which wasn't a major positive. It also wasn't wholly problematic to him.

"I haven't seen your brother outside school in awhile now."

He offered her a mollifying smile, which didn't come remotely close to reaching his eyes. "PT. Over-studying. Still eating like a bird. Ain't missin' nothing, m'dear. End of discussion."

The unsatisfied look remained, Xion's eyes rising in exasperation at the overt abuse of English grammar.

It was probably fortuitous the telltale scraping that never failed to make Roxas' skin crawl started up with fervor at the window Xion had only recently closed just a few seconds later. Even so, Roxas couldn't help but think those feathered fuckers she treated as beloved pets were doing it for the express purpose of sending his anxiety levels straight through the house's ornate gable-framed roof.

Xion turned, her expression immediately brightening. As she slipped off the edge of the bed and padded back over toward the window, Roxas buried his eye sockets into the tops of his knees and groaned.

"Do you really have to do that now?"

Although he couldn't see her in his current position, Roxas imagined Xion slowing, maybe turning back to regard him. "It's feeding time," she said, her voice offering up a light reproach. "You know that."

"It's fuckin' weird is what it is." His voice rose in a plaintive whine, a subtle shudder creeping up his spine when he heard the window's lock click as it was unlatched. A moment later, the air conditioning unit petered off, and Roxas stole a glance across the room with one cautious eye.

Xion was blocking his view out the window, her back to him as she rummaged through the top drawer of her antique desk. She emerged a moment later with a ziplock bag, not all that dissimilar to the one she'd passed off to Roxas the day before in Radiant High's school corridor. Rather than her mother's prescription drugs, however, this baggy contained a different sort of offering entirely.

As Xion opened the bag with a light crinkling of plastic, she craned her neck and regarded Roxas from over one shoulder. "You only think it's weird because you're afraid of birds."

Expression darkening, Roxas sat up straighter. "I am no—"

The fluttering of unknown numbers of winged appendages sounded from the window, and Roxas' voice died, his expression becoming a picture of visible apprehension.

"Right. Sure y'aren't." With a knowing look, Xion rolled her eyes before turning back to the task at hand. Slipping one hand into the bag, she emerged with a palmful of peanuts, still in their shells but pre-cracked in anticipation of this daily ritual. She leaned forward, and Roxas heard more rustlings of wings as the large creatures moved away at her approaching proximity. Like a pixie sprinkling a dusting of shimmering glitter, Xion spread the peanuts out along the windowsill, then stepped back to survey her work.

"I'm not scared of them," Roxas tried again. "It's, just, they're dirty corpse eaters, smart enough to cause societal downfalls if they feel a particular yen. Most people know well enough to leave them alone, yet you're inviting them for daily dinner like fucked-up demonic guests of honor."

Xion's expression turned thoughtful. "They are quite intelligent," she said with an appreciative bob of her head. As if remembering herself, she met Roxas' gaze with level appraisal. "But, honestly, I think you've been watching too much Hitchcock if you really believe the rest."

Xion matched Roxas' responding scowl with a mock frown of her own before segueing back to her more typically equable expression. She turned and dropped down into an ornately upholstered chair next to an antique side table. Everything in this home was old just like at his house, in Roxas' estimation, except the furnishings here exuded a level of sophistication that a La-Z-Boy circa 1983 just couldn't hold any light to.

"Besides," she continued, "we've got a nice arrangement here, me and them. I provide the snacks, and they bring me supplies for my art projects."

Roxas snorted, brows lowering, a visual world of outright critical. "Now who's being weird?"

With a light shrug, Xion continued watching the feeding frenzy at her window, while Roxas tried not to twitch with every clack of long, black beaks as peanut shells were effectively cracked and splintered in the birds' haste to reach their interiors. He tried his best not to think about the perceived scrutiny in their beady marble eyes, and the unnaturally judicious way they seemed to regard everyone with disdain, with the exception of Xion.

"You should take your brother to the party," she said, changing the subject. "I'll go with. We'll make a night of it."

Before he could formulate a word of protest, Xion looked away from the window and fixed him with a resolute gaze.

"You can consider it repayment for all the meds I've been pinching on your behalf, and I'll concede to us being somewhat even."

Roxas blinked, mild surprise flickering across his face at the unyielding tone Xion had taken. She, in turn, smiled sweetly back, brows rising as she offered him another rhetorical question. "My dear, how's that for an end of discussion?"

o - o

They exited Xion's home after enduring the obligatory encounter with her mother who'd exuded her usual over-eager single-mindedness to impress upon them both just how delighted she was that they were an item. By now, Roxas knew the regimen for handling the woman, and he was adept at the displays of charisma he mustered just enough energy to pull off that interactions with her were relatively painless. Given how eager Xion always seemed to avoid these conversations, or at least get them over with as soon as possible, Roxas was left with the distinct impression that these three minute interactions where he did most of the talking were a relatively good illustration of their mother-daughter dynamic overall, even when he wasn't around.

Fanning herself with one hand, Xion led the way around to the side of the house. "It's hard to believe there's someplace muggier than New Orleans," she said, the comment as close to a complaint as she ever usually broached. "Standing marsh water might just be proof of divine objection to the sins of all mankind."

Roxas didn't reply, just scratched an arm band and counted down the seconds until they were somewhere cooler. At least Xion's light blue Prius had working AC, which was more than what could be said for Hayner's aging van or the vehicles any of his other friends claimed as forms of hand-me-down inheritances from older siblings or parents. It was also probably the fanciest car in all of Radiant Hollow, the Almasy family excepted, what with its model year being more recent than his middle school tenure and the sticker on the bumper extolling overt eco-friendliness. It was yet another gift from her mother that Xion had refused to acknowledge until Roxas managed to convince her of the merits of having access to an easy escape route whenever she felt she needed it.

As he made his way around to the passenger side door, Roxas glanced across the property, over toward the second building that Xion's mother was renting out. More specifically, he took in the silver Mercedes parked near the front porch in a patch of loose gravel that counted as a road this far outside Radiant Hollow's official city limits.

Well, he supposed, it seemed like someone else was even fancier. Unlike Xion and her mother, however, Roxas knew this newly arrived family was full of outsiders.

Hearing the automated click of a door unlocking, Roxas pulled on the handle and dropped into the passenger seat, twisting around so he could deposit his bag in the back area before making himself comfortable up front.

As they pulled away from her home, Roxas found himself eyeing the rental property located closer to the through-road. It was smaller than the main house but still nicer than anything on his side of town. The observation didn't endear him further to anyone who happened to be in current residence.

"Mamma got them to pay so much."

Roxas glanced over at Xion in time to see an inclination of her head in the direction of the rental home. "Almost three times what she rented it for last time. They didn't even blink at the figure or try to negotiate."

In the purple-orange luminescence of deepening twilight, Roxas could see each room that was lit up in the home's interior. From the downstairs dining room area, his eyes drifted up, to the only bedroom with light filtering out its two picture windows.

"Probably got a lot to burn," he said. "Asians are all doctors and engineers an' the like, pretty sure."

"And lawyers." Xion offered a responding nod. "A doctor and a lawyer. Must be nice to be so rich. They didn't even sell their home out west, from what I heard."

The car turned onto the dirt path that would eventually connect with a paved road when they approached city limits, and both homes disappeared out of view. Roxas turned his head away from the window but kept his eyes trained forward on the front windshield. "You and your mom are practically poverty-stricken by comparison."

"Oh hush. That's different and you know it."

Roxas knew. He just wasn't willing to concede to something even as obvious as that at present. There was potential for the silence that followed to become uncomfortable, and Roxas considered reaching for the radio, but Xion spoke again before he could put the idea into tangible motion.

"Their son's in three of my classes," she said, voice thoughtful. "Seems real smart."

Roxas snorted. "With books and learning, maybe. Socially, not so much."

Glancing at him before returning her eyes to the road, Xion seemed to consider his statement. "Because of what he said to Hayner?"

"And how he handled Seifer in gym today," Roxas said, speaking directly on the heels of her question. "Or didn't, come to think. Oh right, that was all me."

Xion responded with a soft, humming sound, the look in her eyes turning contemplative. "That's why half the school now thinks I should worry about you taking the heir of Almasy Industries to Prom, I'm guessing?"

Despite himself, Roxas felt a smile twitch at the corners of his lips. "That'd be why, pretty much exactly."

Eyes still on the road, Xion unconsciously matched his smile. "Boy, do I know you too well. I'm just not sure if it's something to be proud of."

Her subsequent laughter was crystalline, a sound like glass tesserae gathered together and jangled lightly. It was such a rare occurrence that Roxas allowed himself a moment to truly savor the vibrato sensation that lingered in the car even after she had lapsed back into silence.

The jubilant reaction was over too soon, but her smile remained a beat longer, a remnant of temporary happiness. If only these instances lasted, Roxas thought. If only they could find a way to bottle it up, to pour it down their throats in a way that might truly touch the darkest parts of their souls. As it stood, the only things that entered either of them with such rapid fluidity were never at risk of being considered remotely healthy.

By the time they arrived on Roxas' block, the sun had fully set. Half of the homes that lined the street leading up to his own were dark, a sure sign that their occupants were pulling night shifts at the same plant where Cloud and his mother worked. Roxas looked at the familiar surroundings without really seeing them with any level of clarity, his mind settling into its preferred state of flat-out blank, a nice, level stasis where nothing could touch him.

Xion pulled up against the cracked curb at the edge of his property but didn't switch the car into park. She noted his expression with a sage one of her own. "I hope you didn't forget my little gifts?"

Without looking at her, Roxas nodded, hearing her general tone more than the individual words of her question. Reaching for his bag, he opened the car door, exited, and slammed it shut in a matter of seconds. He barely registered the sound of an automatic window lowering, followed by a lightly chiding voice. "Try to use them more sparingly this time. Even mamma can't sweet-talk the pharmacist enough to get an unlimited supply, and you know I'm no good at lying about these types of things."

Roxas didn't look back or otherwise react. As he made his way toward his home's front porch, he considered the momentary crunch of loose bitumen as Xion put her Prius into reverse. Shoving a hand into his pocket, Roxas fingered his house keys while reaching for the door with a free hand, only to discover it had been left unlocked. He opened it, then pushed past the flimsy screen barrier before making his way into the living room.

Sora and his mom were seated on different chairs, their faces illuminated by a small table lamp and the red, white, and blue schema of a TV news program. Roxas glanced at the screen just long enough to note the Fox News ticker tape headline helpfully warning the American public about the latest attack on religious freedom before his mother looked up.

"Welcome home, sweetie," she said, offering him a fatigued smile before returning her attention to the television. Nearby, Sora looked up from his cell phone as well and unknowingly mirrored their mother's expression while still somehow managing to put his own convivial spin on it.

Roxas approached the couch on the side closest to where Sora was seated but kept quiet, eyes rising first to his mother, then following her line of vision straight to the television.

"Do you need dinner?"

Glancing back at his mom, Roxas briefly considered a sarcastic 'Why? Are you gonna make it?' before holding his tongue. Unlike Cloud, his mom didn't tend to be as seasoned at taking his acerbic brand of sarcasm in stride, and he wasn't in the mood to make her upset or start a fight. "Nah, I already ate."

"Ah." The smile returned, but it was distant and didn't reach its apex before her lips returned to default neutral. She hadn't even seemed to notice his splinted fingers. Roxas knew that she was probably tired, that her escalating disinterest in taking part in her children's lives was owed to a more than full-time workload and an absent, deadbeat father more than a lack of genuine affection.

But Roxas was tired too, particularly when it came to cutting others slack. So fucking tired of what life was currently offering up on a platter that amounted to a tarnished silver yard sale knock-off of a more genuine artifact, at best.

Sora was looking at him, expression expectant. Vaguely, Roxas remembered that he hadn't bothered to respond to his afternoon text. Before his brother could pose the question Roxas assumed was seconds from being voiced, their mother spoke again.

"Did you have a nice time with Xion?"

One set of eyes was still fixed on Roxas, but it wasn't his mother's, her attention remaining diverted by the overdressed talkshow host on the screen in front of her.

Brows rising as Roxas caught Sora staring, he shot his brother a suggestive look. "Oh, yeah. She was great. Real hospitable, as usual." Curling the fingers of his good hand to touch the tip of his thumb, Roxas lifted his arm to the side of his face and shook his wrist for a few measured flicks while tonguing the cheek on the opposite side of his mouth.

Sora's reaction was immediate, and Roxas noted the steadily rising pink at the tops of his ears, alongside a flush working its way into his cheeks, with a hint of amusement. He performed an unasked for encore of the gesture, watching as Sora's eyes darted over to their mom, and then straight on back to him. His face an open book of outright embarrassment, Sora squeezed his eyes shut as if to block out the image, then opened them and aimed a pointed glare his brother's way as he mouthed an exaggerated, "Stop it."

Roxas merely looked at his brother and grinned before deciding the novelty of Sora's unnecessary modesty was quickly wearing thin.

"Anyway," he continued, finally dropping his arm and turning toward the stairway. "Going upstairs. I've got homework."

If his mother said anything in response, Roxas didn't hear it. He made it to his room in record time and was just as quick to drop his backpack by the entryway, unopened, before peeling off his shirt and free-falling onto a mattress so lumpy it could've contributed to scoliosis in a supermodel with even the most carefully nurtured posture.

It couldn't have been more than ten minutes between the arrival to his room and the familiar sound of Sora's crutches on the steps down the hall. Twenty, possibly, Roxas conceded since the pills always screwed with his sense of temporality. He tracked his brother's slow approach, well aware of the point when the heavy, dull sound of industrial-grade materials meeting creaky wood floorboards should have stopped if Sora had been aiming to enter his own room. Holding his breath, Roxas counted the steps he knew it'd take before…

A light knock sounded, a crutch rapping against the solid wood of his doorframe. Idly, Roxas wondered what it must be like to not even be able to use your own God-given hands to do something as simple as alert another person of your fresh presence.

"Can I come in?"

Roxas let out the breath he'd been holding and spoke at the same time. "Door's not even fully closed."

The hinge creaked as the door opened a little further. Roxas didn't look up as Sora made his way into the room.

"I was just trying to be polite, you know." Leaning forward on one crutch with expert adeptness, Sora turned on a lamp set up on the donated bedside table to let some light into the dreary room.

Eyes fixed on a crack in the ceiling directly above him, Roxas thrummed his splinted fingers against the hard bone of his bare sternum. "I know."

Coming to a stop by his brother's head, Sora looked down, expression inquisitive. "Did you get my text?"

Roxas glanced over. "I never took you for the partying type, personally," he said, echoing Xion's words from earlier. Within half a second, his gaze began to drift away from Sora again.

Lips pursing as he tried to maintain his brother's attention, Sora shook his head. It was a subtle movement that still had his mess of hair bobbing askew above wide blue eyes. "You know I'm not. I just thought it'd be nice to do something with the other seniors before we all get so bogged down with finals we can hardly afford to think about anything else."

Roxas' expression didn't falter as he redirected his eyes from the ceiling. "Get Kairi to take you."

"I can't." The words came out in a frustrated rush that Roxas wasn't accustomed to hearing. Sora was the patient one, logical and even-tempered, while Roxas himself was more inclined toward irrational anger and rapid-fire mutations of one superficial disposition after another.

He quirked an eyebrow. "Because of her daddy issues? Pretty sure I heard she's got other relations in town to chauffeur around her and that disabled sense of fashion, both."

Without uttering a word, Roxas could tell Sora was trying to hold back a defensive retort. As his brother's brows scrunched in consternation toward the bridge of his nose, Roxas stole enough of a look downward to note the whites of Sora's knuckles as they gripped his crutch handles. By simple virtue of his silence, it was obvious how much Sora wanted to keep in his brother's good graces. To Roxas, it was just as clear how much more willing Sora was to come to Kairi's defense than his own, which was what he tended to take particular offense in most.

When Sora next spoke, his words were slower, more carefully chosen. "There's not enough space in their pickup and the back's all rusted out. I was hoping you could ask Cloud about borrowing the flatbed truck."

Sucking in a mouthful of clammy-warm air, Roxas exhaled like he was releasing a tendril of cigarette smoke. He imagined it drifting upward, languid and slow, to meet the ceiling's cracked plaster, an imagined reunion of surreptitious lovers. "Not enough space for …two people and a driver?" He shot Sora a pointed look.

Sora shifted his weight, for a moment swaying from one crutch to the other before checking his balance, then looked down. Before Roxas could consider telling him to avoid unnecessarily exhausting himself, move to the edge of the bed, and sit his ass down, Sora spoke again.

"We invited someone else."

"Y'don't say." Roxas' voice turned mock-surprised as he crossed one leg over the other and bent his arms back to form a makeshift pillow under his head. "And who would that be?"

Again, Sora hesitated.

"You know about the new transfer student, right? His name's Riku. Hayner must've told you at least a little about him."

"Why am I not surprised?" Half under his breath, Roxas scoffed. The harsh sound filled the short distance between both brothers, vying for attention with the vaporous air that clung to everything it touched. Talk about jealous lovers.

"Hey." Sora's voice took a detour toward sharp and effectively forced Roxas' wanderlust attention back onto him. Roxas sat up in bed and considered the tone with more interest than he'd displayed in sum total of the last few hours. They locked eyes, Roxas feeling a sense of unwanted reality starting to set in as the pills he'd taken after dinner began to wear off. Sora looked back with an expression hinting at the merest possibility of verbal defiance.

"What do you want me to say?" Roxas braced his upper body on two locked elbows behind his back, ignoring the reverberating ache up one side of his arm. "I can't drive you 'cause I'm not going. And you really shouldn't either," he added as a pointed afterthought.

Shoulders rising with increasing tension, Roxas could see a tangible form of his brother's internal struggle between remaining agreeable and trying to advocate for something he apparently wanted very much. "And why is that?" Sora finally asked. His voice was quiet and low. It was a good way to hide irritation, Roxas very well knew from his own past practice.

"Wet clay, uneven ground, you can't use the chair or your crutches. That's before you even get there and have to avoid asses too shit-faced to look where their legs are takin' them." Roxas ticked off the list with monotone efficiency. He swung his legs over the side of the bed to face Sora full-on, eyes flashing an unspoken challenge. "Do I need to spell it out even more the fuck further?"

Sora's face became expressively transformative, Roxas noting the quick succession of emotions with scarcely concealed eagerness.

That's right. Get angry. Stand up for yourself. Tell me off.

The silence spread out before them, each brother staring the other down with an intensity that would have put most spiritual gurus to outright shame. Still balancing on his crutches with rigid-straight arms, Sora took in a strained breath, then relaxed his shoulders upon exhale.

It was in that instant that Roxas knew he'd lost. Without fail, he always did, but some part of him had still held out hope that this time might've been different.

"Never mind." Sora turned to go. "I'll figure something else out." The final words were muffled as he headed back toward the door but Roxas detected no trace of bitterness, not even an ounce of discernible anger. Just resignation. This wasn't the first time he'd been let down. It wasn't the first time it'd been Roxas who'd disappointed him.

Without another word, Sora exited the room, Roxas listening to the familiar sounds of crutches traveling down the upstairs hall toward a bedroom they once used to share. Throat tight, chest burning hot, he stood and strode over to the door, slamming it hard enough to be easily heard from three doors over.

Making a grab for his backpack, Roxas dragged it across the floor, indifferent to the noise it made as his textbooks trailed over his room's uneven floorboards. Depositing it next to his bed, Roxas sat back down and fanned himself, wishing for even the lightest of breezes to make its presence known through his open, yearning window. The air was stifling, and he considered removing his sleeves, toying with the thought of letting the skin on his sweating arms finally breathe like a cat allowing a field mouse to get away from its clawed clutches before delivering the inevitable, killing blow.

He couldn't make himself do it. He just didn't want to see.

Once again, his lower lip became the victim of an enamel assault as he worked out his frustration the most physically efficient way he knew how. Leaning forward, Roxas unzipped his backpack and shoved a hand in, bypassing his textbooks and folders that held countless assignments he'd persistently been ignoring. Finding the pouch that Xion had so genteelly deemed a gift, he opened it within his bag, hand emerging with one baby blue capsule. Roxas raised it to his mouth, deliberating over its smooth cylindrical shape, then pressed it between his lips and swallowed it dry without thinking twice.

Flopping onto his back, he reached for the lamp and clicked it off. He found himself awash in darkness, the only light a subtle glow from outside, likely a reflection from the living room window one floor below. He lay still for a time, immobile, unthinking, yet felt restless. In this state, he knew he wouldn't be doing anything remotely resembling sleep for hours into the foreseeable future.

There were core workouts he could run through, he supposed, remembering his resolve from yesterday morning. Right now, he didn't particularly want to move though. Fingers ghosting over his chest, Roxas found himself retracing the route Xion's hand had taken just a few hours prior. When they reached the barrier of his cut-offs, Roxas unzipped them without much conscious thought.

One hand sliding under the band of his boxers, his fingers met pulsing heat. As they curled over his own semi-hard length, Roxas shut his eyes and tried to summon up an image of Xion and the earlier feelings she'd so effortlessly induced. He even tried imagining her as a boy before coming to the ultimate conclusion that the thought was just too weird to realistically linger on.

The haze of the opiate's effective suggestion clouded his thoughts; it parried every attempt to visualize anything concrete, and, by the time Roxas had jerked himself to completion, his sweltering body was fast on its way to becoming as numbly remote as every scattered thought left meaningless and echoing inside him.

o - o

It started quietly as a subtle rustling that teased at his mental peripherals.

At first, he assumed it was trees from the backyard, branches pressed momentarily flush against the siding of his house before the wind relented, retreating like tides at the behest of moonlight, then re-exerting its influence in wave after measured wave of effective, tepid breeze.

But the air was muggy and dormant, with no hint of wind on this silent, suffocating night. As if forced prone onto his side by the weight of a brick-ton of invisible vapor, Roxas found himself paralyzed, eyes still closed, curled up and inert, tangled in the sheets at the edge of his bed. The immobility in itself was a brand of torment, more so than any physical sensation of pain he'd experienced in recent memory.

The rustling persisted, supplemented by a scraping of claws, a subtle clacking of razor-sharp beaks.

Breaths coming only with concerted effort, heart rate increasing like he was nearly through with a protracted athletic field relay, Roxas felt his throat constrict as though someone had caged it in a pitiless, multi-fingered grip. Closer and closer, the noises approached, from the window onto the uneven wood flooring, creeping up to the headboard of his bed.

Eyes flying open, Roxas flinched, arms jerking upward as though to fend off the anticipated tormenters. His hands felt leaden, clumsy, like they had lost circulation at some point during the night. With considerable effort, he drew them up to his face, then covered his eyes with two sweat-dampened palms and let the tremors travel his body with caressing familiarity.

The sound returned, this time in the form of a whispered, swishing sigh.

The girl, the girl. The girl was coming for him.

Shoulders tensing, Roxas released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. All the while a new mantra echoed faintly in his thoughts, vibrating off the interiors of his clenched teeth and further obstructing his already aching throat until he felt the urge to retch. Still trembling, he slid both clammy hands away from his eyes and down the sides of his face. They came to a rest as inadvertent voyagers, riding the rise and fall of his heaving chest.

At first he saw nothing. The room was bathed in the shadows of night itself. Even if he could move, he had no interest in drawing his window shade, too apprehensive about the scratching that had drawn him out of the depths of unconscious and into the purgatorial state he found himself in now.

Nothing is real…

The unspoken words drew his gaze over to the window, then past it into the far corner of his room. Her presence shone like a beacon as she sat huddled against the convergence of two foundational walls. Shoulders rounded, hair falling in waves over obscured features, her chin was inclined so severely it was near to grazing the very top of her diminutive chest.

"Nothing…" Roxas echoed the word as though it were foreign vocabulary.

She tilted her head, features still shielded by flowing, silken hair.

Ça iná… that's what you told me, yes?

The words sounded entreating, her lilt a soft melody, like tinkling shards of glass woven through wire mobile arms strung up between and above the both of them.

"Yes." Roxas swallowed, his throat swollen, dry. He had said that.

Pulling her knees into her chest, the girl rocked forward, then back again, her movements silently keening, a soundless, mournful wail given physical form.

Mo byen ba, mokin frèr.

I'm sick. I am, I am, I… am.

The words reached him, their meaning following a beat later, both bathing the scene before him in even more foreboding. The underlying sentiment remained unspoken between them, but Roxas didn't need those supplemental words to know this was all his fault.

Still rooted to his mattress, Roxas narrowed his eyes, tried desperately to distinguish even just some of the features of her face. In the inky darkness, he could only just make out that the girl's hair was an ethereal shade of blondish-white.

And yet, he couldn't help but think, it might be…

Running his tongue over the chapped skin of his lips, Roxas drew in a shuddering breath.

"…Xion?"

Her movements stilled, the silent agony encompassed in her rocking temporarily suspended as she seemed to strain to hear his voice. Slowly, she turned her upper body toward him, hair still obscuring what Roxas somehow already knew were delicate, porcelain features.

The hem of her skirt fluttered, as though caught upwind in a sudden breeze. It rose in swirls, catching the tips of her shoulder-length hair, directing it away from her face little by little until blue eyes locked with those of unseeing obsidian.

A quick crescendo of inhuman howls accompanied the sound of myriad feathered appendages, and Roxas was caught in an involuntary, full-body recoil, eyes squeezing shut as if his life depended on it.

He jerked awake at the edge of his bed, breathing labored and shallow. Scanning the room in a blind panic, his eyes moved first to the window, then to the corner where the girl had been.

He couldn't see more than a few inches in front of him, but Roxas knew there was nothing there. No one. He was alone.

And he was hot, far too warm, even though the bedsheets had already been kicked aside at some point while he'd been asleep and were now tangled in abrasive, low thread-count knots around his feet. Forcing himself to breathe more deeply, trying to maintain a steady intake of air into his oxygen-starved lungs, Roxas reached over to his elbow, working a finger under the edge of one arm sleeve, and began the careful process of peeling first one off, then the other. The fabric was slick with sweat but it still stuck to his arms, an adhesive rendering the skin beneath moist and puckered to the touch. Already he knew it'd be in his best interests to take a quick trip to the bathroom, soap up, and wash both limbs into a state of more acceptable dryness.

Twisting his body, Roxas rose to a seated position and pondered how harshly he should judge himself for waking up in such a state of irrational fear. He looked toward the window, his vision a distorted haze, and noted the solid-state darkness even over the area that the shade wasn't covering. Holding in a breath, Roxas listened for a prolonged moment, then assured himself the room was void of any other living entity, even though he still felt the ominous sensation of subtle observation on him.

There was no way he could have seen anyone as vividly as he just had, he tried to reassure himself. It was simply too dark.

Still, it had felt so real, the girl's anguish so bristling and palpable.

Nothing is realariyin ditou.

The voice came to him from within his own head, then traveled outward as if compelled by his subsequent exhale.

Roxas froze, body rigid, eyes searching. The logical part of his mind told him he'd imagined it, a remnant of a vivid dream and nothing more. Just the same, his body felt alive with nerves, prickling with every perceived sensation, and the apparition had spooked him enough not to want to remain alone in his room even a moment longer.

Sliding off the bed, Roxas sidestepped his backpack and the cutoff shorts he'd pulled off before falling into fitful sleep a few hours prior. He navigated the short distance from bed to door with unsteadiness that had nothing to do with any finding of unfamiliarity in the small space.

He paused in the hallway, listening for indicators that anyone else was awake, but all remained silent and still, save for the sense that incorporeal bird eyes still followed his every movement. With no sounds floating up from the downstairs living area, Cloud was either still at work or possibly sleeping on the couch. The only noise that registered at all was the echoing of those three, portentous words. They followed him out of his room and into the hall, not so much growing in strength as refusing to dissolve into the nothingness generally induced by his own increasing wakefulness.

Sora often kept a dim light on while he slept, although it wasn't always visible with the door closed and Roxas didn't notice it now. He reached for the door handle into a room that the two once shared, arm still shaking enough to see the aftershock of light tremors all the way down to the tips of his fingers. He turned the wobbling doorknob with care, the apparition's presence still baiting his sensate peripherals. The last thing he needed was to yank a loose handle clear off the door and create one more line to add to Cloud's growing list of home improvement projects, the still sensible part of his mind cautioned.

The door creaked as it swung inward, a fitting sound to announce a presence even Roxas was willing to admit was more caustic of late than in any stretch of the definition compassionate. As he slipped into the room and shut the door behind him, Roxas heard the sound of weight shifting on his brother's mattress as Sora pushed himself up to sitting, one gaunt arm reaching up to rub a hand over bleary eyes still full of the remnants of his recent insentience.

In the dim light of a lamp set up on the floor at the far end of his bed, Sora's eyes were blue absolute, not so different from the yawning expression that had been circumscribed a different shade in Roxas' latest dreamscape. He felt his throat tighten again at the mental image, sensing nearly invisible hairs prickle as the apparition let out a longing sigh against the back of his neck.

"What's wrong?" Still unfocused, Sora was looking at him from across the room, and Roxas found himself taking a few steps forward, then stopping, eyes scanning the dimly lit space, unsure where his gaze should settle.

"Can I stay here for the rest of the night?"

Someone else might have questioned him with more acute scrutiny. After the way he'd treated his brother only a few hours prior, at the very least Sora would have been well within his right to refuse a request that was by all accounts unquestionably vague.

Instead, he pushed himself up to sitting without a word, then tucked his knees into his chest to give Roxas room to climb into the twin-sized bed.

Roxas wasted no time taking advantage of the silent invitation. The moment he crossed the space Sora had opened up for him, his brother straightened his legs and carefully lowered himself back onto his side. He shifted his head forward to give Roxas the back corner of the pillow and bent his knees out over the edge of the bed to offer extra fraternal legroom.

Roxas mimicked the posture, his eyes resting just above the crown of Sora's head as he bent his own legs into the place Sora's would have been had his knees been lain out straight. Lying on one arm, Roxas snaked the other under his brother's small bicep, letting it come to an unassuming rest just beneath Sora's chest. His arm was still sweaty, the skin clammy and exposed to discerning eyes, but Sora didn't comment on it. He shifted, pressing the backs of his shoulders up against Roxas' bare chest, the fabric from one of Cloud's old tank tops rubbing minutely, then reached to slide his hand into Roxas' cupped palm in front of him.

Closing his eyes, Roxas tried to match Sora's measured breathing, mimicking the rise and fall of his brother's chest in an effort to find a happy medium between calm and unconsciousness. It was naturally cooler in Sora's room, a result of its north-facing window that didn't receive nearly as much sunlight throughout the day as Ven's old room, and Roxas found himself sliding his bare feet and calves beneath the bedsheets where Sora's already rested for added warmth near the foot of the bed.

Ça iná, frèr?

The voice danced through the stagnant air above him, reminding Roxas of her abiding presence. Eyes opening again, they fixed themselves on the misty visitant now standing at the window. Back facing the two brothers, the hem of her flapper-style skirt fluttered in the same illusory breeze that seemed to be threading its way through tangled strands of white-blonde hair. With each successive movement, Roxas could hear the sounds of wings, of responsive flapping and fluttering and rustling, as though her constitutional make-up was one-part human, the other wholly aeriform. Despite his best efforts to suppress unnecessary movement, Roxas felt a shudder travel the length of his body, an undulating, involuntary flourish of substantive flesh against brotherly flesh through a thin layer of cottony fabric.

In front of him, there was a noticeable pause in Sora's measured pattern of breathing.

"Are you seeing her again?" His voice was no more than a whisper, but the room's empty silence amplified it and Roxas was only half successful in stifling a reactive jerk of his arm.

"Nah," he said, stilling his body as much as he was able and pressing one cheek against the tangles of hair at the back of Sora's head. "Go back to sleep."

In an action reminiscent of Xion's one day earlier, Sora readjusted his grip on Roxas' hand until he was able to wrap his fingers around the make-shift splint. Gently, with only the barest additional pressure, Sora gave his brother's fingers a light squeeze, and the heat of presumed pain traveled a languorous path up the outside of Roxas' forearm. As if in response, the apparition flickered, becoming increasingly translucent at the window in front of them.

"It's okay. I'm here," Sora murmured, eyes remaining closed. "You know she's not real."

Roxas knew.

At least, he truly wanted to believe that his brother wasn't as much of an outright liar as he was turning out to be himself.

As Sora's breathing slowed and deepened, Roxas felt his own tense muscles begin to release, each becoming gradually slack in succession. For a time, he simply listened to the familiar sounds of his brother's slumber. Even after three years of having their own rooms, the sensation of regulating his breathing to match Sora's, of truly becoming as close to a singular entity as two individuals on paths so increasingly divergent really could, remained a comfort to him. It was an immersion into the language only siblings who'd shared their first moments of life on forward could ever hope to understand in its true full glory.

This was where he knew he belonged, but the older they got, the more everything felt like it was increasingly falling apart.

"I'm sorry for earlier," Roxas whispered into his brother's hair. "I'm sorry about everything."

Sora didn't stir, and Roxas made no move to wake him. As the girl faded into nothingness, Roxas closed his eyes and made a silent promise to his brother that he'd check with Cloud about borrowing the truck first thing come morning tomorrow.

Chapter Text


Sometimes I get high
Sometimes I get low
But I’m calm as can be
In a room full of strangers.”
“Lone Ranger” - Rachel Platten


The silence between mother and son was an interim, spread out between perfunctory conversation about school and new friends. During this taciturn timespan, both sat in the rental car without speaking; while Riku alternated between eyeing his cell phone and scrutinizing what amounted to the totality of Radiant Hollow's modest downtown area, his mother scanned the front dashboard's digital clock at a frequency that had him convinced the minutes weren't actually changing between each individual glance.

He'd fielded a few questions about school and his classes, but his mother was an inattentive listener at best and the answers were admittedly vague on his end. There wasn't much to say about lessons that bordered on remedial compared to what he'd taken at his last school, and Riku's thoughts were determinedly wandering elsewhere anyway, still lingering on last period study hall, on blue eyes situated above a warm but tired-looking smile.

He could have been imagining things. Given the surprise of the afternoon prior, Riku was willing to concede that his Sora-centric observations were being colored by the new information he'd been unwittingly handed. His classmate had been his typical bubbly self during their last period together, offering ready smiles and easy conversation between lapses of mutual silence when they'd both turned back to their assigned readings.

Just the same, Riku couldn't help but feel that Sora's friendly demeanor had been somewhat offset by noticeable fatigue. He just wasn't sure if this was a new development or a relative standard, something he'd missed during the rest of the week in light of his own concerns about attaining some form of Southern high schooler social acceptability.

Either way, the dynamic hadn't been altered much between the two of them today, or when it came to Kairi who had generally kept quiet, ear buds in for most of the hour, injecting herself into their conversation to add supplemental information but otherwise keeping to herself, per norm. It was only Riku's internal musings on what he'd witnessed yesterday that'd plagued interactions that had in other respects been more than adequate.

Now that he had Sora's cell number, they'd even been able to exchange a few texts during breaks in between classes. Riku caught himself looking forward to the messages, particularly in light of the not-so-subtly insulting comments still being directed his way in the halls by a determined, vocal few whenever teachers and other school officials were out of earshot.

Sora's texts were usually succinct; they were written in grammatically correct English, with a distinctly light-hearted undercurrent. It was a total departure from Kadaj's one-word replies that not only made holding a meaningful conversation with him next to impossible but were also just as likely to be sent as ambiguous emojis rather than spelled out with letters that formed comprehensible words. The type of communication his cousin offered up didn't exactly fulfill a lot in terms of much-needed social interaction, but it hadn't been all that noticeable to Riku until Sora had given him something to compare it to.

"Remind me again," his mother said, finally breaking the silence that had formed between the two of them. "Where are you headed tonight and who will be there?"

Riku shifted in his seat, upper body turning away from the passenger-side window to a more front-facing position. "I got invited to a get-together with some other seniors. It's supposed to be low-key. Some sort of campfire roast, I think."

His mother nodded, eyes flickering back to the clock's digital read-out.

"I'm not really sure where it is," he continued, "just that it's outside of town at a place called St. Bastion, maybe. I think it might be near a swamp."

"Sweetie, that doesn't exactly narrow it down." His mother smiled but kept her eyes trained on the road as they left Radiant Hollow's city limits and headed in the direction of their rental property. "This region is comprised almost entirely of marshland."

Shrugging, Riku looked down at his iPhone, half hoping another text from Sora might have come through in the twenty second span of time since he'd last thought to check it. "I'll make sure to charge my phone before leaving so you can get in touch if you need to."

It was an offer void of any genuine materiality. His parents' work schedules had meant long and sometimes unconventional hours since he was a kid. The moment he'd been old enough to forego the services of his childhood nanny, Riku had been on his own, or with Kadaj or other friends, free to traverse the city at whim outside of school hours — so long as they stayed out of trouble, their grades remained strong, and he returned home at a reasonable hour on school nights. This new daily routine was the most consistent form of interaction he'd had with his mom in years. With his father spending weeknights at an extended stay hotel closer to the Gulf Coast where he was busy performing the work that had prompted the family's temporary relocation in the first place, quality time with the other Kimura adult was still more of a work in progress.

"The guy who invited me is in my study hall period," Riku continued, dutifully answering the rest of his mom's question, even though he doubted she'd have noticed if he'd dropped the topic after his penultimate sentence. "He seems really intelligent. I'd be surprised if he wasn't set to graduate with honors."

Assuming Radiant High even offered scholastic recognition like National Honor Society. Given the school's seemingly single-minded focus on athletic events, it wouldn't have surprised him if honoring academic achievement happened to be a glaring omission from the upcoming senior graduation ceremony.

"That's good. It's nice that you're making friends."

"Yeah." Riku nodded, even though his mother wasn't looking at him. His gaze soon returned to the side window as he made a quick game out of trying to place their current location based solely on the more notable landmarks of speed-blurred flora and fauna.

"Feel free to invite him and his family over for dinner sometime," his mother said. "It'd be nice to have the opportunity to meet some of the town locals. Your father would probably agree."

Riku was tempted to point out that making plans of any sort involving assurances that both parents were home at the same time might work out to nothing short of a miracle, divine or otherwise. He held back though as a vivid image formed of his family sitting at their dining room table with Sora present.

And Roxas.

Riku shook his head, more trying to jog it into accepting the scenario of Roxas in any room of their new house than disagreeing with his mother's comment. He just couldn't see it, any more than he could parse Sora being so closely related to such an acerbic personality — and at least he'd had a full day to process that revelation. While nothing noteworthy had happened in any of the classes Riku'd had with Roxas today, Thursday's incident in gym class was still prime for reflection. That scene alone was more than enough to immortalize the enduring differences between the two brothers for him.

"Maybe I'll ask sometime," he said, careful to keep his tone neutral. He wasn't worried about his parents meeting Sora. It was Roxas who was the wildcard; if the Strife family adults were anything more like the latter than the former, he wasn't totally sure having them meet his own parents would be such a great idea.

The conversation died down again, and Riku simply watched as the scenery outside the car window became increasingly rural, until they were leaving the main road and driving down what constituted nothing more impressive than a basic dirt path. A week hadn't been nearly enough time to acclimate to the revelation that there were still parts of the country that seemed to qualify as unexplored wilderness. The closest San Francisco got to something comparable was the three mile stretch of Golden Gate Park.

Even that had paved roads and bicycle trails.

Ayumi Kimura glanced over at her son. "Is it alright if I drop you outside and take off? I'm afraid I'm running a little behind schedule."

Riku nodded. No big deal; this was nothing new, and he still had a little over an hour to kill before Sora was set to arrive.

With Roxas.

As his mom pulled up beside the house, Riku reached for the messenger bag at his feet and hopped out of the car. He offered a quick wave at the departing Mercedes, unable to curb the observation that nothing was really all that simple in this place, including making friends. That rang especially true if it involved also having to play nice with a classmate's brother he just didn't know how to get a firm read on as of yet.

Eyes traveling the property boundaries, Riku performed an about-face, trudging away from the house and back in the direction his mom's car had just disappeared, toward a pair of mailboxes that faced the turn-off to the main road. This was just another difference between his life in San Francisco and Radiant Hollow; while his parents had a nice house in the northern part of his hometown, it was flanked on both sides by other Victorian and Edwardian era homes, the mailbox consisting of nothing more than a convenient bronze slot on their front door. They had a backyard, a veritable luxury in such an urban setting, but it was small, only large enough for a modest patio area and a few potted plants along the edge of a ten foot high fence that offered only a modicum of privacy. The majority of their outdoor space was accessible from above, on a rooftop deck that boasted views of Golden Gate Bridge to the north, the Bay Bridge south of it, and Alcatraz between the two landmarks, iconic of well-known Northern California architecture.

Here, they could afford a veritable mansion for the price they'd paid for a four bedroom home on the West Coast, with acres of land, a separate guest house, and probably even an underground fall-out shelter in the event that the 'bleeding heart liberals' everyone seemed so concerned about launched a full-scale attack on traditional Southern values. But that was tempered by the fact that they'd have to call 'here' home, and Riku really wasn't sure it was worth the trade-off — particularly given the sticky mist that seemed to perpetually linger in the air all around him, making him feel even more uncomfortable than the closed-minded social attitudes people sported like badges of honor already did.

Still, such stark differences between two regions within the same unified country never failed to outright confound him.

Reaching the mailbox, Riku opened its rounded aluminum front panel and pulled out a small handful of envelopes. Most days, it ended up being spam or letters addressed to the previous tenant, but occasionally there'd be mail for his parents that was actually relevant.

Before he could do much more than glance at the return address on the top envelope, his attention was diverted toward the property's far border by the sound of an approaching vehicle. A car came into view, recognizable as the only foreign model he'd thus far seen in the town, apart from his family's own Mercedes rental. The Prius didn't slow as it passed him, although its driver did raise her hand in acknowledgement. Riku returned the gesture a moment too late for her to actually have seen it without glancing in the rearview mirror. He returned his attention to the mail in front of him and began sifting through what he'd retrieved as he started a slow walk back to the house.

Junk mail. A credit card offer meant for the last tenant. Something from the ABA for his dad.

And a postcard, addressed to him.

Riku stopped, taking in the familiar but nearly illegible scrawl of his cousin's handwriting. Before reading the message, he turned it over, eyeing the glossy picture on the front that depicted the Painted Ladies, a row of iconic Victorian houses facing one corner of Alamo Square Park. "Wish You Were Here" was emblazoned across the top left corner in a color and font that clashed to an equal extent. It looked like the work of an inartistic high school freshman who'd gotten ahold of a bootleg copy of Photoshop. Knowing Kadaj, he'd probably picked it up for cheap at a local Walgreens just to be snarky.

Flipping the card, Riku read the message on its back, an artful melodrama of written sentiment about just how much everyone back home was missing him. Eyes rising in a combination of exasperation and marginal amusement, he resumed his trek back to the house and pulled out his phone.

"I got your postcard," he typed out, then followed it up with a pointed, "who's being an asshole now?"

He got to the rental's front door, pausing to fish the house keys out of the front pocket of his messenger bag. Inserting one into the lock and twisting the door open, he saw Kadaj's near instantaneous return reply.

It contained nothing less than eight emojis, three of which were variations on the standard winking smilie. Riku waited an extended moment to see if Kadaj would reply with anything further before concluding he'd be getting nothing more out of this exchange from his cousin.

No big deal and nothing new, right?

Yeah, Riku thought, savoring the crisp feel of an air-conditioned house before shutting the door behind him. That sounded more or less accurate when it came to mosts aspects associated with people from a life in temporary limbo, half a world away back home on the West Coast in San Francisco.

o - o

Heading outside a few minutes before his ride's anticipated arrival, Riku sucked in a stifling breath of heavy, pre-summer air and looked down at Sora's latest text message with a dubious expression. He'd read it a good half dozen times since Sora had sent it an hour earlier, until the words had become almost as meaningless as the initial message had seemed contradictory.

"Be sure to bring an extra layer, like a coat or something similar."

Because it wasn't 80 degrees outside? Because, given the suffocating, sweat-inducing air quality, it wasn't inching toward 90 with the humidity taken into account?

Not wanting to seem like an idiot for asking a question with an answer that was probably obvious to anyone who'd lived here longer than the span of a week, Riku had confirmed receipt of the text without asking for clarification. He'd chosen to remain in the same jeans and shirt he'd worn during school earlier that day. Locating something long-sleeved had taken a little extra digging through a box of clothing he'd only managed to half unpack at this point, until he'd ultimately located a Cal hoodie buried near the bottom. At the time he had initially packed it, he'd probably assumed there'd be no use for it with summer approaching.

Apparently, Sora thought otherwise.

Unable to check the impulse, Riku looked down at his phone again, then began scrolling up through the message history of his conversations with Sora. They'd managed to amass a nice little string of written banter, considering they'd only exchanged numbers twenty-four hours earlier. Even with the most banal topics he'd started out with while trying to get a feel for the tone of their initial few exchanges, Sora had offered enough in return to give Riku something to work with in forming his responses. It was refreshing to feel like he was having a conversation with a person instead of a set of prefab emoticons, to be perfectly honest.

"I never understood how people could read entire novels on their phones."

The voice floated up from behind him, unexpected but ruminative with a feminine inflection. As he turned toward the speaker, a girl came into view over one of Riku's shoulders. Clad in a loose-fitting black sundress that reached to her ankles, the landlord's daughter was looking at Riku with an expression that exuded a mild spirit of inquiry. An over-sized fabric purse was slung over the pale skin of one bare shoulder, while she clasped a black coat in front of her in both small hands. The extra layer of clothing reminded him of Sora's seemingly antithetical text directive as well as the fact that his classmate had said he'd be arriving now at any minute.

"Oh." He turned more fully toward her. "I wasn't actually reading a book."

Head tilting just enough for her sleek bob of black hair to sway in time with the movement, the corners of the girl's mouth curved up into the intimation of a smile. "I'm aware."

Not confident on how to respond to the statement, Riku found himself wishing he'd been properly introduced at some point over the past week. The girl was in a few of his classes at school, he was pretty sure, but they'd never spoken. Now, when he was anticipating Sora's imminent arrival, he wasn't exactly yearning to launch into anything that approached an in-depth conversation.

"I'm guessing you're also aware of my name," he finally said.

She nodded with the same unchanging expression. Looking what he hoped was an appropriate level of contrite, Riku slid his phone back into the pocket of his jeans.

"I'm afraid I don't know—"

"I'm Xion." Much to his surprise, the interjection hadn't felt abrasive, and Riku couldn't think of a time when he'd been cut off mid-sentence with such patent politeness.

"Xion," he echoed, considering both syllables with equanimity. The name sounded vaguely Chinese, but with blue eyes and pale skin, the girl in front of him didn't look particularly Asian, or even mixed-race. "Is that… French?"

"It's my mother trying to be unique," she replied. "I suppose you could make the argument that it's related to the Hebrew word Zion." She looked at him, the smile playing more fully across her features but the look in her eyes remaining subtly distant. "But then you'd be flat-out wrong, so the breath probably isn't worth the effort."

Before Riku could think of a response, a truck appeared in the distance and he looked away from her. Xion followed his gaze and watched the approaching vehicle without a word.

"I'm actually heading out for the night," Riku said, his free hand unconsciously brushing over the pocket of his jeans where his phone was stored, thoughts returning to Sora who he could just make out in the passenger seat of the dark flatbed pickup truck.

"I know that too," Xion said. "It's why I'm out here, same as you."

Surprised, Riku glanced over at her. "You're going to the marsh party... thing?"

Whatever the hell this get-together was officially called.

Another smile, and Xion was sliding past him, toward the gravel path that the truck was traversing on its way to them. "Of course. I'm going with Roxas, bless your unmindful little Yankee heart."

The truck pulled to a jerky stop and Xion passed around to the driver's side before Riku could even consider whether the comment had been meant as an insult. The moment he looked up at the passenger side window, he was treated to a bright, patented Sora smile.

Just like that, he was a whole lot less concerned with Xion's potentially condemnatory words.

As Roxas hopped out of the car, Riku watched in mute surprise as Xion approached him, then placed a brief, chaste kiss directly on his lips.

So, when she said she was going with Roxas, she actually meant with with. That was something he hadn't been expecting.

As Xion climbed into the pickup and scooted into the middle seat, Riku's gaze fell on Roxas who was eyeing him with the same unreadable, impassive expression he'd sported yesterday after the spectacle during gym. Gesturing to the truck's gated back-end with a flick of his hand, Roxas hopped back up behind the wheel and revved the engine.

Riku had never been in the back of a pickup truck, had never even ridden in a vehicle that was so much as missing a single seatbelt. Come to think, his parents' Tesla performed nothing short of an automated freakout whenever it was turned on without every passenger buckled in prior to switching over to automatic drive.

Something told him this truck didn't even have the most basic of safety features. With only a slight hesitation, Riku made his way around the truck bed, grabbing onto part of the metal frame. He swung himself up into the cargo area as it began to coast slowly forward.

Two pairs of eyes turned on him, one belonging to Hayner, the other set Pence's. Riku offered a one-word greeting, to which Pence inclined his head in acknowledgement. Hayner did nothing beyond fix his classmate with a stony gaze that made Riku desperately hope this journey wasn't going to take much longer than a few minutes. Even that, he suspected, would end up being considerably torturous.

As they approached the bend that would lead them to the main road, the truck slowed to a stop, waiting for another car on the main throughway to speed past. They started moving again, only to jolt due to a violent vehicular lurch, forcing all three boys to grab onto the nearest iron grates as the truck came to an abrupt stop. From the cab's open back window, Riku heard Roxas make a frustrated sound.

"Fuck this clutch seven ways 'til Sunday. Cloud should've fixed this ages ago."

Rubbing the area of his shoulder that had collided with the side of the cargo bar, Hayner shot the back of his friend's head a perturbed look.

"Don't make excuses for simply not knowin' how to drive, how about?"

The truck shuddered for half a second, then started to pick up speed, Roxas' only response being a raised middle finger out the driver side window.

Already feeling nauseated from the stop-and-go fluctuations, Riku glanced over at Hayner and Pence with a cautious expression. "He does have a driver's license though… right?"

Roxas glanced back for half a second. "Don't need no government-mandated permission to drive on backroads, last I checked. It's a free country and all that associated jazz." Once again, his accent thickened the more Roxas spoke. This time, Riku was under no illusions that the inflection was put on for anything other than his exclusive benefit.

Just the same, Riku felt the color drain from his face. Okay, fuck his life — what had Roxas said? Seven ways until Sunday? Yeah, that sounded appropriate, even if he was a little unclear on the meaning. He was sure there were plenty of acceptable paths by which to die at eighteen; in the back of some yokel's pickup truck in middle-of-boondocks Louisiana was one way he figured even the afterlife wouldn't be long enough for him to live down.

"That was a joke!" Sora's voice drifted back to him. "He's had his license since our sixteenth birthday."

The subsequent feeling of relief that coursed through him apparently wasn't restricted to a solely internalized emotion. Across from him, Pence outright laughed at the look on his face. Miracle of miracles, even Hayner cracked a small smile.

His classmate looked away a second later, gaze returning to the vehicle's main cabin. "Hey, Sor. Any reason Kairi didn't hop a ride? She comin' later?"

Riku saw brown hair whip in the wind of the open side window as Sora turned to look toward Hayner. "She should already be there," he said, the naturally softer volume of his voice at risk of being lost entirely in the drive-induced breeze. "The restaurant called her in for some sort of employee meeting right after school, so she said she'd make her own way over."

The truck slowed momentarily, then stalled before pitching forward again. Riku was just able to make out some of Roxas' more pointed curse words over the sound of Hayner's resonate laughter.

"Shut the fuck up and get up here if you think driving this piece of shit is straightforward."

Still grinning, it was Hayner's turn to flip Roxas the bird through one of the flatbed's slatted grates. "Pretty sure I got banned from driving you anywhere after Wednesday, you prissy little bitch."

The unanticipated insult caught Riku off-guard, and he only half-managed to stifle a snort of air as he tried to hold back laughter he wasn't sure would be in his best interests to make audible. Up front, Roxas' shoulders visibly tensed, blue eyes narrowing as he glanced back through the rearview mirror. While Xion snaked an arm around the back of his neck and offered an affectionate kiss to one cheek, Riku could see the tandem rise and falling of Sora's shoulders, one thin hand pressed up against his mouth as though stifling his own laughter.

It was a shared moment of humor, and one of the first of its kind in like company since Riku's arrival. If not for the appraising glance Hayner shot his way a beat later, Riku might almost have felt like he was fitting in, that he was well on his way to even making a few genuine friends.

As the truck continued toward their ultimate destination, jolting and jerking over increasingly uneven ground, Riku schooled his expression into its usual neutral and fisted the soft fabric of his Cal sweatshirt in front of him. This was a good start, potentially, with getting back on Hayner's good side, as well as better acquainting himself with some of Radiant High's other seniors. Just the same, Riku was quick to remind himself that wishful thinking had never done anyone any favors, least of all him. With that considerably more sobering thought in mind, he kept himself quiet, content to listen to the gradual return of conversation between the others for the remainder of their ride.

o - o

They walked as a group from the improvised parking area at the edge of the woods toward the marshland forest spread out in front of them, Pence and Hayner leading the way, with Sora behind them in between Roxas and Xion. Riku took up the rear, having secured his hoodie in a knot around his waist the moment they'd hopped out of the pickup truck a few minutes earlier.

The terrain quickly became more unevenly ragged, and Riku noted with dismay that the ground was also getting softer as they made their way further from the parking area. Maybe he should've reconsidered his choice of wearing new running shoes along with two hundred dollar jeans.

Not that he owned anything less expensive. But still.

As they squished along, Riku looked down, noting that Xion was sporting open-toed sandals that she didn't seem particularly bothered about getting covered with mud and swamp-marsh detritus. In front of him, the group had slowed further and was taking their time. He noticed that Roxas seemed to have moved a step closer to Sora during a moment of his own inattention. The action seemed almost protective, and Riku took time to consider it as he gave up any pretense of keeping his shoes and the bottom few inches of his jeans completely free of mud and associated forest muck.

It wasn't even mud, at least under the standard definition of the substance that he was accustomed to. Instead, the wet dirt seemed denser. It was tinted red and clung to everything it came into contact with, and Riku couldn't help thinking that whoever decided it'd be a good idea to hold a party in veritable swampland had to be on thought-altering drugs boasting an impressive level of potency.

"The ground's drier at the meeting place," he heard Xion murmur. Although she didn't turn to look at him, it felt like the comment had been uttered for his sole benefit. Nodding, Riku remained quiet. While he was grateful for the information, he was also trying to suppress his growing irritation with the soggy mess their trek had made out of his shoes and pants.

Still trying to maintain his balance in slippery sludge on the path spread out ahead of him, Riku inhaled a breath of muggy air, then let it out slowly. It already felt like his shirt was becoming heavier, that there was a defined band of sweat around his waist where his hoodie was secured.

Still walking, Sora looked over one shoulder and offered Riku a conciliatory smile. "Sorry. I probably should've warned you about the mud."

With a light shrug, Riku glanced down at his newly mucked-up shoes. "I'll wash it out when I get home."

"Nah, you won't." Roxas' voice rang out, naturally louder than Sora's, but without the enthusiastic cadence Riku was becoming increasingly used to. "This here's clay soil. Stains something awful and doesn't wash outta nothing."

Awesome. Fantastic.

Tall, willowy trees spread out before them. As they made their way further into the core of the forest, Sora turned back forward to keep an eye on where he was going. "I'm guessing San Francisco's soil isn't quite as dense?" Although Riku couldn't see his face any longer, the smile was still discernible in Sora's upbeat tone.

"It's just dirt, I think." Riku said. "Like, the regular stuff?"

In front of him, Hayner responded with a scornful laugh. "Just dirt? That's real descriptive."

"Practically prose," Roxas chimed it, accent as thick as ever. "Write it up on a fancy typin' machine and you could publish that gem of English language for the literate masses and make a quick buck." He glanced back at Riku, eyes traveling briefly over his chosen clothing, brows pointedly rising. "Not that it seems you'd be needing it."

Sora extended an arm, jabbing Roxas with one knobby elbow, then glanced back at Riku. "Ignore them. They're just joshin' — well, except about the clay's staining properties."

Despite Sora's assurances, Riku felt his jaw lock in a patent refusal to let him respond. Keeping quiet almost by default, Riku couldn't help but wonder in what random-ass world teenagers got off talking about the consistency of earth like it was a topic that was even remotely worth the time they'd already spent on it.

At the same time, it seemed somehow appropriate that not even something as seemingly invariant as dirt was the same in a place like this.

Or the trees. Between the three mile expanse of Golden Gate Park within San Francisco proper and Muir Woods directly north of it, Riku was used to tall redwoods, with trunks so thick they could hardly be seen all the way around. The trees here were suppler, their lithe trunks rising up out of ground that was submerged in mossy, brackish water. Hayner and Pence had been forging a path along the clay silt that formed a trail between the forest's marshier areas while the forest rose on both sides all around them.

"Almost there now." Riku barely processed Sora's comment, distracted enough by his own discomfiture that he didn't even initially hear the music, although he saw Pence when began to bob his head in a rhythmic beat in front of him the moment he started.

Then it filtered over to him, the sound of pop music in tandem with indistinct undertones of other peoples' animated conversation.

Sora sped up, passing by Pence and Hayner and hopping a small hollow of pooled water in front of him. Nearby, Roxas made a disapproving sound. "Jesus, be careful."

But Sora had already made it into the clearing, the slopping sounds of his large shoes reaching Riku's ears as his classmate began to walk on more solid ground. The realization that his classmate was walking with more ease now than he'd just been seen laboring around on crutches one day prior wasn't lost on Riku for even a second.

As Sora turned to look back at the group, his eyes came to rest on Riku.

"Welcome to St. Bastion's, Radiant Hollow's largest bayou," he said with a grin. "Though most of us just call it The Usual Spot."

Riku looked around. The clearing was more or less circular, ringed with logs and felled tree trunks that looked like they'd been arranged with deliberate purpose. Above them, a canopy of trees provided incomplete cover, allowing enough sunlight to see their surroundings, even with dusk fast approaching. Directly center, Riku noted a fire pit bounded by a large ring of stones.

There were already a handful of people present, all students Riku recognized from school. Most of their names had made less of an impression in his short-term memory, with the exception of Tidus, Selphie, and Kairi. Riku watched as Sora made his way over to the familiar group standing with one other boy who'd been on his gym class basketball team. In front of him, Roxas, Hayner, and Pence broke off and headed over to a different gathering of students. Xion trailed along behind them moving much slower, eyes initially trained on the trees above, a wistful expression gracing her features.

Kairi came into more direct focus a moment later, perched on the top of what looked like an oversized cooler.

She met his gaze, one eyebrow rising, then slid to the ground, retrieving her eyesore of a fringed purse before ambling in Riku's general direction. An unhooked strap on her overall cut-offs swung behind her like an upturned animal tail, her plastic flip-flops making staccato clapping sounds with each progressive step toward him. With a swimsuit bikini top serving the dual purpose of a makeshift shirt and bra, she either hadn't gotten Sora's memo to wear warm clothing or had felt inclined simply to ignore it. To Riku, she looked like an extra straight off of the Dukes of Hazzard movie set, and he tried his best to maintain a neutral expression aimed at her chin at a bare height minimum. At least her outfit was devoid of any Confederate battle flag references, he noted, which seemed nothing short of an appreciable miracle.

Kairi stopped a few feet in front of Riku, then shot him a half-smile just visible at one corner of her mouth. "So, you came after all."

Stealing a glance back at Sora and rest of the group by the cooler, Riku nodded. "I did," he said. "Sora was persuasive."

"Can be when he wants something, yeah."

The impish pitch to her tone forced Riku's attention back toward Kairi. Between her shrewd look and more bare skin than he wanted to risk being accused of gawking at, Riku wasn't sure where to direct his eyes. He ultimately settled on the space between Kairi's mouth and nose, figuring that was probably the safest of his available options.

"Come on then." Still sparing him the smallest hint of a smile, Kairi turned back in the direction she'd arrived from, and Riku found himself following the path Sora had just traveled. Tidus and Selphie both looked up as they got closer, while Sora and the other boy were busy digging through the contents in the cooler in front of them.

Selphie made up what little remained of the distance and wasted no time wrapping her arms around Kairi for a quick hug, before stepping closer and looking up at him. "Hi, Riku." Her smile was genuine, although when Riku tried to return it, the girl moved her gaze away from him almost shyly. Behind her, Tidus nodded in greeting but said nothing.

Emerging out from the cooler, Sora shook his head, with tufts of hair flying in every direction. In a way, Riku mused, the level of follicle volume both Roxas and Sora maintained was impressive given the oppressive amount of moisture in the air all around them.

Eyes quickly locating Riku, Sora beckoned him over.

"Have you met everyone?"

"Yeah." Riku nodded. "I mean, kind of. We're all on the same team in gym."

Sora nodded encouragingly as Riku glanced over at the boy next to both of them. "I kind of suck at names though." It was a veiled way of admitting that he'd managed to forget that guy's name specifically.

Their fellow senior pointed at his chest. "Wakka."

If that wasn't the most stereotypically hokey Southern name he'd ever encountered, Riku really didn't know what would've counted as a viable alternative.

Oblivious to Riku's thoughts, Sora gestured with an index finger, aiming his hand first at Tidus, then Selphie, as he identified them both. Dutifully, Riku followed Sora's motion with his eyes, nodding after each name.

With introductions over, Sora looked up at Riku and patted the edge of the cooler. "So, we have burgers and hot dogs. What's your pleasure?"

Oh, shit. He froze.

Right. About that…

Riku swallowed, looking from Sora to the cooler, then up again. How he'd managed not to anticipate the kinds of food typically eaten at a campfire party was honest-to-god beyond him.

Remembering Hayner's reaction when he'd balked at ordering pre-made cafeteria food, Riku looked back at the contents of the cooler in an attempt to stall for time and figure out how much of an explanation he wanted to offer.

"Neither, actually," he finally said after letting the pause extend as long as he thought he could get away with. "I'm a vegetarian."

Next to Sora, Wakka cocked his head, brows furrowing. "What?"

Riku opened his mouth, still unsure exactly how much more to say, but Sora beat him to it. "Vegetarian," he repeated, features thoughtful as he looked over the food in the cooler. "He can't eat any of this."

"Oh, okay." Wakka's expression remained subtly perplexed.

Bounding up beside him, Selphie ducked between Wakka and Sora and pulled out a generic-brand cola, then stole a glance at Riku. "When'd you decide on being that?"

"Um." Riku could see Kairi and Tidus approaching on both sides of his peripherals, felt eyes on him from everyone involved in the conversation.

And then some.

This was exactly what he hadn't wanted to get into, considering every other building in Radiant Hollow seemed to be some type of variation on an evangelical church. He also saw no way to avoid addressing the question, at least in part. "I didn't. Decide on it, I mean. My parents are vegetarians, so it was just how they raised me."

Tidus whistled. "That's intense. And a little hippie-sounding, no offense."

Shoulders tight, Riku made no effort to correct the assumption. Under the circumstances, being viewed as a hippie seemed more socially acceptable than the entire senior student body knowing that his dietary restrictions were associated with his parents' adherence to Shingon Buddhism. Something told him that admittance would have him fielding a new set of questions entirely.

"So, you've never eaten a burger?" Wakka asked, the question seemingly posed more out of curiosity than with any real negativity.

Before Riku could explain the concept of vegetable-based meat alternatives, Selphie cut in.

"Or pork chops? Or, my goodness, not even steak?" Her expression turned from one of contemplation to horror so quickly it would have been comical, if not for the feeling that he still needed to remain on guard while trying to gauge the reactions of everyone else around him.

Once again, Sora stepped in and offered a reprieve from the rapid-fire inquiries. Turning to Wakka, he nudged his classmate lightly. "Did you bring anything else he could eat instead?"

With a look of initial doubt, Wakka glanced over at another stack of supplies. "We've got colas, a few beers Tidus got his older brother to buy, and s'mores-making supplies. That's about it." He shrugged. "Oh," he said, noticeably perking up. "And craploads of weed."

Sora didn't seem put off by the statement, responding to Wakka a beat later with a good-natured grin. "Unless it's baked into something, that probably isn't gonna suffice." He looked back over at Riku. "How do you feel about graham crackers?"

Maybe Riku shouldn't have been surprised by the pot reference. Just the same, it seemed much more a West Coast pastime than something he'd ever imagined taking place in the rural South. So much for that assumption, he thought, as he added it to the growing list of pre-conceptions he'd compiled prior to arriving that had ended up being completely off-base now that he was actually here.

Riku inclined his head, trying to make himself seem nonchalantly agreeable. "I'm not opposed to them."

He was rewarded with a big smile that reached all the way to Sora's eyes. "Sweet. Then you're the luckiest of us all, getting dessert first."

Despite his lingering trepidation, Riku couldn't help but return the expression with a small smile of his own. As Wakka pointed out the unrefrigerated supplies in a pile nearby, Sora took one final look Riku's way. "If you can grab me a cola and pick a drink for yourself, I'll deal with the graham crackers."

Riku followed Sora's directive, slipping past his other classmates as he sprinted to catch up. For someone he'd seen moving with patent care on crutches just a day earlier, Sora was surprisingly quick on his feet and already halfway to one cluster of logs at the edge of the clearing before Riku had even started walking, one sweating aluminum soda can gripped in each hand. He watched as Sora lowered himself into a seated position and waved the graham cracker box he'd acquired like a prize in front of him.

Slowing as he approached the makeshift bench, Riku glanced back toward the rest of their group. "Should we be helping with food prep?"

Sora shook his head. "Wakka and Tidus are gonna be arguing about how best to cook it for awhile. Longer if Kairi and Selphie get involved. That's what always happens, so it's best to just let them duke it out and pinch whatever we want afterward."

He smiled, then looked away long enough to pat a spot on the seat beside him. Taking the cue, Riku untied his hoodie, draping it over the far edge of the log before sitting. He offered one of the colas to Sora, who placed the grahams box in his lap and took it from him.

"Sorry about your jeans," Sora continued. "I really should've explained how evil clay can be so you were on notice to bring a change of shoes, at least."

Riku glanced down at his feet. His sneakers were covered in reddish mud, the bottoms of his jeans stained dark with clay and marsh water. Strangely enough, neither was really bothering him at the moment.

"At least you brought an extra layer." Sora pointed at Riku's hoodie. "It can get chilly after the sun goes down."

He was going to have to take Sora's word on that one, because right now Riku still felt overheated as hell. The idea of adding the fuzzy-thick hoodie fabric onto an already sweat-dampened t-shirt made his neck itch just thinking about.

"UC Berkeley, though," Sora chattered on, eyes directed at Riku's sweatshirt, legs bouncing beneath him in a jittery rhythm. "Is that where you're going to college?"

Riku shook his head. "My cousin starts there in September. I decided on Stanford."

Eyes widening, Sora went still. If not for the opportunity his classmate's now stationary position gave him to get a better look, Sora's expression alone might have started Riku on a worrying jag about having said something wrong again.

His vision was suddenly filled with the blue of Sora's eyes though, a shade not really so different from Roxas' when Riku took a second to stop and think about it. Except there was no way Roxas could match the radical intensity of his brother's gaze, and, at such close proximity, Riku realized the sole reason for what he'd initially assumed was an illusion of their study hall library's dim lighting was, in fact, associated with a discernibly blue tint around the edges of Sora's irises where they otherwise should've been white.

Sora blinked, and Riku was quick to look down, suddenly aware he'd been staring. Again.

"Stanford. Wow." Oblivious to his classmate's intense scrutiny and corresponding chagrin, Sora was looking at him with an expression of unconcealed admiration. "A top ten school. That's seriously impressive."

Suppressing the urge to shrug, Riku accepted the praise without pretense, still trying to piece together the significance of what he'd just observed. "Thanks."

In truth, he'd never really thought about the school's ranking. His parents had given him a list of universities they'd determined were acceptable to apply to. Stanford had been one of them. Located just down the peninsula from San Francisco in Palo Alto, it was close enough to home that he could still see his family on weekends, with Kadaj a relatively short trip across the San Mateo Bridge and up 880 when he started at Berkeley. It'd seemed like a logical choice, and one that had made his parents happy, which was often no small feat given the magnitude of their academic expectations. He'd deal with the fact that he didn't particularly want to go to medical school at a later juncture, Riku figured.

Not wholly comfortable with the admiration that was radiating off the boy next to him, Riku turned Sora's question back on him. "What about you? What college did you decide on?"

For a moment, Sora just looked at him, his warm expression slightly faltering. "There's a community college a few towns over," he said. "Roxas and I are enrolling there to do our general ed requirements."

Riku looked at Sora with a measure of surprise, the enigma surrounding his eye coloring momentarily forgotten. For someone as smart as it seemed Sora was, he'd assumed his classmate would be heading out East and attending an Ivy.

Catching the look, Sora glanced down, then worked two front teeth over his bottom lip before supplementing. "It's cheaper than private universities, or even a state school," he offered. "My family doesn't make a lot, and with two of us graduating in the same year..."

Tempted to bring up how easy it'd be for a smart kid to get both merit- and need-based scholarships, Riku ultimately held his tongue. There seemed to be something Sora was holding back, but he wasn't exactly sure what. He also didn't know if it was his place to start digging, even if it had piqued his curiosity.

"That's cool," he opted for instead. "And it sounds like you'll be close to home to visit if you want."

Sora looked up, features still marginally less expressive than Riku had become used to seeing from him. "Yeah. It should be a good arrangement."

For a moment, they held one another's gaze. Despite the subdued mood that had settled between them, Riku found himself still somewhat taken aback by how comfortable it felt to simply look at another person like this with no overt expectations.

All around them, the sounds of others filtered in — of music and laughter and the arrival of newcomers. Yet in that brief moment, it felt like the world was composed singularly of just the two of them.

This time it was Sora who looked down first. A playful grin quickly forming, he popped the top of his soda can open. "So." He glanced at Riku out of the corner of his eye. "A vegetarian from San Francisco who got into Stanford for undergrad. If there's anything else socially damning I should know about you, now'd be a good time to admit to it."

Momentarily flustered by the sudden change of subject, Riku found himself stumbling over his words as he grappled for something adequate to respond with. "I …play water polo?"

Alright, so that might not've been damning, per se, but it sure seemed to have thrown Hayner off.

Sora, not so much.

"We don't have a team for that," he returned before taking a sip of his cola. Setting it down on the ground by his feet, he reached for the graham cracker box and made quick work of opening one side before offering Riku a small mountain of honey-flavored squares. "Radiant High does have a pool though."

As Riku accepted the food offering, his eyes drifted back toward the fire that Tidus and Wakka had just gotten kindling. The mention of polo had induced a twinge of memory, reminding him he hadn't gotten to finish his final year with a team he'd been a member of for almost four years. "Yeah, that's what Hayner was telling me."

He felt Sora shift beside him but didn't redirect his gaze, still lost in nebulous, nostalgic thought.

"Maybe you could check with your gym teacher to see if you can get permission to use it."

Laughter drifted over to them from another area of the clearing, Sora's eyes traveling toward the source of the noise at the same time that Riku nodded and offered what by now was becoming a trademark form of noncommittal response.

"Yeah," he said with a shrug, voice quiet as he considered the possibility. "We'll see. Maybe I could."

o - o

They sat in comfortable silence, both for some time seemingly content to nibble on their graham crackers and watch the goings-on around them. The sun had fallen lower in the sky, was almost near to setting, and Riku could feel a change in the air, the slight hint of a chill as each successive spindly breeze passed through the clearing.

Tidus and Wakka had distributed the first round of burgers and hot dogs, making their way toward them first, but Sora had been quick to wave them off toward other seniors in the general vicinity.

They'd both made a few attempts at smalltalk, each line of conversation fizzling out before it really got going. That, Riku figured, was mostly his fault; he was still distracted by a handful of topics that probably weren't appropriate to broach, from water polo and missing his friends back home to thoughts of Sora's disappearing-act crutches and unnerving eye coloring.

And there was the admission about his classmate's college plans. That also hadn't seemed to add up in his mind.

That being said, it seemed a much more appropriate topic to bring up than any of the others he was currently considering.

"After community college," Riku started, watching as Sora turned his attention back to him, "have you considered transferring somewhere else?"

He didn't get an answer. Before Sora could respond, the volume of music that had been drifting unassumingly around them increased at least tenfold without warning. Both boys looked over in time to see Selphie bounce up and away from an iPod attached to a battery-operated stereo, a satisfied look written plain on her face. Nearby, Tidus and Wakka shot her exasperated expressions from where they remained crouched roasting more food over the fire.

Top 40s pop music assaulting their eardrums, Riku watched as Roxas hopped up from his seat on a log across the clearing from their current location, then strode over to the stereo with purpose. With an uninspired roll of his eyes, he twisted the volume down to a more acceptable level, albeit still higher than what it'd been playing at initially.

Instead of returning to his friends, Roxas continued onward. Walking past Tidus, Wakka, and Selphie, and pointedly ignoring Kairi who was playing waitress by the cooler, he made a beeline directly toward the two of them.

He dragged a smaller log out in front of Riku and his brother, then plopped down with a look of barely concealed disdain before allowing his features to return to a more neutral blank. "This music is total shit."

Noting the more palatable Southern inflection without a word, Riku was inclined to agree. "Is country more your thing?"

By his side, he heard Sora make a noise that might have sounded more like laughter if he hadn't just stuffed a few squares of graham crackers straight into his mouth a moment earlier.

Roxas' eyes narrowed. "No. That's a whole lot worse."

Fingers traveling over the remaining stack of grahams still in his possession, Riku sat back, taking a moment to regard Sora's brother as he broke off a piece of the honey-flavored cracker, popped it in his mouth, and chewed slowly. As his arm came to a rest next to Sora's shoulder, he felt the last vestiges of his classmate's gently shaking laughter quickly still. He could have imagined it, but Riku was almost convinced he could feel Sora leaning into him.

Eyes still trained on Roxas in an attempt to maintain his focus, Riku took a sip of his soda. "Okay. What type of music do you like then? Give me some band names."

