Sora had thought, during the long nights wandering the ends of the world, alone and what should have been cold but was just the memory of cold , that what he was missing was the sensations of home—things he had taken advantage of in life, like the way the sand stayed warm over buried feet long after the sun had set behind the palm trees, even as the chill of evening cut the air; the juice of overripe fruits that would fall apart in your hands when you bit into them, fresh from the tree—even the low buzz of the frogs and insects that meant true silence wasn’t something you ever had on an island.
He’d thought, once he came back and was wrapped in those things like a blanket, maybe that would fill whatever void had been left by what had been taken from him. Sometimes, he’d thought maybe it was Kairi—so be brought her back into the world in trade for his own spot, and thought maybe that was enough.
Something had shifted when Riku had dragged him back from death, swam them both to the edge of the living world, gasping and desperate, and the only thing that kept him grounded was seeing the new shadows, the new lines in Riku’s face—he looked haunted, now, more than before, and Sora knew, when they looked at each other, they were seeing the same thing—the same private, lost look on two faces.
Maybe living people weren’t supposed to know what they knew .
Riku had done so much for him, had given and given until nothing was left, and Sora loved him for that, loved him so fiercely it slammed back into him with the force of a hurricane the second he was breathing living air again, along with the rest of the feelings Death had stolen—and it was so obvious now that he cried, there on the beach with Riku panting beside him, great wracking sobs with his fingers sinking into solid, beautiful sand that shook him until Riku enfolded him in his arms and whispered soothing things because he always knew what to say even when he didn’t know why Sora was sad.
Everyone’s arms around him felt inconsequential, too light and soft on his shoulders to match how he felt on the inside. They treated him like glass, like he was close to breaking if they nudged too hard, or a mystery to unravel.
Kairi had hesitated, when they returned, the barest second between seeing them and folding them into her arms as she cried, like she didn’t recognize them.
Riku had caught his gaze over her shoulder, a thousand words exchanged between them until he closed them.
They looked at him like he was the afterimage of someone else, and it was hard to always be in shadow every time he forgot to smile on cue. It was like everyone was waiting for the evidence that someone else had been sent back in his place, something else.
Maybe they were right.
Memories were funny things, like that. It became a struggle to remember how he had acted before.
He just knew that looking at Riku now made him ache to his toes, ripped down the middle with guilt. The knowledge was supposed to be Sora’s alone, and now he had ruined someone else with it, and that was something far different .
Words wouldn’t mend whatever had shifted within them, and that much he knew.
Maybe it’s selfish, but he misses what they were before, misses Riku’s easy smirks and taunts and jibes and the brightness of his heart, when he wasn’t bent in half with the weight of so many people’s expectations, though Sora knew the feeling.
It’s a second chance. He’s doesn’t plan to waste it.
Sora hates the labs, now—hates anywhere that stinks too much of sterility; anywhere that was too airless—he feels it like icy fingers closing on his throat—knows Riku does too by how the hair on his neck would rise imperceptibility as Ienzo or Ansem read them readouts on their conditions, fists curled into his pockets where no one could see if they weren’t looking for it.
Sora is always looking.
A break between missions and trips to Radiant Garden for Riku and him to have every inch of themselves analyzed and tested and re-analyzed for hints of instability--which is stupid, it’s not physical , what happened--doesn’t come, and the tension beneath Sora’s skin stretches tighter and tighter until he’s certain he’s going to snap and let everything burst out if he doesn’t make one .
It’s easier than he expects—he’s never been one for planning, but he has a whole speech lined up about following your heart that he doesn’t get to use—he doesn’t even get to knock on Riku’s door because he senses him there, fist raised, ready to rap four times like when they snuck into each other’s rooms as kids--and silently opens the door for him. Sora shoots him a questioning smile and a light jingle of gummiship keys, and for once, Riku doesn’t ask questions—doesn’t tell anyone they’re going, or say things about responsibility . Maybe it’s the late hour, or the way Sora knows when Riku is asleep, and it’s not often anymore.
They just go.
Riku only asks him one question, once they’re seated— “Where to, Sora?”
Bright in the dark of the cabin, his eyes have something of a spark, and Sora feels a flutter of victory. It’s been too long since he’d seen those curious eyes, the eyes that once seeded a hurricane.
He summons the kingdom key. He thinks about it for a second, but his heart rings clear and bell-like in his head, and only one place comes to mind—not home, that holds too many heavy memories, but somewhere close. “There’s somewhere I want you to see.”
Maybe it’s selfish, but it’s been weeks since they’ve returned and they haven’t had five minutes to talk about…anything.
Maybe it’s selfish, but it’s been so long since he’s seen Riku happy, and he feels like maybe he can be the one to work on that, maybe he should have been working on that this whole time.
It was high time Sora gave him something back.
The world can grant them a day—after everything, it owes them that.
He turns the key.
They land in the Caribbean at dawn.
Many things have changed, but Port Royal is as he remembers: the docks bob gently in the light breeze and the smell of fish permeates and mixes with the scent of cookfires and fine trading spices, and Sora inhales deeply because it reminds him of home, albeit a little dirtier, a little darker around the edges. It suits them, anyway, more than the crystal clear oceans of the Destiny Islands, tainted now with their memories, old and new.
The morning light is gentle on his back, and the warmth of the sun is a comfort, and if Riku looks a little bit lighter, a little bit less weighed down in his new pirate coat and polished boots--of course his outfit gets the polish --well—Sora won’t complain.
A coarse-looking white long-sleeved shirt billows a little in the wind under crossed, heavy belts across Riku’s chest and a bright yellow knotted sash that trails down at his waist. His hair--longer, due to the magic--is tied back in a series of half-made braids with little glass beads that wink in the light, offset by a red bandana across his forehead. The coat is darker than Sora’s, with extravagant buttons and a massive sigil across the back in red so bright it looked like a wound--it would be threatening if Sora didn’t know it was a dream eater sigil, stylized into something else.
He looks exceedingly at home next to Sora’s ship. He looks every part a pirate .
If he was younger, Sora might have been jealous—or thought he was, unable to label what caused his heart to swell when he chanced a look over.
Riku was always so effortlessly handsome—he wore his looks like tempered steel, hard somehow, but beautiful because of its potential.
He shakes his head a little, hair in his eyes from his hat already, so he blows it noisily out of the way.
“D’you think they’re freaking out over breakfast right now?”
They’re seated on the docks, pressed close enough to squeeze between two abandoned crates, their legs hanging languidly over the sides, Sora’s kicking because he’s never been still in his entire life and has no plans to start on the practice now. Riku’s are long enough to trail the water with his boots, little fish picking at them hopefully under the surface.
“No, because I left Kairi a note,” Riku says, biting into a mango Sora had unearthed from a bag between them. The face he makes at the taste is between confusion and something else.
