It had been nearly thirty years since Riku stepped foot on land, and fifty since he’d last seen Sora in person. In dreams, he saw Sora often. Sometimes they were kind memories. Sora’s laughter, the way the corner of his mouth would turn up when he was about to be especially mischievous. How otherworldly he looked when he’d stand ankle-deep in the ocean, head tipped towards the sky, before Riku would wrap his arms around him and count his blessings that this god had chosen him.
More often, Riku dreamt of storms and the way Sora’s face had looked when they’d said good-bye for the last time, though Riku hadn’t known it would be the last. He dreamt of his feet pounding the cobblestones as he raced through town, legs shaky after ten years missing the earth, unsure of where Sora could be. Of how he spent the entire single day, the only day in ten years he’d been allowed onto land, sitting on the beach, feet buried in the hot sand, praying that Sora would return, just for an instant, like the green flash at sunrise the sailors always watched for.
Of how he’d gone back to his ship and his crew and collected 57 souls that night.
It would be impossible to never think of Sora. Sora was, of course, the entire reason Riku couldn’t step foot on land, and Sora was, of course, the entire reason Riku collected souls from the sea, and Sora was, of course, the man Riku had been in love with for sixty years.
He hadn’t known in the beginning, that Sora was the god of the sea. They’d been boys together, two young boys, barely sixteen, neither of them with parents, aboard the first vessel that would take them. If the Radiant Garden had mysteriously good fortune in regards to the weather, well, no one could really prove that.
He had been just a boy, tanned and freckled, laughing and fickle and prone to wandering off. He loved to adventures and he took to sailing like he was born for it. And Riku had followed him willingly, the both of them laughing and joking and then - one day - Sora’s hand, sliding into his like a gift Riku could never have expected, let alone been brave enough to ask for.
No. No, the boy Riku had fallen in love had always been the sea. Riku hadn’t known it at the time, but Sora had never been anything else. It would have been impossible for him to hide his true nature like that, really. The Sora that Riku had known was the only one, Riku knew that.
Every day, surrounded by the sea - Riku was never truly apart from him. Every time they spotted a dying ship, Riku remembered the boy who’d pressed kisses to his mouth and shared sticky sweet fruit with him on the beach, the boy who’d proven to be not a boy at all but so much more.
“Captain. We have a vessel in sight. Looks to be like pirates took her down.”
This was his job. Collect souls. If he hurried them along with attacks, well. The only one who would know he was doing it wrong had long since disappeared.
That did not explain why Sora was kneeling on the deck of the ship, hands bound, knife to his throat in a line of ten other survivors.
He looked just like a sailor again. Like they were boys. There was nothing left of the sea in him, Riku knew that. Riku was the reason for that.
He was so close Riku could touch him. He almost did, just to feel that smooth skin under his rough fingertips again. “What are you doing here?” There were murmurings among his crew they he silenced with a hand. This was not how he usually did things. He usually just proceeded down the row, finding the men who were willing to come aboard his ship for the next hundred years and killed the rest.
It wasn’t how he had done things the first ten years. Those years, he’d been a lot more kind.
But Sora. There, magnificently alive. Humanly alive, anyways.
Riku arranged his face so that not a single emotion could show. This was what he was good at. Men told horror stories, whispered across the deck like even saying the legends would cause ghosts to appear, but there were no ghosts, only Riku and his penance, the proof of his duty long gone.
They whispered stories of the Ghost Pirate, the monster who was darkness, gaping darkness that swallowed light whole, and it had made more than a few sailors jump to their deaths before they even listened to Riku’s bargain. Fine, then.
Sora drank him in, the corner of his mouth tightening just a bit as he looked into the void that Riku now was. No one else on this rainy deck would notice that, only Riku. Only Riku could know him like that.
He could feel nothing from Sora. He’d always been able to before, to hear the faint rushing of waves against the sand, feel the pressure of the water. Proof under his very hands that he’d caught the ocean for just a second, would press kisses into Sora’s collarbone and watch him smile, the sound of waves in his laughter.
It was gone now. The man cut off from the sea was just a man.
He looked good. He was wearing a captain’s hat and coat, there was a faint scar on his cheek. It wouldn’t surprise Riku if he’d made captain, he had an unnatural if understandable knack for understanding the currents, for foretelling danger and storms. The small crown-shaped music box still hung from his neck, the only necklace to grace it. Riku couldn’t believe he’d kept it. Then again, Riku still had his too, coiled tight around his wrist.
Sora tilted his head. “You collect souls either dead or dying, don’t you?” He said it like a question, but Riku knew it wasn’t. It was the duty he’d been given by the very man kneeling on this ship, captured again.
“You are neither.”
Sora shouldn’t be smiling, but he was. A cruel one that Riku had never seen, lurking beneath the surface. “Riku, Riku, don’t be silly. You’ve been killing me for years.” Sora raised his head, his neck pressing against the blade of the knife. A drop of blood welled up slowly. Riku sucked in a breath. He’d never seen Sora bleed before. “You’ll have to take me one day.”
Everything in Riku, whatever he had left, it all rebelled at the sentence. “I don’t see that I do.”
Sora narrowed his eyes. “Oh, I see.” He didn’t seem to care that this wasn’t a private conversation, in front of Riku’s entire crew. He never had any notion of privacy at all. “So, you’ll do your job sometimes as long as it isn’t me-”
“Enough,” Riku snapped. Sora’s eyes flashed angrily. Fifty years ago, that might have meant a storm or rough waves, misfortune at sea, storms, anything that would catch Riku’s breath for the horror of the majesty of it but Riku knew better than that now. Sora’s power was limited, if not gone entirely. “Fine. He is the only survivor.”
“Wait-” but the plea came too late. The blood was spilled, spreading across the deck and soaking the knees of Sora’s trousers. Riku’s crew tossed the bodies overboard and got back to work, allowing their captain to shepherd Sora into the captain’s quarters. They were a fine crew, but Riku was a strict captain. They knew not to ask, they knew to move, they didn’t question the black stains that crept up their fingers like the depths of the sea overtaking them. They signed onboard, they worked their years, they faded into the abyss of the sea.
Riku threw open the door to his quarters and shoved Sora through it - Sora was still so much smaller than him. Once, Riku had loved that, loved that he could wrap his arms entirely around Sora. Now it just meant that Sora stumbled forward until he caught himself on the edge of Riku’s desk, dislodging papers onto the floor. His quarters suddenly felt so warm and crowded with Sora in them, like he’d forced the sun through the door instead. “Stop looking so sad. The sea killed them.”
