For Riku, the story of how he and Sora met was a hazy one. For Sora, it wasn’t even that. To him, Riku had always been there. Riku knew better.
He’d been four. His family had moved, escaping neighbors who whispered as they passed, who shot sad, consoling looks at him and condemning gazes at his parents. “That poor child,” they’d all said, deliberately loud enough for him and his parents to hear. “What’s he to do without a mother’s presence?” They’d all tsked behind their hands, even as they helped their own children with their coats as the weather turned. “The father isn’t getting a job,” they’d murmured, noses turned up. “He’s going to let her keep working.”
The kids, too, had had nothing to say but what they’d heard. Every time his father took him to the park, they all laughed. “Where’s your mama?” they jeered, kicking sand and dirt into his face. “Your daddy lives off your mama’s money! Sissy daddy!”
He’d gotten into a lot of fights back then. It had only made it worse; the adults blamed his father for not being a gentle, loving influence like a mother would have been, and kids refused to play with him.
That had been when his parents had decided it had been time to move.
He remembered little of the actual moving process; all he truly recalled was how empty his old room had looked as they’d left, and how judgmental the faces of his neighbors had been. His father had been the one to help him pack while his mother continued working in the lab. He remembered his dad erasing the queasy feeling in his stomach by making him laugh. According to his father, they’d made a game of it, calling out the toys’ names as he put them away, making sure Mr. Muffins wasn’t lying next to Mr. Lion because they’d been fighting that week over who should get the last cookie, and they didn’t want to be good and share. The only thing Riku remembered about those moments were how sad he’d been as he’d watched his dad laugh, because he’d seen the lines of strain on the edges of that grin.
Their new house had been practically on top of the water. He remembered seeing the sea for the first time, his mom telling him not to press his face into the glass as they drove up and his dad saying he could stare, just this once, because it really was something worth getting excited over. Maybe his dad had been trying to get Riku’s mind off of their old home and the people they’d left, but Riku had only cared about the bright white gleam of the sun on the waves. He’d been to the beach a couple of times, but never so close that, once they parked the car and declared this new building his home, he could still see the surf and hear the pounding of the waves. Later, those swells would become like a prison to him. At that time, they’d been a beacon to something new. Something exciting.
The rest of the move was little more than piecemeal in Riku’s mind. The big men walking back and forth up the new drive, the huge, empty house trying to fit stuff that didn’t belong inside of it. The only reason he thought he remembered his first sight of Sora was because he’d been so intimidated by the huge, hulking men, waiting for one of them to turn those same judging gazes on him and his parents.
Back then, the only image Riku had had was of a little boy, just a bit younger than him, being walked outside by his parents, one pudgy fist in his mother’s hand. The other hand was waving goodbye to his father, dressed in suit and tie, as his mother continued some conversation as he walked down the stairs. Riku barely had a chance to look at the boy before he turned big blue eyes to the movers, then to Riku. Beneath those long brown bangs, that mouth stretched into a big grin. Suddenly the little boy’s mom was wrenched from her conversation by the tugging of that tiny hand. The brown-haired toddler pointed at Riku. “Look, look! Like me! Like me!”
“Yes,” the mother had said, patting those unruly spikes. The kid’s father chuckled lightly before calling out a farewell and heading to their car. “You’re getting a neighbor around your age,” the mom said when the father had gone. “Isn’t that exciting?”
Riku watched the car fade around the bend. Something hard and heavy had twisted in his gut. He’d run back inside the house. No, he’d thought. He wasn’t like that kid at all.
It had been about, what? A week or so later? Perhaps more; Riku hadn’t been able to process time well at that age. It was while the neighborhood still seemed intimidatingly new that he’d seen that little boy again. Even with the fence between their homes and the large space of their lawns, he’d heard Sora – that little boy – running around, squealing with delight, his mother laughing as he played. He’d stayed inside during those times, pretending he wanted to read or to help his dad clean. But this time, his mom had been heading out a little later than usual, and he’d gotten the chance to say a proper goodbye to her. She’d picked him up and twirled him around, then kept him on her hip as she walked outside. His dad followed after, still in his sweatpants because he’d been cooking.