“ What ? When did you leave her a note?” Sora would have noticed during their escape, he was certain of that. He chews his loaf of bread thoughtfully, the other half he’d torn on Riku’s lap.
“I have my ways.”
Sora narrows his eyes. “You snuck her a text on the way.”
Riku’s mouth quirks on one side as he puts the mango down. “Maybe.” And then: “Relax. You know she won’t sell us out. I just didn’t want her to worry because someone decided to take a joyride.”
There’s something nice about those words in Riku’s mouth, like they’re doing something more illicit than they have, like they’re three kids again, covering for each other with faked illnesses and false injuries when one of them didn’t want to go to school, and it fills Sora to his toes with longing .
“She’d make a better pirate than both of us,” Sora muses distantly, biting into his own half of the fruit. His eyes are fixed on the distant horizon, but he feels far away, incorporeal. Riku hums in the affirmative.
“Still. Leaving a note isn’t very pirate of you, Riku,” Sora accuses.
He rolls green eyes skywards. “If I had known I was going to be a pirate today, maybe I wouldn’t have left one.”
“You still would,” Sora accuses. “You’ve never broken a real rule once in your entire life. I know. I was there .”
“Nothing wrong with respecting the rules,” Riku mutters. “Besides. You weren’t always there.”
He doesn’t mean it like that , Sora knows--but it’s a barb that pierces his chest and burrows itself there, firmly next to the guilt already in residence, makes him think about the year he wasn’t there, the year Riku spent alone. About what he’s missed.
Riku notices--of course he does, and the concern draws his brows together as he knocks his elbow against Sora’s. “Hey. Not like that.”
Sora leans his head against Riku’s shoulder, the leather warm under his cheek from the sun, smelling a little like woodsmoke. “I know. It’s--it’s okay. Sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Riku says quietly, and something about that goes right to Sora’s stomach and ignites a spark. This is not how this was supposed to go, Riku soothing his guilt again when he carried just as much. This is not giving back .
“Aren’t you tired of being responsible all the time? Does being a Master mean you never get to have fun again?” Sora hopes his voice is strong-- normal.
He sees right through him, Sora knows, but he lets it go, because Riku always knows what he needs--but he lets his eyes linger a little too long before exhaling.
He squints harder, like he’s mentally searching the Master contract. “I can—I can have fun .”
“Really? Prove it,” Sora challenges.
“How?” Riku shoots back immediately, and Sora knows he has him.
“Help me get these crates on the ship before anyone notices they’re missing.” Sora is already rising and hefting one into his arms, grinning. He feels mischievous, invincible, sheds the guilt like a second skin and slips into this one instead.
“Sora, did you--are we stealing these?”
“That doesn’t sound like something Pirate Riku would ask,” Sora taunts, already halfway up the plank. “Don’t worry, I do it all the time!”
“I thought Donald and Goofy were supposed to keep you out of trouble,” Riku mutters, palming his own crate.
“Donald helps me, actually!” Sora calls back, sing-song.
“That doesn’t make it any better!” Riku yells, but a smile is spreading across his face like the sunrise, and he’s shaking his head in that fond way he does when Sora is being impossible , and Sora’s feet feel light in the morning air, and the day spreads out before them, endless and lazy like a Summer day, and maybe it will be okay .
“Weigh anchor!” Sora summons Wheel of Fate and points out to the horizon, feeling the familiar twinging in his mind that is his signal to pull , feel out the ocean and find the currents and bring them and call them to his aid.
The anchor retracts itself with a mighty pull and grinding sound, and then the sails snap open, the wind rising behind them to meet it at just the right time to catch and pull them out to open sea, Sora leaning halfway over the steering wheel with a wild grin, his hat almost blowing off in the sudden gust that catches them on the broadside.
Riku is behind him, getting his legs under him on the lurching deck, laughing a little as he catches himself on the railing. “It’s been a long time I’ve been on an actual ship that wasn’t in space,” he says, spreading his feet apart for balance.
Sora cranes his neck to shoot him a grin. “Big upgrade from a raft, huh?”
“Actually has a chance to get you somewhere, that’s for sure,” Riku says, wiping a sleeve against his sweaty brow. The tiny multicolored beads threaded into his mishmash of braided hair catch his eyes, and suddenly Sora’s back on a clocktower with a blue marble in his hand before he shakes it away; tears his gaze back to the horizon.
Ghosts , all of them. Memories that swim after him from world to world, from place to place, and try to drag him under. They clutch at his ankles like sirens, singing, waiting for the day he would be content to drown.
“Sora?” Riku says, peering into his face worriedly. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah?” He says, like a question. He shakes his head around, as if that will dispel the things that have their hooks in him, even now. The wood under his hands is grounding, solid, corporeal. Real. Focus on that .
The sea air ruffles his hair and it feels like a hello, between the sea at his back and the open, cloudless sky ahead, and he lets himself sink into the moment, feels the creaking of the ship like his own bones and his own heart, feels its heart too, warm and bright.
“You look a little pale,” Riku says, frowning, lifting his hand before he seems to remember himself, and drops it again. Sora’s whole body hurts with the need to grab that hand, to seek the comfort of Riku’s warmth , but he pulls back. Not yet.
“Just thinking,” Sora mumbles, angry at himself. He’s not doing a good job of distracting. “Did you know ships have hearts in this world?”
It’s the second time Sora has avoided a conversation, and the second time Riku, blessedly, lets him. Sora feels those eyes boring into him even as he looks out to sea, and it doesn’t make it feel any better.
“I mean, if you asked my dad, all ships have hearts once they get names.”
It was, Sora remembers--Destiny island custom said it was to be carved into the side, and only when the ship was sea-ready and about to sail. It was why naming their raft was so important; names were said to ensure safe passage and a sturdy vessel, even if it was just islander superstition. Too presumptive a name, however, could anger the Gods and bring on bad luck; sink it wholesale before it left the safety of the coves.
“Then...Do you think the raft had one? A heart, I mean.”
“Between all three of us? Yeah. I think it did.” Riku shoots him a small, fond smile. “Besides. I think you could give anything a heart if you believed in it.”
“Riku! That’s so sappy ,” Sora moans, to mask how pleased he is.
“It’s just true ,” he says, but there’s a dusting of pink along his cheeks, all the same.
“So...What did you have in mind for today?” Riku asks, scratching at his cheek as he looks out to the endless sea before them.
“Whatever we feel like doing.”
Riku snorts. “Guess I should have known better than to expect an itinerary.”
“Pirates don’t have itineraries !” Sora says, scandalized. “That’s the point, Riku . It’s a different world, so you can be somebody else, do whatever you want. Schedules are for Master Riku . What would Pirate Riku do?” He levels him with a searching, appraising look, leaning over the wheel by his forearms.
“Uh,” Riku says eloquently, blinking down at himself.