“You’ve been helping,” Sora accused, poking Riku in the chest. It stunned Riku, for a second. Sora was still so childish in a way that Riku hadn’t expected. But then, the enigma that was Sora was unknowable and untamable, but somehow steady, omnipresent. The sea had vexed many men before Riku and Riku wouldn’t be the last. “The boy I knew wasn’t mean.”
Riku rounded on him angrily, grabbing his arms and shaking him. “And whose fault is that!” Riku released him, sending Sora stumbling across the floor as the ship rocked. “You did this!”
Sora lifted his head, meeting Riku’s eyes. “Well, I’m not the one who cut out your heart,” he challenged, and Riku growled, pressing him against the wall. Sora scoffed. “Going to kill me, Riku?”
“Haven’t I already?”
Sora pressed his hand to Riku’s silent chest. Riku could feel tendrils of ice-cold darkness moving away from Sora’s fingers. If he looked in the mirror now, maybe he’d be the man Sora remembered. It had been so long since someone had touched him, skin on skin. He shivered. Sora noticed. “Not completely.”
Riku folded his hand against Sora’s - warm skin against cold - and then pushed it down, so they were disconnected again. He took a step back, dark wisps creeping back in so that he was coated in darkness and cold fury; aching bitterness lodged in his ribcage where his heart should be. Sora had never known this anger from him, he hated to show it now even if this is who he was. Even after all this, he didn’t want to show Sora the worst of himself, the cruelest parts, even though Sora knew. “I’ll have the crew drop you at port.”
Sora stared at him, narrowing his eyes like Riku was a particularly enticing puzzle to solve, a globe to be discovered. Those unblinking blue eyes on him, heavy, prickled at Riku’s skin. “Do you think I came out here for no reason? I came here to find you.”
Riku blinked, caught off-guard. “How did you find me?”
Sora gave him a very sad smile. “The sea isn’t completely gone from me,” he said softly, shoulders settling into a miserable slump. He wore it like he was used to it. He probably was. “Neither are you.”
Sora shrugged. Lightning quick, he reached out and broke the chain that kept the music box pressed tight against Riku’s wrist. The locket dropped to the ground, the lid popping open like it had been waiting all along to play their song, never failing. Riku had listened to it so many times, the first ten years. But he’d kept the locket. Sora let it play. “You try to be.”
He pushed away from Riku, wandering around his captain’s quarters. The heavy desk with the papers, the books that constantly slid off the shelves in storms. Riku didn’t know how he knew, but Sora’s hand stopped, momentarily, on the book that was carved out to hold every single letter Sora had ever written him, the book that Riku sometimes thought of as his heart. Sora seemed completely at ease, like it hadn’t been fifty years since he’d laid eyes on Riku.
“You’ve been trying this whole time,” Sora said, voice loud to be heard over the waves and the lullaby. “And you might think you’ve turned your job on the sea into something else, but you aren’t going to be happy like that. Trying to hide your heart from me - that wasn’t yours to hide, Riku. It’s always been mine.”
The question spilled from Riku’s lips before he could stop it. “Then why didn’t you meet me?”
Sora cocked his head, his hand leaving the book behind. He seemed surprised to find that Riku had stepped close to him when he turned around. “Meet you?”
“After ten years.” Riku pressed his hand to the crook of Sora’s shoulder, wrapping his fingers around the back of Sora’s neck in the way he liked. Sora shivered. So Riku hadn’t forgotten anything about him after all. “I did my job for ten years, and I came back to you. But you weren’t there.”
Sora was barely breathing. “Riku.” His name on Sora’s tongue has always been intoxicating. “I only stayed on land for you. After you left, so did I.”
“You couldn’t return for me? I - I gave you everything,” Riku said, and his voice sounded too raw and hurt for his own liking. He’d given up his life to Sora, he’d even given up Sora, to the timeless duty of collecting souls. Just because Sora had asked.
The soft touch of Sora’s fingers on his wrist brought him back to himself. “Riku, I just lost track of time,” Sora said, eyes so honest. Riku had always loved that about him.
“So I didn’t matter to you.” Riku said it, but it didn't ring true. Sora wouldn’t have. The ocean had shaped Riku’s own heart, smoothing away the blemishes, and Riku wanted to believe that he was similarly carved into Sora’s soul, even just a small mark against the thousands that Sora would have gained in an uncountable number of years.
“No,” Sora denied, voice too loud. He was too close, pressed right up against Riku. Riku could feel his heart beating. “Riku, of course you matter to me. I have always loved you, most of all. But the sea is part of me too. She takes me. There’s no time there.” He paused, mulling over his words. “Would you love me if I were anything else?”
Riku would love Sora no matter who he was. “I don’t love you.”
Sora’s fingers traced his cheek, the curve of his nose, the bow of his lips, each touch returning Riku to the way he used to be before darkness coated his heart. Riku had missed the feeling of fingertips on his face, mourned each moment Sora lifted away. But Sora always returned, so feather-light Riku might believe he was imagining it. “I don’t believe you,” Sora whispered, inches away from Riku’s mouth. “You can’t lie to me.”
“No,” Sora said, and he pressed his lips to Riku’s for the first time in fifty years. He tasted like the ocean still. After fifty years, Riku still knew the shape of his lips, the incessant way he kissed like waves upon the sand. “Would you give me your heart, Riku, if you still had it? I would give you mine.”
Yes, Riku wanted to say, and Sora knew it, from the way he cupped Riku’s jaw, pulling him in. Riku would have gone anyways, but- “I - I can’t,” he said, pushing away. Sora’s hands fell to his sides, limp. “I - I don’t know where my heart is.”
Sora tilted his head. He caught Riku’s lie this time too. Riku really had never been able to lie to him. Riku watched him clearly think about it and decided not to reveal the truth to the both of them. He didn’t need to say out loud what they both knew. “I do. It’s under the paopu tree on the beach.”
“You know what beach.”
Their beach, of course. Where they’d been boys conquering the world together. “Sora, I can’t give that to you,” Riku begged, hands twisting in the fabric of Sora’s shirt. “It’s – it’s broken.”
“I’ll fix it.”
“But you shouldn’t.”