Then the neighbor’s door had opened, and the toddler had raced outside, heading to the edge of the water as his mother followed close behind.
The little boy had stopped on a dime, his wide eyes turned to Riku. Riku had fought against his mother’s hold; his mother had chuckled, saying, “boys.” But this wasn’t a show of being an adult or anything; this had been the moment he’d dreaded since the move. The moment when someone else would find out, and those looks would come back. He’d run back inside the house, even though it meant not being able to see his mom off.
He didn’t know what had happened outside then. According to his father, he and his mom had been really worried. They’d stood there, his mom talking about perhaps taking the day off, the dad wondering if that would make Riku feel better or worse, when Sora had reached up and tugged on his mother’s skirt.
“I wanna!” he’d said, pointing at Riku’s door. His parents had looked over then. Apparently, his dad had been surprised to learn that a look that stubborn could exist on a face other than Riku’s.
Sora’s mother had bent down and tried to straighten his impossible hair. “You want to go talk to him?” Sora nodded. The mom had looked up from Sora to ask some silent permission from Riku’s parents. They must have given it, because Sora had raced over to Riku’s door and rung the doorbell.
For Riku, the only thing he’d known was the fear twisting his gut. He’d jumped at the sound of the doorbell; he hadn’t gone far, only further inside the living room. He could barely see outside the window. He couldn’t quite see who was outside, but his parents wouldn’t have rung the bell. His gut twisted. The stares were gonna come back.
He’d lifted his chin. In his mind, the only thought had been to protect his parents and stop that look. Even though his stomach had curdled at the thought, he’d stomped to the door and reached high, pulling it open. Sora, leaning on the door and reaching up on his tip-toes to reach the bell, had nearly splattered to the ground at the sudden movement. He’d recovered very quickly and beamed up at Riku. “Hi!” he’d said. That was it. Riku distinctly remembered the sound of his parents chuckling.
Riku had held on to the door tightly, ready to slam it in Sora’s face. “My mom’s super smart!” he’d said. “She works in a cool lab and makes things and one day, she’s gonna save the world!” He’d clenched his hands into little fists. “And my dad’s the best dad ever. He’s nice and funny!”
He knew these exact words, because his dad had written them down in his journal after having a crying jag that had worried Riku to death. His mom had recited it to Riku a few times, her eyes shining as she retold her ‘favorite story of her favorite hero.’ His parents had been so touched, they’d taken him out to eat that night, though Riku couldn’t remember that part. All he could recall was how Sora’s eyes had widened before he’d pumped his fists up and down and said, “Cool! Daddy works bus – biz – busyness. Mommy cooks!” He grinned big and wide. “I’m Sora!” He slapped his pudgy hand on his chest, then held it out to shake. “Who’re you?”
He hadn’t known what to do. He’d fallen back on old manners. “Riku.” He shook the little boy’s hand.
Sora had bounced on the balls of his feet. “Riku!” he’d said, as if his name alone was some great discovery. “Wanna play?”
It had been the first time in a very long time that someone had asked him to play with them. It had been even longer since he’d seen an open, friendly gaze instead of a hostile or pitying one. He hadn’t known what to do. He’d let go of the door. “Sure?” he’d said. And under the guidance of his dad and Sora’s mom, he’d spent the day playing with Sora on the beach that stretched out before their front lawns.
Riku never asked why his parents had let Sora come over that day. His father had been the one to admit, years later, that, when his parents had gone house-hunting, they’d knocked on their to-be neighbors’ doors and had asked if they had a problem with a woman working and a man staying at home. They’d chosen the expensive, beach-front property the moment Sora’s mother had given them a blank look and said, “of course not?”
The rest of that year was a blur. He couldn’t tell when Sora went from the new neighbor kid to Sora, an integral part of his life. All he knew was how he’d felt by the end of the year, going Christmas shopping and insisting he personally find and buy the perfect gift for Sora. He remembered finding a stuffed puppy, only to cry when his dad helped him buy it because it “wasn’t perfect enough for Sora.”