"Oh, don't get him started," a voice called out from nearby. Glancing up, Riku saw Hayner and a corresponding look of light exasperation as he made his way closer. By his side, Pence had a pair of beers pressed together in one hand by their narrow, sweating necks. The two boys took a seat on either side of Roxas who, in turn, rolled his eyes again in one practiced motion. With the arrival of the two newcomers, Riku couldn't tell if the expression was meant for Hayner or him.

"Don't matter," Roxas scoffed, directing his eyes back at Riku, accent suddenly thickening. "You wouldn't've heard of 'em anyway."

Lips thinning, Riku was momentarily quiet. Was he being serious? Did Roxas really want to get pinned as a categorical hipster here spouting lines like that?

Beside him, Riku felt Sora shift slightly away. The lack of contact felt oddly disappointing, like the absence of touch was more offensive than its recent presence. He took in Roxas' expression with raised eyes of his own in silent acceptance of the implied challenge.

"Try me."

Passing a beer to Hayner behind Roxas' back, Pence exchanged a look with Sora, then glanced at his friend. "Hey, guys? Maybe this isn't the best way to get to know each other…"

Ignoring him, Roxas dropped his chin onto open palms, supported by elbows resting on bent legs below him. "+44."

Okay, he liked bands from the mid-2000s. Easy. With only a hint of a smile, Riku kept his eyes pointedly fixed on Roxas.

"Los Angeles group, formed with two members of Blink-182 after it broke up." Riku watched as Roxas' friends glanced at him as if for confirmation and was a little surprised when he immediately conceded with a curt nod.

"Anberlin," Riku offered up.

"Everyone knows 'Feel Good Drag'," Roxas shot back. "And they were formed in Florida. How about Blue October?"

One eyebrow rising until it almost disappeared under silver hair, Riku leaned slightly more forward. "Nice middle ground. They're from Texas. Their best known song is probably 'Hate Me', maybe 'Into The Ocean'. I think 'Come In Closer' is better."

Not waiting for Riku to offer him another band name, Roxas forged on. "Okay, fine. Let's do British. Heard of The Wombats?"

Nodding, Riku brought the remaining graham cracker closer to his mouth. "Their last album was Glitterbug." He took a bite. "If you like them, you should try Years & Years."

From the way Roxas' shoulders stiffened, Riku knew he'd gotten him on that one. "They've been together for awhile and released an EP but their first album doesn't come out until July." As he offered the information in as neutral a way as possible, Riku saw Roxas subtly relax, listening intently as though filing away the knowledge for future reference. "They're a little more electronica than alternative but still worth a listen."

Roxas looked thoughtful. "So, like a band version of La Roux."

Riku inclined his head, agreeing. "They have a few slower songs they released as singles this spring. Try 'Eyes Shut' when you get a chance. Or 'Worship'."

"'Please to excuse." Next to Roxas, Hayner cleared his throat. He downed a long swig of beer, then eyed both classmates. "In case y'aren't aware, I just thought you should know y'all're both complete freaks for knowing any of this nonsense."

Hayner was gifted with two middle fingers from Roxas, one of them splinted with sweaty off-colored medical tape, a smirk from Riku, and an outright laugh as Sora rocked back so far on the log Riku had to make a quick grab for his shoulders to keep him upright as his balance teetered.

A moment later, Riku found himself caught on the uneasy expression that passed over Roxas' face as his sharp blue eyes directed themselves to Sora. It was unconscious and brief, but might have persisted longer if not for the sudden presence of a new interruption.

"Hey, losers."

Seifer's voice took a moment to place, but when he was able to, it was Riku's turn to tense. He glanced up, forcing his shoulders down and chest out, as he tried to keep his expression as impassive as he could manage.

Seifer wasn't looking at him though, nor was any member of his posse, which included two girls and a trio of senior boys Riku didn't recognize. While most members of his group had some form of sneer on their faces, the girl standing closest to Seifer looked almost nervous, her eyes darting from Roxas to Pence, then over to Riku in a quick, nervy sequence.

If Riku had expected Roxas to belt out a snarky response akin to the likes of yesterday, he was well off the mark. Roxas merely looked up and raised a hand in a hint of a wave. The gesture was dismissive but not even remotely confrontational. Seifer's gaze moved from Roxas to Riku, then past him, over his shoulder to Sora.

"You sure know how to pick 'em, dont'cha?" The statement was spoken in a snide tone, but felt like a tame response, even in Riku's estimation.

Despite the relatively harmless exchange, Riku remained on edge, remembering Seifer's words from the past two days and the acknowledgement that it had been him who'd been responsible for the number done to Roxas' hand. Unconsciously, Riku shifted forward, partially shielding Sora, his stance understated but inarguably protective in nature.

Seifer didn't press the matter, and Riku had just enough time to make note of a pair of tense looks passed between the girl and Hayner before his meathead of a classmate moved on, the others in his group following wordlessly behind him.

Watching their departure, still feeling perplexed as to why the encounter hadn't escalated into something physical, Riku's eyes fell on a triad of girls approaching, Kairi in the lead with Selphie trailing closely behind, both with food loaded up on paper plates in their arms. Hands empty save for the over-sized fabric bag pressed against her body and the black coat draped over one forearm, Xion was far behind the other girls and walking so slowly that Riku couldn't tell if she was part of their group or simply making her gradual way over to them solo.

Selphie paused in front of Seifer's group, presenting her plate to let them take their pick of the most recent batch of cooked food, while Kairi continued on over to them. She extended the plates she was carrying as well, expertly balancing both on upturned palms.

"Which of y'all wants a burger, now?"

For the next few minutes, the boys who'd recently joined them kept busy claiming the food Tidus and Wakka had cooked. Beers drained and Roxas down a beverage to begin with, they soon rose and headed over to the cooler to retrieve drinks, Xion altering the trajectory of her movement to follow them as they passed her. Riku looked on, still nibbling at his own makeshift dinner. Eventually, he turned to Sora.

"Didn't you want to eat something else besides graham crackers?"

Shoving his hand back into the box that hadn't yet left his lap and emerging with yet another honey graham, Sora shook his head. He raised the square out in front of them both. "Solidarity!"

Glancing at Riku with a grin, he placed the cracker half in his mouth, then spoke out of the other side of it. "Plus, I'm not super hungry at the present moment anyway."

Taking in Sora's thin frame and unable to keep himself from silently wondering, Riku looked back, not quite capable of matching the effortless exuberance in his classmate's smile. "Ah."

With the sun now completely set almost fittingly upon Seifer's arrival, the fire served as the sole means of seeing their surroundings, and Riku was beginning to understand what Sora had meant about the need for layered clothing. In this way, the evening-induced chill wasn't that different from San Francisco, where toting along a jacket was almost a necessity on every outing, given the city's varied microclimates.

It was Sora who started shivering first. Without a moment's hesitation, Riku reached for the hoodie beside him. "Here." He held it out in front of Sora.

With a slight shake of his head, Sora tried to decline. "Oh, it's okay. The wind just caught me by surprise."

Riku's eyes traveled the bare skin of Sora's arms, noting the goosebumps that had formed just moments before with a subtle raise of his brows. "Come on. It might as well get some use since I brought it all the way out here, and I'm not cold."

Sora hesitated, eyeing the Cal sweatshirt as though considering his offer. With a slight nod, he finally conceded, then reached out to take it. He slipped it over his head, then pulled his arms through the sleeves and pushed himself to standing so he could smooth it down his upper body. The hoodie was a size too large for him, reaching mid-thigh, the sleeves needing to be bunched up at his forearms to keep them from reaching past his hands entirely.

Looking at Riku, then back down at himself, Sora's face flushed a subtle shade warmer than his natural coloring, perhaps in silent acknowledgement of how much Riku's clothing dwarfed his already modest frame. "Thanks."

Roxas appeared behind him, a plate of food and soda in hand, with Xion and her own food a few steps further back. He took in Sora and his newly acquired attire without a word, before settling himself back onto the log where he'd been sitting before.

Hearing a whoop from the fire pit, all four of them turned, just in time to see Selphie reaching for the stereo and changing up the iPod playlist. The resulting music originated with a twang that rose in an off-putting crescendo as she further increased the volume.

Well, I went down to the Grundy County Auction, where I saw something I just had have…

"Oh my gosh, this song." Remaining standing, Sora's eyes practically danced as they moved from Selphie in the distance back to Riku still seated in front of him. "I haven't heard it in forever!"

"Fuck's sake," Roxas muttered, shooting a beleaguered look Riku's way. "Here we go. Prepare yourself." Xion merely smiled a rueful smile and settled herself next to Roxas, her body moving subtly in time with the plucky music.

Yeah, I've never seen anyone lookin' so fine, man I gotta have her, she's a one of a kind.

It was Sora and Selphie who started belting out the lyrics to the most stereotypically country chorus Riku'd ever had the misfortune of hearing. With wordless incredulity, he watched as Kairi joined them, the strap of her overalls swinging as she skipped up to Sora and acted out the role of a woman up for sale on an auction block.

Off in the distance a few others were watching with light amusement; some were even cheering the trio's antics. Others still mouthed the words to a song Riku had literally never heard before.

Just as the song petered out, it looped back to the start, thanks to Wakka crouched at the stereo. He offered up a saucy grin and gave their group two thumbs up before sprinting over to join them. He made a grab for Selphie, both hands clasping her waist, then swung her up and around in a loose circle in tandem with her delighted peals of laughter.

As Sora turned away from Kairi momentarily and pointed at Xion, mouthing the next string of lyrics with a goofy grin, Roxas stood up.

I'm goin' once, goin' twice, I'm sold to the lady in the long black dress. Well, she won my heart, it was no contest.

"Right, I can't take it anymore. Fuck this literal noise." Looking nothing short of mentally pained, Roxas abandoned his half-eaten burger and a vaguely smiling Xion before padding off in the direction opposite the fire pit. As Sora laughed and danced in awkward motions along with the most sincere, smiling version of Kairi that Riku had thus far been privileged to lay eyes on, Roxas disappeared into the cover of trees behind their seats.

The song ceded to something more subdued but no less country, and the group slowed their movements, Riku watching the rise and fall of Sora's chest as he paused to catch his breath and looked back over at him.

"You've seriously never heard that song before? It's a classic."

His amusement was probably obvious, but Riku couldn't say he minded. "Seriously never," he confirmed. "I'm guessing you weren't familiar with most of the bands Roxas and I were talking about either though."

Abandoning the other country music revelers as he made his way back over to Riku, Sora rolled his eyes in near perfect mimicry of his brother before taking the seat next to Xion that Roxas had just vacated. "That's different. You two are a phone book full of hipster stereotypes."

Comment catching him completely off-guard, Riku's mouth opened, but no sound came out.

"It's true." Xion nodded, glancing between the two boys before she herself stood, swaying in an ambiguous rhythm to the currently playing song. She crouched to retrieve Roxas' discards, then left on her way to the plastic bag that had been designated the garbage repository for the evening. Riku watched as Xion passed Kairi who was in the active process of making her way over in their direction. Sitting down by Sora on the log across from him, Kairi turned and planted an affectionate kiss on Sora's cheek, then raised a hand up to ruffle his already hopelessly mussed hair.

Across the clearing, Riku could see fleeting flashes of smaller lighters, followed by the lazy curl of smoke trails. With occasional breezes still traversing the open space with lax persistency, it didn't take long for the sweetly acrid smell of pot smoke to drift over to them.

Although he hadn't smoked anything tonight, the scent was in many ways reminiscent of home for Riku, of the Haight District with its myriad herbal dispensaries, even of Kadaj and his other friends, their idle smiles stark in his memory after a few hours of deeply inhaled hits on lazy afternoons in Golden Gate Park.

"Y'all two are something else." Kairi's words drew his attention back to the two people across from him.

Riku turned to face her with a look hinting at mock offense. "Hey now. What did I do?"

With a laugh that sounded more genuine than anything he'd yet heard from her, Kairi regarded both of her classmates in tandem. "It's not what you've already done, just what you're probably gonna, knowin' clueless you."

The look of patent confusion that flashed across his face wasn't lost on either Kairi or Sora. They both eyed him, then glanced at each other before dissolving into a slap-happy fit of snickering laughter.

By the time they'd managed to compose themselves, even Riku had a small smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. It came along with an oddly warm but as yet unfamiliar sensation in the deepest part of his chest. Some, he figured, might refer to it as the feeling of belonging.

Okay, he thought, so this wasn't San Francisco and these weren't the friends he'd grown up with. This was something else new entirely. For now, Riku was increasingly willing to concede that, with Kairi and Sora and maybe even a few others, this whole setup might be more tolerable to get him through the next few months than he'd initially predicted.

Chapter Text


"There comes a time, in a short life
Turn it around, get a rewrite
Call it a dark, night of the soul
Ticking of clocks, gravity's pull."
"First" - Cold War Kids


He walked without purpose, with no sense of time or trajectory, unmindful of the sludge progressively collecting beneath the rubber ridges on the soles of his sneakers. It was possible he'd end up lost, but Roxas wasn't inclined to care about such hypothetical trivialities at the present moment.

He'd just needed to get some space between him and that smile, the bright expression that implied everything was fine when he knew it absolutely, unequivocally, wasn't.

The introduction of country music had been a prime opportunity to excuse himself. Even still, his brother's dancing antics, made even more comical by the new addition of an over-sized college logo sweatshirt, and the outright jubilance he'd exuded all evening in general had left Roxas mentally grappling for a logical explanation, for answers to questions he silently acknowledged might not've even been his right to pose in the first place.

How Sora could act carefree, so unencumbered, when there was so much weight on both of their shoulders, Roxas had never been able to figure. That being said, he wasn't predisposed to start mentally compiling every potential interpretation for the behavior at the moment. Or ever, probably, if he had any real say in the matter.

Olette's arrival had also been an uncomfortable reverberation through every nerve of his already frazzled senses, from Pence's seeming eagerness to coax interactions back to their normal, ante-Almasy-influence standards to Hayner's bristling tension in their mutual friend's presence. Personally, Roxas had no interest in becoming a middle-ground mediator, particularly with Seifer around. While he hadn't had a pre-set destination in mind as he'd vacated the clearing, he knew with absolute certainty where he didn't want to be anywhere near. Same for who around.

So, he'd left.

The darkness was near to absolute, a dense cover of forest above him concealing any remnants of dusk light that so much as considered making an appearance at this time of night. Soon enough, Roxas found himself reaching for his phone and relying on the default flashlight setting as he decided to forge a round-about path back toward the parking area. With the bayou's myriad pools of murky, brackish water as his sole form of enduring company, he continued to trudge away from the gathering without discernible regret.

He heard a soft rustle, the sound of an animal moving from one tree branch to another somewhere unspecified above him. Muscles tense, holding his breath, Roxas slowed and began to listen with a sense of foreboding expectancy.

He waited for the girl's lilting words to come to him again.

What floated his way instead was laughter in the distance, of classmates enjoying themselves and probably getting stoned off their asses in tandem. The ghosts, seemingly bent on trailing his every movement, in calling into question every single line of private thought, had never been inclined to make appearances when he was actually trying to anticipate them. They didn't appear now.

Shaking his head, he looked down. His resounding opinion about his classmates' recreational drug use silent but condemnatory, Roxas failed to note the considerable irony in thoughts that could just as easily be applied to him and his frequent use of pills prescribed to others.

Just the same, thoughts of the fluttering apparition induced a sensation of disquiet that was quick to settle deep-down in his gut. When he turned to continue along the path he'd already set for himself, Roxas did so without nearly as much of the careful observation he'd exercised at the outset.

It took just one wrong step and he was up to one shin in a sludgy hollow of clay and water. Swearing under his breath, just barely managing to keep hold of his phone in the middle of a quick balance check, he jerked his leg up and out of the divot, noting his newly clay-caked appendage with the narrowed slits of his eyes.

Awesome. Fucking fantastic.

He shook the residual water from his leg, dragging the bottom of his shoe against the ground in an attempt to dislodge a bit of the muck while he considered his chances of getting some form of flesh-eating infection across every inch of skin that'd just been submerged. Really, though. What a fitting anticlimax to a resoundingly shitty week — and life, too, while he was in the frame of mind to make wild over-generalizations.

More rustling of underbrush piqued his auditory attention, this time at ground level.

Leg raised mid-shake a few inches above the soil, Roxas froze. When both feet were firmly in place beneath him once more, he aimed the beam of his phone's light in the direction he'd first heard the noise. Still in relatively close proximity to the classmate gathering, he didn't anticipate encountering an animal large enough to pose a threat to his physical wellbeing. Just the same, it was a dogged sound, rising in steady advancement, and it irritated senses that were already set well on edge.

At least it didn't sound like a bird. Small miracles, he supposed.

The churning of forest underbrush continued, becoming ever more evident as he heard the padding feet of someone's impending arrival. A moment's pause, and the figure emerged from behind a cluster of trees, features shrouded in shadows, care of a dark hooded coat that spilled over to conceal the newcomer's entire forehead even in the face of his carefully directed beam of light.

Roxas watched, body still, as the person approached, then stopped a handful of generous paces in front of him. The figure's movements were familiar, the hint of a crepuscular smile beneath pools of shadow inherently recognizable to him.

He cocked his head, frowning a little. "You followed me."

Pulling the hood back and letting it settle into a fabric cowl at the back of her neck, Xion tilted her chin upward to meet his gaze, before offering a shrug to complement her equally succinct explanation. "I got bored."

How very much like Xion, Roxas thought. Then again, he could hardly blame her. These meet-ups weren't exactly the stuff of high school movie classics when it came to encompassing any real form of memorable antics.

"Where are you heading?"

Shoving his free hand into the pocket of his cut-off shorts, unmindful of the way the medical tape slid against the sweat of his swollen finger, Roxas shrugged and looked down. There was no point in explaining his thoughts about even something as mundane as directional trajectory when it wasn't particularly profound to begin with. He watched from beneath his lashes as Xion moved closer, her gaze traveling the whole of him from eyes, nose, mouth, then downward. She paused in motion and observation both as she saw the excess muck on one shoe, lit up by the phone that he'd lowered down to one blue jean-clad thigh.

"You're just making messes everywhere you go lately, boy." She offered a small smile adjunct to lightly teasing words.

Again, Roxas remained quiet, content to just watch as Xion twisted her upper body, reaching for the bag she'd been carrying behind her. She moved it forward, then pulled back the flap and began rummaging. Her hands emerged a beat later with a pair of foam-cut flip-flops, before she turned and made her way over to one of the few nearby trees that was rooted in firm earth rather than scummy marsh water.

When he didn't make any initial move to follow, Xion stopped and turned back to him. "Come here, will you?"

With a frustrated sound tickling the back of his throat, Roxas finally picked up his feet and began to slosh his way over to her, then passed off his phone into the upturned, waiting palm of her hand. Inclining her head toward his feet, she gave him a moment to slip out of his clay-soaked shoes before handing him the flip flops. Despite her penchant for over-sized attire, the new footwear was still a little small for him. Roxas curled the tips of his toes over the front edge of the sandals experimentally a few times while conceding to himself that this was still a marked improvement.

At least Xion wasn't one of those girly-girls who had to wear pink everything. The offered flip-flops were the same light blue as her Prius, which he found amenable, especially in light of what he'd likely have been subjected to if he'd been borrowing anything from Kairi or Selphie.

Xion reached for his dirty shoe discards with one hand, while pulling a beach towel out with the other. She made quick work in wrapping up the muddy mess, then stowed it in her bag.

Thank the lord for that girl and her over-large purses, Roxas supposed.

He probably should have offered Xion herself a form of thanks, but the only thing Roxas could find it in him to say at present was a curt, "You sure do come prepared for the inevitable."

By now, he was pretty sure she understood the underlying sentiment in whatever he ended up saying anyhow. It was no real secret that Xion's intuition was downright incomparable, and Roxas sometimes found himself wondering how much she'd guessed about his mental visitors made-visibly-tangible despite his enduring refusal to admit their existence to anyone other than Sora.

Ducking her head out from under the bag's long strap, Xion let it trail out of her grip and drop to the ground beside them. She pocketed his cell phone with the light still shining, then took a step closer. With arches rising up and away from her own flat sandals, she pressed herself against Roxas who, in turn, allowed the nearby tree to brace his back behind them.

He let her kiss him, let her press their chests flush together as her hands traveled downward, from his shoulders to the bottom trim on his t-shirt. There they remained for a beat before sliding under the thin fabric, then up along both sides of his body underneath his arms. Heat rose between them, making Roxas glad that the sun had already set and taken some of the day's oppressive humidity along with it. The chill of night was starting to set in, and Xion's fingers were cool against the natural heat of his own sensitive skin.

Moving away from his lips, Xion kissed a meandering path from his jawline to his neck, and Roxas' hands found a place to settle at the small of her back. The combined cover of her coat and long sundress made it difficult for him to access her own bare skin. For the time being, he was content with simply bunching the thin fabric of her handmade attire between his fingers and pulling her closer as the physical nature of their moment together intensified by exponentials.

Her actions were gentle, almost unsure, but by now Roxas was familiar with the careful way Xion approached intimacy and he let her set the pace, tilting his head to give her better access to the curve of his neck where shoulder met throat. Not for the first time, he suppressed the urge to press his hips forward, to grind them needfully against hers.

She paused, fingers fluttering in a tickling way along his stomach just above his navel before moving lower with a slow deliberateness that induced pulsing waves of heat in his chest, radiating outward in hot static prickles.

"Everyone was getting baked by the time I left," she said, her voice low. "No one'll be in a state to wander this way for awhile still."

The words were veiled in a conversational tone, but her fingers had curled over the edge of his cut-offs in a manner that left no room for wondering at their meaning. Roxas breathed deeply, trying to exert some semblance of control over the arousal fast forming in more than one part of his body. The muscles in his stomach tightened in response, then released as he answered her in an exhaled tone he was careful to ensure remained level.

"I don't have a condom." He tried to meet her eyes but could only see a dark sheen of hair and clothes from his current vantage point of looking down at her.

Xion's position didn't change, her fingers flexing experimentally just above a sharp protrusion of hipbones. "It's fine." Her voice was airy and breathless at the same time. "I don't mind."

That made one of them.

Rounding his shoulders, he drew his hands from their place at the small of her back to Xion's arms, separating her from him just enough so that he could finally see her straight-on.

"Pretty sure it's already been established that neither of us wants babies, beautiful or otherwise."

She looked at him as if considering the comment, eyes reflecting darkly in the dim light still emitting through black fabric from the phone in her pocket.

"True," she murmured, not looking particularly disappointed by the realization. Her hands reached for the top of his shorts again anyway, a thumb and index finger slowly working the metallic button loose while the other trailed lower. Its sinuous journey came to a halt between his legs, then began a slow, encouraging massage of the already stiffening flesh beneath the starchy material of his cut-offs.

He felt the drag of his zipper as Xion continued down a path he already thought he'd been clear neither of them should logically be pursuing.

"Xi—" His voice cracked, face irritatingly flush with color, abdominals tightening as she slid his pants and boxers downward in one smooth motion. Her movement was just as fluid as she lowered herself to her knees in front of him.

"I want to." She exhaled against his exposed skin, then looked up while Roxas forced down the urge to shiver at the dueling sensations induced by chill air and the heat of his growing arousal. "You don't have a condom," she repeated his words, tone equitable, "so let me do this instead."

The myriad protests swirling between his ears died down, and Roxas found himself assenting with a jerky hitch of his hips as he felt another release of warm, teasing air against sensitive skin now spread taut in front of her.

This was not his finest moment, no doubt about it. But after the week he'd been having and the simple fact that his body was taking over the work shift his mind usually supervised, Roxas wasn't in an ideal position to argue with his own self-doubt at present.

Her mouth was warm, suctioning, moist. Xion's tongue was intermittent in making its presence known, but firm and consistent each time it did. Suddenly, Roxas was biting the inside of his cheek in an attempt to catch the breathy sounds working their way with deliberate inevitability from the recesses of his throat. It was a challenge enough to keep his hips still when every physical instinct within him was telling him to thrust.

Under her persistent ministrations, he came with a shudder and the quiet sound of a moan half-stifled, knees knocking together, almost buckling, as she moved away. Pressing the back of her hand to her mouth to cover the subtle puckering of her lips, Xion looked up at him, then gave Roxas a little space. Shakily, still breathing hard, he settled on the ground next to her, tugging his shorts back in place up over his hips but not bothering to zip closed his cut-offs for the time being. Xion leaned against him and Roxas, in turn, pressed the length of his spine against the tree trunk behind them. They remained there together without speaking for a prolonged moment, the rise and fall of Xion's chest measured, his breathing quicker, the result of a speeding heart rate that was only just starting to subside.

He looked down at her, again seeing only the dark crown of her head illuminated by the dim, muffled glow of his iPhone's flashlight.

"Did you want me to…?"

He trailed off, not so much shy about giving a name to his reciprocative offer as he was too breathless to finish the question without a second inhalation. One arm wrapped around the exiguous span of her shoulders, his fingers flexed unconsciously as Roxas imagined her distinct, female scent and the taste of her lingering on his lips from past encounters. He could almost feel the uneven ridges of tender skin on her inner thighs against his own exploratory fingers, so similar in texture to what his own arms bore beneath slide-on sleeves. It was simply the means and justifications that differed between them, and gender, possibly, he figured. Nothing more.

She shook her head, hair a delayed sway behind the original sentiment. "Not now. Next time, maybe."

Her words were clipped, and Roxas took a moment to consider whether letting her go down on him had been the best idea under the known circumstances. There wasn't much he could do about it now, but her tone was ruminative, distant, and it put him on edge because he understood the dark place it originated. He also recognized the sentiment behind words unspoken, even knew what promised to follow if she was left to her own devices.

Disentangling himself from her, then zipping his pants, Roxas stood to allow himself to get a better look at her from an appropriate distance. Xion remained seated, the weight of one side of her upper body pressed against the tree he'd just abandoned, legs curled underneath the skirt of a dress that flowed outward from her slender waist. It spread around her like a pool of silky obsidian, near about the same shade as her hair, which fell around her face and in front of her head, now inclined, eyes downcast.

If that had been all, Roxas might not've given it a second thought, but the light from his phone cast a ghostly pallor over the exposed skin of her chin and throat, and this was what made him pause. This was what made him begin imagining someone else entirely.

The position. Her hair. They looked so much like…

"Mo byen ba."

He hadn't realized he'd actually uttered the words, low and nasal, until Xion looked up. Tucking a strand of hair behind one ear, she nodded, as if in empathetic acknowledgement.

"Toulédé de nou."

Roxas looked at her blankly, the words no more comprehensible than the ones he'd just spoken. She returned his gaze levelly, expectantly, as if waiting for him to expand upon the initial declaration, eyes still hinting at the remnants of vacancy that had been clear in them ever since he'd dropped down beneath the tree beside her.

I'm sick, mokin frèr.

Eyes still on Xion, Roxas swallowed. He clenched his teeth until his jaw ached and his throat half-closed, then offered himself internal reassurance that the two of them were here alone.

He didn't want to deal with this now, didn't want to ponder it. Not with Xion, not with anyone.

Without a word, Roxas slipped his hand into the pocket of his shorts, until his fingers curled around the baggy Xion had gifted him a few days earlier. He broke the ziplock seal with a penetrating finger, then pulled out one of the small few pills that remained in its plastic confines.

Eyes traveling away from Xion, they fixed on the belongings she had brought along with her.

"Got some water in that Big Foot bag of yours?"

Xion's lips thinned. It was a quiet display of disapproval, Roxas supposed. He ignored it, raising his brows as he awaited the anticipated response.

Sighing as she glanced between the bag and him, Xion finally replied with a question of her own. "How many have you had today already?"

Not enough, Roxas thought.

"This is my first," was the lie he answered with.

He raised his hand, palm up, and fluttered his fingers in a beckoning motion, expression expectant, then watched as she pushed herself onto her knees and reached for her bag. Rummaging for an extended moment, Xion ultimately emerged with a small plastic bottle of filtered water.

As it exchanged hands, Xion pulled Roxas' phone out of the pocket of her coat. Their surroundings flooded with an over-bright beam of directed light, a searing sensation sending an ache through Roxas' eyes and into his temples. He averted his gaze, refocusing on the pill in his palm and the drink in his other hand. He downed both quickly, then retrieved his phone from Xion, decreasing the light's setting before it gave them both the dual gift of migraines and permanent retinal damage.

"I'm heading back to the parking area," he said. While she nodded, Xion didn't make a move to stand, not even after he took a few steps away from her.

"You coming?"

She shook her head, still looking subtly unsettled. "I need a moment. I'll catch up in a bit."

Mo byen ba. Bokou malad.

When it came down to it, Roxas mused as he continued to eye Xion, weren't they all a little sick, even if the origin itself was vastly different?

It sure as hell felt like it from where he was standing.

Done scrutinizing the girl in front of him, Roxas ultimately shrugged, then prepared to take off. Maybe he should've insisted they talk about the underlying reason for her current mood, possibly force the explanation out of her as needed so he had a better handle on just what she was going through.

It wasn't that Roxas didn't want to know; it wasn't that he was indifferent or didn't feel like trying to help. He simply didn't want to have to turn around and extend the expected courtesy of talking about himself, something he innately knew Xion would insist upon in exchange for her own willingness to open up.

So, with familiar but mostly unintelligible words still ringing in his ears and a heavy feeling settling into an unreachable place between his spine and the cage of his ribs, Roxas turned and began the trek back toward the truck he'd borrowed from his older brother without her.

o - o

The parking area was a ghost town of American model cars by the time Roxas arrived. It was illuminated by the gunmetal-grey of a full moon obscured by the film of hazy clouds above it. At first, he traveled in between their clay-caked, oxidized exteriors without so much as a particular aim even to locate Cloud's ride among them. The remainder of his journey out of the forest had been peaceful, the wind subsiding enough that all he could hear was the echoing of his own flip-flop footfalls against the soggy forest floor and the rapid-fire exchange of the internal voices he'd long ago decided were caricature manifestations of his stream-of-conscious thoughts.

It certainly didn't hurt that the pill was starting to work its effective influence over his senses. Nothing hurt at this juncture in the self-medication process, in fact, and this was the state in which Roxas preferred to remain when he wanted not to think about anything in particular. That included a smiling Sora, sex with Xion, and an indie band naming pissing contest with an outsider who didn't belong here to begin with, just off the top of his head.

Walking up and around each vehicle in tandem, Roxas passed by trucks that all shared similar traits — American-made, often rusted out, and at least a decade old.

Except Seifer's.

Out of all of the vehicles, his was easiest to spot. It was recently washed, relatively new, and souped up with a load of additional-cost features Roxas personally couldn't be arsed to give two shits about. He also wouldn't have been able to list them off with even an ounce of verbal acuity if ordered to do so at gunpoint. Automobiles had never been his compulsive fixation; it'd always been music. Given how closely that new model eyesore was parked to his own Cloud-loaned vehicle, however, even Roxas could see the stark differences between the two modes of transport.

He approached the flatbed, intent on climbing in and grasping onto a moment of peaceful quiet while waiting for the others to make the return trip as the party wound down. What he got instead was a flash of movement from the cargo area and the smell of smoke working its way into his nostrils on the heels of another light breeze.

The fluttering came after, so subtle that Roxas at first believed he was imagining it, much like the girl's words from earlier. When it came again, this time with more audible potency, he was less able to convince himself that he'd gotten off scot-free this evening.

Unbidden, Xion's soulfully spoken sentiments returned to him, and Roxas repeated the five syllables in his head, still not wholly clear on their meaning. He knew a handful of words in the bayou's tongue, much like most of his peers, but they generally amounted to insults, curse words he'd picked up from older family members, his father in particular. Considering how they were usually followed by rants in English just about as incoherent, and sometimes physical violence aimed at anyone within reach to supplement, he hadn't been in a position to commit much vocabulary to long-term memory, even when his father was still living at home.

A low whistle set his teeth on edge. It was followed by the sound of someone hopping down from the flatbed's back-end.

"I see Cloud's letting you drive his truck now." The voice was good-natured, just vaguely familiar. Despite a near to full moon, the newcomer's features remained momentarily obscured, his dark hair and pale skin the only initial identifiers that Roxas could make out.

"Never thought I'd live to see the day." The voice carried, increasing in volume incrementally as he moved closer to Roxas. "I remember a time when he used to be a helluva lot more possessive about what he considered his."

At first, Roxas simply stared. Clad in the pea green of Army fatigues, blue eyes near to glowing in the dim moonlight, the young man was offering a friendly smile, he could see that now.

Roxas just couldn't find it in himself to return it.

Seeing the impassive expression, the newcomer's smile leveled out. "You remember me, right?" His voice held a note of newfound uncertainty. "Didn't think I'd been gone that long…"

"Zack Fair," Roxas supplied; the words were spoken slowly, like he was trying to bring the name up from the depths of his memory. "I remember you, yeah."

He blinked once, then again, trying to stave off the encroaching lethargy that was threatening to completely sink his side of the ship in their budding conversation. With a mind working at half its usual pace, Roxas silently acknowledged the part he'd played in his own current verbal dispassion. Just the same, something uncomfortable was working its way through his limbs the longer he looked at Zack, electric pinpricks from the sides of his face into each air-chilled, goose-pimpled appendage. "You look …young, I guess."

Dark hair shook as Roxas was treated to a quiet laugh. "And you look like you've seen a ghost."

Oh, he didn't know the fucking half of it lately.

Roxas shifted his weight between both flip-flop-clad feet before sorting his thoughts into something that would pass for a coherent, relevant line of inquiry. "You on leave or something?"

The question was asked doubtfully, like he was already half-convinced he knew the answer.

Zack's eyes could've given Sora's a run for their money regarding glowing intensity. They fixed themselves on Roxas, rooting him to the ground, flip-flops and all. "Or something," he echoed, a small smile still upturning the corners of his mouth, arms crossed and leaning back slightly like he found the entire exchange amusing.

Roxas was not feeling even an iota of entertained. Annoyed, maybe. Mentally unsteady? Yeah, definitely.

He also wasn't in the mood to play guessing games.

"Did Aerith come back too, then?" He crossed his arms in mimicry of the other's stance and felt a savage sense of satisfaction when the newcomer's expression noticeably sobered. Zack may have been older, but he wasn't the only one here who knew how to jerk people around.

Turning away, Zack's eyes rose to regard the moon above them. But Roxas recognized the pained look he'd seen and it gave him a sick sense of pleasure, even if he knew it ultimately also made him a certifiable dick in the process.

"Sure got an attitude wrapped around you." Zack's words were murmured, still looking skyward. "Your mamma doesn't, so I'm gonna hazard a guess that gem-studded personality facet came from your father before he up and left."

A rush of fluttering met his ears, of feathers, and it took all of his willpower to resist the inclination to flinch. Zack remained turned away from him, outwardly oblivious to the mental anguish Roxas' taunting mind seemed so constantly bent on inflicting whenever it sensed emotional feebleness.

He shook his head in an attempt to clear it, still eyeing the back of Zack's neck and shoulders, but refused to address the comment. It had been underhanded to mention his dad, even if Roxas figured he probably deserved it for first bringing up Aerith.

"Cloud still working that dead-end job?"

Again, no response from Roxas. This time, Zack looked back, expression arch, knowing. "Right. 'Course he is. He could've been a real great soldier, you know."

Roxas knew. He just had no inclination to follow this line of conversation to its ultimate endpoint. There were a lot of things he was at fault for and this was yet another, even if the part he'd played was the mere inadvertency of being a baby brother lacking any real father figure at the time Cloud was about to graduate high school.

His eyes wandered up, following the path Zack's had taken only a few minutes prior. A thin trail of smoke rose through the trees, a visual illustration of the ashy smell he'd perceived earlier. "Is something on fire?"

Zack shrugged. "Does it matter this close to the marsh? Everything around us is wet."

Roxas supposed he was right.

And yet…

He took a step forward, then brushed past Zack, the incessant fluttering subsiding but still persisting at the peripherals of his auditory senses. His eyes remained fixed on the ghostly tendril of smoke rising up beyond the forested tree cover. It pulled at him, and Roxas considered it a sensory hub that offered mere minor reprieve from the sounds still subtly assaulting his tympanic membranes.

Mind made up, he began to walk toward the trees, vaguely aware of the sound of army boots padding along a few feet behind him. For the time being, Roxas ignored the military man tailing him as he made his way around the final parked truck and plotted a path over toward the dense patch of trees.

The whistling resumed as Zack followed along behind him, and Roxas' expression dropped into an irritable scowl, a visual representation of his displeasure at the sound's recommencement.

"Y'know," Zack said, increasing his gait until he pulled up along one side of Roxas, "if this were Afghanistan, we'd probably be walking straight into an ambush or lure of some sort."

Considering that life already felt like one mental ambush after another, Roxas really couldn't say that Zack's words had much of a resounding impact on his decision to continue forward.

"Guess it's a good thing it ain't then." His response was cutting. Terse.

They entered the forest in the direction opposite of the Usual Spot, Roxas noting that the ground on this side of the woods was firmer. It was also closer to the road, with more likelihood of state patrollers passing by during nighttime rounds. This was probably why none of his classmates had ever suggested it as a gathering place, but Roxas had never had enough interest to bother considering the reasoning further.

He slipped into the cover of the outlying trees, picking his way through them, unmindful of the branches that scratched at the sides of his face, that snagged at the edges of his arm sleeves. Behind him, in place of Zack's clomping boots, Roxas heard the rustling of leaves. It sounded distinctly like wings, like a bird scuttling across the forest floor, perhaps injured and slow but holding its own in steady pursuit behind him.

Of all the evenings to run into a former town resident, Roxas thought. Then again, if he'd gotten his say, Roxas wouldn't have even made the trip out here in the first place. That'd been all Sora.

And, okay fine, a little bit of Xion.

By now, he was pretty comfortable in the realization that the girl wasn't going to make her presence overtly known at this time. She never did when others were present, save for Sora, but that was different. He supposed he should be grateful for Zack's presence, but Roxas wasn't one to express gratitude, especially not with someone who'd opted to defect from Radiant Hollow, even if it was under the guise of American patriotism.

Crackling sounds of kindling branches newly introduced to a youthful fire soon overtook the amorphous whisperings between his ears. Spotting a dim flicker of red-orange ahead in the distance, Roxas made a beeline toward it until he arrived at another small clearing. He paused at the final tall trees ringing its border, eyes squinting to see beyond the jumping flames and the smoke the fire was emitting in fitful plumes.

By his side, Zack stopped too, and Roxas was suddenly aware of the obvious height difference between the both of them. It did nothing to quell the irritation forming in his chest and rising up out of him, promising a sure verbal departure from his throat if he wasn't a right kind of mindful.

The fire was contained, at least to an extent. A scattering of rocks and one haphazard mound of raised clay encircled most of the blaze, and Roxas made the quick mental assessment that it wasn't an immediate threat. The smoke was thick and rising in billowing plumes into the yawning mouth of an ashen sky. His eyes followed it upward, then down again. It took him a few seconds more to realize it was originating from two sources.

If he directed his eyes to the space just slightly to the right and behind the crackling blaze, Roxas could make out the smaller trail of smoke, rising in a lazy, spiraling corkscrew from a human mouth that, in turn, was attached to a body lying prone on a tree log, just like the ones set up at the Usual Spot.

"…the hell?"

The words were muttered, his eyes narrowing as he turned back to Zack. "Is this some kind of joke? You could've just told me you'd come with others before I traipsed all the way out here."

Zack glanced at Roxas, then back to the figure smoking in repose no more than thirty feet away from them.

"I came alone," he said with a shrug. "And I'm considering leaving much the same if you keep on runnin' your mouth with such rampant profanities."

"Then fucking go." Roxas looked away from him, back into the clearing, and let the hissed triumvirate of words linger. Zack's presence was grating and he hadn't invited him along on this exploratory mission anyhow.

"Suit yourself." Leaves shifted and twigs snapped as Zack twisted on his heel. Although he didn't turn to look, Roxas could almost imagine the nonchalant shrug that probably followed.

"Give Cloud my kindest regards." The words were sarcastic but Zack's tone remained smooth, as if he wasn't particularly bothered by the welcome home he'd received from Roxas — or resounding lack thereof, as it was.

"Give 'em yourself," Roxas shot back. People who didn't ruffle easily were the ones he found most exasperating.

Zack had already moved away, without a verbal response or physical indication he'd heard Roxas' parting remarks. Roxas listened to the sound of his footsteps fading down to imperceptible levels, aimed a scowl at where he'd last been sighted, then turned and took a step forward, making his way out into the clearing.

The lounging person didn't move, didn't so much as turn to regard the new arrival. Scanning the impressive mountain of cigarette butts, tempered with a scattering of pot blunts piled at the log's edge, Roxas wondered if the stranger's inattention was the result of being full-out under the influence.

As he approached, Roxas also noted that his initial observations about the fire's confinement had been a tad inaccurate. Some of the embers were flickering off and away from the main blaze, helicoptering past the makeshift fire pit's boundaries and out into nearby landing pads of grass and dirt. Some died out as soon as they settled, but others struck something they could actually ignite on. Roxas eyed the nearest flickering derivative, then took a small step forward and smothered the flame with the heel of one baby blue flip-flop.

The noise must have traveled the distance remaining between him and the stranger. Although there was no responding full-body motion, a face tilted toward him, identifying features catching only flecks of dim light, and Roxas found himself in the direct line of optical fire emitting out of a slitted, cat-like gaze.

In the guttered light of an orange-tinged blaze, Roxas found himself staring at a genderless countenance, angles sharp, almost alien. The eyes, open a mere sliver, flickered beryl green above two blocky apostrophes, typographical and inked, and speckling a complexion that was otherwise flawless, from what Roxas could see.

He'd never been in a position where he couldn't identify a person's gender from a cursory glance, and Roxas unwittingly found himself returning to the conversation with Xion yesterday as he continued his visual inquisition. The stranger's attire was dark, an asymmetrical leather shirt that revealed one pale, tattooed arm. Legs were thin and impossibly long, and even with a back still prostrate against the log and one knee bent skyward, Roxas could ascertain that this person was tall. Height alone implied male, but it also didn't default rule out female, if the long-limbed women in the Victoria's Secret catalogue Hayner'd pinched one day for both their twelve year old selves to gawk at was any visual indicator.

Brows rose in apparent inquiry, and Roxas found himself mentally floundering in augmented green as the stranger's eyes widened in a facial movement wholly ancillary of its eyebrow-cousin.

There were a lot of things Roxas was mindful that he didn't know much about. He couldn't explain why some pickup truck exterior add-ons were preferable to others, didn't know more than a handful of words in Louisiana Creole. Keeping straight the myriad rules of American football was yet another example he supposed outright indifference on his part was ultimately to thank for. In the same vein, Roxas didn't understand hereditary genetics well enough to posit why some twins were identical in personality and others polar opposites, and he'd never sussed out how Cloud could have a bare minimum of six inches on him at the age Roxas was now when they shared the same progenitors.

There were many things Roxas didn't know, and he'd accepted this patent ignorance with considerable humbleness over the years, for the most part.

What he couldn't accept now was not being able to identify a person's gender when this guy, or girl, or what-the-fuck-ever was lounging right the hell in front of him. Roxas was pretty sure he'd already established that he wasn't in the mood for bullshit of late, of any sort; as far as he was concerned, this full-out qualified in that regard.

With a pointed look down toward the smattering of pygmy fires at his feet, then back up to the log and its current occupant still lying prone and silent in front of him, Roxas finally and officially announced his presence — in a manner of speaking.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Silence followed the languid drag of a hand-rolled cigarette, the stranger's cheeks relocating themselves to their oral interiors until Roxas could see an overhang of a distinct facial bone structure, protruding and angular. It was exotic.

No, actually, to hell with that bullshit romanticization, it was grotesque.

Whatever the case, it was over in a matter of seconds as nicotine released in a billow of misty wreaths upon the succeeding exhale.

"Meditating."

The voice was deep, resonate, evocative in its enunciation. Roxas heard the word with clarity, but his brain processed the non-verbal elements of tone, cadence, and pitch to form its own conclusion, one that had nothing to do with word meaning or etymology.

This person was male.

From there, his senses took turns. Eyes processed hair, long and lurid red, pulled back tight, up high behind the crown of his head. Olfactory and taste teamed up, tightening Roxas' throat in outright protest of the cigarette smoke lingering in a subtle cloud around them both.

These senses, so often distinct, coalesced as one to form an opinion on the situation in which they currently found themselves. This was, in turn, made into something intelligible via his mouth.

"You smell like an ashtray."

Roxas was gifted with a casual glance as the man pressed up to a seated position, cat-eyes traveling the length of his body. He took in everything about the disheveled appearance Roxas was currently sporting, before his expression settled on mock-contemplative.

"Would you say that's better or worse than smelling like sex?"

The comment caught him off-guard and Roxas took a begrudging moment to stop and wonder why it was usually impossible to smell the makeup of your own physical constitution before deciding to change the subject.

His eyes returned to the myriad sparks of glittering embers littered around the larger, licking flames of the principal fire. "You're going to set this entire place ablaze if you're not careful."

A hint of a languid smile, the tilt of one sharp line of his chin, and the stranger spoke up again.

"One can hope."

The accent was different than his, but not wholly dissimilar. Words and cadence smooth, there was nothing immigrant in the way he was speaking. Just the same, it was an intimation of foreign, and the way the sentence as a whole was presented had Roxas pondering whether the comment aspired to encompass more than a few marshland trees in the ultimacy of its meaning.

While the words were fatalist, the speaker himself seemed calm, his demeanor wry. Now that he was seated upright, Roxas could also see that what he had initially assumed was an asymmetrical shirt was in reality a completely sleeveless leather vest with a black t-shirt underneath, capping the narrow swell of both shoulders. The dark shade of one arm wasn't a simple trick of shadowy light, then. In reality, the skin was completely filled in with tattoo ink, save for a few subtle lines that shone like the negative of a photograph.

It was unusual, off-putting. Brushing his own arm subtly against his side, Roxas wondered if a solid block of body art was the solution to the self-made blemishes on his own war-torn version of what passed for flesh these days.

There were many ways he could respond to the comment he'd just been offered, he figured, most of them sarcastic. After a few more seconds of scrutinizing silence, Roxas dismissed them all, instead angling for a different tactic — redirection.

"You're Kairi's cousin."

With a subtle inclination of forehead and chin, Roxas' hunch was confirmed, and he found himself grateful he'd managed to commit to memory at least an ounce of Sora's chattering explanation from a few days prior.

The next natural line of conversation would be an exchanging of names, Roxas knew, but that seemed too congenial given his opening inquiry, and he'd never been much for polite formalities anyway. Before he could summon another sarcastic remark, however, green and red and ink in the place of pale skin beat him to it and spoke again.

"Either your sandals are too small or your feet are too big. Care to resolve that minor discrepancy for the sake of my innocent curiosity?"

It was the first time he'd been offered anything beyond a succinct response to his own words, so of course Roxas took the opportunity to consider the melodic, tonal sound by looking dumbstruck down at his feet and becoming momentarily mute.

"They're not mine," he finally said, and despite his best efforts, his voice sounded defensive. Instead of letting the words linger, wary and declarative between them, Roxas supplemented. "I had a swamp mishap. It's liable to occur when everything's pitch dark."

"Seems like what occurred involved a little more than just swamp," came the volleyed return. It was a confident, milky drawl, face still unreadable as Roxas looked up and found himself rooted in place for the second time that evening. "Of course," the man continued, lifting the half-life remainder of white paper and ash back up to his lips. "It's just speculation on my end."

It was the epitome of irony that Xion chose this moment to appear at the edge of the clearing, Roxas only getting an initial sense of her presence via the redirected flicker of the green gaze before him. He performed a half turn, neck craning over one shoulder, and wordlessly watched as she approached on silent feet.

"Another piece of the puzzle falls into place." Roxas heard a light chuckle behind him but didn't deign to acknowledge it. The guy's voice felt somehow mocking, like the mere observation that he was a teenage boy and may have engaged in what teen boys so often did when they were involved in a high school relationship was something to be embarrassed about.

Unaware of Roxas' growing frustration, it was perhaps admirable that Xion took in his smoldering look with the level of calm she did. That girl deserved accolades for her willingness to put up with him, although Roxas would never admit to that publicly.

"Where's your bag?"

The question was posed more harshly than he'd intended, but Xion merely shrugged in the face of it, not outwardly concerned by its stridency.

"I dropped it off in the back of Cloud's truck." As she came to a stop in front of him, her gaze moved past, toward the clearing's other occupant.

"Cloud?" The man leaned slightly forward, eyeing Roxas closer. There was a decided implication to the word's presentation that Roxas didn't care to currently try to investigate. "I guess I can see it now. Speak of the devil."

Roxas could count on both hands how many other things he'd prefer to speak of before talking about either the devil or his brother. With a roll of his eyes, he turned so he could see both of the people he was standing between.

"He's Kairi's cousin," he said, by way of introduction.

"With that hair, I figured as much." Nodding, Xion looked toward the object of their current conversation. Her expression was lucid, clear, and Roxas found it in himself to feel a measure of relief at the realization that the quiet moment she'd requested in the forest earlier seemed to have done the trick and pulled her out of the grey space he'd seen her mentally headed toward.

With a light rustle of dry leaves beneath his feet, the man stood, arm extended past him. "Axel LaChappelle."

Without hesitation, Xion took it, and Roxas watched as they shared a brief handshake.

"Xion," she returned, the edges of her lips curving just enough to be polite.

While they exchanged names, Roxas was busy relinquishing lesser senses to make way for observation and surprise. He'd been right. This guy was tall. He just hadn't realized how accurate the observation had been until the man, this Axel, was standing, towering right next to him.

Without question, Cloud had nothing on this guy for height. Same with Zack.

Xion looked between the two of them. "You've already gotten yourselves acquainted, I take it?"

As Roxas shook his head, Axel did the inverse, offering a definitive nod, which elicited a scowl that didn't quite mask the light bewilderment that had crept into Roxas' expression.

"Yes, ma'am, I know who he is." The smile was a gradual rising of two thin lines one over the other that made apostrophes of ink change font sizes.

Roxas' eyes narrowed as he stole another glance at the human version of a red skyscraper beside him. Oh, he knew, did he? Just how in the fuck exactly?

Nothing is real, mokin frèr. How soon you forget.

This time the assertion was a tease, a whisper that caressed the back of his neck, a lover promising more with the exercise of just a little measured patience.

And then, deep, resonate, another three words, this time in Axel's voice.

My show now

Disconcerted, Roxas' shoulders jerked, and both people beside him turned to regard him. Eyes traveling upward, back to green and red, it took Roxas a moment to realize Axel hadn't actually said anything. They regarded each other for one second, then a handful more, his phone's buzzing notification ultimately providing a merciful excuse to look down.

He pulled out his phone, read over the directive in Hayner's message, then opened the app to his Facebook newfeed. "They're heading back to the parking area," Roxas said, voice directed at Xion. "We should probably get going."

With a nod, she and Axel turned together, and the dark shades of their respective outfits filled Roxas' peripheral vision, a yawning abyss of black nothingness on either side of his face. A moment later, Axel had stopped, looked back as if considering something. He finally moved toward the fire to begin the process of snuffing it out.

"Should we wait?" Xion's voice was quiet but it echoed in the sudden silence of Roxas' mind.

Part of him wanted to. Part of him wanted to talk with Kairi's cousin more, to see what additional oddball responses the guy would come up with to his own caustic remarks.

With an expression of practiced disinterest, Roxas shook his head.

"Nah. Let's just get going."

They turned together and entered the woods, Roxas' head down as he checked his Facebook notifications. A moment later, he snorted. "Aw, shit. It figures."

Xion looked over at him inquiringly, and he passed her the phone. As she skimmed the string of recently updated pictures, a small smile began to form. "Now, who do you think would've gone and done this?"

Thoughts returning to a particularly bouncy high school senior with a penchant for loud sounds and dancing to shitty country music, Roxas merely shook his head and stifled the rising smile as he continued leading the way back to the makeshift parking lot. "Three guesses, but the first two don't count and, spoiler alert, it was definitely Selphie."

Chapter Text


"I didn't ever want to come down
From the West Coast rush and summer high
Now I'm alone when I'm back home
It's cold and old
But in my mind
I am miles and miles away."
"Miles Away" - The Maine


Udon noodle soup wasn't exactly rocket science to make. Just the same, Riku had always held a mild concern for the enduring health of his digestive system whenever his mother was in charge of preparing dinner, no matter how simple. Tonight was no different.

His dad had arrived home about an hour ago, but he'd made a direct beeline to the spare room arranged as an office between the two upstairs bedrooms as soon as he'd crossed the entry foyer. Riku hadn't seen him since, which he took in stride. His father's perpetuation of the standard Kimura family routine back in San Francisco just made this new living situation feel a little more like home, ironically enough.

His mom's cooking, on the other hand…

As Riku rummaged through the refrigerator for the requisite ingredients, he stole a glance over at his mother who was standing at the edge of the room's built-in desk, iPad tablet in hand as she pulled up an online recipe, and couldn't help but feel that he'd entered an entirely different world. Yet again.

Back home, neither parent cooked; they either brought food home or called for take-out from their respective offices, with Riku usually following suit to procure meals on his own. There were also more new food delivery apps created by the influx of Silicon Valley's ever-present startup culture than Riku could realistically keep straight, which made his eating options nearly limitless, whether he was home, at a friend's house, or virtually anywhere in the city proper. It'd always been as simple using his parents' credit card information, ordering what he wanted, and indicating a drop-off address.

As an experiment, Riku had pulled out his phone and tried each of his go-to food delivery apps on his first day home alone. None of them offered service this far out, if they even boasted a presence in the state at all. Unsurprising, yeah. Disappointing, most definitely, particularly when he lacked the means to travel around the area without a parent willing to act as his own personal chauffeur.

Arms loaded full of fresh-bought ingredients, Riku straightened, nudging the refrigerator door shut with an elbow, then turned to his mother. "Where'd you manage to find pre-packaged udon?"

And medium-firm tofu, come to think.

His mom looked up, eyes on her son as he deposited the vac-sealed noodle package, a block of wrapped tofu, and various vegetables onto the kitchen counter. "There's a small market near the hospital," she said. "It's run by a Vietnamese couple."

Riku nodded but didn't respond as he tried to imagine another Asian family living within a fifty mile radius of this town. He was aware that the Gulf Coast once boasted a thriving Vietnamese fishing community. With the dual calamities of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, so many members of that ethnic group had given up the industry that had brought them to Louisiana and surrounding states in the first place. Years later, those who'd remained still struggled to make ends meet, which was where his father and the legal justice center he was working with came in, to an extent. It was also why the Kimura family had temporarily relocated so far from the West Coast to begin with.

He and his mother could have stayed in California while his dad fulfilled the requirements of his one-year legal fellowship. Instead, his mother had taken a temporary leave of absence from the surgical center in San Francisco to work as a visiting orthopedic specialist in a more rural environment. Regions like these offered ample opportunities to hone her own skills, she had explained to Riku when his parents had sat him down to tell him the news about their impending relocation. It also meant serving as a mentor, of taking medical residents under her wing and demonstrating her surgical methods, all things Riku knew his mother lived for as a healthcare professional.

Riku didn't know much about orthopedic surgery beyond the most superficial of information, just basic facts he'd been quizzed on since early adolescence; he did know his mother's skills had been lauded so highly after her own residency that she'd essentially had her pick of fellowship positions after passing the boards with flying colors. This was the path he too would be expected to take, after the successful completion of undergrad studies and acceptance into a high-ranking med school. If his mother was feeling particularly generous when she discussed her son's career trajectory, she'd make sure to inform him that she wasn't entirely invested in him studying orthopedics, if he happened to find a specialization that resonated more deeply with his evolving interests.

What benevolence.

Ingredients arranged and cutting board out, Riku looked at his mother and noticed that she'd swapped over to work emails and was currently scrolling down one that looked like a veritable novel.

"Did you find a good recipe?" His voice was quiet, respectful. This recent attempt at meaningful family togetherness, however tenuous, felt nothing short of foreign. It wasn't that he didn't know how to address adults in formal venues; over the years, he'd had plenty of practice. It was, quite simply, that he didn't know exactly how to act around his own parents, because sometimes they felt tantamount to strangers. Navigating parental conversations might not have been as strange as acclimating to Radiant Hollow and its quirky cadre of Southern stereotype residents, but it definitely gave second place a close run for its money.

"Oh." His mother looked away from the tablet, eyes traveling over the neatly arranged vegetables, before she looked down again and pulled up the browser tab where she'd saved the recipe. Eyes still down and focused on the glossy screen in front of her, she made her way over to Riku and set the tablet down on the counter between them. "This one seemed promising."

Without a word, Riku scanned the recipe. It seemed simple enough, although he wasn't any more of a self-professed cook than either of his parents. With a small nod, he looked at his mom. "If you can wash the vegetables and pass them to me, I'll cut them. We should also probably put some water on to boil."

Seeming amenable to that, his mom moved into place by the sink. For the next few minutes, mother and son worked cooperatively but in relative silence, and Riku's thoughts drifted back to Friday's party and the people who'd been present, to a sober but sardonic Roxas, to Kairi, then Wakka, Tidus, and Selphie all teetering between tipsy and drunk, and high-as-kites Hayner and Pence who'd also had more than their fair share of drinks.

Mostly, Riku thought about Sora.

The gathering had been more entertaining than he'd anticipated, and Riku was willing to acknowledge that Sora had been a large reason for it, Kairi as well, albeit to a lesser extent. Unlike Sora's easygoing, open-book personality, Kairi seemed more reserved, also more willing to call him out in a way he found cringeworthy, if he was being one hundred percent honest with himself.

Sora, on the other hand, couched every comment in a measure of positivity. Even while pointing out the social mistakes Riku was making left and right, Sora had yet to make him feel as if he was being judged for his ignorance about everything from local football teams to well-known Southern colloquialisms. Sora was friendly, smart, and articulate, with a quick wit and the requisite ability to turn Riku's insecurities on their face, or at least soften the emotional blow of embarrassment that social ignorance often brought along with it.

It also didn't hurt that he'd looked cute practically swimming in a particular West Coast prep school senior's over-sized sweatshirt.

Riku wasn't sure yet if acknowledging this final thought was good, bad, or just a mere irony of his current reality, although he had a hunch it fell somewhere closer to the latter. Something told him people in the South didn't take kindly to the type of crush he was fast developing, however benign and most likely unrequited it happened to be.

Especially people like Seifer Almasy.

It'd been little things, insignificant observations. The timbre of Sora's voice, not deep but still pleasingly resonate. The way his entire face lit up when he smiled. Eyes that seemed to communicate warmth and mutual understanding without him saying a single thing.

These were all personal qualities people noticed about others, particularly when getting to know someone. They were normal. And expected. The way Riku kept returning to them, the way he kept zoning out on a weekend spent almost exclusively home alone under the daydream influence of brown hair and blue eyes was, however, probably neither in the eyes of others in this town.

There'd been texting too, intermittent, throughout the weekend. Sora's first post-party message had arrived no more than five minutes after Riku had been dropped off, before he'd even made it through the rental's front door, still lingering outside and enjoying the cool night air. Now two days later, Riku had it next to memorized.

"I forgot to give you back your hoodie. Oh gosh, you've befriended a sweater klepto! (Kidding. I'm just an innocent dork. Kairi can vouch.) Want me to have Roxas turn around? He won't be happy, but that's a risk I'm willing to take to reunite you with your clothing."

He'd declined the offer, telling Sora he could return it at school on Monday. It was just fortuitous that no one had been downstairs when he'd finally abandoned the cool night breeze on the front porch in favor of the air conditioned entry foyer; Riku wasn't sure either parent would have recognized their son while he'd been sporting such a stupid-wide grin.

It was also in that split-instant moment that Riku got the first real inkling of just how utterly screwed he was going to be if these passing thoughts didn't dissipate, posthaste.

The only concern that lingered, that'd kept him wondering for the better part of the weekend, was Sora's physical health. It was increasingly becoming an issue that Riku returned to in an attempt to fixate on something other than his latent, budding attraction. It crept its way into every one of his weekend musings, however unrelated. While images of a Cal hoodie-sporting Sora singing and bouncing around with Kairi and Wakka and Selphie did occasionally surface in his mental wanderings, the logical side of Riku's thoughts kept retracing a path right back to Sora's much slower gait on the return journey to the parking area, to the way Roxas had needed to help him up, both arms straining, into the truck's passenger side seat when neither brother had thought anyone else was looking.

And blue eyes. Those eyes felt like they were engulfing him, inexplicably but in undeniable, steady progression.

Finished chopping the vegetables, Riku turned to his mother and spoke before he could reason his way out of asking a question that had been on his mind almost constantly since the party. "Can I ask you a medical question?"

His mom had already dried her hands on a kitchen towel and returned to scrolling through the unopened mail in her email's inbox, this time on her phone, by the time he posed his question. She paused, then looked up, brows raised, expression a silent grant of permission to continue.

It was at that precise moment when Riku realized he didn't actually know how to phrase his question. Raising his index finger to indicate that he would speak in a moment, he retrieved the packaged udon and moved past his mother to the pot of boiling water at the stove. Slicing open the stiff plastic packaging with a steak knife, Riku tilted it and let the thick noodles slide out of the new opening, into the pot in front of him, then returned his attention to his mother.

"What would you think if someone came to you about a problem with the coloring of their eyes?"

His mother's gaze returned to her phone. As her expression turned thoughtful, Riku noted the creaking sound of his father's weight on the stairs as he made his way down to the rental's main level.

"I would think they should set up an appointment with an ophthalmologist."

As his father appeared, he greeted his son and wife with an inclination of his head, and Riku took a moment to wonder if his mother had just tried to make a medical joke. He didn't know enough about her personal brand of humor to hazard a genuine guess in that regard but felt the inclination to roll his eyes anyway. Her response hadn't even come close to answering his question.

He watched as she waved off his father's offer to help prep dinner with a flutter of manicured fingers, before turning to retrieve a pan and coat it with a thin layer of olive oil himself. Placing it on one of the open burners, Riku twisted the gas knob to spark a small flame, then considered how to continue down the path of questioning he'd just started.

"What about the whites of someone's eyes? What if they were tinted a different color?"

This time his mom looked up, eyes fixing on the visible side of her son's face. She watched him lift the pan and angle it to better spread the oil across its Teflon-coated surface.

"The proper term is sclera, and it depends on the color," she said. "You should already know what yellow is most often indicative of…" His mother trailed off, voice expectant, eyes still aimed at her son.

"A liver condition," Riku intoned, the response automatic. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that his dad had taken a seat at the kitchen table. Much like his mother, he had started scrolling through what looked like work emails on the over-sized screen of his smartphone-tablet hybrid.

"What would it mean if the whites, the sclera," he was quick to amend, "what if they were blue?"

"That's not unusual to see in infants." His mother took a breath in. From the look on her face, Riku knew she was gearing up for a longer explanation. She had always been in her element when given the opportunity to share her vast breadth of medical knowledge. Usually, Riku found it tiresome to listen to her unasked for physician expositions. For once, his mother's eagerness to ply him with information most people didn't have the quote-unquote pleasure of trying to commit to memory until their first year of med school might actually be of use to him.

"The sclera can be thin after a child is born. It just means the darker underlying tissues in the eye are more easily visible and is something that usually disappears after a few months as the eye continues to develop."

"And if it presents in someone older," Riku prompted, "like a teenager — what does that mean?" His voice was quiet, breath stagnant in his lungs as he waited for his mom's response.

"Nothing good, generally." His mother was watching him closely now. "Why?"

Feeling suddenly put on the spot, Riku turned back to the counter. He reached for the cutting board where he'd left the chopped vegetables, then tilted the board over the pan. The legumes hissed as they made contact with hot oil, which sputtered in a way that was reminiscent of Friday night's fire after the addition of dry kindling.

"I was just curious," he said, glancing back over her. With one eyebrow raised, he knew she wasn't buying the 'knowledge for the sake of knowledge' explanation he was in the active process of trying to sell her.

Moving the pot of boiling water to a cold burner, Riku stifled a sigh as he began to stir the vegetables around the pan to ensure they cooked evenly. "I think I noticed it with someone at school," he finally offered.

"And is this someone confined to a wheelchair?" Although he couldn't see her from his current vantage point, her tone implied impending medical assessment for this mystery classmate in absentia.

He shook his head.

"They seem to walk around fine most of the time," he said, careful to keep his voice just as neutral as the pronouns he was using to describe Sora, "but I have seen them use crutches before."

From the kitchen table, his father set down his phone. "Is this any of your business to be asking about?"

Probably not, Riku thought. If it'd been anyone but Sora, he doubted he'd even have bothered to consider investigating it; he would have just been content to accept the realization as-is and focus on his own continued social issues, if he'd even noticed anything amiss at all.

"There's nothing wrong with curiosity," his mother countered. "He'll need it in spades during his formal medical education, so it's good that he's developing an inquisitive nature early on." At the table, his dad shrugged, uninterested in debating the matter further, then returned to scrolling on his phone.

Although Riku didn't speak, his shoulders tensed and an ache that reminded him of Thursday's gym class returned to his neck. He didn't have any evidence to support it, but he had a hunch he might end up being just as out of place in med school as he felt now as a transfer student at RHSHS. Except, unlike his five month stint in Radiant Hollow, med school was going to end up being a discomfort that promised to endure for years.

"Blue sclera are indicative of several disorders associated with joint elasticity and bone density," his mother offered. "Most have a genetic component and symptoms vary based on the specific condition."

Riku nodded but still didn't say anything as he drained water from the pot and transferred the noodles to a bowl. He considered what he knew about Sora and how this additional information might fit, thought back to Friday and Sora's physical agility, first in getting to the clearing where the party was held, then dancing with his friends later that evening.

Maybe he had this all wrong. It was possible he was reading too much into something that was completely minor. Or non-existent.

Maybe if he hadn't seen Sora with Kairi on Thursday after school, his mind would be content to abandon this entire set of questions and focus on something - literally anything - more productive.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

His mother joined him at the counter, eyes returning to the recipe still displayed on the tablet screen. "Did that answer your question?"

"Yes, thank you." Riku's voice remained quiet, murmured, his thoughts elsewhere. He figured he'd received enough information to be able to do more of his own research online later if he was still fixating on it. He also couldn't help but feel somewhat conflicted about having asked his mother in the first place, the worry still lingering that he was giving her tangible evidence of what was actually a complete lack of interest in the medical profession.

Seemingly satisfied, his mother moved to complete the final recipe instructions, and promptly changed the subject.

"Your father and I are going car shopping sometime this week, next weekend at the latest. The justice center approved a long-term rental for your father while he works closer to their offices, so you'll be able to use the second car until you head back home for the summer." She looked at him and offered a smile. "With luck, there'll only be a few more days of you having to adhere to my work schedule."

Translation: Only a few more days of commute-imposed conversation to and from school with his mother. Only a few more days until Riku was back to being self-sufficient, or what amounted to it in this type of rural setting where there was nothing beyond school to actually want to drive to anyway.

Riku moved to retrieve a trio of bowls and soup spoons from a nearby cabinet. "Did you want me to check with the school administration sometime this week about needing a parking permit?" As he posed the question, he set the bowls in a neat row on the counter close to the stove. He watched while his mother poured a serving of vegetables and noodles into each one before reaching for the broth she'd just prepared.

"Would you? You can just bring anything home that needs a signature or some form of payment and I'll handle it."

Grabbing two of the bowls, she made her way to the kitchen table and set one in front of his father. Following with his own bowl a few steps behind, Riku steeled himself for his first Kimura family sit-down meal in recent memory, thoughts already drifting back to Sora, to graham cracker dinners, terrible country music, and loaned out Cal sweatshirts — and most of all to wondering just how far gone he had to be with his current classmate-based fascination to find himself actually looking forward to returning to school the next morning.

o - o

Any underlying enthusiasm for the start of the school week was ultimately short-lived. Sora's desk was conspicuously empty throughout second period, and there was no sign of Roxas during the first half of the day. By the time Riku got to his locker to transfer the textbooks from his morning classes with those in his post-lunch periods, an uneasy feeling, the sense that something wasn't quite right, had already begun taking up residence in the pit of his stomach.

He'd sent out a text after second period, in what he hoped was interpreted as a teasing tone. Something about having too much fun at Friday's party, overdosing on graham crackers, and skipping out on school like the rebel everyone knew Sora secretly was.

By mid-day, he had yet to receive a response.

There were plenty of valid reasons why someone wouldn't be at school on a given day. Riku knew this. Most of them involved the standard illness fare, possibly a family emergency of some sort. The logical part of his thought process told him there was a good chance Sora had just gotten sick and was resting rather than keeping track of his incoming text messages. It was perfectly normal for something like this to happen once in awhile.

If Roxas had been present and accounted for, his concerns probably would've been allayed entirely from the outset. At the very least he could have found time to approach his fellow classmate and ask about Sora, however awkward that exchange might have ended up being given Roxas' penchant for unpredictable behavior and melodramatic theatrics.

But Roxas was nowhere to be found and Riku didn't have another class with Kairi after first period English until study hall at the end of the day. He'd even considered approaching Xion to ask about Roxas; he'd come up with that idea too late, however, and she'd already disappeared out of the final class the two of them shared before he had thought to ask, her presence non-existent by the time Riku himself had packed up and made his way out into the hallway. Short of inundating Sora with texts and risking coming off as freakishly clingy, Riku figured he was stuck just trying to get through the day, ignoring the remnants of muttered insults he occasionally still heard in between classes, and just generally trying to keep his head down until he could see if Kairi knew what was up with the Strife brothers' matching absences a few hours from now.

Textbook swap-out complete, Riku clicked the locker's paint-chipped metal door shut and turned — almost straight into a student who'd been standing only a few inches behind him. Suppressing a look of surprise, Riku stared at the girl. She was someone who seemed vaguely familiar, although he couldn't immediately place where he'd last seen her any more than he knew why she was currently standing in front of him.

She took a step back out of his personal space, but didn't retreat completely. Yeah, definitely here for him then, he surmised. For some unknown reason.

"Hi, Riku?" Her voice was tentative, his name pronounced with overt care. "That's your name, right?"

Wordlessly, he nodded as he took in medium-length brown hair, green eyes, a tasteful sleeveless shirt, and khaki colored capris, all matching, all fitting in a way that complimented her slender figure without coming off as cheap or overly revealing.

So, basically the opposite of what Kairi generally traipsed around campus wearing, Riku couldn't help but note.

"I'm Olette. It's nice to meet you." She offered a smile that seemed a little hesitant but otherwise genuine.

The name didn't ring a bell but Riku echoed the welcoming sentiment out of an ingrained sense of politeness anyway. He looked at her, waiting for her to continue, but she seemed just as much at a loss for words as Riku himself felt bewildered by having been approached in the first place.

"I was wondering—" Again, hesitation as she finally spoke up, only to stumble over the words she'd chosen to start with. A more determined expression crossed her features as she tried again. "You know Hayner, right? He was your new student guide last week, I think I remember hearing."

Riku nodded, his mind slowly working its way toward an answer as to the girl's identity.

Hayner. The campfire. Friday's gathering. Right. She'd been there...

...with Seifer.

Unable to help himself, Riku stole a quick glance around his surroundings to see if he could spot another member of Seifer's usual group nearby. Was this meant to be some sort of joke? Was that why she'd approached him, in an attempt to somehow embarrass him at Seifer's encouragement?

It'd been Hayner she'd referenced though, Riku reminded himself. Hayner who she seemed interested in talking about.

"He was, yeah," Riku said, taking care to keep his voice neutral. "He isn't anymore."

"Oh." Olette nodded, her lips curving down slightly at his answer, eyes moving away from Riku's face. "I'd just... I was hoping you could give him something for me." She slipped a hand into her purse, emerging with a folded piece of lined paper. "I know he has lunch next period, but I don't, so…"

When Riku didn't make a move to so much as nod in confirmation, let alone speak up in response to the implication left hanging by her incomplete sentence, Olette forged on, stumbling a little over the last few words in her haste to get what she wanted to say out in the open.

"…it would just be really helpful if you could make sure he got this."

For a moment, Riku simply looked at her, unsure what to say. None of this was making sense to him. From his perspective, Olette seemed to be both uncomfortable and skirting around something she didn't want to explain outright. If she really needed to make sure Hayner received something, he thought, why not ask one of his actual friends? Even if Roxas wasn't around, Riku knew he'd seen Pence in an earlier class. Wouldn't he have been a better choice than someone who hardly knew the guy she was apparently dead set on passing clandestine notes to?

She was looking at him so earnestly though, with so much hope, and Riku wasn't exactly in a position to burn his social bridges, even among people he hardly knew. It felt like he was going into this blind, no more knowing the reason why this girl would want to get in touch with Hayner via letter than he understood the magnitude of her social clout and how much she might be able to make his life even more uncomfortable if he ultimately refused to help.

Realizing there was the possibility of ending up regretting his choice no matter how he responded, Riku quickly made up his mind. "I think I can manage that. Yeah."

Her relief was palpable, Olette's shoulders relaxing and an over-bright smile filtering across her features almost immediately in the aftermath of his acquiescence. "Thank you so much. I really appreciate it." She passed him the square of paper, which Riku took and slipped into the front pocket of his jeans without a word. "You don't have to tell him it's from me or anything," she continued, the comment almost an afterthought. "I signed it, so he'll know."

She turned, fingers ghosting over the strap of a purse that was void of unsightly fringes or other features that screamed thrift store-tacky that Riku had become somewhat accustomed to in the week since he'd begun interacting with Kairi.

"Actually, hey. Question for you." Waving a hand to catch her attention, Riku took a step toward her. In front of him, Olette paused, then looked back, expression expectant.

"Do you happen to know where Sora and Roxas are?" It was worth a try, at least, and who better to ask than someone he'd just agreed to do a favor for, he figured. "I haven't seen them in any of my classes today."

Her expression turned apologetic. "I don't, sorry. I've been a little out of the loop with everyone for the past few weeks." She offered him a small smile, then shrugged as if accepting whatever personal realization she'd just come to. "Anyway, see you around. And thanks again."

She was gone before Riku could think of any sort of realistic follow-up question.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Riku tilted his head in an attempt to stretch some of the soreness out of his neck as he tried to make sense of what had just taken place. An extra few seconds of reflection didn't get him any closer to a plausible explanation for how he had suddenly become a go-to messenger boy for two students he barely knew, hardly a week into his tenure as a new student at this school.