Riku pushed him away again, already missing the warmth against his chest. “Because I did this to you!” Sora was so easily able to fill up the emptiness hidden by his ribcage. Maybe that emptiness had always been there and Sora had always been filling it up with sunlight and ocean salt. Maybe that was what love was. Not that Riku should know that anymore. “I cut out my heart because I did this to you because I was angry and I hated you and I still do!”
Sora pressed his hand against Riku’s chest again. It felt heavy all of sudden, like his heart had returned. He could hear it, pounding a steady beat against his ribcage. “But you love me.”
“I know everything you did, and I love you.” Was it Riku’s imagination or was it echoing, was the rhythm of the ocean promising him the same? “So I’ll ask again, Riku. Would you give me your heart, if you had it?”
“It’s always been yours,” Riku admitted helplessly. “I can’t give you what you already possess.”
Sora smiled, victorious, as he slid his lips against Riku’s again. “I thought so,” he boasted, and then Riku lost himself in the insistent kisses, kisses pushing and pulling like the tides.
The second time Riku had returned to land to find Sora not waiting for him, he’d started looking for revenge. He wasn’t necessarily proud of it. But twenty years was a long time to be at sea, not even able to enjoy food or wine, not able to do anything but think about Sora. The waves crashed along the bow of the ship, beating out a rhythm that matched Riku’s heart. Sora, Sora, Sora, until his head was filled with nothing else but memories and anger.
Pirates were good at finding secrets and even better at spilling them, and Riku was a pirate through and through, had the scars to prove it. So he spilled the secrets. The only living being in the world who knew Sora’s weakness, if you could call him living, still, and he let them fall out of his mouth without even a gold coin to ease their passing.
And pirates were easily riled up and they hated the ocean, with her constant storms and her unwillingness to be conquered. Riku remembered men being like that, Sora tucked under his arm, before he’d known, before Sora had shared, but he didn’t think he had. He’d always loved the sea, how she refused to bow to any more. Maybe that was why Sora had loved him back.
He didn’t stay to see the ritual in person. He was sure that if he saw Sora’s face, appeared from the water like a siren, he’d break, he’d beg, he’d slaughter every man who dared to harm Sora. Hard to do when he was the man intending harm. Instead he watched from his ship, used a spyglass on the bonfire to see two men pull - no, create - a figure from the water, silhouetted against the bonfire, a figure Riku would know even from miles away, even if he couldn’t see the expression on his face. He’d loved that figure his entire life, knew every inch of it, knew that it was about to be torn apart.
Sora turned and looked at him. He couldn’t know Riku was there - or maybe he could, Riku was employed to the ocean and that belonged to Sora for a few more moments. Riku couldn’t see his face from this far but he could still feel the weight of Sora’s eyes on him.
He forced himself to watch. His own penance, as it were. As the bonfire died down, they started the ritual. Riku couldn’t imagine why Sora had ever told him this. Twenty years ago, Riku wouldn’t have ever believed he’d share it either. He was so wrapped up in Sora that he never would have thought of betraying him.
But he was betrayed first. So Sora was bound to a human form and Riku could feel the ocean under his feet mourn, could feel the waves that pulsed through the entire sea, could feel Sora’s connection to it die.
He cut out his heart, after that.
When he woke up, Sora was gone. That was not unusual; Sora had always been an early riser and once Riku knew what he was, Sora had a habit of disappearing into the ocean and reappearing in a few days, looking just the same.
He’d expected Sora to be gone. Maybe he would never return. Maybe he would. Riku couldn’t know, but he’d try waiting a little longer this time.
Riku dressed mechanically, stepping over the locket on the ground where Sora had dropped it. After a second, he stooped down and picked it up, letting it twirl in the soft sunlight. It winked at him and he slid the chain over his neck, the crown settling against his heart. He could feel the slight ache as it pushed away inky darkness, a familiar ache that meant he was alive.
He knew what he'd find if he looked in the mirror. Dead blackened skin, coated with darkness so that anyone who saw him coming really only saw wafting tendrils of black smoke. The Dead Ghost Pirate, sent to steal souls. But there, right above the scar from his taken heart, he could tell Sora was keeping that at bay.
A curse, he knew, for not following his duty, but he’d never cared what he looked like before he was a ferryman for souls lost at sea, a Charon in his own right, and he didn’t care now. If anything, today he welcomed it. He should look like this, for so casually betraying Sora, ripping him from all that he’d known since the creation of the earth. Sora wouldn’t say, of course, but to be everything and be destroyed, to be so known that he could not be what he was anymore - maybe he was in so much pain he was simply numb. He’d always had a habit of putting Riku before himself.
Riku pulled his coat on, smoothing down the sleeves. He already missed Sora more than he could bear. He missed Sora’s hands, cradling his jaw so gently that it burned. He put his hand to the mirror, yellow eyes searching for a hint of green.
“You know, I fell in love with you because your eyes were the color of the ocean,” Sora told him once, a secret whispered into the shell of Riku’s ear. They’d been stuffed together into a tiny room in one of the local inns, so small they couldn’t both stand in it together, and the bed was barely any better, but Riku didn’t know how to be any other way. “I like that.”
Riku closed his sea-green eyes, smiling as Sora peppered him with kisses, tracing a pathway across his shoulder. It tickled, a little bit, and he tried not to laugh and failed. “You mean you fell in love with yourself?”
He could feel Sora’s grin against the hollow of his throat. “I thought that maybe you could handle me. You and your always-changing eyes.”
Riku had laughed at the time. “That’s your reason?”
“Yes,” Sora insisted. “Then I fell in love with the rest of you and it didn’t matter what color your eyes were, because they were mine.”
Maybe next time Sora saw him, he’d be as he used to. A man, not a monster. Riku could promise that to himself. Riku had to.
When Riku stepped aside, he saw Sora. He’d forgone his coat - how had Riku not noticed in his cabin? - and the wind was catching his hair, his sleeves, turning him ethereal. He was standing just a little way down the deck, elbows propped up on the bannister, right in the center of where all the blood but his had been spilt last night. Riku’s crew was giving him a wide berth, not wanting to get up close and personal with the only man their captain had let live in thirty years, the man who wouldn’t bow to him. They refused to look at him, eyeing the dried blood under his heels instead. Sora likely didn’t care about any of that.