He remembered grinning ear to ear when Sora opened his present and screamed with delight over the puppy and its fuzzy ears. He remembered his heart nearly bursting when Sora hugged it and said, “it’s perfect! It even has your eyes!”
He remembered Sora hugging that puppy close to his chest for months – Riku had received a toy sword, and he had been determined to master it, and to help Sora learn, too, so they could play swordsmen together. He remembered Sora crying one day down by the beach because some bully had made fun of him for carrying a stuffed animal and had taken it and thrown it into the sea while Riku wasn’t there. He remembered consoling Sora then, his hand on Sora’s back as he crouched low in the sand. He remembered promising to protect Sora from that bully, to make sure he never got hurt again. He’d held his toy sword up high. “How?” Sora had whispered, his body jarring every time his hiccuping sobs leaked through.
“I’ll become strong. Really strong,” he’d promised, and smiled for his friend, even though he wanted to scream and rage himself. “So no one can ever hurt you or your stuff again.”
Sora had sniffed. “Me, too,” he promised. Riku didn’t know if Sora could be strong like that, but he did know how much happier he felt when Sora gave him a watery smile. “Thanks, Riku. You’re my best friend.”
Riku grinned wider. “You’re my best friend, too, Sora.”
Sora had wiped his eyes again, only to start crying from rubbing sand in them. Riku had helped him clear them out, then had led Sora back home. Back then, the fervent need to protect Sora had been like some unquenchable flame in his heart. Back then, he could never have imagined attacking Sora.
Back then. Back then. Back then.
Back then, he had never thought that a chance meeting a year later could turn his gaze from Sora to the line at the edge of the sea. Back then, he would never have thought to forget why he’d wanted power.
Back then, Sora had been his world, and his world had been big enough.
Growing up, Sora had never once wished to leave his side. When Riku had brought up his desire to see other worlds, Sora hadn’t hesitated to offer to go with him. To Riku, the offer had been… inevitable wasn’t the right word. Expected? Proper? No. Destined. Sora belonged by Riku’s side, and Riku by Sora’s.
When he’d arrived at Hollow Bastion – when he’d arrived alone, without Sora – he’d panicked. He remembered that feeling more than anything else during those days; they’d passed, one after the other, his mind whirling as Maleficent’s people came back with nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Every day, and those little goons of the witch’s returned without Sora. Wherever he was, Maleficent had reasoned, it was not in her world.
So far. He’d traveled so far, and lost everything.
He’d been given a way to search for Sora – pathways through darkness. Back then – back then, he hadn’t thought anything of using the pathways; anything was good, so long as he was beside Sora again. He hadn’t understood how easily worry and fear could change to hurt, and hurt to anger. By the time he’d realized, he’d…
He gritted his teeth at the memory. He wouldn’t run from it, from how he’d become the bully trying to take something precious from Sora. How he’d hurt the boy who had reached out to him. He’d seen what he’d done, what his heart and body had been made to do. It had left him spiraling to the other extreme, trying to deny the darkness entirely.
Darkness had been something to manipulate, then something to shun. He’d called to it, inveigled it, and in doing so, had nearly lost the very thing that had made him call out to it to begin with. Adventure? Excitement? Freedom? He’d known from the start; those things meant nothing without those he loved with him. Without Sora.
In horror, he had shoved the darkness away, thinking only of tamping it down and being able to return to Sora’s side. Another kind of manipulation. Even the idea of balance, when it came, came with the belief that darkness was something to contain and keep separate, not just from the world, but from himself.
But now. Now, with Ansem standing before him and Sora lost to the nightmares foisted upon him, Riku no longer feared. Fear was worth nothing if it didn’t protect Sora’s smile.
That was right. If he was still a Dream Eater, then that meant Sora was still alive. Still there. Still able to be reached. Sora was Sora. He still had some light within him. Even if he was lost to those nightmares – even if he was lost to darkness – Riku would find him. He would search the darkest parts of Sora’s heart for that place that existed within every heart. The place of light. And he would bring Sora back.
He remembered the moments of his life before Sora. The fear and pain and hurt. The emptiness. He would not return to them. He would not lose Sora.