The excitement wears off after awhile, as it does for all things. This is a wearing off of a different sort, though, the opposite of the new becoming old; excitement, perhaps, is the wrong word. Yearning, then. Sentiment. It's a sort of solace, these stale familiar things: primary-coloured clothing dangling from clotheslines, limp with humidity, like overripe fruit; school uniforms, blue plaid and white, soothing marine colours; bucolic wooden signposts, uniform square-windowed houses, leafy purple bushes espaliered against white-washed trellises.
Still, the feeling wears off. After two weeks of eating home-cooked meals, of sucking boozy strawberry juice from the tips of his fingers, of smiling and swimming, of watching Tidus's ceiling fan swing round and round, wooden blades sharp, pulls dangling like keychains, Sora wants to scream.
He and Riku are in this together, as they always are (or try to be, anyway). Summer passes uneventfully enough: they lose at blitzball against Wakka and Tidus ("we haven't practiced in a year," Sora complains, but accepts it anyway, mostly because Kairi tells him that losing is good for him once in awhile), they toast marshmallows over a bonfire on the beach and crunch on the wooden bits the sticks leave in them, and they watch movies in Kairi's basement, whose dad is the only guy who's thought to install central air.
Mostly, though, they deflect a lot of questions; tearful ones from parents, at first, then prying and cajoling from Selphie, stares from Tidus, wheedling from the neighbours. At the very least, Wakka seems to know better than to ask.
They walk along the boardwalk, Selphie and Kairi in sundresses, shoulders freckling. Kairi has a bowl of mango ice cream, eating it slowly with a tiny plastic spoon, and Tidus's papaya cone is melting down to his wrists; they had all chosen bright tropical flavours, perfect for a hundred and ten degree July weather. Sora, remembering the snow-capped mountains in China this same time of year, hadn't gotten anything, even after Tidus offered to pay; Riku hadn't either, but everyone just figured that was his way.
"It's like... you guys were gone so long I feel like I forgot about you!" Selphie laughs, sliding her tongue around the rim of her ice cream cone. Jackfruit, made locally, a favourite of tourists (though Selphie doesn't mind the tacky associations); to Sora it tastes cloyingly sweet, and leaves behind a sugary film on his tongue.
"Did you want some?" Kairi asks, perhaps to deflect an awkward moment, holding the spoon out like a mother to a baby. Sora longs for something unsweet—lemon or tofu, like Queen Minnie told him about, or (he doesn't even want to think about this, not really) sea salt.
"No thanks," he says, and Kairi can't miss the look he exchanges with Riku.
They spend a lot of time on the island, where Kairi brings them lunches which they eat in silence—diagonally cut sandwiches on spongy white bread, sliced melons, pineapple chunks that brown in the hot air. Sora feels like a Lost Boy, a thought that he doesn't voice. Instead, he says "thanks, Kairi," throat sticking with dry heat; she passes him a canteen of pulpy orange juice, homemade, and says nothing. She feels like she knows, even if she can't. She is the odd one out, and perhaps always has been.
"I've gotta get going," she says after a few hours, stuffing her empty tupperware containers into her beach bag. "You guys coming?"
She already knows the answer, though. Sora and Riku linger well past sunset in the treehouse, since they don't want to have to look at the stars—they are unbenevolent now, unbenign.
They start school in September—Riku gets his hair cut, and Kairi doesn't. Sora starts high school late, in the same class as Selphie; Riku is in grade ten with Kairi. Tidus laughs and calls them slow, but they shrug it off; still, Sora's classmates seem infantile, despite only being a year younger—the age of fourteen seems like forever ago, even if he slept through half of it.
Sora sits through the requisite what-I-did-this-summer essay; he is tempted to write "nothing", since that's what it feels like, but instead he stretches out the lax days of blue-and-white lassitude into a thousand words of prose. He gets a C, which Kairi scolds him for ("come on, Sora, it's the easiest assignment ever!"), but he doesn't care too much; he rips it up after school and throws the pieces into the sea.
They study the ancient Arab world in history class; Selphie cracks her gum and checks her watch, the rest of his classmates blink their eyes in torpor, but Sora sits up straight, sweating a little—it's difficult to even look at the pictures of mosques and minarets in his textbook. There are pictures of textiles, too, rugs in purples and reds and golds, and illustrations of the mythical djinn; it's all too much, these tantalizing grasps of memory.
He excuses himself for a drink of water, and finds Riku sitting in the hallway next to the fountain, his tie loose in two blue stripes down his chest.