As Riku watched, Sora lifted a hand towards the sky, palm up, like he was catching rain even though it was a beautiful blue sky, even though the sun was rising against his back and casting his shadow across his ocean, ghosts that couldn’t touch.
Riku took a few steps forward. Sora was still here. Sora was still here.
"Gonna drop me at the docks, sailor?" Sora asked, eyes closed. He was smiling. Riku had never understood how Sora always knew it was him. Riku reached out, smoothing a hand of Sora's shoulder, settling his thumb in the crook of Sora's neck. Sora leaned his head back, smile becoming a grin. Riku loved that smile, loved the way it pierced through him until he was nothing more than a man in love with the sea, in love with a boy.
"I thought you'd left."
For a second, Riku thought Sora would say I could never leave you. But Sora didn’t. He pursed his lips, just for a second. "Not really a possibility anymore," he replied. "If you remember.”
Riku’s breath caught. He buried his face in Sora’s shoulder, hunched over because he couldn’t stand straight when Sora’s voice was so clearly full of longing and trying not to be. “I’m sorry.” He tried to wring every bit of emotions he had into the words, pulling them from his bones. Of course Sora wouldn’t say I could never leave you. Riku had made that impossible. Riku, the old Riku, the Riku that Sora loved, had never wanted to trap Sora. Only the Riku standing here on the bow, sun beating down relentlessly, only that Riku. “I’m so sorry.”
The words didn’t mean much, Riku knew that. Sora’s spine was ramrod straight, his shoulders tense. Maybe he knew which Riku was standing on deck with him. “You were angry.”
“I was furious,” Riku confessed to Sora’s shoulder, chancing a hand on Sora’s back. Like this, he couldn’t tell if he was leaning on Sora or he was bearing Sora’s weight. Perfect balance. “And jealous. But - still.”
Sora turned around in Riku’s arms, back braced against the siding, to cup Riku’s face. Black ink started spilling down his hands, dripping onto the deck, coating the white of his sleeves with oil. There were whispers behind them, the crew must be staring, but Sora didn’t seem to mind them or the stains. “There you are.”
“Here I am.” As if he’d only been misplaced.
Sora smoothed his finger over Riku’s cheek. “Are you going to stay?”
Riku shook his head. He didn’t know. “Are you?”
Sora’s blue eyes dimmed, just a little bit. “I can’t.” He offered up a soft smile. “I’m neither dead nor dying, remember? You’ll have to drop me off at port.”
Riku stepped back, reluctantly, boots thudding dully on the deck. They were only another day from port. Sora’s ship had likely just barely set sail, carrying sugar and spices and whatever else they’d stolen. “Of course.”
“Don’t be like that,” Sora said, pulling him closer, winding his arms around Riku’s waist like a coil of rope. A constant tug of war, the both of them, pushing and pulling. “I’ll see you again. Still have a whole life to live.”
“What happens if you die,” Riku said, suddenly horrified. He’d never thought about this. He’d wanted revenge, not murder, but he had never thought about this, about the mortal flesh under his fingers, about that heart in Sora’s chest being too easily silenced. “If you die like this?”
Sora shrugged, hardly bothered. “A new adventure, I suppose.”
Riku hated himself. “Why aren’t you angry,” he spat, because he was boiling over with rage at himself, because he needed Sora to be angry, and just like that, Sora was, his face twisting into outright fury. He pushed back out of Riku’s arms, nails scoring red lines against Riku’s wrists as he whirled back to the look at the ocean.
“Of course I was,” Sora snapped. “Am. Don’t touch me. I don’t know.”
Sora has always hated to be trapped or caged during a fight, and it was Riku who insisted they have one, so he kept his hands to himself, curled into fists at his side, even though Sora looked more lonely than angry. “I understand.”
“You don’t.” As if on cue, clouds started to roll in, the crew looking up nervously, and although Riku knew, he knew, it couldn’t be Sora, he couldn’t help but marvel at this power. As if the skies and seas themselves were still attuned to his mood. No wonder men wanted to tame him, force him down. “I didn’t think about this.”
“I tried to put myself in your shoes,” Sora said, undercurrent of anger and something else mixing in his voice. He cast his glance towards the clouds. “I tried to think about being alone. Ten years is nothing to me, but for you, that - that was half your life.” His hands were fluttering in front of him, like he was trying to hold onto that feeling and they were shaking so badly that he couldn’t, that it was slipping through his fingers like water. “So I tried to imagine how it felt to be alone for a lifetime, thinking that I’d have just one day to find you, and how it would feel.”
Riku hated to hear it put like this. He’d lived it. “And?”
Sora dropped his hands against the railing with a thud, suddenly still. “You cut out your own heart,” he whispered, face twisting into something horrified, impossibly sad, instead of answering. Or maybe that expression was an answer, the both of them aching so much the only choice was to let go. Sora peeled his white knuckles free and hid his face, strolling away and up the stairs towards the wheel.
Riku could only shrug as the helmsman looked at him desperately when Sora veered close, because there was no stopping Sora’s rough palms from taking over. Then he disappeared, leaving just the two of them, because Riku had followed, of course. “Sora-”
“Don’t you think it’s time you forgave yourself? I have.”
Of course he had.
“I shouldn’t have done it.” It was easier to spill the secrets here now, in the sunlight, where Riku had to squint to see any expression on Sora’s face, where maybe the words would burn up in the heat before Sora could hear them. “I could have handled it better.”
Sora shrugged dismissively. “You were always prone to dramatics.”
It could be that simple. Maybe Sora had had worse this in all his millennia. This was barely thirty years, a mosquito bite. Maybe in another five hundred years, Riku would barely be able to remember this pain either. He didn’t know if he liked that. He needed to remember this. If it didn’t matter to Sora and he knew that it did, no matter how Sora wanted to lie, it would always matter to Riku and he’d never forget that cruel grin from yesterday. He’d promise himself that.
“Why did you even tell me?”
“No - not that,” Riku said, momentarily caught off guard. “About - about imprisoning you.”
Sora let the wheel go and it started spinning lazily. Riku grabbed at it immediately, pulling them back on course. He knew Sora knew what he was doing, making a general nuisance of himself, maybe because he was bored, maybe because he wanted to be petty and couldn’t think of another way to do it during this conversation Riku had forced, following him around digging up old wounds. Riku loved him impossibly.
