Sora rarely left his door shut.
His mother assumed he was still upset about being grounded. But when he didn't answer or respond to the knocking, she began to get annoyed. She had to shift the laundry to one arm to open the door.
Shina took one look at the empty room, the window still half-open, and exhaled sharply. She dropped the laundry onto the bed and sat down beside it, arms folded, to wait.
It had barely been a week, and he was already sneaking out. She'd expected him to wait at least two.
Still, she supposed it could be worse. All he really did was neglect his homework and spend most of his free time with Kairi or Riku or both; her husband had rebelled against his parents by running off and joining the coastal guard, and she'd rebelled against hers by running off and marrying him. At least Sora was still living in the house.
Being inside his room was disconcerting. It was still mostly bare, despite Sora being back for a few months. After she'd forgotten about him, she couldn't recall why there was so much stuff in the guest room--it wasn't her husband's, or any relatives'. After asking everyone she could possibly imagine storing items for, she'd finally given away some of the comics and clothing and sold nearly everything else, and saved only the bed and desk and the scattered, personal-looking trinkets. She hadn't felt comfortable selling those, not when they had to belong to someone; she'd put them in a box in the front closet in case the owner ever finally showed up to reclaim them.
When Shina first remembered their son, she thought she'd gone crazy with grief and everyone had played along.
But no, everyone had forgotten him, and everyone recalled at roughly the same time. It was strange--too strange. Going mad for a while would have made sense, but this...it was like a bad fantasy story.
It made her feel like she'd lost him twice, when once was hard enough.
The thought drove her back onto her feet, made her check out the window--but there were the footprints, heading over the fence and toward the road to Kairi and Riku's neighborhood.
Shina sighed again, and sat back down onto the bed, wondering how she'd missed hearing him climb down the tree. It was nearly summer, and all the leaves were in; the rustling should have been obvious. The windows were open for the breeze.
Well, he knew it was laundry day. He'd be back soon enough, not wanting to be caught. She'd made it clear after finding Riku leaving his room that he'd be grounded a second month if he broke the rules again.
Shina tapped her fingers on her leg for a few moments, and finally stood and started putting the laundry away. She'd sold the dresser, so she had to pile it on the closet shelves by the spare sheets.
It wasn't the fighting that had her worried. All the kids in their neighborhood grew up fighting. There wasn't much else to do that didn't equal work; Shina had always beaten the man who now delivered the milk in arm-wrestling and tree-climbing. It'd become an old joke between them.
It was the aftermath of it: the way Sora still got angry when the subject came up, the way he still wouldn't give a good explanation for his actions. Even when she'd told him that if he'd just lost them three families as customers, he could at least tell her why, it'd been the same story: the boys had refused to apologize for destroying a sandcastle.
Frankly, Shina thought they should've been willing to accept the ending of a fight they started, but still. A person couldn't just do whatever they wanted in life and not think about the consequences. The islands weren't that big, and they needed the customers. Sora was a young man now, almost an adult, and he needed to begin thinking like one.
--She wanted it to be the result of Sora not thinking about consequences, because otherwise this was yet another of the changes she'd noticed since his return.
Their son didn't jump at shadows, or sharp noises. That at least would've made sense; she could have understood that, and found a way to help. But he didn't jump at them, and he didn't ignore them, either, like a normal child. He rolled his shoulders back, or set his feet, or curled his fingers like he was holding one of those old toy swords before shaking the whole thing off.
It was a wary reaction, almost a paranoid one, and it made her wish he would talk about what had happened during all that time he was gone. She didn't know how she was supposed to make it better when she didn't know what had gone wrong in the first place.
When it had just been that he and Riku were missing, before too much time had passed, before Sora was forgotten and Riku declared lost at sea, it hadn't been the worst. Kairi had told everyone that the three of them went to check on the raft in the storm, and then their boats had capsized and she'd managed to swim to the beach and didn't know where Riku and Sora were. There had still been hope; from her husband's work she knew how many tiny, semi-habitable islands and sandbars there were around the islands. It could take up to a week to search them all with a full team, and half the guard were busy repairing the island after the storm. Even after two weeks, there was still a little hope.
After a month, there wasn't much else to do but wait for the bodies to be washed up.
It could take a long time, she knew--it was four months before they found her husband after his crew had gone out to help a damaged ship in a different storm. That was the one reason she'd never quite trusted Kairi's story--Sora had been very young when he lost his father, but she'd made sure he'd grown up knowing the dangers of going out in the ocean during a storm. She could almost believe he would do it if he were following after Riku or Kairi; but it'd still felt like something was missing, some untold piece that would have explained what had happened to their son, even if the mayor told her the reason Kairi wouldn't meet her eyes during her questions was because Sora and Riku had been her friends and she was grieving over their loss just as much.
