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“For what it’s worth, you know, I am sorry.”

“What is it that you’re apologizing for?” Unintentionally, the words comes out as a hiss. Currently, Vanitas is attempting to dangle the last remnants of his cigarette in the tiny sliver between his teeth; Naminé has a queasy expression on her face when he finally forfeits and lets it putter out all over himself.

Fortunately for Naminé, she’s far too nice of a girl to say anything. Plus, Vanitas is numb, and he’s hollow in all the places where his emotions should be festering. At the moment, he’s frankly incapable of caring about the uncleanliness nor its stench. Hell, the game plan was to torch all said articles of clothing regardless. Does it really matter if he’s using his pants as a makeshift ash tray? Perhaps there will be time to be disgusted, later. If not, he’ll be disgusted upon recollection and their clothes with gory, strewn bits are naught but ash.

There’s a small pause. Somewhat politely, Vanitas prompts her with a, well? Naminé settles into herself then; once she’s fitted her black skirt more to her rain-soaked skin instead of the dirtied seat, a handful of the drying bloodstains become very obvious.

She sighs, and says in a rush, “I know what it’s like to be isolated, to be all by yourself. Especially for so long. It’s nice that you got to meet Ven and Sora, but I get how rough it must have been to grow up without anyone else at your side.”

Vanitas snorts. “Eh.” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees her glower. For the smithereens that can barely be referred to as pants, there’s definitely enough of a tear for Vanitas to curl a finger into and tug. Some of its frayed ends splits completely and the remaining shreds tickle the nicks in his leg. “Listen, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that your sympathies would probably mean more if that was really the case.”

She gapes at him; an unspoken question there, and Vanitas dimly realizes that she’s thinking something among the lines of, you surely can’t be referring to your old man. An outraged fury, violence similar to the color red blurs the very edges of his vision.

“God. Not my father, no, fuck him. But Riku was there, and by extension, Kairi too,” he clarifies. 

“Oh, right. But Vanitas,” Naminé crosses her hands on her lap, and starts to tug at the fabric of her translucent skirt. Slowly, she redirects her gaze to the thunderous outside. It’s a cascade; the water has just about drowned out the window and visibility is fatally low. “It’s not like you were really friends. I mean… were you? To be honest, I got the impression that you were more acquaintances than- than friendly.”

He waves his hand. “Eh. So-so.” Release; he lets go of the gas pedal. Vanitas has rarely ever been so forthcoming.

“So-so? What do you mean?”

“It’s just that… okay, Naminé, I’m sure if you asked him, he’d say yes. To him, we’re buddies.” Vanitas makes a face. “But here’s the thing. For all that time we grew up together, not once did we do regular kid shit. Movies. Sleepovers. The stuff you read about friendships, when you were younger? Never got to do it. There wasn’t a chance to really hang out, or anything stupid and childish like that."

It hurts to say. Something hardens within his throat. He flicks a nail at the lump, and forces it downward.

“Even if I wanted to, no matter how badly I wanted it, y’know the bastard wouldn’t have agreed. Funnily enough, now that I think about it, he’s still listed under my emergency contact. I think that’s a pretty apt explanation of our bond, eh?”

“Ah. Well. I’m sorry to hear that.” Without thinking about it, Vanitas groans aloud. How many times have they had the, you don’t need to apologize to me conversation, he thinks. Quietly, Naminé giggles to herself, as if pressing her dainty hand to her daintier lips would completely silence her amusement.

When she’s done, she asks albeit through huffs of laughter, “Do you mind - could you tell me how it started?”

Now, the car is nearly at a complete stop. It isn’t roaring down the pavement anymore, no longer racing against the wild beat of the storm. They're making their way towards the cottage and the rain lightens by the street. 

“Hm. ‘supose you don’t mean when I meet Sora, do you. Or to describe the afterbirth upon freeing myself from womb, at that.”

“Vanitas? While I am glad that we’re friends, I really do wish you weren’t so openly vulgar with me.”

“Tch. Join the club. Ventus has made a name of of himself, being the founder of it and everything.” Vanitas presses on the brake, which might just be in the nick of time. Not like he was worried, and Naminé is used to berating him for bad, reckless driving.