“Okay,” Sora intones slowly, pointing at him. “ That’s sad. Good thing you have an expert pirate to show you how it’s done.” He gestures in front of them in a wide arc. “Picture it, Riku--endless treasure, sailing the high seas, nothing to cage you in but the horizon, the wind at your back and the sails in front of you! Taking whatever you want and givin’ nothing back!”
Riku squints. “Wait. Is this even legal ? Does the king know about—”
Sora laughs too loudly and claps him on the back. Riku almost stumbles into the bow. “ That definitely doesn’t sound like pirate Riku.”
“Sora, you didn’t answer my--”
“Time to go!” Sora says over him, vacating his spot and pointing over the bow. “Hard to starboard, Quartermaster!” He throws himself against the banister, one leg up on the railing so he can point out to the distant sea as his coat flares out dramatically behind him.
“Why am I Quartermaster again?”
“Because I don’t trust anyone else on this vessel to have my back,” Sora says, throwing a grin over his shoulder.
“There’s nobody else on this vessel…” Riku trails, his gaze tracking from the tops of the masts to the floor and back in a slow circle as he steps foreward.
“Exactly! So it’s gotta be you,” Sora says, dusting imaginary dirt off the padded shoulders of Riku’s jacket like he’s presenting him at some ceremony, and Riku quirks a brow in amusement.
“Can’t argue with that logic,” he mutters, something fond playing over his face. When he looks down, Sora forgets to remove his hands, and he stares into Riku’s face--framed by long silver strands almost white in the sun like a halo against star green and pale eyelashes--and Riku has to clear his throat, blinking away--to break the spell. “Something on my coat, Captain?”
Sora laughs as he dances backwards. “T-there was but--I got it,” Sora says, rubbing at his neck. “J-just some dust! You’re--yeah. You’re good,” he says, and he feels Riku’s eyes burning into his back as he turns away.
“Right,” Riku says, feeling out the word in a way that has Sora going red. “What’s our heading, Cap’n?”
“O-oh yeah!” Right. Heading. They were going somewhere away from here , and Sora was going to get it together before he blew the whole thing too early.
“Follow yer heart, Misser Riku!” Sora calls to him, and digs around in his pockets to find his quarry, throwing it overhand to Riku, who obligingly takes up his post at the steering wheel.
He catches it in a single first, and Riku throws him an exaggerated salute as he cracks it open.
“Are you sure we aren’t lost?” Riku asks, around an hour later. He’s shed his jacket and belts as the sun rose higher and the clouds thinned out, leaving only that white shirt that was missing a number of buttons, and he’s already turning steadily pinker then he should have been. “Because I have a strong suspicion we’re lost.”
It was a marvel he’d grown up on an island at all with all tendency to burn--he and Kairi spent years teasing him for being a vampire, but it had stopped being funny after...well, after everything .
“I remember asking you to follow your heart, Misser Riku,” Sora returns from his place at the bow. He’s got a brass spyglass against one eye, peering out at the specks of brown and green land in the distance--curiously, they didn’t seem to be getting any closer, even when Sora knew by the angle of the sun that they should have been going in a straight line towards them.
He wasn’t lying about not having an itinerary, but--bobbing out on the ocean aimlessly for hours when there was treasure to be had was not really the idea, either.
What is going on?
“Honestly? I thought that was--a metaphor, or something,” Riku says, shaking the compass for the fifth time that hour, his face a mask of confusion.
“When have I ever used metaphors before, Riku?” Sora asks, and Riku looks genuinely contemplative.
Sora turns the eyeglass on Riku, his eye burning from the effort of keeping it shut. He’s treated to an extreme close up of the side of Riku’s chin as he fights with the thing to focus. “Hold on. What is it you want most?”
Riku flushes instantly, holding his hand up against the offensive glare of the glass. “W-what?”
“The compass. Jack said it always points to what you ‘want most’, except it keeps leading us in circles.” Snapping the eyeglass shut, he makes his way to the steering wheel to pluck it from Riku’s lax fingers, inspecting it closely. “Maybe the...magic ran out or something…?”
Riku swipes it back and snaps it shut. “Or maybe someone sold Jack a broken compass and called it magic,” he says drily, holding it up to his ear. “I bet it’s never worked right a day in its life.”
“Hey--Jack used it all the time, I saw him!”
“Didn’t he also betray his whole crew multiple times?”
Sora was suddenly regretting telling Riku several of his stories.
“Yeah, so?” Sora mutters.
“So--excuse me for wondering if his tools are trustworthy.”
“ I think you just don’t know what you want,” Sora fires back.
Riku actually sputters , tripping right over his words for a moment. “Like—Like you do ?”
Sora snaps the compass back and pops it open, raising an eyebrow at Riku as the needle firmly points dead ahead, at the distant island on the horizon.
“It’s--but--Sora, you’ve always been like that. Your heart could point you out of a dark room any day. It’s...always been a lot more reliable than mine.”
The words settle around his chest and squeeze, and he feels immediately awful--he keeps doing this, stepping on landmines instead of safe harbor.
“Riku--that’s--no way! Your heart is the most reliable thing I know! You found me in the dark without a map--a compass should be no problem.”
Riku’s laugh sounds a little bittersweet. “That was--Sora. Just give me the map already,” he says, extending his hand. “It’s probably safer than—whatever that is—-“
“No,” Sora says simply, planting his hands on his hips. “You’re gonna do it, and I’m gonna prove you can.”
“Is that an order ?” Riku asks, crossing his arms across his chest.
“Yeah,” Sora says, eyes narrowing. “No quitters aboard this vessel.”
“Okay.” Riku looks around himself, then down, then shrugs. “Then this must be a mutiny.”
A theatrical gasp from Sora, and a pantomime of being stabbed viscerally follows. “Me own best friend ,” he laments, hands clasping over the imaginary chest wound. “Fixin’ to steal m’vessel out from under me --”
“First of all, s’ not stealing if I win it from you.” Riku was rolling his eyes, but Sora saw the slightest pull of his lips up on one side as he leans in, narrowing his eyes. “Secondly: What’re you gonna do when I do, Captain Sora ?”
“Nothing for it but to have a gentleman’s duel, Former Quartermaster Riku,” Sora says, leaning in as well, the challenging, familiar feeling curling in his gut, hoping it will chase away the dark in Riku’s eyes.
“Okay. If you win, we do the compass,” Riku says, pointing. “And if I win, I’m Captain for today, and we use the maps.” He narrowed his eyes. “ And I get the bed.”
“ The bed ,” Sora gasps. “That’s low . Even for a traitor like yerself.”
Riku shrugs, like he’s not proposing kicking Sora out of his own quarters, a smirk dancing across his lips in a way that makes Sora’s stomach clench. “No honor amongst thieves.”
Sora makes a show of crossing his arms and contemplating the stakes, tapping his foot while he looks Riku up and down from hair to shoes and back--lingering a little on that open chest. “Okay. You’re on.”