It was true that Kairi had taken it badly. Shina couldn't deny it; the girl had always calmly, stubbornly refused to listen if anyone spoke about them as dead, as if she expected them to return somehow, long after every habitable area had been searched and too much time had passed for anyone to survive exposure on a sandbar or other un-vegetated island. Even five months later, when Sora disappeared from everyone's memories, Kairi had maintained the same insistence about Riku. She'd refused to visit the gravestone his parents put up for him after a year.
She couldn't blame the girl for that. Personally, she'd thought it was awful; the laws stated that without a body, no one could be declared dead at sea for three years, and Shina would never have set up a stone for Sora before then.
She'd only visited Riku's grave once, after she'd inadvertently noticed it on one of the long walks she'd begun taking during the year she forgot their son. She hadn't known the boy that well, but he'd been a friend of a neighbor or cousin or some other child that had hung around her home, and it'd made her uncomfortable to see a cold stone was all that was left for him. It shouldn't have existed; but it did, and she'd felt like she had to acknowledge it. She'd gone back the next day and left some pieces of candy and wildflowers from her yard, and then fallen asleep that evening wondering what it would've been like if she and Naoki had managed to have a child.
Shina realized she'd been standing in front of the closet for a while now. She shut the door and shook her head at herself. Sora had to be back soon. He knew better than to run off again without saying anything.
He'd known better than to take a boat out in the water in the middle of a storm, too.
She made an exasperated noise and considered going back down to the kitchen. The dishes needed to be put away, and it wasn't like she didn't know he'd snuck out. There was no need to wait in here for him to return.
Shina heard a quiet 'hup!' outside before someone grabbed the ledge of the second-floor windowsill. She blinked, and then their son flipped himself up and in through the window, single-handedly.
The closet handle dug into her side a moment before she realized she'd shrunk back.
It was one thing to know he'd gotten stronger--of course, he'd always been a strong boy, and he was older now, it made sense--but a thing like that...something like that, that was an abnormal amount of strength--
Sora took a step closer. "Mom?"
"What happened to you?" Shina demanded.
Sora got an awkward look on his face, and scratched the back of his head. "...I don't remember.... You know that."
He was a bad liar, because she hadn't raised their son to skirt the truth; she'd raised him to know right and wrong, and to choose the right, even if it was harder than choosing wrong or not making a choice at all. He'd always been a bad liar; so why did she keep letting him get away with it?
(Because she's afraid of the consequences of knowing, and she knows that.)
Shina hesitated for another moment, and then took the coward's way out again and folded her arms over her chest. "And just where have you been, young man?"
"--Sorry," Sora replied. "I know I'm grounded. I just--I wanted to see Riku and Kairi."
Of course. It was almost impossible to separate him from them these days.
They had always been good friends, but it wasn't like when they were children anymore; this was something else, a connection between the three of them that made her uncomfortable. It was too tight, too close for a normal friendship, but it didn't have the competitive undercurrent to it that should've come when two boys and one girl spent so much time together and none of them were dating anyone else.
"Sorry," Sora said again, and she shook her head once more.
"Don't you see them enough at school?" she replied.
"No," Sora answered immediately. Then he added, "I mean, there's only lunch. We can't talk in class or anything."
"I wouldn't have known from your grades," she replied.
He made another face, then fidgeted when she didn't say anything else, toying with a belt on those odd clothes he always wore now.
"I'm really sorry," he finally said, giving her the puppy dog expression that she'd made the mistake of falling for occasionally. "Please don't ground me any more? It's going to be summer soon, I'll never get to leave the house!"
You were gone for over a year, she thought. Why don't you want to stay?
"You broke the rules," she said instead.
He made another face. "I just wanted to see them for a little longer."
Shina started to argue with him further, and then changed her mind.
She was tired. She was tired of all the old thoughts and new worries and that unacknowledged fear in the back of her mind saying he's gone again, he's disappeared. She didn't understand all these changes to their son, and trying to just reminded her how little a part she'd had in his life before he'd left.
"I'll think about it," she said.
Sora grinned, but didn't push his luck by saying anything. He still knew her pretty well, even if he was a stranger to her.
The thought was a small comfort, a sign that at least some things remained the same. Shina shook her head one last time. "Good night," she told him, turning to go. "Your clothes are in the closet."
"Thanks!" Sora replied. "Night!"
She stayed up later than usual that night, tangled up in her thoughts despite the weariness.
Shina had to leave the house too early the next morning to talk to Sora, due to business matters. It was always due to business matters, really, especially after her husband and then his father, the previous head of the business, had died; it wasn't that large an operation, but it seemed big enough to consume all her attention. By the time she'd finished recording the day's catch, balancing the accounts, and visiting the bank to make deposits and see about an extension on her credit to cover last month's electric bill, she'd made up her mind.