With a sigh, he slid a thumb under the strap of his messenger bag, adjusting it for comfort as he began to make his way to the lunch room. Although he passed a few familiar faces from his classes, no one greeted him; by the time he was halfway to his destination, Riku was no longer bothering to keep his hair tucked neatly behind his ears, content to let it act as a silvery screen between himself and the rest of the student body.

He entered the cafeteria, then stepped into place at the back of the food line. A few minutes later, he was handing over money in exchange for a bottle of filtered water, plus a piece of fruit to serve as a side for the lunch he'd been packing and bringing along with him since his second day at school.

Food acquired, Riku slid his free hand into the pocket containing Olette's note just to assure himself he still had it and glanced toward the table where Hayner and his friends usually ate at.

There was still no sign of Roxas. Same for Hayner. The only student currently seated who he recognized was Pence.

Beyond a few simple interactions, generally punctuated by Hayner's dour expressions, Riku didn't know much about Pence. From his classmate's less than athletic girth, it was probably safe to assume Pence wasn't on any of the school's sports teams, but that didn't exactly tell him anything useful as a starting point for a conversation. From their minimal interactions on Friday evening, Pence had come off as easygoing, less prone to taking offense than Hayner, and certainly not as sarcastic as Roxas, although he'd definitely been quick to laugh at Riku's minor freak-out associated with the legality of Roxas' pickup truck driving qualifications.

So, that meant he had a decent sense of humor. Maybe.

Considering his options, Riku finally decided to head over to the table Pence was currently sitting alone eating lunch at.

A few yards out, Pence caught sight of him, and Riku raised a hand in a quick wave, hoping it didn't come off as weird when they hadn't technically spoken one-on-one yet. Pence didn't return the gesture, but he did nod before taking another stab at a slice of what looked like some sort of over-processed meat product.

"Hey, do you mind if I sit for a second?" Riku inclined his chin toward the free space at the cafeteria table bench directly adjacent to Pence.

"Go for it." Bringing the fork up to his mouth, Pence took a bite of what Riku had narrowed down as being either impressively compressed meat loaf or some sort of textured liver in the last few seconds of silent observation. Neither seemed particularly appetizing, although he kept the thought to himself in the interest of avoiding another social misstep brought on by actually voicing his impressions about the school's choice of food courses.

Glancing around the cafeteria while Pence chewed his food, Riku ultimately turned back to his classmate in an attempt to get this errand over and done with. "Is Hayner coming to lunch today?"

Pence shrugged. "He had to take a phone call or something. He'll be here in a few, probably." He spoke between bites, then looked up at Riku. "Why? You looking for him?"

Riku nodded. "Kind of. This girl gave me a note she wanted me to pass along."

Quirking an eyebrow, Pence's jaw slowed in its chewing motion. "Would that've been Olette, by any chance?"

"Yeah, actually." This time Riku didn't nod, but he did return a hand to his pocket and pulled out the note. Securing it in two fingers, he held the folded notepaper out between the two of them.

In one quick movement that caught Riku completely off-guard, Pence reached out and snatched the note from of his hand. "Right. I'll deal with this."

Rendered momentarily mute by the unexpectedness of the action, Riku found himself staring at Pence, unsure of how to react. This entire note-passing affair seemed rather elementary school juvenile from where he was standing.

Or sitting now, technically. Whatever.

"Okay." His tone conveyed uncertainty. "She seemed pretty clear about wanting me to give it to him directly."

Pence shrugged again, apparently unconcerned. "Trust me on this one. The moment he finds out it's from her, he's liable to pitch another fit and you're not gonna want to be around when that goes down." He reached for a can of soda near his food tray and took long, appreciative sip.

When Riku didn't immediately respond, Pence just grinned. "Unless you're cool with pissing him off two times in under a week. That'd probably be a record."

Well, Riku thought. He might not have any idea why a note from a seemingly friendly girl would put Hayner in a sour mood, but when Pence framed it like that…

"Alright, fine." Riku stood, cafeteria purchases in hand, and reminded himself that this wasn't any of his business anyway. He watched as Pence pocketed the note, then returned his attention back to his meal. "Thanks, I guess."

With a half-salute and a mouth full of as yet unidentifiable lunch meat, Pence offered Riku another grin. "No prob, man. Happy to be of service or whatever."

Nodding distractedly, only half listening, Riku let his eyes scan the quickly filling cafeteria for a place he might be able to sit that'd offer up a modicum of privacy so he could get back to overthinking classmate absences and pondering totally unwarranted conspiracy theories while he was at it.

"You don't have to leave, y'know." Pence's voice rang out, pulling Riku away from his thoughts. Not fully turning, Riku's gaze moved back toward the table where he'd just been sitting. "Like, you could sit here if you don't mind Hayner still being a little cantankerous." Another sip of his soda, and Pence's expression turned thoughtful. "Maybe for him it'd be like just trying to get used to a flavor he doesn't like. I used to think beer tasted like piss but now I'm cool with it. You just stick with it and eventually you stop noticing how shitty it is. You acclimate or something. Yeah. Maybe it'd be like that with you two."

Unsure what he thought about being compared to pee-flavored beer, Riku bit the inside of his cheek but acknowledged the offer. "I'll keep that in mind. Maybe some other time though." He already had enough on his mind without needing to add wondering what it'd take to get Hayner to warm up to him to his steadily growing mental list.

With a light shrug, Pence turned back to his meal, and Riku angled himself away from the table, still hopeful he might be able to find a relatively empty area to sit out the remainder of the lunch hour. It was unlikely, he conceded, given the increasingly crowded room full of students who seemed just about as interested in accommodating him as he was in preparing for his afternoon classes. But that was about knowing Sora wasn't going to be there when he ultimately made it to his final period of the day in just a few hours more than anything else. In the end, that was all it really took to ensure any last vestige of enthusiasm he'd had going into this day ended up dissolving completely.

o - o

Except it wasn't, because he'd completely forgotten about sixth period gym. And Seifer.

By the time Riku had managed a hurried escape out of the locker room and was well on his way toward the school library for study hall, he was beginning to truly believe that interacting in any way with Olette had been far from a fantastic idea on his part.

Gym itself actually hadn't been that bad, but it had been baffling in a number of ways. While his basketball team seemed to have warmed considerably to him, even going so far as casually chatting during gameplay, a question about his presence on Facebook posed by Selphie had left Riku wondering about the meaning behind a smile she kept trying to suppress without much success. Fortunately, the teacher had called an end to their group games before he'd had to come up with an answer one way or another. After Olette's veiled half-explanations, he'd been pretty much tapped out in terms of his desire to handle anything else that seemed to come attached with a perplexing double meaning.

Then there'd been Roxas. Much to Riku's surprise, he was already seated up in the gymnasium bleachers when the class started, as if he hadn't been missing for more than half of the school day at that point. He'd chosen to sit on the highest row of bleacher benches, shoulders hunched, chin resting in the palms of both hands without so much as indicating the pretense of pulling out a school textbook to look like he was studying.

Try as he might, Riku had been unable to catch his classmate's attention. Most of the times that Riku had been able to steal glances in Roxas' direction, his eyes had been half-lidded or closed entirely. The rest of his fleeting observations revealed a boy who looked wearier than usual, his face slack and unexpressive, blue eyes unfocused and staring off toward the gymnasium's far wall. Short of walking himself over to the bleachers, calling out to Roxas directly, and risking getting them both in trouble with the gym teacher, Riku didn't have many other options available to him beyond focusing on his teammates and trying not to completely tank every single hoop attempt he distractedly made.

Where was Seifer and his assault-by-basketball antics when you needed them, Riku'd even found himself thinking at one point during the hour. At least that would've given him an excuse to be near Roxas and the bleachers.

In retrospect, it probably hadn't been the most prudent thing to wish for Seifer's involvement, no matter what the circumstances. As if reading his mind, Seifer had tried to approach him in the locker room after class.

"Hey, Hollywood. Rai here told me he saw you with Olette this morning. Got a minute to discuss that?"

Just three simple sentences and Riku was on edge again. Already back in his street clothes, he'd acted as if he hadn't heard anything and gotten the hell out of there as quickly as possible. It hadn't been a proud moment, he was willing to acknowledge now that he'd put a few high school hallways between himself and Seifer, and in virtually any other scenario, he'd have been more willing to stand his ground, even if it meant a physical confrontation. At the very least, he probably should've set the record straight before Seifer got it in his head that he was attempting to steal his girlfriend, or whatever it was he wanted to talk to him about.

Discuss. Right.

With Seifer's posse no more than a few feet away at any given moment, Riku was outnumbered and he was well aware of it. He also didn't want to suffer the embarrassment of getting detention or even suspended from a podunk school like Radiant High. Not only would his parents be furious, he'd probably never end up living it down if Kadaj got wind of it back home. That rang true especially if it'd been a fight he ultimately ended up losing, however unequally the numbers involved worked out to.

The potential embarrassment of looking cowardly just wasn't worth the inevitable administrative and parental punishments. None of these students were worth the effort it took to care enough to want to get into a skirmish in the first place, he thought as he rounded the final corner that would lead him toward Radiant High's library. No one was worth the effort for anything, as far as he was concerned.

Except for Sora, possibly.

He wasn't surprised to see Kairi studying by herself at the usual table, although he did recognize the feeling of disappointment at Sora's continued absence that had been gradually building as the day wore on. This time it was tempered by a buoyant, hopeful feeling that he might finally be able to get some answers about Sora's current whereabouts.

Earbuds in again, Kairi didn't verbally greet him as Riku took a seat and began pulling out study materials, but she did look up from her textbook, if only for a moment in silent acknowledgement of his presence. Upper body gently swaying in time with music only she could hear, Riku noted that her nail polish color had changed since he'd last seen her, from neon yellow to a black and white design that looked like a not wholly successful attempt at zebra stripes.

Glancing away from her hands, Riku looked at her expectantly. Kairi, in turn, wrapped her animal print polished fingers around one of her headphone cords and pulled out an earbud, although she didn't stop bobbing her head in time to what Riku could now discern as being some country sounding song out of the one earbud that'd been placed on the table in front of her.

"Is Sora not coming?" As he spoke, voice low to avoid the attention of the librarian only a few book stacks over from them, Riku flipped open to his math assignment and made a genuine effort to ensure the inquiry seemed like nothing more than casual smalltalk.

It seemed to have worked. Kairi shook her head in response, eyes lowering back to her schoolbook. "Out sick. Allergies are killer this time of year."

Allergies.

He had been freaking out, worrying that something was seriously wrong, and Sora had what amounted to a sniffly nose, possibly a head cold?

Smooth. It was official. This had to be a new overthinking low for him.

He had the good sense to feel equal amounts embarrassed for his undue worrying and relieved that he hadn't voiced his actual concerns to anyone — until he remembered what had set him off on the worrying spree in the first place.

"What about Roxas then?"

Kairi's swaying slowed. Although her expression didn't change, Riku thought he noticed a tension-based rise in her shoulders as she looked over at him.

"What about 'im?"

"I…" Riku wasn't initially sure how to pose his question without coming off sounding conspiracy theorist weird in the process. "It's just, he wasn't in school this morning either, so I was wondering if he was out sick too."

That wouldn't explain his sudden presence in gym, but Riku figured tackling one mystery at a time might be the most sensible way to approach this until he had a better idea of just what he was dealing with.

Kairi scrunched up her nose, shooting him a perturbed look.

"How should I know? We're not BFFs or even close to it."

She was watching Riku carefully now, in what seemed like a scrutinizing manner, as if assessing something. It was a gaze that made him feel exposed, and Riku found himself looking away, pretending to study the first problem in his math textbook as his shoulders rose into the intimation of a shrug in response to what was probably a rhetorical question on her part.

For a few moments, he could still feel her eyes on him, although Riku kept his gaze down, even going through the motions to reach for a pencil and start working out the simple formula involved to solve the first Calc problem in his assigned homework.

Eventually, he sensed her attention dissipate. By the time Riku stole a quick glance back to his left, Kairi had returned the second earbud to its place in her right ear and was back to leaning over the table reading what looked like a chapter out of her US History book.

They remained seated together and studying in silence until the end of the period. Without Sora's animated presence, Riku was finding it difficult to conceive of anything to say to the girl next to him, and Kairi seemed to share the sentiment. At one point, she reached for her phone and shot off a few text messages, and Riku couldn't help but wonder if they were for Sora although he forced himself to refrain from asking. Mostly though, she kept her eyes on her book. Unlike Roxas during gym class last week, Kairi actually seemed to be doing the assigned readings, her eyes moving from line to line across the page, stopping only to turn and scribble the occasional note on a pad of lined paper beside her.

By the time study hall came to an end, Riku had managed to get himself two full days ahead in the readings and homework assigned for his classes, and was trying his best not to check his phone every fifteen seconds like an obsessive maniac. He hadn't gotten so much as a push notification in the past two hours but he still couldn't curb the urge to continue checking for texts anyway, so much so that he was starting to wonder if the generally accepted definition of insanity was wholly and exclusively applicable to him with respect to this current chain of non-events.

It was only when Kairi slid off her chair and began gathering her textbooks that Riku looked up. Snapping his own book shut and storing it in his bag, he studied her, noting that her hybrid purse-bag was also filled to the brim and looked pretty heavy. She was soon struggling between balancing the thing on one shoulder while holding no fewer than four textbooks and two note pads in both arms. In a matter of seconds, the bag had slipped down her arm and dropped back to the floor with a heavy thud.

"Here, let me help." Swinging his messenger bag over his head and standing, Riku scooped the textbooks out of Kairi's arms and into his own.

For a moment, she simply watched as Riku shifted the newly acquired weight to one arm. Leaning down, she reached for her own bag. It took two straining arms and a slight grimace to get the thing balanced over her shoulder and hip in a way that would ensure it remained in place when she started moving.

If Riku expected a thank you, he was well off the mark. Kairi merely eyed him a beat longer, expression amused as she moved to his side. "Nice gun show you've got goin' on there. For once, Selphie wasn't over-embellishing, which, come to think, is just about as impressive."

Riku blinked, then looked down at what was visible of his biceps from beneath the sleeve of his t-shirt, and found himself increasingly flustered as a subtly smiling Kairi passed him by on her way toward the library's exit. It took him another few seconds to realize that Kairi was going to quickly outpace him before he moved to follow a light purple tube skirt and fringy knock-off purse out into the school's hallway.

They walked in silence for a minute or two before Riku ultimately cleared his throat and made another attempt at conversation before Kairi could offer up additional awkward commentary about his physical makeup.

"How many classes are you taking to need this many books anyway?"

Kairi merely rolled her eyes. "They're not all mine. I told Sora I'd bring his school stuff home so he wouldn't miss anything." Reflexively, Riku perked up at the mention of Sora's name. By his side, even Kairi's expression softened as she continued speaking about him. "Boy doesn't like getting behind, even if he's lightyears ahead of everyone else at this school on an objective level."

That made sense, Riku reasoned.

"Do you know how long he'll be out?"

Kairi shook her head. "Couple days. A week, maybe. No clue. The only thing I know is he'll wanna come back as soon as possible."

"Because he really likes school," Riku finished for her.

To his surprise, Kairi actually laughed, then glanced at him with that same knowing, but otherwise completely uninterpretable expression that seemed a hallmark of hers. "That's one reason, yeah."

Still walking, Riku eyed her, taking in the impish grin with more than a little bewilderment, waiting for her to elaborate on the ambiguous statement.

She didn't.

Despite the flamboyant clothing choices and perpetuation of every southern stereotype that generally equated to intellectual handicap in most non-southerner minds, Kairi sure seemed to be astutely observant, Riku had noticed. Most of her comments were worded in deliberate ways, infused with veiled meaning he couldn't even begin to guess at. While he'd already seen how easily Sora seemed to pick up on any underlying implications, Riku himself was still at a loss most times, not yet familiar enough with his skirt-sporting classmate to be able to interpret the nuances of her word choices.

Before Riku could think of an effective way to ask for clarification, they arrived at the front doors that led out to the student pick-up area. Pressing his shoulder against the closest door, he let Kairi slip through the opening in front of him. With surprising nimbleness given the load she was carrying, she made her way out to the idling pickup a few cars down the line, and Riku found himself increasing the length of his strides in an attempt to keep pace.

Wrenching open the pickup's rusted passenger side door, Kairi shrugged underneath the strap of her purse, and slid it into the area that encompassed the middle seat. Without a word, she turned to Riku who'd come to a stop behind her, arms outstretched to allow him to transfer the books he'd been carrying over to her.

Once in her possession, she dumped them onto the passenger side floor area with about as much ceremony as someone taking out a bag of garbage. As she leaned forward to organize the books just enough to allow space for her legs, Riku got his first opportunity to see the driver full-on. With a feeling of jarring surprise, he saw that malachite eyes were already settled on him, scrutinizing with silent acuity.

Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, somewhat unnerved by the appearance of someone who looked more suited to be hanging out on a street corner back home in the Mission district than driving a rusted out pickup in Radiant Hollow, Louisiana, Riku's default parent-imposed manners overrode his preferred state of reflective silence.

"You're Axel, right?"

The man nodded at the same moment that Kairi straightened, eyes traveling between the pair of them as though calculating something. The expression dropped a moment later in favor of equitable indifference as her cousin spoke up.

"And you're Riku. The new kid."

Surprised, Riku's polite expression faltered. "I — yeah. I got here last week."

With a sly half-smile that looked remarkably similar to some of Kairi's own expressions, Axel moved his arm from its place on the open driver side window ledge, the spidery long fingers of one hand wrapping around the steering wheel and sliding slowly upward until they settled around the eleven o'clock position. Despite his best efforts, Riku couldn't help but stare, to take in the blocky geometry on both heavily inked arms that somehow made the subtle marks beneath his eyes stand out even more starkly.

And here he'd thought this guy's hair was his most indelible feature.

"Best of luck." Axel let out a quiet sound that toed the line between scoff and laugh. As Kairi hopped up and scooted into the passenger seat, the sloped side of Axel's lips rose to a level almost perpendicular with his chin. "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, pal. Words to live by in a place like this." His words were fluid, accented with Southern inflection, but in some subtle way different than how others in this town spoke.

In the handful of seconds it took Riku to identify the language spoken as Latin and the handful more required to realize he had no idea what it translated to in English, Kairi had hauled off and smacked her cousin on the shoulder, which only served as an impetus for the smug look on his face to expand further. She turned back to Riku a moment later, expression exasperated as she reached for the door handle in tandem.

"See you tomorrow."

"Yeah, see you…" The ringing sound of her door slamming shut drowned out most of his words, and Riku listened to the truck's engine sputtering as Axel switched gears, rolled forward, and pulled away from the curb without another look back in his direction.

Still a little distracted by the string of foreign words lingering in his thoughts, Riku looked down the line of cars and spotted a silver Mercedes sedan among the sea of American model SUVs and pickup trucks. He made his way toward it, waving to catch his mother's attention the moment she looked up from what he assumed was the phone most likely resting on her lap. The realization had him reaching for his own phone within his front jeans pocket. He pulled it out, then opened the car door, slipping into the seat and dropping his messenger bag on the floor between his feet.

His mother glanced over her shoulder, making sure the left lane was clear before angling the car out of the parking queue. "How was school?"

Eyes scanning the sidewalk in front of Radiant High, Riku caught sight of Pence exiting, with Hayner and Roxas following closely behind. While Pence and Hayner were speaking with animated gestures, Roxas appeared silent, shoulders subtly rounded and eyes down, trailing a few steps behind his friends. Trying not to overthink things to the nth degree yet again, Riku settled into his seat and forced himself to look over at his mother. "It was fine."

"Was that girl you were carrying books for one of the new friends you were talking about this weekend?"

Eyeing the school parking lot, then the main connecting road as it came into view through the Mercedes' front windshield, Riku inclined his head, then tucked his hair behind both ears with his free hand. "Yeah. One of our classmates is out sick so I was helping her with his books so she can take them to him."

As he spoke, Riku clicked the power button on his iPhone, then paused, eyes seeing what it took his mind a few nanoseconds longer to process.

"That was nice of you," his mother said, her voice murmured as she returned to her usual routine of glancing at the digital clock console every thirty consecutive seconds.

Riku hardly heard her as he lifted the phone and clicked through the lock screen, then scanned the first text Sora had sent him all day with unconcealed eagerness. A moment later, his expression fell a little, brows furrowing as he actually reviewed what the message said.

"Haha yeah, too many graham crackers. My poor stomach. Lesson learned and never again."

Perplexed, he read it over once, then looked at it again, but no amount of staring changed the fact that Sora's explanation didn't line up even remotely with what Kairi had told him in study hall no more than an hour earlier.

Chapter Text

 


"Oh, my, my, cold-hearted child, tell me how you feel
Just a grain in the morning air, dark shadow on the hill
Oh, my, my, cold-hearted child, tell me where it all falls
All this apathy you feel will make a fool of us all."
"The Fear" - Ben Howard


The emergency room waiting and exam area was a stark, uninspiring place to spend the better part of six hours. Two hours in, Roxas had already exhausted all conceivable positions to sit in a rigid chair without so much as an ounce of built-in lumbar support.

At first, he'd sat upright, under the assumption that the position would better serve to keep him more alert despite his fatigue. Soon after, he'd begun bouncing his legs, nervy little jerks of movement starting at his ankles that dwindled to almost infinitesimal by the time the actions reached his knees. His ease of natural movement had resulted in a guilt-ridden realization that the simple physical activity wasn't something his brother could even remotely manage in his current state. He'd consequently dropped his upper body forward, resting his chin on the upturned palms of both hands and supported by elbows rising up like the trunks of arm-sleeve-clad trees, if foliage ever could realistically exist in a color scheme of checkered white and black.

By the two-hour mark, Roxas had inverted the position, slouching back to match his spine with the severe, concave curve of the waiting room chair as much as he could physically manage short of performing an act of cringe-worthy contortion.

All the while, Sora sat in a wheelchair beside him, stock still with shoulders slightly rounded, exhaustion written plain across the slack muscles and downturned eyes that made up the totality of his present expression.

He hadn't been able to sleep, albeit not for lack of trying. Trying had involved laying out flat on his back, eyes closed and fingers of both hands intertwined atop the flat plane of his bare chest. It'd included deep breathing through the humidity, measured breaths, and an honest attempt at keeping his mind unencumbered of worries about family and friends. Because, really, the last thing he wanted to think about was failing out of school and becoming the self-fulfilling prophesy picture of a teenage drop-out his brother was so constantly inclined to warn him about.

When none of these efforts proved effective, Roxas had turned to a plastic baggy, to sky blue pills ensconced within it, specifically.

He'd heard the buzzing of a notification on his phone but didn't connect it enough to himself to consider checking it. Opting to ignore the irritant vibration in favor of staring at nothing, he wondered if the girl would reappear in much the same way he considered the possibility of a surprise quiz in Physics — not necessarily opposed to the idea in theory, but without overt enthusiasm for its impending presence just the same.

The girl hadn't come to him, and the momentary drone of his cellphone was soon forgotten amid the thickening fog of a rising narcotic influence.

"What's taking so long?"

Roxas looked over at Sora and considered the question that his brother was usually too polite to ask. Sora's voice sounded strained, and Roxas couldn't help but note how quick pain was to strip away pretense, couldn't avoid recognizing how it so effortlessly exposed a rawer form of self. He knew enough to hate the realization just as expeditiously as he'd first connected it as being relevant to himself. He despised what it had done to him, a gradual flaying of everything good and affable about his erstwhile self.

Even more than what it'd done to him, he loathed what a physical manifestation of the same agony was doing to Sora now, what it continued to do with cyclical frequency every time they had to take an unanticipated trip like this.

Disinclined to get lost in his own dark thoughts, Roxas rose up and out of his chair. All around them, people idled, expressions dull, postures hinting at uncomfortable. He turned to Sora. 

"I'll see if I can get an update."

His brother remained still, no longer responsive, eyes trained on the floor in front of him.

In his current frame of mind, he couldn't say precisely when the phone had gone silent on his bedside table, just heeded the familiar sound of crutches and their erratic but steady approach with considerable disconnect as to how they might be relevant to him.

And another sound. Low and miserable, it was cut off by a choked interlude of silence he ultimately identified as his brother's shuddering inhale, no more than a room's length away from him, out in the upstairs hall.

Making a beeline over to the reception area, Roxas stepped up behind another person who it soon became clear was just about at the end of a very short tether.

"Can I get a ballpark estimate for when we'll be called in? We've been here almost two hours. This is ridiculous."

Yeah, Roxas thought. You and everyone else, pal. Welcome to non-life-threatening ER waitlist hell.

He listened to the receptionist's explanation about a multiple car pile-up something-or-another that was throwing off an already short-staffed ER. They were doing the best they could to accommodate everyone, but those more seriously injured were being examined first.

Translation: Nothing doing, y'all. Move along, and sit your impatient asses down.

Glancing at the clock above the reception desk, Roxas noted that not only had school already started almost an hour ago, he'd also forgotten to leave a note for Cloud asking that he call the admin office so he and Sora wouldn't end up marked as truant. At least Sora could probably afford one unexcused absence, he figured. Roxas, on the other hand...yeah, not so much.

This day just kept getting better and better.

Pulling out his phone, Roxas glanced at Sora still seated and unmoving across the room, then trudged over to a nearby hallway in search of a private place out of earshot where he could make another attempt at getting ahold of Cloud.

Crutches and owner both paused outside his door. For an indeterminate length of time, Roxas heard nothing but the sound of his own sweltered breathing, until he found himself blanking entirely about Sora's impending appearance. It could've been ninety seconds or an hour and a half for all he could discern before the door swung inward on protesting hinges without even the intimation of a knock to announce the room's newest presence.

Roxas sat up, tried to blink away the double vision of indistinct shapes and edges of his room's currently perceived makeup.

What's wrong?

He stared at Sora, expression vaguely expectant, not realizing he hadn't actually spoken out loud as his gaze fixed on the pained look his brother wasn't wholly capable of suppressing.

"Can I sleep here for the rest of the night?"

He couldn't remember saying yes, didn't much recall Sora's labored approach. One moment he was watching his brother, brown hair and narrow shoulders delineated by the worn wood of his doorframe, the next his back was pressed against the cool surface of his bedroom wall and Sora was curling up at the edge of the mattress, crutches laid out length-wise on the uneven floor in front of them both.

The rest came in flashes, in an offer to move to Sora's room to make use of a mattress with considerably more support, of Sora's quiet refusal with one shake of his head, cheek against sweat-dampened pillow and jutted shoulder bones lightly pressing against Roxas' sternum.

Despite his fatigue and dazed mental state, Roxas was still awake by the time Sora's breathing slowed, indicating that one of them had fallen asleep, at least.

Eventually, he must have slept some too, because eventually he woke to the sound of his brother's troubled murmuring. It wasn't until then that Roxas realized something truly was wrong, wasn't until the better visibility of Monday morning light that he got his first glimpse of the swollen discoloration running up nearly half the length of Sora's right leg.

The landline rang. And rang and rang, until the answering machine no one in his family bothered to check more than once a week clicked on. Two words into the recorded message, Roxas dropped the call, then flipped through his contact list to try Cloud's cell phone. Again.

He was sent to voicemail after one ring, just like it'd done when they'd first gotten to the ER, just like when he'd tried to contact Cloud before leaving home a few hours prior. Damned if Roxas knew where his brother was, although he could probably hazard an accurate guess. Damned if he usually cared when Cloud wasn't around on weekday mornings usually anyhow. Now though, he made a frustrated sound as he let out a breath, then left his first voice message of the day to go along with the handful of texts he'd been shooting off at random intervals all morning.

"What the hell happened?"

There was a moment of silence, Sora's shuddered breaths the room's only minor auditory disturbance beyond Roxas' lingering inquiry. "I stepped on it wrong trying to get to the bathroom. Twisted, maybe. I don't know." Sora's voice was low enough to be a whisper, eyes down, thin arms curled around himself. "I thought I just tweaked it earlier..."

Fighting exhaustion, cursing himself for poor pill-associated judgment, Roxas climbed over Sora, careful not to jostle him as he got out of bed. He reached for the nearby lamp, turned it on, and surveyed the injury in more concentrated light, tired eyes assessing, scrutinizing, until they came to one ineloquent but undebatable conclusion.

"Shit."

Shit, shit, shit, if he wanted to be exactly accurate.

Forcing down his increasing frustration, Roxas pocketed his phone and returned to the waiting room, schooling his features into as close to a stoic neutral as possible. Winding his way around chairs and other waiting room patrons, Roxas passed Sora, then lowered himself into the chair next to him.

Sora turned, his movements sluggish, eyes hinting at unfocused, and Roxas felt a rising swell of guilt. He tried to weigh that particular compunction against the likelihood that his brother would otherwise be in unmitigated pain.

It didn't make him feel any better knowing he'd done the best he could with the resources he'd had at his disposal.

"Soon now," he said, making a quick decision to aim for partial candor instead of hashing out unnecessary details. Glancing at Sora, noting the light tremors traveling the length of his body, Roxas' expression tightened. "Are you cold?"

Sora's features didn't change. "I don't know. I feel…"

Brows rose in expectation as Roxas waited for Sora to complete the sentence. The pause seemed to endure far longer than it should've while Sora searched for an appropriate word.

"Weird."

Yeah, Roxas surmised. This was definitely worth feeling guilty about. Because, at least as it related to Sora's current mental fog, this was one hundred percent his fault.

"Can you stand?"

The look of utter dismay Sora shot him was the only answer Roxas needed. Maybe if he'd gotten adequate sleep, maybe if he weren't as much under the influence of his own self-medicating habits, he could've held Sora's weight well enough to carry him down the stairs.

Or, maybe…

"Don't move." The directive was practically barked as Roxas sped out of the room, sprinting down the hall on surprisingly nimble feet, spurred on by a pang of worry for one of the bare handful of people he actually cared about.

Cloud's room was empty. A few steps downstairs and a peek into the lower level revealed it to be much the same: curtains drawn and dark. Devoid of any human presence. The same went for his mother's room, which was unusual considering she tended to sleep in until a little past their customary weekday departure for school.

What the hell time was it anyway?

With a heightened sense of misgiving, Roxas returned to his bedroom. Wide-eyed, Sora watched him from the bed as Roxas moved past him, reaching for his phone on the bedside table. He clicked it on, noting the early morning messages from Sora that he'd failed to answer and a few more recent texts from Hayner, not bothering to read any of them. He was more focused on the phone's digital clock, which listed the time as…

Fuck.

Without a word, Roxas leaned forward, chest pressing against his knees as he rummaged through the backpack he'd at least had the presence of mind to fill with a few supplies he thought might be useful for their journey. A moment later, he straightened, the oversized sweatshirt Sora'd been wearing out at the marshes a few days prior gripped in both hands.

"Here." Roxas extended his arms, transferring the soft material into Sora's lap.

Sora glanced down, his reaction time so much slower than Roxas was accustomed to. He uttered not a single expression of thanks, didn't have a witty return about Roxas acting too much like their mother. Sora just looked at the material, brows slightly furrowed as if trying to place where he'd last seen it.

It was in that instant that Roxas felt the urge to curl into himself, knees to chest, face buried in the folds of his arm sleeves, and just let himself give in and cry over the unfairness of all of this.

Unlocking his phone, Roxas shot off a brief message to Hayner, quickly apologizing for bailing on their ride that morning. He glanced at Sora who still hadn't moved or said another word, taking in his partially dressed state with a scrutinizing gaze.

"I'll be right back."

He exited his room, headed down the hall to Sora's, then angled his way toward the dresser, dropping to his knees and reaching for the lowest drawer. Unmindful of the neatly folded underwear and undershirts, Roxas rooted around until he found a pair of pajama bottoms. Grabbing a pair of socks and a white t-shirt for good measure, he paused only long enough to catch a glimpse of a sweatshirt hanging half off his brother's bed, one of its arms swaying in a light breeze from the window, a UC Berkeley logo half visible across its front.

Without a second thought, he made a quick swipe for the hoodie, then exited the room as he made his way back out into the hallway.

Once back in his room, he noted with a jerky, approving nod that Sora had managed to sit upright on his own. His expression was tense as he watched Roxas move around the room to grab his backpack, dumping out its academic contents to make room for the clothing he'd gathered. Roxas stuffed the extra fabric into his bag, then turned, pajama bottoms in hand as he made his way back over to Sora on the bed.

The pajama pants transferred hands, Roxas looking on just long enough to confirm Sora didn't need help before he turned back to his own dresser and set to work making himself marginally presentable.

It was nothing short of a relief when Sora slid the sweatshirt over his head. Roxas watched as he fiddled with adjusting the over-long sleeves into a comfortable position on his forearms, the cotton cuffs wide enough to fit an arm almost twice the narrow circumference of his brother's.

Noting the way the fabric bunched mid-way up his back, Roxas slid a hand over Sora's shoulders. "Lean forward a little."

Without a word, Sora complied, just enough for Roxas to tug the hoodie down to a more comfortable position on his brother's back before returning to his previous position in his own chair. Pulling his phone out, Roxas scanned the lock screen for messages. Then, seeing none, he took in the time and made the mental note that they were inching toward the three hour mark of sitting here doing nothing.

"Thanks."

He looked up, at first thinking the word had filtered into his awareness from a nearby conversation. Sora was looking at him, eyes still glassy but a lot more lucid than he'd been earlier. The smile, tired but discernible, greeted Roxas' own bleary eyes. A sudden tightness returned its vice-grip to his dry throat.

He looked down first, then shrugged.

"You should've told me you were hurt last night." His voice was curt, tone gruff. Out of the corner of his eye, Roxas noted Sora's enduring smile though, and knew his brother understood the underlying sentiment of a veiled 'you're welcome' when he heard one.

Even after Sora cleared the last step onto the first floor of their house without incident, Roxas wasn't convinced he hadn't imagined it out of sheer wishful thinking. But Sora was resourceful, and not above scooting down in a seated position step by individual step while Roxas paced the room, seeking out car keys, Cloud's emergency debit card, and anything else he thought might make the journey a little more manageable.

The mere fact that it was the keys to Cloud's old Chevy sedan that he'd found rather than those to the flatbed gave Roxas some idea of where his brother had likely gone after work. Not that the additional knowledge did shit-all to help him or Sora now. At the very least, the sedan would be a more comfortable ride on the forty mile journey to the nearest hospital that boasted even close to a knowledgeable medical staff.

And reliable. Driving the flatbed in an emergency was like playing a game of Russian roulette with a failure rate inching more toward fifty percent.

Once downstairs, Roxas helped Sora stand, propped the protesting screen door open with a coat stand while keeping one eye on his brother's teetering, unbalanced form. As he returned to Sora, Roxas bent his knees and braced himself to hold his brother's weight the distance it took get to the car, not willing to risk rolling the wheelchair over the uneven dirt and gravel of the Strife family's makeshift driveway. He felt trembling arms wrap around his neck and shoulders, Sora's thin legs dangling beneath the forearm Roxas was soon holding them up with.

He'd left Sora in the passenger seat only long enough to retrieve his wheelchair from its place nestled between the dining room table and a far corner wall. Making sure to lock up the house, Roxas returned to the car, hopped into the driver's seat, and forced himself to blink any lingering vestiges of somnolence from his mind as he mentally prepared himself for the hour long drive they both had ahead of them.

It wasn't until a solid twenty minutes later that he realized he'd forgotten to pack Sora's pain meds.

The first phone notification came from Hayner, and Roxas was half-tempted to ignore it in favor of continuing to stare off into space. With the added warmth of the sweatshirt and lingering influence of unauthorized sedatives, Sora had been dozing for the last few minutes. Roxas hardly noticed the weary glance his brother shot him as he pulled up his phone and scanned the short text message, before letting go of a harried sigh.

It was only after he got himself up that Roxas noticed Sora was awake, expression more dynamic and inquiring than it'd been an hour ago.

"I'll be right back," Roxas said. "Gotta make a call."

Teeth just visible as they worried over his bottom lip, Sora's eyes followed Roxas' rising movement. "Cloud?"

Shaking his head, Roxas looked back down at his phone. "Hayner."

"Oh." Sora's expression fell. "Please don't say too much about what happened?"

He knew this routine so well by now, Roxas had to bite back a sarcastic remark that wouldn't've served either of them under the current circumstances. "Wasn't gonna."

Making his way back out into a nearby hallway, Roxas had already clicked through and placed his call. Hayner picked up two rings later.

"Dude, what's up?" His voice crackled with the weak signal made worse by thick hospital walls, forcing Roxas to move the phone a few inches away from his ear with an aggrieved frown.

He wasted only few words in response. "Sora. I had to take him to Gardens."

There was a short silence, a shuffling static as though Hayner was moving the phone, and Roxas reminded himself to keep things brief lest his friend get caught making a call on school grounds and ended up having his device confiscated by an overzealous teacher.

"Is he okay?"

Roxas sighed. "I don't know yet. We've been here three fucking hours and haven't even been called into an exam room."

Roxas heard Hayner whistle under his breath. "That totally blows. Keep me updated?"

"Yeah, will do." Shooting a glance back over to check on Sora, Roxas nodded to himself, distracted. "Hey, let Kairi know what's up so she's not wondering about the ride situation. Pence is okay too. Otherwise, keep quiet. He doesn't want to make a scene, as usual."

"Right." Roxas could imagine the definitive bob of his friend's head. "Ping me when you know more. I've gotta get to lunch."

The call dropped at the same moment that Roxas heard Sora's name called in an inquiring feminine voice from near the reception area.

Fucking finally.

Face flushed, breaths increasingly shallow, it was becoming obvious that Sora's pain was escalating. Internally, Roxas berated himself for having made such a glaring oversight prior to heading out.

Of all the times not to have those goddamn pills on his mind.

He glanced at his brother. "How're you holding up?"

"I'm okay."

The car passed over an uneven section of the worn county road on the heels of Sora's words, and an involuntary, shuddered gasp sounded, despite a concerted effort at full-out suppression from the looks of it.

"The hell you are." Surveying the rearview mirror to make sure the road around them was clear, Roxas pulled over onto the dirt shoulder. The additional jostling from concrete to gravelly earth elicited another muffled whimper from the passenger seat, and Roxas silently cursed himself for contributing to Sora's rising discomfort.

He switched the car into neutral, pressed his foot onto the brake, then shoved his hand into his pocket, unmindful of the stinging his own finger injury induced at the unforgiving action. Chest heaving with the effort to keep quiet and calm, Sora watched as Roxas pulled out a ziplock baggy, eyeing the handful of blue capsules in it without apparent awareness of their significance or purpose.

Unbuckling his seatbelt, Roxas twisted, reaching for his backpack on the seat behind him. He pulled the bag toward him, unzipping it and grabbing a half-filled plastic water bottle at the same time he removed two of the pills from their plastic confines.

He offered both to Sora who looked back at him, brows quickly furrowing.

"Where'd you get those?"

"Does it matter? You obviously need 'em." Roxas shot his brother a pointed look.

When Sora didn't initially move, eyes still traveling between Roxas and the pills in his hand, Roxas made as though to drop them into his lap, leaving Sora scrambling to cup his hands and catch them.

"C'mon. They'll tide you over 'til we get to Gardens."

Expression still uncertain as he looked down at the unfamiliar medicine in his hands, Sora finally followed Roxas' directive, placing the capsules into his mouth. A moment later, under Roxas' watchful observation, Sora lifted the water bottle to his lips, tilted his head back, and swallowed.

"Sora Strife?"

"Here. We're here," Roxas called, passing the reception attendant with a slight wave on his way toward his brother. Sora had been making an attempt at maneuvering over to her, but an amalgam of pain, exhaustion, and the labyrinthine mess of still seated waiting room patrons had been an effective impediment.

Able to weave much more effortlessly between everyone on his two good legs, Roxas met Sora around the halfway point between where they'd been seated and the place the attendant was waiting. He offered Sora small smile and laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. Sora, in turn, reached up, sweatshirt sleeve sliding all the way down to his elbow as he clasped onto Roxas' hand, keeping it in place on his shoulder as he squeezed it lightly. Without a word, Roxas began to one-handedly navigate the wheelchair around the waiting room toward the young woman, completely oblivious to the hesitant expression she was shooting at both of them.

By the time they reached her, she was looking downright uncomfortable, eyes darting between both boys, then back down at the medical chart in her hand.

"I'm sorry." She offered a polite but uncertain smile. "Only immediate family members or legal spouses can accompany a patient into the exam room." Her voice was unnaturally high, the forced smile only adding to the increasing awkwardness of her words and posture.

Roxas stared at her, not following. In front of him, he could just make out a crease forming at the bridge of Sora's nose.

The attendant clasped her clipboard more tightly to her chest, then looked away from them both.

"You can just wait out here," she gestured past Roxas back to the waiting room, "until your…friend," she stumbled over the word, tone rising on the last word as though asking a question, "until his exam is over."

Eyes narrowing, still not wholly understanding what this woman was going on about, Roxas fixed his eyes on her. "Thanks, no. I'm going in with my brother."

"Your brother," she repeated, this time affording them both a closer look. By the time they came to rest on Sora, he was nodding, both sides of his mouth quivering with the effort to keep a level expression. "His name should be in my file's visitation list," he offered.

Looking down, she flipped through the first few pages, eyes traveling downward as Roxas watched with an increasingly perturbed expression. "Cloud?"

He shook his head, lips thinning.

"Oh." Her gaze dropped back to the paperwork. "Ventu—"

"Roxas," he interjected. If Sora hadn't still been holding onto one hand, he'd've been tempted to cross both arms over his chest in outright frustration. God as his witness, these people were a full load of useless.

The woman's face flushed an impressive shade of rosy red, which Roxas noted with increasing annoyance. Before he could think of anything biting to say in response, she turned away from him. "This way," she said, her words resuming the same strained, over-optimistic pitch. "Your room's the third door on the right."

Following, Roxas pushed Sora's chair forward, pace slower, eyes traveling over his brother's widening grin.

They were shown into a standard hospital exam room and told someone would be in to see them shortly. In the meantime, Roxas watched as the reception attendant made a hasty exit, shutting the door so quickly the sharp sound of wood against metal induced a startled flinch, the reaction wholly involuntary on his part.

Sora's laughter reached him a second later.

Turning and dropping without ceremony into a plastic chair just about as uncomfortable as what had been out in the waiting room, arms finally afforded the opportunity to cross over his chest, Roxas made a genuine attempt at assessing whether Sora's laughter was an underlying effect of Xion's pain meds.

"Okay, clue me in here. What exactly's so funny about any of this?"

It took Sora another few seconds before he was calm enough to answer.

"She thought we were partners."

Roxas quirked his head, then echoed the word, expression blank. "Partners…?"

"Yeah." Sora grinned. "You know, like boyfriends."

Then, as if to further illustrate, Sora bunched his sweater sleeve up to mid-bicep, curled his fingertips until they rounded out to touch his thumb, and raised his hand to his mouth. He gave his wrist a few rhythmic flicks, tongue pressing in the same measured motion against his opposite cheek.

"Oh, for the love of…." Roxas stared, realization finally dawning. "Christ."

As Sora dissolved into another fit of helpless giggles, this time it was Roxas who hid his face in the cupped palms of his hands. It was Roxas who couldn't quite manage to stave off the rising flush of color as it crept with deliberate persistence from his neck and into both mutinous cheeks.

o - o

By the time Cloud called, Roxas was in the hospital cafeteria, burning time while Sora was off getting his leg x-rayed. Thanks to his brother, his finger sported a real splint of medical-grade materials, with new stark-white tape securing it in place. Leave it Sora to insist that the nurse attend to Roxas' injury first before he'd agreed to change into a hospital gown and get wheeled up to the radiology department.

Roxas supposed he also had Sora to thank for the quickly devised explanation as to why he had unprescribed narcotics in his system. The nurse hadn't been particularly happy about that admission while performing intake, had fixed him with a scrutinizing look the moment it'd been Roxas who'd had to provide the name of the drug when Sora had been unable to do so. Her natural line of inquiring follow-up had been to ask where he'd gotten the drugs in the first place.

While Roxas' mind had gone tabula rasa blank, it had been Sora who'd pointed toward his finger, then explained his gym accident and the reason Roxas had painkillers for him to use in lieu of his own.

Something told him he wasn't going to enjoy the inevitable conversation about where he'd actually gotten the meds when Sora was in a better position to call him out on it.

His phone vibrated right around the time he was disposing of his finished cup of watery hospital coffee, right about precisely after he'd gone and shoved the last bite of a shit and sawdust mulch-esque power bar into his mouth. Still chewing with barely contained revulsion as he waited in line to pay for a bag of crackers he planned to hand over to Sora, Roxas pulled out his wallet along with the phone, shrugging the latter up to his ear to balance it on one hunched shoulder.

"I just got your message." The tension in his brother's voice was unmistakable, but Roxas glossed over it without comment.

"Mmphook wou lugged nuft."

"Excuse me?"

With an eye roll aimed at no one in particular, Roxas swallowed the remainder of the half-chewed protein goo, then repeated himself.

"I said, it took you long enough."

A moment of uncomfortable silence passed between them during which Roxas envisioned a dark glower on Cloud's end before his brother spoke again.

"Where are you?"

Eyes idly passing over the Twilight Gardens logo emblazoned on a napkin he'd snatched from the condiment bar earlier, Roxas stepped up to the register and dropped the bag of crackers in front of the cashier.

"TG Memorial."

"What?"

"That'll be $2.99," the cashier said, eyeing Roxas with a bored look.

"Hold on a sec." Unable to keep the phone up to his ear and rummage through his wallet at the same time, Roxas dropped his shoulder and let the phone slide into one hand. He just vaguely heard words of muffled protest across the line, which he ignored as he passed a debit card emblazoned with Cloud's name on over to the cashier.

"This is highway robbery, I hope you know. The packaging says it's a buck less than that."

She swiped his card down the metallic payment strip, then turned to him, sliding the card back across the counter. "It's capitalism, honey, at least while you're on hospital property." She shot him an insincere smile. "Have a nice day."

Yeah, easier said than done on that last one. Curbing the urge to flip her off, Roxas ambled his way back into the cafeteria, finally starting to feel a nice jittery kick from the coffee. It might've tasted like distilled swamp muck, but he supposed caffeine was caffeine as long as it jumpstarted his idling mental faculties.

"Roxas!"

From the distance between the phone in his hand and his nearest ear, the word sounded like it'd been uttered in a low, angry hiss. Considering that same distance in practical terms, however, it was much more likely that Cloud had yelled, voice a deep, frustrated baritone.

He brought the phone back up to his ear.

"Hmm?"

"Why in God's great name did you take him all the way to Gardens?!"

Roxas jerked the phone away from his ear, wincing at the volume of his brother's voice. With a sigh, he waited a good long beat to make sure Cloud was finished before bringing the phone back up closer to his face.

"Because," he said, shoving a shoulder and hip up hard against the double doors that led back down toward the ER exam rooms. "I thought he might need an MRI and Traverse U doctors are shit for brains when it comes to orthopedic anything."

Expecting another ringing string of words, Roxas kept the phone a few inches away from himself, but his explanation seemed to have hit home with Cloud. For a moment, there was only silence on the other end.

"So," Roxas continued, holding the phone screen up in front of his mouth as he traipsed down one hall after another, avoiding patients in wheelchairs and nurses scurrying around like their hair'd been set on fire, "Mom was gone by the time I found out he was hurt, and as far as I could tell, you never came home after work so I was effectively stuck for alternatives."

The observation was stated in a level tone, without an ounce of accusation. Just the same, Roxas could hear the contrition in his brother's voice when he next spoke.

"I went to the workshop to meet with Leon. Stayed the night at his place because we lost track of time."

"Of course." Roxas' voice turned sage. "Young love. We all know how it goes. I hope you had the foresight to use a condom."

This time Cloud sputtered, a handful of unintelligible words meeting his ears as Roxas found himself unable to fully suppress a smug grin.

"You've got a comeback for everything, boy, don'tcha?" Cloud's voice was low, tone in no uncertain terms implying mere distance alone was the only reason Roxas was getting away with half of the snark he was doling out at present.

Before Roxas could dig himself deeper by calling his brother's inherent heterosexuality further into question, Cloud changed the subject.

"It was that serious though?"

Biting his lip as he thought through the best way to reply, Roxas balled his free hand into a fist, vaguely aware of the plastic crinkling that followed, a direct result of the bag of crackers he'd forgotten he was still holding.

"Dunno," he finally replied. "It looked bad enough to be broken, but you know how he is about admitting to injuries. I didn't wanna play twenty questions with him so I packed us up and took off quick."

"Right." He heard a long exhale on the other end of the line. "That was probably for the best, yeah."

Good. With that cleared up, it was time to talk practicals. "I can wrangle us both doctor notes, but you'll need to call the school so we don't get marked truant."

"I can do that." Cloud's voice sounded tired. Resigned. Roxas didn't bother to comment on it.

As he passed the waiting and reception area, Roxas slowed to a stop at the corner of the hall a few doors down from the room where Sora had been assigned. The door was cracked open, just as they'd left it, indicating Sora hadn't returned yet.

"And by the by, I pinched your emergency debit, 'cause we're gonna need to fill up the car when we head home. I hope you didn't spend your last paycheck all on smokes or shitty light beer six packs."

"There's plenty in there for gas." Cloud's tone held a hint of warning, and Roxas found himself assessing just how many caustic remarks he had remaining before the next day's newspaper headline was destined to report on a creative form of long-distance fratricide perpetuated by an overworked 20-something on his little shit of a high school senior teen brother.

"How much longer until you two can head home?"

"Dunno," Roxas said again, scooting close enough to his brother's exam room to officially confirm it actually was empty. "He got taken up to radiology about twenty minutes ago. Could be hours before an actual medical professional shows up."

"Then I'm coming to get you. I can drop you off at school and stop by the admin office at the same time."

If Roxas had still been sipping coffee, he'd have done a spit-take. "What? No!"

"What, yes." Cloud's voice was firm. "You're a few months out from graduating and we're not giving those people any reason to hold you back."

"I want to stay here with Sora. He needs me." His voice was inching toward a full-out whine, but Roxas didn't care. It wasn't about missing school this time. Cloud should've known that outright.

"What he needs is a doctor. Quit your complaining. I'll make sure someone's here with him after we head out."

"Who? You've got work tonight."

Cloud didn't respond immediately. Instead, Roxas heard the muffled sounds of two people speaking, as though his brother had covered the phone's speaker with his hand.

When he came back on the line, Cloud offered an answer. "Leon'll come with me so I can get you to school. Said he'll make sure Sora's comfortable and drive him back when the doctor's through examining him."

Roxas momentarily balked but recovered quickly enough to fire off an irate response. "Oh, you are not subjecting him to an hour car ride with Leon after the day he's had. Why not just send him to Gitmo if you feel like torturing him?" 

"Keep bitchin', I'll call in to work and make sure it's you Leon drives home. Want that instead?"

At that moment, Sora and a nurse came into view from around the hall's far corner, and Roxas clamped his mouth shut, turning to shoot an irritated look at no one in particular.

"I'll have you know this is grade-A bullshit no matter how thick you try'n slice it," he hissed back into the phone. "I've gotta go though. Get here quick, the both of you, how about?"

He dropped the call before he could get another earful from Cloud, this time for the overt subversion in his tone. Slipping the phone back into his pocket, Roxas sucked in a breath, then willed himself forward, down the hall, and back into the exam room.

Sora was being helped up onto a hybrid exam table-hospital bed, his leg wrapped in what looked like a larger version of the splint Roxas had recently acquired for his hand. Once situated, the attendant lifted a metal support bar on either side of him, Roxas watching as it clicked into a locked position. From the look on Sora's face as he tried to get comfortable, Roxas had a decent hunch that Xion's pills had already long past lost their effectiveness.

Just the same, Sora offered a polite smile in response to the murmured apology about the current wait-time to see an orthopedic specialist. Meanwhile, Roxas said nothing. At this point, he was too tired for niceties, had been for the better part of a year, come to think. He was also still irritated about the turn the conversation with Cloud had taken.

"Dr. Kimura will see you to go over the results of your x-rays as soon as she's available," the attendant continued, Roxas only half-listening as the woman gathered her paperwork and shuffled out of the room.

This time it was Sora who didn't respond. Roxas, in turn, took another breath in, then dropped his shoulders on the heels of a deep sigh. "I got ahold of Cloud. He should be here in about an hour or so with Le-" Finally noticing the stricken look on Sora's face, Roxas stopped mid-word.

"What?"

Sora swallowed and Roxas watched the rise and fall of his prominent Adam's apple as the muscles in his throat tensed up, then released in tandem. "I want a different doctor."

Roxas blinked, taken aback by the authoritative nature of his brother's statement. "Why?"

Sora shook his head but didn't elaborate. "Just, please, Roxas. Can you ask them to assign me someone else?"

Fingers rising to pinch the bridge of his nose, Roxas closed his eyes, trying to make sense of the request. His brain was slow, sluggish from an ongoing lack of sleep. Sora was usually so polite to whoever he got saddled with in these frequent ER scenarios, and he'd never made so much as a peep of complaint about anyone he'd been assigned to before.

Taking a moment to try to summon the words the attendant had spoken prior to her departure, his brain performed the mental version of a remonstrative flail.

Think, think, he goaded himself. He was trying to recall a couple fucking sentences of standard information, not an hour-long US history lecture; this shouldn't be so hard.

She'd mentioned the longer wait time, maybe, his mind offered. Okay, that was something.

Brought up the car pile-up, right? Yeah, definitely.

Something about the results of Sora's x-rays, too.

And, he finally realized, she'd given a name. Something that sounded vaguely familiar but foreign. A name too unpronounceable for him to have bothered committing to long-term memory a single week prior.

Eyes narrowing, Roxas fixed his brother with a critical look. "It's that new guy, isn't it? The transfer. That doctor is one of his parents."

Although he didn't speak, Sora seemed to shrink into himself, looking down, fingers curling into fists around the fabric of the UC Berkeley hoodie he'd apparently been holding onto since Roxas had first passed it to him in the waiting room.

"I just don't want him to know. At least not yet. Not secondhand."

The snide comment tickling the back of Roxas' throat dissolved in the face of Sora's increasingly wretched expression. He looked so small, seemed so vulnerable.

"You know, anyone who'd give two shits about this isn't worth even a minute of your time."

Sora shook his head again. He opened his mouth and Roxas waited for an additional explanation that never ended up coming. His eyes traveled over his brother, from the leg that was temporarily splinted but still visibly swollen to prominent kneecaps that peeked out from beneath an off-white hospital gown. He noted knobby elbows curling around the sweatshirt he'd pulled so close to his chest he had it nearly in an all-out hug. And a face, so much like his own, exhausted and slack, resigned to the physical discomfort he was likely still enduring this very second.

"Alright, fine." Roxas ran a hand through his hair. His fingers curled around a snarled cowlick. Frustrated, he tugged at it before turning toward the door. "I'll see what I can do."

Not waiting for a response, Roxas exited the exam room, heading in the direction opposite the cafeteria and intake area.

It'd been a few months since his last visit to Gardens' ER, but he was still adequately familiar with the hospital's layout, knew well enough that the nurses station would be his best bet at obtaining a doctor swap-out. There was also the added bonus of not having to overhear irate waiting room patrons closer to reception.

The nurses station was an oscillate wave of hospital scrubs, of blue and sea-foam green in equal numbers. Various medical professionals were present, some congregating around the raised counter, others rushing about, checking their schedules, passing clipboards back and forth, and answering persistently ringing internal phone lines. Roxas made his way up to the counter and sidled over to a seated woman with a nurses badged pinned to the chest pocket of her scrubs.

She hardly looked up at his approach.

"Reception is down the hall to your left."

Ignoring the implied directive, Roxas propped his arms up on the counter and took care to keep his tone relatively neutral. "We've already been assigned a room."

The woman glanced up, brows rising, as if silently telling him to get to the point. Curbing the urge to roll his eyes at the curt treatment and mentally bemoaning the waste of hard-earned taxpayer dollars when it came to county hospital customer service, Roxas quickly tried to figure out the best way to word his request.

"I'm trying to see about switching the doctor assigned to handle my brother's ankle injury today."

The woman looked back down, shuffling through a short stack of papers in front of her. "This isn't Pokemon cards, sweet-pea. You don't get to make trades."

Eyes slightly narrowing, Roxas tried again. "My brother's a regular. His usual attending should be examining him."

A flickered glance and the woman was looking up again. "And his name is…?"

"Sora." Now they were getting somewhere, Roxas ventured to hope. "Last name's Strife."

Pushing back from her chair, the woman rolled it over to a nearby computer, her hands a rapid-fire blur of typing a moment later. She looked up only once, to verify the name's spelling, before returning to the screen, a ring finger tabbing through so many screens of straight-up black background on blinding white text that Roxas' eyes were at risk of remaining permanently crossed by the end of it.

"His primary care physician isn't in today. Your brother was assigned to Dr. Ayumi Kimura who's performing ER rounds for orthopedic cases today."

Suppressing a frustrated sound before it could make its way out his mouth, Roxas offered a sharp nod. "I know. I'm asking if you can change it to someone else."

With a bored expression, the woman shrugged. "I can check. You should know that we're understaffed today because of the accident outside of Traverse though."

Considering these apathetic jackholes wouldn't let him forget it, he was well aware already, yeah.

Through sheer force of will and an unforgiving grind of teeth against the interior of his cheek, Roxas withheld his terse response. Personally, he didn't care if it'd been half of Cœur Paroisse that'd disappeared into a sinkhole at this point. He was tired, irritable, and just wanted to get this over with, knowing this request was the only modicum of comfort he could extend to Sora in their current situation.

At least potentially, anyway.

Watching as she disappeared into a back area, Roxas thrummed his injured finger hard against the plastic counter, trying to jog some sense into the sludge between his ears that had the audacity to pass itself off as brain matter at present. The new splint held up, was reinforced enough that he hardly felt anything from the action.

Awesome.

Despite his best efforts to keep his mind a level blank, he couldn't help but think that life wasn't meant to be this god-awful hard. Not for him, or Cloud. Not for Sora especially. His brother deserved this least of absolute all.

He's sick, frèr. That's all. Çé ça mo yê osi.

Roxas froze, wrist against the counter, fingers extended mid-thrum in the air.

God Almighty, please not now. He really didn't have the mental resources to deal with the girl on top of juggling myriad medical personnel.

Tensing a little, Roxas looked around, bleary eyes scanning the area for a flapper dress, for hair that toed the line between blonde and opaline white.

The hospital color scheme was similar to her usual attire. With vision already blurring the edges of objects even only a few feet away from him, and countless patients moving around in billowing off-white gowns, it would've been easy to miss the girl. In that sense, even though he hadn't seen her, Roxas wasn't convinced she wasn't somewhere nearby, possibly watching him, maybe waiting for the right moment to speak again.

"Are you there?" The question was whispered, but Roxas knew she'd be able to hear it. Knowing whether she'd reply was another matter entirely.

"Sir?"

Roxas heard the word, even marginally processed that it might be directed at him. Just the same, he didn't turn, still lost in the fog of thoughts about the girl, about Sora. Of how it seemed that his mere existence was ruining just about everything he came into contact with on such a consistent basis.

The tap on his shoulder caught his attention in a way that the salutation effectively hadn't.

Starting something noticeable, Roxas whirled, half-convinced the girl had somehow manifested corporeally.

Instead, it was another woman who stood before him. Nearby, on the other side of the counter, the nurse he'd first spoken to returned to her seat. A light tinkling of adolescent laughter reached his ears, its cadence otherworldly but familiar.

Neither woman was smiling at him, not even slightly. Yet Roxas felt as if he was being viewed with considerable ridicule. It left him nervy, more liable to snap at the smallest perceived provocation.

He shot both women an impatient look.

The newcomer stepped forward, introduced herself by her name and title. She was an interim administrator, in charge of patient scheduling something-or-another. "I was informed you'd requested a change in doctors?"

Roxas nodded but said nothing, wondering how many times he was going to have to repeat himself before the day was through.

"Unfortunately, the primary physician overseeing your brother's care here is out today. Dr. Kimura is a well regarded orthopedic specialist, however, and I can offer you personal assurances that Sora will be in excellent hands…"

While the woman continued extolling the virtues of his new classmate's mother, Roxas was quick to come to the conclusion that he was ultimately going to be screwed in being able to grant Sora's request if he didn't do something fast. Something possibly drastic.

"Look," he said, effectively cutting her off mid-sentence. "I don't care what third world country that woman got her degree from."

As the woman's face morphed from polite into an expression of caught off-guard surprise, Roxas bit back the urge to frown at the vitriol laced in the sentiment he'd just uttered. He may not have been one hundred percent amenable to outsiders showing up unannounced in Radiant Hollow but his full sum concern about where they'd moved from was less a positive integer than an outright, unequivocal zero.

But if being outwardly antagonistic was the path that'd get him closer to his ultimate goal and keep Sora happier in the process, Roxas was determined to barrel his way on down it, unmindful of the potential for third party collateral.

"Oh, she's not from-"

"And I frankly don't give a shit about her fancy, big city credentials," he continued, speaking over her explanation calmly but in a firm enough tone that the woman didn't seem inclined to talk above him. Drawl thickening as he got more into character, Roxas briefly wondered what Hayner would say if he could see his friend perpetuating such an overt stereotype of redneck-belligerent in such a public setting.

Oh well. Whatever.

"I don't want her anywhere near my brother," he said, tone leaving no room for argument. "Now go do the job you're gettin' paid for, how about, and reassign him to a white doctor."

He considered tacking on a comment about Aryan pride just for good measure, but from the looks of increasing discomfort on both women's faces, what he'd already said seemed to be having the desired effect.

Well, Roxas mused. If there was a hell, he was pretty sure he had already met its entry requirements long ago for any number of minor offenses. Might as well seal his fate this afternoon and add a dose of unbridled racism to his growing list of outright transgressions against the South's vision of a more egalitarian version of humanity. Kumbaya, motherfuckers.

He just hoped Sora never got wind of this, because in no uncertain terms, Roxas knew this wouldn't go over well with his brother, no matter how much he wanted to avoid seeing his friend's mother.

The scheduler cleared her throat, eyes traveling just about everywhere in the vicinity except to Roxas in front of her. "We'll, um. I'll see what can be done."

Yeah, Roxas thought. Thanks. You do that.

With one last uncertain glance his way, the woman retreated to a back office and Roxas was finally able to breathe a sigh of something akin to relief.

The girl's laughter filtered in around him again but this time Roxas accepted it, giving it purchase to engulf his auditory senses as he trudged on back toward Sora's exam room.

At least someone was finding humor in this situation, he thought darkly. It was just unfortunate it didn't happen to even remotely be him.

o - o

Six hours of waiting, half a dozen medical professionals cycling through at bare minimum, approaching near to thirty straight hours without adequate sleep, and Roxas was finding it difficult to concentrate on anything beyond the most crucial of happenings in the exam room around him.

There was the doctor (conspicuously not a new classmate's orthopedic specialist mother and very much a white guy), his resident assistant (who kept eyeing Sora like he was Christ's second coming of medical enigmas), and the X-ray results themselves (a dislocation rather than outright fracture). There was also the buzzing in his head, the sound of fluttering within his ears. The off-kilter sense that if he shifted even slightly from his place beside his brother's bed the floor might crumble away under his feet and leave him flailing, free-falling indefinitely.

There was also the relief when Sora was finally put on an IV, when the expression of physical discomfort ceded back to something more undefined and glassy-eyed, although the way his fingers rubbed nervous little circles against the cuff of the hoodie still in his possession wasn't lost on Roxas. He supposed he should just be relieved that holding onto that sweatshirt seemed to be providing some form of comfort and leave it at that.

Because this wasn't Sora's first dislocation; by extension, this scenario wasn't new for Roxas either. They understood the upcoming procedure, were both aware of its potential for added physical torment. The sedative would keep Sora calmer, at least. It'd help ensure he didn't tense as much during the resetting process.

It wouldn't keep him from avoiding the pain of a drawn-out recovery though. And it didn't do shit-all to soften the blow of knowing there was a very real chance this could happen again.

And again and again, just like Sora had been contending with for the past eighteen years — and, by necessary extension, the Strife family as a whole kept getting taken along for the ride as well.

Roxas watched the proceedings around him without really processing the doctor's explanation to Sora, without registering the presences of new assistants entering the room. At one point, he stood, probably at the request of someone on Sora's medical team. Later, he'd have no memory of who had spoken or if he'd moved into position by Sora's right shoulder out of residual habit. He saw his brother's splint removed, and he eyed the swollen, purpled skin of Sora's ankle without an ounce of squeamishness.

Through it all, Roxas couldn't help but wonder why it had to be Sora. Why did these sorts of insurmountable trials always end up happening to the people who deserved them least of all?

Or, even, why couldn't it have been him dealing with all this instead?

We're sick, mokin frèr. You're not.

He belongs here. You don't.

Roxas already knew. This time, in his current detached frame of mind, he didn't jolt, made no indication he'd heard her at all. He was resigned to let the girl speak her truths, to let them settle and spread through his limbs until they were just as much a part of him as the scars that prickled his war-torn skin.

A light touch brought him out of his thoughts, fingers brushing against the back of his hand, then twining themselves into his. Roxas looked down, studied the olive skin and compared it with the pale surface of his own. Eventually, his gaze moved to Sora, and blue eyes locked on their genetic match. Sora's were slightly unfocused but Roxas knew his brother was cogent enough to know what was going on. The tightening grip against his own hand that accompanied a soft joint-popping sound was further evidence of that vexing lucidity.

The sound was so subtle, it almost didn't seem worthy of association with the pain it brought along with it. It forced Roxas back to the afternoon he'd reset his own finger while waiting for the nurse in the school's admin office. He remembered the intermittent heat that spread up his forearm then back on down, recalled the growing knowledge that it should have hurt a hell of a lot more than his nerves had bothered to interpret for his mind to throw back at him.

As Sora squeezed his eyes shut, as he swallowed back a choked moan only half-successfully stifled, Roxas found himself wishing he'd moved to the other side of the bed. At least then his brother would've been gripping onto his own injured digit so they could in some way share this moment of unadulterated physical misery.

"Almost there," the doctor said, voice a low murmur. "You're doing great."

Exhaling a long, shuddered breath, eyes still closed, Sora's expression fell at the realization that they weren't done yet. His grip on Roxas' hand started to go slack.

It was Roxas who kept Sora's hand from loosening further this time, Roxas who offered a squeeze of supportive reassurance.

Running his tongue across dry lips, he took a breath in and forced himself to regain some of his wandering focus.

"Hey." The word rang unnaturally loud in the relative silence of the exam room, and Roxas momentarily faltered at the sound of his own voice. Annoyed with the current state his own high-strung disposition, Roxas forged on with increased purposefulness.

"Remember the keyblades?"

Sora's eyes fluttered at the question and Roxas saw oceans in them, shades deeper than Gulf Coast teal. He saw blue undulating, a gentle swell of shimmering waves that rose and fell in tune with the trembling that reverberated from Sora's body into Roxas' arm via the connection of their hands.

It's okay to cry. I know it hurts.

These were words he should be offering his brother, calm and encouraging. Instead, Roxas heard them in Sora's voice, remembered a time not so long ago when their positions had been effectively opposite. Back then, hardly a year ago, it'd been him holding in tears from the pain of a dislocated elbow. It'd been Roxas who'd had to grapple with a newfound understanding about how little IV sedatives truly ebbed the physical agony of a bone resetting into its proper, jointed position.

"Do you remember them?" Roxas asked again, determined to keep Sora's attention on him rather than directed at what was happening at his feet. "Do you remember the other worlds?"

Sora was looking at him, brows slightly furrowed as though trying to render the question into consequential meaning.

Slowly, he nodded. "Your favorite was Neverland."

"Yeah. And you thought that was a boring choice." Despite himself, Roxas' lips twitched into a slight grin.

Beside him, the corners of Sora's mouth rose into an attempt at a responding smile, quivering a little with the effort. Another soft pop and the expression dissolved. Blue eyes closed. This time, Sora didn't let go of his brother's hand, despite the strangled sound that worked its way up and out from the back of his throat.

The doctor sat back, surveyed Sora's ankle. "All done, although I'm going to put in an order for an MRI to ensure there's no soft tissue damage."

A nurse moved forward, new splint in hand, as the doctor stepped back and began a series of questions associated with the procedure that his resident was posed to answer. TG Memorial was a teaching hospital, Roxas knew. Generally, he was fine with it too. Right now though, he didn't want his brother hearing a play-by-play walkthrough of what had just occurred.

Reaching forward, he slid his free hand through Sora's hair, gently rubbing a soothing motion into an area of his brother's scalp. He noted the tremors as well as the tears, twin trails running down either side of his brother's face, but said nothing to bring attention to them.

"You were always more into the Pridelands, right?"

Sora's shaking slowed at the sound of Roxas' voice, his tremors gradually subsiding, although he didn't initially speak. A flash of movement and Roxas looked up in time to see a nurse swapping out the IV bag with another, probably a stronger sedative that would finally let Sora get some true rest until he got called up to orthopedics for his MRI. She took her leave from the room a moment later along with the rest of the attending ER staff.

"And Atlantica."

The words were quiet, voice soft but sure of itself. In that moment, Roxas wanted nothing more than to slide into bed with his brother, to curl up next to him and listen to his breathing become increasingly deeper, to feel the lingering tension start to drain out of his body.

Even though they were alone now, Roxas knew it wasn't realistic, that it'd just increase the likelihood of disturbing Sora when he inevitably had to get up and leave with Cloud.

He bent forward, the motion a little awkward with the metal bar of Sora's bed rising between them. Placing a light kiss against Sora's temple, Roxas inhaled his brother's familiar scent. It was sweat left over from his labored exertions earlier, and salty tears with just a hint of lavender, a reminder of their mother's body wash that Sora favored over the bar soap both of his brothers trended toward using during showers instead.

"I hate this…"

The words were quiet, the register in which they were spoken so genderless that Roxas hardly heard them, at first thinking the girl might have returned to him. He moved his face a few inches away, enough to see that Sora's eyes were cracked, slivers of blue against long lashes and flushed skin.

Roxas swallowed, emotion thickening the muscles in his throat. "I know."

I hate it too.

He straightened, saw Sora's eyes open a margin further as his brother fought against encroaching lethargy.

"I'm not leaving yet," Roxas said, his voice soothing, smooth. He turned, reached for the chair and slid it closer, then looked back at Sora. His brother's eyes were already closing again, their focus steadily abating before shutting completely.

Roxas pushed his chair as close to his brother's bed as possible, then saw Sora reach out, arm sliding between the metal grate, searching. Seeking completion.

He took his brother's fingers, guided them closer to his lap, held them between both of his hands as he rested his head on the bar that separated them. Only then did he allow himself to close his own eyes, to breathe a little easier and let his consciousness start drifting.

This was the scene Cloud entered into by the time he and Leon arrived at TG Memorial, both siblings sleeping in different positions, hands entwined together. This was the position from which he woke Roxas, his younger brother blinking himself back to awareness, expression speaking volumes more than any snarky remark could ever hope to. Without a word, Cloud followed Roxas' movement, watched as his brother reached for his school bag and transferred Sora's cell phone to Leon. Roxas turned back to Sora only once, to spread out an unfamiliar college logo hoodie from his neck down to his waist. In enduring silence, the two of them left Leon to watch over Sora, one mentally preparing to take on high school admin bureaucracy, the other resigned to try his best to get through the final two periods of school in as close to one mentally sound piece as possible.

Chapter Text


"I'm sure we both know
that we can get through these days with
some words that I wrote
and some that we choose to say
It's hard now to live out all
the days caught in between
where we are and where we hope to be."
"Ideas" - The Title


He was running out of creative ways to avoid Seifer, albeit not for a lack of honest-to-god trying. On Tuesday, it had been as simple as gathering his street clothes, hustling out of the locker room in a record ninety seconds, and changing in a restroom closer to study hall. On Wednesday, it'd involved a strategically timed approach to their gym teacher to discuss the possibility of using the school's swimming pool and keeping him talking until well after Seifer and company had vacated the locker room.

Thursday's variation on avoidance in three parts was a direct result of the conversation in gym on Wednesday. Anyone wanting to use Radiant High's swimming facilities was required to take a swim test, he'd been informed. The school seemed disinclined to want to deal with the prospect of student drownings. Riku figured a basic skills assessment was a fair enough compromise in that regard.

He'd been given permission to take the test over his normal sixth period gym class. Just like that, Riku had found another means of skirting around the prospect of being cornered by Seifer, however inadvertent.

At this point, Riku would take what he could get and be content not to complain about it.

The test also necessitated another student's presence — that of Radiant High's swim team captain who'd be evaluating him. Riku had learned soon after that the head of RHSH's competitive swim team was none other than Tidus.

Riku guessed he could see it, Tidus as captain of the school's varsity swim team, although he couldn't honestly say he'd put much thought into the extracurricular interests of any of his classmates. He'd been too focused on trying to navigate the social ropes at a new school, too distracted by thoughts of Sora's continued absence, to further his goal of getting to know others on campus.

That included Tidus. It covered Selphie and Wakka too, as well as Hayner and his usual group of friends. While Riku had been tempted to try his hand at accepting Pence's standing invitation to sit with them again during lunch, he wasn't sure he could trust himself around Roxas enough not to start rooting around for more information about Sora.

It'd been hard enough to keep his mouth shut around Kairi and just hope she'd say something informative during the few words they exchanged at the beginning and end of each study hall period. As it currently stood, Kairi really hadn't.

Because Sora's texts weren't giving him any clues. Nevertheless, Riku had reread every single one on multiple occasions. He'd tried to connect the words Sora was choosing to divulge about his illness with the knowledge of assorted medical conditions he'd been researching online. This meant revisiting messages that were days old just to see if there was something he might have missed.

As far as Riku could tell, there was nothing.

Riku still enjoyed texting with Sora; his classmate's messages were sharply observant, articulately worded. The more humorous exchanges also tended to bring a silly smile to his face in places he probably shouldn't have a silly smile on it, and they provided a minor respite from worrying about Seifer's continued attempts to "have a little chat", not to mention Hayner's persistent stoniness whenever their gazes had the misfortune of crossing the same sightline.