He lets the facade drop in his excitement at this turn of events--this beats aimlessly doing circles any time--and disappears into the hold to rifle through a chest by the door. “Where is it...where is it…” Sora turns to the large chest at his back, rifling through it and sending rolls of fine cloth and fishing things tumbling to the floor.
Riku’s voice sounds from behind him, and Sora glances up to see him with one hand propped on a hip, amusement all over him. “ What are you looking for?”
“Gonna need--oof--weapons for a proper pirate duel !” Sora exclaims, withdrawing two familiar wooden swords from the heavy chest.
“I see you came prepared,” Riku drawls, reaching for his sword. “If you wanted me to kick your ass again, you just had to ask—“ he cuts himself off abruptly, something flickering in his expression before it smoothes back into placid.
Riku runs his hands over the sword, the cracks and the chips familiar in a specific way with something like reverence in his tone. “Where...did you find these, Sora?"
The nerves are crawling around his stomach like crabs. “You know. Around .” He grins. “Figured I’d keep them just in case.”
Sora was always doing that when it came to Riku. Keeping things just in case, keeping Riku’s things safe and wanted and warm even when they had caused him pain. Somewhere, a blindfold was shoved into a corner of his room, along with a series of shells and trinkets he’d found after waking in the pod, like offerings Riku had placed at a shrine, except they were for him, as he slept.
It felt wrong to get rid of something so clearly precious, so he never did. Not even the things that hurt him, not even a sword thrown at his feet in a different time, with higher, harsher stakes.
Seeing it in Riku’s hands again, now, feels exciting , like a second chance.
Riku is testing the weight of the one Sora had tossed him, something old and nostalgic on his face, and Sora feels like maybe he’s misjudged the gesture for a moment—but it passes, and Riku sends him a glinting smile.
“Well, since you had them and all...it’d be a waste not to use them.”
Sora licks his lips, stilling on his feet. “Sure would.” The thread of familiarity pulls between them, taut and purposeful.
They walk back to the deck--each choosing an end of the ship, instinctively seeking the high ground, and Sora licks his lips, bouncing slightly in place, testing and retesting the woodgrain against his hands, spinning it--and it feels good there, feels righter than anything has in months, solid and real.
On some level, he always feels better with a weapon in his hands.
They study each other, neither moving, daring the other to move first, like they were on a different beach and not a tilting, creaking mass of wood.
“You sure about this, Sora? Be a shame to sink your boat ,” Riku calls to him, a taunt on the sea air, and Sora can see him relaxing into his stance, arm raised high in challenge, because past Sora, impatient and impulsive, would always attack first.
The breeze ruffles his hair, under his hat—and he flings it off without a second look; shucks his coat to the deck too, the better to move without. Makes a show of rolling his shoulders, stalling for time, a different tactic than Riku would expect. “Don’t worry, Riku,” he calls over his shoulder, deliberately showing him his back as he looks over, escalating the taunt. “She’s survived worse than you.”
This, he understands—the burn and coil of muscle and bone, the spring and release and flow of a fight that doesn’t let him think. This feels like living .
Both of them pause, eyes locked across the deck in challenge—a few beats of silence, nothing to coat the air but the sound of constant waves and the scent of the sea beneath them, the seabirds calling distantly, and the hull rocking peacefully on the calm sea-- and then Riku raises a single brow, and Sora smirks back, and that’s all the warning they need before both of them spring forward at once.
Immediately, Riku sweeps low to go for his legs—Sora leaps just high enough to dodge it, but Riku spins and nearly catches him in the side as he springs backwards, adjusting the grip on the sword to a backhand to do a handspring back only to flip and slam it down like a bludgeon against Riku’s block. He feels the wooden swords strain as they catch and hold, shaking between them, and Riku with a fire behind his eyes he hasn’t seen in months.
“Gonna have to do better than that , Sora,” Riku breathes, close enough to whisper.
“ Counting on it,” Sora bites back automatically, his neck right from the strain, his feet skidding on the wood.
Riku smirks, and throws Sora back five paces by shouldering his weight into their locked swords to step forward.
Before he can blink, Riku is right behind him, swinging his sword down in a high arc in the exact spot he was standing, so he sidesteps and goes straight up, grabs the foremast and spins to catapult himself higher, doesn’t need to glance down to sense Riku as he no doubt follows.
They both land lightly on the crossbeam and Sora has a second to actually consider if it can even take their weight before Riku springs forward in a front jab that he blocks, automatically, grits his teeth against the force—Riku has always been strong, he hits like a sledgehammer, most times—tries to force Riku’s arm wide with his own block and he pinwheels for a moment, checks his balance—Sora sees the opening and presses forward, feet far apart to keep his balance on the narrow beam as it sways beneath him—meeting Riku’s parrying strikes again with his own sword, but ducks low instead, grabbing the mast and sword in both hands and twisting at the waist in a long sweep of his legs, and he hears Riku curse as he half-dances backwards, just barely out of range.
Sora springs up to his feet, and Riku eyes him across the beam as the wind whips the hair that isn’t braided back into his eyes, and he looks wild and alive and smirking with his eyes narrowed against the wind and Sora has to focus around the pounding of his heart. There’s sweat beading on his brow and in his eyes and he’s glad he ditched the hat, panting and sweaty already like he is under the heat. Riku’s shirt is barely even on his shoulders anymore, and Sora almost gets thrown from the mast because he’s distracted by that, again , when Riku’s swing nearly comes down on his skull.
He can’t block it, and he gets a face full of Riku’s alarmed eyes as his back hits the mast and he quickly rolls to the side—into black sails and open air. A quick, panicked call of “ Sora— “ slices the air like a knife and Sora knows it’s mean , but he lets himself free fall for a second, just long enough to see the deck rushing up to meet him, before he flips and lands in an easy crouch, the landing softened by a glide.
“Can’t get rid of me that easily, Riku!” He calls, and Riku’s head peers over the side to shake ruefully at him in disbelief.
“I keep forgetting you can fly !” He calls back, leaning against the mast and laughing and free on the wind, a little full of wonder, and Sora’s heart squeezes to hear it.
“Make friends with more fairies and you can too!” He says, and he glides around the ship in an easy arc, hands folded behind his head, sword and all, when Riku slams down on him from above—arms first, and every part of him slams to the deck with Riku in an agonizing tangle of limbs as they roll together, and all Sora can think is how many splinters he’s going to have tomorrow, feels them digging into his arms as they wrestle each other to the floor, arms and torsos and kicking legs.
“ Cheater ,” Sora hisses, trying to grapple with his sword out of the cage of Riku’s body, trying to get his knees to his chest to shove him off. “Attacking a guy when he’s gliding—“
“ Is fair game ,” Riku smirks at him over their swords, and damn him for it. “Enemies won’t wait for you to be ready .”