“I wanted you to know,” Sora said finally, the breeze carrying his words over to Riku. “You should know every piece of me.” Riku wondered if he still knew every bit, wondered what of Sora might have changed to jagged edges that Riku couldn’t touch, had never seen.
Guilt sank into Riku’s stomach again, as if a poisoned knife had slipped in between his ribs. “You could have kept yourself safe-” But he’d thought he was safe. He’d trusted Riku with that.
“There was always a chance you might use it,” Sora said, shaking his head. “That’s why I had to tell you.”
Riku thought he understood that, somehow. To be so known that they could ruin each other and simply have the faith that they wouldn’t. To be on equal footing, maybe. He could understand that.
Sora was curled up against him the next morning, for once, and outside the windows, it was gray and cloudy. Riku liked to think that it was to do with Sora’s mood today too, that Sora was reluctant to leave him behind, but he didn’t ask. He didn’t know what to do no matter the answer.
The shore was there despite the fog, however; Riku’s first mate standing at the skiff ready to take Sora back to port. Riku couldn’t go. Riku had four years left before he could take a single step onto the sand. He’d be finding their beach again this year, even if Sora never returned. He understood better now.
Sora put his own captain’s hat on Riku’s head, tilting it just so. “You look very handsome.”
Riku pushed the hat back so that he could see Sora’s face clearly. Sora was smiling and so close that Riku could count every single freckle, navigating the ocean with the stars. “You’re ruining my crew’s image of me,” he grumbled, shaking his head. He wasn’t certain any of them had ever seen his true face before yesterday. Possibly they didn’t even know his name; they only called him Captain. Sora had already endeared himself to all of them, of course, even if they’d only whisper it when Riku wasn’t around. Riku - he wanted better now too. He wanted them to call his name, he wanted the darkness to fade from all off them until he could see their real eyes under the yellow glow.
“As if they’ve never loved a difficult man far out at sea,” Sora dismissed, eyes twinkling. Riku used to wonder that if he dove deep, so deep that the surface was gone, if the ocean would be the same blue as Sora’s eyes. “Will I see you again?”
Riku knew what Sora was asking. He’d see Sora again, of course, if Sora insisted on standing on ship decks and climbing sails, keeping a weather eye on the horizon. Sooner or later, everyone on the ocean came close to death, that was life. So yes, Riku would see Sora again. But Sora wasn’t asking about that. He was coaxing darkness from Riku’s soul. He meant something else, something deeper than skin.
“I’ll try,” Riku promised. He could do no more than that. He wanted to. These two days being alive again with Sora were intoxicating. He pressed his thumb to the three freckles that lived on the underside of Sora’s jaw and Sora let him.
“Good,” Sora said softly, turning his head ever so slightly to press a kiss to Riku’s palm. “I miss your eyes.”
Then he disappeared, not even once last lingering kiss for Riku to remember him by.
Well, that didn’t matter. Riku could never forget.
He hoped to find the nine pieces of eight before the four years were up. He knew this sea like the back of his hand, and he heard the comings and goings of ships. It proved to be far more difficult than he imagined, especially when he took up his job again. No cannons or gunfire or the ringing clash of swords anymore. Just a ferryman, soothing lost souls, sending them on their way. He hoped whatever they found in the next life was peaceful.
He found the first piece after months of searching, stealing it back from a man about to die. Not by Riku’s hand, but a captain who refused to admit that he was simply too old for this anymore, who couldn’t withstand the sea’s anger or the sun’s fury. He was the same man who had stood there thirty years ago and trapped Sora and he passed it over willingly enough. Riku’s name was still fear and death on his lips.
The second piece was a bit harder, but it soon came too, a playing card in the hands of a known gambler.
(“Patched things up with your lover then?” The captain called after him as he left, feeling strong because Riku had not cut him down. It was only because Riku could finally see bits of himself peeking through the ink, like the heartline on his palm Sora had once joked was eons long, that the man lived.)
The third; a silver flask that held wine that hadn’t been touched in thirty years.
He whittled them down.
He saw Sora, just once, at sea, in the middle of a swordfight, so alive it was painful. Riku longed for him, longed to heal the cut spilling blood down on his cheek. Sora had seen him too, seen the ghost ship, and the grin on his face was clear through the spyglass. I’m still here, he seemed to be saying. I’m still alive. Then he was yelling, his ship sailing away victorious, and Riku was left with the sinking remains of a burning lost ship, souls crying for help. He granted it. That was his job now (again).
Just before he’d left for port, Sora had cradled their matching lockets gently in his palm, the twin harmonies intertwining. Part of the same set. “You can play this underwater when you miss me,” Sora told him as the melody wound down.
“You can’t hear it like that,” Riku said uncertainly, sitting up. Sora made a sound of protest as he was dislodged, sliding onto the bed in a tangle of limbs. He looked completely undignified. “You aren’t connected to the sea anymore.”
“I’m connected to you.” Sora flahsed Riku a cheesy grin before winding them up again.
Riku kissed his cheek, unable to stop himself. “What’ll you do with it?”
“Know you miss me,” Sora said simply, as if that were enough. It wouldn’t call him, the way it always had before. Before, Riku had only to dip the locket into the water, letting it play a few notes, before Sora was there, arms open wide. He played it sparingly because of that, because it seemed cruel to pull Sora away, but Sora had never minded, not once. Maybe they’d never been as on the same page as they thought.
With Sora gone again, Riku listened to the locket every night for a few weeks, as if he were weaning himself off it. It had been so long since he’d heard it but of course he knew every note still. That was what being with Sora again was like, even after thirty years, even for only two days. Like they hadn’t sang together in so long but they still knew how, like it had been only seconds since the lullaby stopped.
Everything was sharper with Sora here and gone again, like Riku had been suffocating and was now taking his first breath of life-saving air. It felt good.
He didn’t drape the locket through the sea. He figured Sora would know Riku missed him constantly anyways.
He had only acquired four pieces of eight by the time four years was up. They sat on his desk alongside the book with Sora’s letters, which Riku let himself reread often now, tracing the familiar worn folds. Riku left them behind as he made his way to shore.
Sora was on the beach waiting for him. He was singing a little tune, something he must have picked up in a tavern somewhere, something about lovers lost and sails high and one night together. Riku hadn’t been sure Sora would be here. It wouldn’t have mattered if Sora had or hadn’t been, Riku had had four years to gain a bit of wisdom and he would have missed Sora, surely, but Sora was here.