It was just too bad Sora's messages couldn't save him from the extended periods at school when he couldn't check his phone, when he had to resign himself to listening to academic lectures with questionable factuality and participate in science lab sessions he vaguely remembered having completed in ninth and tenth grade already.

There were also periods of silence, times when he wouldn't get a text from Sora for hours on end. It was those yawning conversational chasms that worried Riku the most. None had been as large as Monday's nearly day-long gap, but there were times when Sora's response time would noticeably lapse. Riku supposed Sora might be resting. Despite his uncertainty about whether it was a head cold or an unfortunate case of food poisoning that was actually ailing his classmate, either would provide a reasonable excuse to need to go silent on occasion.

Riku'd never heard of a head cold keeping someone out of school for the better part of a week, though, and wasn't food poisoning generally short-lived? He'd always thought so.

It was these types of troubling thoughts that he was pondering on his way toward the locker room when Riku collided with another student who had stopped abruptly in front of him — someone with all-too-familiar blond hair, blue eyes, and monochromatic arm bands winding from his wrists all the way up to his elbows. Someone who also hadn't exactly gone out of his way to be friendly to him or acknowledge his existence all week.

"Shit," he said, the word associated both with the identity of the student as much as his own blatant inattention. Riku took a step back, tucked a section of wayward hair back behind his ear. "Sorry about that."

Although Roxas looked up, he said nothing, offered no snarky remarks. His expression remained impassive. While his eyes met Riku's without reservation, there was a vacant, closed-off quality to the look that was unnerving.

Shuffling to one side and around his classmate, uttering another murmured apology, Riku increased his pace toward the locker room, his hand rising to the strap of his messenger back, as though seeking something to steady itself with.

Yeah, asking Roxas about Sora was definitely out of the question. Roxas seemed to have an uncanny knack for throwing Riku off-kilter, whether or not he was doing it with any ounce of sentient intention.

Entering the locker room, Riku made his way past changing students at their lockers with determined purpose. Vaguely, he noted Seifer and his company of friends off in one corner of the room, could even feel eyes on him as he disappeared into the shower and bathroom area. Locking the door to the handicapped stall, Riku dropped his bag and rummaged through it until he found one of the swim bottoms he used to wear during polo practice back in San Francisco. Maybe it was a little cowardly to get changed in a bathroom stall, but under the circumstances, Riku figured this was the simplest way to ensure Seifer didn't catch him unawares while he was in a vulnerable position.

Once changed, he waited out the sounds of students filtering from the locker room, their voices echoing in the narrow corridor that connected the changing area to the indoor gymnasium. Only when the last remnant sounds of shuffling footsteps faded entirely did Riku emerge, street clothes and messenger bag in hand. He dropped his belongings off at the locker he'd been assigned, eyes scanning the room to ensure no one had remained behind waiting for him, then returned to the shower area for his usual pre-swimming routine.

This area was empty too, and Riku entered the showers feeling encouraged at the thought of getting to swim again, even if just for a basic skills assessment. The moment the shower's water hit his head, the moment it began running down his shoulders and back, tension began to drain out of his shoulders. It even reduced the enduring ache in the muscles of his neck.

He wasn't concerned about the swimming test. Not really. Riku had been swimming for as long as he could remember, first in private classes with his friends thanks to their parents' exclusive fitness club affiliations, then as a member of his middle school's swim team. Then it was water polo the moment he got to high school. He'd even braved the bitter iciness of Pacific waters along the Northern California coast, mostly on dares from friends during trips to the smattering of beaches just a few miles north of San Francisco proper. He could hold his breath underwater for over two minutes, as needed, didn't even mind opening his eyes despite the prospect of stinging chlorine. Anything Tidus wanted him to do to pass this thing, Riku was pretty confident he could handle.

Twisting the shower's knob to off, Riku shook his head, then pulled his hair up and secured it behind his head with a thin elastic band before making his way over to the door labeled with a sign indicating the way to the Radiant High's swimming pool.

With its bland cement interior and school logo made up of paint half peeled away a few decades after its original application, Radiant High's aquatics center wasn't anything to write home about. For the purposes of Riku's current interests, which he hadn't yet defined beyond getting back in the water after two weeks off now and counting, it'd serve its purpose just fine, however.

Pausing beneath the pool area's entranceway, Riku scanned the space, first noting the one and three meter diving springboards at a section of the pool separate from the standard lap area, then taking in the yellowing spectator bleachers directly across from him, along with the rope and hard plastic lane lines that divided the pool lengthwise. With peeling paint, uneven concrete underfoot, and scummy overhead lighting, this looked nothing like his school's recently updated swimming facilities. Nevertheless, there remained a certain level of comfort associated with the familiar short course competitive standard pool size that he was by now well accustomed to.

There appeared to be a class of younger students taking place, maybe sophomores or juniors, which was why Riku initially overlooked Tidus at the far end of the pool. It was the flash of movement indicating his classmate's beckoning wave that ultimately caught Riku's attention.

Making his way toward Tidus, Riku glanced at the swim class, noting that some of the students were making attempts at performing what appeared to be the butterfly — or possibly a really awkward version of breast stroke. It was hard to say, given all the extraneous arm flailing that was happening.

So, when Hayner'd said the school's focus and funding went into team sports, it seemed safe to assume swimming wasn't top on the list among the viable athletic tracks, Riku hazarded to guess.

Dressed in a pair of long swim trunks and a plain white tank top, a worn wooden clipboard in hand, Tidus nodded as Riku came to a stop next to him. They exchanged one word greetings before Tidus looked down at what Riku could just make out as being a short checklist that looked like it'd been printed off an actual typewriter, then Xeroxed for ten years straight until the ink was only a shade darker than the paper itself.

"Coach said you wanted to use the pool during open hours."

Riku directed his gaze up, away from the checklist. "Yeah."

Glancing over at the splashing throngs of underclassmen, Tidus raised his brows. "What's your experience level?"

Riku followed his classmate's line of sight and considered how much he should say. Ultimately opting for brevity in favor of oversharing, he answered with a succinct, "I was on my school's water polo team before I moved here."

"This shouldn't be that hard then."

As Tidus spoke, he moved closer to the edge of the diving section, Riku following a few steps behind. He watched as Tidus pulled out a pencil from under the clipboard's metal fastener, before looking back up at him.

"Ready? The first requirement is just to jump into the water."

Tempted to make a joke and ask if he got extra points for style, Riku ultimately decided to err on the side of caution and keep the words to himself. He made up the remaining distance from Tidus and the pool's edge, noting the cement likely worn smooth by decades of teenage feet, by hands using fingers to grip as they pulled adolescent frames out of chlorinated depths.

He entered the pool without ceremony, feet first, arms by both sides. Riku let the initial shock of cold pool water engulf him, savored the rush of bubbles that rose around his face, feeling their oxygenated effervescence as they passed through tendrils of loose hair hovering weightless above him. Pausing only a moment to open his eyes, to appreciate the soundless vacuum of calm ten feet of vertical watery extent afforded him, Riku relaxed his shoulders, stretched his arms out on either side of him, then scissor-kicked his way back to the surface to receive his next instructions from Tidus.

The test was straightforward, simple, just as Riku'd anticipated. It started with him treading water for a minute, then being tasked with retrieving a small weighted ring thrown down to the bottom of the pool. From there, it was just one lap of freestyle across the pool's twenty-five meters, half the length across which Riku had once competed during swim meets and IM relays prior to switching his focus to polo during his freshman year.

Tidus didn't say much throughout the test, simply went down the list in front of him, ticking off brief marks with his pencil after Riku completed each exercise. Before long he was nodding, seemingly satisfied, following the action up with a murmured, "all done."

Pushing himself half out of the water on locked elbows, Riku swung one leg over the pool's edge, knee momentarily bent before he straightened and rose to a standing position. Water streamed downward as he reached both hands up to tuck loose strands of hair behind both ears, then wrung the excess water out of the hair still secured behind his head.

He looked over at Tidus, realized his classmate was studying him quietly.

"This close to the Gulf, I'm guessing everyone can swim pretty well." It was a comment meant to elicit a simple reply, a safe topic, mere smalltalk to break silence that could easily lapse from comfortable to awkward if allowed to linger too long.

A small smile formed in response, Tidus' gaze moving to the flailing theatrics of the class still taking place on the other side of the pool. "You might be surprised."

With a light jerk of his head, Tidus started moving, his plastic flip-flops faintly thrumming against the pads of his feet as he walked. Riku followed a few steps behind him.

"Open swim is Thursdays after school, but it was cancelled today." As he spoke, Tidus shifted the clipboard, holding it in one hand against the side of his hip. "You obviously passed with flying colors, so I'll get the paperwork submitted to make it official. But yeah, feel free to come next week and do laps, dive, or whatever you want."

"Cool, thanks." Riku felt a modicum of relief in knowing the test really had been as simple as he'd been anticipating. He hadn't truly thought Tidus would be unfair in assessing his swimming abilities, but after a handful of days interacting with him only on the most superficial of levels, Riku hadn't really known what to expect. What he did know was he'd been missing getting to swim on a regular basis. Polo season was long over, but it'd become routine to swim at least a few days after school every week, to spend time with other swimming enthusiasts among his former school peers if only to be able to counter Kadaj's teasing claims of him being a complete social recluse since his main other extracurricular interest involved holing up in front of a computer at home.

Now he'd have that outlet again, at least one afternoon a week. Now, Riku hoped, he'd have something to focus on apart from what was going on with Sora. That said, the irony wasn't lost on him that it'd been at Sora's suggestion that he'd even considered asking about using the school swimming pool in the first place.

Anyway. No need to dwell on that. This was good. This was a positive turn of events.

"So…" As they approached the locker room entrance, Tidus slowed. "How long have you been swimming like that?"

Riku paused, not quite sure what Tidus was asking. "Like …on a school team?"

Glancing over him, Tidus nodded, expression still a measure of neutrality that Riku couldn't read one way or the other.

"I started in middle school, then joined the water polo team as a freshman when I got to high school."

"Ah." With another nod, Tidus turned back, began to walk into the main locker room. They were early, and if Riku hurried he thought he might be able to shower off, switch back into street clothing, and make a hasty exit before Seifer and the others returned from the neighboring gymnasium.

Still, the tone of Tidus' inquiry left a sense of incompleteness to the conversation they'd been having. As they both entered the bathroom and shower area, Riku slowed to a stop and quirked his head, fixing his gaze on his classmate. "Why do you ask?"

Tidus didn't stop, but he turned his head enough for Riku to catch a subtle smile in profile. "I was just thinking about how we might not've placed dead last at State this year if you'd ended up moving here a few months earlier."

Before Riku could form a response that didn't give away his surprise at the comment, Tidus had already skirted around the corner that led toward the assigned lockers, leaving him not only to shower off on his own but also to consider the revelation that some people might truly be starting to warm up to him at this school after all.

o - o

In Riku's estimation, the level of perfume Kairi was wearing in study hall should have warranted immediate disciplinary action — or at least a firm directive toward the nearest restroom to wash some of it off with absolutely zero room for optional pitstops.

It was times like these he was grateful his mother had always been uninterested in wearing what amounted to nothing less in Riku's mind than an overt form of airborne chemical warfare. Because, as it stood, the scent Kairi was currently sporting was having an alarmingly astringent effect on his otherwise healthy lungs.

As was becoming the usual norm since their group had been reduced from three to two, they sat beside each other at their standard library table, schoolbooks and notepads out, pencils and pens prepped to help when rote lesson memorization from straight-up reading ultimately started to fail them. Four days into the week and already finding himself ahead in most of his classes, study hall was getting increasingly monotonous for Riku without Sora's bubbly presence. Before long, he found his attention drifting, away from a mathematics assignment that wasn't due for almost a week, back toward a personal project he and his friend Neku had been in the middle of back home prior to the upheaval that followed in the direct aftermath of his move to Radiant Hollow.

But first, yet another iPhone check for text messages.

In keeping with his resolve not to be too invasive in his own line of topic choices, Riku had mostly let Sora lead each e-conversation throughout the week. Their latest exchange of back-and-forth messages had revolved around Kairi, with Sora trying to use Riku as a sounding board to help figure out where to go to celebrate her upcoming eighteenth birthday.

Considering the only things in this town Riku was even remotely familiar with involved school and his family's rental home, he hadn't been able to offer much by way of suggestions. Nevertheless, he'd proposed an alternative prior to his swim test, offering to meet Sora at his home sometime over the weekend and help him brainstorm ideas in person.

He was willing to admit to himself, at least, that the suggestion might have had more to do with wanting to see Sora than any real interest in throwing the perfect party for Kairi.

Sora had yet to respond to that last message. Not for the first time in the span of four prolonged school days, Riku found himself wondering if he should be worried by this latest lengthy silence during a time of day Sora was usually pretty chatty.

Determined to do something at least marginally productive that didn't involve worrying about whether he'd said something wrong in his last text, Riku pushed his math book away, then made a grab for his notepad. Flipping to a blank page, he stopped for a moment, trying to remember where exactly he and Neku had left off with their side project a few weeks ago.

Riku bit the metal ferrule at the end of his pencil and tried to focus his thoughts. Since the project was what effectively constituted a web app they'd been hand-coding for the better part of six months, figuring out where to pick up with it would have been considerably easier if he'd had a laptop in front of him. He considered accessing the online repository where his code was stored via iPhone, but nixed the idea just as quickly. One, it'd be a pain to read on such a small screen. Two, he'd be tempted to return to his text messages and skim everything he'd received in the last handful of days from Sora. Again.

It really shouldn't have been so hard to maintain a modicum of focus. Forget Kadaj. Maybe he was the one with an undiagnosed attention deficit problem.

With a harried sigh, Riku leaned forward and began to sketch out a basic model-view-controller diagram. If he couldn't remember exactly where he'd left off, he could at least refresh his memory on what features had been already added.

Still, he couldn't entirely let go of the feeling that this was an utter waste of his time, that his mental faculties were better spent elsewhere today, pretty much anywhere but on this. After the Sora-free week he'd been having, the realization rankled.

He noticed Kairi's change in position as she leaned in closer to him by the sudden increase in repugnant fragrance more than the result of any actual movement on her part.

"I thought you were on the basketball unit in gym."

Riku glanced up from his notebook and hoped to god his eyes didn't start outright watering.

"We are." He eyed what looked like a fresh layer of makeup and the addition of hoop earrings that seemed to dwarf the already diminutive features of her face. "Why?"

Scrunching her nose slightly, Kairi shrugged. "Because you smell like pool chemicals instead of your usual showered off sweat."

And you smell like you doused yourself in Walmart fragrance from the red-tag clearance aisle. What's your point?

Biting his tongue in an effort to keep the mean-spirited thought to himself, Riku turned both to take in a perfume-free breath and settle his internal annoyance long enough to find a zen mental place before responding.

"I was taking an assessment so I could do the open swim session after school."

"With Tidus?"

Kairi's expression changed, seemed to become more keen on what he was saying. For someone who gave off an air of effortless indifference on par with Roxas more frequently than not, to Riku the change was marked.

He nodded. "It's on Thursdays after school. Just not today, apparently."

Gaze drifting away from him, Kairi mimicked his nod. Her attentiveness seemed to dissolve just as quickly as it had appeared, until her eyes ultimately returned to the textbook in front of her.

Not particularly eager to return to his notebook scrawls, Riku decided to try to try another angle with Kairi and just hope it didn't get himself bitchslapped seven ways until Sunday, or whatever that expression Roxas had uttered last week encompassed.

"You're pretty dressed up for a school day. Did I miss Radiant High's version of a Project Runway talent show or something?"

The question got her attention, which had been his aim. The exaggerated eye roll that implied just how lame she thought his observation had been was just an added bonus, he supposed.

"I'm going out on the town tonight," she said, apparently willing to throw him a verbal bone after all. "Didn't want to go home and change before, that's all."

Suppressing the urge to ask how one went 'out on the town' when there wasn't much by way of a town here to speak of, Riku cocked his head, expression turning arch. "I'm guessing Sora's not part of this 'out on the town' equation."

"You guess right." Again, that cautious look of discerning scrutiny he'd seen a few days ago resurfaced as Kairi eyed him. When Riku didn't immediately offer up a response, she turned back to her book. This time, eyes fixed on one spot on the page in particular, Riku noted that she didn't seem to be actually reading anything.

Maybe he should have returned to his own project for the remainder of the hour. But Riku was curious, maybe even a little emboldened by Tidus' recent words of praise after his swim test. Whatever the case, he was feeling reckless enough to pose the inquiry that had been on his mind a lot more than it probably should've been for the past full week.

"Because he's still sick with that stomach bug, or because you're going somewhere it'd be hard to navigate on crutches?"

Kairi's head whipped up so quickly Riku was surprised he hadn't heard her neck crack in overt protest from the wrenching motion. She was regarding him now again, her expression a visible melange of guarded and …something else. It was something that if Riku didn't know any better he might actually call fearful.

Whatever the case, it looked out of place filtering across her usually more self-assured expression.

Interesting, he supposed, except he wasn't done with his line of questioning yet.

"Or, sorry, was it a head cold? I keep forgetting, since I've heard so many different versions of the same story."

That seemed to do the trick, although Riku wasn't certain what exactly he'd accomplished beyond being a little sarcastic. Just the same, Kairi's expression transformed; the uncertainty dissolved, rearranged itself into something much more formidable.

"Okay, Sherlock." Eyes narrowing, Kairi folded her arms one over the other. Without comment, Riku took in a newly painted shade of garish nail polish purple as she leaned back in her chair and regarded him. "What do you think you know?"

Although her voice was lowered to a soft whisper to account for the librarian, Riku noted the underlying steeliness in the words she'd just spoken.

"I saw you both on your way to the pick-up area at school last week." Just like Kairi, Riku kept his tone quiet so his voice wouldn't travel. "I wasn't sure if I should bring it up in study hall or at the party on Friday, so I didn't. And Sora hasn't been around this week, so it's not like I could ask him."

At first, Kairi said nothing, and they sat together a few moments in silence simply eyeing one another, the quiet rustling of paper and scratching of pencils the only sounds within discernible earshot.

Despite himself, Riku found his gaze drifting, thoughts following shortly after. They turned away from Kairi who didn't seem particularly eager to engage him or explain anything further, back to the people at home, friends who he'd known since childhood. None of them would ever have imagined keeping this big of a secret from him. So why did Sora feel such an apparent need?

Part of him knew that he wasn't entitled to information about Sora's personal life, not from Sora and especially not from Kairi. He hadn't known either of them before two weeks ago. But that logical part of him was being surpassed by his growing frustration, coupled with a mix of disconcerting feelings for Sora that he was still having trouble working out and the quiet admission that he had never been predisposed to rationality in moments of heightened emotionality anyway.

"Don't treat him different because of this, y'hear me?"

Unceremoniously jolted from his preoccupied thoughts, Riku spared Kairi the briefest of wary glances. It was enough to see her expression set and resolute next to him, a look that unequivocally implied it wouldn't be worth the effort to argue with her. Riku inhaled deeply again before he remembered to turn aside and was rewarded with a solid lungful of chemically fragrant air that burned a stifling warpath from his throat to chest. He forced himself to exhale slowly without succumbing to the temptation to clear his throat via an outburst bronchial fit of coughing.

Maybe it was the addition of dark eyeshadow that gave Kairi an even more ferocious mien than usual, possibly the realization that all she had to do was unclasp a hoop earring and reach out to be able to stab the shit out of him if she felt the inclination to do so. Whatever the case, there was something about the look Kairi was shooting him that Riku found intimidating.

His voice was much more conciliatory when he next responded.

"I wasn't planning to…"

"Well, good." Her words remained quiet but audibly clipped. "He's special, Sora," she continued in a tone that gave Riku the distinct impression he was being lectured. "He's kind and a nice friend and smarter'n most everyone in this town probably combined. Last thing he needs is some fancy West Coaster feelin' sorry for him or making him think he's less than perfect just the way he is."

Bristling at the comment, Riku unconsciously matched Kairi's narrowed eyes as he looked back over at her. Kairi's expression had already softened, however, and when he spared a second to think about it, he realized none of the things she'd said had been meant as personal insults toward him anyway. Definitely not in the way Seifer and other students had been perpetuating. These were the words of someone wanting to protect a close friend.

Unsure how to respond, or even if her comment warranted a return reply at all, Riku shifted in his chair. He dropped his head, still-damp tendrils of hair brushing against cheeks on either side of his face, offering him just a hint of the chlorine smell Kairi must have initially gotten a whiff of and felt the need to comment about. Coupled with the persistent cling of his classmate's fragrance, their corner of the library was fast becoming a bastard love child of two olfactory offenses.

Moreover, Kairi still technically hadn't told him what going on with Sora, and Riku wasn't even sure if he was justified in feeling frustrated anymore.

It had been Sora who'd first reached out to him here though, not the other way around. Riku had been enrolled at this school with the knowledge that he'd already gotten into his top choice college. He'd known going into this whole relocation that the credits he'd completed at his last school qualified him to walk in that institution's graduation ceremony, not this one's.

Radiant Hollow was a temporary situation, something to offer normalcy to his life until he could go home and move on with it for good. It was an interim, and Riku wouldn't have much minded if he'd had to endure a little under three months without making friends with people he never planned to see again. He hadn't necessarily wanted to stick out, to be the butt of people like Seifer's racist jokes. But sliding by under the radar would have been just fine, as far as he was concerned.

He hadn't planned on meeting someone like Sora, definitely hadn't anticipated actually caring how he came off to anyone else at this school.

Between Sora's absence and Kairi's associated guardedness, then Roxas' avoidance, Hayner's enduring stoicism, and Seifer's determination to corner and talk to him, Riku felt like he was socially floundering now more than ever.

The rub of it was that he'd never asked to be handed any of this juvenile nonsense in the first place.

Mind made up, it took one quick motion to reach for his messenger bag, another to retrieve his school supplies from the study hall table, and Riku was standing, aware of Kairi's newfound attention on his actions but not outwardly acknowledging it. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said in a whisper, words polite, tone neutral as he turned to go.

He stopped only once, up at the librarian's front desk to explain why he was leaving last period early, then exited the library, hand in his pocket to retrieve his iPhone without a backward glance on eyes he could still feel following him.

Gaze traveling to the phone in his hands, Riku took only a short moment to scan the lock screen. Sighing, he pocketed the device, then began the trek over to the admin office to get the parking permit paperwork he'd told his mother he'd take care of a few days earlier. It shouldn't have been such a letdown, Riku knew. Still, he couldn't help but feel that nagging, fortified disappointment at the realization that Sora still hadn't answered the last question he'd posed via text message about offering to visit him.

o - o

It was more about a lack of homework to busy himself with than being an internet stalker. A least, that was the angle Riku was in the active process of mentally justifying to himself. Otherwise, he had no viable rationale for looking up Sora's Facebook profile while once again stuck home alone after school.

Besides, he continued reasoning with himself as he shifted the laptop to a comfortable position across his thighs, it's not like there was any real harm in looking. Anything he saw would be what was Sora had made publicly available. He'd freely admit he enjoyed the occasional hours-long coding session, but he wasn't about to try and hack into a social network as large as Facebook for the sake of an unrequited high school crush.

Or whatever the hell it was he was currently feeling.

Sora was relatively easy to track down online; his name was distinctive, and it wasn't like Radiant Hollow was that large of a town to begin with. In the span of a few minutes of light internet snooping, Riku was face-to-face with Sora Strife of Radiant Hollow Senior High School. Or his profile picture, technically.

And Roxas. A smiling — beaming — photo of Roxas standing right next to his twin brother in the profile box's frame.

Riku blinked, took a moment to process the image. He'd seen Roxas smile before, sure, but it usually felt insincere or put-on for a specific purpose.

There was nothing artificial about the expressions on either face in this photo. It was Sora pursing his lips into an expression of mock seriousness, brows comically furrowed and looking one-eyed toward the camera. Everything about Sora was the same as Riku was accustomed to, except possibly for age. Glancing at the post-date, Riku quickly confirmed the photo had been uploaded about a year ago, when both boys would have been a year younger.

It was Roxas who gave Riku pause, the primary reason being that the expression he was so effortlessly making reminded him much more starkly of ...Sora.

Eyes wide, two pools of acute blue, if Riku homed his focus directly toward these individual features, he'd have been hard-pressed to distinguish between the two siblings at all.

That was just the start. Apart from the noticeable differences in skin tone and hair color, Roxas was offering a bright smile so similar to what Riku was accustomed to seeing on Sora, he could almost let himself believe the features had been swapped via a clever manipulation in Photoshop. It was the first time Riku felt he could truly see the fraternal similarities in their appearances.

Roxas seemed to have been caught mid-laugh; his brows were raised, eyes looking slightly away from the camera. There was a measure of spontaneity to the moment that the image had captured superbly, which gave it an endearing quality.

There were a couple older profile pictures of Sora alone, which Riku studied in turn. Each incrementally younger version of his classmate had been taken from mid-chest and up as he'd been either smiling or making a less than serious face. Scrolling down Sora's actual profile page, Riku noted a decided lack of recent status updates; either Sora wasn't an avid Facebook user, or he kept his statuses private. Well aware of how to bypass some social networking privacy features, Riku contented himself instead with clicking through to the photo albums that were publicly visible.

A quick scan of the screenshot previews gave him more than enough to focus on.

There weren't a lot of public pictures, but the sampling was enough to offer Riku a glimpse of the last few years of Sora's personal life. Most of the people tagged were those he recognized — Sora with Selphie and Tidus poolside at Radiant High, images of Wakka and him making faces on the bleachers that overlooked the RHSH football stadium. There was even a younger version of Sora and Kairi grinning by a campfire at a marshland clearing that looked starkly similar to where they'd been last weekend.

Mostly, there were photos of Sora with Roxas, series of carefree poses, of silly faces, of a side that depicted their relationship so differently than Riku himself had thus far gotten to witness it.

It had only been two weeks, he reminded himself. In that same span of time if the tables were turned, how much could Sora genuinely say he knew about Riku's home life?

As he continued to scroll through image after image, Riku couldn't stop himself from wondering how he could have gone almost a full week without knowing Roxas and Sora were related. He might have been left in the dark for even longer if not for their mutual exchange of numbers and last weekend's marshland get-together.

He paused in his photo perusal, still pondering the discrepancy. When Riku finally did look up, it was the image of four boys in front of a modest looking A-frame that met his gaze, the photo's publication date indicating it was about three years old. One after the other, Riku studied the four, noting the similarity in coloring between the tallest, who also appeared to be the oldest in the group, and Roxas who was standing, smiling, by his side. Sora was next to Roxas, seated on the steps that led up to their porch, wearing a graduation mortar board cap that seemed a size too big for his head. Immediately next to him another boy lounged, dark hair slicked neatly back, forearms resting on his knees covered by a dark graduation gown as he hunched slightly forward and offered the camera a subtle smile.

Sora had tagged himself. He'd tagged Roxas, and the dark-haired boy. Given the identical surname, Riku thought it was probably safe to assume that 'Ventus Strife' was another family member, possibly a brother.

On a whim, Riku directed his mouse to Roxas' tagged name, then clicked through to his profile. Without any fully formed ideas as to what to expect, at least he wasn't disappointed to see nothing beyond an empty page with no public statuses and the same profile image that Sora had used for his own account. Feeling somehow more intrusive snooping on Roxas despite not having found anything substantive, Riku deleted the tab from his browser a moment later, then sat back in his chair.

Stretching the muscles in his neck first toward one shoulder and then the other, he deposited his laptop back in its original place on his desk, then stood, in need of a momentary reprieve from his computer and the images he'd just seen.

If only Sora were as easy to take a mental break from.

Feeling antsy, Riku exited his room, making his way toward the stairs, then descending into the main foyer entryway. There were still a few days of March left, it was hardly even the start of spring, but the air seemed to be thickening with increasing humidity on every passing day. It was a stifling, unfamiliar feeling that made it feel a lot warmer than it actually was outside. Riku wasn't sure it was something he'd ever get fully used to.

Somehow, he had to survive this disgusting weather until at least the end of June. He had a feeling he was going to need to give in and at least buy a pair of shorts at some point well before then.

Still, it was a little ridiculous how much he was disinclined to go outside, to have to endure even just five minutes of humidity on his way to complete a task as simple as retrieving the day's mail.

With a light shake of his head, Riku pulled open the door and exited his house, determined to get this over with as quickly as possible. Hopping down the few steps from the rental's modest porch onto the dirt and grass that inelegantly littered the ground out and away from the house, Riku headed toward the property boundary, noting Xion's familiar outline in the direction he was heading. Her back was half facing him, head down as she scanned a single sheet of paper clutched between both hands as Riku made his way up to her. It hadn't been his intention to look at her mail, and certainly not to startle her, but as he got closer, the familiar emblem of a United States federal district courthouse jumped out at him and he found himself speaking up without announcing his arrival anyway.

"Jury duty? That sucks."

Although Xion didn't start from the sudden introduction of a new presence, Riku could see the responding tension in her stance. Slowly, she turned toward him, glancing up with a look Riku could only describe as disoriented. "Sorry?"

"Jury duty," he repeated, then inclined his head toward the paper still clutched in her hands. "I know they can call you in as soon as you turn eighteen, but they really don't waste time down here, apparently."

"Oh." Xion blinked a little, eyes drifting away at the same time that she started refolding the notice. "There are worse things, I suppose."

Well, Riku thought. She wasn't wrong.

He moved past her, to his family's mailbox, pulling out the few envelopes the mail carrier had left inside it. A quick scan showed that it was all junk mail. He'd essentially left the house for nothing.

Riku glanced back at Xion who still hadn't moved, the letter now fully folded and pressed between the fingers of one hand. She looked an unnecessary level of stunned, and he wondered if she was simply worrying about a process she just wasn't all that familiar with.

"I've heard you can request a different set of dates if they conflict with final exams or something."

She looked up, mouth opening just enough for it to seem like she might say something that her voice ultimately never ended up giving audible purchase to.

Riku took in the persisting grim look on her face and decided to try again. He wasn't sure why a jury summons would induce such a look of impending ruination, but he knew enough about how the legal system worked from his father's dealings to at least be able to offer her a small reassurance. "There's usually a number you can call to get more information if you need to request a change of dates."

Her eyes didn't meet his as they skirted from his chin to the mailboxes next to them, then ultimately to the mail in his own two hands. "Conflict," she said in a way that made it difficult for Riku to discern if it was a noun or a verb. "That sums it up quite nice, actually. Thanks."

Xion turned and began walking away from him before Riku could figure out how to reply to the cryptic statement. Much like her verbal interjection from a week ago, this departure lacked the discourteousness usually associated with taking one's leave from another person in the middle of an unfinished conversation. Riku watched her until she passed by his home on the way toward her own, then began to make the short trek back to the rental house with the renewed determination to do something productive with the remainder of his evening.

Checking his phone one more time before entering the house, Riku made a quick detour to the kitchen to throw out the mail and dig through the refrigerator for some carrot sticks and a drink. Thursdays were his mom's late days at the hospital, and his dad wasn't expected to return from his extended stay lodging closer to the Gulf until tomorrow evening. He'd be alone for awhile here still.

Then came a long weekend of car shopping ahead of them all.

If Riku thought school ran the baseline risk of boring him to death, getting to the nearest Audi dealership and testing out cars for an entire day might be an effective way to finish him off. Try as he might to muster even an iota of enthusiasm for anything associated with luxury vehicles, Riku just didn't see what interested his dad so much about cars in general. They were fine for getting around with, and he was used to driving the high-end models his parents usually purchased every few years, but that was the extent of his own fascination with them, if it could even be called that.

His dad, on the other hand, loved everything about them, kept up with each year's new release on his favorite makes and models. He went to car shows on weekends at every opportunity; once in a while, Riku even agreed to join him in an effort to find some common ground. In reality, he found himself sharing very few interests with either parent, be it professional or extracurricular. He wasn't sure if that was an unusual anomaly or simply a result of not having seen either of them much as a kid because of their intense work schedules.

Heading back to the stairs, he glanced toward Xion's house out of something akin to habit as he passed the dining room windows. He'd gotten so used to seeing her familiar silhouette in a gently rocking swing seat as she read on the front porch of her own house that it seemed somewhat out of sorts to note her manifest lack of presence now. She must've gone inside after retrieving the mail today for once.

He took the stairs two by two on his way back up to his bedroom, quietly clicking the door shut before making his way back to his desk. His workspace was a two-monitor setup, just like back home, powered by a Macbook Pro connected via Thunderbolt cable to both desktop screens. Depositing his plate of carrot sticks and a glass of water at one edge of his desk, Riku settled back in, connected the cable to his laptop, and tapped in his password.

The screens lit up, illuminating his room in a stark, electronic white. Still unable to banish Sora entirely from his involuntary thoughts, Riku was at least glad that he'd had the foresight to delete the evidence of his earlier Facebook search so he wouldn't be tempted to revisit the public photo albums every five minutes. Determined to focus, he launched his Mac's command line so he could pull up the directory on his computer with the latest hard copy of his app stored in it.

He pulled up the web-based public repository in his browser next and took a look at the history of changes he'd made. It'd only been a few weeks since he'd last worked on this project with Neku, but it felt substantially longer. The mental fatigue that came with a different setting and trying to keep all the new people he was meeting straight in his head seemed to stretch the two week period into a more yawning span of time than accounted for by actual reality.

He probably shouldn't have been surprised to see recent updates. Being public, anyone could see the code he'd been working on, comment, and even fork portions and add on to it. The beginnings of an app that users could update with indie band performance locations and dates and not much more at this point, the project wasn't particularly innovative; Riku had merely been working on it with Neku out of a shared love of lesser-known music and in the interest of making a calendar for themselves so they didn't miss any of their favorite musician appearances during the upcoming school year at Stanford.

Skimming down the update history, Riku saw that Neku had forked one of the app's folders that contained front-end aspects associated with the design layout. Curious, he tabbed back over to his command line and made a pull request for the new repository files, then saved them into a temporary directory and pushed them to his localhost server to see what had been changed.

As he surveyed the new design elements, Riku found himself unconsciously relaxing, settling in. Neither parent understood this interest, and he had a hunch that both thought it was a waste of time he could otherwise be using to study something more directly relevant to his preordained college science track. There was something engrossing about web development though, more so than the idea of either medicine or law. It could be just as technical as either of those professions, to be sure, but there was also something artistic about code, in Riku's mind, an aspect that bordered on poetic in the way it could be written in various ways to get to to the same ultimate endpoint. He could spend hours trying to debug a single block of code, and it could be maddening, mentally exhausting. There were times he'd stepped away from his computer, temples pounding, molars grinding against each other, because there was something just slightly off with the syntax or order of his coded directives.

The moment he figured out what was wrong, however, the exact instant he refreshed his server and saw that the change he'd made had resulted in the desired effect, every frustrating minute felt worth the effort expended.

Now, as he looked at the changes implemented since his last repo login, Riku smiled an unconscious smile. He'd never been very good at front-end aesthetics, didn't have a visually intuitive bone in his body, in his personal opinion. He liked the back-end, the code that connected itself to other invisible elements and ensured everything functioned the way it should. In that way, he and Neku made a good team for a project like this.

Tabbing over to a chat program, Riku signed on and pulled up his contact list, seeking Neku's online moniker, sing17.

The design looks good, he typed, then hit send. Did you use Bootstrap?

With his status set to green-available, Neku responded almost immediately.

yea. got bored waiting for you to fix the ordered dropdown. #sorrynotsorry

Oh, right. Riku'd said he was going to find a workaround to that issue almost a month ago.

I'll check Railscasts for a tutorial, he offered. Or ask on Stack Overflow.

Neku responded with a thumbs up emoji and a lowercase 'k'.

Reaching for a carrot stick, Riku placed it half in his mouth to free up his hands so he could type another response.

How's everything? Are you rooming with J on the senior trip?

The following radio silence put Riku on notice that he might not be hearing anything further from his friend, even though Neku usually switched his status to 'away' when he randomly decided to become non-responsive. If Riku was considered quiet, Neku fell closer to verbally-averse on occasion. Kadaj often made jokes about how autistic Neku acted, which Riku found ironic considering his cousin's own learning challenges.

In a way though, Kadaj's jabs may have been somewhat on point, however unintentional. Neku had always been a little quirky, preferring music to people, and Riku still hadn't forgotten how often he used to get into trouble for trying to sneak earbuds into place in the middle of classes at school. Neku rarely agreed to go out to louder venues with their usual group, the exception being band performances. He also rarely made eye contact, and had a level of concentration when it came to activities that held his interest that Riku found enviable. As much as Riku enjoyed coding, two or three hours was generally his max before he needed to get up and step away. It wasn't unusual for Neku to pull all-nighters when he was in the middle of an intense coding project, on the other hand. Although his friend wasn't the most adept at social scenarios, his grades had always been admirable, and just like most of their other friends' parents, Neku's mother was busy enough with her own career to have been oblivious to instances where her son might have been subtly struggling.

Much like dealing with Kadaj's wandering thoughts, Riku had developed methods of handling Neku's idiosyncrasies throughout the years of their friendship, to the point where he sometimes hardly noticed them anymore. That included Neku's frequent lapses into silence when they were chatting online. Unlike Kadaj losing his tenuous hold on concentration, it was more likely that Neku had returned to whatever it was he was focusing on prior to their conversation with tunnel vision so intense he probably hadn't even heard the message's ringing notification, if he even had his audio enabled in the first place.

Crunching into the carrot, Riku turned away from the monitor to retrieve his glass of water and take a sip. By the time he turned back, a response was blinking in front of him.

He looked at it, initially surprised to see anything from Neku after a few minutes of silence. The surprise blossomed into bewilderment when he actually read the response.

lol, no. we're not going. didn't your mom tell you about our visit?

Leaning forward, Riku typed out a quick reply.

No, wth?

He'd assumed that was enough of a prompt for Neku to catch on that he wanted further clarification. Just his luck, this was the moment Neku decided not to respond.

He waited two minutes, ate a few more carrots and noted that Neku's status had switched to away. He made it another five before clicking on the chat program's real-time call button.

Riku figured there was about a fifty-fifty chance of Neku actually picking up. After a few electronic rings, the line ultimately clicked through, indicating his friend had accepted the call. Although Neku didn't say anything, Riku could hear rapid-fire keyboard clicking coming through from his end of the audio feed. The video had been disabled on Neku's end, possibly via something as simple as a post-it note fastened over his computer's built-in camera. Riku's mind wasn't particularly blown by this realization; Neku had never liked the social convention requiring eye contact during one-on-one conversations.

"What were you saying about a visit?"

There was a pause in the typing sounds from Neku's end of the connection.

"The senior class, in a moment of collective what-the-fuckness, voted on Half Moon Bay and the Monterrey Aquarium. Unless you're ten, it's not worth the time it takes to drive down to either one of them."

The typing resumed while Riku tried to make the connection between a stupid senior trip venue and a hinted-at visit halfway across the country.

"So… you're coming to Radiant Hollow instead."

Neku scoffed. "With the way you've been describing it to Kadaj? No way. It sounds worse than watching fish do nothing for five straight hours surrounded by people I actually hate."

That wasn't all that inaccurate, Riku conceded. But he still wasn't totally following.

"Maybe I'm just being slow on the uptake, because I'm still not seeing how a visit fits in here."

"You are." The typing started up again as Neku continued speaking. "But your parents should've already told you. We're doing a long weekend in New Orleans. Mom's been gushing about it all week."

Um, what? All week? Riku wasn't unaccustomed to his mother spacing out and forgetting to tell him things, but this was so far out in left field he was having a hard time wrapping his mind around it.

"If we're lucky," Neku continued, pausing in his typing once again, "we can do our own thing and let them do theirs. I do not want to spend an entire weekend listening to your cousin bitch about having to walk around a museum or something."

Pulling up his computer's calendar, Riku skimmed the month of April and did some quick calculating as he tried to remember when the senior trip had been initially scheduled.

"So, you guys are coming three weeks from now?"

"Something like that. Ask your mom." Neku resumed typing. "And fix the dropdown soon. It's obnoxious."

He disconnected before Riku could respond.

Sitting back in his chair, Riku looked up, over his computer monitors and out into the encroaching darkness from the window behind his desk. All this time, he'd been counting down the months, the weeks, sometimes even day by dragging day, until he could return home and restart his regular life. Now people from the only world he'd ever known were going to be visiting here.

Or within a ninety minute driving distance, anyway. Close enough.

He wanted to be happy about the news, and to an extent Riku was. There was even a level of relief knowing they wouldn't be encountering some of the xenophobic bullshit he'd been dealing with here. The idea of Kadaj or any of his friends encountering Roxas was just too much for his socially overwhelmed mind to process.

Or, Jesus, Seifer. Without question, the moment that neanderthal opened his mouth and said something even hinting at derogatory within hearing distance of Kadaj, Riku had no doubt that it'd result in a fight. Some people thought through the consequences of their decisions prior to acting on them. Kadaj did not happen to be one among their numbers.

The sound of another notification pulled him away from his ponderings, and Riku looked up, re-entering his password to access his idling computer.

He saw no unread chat messages. Neku's status indicated that he'd signed off, or maybe gone on invisible.

Confused, Riku stared at the screen, trying to figure out the sound he'd just heard.

A moment later, it came again, from a position lower than his computer's speaker. Riku looked down, suddenly remembering the phone stored in his pants pocket, and feeling more than a little stupid. His phone's notification sound wasn't even remotely similar to the one his computer made.

Sliding it out and skimming the lock screen to read over both of what turned out to finally be responses from Sora, Riku felt the telltale signs of returning physical tension.

The first message was a polite rejection of his offer to pay a visit to Sora's house, citing some reasonably considerate concern about still being contagious and passing the pseudo-stomach flu off on Riku, which he didn't buy for a single second. The next message was shorter, a simple statement that Sora expected to be back in school on Monday at the latest.

He stared at both messages for longer than they took to read again, unsure if the sudden heat in his chest was enduring concern or blossoming anger. Idly, Riku wondered if he had a right to feel either.

It was a head cold, then later amended to a nebulous combination of stomach flu and food poisoning. But the blue sclera he'd personally observed indicated something more serious, something totally unrelated to either claim of temporary illness. And myriad secrets, lies offered up with emoticon smiles attached as though preemptively softening the blow of latent untruthfulness. Above all, there was the realization that no matter how much Sora seemed to want to include him, Riku was, without question, still an outsider into the lives of others here.

Jaw still tight, Riku took one last look at his lit-up lock screen before depositing it on the table next to his empty snack plate, face down. He made the quick decision to figure out how to respond later, gaze drifting back to his web app project. Right now, he needed to lose himself in something familiar, something concrete and straightforward and unrelated to Sora, for just a little while longer.

Chapter Text


"Walk softly, don't want to disturb the dead
Is it an enemy in front of me, or have I been misled?
Wear these clothes, walk this way, do exactly what they say
It's your life, but their way; follow me, it's all the same."
"Scene Change" - The White Tie Affair


The same song had been playing on a near continuous loop for the better part of forty minutes by the time Zack showed up. From iPhone to earbuds, on repeat until he could practically recite the lyrics backwards, Roxas listened in the obsessive way one does when they're first introduced to a new song, each subsequent rendition of chorus inspiring new feeling, the melodic backbeat reverberating somewhere unreachable within him where he didn't have to worry or even really think. After the week he'd been having, it was needed. Calming.

At least until Zack appeared.

By then, Roxas had relocated from the front porch to the backyard and a ratty foldout chair, one of a six-piece family set that lopsidedly dotted the patchy grass and red clay dirt that encompassed the north side of his family's property, arranged like haphazard gravestones in an unkempt cemetery of deliberately misplaced memories. Even after twenty minutes of song repetition risked extending to thirty, even after the melody started blending past the boundaries of his active thinking until it threatened to become a part of the evening's natural background sounds completely, Roxas kept listening, eyes unfocused, mind blessedly quiet.

He'd abandoned the porch when Kairi arrived, less due to the prospect of conversation than to avoid the driver who'd come along with her. He wasn't in the mood to talk, least of all to someone who not only seemed to have natural talent at countering his every insult but possessed the added ability of throwing Roxas off his carefully constructed guard with frustrating consistency. Without sparing more than half a disinterested glance at the road as the pickup approached, Roxas had pocketed his phone. He'd pushed off from his perch at the edge of his home's front porch and slipped around the side of the house toward the backyard, disconnecting his earbuds and balling the cords into one fist to avoid snagging them on overgrown foliage lining a side path between the rotting fence that separated the Strife family property from their neighbors. Axel LaChappelle was a nuisance he didn't want to deal with tonight, plain and simple.

The backyard wasn't without its own form of distractions. Although darker than the front side of the house, light flooded from his brother's upstairs bedroom, animated voices filtering out of the open window. A light breeze tickled his cheeks and rustled the leaves of one of the property's willowy trees. Their branches were sheltered beneath flat bladed, needle-like leaves, the sound akin to the beating of wings, feathered and flapping only a few yards away. If not for the words carrying down to him from the conversation above, Roxas would have returned to his music in an attempt to drown out the unsettling sound.

As it stood, he probably should have, because the topic of conversation wasn't remotely one he wanted to be overhearing.

Speculation over Riku's minute-by-minute disposition based on an exchange of text messages was the overarching theme, with a bit of Kairi's clandestine pining thrown in for good measure over a crush obvious to everyone but Tidus himself. He supposed he shouldn't have been been surprised about Sora's fixation, given his brother's reaction to the prospect of being examined by the new guy's mom just a handful of days ago. Still, it rankled. What was so special about a West Coast transfer student with the social graces of a wet dishrag that made Sora want to tread so carefully, to construct an elaborate front of physical health at just his mere mention?

Reaching to retrieve his phone out of the pocket where he'd last stowed it, Roxas caught a view of one covered arm and was momentarily willing to concede the cynicism in his silent inquiry, but was just as quick to assure himself there was a difference. Sora had no reason to feel ashamed about the hand he'd been dealt, not in front of anyone in this town but especially not when faced with a newcomer who had no right to hold any opinion whatsoever. It wasn't like his brother could change his circumstances through the exercise of concerted willpower over an undesirable habit. If his own lot was assessed in the same light, Roxas wasn't convinced he'd be able to claim the same, or be held nearly as blameless for the choices he had made this past year.

There was a notification on his lock screen, a sparse line of text from Xion with her typical, cryptic wording that he was in no state to try and interpret. It'd been a long week of forced secondary education social interactions during the day, of sleepless nights after ensuring Sora was comfortable enough to rest when he arrived home in the evenings. With a full day on Friday still looming like a death penalty promise and no remote hope of a last minute stay from any source, government or otherwise, Roxas had resigned himself at most to a Saturday holed up somewhere, maybe at home, potentially at Xion's, burning through the last of the pills he'd so recently been gifted well in advance of how long they should've lasted.

Then there was the Sunday after next and its associated Easter services, one of the few days in the year that his mother always insisted they go to church as a family, the other being Christmas. In any event, it promised to be an unnecessarily drawn-out affair, from the hour-long sermon to maternal expectations of socializing with other congregants in the church community room for the remainder of the day afterward.

Fucking awesome.

His head was bowed, eyes still on his phone's screen that had gone dark from lack of activity minutes earlier, when the figure materialized at the corner of the yard, features becoming increasingly recognizable upon closer approach, if only Roxas had bothered to look up and see them. It was the whistling that caught his attention, that set his molars to a painful grind, jaw tight, the tuneless sound playing across his already short temper just as effectively as it had the first time.

Neither spoke as Zack approached, hands clasped loosely behind his back, chin tilted up as he surveyed the Strife's backyard, a ruminative expression passing across his features. He reached for a chair Roxas hadn't noticed before, one folded up flat that had been leaning against the peeling, paint-chipped siding of his house. Coming to a stop an arm's length from Roxas, Zack arranged the chair to face him, then lowered himself on into it.

Eyes still fixed on the phone screen in his lap, merely aware of Zack's actions through the grace of his extended peripherals, Roxas had enough presence of mind to unlock his phone but remained disinclined to give Xion's text much genuine consideration. Pseudo-consideration was preferred over bothering to acknowledge the new arrival, however.

"Your driveway's a real-life Surgeon General's warning, what with all that smoke coming out of that idling pickup."

Shoulders tensing at the indirect mention of an inked-up malingerer, Roxas shifted his gaze, taking a moment to study Zack's steel-toed boots and the half-dried dirt caked over their soles before allowing his eyes to rise enough to offer a patented look that was equal parts unimpressed by the light-hearted statement as it was sullen.

"Cloud's not around."

He watched as Zack leaned back, entwining his fingers into a prayerful position over the concave curve of his stomach, finally lifting one boot to rest perpendicular atop the bent knee of his other leg.

"Who said I was here to see him?"

Roxas' face fell into a scowl. "Don't know why else you'd traipse all the way out here, what with Aerith gone and most everyone else your age moved out of town or busy being productive members of adult society."

The mention of Aerith didn't seem to trip Zack up this time, which Roxas found unfortunate. It was one of the few pieces of information he had in his arsenal to keep his brother's former friend on his toes. It was mean, below the belt, even. Yet it hardly mattered at all in this instance.

Zack's expression was relaxed, almost serene, as he shifted his gaze to the overcast sky.

"Maybe I just stopped by to see how an old friend's brother is faring in his final year of compulsory education."

"Right. Sure you did." Roxas snorted, unable to suppress the derisive tone his voice had naturally adopted. "Or you could be fishing for information from a secondary source close to him. Not like y'all two left off on the best of terms."

It was almost ten years and counting since Zack had left, point in fact, and Roxas just wished he could wrap his mind around why he'd chosen to return now, when he least needed another distraction.

"Hey now." Zack glanced back over to him. "That was a long time ago. People change."

Eyes still studying Zack's ageless features, Roxas was tempted to point out that change appeared to be a relative concept, but his line of thought was disrupted as his gaze drifted onto the shirt Zack was wearing, its logo in particular. In the dim light of moon and a grimy backyard deck lamp, he'd missed the subtle distinction between the grey design across one side and its darker background cousin of unqualified, obsidian black. Eyes now scrutinizing with renewed focus, it didn't take long for Roxas to make out the sloping lines that, when viewed as a whole, depicted a single, slate grey feather from right hip to shoulder.

He blinked, stomach suddenly churning, but the logo didn't dissolve as he'd half expected-half hoped. The clearing of a throat on Zack's part was what finally broke his unsettling reverie, also what encouraged him to offer a noncommittal shrug that gave the conversation implicit permission to die with a modicum of dignity it probably didn't deserve.

For a time, both young men were left to their own private thoughts, Zack quiet, his bright eyes resuming their skyward observation, Roxas simply grateful his unasked for companion hadn't decided to break the growing silence with another rendition of that exasperating, tuneless whistling. His thoughts drifted, from dislocated images of over-illuminated hospital hallways to Cloud when he was no older than Roxas was now, still young and optimistic enough to have a hope of making something of himself.

As Roxas let his mind drift, he also leaned forward, elbows resting lightly on bent knees, shoulders hunched, eyes surveying the yard and remembering what it looked like when he and Sora had been children. Not much had changed, apart from the noted absence of a cheap plastic disc swing held up by industrial-strength rope that Cloud had once strung over a low hanging tree branch, along with a selection of second-hand bicycles and the scuffed-up skateboard Roxas had once coveted. The swing had come down after Sora received his diagnosis, around the time they'd both started middle school, the bicycles and skateboard abandoned a few years later on Roxas' part in favor of varsity track and field junior year and bumming rides from newly licensed friends after Ven had left for college. Along the far reaches of their backyard property, an old shed also still stood, although Roxas couldn't remember the last time anyone had bothered to enter it.

The voices of ongoing conversation mingled with the light breeze above and around him, and Roxas couldn't help but think about graduation upcoming, about how everything was about to be turned on its face in a handful of months. The knowledge turned his stomach. It tightened like a vice around the cage of his chest and left him feeling vulnerable, mentally grappling to make sense of what he already knew was hopelessly impossible to predict.

This wasn't how his life was supposed to turn out. He was supposed to have made good on that varsity letter, maybe eked out an athletic scholarship to a reputable college so he and Sora both could get out of this go-nowhere town. Instead, he'd up and quit athletics, he was a couple of missed assignments short of failing each and every one of his academic classes and couldn't muster the effort to so much as worry about the prospect. He was falling prey to half-assed attempts at verbal baiting on Seifer's part, as close to indifferent about his relationship with Xion as he could get while considering himself still technically in it, and pushing all of his childhood friends away by means of subtle inaction and a deep-seated need to break free from a reality that seemed more nightmarish of late than anything remotely close to upbeat.

None of this was what he'd imagined, even just a year ago when he'd held more of a semblance of presumed control. How a life could have gone so wildly awry, at a pace both breakneck and unanticipated, was well beyond his ability to reason through.

"So, who's this Riku guy now?"

Glancing over at Zack, still disoriented from the abrupt mental interruption, Roxas bit back a caustic reply in favor of one more in bed with outright apathy.

"Nobody."

"That so?" Zack's expression was dubious, eyes traveling to the open window above them. "From the way he's being discussed with such bleeding heart liberalness, it sounds to me like someone's pining."

Roxas rolled his eyes, this time forcing down a laugh by tightening the muscles of his throat, albeit just barely.

"Try again. Kairi's obsessed with someone else. It's practically public record."

"She's not who I was referring to. But you're a smart kid, and right observant, so I figure this is something you already know plenty about."

Zack smiled a knowing smile, infuriating in its assuredness. Not for the first time, Roxas wished Cloud's presumptions about his younger brother's preference for physical scuffles over pointed verbal assaults had a foot in actual reality. At this point, even a single inch of toe would've sufficed.

Before he could do much more than internally bristle at the implication, a door creaked open, the sound of musty wooden stairs protesting clear through the sliver of an open downstairs window. Roxas said nothing as he listened to Kairi's departure, then to the sputtering sound of a truck engine well past its prime as it revved back to life and spun gravel beneath clay-laden wheels. He listened until sounds of the vehicle faded out of audible range, then turned back to the man beside him.

"Why are you even here?"

As Zack no doubt prepared to say something glib, Roxas narrowed his eyes and was quick to clarify.

"And I mean back in Radiant Hollow, not here-here tonight, as you've already made sure to establish, grade-A bullshit that we all know it is."

"Mm."

Head bobbing in acknowledgement, smile still playing at the corners of his lips, Zack leaned forward and matched Roxas' hunched stance.

"Got a job of sorts in the general vicinity. I'm here until it wraps up."

"Of sorts." Roxas shot him a skeptical look. "With the military?"

With a light laugh, Zack swung back in his seat, the chair's front legs rising a few inches off the ground before rebalancing themselves, his dark shirt riding up from the band of his jeans a few inches with the movement.

"Kinda. Ever heard of a company called ShinRa?"

The name prickled his spine, mocked the inadequacy of long-term memory through an uncomfortable jolt Roxas couldn't identify beyond knowing he didn't like even one iota of it.

"No."

"Not a surprise." Seemingly oblivious to Roxas' discomfort, Zack smoothed his shirt back down with the flat palms of both hands. "They're a government contractor that provides services to the military. Lots of positions've been opening up, and I got hired on as a consultant. Decent pay, with none of the bureaucratic brown nosing you'd get up in DC. Real solid setup, far as work's concerned."

Most of what Zack had said made little to no sense to Roxas. He also didn't particularly care about the finer points behind Zack's return to Radiant Hollow beyond simply wanting him out of his backyard so he could be on his own again.

One thing about Zack's answer did stand out, however.

Making a split-second decision, Roxas rose out of the folding chair, eyes avoiding Zack and his feather print t-shirt, cell phone and ear buds clasped firmly in the furled fingers of one hand.

"You should be talking to Cloud if you know about good job opportunities nearby," he said, expression conveying his underlying contempt over Zack's presumed lack of contact with his older brother since his return. "He could probably use a change of pace from working himself to the bone every night."

The comment was offered less out of a genuine belief that there existed any fruitful career leads than as a jab to reflect his hunch that Zack had just returned to dick around his old stomping grounds and wax nostalgic before disappearing again. That said, Roxas might not have known much about government work environments, but he knew enough to identify the word 'consultant' as a position well above his brother's current pay-grade.

Then again, Zack had made it sound like a temporary situation, which wasn't all that surprising either, under the circumstances. People always left. First, there was his father, even if that had technically been the most ideal outcome for the remaining Strife family members. Then, it'd been Ven after high school graduation. Soon enough, it'd be Sora, because Roxas held no illusions that his brother would be content to remain at a second-rate school for longer than he needed to complete his general education prerequisites. Sora'd move on too, and Roxas would find himself alone and aimlessly drifting without a defined plan for his future, educational or otherwise.

Again.

"Gonna head in." Still not looking at Zack, Roxas turned, his words offered at a volume that toed the line between low mumble and outright whisper. "Got school tomorrow."

If Zack said anything, Roxas didn't hear it amid the protestations of the rusty screen door. He entered the kitchen without looking back, mindful to ease the screen into place and keep it from banging against the exterior door frame. His mom's room was directly above him and even at this relatively early hour of the evening it was likely she was in bed resting, if not already asleep. Thus far, Cloud seemed to be taking their workplace's mandatory overtime edict of the past few weeks in relative stride; a near two decades his senior, the same couldn't be claimed of their ever-fatigued mother.

He considered fixing dinner, then abandoned the thought half a second later in favor of making a beeline for the stairs via the living room. With Cloud's work shift still hours away from done, the downstairs was unoccupied and quiet, the television off, its screen standing out geometric and dark in front of a row of dusty framed photographs lined upon the mantle of a fireplace that'd been in disrepair for years. Even though light from Sora's room still filtered down the stairs, the house felt lifeless to Roxas, stagnant with its own intrinsic brand of inertia.

He took the steps one at a time, without a hint of the agile lightness he was more than capable of, paused at the sliver of Sora's cracked opened door, and considered knocking for just long enough to reject the respectful gesture of privacy in favor of just poking his head in and announcing his presence more directly.

"Hey."

With a pillow tucked behind his back and another keeping his injured leg propped up over the blankets on his bed, Sora looked up over the well-worn binding of an English Lit textbook clutched between two sets of delicate fingers. Roxas mimicked the position, fingers pressing against the uneven wood of his brother's door frame.

"Got your assignments from Kairi?"

"Yeah." Sora nodded. "I should be all caught up by Monday."

That was probably a modest projection. If Roxas knew his brother at all, Sora would have any assigned work done before the weekend, if he didn't decide to stay up and finish it all tonight so he could spend what remained of his requisite bed rest getting even further ahead in his academics.

"Good, good."

Distracted, Roxas copied his brother's nod as he surveyed the unassuming space that made up Sora's bedroom. It was sparse in decoration, the walls bare save for a few photos tacked to the window frame above Sora's desk. A tall, narrow bookshelf, wedged into the corner between the desk and a standing dresser, was filled two-deep with mostly secondhand books Sora had obtained for free or at the public library's annual discard sale. The topics ranged from classic literature to outright oddball, old Berlitz language texts from the 1950s shelved adjacent Stephen King hardbounds and trashy Harlequin romance novels with disintegrating paperback bindings. Over the years, Sora had amassed an impressive collection, not so much concerned with the genre of his acquisitions as much as on the simple enjoyment of internalizing what others had to say on virtually any subject.

Sora had once read to him when they were children in the space between their beds, beneath a makeshift tent of pinned up sheets, the floor padded with a small mountain of pillows from their beds and borrowed from the couch in the living room. Long after their parents and older brothers had retired for the evening, Sora would read to Roxas by the shadowy luminescence of a battery-operated flashlight, sounding out longer, more complicated words as Roxas curled onto his side, head propped up on a knobby elbow.

Most of the time, Roxas hadn't been genuinely interested in the stories, especially the non-fiction books; he'd simply liked listening to his brother's animated tones as he read line by line, occasionally having to poke him as a reminder to maintain a whisper when it was already well past their bedtime. It was less the subject and more the time spent together, a clandestine, brotherly intimacy, their own secret spot comprised of imaginary worlds in which fathers didn't lash out for the smallest perceived infraction, breath sour and reeking of too much alcohol, where mothers didn't work to support four growing children, and two brothers could be superheroes, confident that even the simplest of athletic feats wouldn't lead to life-threatening injuries or require an unscheduled trip to the nearest hospital in the purblind light of early morning.

And sometimes, when Sora's eyes were too tired to read, they'd simply lie together on their backs and talk nonsense into the late hours of the night, until one after the other their voices faded and they both fell asleep, gangly limbs entwined around one another more often than they remained apart. For Roxas, it was a temporary form of emotional security, a much-needed reprieve from the day-to-day unpredictability of their dad's anger and paranoia. It was, quite simply, the pinnacle of Roxas' ideal of safety.

Of late, he acknowledged, these nighttime visits were far less likely to offer comfort than embarrassment, for him more than his brother. They implied an inherent weakness of character on his part, at a time that he felt should have been marked by increasing self-reliance.

With Sora's eyes still on him, brows raised and regarding him, Roxas swallowed hard and tried to organize his thoughts into something more appropriate.

"How's your pain? Want some more meds?"

Sora shot him an uncharacteristically sharp look.

"Do you?"

Even in his current state of mental distraction, it didn't take Roxas long to catch the implication behind his brother's question. They still hadn't returned to a discussion about where he'd come by the meds Sora had accepted on the way to the ER. They never would if Roxas had any say in the matter.

Instead of answering, he changed the subject.

"Need me to fix you up something for dinner?"

"No." Eyes still boring into Roxas, Sora shook his head, the hint of disapproval making its presence clear in the appearance of furrowed brows and the corresponding worry lines that appeared above them. "Kairi brought me over a snack, so I'm not hungry."

Right, Roxas thought. Sure she did.

In either case, a snack wasn't adequate replacement for an entire meal, but it wasn't like he could police his brother without starting something he personally didn't have the energy to see through to the finish.

Roxas watched as Sora's eyes flickered back down to his AP Lit book, then returned to him as though suddenly remembering his brother was still standing in his doorway.

"Did you need something else?"

"Nah."

Still, Roxas found himself frozen in place, weight still pressed into the palms of his hands against the door frame, not so much waiting for something as lacking the motivation to push off and leave.

Sora's expression softened.

"Want to stay? You can sleep here tonight."

The offer hit home, but probably not in the way Sora had anticipated, and Roxas found himself first straightening, then releasing his grip on the door.

"Nah," he said again. "Got some homework to do before turning in."

Although Sora looked skeptical, he didn't say anything to counter the likelihood that homework was anywhere close to Roxas' sincere plans for the remainder of the evening.

Eyes lowering back to the text in front of him, Sora's parting words met Roxas' ears as a soft murmur.

"Remember to sleep. I'm here if you need me."

Neither brother said anything further, and as Roxas took a step back and began to make his way down the hall toward his bedroom, he found his lower lip once again settling into place between the unforgiving enamel of both sets of teeth.

Sleep, he mused. Sure.

At this point, the prospect of restful unconsciousness was just about in line with the likelihood that he'd actually end up doing homework.

o - o

Friday morning was only notable due to an obvious improvement to Hayner's foul mood. In fact, he seemed in good enough spirits not to be particularly fussed about running late to school. He might not even have begrudged Roxas his usual snarky comments about the country music issuing with uneven consistency through the van's handful of speakers that remained in good working condition after a solid two decades of considerable abuse.

Not that Roxas had the energy to spar about something so inane on a generous estimate of the three hours of broken sleep he was currently boasting.

They spent the first half of the trip sitting in silence, a twangy song about traditional female social roles and red-blooded American patriotism the only abiding distraction, apart from Pence's tone deaf attempt at humming along to it. That was fine by Roxas. Besides the text he'd finally remembered to shoot off to Xion, along with a promise to meet up between classes and chat about whatever seemed to be bothering her, he hadn't had any social contact with anyone in a sum total ten hours.

It was too bad the quiet didn't last for the second half of the ride.

"We should really do something this weekend…"

Roxas glanced to his left and spared a moment to eye Hayner without saying anything. Dutifully, Pence filled in the silence that threatened to spread in the wake of Roxas' enduring unwillingness to make chitchat.

"What'd you have in mind?"

"Dunno. Just something." Hayner's shoulders rose and fell in tandem, fingers thrumming the loose grip he had on the faux leather of his van's scuffed up steering wheel. "Don't got much time from now until finals so I just figured, you know, whatever. Something fun, or relaxing, or …"

"Or a week at a beach resort, or on a cruise ship sipping mimosas, all affluent-like."

It was the first thing Roxas had said since he'd hopped in the van. Behind him, Pence snorted, then kicked the back of Roxas' seat before resuming his own personal rendition of country music song acoustics. Up front, eyes still on the road, Hayner didn't seem nearly as amused.

"Quit flapping your jaw if you don't have anything useful to contribute." The response wasn't particularly biting, and Roxas could hear a hint of concession in his friend's voice, just as sure as he could imagine the eye roll visual supplement. "I meant more like just the three of us. No girls, no drama. Maybe invite Sora if he's feeling up to it. Just do something fun for once."

Roxas raised an eyebrow. "For once. 'Cause a party out at St. Bastion's isn't included in your definition of fun?"

As he rolled to a stop in front of a downtown traffic light, Hayner shook his head.

"No, it's typical. We should do something different before we all graduate and have college to contend with."

"We're all going to the same college," Roxas returned, arms crossing loosely over his chest, left hand picking at the velcro wrap of his medical-grade finger brace on the other. "It's not like we won't ever see each other, what with having most of the same classes first year."

Quick as lightning, Hayner reached over and slapped his friend's shoulder. "Christsakes, it's about bonding, you jackass. Quit being all literal and shit."

From the back seat, Pence's humming stopped, the sudden severe recline of Roxas' bucket seat an indication that he had leaned forward and grabbed onto the front headrest.

"The beach would be kind of fun."

This time, it was Hayner's turn to snort, expression doubtful. "Yeah, if you're, like, ten."

With an abrupt jerk, Roxas' seat returned to its former position and Pence dropped back to where he'd previously been sitting.

"No, really. It might be nice. We could go for a weekend after my photography class finishes up, maybe get Tidus' brother to buy us a few day's worth of drinks to take with us." Unbeknownst to Pence, Roxas' lip curled into a subtle sneer at the mention of stockpiled alcohol. "Might be nice just to screw around and take a mental break from homework and everything else we've still gotta do before graduating."

A break from homework — Sora was gonna love that proposal.

"Yeah." Hayner didn't sound in the least bit convinced. "I guess."

The van lurched as they entered the school's parking lot. Glancing at the digital clock at the vehicle's center, Hayner swore under his breath. "Gonna be late getting to English if I don't haul major ass."

Without Sora in the backseat, considerably less care was taken in traversing speed bumps, and Hayner didn't even bother trolling the already full front rows of the lot in search of a lucky opening. Instead, he angled the van toward the back of the lot and opted for a spot with empty spaces on either side of it. Parking in record time, Hayner was out of the driver's seat and slamming the door before either Pence or Roxas had so much as unbuckled their seatbelts.

"See your slow asses in second period. I'm not about to get marked late in Senior English."

Without a word, Roxas watched as Hayner took off toward the side of the school closest to the senior class trailers in the back. Clicking out of his seatbelt at a much less frenzied pace, he wrenched the car door open with a similar amount of temporal indifference. Behind him, Pence followed suit, his actions less reflective of his friend's bald apathy.

"Never took him as someone who cared about getting marked late," Roxas muttered as he turned and retrieved his backpack.

Pence shrugged and copied Roxas, hefting his bag onto one shoulder. The strap bunched up at his basketball jersey's outermost border; idly, he picked at it in a way that left Roxas at a loss as to whether he was making it better or worse. "It's probably less to do with timeliness and more about not wanting to get called out in front of a certain transfer student who shares first period with him."

If Roxas had had more energy, he might've been inclined to round out the triad of adolescent boy derisive noises that morning. As it stood, he made no indication that Pence's response had even registered at first as he watched Pence struggle to get the rusty sliding door secured and fully closed on his own.

"Anyway." Once successfully shut, Pence turned away from the van and began the walk from the back of the parking lot toward the school's front entrance. Without so much as a single ounce of enthusiasm, Roxas moved to follow. "Speaking of Hayner and his pride-induced hang-ups…"

Roxas shot his friend a wary glance. What in God's great name now?

At the edge of the parking lot, Pence paused and dropped his backpack, then bent down and began rummaging in a front pocket.

"I don't know about you…" Chin pressed against his sternum as he continued to dig in his school bag, Pence's words were muffled. A few seconds longer and Pence finally found what he'd been searching for. With an exasperated expression, chest rising and falling from the exertion of bending, he straightened to face Roxas. "…but all this Olette-centric melodrama has gotten kinda old for me."

Roxas nodded but said nothing, simply eyeing the folded sheet of notebook paper that Pence was now holding.

"And now she's got that Riku dude involved in trying to pass Hayner notes."

Finally, Pence's words induced Roxas to actually say something.

"You serious?"

"As sin." Expression set and somber, Pence nodded. "Lucky for him, I intercepted it."

No shit. Although Roxas didn't bother to respond out loud, he agreed enough with Pence's quick thinking. If there was anyone Hayner wouldn't have been open to accepting an Olette-originated note from, Riku'd've been it.

"So, what's it say?"

Pence shrugged. "Dunno. Didn't bother to open it. I just wanted to get your input on whether I should pass it on to him."

With a soft groan, Roxas turned away from his friend and threaded the fingers of one hand through his hair, tugging at the roots as he considered how to respond. This was not a great time for him to be weighing in on other peoples' personal lives, stubborn-ass Hayner's least of all. He was tired, irritable, not even inclined to want to attend class at present, let alone untangle the newfound knots of a friendship that should've been able to weather even the most unanticipated of changes, considering the longstanding nature of it.

Yet Pence was looking at him, expecting something, and Hayner was his friend, despite these frequent instances of pride-based, foolish nonsense.

"In my opinion? Both should stop acting like they belong in an elementary school classroom and just talk to each other like the adults they're rumored as being. I think this note-passing nonsense is beyond retarded."

"With you on that one. So I guess it's settled." With a light laugh, Pence pocketed the note, zipped up his bag, and made for the small road that divided the parking lot from the official boundary of Radiant High's school grounds.

At the edge of the street, he turned, noting that Roxas had yet to move from the place he'd just been standing.

"You coming?"

With a curt nod, Roxas said something to the effect that was near about the opposite, then proceeded to wave Pence off. "Yeah, in a sec. Go on ahead. I think I left something in the van."

More like he just didn't want to deal with any more talk about this pedantic bullshit at present.

As Pence disappeared into the crowd of last-minute arrivals, Roxas ambled his way back to Hayner's van. He wasn't exactly sure why he'd lied about needing to return to it, just knew he needed a moment to himself to clear his thoughts and mentally prepare for a solid seven periods of school — or six and a half by the time he made it in, not that he especially cared. Unlike Hayner, he didn't have a fancy transfer student to impress in his first period class, and wouldn't have been embarrassed even if his teacher decided to drag him in front of the entire student body to be lectured on the virtues of consistent timeliness, for that matter.

Making his way back to Hayner's van, Roxas eyed the back seat through its semi-tinted window. Not particularly interested in wrestling with the back sliding door, he made for the passenger side front and entered the way he'd just exited a few minutes prior, for once appreciative of Hayner's predictable indifference about locking up a van that had nothing of value to steal in it.

Abandoning his bag in the passenger side bucket seat once inside, he maneuvered his way into the back through the gap between front seats, careful to avoid knocking the stick shift that separated both sides of the vehicle, and curled up lengthwise on the first row's backseat bench. If he hadn't been able to sleep in the relative comfort of his own bed last night, there wasn't really much chance of him doing so now without the help of the few pills he was still trying to spread out until Xion could get him more, Roxas figured. Still, anything seemed better than the prospect of wading through four years' worth of high school students on the way to his locker. He could be content to wait out the crowd and show up to first period late.

The van's driver side front window had been left open a crack, no doubt in an effort to combat the rising heat as the day wore on. Through it, Roxas heard the occasional sounds of late arrivals, of car doors slamming and the slap of rubber soled sneakers fading as they headed toward campus. These came to him vaguely, no one passing close enough to the van to present any genuine disturbance.

A little more than two months more of this, of the same tired weekday routine. And then what? Picking up some odd jobs to make a few bucks over the summer, then studying subjects he still expected to give no fucks about at the local community college? It didn't seem like much of a future, didn't spell out any sort of desirable career trajectory. He should have cared more, but in his current state of mindless exhaustion, all Roxas had the energy for was keeping up a steady front of indifference, supplemented by irksome thoughts that reminded him he should, in fact, be aiming higher. Indifference outpaced idle thoughts of ambition without any effort, however. It settled into the pit of his stomach, churning; it paralyzed him enough not to want to get up and consider making his way back toward campus and his first period class that by now had no doubt already started.

He couldn't be sure when he'd closed his eyes, wasn't positive if a minute had passed or twenty. All he knew was that at some point he must have drifted off, because at some point the thunderous staccato of a vehicle's dissenting engine jolted him back to abrupt consciousness.

With a soft groan, Roxas locked his elbows, palms down as he pushed himself into a semi-upright position, the joints in his neck popping in protest at the awkward position he'd just woken up from. Eyes still unfocused and aching, he blinked a few times before sparing a glance out the backseat window.

It didn't take long to identify the source of the noise, situated a single parking space away. It took even less time to recognize the clay-caked exterior of the pickup truck that dropped off and picked up Kairi from school, and to catch a glimpse of hair, all spiked up garish and peeking out between a raised hood and the truck's front windshield.

This day just kept getting better and better...

As his senses returned to him, it was exhaust fumes he noted next, a nauseating smell of malodorous diesel that did nothing to calm the feeling that'd been steadily rising from his stomach since he'd first returned to Hayner's van.

Amid the noises of what sounded like a dying engine, Roxas also began to make out a creative array of muffled curse words, expelled with verve from a voice that by all accounts shouldn't have set his stomach off and fluttering in opposition to the steady breathing he'd begun to implement in an attempt to settle it.

He stifled a yawn, then climbed back to the front and settled into the driver's seat. Rolling down the window, he balanced on his knees, then arranged both fabric covered forearms on the ledge of the new opening, resting his chin against the prominent knob of one wrist, preferring the slight discomfort as a provisional method of ensuring continued attentiveness.