Sora snorts because the last thing he needs right now is a lecture from Master Riku , and shoots an A eroga right into Riku’s face, which may have been just as dirty but whatever --blasts him and his sword clean across the deck and sends him skidding backwards into the main mast. Sora follows right behind, springs up with an airstep and flies across the expanse and winds up to slam him in the side—when Riku disappears and flickers, flickers and Sora realizes a second too late as Riku is back-to-back with him and lands a clean hit to his ribs before dancing away.
He’s clutching his side and remembering that wood hurts a lot more than steel, sometimes, as he catches Riku’s next strike, shoulders his arm wider, steps inside it and forgoes the sword completely to slam a fist into his stomach.
“ Now who’s cheating?” Riku grits out, but they’re both grinning ear to ear with the adrenaline, drunk on the thrill of it, and Riku grabs his fist and throws him forward, shoots a Firaga at his unprotected back right as Sora twists and unleashes a Blizzaga , and they meet in a great cloud of steam that hides the deck in its thrall.
Sora squints through the smoke, straining his eyes and ears for movement, knows Riku can wait him out if he wants, so he can’t give him time to think about it. He launches himself above the steam, hovering until he can make out a shadow, the barest hint of gray in the white mass—and he winds up, both hands wrenching the sword back and away, and he drops, silent, like a falcon, aiming for the finishing blow.
But he realizes a second too late that the shape is—Riku’s coat, but no Riku. A decoy.
He reels up just in time to see Riku falling on him from above, arm pulled back and entire body tight like a spring, the sun burning through his hair like fire, intent on Sora, who curses and scrambles to cast a blizzard under his feet, uses that to slide clumsily out of the way a second before Riku makes explosive contact with the deck, the impact throwing up sizable shards of wood. “H-Hey! Watch the paint job!” Sora calls, out of breath and trying not to think of how much power was behind that blow, but he can’t because Riku’s sword goes whizzing into his legs and tangles—he had thrown it, anticipating Sora’s stumble—and that hurts just enough that he slips on his own icy tracks as Riku shoots forward and pins him chest first to the mast, this time, his arm twisted painfully behind him, the sword lost somewhere on the way.
“I win,” Riku says smugly, pride hanging from every tone, point of his own sword around Sora’s neck, panting in his ear, hand digging into Sora’s wrist, both of which are mightily distracting.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Sora breathes, and Riku has barely enough time to tense before Sora sends a jolt of Aero to his feet and kicks hard against the mast, the force propelling him backwards to both break Riku’s hold and send both them and the swords clattering across the deck. They land harder, Riku taking all of Sora’s weight to the diaphragm.
“Sora—“ Riku protests, but it comes out like a sad deflation of a balloon, probably because Sora may be crushing his windpipe.
Sora wheezes with difficulty, trying to wrench himself to his feet even though everything is spinning in a painful way, the horizon twisting around. He manages it, barely, picks up the sword in weak fingers as he tries to walk the few steps back to Riku’s prone form.
“ I win,” he starts, but he trips on one of the splintered deck boards and face plants right into the wood, dropping his sword along the way.
Riku is still holding his chest painfully as Sora finally rolls to the side, and he feels a little bad about that. “You did no such thing.”
Both of them lie there, panting and spent on the deck as Sora tries to wiggle all his limbs in turn, checking for wounds and broken things. He’d broken enough to know what it felt like, so he’s pretty certain the only thing wrecked is his pride.
“Truce?” Sora finally says, raising an exhausted arm to Riku, trembling down to his bones. He feels bruises already forming, but all he feels is exhilarated, and light, and buoyant, a ship of his own on a calm and warming sea.
“ Draw ,” Riku corrects, still clutching at his abdomen, forcing slow breaths in and out. Thoughtlessly, he claps Sora’s palm and then drops them, apparently too lazy to move—and leaves it there, their hands intertwined on the gnarled wood of the deck. He gestures with their joined hands to a bruise blooming on Sora’s shoulder, wincing a little. “That’s definitely going to hurt later.”
“It hurts now,” Sora confirms, the grin crawling its way across his face at Riku’s look of concern. No matter, he was good at being a distraction.
Sora punches his shoulder with his free hand, maybe to leave a matching mark. “Not bad, Captain Riku.”
Riku groans at the feeling and swats Sora away to fold his free hand over his eyes. “Guess this means we’re sharing the bed,” Riku says finally.
“I can share ,” Sora scoffs, ignoring Riku’s raised eyebrow.
“Yeah, but you also snore like a Zolephant, so really it’s my loss.”
Riku smirks, and Sora blindly shoves at him without looking. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up.” Desperately. his mind is trying to turn away from that line of thought before the rest of him gets even more off course.
Eventually, Riku turns to him. “What time is it?”
Sora hums, plants his hand over his eyes like a visor and checks the horizon, mentally mapping the passage of time like Jack had taught him. “I’d say...maybe two? Plenty of daylight left.”
Soft emerald eyes turn on him, hair splayed on the deck like some kind of—mermaid, his mind supplies. His thoughts are running away from him, rapidly, stuttering and flopping over themselves like his heart, when Riku regards him like that, like he was full of wonders. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“What, tell the time by the sun?” He sits up, curled around his crossed legs, lets a secret smile splay across his face. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”
”Guess that’s true,” Riku says, quiet and a little wistful, and Sora panics a little, internally. Keeping Riku from overthinking was kind of the point of this little venture, and he slips his hand back into Riku’s, drawing little circles on the knuckles, and he hopes it says it’s okay , because he’s not sure he can voice it. The moment passes on, subtle and ephemeral like the breeze. He squeezes his fingers, and Riku squeezes back. Instead, he says, “We have time.”
Now, now that everyone is okay, now, we have time.
Riku lets his head thump again Sora’s thigh in apology, a small, crooked smile replacing what was there before. “Yeah.”
They sit, two boys still joined at the hands on a pirate ship running on magic on quietly lapping waves caressing the hull, so familiar yet so far from home, breathing in salt and peace and the end of the war, the silence stretching to envelope them in its arms, cradled and warm in the baking sun.
“You know,” Riku starts, and he’s looking at the sky, deep and cloudless and endlessly blue, pockmarked with gulls every now and again—a little pink as he scratches idly at this cheek. “That—spin move you have was pretty cool. Haven’t seen that one before”
“Yeah?” Sora says, with interest. He beams a little, at the attention, because Riku never gives compliments lightly, or when he doesn’t mean them. “I learned it from the dreams.” A pause. “That coat decoy thing was pretty smart, too.”
“Thanks.” Riku’s face telegraphs his smirk before he says the next thing. “Though you know, it only works if you’re easily distracted.”
Sora goes to punch him again, but Riku, smirking, catches him arm before he can.
They come up on the island—finally—as the last rays of the afternoon turn harsh and golden, and the air between them is quieter. The tree-tipped peaks filtered the sun into long fingers that touched the deck in slats.