Riku cleared his throat. He’d thought that it would be strange to be back on land again, but it felt the same as it always had, nothing spectacular, nothing that he missed. It hadn’t been the sand or cobblestone streets that Riku had been so attached to. No, he belonged wholly to the ocean. “Sora.”
Sora tipped himself back, his smile so big it must have been painful. He all but threw himself into Riku’s arms, kicking up sand so that they both fell backwards. “Riku!”
Riku buried his face in Sora’s hair, drinking him in, memorizing the weight of him. “I missed you.”
“I missed you too!”
“You look older,” Riku told him, though he couldn’t tell if it was true. Thirty years hadn’t stuck to Sora’s bones, so these four years probably didn’t matter either, but there were more laughter lines at the corner of Sora’s eyes. There was a faint scar on Sora’s cheek, from the wound he’d gathered two years past while Riku had watched.
Sora grinned, hardly bothered. “It’s been a good four years.” He reached up and tugged at a lock of Riku’s hair, white-silver without interference. It had been silver for a full year now, shining white in the sun. “Don’t you think?”
Riku dropped his head back, let it rest on the golden sand on their beach. Above him, the leaves of the paopu tree rustled in the early morning breeze. A whole day together. “I think so,” he admitted honestly, and Sora captured him in a kiss.
It was almost sunset when Riku shared his secret. He’d let Sora tell him tales of the past thirty-four years for most of the day. Sora had been a captain and a cabin boy and a server a tavern, had been on two ships, had been two four continents now. He had been named godfather to a child, which he found incredibly funny. He had broken three fingers and had them improperly set, which meant he wasn’t very good at hauling in the sails anymore. Riku watched as he flexed those three fingers, the way they trembled from the effort, how they couldn’t curl entirely. That didn’t stop him from building a sand castle, with a tiny little moat and a little sand person on the bridge.
Riku told him about being captain, about being the ghost pirate, about what it felt like to shirk his duty, how it felt like a betrayal every time until he’d had another betrayal to think about. It had used to be that Sora and Riku could talk for hours under the sun, as their cheeks burned red. Riku had missed that, had missed being two sides of the same coin.
But he’ll end the day like this. “I want to give this to you.”
Sora looked at him, automatically holding his hand out. Riku captured it, pressing kisses along his wrist. Sora laughed. “Is it too big to hold?”
“It’s here.” Riku patted the sand between them. He could practically feel the heart beating, even though it was buried deep. Maybe it knew its proper owner was sitting atop it, maybe it was just waiting to be cradled in Sora’s hands. “I want to give it to you.”
Sora narrowed his eyes at him, knowing these was something else. “But?”
“I’m finding the nine pieces of eight,” Riku said. He had to. Even if Sora was content on the beach together today, it had to be tearing him up. He’d grow restless. If Riku didn’t solve this, there was no moving forward, not really. “It’s the same, isn’t it?”
Sora watched him, gaze heavy, waiting for Riku to finish his thought. He’d known the heart was there, of course. Whether that was magic or because no one else know Riku so well, Riku didn’t know. Besides, the heart belonged to him.
“You want all of me,” Riku persisted, scooting close. He was ruining all the little sand etchings Sora had made, but he didn’t think Sora would care. “And I want all of you. Isn’t that the same?” Sora needed the sea, fully, to be the man Riku loved and knew, just like Riku needed his heart to be the same one Sora had chosen.
“You want to be returned together,” Sora said, lips curling up in a surprise smile. “That’s very romantic, Riku.”
Riku looked away, face burning. “I’ll give it to you when I free you,” he promised. “But it’s always been yours. I - I know I haven’t been very good at showing it, but I hope you know that.”
Sora kissed him. Riku could taste the paopu on his lips. “I’ve always known that,” he promised.
“So we have a deal?”
“Seal it with a kiss,” Sora pestered him, like they hadn’t shared thousands today, and Riku couldn’t help but oblige, despite the hour. He was skirting the setting sun, could feel the ocean calling in his bones, but the ocean could be in two places at once for a little longer.
Eventually, though, he broke away. “I have to go,” he said regretfully.
Sora blinked owlishly at him, like he had forgotten his own curse. “I know.” He helped Riku collect his things; his shoes, his coat, his sword, tossed aside on the sand. He pressed the scabbard into Riku’s hands. “I’ll be here in ten years.”
Riku stopped pulling on his boots and turned back to him, bathed in the light of the setting sun. His eyes looked more red than blue. “You don’t have to be.” Sora wasn’t meant for time frames, of being forced to return. He was meant to be free and Riku wanted him to have as much as he could right now, to ease the pain.
“I will be,” Sora insisted, fiddling with Riku’s collar. “I didn’t realize it was so important to you.” He tugged at Riku’s hair, twisting a few strands into a simple braid. “I’d have shown up had I known.”
“I know that now,” Riku told him. “And - it’s not as important to me anymore. I’ll still have you, won’t I?”
“Always,” Sora promised. The sun was but a sliver. Riku could hear his crew coming to get him. Sora tilted his face towards Riku, towards the sunset. “So I’ll be here in ten years.”
Riku had one last kiss in him before he was pulled away.
The last five pieces were harder to find. Perhaps everyone had heard Riku was coming for them, perhaps they were just batter hidden. It took him nearly all ten years to track them down, in between ferrying souls and signing on crew. There was more laughter on deck these ten years, more silly stories and camaraderie, so they didn’t feel nearly as long.
The last piece of eight called to him, submerged under the water like a siren lure. His ship appeared out of the night almost immediately, finding a small schooner with a pirate flag raised high. There was only a girl on deck, short black hair and dressed in all black. Even with all the moonlight it was hard to see her. She kept her eyes on him as he boarded.
“The ghost pirate, I presume.” He voice was soft. She seemed too young to be a captain.
“At your service.”
She held up a perfect yellow seashell. Her hand was still wet from where she’d clearly dipped the damn thing into the ocean. Riku could feel it’s power radiating. “I assume you’re here for this?”
“Yes,” he said warily, hand going to his sword. Her eyes flicked downward then back up to his. Wary. Not that unsettled. She’d also heard, then, that he wasn’t killing anymore. “What’s the catch?”