For a moment, Roxas just watched as red tresses bobbed in and out of view, simply listening to string after string of colorful curses, any one of which would have no doubt earned him nothing less than a severe parental reprimand — or a few day's of school suspension if he'd been caught uttering them on campus.

Still, there was something harmonious about their execution; maybe poetic was a better word for it. This was most likely why it took Roxas a beat longer before he came enough back to his senses to say anything.

"Her daddy's been driving that hunk of scrap metal since before we were in grade school," Roxas finally called out during an audible lull in both mechanical backfiring and animated expletives. "Might be a lost cause without the help of a professional."

The swearing ebbed, what Roxas could see of its orator momentarily frozen in place, no doubt a result of the unexpected commentary. The silence was short-lived as long fingers came into view. Roxas watched as they curled themselves around the edge of the oxidized truck hood before allowing it to drop back into place.

Without a word, the two eyed one another, Roxas with a modicum of guardedness that Axel LaChappelle's casual stance seemed at direct odds with. Between a rising coil of misty smoke and hair a blend of spiked up and gelled into deliberate position, Axel's appearance was less restrained today, a deliberately sculpted feral. To Roxas, it was no less oddball in appearance than during their first encounter in the marshes, just starkly different, given the generous visual that broad daylight readily offered.

Dark-inked shoulders rose and fell in singular succession, in full display thanks to the sparse cut of a white-ribbed tank top. Roxas followed Axel's languorous path back to the truck's driver side door with his eyes alone.

"Gotta get her runnin' first." The door creaked open as Axel slid into the driver's seat. "If it's a choice between a tow fee and the cost of my next meal, food'll always win out for me."

Finding the logic hard to argue with, Roxas said nothing, simply observing what he could of Axel's efforts as he turned the engine a few times.

It rolled over, then quieted to the point where Roxas thought it might have died again. One more rev seemed to provide it just enough encouragement to purr back to life. He saw little more than half of a self-satisfied grin on the sharp angles of a face only visible in profile before the driver door slammed and the truck it was attached to rolled back into the empty row of parking spaces behind Hayner's van. It next pulled forward to a precise stop, exactly at where their windows matched up. Before Roxas could analyze what was happening in any great depth, he found himself staring into the expressive eyes of Kairi's older cousin.

They were a darker shade of green than he'd initially realized, now that they weren't being illuminated by the unreliable glow of firelight, but no less intense as they studied him, tapering at each corner care of a smile rising on both sides of his lips.

"Running a little late on a Friday?"

As he spoke, Axel looked down, hand extending to rummage in the passenger side compartment. He straightened holding a box of cigarettes, and smacked the plastic-lined cardboard into the open palm of his free hand. He slid one out and placed what remained on the truck's nearest flat surface in front of the steering wheel. The cigarette settled at the edge of his mouth, bobbing intermittently as Axel continued to speak between pursed lips.

"Or are we playing hooky?"

Despite his attempt to maintain an air of indifference, Roxas found himself shifting toward his other default temperament, outright incivility, via an exaggerated roll of his eyes.

"What kind of sense would it make to trek all the way to school if I were fixing to skip?"

Another shrug, followed by the poised rise of one corner of Axel's mouth.

"To each his own, and I figure I don't know you well enough to make guesses at your preferences as relates to high school nonattendance."

The way he spoke, so smoothly articulate, served as a momentary distraction as Roxas paused to consider the timbre and cadence. Southern through and through, there were distinctions to how Axel pronounced words from the way that those local to Radiant Hollow spoke. Roxas just couldn't pinpoint a specific geographic location as the source behind Axel's accent and found himself more than a little irritated having to admit it even silently to himself.

Pushing his head up away from the window, Roxas thrummed his finger brace against the van's metal frame, his closed-brow expression conveying a hint of skepticism.

"You seemed to think you knew me well enough last weekend."

Or knew Cloud, as it were. Over the course of one sleep-deprived week, the details of that particular encounter had already begun blurring into something less based in absolute fact than it was subjective recall on his part.

The comment elicited a chuckle, partially stifled by lips still pressed together against the tip of an unlit Marlboro.

"Touché. You got me there."

Roxas remained quiet, as did Axel. If he'd aimed a bet at the assumption that Axel would elaborate, he'd just have lost the family farm. Instead of explaining himself, Axel merely changed the subject.

"So, got a recommendation for a reputable mechanic who knows a thing or two about ailing truck engines?"

Roxas stopped his thrumming, eyes lowering as he considered the question. After a prolonged moment, he looked back up and offered Axel a curt nod.

"Try the place off Beaumont. It's on the other side of downtown. You can look up the address on your phone."

"You might be able to. As it stands, I can't." Gaze dropping, one artificially dark shoulder rising as he pulled something out of his pocket, Roxas followed the path of Axel's hand as it presented an old flip phone that looked like it'd gone out of style when Roxas was still in middle school. "Interested in guiding me through this charming little town?"

Maybe it was the fatigue. Maybe Axel just had a knack for catching him off-guard. Whatever the case, Roxas didn't suppress his corresponding expression of surprise nearly quick enough. When he ultimately did return to something resembling default indifference, it hardly seemed to matter. From the amused look Axel was shooting him, it was clear to Roxas that the effort expended had been pointless.

"I've got to get to first period."

It was a weak excuse, if a truth, but the comment didn't seem to faze Axel in the slightest.

"It's already half past. Might want to aim for second."

Considering how godawful he'd felt upon being jolted awake a few minutes ago, Roxas didn't need to pull out his phone and scan the time to know Axel was likely right.

Christ alive, if only he completed his homework as effortlessly as he managed to fuck up every other aspect of his life, he and Sora'd both be on their way to Harvard by the end of next summer, rather than the shitty little community college alternative he'd gotten them both consigned to.

"Afraid you're gonna get lost in a ten street town like Radiant Hollow?" he shot back, still not entirely willing to admit he'd been talked straight into a corner void of any verbal escape routes.

Upper body twisting away from him, hunching at an angle that highlighted the sharp lines of his shoulder blades beneath his tank, Axel reached down to retrieve something in the driver's side compartment, and Roxas heard the gravely click of a lighter before he saw the flame that corresponded with it.

"Maybe I just wanted some company whose exclusive focus isn't what shade of nail polish to paint on every morning."

Despite himself, the light jab toward Kairi brought out a smile, which Roxas was quick to drop before it came even close to its apex. Making a quick decision, he slid off his knees and swiped at the van's door handle. As he hopped down, he felt a prickle of circulation returning to the sides of both shins, looked up and saw Axel eyeing the flame dancing at the tip of his lighter with open appreciation.

"Alright, fine. I'll show you how to get there."

Drawing his eyes away from the lighter, Axel gave a tight-lipped grin, then beckoned Roxas forward with a flutter of fingers, the movement continuing upward to steady his cigarette between two of them. As Roxas tugged at the truck's creaky door handle, then slid into the passenger seat, a plume of smoke rose in greeting, followed by another rev of the engine as Axel tossed the lighter into his door's side compartment and coasted toward the parking lot exit.

As Roxas took one last look at his dwindling view of the main school building and spared a moment to consider just how royally fucked he was going to be once word got out that he'd ended up skipping, he felt a light tap on the upper reaches of his arm sleeve. The momentary contact was electric; later, Roxas would tell himself it was simply a result of the place he'd been touched as he looked up at Axel, hand soon returned to the steering wheel and eyes surveying the street in front of them. Later, Roxas would also reckon the observation was bullshit, once the events of the rest of the day had run their proper course and could be considered each in their own turn.

"You ready?"

Even though he knew Axel wasn't looking, Roxas nodded while trying somewhat ineffectively to keep his own wandering attention away from one of a set of inverted tattoo teardrops, now clearly visible as darkly plum, a shade that up until now Roxas most associated with some of Kairi's worst eye shadow fuck-ups. Maybe it was odd, then, but he couldn't help feeling the hue suited a guy ballsy enough to dye his hair the color of a gaudy fire engine.

"Yeah. Take a left."

The car remained idling, as though Axel was still waiting for something. After a few tense moments for Roxas, a handful of quick cigarette hits on Axel's part, Axel spoke again.

"Buckle up, buttercup. I'm not about to place bets on the likelihood that this piece of shit won't stop dead in the middle of oncoming traffic en route to your fabled mechanic."

Oh.

Face flushing, Roxas turned away from Axel and made a grab at the belt. At the sound of its secured click, Axel nodded, apparently satisfied.

"That's better. Now start navigating, Christopher Columbus. God only knows how long this'll take, and the Good Lord tends not to share such trivialities with me, no matter how much I pretend to believe in His omniscient existence."

o - o

For the first half of their journey, Roxas mostly just gave directions, carefully laying out the quickest route through the city center and toward the other side of town. Axel's silence between measured puffs of cigarette smoke was frustrating, but Roxas was willing to concede it was a step up from an alternative involving high-pitched whistling, and at least the guy had enough decency to exhale out the window.

Instead, classic rock permeated the vehicle, set at a volume low enough for Roxas not to be able to identify either singer or individual song lyrics. It wasn't his genre of choice by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a far cry better than Hayner's preference of country music.

Once his cigarette had been reduced to a few remaining inches of flesh-colored filter, Axel reached for another, then held out the box to offer one to Roxas. As Roxas straightened and eyed him, nose wrinkling at the mere thought of coating his lungs in a substance that was in his view nothing more than a creative method of slow suffocation, Axel seemed to associate his visible disgust with brand packaging rather than the product itself.

"Nothing like hand-rolled, I know, but these work in a pinch."

"That shit'll as good as kill you," was the best Roxas could come up with. A pithy statement maybe, but true.

"I'll take that as a no."

Axel laughed, then studied the dark look Roxas was aiming at him.

"Well, kid," he said, eyes lowering until they came to a deliberate pause at Roxas' covered forearms, "we all have our vices. No point in passing judgment, in my personal opinion."

Caught off-guard by the comment, Roxas jerked his head toward the passenger side window and delivered the final handful of directions in a flat voice in the minutes that followed. Realizing he was still leaning forward at an awkward angle, spine rigid and undeniably uncomfortable, he eventually dropped back into his seat, determined not to engage Axel further, barely resisting the urge to cross his arms protectively over his chest out of habit.

It couldn't be that obvious. No one else had ever said anything beyond making the occasional comment about his odd choice of arm accessories, Sora excepted, and these were all people who'd known him since childhood. Even if Axel knew a fact or two about Cloud, a subject about which he seemed content to keep archly dancing around rather than just outright explaining, it didn't mean shit all when it came to Roxas and the past year of his life. Axel had to be just firing off astute observations, then judging his subsequent reaction.

Roxas hoped that was the case, at any rate.

"So, this mechanic. He worth the drive? You been to him before?"

Axel's voice pulled Roxas from his increasingly troubled thoughts. Despite himself, Roxas looked back over at the driver's side of the truck.

"Don't have a car. The van I was in belongs to a friend." Disinclined to hash out why he was present and accounted for in it when he should've been slouched in the plastic chair attached to a pock-marked desk boasting faux wood in first period, Roxas was grateful Axel didn't seem interested in questioning that aspect of their encounter this morning. "But yeah, this guy's been working on cars practically forever. Everyone I know goes to him, including Cloud."

A plume of rising smoke was the only indication Axel had heard him, followed by the downward tilt of the sharp lines of an angular chin. Annoyed by his failure to get Axel to engage, Roxas averted his eyes and began taking acute interest in the finer details of his finger splint.

They halved the remaining distance to the mechanic shop in silence, Axel still taking occasional hits off his cigarette, Roxas trying not to fidget or steal any further glances to at red hair or the distinctive minutiae of Axel's face and neck.

Instead, he studied the pattern of Axel's tattoo on the arm holding the steering wheel located closest to him, noting superficially that it was filled almost entirely with black ink. Despite the contrast to the pale shade of Axel's God-given skin, it was less the dark ink that captured his attention than the areas left void of it in between broad blocks of tattooing.

They were lines, relatively narrow but painstakingly straight; a modest few originated from the outside of Axel's wrist where the black ink began, their single digit numbers multiplying gradually like the branches of a tree by the time they reached the crook of Axel's elbow. The lines were non-ink negative space that criss-crossed Axel's bicep but remained precise, every edge sharply geometric, the blackwork pattern ending at the natural curve of Axel's shoulder, before disappearing beneath the white band of his tank top without making another appearance in the scooped neck area that displayed a small portion of Axel's upper chest.

Roxas shifted his attention to the other arm, propped up at the elbow on the open window frame, well within reaching distance of the cigarette still in Axel's mouth. He caught a quick glimpse of the filled in lines around otherwise unblemished skin, a nearly identical inverse of the right arm's pattern, before Axel finally caught him staring. Tattooed shoulders lifted an inch, then resumed their former position; a beat later, Roxas felt the weight of eyes on him.

He bit the inside of his lower lip without actively realizing it, considered the rising urge to reach over and poke Axel in the shoulder and tell him to watch the road in front of them both. It took him a second longer to remind himself that Axel wasn't Hayner.

Kind of laughable, really. The comparison wasn't even close.

He forced himself to meet Axel's eyes. It was a momentary connection before Axel turned his attention back to the windshield. Unaccustomed to so much quiet in the presence of another, Roxas found himself close to suffocating on the thick silence that threatened to engulf the space, at the same time acknowledging the irony of being in the position he most often resented of others when they initiated pointless talk for the sake of filling a void, perceived or otherwise.

"How long're you planning to stay in town?"

He'd much rather have asked about Axel's extensive inkwork, but that meant admitting his curiosity about something that felt much more personal. It was a line of questioning strangely akin to intimate; moreover, the prospect of discussing someone else's arms hit a little too close to home for him, especially after Axel's earlier remark about individual vices.

If there was a question that could evoke a more generically impersonal set of answers, Roxas would've been hard-pressed to envision it. Either Axel was here out of a self-perceived obligation until Kairi turned eighteen, or he was the generous type who'd stick around through her graduation, then head back to wherever he'd come from in the first place.

As they turned the last corner, the repair garage came into view and Axel initially said nothing. When he finally did speak, the answer was much more nebulous than Roxas had anticipated.

"Long as I'm needed." The words were garbled as a result of the cigarette pressed between his lips. He reached up and plucked it out between two long fingers, then performed a one-handed turn toward the open driveway in front of the mechanic shop. "Got employment downtown, so that gives me some freedom."

The image of Axel doing any kind of work had never occurred to Roxas, although he supposed that was mere high schooler shortsightedness. If he knew Cloud in some capacity, Axel was probably in his mid-twenties. That would mean working to earn a living just like every other adult in Radiant Hollow, with the exception of a few notable fathers, unless deadbeat and abusive had become professions in the time since Roxas had last given either any real consideration.

The kind of work that would be viewed as appropriate for a guy as inked up as Axel was beyond Roxas' current capacity to guess at, and in a matter of a few infuriating seconds, Roxas found himself caught wanting to continue asking questions about Axel's background rather than simply maintaining a complete lack of interest in the man altogether. He couldn't remember the last time he'd cared so much without having a good reason to feel something.

A man clad in oil-stained overalls waved them forward. As Axel pulled into the garage and rolled to a stop, Roxas surveyed the cavernous space and considered the astringent smell of diesel and rubber that was soon inducing a resounding level of eye burn. That, coupled with the near deafening sounds of floor to ceiling machinery, was enough to make him rethink his decision to skip school in favor of playing the part of local navigator for a veritable stranger.

Axel shifted gears into park, and Roxas found he didn't have time to do much more than go through the motions of unbuckling his seatbelt, then following as Axel hopped out of the truck and handed his keys over to a garage employee. He made his way toward the enclosed visitor center next, stopping to consider a metal sign faded with age and barely legible above the door frame. Axel's expression adjusted, one side of his mouth lifting as though amused. It presented yet another minor mystery to Roxas, as nothing stood out as particularly humorous about either the sign or the fact that his eyes had just officially submitted a formal complaint against unfavorable working conditions in the proximity of such overtly offensive odors, watering with an enthusiasm completely out of line with the rest of his stoic demeanor.

"Highwind's Tire and Mechanical…"

Axel read the sign in a ruminative tone, what was left of his cigarette twirled with an expert effortlessness between index and middle finger before he turned back to Roxas. There was an expectant quality in his expression; for the third time in less than an hour, Roxas sensed that his natural inclination to keep stonily silent was about to get upended.

"The building's nothing special, but people swear by the owner."

Yep. There it was. When it came to his interactions with Axel, the unasked for questions and commentary seemed to pour out of him like the testimony of a priest tasked with sharing God's holy word with the ignorant masses.

He crossed his arms over his chest, no longer concerned about whether it'd be interpreted as defensiveness. Eyeing Roxas without commenting, Axel turned toward the visitors area. At a loss for something more productive to do, Roxas followed, found his bleary eyes wandering up from the garage's oil-marked concrete floor to the hem of Axel's stone-washed skinny jeans. It was an odd sight to see in a town that played host to folks more inclined toward baggy pants or denim cut-offs, although Roxas was willing to silently admit the cut suited him. The same went for Axel's white tank top, an article of clothing much more commonly worn in Radiant Hollow, just generally not as a means to highlight two full bare arm's worth of intricate body art.

As Axel reached for the door handle, Roxas made up the distance that remained between them.

"Owner's name is Cid." He followed Axel into the enclosed area and up to the service counter, noting that the oily smell was mercifully less overwhelming inside. "He's got a reputation for being rough and isn't a fan of strangers, so be polite and try not to get on his bad si—"

"Well, I'll be damned," a gravely voice cut Roxas off. Looking up toward the service desk, it was the high-pitched squeal of an office chair twisting a full one-eighty that announced the shop owner's presence before a familiar flash of short-cropped blond hair appeared in his line of vision as Cid stood and walked over to them. "The prodigal son returns."

By Roxas' side, Axel leaned forward, offering a smile as he snuffed what remained of his cigarette into an ashtray at one edge of the counter.

"Hi, you old shit. Been awhile."

Before Roxas could shoot Axel a warning look about insulting the guy tasked with both fixing an ailing vehicle and determining the subsequent cost of it, his thoughts were interrupted by Cid's raucous laughter. A moment later, the man was making his way around the counter, bypassing Roxas completely as he reached out and pulled Axel into a crushing hug that culminated with a hard slap at the center of his back.

"Awhile's an understatement, boy. I haven't seen your face 'round these parts in near about half a decade. Was starting to wonder if you were avoiding me specifically." Pausing only long enough to take another breath in tandem with a light shake of his head, Cid continued on before anyone could interject. "And speaking of faces, looks like yours has gone through a few changes."

Axel grinned, chin lifting to show off the facial ink. "Sounds about right on all counts, purposeful avoidance excepted."

With an exaggerated eye roll, Cid glanced over at Roxas. "Kids these days, eh? Always tryna be unique in the most extreme possible ways."

'Kid' was about the last word Roxas would have personally used to describe Axel, although 'extreme' seemed to fall a bit closer to the mark. Given how Cid had hardly spared him more than a passing glance throughout the entire rapid-fire exchange, he didn't think his opinion was really needed on the matter — or had even been asked for, come to think.

"Anyhow." As Cid turned his gaze over to the grimy viewing window between the visitor area and his garage, he changed topics and got down to business. "What can I do for you?"

"Uncle Ray's truck is acting up, sputtering, backfiring, sometimes dying." Axel smoothed back a wayward strand of hair as he spoke, expression thoughtful. "My guess'd be the engine, possibly the transmission, but trucks aren't my specialty so I thought I'd bring it to the town's best mechanic and see about getting it an official diagnosis."

At the comment, Roxas sucked in a sharp breath, which he immediately regretted. Between the rubbery smell of tires and gasoline fumes pervading every inch of Cid's workplace, he was quickly consumed by a fit of coughing, rather than emitting the snarky scoff he'd initially intended. Unsurprisingly, it caught the attention of the pair in front of him.

"So..." Despite his best attempt to keep a level tone, Roxas found himself clearing his throat on the heels of another raspy coughing spree. "How do y'all two know each other, exactly?"

The question was laced with a skepticism he wasn't entirely successful at suppressing, but Roxas was fast discovering that he increasingly didn't care at this point. He'd agreed to give Axel directions to a reputable repairman out of expected social convention, not to end up an unsuspecting witness to a reunion between the town mechanic and a previously presumed out-of-towner.

Two heads swiveled his direction. To Roxas' everlasting irritation, both sets of eyes took a split second longer to lower themselves down to his height level.

When neither initially spoke, Roxas turned back to Axel. "I mean, you told me you didn't know your way around and here you are getting hugs from the town mechanic like you're his long-lost brother."

Axel's grin returned, and it took all of Roxas' willpower not to scowl as he was offered an answer that was equal parts as obnoxious as it was frustrating.

"I asked you who the best mechanic in town was and explained I didn't have a smartphone. Didn't say I was unfamiliar with the town's layout or who worked what jobs."

Forgetting himself and his resolution to maintain a façade of relative calm, Roxas gawked at him as he tried to wrap his mind around the jumble of words Axel had just spouted off with.

Holy annoying semantics, Batman. Was this guy being a full load of serious?

"Yeah, kiddo," Cid chimed in. "We've got an old-time local in our midst." He offered a wink that only served to ruffle Roxas further. "Though I do appreciate the recommendation, of course."

"I was mostly curious if your reputation still held." As Axel spoke, he pulled out another cigarette. Rather than light it within an enclosed space, he simply rolled it between his fingers as he continued chatting with Cid. "Seems it has, at least among the Strife family."

Another belly laugh, followed by one more slap to Axel's back, and Cid was off, out through the door to the garage and barking orders at lounging workers to give the aging truck a full diagnostic work-up.

Turning away from Roxas, Axel headed toward the nearest waiting room chair. It was box-shaped, its frame metallic, the actual seat covered in faded fabric with tears that revealed the yellowing foam cushion beneath it. Still trying to make sense of Axel's latest reference to his family, Roxas followed and took a seat on the far side, leaving three chairs open between the pair of them.

Apparently unbothered by Roxas' deliberate choice of distance, Axel reached forward and retrieved a copy of some outdated celebrity gossip magazine from the coffee table in front of him. Leaning back, legs straight and crossed at the ankles, he began flipping through the glossy pages, while Roxas stewed silently next to him, unconsciously copying Axel's slouched position as he tried to form a coherent thought and sleep deprivation threatened in earnest to overcome intrinsic logic.

By now, it was already obvious that Axel hadn't needed him to provide directions, so what had been the point of encouraging him to navigate half across town in the first place? Axel also looked like an outsider, talked like one too, yet Cid was more than happy to treat him like a longtime local. Or maybe Axel was just someone like Zack, who'd graduated school and left years ago only to return at a time Roxas personally didn't have the energy to deal with getting reacquainted.

Not that he'd have forgotten someone as distinctive looking as Axel. That, at least, seemed highly improbable.

The discrepancies were many, maddening, but it wasn't like Axel was openly offering up answers, and Roxas was disinclined to come out and ask any more questions. He'd often been accused of being stubborn by his mother, Cloud, and others. Irony of all ironies, sometimes even Hayner pointed the finger. In this moment, where he just couldn't make himself ask that which might clear up the handful of the questions about Axel that yet lingered, Roxas finally thought he might understand what others were getting at when they referenced him and pigheadedness in the same single sentence.

That didn't mean he planned to deviate from the standard that'd already been set - or that he wasn't above asking questions of a more indirect nature.

"How old even are you?"

Axel glanced up, the binding of his magazine cracking between two outstretched hands.

"How old do I look?"

For fuck's sake. At this point, three empty chairs-worth of space between them was the only thing keeping him from leaning over and smacking Axel clear upside his over-gelled head.

He also couldn't help hazarding a guess. Doing some quick arithmetic mostly associated with Axel's claimed knowledge of Cloud and Cid's statement that he'd been gone about five years, Roxas ballparked a figure, wound up, and pitched it.

"Twenty-four."

The sound of Axel's laughter filled his ears. It echoed, then transformed itself into peals an octave higher. Roxas blinked, expression dropping into the scowl he'd just had the poor judgment of thinking he'd successfully managed to conceal. A moment later, bewilderment, as Roxas realized that, although upturned, Axel's mouth wasn't even open, the voice he could still hear ringing around both temples now much more feminine.

"Wrong," Axel returned, eyes traveling back to the magazine in front of him, "but I'll take that as a compliment."

Still unsettled and only half listening, it took Roxas a few seconds longer to realize there was more than one way that Axel's comment could be interpreted.

"No, seriously."

This time Axel's lips did part and Roxas caught sight of a prominent incisor before redirecting his attention to the inbound response. It turned out to be yet another irritating non-answer.

"You're welcome to make another guess. I'll tell you if you're correct."

And let himself feel like the butt of a joke that was missing a punchline when he ended up another year or two off in either direction? Yeah, he'd pass. Fuck that.

Hand moving to his front pocket and determined not to engage Axel further, Roxas pulled out his phone and scanned the notifications that had come in over the past forty-five minutes.

It was Hayner asking where he was, with Pence confirming he'd disposed of Olette's note.

And a message from Xion, saying she was feeling sick and planned to head home from school early, wondering if he could meet up between classes before she left campus.

God damnit, he wasn't winning any awards for stalwart friendship lately. Or remembering his relationship obligations either, apparently.

Unsure how to explain his current whereabouts to Hayner, he shot off a quick text to Xion instead, making it clear enough that today wasn't a good one to talk about anything drawn-out without actually bringing up the fact that he wasn't even on school grounds. Then, without any form of conversation to tether him to the present, Roxas found his mind wandering. Again.

He did make an honest effort to remain conscious at first, tried scrolling social networking sites he rarely ever checked in on. Considering he didn't give a shit about friends' vacuous status updates or uploaded photos on the best of days, his phone was even less successful at keeping his mind active than it otherwise might have been on a day when he wasn't bone-tired and mentally exhausted from trying to come up with subtle ways of getting Axel to answer even the simplest of questions.

Eventually he gave up, as evidenced by the soft sound of his phone dropping into his lap out of a lax grip. Pointedly ignoring the fresh gaze he felt from Axel's corner of the room, Roxas closed his eyes and let the sounds of garage worker voices shouting to one another and assorted repair shop garage noises drown out his quickly dissolving thoughts from one wall over.

Awareness became an ambiguous concept as Roxas drifted in and out of consciousness. Behind closed eyes, he saw flashes of recent memories, of Sora's joyful smile after successfully clearing a marsh puddle, then Xion twirling in her long, frilly skirt in front her bedroom's open window. As the images faded, the feeling of weightlessness intensified, along with a sense that he was falling, unable to slow his speed or the freewheeling trajectory adopted by gravity. Downward he fell until he felt hands on him, slowing the rush of harsh wind at his cheeks as long fingers he recognized as Axel's caressed covered forearms and steadied his balance. Roxas studied Axel, wide-eyed and wordless, noting that tattooed arms and shoulders were no longer bare but covered beneath the form-fitting fabric of a jet-black overcoat.

All the while, Zack's voice mingled with the effervescent laughter of a girl whose accent rang reminiscent of a language nearly forgotten among his own generation.

That was a long time ago. People change.

Nothing is real...ariyin ditou.

The name's Axel. Got it memorized?

The fingers returned, this time lightly tapping at the curve of his shoulder. They were followed by a voice uttering the two syllables of his name, vocals quiet and tone subdued.

Realities merged and unconsciousness ceded to the more abrasive realm of mental sentience. Green and red filled his vision the moment Roxas jerked awake, the sound of his phone hitting the linoleum floor with a dull thud filtering in to him next.

Crouched in front of him, forearms balanced on the tops of both legs, Axel watched Roxas as Roxas stared back, lashes a flutter of unconscious movement as he tried to reconcile the dreamscape image of a dark coat with the unsettling contrast of Axel's stark white tank top.

"Didn't mean to startle you, but Cid worked his magic and found a temporary solution for the pickup." As Axel spoke, his voice remained low, eyes still on Roxas but void of any mean-spirited amusement for having caught him in a moment of self-perceived weakness. "Soon as you're ready, we can head out."

Still in the midst of fending off sleep-induced muteness, Roxas followed the movement as Axel leaned forward and retrieved his phone, then passed it back over to him. For the briefest of instances, two sets of pale fingers brushed against one another before the phone transfer was completed and the moment over with.

Axel stood next, then offered a small smile.

"Vehicular mishaps, flagrant school truancy, and mid-day naps."

"What?"

As Roxas pushed himself to standing, he eyed Axel, not quite following.

Axel looked back, one eyebrow rising, before he gestured to the door he had already begun heading over toward, the hint of a good-natured smile clearly visible in profile.

"I'm just saying, God as my witness, my own high school experience might not've been such a mix of unpleasant and tedious if more people like you had been present."

Chapter Text


"I didn't ask for this
I didn't want to care
And then I saw you there."
"Ways to Go" - Grouplove


Of all the new experiences this relocation had thrown at him, one of the most outright alien that Riku hadn't even anticipated was his first foray into the world of evangelical Christianity. He'd had the dubious pleasure of attending a service with his parents Sunday morning.

Now, as he made his way off their rental property and began the drive toward school for the start of his third week, Riku found himself wondering if this whole situation, initially advertised as straightforward and temporary, would've been more manageable on his end if it'd been marketed less as an already constructed prospect than the more accurate warning of 'some assembly required'.

He wasn't even sure when his mother'd had time to talk to Xion's, given the general craziness of her scheduled rounds at the hospital. All Riku knew was that at some point the two had crossed paths and conversed, that at some point during the ensuing conversation an invitation to the First Baptist Church of Radiant Hollow had been offered. Riku could only assume that it was in under the auspices of ingrained social graces that his mom had accepted, then promptly informed both her son and husband over Friday night dinner.

He'd had a solid thirty hours to stew in the interim.

Beyond what he'd seen in movies, Riku knew very little about Christianity of any shade. His parents stuck to a vegetarian diet but seemed to pick and choose the Buddhist festivals they otherwise celebrated. They were by no means strict in their approach to spirituality; science and rational thought had always been extolled in the Kimura family over blind adherence to religion. Likewise, although they ran the gamut from Shinto to Reform Jewish, none of his friends back home were particularly religious.

Meanwhile in Radiant Hollow, the days where Riku heard a reference to God, Jesus, or just religion in general outnumbered those that he didn't; it seemed like reverent expressions were just a fundamental part of the local vernacular, even in instances when the topic of discussion happened to be secular.

His first concern had naturally involved who might be in attendance. Despite earlier misgivings, the mere thought of seeing Sora again was enough to make Riku feel a conflicting combination of eager and nervous. Ultimately, Sora had said he'd be returning to school on Monday, Riku had reasoned with himself, in an attempt to quell his own crush-induced anxiety. Seeing him a day earlier wasn't going to be life-changing. A more pressing concern involved the content of the service itself. He may not've possessed much beyond a cursory familiarity with Christian doctrine, but Riku was well enough versed to know about the tenuous relationship that existed between Southern evangelicals and the LGBT-identifying American public. He hadn't been blind to the Southern protestors who'd materialized in force after word broke of every new same-sex marriage court ruling. There was even some random guy back home who'd march around with a 'Jesus loves you' sign (and an unpunctuated 'Homosexuals repent or burn in hell' on the back for good measure) in the center of San Francisco's shopping district who his friends always made a point to avoid whenever their paths threatened to cross during downtown excursions.

It was one thing to be aware of a single hateful person who everyone thought was crazy and quite another to be in a situation where that man's views had a high probability of being held by a wide-margin majority. Riku wasn't really sure if he wanted to sit through ninety minutes of fire-and-brimstone forewarnings about the sins of homosexuality, not near Xion and her mother, and definitely not next to his parents.

But there'd been no sign of either Sora or Roxas that morning, and the church service itself was primarily focused on upcoming Good Friday and Easter services. No mention of gay people, not one reference to hell. Both were worth being relieved about, Riku supposed, if not outright thankful.

The service hadn't been completely void of recognizable faces, however. Apart from a few Radiant High students whose names Riku hadn't committed to memory, he'd also noticed two other classmates sitting together in the row second from the pulpit. Seated next to an adult couple in similar attire, Seifer and Olette were dressed in a light suit and a tasteful skirt and blouse, respectively. Their clothing matched others around them, giving the crowd an air of affluence that seemed out of place when compared to the rest of the people in this town Riku regularly encountered.

Although it did provide a fuller illustration of Radiant Hollow's socio-economic demographics, Riku hadn't spent much time dwelling on it then, thanks to a healthy dose of Seifer's ominous presence and the subsequent rise in anxiety that corresponded to it.

As he rolled to a stop in front of the first downtown street sign and performed a quick scan of the next road before pulling forward, Riku returned to the observation made yesterday in an attempt to determine if wealth was even a factor that affected his ability to acclimate to a place like this.

Money wasn't something that he'd ever spent much time thinking about. He'd grown up in a single-family home in a city that he was aware boasted a higher cost of living than most other places, and attendance at his private school probably didn't come cheap, although if asked about tuition specifics Riku would've been hard-pressed to offer more than a ballpark estimate.

His closest friends were members of families who were similar to his — all doctors and lawyers and executive level businessmen (and women). Neku's situation came the closest to financially precarious: a divorced mother who ran her own business, with a flagship store recently opened not far from the Financial District. That being said, their situation was hardly what he'd consider impoverished. From the way Neku so often glibly spoke about it, Riku knew his friend's mother had been court-awarded a great deal in both alimony and monthly child support; his father, in turn, had received an unwanted lesson in improperly executed pre-nups.

Beyond the knowledge that someone in Sora's family owned a flat-bed truck, and what little he'd managed to glean from his social media snooping, Riku had next to no sense of the Strife family's financial situation, or if it even mattered in the event that it ended up being very different to his. Having no further information to work with, he had to end his conjecture on the matter, at least for the time being.

As the modest architecture of Radiant Hollow's downtown streets flashed by his window, Riku considered the fact that today wasn't going to involve just worrying about what to say to Sora, or even how to act around him. He also still had Seifer to avoid because, unless he was vastly underestimating the guy, he was still at risk of being cornered and forced into discussing the issue about Olette.

Whatever that even was.

It'd been awkward enough seeing them together at church, Olette smiling but still seemingly hesitant, Seifer far more stoic, eyeing the entire Kimura family with thinly veiled judgment. Riku supposed he should feel fortunate that, after an hour and a half of listening to a sermon involving Judas and his sinful betrayals of the one-and-only Lord Jesus, both of his parents had seemed as eager to leave as Riku had felt, his father especially since the next stop on the agenda involved an Audi dealership a few towns over.

Now he had a car of his own, and essentially the first real ounce of freedom since arriving in this town. It seemed somewhat superfluous. To Riku, freedom was composed one part of a means to get away from home, another part having somewhere to go. At this point, he was still sorely lacking on one of those fronts.

Pulling into the school parking lot, he also couldn't help but note the visual disconnect to parking a top-of-the-line Audi beside a string of American cars with an array of make dates that mostly spanned the final decade of the last century. Not that he'd personally had much involvement in selecting the car he was now driving. It was his dad who was a fan of European luxury vehicles; having little interest in cars himself, Riku had only offered the most perfunctory of input during the car buying process.

At the very least, it'd given father and son something somewhat family-oriented to do together for an afternoon. Shifting to park and unbuckling his seatbelt, Riku wondered in passing if Sora had a close relationship with his father or if parental emotional distance was a scenario they shared.

Ultimately, that question was for another place and time. In the interim, Riku decided to do his best to clear his mind and focus more linearly on one task at a time to ensure he got through this day in a single piece. At the top of the list was Hayner's hot-and-cold temperament to deal with during first period.

Retrieving his messenger bag, Riku exited the car and began the short trek toward the school's front entrance. There was an alternate route around the side of the building to get to the outside class trailers, but he'd end up arriving earlier than was necessary. A trip to his locker to off-load a few unnecessary textbooks sounded like an acceptable compromise.

Plus, there was also a chance that he might run into Sora on the way, maybe Kairi along with him. Despite having an entire weekend to run through various conversation scenarios and assess how a sampling of his own comments might sound in response to them, Riku still wasn't convinced he'd know what to say if he encountered either of them unexpectedly. Just the same, he took care to observe his surroundings on the walk up to the school's main doors, ever watchful for the distinctive hue of Kairi's hair or the doe-eyed blue that'd tip him off to Sora's presence.

He got Selphie instead.

"Hi, Riku!"

The greeting was almost cooed, audible emphasis placed on the wrong part of his name as she pulled up beside him. Although the syllabic stress sounded odd to him, almost as though she was saying someone else's name entirely, Riku didn't comment on it. There was no point in shining a spotlight on something most people already considered foreign.

A few feet from the school's front entrance, he slowed, then turned to look at her. Before he could return the greeting, Selphie sounded off again in the same chipper tone.

"I was wondering, what's you're last name?"

"Um…"

Caught off-guard by the unanticipated question and an upbeat demeanor that seemed out of place first thing on a Monday morning, Riku hesitated before answering.

"…it's Kimura."

He'd mumbled a little, and Selphie blinked in response, her expression still friendly, brows now slightly furrowed.

"Is there an 'l' near the end, or was that a 'y'?"

Riku shook his head.

"Neither. It's 'k-i-m-u' —"

He stopped as they reached the door, noting that Selphie had pulled out her phone and was starting to type something.

"Sorry." He tilted his head just enough to dislodge some of the hair tucked behind one ear in an attempt to see what was being written. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing." An exaggerated fluttering of lashes followed another bright smile. "I just thought I'd search for you on Facebook. I have some photos from the night at St. Bastion's I wanted to tag you in."

He pushed open one of the entry's double doors, holding it long enough for Selphie to slip in behind him. For a split-second, he considered lying, making the claim that he didn't have an account. Two weeks into his stay here and Riku wasn't convinced he wanted someone he hardly knew digging through every photo and each old status people had mentioned him in over the past few years of high school — especially not if it only promised to set him further apart in this social environment once people saw the properties his parents owned, or the destinations his friends and family traveled to during vacations from school.

"I don't really use it much so it might be hard to find me," he said instead, opting for what he deigned a happy medium between lying and outright admitting that his privacy settings made him more or less unsearchable.

"Hm." She nodded, looked thoughtful, and Riku waited for the inevitable comment about how evasive he was acting.

True to form this morning, Selphie took a different approach and chose to blind-side him with something else entirely.

"Any ideas who you'll be asking to Prom?"

Before he could start stammering out a response he hadn't fully thought through, Riku swallowed and took a sudden interest in the strap of his messenger bag. An image of Sora had materialized almost immediately on the heels of Selphie's question, a rising flush of heat from his chest into the upper boundaries of his neck arriving mere moments after.

Slowing as he reached his locker, Riku tucked some hair back behind his ear, then slid his bag under an arm and closer to his chest, eyes down as he made an attempt at looking like he was studying the contents within it.

"I haven't really thought about it."

With a light bounce that sent her mousy hair dancing around her shoulders, Selphie stopped along with him and watched as Riku twisted through the combination dial, then swung open his locker.

"You might want to make up some time and start brainstorming real quick then." She looked at him intently. "Tickets go on sale during lunch today and it's only about a month and some change out now."

This was not something he'd anticipated, mostly because Riku hadn't thought past simply surviving three months at a rural high school before he'd be able to go home and spend the rest of the summer with his friends in a more familiar setting. He hadn't foreseen getting involved in peoples' personal lives here, and certainly hadn't seen himself attending official school events.

Then again, he also hadn't envisioned getting invited to a party or developing a crush that had the potential to get his ass completely handed to him if anyone found out about it. Maybe the prospect of attending a dance shouldn't have come as such a surprise to him, under the circumstances.

He reached for a book, then paused and looked at her.

"Is Prom really all that big here?"

Because back home, he probably would have opted out. There was a slight chance that certain friends would have success in convincing him to go in a group with Neku, Kadaj, and others. Even then, it'd be brief appearance. They'd arrive, stay for an hour or so, then duck out in favor of more interesting venues in the warehouse district, maybe find a night club with a bouncer more interested in large cash tips than in legal age limits. Or they'd just opt to return home to an empty house if one set of parents was out of town on business. Anything was usually preferable to school dances.

"Oh, yes. Absolutely." Selphie's words were emphatic. "It's been on my calendar since the date got announced at the start of the school year."

While that didn't technically answer his question about whether anyone else at school thought Prom attendance was essential, Riku was initially at a loss as to how to clarify without sounding belittling.

Maybe this necessitated a different answer-seeking strategy.

"So..." As he spoke, Riku began to lift the unneeded textbook out of his bag. "People like Roxas and Sora will be there too?"

Truth be told, Riku didn't really care where Roxas was at any given moment, the final school dance of the year included, but he figured safety in numbers was a good way to approach anything involving a reference to his brother. The last thing he needed was Selphie reading into his inquiries, particularly given how active she seemed to be on social media.

"Duh." Selphie rolled her eyes as if it was obvious. "Roxas will go with Xion, and Sora'll probably take Kairi again."

Wait, what?

Textbook halfway between his bag and the open locker, Riku froze and didn't even come close to suppressing the surprise that followed. He turned away from Selphie and dropped the book into his locker in a one jerky movement, then tried to keep his tone casual as he posed his next question.

"Sora's taken Kairi to other school dances?"

Her phone was out again, eyes practically shining as she responded to what looked like a friend's recent status update. Selphie nodded.

"Like, every dance since freshman year. Maybe a few in middle school."

"Oh…"

The word slipped out before Riku could even think to rebrand it to sound less disheartened. If he'd thought Selphie might miss it in the midst of scrolling her friends' Facebook statuses, Riku was mistaken. She glanced up an instant later, eyes probing.

Scrutiny quickly ceded to a look of sympathy.

"Aww." Again, with the cooing tone. "You were going to ask Kairi to be your date."

"What? No! I mean, that's not —"

Eyes widening, Riku visibly recoiled and clamped his mouth shut before he could dig himself a bigger hole than he'd already started.

"Oh-em-gee, that is so cute. I literally can't right now." Mistaking his reaction for flustered backpedaling, Selphie patted his arm and offered him a look of empathy. "I'm just sorry to be the bearer of the bad news that she's already taken."

She palmed her phone, expression turning thoughtful. Riku supposed he should've been grateful she hadn't immediately started composing a status update to announce the revelation of this newly discovered unrequited love of his.

Sliding the phone into a pocket, her hand returned to Riku's arm and something arguably worse happened instead.

"There're plenty of girls who'd be super excited to go with you, don't worry." He felt the light squeeze of her fingers pressing into his bicep as though to highlight her words. "I'll start asking around. You know, put some feelers out."

For the love of god, Riku thought. Please don't.

Before he could think of a tactful way to decline her offer, he heard her name called out from across the hall in an equally feminine tone. Selphie released his arm and they both looked up, Riku noting that the speaker was another senior girl.

"I need to get going." Tucking a few strands of hair behind her ear in a move reminiscent of the one Riku had performed earlier, Selphie shot off one final smile, turned, then called out to him over her shoulder. "But don't stress about Prom. I've gotcha covered!"

Yeah, that was pretty much exactly what he didn't want to hear when he was already worrying about a handful of other school-related issues. Now, he had Selphie's so-called skills of expert matchmaking prowess to add to his growing list of impending social catastrophes.

As Selphie disappeared around a hall corner with her friend, Riku tried to assure himself that none of this was as bad it currently seemed. He fished one more book out of his bag that he didn't need until the second half of the day, then reached up and slammed his locker shut in conjunction with the three minute bell warning.

Roxas and Xion. Kairi and Sora. In the instant before practical thought returned, he found himself considering both pairings as if they were on equal footing.

They couldn't be, though. He'd have picked up on it if Sora and Kairi were something more than friends. He wasn't that oblivious.

Or… was he?

They'd attended every dance together since ninth grade. That's what Selphie had said. This information, taken on the whole with Kairi's obvious cautiousness when he questioned her about the finer points of Sora's whereabouts last week, left considerably less analytical wiggle room.

He also hadn't picked up on the relationship between Roxas and Xion until one of them had come right out and announced it to him. Maybe that was a different set of circumstances, but it still wasn't leaving him feeling all that confident about his inherent ability to distinguish between relationships that were more romantic than they were platonic.

With a growing sense of unease, Riku nudged his bag back into place behind him, then forced himself to quicken his pace toward the outside trailers. With the weight of his worries seeming to multiply by the minute, the last thing he needed was to get marked late by an unsympathetic teacher in first period Senior English.

o - o

Any lingering doubts as to Selphie's claims about the Radiant High student body's collective Prom-associated enthusiasm were promptly dispelled when Riku saw the line snaking its way from a student council table at the center of the cafeteria out into a nearby hallway. It was even longer than the line to purchase food.

Not that the food was anything worth standing in line for, in Riku's estimation. This mirrored his opinion about buying Prom tickets.

Avoiding both queues of students as he entered the cafeteria, homemade lunch already in hand, Riku considered his seat options. For the most part, he'd been sitting off on his own during lunch since week one and his falling out with Hayner. While other students sometimes sat next to him, it was more due to the lack of availability of open seats elsewhere than a genuine interest in engaging with the new transfer. There were a few students who actually seemed to relish the solitude; most people who sat at Riku's table eventually had friends join them at some point during the lunch period, however.

While it maintained the status quo, sitting alone meant risking thoughts drifting back to Sora, a topic he'd already worn so thin today alone it was practically transparent at this point. Seeing him in the one class they shared in the morning hours definitely hadn't helped. The time it took Riku to get from the trailers to the right school corridor where his second period class was located hadn't afforded them any interaction beyond a quick exchange of smiles before the lesson started. While Sora had grinned at him as though nothing was different, it was Riku who'd felt awkward, his attempt at a returned facial expression even more so. He'd settled into his desk soon after, self-consciousness building as the lecture dragged on even past the bell that signaled the interim period between second period and third. It was all he could do to remember to wave toward the back of the room in Sora's general direction before making a mad dash out the door and back in the direction of the outside trailers.

In retrospect, his was possibly the dumbest class schedule in the history of dumb class schedules.

Nevertheless, well aware of his ability to analyze his own actions toward an early death if his mind was left to its own devices, Riku didn't need much more encouragement than catching a glimpse of Pence's familiar headband before deciding to make his way over to the table Hayner and the rest of his friends typically sat at.

Once again, Pence was in the process of eating something that barely qualified as food, in Riku's view; this time it was some form of meat, breaded and impaled up the vertical middle by a thin serving stick. By the time Riku arrived, Pence was already intent on pulling off the breading, separating the golden-yellow outer layer from the cylindrical sheath of processed meat underneath. Still standing, Riku watched him for a moment before clearing his throat.

"Hi again."

Pence looked up, a piece of artificial yellow breading pinched between his thumb and an index finger.

"Hey, man. What's up?"

Trying to ensure his face didn't reflect any genuine thoughts about the food Pence was in the active process of dismantling, Riku did his best to keep his expression neutral, eyes aimed at his classmate rather than the stick of food he was still holding.

"Is the invitation to sit with you guys still open?"

His classmate popped a wad of breading into his mouth, chewed once, twice, then grinned.

"Sure. Take a seat. Any seat."

Riku did.

Scanning the room without catching a glimpse of either Hayner or Roxas yet, Riku turned in his seat, set his lunch on the table in front of him, and tried not to grimace as Pence peeled back another strip of bread from his greasy corndog.

As he pulled out a tupperware container with a simple mix of vermicelli rice noodles, greens, and shredded tofu, then a separate, smaller container with sauce to pour over it, Riku glanced back at Pence.

"How'd everything go with Olette and that note?"

"All good, buddy." Another mouthful of half-chewed breading, and a foxy smile followed. "I took care of it. You're in the clear, and you're welcome."

"Yeah …thanks."

Considering he didn't know what Pence meant with the rather ambiguous comment, Riku also wasn't sure how press him for any additional information.

And if he expected Pence to help out by elaborating, he was off-mark. Breading now fully stripped away and eaten, Pence took a generous bite off the top of the skewered hotdog, then lapsed into silence while Riku tried to convince his gag reflex that throwing up in the middle of a crowded lunchroom was not the recognition he wanted to earn for himself on school grounds — or anywhere else in this town, for that matter.

He turned away as a compromise, plastic fork held loosely between two fingers. His gaze traveled the space of the cafeteria until it settled on the table that students were still waiting in line for. He studied the sign scotch-taped to the wall behind it announcing the pricing scheme for dance tickets, noting there was a discount for purchasing in twos.

"So… Prom."

"Yeah." Pence sounded like he was commiserating. "It's supposed to be a big thing this year, what with the Almasy family sponsoring. Nice food, upscale venue. Lots of people are looking forward to it, or whatever."

As Riku turned back to him and suppressed the urge to voice doubts that anything in Radiant Hollow could possibly qualify as upscale, Pence polished off the rest of his hotdog in a series of wolfish bites. Much to Riku's dismay, he saw the second breaded confection on his classmate's lunch tray just as Pence made a swipe for it.

"Actually, it might be just your type of thing."

As Pence went to town on stripping the breading off his second hotdog, it took Riku a moment to realize the comment was about Prom rather than Radiant High's current hot lunch offering.

"Why's that?"

As he spoke, Riku finally took the time to pry open his sauce container. He poured it over his main course, then stuck his fork into the center of the noodles, hoping pure mental will could overpower olfactory disgust enough to not only get some food into his stomach but keep it in there for the duration of the lunch hour.

"The Almasies own half the town." The statement was followed by a squelching sound that indicated Pence had reached the top of his second hotdog. "And your family's loaded too, from what I hear. From there, I took the logical next step to assuming it'd be the type of event to which you're already accustomated." He paused, brows knitting together, then repeated the final word to himself while Riku held back the urge to correct the sentence. With a light shrug, Pence ended up moving on, ultimately shooting a knowing glance at Riku. "Or maybe I'm off-base here. Feel free to correct me."

Riku looked down, for a moment hesitating as he considered his response options. His parents' income wasn't something he was particularly eager to discuss in the presence of someone he hardly knew. Instead of answering, he took his first bite of vermicelli, chewing with deliberate slowness, before he opted to change the subject.

"Are you going with anyone, or—"

Pence shifted in his seat, looking away mid-inquiry, and Riku trailed off, sentence unfinished, before following his line of sight across the cafeteria until he located Roxas and Hayner in the process of heading toward them. While Hayner shot him a look that still hinted at lingering dislike, Roxas' expression didn't change as both boys made their way around the table and took seats across from the two of them.

Like Pence, both had cafeteria trays and food identical to what Riku'd just endured watching Pence consume. Unlike Pence, neither seemed interested in performing the same elaborate corndog deconstruction.

Maybe, Riku mused, there was a god.

"Riku here was just asking about Prom."

As Pence resumed speaking, he also reached for the carton of whole milk that remained as yet unopened in front of him.

Hayner rolled his eyes in response, while Roxas merely placed both arms on the table in front of his tray and dropped his head onto them.

"Everyone knows Prom's just dolled-up admin-sponsored bullshit." Hayner bit into the top third of his corndog. "Polish a turd, and… well, you know the rest of it."

Riku actually didn't know. Cautiously, he glanced from one classmate to another before he settled on Pence who'd finally come up for air just in time to see the look Riku was shooting him.

"It's still a turd," he offered.

"Ah." Riku wound some noodles around his fork. "So you all aren't going, then?"

He'd come close to trying his hand at a certain Southern contraction, but couldn't quite bring himself to go through with saying it. He also wasn't completely sure if "y'all" was even the proper word, if "all y'all" was preferred, or if there was another variant about which he remained yet ignorant.

A muffled snort filtered over from Roxas' side of the table.

"Oh, we'll be goin' all right. Not even a question."

His twangy inflection on top of words muttered straight into the table made the response almost unintelligible to Riku. For Hayner, apparently, not so much.

"The girls've got us by the balls." He supplemented, then turned to poke Roxas in the shoulder. "Though a few have firmer grips than some've the others."

Face still mostly hidden, a covered forearm rose, and Hayner was treated to the silver and white of Roxas' splinted middle finger in prominent display above his other still fisted digits.

Unfazed, Hayner just grinned, then glanced over at Riku.

"The dance is just a formality so parents'll sign off on us staying out after in the name of tradition, or nostalgia, or something similar. There're usually a couple after-parties worth going to. Then you crash wherever."

"And whoever with," Pence added.

Riku nodded but said nothing, thoughts drifting as Hayner and Pence continued talking. This didn't sound all that different from back home and getting unwittingly roped into attending a school formal. He'd usually concede if one of his friends was adamant about going, then make sure to leave for more interesting venues as soon as was realistic. His gaze traveled past Pence and across the table, first to Hayner who was in the process of wondering out loud which destination would be best to head to after the dance, then paused on the unruly blond tresses that made up the visible part of Roxas' head. He eyed the splint next. Having no wish to mentally revisit the questionable way Roxas had chosen to deal with his injury a few weeks back, Riku quickly looked elsewhere, eyes lowering next to the glossy sleeves that covered his classmate's forearms for lack of anything more appropriate to settle on.

It struck him as more than a little odd that anyone would opt for a long sleeved shirt in the South's muggy Spring-Summer weather interim. Initially fixed on that observation, it took Riku a moment longer to realize that, while a similar color, the fabric on Roxas' arms wasn't actually a match to the rest of the shirt he was wearing, that the sleeves didn't even seem to be attached, actually.

"… probably by Jardins. It's close and there won't be anyone around at night anyhow."

Riku managed to catch the last half of Pence's comment, just not enough to know its underlying context.

"Maybe," Hayner returned. "Or we could find something that's closer to…"

As Hayner trailed off midway through his response, Riku glanced up, noting the newfound tension in his classmate's newly upright position. While he was still looking across their table, Hayner's eyes were directed past both Riku and Pence, to something behind them.

Or someone, as it so happened.

"A group of losers eating lunch together. What a shocker."

Instead of turning toward the speaker, Riku suddenly found himself paying acute attention to the details of his noodle container. He'd figured Seifer would catch up to him eventually. It just sucked that it was at a time and place where he couldn't easily excuse himself without making a scene that half the school would end up witnessing.

While Riku silently cursed his bad luck, and the student behind him for good measure as well, he watched from the corner of one eye as Roxas lifted his head and reached for his corndog.

"Gee, Seifer. Verbal assaults while people are trying to nourish themselves?" Chin now propped onto the one arm still resting on the table, he waved his stick of food as though to illustrate. "Is nothing sacred?"

"Fuck off, and not everything's about you." Riku could almost imagine the sneer that came along with the tone Seifer had adopted. Two seconds later, he got visual confirmation as Seifer rounded the table and pulled to a stop behind Roxas and Hayner. "Hollywood and I've got some business to attend to. Your all being here is just an unhappy coincidence."

As three sets of eyes turned toward him, Riku swallowed hard and stabbed his fork back into his vermicelli with undue force.

He'd been making the assumption that getting cornered by Seifer and his cronies alone was the epitome of unwanted. Somehow, the prospect of duking this out in front of Hayner and his friends struck him as even worse.

Awesome. The day just kept getting more complicated.

He didn't even know what this entailed, as referenced, or why it was wreaking havoc on his anxiety in the first place. What he did know was this was fast getting old and, on a day that he was just trying to get through as quickly as possible until he could make his way over to the library for study hall, Seifer was the exact last person he wanted to encounter.

Maybe he felt emboldened by the sarcasm in Roxas' opening response. Maybe he was simply tired of feeling like he was constantly trying to dodge a guy he knew only by virtue of his seemingly endless arsenal of insults. Possibly, he was in the throes of a complete emotional meltdown and what came next was simply inevitable. Whatever the case, as Riku finally mustered the nerve to look up at Seifer, his response was less measured snark than it was a barely contained outburst.

"Here's the deal," he said, eyes rising past Hayner and a still slouching Roxas across from him directly to the source of this latest intrusion on his lunch hour. "Yes, I spoke to Olette last week, but she approached me, not the other way around."

That got a reaction, but mostly from Hayner, whose face had transformed from a rough semblance of confusion to unabashed incredulity. Ignoring the look, Riku forged on before anyone else could cut in.

"I'm not interested in your girlfriend like that anyway, so will you please just drop this?"

Across from him, Hayner made a choking sound that appeared to be a direct result of the food he'd just swallowed, and Roxas reached over to slap him on the back at the same time that Seifer crossed his arms over his chest and arched an eyebrow.

"My girlfriend."

It wasn't a question, and a curt laugh followed, like he found humor in the comment.

Not exactly the reaction Riku had been expecting.

"Yeah, you know. The person you've been stalking me all over school wanting to discuss?"

There was still ire in his tone, but it was a lot less assertive than his initial outburst, reason being it was an unconscious reaction of increasing uncertainty to the way the two boys seated across him were now gawking.

Across from him, Roxas shook his head, then offered Hayner one final slap against the back, before glancing up over his shoulder at Seifer behind him.

"Methinks the new kid doth got his wires crossed." He dropped the inharmonic combination of Southern twang and heightened word choice in his follow-up sentence, which fell more in line with muttered. "Been a lotta that going around of late."

"Y'don't say."

Seifer's attention returned to Riku, a quickly formed smirk punctuating the momentary quiet between both comments.

"Even if she was my girlfriend, worrying about her falling for a faggot like you wouldn't be high on my list of concerns."

And there came the insults. He'd anticipated it this time, but that didn't do anything to soothe the resulting sting.

Giving up on lunch, Riku drew his hands away from the table and down to the edge of the seat on either side of him, jaw clenching. It was all he could do to remain calm in the face of another hurtful slur. Maybe if they weren't in a public location, he'd have been more willing to speak up for himself, to tell Seifer off. Here, in a cafeteria filled with people who'd known only one of them for years, Riku didn't want to hedge his bets on which side others might take if any argument he helped instigate turned into something more physical.

No, it was better to play things safe, to avoid conflict as much as possible — even if it went against every natural instinct he possessed not to stand up for himself in the face of someone's asshole comments.

"If she's not your girlfriend," Riku said, finally breaking the silence that had settled over their group, along with the majority of their table within hearing distance after Seifer's latest comment, "why are you even trying to talk to me about her?"

Seifer answered with an exaggerated eye-roll before cuffing the top of Hayner's head with an open palm. The action elicited a surprised yelp from Hayner in tandem with both hands flying upward to protect his head from any additional assaults.

"Ask this dumbass."

"He doesn't know anything, so following him around's kind of pointless," Pence cut in, glancing at Riku. It was the first time he had spoken since Siefer's arrival. "Rest assured, we're working on it though."

Seifer didn't seem particularly impressed by the statement.

"Work faster. This is getting about as old as coming up with new ways to call Hollywood a homo."

"Yeah, that must be difficult," it was Roxas this time, along with a bored expression as he unceremoniously dropped his corndog back onto his tray, "what with a word bank vocabulary at your disposal that rivals a five year old."

Seifer's eyes narrowed.

"Watch it, Strife."

"Or you'll break another finger?" Roxas fluttered his injured hand and didn't look especially concerned. "Y'know, you've got a grand total of nine more times before you're gonna have to pick another set of limbs to threaten disfigurement with. Seven if you disqualify thumbs, though I know math's not your strong suit."

Seifer dropped his arms to his sides, and Riku watched as hands subsequently flexed into fists and a vein became impressively more prominent across his forehead. For a moment, he wondered if he was about to get an up-close demonstration of how Roxas had come by his first finger dislocation. With increasing tension, Riku watched Seifer as Seifer glowered at Roxas who, in turn, was in the process of resuming the position he'd initially adopted, head resting on two crossed forearms like there was nothing more desirable to him at the moment than the prospect of catching a quick nap between classes.

Seifer just scoffed but didn't act out further, probably due to the visible proximity of a nearby lunch monitor. He appeared to say something under his breath that Riku didn't catch, before turning and heading away from them.

With none of them speaking, the air remained uncomfortably thick for a few solid minutes even after Seifer'd departed. It was Pence who eventually broke the silence.

"Hey, Rox. You gonna finish your food?"

"Or eat it at all, more like."

Hayner's words were quieter, his attempt at sarcasm as strained as the look that hadn't quite disappeared from his face.

"All yours," was Roxas' muffled response.

"Sweet." Pence grinned. "I called it first."

Reaching forward, he swiped the corndog from Roxas' tray. As conversation between Hayner and Pence turned to last season college football, Riku packed up his lunch and excused himself. Even if he was knowledgeable enough about the sport to join in the discussion, the confrontation with Seifer would've been too fresh on his mind to adequately focus. He rose and headed toward the corner exit that would bring him closest to his locker for a mid-day school supply swap-out, thoughts still muddled as he tried to work out what had just happened in the span of the last twenty minutes.

As far as he could now tell, Olette really wasn't Seifer's girlfriend, but she and Hayner weren't talking because of something related, which was why she wanted him to deliver that note without getting Seifer involved. But Pence had intercepted it and said it'd been taken care of, which seemed less than accurate if what he'd just told Seifer was any indication. As Riku passed the line for Prom tickets, he noticed his insult-flinging classmate near the end of it and quickened his pace, eyes down, even though Seifer seemed to be making a point not to look at him.

As he slipped out the door and into the adjacent hall, Riku remained somewhat thunderstruck about how many people were willing to waste the majority of their lunch hour to buy school dance tickets. That included the people he'd just had lunch with, even.

Because Roxas was taking Xion to Prom. Pence and Hayner had both implied they'd be attending, or would at least be taking part in one of the after-parties. Selphie planned to go, and she'd said Sora and Kairi would be there too, which wasn't making Riku feel any better about seeing either of them during study hall. Even Seifer looked like he'd be going, either due to familial expectations since his parents were apparently footing a big chunk of the bill, or maybe because he had a date.

A date who apparently wasn't Olette.

With a sigh, Riku headed down the hall, feeling as though he'd taken a step forward in his attempt to be social at lunch, only to find himself no fewer than half a dozen leaps back by the end of it.

o - o

On the way to the library after gym, Riku found himself playing the mental version of two truths and a lie, with three inter-related silent statements.

One, he'd been waiting for seventh period study hall all day. Longer if he figured in the weekend.

Two, he couldn't wait to see Sora and piece together the truth about his absence after a full week of wild speculating.

Three, he totally wasn't nervous about any of this.

Sweaty palms and the mutinous racing of an out-of-control pulse would've tipped him off to the odd one out, even if it hadn't been a lie that was piss-poor obvious in the first place.

Whatever, he thought. It was a stupid game anyway, and at least he knew Sora was at school today, that he wasn't getting his hopes up for nothing.

As he neared the library, Riku momentarily slowed to take stock of his emotions and organize them into a semblance of outward calm. Maybe if he'd had time to talk to Sora before or after their morning class, he'd be feeling less nervy now. That was a pretty hefty supposition, however, considering how awkward he'd felt just offering a smile and a quick wave in his rush to get outside to third period on time after being let out late in second.

Out of the corner of his eye, another student approached from the opposite end of the hall. Riku reached for the library door handle, slipped inside, and held it open just long enough for his fellow classmate to grab onto it before he took off toward the back study tables down one row of towering bookshelves. As his destination neared, anticipation also built, peaking at a dizzying sensation of pent-up adolescent earnestness. Just a few seconds more and he'd see Sora. Another few, and they'd finally be talking. Any lingering doubts were dispelled at the prospect of simply not spending another day feeling entirely isolated for seven hours straight in this building of purported secondary learning.

That optimistic thought at his mind's forefront was probably why catching his first glimpse of Sora intermingled with one of Kairi right next to him threw Riku into such a thorough mental tailspin. Standing beside Sora, Riku couldn't help but note the pair's comfortable proximity as Kairi leaned forward, hovering over his shoulder as she read something out of the textbook open on the table in front of them.

Sora'll probably take Kairi again.

Unbidden, his earlier conversation with Selphie returned, the parts featuring an apparent couple and their intentions of attending Prom together more specifically.

I'm just sorry to be the bearer of the bad news that she's already taken.

Suddenly, the little gestures at the marsh party that Riku'd interpreted as subtle hints of intimacy all crumbled, their consistent, friendly banter in the library during past study halls mattered very little. The hours he and Sora had spent sending texts when face-to-face conversations hadn't been feasible morphed into nothing more than a diversion from what was really important — ultimately, Sora had lied to him, Kairi had slipped up in her attempt to cover it, and Riku was still an outsider regardless of any efforts Sora had expended to make him feel like he was anything other.

It took no more than a handful of seconds for his emotions to seesaw from one end of a spectrum that started with positivity and ended in pessimism. When he finally stepped out from the cover of shelves and made his presence known to them both, Riku's expression had dimmed from its earlier eager into something more or less outwardly emotionless.

With Sora's back to him, Kairi noticed Riku first, her expression still hinting at the same uncertain cautious that had marked their last interaction in the week prior. Riku supposed it made sense, considering there'd been no satisfactory resolution to their conversation about Sora's extended absence. Although they'd sat together at the same table as usual the day after, he hadn't felt like talking on Friday and had pointedly ignored any attempts at eye contact with her.

Now, he met Kairi's gaze with a flat stare of his own, and felt a modicum of satisfaction when she looked away first. It was more difficult to achieve the same effect a second time, if only because the bright smile that'd formed on Sora's face was considerably more flustering.

"I have returned!"

Despite his hushed tone, Riku could still hear the high-spirited rise in Sora's vocals that never failed to send a unique brand of fluttering up from his chest into his throat. He inhaled slowly before responding in an attempt to steady his breathing.

"I see that."

The comment was offered much less snidely than he'd initially expected, though the aggrieved feeling still lingered at the peripherals of Riku's conflicted emotions.

Hoisting his messenger bag over his head, then laying it out on the table where he planned to sit, Riku suddenly hesitated, fingers pressing against the faded fabric cushion along the back of the only empty chair at the table.

Thrumming the tabletop quietly, Sora looked up at him but didn't speak, and Riku sensed the fluttering within him reform into a flush of heat that he hoped didn't rise far enough to be visible in his neck and cheeks.

"How're you feeling?"

He spoke quietly. Unlike Sora's animated cadence, his own voice remained closer to monotone. While Sora didn't seem to notice any tension underlying the question, Kairi took a seat across from them and appeared to be studying him with a guarded expression.

Good, Riku thought. Let her wonder if he planned to call them both out for the inconsistencies in their stories. After an entire week of speculating and fretting over whether or not he was being paranoid to think Sora's consecutive absences might amount to something more serious than a simple illness, it seemed only fair to allocate a share of his internal turmoil onto her spaghetti-strapped shoulders.

"Back in action."

As Riku finally pulled out the chair a took a seat, and Kairi wordlessly pulled out her own study materials, Sora leaned forward, propping his elbows on either side of the textbook in front of him and offered two thumbs up to supplement his response.

"I mean, kind of."

Hands relaxing, Sora looked down for a moment. Riku watched him, eyes hawkish.

"Kind of?"

With a small shrug, Sora nodded.

"I went and tweaked my ankle a little, or else I would've been back sooner."

Glancing down, Riku quickly realized there was nothing to see between the dim light in their corner of the library and the baggy jeans Sora was wearing.

"How'd that happen?"

Another shrug, followed by what Riku had already come to regard as Sora's trademark grin.

"I'm just a klutz of the highest order. Had to get crutches and everything." He gestured to a spot under the table that was beyond Riku's line of sight. "Between Roxas' finger and my leg, these bouts of clumsiness might qualify as genetic."

Given what he knew about the origins of Roxas' injury, Riku found himself sorely tempted to point out the fallacy in Sora's reasoning, however jokingly it'd been posed. He remained silent only because Sora hardly missed a beat as he moved the conversation in an entirely different direction.

"Oh! Before I forget..."

Twisting away from Riku, Sora bent down and began rummaging through his school bag. He straightened with an article of clothing offered up between two outstretched arms that was immediately recognizable by virtue of its familiar college logo.

"Sorry it took so long to return." Sora's smile turned appropriately sheepish. "I threw it in the wash last week so it's not gross or anything, at least."

The hoodie exchanged hands. Riku said a vague word of mumbled thanks while folding it, then set it on the edge of the table nearest to where he was sitting, no doubt to be shoved into his bag later on his way to the parking lot.

Unsure how to keep the conversation alive without sounding forced, Riku reached for his messenger bag and pulled out a notebook. Although he'd been assigned some new homework in his classes today, it promised to be mostly review again — apart from some strategic maneuvering he was going to have to perform to complete a US History paper that was more on par with creative fiction writing than fact-based reasoning. That was the only way he foresaw maintaining a level of personal integrity while discussing the finer points of the alternate-reality Civil War history he was hearing about during class lectures.

He had time on that one though, and nothing else had an impending enough deadline to warrant avoiding the web app issue Neku had pointed out during their last conversation. At least finding a solution for that would present some form of intellectual challenge.

He flipped through the first couple pages of his notebook, pausing to look over the MVC diagram he'd drawn a few days earlier. Although his eyes remained fixed on the notebook, Riku could still sense Sora next to him well enough to know he was being covertly watched. The dull scrape of a faux wood chair leg against decades-old industrial carpet drew his eyes back upward, this time to Kairi who included both of them in her table-encompassing gaze.

"While y'all two get yourselves properly reacquainted, I'm gonna go take my chances with Marlene and see if she's made sense of this homework for Senior English."

She shot Riku a pointed look, her expression speaking more to her usual level of unruffled than the hesitancy she'd exuded earlier. He watched as she smoothed her frayed denim skirt, then gathered her belongings, knowing all too well what her comment had been implying. They were both in the same English class. If she'd really had a question about the assignment, she could've just asked him.

Even still, Riku couldn't bring himself to look over at Sora and resume talking.

He turned to a blank page in his notebook instead, and quickly found himself staring at it without having any sense of what he should be doing other than keeping his eyes down and minding his own business, a supposition that might've assured complete avoidance of the awkward situation he was in now if he'd just applied it from day one.

It was probably too much to hope that someone as attentive as Sora was just going to miss him just sitting and staring at nothing without so much as a pen to make it appear as though he was planning on doing something productive. A couple of strained seconds later, his hunch was confirmed as Sora shifted in his seat and posed a question Riku had more or less seen coming.

"Everything alright?"

So, the question had been anticipated. What hadn't was the subsequent hand Sora placed on Riku's forearm. Warm to the touch but hesitant, it sent resurgent heat circulating from his core on outward at the same time that his body tensed. He waited a few seconds, then more, long enough to sense that the lingering touch might be purposeful.

No, Riku thought. Everything's not.

Abruptly afraid his expression would give him away, Riku kept his eyes down and focused on his unmarked notebook.

"Fine, yeah."

The hand moved away a beat later, although the feeling of being studied endured. For the sake of having something to hold onto, Riku finally reached for his bag and pulled out a pencil, well aware by now that he was acting ridiculous.

But …why had Sora touched him? Had it been a simple attempt to redirect his attention or something more meaningful? This was the South, for god's sake, where displays of blatant masculinity were practically sanctioned as red-blooded American pastimes with the same level of enthusiasm as college sports teams. Even he knew that. And Sora? He'd been born into this life of rigid gender role mentality.

So what was the meaning behind Sora's decision to ignore conventional limits on physical contact? The only thing Riku knew was that this breakneck, silent theorizing was liable to give him a migraine.

He had to say something. After a full week of day-to-day uncertainty, Riku already knew how much shot-in-the-dark speculation sucked, not to mention he'd risk being pinned as a moody tool if he kept up his ongoing act of glassy-eyed silence for the entire study period.

Apart from all that, it might be good to clear the air between them. Get some concerns off his chest. Start fresh, even.

With newfound resolve to act like a semblance of an adult, Riku looked up, determined to offer Sora an explanation for why his attitude this afternoon had been so unpredictable with a side of all over the place.

A few tables beyond them, his gaze caught on Kairi first. In the span of a few sum nanoseconds, his entire plan crumbled and rebuilt itself into an inquiry he'd been stewing over since he'd first arrived at school that morning instead.

"So, you and Kairi are going to Prom together?"

The silence that followed was different than what had just vanished in the wake of his question; there was a heavy expectancy to it that was almost suffocating, at least for one of them. Tearing his eyes away from Kairi, Riku finally forced himself to steal a glance at Sora.

Sora was still looking at him, but his smile had dimmed, replaced by furrowed brows and an uncharacteristically quizzical tilt of his chin.

"Did Kairi tell you that?"

Despite his best efforts to maintain calm, Riku was aware that he was starting to get flustered by the embarrassing, telltale heat quickly rising from where it'd formed in his chest. In an attempt to conceal the impending physical reaction to being put on the spot by Sora's returned question, Riku quickly shook his head.

"Selphie mentioned it."

"Ah."

Another span of silence, different still from its predecessors, if only because it involved Riku mentally floundering, incapable of interpreting the meaning behind the monosyllabic response he'd just been offered.

Both boys looked at each other, Sora openly studying Riku. When he next spoke, his words were initially slower, more carefully chosen.

"We're planning to go to Prom together, yeah." Before Riku's heart could plummet from his chest into his stomach, Sora took a quick breath in and continued explaining. "We've got a standing arrangement to go as friends unless someone else asks us on an actual date, not that that happens often. As you've probably already guessed, neither of us is all that popular. Everyone keeps saying we're perfect for each other, and some even think we've been low-key dating for years, but I've always kind of felt like dating Kairi would feel the same as being exclusive with a sister. We've been friends for way too long to change things up now."

The words came more quickly as Sora continued speaking, and Riku took a moment to consider the possibility that the question had flustered Sora to answer as much as it had for Riku to ask it.

The response induced immediate relief. Definitely. But, unbidden, something else followed it. It was something unexpected that threw him off long enough to maintain his silence.

That something was a twinge of jealousy.

Could it have arisen from their close-knit friendship, something that'd all but been severed with his friends by virtue of newfound physical distance? Was it the realization that this revelation didn't markedly change anything about his own situation of unrequited feelings, or something else entirely? Riku didn't know, and in the time it took to acknowledge his enduring ignorance, a half-smile had formed on Sora's face, not as bright as his opening expression but still polite and friendly.

"Were you thinking of going?"

It was Riku's turn to offer a shrug, then feel grateful that Sora had moved the conversation so effortlessly forward. "I don't usually attend school events unless one of my friends decides to drag me to them. They're not really my thing," he admitted. "Selphie was pretty adamant about it being a big deal here though."

Sora nodded.

"It kind of is for a lot of people. You've been here long enough to know there's not a whole lot to do within city limits, or even much for miles outside of them. People look forward to these types of events for months, then celebrate them like they're the second coming."

"Right."