After dinner, Sora moaned when she handed him a copy of a page from the accounting book with the sums removed and told him to balance it, but soon got started.
She was done with the dishes by the time he finished, and she only had to scan a few lines down before she could see where his sums had started going wrong. She pursed her mouth.
"It's wrong?" Sora asked, looking up at her. She nodded.
He didn't sound particularly surprised, and she wasn't either; he was good enough with actual money, but just numbers without the physical component gave him trouble.
She huffed, and set her hands on her hips. "You're going to have to marry someone good at math," Shina said, not for the first time.
"I know, I know." He flopped down on the table. "Why am I doing this?"
"Do you like school?" she replied.
He blinked. "It's...okay?"
"... Not really," he conceded. "It's still really boring."
"Mm," she said. "I thought so."
"I'm thinking of asking for a refund of your tuition for rest of the year," Shina answered, and then calmly continued explaining through his reaction. "It's already paid, so you may as well stay until summer break; but I could use your help on the boat. With you there, I could afford to have someone help me out in the office." She picked up the paper. "You can start working on the boat during the break, and if you like it and you're good at it, there's no reason for you to keep going to school."
She looked over at Sora. He was frowning.
"What about Riku and Kairi?" he asked.
"You'll still see them in the afternoons," she replied, trying not to sound exasperated. She hadn't forgotten being young. "You know our fishing's almost all done by morning."
He was still frowning, so finally she began to fold the paper in half. "Just see how it goes during the summer, okay?"
"Will it really help you out?" Sora asked.
Shina thought of the interest rate the credit extension had come with, and said, "Yes."
She sat down at the table a moment later. "... I thought you'd be happy. I know you don't like school, and it must be hard to handle so much new material...."
"Okay!" he said, and she looked over. He was smiling. "If it'll help, sure."
". . . All right," she agreed, after a moment of hesitation, because that was one of those new smiles of his that made her nervous; it made him look older than he was, more mature, in a way that made her instinctively sad. "Thank you."
Sora kept smiling.
The next morning, she stayed back long enough to tell Sora that he was still grounded, but he could have friends over a few times a week. He somehow managed to dive out of his chair and hug her without knocking over his rice, which she considered a good enough start to the day.
She was completely unsurprised to see Kairi and Riku coming up the road with him that afternoon.
By the time the month was over and summer vacation was close, it was as though nothing had changed since their return. Sora was still friends with all the other kids around his age, and still friendly with most of the other people on the island; but the only ones that came over to their house while he was grounded were Kairi and Riku. She wasn't sure if he hadn't invited anyone else, or if he'd just neglected to tell others that they could.
The closeness between the three of them was growing more obvious by the day, to the point where ignoring it was almost more difficult than acknowledging it. Shina only persevered for the same reason she'd stopped asking Sora where he'd been: she had an idea of the answer, and it frightened her.
It's not normal, she thought, looking out the kitchen window at Sora and Riku. Just yesterday Sora had suddenly begun doing his own laundry, after being out for hours the previous night. They stood much too close for friends.
She hadn't forgotten being young; there had been a few months between when she'd left her parents' house to live with Naoki and when they'd been able to legally marry. There had been gossip, of course, but people had liked the two of them well enough and it had died down to the occasional whispered 'after all, they did...' sort of comment by the time Sora was born.
Riku seemed to catch her watching, because he tilted his head as though he were looking at the window. It was always hard to tell at a distance with him, because of those bangs. She turned away.
If only it were Kairi, just Kairi...Kairi wasn't normal, either, a girl who'd washed up on the beach and with no one who'd seen her before or come forward to claim her as a relation; but she was still closer to it than Riku. Especially now.
It wasn't normal, she thought, with one last glance out the window, which meant it was going to be hard for them in the future. Maybe it wasn't their fault, not entirely; but still, life had been difficult enough for Sora. He'd lost his father much too early for a child, and had a mother too stubborn to remarry, and had vanished on some terrible adventure that left him ready to fight shadows which he still wouldn't talk to her about; life had been hard enough already. She wanted easy roads for him from now on.
It would be one thing if that feeling between them lasted forever, if it were the same kind of emotion that kept Shina faithful to her husband all these years and trials later; but if it was just driven by temporary wants, by a fear of separation after whatever it was they went through...everyone would forgive Riku eventually, because of his family's status, and as the adopted daughter of the mayor Kairi would have a similar leniency; but it wouldn't be the same for Sora. Their family's position in the social web of the islands was based on a minor business and how people liked them, not on status gained by land or heritage. Sora had the most to lose.