FULL STOP, so exclaims the stop sign, as if he was going to casually roll into the intersection. So careful, what with the police station but a couple of blocks away. But it picks at his brain. Stop signs, exit signs, prohibited turns and yielding motions.

Memories are bitter. 'Real beginnings,' such an abstract concept. Could Vanitas point out the instance where he ceased living as a meatshield and became a sentient being? Unbelievable as it seems, there was a prior to Sora - Ven - Naminé. Life didn’t begin that night in the ocean, certainly didn't start the night he met Sora. Who can say that they found humanity in drowning? 

He remembers a time before he was stranded and half-starved in that rural town’s gas station, with nothing but three dollars to his name.

Currently, Vanitas doesn’t have his blinker on, but if he tore his tires into an unprecedented left turn he’d slam into the barricaded area of the city. Beyond there, lies forth the ocean. Next to the seaside, where the criss-crossing wooden boards are lettered with the words, END OF THE ROAD, bold and in black paint.

Over the years, Vanitas has become very familiar with that phrase.

“I guess I never told you about how I left home, did I?”

*

On his impromptu move-in night, Vanitas has a smarting bruise laid directly over his cheekbone. No one present acknowledges that the bruise is hand-shaped.

Upon arrival, Riku immediately cajoles him into the hallway’s bathroom, but he’d be remiss not to correct. It’s less forceful, and much more an act of convincing. As soon as Vanitas is half-naked in front of Riku, the two of them pretend that they don’t see the various scars that make up his back.

In truth, even in the face of a harsh situation, it’s difficult to actually be awkward around Riku. Despite everything, they’re talking to each other gracefully; Riku gestures at the knob and rambles about how to turn the water on, that until Vanitas is entirely unpacked it’s totally fine for him to use his soap, and that any of the yellow towels on the rack belong to him and thus are okay to use. 

“Let me know if you need anything,” is the last thing Riku says to him. But he pauses by the frame, when it’s mere inches from closing. Whatever he’s about to say is discarded in the end; Riku shakes his head and leaves him with a half-smile and the door clicking shut. Once he’s alone, Vanitas unclothes fully, pondering over what it was that Riku wanted to tell him.

Riku's bad at speaking, in the measures that Vanitas is bad at listening.

In the shower, the spray of the water against his spine makes him flinch. Of course; shouldn’t he know better, especially by now? At this point, his dorsal side is practically a large, gaping split of leftover ooze and pus. The stinking rot comes off of him in clumps. As is routine, Vanitas snarls out the pain, letting it slither through his mouth. “Fuck, that hurts…”

With some degree of sickening fascination, Vanitas watches as the few remaining drips of blood fall to the floor. Soon enough, the vibrant gash of red is entirely swallowed by the stream of water. Nonetheless, there’s a pinkish smear on the otherwise white tiles where his blood used to be. At least the pain is not just because of the unhealed wounds. He regrets not being patient enough for the shower to warm, but this isn’t his house and it isn’t his bill, and he keeps Riku’s mother in mind as he waits for it to heat up.

There’s a funny feeling in his stomach. As he spreads Riku’s blue-green body wash across his chest, the emotion rises itself into a loud uproar; it claws, nails snatching at the vast empty space in between his ribs. Vanitas takes a cautionary sniff, and yeah, it would make sense that he smells exactly like Riku does. The scent reminds him vaguely of salt, and the bottle has some oceanic splash across.

Right. 

The ocean. 

Neither of them have ever been out to sea. Even as children, Riku had always wanted to visit. After all, the Kairi girl was from the sea, and she missed it more than anything in this world. Occasionally Vanitas has been subject to her ramblings and although he doesn’t care for her, Kairi’s passion is infectious. If anything, over the course of years the thought - it had metamorphosed into a kind of daydream. It would be nice, if I could run from home and embrace the shoreline, he thought. And if I was ever sad, I could go out and look at the ocean.

There is nothing more alien than the shore, given that their state is land-locked and utmost dry. 

Unfortunately the country land is a type of prison. An interesting method of entrapment, a cage where the barriers aren’t steel and cold but instead there’s not an exit sign hanging overhead the wheat fields and ever expanding roads. All of the waypoints he sees are out of bounds and out of reach.

There isn’t enough gas in this lonely town to leave. Try, and one would find themselves lost and immeasurably alone.