Sora's final comment seemed posed in good humor, but Riku was feeling anything other than amused by the twists and turns his feelings had been taking this afternoon. Beyond the single word reply, he managed an awkward incline of his chin and a glance back at his still-blank notepaper.

"This place must seem like such a joke to you…"

There was a wistful quality to Sora's tone that had Riku abruptly doubting the reasonableness of his earlier pent-up frustration and anger. Since he'd arrived, Sora had been nothing but empathetic about his fish-out-of-water situation. Whatever he was hiding — and whatever secrets he and Kairi collectively had chosen to keep from him — there had to be a logical explanation for it, a sensible reason why Sora was going to such great lengths to avoid bringing it up in casual conversation. Maybe he just needed more time to open up, Riku thought. They had only known each other for a few weeks, after all.

He was pulled away from his thoughts by a sudden burst of high-pitched giggles. Although they were subsequently muffled by the inclination of heads, hands quickly rising to cover mouths as well, the sounds resonated in a setting that had otherwise been quiet. It also drew the attention of other students. Heads lifted, eyes all moved in the direction of a smaller table where two girls were seated, shoulders still shaking with the vestiges of laughter.

Upon closer scrutiny, and to Riku's considerable astonishment, one of them was Kairi.

While she was quick to compose herself in the face of her peers' attentive gazes, it was one of the few times Riku had seen a spontaneous reaction from her — beyond the negative ones he'd personally had a hand in inspiring when calling her out about Sora the week prior.

Although most of their classmates quickly lost interest, that didn't stop the librarian from making an appearance, arms crossed and expression stern as she scanned the room seeking a guilty party. Next to him, Sora looked down at his textbook, adopting an expression of bookish innocence. Following his lead, Riku put pencil to paper and finally began writing something relevant to his web app project.

The librarian remained in their midst just long enough to make them collectively nervous, reflected by the subtle shifting of bodies in chairs, of clandestine glances in her direction when her back was turned. By the time she twisted heel and disappeared back into the stacks, Riku was reaching for his cell phone, determined to at least see if he could look up some hints at solving the problem Neku had pointed out last week via chat.

At the very least, it'd give him something to do beyond grappling for words around Sora for the remainder of the hour.

As he pulled up a mobile browser and typed in his first set of keyword queries, Riku couldn't help but feel that this day had been entirely derailed. Part of it involved the confrontation with Seifer earlier, no doubt. If he was being honest with himself, a large part of his current state of malcontent had been his own doing, however.

How many times had he tried to convince himself he was just looking forward to seeing Sora, that the other unanswered questions about last week's mystery illness could wait until an appropriate moment to bring up? Even the crutches and Kairi's steadfast refusal to clue him in didn't matter as much as the opportunity to talk to Sora again.

Except it did. To Riku, every little omission, and each perceived slight, all added up to the cost of being an outsider in this place, which was something he despised.

From there, he circled back to the why, tried to reason with his own illogical envy over the relationship between Sora and Kairi. The way Pence, Roxas, and Hayner weren't willing to explain the situation with Olette and Seifer just served to add insult to considerable injury. The social dynamics at this school were maddening.

One thing was certain at this stage, however, and that involved life having been much simpler in San Francisco, among people he'd known since childhood. He understood the rules back home, knew how to navigate his last school's various social cues. Considering himself far from a social recluse there, Riku couldn't understand why fitting in here was presenting so much of a challenge.

With clairvoyant accuracy, it was at this moment in Riku's mental wanderings that his iPhone screen lit up in his hand and offered a silent indication that a phone call was pending.

It was Kadaj, just about the last person he'd expect a call from mid-day PST on a Monday.

Staring at his phone, unsure how to proceed given the requisite quiet of his current location, the screen went dark before Riku could make a decision to accept the call or not. He waited close to a minute to see if a voicemail notification might pop up on his screen next.

It didn't, so he shot off a text, then tried to conceive of a reason why Kadaj would call him in the middle of a school day that didn't involve an emergency. When no text response seemed forthcoming, Riku stole a quick glance at Sora who seemed thoroughly absorbed in his reading material, then glanced back at his phone to gauge the time.

There were just fifteen minutes left until the period ended, but that might be drawn out further if Sora wanted to talk afterward. In any other instance, Riku might have welcomed the opportunity to spend more time together, especially if it meant getting this current miscommunication properly sorted; the longer he sat doing nothing though, the more he began to worry that something might be wrong, even though Kadaj hadn't called back or responded to his text. Maybe, Riku worried, it was because for some reason he couldn't.

Making a quick decision, Riku pushed his chair back, pocketed his phone, and stood. Beside him, Sora glanced up at him with a look that suggested the unanticipated action had startled him out of deep concentration.

Although Riku shot Sora a genuine look of apology, he didn't hesitate when pushing his chair back into place in front of the table.

"I'll be right back."

Not waiting for a response, Riku headed off, through the bookshelf stacks and away from the study tables, making a beeline for the librarian's desk near the front of the room. The woman glanced up at his approach with a look bordering on suspicious, not all that dissimilar from what he remembered of his encounters with the admin office receptionist during his first week as a student.

By now, he was almost becoming accustomed to the resounding indifference of school authority figures. Maybe accustomated was the proper term, as Pence had phrased it earlier.

"I need a restroom pass."

The request was posed politely, but there was a moment of silence as she glanced down at her watch, then pointedly fixed her gaze back on him.

"Can it wait until the period lets out?"

Doing his best to look self-conscious, Riku shook his head.

"My last class was dismissed late, and I had to get here from the trailers outside."

It was a lie that he was hoping she'd accept without question, because if she realized he'd just come from phys-ed by way of the gym locker room, there wasn't much chance she was going to be sympathetic. He was new, which he wasn't sure counted for or against him. That he'd been consistently quiet, had received no infractions for noise since arriving, would hopefully work in his favor.

It also probably didn't hurt if she associated him with Sora's overt studiousness.

"Fine."

He watched, relieved, as she reached for a slip of paper and filled in the empty lines before sliding it across her desk to him.

"But make it quick. No dawdling."

With a nod and a quiet word of thanks, Riku exited the library and headed down the hall to the nearest restroom.

With seventh period lessons still in session, the hallways were quiet, save for the occasional adult voice filtering out from a few open classroom doors. Riku located the closest bathroom, entered, and quickly checked that no one else was present. From there, he slipped into one of the handicap stalls, then pulled out his phone to return Kadaj's call.

It took a few rings for his cousin to answer, which only served to increase his own anxiety over why he'd been called in the first place.

"Heya, what's up?"

As Kadaj's voice drifted to him through the phone speaker, Riku felt his jaw tightening at the nonchalant tone his cousin had answered with.

"You called me." It took him a moment to realize how accusatory his words sounded. Riku made an attempt at toning it down in his follow-up. "Is everything okay?"

"Um." There was a slight pause on Kadaj's end, as though it was taking him a moment to process the question. "Yeah. I just woke up."

"Okay…" Silently, Riku told himself to curb his growing irritation and exercise a small amount of patience if he wanted to get some genuine information out of his cousin. "So, is everything alright over there?"

Another pause, followed by a long exhalation of breath.

"Yeah, fine. Just hella bored and wanted to see what you were up to."

Riku blinked at the stall's far wall, lips unconsciously thinning.

Bored.

Kadaj had called him because he was bored.

Mimicking his cousin's audible exhale, Riku leaned up against the bathroom wall and sought out a zen mental place before responding.

"What I meant," he ventured, deciding to rephrase, "is I was wondering why you were calling me in the middle of a school day."

"Because it's not one."

"It's not one what?"

Riku wasn't following. Although he couldn't see it, he could easily imagine the exaggerated look of impatience from the tone Kadaj adopted in his next response.

"A school day. It's Spring Break."

"Oh."

That option hadn't occurred to him, having not committed his old school's Spring semester vacation dates to memory before leaving. Across the line he heard shuffling; it sounded like Kadaj had pushed back his bedsheets, maybe swung his legs over the side of his bed to the floor below it.

"You had school today?"

"Yeah," Riku said. "I'm pretty sure I missed their Spring Break."

Maybe that was one of the problems, he mused, considering the fact that he'd opted for the third person possessive to describe his new school, rather than a pronoun more personally related to him.

"Lame as fuck, bruh."

Yeah, and Kadaj didn't know the half of it with all the unassociated social woes he was still trying to field. Nevertheless, the words were spoken in a prolonged drawl that sorely tested Riku's impulse control. Using the last of what was by now a vastly depleted reserve of willpower, he forced himself to remain quiet, not that Kadaj noticed.

"We'll get turned up on my visit. I heard NOLA's got a hella good party scene."

"Yeah," Riku said, not sure what to say beyond a repeat of his last lackluster sentence. Kadaj wasn't exactly the best listener when he needed someone to talk to, even when he wasn't holed up in a grungy bathroom stall on a temporary reprieve from seventh period study hall. In his own way, moreover, Riku knew that his cousin was making an attempt to get his spirits up, which he supposed was admirable.

With a quiet sigh, he pushed away from the wall and made his way back toward the stall door.

"I have to go. School's not out yet."

They said their good-byes, and the call dropped on his way back into the hall, leaving him with a grand total of six minutes before school ended between the walk back to the library and the day's final bell. This time, Riku walked with less purpose, too mentally fatigued to so much as worry about what to say when he returned to his seat beside Sora. As both library and the prospects of ending up in another awkward conversation loomed closer, Riku finally began trying to devise a few acceptable one-liners. Basically, anything that would pull him out of this emotional funk and not make him look stupid in front of Sora would be acceptable.

He needed something, was willing to take with almost anything at this point, actually. Because, as it currently stood with one hall separating him from library reentry, Riku had nothing in his mental arsenal except misgiving after misgiving.

 

 

Chapter Text

 


"I've got a hard time taking responsibility, but
All these things we do don't turn out like they seem
I know that you don't care to follow me
Or maybe I just take myself a bit too seriously."
"That's Life" - Skrizzly Adams


It was becoming a math formula. A simple one, but mathematics nonetheless. By limiting himself to one pill every evening, his current batch would last through the upcoming weekend. The remaining time would quickly minimize in the event he needed to double up or pop one mid-way through lunch, even. In that instance, it was always worth considering Sora's cache of prescription meds, but that was risky, and it'd be easier for others to notice them missing given his brother's infrequent use of them. Moreover, Roxas had no desire to revisit the conversation about how he'd acquired his own supply anytime in the near future. Or ever.

Plodding down an overcrowded school hallway in the direction opposite his locker, Roxas tried not to think too much about the conversation with Xion he'd just cut short, or the metric ton of pent-up miserable that seemed a mainstay of his mood lately. It was a delicate balancing act with her at this point, because he knew she'd been trying to find time to talk to him now for the better part of a week. Only a few days remained of post-school, parent-imposed house arrest before that particular excuse would no longer hold even a single ounce of water. Then there'd be no further shelving of a talk that was not just imminent but inevitable at this point.

To an extent, he wanted to listen, to identify what was bothering Xion and help her work through it. There was even the chance that he could offer some form of support, in the process maybe absolve himself of sins associated with playing the role of emotionally absent boyfriend with such dedication of late.

It was also a lot less likely that continued avoidance would endear Xion to him when it came time to procure more of the pills he relied on so heavily.

So, despite his indifference to Cloud's threats about final bell timeliness, Roxas maintained a brisk pace, his rounded shoulders the only indication that he'd rather be dragging his feet than performing a closer approximation to speed-walking.

Even so, the library was almost empty by the time he'd traveled half the building to get to it, save for the librarian packing up near the front, a few students having a hushed conversation as he passed them by in the stacks, and Sora alone and still seated at a study table near the back, complete with a troubled look adding tension to his usually much sunnier countenance.

Eyes scanning the expanse of textbooks and papers spread out across the lacquered surface of the library table, Roxas announced his presence with a wide-mouthed yawn.

"You about done? Cloud'll be around soon, if he's not out waiting already."

"Keep your voice down." A light slap reverberated up his arm and Sora shot him a pointed look. "Last I checked, this is a library."

"With no one in it," Roxas pointed out, continuing on at the same unabashed volume. "If a tree falls in a forest and no one's around to hear it, does it count as noise, y'know, strictly speaking?"

Although in profile as Sora turned to pack up, the subsequent eye roll and arched brow were easily visible. "I'm here, and I hear you, so what's that make me, chopped liver?"

The comment, though whispered, was offered with his usual good spirits, not that Roxas bothered to comment on it.

"How about just hurry up and stop being your usual brand of smartass?" Unknowingly mirroring his brother's expression, Roxas glanced up at the wall clock. "Cloud's gonna be irritable if he has to wait too long. He's acting like having to chauffeur us around on a day off is akin to losing the War of Northern Aggression a second time."

As Sora slid the final book into his bag and reached for his crutches beneath the table, he shrugged.

"And whose fault is that?"

Adopting an air of abject innocence, Roxas snatched up Sora's bag, slung it over his free shoulder, and batted his lashes, offering his answer in an expertly affected falsetto.

"Why, whatever do you mean? You can't possibly be directing such unfounded accusations at little ol' me, surely."

"Whatever."

Another eye roll, followed by a scoff that didn't come close to offsetting his rising smile, and Roxas found himself remembering how his Southern belle impressions had once been routinely followed by Sora's delighted laughter. Even now, with his brother's purported commitment to respecting a site of academic quiet, the hint of two front teeth pressing into a thin bottom lip gave Roxas sufficient visual specifics to assume Sora remained a clandestine fan of his vocal dramatics. That being noted, Roxas didn't say anything further as Sora nudged a hospital-issued crutch into place under one arm with the inside of an elbow, then swung himself away from the study table.

They headed toward the front of the school without a word shared between them at first, the silence brotherly and comfortable as Roxas aligned his gait to accommodate Sora's slower pace. Remembering the downcast expression Sora had been sporting when he'd first entered the library, Roxas stole a glance over, and decided to do some sleuthing.

"Everything alright with you and Kairi? You looked a little down in the mouth earlier, and I noticed she didn't stick around study hall to wait with you."

It was a question primarily about Sora, but with the subsidiary aim of soliciting some information about Axel, if Roxas was being totally honest with himself. The knowledge was enough to make him feel suddenly self-conscious, and Roxas pulled up ahead as they reached the front entrance in an attempt to offset it, pushing at the door so he could hold it open for Sora, whose expression seemed curiously guarded.

"We're fine. I just think I may have done something that got someone upset earlier this week."

Both brothers paused as they stood and scanned for Cloud among the line of cars. They found him idling not far from the front procession of parents and older siblings still waiting for student latecomers. As his brother pointed in Cloud's direction, Roxas merely nodded, thoughts still on Sora's verbal evasion of what'd felt to him like a relatively straightforward question.

They started to make their way over to Cloud, and Roxas doggedly tried again.

"Kairi isn't usually one to hold grudges."

"Yeah, she doesn't." The response came in a three word rush, Sora's pitch higher than typical, words clipped. "It's not about her anyway."

Hm, Roxas mused. Why was that not in the least bit surprising?

With a light shake of his head, Sora picked up speed, perhaps anticipating Roxas' reaction a split second before his eyes had a chance to narrow or say anything pointed. His brother clearly didn't want to expand on it.

Not that that'd ever stopped him before. As he pulled up alongside the car a few steps after his brother, Roxas stole a glance at Cloud through the window, took note of his dark expression, and made the executive decision to temporarily drop the subject. While their mother had generally been too tired to dig into him on the drive home every other day this week, he had a feeling he wouldn't be continuing that blessed record this afternoon with Cloud seated in front of the steering wheel.

Roxas aimed a critical look at Sora that implied their conversation wasn't over — not by a long run if that jackass transfer student was causing Sora any form of disquiet whatsoever — then yanked open the car door and went to work helping him get situated in the backseat before resigning himself to the spot next to Cloud up front riding shotgun.

With a prolonged rev and unnecessarily physical wrench of the stick shift, Cloud pulled away from the curb before Roxas could even think to reach for his seatbelt. He released a soft hiss as his shoulder hit the sedan's frame interior, and it took considerable restraint to suppress the collection of colorful curses that formed as a consequence. Shooting a dissident glare in his brother's direction, he reached for the seatbelt strap, finally able to pull it across his chest and secure it.

"I must've missed the fire."

Expression darkly set and eyes on the road in front of him, Cloud sucked in a breath, shoulders rising, chin thrust out and angled up. The subsequent exhale offered each movement's physical inverse, his words supplemental and harsh.

"Just wanted to make sure I'm home and rested before your next incidence of derelict behavior, maybe put in a time off request if this is gonna become a regular occurrence."

As he overshot a second turn, Roxas felt the seatbelt strap bite into his collar and stifled the urge to tell his brother exactly what part of his anatomy he could shove his blistering attitude straight into. He'd skipping class a grand total of once — one Christ-forsaken time on a week that had zapped the ultimate last of his emotional reserves — and Cloud had the nerve to treat him like an outright felon over it?

Yeah, so. Full-out fuck all of that.

Scowl settling, Roxas chewed on the inside of his cheek but begrudgingly kept quiet. It was one thing to argue with Cloud when he was alone, and with both feet planted on solid ground for that matter, quite another to go at it when Sora was within earshot, in a moving vehicle driven by someone who looked like fatigue could easily override navigational logic if Roxas pushed him too far and compounded this no-win disagreement.

The notable absence of a rapid-fire retort seemed to mollify Cloud. As they slowed at a stoplight at the edge of downtown, Roxas watched his brother's gaze rise to get a view of Sora in the rearview mirror.

"How's school been going since you got back?"

Sitting sideways behind them, injured leg propped up across the length of the backseat, Sora offered an upbeat smile. Of the two front-seat occupants, only Roxas seemed to notice that it appeared more forced than natural.

"Pretty good. I got all caught up on assignments before I returned, thanks to Kairi."

"Good." With a curt nod, Cloud glanced over at Roxas, then returned his scowl. "Nice to hear at least one of y'all's got your head screwed on proper. They'll be announcing who made valedictorian soon too, right?"

"Yeah, actually."

This time, Sora's expression was genuine, and Roxas listened in silence as he launched into a flurry of enthused speculation detailing his main competition for a title he'd been working toward since practically the first day he'd set foot in high school.

Although mostly one-sided, with a single word reply or quiet sound on Cloud's end during pauses when Sora stopped to take a breath, the topic held until they reached the unmarked divide between downtown Radiant Hollow and the Strife's own neighborhood. During that time, Roxas stayed quiet, thoughts drifting back to the circumstances that had made him the target of his older brother's ire to begin with. It wasn't until they'd passed one street in particular, wholly unremarkable save for fact that Highwind's Tire and Mechanical was located just a few blocks down on it, that Roxas looked back over at Cloud and acquiesced to a question that'd been nagging him for the better part of a week now.

"While we're on the subject of school and students…" Clearing his throat to give his mind time to catch up with his mouth, Roxas considered how to pose his question as Cloud shifted his gaze and briefly looked at him before returning it to the road. "I met someone I think might've gone to school with you."

Cloud's responding grunt was the essence of indifferent.

Before he could lose his nerve — or limited supply of patience, in this instance — Roxas forged on.

"Red hair, skinny as hell, a little emo," he ticked off. "Loads of body art too, but that may be a more recent thing."

As he spoke, Roxas noted a subtle increase in car speed. It followed the blanching of knuckles as Cloud's fingers clenched down on the sedan's knobby steering wheel.

"What'd you say his name was?"

Still carefully watching his brother, Roxas shook his head even though Cloud wasn't looking at him.

"I didn't."

That merely got him a raised eyebrow that smacked of impatience.

Fine, then.

"Axel LaChappelle."

Cloud's reaction was about the opposite of what Roxas had expected. Shoulders relaxed, then hands loosened their grip, and the hint of tension that had tightened his jawline vanished as he took his turn shaking his head.

"That sure's got a distinctive sound to it." The pause Cloud took didn't last long enough to raise Roxas' hopes up more than a mere inch before laying them to rest beneath of headstone of verbal sureness. "Name don't ring a bell, however."

Not a bell, Roxas thought, but something had struck some sort of a chord. Before he could formulate a logical follow-up, the car turned onto their street and he heard the telltale rustling of backpack fabric against the clink of a metal crutch as Sora shifted behind him and began gathering his belongings.

Without another word, Cloud steered the car onto their property, then maneuvered it closer to the front porch, no doubt to cut the distance Sora would have to hobble over uneven front yard topography.

Just as subdued, Roxas hopped from the car before Cloud had cut the ignition, his own backpack slung over one shoulder, splinted finger raking against the sedan's back door handle as he reached to open it and extend his good hand out to Sora. His brother waved him off with an impatient look, beyond conceding his backpack in favor of devoting more attention to wrangling his crutches out of the backseat.

Cloud entered the house ahead of them, and Roxas was left to do his part clearing a path for Sora across the yard, the rubber of worn sneaker soles sweeping loose gravel and other debris off to one side. By the time they'd reached the bottom edge of the ramp, Cloud was back with Sora's fold-away wheelchair in his arms, and Roxas made a point of pretending he didn't see Sora's disheartened expression at the mere sight of it.

By now, Sora knew the drill, even if it was clear how he felt about it. Not meeting either brothers' eyes, he transferred his crutches into Roxas' waiting arms, then checked his one-footed balance against the porch railing while Cloud headed over and set the wheelchair on the ground in front of him. The ensuing refusal to let anyone help him into it remained a sole remnant of lasting pride as Sora lowered himself on his own, thin arms straining under his own modest weight.

Neither brother spoke as they watched, expressions masked, but both at the ready to offer help if Sora ended up needing it. It was Cloud who steered him around the porch, then up onto the ramp and into the house, with Roxas trailing a few feet behind. It was Roxas who watched Cloud wheel Sora into the living room, then help him relocate from wheelchair to couch.

Without looking back as he took a seat beside him, Cloud reached for the remote control and called out to Roxas.

"You're on dinner duty tonight. And it better not be anything microwavable."

Still framed between the rusty screen and open front entrance, Roxas let both backpacks slide off his arms and hit the floor, unmindful of the tandem thunks that followed.

"While you're gonna be doing what, precisely?"

"Resting," Cloud returned. As if to illustrate, he reclined into the sofa's rear cushion before turning on the television, arm outstretched, remote click definitive. "It's still my day off, and that little off-campus excursion of yours cost me my opportunity to sleep in this morning."

Glancing over his shoulder, Sora looked up at Roxas. "I can help you make something."

"You stay put," Cloud cut in before Roxas could respond to the offer. "Dinner tonight's on the fledgling delinquent."

Trudging toward the couch, Roxas managed to hold his tongue until he'd passed both brothers and made it into the adjacent dining room.

"You know, stopping for Arby's on the way home would've been quicker."

"Better tasting too, I'm guessing." Steel-toed boots rose until both heels met the top of the coffee table, then crossed at the ankle. "But that costs money, and you haven't been inspiring much generosity in me lately."

Taking a moment to direct an insipid look at the back of his brother's head, Roxas ambled into the kitchen, eyes skimming a note left on the counter explaining his mom's plans to grab dinner with some fellow day workers today after work, before he made toward the refrigerator to take stock of what he had to work with. From the living room, he heard Sora answer a snippet of gameshow trivia in the form of a question a beat before the contestant rang in with the same correct answer.

Turning his thoughts back to the contents of the refrigerator, Roxas considered his options. If he cooked an old favorite, maybe it'd increase the likelihood of Sora actually eating more than an inadequate few bites of something for once. However reassuring, the thought came without ample conviction to fully back it. The best he could probably hope for was Sora conceding a few extra bites at the behest of a couple strategically worded guilt-trips on his part. As he got to work pulling food out of the freezer, Roxas told himself that it was also possible tonight would be different.

Sometimes these silent lies were essential, and sometimes they had to be treated like precious commodities. Because with ever increasing frequency, Roxas had more than an inkling that they were the only effective means of keeping himself from losing hope about the status of fast-crumbling Strife family dynamics. He knew full well their lives were a house of cards, that it could all so quickly collapse in front of him if he let his guard down for even a brief moment. Like an approaching, emotional avalanche, once enough momentum built up he was just as certain that it was something there'd be no realistic way to turn back from.

o - o

He knew she was there before the girl uttered a single word. She was the subtle rustling of feathered appendages around both ears, the sigh of wind through willowy backyard tree leaves as a supplement. Moreover, she encouraged the jittery sensation of being full-on lucid at one in the morning, all the while knowing that singular salvation was a mere six feet off, tucked away in a plastic baggy at the bottom of his backpack.

And sometimes, at his most desperate, she was the beguiling silver of sharp, flat edges pried out of their cheap plastic casings, along with the whispered, coded numerics from the deepest corner of his dresser drawer, beneath mismatched socks and shoddily folded underclothes.

There were so many forms she took beyond the corporeal. This was why he could never really rest, was so often seeking some form of physical solace. Meds, sex, sharps — it was the end result that mattered most, the means to achieving it more or less irrelevant.

For the last handful of hours, he'd lain on his side and attempted to sleep, one shoulder pressed into an especially lumpy divot in his mattress. He could have moved a few inches, had the option to shift entirely onto his back and reposition. Whether by choice or some unknown, intervening force more powerful than the need for physical comfort, he'd remained in the same position first settled into after vacating the living room, long after dishes had been deposited into the kitchen sink still grimed up with what had amounted to a piss poor attempt at dinner on his part, if Cloud's word was to be trusted in this regard.

His vision was clear though, even if there wasn't much to look at now that the soft glow of the living room lamp had been extinguished. He'd heard Cloud head out about an hour earlier, leaving nothing more than indistinct shadows to traverse his walls, care of the next door neighbor's back porch light.

"Are you there?"

The question was whispered but unwavering. He had a theory, untested but about which he felt relatively confident, that she never truly left him, was just simply amenable to making her presence known some times more than others.

"Koté ou yé?"

He tried again, summoning the words from the recesses of patchy childhood memories. With them came flashes of auditory recall, of laughter, and twangy string instrumentals played by friends of his long-dead grandparents. If pressed, he'd never have admitted to knowing any of the words his father'd once hurled at him through sour breath that so often led to punches and slaps, sometimes glass shattering against walls on particularly difficult evenings.

He'd never admit it, but Roxas remembered enough. He also knew better; and at times like these, it seemed outright impudent to be addressing the girl in English.

Sora probably had his own theories, about her appearances and Roxas' ability to see her, about the way she dressed and the sounds that announced her impending presence, even her penchant for addressing him in a mixture of broken English and the airier tongue that'd once thrived in the bayou. But Roxas had never asked Sora for his opinion. In some ways, it was unthinkable that he'd ever even admitted to her existence. Ultimately, it'd just seemed appropriate, an origin story that belonged to Sora as much as it did Roxas.

The sound of scraping pulled him away from his thoughts, and Roxas sat up, tired eyes fixed on the open window. It was true that the girl rarely made appearances when he was expecting her, but he also held strong to the belief that she was more than capable of changing the rules when he least expected it. This was her show, after all, and his simply a supporting role in it.

Fingers curling around the ledge of his mattress on either side of closed legs, Roxas inhaled, held his breath, and listened for any sign that the sounds he'd just heard were in any way unusual.

"…Naminé?"

The word was an exhaled breath between his lips, a prayer uttered to both god and demon. Despite the night's thick humidity, Roxas felt a cold claw of fear graze the back of his neck. It lingered only a moment, from there raking a deliberate path down the successive links in the canal of his back.

He rarely dared think her name, let alone speak it. Just three simple syllables, breathy and nasal, and his arm throbbed with a phantom ache as though acknowledging the inherent audacity of these repeated nightly incidents. His vision distorted, warped in and out of focus. Unsettled, Roxas closed his eyes, upper body swaying slowly in place as he made an attempt at steadying his breath and remembered the blinding light of one portentous Spring afternoon, now almost a year removed. He recalled crowded school stadium bleachers, felt the ache of burning lungs, and the tension of well-trained calf muscles as they tightened and released after clearing each successive track hurdle in front of him.

His pulse increased, a heady sense of adrenaline thrumming at his temples as he anticipated the next scene. An internal flinch at the pain that had followed, and the vision flickered amidst a chorus of ominous sounds that rose up in force, amplified by the silence of a house with only one occupant still conscious.

He opened his eyes, then froze at the sight before him. Shoulders jerked once before stilling under locked arms and hands clenched so tightly into the edges of his mattress that the knuckles in his fingers cracked in protest.

While Roxas remained motionless beyond the rise and fall movement of labored breathing, a bird perched on the window before him. It shifted on the sill, head bobbing with the corresponding shuffling movement, feathers expanding like the rising hackles of a startled cat.

In the back of his mind, another girl's name formed, along with a complimenting image, all pale skin and blue eyes framed beneath a dark swath of hair cropped around her diminutive, downcast chin as she looked up at him through dark lashes.

Mentally dismissing it, Roxas pushed himself to standing, body a mirror of Sora's feeble balance earlier as he tried to steady himself against the frame of his bed. In response, the bird skittered more quickly along the window to the corner of the frame furthest away from him.

"Git…"

The word was quieter than he'd intended. Although the bird cocked its head and looked at him, it didn't move, and Roxas felt the muscles in his neck tighten, the subsequent inhale of air catching mid-way between chest and throat.

"Go on."

Still faint but louder this time, he added a single step forward and a quick flourish of outstretched arms to supplement.

Wings spreading like an animate fan, each feather was a bladed sheen of darkly macabre ominous. Nevertheless, the bird took flight, one disdainful clack of a tapered beak its final parting gift. It settled in the top branches of a nearby tree and there it remained, watching with eyes that felt almost intelligent while Roxas made a grab at the window and latched it in one consummate motion. The curtains followed soon after until the creature was no longer visible.

Only then did he allow himself to breathe easier, the first intake of air since the bird's appearance shallow but appreciated. Only then did Roxas notice his own subtle shivering, tiny tremors formed in the pit of his stomach that traveled gradually outward in harmony with soft rivulets of laughter, ubiquitous and sprinkled like intermittent spring showers around him.

He began to pace the length of the cramped room, hand reaching up to thread through multiple hair tangles that hinted at the fitful rest he'd been grappling with earlier. This time when his splint caught a snag, there was no mental registering of pain up into his hand and arm, and Roxas concluded the finger must be healing. Ultimately, it just added up to one less distraction to take advantage of when he needed as many in his arsenal as he could get his hands on, literally or figuratively.

With the window shut snug, the air around him quickly condensed from hotly uncomfortable to downright suffocating. Ven's room was one of the few in their house that didn't have an air conditioning unit, not that he'd be inclined to use it this early in the season and risk his mother's ire at an obscenely high electric bill anyway. With lingering, heightened adrenaline and a frenetic need to keep himself busy doing something, his options came down to reopening the window so he could breathe again or leaving.

Roxas chose the latter.

The shorts he'd worn the day before were near his backpack where he'd dropped them a few hours earlier. They probably needed washing, but he was beyond caring at this hour. Grabbing them before making a beeline for his dresser, Roxas pulled open a bottom drawer and fished for a clean t-shirt.

He considered socks next, one hand hovering over the topmost drawer of his dresser. Thoughts shifted to the sharps in the far back corner stored beneath balled up boxers, but Roxas kept his fingers near the front as he ultimately opted out of socks in favor of a fresh pair of undershorts.

He dressed quickly, noting that his earbuds and phone were still in his shorts pocket before heading out of his room and down the upstairs hall. Sora's room was the only spot where he hesitated, eyes momentarily fixed on the soft glow of light peeking out a sliver from under his door. After a breathless moment with no discernible sound filtering out to him, Roxas continued past and made his way down the stairs, ignoring the compulsion to turn around and slip into Sora's room.

It was true that he'd always been welcomed when he was having trouble sleeping, that lying close to his brother tended to combat even the worst case of insomnia. Things felt different now though, and Roxas wasn't so internally focused that he couldn't acknowledge it was probably his own fault, as much as he'd have preferred scapegoating someone like Riku and absolving himself in the process.

Thoughts of his classmate were more motivation to continue forward. The last thing Roxas wanted to be doing while lying next to Sora was find himself fixating on Riku.

The living room was empty, Cloud long departed, his mother having retired to her bedroom hours earlier. He padded past the television and couch, sights set on a destination that wasn't yet visible, light from the neighbor's yard still reflecting through uncovered kitchen windows. As Roxas reached the fireplace mantle, he slowed, eyes drifting past the framed pictures on display. They were scenes from past years, mostly of him and his brothers. The ones with his father had been removed ages ago, although Roxas could still remember where they'd once been placed along the row of frames. He stopped and took time to study each in turn, letting himself briefly remember the circumstances under which each had been taken, eyes finally settling on one at the far right.

This image was different, and almost a decade old. It was Cloud and two friends out back by the old family tool shed. His brother would have been a high school junior, same for Leon who was standing to his left. It was the third boy who Roxas considered more closely. A high school senior when the photo had been taken, Zack had always been so vocal about his aspirations to join the military and that'd been reflected in his penchant for wearing camo print pants even before he'd enlisted. They didn't particularly match the dark shirt he was wearing, not that fashion had ever been a priority in this backwater town. Stock still, calves tensing, Roxas continued to scrutinize the photo, and Zack specifically, searching for something, an intangible answer to a question that was too deeply buried in his subconscious to summon at will any longer.

In the dead silence of night, and with a growing sense of unrest, Roxas realized he couldn't quite define it, even though it felt imminently significant.

Frustrated, he turned away and headed for the kitchen, stopping just long enough to consider rummaging through the refrigerator before deciding he wasn't hungry.

Like a moth, the light from outside seemed to draw him closer. At any rate, it felt more welcoming than this prison of four-walled silence, of lingering, unhappy memories that'd over the years seeped through to its very foundation. He unlatched the screen door, careful to push its protesting hinges just wide enough to slip out onto the porch steps, then eased it back into place as quietly as feasible given its present state of physical neglect.

He glanced at the tree first, scanning the inky darkness, eyed swaying branches and mossy fronds that rustled in a light spring breeze, ears straining for any indication that a feathered inhabitant remained above, watching from the natural cover that late night provided.

Sensing little and seeing less, Roxas lowered himself onto the cracked cinderblock porch steps, elbows pressing into the top of his legs as he dropped his chin into the cupped palms of both hands. He sat in silence, toes curling over the edge of the bottommost step, the pads of his feet pressing lightly into the uneven, gravely edge of decades old cement.

There was something comfortable, maybe even comforting, about the familiarity of this space. It hadn't always held good memories, but the more negative had faded with time, the finer details of it hard to recall. With graduation and just one final summer standing between him and community college, that was all liable to change, and Roxas feared the near guarantee that a hard-earned balance between positive and negative might shift soon again. The simple knowledge that he'd still be living at home wasn't enough to quell his worries about what was fast approaching.

College would be a mixture of the similar and different, much like that West Coast transfer's arrival at school had ushered in change of a similar nature. Ultimately both were transitions, two simple interims between the familiar and unknown. What came after was what concerned Roxas most, because not for a single instant did he believe that a two year degree would satisfy his brother's sizable aspirations.

Because Sora was smart. But maybe he was too smart for a place like this, his ideas too big, the potential for him to make something of himself elsewhere too great to be contained within the limits of small-town Radiant Hollow. And maybe this shouldn't have been such a bitter pill for Roxas to swallow, because Sora wouldn't be the first Strife brother to set out on his own after high school, but Ven was different. Ven came home to visit, had plans to settle down in a city suburb within driving distance. Even with Sora's medical restrictions, Roxas had no confidence his brother would be willing to agree to a similar setup if the opportunity arose for him to leave for bigger and better destinations.

As far as he was concerned, the backyard was offering no solid answers on how to handle any of this. Now that his adrenaline had ebbed, however, Roxas found he had no energy to get up and drag himself back to bed. Dropping his arms, he reached into his pocket, intending to pop in his earbuds and listen to a playlist of songs he could lose himself in. His hand connected with his phone first.

Shoulders hunching over the device held a few inches above his lap, he clicked it on and tapped through the lock screen. Tired eyes scanned the various apps he'd installed, flipping through screen after screen without really seeing any of them, at least not until a red, numbered notification caught his attention on one social media app in particular.

They were double digit notifications, actually, and Roxas took a moment to acknowledge that he couldn't remember the last time he'd bothered scrolling through his friends' Facebook updates. As he tapped the icon to scan the most recent notifications, he realized the majority of them had come from one classmate specifically. A date suddenly came to him, for better or worse.

Because Selphie'd had her phone out at St. Bastion's almost the entire night and here was photographic proof of it. Right.

With a heavy sigh, Roxas pulled up every photo in the list, dutifully untagging himself from each in turn. There was something satisfying about severing the virtual connection imposed by a more socially active classmate. Even though none of the images she'd captured of him were particularly incriminating since he hadn't been smoking or drinking, he still liked having the final say in what the general town populace knew about his after-school activities.

The photos tagged with Sora gave Roxas more food for thought, because the majority of them also included Riku. They were more or less innocent, showing Sora sitting and eating graham crackers beside his new classmate, and Sora caught laughing or smiling next to Kairi. It was one taken after Roxas had left for the parking lot that caught him off-guard, to some extent even churned the half-digested contents of his stomach as a hot surge of brotherly protectiveness formed deep inside him. Because it was Sora seated at Riku's feet, the log bench at his back, eyes closed and upper body leaning as he rested one temple on the fancy, brand label fabric of Riku's pants.

Still fresh, the last conversation he'd had with Zack returned to Roxas, the implications of an exchange overheard between Kairi and Sora from the open window above their heads following next. Suddenly, the two people Roxas least wanted to think about were at the forefront of his thoughts as time inched its way toward two in the morning on a week he was grounded and managing to piss everyone off with such proficient consistency, with two more full days of school still to get through before the weekend and its analogous freedom.

Everything was coming up fucking roses of late, just, wasn't it?

Lost in thought, he'd let the phone screen darken over the past few minutes. The illuminated brightness of a message notification subsequently caught his attention. Considering his current disposition, Roxas would have been more than inclined to ignore it, if not for the unanticipated name of the sender attached to a simple question.

Are you awake?

He stared at the message long enough to feasibly read something far longer, but ultimately unlocked his phone and shot off a single word answer in the affirmative.

Keeping his eyes on the screen, he tried to guess what might get sent back next. His phone vibrated with an incoming call instead.

Hesitating, he glanced up at Sora's window. Confirming it was closed, Roxas accepted the call, then lifted the phone to one ear.

"Hey."

The word was returned to him as Ven echoed his greeting.

"You're up late."

Although he wasn't on video, Roxas shrugged anyway.

"Couldn't sleep. Same for you?"

"Oh, I definitely want to." The fatigue in his brother's voice was obvious across the line now that Roxas was on notice to listen for it. "I'm doing some last minute studying for a test in my marketing class."

Not having the faintest clue what that entailed, or enough interest in the topic to ask Ven to elaborate, Roxas changed the subject.

"How'd you know I was up?"

He heard the sound of textbook pages flipping, the scrape of glass against the surface of a wood desk, and a slosh of fizzy liquid before Ven responded. "Your messenger status was on available. Found it unusual since you're never online, so I figured I'd check in and see how it's going. Been awhile, hasn't it?"

It had been, Roxas conceded. He was usually better at keeping himself offline or invisible on the infrequent instances he bothered with social media. Regardless, they'd been ships in the night and missing Ven's calls to the house landline lately anyhow due to variances in their respective schedules.

"Any reason you couldn't sleep? Or are you just up late studying too, and if so, put Sora on so I can say hi to him."

Although Roxas knew Ven was teasing, he wasn't in the mood for it, didn't have the energy to even pretend to humor him at present.

"He's already put up his books and gone to bed, far as I know." When the silence lingered between them like a tangible layer of expectation, Roxas suppressed a sigh and forced himself to continue. "And it's just been a lot of new developments I'm not sure what to think about."

The admission was out before he could think of something less honest to say, not that he felt much like lying. When he'd still lived at home, Ven had been the easiest person for Roxas to talk to about things that were bothering him, minor problems he didn't want to burden Sora with and those he didn't think Cloud would take seriously, being so far removed from his own time in high school. Just because Ven was a good listener didn't mean Roxas wanted to get into the grit of any of this now though.

"Like what?"

He'd known a follow-up question was coming. With such a vague comment on his part, it was practically predestined. So much for his adept skill at deflection. It was probably time to step up the game unless he wanted to find himself in a half-conscious, early morning confessional with one of the few people he hadn't yet managed to ostracize.

"Like Mom wants to know if you have a girlfriend."

There was a pause on Ven's end of the line, a muffled noise akin to a chuckle only half successfully stifled as he cleared his throat.

"Does Cloud?"

"He's got Leon," Roxas returned. "Close enough."

Full-out laughter this time, and even Roxas conceded a small smile, if only because he knew just how poorly Cloud would react to anyone who dared to say that straight to his face. After putting him on mandatory dinner duty, the barb was as close as he was going to get to poetic justice tonight, Roxas figured.

"Well, I don't, and it's quaint if you think I'd be able to hide something like that from y'all anyway." Although the answer was likely meant to sound admonishing, Ven's tone told a different story that didn't quite manage to hide his underlying amusement. "And nice attempt at dodging my question."

It'd figure he'd circle back; Ven wasn't dumb and he'd always been keen to support family and friends in times when they needed uplifting. With a heavy breath, Roxas quickly ran through his options, knowing full well there wasn't much Ven could do from a distance, no matter how strong his natural inclination to try and help fix things.

Where to start was the bigger issue. Did he mention the shit-show that school had become since he'd stopped routinely submitting homework? Talk about how Hayner just couldn't put aside his Seifer-inspired dislike long enough to get over himself and make a genuine attempt at reconnecting with Olette? How about Zack's untimely return, his and Xion's crumbling alliance, or the voice that kept reminding him how most of this current mess was a product of his own careless devise?

"I think Sora's got a crush," he blurted out instead. He took it out on his lower lip with successive vehemence, all the while silently reprimanding himself for bringing up a topic he'd already established he had no wish to revisit.

"Really." As expected, the declaration was effective at redirecting Ven's attention. "Who's the lucky girl?"

Oh, here we go…

Biting into his lip even harder, Roxas considered deflecting but came up empty, so conceded a mumbled answer. "It's not one."

There was an interlude of a solid thirty seconds where Ven went quiet. This time, Roxas didn't jump in or bother to clarify.

"Not a girl?"

"Yeah." Releasing his lip, Roxas slouched forward, dropping his elbows into his lap, phone sliding a few inches away from his ear to accommodate the new position. "Pretty sure, anyway."

"Huh." Another pause, tone less surprised than it was thoughtful. It was followed by one word, faint but decisive. "Okay."

Silence settled between them, and Roxas found his gaze traveling, mind wandering along with it as he reconsidered the photo Selphie had posted of Sora curled up beside Riku. He wasn't sure how it made him feel, not exactly, also didn't know if he was reading too much into it. It hadn't just been the image though. Over the past week, the evidence had been stacking, one chunk on top of other damning pieces beneath it, that Sora's interest involved more than just the desire for friendship. There'd been Roxas' own observations at St. Bastion's before Selphie'd even snapped that incriminating image, for one, then Sora's clear trepidation at the prospect of being examined at the ER by a doctor with the same distinctive surname — not to mention the conversation both he and Zack had overheard in the backyard just a week ago. If Zack had come to the same conclusion from one vaguely worded exchange, it'd be just as quickly obvious to anyone who spent even a fraction of the time around Sora if his brother didn't watch himself.

Knowing Sora, he wouldn't see any reason to deny it if someone directly asked him anyway, and that especially didn't sit well with Roxas. Not in this town, with its decades of built-up ignorance packaged and sold as longstanding traditionalism. The verdict was still out on the 'not anywhere' part, as far as Roxas was concerned.

"Does it matter?"

Ven's voice broke through Roxas' musings. Caught mid-thought, it was also disorienting, and Roxas found himself stuck as to where exactly they'd last left off.

"Does what?"

"Sora." Ven's tone was level, reflecting his trademark equanimity. "Does it matter who he likes?"

Roxas considered the question, unsure if Ven was looking for a specific answer or was just being long-distance curious. "I… guess not, long as he's careful who finds out about it here."

The squeak of a chair reclining backward met his ears, then the rolling of wheels over uneven flooring, the sound of a textbook snapped shut following soon after.

"You sound a bit blind-sided by it."

"Guess I am," Roxas said. The admission in itself didn't fully satisfy him, however. "It's not like he's come out and said something to confirm or deny either way. It's just a feeling I'm getting, plus some observations. I figure if I'm noticing though, so are others."

"Then I think what matters," Ven offered, "is that you're willing to keep an eye on the situation and prepared to intervene if someone seems like they're fixing to start something."

That seemed reasonable, actually, if somewhat infeasible. He and Sora didn't have that many of the same classes, didn't even spend much time after school together of late. Maybe Kairi could help, but that required approaching her, and Roxas wasn't sure if she'd spare him so much as sixty seconds, given all the ragging about deadbeat dads and questionable fashion choices he'd thrown at her over the past year, even if his concerns involved Sora.

That left going straight to the source and having a little chat with Riku. Or threatening him, more like. That would probably be the most satisfying. It also risked the prospect of getting straight-up sucker punched if he misspoke. Given the results of Riku's latest encounters with Seifer, it didn't seem highly probable. Roxas also wasn't much of a fighter. While Riku might be clueless about high school social rules, Roxas suspected there was more to his classmate's refusal to fight back than simply being a coward, especially if the biceps he boasted beneath the sleeves of over-priced fitted tees meant anything in the larger scope of things.

So much for that idea. Back to the drawing board, he guessed.

"You fall asleep on me over there?" Although he sounded tired, Ven still seemed in high spirits. In that way, his approach to things wasn't all that dissimilar to Sora. The question also provided an effective reminder that Roxas had been zoning out again.

"I'm here. Probably should get to bed soon though."

"You and me both. Call it a night, then?"

"Yeah, sure."

Roxas spoke without much conviction. He was fatigued, but the exhaustion went deeper than a base physical. He didn't exactly know how to explain it to Ven, also wasn't sure he even wanted to make an attempt.

Much to his surprise, Ven laughed again over the line. "Save some of that excitement for my visit."

"Shut up." Despite himself, the snarky comment elicited another small smile. "When'll you be home again?"

"Assuming finals don't kill me?" Ven let out a harried breath. "Mid-May. I gave Cloud the exact dates."

"Lucky." Looking down, Roxas curled his toes over the cinderblock steps. "We're not done 'til halfway through June."

"Well, hang in there. That's not so far off, really."

Though his words were probably meant to be encouraging, they only served to hit an uncomfortable nerve in Roxas, as well as remind him that his status as high school graduate still hung in a delicate balance thanks to his cringeworthy grades of late. Yet again, not something to bring up with Ven.

"Your room'll be ready when you get here," he said instead. "We're all looking forward to your visit."

They said their good-byes and signed off soon after.

Then it was just him by his lonesome in the backyard once again, the chirrup of occasional crickets his last remaining compatriot. Looking up, Roxas scanned the yard and listened for any sounds that might prove him wrong.

Nothing. No girlish laughter, which would surely come again later. Not even a hint of the bird from earlier.

Roxas rose. He pocketed his phone and turned toward the screen door. This time, he didn't hesitate as he reentered the house. He didn't stop in the kitchen or pause in front of the fireplace to reminisce over decade-old photos before retracing his path up the stairs. He slipped past his brother's room on silent feet, and returned to the space that had once belonged to Ventus, head a jumble of warring images, senses once again ready and waiting for a preternatural reminder that no matter where he went he was never truly alone when he needed a mental reprieve most of all.

o - o

The ride to school that morning was both quiet and awkward. With Sora reading in the sedan's backseat while Cloud drove, eyes forward and jaw set in a look of longstanding fatigue, it couldn't have been just Roxas who'd sensed the tension. Sora might have been distracted enough by his book to have missed it, maybe, but Cloud had looked nothing short of obviously irritable.

Something remained unsettled between them, something Cloud seemed to be holding back on just out and addressing. Whatever it was, he was keeping it to himself, and Roxas wasn't in the right frame of mind to play twenty questions this morning. At least there'd been no further commentary about his purported juvenile delinquency and Cloud was returning to work that evening. Roxas was generally better equipped to deal with his mother, even when he still wasn't in her best graces at present.

He did feel better rested, which was helpful. His physical fatigue must have finally caught up with him, or maybe the chat with Ven had been somehow calming. Either way, once in bed, Roxas had actually slept through to morning and he'd woken feeling like the day just might be manageable for the first time in recent memory.

If only he could've slept through these final two weekdays and just woken up on Saturday. With Hayner still waffling over straightening things out with Olette, and also upset as an added bonus now that he knew Pence and Roxas had kept quiet about her letter to him, Roxas had no interest in engaging with Hayner today over anything. Dealing with Riku was something he was even less keen on.

It'd been easy enough to avoid them both, for the most part. Keeping his head down in his morning classes, he'd let Pence lead the conversation at lunch in a rambling, one-sided discussion about various photography techniques he'd been learning in his weekend class. He'd settled into the highest row of seats on the bleachers during gym, not making so much as a single snide comment after being informed that his health exemption ended the coming Monday, and even made an effective show of note-taking in seventh period, despite only catching about half of what his teacher was saying. Then, freedom, barring any requisite conversations on the car ride home, or possibly a maternal edict to help make dinner while they waited for Sora to get dropped off about an hour later. Even though PT was still postponed due to Sora's injured ankle, his brother'd still insisted on maintaining his usual Thursday routine, which meant Roxas getting picked up on his own by their mom until the terms of his grounding were lifted and he could resume catching rides home with Hayner.

Fine. Whatever.

What Roxas hadn't factored in to his otherwise brilliant plan of stony-faced, all-day avoidance was that Xion might be waiting for him at his locker, toting along the associated relationship obligations he'd been brazenly shirking. Unlike earlier that week, she also didn't seem as willing to swallow the same excuses as to why they hadn't found time to talk privately yet.

"You're grounded, I got that. Been hearing the same line all week, practically before I can get a word in edgewise."

Even when she was upset, Roxas noted with latent admiration how she managed to quickly collect herself so no one else around them would notice.

"But your phone wasn't confiscated. You could've called or sent a text."

As he swapped out his books for the final time that day, Roxas took in a breath and realized dormant admiration had nothing on his rising irritation.

"Is this really something you'd wanna discuss in between classes or even over the phone?"

For a moment, Xion seemed to consider this, eyes lowered, expression slightly pensive as she watched Roxas shoulder his backpack and nudge his locker closed with an elbow through dark lashes.

"No, I suppose not."

Yeah, that's what he'd thought.

With a curt nod and a wave of his hand to indicate the direction he was heading, Roxas began the trek over to the school's front entrance.

Scurrying to keep up, Xion didn't slow until she'd pulled up beside him, skirt still swishing with a quarter second delay in front of her before it settled into a gentle, undulating sway around her ankles as her pace leveled out with each added step.

"I do want to talk about it soon, if possible."

Although he stole a quick glance at her, Roxas didn't know how to respond. Their relationship had always seemed to work best when physicality superseded more verbal forms of communication. Now more than ever, the only thing Roxas wanted to discuss was the prospect of securing a fresh batch of pharmaceuticals before he ran out of his current supply entirely.

Somehow, now didn't seem the best time to broach that subject.

As he held the door open for her and they both exited the school together, Roxas finally spoke.

"Let's meet up this weekend. Less outside distraction and your place'll afford some privacy."

That seemed to mollify her, Roxas noted, based on the relief now cast in her expression. It didn't solve his prescription pill issue even slightly, but one problem at a time, he figured. Maybe he'd luck out and his personal ghosts would for once trend toward patience, although he didn't hold out much genuine hope on that one.

Just as quickly as he'd made the offer to Xion, he felt the other girl's disapproval. It prickled his skin and it grated, pulsed like a toe stubbed against a door frame, an elbow connecting with the corner of a wall, sudden and sharp. Hell, even a broken finger care of a basketball's purposefully aimed trajectory was an apt comparison. Although he sensed neither sight nor sound that was distinctively her, it mattered little. By now, Roxas knew full well when he was being judged, that in this instance he'd fallen short of expectations.

Because this wasn't a way to treat a friend, intimate or otherwise. As he escorted Xion to her car, Roxas allowed himself a moment to acknowledge how much he was treating her as more of a middleman to pill-induced, blissed out ignorance than someone he genuinely cared about.

It was a near certainty that Xion was also aware of this. Up until his untimely grounding this week, she'd approached him in much the same way, even if probably for different reasons. That hardly mattered. The plain truth was they used one another, often in the most physical sense possible, and there was generally nothing romantic about it. Tit for tat. In the past, it'd worked fine for both of them. It was only recently that Roxas had begun questioning the natural order of things in this respect.

Seeing no sign of his mother in the queue of idling vehicles, Roxas kept his thoughts to himself as he followed Xion out into the parking lot and over to her car mid-way down one center row.

As she opened the door, Xion allowed him to take her school bag before lowering herself into the seat behind the steering wheel. Her eyes followed Roxas as he opened the backseat door and deposited her bag on the floor behind her.

"Mama's going to want to prepare a big meal if she knows you'll be coming over. Should I tell her Saturday or Sunday?"

Roxas shrugged. "Sunday's Easter, but I'm fine with either. Text me the details."

Xion glanced up, expression still bordering on skeptical. "And you'll respond this time?"

"Eagle scout's honor." Folding his thumb over his pinkie finger, Roxas raised the three remaining digits on his uninjured hand.

Xion tilted her head toward him and quietly tutted. "Ten bucks says you didn't make it past Cub Scouts."

"Touché."

He heard the word in a deeper voice now almost a week removed, but Roxas matched Xion's rueful smile with an innocent expression of his own. It was true; Ven was the only one who'd made it even close to getting his Eagle, and even that'd been years ago.

"Thought so." The resulting laugh was short-lived, but genuine. "Just make sure to confirm. You'll be disappointing more than just me if you up and decide you're unavailable at the last minute." She pulled the door shut on the heels of her final comment, then twisted the key into the car's ignition.

Stepping back, Roxas watched her roll away from the parking spot. It wasn't until she'd turned the corner onto the main road and driven out of sight that he thought to pull out his cell phone and saw that there was a text from his mother sent a few minutes earlier.

He took a second to read it, then swore under his breath. It was plain enough; the factory had called another two hour mandatory overtime. He needed to find an alternate way home, and it couldn't be Cloud since he wouldn't have time to swing by school, then drop him at home before heading off for his own work shift.

This week was just pitching him one inconvenience after another.

Xion had just left, and Hayner's van was nowhere in sight, so that likely meant he'd already hauled his stubborn ass off campus, probably with Pence. That left walking home with a full load of textbooks he had zero plans on reading, in long sleeves and jeans because he just hadn't seen this scenario coming, or bothered to run his shorts through the wash while awake half the night just a few hours ago.

Forethought, Roxas mused. It was probably worth developing at some point.

Just about the last thing he wanted to do was traipse across town through sweat-inducing humidity in his current set of clothing. Avoiding eye contact with the departing students around him, Roxas traipsed back toward the school's front entrance, feet dragging against potholed, cracked asphalt that school officials should have earmarked into the maintenance budget half a decade ago. There was a pair of shorts in his gym locker that'd offer at least a minor reprieve from the afternoon heat, so the locker room seemed fated to be his next destination.

He was just about to cross the lane that separated parking lot from school sidewalk when he heard the familiar drawl of a man's husky tone from somewhere behind him.

"You're either leaving school during first period, or heading back in after the final bell's already gone silent."

A slow heat that had nothing to do with the weather rose from chest to neck, and Roxas turned, hand above his brow to block the afternoon sun as he scanned the remaining parked vehicles. It didn't take long to spot the familiar off-colored beater of a pickup, even less for his eyes meet the gaze of its grinning driver.

Roxas didn't return the smile, just eyed Axel, who fluttered his fingers out the driver side window and upped the wattage on a smile that was already well on its way toward outright roguish.

"You're an enigma, Roxas Strife, I do declare."

The words were teasing, tone executed with a fine-tuned accent that aped his friends' mothers so well it left no question in Roxas' mind that, at one point, Axel had lived in Radiant Hollow. Or maybe he'd somehow become well-versed in the bayou's distinctive syntax another way.

Yeah, unlikely.

And there it was again, the same question he'd been asking ever since he'd first encountered this perplexing cousin of Kairi's — was this the way Axel spoke to everyone or was the guy keen on mocking him specifically?

He had some choices, one being to ignore Axel and head back into the building to retrieve his gym shorts. There was nothing keeping him outside beyond polite convention, which hardly even applied in this situation anyway. On the flip side, no one was waiting for him at home, beyond ghosts that didn't seemed fussed about timeliness anyway.

Mind made up, Roxas approached the pickup.

But now that he thought of it, and speaking of enigmas…

Fighting the urge to tilt his head in recent mimicry of Xion, Roxas stopped a few feet away and studied Axel. "Aren't you here a little early to be picking up Sora and Kairi? Pretty sure their Thursday routine hasn't changed any."

"Mm."

As Axel turned toward the digital clock readout on the pickup's front dashboard, Roxas copped a glance at the arm now propped up at the elbow on the truck's open window. He'd gotten a good look at it last week on the way to Highwind's, but from a different, interior angle. The lines were more established on Axel's outside bicep, both straight and the occasional criss-cross intersection. In fact, Roxas realized with growing unease, one section looked almost like a number inscribed in one understated Roman numeral in particular.

"Work was slow." As Axel resumed speaking, Roxas forced himself to look up, to keep his expression level and reveal no hint of the pulse now steadily thrumming against the base of his throat. "Just not slow enough to leave with time to go anywhere worth going before coming here. Figured now's as good a time as any to get caught up on some reading."

He flashed a yellowed paperback in his free hand before lowering it out of view and back onto his lap, but Roxas had gotten a good enough glance at it to know it was one of those books where the author's name was displayed in prominent typeface at the top of its cover. He shot Axel a look complete with a raised brow and rounded out with an accompaniment of his own trademark cynicism.

"You into politics or something?"

"Not in the way you're thinking." As Axel flashed a smile that suggested amusement at the question, Roxas shifted his weight from one foot to the other, eyes narrowing. If this openly entertained, hide-the-ball banter was the way Axel liked having conversations, he wasn't in the mood to humor him.

"In this case, Gore's not a surname," Axel continued, "and this little tome happens to be a work of fiction."

He raised the book up again, and Roxas eyed it. The cover was missing some corners, what he could see of the pages frayed in a way that reminded him of the library books Sora had coveted and practically devoured throughout the course of their collective childhood.

Axel had spoken as if that cleared up the matter, but it only served to confuse things further for Roxas since the byline spoke of political failure. Whatever heightened level of smart he'd so briefly felt for recognizing the name quickly disintegrated in the face of Axel's alternate explanation.

"It looks like something my English teacher would assign and make us analyze half to death."

A resounding laugh was not the response he'd been expecting.

"Things sure have changed here if the English teachers would so much as consider assigning queer literature to high school seniors."

Jaw opening, then closing, Roxas found himself at a loss for a proper comeback. The comment had caught him off-guard, and there was no concealing it this time behind a neutral expression or volleyed snide remark. That ship had already sailed, possibly straight-up sunk.

Still grinning, Axel tossed the book across the truck's front dash. "So, what brings you back to Radiant High when you should be a rough estimation of halfway home by now?"

Still flustered from Axel's previous comment, Roxas didn't respond immediately. The guy was just going to change the subject after making a comment that loaded? Seriously?

But Axel was still looking at him, with that arch, self-assured countenance. God damnit.

"Decided to swap jeans for gym shorts. Don't got a ride today," Roxas finally answered. The grammar would've made Sora cringe, might've elicited a look of exasperation from Xion. Unlike the comments he'd aimed at Riku, it was also uttered unconsciously, a nervy verbal slip in the face of someone who didn't fit any mold he was familiar with.

Axel responded with a tilt of his chin, eyes fixing themselves more levelly on Roxas who found it hard not to fidget under their sudden shift in intensity.

"Do you need one?"

"A… ride?" Roxas tried not to bite his lip.

Without a word, Axel inclined his head to confirm.

"Nah." Roxas shook his head more times than was probably necessary. "There won't be enough space."

Without responding, Axel turned away from him, shoulders rounding as he leaned over the gear stick and snapped open the passenger side glove compartment. He straightened with a plastic wrapped pack of cigarettes and a zippo lighter in one hand.

"I meant now." He pressed his thumb over the zippo's guard, and Roxas watched as the action formed a small spark before a stronger flame was established. "There's plenty of time to drop you off before circling back. From where I'm seated, this all seems pretty simple."

"What it seems like is a waste of gas," Roxas returned, to which Axel shrugged before smacking the cigarette pack into an open palm, the sound like a far-off gun shot staccato.

"It's your call." Sliding a cigarette out of the packet, Axel lit up before returning his attention back to Roxas. "You can always find a way to pay me back if the thought of neighborly goodwill just don't sit well."

Not for a second did Roxas think Axel's chosen linguistics were anything other than deliberate. What he couldn't work out was whether it'd been stated in a way that was endearing or meant more to ridicule. The offer itself was another matter. On a week where he'd exhausted just about every available resource, avoiding a walk under the unforgiving, skin prickling sun seemed more a blessing than a curse, no matter who was tendering it.

"Alright, fine."

To Roxas, it felt like a minor concession. Just the same, he was rewarded with a half-smile and a nod toward the truck's passenger side seat. He hopped in without show, dropping his backpack to the dirt-caked floor before reaching for his seatbelt. No way was he earning a second lecture about proper passenger safety in under a week. As he secured the buckle, he snuck a look up, only to see a box-shaped object sailing a lazy arc across from the driver's seat.

Reacting without thinking, he caught the pack of cigarettes. The zippo was airborne and in his hands a breath later.

"I'm guessing you haven't changed your mind about being the smoking type in a mere five-day timeframe, but take one if you want it. If not, box goes in the glove compartment. Likewise with the lighter."

Axel pulled out of his parking space without waiting for a response, angling toward the roadway while Roxas leaned forward and pulled the latch in front of him. There wasn't much stored in the glove compartment, not even the vehicle registration, just a few faded fast food receipts and a truck manual that looked like it was missing more than half its pages. He deposited the box and lighter in a free corner, then snapped the compartment shut with the top of his knee.

Trying to curb the urge to look back over at Axel, Roxas' gaze moved up to the windshield in front of him, finally settling on the book still wedged between glass and dashboard plastic.

Roxas glanced at what he could see of the cover, noting the large print of the author's name in all capital letters before considering the book's title. There didn't seem to be anything compelling about it, certainly nothing sufficiently scandalous to encourage picking it up off a bookshelf or even bothering to skim read the back page summary.

"What's this about anyway?"

As Axel glanced over, cigarette secured in loosely pursed lips, Roxas reached for the book, then held it up to further clarify his question.

"Depends on your interpretation of the themes."

That sounded like the type of bullshit non-answer his English teacher would give. Although Axel had turned back to watch the road, Roxas made a face that more than illustrated how he felt about yet again having his chain pulled.

"Be more specific, how about?"

Axel's hand reached up, and two fingers caught the cigarette before coming to rest on top of the steering wheel.

"Friendship. Masculinity. Tennis, kind of. Queer relationships. The destructive nature of pining for someone you can't have and wasting your life subsequently obsessing over them. That's what I took from it, at any rate."

Roxas froze at the offhand way Axel had said one word in particular, then glanced over at him, his own expression an image of skeptical.

"So, you're reading a book about gays."

Seemingly unfazed by the sharp tone Roxas had adopted, Axel shrugged.

"That's not an inapt summary, if a bit coarsely regurgitated."

Roxas opted to ignore the dig and continue as if Axel hadn't just spoken. "Why?"

As they turned toward Radiant Hollow's downtown sector, Roxas bit his lower lip again and wondered why he was grilling Axel so hard about some stupid book that he didn't give so much as the square root of a fuck about.

It could've been something about the conversation with Ven. While they hadn't defined what they were discussing in as many words, it was the first time Roxas had spoken about something of this sort without tacking on a punchline as the final kicker. But here was Axel, talking with such comfortable casualness. Roxas wasn't there yet, didn't possess the requisite vocabulary to form questions that might elicit the answers he was seeking, about Sora or anyone at this point.

The book, though. As Roxas looked down at it, he realized that maybe, possibly, it just might.

Because he wanted to understand, to wrap his mind around this latest revelation. And if it wasn't possible to get his brother to admit to anything, Roxas figured the next best thing would be coming to his own personal understanding, even if it meant doing a little bit of research on his part.

Unaware of Roxas' thoughts, Axel shifted in his seat and returned the cigarette to his mouth before answering. "Guess I just find it relatable on some level."

Roxas half-snorted, then found his verbal stride. "What, 'cause you're gay or something?"

He was treated to a flash of green as Axel eyed him without turning his head. His smile, though still visible, seemed more restrained than it'd been a few minutes earlier.

"I prefer the term queer, actually."

In response, Roxas near about swallowed his tongue. With Axel's eye still on him, he found himself looking down at the book in his lap and awkwardly coughing, fingers pressing against its tatty cover until his knuckles began to whiten in some unconscious, misdirected attempt to squeeze out answers.

"Seriously?"

The word was posed with more hushed disbelief than the disdain he'd been intending to convey. Out of the corner of his eye, Roxas saw a curl of smoke exhaled out the open car window, noticed an inked tricep flex as Axel twisted the wheel and directed the truck into Roxas' neighborhood.

"Seriously."

Although he had his suspicions about Sora, this was the first time Roxas had encountered someone outright admitting to a sexuality that deviated from the acceptable norm. It'd been a simple response, not at all defensive or apologetic. His gut inclination was to say something snide, even biting. After all, he'd had plenty of practice going at it with Seifer.

This felt different though, and as they turned onto the final stretch of road before home the words caught in his throat, coalesced, and reformed into something wholly disparate.

"What's the difference?" Again, Axel glanced over. When his only response involved a flurry of gently flicked ash into the truck's beveled center tray, Roxas supplemented. "Between saying you're gay or queer, I mean."

In the twenty seconds it took to get from the road's turn-off to the front of his house, Axel remained quiet. He shifted gears, letting the truck idle before finally looking over at Roxas again.

"Look it up, buttercup. I don't get paid to educate, and the internet's a glorious resource, if the rumors are worth their weight."

By now, the ambiguity of Axel's response didn't surprise Roxas. If it was meant to bait, he opted against reacting to it, instead reaching down to retrieve his bag before hopping down from the truck. He skirted around the pickup's front, noting that Axel had slid his seatbelt strap behind one shoulder and leaned forward until both forearms were resting on the window frame.

Now would be the time to thank him for the ride, then turn heel and disappear out of sight. Something about offering an expression of gratitude seemed too much like changing the subject, possibly admitting some form of latent defeat in the exchange that had just taken place. He crossed an arm over his chest, fingers furling over the backpack strap slung over his opposite shoulder as he remained in place a few feet removed from truck and driver.

"Okay." He offered Axel a curt nod. "I'll figure it out myself then."

A ringed plume of smoke rose up between them. By the time it cleared, it was just blue eyes locked on green and the flash of a prominent canine care of Axel's resurgent grin.

"Report back with your findings," he replied. "I wouldn't mind hearing what the world wide web's saying lately on the matter myself."

Then, one small movement, the narrowing of one eye until it shut entirely before reopening, and Roxas' own eyes widened. His cheeks performed an added subordinate act as they flushed, and it was all he could do to maintain eye contact as he nodded again, this time more shyly.

"Good man. I look forward to it."

The words seemed sincere, the expression that followed just as genuine. This time when Axel revved the truck engine and grinned at him, Roxas couldn't say why but nevertheless found himself smiling back with authenticity that was roughly commensurate.

Chapter Text


"Over on your island, counting your clocks
Moments move to months, you're living like this too long
Coming last call you stall and tell me
I will never be the one worth breaking
When everyone's gone come say what you mean, for once."
"Steps" - Handsome Ghost


 

It'd been three weeks. Almost, at least.

He'd expected week one to be difficult, was willing to concede that fitting in might even take two, given how Louisiana was practically a foreign country compared to what he was used to. Nearing the end of week three, however, Riku wouldn't even have imagined he'd still be floundering this badly.

Maybe there was some wisdom in that 'fish out of water' idiom after all. Just his luck.

Because, thus far, each week had presented its own unique difficulties, none easier than the ones that'd come before. Between his off-mark comment about rednecks and trailer classes, and Hayner's resulting offense, the first week had started on an indisputably bad note that'd been hard to recover from. Week two had been an impromptu introduction to Olette and avoiding Seifer mostly, plus intermittent frustration and worry over Sora's weeklong disappearance.

Somehow, despite his subsequent return, this week was turning out no better. Although Riku was aware of the part he'd played in his continued social hardship, he wasn't ready to let Sora off the hook entirely. This had led to uncomfortable study hall silences and curt replies to Sora's attempts at initiating any form of meaningful conversation. By the time study hall came around one day shy of putting week three to rest, the only reason Riku was maintaining even the lightest grasp on an externally presented calm involved the knowledge that open swim was set to commence in under an hour.

Even so, study hall was dragging, had been all week, actually. Ever since he'd excused himself to return Kadaj's call, then avoided resuming any form of conversation upon his return, there'd been a subtle shift in the way both boys approached each other. While Sora was still his usual, amicable self when chatting with Kairi, while he still offered Riku a friendly smile each day in the two classes they shared together, exchanges that'd once been relatively effortless now felt strained, and blue eyes often glanced at Riku with a margin of growing uncertainty.

Riku'd tried rationalizing the situation, attempted to convince himself that everyone was entitled to a certain level of privacy regarding their personal lives. If there was something Riku had trouble swallowing, however, it was a lie so large it was downright indigestible. With that at the forefront of his thoughts, Riku found himself questioning their every interaction. He'd also started wondering why Sora had bothered reaching out to him in the first place, why he'd offered Riku an invite to a party or returned his texts with such consistent diligence.

Every lie, and each day of increasing uncertainty, had soon left him second-guessing the growing evidence that Sora might like Riku the same way Riku liked him.

Moreover, Riku hadn't even managed to pinpoint the significance of his feelings to anything more helpfully specific. He'd had crushes before, had even examined particular attractions closely enough to know what they likely meant. But he'd never had the urge to slap a label on them and make a public announcement. Although it hadn't ever been intentionally discussed, his friends were as clued in as they needed to be, and Riku wouldn't have felt much if someone ended up saying something about it to his parents beyond the usual teenage embarrassment.

Until he'd moved to this town where up was down and public acceptance only seemed to be progressing if he was willing to suspend belief long enough to concede he'd taken a trip back in time to the 90s, Riku'd never had to consider any of this. It was confusing, to an extent even humiliating, thanks in large part to Seifer's constant taunting. Most of all, it involved Sora and a growing realization that the way Riku chose to approach any of this spelled out the stark difference between sailing through his remaining months here or risking an even fiercer form of social rejection from his peers.

Framing their friendship in a manner that was strictly platonic also wasn't working, mostly because he was using Kairi as a means of comparison and it simply didn't align with how they both had been tag-teaming to keep him in the dark about the true reason behind Sora's recent absence.

To Riku, friendship encompassed more than just superficial pleasantries for an hour a day and carefully worded messages via text; it involved a level of honesty and trust that hadn't yet been afforded him. Although he tried his best to reason his way around it, it all still added up to his efforts in some way falling short. Sora was probably just too nice to admit this and officially start avoiding him. That was the only conclusion Riku could reasonable come to based on the available evidence.

Instead, Sora still texted him daily, even if their conversations revolved mostly around safe topics like schoolwork and covert planning for Kairi's upcoming birthday. Yet Riku kept engaging, even if his curt replies were revealing examples that even someone as social cue-oblivious as Neku could probably identify as the textbook definition of passive aggressive.

As it stood, Hayner had pretty much gotten over week one's social flub; and after a period of what probably low-key qualified under the legal meaning of stalking, Seifer had mostly abandoned his active harassment once it'd come to light that Riku was objectively in the dark about whatever was going on between Hayner and Olette. With still more than a week to go before the visit with Kadaj and his other friends, Riku was left with the exclusive concern about where he stood with Sora. Kairi, too, he supposed. She hadn't exactly been the most pleasant to spend time around since she'd noticed his less than genuine attempts at hospitable interactions with her best friend.

If he really believed week four would be an improvement based on weeks one through three, Riku figured he had deeper issues than simply trying to fit in at a backwater bayou high school.

As Sora and Kairi talked quietly beside him, Riku kept his head down and tried his best to appear studious, even though it felt altogether pointless. He'd already secured his spot at Stanford, had earned enough high school credits to graduate last semester. Missing a homework assignment here or there wasn't going to accomplish anything beyond possibly pissing his parents off if they were contacted about it. Pretending to study was still better than jumping into the middle of a conversation about his classmate's anticipated Prom night schedule, even knowing they were just going as friends, so Riku jotted down a few notes in an attempt to keep up the ruse.

By the time the final bell sounded, he was only too eager to pack up. Offering a civil but otherwise aloof good-bye to Sora and Kairi, Riku made his way back to the locker room to get changed for open swim.

Tidus was already present by the time he arrived, same for Wakka. The latter waved from across the room while Tidus nodded a quick acknowledgement. There were a few other boys present who Riku didn't recognize, likely underclassmen. Some gave him a quick once-over before returning to conversations as they changed into swimwear. Riku swapped out his clothes in silence, stowing away his school bag, before following the others over to the showers to wet down.

He was soon making his way down the corridor that separated the boys and girls locker rooms, then out into the aquatics center. The closer he approached, the more Riku felt himself relaxing. Here, he was finally in his element, had been since middle school. Swimming was something familiar as much as it was a form of emotional security, an activity that didn't change regardless of a pool's locality. As soon as it came into view, his eyes settled on the chlorinated undulations of the pool's surface, appreciation readily apparent.

That was probably why he was caught so off-guard when a familiar voice called his name. It took a beat longer to locate the speaker even after he'd turned, since Sora was perched high above him, seated halfway up in the spectator bleachers.

"Looks like you got around to asking your gym teacher about using the pool, after all."

Sora was smiling as he looked down, and Riku felt his cheeks initiate the worst kind of heated mutiny imaginable. For a moment, Riku nearly forgot himself, but his own natural urge to return Sora's smile was never fully realized as he regarded the boy ten bleacher rows above him. He offered a curt nod instead.

"I took the skills test with Tidus last week."

While you were completely MIA...