She didn't like the thought of the three of them being what they were, but if it lasted, if they made it work, then . . . then it wasn't the worst of all possible worlds. She wanted easy roads for their son; but she knew he'd survive a few potholes.
It was just after the principal sent home another note warning her of the disruption the three of them had caused in class when Sora finally told her the truth.
An hour later, Shina was staring at the strange items strewn over the table: a ring, an earring, a belt that was clearly meant to serve as armor (and had served; there were dents in it, cuts and scrapes and gouges, what had their boy been through?), so many tiny things he called keychains, an elixir--something that was supposedly even better than a hi-potion--an ether, and more munny than Sora should possibly have. Could possibly have. Even if he had--had robbed someone, or Riku had gotten it for him to help further this prank, there was no way he could have this much. She played absently with one of the odd little meteors people had been pulling out of the water for years--a gummi block, according to Sora, something that could make flying ships--and tried to connect her sensible world with the insanity their son clearly, desperately wanted her to believe.
She knew him well enough to know there were pieces missing from this explanation, too; but what he had told her was hard enough to grasp right now. She could ask about the missing parts later, if she managed to accept all this.
"I know it's hard to believe," Sora said, even though he didn't sound like he thought it was, or else like he'd been among strange things for so long that even being back home for months made it difficult to remember that this world was different from the other ones.
Shina realized what she was thinking, and pressed a hand to her head.
"You're sixteen," she whispered. "How can this king--how could anyone ask something like this of you? Of all of you?"
"There's no one else who can," Sora stressed, pulling a chair up beside her. "There aren't any other keybearers right now."
"If there are other fighters on the worlds--"
"It's not the same," he interrupted, and she wondered suddenly if the three of them had practiced this, worked out what arguments their parents were most likely to come up with before finally telling their story. "There are things that only the keyblade can do."
She glanced at the end of the table, where the oversized key--the weapon--sat. She'd avoided looking at it since their son first pulled it out of thin air.
"You're too young," Shina retorted. It was one thing to be an adult when adulthood meant working in a family business and integrating into society; it was another when it meant fighting monsters on other worlds and risking his life. "Even with, even if those other people can't use that--thing, it's still asking too much!"
"I have to," Sora said. He reached out and cupped his hands over her own, tightly clamped around the meteo--gummi block. "It's better everywhere right now, with the hearts of the worlds sealed, but if something big happens again, like with Ansem or Xemnas--we'd have to leave again. I can't just abandon everyone."
"Didn't you do enough?"
Sora smiled again, that older, sadder smile that made her hands tighten further. "...I thought after I woke up I could just find Riku and go home, but...." He shook his head. "If something bad happens again, it doesn't matter what I did before. I still have to go face whatever's making trouble this time. I'm back, Mom, I promise. But I want to protect the rest of the worlds too. I have friends on all of them I can't just leave."
She looked over at him. Sora's face was earnest, serious.
I have to.
She believed him. He knew his father was a hero because he went out to help people who needed it, even at risk to himself. She'd raised him to always choose the right path, even if it was harder.
She'd waited four months for her husband's body to return after he went out that day. She'd waited two years for her son, only to find out he might never have returned at all if something--one of a hundred things, a thousand things, too many to think about--had gone differently. And now she was going to have to wait for him again and again, as he went off to fight for some king she'd never heard of in worlds she could barely believe were real. A world with no people, just animals? A kingdom under the sea? A universe where a mouse was king?
It would be so, so much easier if he were confused, or even crazy. She could bear the burden of that. But to have to accept this....
"...Mom?" Sora was watching her.
Shina looked at the table again, the objects on it that clearly weren't from their world, the keyblade. Then she looked back at their son.
Choose the right path, even if it's harder.
". . . I understand," she said quietly. And then, because her voice cracked, she said it again, louder: "I understand. I know...you couldn't just turn your back. Not if they need help."
"--Thank you," Sora said, before hugging her fiercely.
She let go of the gummi block and hugged him back; but in her heart, she couldn't help but think that this was the worst thing she'd ever done as a mother.
The feeling faded some, after she made Sora and Kairi and Riku show her their fighting abilities and magic spells and as she slowly learned just how strong they really were--even though again, she was sure that they were holding back, pulling strikes and not moving as fast as they probably could--and how well they worked together as a team. It eased a little more when she finally made Sora promise to let her meet this Donald and Goofy--at least one of whom was a parent, if...a talking dog, but who would understand her concern--and let her see how strong they were.
But it never went away altogether.
In a way, Shina didn't want it to--she hated the feeling, but in the end, she would rather be frightened and still have faith in their son and his friends than feel nothing at all.
The choices no parent wants to decide between.