She lifted her chin, meeting his eyes. “I heard you’d be coming for it.” She shrugged. “You can take it. It doesn’t mean anything to me, definitely not enough to die for.” She hesitated, not sure if she should say the rest of what she wanted to, but she did anyways. “And you seem sad.”
Riku frowned, shifting uncomfortably. He could feel his first mate’s eyes on his back, wondering what was taking so long. “Who did you get that from?”
“My old captain passed it down to me,” she said honestly. “He told me the story. So, are you? Sad, I mean?”
“Just lonely, I think,” Riku told her honestly. He held out his hand. She dropped it in his without touching him. It was singing at him.
Some part of him that liked playing games, the part of him that had signed onboard a pirate’s ship in the first place, that part of him refused to dip the locket in the ocean, to let Sora know that the pieces had been found.
He wanted to know if Sora would show up again.
It was a fool’s game, even, because if Sora didn’t, what did it matter when they had hundreds of years? Maybe it was a game for Riku himself, to test how he felt more than to test Sora. How might he react if Sora wasn’t there? He’d expected Sora the first time, too; the first ten years, he’d stepped onto the beach so confident. He couldn’t tell if it was the same confidence or a different one, couldn’t tell if it was going to destroy him again.
He fingered the cool metal key to his heart in his pocket.
It didn’t matter anyways. Sora was there on the beach, perched atop the bend of paopu tree, watching the sunrise spread red and gold across the ocean blue. “Riku,” he cooed, twisting around. His face was sunburned, the skin on his nose peeling. He hadn’t been wearing a hat, maybe, since he’d given Riku his.
Riku ensnared him, winding his arms around Sora’s waist. Sora’s hair tickled his nose and Riku dropped a kiss to it, smiling. Even though the sun was barely up, Sora felt warm all over.
Sora tipped himself back so that he was half-sliding off the tree trunk, body suspended in air, Riku being the only thing holding him up. A trust fall of sorts. “You’re ridiculous,” Riku protested, walking them both forward in an awkward waddle until he was pressed against the tree trunk and Sora was pressed against him.
“You love me,” Sora laughed. He was feeling around behind him, blind. His wandering fingers found Riku’s ear, knocked Riku’s hat off into the sand, and carefully made their way over to Riku’s mouth. “You’re smiling!”
“I love you,” Riku agreed. Sora pulled at his lip. “I’m smiling.”
“I told you I’d be here.”
“I know.” He climbed over the tree trunk, boots scraping the bark, and settled next to Sora, who was swinging his bare feet in the air. “You look good.”
“So do you,” Sora said. He wound a lock of Riku’s hair around his finger, just like last time. “I didn’t think you wouldn’t.”
Sora wanted to wait until near-sunset to do everything and Riku was fine with that, knowing that the second it was done, Sora would join the sea again for who knew how long. Maybe Riku wouldn’t see him in a hundred years or a thousand, but he’d be there in every storm, every wave, ever drop of water that kissed Riku’s cheek.
Sora had brought cheap wine and bread and fruit, offered it up with a smile for their picnic. He had more tales of ten years past now, of course. He was always capable of spinning a story like no one else, waving his hands about and mimicking voices. But eventually the day had to end, it always did.
With luck, the rest of the days were beginning.
Riku scooped out the last grape from the bowl and popped it in his mouth. He’d long discarded his coat and he dug around in the pockets where it was hanging off the tree. It slipped off into the sand as Riku pulled out the nine pieces of eight, spilling them into the now-empty bowl.
Sora reached out and touched the flask, smoothing his finger over the silver engraving. “This is only eight.”
Riku blinked down at them, confused for a moment. “Oh.” He pulled from his breast pocket a small key, the key that he’d carried for thirty years. He hadn’t been there to trap Sora, but he’d been the last piece, the reason they could. Sora probably hadn’t known this part, that Riku had carried around this piece just above his missing heart, a cruel reminder. Riku suddenly felt cold despite the fading sun. He rolled his shoulders, trying not to shiver, and dropped the key with a metallic clank. “Ready?”
“No time like the present.” Sora did not offer a kiss for good luck, simply lifted the bowl up, his fingers curling over the edges.
Riku struck a match. When he dropped it, the pieces immediately caught light, enough to create a fire that Riku could feel the heart on his face. They burned; the smoke was acrid on his tongue. He pressed a hand to his mouth, trying not to gag, but Sora leaned forward, breathing it all in.
Riku turned to him, throat aching. “Sora,” he said, so quietly he couldn’t be sure Sora even heard it. As if by a lover, the mantra rang, and Riku suddenly felt shy like a cabin boy, never knowing the touch of love, like he’d been fooling everyone all along. His mouth was dry as he tucked a lock of hair behind Sora’s ear to whisper, “I - I release you from your human bonds.”
Sora groaned, the bowl dropping from his hands to spill the smoldering tokens across the sand. He pulled at Riku, hands tight on Riku’s jaw, kissing him and spilling smoke into his mouth until Riku was burning inside with the desire to cough but he couldn’t pull away, he knew, could only stay here, locked into this kiss, and he didn’t want to pull away anyways, he wanted to stay here.
Sora was the one who gasped for air first. Riku coughed. Just like that, Sora turned to water under his hands, drops raining into the ocean.
Riku only had a few minutes but he dug under the paopu tree with his hands, already knowing what he’d find. The chest that held his heart, full of seawater but nothing else. Sora had taken it with him.
“Your name is Sora,” Riku pointed out stupidly. The first thing he said after Sora had shown him true power, a tidal wave out of nowhere crashing against Riku, the proof of what Sora was. But he still stood just like a boy. Riku knew every bit of him and yet he hadn’t known this. He’d always loved Sora, all-encompassing, and he’d thought Sora felt the same towards him but now he felt strangely off-kilter, like the land under his feet was sinking. Everything was different now. A new horizon. “Shouldn’t you be the god of the sky?”
“I chose the name,” Sora explained. He carefully moved a step closer, one step out of the ocean, then another. He stopped just a little bit from the shore, the water tugging at the ends of his rolled-up pants. There was a smudge of sand on his cheek. “I like that it’s the same everywhere. No matter what, it touches the ocean the same.”
“Right,” Riku said, swallowing. “Um.”