"Cool."

Sora's smile remained, but Riku looked away, gaze returning to cerulean pool water depths he was still longing to submerge himself into. At least underwater, no one could hear you melodramatically bellow about some stupid, unreciprocated high school crush. After the week he'd been having, it seemed a more than reasonable way to let off some steam, if a bit theatrical.

He turned away from Sora and took a few steps closer to the water.

"I'd be swimming too, usually."

Pausing, Riku made sure to suppress his skeptical expression before looking back over his shoulder. Even if Sora didn't seem to be sporting crutches all the time, he didn't exactly have the physique of a swimmer from what Riku had gleaned of the thin limbs peaking out from his trademark, oversized t-shirts.

He stayed silent as he watched Sora gesture to one of his legs.

"I have to wait another week at least until my ankle heals up."

Okay.

Riku tried to keep his expression neutral.

Sure.

Unable to devise an appropriate reply, Riku just nodded again, and headed over to Tidus without a second glance back in Sora's direction. It was out of character for him to be overtly rude, especially to someone he generally liked; Riku figured this time was justified since it was starting to seem more and more likely that his classmate was some sort of pathological liar.

Standing chest deep at the pool's shallow end, Tidus was bounded by Wakka and Selphie. While Wakka shot Riku a quick grin, Selphie's welcome was less restrained.

"Hi, Riku!"

Arms rising over her head as she launched herself a few inches up and out of the water, her blue-green swimsuit and goggled eyes gave off the appearance of an elated scarab beetle. She made a grab at the divider that halved the open swim area from the lap lanes and splashed Riku up to his knees in the process, earning a look of quiet exasperation from Tidus. The water was cooler than the humid air around him, and Riku found himself looking forward to the anticipated shock of a more thorough immersion, despite its unanticipated induction to his lower half thanks to Selphie's recent antics.

"Hey," he returned. While he included all three of them in his greeting, Riku turned to Tidus to ask his next question. "Everything set for me to swim today?"

Tidus nodded. "All good. Do whatever you want." His gaze shifted to Selphie still gently bobbing beside him. "Within reason."

With a quiet word of assent, Riku picked the first empty lap lane next to where his classmates were congregated. If he hadn't made the rookie error of looking back up toward the bleachers, of locking eyes with one blue-eyed boy in particular, he might have been fine for the rest of the hour.

As it stood, it took most of his willpower just to refocus on the gently lapping pool water in the lane in front of him after getting an eyeful of Sora in the distance.

Crouching down, Riku braced the edge of the pool with a hand. Using one arm to support the rest of his body, he eased himself into the pool. He was soon standing in water up to his chest. Typically, this would have been a precursor to using the wall for leverage as he launched into a slow freestyle for his first few meters of warm-up.

Instead, he glanced toward the bleachers a second time and saw Sora still watching him. Cursing under his breath at the rising sensation of hot self-consciousness, Riku opted for full-body submersion instead, legs relaxing just enough for him to sink below the water's surface.

Underwater, a calming silence, and the sense that his thoughts were finally clearing enough to get himself back on track with the workout he'd come here to accomplish in the first place.

Because this sophomoric concern over having an audience while he was swimming was ridiculous, even if it happened to be Sora. For years now, he'd competed in front of much larger crowds when there'd actually been something at stake, plus teammates who were counting on him. With a definitive kick that propelled his body upward, his head broke the water's surface, hands reaching for the edge of the lane as the pads of his feet pressed into the pool wall. The action was well-practiced, performed without conscious effort. Although the familiar movements were soothing, Riku couldn't help but feel that he remained remiss in telling himself that nothing was at stake here now. Just because he wasn't competing against a rival team didn't mean something far more serious wasn't hanging in the balance.

Whatever it was, he didn't want to think about it, especially when his swim time was so limited.

Careful to keep his gaze away from the spectator area, Riku submerged again, this time face-first as he tucked his knees to his chest and pushed off the pool wall. Steady flutter kicks complimented overhead arm strokes, and he turned his head to one side to take his first measured breath. The pace he set was just rigorous enough to warm up his limbs without worrying about anything beyond simple form. A few more alternating strokes had him reaching the other side of the pool. He performed a shallow, forward somersault, then kicked off the opposite wall, making his way back to his start point.

He opened his eyes a few feet from the wall, not unconscious to the sting of chlorine as much as he was accustomed to tolerating it. Through hazy vision, he spotted two sets of swim trunks, then a fusion of effervescent air bubbles and long, brunette hair tendrils swaying above Selphie as she sat cross-legged and watched him from the pool bottom through a pair of grasshopper-green swim goggles.

The moment their eyes locked, Selphie pushed off, flutter-kicking her way up to the surface. The sound of her bubbly giggles filtered down to him, the sound a modified muffled care of the water separating them.

And this was the girl who wanted to play matchmaker and set him up with a date for Prom… someone send help.

Not stopping to see Selphie's above-water reaction or potentially subject himself to another loaded conversation about upcoming school dances, Riku reached for the wall, deftly switched positions, and kicked off again, this time focusing on his backstroke.

It was a bad choice, in retrospect, mostly because his eyes kept wandering left from the aquatics center ceiling to the spot where he knew Sora was seated and still probably watching him. That, in turn, altered what should have been a straight-line stroke in the center of his swim lane. This became clear an instant later as the back of one hand slapped into the lane divider, effectively stopping him halfway through his first lap, feet sinking and forcing him to tread to keep his head above water.

For a moment, he remained at the pool's midway point, cheeks burning, back to Sora. If he kept this up, Riku silently scolded himself, he might as well go ahead and drown himself to avoid having to justify how his swim skills had gotten so remedial after only a few weeks off. Distractions be damned, this was fucking ridiculous, not to mention majorly embarrassing, given his current audience.

Determined to stay focused, he found his stride again, then upped his pace, treating the stroke like he would any other in practice. By the time he once again made it back to his starting point, he was breathing hard, feeling both out of practice and frustrated at the realization that he was still thinking about Sora.

Why was he here anyway if he was too injured to swim? What was he getting out of just sitting up there in the bleachers, especially if Kairi was popping bubbles and listening to shitty music on an outdated flip phone in the library still just waiting for him?

The questions nagged him for the remainder of the hour; they distracted him through fifty meters of breaststroke, then the same length of a half-assed attempt at the butterfly.

As he completed his warm-up and considered more targeted exercises his polo team coach always ran them through before splitting them up into small teams for more focused drills and practice matches, Riku briefly thought about joining the conversation his classmates were having at the shallow end of the pool.

That might start up a talk about Prom though, something Riku wasn't in the least interested in revisiting with Selphie in the vicinity. Quickly abandoning the idea, Riku didn't slow his pace as he swam past the trio. He spent the rest of open swim hour working his way through basic polo positions and technique, stubbornly keeping his eyes away from the bleachers.

It was only when the lifeguard whistle blew to signal the end of the period, and other swimmers began exiting the area, that Riku allowed himself a quick glance over to where he'd last seen Sora.

Yeah. Still there.

It wasn't exactly surprising that Sora was still present, or that a textbook happened to be visible, open and resting across the tops of his legs. It wasn't even all that odd to see Tidus making his way to the bleachers or striking up a conversation, head tilted up toward Sora's current perch as the two chatted in what seemed like an amicable manner.

What did stand out was how Sora subsequently gestured to his foot, then pulled up his pant leg to reveal the splint cupping his calf and ankle. From a distance, Riku couldn't hear what either was saying, could just see the successive rise and fall of shoulders as Sora laughed at a few words offered up by Tidus below him.

So. Sora seemed to have no issue discussing his physical health with Tidus. As far as Riku could tell, he happened to be Sora's one exception in that regard. Eyes narrowing, Riku felt a wholly different type of heat form at the base of his throat. Unlike the previous feeling that he'd begrudgingly attributed to attraction, this was a stifling sensation that had far more to do with anger only half-successfully repressed. By the time Riku pushed himself out of the water in a sprinkling of teal rivulets, the pool area was almost empty. Wringing excess moisture from his hair, he watched Tidus make one final comment before heading off toward the locker room, even filed away that Sora had offered a quick wave after him.

Intending to follow the same path, Riku made his way around the edge of the pool, toward the bleachers that were situated adjacent the exit, set on getting past Sora and back to his locker as quickly as possible.

It certainly would've helped if Sora hadn't taken the opportunity offered by their momentary proximity to call out to him for the second time in a single hour.

"Looks like you got a good practice in."

The comment seemed deliberately light-hearted, but as Riku glanced up at Sora and noted his pant leg now covering the splint he'd just shown Tidus, Riku felt his jaw set. It locked tight with tension, making it nothing shy of a minor miracle that he was capable of any response at all.

"Yeah."

He didn't even have a chance to glance away before Sora spoke again.

"I bet you could ask Tidus where they store the balls if you need one next week. I sometimes see others throwing them around so I know the school's got some."

"Okay."

This time, Riku did look away, determined to reach the locker room and distance himself from this interaction before his frustration manifested in a way that was more glaringly obvious.

As he took his first steps toward the exit, he heard shuffling above him. Out of the corner of one eye, he saw Sora push himself up off the bleacher seat using the paint-chipped railing for leverage.

"Hey, Riku?"

There was something about his tone, something about the soft way Sora had spoken his name, that traveled straight into Riku's chest and twisted. It was painfully close to a physical spasm for something exclusively emotional. It likewise demanded immediate attention, as much as he'd have preferred to ignore it.

He turned and looked back up at Sora. The sudden awareness of how little he was wearing made him feel exposed, even vulnerable. That, in turn, increased his irritation a rough approximation of ten-fold.

"Kairi said she told you I was sick last week with allergies instead of the stomach flu."

Still quiet, the words settled between them as Riku considered Sora's expression. There was still a hint of friendliness in what remained of his earlier smile, but it didn't seem as effortlessly executed, and his brows were furrowed a little. There was also something different about the way Sora was looking at Riku. Maybe it was fatigue. Maybe he was still recovering. Maybe, maybe, maybe, but whatever. To Riku, it aped the guarded expression Kairi had adopted the moment he'd called her out about the discrepancy in both of their explanations a week ago.

He was so completely over being jerked around at this point.

"And now it's an injured leg," he returned. "I can only imagine what you two will come up with next."

"I did hurt my ankle."

Brows rising at Sora's emphatic response, Riku lowered the volume of his own voice to counter it.

"I don't doubt that." Running a hand through his mess of chlorine-tangled hair, Riku let out a heavy exhale, gaze dropping to the halfway point between spectator railing and concrete floor. "But, look, there's obviously something you'd rather lie about than tell me. Maybe it's my fault for prying, or calling Kairi out, or…whatever." He fixed Sora with a cool look. "Whatever," he repeated. "I'm over it."

This time, he made it an arms length away from the exit before the dull clang of crutches connecting with the bleacher's metal rail frame stopped him.

"Don't leave like this. Please."

Reaching for the door that would take him one step closer to the lockers and away from this hot mess of high school melodramatics, it took his last ounce of willpower to ignore the sound of Sora's pleading voice.

"Riku!"

The heat returned, neck muscles tensing as the desperation in Sora's tone registered. Riku paused, craned his neck, and glanced over one shoulder but didn't fully turn back toward the bleachers.

"What?"

Textbook and school bag abandoned, Sora was struggling to make his way down the narrow steps, the hollow clack of his crutches' rubber feet echoing in the cavernous, empty pool area. He stopped halfway down, the effort it had taken as obvious as the rise and fall breaths that accompanied it, and Riku was left to contend with the welling concern that Sora might end up losing his balance and injuring himself further in an attempt to get down to him. When their eyes next met, it took far more effort for Riku to maintain an inscrutable expression.

A minute, he silently conceded. That was the time he'd allow himself to hear whatever excuse Sora was on-the-fly devising as the silence dragged past the thirty second mark and Sora's expression turned from panicked to subtly defensive. A minute and he was officially leaving, regardless of how forlornly his name was volleyed back at him the next time around.

"Sixty percent."

Uh.

Come again?

Not following, Riku shook his head. The motion sent damp tresses swinging above his shoulders. Riku hardly noticed in the wake of newfound confusion.

"What?"

He watched as Sora caught his breath, eyes never straying from his, the intensity behind them gripping, effective in keeping Riku from saying anything more.

"That's the chance I have of going deaf by the time I'm thirty."

Caught off-guard, Riku found himself at a loss for words beyond what he'd already repeated. He turned, arm falling away from the door handle and settling by his side, as he moved to face Sora more fully and tried to search his thoughts for a response to what he honest-to-god hoped wasn't a complete non-sequitur — or another lie, for that matter.

But Sora wasn't done, didn't seem particularly put off by Riku's stunned silence. In fact, now that he'd started speaking, he seemed dead-set on saying his piece.

"And seven is the number of operations I've had." He offered the figure and its corresponding explanation with a small shrug. "Should've been more but insurance hasn't always been the simplest to deal with, and my mom works long hours which makes for a lot of scheduling conflicts."

A slight nod was all Riku could muster, impassive expression faltering as Sora barreled on with clipped words and a somber, determined look.

"Here's another: forty-five."

He continued to hold Riku's gaze, but the intensity was starting to ebb into something that seemed far more resigned.

"That's how many bones I'd broken, dislocated, or otherwise wrecked by the time I was ten. I don't know the official total, because I stopped counting when I got to middle school." Although he was still looking down at Riku, Sora's voice was quieter when he spoke again, as though he was speaking more to himself than his present, one-person audience. "Never bothered counting the scars, but they're a lot easier to keep track of, seeing as how they'll be with me forever."

"I …"

Finding his voice didn't correlate with knowing what to say, Riku was quick to realize.

What, Riku silently chided himself. He what? Had already looked up every medical condition that fit the bill based on his own in-school observations and the supplemental info his mom had provided? Was slowly coming to the conclusion that knowledge didn't equate to an inherent ability to swallow this choking swell of encroaching reality when it was laid out plain before him, finally?

Before he could form a response that likely would've fallen far short regardless, Sora raised a hand and effectively cut him off.

"You're seeing me differently now."

"No." Riku balked at the bald truth of the statement, found himself trying to back-pedal. "I'm no—"

"You are." Sora's voice was firm. "Everyone does when they find out. Shock becomes pity and that morphs into avoidance, eventually." He ticked off each word like a list that'd been rote-memorized. "But before they suddenly get too busy to give me the time of day, guess who gets to act like it doesn't really bother me so they don't feel secondhand-bad for asking in the first place?"

This time when Riku opened his mouth, he didn't even manage a single, stuttered word. Unperturbed, Sora forged onward.

"And I get it. I really do. That's why I keep such a short list of friends." Above him, Sora shifted. Nudging a crutch under one arm, he leaned against the railing with the other. "It's also why I was trying to postpone telling you for as long as possible."

"Oh."

That …actually made sense. But, god, did he sound like an idiot with all these monosyllabic responses, useless to contribute anything worthwhile since he was still struggling to find an appropriate way to translate his muddled thoughts into something verbally sensical.

At least Sora was more than making up for it.

"I'm sorry I lied to you, and I'm sorry I had Kairi lie to you for me." For the first time since he'd started speaking, Sora looked away. The moment he dropped eye contact, he also started to look smaller, more vulnerable, shoulders rounding. "It was just nice to meet someone for the first time in long while who didn't know all the finer points about my medical background."

Swallowing hard, the angry heat transformed to an uncomfortable chill as Riku surveyed the look of quiet defeat that had settled across the features above him.

"Sora…"

"I get if you don't want to talk to me anymore. I kind of freaked when I thought I was gonna have to tell you about this before I was ready, so I guess I just—"

"Sora."

Finally falling quiet, Riku saw Sora's lower lip disappear beneath the upper, expression a picture of pure uncertain. He waited just long enough to feel confident Sora wouldn't start talking again. As much as possible, he wanted to ensure his response was heard and fully understood.

"I'm sorry, too."

The bottom lip made a reappearance as Sora opened his mouth a little. Anticipating the impending protest, Riku sucked in a quick breath and continued, as determined to say his piece now as Sora'd been minutes earlier.

"I'm sorry I made you explain yourself when it wasn't any of my business. I'm sorry I've been taking everything so personally lately, and I'm really sorry if it seems like I've been acting like an ass and punishing you for not telling someone you've only known a few weeks every single little private detail about your personal life."

Painful truths had a strange way of compounding once spoken. Embarrassed, Riku ducked his chin, not bothering to tuck away the wet tendrils of hair that fell into his face this time around.

"To be honest, I don't really care about the medical stuff, but I do want to get to know you better. I feel like I've been acting totally irrational about pretty much everything since you got back."

"Yeah, well." Although he didn't look up, Riku could hear Sora fidgeting above him. It was followed by a light scoff. "Seems like it's been spreading. Because I also could've handled this entire thing a whole lot better myself."

A flash of movement had Riku glancing back up just in time to see Sora pull out his buzzing phone. He eyed the lock screen, then made a face.

"I have to get going. My ride's out front waiting on me."

Thought quickly materializing, Riku froze in the middle of an assenting nod and chose his next words carefully.

"Maybe I could drive you home instead?"

For long moment, both boys regarded one another. It was Sora who finally broke the silence, head tilting toward one shoulder in his overt confusion.

"I thought you didn't have a car."

"I didn't." Ignoring the way his hair whipped against his face with the subsequent motion, Riku shook his head. "My parents finally got around to car shopping last weekend."

"Oh." Sora's expression remained hesitant. Uncertain. "It's just, my house is clear across town. You'd be going out of your way."

It sounded like Sora was trying to find a polite way to decline, but Riku wasn't quite ready to give up.

"My dad doesn't get back from the coast until tomorrow, and Mom's shift ends at ten, so no one will notice if I get home later than usual. It's seriously no trouble."

Alright, sure, he could always chat with Neku online, maybe hash out some rough plans for the visit with Kadaj via phone or text. The prospect of righting any lingering wrongs with Sora trumped both at the moment.

"I mean, it's up to you," he tacked on. "Either way, no pressure."

Something had changed about Sora's expression as Riku rushed through his final comment. Blue eyes lowered as the corners of Sora's mouth subtly quirked upward. It didn't quite qualify as his usual wide smile, but it did lift his cheekbones enough for Riku to notice their newly augmented glow. Just as subtly, the telltale heat returned at the behest of renewed fluttering in his own stomach. This time, he accepted the sensation with the knowledge that it had nothing to do with anger.

"Okay."

Riku blinked, not convinced he'd heard correctly.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." Another smile greeted his searching eyes, this one brighter, more fully defined. "Just give me a sec to text Kairi and put up my books."

"No rush." It took concerted effort not to talk over the tail-end of Sora's sentence in the wake of his excitement. "I need to change back into street clothes anyway."

This time when blue eyes fixed themselves on him, they seemed to sparkle with subtle amusement.

"I bet. Wouldn't want to go prancing down the halls in that little number, I'm guessing." Though quietly murmured, Sora's smile took an impish turn, and Riku found himself suddenly self-conscious about the clothes he was wearing — a decided lack thereof, more accurately. "Let's meet at the other end of the locker room in a couple minutes, okay?"

Worried his voice might reveal how ruffled Sora's comment had gotten him, Riku merely nodded, then turned back to the exit. Reaching for the door, he pulled it half open, then hesitated and looked back.

"Do… do you need any help?"

The return response was less a rebuff than a breathy, dramatized huff.

"Child, please. I've got this. I'm practically bionic."

Accent intensifying, Sora offered a quick wink to complement an already cheeky grin. Twisting on his crutches, he made his way back up to his belongings with masterful speed, leaving Riku to sprint toward the locker room, feeling equal amounts elated as he was flustered by the surprising turn this afternoon had taken.

o - o

He woke in stages the next morning, and the first was incertitude. While true that for once he wasn't default dreading getting through another school day, Riku found he couldn't entirely account for this change of heart in his first moments of mentally muddled consciousness.

Stage two was one large sucker punch of emotional recall, as Thursday's heated exchange and its subsequent resolution came flooding back without so much as a second of courtesy forewarning.

Skepticism followed next as he struggled to separate the night's dreams from yesterday's reality. After a few weeks of near constant social fuck-ups, it was in some ways easier to believe he'd imagined the entire last twelve hours instead of truly, firsthand experienced it.

Fourth was the objective best, as it involved increasing awareness and a more discerning thought process. As Riku rolled onto his side, then pushed himself upright, the distinctions between fantasy and actuality became easier to identify. Once sorted in his mind, he could aim for stage five and attempt to retain a modicum of dignity as he tried to quell his giddy anticipation at the prospect seeing Sora again in just a few hours.

He got dressed in a brand name t-shirt and another pair of high-end jeans, then spared a few minutes to root through his remaining unpacked boxes until he located a zip-up vest without an externally visible brand logo. He still hadn't had time to go shopping for clothing more suited to this town, although he was determined to change that this weekend now that he had access to a car. In the interim, Riku supposed the vest would do, even though it was becoming increasingly unrealistic to wear layers as the season got steadily warmer.

His messenger bag lay by his desk where he'd dropped it the night before, unopened. Even if he'd had assignments to finish, he wouldn't have been able to concentrate on them, so Riku supposed it was fortuitous that he was already well ahead in his classes. Reaching for the strap, he pocketed his phone, then headed out of his room and toward the kitchen.

The smell of coffee grounds filtered up to him at the top of the stairs. Rich and buttery, the scent reminded him of home more than anything else in this setting. Vietnamese coffee had a distinctive smell, of caramel and condensed milk. Descending the stairs, Riku set his bag by the front door, then angled over to the kitchen, where he caught sight of his mother.

Back turned to Riku, she was already dressed in the indigo scrubs of TG Memorial Hospital's supervising staff members. The only thing missing was the white coat she generally wore over it, along with a pinned-on plastic name label.

As Riku entered the kitchen, his mother turned, offering him a weary smile on the heels of a quiet, "good morning."

Making his way over to the counter, eyeing the French press and its coils of emanating mist, Riku echoed the greeting, then considered his mom's odd choice of clothing.

"Don't you usually get changed at the hospital?"

"Usually." His mother nodded. "I got home so late last night that I didn't bother to change out of them. I'm scheduled to head back in a few hours, so I'll just freshen up there when I have a free moment."

While his mom's shift had technically ended at ten, it wasn't abnormal for her to stay later. Absent parents was business as usual for Riku, whether they were in Louisiana or back home in San Francisco.

Eyes traveling back to the coffee press, his mom stepped aside, reaching up to an overhead cabinet as she retrieved two glasses and held them out to him.

"I thought I'd try making cà phê sữa đá. If you can fill these with ice, I'll mix in the condensed milk."

As the glasses transferred hands from mother to son, Riku tried to conceal the look of surprise that accompanied his mom's comment as he headed toward the freezer. Making Vietnamese coffee wasn't difficult, even lacking a phin filter; his parents just never bothered with cooking projects back home, however simple, in turn leaving him to spend a small fortune at locally run businesses whenever he wanted a caffeine fix — or food of any sort, really. It occurred to him that his mother's attempts at kitchen conversation might be some overdue undertaking to make up for years of offspring disregard. Then again, a lack of readily available take-out options was just as likely, or coffee shops that brewed cà phê đá near the hospital, in this instance.

The last thought highlighted Riku's cynicism at its finest, but wasn't derived from any genuine resentment. Riku was accustomed to the freedom that came with parents married more to their professions than each other. It meant never getting grounded, and rarely being questioned about his weekend plans or after-school outings. As long as he didn't come home overtly stoned or sporting a school progress report with grades that placed his impending matriculation at Stanford in jeopardy, Riku's ability to do virtually anything during his free time remained all but guaranteed.

If anything, the scarcity of public transit, app-accessible ride shares, or a dedicated car of his own had been more isolating than anything his parents had ever imposed on him.

This was about as relevant as Radiant High's version of nineteenth century revisionist Civil War history now that his parents had gone car shopping. Plus with the about-face his angst-ridden dealings with Sora had taken in the span of one afternoon open swim session, the timing was close to perfect.

He opened the freezer, depositing a handful of ice cubes into each glass before elbowing the door closed and returning to the counter. During that time, his mother had retrieved a fresh can of condensed milk after emptying what remained of the last into the first glass, and was in the process of puncturing a small hole in it with the sharp end of a manual can opener.

She filled each glass until the creamy substance coated their bottoms, rising about an inch and engulfing some of the cubed ice each glass housed. Riku, in turn, reached for the French press, pushing the filter as far as it would go, until the coffee grounds were pressed down firm and separated from the drinkable liquid in the remaining space of the carafe.

He rotated the press' handle toward his mother and watched as she poured the steaming liquid over the contents of both glasses. A fine mist curled upward as hot coffee met ice, and its naturally darker shade softened when intermingled with the condensed milk at the bottom. A quick swirl of a spoon was the final step before both drinks were ready.

His mother took a sip from her glass, then reached for her phone, no doubt to check in on work emails. Meanwhile, Riku found his mind wandering back to yesterday, to unanticipated arguments and a resolution that had been even less predicted. From there, his thoughts shifted to the car ride across town and a neighborhood he'd never visited, plus Sora's good-natured teasing about a new-model vehicle that cost more than a year of private college tuition.

It'd been followed by a smile so freely offered that Riku found himself grateful for the dual-purpose excuse driving provided in both keeping his eyes on the road and somewhat settling his pent-up nervousness.

"You seem to be in a good mood today."

His mother's voice pulled him out of his daydream reverie and Riku looked up, set to ask what she meant until he realized he'd been unconsciously smiling.

"Yeah." He schooled his expression a little, mindful of how infrequently he revealed physical manifestations of his inner feelings around either parent. "Well, it's Friday."

It was a bullshit response, something any one of his friends would have called him straight out on. His mom seemed to accept the explanation at face value, however, and that wasn't surprising; it wasn't like either of them knew the other well enough to notice discrepancies between a statement and its follow-up facial expression.

"You must be looking forward to seeing your cousin and friends soon."

"I am," Riku said, then took a long sip of his coffee to justify his next lapse into silence. Not that his mom seemed to be expecting a longer response, having already returned to scrolling down the screen of her iPhone.

Leave it to either one of his parents to miss the mark entirely when it came to his social life. Some things never changed, at least.

For a second, he considered switching subjects, maybe even bringing up Sora and asking for more details about his medical condition. Now that they were talking again though, now that Riku no longer felt like he was being purposefully kept in the dark, he had less interest in digging and more confidence that he could just ask Sora about anything he was still curious to know. Ultimately, he said nothing. It was his mother who spoke first when the conversation picked up again.

"Remind me to call your aunt so we can book a hotel for next weekend." Although his mom was now looking away from her phone, her eyes were directed over his shoulder, expression more thoughtful than focused. "The travel agency she uses should be able to handle the arrangements. I just need to stay on top of her to actually call them."

Considering his aunt Yuka had opted for an early retirement after the sale of his uncle's second startup and was more likely to be posting photos of herself to Facebook from a beach in Maui, or Cabo, or wherever the whim suited her, rather than worrying about anything as simple as a weekend trip to New Orleans, Riku couldn't help but feel the biggest obstacle his aunt still had to juggle was making sure Kadaj didn't slack off and tank his grades two months from graduating. He downed the rest of his drink but kept the thought to himself.

"I should head out so I'm not late for school."

His mother looked up as he deposited the glass and its half-melted ice into the sink, then washed out the lingering white of remnant condensed milk still clinging to its beveled sides with a carefully directed stream of tap water.

"Your father should be home around seven or eight. Will you be back by then to help make dinner?"

Although it was posed as a question, Riku sensed the underlying directive and nodded.

"I don't have plans tonight, so I'll be home."

Satisfied in having achieved her newfound aim of heightened parental attentiveness, his mom returned to her phone and Riku exited the kitchen. He made his way to the front foyer to retrieve his messenger bag, then headed outside to the car designated for his use for the next handful of months, relieved to finally be getting the day started.

Because leaving the house meant being one step closer to school. More important, it would get him ever closer to seventh period study hall and a boy he no longer had any underlying qualms about talking to for the first time in weeks. Quite the opposite, actually. That, in itself, seemed nothing short of a welcome miracle.

o - o

If he had to place bets on it, Riku figured most people wouldn't generally pin him as an individual who was particularly impatient; he took things in stride and was usually even content to wait for highly anticipated events to unfold at their own pace. Compared to others his age — Kadaj, especially — Riku probably qualified as a wizened sage at playing the wait-game.

That being said, by the end of first period he was starting to wonder if every visible timepiece had slowed to half its usual speed, was possibly even engaging in low-key, Riku-focused mockery. Even his iPhone seemed to in on the plot, with a digital read-out just as deliberately slow as the Senior English trailer's wall clock. At this delayed pace, fifty minutes was easily beginning to feel like literal decades.

It followed that by the time he got to study hall, he was probably going to be aging out of the American workforce, maybe even suffering from such an acute form of Alzheimer's that he wouldn't remember Sora anyway.

Second period promised to be worse, because it was the sole other class he and Sora had together. As expected, it only took one small smile aimed his way from the back of the classroom to make his stomach twist into anticipatory knots. Then, another handful of minutes that crawled by like months, even worse than during first period since he knew Sora's whereabouts and couldn't so much as turn and steal a glance behind him without attracting unwanted classmate attention or a potential call-out from their teacher.

By the time class ended, Riku still couldn't bring himself to look back, having spent most of the hour zoning out and mentally revisiting yesterday's exchange in the aquatics center, Sora's teasing final comment and corresponding wink, especially. This lack of focus with respect to his outward surroundings was probably why it felt so jarring when Sora called out to him the moment class was officially dismissed.

Bent over and in the midst of stuffing a textbook back into his bag before executing another mad dash across campus to the trailers where his third period class was located, Riku froze at the sound of Sora's voice. He looked up, tried to quickly prepare himself for the same smile that'd greeted him before class. Sora was holding up a hand instead, signaling him to wait as he turned back to retrieve his crutches from a built-in wall cabinet directly behind his desk.

As Riku watched, he realized he'd never seen where Sora stored his crutches before today, despite engaging in almost obsessive observation since he'd first been put on notice that Sora sometimes relied on them to get around. Some days, Sora must not need them, Riku had reasoned, as he recalled the Friday night walk from the muddy parking lot to the marsh campground. Other times, Riku figured Sora must keep them somewhere at school; he'd seen Sora heading to his ride with them on a day when they'd been nowhere in sight in study hall a few weeks earlier, after all.

These crutches were different, looked like a standard, hospital-issued set someone would get after an accident, rather than the more customized pair Riku had first spotted. As Sora balanced against one crutch and adjusted the other, Riku mentally set aside the discrepancy and straightened, sliding his bag over one shoulder, all the while trying not to feel awkward to be watching without offering assistance.

Help wasn't needed anyway, Riku soon realized. Despite the crutches, Sora was quickly making his way over with movements that were assured, if not as smooth as the gait of someone walking on two fully functioning legs.

"Happy Friday." Sora gave him a quick once over before meeting his eyes. "And nice vest."

Eyes tapering as he spoke, the subtle smile that followed was a good indication his words were meant to be teasing. There was a comfortable casualness in the way Sora approached conversations, and that hadn't been altered by the nature of their exchange yesterday. It was encouraging, if not fully effective in allaying Riku's own latent anxiety. Despite an attempt at playing it cool, his return greeting encompassed a single syllable word, uttered at a volume that was debatably audible.

His quiet reply didn't seem to faze Sora in the least; he continued to lead the conversation while Riku tried to play a silent form of catch-up between mind and mouth so he wouldn't continue to look like a tongue-tied moron.

"Your next class is outside, right?"

Riku nodded, then tripled his last word count. An admirable effort, he decided, under the circumstances.

"Same for you?"

That didn't seem quite right. Even though he was usually in a hurry to make it across the school between second and third period classes, he was almost positive he'd have noticed Sora present among the students who tended to loiter outside between bells.

Confirming his hunch with a shake of his head, Sora led the way toward the front of the room and out into the hall. Riku followed a few steps behind, careful to keep enough distance to avoid clipping the bottom of a crutch with the front of his shoe. The last thing he needed was to send Sora sprawling via a preventable misstep on his part.

"All my classes are inside. But third period's on the way to the trailers so I thought we could walk partway together." He paused to look back toward Riku. "Or you can walk. I'll hobble."

His small smile blossomed into a full-out grin, apparently appreciative of the humor in a comment aimed at his own self-deprecation. Still not sure where this was going, Riku returned a more tentative version of the same expression and habitually tucked a few stray hairs behind an ear before answering.

"Okay, sure."

With Sora's slower pace, there was a high chance he'd be late for his next class. Given his present company, Riku found himself caring very little. Nevertheless, he wasn't oblivious to the silent attention his peers were leveling at them as they made their way down first one hallway and then another. Whether it was aimed at Sora and his crutches or the fact that they were walking side-by-side together was less simple for him to determine. Since it didn't seem to be bothering Sora, Riku decided to adopt a similar attitude and keep his gaze directed vaguely forward.

At first, Sora said nothing, seemingly content just to walk beside Riku on their way toward the side of the school that led out to the senior class trailers. As students filed into classrooms and the halls thinned out without the faintest hint of a gay slur on the horizon, Riku found himself relaxing, even starting to savor this additional time with Sora he hadn't factored in to his earlier estimation.

"Thanks again for driving me home yesterday."

Safe and conversational, the topic was an effective way to break the silence between them. Still unsure how to move beyond standard small-talk, Riku said nothing, just nodded to indicate he'd heard, eyes still trained forward. At least his face wasn't burning like yesterday. He supposed he should be grateful. Just the same, his inability to hold a conversation for longer than two seconds was seriously frustrating him at the moment.

"And sorry for not inviting you in," Sora continued, apparently not put off by Riku's enduring silence. "If we had a set time for dinner, you probably would've been welcome to stay for it, but that's not really how things work with my family."

Riku remembered that too, since he'd been an ambiguous mix of relieved and disappointed when Sora had merely thanked him for the ride, retrieved his crutches, then disappeared behind a creaky screen door into his home with a quick, departing wave. While it'd have been nice to see Sora's house and spend more time together, he'd been less enthused by the prospect of getting roped into an awkward conversation with Sora's parents, or even Roxas. He decided to consider the ultimate outcome a positive neutral, with room for improvement.

"It's fine."

His words were quiet, possibly lost in the din of milling students around them. Noting the time on a wall clock, Riku mentally primed himself for the one minute bell warning.

"My family's a little …um." As Sora trailed off, he also slowed, lips pursing as though he was trying to choose his words carefully. He stopped a few feet away from what Riku assumed was his third period classroom, eyes darting around them like he wasn't entirely sure where to look. "They can just be a little overwhelming for first-timers, is all."

"Yours and mine both." Riku offered a rueful smile. "That's probably true for anyone's family, though."

Finally, a full sentence and a reason to be proud of himself, despite being inspired by the strained exchanges his parents had been trying to pass off as bonding moments with him lately. Now, to follow it up with something reassuring, and maybe salvage this entire six minutes.

"Maybe, yeah."

The words contradicted an expression still heavy with doubt. As Sora looked up again, the half-boiled thought that Riku'd been in the process of forming promptly dissolved as their eyes met and Sora started talking again.

"Anyway, I know this is going to sound super nerdy, and nowhere near as fun as a campfire marsh party... but I was fixing to go to the library tomorrow to do some studying. I don't know if you'd want to join me for that, but if not, maybe we could meet up and hang out after?"

Although Sora was still looking at him, his expression was hard to interpret. Trying to make sense of the deluge of twangy words his ears had just been flooded with, at first Riku just stared, until the silence between them started to feel awkward.

By the time he'd fully processed what had been said, his ears were ringing with the shrill sound of the one minute warning bell.

Awesome.

And yeah, he was definitely going to be late today, probably hella irritable too considering how poorly he was handling what should've been a straightforward exchange of words.

As Riku maintained his silence, Sora's gaze shifted sideways, then down to the floor between them. He started fidgeting with a rung on one crutch a moment later.

"Or grab food or, I dunno, just something that gets me out of the house. All the mandatory rest I got last week's gone and made me more than a little stir crazy."

A teacher appeared beneath a classroom doorway, arms crossed over her chest as she fixed the few remaining students malingering in the vicinity with a pointed look. Still trying to wrap his mind around Sora's latest comments, Riku hardly noticed.

Was it possible …?

Could Sora be asking him out? Kind of?

Studying at a library wasn't exactly the stuff of most dream dates. In fact, it was more like a majority extension of their standard interactions since they'd first met. Riku knew this.

He also knew a routine meet-up for the singular purpose of doing homework didn't warrant the signs of self-consciousness Sora was now displaying, however unconsciously.

There'd be plenty of time to dissect this later, to assess each word and consider the tone in which it'd been uttered. Right now, Sora was waiting for an answer, and they needed to get to class before the teacher he'd finally noticed wrote them both up for willful tardiness.

"That'd be cool." Riku nodded, careful to keep his own tone casual. Meet on the weekend, and do some studying. Grab food. Get Sora out of the house. He could handle this. Totally. "Even the library bit."

Sora's smile was immediate, and Riku felt the corners of his own mouth lifting in response to it. Before his mutinous cheeks could give everyone else left in the hall enough evidence for a months-worth of LGBT-themed verbal arsenal, he ducked his head a little, allowing his hair to obscure a portion of his face.

"I'll drive us if you can give me directions from your house to the library."

The final bell sounded before Sora could reply; his emphatic nod gave Riku more than enough of an answer, however. Still framed beneath her classroom door, the teacher cleared her throat and Riku took a few quick steps toward the outdoor exit as good-faith proof that he was leaving. Unable to help himself, he stopped and stole a quick glance back at Sora who shot him a look that seemed equal parts innocently contrite as it did delighted.

With a flutter of fingers, then a flurry of quick crutch maneuvers, Sora disappeared into a classroom, and Riku began sprinting toward his own class.

He ended up late and breathing hard by the time he burst through the trailer door, earning a sharp word from the teacher, plus a strict warning about repeat offenses. A few choice words also filtered over to him in the form of a not-so-subtle whisper about 'gay-ass vests' from none other than Seifer. Business as usual, Riku told himself. Maybe some things weren't actually meant to change with time.

In light of the plans he'd just made with Sora, however, for once absolutely none of that mattered.

Chapter Text

 


"A boy with a coin he found in the weeds
With bullets and pages of trade magazines
A girl with a bird she found in the snow
Then flew up her gown and that's how she knows
That God made her eyes for crying at birth
Then left the ground to circle the Earth."
"Boy with a Coin" - Iron & Wine


Friday. Finally.

As Roxas perched at the edge of a gym bleacher seat, he stole a glance at his phone screen, and performed a quick mental calculation that had him released from his weeklong grounding in a little less than twelve hours. Impending freedom, or as much as he could hope for under the circumstances. It was less about having anything planned aside from meeting up with Xion, more that an unshakeable idea had been forming on what to do with the rest of his time. With Easter church services taking up most of his Sunday, the window of opportunity seemed destined to default to Saturday morning.

This was also the last day he'd been approved to sit out from phys-ed. As he eyed Seifer in the active process of shoulder-checking anyone he could get away with when the gym teacher had his back turned, Roxas acknowledged that he was looking forward to one type of liberation more than the other.

In the final handful of minutes left in sixth period, Roxas shifted his attention from Seifer's repeat displays of hyper-masculinity to another team of students playing basketball on the court below him. This team was headed by Tidus, but it was Riku whose presence was demanding Roxas' attention. His eyes remained fixed on the subtle motions of long hair pulled away from a defined jawline and the effortless athletics of his fellow classmate, but it was his latest exchange with Axel that was engaging Roxas on a more internal level.

So, you're reading a book about gays.

Dodging a player on the opposing team, Riku passed the ball to Selphie, a benevolent gesture if ever Roxas saw one. The girl objectively sucked at basketball.

Why?

Even without the ball, Riku remained actively involved. He leaned forward, knees bent, hands pressed against his thighs as he repositioned himself to better back up his teammate. There was visible definition in what Roxas could see of Riku's upper body, a marked contrast from Axel's much leaner frame.

While Selphie wound up and aimed at the basket, Roxas found himself grappling with a handful of questions that still vexed him.

Why, indeed. Why was Sora so hell-bent on spending time with this new guy? Why did Riku have to arrive at a time when everything was already in an active state of crumbling in Roxas' life?

And why, with so many available options, did his one-track mind have to compare and contrast every little facet of Sora's interest in Riku to his own preoccupation with Axel LaChappelle, of all people?

Guess I just find it relatable on some level.

As Selphie missed the rim by more than a mile, Roxas looked down at his splinted finger. He had another week before he could ditch it, at least if Sora's past injuries were an accurate indication. Long past hurting, it was now a mere minor annoyance when it came to taking class notes and juggling even the most basic routine of personal grooming. If the basketball unit weren't ending today, ceding to a sport that didn't require the use of his hands, Roxas might have been able to avoid assuming a more active role in gym class for another week or two.

As it stood, he couldn't. The most he could manage was a half-hearted, contemptuous thought aimed at their upcoming track and field unit.

What, 'cause you're gay or something?

Rubber soles squeaked against the polished gym floor. Although Roxas couldn't see him, he envisioned Riku's subsequent movements, well-timed and fluid. He mentally summoned the photo Selphie'd snapped at St. Bastion's, his brother's temple against Riku's knee, eyes closed and expression serene. Trusting.

The bell rang, but it hardly registered. Out of half-shuttered eyes, students filed past on the floor below him. It was only when one paused, a mere second's hesitation but enough capture his wavering attention, that Roxas blinked and looked down at Riku. Two sets of eyes locked as they regarded one another, vaguely curious, faces otherwise expressionless. A quick nod from Riku, then he was gone, and Roxas was left to rise from his seat and pocket his phone.

He took his time on the bleacher steps, one foot dragging in front of the other, finger splint playing a hollow tune against the metal of the stadium seating's railing.

Still, images continued to come to him, of a boy sitting next to another, comfortable with their shared proximity, even in the presence of classmates who may not've been inclined to be quite as forgiving.

Fingers fluttering out the driver side window, a casual smile that was already well on its way toward outright roguish.

Wreaths of smoke expelled in front of a blazing campfire.

The panicked look filtering across Sora's features a beat after one attending physician's name had been uttered, in particular. Frame already small, shrinking even more into himself.

Vulnerable.

I prefer the term queer, actually.

More and more, Roxas was finding it harder to make necessary distinctions, to keep various parts of his life separate from others.

He and his brother.

His brother and Riku. The pending conversation with Xion, plus Prom upcoming.

Axel.

Just, everything, everything, everything.

But life was supposed to be full of uncertainty, wasn't it? That's what made it so interesting, or so people claimed. With a subtle frown, Roxas hopped the last two steps, then swung himself around the rail toward the double-door gym exit, still frustratingly unsure if this knowledge brought with it a measure of comfort, or just the desire to full-out punch something.

o - o

Fifty minutes of US History were all that stood between him and weekend freedom. That, and Hayner's lingering fixation on the comments Seifer'd let loose with during lunch earlier that week.

"I still don't get what he was flappin' his jaw about."

Hayner was speed-walking as he glanced over at Roxas, only half successful at keeping up with the brisk pace Roxas had set upon slamming shut his locker.

For his part, Roxas said nothing. He just kept walking, and made the executive decision to pretend he didn't know which of their classmates Hayner was talking about.

Not that Hayner seemed to mind having a conversation that was more or less one-sided.

"Olette dating Seifer …like, seriously?"

They entered their classroom, Hayner half a step behind Roxas who still hadn't said anything or slowed as he made a beeline for his desk in the room's far corner. He dropped his bag, slouched into his seat, and fixed the clock above the chalkboard with a defiant look, determined to survive this final period with a modicum of poise.

Hayner didn't seem to pick up on his desire for silence. As he braced the surface of his desk with two flat palms and leaned forward, Roxas was unceremoniously reminded of the subject his friend was still stewing over.

"It'd just be nice to know how Hollywood came up with that idea."

That got his attention. Gaze flickering away from the clock, Roxas looked over at Hayner.

"Riku."

Hayner blinked.

"What?"

"Not Hollywood." Thrumming his splint against the corner of his desk, Roxas stifled a sigh. "Call him Riku."

Shooting Roxas a look of mild incredulity, which Roxas ignored, Hayner eventually shrugged, then dropped into his chair.

"Whatever."

"Or at least come up with something of your own." Reaching for his history text, Roxas lowered his voice as other students began filtering into the room. "I'm no fan of his either, but calling him that just buys into Seifer's specific brand of bullshit. It's not like there aren't other options. Pick something else."

"Christ, alright." Hayner's lips thinned to a line. "When is y'all two's wedding again? Remind me. I'll make sure to mark my calendar."

Roxas flipped him off, then opened his textbook.

As others took their seats and it became apparent that Roxas had no intention of responding further, Hayner offered his version of a white flag.

"Hey, sorry, okay? Let's talk about something else."

Although Roxas didn't look up, he did nod. Holding grudges over trivial shit had never been his style.

"Yeah, sure." He flipped to a page about the Reconstruction era. "What've you got on the books for tomorrow?"

"You mean, ballpark estimate?"

Roxas arched a brow, regarding Hayner out of the corner of one eye.

"Yeah… I got nothing." Hayner slumped into his seat as the one-minute warning bell rang out in the hallway. The moment it subsided, he looked back over at Roxas. "Why? Got something in mind?"

Roxas watched as their teacher strolled in and began setting up a slide projector that looked like it was old enough to have been in use before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"I might."

When Roxas didn't supplement, Hayner pulled out his notes, then reached over and poked his arm with the eraser-end of a pencil.

"Care to share, or are you purposefully trying to keep me in suspense here?"

As their teacher began the lecture, Roxas waved him off with a flourish of gauze and medical tape.

"Tell you after class."

And that was that.

A mind-numbing near-hour of seventh-period lecture and Roxas would've been hard-pressed to recall a word of it by the time it was over. It was also par for the course at this stage in the semester. For Roxas, senior year had somehow managed to shape itself into a thorough clusterfuck of indifference and willful avoidance on his part.

Packing up, he and Hayner made their way through Radiant High's student-flooded hallways. Even with the afternoon crowds, they got to their lockers quickly.

Regardless of speed, Xion had been quicker.

Offering her a polite greeting before twisting to the first number of his locker combo, Hayner picked up where their conversation had left off earlier.

"So, what're the plans for tomorrow?"

Although her expression remained level, the subtle furrowing of Xion's brow wasn't lost on Roxas.

"Xion and I've got plans in the evening." He glanced at his girlfriend who treated him to an approving nod. "But I thought we could hang out before that."

"Sure." As Hayner exchanged one textbook for another, Roxas turned the combination to his own locker. "Doing what?"

"How about just pick me up late morning? We can get food at Mickey's, and I'll fill you in." Roxas shoveled a few books into his bag in a show of good-faith future studiousness, then looked back at Hayner over Xion's shoulder. "Sound good?"

"It sounds vague."

Although the look Hayner was shooting him was dubious, Roxas easily saw through it. Hayner'd been talking about wanting to hang out for weeks. No way would something as insignificant as an unnamed destination keep him from agreeing, Roxas figured.

A slam of his locker, then, sure enough, Hayner turned back to him.

"Should I invite Pence?"

"You can try." Roxas shrugged, then clicked closed his locker. "Pretty sure he's still taking that photography class out in Traverse for a few more weeks, though."

He shouldered his bag, then felt a hand slip into his, fingers brushing lightly, almost caressing the center of his palm.

"Well." Xion offered both of them a small smile. "It looks like y'all have a date of your own tomorrow."

With a quick squeeze of her hand, she pulled Roxas a few steps away from Hayner.

"I just wanted to make sure boy didn't forget about our own weekend get-together."

The instant she turned, Hayner aimed a smarmy look at Roxas.

So, a visit to the beach was apparently too juvenile, but lunch at a diner named after a cartoon character? Totally fine. Hayner logic, in a nutshell.

Hands still entwined, Roxas let Xion lead him around a hall corner, weaving their way through masses of students as they headed toward the front of the school.

"I didn't." Roxas looked over at her. "Forget about dinner, I mean."

As they approached the doors that led into the library, Xion slowed, looked up at him, and smiled her usual gracious smile.

"How's Sora's ankle healing?"

The hesitation that followed was associated less with an unwillingness to answer on his part, more about Roxas unable to remember if he'd even told Xion what Sora had injured. He hadn't been the best at keeping up with texts of late. That said, Xion had always been astute; she knew the overall score when it came to Sora. This time, anyone with working eyesight would've noticed the difference between standard-issue hospital crutches and those Sora was usually seen around school with, even if Roxas still wasn't sure why he'd made the switch in the first place.

"Slow going," he finally replied. "Same as most things of this nature. He's got probably a few more weeks with the extra splint, at a minimum."

Xion didn't press further, and Roxas didn't offer additional information. Despite their status as boyfriend and girlfriend, their relationship had always worked best when they didn't delve too deeply into one other's personal lives. Sora's health issues probably qualified.

Even though the halls remained loud with the voices of other students, a thick silence fell between the two of them. Fortunately for Roxas, the library doors opened before it could settle long enough to develop into something that required more conversation on his part. He watched Kairi emerge first, then hold open the door for Sora.

Up until recently, running into Kairi wouldn't have been all that remarkable, beyond her repeated crimes of daily fashion choices. With hair dyed a shade not all that different from a particular cousin of hers, however, Kairi's presence was now provoking a response just about the opposite of apathy in the pit of his stomach.

Kairi spared a quick glance at him and Xion before letting Sora scoot past her. She waved in their general direction but didn't stop to talk as she walked by them, an oversized, fringy purse slung over one freckled shoulder.

With a light nudge of her elbow, then a kiss offered up on tiptoes, Xion said good-bye next.

And then there were two, brothers whose lives and interests were often vastly different, who had in their possession enough shared memories to qualify as one person.

Roxas adjusted his pace to match Sora's slower gait as they headed to the pickup area, then eyed the bag secured over his brother's narrow shoulder. He had half a mind to stop them both and demand that Sora hand it over. Maybe if they'd been alone and less likely to attract the kind of attention Sora tried so hard to avoid, Roxas would have insisted on it. And maybe if Sora were less stubborn, he would even have conceded under those circumstances. Their current location made both possibilities unrealistic, so Roxas said nothing and merely kept himself occupied by chewing on the inside of his cheek.

"You must be looking forward to being off the hook with Mom."

Roxas glanced at Sora, whose gaze remained fixed ahead of them as he navigated the school hallways.

Even so, he shrugged.

"Don't matter if each day's same as the one before it."

Tomorrow would technically be different if he ended up seeing through with this idea of his. Roxas had no interest in listening to a logic-based guilt-trip, however, and Sora would be liable to lay one on him if he provided specific details. There was a reason he'd been vague with Hayner about what he was considering. Besides, he told himself, tomorrow was more an exploratory mission than anything approaching active combat. At this stage, there was no point jumping the gun and getting an earful from either Hayner or his brother.

"Well," Sora said, the word drawn out, almost playful, "I've got plans."

"Do you now?" Roxas fixed Sora with an uninterested look. "Plannin' another trip to the marshes to eat more graham crackers, or did you finally convince that girl of yours to concede to a proper makeover?"

Well accustomed to Roxas' brand of sarcasm, Sora just smiled, then slowed to let Roxas step in front of him as they reached the school's front entrance.

"You know, you've got a way with words that I don't think people give you near enough credit for." He waited for Roxas to pull the door open, then maneuvered himself out onto the sidewalk. "I have a theory you might be the creative one in the family."

"Right." Roxas scoffed. "I'm the Strife family's very own Gore Vidal."

At his words, Sora stopped so abruptly that Roxas nearly tripped over his feet to halt his own forward trajectory.

He shot his brother an annoyed look.

"What?"

A moment's pause, then a small shrug before Sora began moving again.

"Just, of all the things you could've responded with, I never would've guessed that. Not in a million years." Although Sora didn't slow again, his expression turned thoughtful. "That sounded almost scholarly."

As they neared their mom's old sedan, Roxas sprinted a few steps ahead so he could get the door and be ready to help Sora. Once situated in the car's back seat, Roxas passed back his crutches and shot his brother a lordly look.

"Maybe you've got it wrong and I'm actually the Strife family academic."

"Oh, you think?" Sora looked up after buckling himself in, the response that followed clearly sardonic. "I wouldn't quit your day job. As far as intellectual goes, one well-placed literary reference doesn't put you ahead of me, or Ven for that matter."

With a quick eye roll, Roxas slammed the door on the heels of Sora's knowing smile, then made his way around the car and hopped into the seat up front.

His mom turned to look at him as Roxas got situated. Her appearance reflected fatigue that Roxas was all too familiar with, but also encompassed curiosity, which Roxas didn't much like seeing. She held off saying whatever was on her mind until she'd pulled away from the curb and exited the school parking area.

"It's nice hearing you boys talk academics."

Although she included both of them in her comment, Roxas couldn't help but feel it was directed at him specifically. At some point, he supposed, he should probably clue her in about his college plans. That would take more mental effort than he was willing to expend at present, however. Roxas kept quiet.

Sora not so much.

"Yeah." There was good humor in his tone. "Roxas seems to have taken a real interest in one author in particular."

It was evident to Roxas that Sora was teasing him. In light of his mom's near constant exhaustion, the joking tone seemed not to register with her.

She glanced at Roxas.

"Which author is that then?"

Well, now Sora'd gone and done it. While Roxas had no idea how widely known this guy was, Axel's explanation had tipped him off to his preference of literary content. It wasn't something he wanted to get into, with a parental figure especially.

"No one," he muttered, hoping she would drop it, or that Sora would start chattering about some other topic, literally anything. Roxas wasn't picky.

Sora stayed quiet, and his mom seemed keen to continue digging.

"I'm just trying to have a conversation with my boys. Is that so wrong?" She shot Roxas a besieged look. "Least you could do is offer to humor me after getting up to no good skipping school last week."

So much for avoiding a guilt-trip.

Fine, alright. Directing his eyes out the passenger window to conceal the growing heat in his neck and face as he remembered Axel's comments from the day before, Roxas steeled himself and waited for the other shoe to drop on the heels of his answer.

"Gore Vidal."

The answer brought with it an image of Axel himself, along with the assured smile that by now he could easily picture. Axel hadn't seemed to think referencing sensitive subjects was all that earth-shattering. Then again, he also hadn't been faced with the prospect of discussing gay-anything in front of his mother.

Or queer, if one preferred. Whatever.

"Don't think I've heard of him." His mother's expression became thoughtful as she turned onto the main stretch of road in Radiant Hollow's downtown district. "What types of books does he write?"

It fucking figured the one time his mom wasn't content to just let things sit, the singular moment in recent memory that she wanted to have an honest-to-god conversation with him, it'd end up involving an author who'd written homosexual content, at least if Axel hadn't been bullshitting him. For all he knew, Axel'd been reading the literary equivalent of porn. And here Roxas was, just tipping his mom off to another great reason to keep him grounded from now all the way through to graduation.

Roxas waffled, made a non-committal sound at the back of his throat as he pressed back harder into the worn upholstery of the sedan's bucket seat.

He was about to pull something straight out of his ass, to throw out a few lines about tennis and friendship and just hope it sounded convincing, when Sora's voice drifted up from the backseat.

"He's an essayist." Sora's explanation was simple, voice smooth. "He's also written a couple of historical fiction novels."

There was the urge, subtle but sure, to turn around and stare at Sora. Roxas curbed it and lapsed into silence while their mom responded.

"Well, it sounds very educational." She reached over and patted Roxas on the shoulder. "I'm glad it seems like you're doing some studying this year in at least one of your classes."

The conversation turned to Sora and his Saturday plans, which turned out to be studying at the library. No surprise there. Roxas didn't even bat an eyelash when Sora mentioned who'd be with him. He'd already guessed that Riku would figure into the picture in some capacity. Nothing could shock him at this point.

They rounded the bend that led into their neighborhood. Still, Roxas said nothing, not necessarily content just to sit and listen but lacking anything of substance to contribute. He hopped out of the car before his mom even had a chance to cut the engine, moving to help his brother with routine precision. After confirming both boys were more than capable on their own, their mother headed up to the porch, then entered the house as Roxas went to work collecting Sora's belongings.

In the relative privacy of their driveway, Roxas didn't think twice about grabbing Sora's book bag. He swung it up to his free shoulder, his own backpack balanced beside it on the opposite arm.

As Sora slid his crutches across the seat and toward Roxas' outstretched hands, Roxas studied his brother with a look of appraisal.

"Where'd you come up with that stuff for Mom?"

Sora glanced up, then pushed himself to the edge of the backseat.

"What stuff?"

"The author stuff." Trying not to sound impatient, Roxas watched as Sora slid onto one leg, using the car's frame for balance. "You made that all up, right?"

"No…" Sora's brows furrowed. "Gore Vidal wrote essays about US politics. He also wrote historical fiction, just like I said."

The crutches transferred hands again, and Roxas tried not to acknowledge his growing irritation at the thought that Axel might've pulled one over on him.

"I thought he wrote, like ...gay stuff."

For the second time that day, Roxas felt a flush creep up the sides of his neck as Sora's eyes locked on him. Despite his best efforts to meet his brother's gaze with an expression that was more level than shame-faced, it was Roxas who looked away first.

A pause, then laughter, which soon turned into a raspy cough as the dust on the front lawn was upturned under Sora's crutches. Despite half-choking, Sora didn't seem to be able to stop laughing; even after raising a hand to cover his mouth, his shoulders shook with silent amusement.

Roxas scowled.

"Right, so my mistake then."

He looked down and kicked at a mix of weeds and gravelly debris, pretending they represented Axel. That deceptive shithead.

"Not really." Sora's voice remained higher than usual, his grin indicative that he was still finding humor in Roxas' current state of ignorance. "He wrote novels that had some …well. I guess you could say gay themes, maybe."

Roxas looked up. This time, he didn't even bother to hide his interest behind a front of standard indifference.

"Got him blacklisted in the publishing community for awhile and some of his books are still banned. It's always hell trying to convince the librarian to order them through the parish's inter-library loan system." Sora's smile settled a little as he looked over at Roxas. "I just didn't think that's what you meant when you mentioned him."

So Axel hadn't been lying. Huh.

Still smiling, Sora took off toward the porch ramp. Roxas rushed to keep up a few steps behind him, eyes aimed at the path Sora's crutches were traveling across an unkempt yard of dirt, weed patches, and grass. He moved ahead as Sora reached the screen door, then held it open. The living room was empty, sounds of their mother filtering over from the kitchen.

"So much for being the family academic."

Sora winked as he passed Roxas.

"But gold star for trying."

o - o

"You wanna go where now?"

Hayner's brows rose with a level of exaggerated skepticism that might have been comical if Roxas hadn't been dead serious.

"You're not deaf. You heard me just fine the first time."

He reached for a fork and stabbed a french fry straight through its center, then glanced out the picture window that framed the booth where a frumpy looking waitress had seated them. It was partially fogged, trails of water running downward in criss-cross patterns. They connected as though forming an abstract tree in reverse, first branches, then a thicker trunk that disappeared from view beneath the table. It reminded Roxas of something else, of the singular symmetry of blackwork body art, specifically. He tried not to dwell on it.

It'd been raining all morning, not exactly a great day to usher in his resumption of freedom. That said, nothing so much as Hurricane Katrina's second coming would've sufficed to keep Roxas inside after a week's worth of house arrest. He'd woken from a restless sleep, dug out a hooded, long sleeve zip-up from the depths of Ven's old closet, then headed downstairs to his ride, amenable to braving a little rain if that was the price he had to pay.

Now Hayner sat across from him, picking apart his BLT club without concern for the mess he was making as lettuce fell on either side of his plate and plucky country music filtered out of a cheap speaker above them. At least it was on a volume low enough to drown out by focusing on Hayner, Roxas noted. Small miracles.

"Yeah, but maybe I thought you'd develop some sense in the last thirty seconds."

Roxas glowered.

"You don't have to come with, you know."

"Oh, don't get me wrong." Dragging a piece of bacon out from between two soggy slices of Wonderbread, Hayner popped it into his mouth before finishing his thought. "I wouldn't miss this for the world, same for the ass whooping your mom's gonna hand you when you come home the day before Christ's resurrection looking like a convicted felon."

Clearly starting to enjoy himself, Hayner's expression brightened.

"Even better, I wanna see Cloud's reaction."

Twisting his fork in his good hand, still eyeing the impaled stick of greasy potato at the end of it, Roxas sighed.

"Glad you've got my back on this."

"Yeah, no prob." Hayner grinned. "I'm here for you. One hundred percent and then some."

He popped another strip of bacon into his mouth, chewed a few times, then switched gears.

"What I wanna know is how you think you're going to pay for this. Aren't tattoos pretty pricey?"

Roxas said nothing, just twisted a little to reach the back pocket of his jeans. He deposited his wallet on the table next to his lunch plate, then flipped it open to reveal a credit card.

"Hey…" Hayner's eyes widened. "How'd you get ahold of that?"

Shrugging, Roxas fiddled with the frayed fabric at one corner of his wallet.

"Applied for it through the bank. Mom set all us up with savings accounts a few years ago. Not that there's much in any of them, but I guess it was enough to get me approved for a card."

Roxas flipped the wallet shut with two fingers.

"And don't be so dramatic," he said. "I'm just gonna go talk to someone about designs and locations and such. I don't even have an appointment so it's not like anything drastic'll even be happening today."

"You're sure you don't wanna go to Traverse for this?"

Digging through his sandwich, Hayner located more bacon. It was slathered in mayo, thin shreds of lettuce sticking to it like limp confetti. Roxas watched with barely concealed disgust as Hayner stuffed it in his mouth, then licked what remained of the fatty spread off his index and middle finger.

"Like I said, today's just about research."

Bacon consumed, Hayner moved his attention to what remained of his ravaged sandwich.

"It's your body. Do what you want, I guess." His eyes traveled to the plate of fries, still virtually untouched in front of Roxas. "You mind?"

"Be my honored guest."

Roxas slid his plate toward Hayner and watched his friend make quick work of fries that by his estimation had come out of a bag straight from the diner's freezer.

A flash of movement caught his attention, and Roxas looked up into a pair of eyes that had already fixed themselves on him. Despite the downpour and no umbrella, Zack looked put together, his usual level of unruffled. Roxas didn't return the offered smile, in fact looked down, as though the table was suddenly worth studying. Today was not a day where he felt like rehashing anything, whether long since past or in the more recent present.

To his relief, Zack made his way past their booth without a word, and Hayner didn't seem to have noticed him. 

"Anyway." Hayner's expression shifted to bothered. "I wanted to circle back to Seifer and that scene he made at lunch a few days ago."

"What about it?"

Roxas held back another sigh. He knew where this was going, just wasn't sure if he wanted to get into it. He had his own issues to deal with.

"Like, what was up with him throwing hints that Olette'd been talking to Holly—Riku." At Roxas' testy look, Hayner made the quick correction. "And why'd it seem like he was implying that had anything to do with me in the slightest?"

That damned letter. Hayner had every piece except the one that joined this puzzle together. As Roxas reached for his cup of coffee and took a sip of what amounted to nothing more than murky water, he tried not to grimace or otherwise reveal that he knew anything more than Hayner did.

"I was there and heard him same as you. Instead of asking me for my interpretation, why don't you just go straight to the source? Seems like that'd be a lot more efficient."

Hayner's expression darkened.

"Thanks, no."

"Fine. Okay." Roxas took one final swig that emptied his cup before deciding to speak his entire mind in one sitting. "You wanna know what I think?"

With a curt nod, Roxas saw how Hayner was now leaning closer from across the booth. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught another glimpse of Zack. Perched on a stool at the diner counter, he was chatting up a waitress who Roxas realized he'd seen before, just not recently. Not that he patronized Mickey's all that often, but he had to have been about ten the last time he'd seen her serving tables. Maybe twelve. Unlike the server assigned to their booth, the one Zack was talking to was the conventional definition of pretty, with a fresh-faced, just-out-of-high-school look to her. He spared another few seconds to scrutinize the pair, long enough to acknowledge that some people had clearly struck gold when it came to the genetic lottery of longstanding youthfulness, then turned back to Hayner to say his piece about Olette. Over and done with and put to rest.

"I think this whole hissy fit of yours has run its course. The wedding's over, Olette and her mom moved across town almost a month ago, and, yeah, it made things awkward. Olette anticipated that and knew it'd take time to get used to so she kept her distance and let you stew."

Hayner opened his mouth. He looked primed to say something but Roxas kept going before the point he was trying to drive home got sidetracked—or totally derailed, by the across-the-booth look his friend was currently shooting at him.

He ignored it.

"It's been more'n a month, and everyone's more or less gotten over it, except you." He made a grab for his cup, only to remember it was empty. With a deepening scowl, Roxas forged on, cup in hand and waving a little for emphasis. "Half the time I'm convinced you like the drama because she keeps coming to you and you keep getting to punish her on account of something she had no real control over."

He rapped his splint against the chipped formica tabletop, then fixed Hayner with a withering look.

"I can guarantee that won't always be the case, and when the balance shifts and she's no longer interested in tiptoeing on eggshells, you're gonna feel like a damn fool for pushing her away for no good reason in the first place."

With a clatter, Roxas dropped his mug, then set both elbows on the table and cupped his chin in open palms. Across from him, Hayner remained a stony silent, possibly stunned. Maybe just internally fuming at Roxas' blunt call-out.

And Roxas wasn't even done yet.

"This whole thing's gotten blown way out of proportion from where I'm standing," Roxas continued. "Just make up with her already, for the sake of all our respective sanities."

Closing his eyes, Hayner pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers.

"It's not that simple."

"Actually, it is." Swiping a french fry from the edge of his plate, Roxas popped it into his mouth without bothering to sit full up. "You just walk yourself on up to her, smile all charming-like, and say, 'Hey lady, sorry for being an actual idiot. Wanna go to Prom together so I can make you up for it?' Ain't that difficult. Seriously."

Hayner's shoulders had tensed mid-way through Roxas' over-embellished comment, his eyes widening like saucers by the end with a look that bordered on panicked.

"Like hell I'm asking her out. Not with that meathead breathing down her neck."

"Yeah, so. Seifer? Take him out of the equation, right this instant." Roxas' tone was curt. "He's not interested in her, never has been, and lately all I've seen evidence of is him treating her like a sister anyway, being all protective and making sure people aren't messing with her." He swiped a hand through his mess of damp hair. "Quit making things harder on yourself with justifications that you formulated out of pure horseshit."

"Language, boys."

Roxas and Hayner both looked up at the apron-clad waitress standing over them. She leaned forward, flashing a generous helping of cleavage, and dropped a handwritten bill onto their table.

"This here's a family-friendly establishment."

With downcast eyes and a few mumbled platitudes, Hayner made a grab for the bill as she headed back toward the counter, then shifted his attention back to Roxas.

"Easy for the guy who's already got a girlfriend to offer advice when literally nothing's at stake for you in any of this."

Roxas snorted, then looked up at a dark stain on the ceiling above him.

"This situation's not even a little about me so don't go twisting it into something that is."

"This afternoon sure is about you, though." Across the table, Hayner arched an eyebrow. "And possibly some real bad life choices."

He reached for his wallet. As he flipped it open and dug out a few dollars, Roxas took a moment to consider offering up his card, then thought better of it. It was Hayner's turn to pay, and it wasn't like his bank account was flush with cash just because he had ready access to a running line of credit.

Shrugging, Roxas pocketed his wallet but said nothing.

What was there to say, really? Everyone knew misery loved company.

Hayner counted out the correct change and tip, then deposited the bills on top of their receipt.

As both boys rose and made their way to the front of the diner, Roxas made a point of not looking back at Zack or otherwise acknowledging his presence. He did get an eyeful of their waitress cozying up to another patron a few tables over, elbows pressed together to supplement an already ample bosom as she handed over a menu.

Rolling his eyes, Roxas held the door open for Hayner.

"Family-friendly my left ass cheek."

Pausing under the diner's tattered awning, Hayner glanced over at Roxas.

"What?"

Pulling his hood up over his head, Roxas offered a shrug as he made a dash toward Hayner's van.

Nothing important, that's what.

They got to the van in record time. After both doors slammed shut, Hayner shook his head like a dog, then ran both hands through rain-soaked hair. In the passenger seat, Roxas took a moment to wring out his coat.

"It's really coming down out there." Hayner turned the ignition, then flipped the wipers on and eyed the front windshield. "And they've got a drought all out on the West Coast. Hard to believe."

Roxas said nothing, just waited for the inevitable follow-up remark about how much climate change was an outright farce as Hayner pulled the car out of the diner parking lot.

Hayner's next comment had very little to do with denial of scientific fact, however.

"You really think I should ask her?"

Roxas glanced over but kept his mouth closed. Hayner had already made it clear that it didn't matter what he thought about this particular subject.

"To Prom, I mean," Hayner supplemented, as though clarification was the reason for Roxas' enduring silence.

Roxas turned to look out the passenger window.

"Do what you want, like we all know you're gonna anyhow."

Through the window's reflection, Hayner looked like he was set to argue, mouth slightly open, brows pinched together, eyes on the road in front of him. At least one lesson had been learned over the course of the past few weeks, Roxas thought, even if braking on a dime hardly mattered now without Sora wasn't strapped down behind them in the backseat.

They drove in silence. Hayner had apparently decided to drop the subject, while Roxas remained content to lose himself in a muddle of disjointed thoughts. It wasn't until they entered a side street in the downtown district that Hayner spoke up, and then only after he'd found a parking space adjacent the main street.

There weren't many people out, and Hayner was able to find a parking space almost directly in front of Radiant Hollow's only tattoo parlor. Nestled between a smoke shop and a dingy 7-Eleven in what amounted to a modest strip mall done up to look like something more quaintly architectural, Snipe's Piercing & Ink wasn't anything visually stand-out. With a name that harkened back to one of the region's many game birds, Roxas found it even less enticing.

Whatever. It was closer than trekking all the way to Traverse to get a question or two answered.

For a moment, both boys just studied the storefront. With a metallic rattle, Hayner unlatched his seatbelt and was the first to utter some personal impressions.

"I heard the owner's not all there in the head. Got the senses knocked clear out of him in one of them wars with the Muslims."

He glanced to his right. Still eyeing the shop sign, Roxas had yet to unlatch his own seatbelt or make any move to open the van door.

"Just figured I'd warn you before you decide to get something permanently inked on your skin by him."

"Noted."

The word was a murmur, implied dry humor. Even so, Roxas' expression didn't change, nor did his gaze move away from the sign.

Silence settled between them for a minute, then two, Hayner having run out of things to say, Roxas mentally running through the lines he'd planned to extract the answers he was seeking, then be on his merry way, fast as lightning.

Ultimately, he reached for the door handle, this time not bothering with his coat hood as he sprinted toward shelter under the tattoo shop's overhang. Hayner wasn't far behind. Roxas waited only as long as it took his friend to join him under the entry before pulling the door open.

The tattoo shop's interior was darker than Roxas had envisioned, considering the intricate, detail-orientated nature of work that took place there. They entered into a waiting area, separated from the back space and its padded tables, roller chairs, and assorted supplies by a countertop that effectively halved the room.

A buzzing noise met their ears, not unlike the high-pitched whine of dental equipment, and Roxas was quick to spot a man hunched over a girl lying flat on her stomach on one of the tables, chin propped atop forearms, back illuminated by a bright overhead lamp. Her shirt was also off and hanging on the folding chair beside her, and Roxas was quick to avert his gaze the moment his brain caught up with what his eyes had been ogling.

He only had time to shift his attention to the tattooist's needle, to note jet black hair streaked with thick striations of gray, before someone called out to him.

"Hey, my dude. You a walk-in?"

Tearing his eyes away from the pair, Roxas looked over at the guy who'd just spoken to him, then began to make his way over to the counter as Hayner moved in the opposite direction, toward one of the seats in the waiting area.

"Not exactly."

Roxas stopped in front of the counter, then shook his head. A row of three-ring binders separated him from the man who'd just spoken, one open to a page that showed off a selection of sample art.

"I just had some questions about the process. And other stuff, I guess."

"That's cool." Roxas was treated to a lopsided smile. "Lay 'em on me."

Hesitating now that he had someone to get answers from, Roxas glanced down, away from blond hair that was an odd combo of buzzed in some places and long in others. His gaze fell on a faded name pin that read Dem-something or another that he couldn't quite make out. Perched on a barstool, the guy had an instrument balanced on his legs, its neck thin, the bottom oblong, with a few strings strung up its center. To Roxas, it looked like a guitar on a major acid trip.

Turning just enough to ensure that Hayner was out of earshot, Roxas shifted his attention back to Dem-whatever.

"Like, I have some scarring."

Roxas lifted one of his forearms, inclining his head toward the athletic sleeve covering.

"Ooh, okay. Uno momento, compadre." Dem twisted in his seat, then called out to the man behind him. "Yo, Xig. You almost done? Got someone in need of a consult."

The whine of the tattoo needle ebbed as it hovered over the girl's back. The artist pushed the lamp away and looked over at them, and Roxas got his first clear view of a face that looked like it was dead-set on confirming Hayner's war veteran claim. An angry scar cut a jagged path down one side of his face, while the other was covered by an over-sized eyepatch.

Holy shit. Intense was an understatement.

"Not even close." The man shook his head, giving Roxas a better view of his eyepatch. "Sorry, kid. Time is money."

Dem didn't seem discouraged.

"That's cool. Nada problemo." He offered a thumbs up, then turned back to Roxas. Lifting the instrument and balancing it against the back side of the counter, he slid off the stool. "Our other guy is on break in the back. I'll see if he can spare a couple of minutos to chat with you."

Instead of walking off, Dem just leaned forward and braced the stool seat with both hands as he yelled toward the back of the studio.

"Hey, Axel! Got a minute?"

Roxas froze.

Body rigid, his mind was working double-time to perform a simple equation that calculated the likelihood of there being more than one guy with a name like that in a town like Radiant Hollow.

He wasn't a big fan of the odds.

With rising anxiety, Roxas followed Dem's gaze to a curtain in the far back corner of the parlor, then watched as he pushed off the stool and stood straighter.

"Probably can't hear me from all the way out here." He flashed another grin at Roxas. "I'll go get him. Back in a sec."

Roxas watched him head toward the back room. Deciding not test the piss-poor odds he'd already calculated, he turned and made his way quickly over to Hayner.

"Let's go."