"Hey," he says, "wanna ditch?" Sora leaves his books back in the classroom and joins him, and they spend the rest of the afternoon on the island, wiggling their toes in the sand. They pick up shells and pass them back and forth to keep their minds off of things; Sora can't help but notice the way Riku's fingers linger overlong on his own.
The next day, a Saturday, they meet at the tiny ticky-tack mall, mostly surf boutiques and sweet shops for tourists. Tidus, Selphie, Wakka and Kairi are already there, sharing a plate of nachos on the formica-topped food court tables; Sora and Riku order cokes from the burger stand and join them. Tidus looks them over, savouring an olive he picked from the cheese, looking a little abashed.
"So, are you guys...?" He lets the question dangle, rife with innuendo; the others pretend not to have heard.
"Are we what?" Riku says.
"Nothing, never mind." His ears are red. Kairi sucks at her cream soda noisily, Selphie picks her nails, they blush.
The conversation turns to other things, but Sora wonders, are we?
Sometimes when Riku's not around, Sora and Kairi will lie on the beach, and Sora will tell her things. He tells her things since he knows she wants to listen, and since she's the only one he can tell these things to who doesn't already know.
He tells her about flying in Neverland, just like he'd always wanted to (and she does believe him after all); he tells her about floating down underground rivers, about loping across grasslands. He tells her about the Grid—about being made of electricity and data—though he finds this hard to describe.
Some days she says tell me about this or that, and other days she says you told me that one already. Sora just says sorry and holds a hand up to the sun, blocking out the light.
October burns, the islands still hotter than anything, the trees riotous shades of red, yellow, orange. Sora's grades are slipping; he spends less and less time at school. After the third call from his guidance counselor a dam bursts, figuratively speaking.
His mother tells him how, on his birthday (the one he had slept through), they lit candles and sent them in a boat out to sea; we thought you were dead, she says tremulously. Why can't you just tell us what happened? Why can't you just tell us what's going on? Sora almost wants to laugh.
"Are you on drugs?" his mother says, with the slightly theatrical, televised air of an after-school-special parent. Ah yes, drugs, the catch-all word for those suburban spectres: pills, joints, powders, whatever. With guilt he thinks about sharing joints with Riku on the seaside shack's roof, blowing smoke at the horizon and watching it curl away, pink and orange in the twilight. He says, "no, mom! It's nothing like that."
She sits for a moment heaving with sobs, lower lip trembling, nose running; she tears kleenexes into rough-edged squares and arranges them in a row on the coffee table, not looking him in the eye.
"I just don't understand," she says. "What happened to my son?"
He wants to say "nothing", maybe wanting to be contrary, but instead tugs his shoes on and mutters "I'm going to the island." He is being unconscionably childish—something Kairi might say—and he knows it, but he wants to be twelve right now. He wants to sit in a treehouse eating popsicles with sandy, sticky fingers and cry where no one can see him, wiping snot on his sleeve.
Halfway out to sea, oars sluicing through the water, it occurs to him he should have apologized.
Riku is already there. Sora should've expected that, since Riku is always where he needs him most—he knows him better than he knows himself, the stuff of song lyrics. This is too maudlin, though, so Sora doesn't let the thought linger—nothing touchy-feely.
"Hey," Riku says. They share a bottle of soda between them—fizzy lemonade or mango, yellow and too sweet, and a popsicle which Riku separates into two, the halves pulling apart with reluctance, syrupy and fibrous. They are probably handmade by someone's mom (but not either of theirs), with little bits of fruit in them, real healthy.
They melt quickly in the heat, the air like saliva, close and altogether too personal, like the constant breathing of someone else's oxygen. Everything feels reused, the sun setting on the tops of pineapple-crowned trees like recycled film. This is the heart of the problem, this staleness. Sora grinds the ridged bottom of the empty bottle into the sand, letting it stick up.
"I dunno what to do," he says.
"You don't have to," Riku says. "Know, I mean. You don't have to have it all figured out all the time, y'know."
"That was almost poignant, Riku."
"Hey, I've been known to be, sometimes," he says. Riku digs his fingers deep into the sand, claw-like, and pulls away with a jagged wet chunk; a nervous gesture, or at least as much of one as Riku makes. "And you're not... y'know, alone. In this. I feel the same way."
It's an ambiguous statement, and deliberately so; Sora feels the back of his neck getting hot even as he tells himself he was talking about the whole school thing. The whole boredom thing. That's all.
Still, he says, "about what?"
Riku rolls his eyes and smiles and says, "everything".
Sora knows exactly what he means, of course. They both reach at the same time for a smooth shell that lays between them, their fingers touching either end; they are in this together.