- Ah, where was he? He's gotten off track. 

Indulging in Riku’s shampoo and conditioner is, personally, a step too far for Vanitas. He does wash it, however; strenuously combs through his messy wet hair, separating the knots until he can pat it softly. For his standards, it’s overgrown what with the ends being beneath his jugular. Xehanort had described his hair as relentless. According to him, all of the cut hair would regrow within a month or two; apparently the upkeep was just too expensive. If it was pricey then, it must be a luxury now.

There’s little love to be had for split ends, though. Staying filthy is a non-option. Maybe Vanitas can learn how to cut his own hair. Granted, that is, if he’s calm enough for it. Later in the week he’ll have to ask Riku’s mother where she keeps her scissors and to borrow one, should any of them be good enough to chop hair.

It's a quick realization that their bathroom runs colder than any other part of the house. His forearms are entirely gooseskin, the flesh all flared up and reduced to pinpricks. What must be Riku’s towels are fairly fluffy and Vanitas appreciates the soft sensation. In truth, Vanitas spends more time than he’s willing to admit just enjoying the way the towel rubs against his skin. There’s no mildew and it isn’t coarse against the gashes across his body. Do normal families replace them so often? He’s only ever felt a towel this soft in the supermarket.

The fog in the bathroom lifts as he dries. Vanitas tries not to stare at his reflection for too long; his appearance is unnerving. Although he doesn’t look, Vanitas is aware of what’s truly off-kilter about his body. How his ribcage sticks apart from his stomach, the sunken cheekbones, the bruises that ranges across the spectrum. On first glance, Vanitas isn’t grotesque, merely an oddity to the naked eye. But when Vanitas regards the mirror for too long, he starts to see the indent of the scars and the various discolorations.

Thinking about it makes him queasy. Vanitas leaves the bathroom and steps into the corridor.

Luckily for him, there is a spare guest room… only, it’s sans bed. The lack of proper living arrangements isn't surprising. It isn’t enough to upset him, Vanitas has slept on surfaces more uncomfortable than plush floors. There’s enough space for his boxes and thensome, a built-in closet, and its the room furthest down the hall meaning it’s improbable he’ll bother Riku’s mother via his noisy existence. He clothes himself in that guest room, wondering if he’ll somehow start referring to it as his room and simultaneously hoping he’ll always be considered a stranger in this house.

Although he doesn’t mean to, he makes eye contact with Riku’s mother. He shies from her gaze, feels it drift over the entirety of his frame. Her disgust is apparent; her nose up-turns, and Vanitas’ skin ruptures in heat upon knowing he’s repulsed her.

Yet, despite her being sick at the sight of him, she puts a hand on his shoulder and grins. Strained, sure, but she musters a smile nonetheless.

“You know, I’m a bit surprised. Vanitas, you clean up rather well.”

“…thanks.” No one’s said that before.

From the hours of nine to eleven, the three of them bicker on who’s taking the couch. Continuously, Riku offers up his bedroom; according to Riku, Vanitas is a guest and it would be improper for him to sleep in the living room of all places. In the art of a compromise, his mother suggests an old and largely forgotten sleeping bag they have in storage, but Vanitas denies that too. He neglects to say why, though - Vanitas knows that the itchy fabric will irritate his injuries and he’s already being such an inconvenience, bleeding all over a sleeping bag would increase the likelihood of their gratitude running short.

It’s fifteen ‘til midnight when they come to the conclusion that on nights Riku isn’t out for whatever reason, be a sleepover, hanging out at Kairi’s, or out of town for band meets Vanitas will be taking his bed. Vanitas makes a silent promise that he’ll wash and dry the covers afterwards, because he doesn’t want to contaminate Riku.

So far? So far, Riku’s home - the home of Riku’s mother, to be exact, since she’s the one paying rent and other such important things - fairs better than Xehanort’s, but what’s a stretch of pavement? It took Riku under a half-hour to drive back here, in the throes of an anxiety attack no less. By chance, if Xehanort was to ever text him with the threat of arrival, Vanitas would have less time than that to pack and flee. What does the distance amount to? How is living here any better, when Vanitas sees the birdcage sitting beside the windowsill?

Adulthood can’t come fast enough. That is, if Vanitas lives long enough to greet his eighteenth birthday.