Phone in hand, eyes still scanning what looked like his Facebook app, it took Hayner a moment to look up.

"But we just got he—"

Roxas made a grab at Hayner's free arm and hauled him up before he could finish the sentence.

"Come on."

He tugged harder, had both of them nearly out the door by the time he heard Dem's voice again, commingled with another, low but familiar. Face hot, Roxas had never been so grateful for the dark skies that inclement weather provided.

Unmindful of the rain matting his hair to his forehead, Roxas sped back over to the passenger side of Hayner's van, pointedly ignoring the muttered obscenities Hayner was aiming his way as he fished around in his pocket for keys.

He located them and opened his door, sliding in and taking his sweet time to reach over and unlock the passenger side door. As Roxas hopped in and slammed the door shut, Hayner made a frustrated sound and raked his fingers through dripping hair.

"Well, there wasn't no fire in this holy wet mess, so wanna explain rushing out of there like someone'd just set flame to half the town?"

Roxas shrugged out of his jacket, then twisted the excess water it'd collected out onto the van floor.

"Just don't want to be late to Xion's," he muttered. "You know how her mom gets about mealtime tardiness."

As Hayner revved the engine, he raised his phone up to eye level. He studied the lock screen clock, then shot Roxas a dubious look.

"You've still got almost an hour. It takes fifteen to get to there, tops."

"And that guy was a freakshow." Roxas slouched into the van's bucket seat, shoulders hunching. "I'll go to Traverse to get my answers."

Hayner kept eyes fixed on Roxas and didn't look an ounce of convinced. Roxas, for his part, stared defensively back, then conceded to crossing his arms over his chest and directing his gaze back toward the tattoo shop storefront through a window glittering with raindrops.

"You got your crosses when it comes to Olette, and I got mine, just about other things. So drop it, okay? You were right about it being a bad life choice. I'll admit to that."

"Fine. Whatever." Roxas turned away but not before he saw the look of skepticism coloring Hayner's expression. "But talk about horseshit…"

Twisting the steering wheel to angle them out of the parking space, Roxas could tell that Hayner wasn't even remotely satisfied with the explanation he'd been offered.

Too bad. Some things weren't meant to be shared, not even with the closest of friends. To hell with Snipe's and its creepy owner.

To hell with Axel for working there too, while he was at it and in a giving mood.

o - o

By the time dinner was over, the rain was down to a trickle, and the cool air of early evening felt like a refreshing reprieve from the day's earlier humidity. Roxas sat on a wooden bench set flush against the side of Xion's house, while Xion swung in a lazy rhythm on the porch swing, a fork held loosely in one hand and a plate with a slice of pecan pie balanced on her skirt-covered thighs. The chain links on either side of her grated with her slow rocking motions, her dark hair swishing against each side of her face in the direction opposite that the chair was moving.

There was a hypnotic quality to her movement. It was asymmetrical but measured, and Roxas watched it with a keen attention that he couldn't quite reconcile.

Usually, Xion's mother would have been eager to join them, then talk enough on her end to qualify the conversation as a solo performance. After dinner, she'd cited a headache, her pained expression exaggerated as she made a show of leaving the room to give Roxas and Xion some time alone.

Typical.

Despite skirting an extended period of the evening dealing with her mother, Xion's somber mood hadn't lifted at her departure. She'd remained quiet and mostly unresponsive to Roxas' attempts at conversation since they'd exited the house. Eventually, he'd conceded defeat to silence, content simply to listen to the hollow plonking of raindrops into the metal roof gutter that ran the length of the house.

At least the rain was keeping the birds away, but even that thought came with a caveat. For all he knew, the presence of Xion's corvid friends might have served as the proper catalyst to cheer her up some.

Then again, maybe not, because he'd expected more enthusiasm when he'd pointed out the brass bolt and shard of amber glass left at one of the porch's railing corners. As it stood, Xion's only reaction had been to retrieve the two gifts without a word, fingers curling around them, then depositing them into her skirt's side pocket before returning to her seat. Her expression remained closed, eyes directed away from Roxas and at the rental house in the distance.

This was leading up to something, Roxas knew, whether or not Xion's current silence was purposeful. Yet, they had their unspoken rules about broaching certain subjects for a reason. For the whole span of their relationship to date, they'd known not to question one another's secrets. Maybe that was why Roxas felt so reluctant to start the conversation. Maybe he just didn't want to see their carefully built façade crumble in front of them both tonight, specifically.

Or maybe he was still a little flustered about the near-miss with Axel, a mix of confused and irritated at his knee-jerk reaction to Axel's imminent appearance.

Who knew at this point?

There was one thing he was one hundred percent sure about, and that was the indelible fact that this holding pattern couldn't persist for the rest of the night. Xion might be content just to sit in sullen silence. Roxas, as it stood, was not.

With renewed resolve, he looked over at her.

"So, what'd he do this time?"

The question was blunt, but Roxas was careful to keep his tone light, conversational. There was no point in upsetting Xion from the start by making it sound like he was impatient or even bent on attacking her. In truth, this was new territory for Roxas; never before had he mentioned Xion's father in explicit terms without her referencing him first, which in itself was a rare occurrence.

Xion finally turned to look at him.

"Nothing."

Roxas wouldn't have bought that answer even if it'd been advertised as a red-tag clearance item. He shot her a look that reflected this.

"It wasn't him this time." Xion shook her head, the action unnecessarily vehement. "Not technically."

Roxas still wasn't convinced.

"Then what was so all-fired important that we needed to meet in person?"

There was doubt clouding her expression, a ripple of uncertainty that spread out from her features into the tense posture the rest of her body had adopted. Xion looked away again, then reached for the plate on the swing seat beside her. She placed it back on her lap, the whites of her knuckles stark against the darker shade of hand-crafted china.

"Because I do want to talk, and I might need your sound advice."

Roxas looked at her but said nothing, waiting for her to continue, which she ultimately did, just not before glancing around as though searching for something. Assuming she was looking for even just one raven out braving the storm, Roxas was relieved when her next words suggested they go back inside and continue the conversation in her room.

They weaved their way through the house's first floor, Roxas taking in the ornate furniture and fixtures of a home that had been in one family's possession for well over a century. The pre-war opulence should have annoyed him; it was gaudy, hinted at old money passed down from generation to generation, something his own family couldn't even come close to boasting.

Xion and her mother had never acted like Almasy-level socialites, even if they technically qualified. From Xion's quirky, hand-stitched clothing to her mother's down-to-earth demeanor and her preference for home-made meals over fast food or hired cooks, the Bellevues were a family of two that felt more cohesive than the Strife family's disjointed five.

There'd also been something appealing about Xion herself. Although sometimes oddball in her ambiguous responses and often prone to quoting dead American poetesses, to Roxas Xion wasn't like other girls. She wasn't fussed over her looks or about climbing some pointless high school social ladder. In the end, they hadn't decided to date as much as they'd fallen down a rabbit hole into a world of denial about each other's personal struggles. Up until recently, both had seemed content with their lots.

Except, this wasn't some watered down Disney version of Wonderland, and Roxas had serious doubts about the prospect of happy endings for either of them.

Without a word, he followed her up the stairs. They were well-carved, smooth with a coat of lacquer that had been reapplied just last year. When the sun was out and light filtered in from the tall foyer windows, each step shone like the surface of still water, so many polished, reflective universes in the span of a single staircase. In the dim visibility of the day's overcast evening, however, each step was a void unto itself. Inert. Lifeless.

As they entered her room, Roxas made a beeline for Xion's bed. Xion usually joined him there, sometimes opting for her reading seat, occasionally lowering herself onto the plush rug that covered the better part of her floor. This evening, she bypassed each of her typical choices in favor of the desk situated in front her room's largest window. Roxas was quick to notice that it was mercifully closed tonight.

Bunching her skirt into one clenched hand, Xion leaned forward and retrieved an envelope wedged between two books on her desk, then retraced her steps and joined Roxas on the bed.

With deliberate care, she placed the envelope on the sheets between them and drew her knees up to her chest, forearms wrapping around herself as she looked over at Roxas. Roxas looked back, studying her for a second, then slowly reached out and swiped the letter up with his good hand.

The flap was already open. He noted the return address without comment as he pulled out a piece of paper and considered the notarized seal of the State of Louisiana. Roxas skimmed the text until he came across the one-line directive at the end of the notice.

You are hereby summoned to appear…

He looked up.

"You got subpoenaed to go to court?"

Xion nodded.

"The Monday after Prom. Nine in the morning, sharp."

It was possible Roxas had imagined it, but Xion's voice seemed to quaver during her answer. For the first time since they'd begun dating, he wondered if she might start crying right in front of him.

She inhaled; the deep breath seemed to have a calming effect. Her shoulders lowered and the tension previously present in her expression relaxed.

Refolding the letter, Roxas slipped it back into the envelope.

"Can't your mom call someone?" He looked back over at his girlfriend. "I thought this business was supposed to be private, or expunged? Or…"

"Sealed," Xion offered. "The records were sealed. That's probably why they want me to testify now."

Her voice was a monotone. As Roxas grappled with the best way to respond, Xion spoke again.

"And Mama can't do anything. I'm eighteen, so this is on me to handle."

Roxas frowned.

"So tell 'em no if you don't want to have it dredged up again."

Xion looked down at the space between them. Roxas had never seen her look so defeated.

"I don't think it works like that."

Truth be told, Roxas didn't know the finer details of Xion's past. Xion, in turn, had never expressed an inclination to discuss them. Roxas knew enough to make a few educated guesses, and none of them were especially pleasant. Although their ordeals during childhood had likely differed, Roxas knew a thing or two about fathers who'd shirked their duties as supportive parental figures, even if he'd never uttered an actual word of it to Xion. Looking the other way in the face of their collective pain had become a form of watching out for one another. It was a shield that was strengthened via shared silence.

This was probably why Roxas' first instinct involved his usual brand of deflection.

"Well," he said, leaning back against one of the bed's plush pillows, eyes directed up at the ceiling above him, "if there's no real way to avoid the inevitable, maybe think about taking the edge off in the meanwhile."

Although he was no longer looking at her, Roxas could feel Xion's eyes on him as he slid a hand into one pocket, fingers seeking the smooth plastic of a baggy that was in his near constant possession. He only had three pills left; two, he amended as he pulled one out and deposited it into his mouth. He glanced at Xion in the midst of swallowing it dry, and chose to ignore the narrowing of eyes still watching him. The blue of Xion's irises fell almost entirely out of view as he held out the baggy.

Xion said nothing, but she eyed the two caplets, sky blue and cylindrical at the bottom corner of the ziplock.

"Oh, c'mon." Roxas shot a pointed look at his outstretched arm. "You can't honestly tell me you've never taken advantage of this, what with the stockpile your mama's amassed since both of y'all moved back here."

Her jaw clenched, then released as she looked over at him.

"No, I haven't."

With a small shrug, Roxas shoved the baggy back into his pocket. He pushed himself up on flat palms, then shifted onto his knees, cutting the distance between them in a matter of seconds. Extending one hand, he tucked a strand of wayward hair behind Xion's ear.

Leaning closer, fingers caressing her silky hair, Roxas brushed his lips against her cheek. Like a gentle wisp of wind, he moved up her jaw, stopping to linger just briefly near the shell of one ear.

"Liar."

The word was a teasing whisper, followed by a sense of personal gratification that lasted only as long as it took Xion to push him away. The action was surprisingly forceful, and Roxas had to brace himself against his own backward momentum as his spine connected with the mattress, elbows bending to keep himself partially upright.

The glare Xion shot his way was practically glacial.

"Boy, if that was meant to be funny, this isn't me laughing."

Roxas shrugged, as much as he was able in his current position.

"Then please to excuse. I just find it highly improbable, is all."

"You and I are very different."

The assertion was matter of fact, Xion's expression not so much troubled as haunted.

"Different, but complementary."

His own voice sounded distant, the result of the pill doing its intended work.

Xion blinked at his words and homed in on Roxas. She didn't speak, didn't so much as move an inch, actually.

"You acquire, and I avail myself," Roxas supplemented, offering a lazy smile as a sense of blessed calm settled over him. "That's what a relationship is, right? Symbiotic."

His faculties were quickly becoming stunted, sluggish. This was typical. Anticipated, even.

What wasn't was Xion's rapid-fire reaction, or the sudden weight on top of him, pushing him flat onto his back and into the duvet cover.

"Xi, what the—?"

She cut him off with a rough kiss, fingernails raking over the glossy fabric on one forearm.

At first, he kissed her back, the action more automatic than infused with any formal intention. At the back of his mind, logic still lingered, along with the thought that if he just let this play out Xion's rough conduct might yield to something more gentle.

It didn't.

If anything, his acceptance seemed to further incite her. Not satisfied with a kiss that was merely mouth against mouth, Xion's tongue sought entrance between his lips, de facto demanded it. While one hand moved above him, pinning his wrist against the pillow with enough force to induce pinpricks of failing circulation, the other moved lower, from his arm down his stomach until it settled over his lap, first kneading, then outright squeezing.

Panting for breath as sparks of heat jolted down his spine, Roxas struggled to break away.

"Hey, what the fuck?"

He felt another squeeze, this time gentler, her rhythm increasing, encouraging a physical reaction that was wholly unwanted. Once again, Roxas tried to shift out of her grip.

But Xion had him straddled, knees on either side of his thighs, effectively rendering his lower body immobile, the rest of her weight bearing down on his pinned arm, leaving Roxas incapable of any sort of movement under the cruel grip of her hand. Between his splinted finger and the odd angle left available to him, his other hand was just as useless, despite its relative freedom.

"Oh, c'mon. I thought you liked using others to feel better about yourself."

The words were soft, a mockery of his own. She released him a beat later, then pressed her lap against his. To Roxas' everlasting shame, the friction it caused offered hard proof of his body's own mutinous arousal.

"Just …stop, will you?"

The protest felt weak in the face of his physical response, a verbal no when his body was clearly declaring the opposite.

Their gazes met, Roxas' eyes wide and more lucid than only minutes earlier.

The look Xion returned was far more inscrutable.

"Why?" She quirked her head. "He didn't."

The sensuality had left her tone; what remained sounded hopeless. And weary. Although Roxas opened his mouth, no words issued forth, not a sound to counter the simple truth of her statement.

Nevertheless, she did release him, first his arm, numb and useless above him. His legs came next, Xion's hold loosening as she slid onto the bed next to him, cross-legged, arms wrapped tightly around herself.

"'Did you tell him to stop? How come you're still in contact? He's paid child support religiously since the divorce, even more than what's legally required. Does this seem like the actions of an uncaring father?'"

Roxas stared at her as she dropped her chin to her sternum, dark hair tumbling across her face and obscuring her features.

"These are the things they'll ask, that I'll have to describe in-depth, first with the State's attorneys who will be nice, I expect."

She paused, long enough for him to cut in, to say something if he'd had a mind to. Thoughts still sluggish, mind still a bit stunned by Xion's recent actions, Roxas stayed silent, though he had the abrupt sense that someone else was watching them—gauging his every move and word from this moment on forward.

Xion eventually spoke again, this time in a way that was almost ruminative.

"It's the defense that will question everything. They're the ones who'll make me look like an outright liar in front of everyone if this goes to trial."

"So make sure it's airtight." Relieved he'd finally found his voice, the words came out in a jumbled rush. "Make sure to go over every possible way they could think to discredit you. Memorize each answer. Look them straight in the eye, all defiant-like. Don't waver."

He pushed himself up, then crossed his legs under him, copying her earlier action. Reaching forward, Roxas set his hand on top of Xion's, ignoring the discomfort that came with an appendage that hadn't yet regained full circulation.

She looked up at his touch, fixed her eyes on him; they held despair that Roxas immediately recognized, despite its drastically different origin.

"He's a state legislator. This will be all over the news." The words sounded strangled, the tendons in Xion's neck prominent as she swallowed. "The others are young, still children. They can't get him on me, just need my testimony. Mama's already warned me not to make trouble, plus who knows how many relatives will be mad at me, having their business aired so publicly? This is the Hour of Lead."

Before he could respond, she dropped her head into her hands, shoulders trembling, hair swaying around her face. Before he could utter even one word of comfort, Xion leaned into him with a frame so thin, so diminutive, that Roxas found it hard to reconcile how easily she had pinned him down just minutes ago.

Regardless, he held her, arms encircling Xion's shoulders, chin lifting enough to allow her to tuck her head beneath it. They rocked together, Roxas unsteady from the induced surreality of prescription painkillers, Xion from something far more psychological and long-standing.

Above them, a handcrafted mobile jangled, its crystalline baubles tinkling. A blond girl's spirit hovered over them, silent and observing everything.

Ghosts followed them both; of that Roxas was positive. More and more, they all seemed primed to push the limits between buried past and unearthed present to become their collective undoing.

Another thing Roxas knew with near certainty: It was only a matter of time before they could no longer hide, before their long-held silence was no longer able to protect either one of them.

Chapter Text


"Oh, I’ve never been so far from home
Taking my chances and we both know
Just give it a chance now
You’ll never know
I’m no native.”
"Natïve” - Lisbon


Now would've been a good time to get a handle on himself. After a mad dash to the car, sneakers splashing through muddy rain puddles, hoodie pulled over his head, all of which were pretty ineffectual, Riku found himself realizing something else: learning how to turn on the car's windshield wipers might also be helpful.

He'd woken hours earlier to a sound he was all too familiar with, but the dregs of a fitful night's rest had kept him from initially identifying it. It'd taken a few seconds of concerted blinks and eye rubbing, plus a joint-cracking, full-body stretch that was soon followed by a trip to his bedroom window, before he was fully aware that it was raining.

'Spring showers' was a phrase he knew from books, but one that he had little first-hand knowledge of. Winter was San Francisco's wet season; by Spring, the city was a compromise of fog and California's definition of cold, which wasn't very.

He'd headed for his closet in search of a viable outfit, found himself stuck between clothes he thought looked good on him and those that were more weather-appropriate. With a chiding reminder that Sora probably wouldn't comment on anything he chose unless it was something that screamed clueless-West Coast, Riku dug out a t-shirt, his hooded Stanford zip-up, and a pair of dark jeans. He still hadn't had time to buy shorts, inclement weather notwithstanding.

Then it was all about surviving breakfast with his parents, a few polite but vague answers to inquiries about his plans for the day, and Riku was out the door and making a run for the car a solid half an hour before he actually needed to be anywhere.

His chances of being late rounded out around nil, even if he took a few wrong turns. Getting lost in a town like Radiant Hollow would've taken considerable skill on his part.

Now Riku had to contend with the inarguable fact that his eagerness to leave had gotten him to Sora's a solid twenty minutes early.

A logical person would have texted to see if Sora was cool with being picked up sooner than planned. A logical person might have called their parents to see if they wanted him to run a quick errand while he had still had time to kill.

But logic had quickly morphed into a stage performance of epic proportions, its opening act set in a first year foreign language class. If Riku was playing the role of ignorant student, Sora most certainly starred as a newly learned verb, one that didn't even remotely follow the standard rules of conjugation. For Riku, Sora was still hard to parse.

As the Strife's house came into view, Riku thrummed his fingers against the leather steering wheel, then made a wide-arced U-turn. In better weather, he might have parked one street up and explored the neighborhood on foot. With the rain forming a torrential wall in front of him, trolling down street after street seemed his only alternative.

Not the most rational idea he'd ever come up with, but Riku had already admitted defeat to logic-based decision-making.

He turned at the end of the block, driving at a pace that allowed him to study each house that he passed. Most of them looked like Sora's, with the one notable, exception that they lacked a wheelchair ramp. Each was situated on a patch of unkempt land that still amounted to little sprawling luxuries compared to most side-by-side San Francisco properties. Belongings were on haphazard display in most front yards too, rusty bikes leaning up against sagging and crooked fence posts, ratty old couches peeking out from under porch awnings, even an above-ground swimming pool on a corner lot, with sagging plastic edges overflowing with scummy rain water that had trickled down from a rusty roof gutter.

And flags. While most porches bore them proudly, the recognizable design of stars and stripes was almost outnumbered by those emblazoned with the more ominous crisscross pattern of the Confederacy. More ambitious properties displayed both.

He killed seven minutes dedicated to this form of time-wasting, laid five more to rest before he realized he was no longer the only one performing this act of clandestine surveillance. Someone was watching him from a picture window of the house he was currently idling in front of: a man, arms crossed over his chest, eyes fixed on Riku, expression set and deeply suspicious.

It prickled the back of his neck, the knowledge that someone was studying him the same way he'd been looking out from behind his own rain-speckled windshield. It also made him feel like he was doing something illicit. Riku pressed his foot to the gas and was quick to move on, only slowing back to a more leisurely speed when he had turned fully onto the next street.

Yet the longer he remained on these neighborhood roads, the more he noticed others materializing, through rain-misted windows and framed by front porch screen doors. All eyed him with expressions on a spectrum ranging from curious to unconcealed suspicion.

Tables turned, he guessed. Unsettling, most definitely.

It wasn't until a woman actually exited her house, the long muzzle of a rifle held between loose but deft fingers, that Riku beat a hasty retreat and angled the car back in the direction of the Strife's colonial.

He parked along the cracked curb, cut the ignition, and sprinted for cover beneath the porch. By the time he was fully sheltered from the downpour, his hair was dripping. Riku took a moment to shake his head, resorting to wringing out handfuls at a time when that proved ineffective.

Throughout this process, a pair of eyes watched, wholly unbeknownst to him until they announced their presence via the inharmonious protest of a rusty screen door.

In a matter of seconds, two sets of eyes met, and Riku found himself squinting at the silhouette of a woman still more than half hidden behind screen door lattice.

For one long moment, she studied him, eyes moving over his clothing in a way Riku was familiar with by now. From there, they shifted over his shoulder, to the Mercedes parked as close to the crumbling curb as he'd been able to manage, which wasn't very.

"If you're out in this mess tryin' to sell something, I'm afraid we aren't in a position to be buying."

The comment was offered matter-of-factly, without so much as an ounce of malice. Nevertheless, her heavy accent threw him off. It took a few seconds to silently repeat the words, look from his clothes to the car, and come to the conclusion she'd quickly arrived at based on all that he'd given her to visually interpret.

"I'm actually here to see Sora." He took a step forward, then stopped as the door's already slim opening began to narrow. "To, um, pick him up."

Still no response. Much to Riku's relief, the door stayed open a sliver as the woman continued to consider him.

"To go to study at the library," he tried again, this time speaking slower in case she was having similar trouble understanding his own diction. "We're classmates."

The door opened wider, revealing tired blue eyes and dishwater blonde hair. Once again, her gaze flickered over his shoulder.

"You're takin' him in that piece of work?"

She inclined her head toward the Mercedes.

"Um," Riku said again. "Yes?"

She said nothing else, just continued to study him and the car as the rain pounded a steady beat against the porch's aluminum roof.

"It belongs to my parents." Sensing disapproval—or at least healthy skepticism—a sudden wave of nerves broke, then coursed through him. "I have permission to use it."

She blinked, then glanced back to him. Riku might have imagined it, but for a split second her lips seemed to twitch upward as though in amusement.

"Come on in, then." She opened the door wider and stepped back, waiting for Riku to follow her. The moment he took a step forward, she turned and ambled further into the house, craning her neck over one shoulder. "No point in staying out in the rain looking like a half-drowned rat. It'll give folks the wrong impression."

Yeah. Wouldn't want that…

The room he entered was dimly lit, although that was partially thanks to the overcast sky outside. The single, drab standing lamp also played a supporting role; located in a corner on one side of the fireplace mantle, it wasn't even close to bright enough to light the whole room. A musty smell also permeated the space; it brought back childhood memories of trips to Kyoto to see his great grandmother, of unwanted, old woman kisses, and dated, plastic-lined furniture.

He sensed eyes on him once more, kept his expression impassive as he met the gaze of Sora's mother. She hadn't introduced herself as such, something that felt rude-bordering-on-sacrilegious to someone who had grown up in a hierarchical extended household, but Riku could fill in the blanks on his own and he tried not to let it bother him.

When in Rome, right? Or Radiant Hollow, in this case.

She came to a stop at the foot of an L-shaped staircase, cleared her throat, and effectively broke the promise of another uncomfortable silence before it could settle.

"Make yourself comfortable." She flicked a wrist at the crescent of living room chairs. "I'll go see what that boy's up to, let him know he's got a visitor."

Maybe he should've listened and taken a seat on one of the eighty's greatest reclining hits, but Riku found his attention directed back to the mantle. A few steps forward and he was in front of it and a row of photos, situated just under eye-level. Though dim everywhere else in the room, the lamp shone on the framed images like a spotlight.

His heart skipped a beat as he spotted one of Sora, nerves supplemented by the sound of muffled voices and shuffling on the floor above him. Riku held his breath, eyes shifting to the stairs. When no one seemed primed to make an immediate appearance, Riku redirected his attention to its prior point of focus.

He recognized one of the photos from Facebook, with four boys in front of their home. He took a moment to consider the pair who weren't as familiar, before moving on to the photos next to it. Most depicted some variation of the boys in the first frame, the most unexpected being an action shot of Roxas sporting a varsity track uniform. Only the right-most photo showed new people—or at least a two-thirds majority of unfamiliar faces. One of the three looked like Roxas, but the photo itself had a yellow tint around its edges and seemed older than the others.

Maybe not Roxas, then.

Riku took a small step forward, eyes still aimed at the image with a certain amount of tunnel vision. This was probably why he didn't hear the floorboards creak above him anymore than he noticed that Sora's mom had reappeared a couple steps down from the top of the stairs.

"He'll be down in a minute. Says you got here early."

Riku started, upper body jerking a little. Heat crept up his neck and the room's dim lighting suddenly felt more like a safeguard than it did a hindrance.

She took one step at a time, not bothering to use the railing for balance even though the stairs seemed like the precise definition of a domestic safety hazard. Unsure if she was waiting for him to say something, Riku decided to keep quiet and try not to do anything more to embarrass himself. He shifted his weight between feet, then stole another look back at the photo he'd been studying as she passed between the half-circle of furniture and a boxy television on her way over to him.

"They grow up real fast. God's truth."

Not waiting for a response, Riku watched out of the corner of one eye as the woman rotated the photo frame next to the one he'd been looking at so it more closely aligned with the others. Her fingers took with them a layer of dust, and Riku noted the frame's true color, a fake yellow-gold that had so recently looked much more like middling copper.

She sighed, eyes shifting to the right-most frame. There they lingered. When she next spoke, her tone sounded wistful.

"Some of 'em, anyway."

Before Riku could ask for clarification, she turned back to him and changed the subject.

"Remind me—what's your name? I'm sure I got told at some point, but it's escaping me."

He took care to pronounce both syllables, then waited for her expression to shift from curious to puzzled.

It didn't.

"Riku," she said, maintaining a look of mild interest. "Well, that's different."

Riku swallowed, suddenly uncomfortable. Between teachers and classmates, he'd been through this a full armload already. It was the first time he found himself in the position of having a conversation about his family's background in front of Sora's mother, however.

"Yeah." He nodded stiffly. "It's Asian."

Oh, he had not just said that.

And yet, there it was, a quick slip of the tongue. Hayner would be proud. Or maybe just vindicated that he'd managed to fall from his own, self-imposed throne in a matter of minutes in the midst of an awkward situation.

Before Riku could redeem himself, a familiar voice called out and did it for him.

"Japanese, actually."

Two heads turned in unison. Riku's eyes rose until he spotted Sora at the top of the stairs, shoulders hunched and head ducked so he could see under the ceiling overhang. He was grinning.

Sora's mom didn't respond directly, just made a low humming sound as she turned and headed in the opposite direction.

"Gonna go make some lunch" she called. "Y'all want anything? Drinks, maybe? Pretty sure we still got some coffee."

Riku shook his head in tandem with Sora's uttered 'no thanks'. He watched Sora make his way down the stairs weighed further by a heavy-looking backpack, and found himself fighting the same urge to offer a hand that he'd battled with yesterday. He couldn't help but feel a little useless as he stood still and waited, gaze moving away from Sora's face and to his crutches—which, Riku now realized, were different from the ones Sora had sported at school all last week. These looked more industrial than the other pair of rubber and wood. With grooved handles and curved arm supports, this set of crutches seemed indelible to Riku, indicative of something more permanent.

It wasn't until Sora cleared the last step and nearly halved the distance between them that Riku got the nerve to fully look up and realize something else was different. The over-sized shoes were familiar, at least, and the fronts of both feet peeked out beneath Sora's trademark baggy jeans. It was his shirt that stood out. Compared to Sora's usual choice of loud primary colors, the charcoal gray v-neck he was wearing today was understated.

It was also more form-fitting than anything he usually wore to school. The fabric tapered at his hips, offering a hint of more natural lines that were unnoticeable in the shirts Sora was typically swimming in. Rather than rounded, the neckline formed a modest V, and the collar bones beneath each shoulder showed more prominently with each hobbled movement. Riku was in for another surprise when he finally hazarded a glance further upward, because Sora's hair was also neatly styled instead of its usual unruly and tousled.

Just. Wow.

Sora stopped in front of him, then looked up. The smile he offered was small, but genuine.

"Hi."

"Hi," Riku returned, feeling all the more self-conscious at his own rain-soaked appearance.

But Sora. Sora was a sight. And maybe pointing that out would keep his attention directed elsewhere.

"You look…"

How did he say this without sounding lame?

"…different."

Good. Nice. Cute. Even 'rested' would've worked. Different? Could totally be a veiled insult. Come to think, it probably had been from Sora's mother.

Dumb. Awkward. Embarrassing. His internal narrative pressed on, as though pleased with the fresh influx of self-deprecating vocabulary. At least someone was happy.

Just, where was a gaping sinkhole when he actually needed one?

Back in a marshland swamp full of clay that stained something awful and didn't 'wash outta nothing', his mind taunted. Probably.

Through all this, Riku saw Sora look down. He leaned over to one side, balancing on a single crutch as he moved to tug at the bottom of his shirt. Caught between his back and book bag, it had ridden up a little.

"It belongs to Roxas." Sora's voice was lower than usual. "Thought I'd try something new since it's the weekend and all."

It looks really good on you, Riku's mind offered up as a suitable reply.

"Oh, okay," was what his mouth ultimately supplied.

Awkward living room conversation: 1; Smooth, keeping-it-cool Riku: one big, fat 0.

Why this all felt so strained was beyond him. After all their budding friendship had been through, shouldn't this be a whole lot easier?

When Sora didn't rush to say anything, Riku turned back to the mantle and silently thought up a few unforgivingly choice words about himself.

"Hard to believe it's been three years already…"

Riku glanced at Sora, then followed his gaze back to the photo he'd first seen on Facebook.

"My brother graduated a few hours earlier. We'd just gotten home from the ceremony." Sora pointed to the boy seated next to him in the photo as his smile became rueful. "Ven was going through this weird emo phase. Dyed his hair black, got his hands on these creepy yellow contacts, and insisted on being called some made-up name he thought sounded cool. Glad that's over and done with. It was ten months of ridiculous but then he dropped it and was back to normal by college."

For a moment, Riku said nothing as he studied the photo. He looked at the boy Sora'd called Ven who he remembered had been tagged as 'Ventus Strife' online before his gaze drifted upward, first to Roxas, then to the older guy beside him.

"And that is…?"

He trailed off and pointed a finger at the only person in the photo he didn't yet know the name of.

"My older brother Cloud," Sora offered. "Mom had a thing for nature names, though by the time she got to me and Roxas she figured out how to be a little more understated."

"Yeah, I'd wondered about that, actually."

"Well then, you've just solved one mystery." Riku was rewarded with an amused smile beside him. "And, see? All you had to do is ask."

The refrigerator door opened out of sight one room over. Riku listened to the sound of rummaging as he shifted his attention over a few pictures.

"Is that Cloud, too?" He pointed at the older-looking photo he'd been eyeing earlier. "I thought it might be Roxas but I didn't recognize those other guys."

The fridge door closed. The sound of another appliance door opening soon followed.

"Sure is, when he was a junior." He'd probably seen the photo a million times over, but Sora hobbled a couple inches closer anyway. "And Leon and Zack. They were best friends all through high school, except Zack would've been a senior. He was a year older."

Mouth still slightly open, Sora's brow furrowed and he looked down again. Before Riku could ask what was up, Sora moved away from him.

"Ready to go?"

Without a word, Riku nodded.

"Better get a move on, then." Sora's expression relaxed as he headed for the door, his usual smile settling in again. "The library waits for no one."

o - o

You there?

Neku's IM status was gray, a silent answer to a stupid question, but Riku was getting desperate. He'd run out of work ten minutes earlier, was now without options, except for the obvious. That involved looking up and across the table, maybe even initiating a conversation with Sora.

The dropdown's done, he keyed in instead. And I did some tweaking w/ the login.

It should've been easy, because the study room Sora had led him to allowed them to talk in normal voices, without the threat of an overzealous librarian hanging over them. A quick look up was all it took for Riku to lose his nerve. Sora was still absorbed in a rising pile of textbooks.

So he'd worked on the web app, had fiddled around with code on his laptop, googled tips, and tried to watch online tutorials, no easy feat on the library's weak wifi signal. Once or twice, Sora had pushed back his chair and Riku would glance up, trying not to look too eager. Each time, he'd been greeted with a smile as Sora reached for his backpack and crutches on his way out of the room. He'd return within minutes, only to take a seat again as he rummaged through his bag for the books he'd brought back with him. He'd settle back down, flip through one book, then others, take the occasional note on a yellow pad of paper, leaving Riku to pick up where he'd left off and try another string of code that got him one step closer to a finished product.

This was a good example of why people snapped and lost all evidence of sanity in public, as far as Riku was concerned.

He gave Neku three generous minutes before pushing the files live, then refreshed his connection to see the changes.

Except, he'd been logged out of the admin account. That was weird.

Riku didn't look up this time as Sora headed off to the stacks for the fourth time in ninety minutes. He keyed in his credentials and clicked the enter button.

No dice. Just two lines of a red error text.

He couldn't be sure how much time passed before the familiar sound of crutches filtered back to him. During that time, regardless of length, Riku had come to two rather alarming conclusions:

One, he'd forgotten to save a file with just the dropdown code before messing with the login's security. There was no way that he could gauge to untangle the two features from one another. Sloppy coding at its finest, and all because he'd been distracted.

Two, Neku wouldn't be thrilled about not being able to log in or see any of the countless hours of work they'd put into this. It was probably a good thing he wasn't online at the moment.

"Everything alright?"

Riku looked up and saw Sora watching him from across the table.

"Yeah." He sucked in a breath, let it out in a rush, and tried to relax. "Why?"

At first, Sora said nothing, just tilted his head, brows approaching the bridge of his nose.

"You seemed a bit tense, is all," he finally offered.

That was an understatement.

Shaking his head, Riku looked down at the dual-paned mess of browser and coded text.

"I think I just screwed up on something my friend and I have been working pretty hard on for …awhile now. Yeah."

He heard the muffled sound of a closing book, the scrape of a chair, then crutches. Riku held his breath as Sora passed. This time, Sora didn't head back over to the study room door; he angled himself to Riku's side of the table, then paused in front of the empty chair to his right.

"You mind?"

Riku scooted over to give Sora enough space to slide into the adjacent chair. All that separated them now was his computer and a few minuscule inches that were bridged by the faint smell of something floral. Lavender, Riku guessed. And maybe a hint of camphor.

His tongue felt suddenly thick in his mouth; Sora's proximity was making it hard to swallow, even though he seemed not to notice the effect his presence was having. Sora sat, leaned his crutches against the closest wall, then studied the computer screen between them.

"You're making a website?"

Riku's gaze skittered between his laptop and Sora.

"Not …exactly."

Now Sora was looking directly at him, waiting for him to supplement. Riku forced himself to swallow with what felt like undue effort.

"It's a web app."

Sora continued to look at him with an interested expression, silent encouragement to continue.

"My friend and I wanted a way to keep track of concert dates in the Bay. The smaller, indie bands are hard to keep up with, so this app would let other people log in and add details about shows they hear about. Then there'd be the option for other users, or even the band itself, to confirm the details on individual entries. And …yeah." Riku forced himself to stop before he spent an hour rambling about the app's minutiae. "That's the basic idea."

Sora glanced at Riku, then back at the laptop.

"And that text?"

He pointed toward the editing panel on the laptop screen's left.

"Code," Riku offered in a subdued tone. He wasn't sure how Sora would take to being corrected.

"Right." Sora nodded, but kept his eyes on the screen. "So that code makes an app you can see on the Internet?"

"I mean, there needs to be some front-end design elements but my friend's dealing with that. So, yeah, pretty much. You've got it right." Riku swiped a hand through his hair. "But only if I'm not screwing it up so much it's practically useless. It's going to take awhile to fix because I didn't save each change separately. I usually keep better track of things."

"That sounds complicated." Sora offered a thoughtful look. "So, this is all a lead-up to a computer science major in college?"

"What? No. No way." From the surprised look on Sora's face, his response had been unnecessarily sharp. Riku made sure to tone himself down a little as he continued. "I'll be Pre-Med so I'll probably major in chemistry or biology or something."

"Oh."

Now Sora just looked puzzled, which threw him off a little. When Riku took a moment to think about it though, it made more sense. He'd always done well in his math and science classes, but Sora didn't know this any more than he was aware of the Kimura family's expectations for his future in medicine. Having found himself ahead in most Radiant High classes, he was also usually doodling diagrams related to his web app in study hall. Sora must have noticed this. The fact that Riku would rather be working on coding projects didn't mean much since he'd had both his career and the academic trajectory to it planned out by others since preschool, maybe even before. His mother was thorough.

Now he was definitely seeing the disparity between the assumptions Sora had made about his interests and the words he'd just spoken, but Riku wasn't ready to scrutinize further. He cleared his throat, swallowed down his lingering doubt, and forged on before Sora could ask him more probing questions he wasn't prepared to answer or really even think about yet.

"What about you? Are you planning to study…" He looked across the table to the mountain of books Sora had compiled, homing in on one with a wide spine and the easiest-to-read title. "…uh, French?"

A quick shrug, and Sora leaned forward to reach for the book, which Riku could now see was a dictionary. The action drew Sora's shirt sleeve further up his arm, revealing skin above his elbow—along with a line of flesh different from the rest of his arm's natural pigmentation.

Never bothered counting the scars…

"I finished the only foreign language Radiant High offers by 10th grade. It was Spanish." Riku heard Sora as though from a distance, eyes following the hardbound as Sora pulled it closer, mind revisiting the talk they'd had Thursday. "Kairi would've probably been amenable to helping me practice, but she's so busy with her own stuff I didn't want to ask her."

One thumb slipped under the dictionary cover, and Riku found himself fixated on the four cuticles of Sora's fingers that were still visible.

…they're a lot easier to keep track of, seeing as how they'll be with me forever.

"Our school doesn't have a whole lot of electives outside of sports, and no AP courses. If there's something else I want to learn, I'm usually on my own. But anyway," Sora straightened, eyes still on the dictionary, "I'm not sure what I want to do after college. Maybe teach? I know I'd like to travel. See things. I've only been out of Louisiana once."

"Seriously?"

The question was out before he'd had a chance to think about whether it might be rude, but Sora just nodded.

"I mean, we go to Traverse a lot for medical appointments, sometimes even bigger cities if I'm referred to a specialist. But those aren't exactly vacations, you know?"

As Riku nodded, a damning sampling of the Kimura family's most recent excursions surfaced. Multi-country European holidays, trips to Asia to visit family, and frequent drives out to his parents' second house on Lake Tahoe: these were standard trips. Routine to the point of mundanity. Riku tried to imagine a world even just limited to Northern California but found he couldn't. There was no point of reference; his experiences had been too different.

"We've gone to Mississippi," Sora's voice pierced his thoughts. "Cloud took us to the Gulf once when he got a weekend off work. The beaches there looked the same as here, but we had fun so that's gotta count for something."

Sora seemed like he was waiting for Riku to agree, or at least say something, but Riku worried that any direct response would be half-hearted. Worse, it might lead to questions about places he'd visited, just about the last thing he wanted at the moment.

"Most colleges have study abroad programs," he said instead.

"Oh, I know." But Sora looked down, and his shoulders rounded. "They just aren't cheap and I'm not sure it'd be such a great idea anyway. I'd have to be careful about my health stuff, for one, and any place I stayed would have to be handicap accessible. That might narrow my options a little."

It felt like a nonchalant comment, but its candidness struck Riku hard. A quick glance to his right, and the v-neck that had initially looked so nice and form-fitting now seemed to outline the frame of someone years younger, and impoverished.

The unfairness of it all starkly stood out. It wasn't just that he was healthy and Sora wasn't. Riku had also taken for granted growing up without having to worry about money. Extravagant vacations, prestigious and pricy high schools that'd helped get him accepted to an even more prestigious and even pricier university: this all added up to never having considered he was lucky compared to others. With friends and relatives all in a financial position similar to his, he'd never really had to.

Sora still wasn't looking at him, his eyes fixed on an indistinct part of the wall across from them. He didn't look outwardly upset, but Riku wasn't totally oblivious to the tension that made his jaw a little more prominent, or the slight furrowing of brows, made all the more visible by virtue of Sora's neatly combed hairstyle. Something was at least a little off.

Without thinking, Riku leaned forward and placed his hand on Sora's arm.

"I think you'd make a good teacher." He paused as Sora glanced up at him. "I mean, you've been doing a pretty decent job instructing me how not to make too much of a fool of myself since I got here, and that takes some skill."

He smiled to show he was joking, but Sora didn't return it. He just kept looking at Riku with that same, unreadable expression. Then, Sora inhaled. It was only a small movement, the slight expanding of a narrow chest that triggered a subtle chain reaction of movement from his shoulders, then downward. Riku felt it from their ongoing connection—one he was quick to realize was something he himself had started.

He pulled away in an almost spasmodic motion.

"Sorry."

It was Riku's turn to look down, the apology mumbled. He turned his attention to his laptop, pulled it closer, then studied a point on the right side of the spacebar made smooth by repeated thumbing. Anything would do, as long as it kept his mind off what'd just happened.

"It's okay. I …liked it."

Although Sora's voice was quiet, it sent an electric jolt down Riku's spine. If his tone was a small spark, the words' meaning was lightning.

He stole a glance to his right, one just long enough to see a small smile. Just as quickly, his eyes shot back to the laptop screen, cheeks mutinously flushing.

Exhilaration came next. It was followed by a queasy feeling.

No. That wasn't quite right. His stomach was turning and tumbling over itself, yes, distributing a rush of adrenaline out to the rest of his limbs, but it felt pleasant. Kind of. It was a tenuous sort of balance.

But, liked it. Sora'd said he liked it. Which meant maybe, quite possibly, Sora liked him? Or was he just being nice, a product of learned politeness, as mandated by the tenets of Southern social conduct?

With questions like this, Riku could see how this new, nervy feeling could quickly end up shifting from nice to outright nauseating.

"You hungry?"

Sora's voice pulled Riku away from his internal guesswork. Still not trusting himself, Riku shrugged and half-nodded.

Assuming I don't throw up on your feet over what you just said before we leave the building.

A browser tab blinked with a new instant message. More focused on Sora than his computer now, Riku moused over the tab, pulled it up, but didn't read it.

"I was gonna stop by the Coliseum and say hi to Kairi. She's working there all afternoon and might like some company."

The fluttering feeling slowed in Riku's chest, then took a sharp turn away from nice. This was not the way he wanted to leave things. Knowing himself all too well, Riku would just spend the next day and most of Monday over-analyzing everything about this exchange, until he turned up an emotional mess by study hall, one whose only foreseeable line of defense would be ignoring Sora in a single-minded attempt at misguided self-preservation.

There was a pause on Sora's end as Riku said nothing, didn't even look over at him. He just stared forward at his blinking screen, mouth dry, eyes unseeing.

"Would you wanna go with? To have a lunch—" Sora faltered and Riku silently filled in the final word before Sora amended. "To grab some food together?"

There it was again, that quiet, uncertain tone. It implied something Riku recognized, something he was feeling himself, if he was interpreting it properly.

Even then, he felt hesitant, worried he was reading too much into this entire conversation. Back home, this wouldn't have been all that simple either, but at least he'd have been more sure about where it was going. This place and its people were so different, their social conventions still more or less foreign.

He didn't want to spend Sunday freaking out, or end up distracted and worried all day Monday. Even if this really was nothing, he didn't have much to lose by accepting—not too much anyway, since Seifer had already done a number on his pride. And regardless of intent, Riku figured, he and Sora could still be friends.

"The Coliseum," Riku said. "That sounds cool. I'm in."

Sora's smile returned in force.

"You'll like it, promise! Just give me a sec."

As Sora pushed away from the table and collected his stuff, Riku's eyes were once again drawn back to his computer, Neku's string of messages in particular.

hey, wtf did you do to the login?

That hadn't taken long, Riku noted.

u there??

Right. Because it'd been a few minutes since the first message. The conversation with Sora had distracted him.

answer or you're dead to me. i'm serious. i'll kill u.

Neku's final message was followed by a small army of incensed emojis. For once, Riku was grateful for the two thousand miles of physical distance that separated them.

"Okay, all set."

The statement was followed by the zipping of a backpack. As Sora returned to his side, Riku snapped his laptop closed and slipped it into his own bag. A response to Neku would have to wait.

Sora was still smiling as he looked up at him. The rain was still pattering a harsh rhythm against the ceiling above them. And Riku was about to embark on a lunch date.

Maybe.

The circumstances weren't perfect, and he still had a lot of questions. Some definite hesitations. Nevertheless, Riku thought as he followed Sora toward the library exit, this was a start. Some might even call it progress.

o - o

The Coliseum was not a restaurant as Riku had assumed. It was an assortment of trailers encircling a common outdoor space in a lot at the outskirts of town not all that far from the marshes. To the untrained eye, it was nothing to write home about, unless you had a serious interest in pre-fab construction.

Some buildings were larger and better maintained than others, but there didn't seem to be much logic behind their placement within the ring of trailers. Riku let Sora direct him to what passed for a parking spot at the far end of a row of muddy vehicles, then eyed the canvass tarp strung up from each trailer and across the space's center—or what he could see of it through the downpour. The makeshift overhang was supported by poles, cords, and looped rope, and offered visitors a dry place to congregate. Between the blur of two windshield wipers, the settings of which he'd finally mastered, Riku could see that this was just what the few people present seemed to be doing.

He cracked the car door, preparing to make a run for it, but stopped as he realized Sora wouldn't be able to keep up. Through the torrent, he could hear music, twangy and resonating from the edge of the clearing. If he squinted, Riku could just make out a woman along with the guitar she was strumming. She was perched on the edge of raised platform, bounded by others who seemed to be setting up stereo equipment.

"Ready?"

Riku heard a clack of two crutches connecting as Sora reached behind his seat.

"I think so. Want me to grab your bag?"

"Nah, leave it. No one'll mess with our stuff in this weather." The passenger side door opened. Out of the corner of his eye, Riku saw a flash of gunmetal gray as Sora placed the crutches outside of the car on either side of his feet. "Or ever, come to think. Theft's not really an issue here."

That was a far cry from life in San Francisco. Leave anything unattended in public and it was fair game for pick-pockets.

"If you pass me the keys, I can lock up."

Sora again, but Riku initially hesitated, still trying to decide if he should offer some form of help.

Sora was having none of it, also seemed to be semi-clairvoyant.

"Don't worry about waiting up. I'll take one for the team and you can just owe me."

He shot Riku a grin, hand outstretched. Before Riku could overthink the offer, he cut the ignition and dropped the keys into Sora's open palm. Then he was off, running toward the nearest edge of the clearing.

After hours of heavy rain, the ground sank under his feet. It mucked up his shoes and yet another pair of brand label jeans. Given his present company, Riku couldn't say he minded. In fact, he hardly noticed at first, too focused on what that wide grin and the lightest brushing of hands that had just transferred car keys was doing to him.

He slipped under the overhang, then waited, using a cinderblock from the nearest trailer's foundation to scrap off the clay that had collected in the grooves of his shoes. He heard the blip of his key fob. It was followed by the slosh of crutches slopping through puddles and mud on their way toward him.

Sora showed surprising adeptness, despite the terrain. Riku watched him use his crutches to angle his way around deeper puddles and mud clusters where the grass had been flattened or stripped full away by the elements. Before he knew it, Sora was pulling up next to him, his shoes and pants notably less mud-coated than Riku's.

The same couldn't be said for the rest of him. From head to toe, Sora looked just as soaked as Riku felt. Sora's shirt was plastered to him, and hair that had been so carefully styled just a few hours earlier was now matted to his forehead. Riku resisted the urge to reach out and brush a few disheveled strands away from Sora's eyes, but just barely.

For a moment, they looked at one another, their labored breathing the only sound heard between them before Sora chose to break the silence.

"Welcome to the Coliseum." Holding a crutch close to his side under one arm, he swept his free hand in a modest arc. "Does it look as cool as you thought it sounded?"

Riku let his eyes drift around the clearing before answering. Apart from the musician on the opposite end, he saw only a few other people outside at the moment, and no one he recognized.

"You said Kairi works in one of these, uh, buildings?"

"You mean trailers." Sora nudged him lightly with one elbow. "No point in talking circles around what's obvious."

Riku said nothing, but Sora needed no encouragement to continue as he pointed toward one trailer in particular.

"And yeah, she serves at Tifa's place. It's the one over there with the tri-color awning."

Sora pointed to the left and Riku followed the movement with his eyes to a natural endpoint. Once, the awning might have been three distinct colors. The South's rain and heat and other unpleasant elements had faded it. Riku could only just make out a flowery font over faint shades of blue, maybe purple, next to a stripe that was definitely a dull red, and another that was lighter, which he suspected might've once been white.

"Kettle and …Cook?"

"Cooks," Sora offered as he maneuvered himself in front of Riku. "Let's grab a seat before it starts getting busy."

Riku let Sora lead the way past a couple of smaller trailers (one an airstream barber shop, the other older and dented up that sold assorted tobacco products) to the double-wide under the faded sign that hinted at old-time patriotism. What Riku had first observed as one large waterproof canvass was actually many smaller tarps slung up above them. It required a bit of fancy, zigzag footwork to avoid the gaps where rain could still reach them as it fell overhead.

There was seating outside that seemed relatively dry, but Sora moved past it, hobbling up the narrow concrete steps to the trailer's entrance. The door was kept open by a triangle rubber wedge, with just a ratty screen separating outside from in.

Riku followed Sora inside and was struck by a blend of muggy heat, the smell of food frying, and sounds of cooking in progress. Silverware clinked against ceramic bowls and plates, and an overhead fan hummed, blades an obscured blur as it circulated hot air around them. All were superseded by the high-pitched, whining hiss of aromatic liquid meeting what looked like stainless steel industrial metal basins set up in a row along a chipped formica counter.

Riku blinked, unsure of what he was seeing as he let Sora guide him further into the space. Even as a double-wide, the seating area felt cramped, with tables and chairs located a little too close to one another for comfort. The restaurant was almost empty, with just a pair of diners seated off in one corner, two adults, one man and a woman, the latter of whom smiled and waved as they passed. Sora slowed just long enough to return both gestures and offer a short introduction that put Riku on notice that this was the Tifa he'd previously referenced. Her companion just eyed them, then offered a minute nod. His face was marred by half of a criss-cross scar, a single, uneven diagonal from mouth to brow. Riku looked away soon after he greeted them. The last thing he wanted was to be accused of gawking.

Besides, there was no lack of other things to stare at. There was the obvious mystery of the countertop basins, the less unusual setup of stools at a counter that doubled as a bar for eating and food prep. The interior itself was sparsely decorated; a handful of tables had vases with fake flowers, and a few beat-up street signs were affixed to walls in what seemed like random locations throughout the diner. Behind the counter hung a few framed photos. Most seemed to depict various events hosted on the premises. Iridescent flecks of cooking oil speckled the glass frames, which hung under an oversized chalkboard that displayed a menu in embellished cursive.

Sora made a beeline for the counter and Riku followed, eyes still drawn back to the basins, which he could now see were bolted to the far side of the counter. Odder still, a few of them were emitting plumes of steam, which were then quickly picked up by the ceiling fan. That, at least, solved the mystery of the unyielding heat.

Sora chose a stool at one end of the counter, stashed his crutches underneath, and beckoned Riku over.

The temperature rose as Riku got closer. Once more, he glanced over to the basins but said nothing as he took the seat beside Sora.

"Sorry about the heat." Sora's legs swung under him as he spoke. Through the foggy veil of steam in front of them, Riku saw movement. Through it, a woman materialized on the heels of Sora's next comment. "The food's worth it, though."

He expected it to be Kairi, but the height was wrong, among other things. Her hair was also too short, also dark like Xion's. A closer look as she approached revealed features less like the landlord's daughter, however, and more like his mother's.

She stopped in front of them, then leaned forward into the gap between two of the metal basins, forearms crossed on the counter.

"Hi, Squirt."

Her smile was subtle as she directed her attention to Sora. She looked around their age, but Riku was positive he'd never seen her at school, which meant she was probably in college (or maybe just working, he thought, since going to college down here wasn't necessarily a given). Because another person of Asian descent in a town like this? Riku was sure he would've remembered her, even if they'd never been introduced.

As though sensing his thoughts, her eyes shifted to him. Her follow-up comment was still directed at Sora, however.

"Guessin' this is the guy you mentioned."

In a single sentence, her locale was established; she sounded as Southern as Sora. Mentally, it threw Riku a little. The people his dad was representing down here were mostly Vietnamese immigrants who spoke at best in broken English. This had significantly colored Riku's assumptions. He hadn't expected her to speak with such fluency.

Moreover, Riku had assumed the texts Sora had been sending on their drive over had been intended for Kairi.

Through this all, Sora had been nodding, smile widening as his attention moved from the girl at the counter to Riku seated on the stool beside him.

"Riku, this is Yuffie. She went to Radiant High too, but graduated a couple years ago."

"And now I get guff for living in Traverse, despite that I'm here literally every day of the week."

Yuffie shot a pointed look at Sora, who shook his head a few times, sending water droplets still clinging to his hair onto the counter.

"Hey, not from me!"

Yuffie rolled her eyes.

"Well then, Squirt, you're in the minority."

Up until this point, Riku had listened to the exchange without comment, unsure how to join in, especially since he was still focused on something that wasn't the topic of their current discussion.

"Does your family still live here?"

It was an innocent enough question, if a bit out of left field. As Yuffie looked over, Riku tried not to squirm on his stool now that her eyes were fixed on him.

"My folks're still here, sure." She quirked her head just enough for Riku to catch a glimpse of the green band interwoven between dark, food service fishnet. "Dad's at the textile mill, same as the last two decades, and Mom works over at the high school, teaching ninth grade English. You've probably seen her."

Yeah, no. He'd definitely have remembered seeing someone who looked like Yuffie at school, even in passing.

"Actually, I don't—"

"He sure has," Sora chimed in, much to Riku's growing bewilderment. Sora's brows rose while he spoke, and his voice was more of a notable drawl here than at the library. "Her room is next to my third period class. She was the one looking at us all disapproving-like after the bell rang. How's that for refreshing your memory?"

Now Riku did remember. Kind of. He hadn't really been focused on the teacher at the time, but he was able to summon enough of a hazy image to recall that she'd been blonde. No less confused, Riku said nothing, simply noting that Kairi had appeared behind Yuffie, under the frame of a door that led into the back kitchen. She seemed to be silently taking in the conversation, the hint of a subtle smirk indicating her own personal amusement.

Great. Just perfect. And he still wasn't on the same page as everyone else, apparently.

A quiet chuckle, then Yuffie straightened.

"You wanna clue him in, or should I?"

Sora's hand shot up like he was in class. With a grin, he twisted on his stool until he was more fully facing Riku.

"Yuffie's adopted."

Oh. And wow. How the hell had he missed that one?

He actually knew. Before Radiant Hollow, Riku's world had been relatively simple. In it, most people were immigrants or their second generation children. The possibility that someone like Yuffie could've been adopted by a white family hadn't crossed his mind. Embarrassed, Riku looked down at his lap.

Yuffie, on the other hand, didn't seem fussed about it.

"Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I don't speak a lick o' Korean."

Riku saw Yuffie grin out of the corner of one eye as Kairi moved away from the back and headed closer to them. She pulled up alongside Yuffie, then ducked behind the counter, only to reappear a moment later, hands behind her back as she secured the laces of a crisp white apron.

"You're in luck then, 'cause neither does he." Kairi glanced between them until her wry gaze settled on Riku. "Unless you've got another surprise hidin' up one of those tight sleeves."

"I don't."

The words tumbled out a beat before Riku caught on that Kairi was joking. And just like that, it was official: this day could not get any more awkward.

Unsure how to respond, Riku stayed quiet. It was Sora who came to his rescue.

"He does speak Chinese. Four years of Mandarin, right?"

Plus two years of Cantonese private tutoring since that's what pretty much everyone spoke on his part of the West Coast, along with a lifetime of listening to his relatives speak their own form of Japanese shorthand. He could even get by with Vietnamese in a pinch since some of his dad's family had made a pit stop in Hanoi for a few years before immigrating to the US. Then there was a year of French and two of Latin in middle school.

This time, Riku opted out of inserting his foot into his mouth; he just nodded and answered with a mumbled 'something like that' as he continued to look down. In the distance, he heard a string instrument, the rising chords of a guitar. Its sound was enhanced by the opening of the diner door.

"The evening rush: it starts. Better get your orders in."

At Yuffie's words, Riku turned and looked over one shoulder at the trio of people who'd just entered. If this qualified as busy, he wondered what Yuffie would think of the standard, hour-long queues to get into just about any restaurant during peak hours back home. He turned toward his own group just in time to see Sora and Kairi nodding in unison.

"Just white rice and veggies for me." Sora paused, then looked at Riku. "Are you okay with spicy things?"

"Sure."

"Oh, good. Then Yuffie's got us covered."

With an exaggerated salute, Yuffie was off to retrieve prep gloves, leaving Riku to glance between Sora and Kairi and wonder if he should point out that nothing on the overhead menu seemed to be meatless. There were plenty of dishes with shrimp, a few with pork and chicken. In San Francisco, there were at least a couple vegan entrees at every restaurant. Here he saw nothing that even qualified as vegetarian.

His thoughts must have been obvious, because Kairi was also eyeing him with a look that bordered on smug. It was a relief when she skipped off to the cash register on the far side of the counter to do her actual job.

It still didn't solve Riku's current conundrum. As Kairi took down a few orders from the newcomers, Riku looked up at the menu again, studying both the names of the dishes and the descriptions for those that weren't as intuitive. Beside him, Sora thrummed his fingers against the counter, unaware of Riku's growing discomfort.

Because, yeah, nothing was vegetarian. Even the sauces seemed like they were made up of meat stock.

Kairi flew by them, passing Yuffie as she headed back into the kitchen. Riku's attention shifted to Yuffie and a container of reddish orange liquid she was carrying over to them. A bowl of white rice was cradled in her other arm. She placed both on the counter, then reached for a cloth towel. Wrapping it around one hand, Yuffie moved in front of them, between two of the nearest metal basins. She grabbed one of the basin handles with her toweled hand and lifted up the top half. It opened like a grotesque jaw, releasing a thick cloud of steam like the mouth of a yawning dragon. Yuffie copied the process with the second basin until she was almost totally obscured by an opaque wall of mist, then fanned her arms until she was visible again, seemingly impervious to the oppressive heat.

Riku wasn't as unaffected. As the heat got more intense, he lifted a hand to wipe away a bead of sweat that had formed on his forehead. The weight of Sora's gaze was something he felt acutely. Hopefully, Sora would think he was just tucking some hair behind his ear and not all-out sweating. With nothing to say, Riku kept looking forward at Yuffie, watching with sincere interest as she split the liquid between the two basins.

"This sauce is a special recipe," she said without looking up, "something I made up today."

The rice went in next. Yuffie grabbed a large spoon from behind the counter and gave both mixtures a light stir before turning her back on them. She disappeared into the kitchen and returned with an assortment of vegetables, which she laid out on the wooden part of the back counter. Riku watched as she sliced some carrots, then set them aside as she went to work dicing up a medley of onions, tomatoes, and celery.

"So," he finally ventured, "you said this recipe isn't on the menu?"

"No, it sure isn't." Yuffie spoke as she transferred the diced vegetables from the counter to the flat end of her knife. "Squirt here texted earlier and made a request. Said you weren't carnivorous, or something to that effect."

She lifted the knife at an angle and the veggies tumbled off into the sauce, which was beginning to bubble. Yuffie turned back to the cutting board and repeated the process.

"Can't say I'm all that shocked, truth be told. Seems almost normal coming from people in your neck of the forest."

Riku tensed, prepared to defend himself—or at least explain that his diet was less a fad than it was a long-held family tradition. Before he could cobble together an appropriate response, he felt a fluttering of fingers across one knee, followed by a light squeeze. A glance in Sora's direction confirmed its origin.

Suddenly, Riku was grateful for the steam-generated heat; at least it offered him a decent excuse for the color making its way up into his neck and cheeks.

He saw Sora's lips move, then part. Riku swallowed and tried to look elsewhere. But the image remained mentally imprinted, and there was a delay between what Sora was saying and his mind's ability to render the words into something coherent.

"I texted Yuffie on the drive over to let her know," Sora said. "You didn't think I'd forget going through a full box and a half of graham crackers so soon, would you?"

Sora's hand was still on his knee, just resting there. Innocent. Routine. Like it was nothing out of the ordinary to be touching in public. Unsure of where to put his own hands, Riku reached up to fiddle with a few strands of his hair while desperately trying to think of some way to respond that wouldn't sound dumb. Failing that, he tried to shrug the whole thing off.

"I wasn't sure. It doesn't seem like many people are vegetarians around here."

"Oh, they aren't." This time, the hand offered a gentle pat that felt like encouragement. "That's why it's easy to remember."

It moved away far too soon and returned to the counter as Sora leaned forward toward Yuffie.

"I'll pass on the carrots."

She scoffed.

"Don't insult me. You think I don't already know your preferences like the back of my gloved hand?"

Dark eyes shifted and fixed on Riku.

"And you. Got any weird aversions to food I should know about?"

"Hey! It's not weird liking carrots raw instead of cooked. They taste totally different." Sora shot Yuffie a bothered look, eyes narrowing, but it was offset by a smile he didn't quite manage to hide in time. He turned to Riku. "Back me up here. That's normal."

"It's…" Riku paused for effect. "…a little weird, yeah. And I'm fine with whatever vegetables you have," he said to Yuffie.

Yuffie looked victorious as Sora blew air between pursed lips.

"It's not bad, though," Riku quickly tacked on. "Just a little different."

"Uh-huh." This time, Sora's eyes stayed with Riku, his expression reminiscent of Kairi's right after she said something he wasn't expecting. "Like being a vegetarian in the South?"

"I'm not from the South," Riku countered. "That really shouldn't count."

He met Sora's answering grin with a hesitant smile of his own, as Yuffie distributed the rest of the vegetables and added a handful of carrots to only one of the basins. The guitar music filtered in again as Kairi shuffled behind the counter and went to work preparing three other orders. Conversation mingled with occasional laughter behind them, and Riku found himself getting more comfortable, even in the moments of silence that sometimes still settled between him and Sora.

His only regret was not acting on Sora's hand when he'd had the chance—plus not being brave enough to initiate more physical contact of any sort on his end. These disappointments were more than enough to occupy his thoughts while Sora chatted with Kairi and Yuffie whenever they were close enough. But Riku also knew there'd plenty of time to replay each moment of this day when he got home. Fixating on it now felt like a gross misuse of Sora's invitation to eat together.

But what was there to say, honestly? It was true that this felt more like a date than the library, but it didn't mean he was any more prepared to maintain a steady flow of conversation. With a subtle scan of the space, Riku cast a net, just hoping it might land on something he could drag back and turn into a topic. It was his ongoing curiosity about one particular object that led him to finally say something.

"Hey, is there an official name for those things?"

Sora looked over, and Riku pointed him toward the nearest basin.

"Yep. They're steam kettles," Sora said. "Now that you know that, I'm betting the diner name makes a load more sense."

Sure, maybe if he hadn't already forgotten it. Riku glanced back up the overhead menu to refresh his memory as his expression shifted from mild confusion to one more revelatory.

"Call it in. Looks like we've got a genius of real-time deduction in our midst," Kairi hollered over her shoulder as she tipped a bowl of shrimp into one of the kettles she was working in front of.

For the first time, Riku wasn't bothered by the comment, was able to chalk it up to finally getting used to the way she responded to things. Another form of progress.

"Tifa just bought these two new ones," Sora said, pointing to the bubbling sauce Yuffie was stirring in front of them, "so the place only had four before. The wait starts adding up fast when you can't cook more at a time than that. That's why it's best to come early."

Yuffie nodded as she ladled out their portions into two lacquered white bowls.

"Bon apeti, boys." She slid both bowls across the counter, along with some silverware. "Lemme know what you think of the recipe. It's still a bit of a work-in-progress."

They reached for their spoons in unison, the sides of their hands lightly brushing before Sora readjusted. He sat up straight, twirling his spoon between a middle and index finger, before dipping it into his bowl.

"So, I'm still stumped on something that I was hoping you could help with."

As Kairi passed by with a tray balanced above one flat hand, Riku raised an eyebrow and Sora leaned closer.

"Kairi's birthday," he said, his voice a whisper, even though the subject of current discussion was a fair distance off and still serving tables. The diner also wasn't a bastion of quiet between people chatting and the clang of metal kitchen instruments. That said, pointing this out to Sora would have been outright stupid, considering the way his current proximity was making Riku's pulse race. This wasn't exactly a bad thing, as long as Riku could keep calm about it.

"When is it?"

It was possible they'd already been over this in one of the paragraphs-long text messages Sora had sent while he'd been out sick. If so, Sora didn't seem to to mind a quick recap.

"Next week Sunday. I'm really cutting it close." He swirled his spoon around in the brothy sauce, but didn't bring it up to his mouth. "She's got the weekend off so that gives us more options …if I could just think of something to do. But it's her eighteenth so it's gotta be good, you know?"

An idea was taking shape, a dim light flickering on at the mention of that particular time-frame. Just, logistics. How to make it work and get everyone on board. It was true that Riku didn't know much about Kairi's interests, only made guesses based on what he saw of her clashing fashion disasters and frequently changing bright nail polish. But this concept would appeal to everyone. Maybe. He just needed more time to think about it.

Riku tried to look pensive as he transferred a large helping of rice, diced veggies, and sauce the color of masala into his mouth.

A second passed, and another, as Riku chewed up his food and tried to mentally work through the idea's finer details. He swallowed without really giving any thought to what he'd just eaten.

That turned out to be a mistake, because three seconds in and his throat was burning. He coughed, which only ignited the spice further. Even his tongue felt like it was self-immolating.

"Want some water?"

Riku looked up at Yuffie, who seemed notably smug, but also saintly since she'd returned with large glasses of ice water for both of them. She slid them across the counter, then headed off to greet more customers. Riku gulped down half of his glass in a matter of seconds.

Beside him, Sora took a more dignified sip. He held the glass up to his lips even after he seemed to be finished.

"I did kind of warn you. Yuffie likes to make things spicy."

He took another small sip, seemingly more to hide his grin than because he actually needed it. Settling the glass back on the counter, Sora reached for his spoon again and stirred another slow pattern around the edge of his bowl.

"It just caught me off-guard," Riku said, trying not to sound defensive. "That's all."

Nevertheless, Sora merely shot him a knowing grin. Riku took another bite of his meal in an attempt to move on, this time taking care to drain the excess sauce before lifting the spoon up to his mouth. His attention circled back to Sora and his own bowl. There was a rhythmic quality to the way Sora was stirring. It was measured, even a little transfixing. This was probably why Riku had completed bite three and was onto his fourth before noticing that Sora had as yet eaten nothing. Even his water glass was still mostly full.

This sparked a memory, harkened back a few Fridays.

At first, Riku said nothing, just continued to alternate between eating food that was surprisingly not bad now that he was prepared for its peppery kick and drinking more water to help curb it. All the while, he kept his eyes on what Sora was doing, which was mostly chatting with others and sometimes smiling at Riku. Still absent was the part where Sora ate much of anything.

He did raise his spoon to his mouth once, consumed about half of what was on it before dipping it back into his bowl. To Riku, it felt like a show, put on for his exclusive benefit.

Just like the crutches, and the reason behind Sora's absence from school, Riku wasn't sure how to address what he was seeing now. Three weeks of almost obsessive observation made Sora seem like a private person. But over-analyzing every text message and in-person interaction until coming to his own, sometimes wildly off-base conclusions had only led to misunderstandings and a fight. Maybe asking outright really was a better approach, Riku reasoned. At least this time he wouldn't be doing it dressed in nothing but a damp Speedo.

"Not a big fan of the food?"

Sora looked up.

"Nah, it's fine. Yuffie's been working here so long she's practically a master chef by now. Everything she makes tastes good."

"Ah."

Riku tried not to deflate at what felt like a brush-off.

"It's, just, you've hardly touched it," he tried again, this time ensuring his words were more pointed. If Sora continued to be evasive, so be it. At least he'd know where he stood. That was something he could deal with. "And I noticed you also weren't eating much when we were at the party."

"Mm."

Sora ducked his head and reached for his water. He kept quiet, fingers playing over the glass exterior, leaving spiraling trails through the condensation that had formed on it. For a moment, Riku thought that might be the end of this subject, and Sora would either hop to a new one or, worse, continue to sit in silence, eyes downcast.

He heard a soft sigh. It was followed by an audible intake of air.

"My meds make me nauseous."

The words were quiet, prompting Riku to lean in to ensure he'd heard properly.

"Your meds?"

"Yeah."

Sora nodded, but still didn't look up.

"They help with pain—because nine times out of ten, something's sore or aching even if I'm not recovering from a dislocation or bone break." His eyes darted from their bowls up to Riku's nose but they didn't rise further to meet his eyes. "I like food. I do. I just sometimes have to choose between being pain-free and eating. Usually, I want to feel normal."

"That sucks."

Though pithy, Riku hoped his words didn't ring hollow, because he meant them. Completely. There was also no way for him to make the sentiment more eloquent, no option to doll it up. He didn't know how, nor was he convinced rambling would be appropriate in this instance.

It wasn't enough. He knew that. But it was sincere and all he had to offer.

For the first time since he had asked his question, Sora looked fully up. He seemed to be considering the words, studying them like a physical gift, one he could accept or reject at whim.

Slowly, he nodded.

"Yeah. It does." The barest hint of a smile formed. "But I will survive. 'Cause I'm a survivor. I'm not gon' give up."

The last few lines were spoken in a singsong tone, his voice effortlessly switching from 70s disco to early 2000s R&B pop. Riku released the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, only to laugh under his breath.

"You're ridiculous."

Sora offered a wide grin, brows rising under a mess of rain-damp hair.

"You only just noticed? Kairi might need to revoke your genius status."

"My rise to greatness was brief," Riku intoned. "But its effect was lasting."

This seemed to delight Sora whose grin now flashed teeth. He even ate another spoonful of food, washed down by a slightly longer sip of water.

"Honestly though, my mom's a doctor and might be able to help with that," Riku said, deciding to take a chance. When Sora said nothing, Riku continued, choosing his words carefully. "She's always telling me how the right dose is everything when it comes to meds."

Something passed over Sora's expression, a blend of emotions that vanished before Riku could try to separate and make individual sense of them. The sound of guitar music was now amplified by stereo equipment, and behind them a few people whooped and picked up the lyrics at their tables. On the far side of the space where a dark-haired restaurant owner sat across from her scowling guest, Riku heard a snippet of invitation, followed by a few words of rebuttal before Sora's voice diverted his attention.

"No matter how hard Tifa works on him, Leon isn't ever gonna be a people person."

Riku followed Sora's eyes back to the far table, just in time to see the woman stand and spin in place. She offered both hands to the man's vehemently shaking head while Riku tried to remember the context that he'd heard the guy's name in earlier. Laughter could be heard from nearby tables as others started to support Tifa's antics. A few people clapped. Some even verbally goaded. In response, Leon rolled his eyes and crossed both arms over his chest.

Right. The living room photo. Leon was friends with Sora's older brother. He'd looked a whole lot younger then. And scarless.

"Y'know …I'd dance with you, if I could."

The flushed heat returned, joined by a fluttering in his stomach, as Sora's words registered. Riku hazarded a look over at the boy beside him.

"Oh yeah?"

A quick nod from Sora, before he ducked his head again. Though the action had been fast, Riku still managed to catch a glimpse of what looked like a blush.

"Yeah." The word was muffled as Sora spoke downward. "If I could."

Riku was grinning like an idiot by the time a blur of fishnet and a fringe of dyed red entered his line of sight, ushering in Kairi's reappearance. He tried to control his features while she took her apron off, then deposited her plastic gloves in the nearest trash bin before slipping under the counter to join them. If she noticed their flushed faces, Kairi didn't deign to comment. Not in so many words, at least.

"Break time for me. Y'all seem to be enjoying yourselves."

"We were debating Riku's intelligence," Sora said, voice rising to be heard over the din. "Wanna throw your two cents into the mix?"

Kairi looked at them, then deadpanned her answer.

"No, not especially."

She blew Sora a kiss before heading toward the diner door.

"Suit yourself, but you're missin' out," Sora called at her retreating form. Riku watched Kairi exit the trailer, then followed her path through a window as she weaved her way toward the makeshift stage, around people who were congregating in front of the guitarist and the two other girls who had joined her.

There was something distinctly unique about the scene, something that set it apart from other concerts Riku had been to. There was no comparing it with lavish family holidays, not even a class at his last school to prepare him for such regional variance. He wondered what someone like Neku would think of this. Or Kadaj.

His earlier thought came back, this time with more depth. Maybe it was Sora perched comfortably next to him or the sense of festivity while people ate and conversated, as Pence might phrase it. Possibly, the music was resonating with him.

Whatever the case, by the time the song came to an end and another, slower one started, he'd made up his mind. And maybe it was a little crazy and he'd have regrets by the end of the night, but now was another matter entirely. For once, Riku decided not to question himself, to be a little impulsive.

He reached out toward the counter and placed his hand over Sora's.

"You know, I think I may have an idea for Kairi's birthday after all."