Both too achy to divert any energy into further bickering, Sora had wordlessly wrapped both their hands around the compass until it righted itself, the metal warm under both their hands, before Sora finally pulled away to leave Riku staring in wonder at the device in his palm, now stalwartly pointing forward.
“Told you,” Sora had said, a little smug. Riku’s smile had been secretive, like he had won something.
“I guess even a broken compass can be right sometimes,” Riku had muttered back, but the edges of his mouth softened all the same as the magic-driven ship gently bobbed into motion.
“Nothing broken about it,” Sora had said, watching Riku’s fingers curl tighter around the surface. “Just needed a hand.”
They had taken turns casting Curagas on each other after, the gesture hesitant, intimate as Riku trails gentle fingers over his shoulder and spine and the nasty bruise on his side, and he tries not to shiver, almost wishes he’d apply enough pressure to hurt, to make it feel real. Another thing about being recently dead: appreciating the little things—even the pain—becomes so much more important, so much more grounding. It’s also the reason he hugs people a little too long to be comfortable, now--he can tell they don’t know what to say, but they let him, and that’s enough, like when he appears at Riku’s window at two in the morning some nights, and Riku silently opens the duvet for him, and he’s understood. It’s just like that.
There wasn’t much to feel, when you were dead--just an endless tide of nothing, an echo of what used to be there--so when you came back, you maybe came back a little greedy, and who could blame you?
They had always used sparring to say something to one another—that was how it had always been, a testing ground for their feelings. Before—so long ago, it said friendship , and then it said jealousy , and strife —it was less sparring, then. Over time, it said something softer, no matter how hard they hit each other—it said: I need this, do you need this too? It said: I need to feel like I’m really here , curled into two lifting edges, a question that tried and tried to meet an answer.
A question Riku’s probably been asking him for years, in every hesitation and every glance. He finally feels like he’s becoming fluent in that language.
Sora’s legs are dangling from the side of the ship, arms wrapped around the bow for stability even though he can fly, and he thinks maybe this is what he’s been missing, since he’s been home—back from death twice over, only to have his own ship and his own—whatever Riku is—repairing the hole he’d made in the deck. He’d always been really good at handicrafts—his father built ships for a living, and Riku inherited most of the skill, and Sora loved to watch him work. He had layered the deck with the same single-minded focus he applied to all things worth doing: he never raised his eyes from the task, sleeves rolled up to his elbows to expose his forearms, hair twisted up and away into his crimson bandana, silver tufts peeking out here and there, deft fingers lining up boards, precision and perfection in every hit of the hammer on the nails.
“You could be helping me,” Riku’s voice carries over to the bow over the nails sticking out of his mouth, “if it’s that interesting to you.”
It’s you that’s interestin g, Sora thinks.
“You broke it, you fix it,” he calls, instead, a smirk on its way to appearing. “Rules of the ship.”
“Who’s the one who gave me the spiel earlier about how I should stop following so many rules?” Riku quips.
“Okay, wise ass. It’s a suggestion, then.”
Riku site back on his heels, quirks a brow. “Aren’t we co-captains now? I could veto your suggestion.”
“But you won’t,” Sora sighs, eyes closed in the bliss of the salt spray on his skin and the wind in his hair, his hat in his hands. “‘Cause you’re Riku.” Riku always did what was right, in the end, even if he got a little twisted up along the way--Sora had always known that, was only happy Riku was coming around to the idea himself, now.
No response comes, but he sees the pink dusting his cheeks, and considers that victory enough, to know somebody else so well, after so long apart.
Eventually, Riku joins him on the bow, casting a searching gaze at the island. His replaced jacket catches the wind and billows out, looking every inch the pirate he’s pretending to be. Sora grins at him.
“What now, Captain Sora?” Riku asks him, head tilted back to the sky to feel the breeze.
Sora’s eyes glinted. “We’re going treasure hunting, Captain Riku.” It feels good to say those words together, they felt right and fit.
“Buried treasure? Possibly cursed?”
Riku stretches, one arm, then the other, rolling his neck until it cracked before he glances over, sidelong. “No way could let you do that alone, huh? It’d be irresponsible.”
Sora’s grin crawls over his face. “ Definitely not .”
They barely tie up the ship and set foot on the rough shore of the island when Riku, Braveheart already swung over his shoulder like it belongs there, levels his own challenge.
“First one to ten chests wins?” He says, looking at Sora over his shoulder.
Sora’s grip on his own keyblade tightens. “Ye think ye can outclass an expert plunderer , eh, Riku?”
Riku’s face melts into a little helpless laugh. “ Sora . That voice. It’s terrible .”
“Like you could do better.”
Riku’s voice drops two octaves as he turns to say, “I would—if I wasn’t busy beating you.”
But Riku is off, springing off the white sand and climbing the scraggly cliffs to their right, the impact throwing rocks and shells into Sora’s face until he’s sputtering and spitting it out and cursing around his mouth full of grit. Sora is after him like a shot, two flips up the wall and sprinting through sagebrush and short trees at the top towards the heavy chest on the neighboring cliff edge. He can see it, nestled in the roots of a tree like it’s waiting for him, a present without ribbons.
Riku’s in his way, but Sora’s lighter and has the high ground. He hops from tree to tree, wood splinters flying under his impact—tracking Riku’s progress on the path below.
“I’m really beginning to think you only ever beat me by cheating!” He taunts, slinging himself forward by a few feet, hands digging into bark as he goes.
“I really think you just can’t keep up!” Riku returns, and he pushes faster, off an airstep and stretches, reaches with his longer keyblade to tap the chest—except Sora leapfrogs right over him, uses him for his momentum, palms digging hard into his shoulders before he releases—and taps it with Stormflag, upside-down in mid-flip, a half second ahead, and claims the chest.
“Maybe next time!,” he crows, and a mock salute is the only thing flashing over the cliff as he free falls down the side, and he hears Riku’s garbled yell as he goes, already sinking into a roll at the bottom.
He feels his blood thrumming in his veins, the thrill that Riku always brings out in him, and it’s almost enough to drive out the cold.
It goes like that for long enough—both of them alternating between claiming chests and trying to snipe each other, throwing breathless numbers at each other’s backs—that the sun is beginning to burn red and gold by the time Sora comes up on the final chest. It’s in a hidden cave Sora left for last because it’s hard to find unless you know where to look for it, a bit of a swim around the side and an entrance barely large enough to fit through even if you squeezed sideways and held arms above your head.
He comes up on it with no hurry, already stretching aching arm muscles, one arm pulled to one side, and then the other, groaning with the release.
“Am I happy to see you ,” he coos at the chest. It’s sitting by itself on a low incline, mostly in shadow—gold doubloons and what looks to be jewelry spilling all around it, the cave walls shimmering where it catches the reflected light, and maybe he is a pirate, after all, because he feels like he could stare at that forever.