“You alright?” Sora asked, and he meant more than just now, he meant forever. He was always supporting Riku, pulling him up, checking in to make sure if he was fine with gentle eyes. He wasn’t asking if Riku was thirsty or sunburnt or tired, he was asking if this was going to change them forever. Riku watched Sora swallow his nervousness down. He was biting at his bottom lip; he wasn’t even trying to hide it. Riku knew him too well. “I’m still the same, you know.” His voice, a little plaintive, a little scared.
Of course he was. Riku took a step forward, then another until the tides were breaking at his ankles, then his knees. “I - I still know you.” This was Sora as he’d always been, Riku just knew a little more about his now.
“You know me,” Sora promised. He opened his arms wide. He let Riku step right into them. “You always have.”
Riku stayed on the beach a few more minutes, unsure what to do with the chest. It felt wrong to throw it away, not when it had held such an important piece of him for so long. So it went with him as they rowed back, the sand in Riku’s jacket scratching uncomfortably against the back of his neck.
It was good that his first mate was holding the chest when Riku climbed on board, because Riku would have dropped it when he saw who was on board, perched on the railing like that wasn’t dangerous at all.
“Took you long enough,” Sora said, giving Riku a wink. He’d found a captain’s hat somewhere in the last hour.
“How-” Riku said, but that wasn’t the right question, even as his feet carried him over to Sora in two long steps, even as yanked Sora off the bannister and threw his arms around Sora’s neck. It felt like Sora was the only thing holding him up. “Why?”
“You didn’t think one day was enough, did you?” Sora teased, tapping a comforting pattern on Riku’s waist. Riku turned his head, just slightly, to catch a flash of Sora’s quicksilver smile.
“Maybe,” Riku mumbled.
The ocean was quiet, rocking them back and forth, and Riku didn’t know how long they’d been lying here together, only knew that they fit together perfectly. “I really missed you,” Riku let himself admit.
Underneath him, Sora shifted a little bit. His thumb was smoothing comforting circles on Riku’s shoulder blade. “I missed you too,” he said honestly, the truth shining in his voice. He’d never been good at hiding his emotions, but neither had Riku. They both had tempers that rose to the surface too easily, but that also meant the good things floated to the top easily too. It wasn’t all bad, despite the arguments. “More than anything. That was the worst part, I think. I couldn’t find you when – if – you called.”
Riku smiled against his chest, turning his head to look at the night sky out the window. He’d always liked stargazing with Sora. There was something right about the ocean and the stars leading him home. He could get used to this. “I don’t think so.”
“Yes,” Sora insisted, the trace of a smile on his face. “I only do things for you, Riku.”
Riku let out a chuckle. It was a little silly, but it was nice to hear, honestly. “What about the last man who had this post,” he teased, shifting his head so Sora could better play with the silver tendrils of his hair. Oh, yes, he could certainly get used to this. Maybe he even should.
Sora frowned, confused. “Who?”
“Well, there was a captain before me, wasn’t there? Ferrying souls?” The ocean was a lot older than Riku, eons older. It would outlast him after he was gone.
"Ohhh," Sora said. Riku peered back at him, at the nostalgic look on Sora’s face. "Lovely man. He fell in love with a beautiful sailor and gave up immortality a few years after I met you.”
Riku frowned, sitting up a little bit. He hadn’t expected the story to go like that. He couldn’t imagine who would take this post if they didn’t do so for the love of the ocean in all its forms. He’d expected a long line of Sora’s lovers. "So he didn't love you?"
"I don't know," Sora said absently. "I don't keep track of which men love me."
Hundreds of thousands of men had fallen in love with the sea before, Riku could hardly be the first. He grinned. "Only which ones you love?"
Sora tilted his head back, throat exposed as he laughed. "Of course not," he teased, smile ready at his lips. "There’s only been one." His soft touch on Riku’s chin pulled him forward until he could press a kiss to Riku's lips, slowly, his hands hot as they ran through Riku's hair.
Riku pressed his forehead against Sora’s, blinking away tears. “Really?” His voice was shaking.
“Really,” Sora confirmed.
“I assumed you always chose men you loved to be the captain.”
Sora hummed. “They were all good men, but no. I was being selfish when I chose this time,” he admitted. “I wanted to keep you.”
Riku pushed himself onto an elbow, staring down at Sora. I wanted to keep you. He’d chosen Riku selfishly, not because Riku loved him, but because he loved Riku more than anything, wanted more than forty, fifty, sixty years together, if they were lucky and Riku had never fallen in battle. He’d wanted more. “You wanted us to be together,” he realized. “For - for-”
“For as long as you wanted,” Sora whispered. He didn’t seem to be able to look at Riku as he said it. Maybe he thought that one day Riku would be done with him, giving up immortality for a lover who could live, giving up the sea and Sora for someone else. Riku could never. Even when his heart was buried under the sand, he could never.
“Forever,” Riku breathed. “You wanted forever and I betrayed you.”
Sora shrugged. “You thought I betrayed you first.” His voice was wavering. “I - I didn’t think about how you’d take it when I didn’t appear. Ten years is nothing to me! And I made you this way too, I didn’t think-”
“I don’t have nearly as many years as you, old man,” Riku reminded him, voice soft. Sora swatted at him ineffectual, a little smile appearing on face. That was what Riku had wanted, Sora to be a little happier again, to stop his tears before they happened. “You’re ancient.”
Sora was trying hard not to smile. “You see why it’s hard to be mad.”
“I see,” Riku reassured him. He understood it a little better now.
“We still have forever,” Sora said tentatively, turning Riku’s hand over in his, tracing his heartline. As if he wasn’t sure Riku would want it. What did fifty years matter to something as old and sacred to the ocean? Barely a passing blemish. Sora was always right. “I want forever.”
Riku took a deep breath. “Say it again?”
“There’s no one I have ever wanted forever but you, Riku,” Sora repeated. He furrowed his brow. “I truly mean it. There’s no one like you, there never will be.”
“I didn’t expect forever,” Riku told him. “But I’ll be here.” Sora’s fingers stuttered to a stop in the middle of his palm. “Forever. If you’ll have me.”
“I will,” Sora said simply. “Listen.” He pulled Riku’s hand to his chest, to his heartbeat.
Riku listened. He focused on his hand against Sora’s chest. He could hear not one heartbeat but two. His heart laid beside Sora’s in the spaces between each pulse.
So he pressed his ear against those two heartbeats, listened to them and how they sang together, how they echoed and chased each other like a dance. They weren’t quite on the same beat but they made music all the same. The both of them, together, forever.