“Really,” comes Riku’s voice, drily. “But you just saw me, Sora.”
Riku is sitting off to the side, in shadow—which is why Sora had missed him—leaning back casually and cocky like he hasn’t been in forever—and it’s that Sora blames for why he stumbles a little, his heart and his feet.
Sora wastes no time springing forward, but Riku simply summons Braveheart and taps it backhand, claiming it. It springs open under the touch.
“Ahhhghh!” Sora moans, collapsing to the floor with hands running down his face. “ Riku ! I was so close.” He points a finger accusingly. “Wait. How did you even find this place?!”
“There’s a giant X scratched into the cave wall outside.”
Sora feels stupid for forgetting, suddenly, because he had put the mark there. “O-oh yeah.”
Riku walks over and ruffles his hair until Sora ducks out of the hold. “Tell you what. I’ll split the loot with you, since we’re both captains and all.”
“I don’t need your pity , cheater.”
“It’s not pity if we get equal shares,” Riku points out. “And I don’t cheat.”
It feels like pity, but Riku looks flushed and bright with the glow of victory, open and free, and Sora feels the urge to argue die suddenly in his throat.
They take turns pressing the jewels to each other’s skin, like they had when they were kids, playing with Sora’s mom’s jewelry, pretending the box was a chest with a heavy lock—strings of pearls and finery beyond their childish imaginings. She certainly knew what they were up to, because the fine jewelry stayed safe in the higher drawers they couldn’t reach.
They would hide it all around the island and dare each other to find it, and the memory is cast in sunset colors, the feeling inside his skin warm and comforting like the sunroom couch he could sink into at Riku’s house.
A crown hidden under a mountain of gold coins catches Sora’s hungry eyes—spires bent to the sky with rubies set like points of blood into the tips, diamonds cresting the sides, and something about is seems hungry , so of course he slips it on before he can think.
“How do I look?” Sora tilts his head, all cocky grin and haughty challenge.
Riku pauses in clasping his own necklace to look over, and his face is so unguarded for a moment Sora sucks in a breath like he’s about to take a dive.
“Like a king,” he murmurs. Riku reaches out so slowly , with the caution of approaching a chasm, and tilts the crown gently back to the center of Sora’s head, his fingers lingering on the hair for just a moment before drawing back. Sora watches as his own hand shoots out and grasps it like a lifeline, like an answer.
Sora stops breathing, the moment gossamer and intangible, but there. He stares as Riku stares back, unreadable, gold shimmering in his face in watery reflections.
Sora looks away first, blinking fast and hard against the flutter in his chest, and Riku sits heavily back against the cave wall.
They had played kings before, wearing Sora’s mothers scarves as capes as children, but that was before everything, before Sora stood in the ruins of scala ad Caelum and said things about destiny, before Riku’s heart stood in front of a demon wall and refused to flinch; before either of them knew what it meant to wear a mantle of expectation.
Here, in this reality, the gold is colder than Sora expected, and he wonders if he didn’t prefer the fantasy. The coins are heavy in his hands; the weight of the crown Riku had balanced on his head suddenly feels like something too big for him, and he feels like an imposter in his own skin.
Riku looks the same, running his hands pensively over the jewels at his throat—square sapphires and inset with diamonds; skims the facets over and over as his face clouds with something until Sora reaches out, touches his hand to still it. He receives a pained smile in response.
“Doesn’t really fit us anymore, does it?” Riku says, and Sora agrees , relief flooding him for reasons he can’t name.
They leave it for someone else to reclaim, the promise of it whispering to their backs even as they leave the cave behind.
The sun sinks slowly into its place in the sea, dragging trails of pink and red with it, and Sora knows they have to move on if his plan is to come to fruition. So they leave the treasure island behind, the wind whipping a little too fast into the sails as if it feels Sora’s sudden need to put the feeling of haunted gold behind them.
Their final destination is another island, wide and flat, kind of like a horseshoe—rocks line the coastline in inconsistent arrays, and mangrove trees reach deep roots into the sides where the scraggly foliage begins. Overall, it’s nothing special at first glance—simply a bay choked off at one end by two long sand bars, enough to break the waves and turn them gentle and lapping—and that’s what the secret it hides is so surprising.
Then again, Sora has always been one to look beneath the surface.
They haul the crates off the ship and onto the beach as Sora takes stock of their contents—veggies mostly, leafy ones Sora doesn’t really recognize, though the temptation to taste a few in desperation is strong until Riku slaps his hand away.
“Not bad,” Riku murmurs, hands carding through what looks like radishes. “We can work with this...we just need some fish, and it’ll be like being on the islands again.”
“Yeah,” Sora sighs wistfully, mind full of summer festivals, outdoor stands and the smell of fruit on the breeze. His stomach rises up to meet him in protest, and he has to clamp his arms over it to try and staunch the sound.
“You’re drooling,” Riku observes, and Sora has to snap his mouth shut before he can do anything else mortifying.
“Shut up,” Sora says intelligently, and Riku has to hide a little smile behind his hand. “It’s just been a long time since we’ve been really home.”
The wind blows loud enough to fill the sudden silence with waves, and Sora is grateful, teeth clenched against the need to take it back when he knows it’s true, so he mutters something about going to get fishing stuff from the ship instead, Riku’s little exhale chasing him the whole way. “It really has,” follows him anyway.
Once he returns, nets and spears in tow, Sora starts to remove his boots, throwing the socks haphazardly in a pile for later and tucking his pants back up into their roll, knowing Riku is following suit with his own pants and boots. Next is his coat, a formless crumple he lets flutter to the earth. He tosses his hat on the whole pile of disarray on the rocks, and something in his heart clenches when he turns to catch Riku arranging his things in a neat pile next to his own, folding his coat into a near square before moving to Sora’s, the motion as natural and old as their friendship--Sora made a mess, and Riku put it back in order without ever being asked to.
It used to make him feel like such a kid, next to Riku. Now, it feels like being cared for, like he’s something precious, maybe.
He hopes, anyway, hopes so hard it almost escapes his rib cage like a flock of unruly birds that had recently learned how to undo the locks.
His smile is tight until Riku ruffles his newly hat-less hair, seemingly doing enough talking for both of them. “Guess you’re immune to hat hair, too.”
Sora grins at him shakily, glad to be shaken from this thoughts. “Hero of light perks.”
Riku self-consciously checks his own hair, a little flattened under the weight of his bandana, and frowns. “Can you spare some? Not all of us are so lucky.”
“Sorry. You have to have some flaws,” He shoots back, before he can think.
Riku actually coughs into his fist until Sora pounds him on the back, rubbing his back in comforting circles through the thin shirt, his skin warmed from the sun and heat, and Sora hands him water with a smile and hopes he isn’t as pink as Riku is.
Leaning all his body weight on the spear dug into the sand, nearly draped over it—Sora moans. “Riku, go on without me. I’m going to starve before we catch anything edible.” It was depressing , really: when they were kids, spending long hours ou by the reef, Sora had been the fastest of any of them—swimming, catching, sometimes even diving down to nab crabs right off the seafloor when their nets were ineffectual. Either he’d gotten slower, or the fish had gotten faster.
Or dying had taken more from him than he even knew.
“Too bad. Guess that means I’m going to have to eat all of these myself, then...” Riku calls, shrugging, from his place further out in the surf, as Sora spies him drop something in the net slung around his back.
The water is shallow enough to see the sea floor, clear and calm, and tiny silver fish swim around his ankles, undulating in tiny waves like they’re mocking him for failing.
Sora’s head shoots up, a second wind of energy coursing through him. “What? How many do you have?“
He glances down, his silver hair burning orange in the light. “Two, last time I checked. Better get going if you plan to beat me.”
Sora narrows his eyes. “ Really , Riku? You’re challenging me to a fish-off?”
“Three,” Riku announces, dropping another fish into his net with a smirk. “Good to know some things never change. You still love napping more than working, huh?”
I’ll show you never changing , Sora thinks, a slow, indulgent smirk on his lips.
“I have an idea .”
The sparks are already gathering across Sora’s skin in waves, all the hair along his arms raising in the crackle of static, and it’s all Riku can do to glance at him and say “Why do I not like the sound of that— “ and then, louder— “Sora! Wait, this is salt water —“
The massive lightning bolt splits the sky, everything stark white against the blackened thunderheads over them for a nanosecond before it strikes the sea with incredible force, sending up an impressive splash in its wake, soaking Sora through his clothes as he sputters.
Riku looks flatly at him through the safety of a dark barrier, shimmering purple in the dusk as fish start falling around them like rain, slapping wetly into the surface and sliding off. He wrinkles his nose, probably because the smell of burnt seafood permeates the air.
“See? Fish.” Sora crows, and snakes a hand out in midair to grab one. They’re a little charred from the current, but...edible. Probably . He thinks.
“I still don’t understand how you haven’t mortally wounded yourself,” Riku says, allowing the barrier fade out to better stare at Sora with concern.
Sora has to physically bite back the well, actually, I succeeded in doing it once —but it surfaced there, at the front of his mind before he threw it back like an unwanted catch.
“That’s a weird way to say that you think I’m a genius ,” Sora recovers, bending to start dragging fish into his own net.
“That’s one way to put it...”
Sora glances up to fold his hands behind his head just in time to be slapped with a fish across the forehead. He sputters, wiping slime off his face as his skin rises in disgusted goosebumps. “Uggggh!”
He catches a strangled noise from behind him, and Sora’s voice goes deathly calm, his whole body stilling at once.
“Riku. If you laugh at me right now, you’re swimming home, I swear. All the way to the tower.”
Riku’s face contorts into a series of interesting shapes as his smirk wobbles, and he inhales to say something in response— as a massive silver fish lands in Sora’s hair with a gratuitous slap .
He looses a sigh.
Riku dissolves into laughter, full bodied and shoulder-shaking, his hands on his knees in a battle to stay upright, like he hasn’t since they’ve been back in the living world. “ Genius ,” he wheezes.
“That’s it, I warned you—“ Sora flexes his hands in a threatening gesture as he steps forward.
He tries to run over but slips on something in the surf, arms windmilling backwards in a graceless dive into the water that sends his head under before he surfaces again, only to be slammed by a sudden wave, spewing water in all directions.
Riku throws his head back and laughs for real then, eyes crinkling up and everything, like the world didn’t end twice under their hands, like they’re two kids on the islands without a lifetime behind them— and Sora is laughing too, kneeling on shells in the sea as his shoulders shake until he’s gasping helplessly—one look at a red-faced Riku struggling to breathe sends them both off a second time—and crying into the ocean as fish rain around them.
Eventually, wiping tracks of tears, Riku offers Sora a hand up. The green in his eyes is striking against the orange sky, purples and swirling pinks and clouds behind him in the failing light.
“Guess you win this time.”
Sora takes his hand, and the tingle that comes with the, and bows.
“Thank you, thank you.”
“Points for style, I guess, but I have no idea what you expect to do with--” he gestures-- “ this many fish.” There’s something like forty, at least, in various stages of char, black lightning streaks stark against the scales.
Sora scratches his nose. “Okay, so I got a little competitive.”
Riku’s laugh rings in his mind for the rest of the night.
Dusk is falling by the time they gather on the shore, a gentle pastel backdrop that chased the fire of sunset, revealing the faintest impressions of stars as the hours pass them by, the sand still warm from the day.
They set about their tasks automatically, like the grooves in the secret place, comfortable and worn with the years. Wood appears in Riku’s arms, a solid variety of sticks to use for tinder, and Sora sets to building a circle of rocks. Their provisions are laid out on the flat rocks around the ditch, the fish wrapped in leaves Riku had filched from the further inland on the island.
The silence, unfortunately, gives Sora time to think.
Sora thinks of a different time, a different island, a different fire now blazing to life under the sparks in his hands, before they had known the bite of magic and steel and death . The contrast—strange, to Sora, that one pair of hands—his hands— could have done so much, built and destroyed, the past overlaid with present.
It reminds him of summer camping, the air enfolding them like liquid velvet, elbow to elbow in a grassy field and a too-warm tent and flashlights, looking at the stars, Riku taking Sora’s hand to measure the distance between them, drawing the lines of the great animals for him to see in his mind’s eye.
Their tent had a hole in the ceiling, but it was only a problem in the rainy reason—Riku had done it because Sora hated the dark so much he preferred a natural night light, so of course Riku had spent an hour sawing a hole for him with a dull fishing knife he’d filched from his dad.
Riku always did anything he asked.
“ It’s a skylight ,” he had said, and Sora had never been prouder.
He’s staring into the sluggishly growing fire absently—he’s not sure how long he’s been sitting there— as Riku touches his shoulder from behind; wraps his hand around and leaves it there like a grounding force.
“What were you thinking about?” He asks quietly, the flames softening the lines of his face, the deepening hollows of his eyes—and it’s gentle, and heartbreakingly soft.
“Do you remember,” Sora asks, “When you burned yourself on the ceremonial fire?”
Riku chuckles. “How could I forget?” He extends the hand that isn’t clutching makeshift spits, tilts his fingers to catch the light and warmth. “Still have the scar to prove it.”
He does—a thin, healed over thing on two of his fingers. Sora traces it sometimes, without thinking, follows the lifelines of his palm like a map, over and over again.
Riku was young when it happened—his family chosen for the honor of lighting the summer festival pyre that year, when Riku made a riotous scene by not pulling his hands away in time.
“My dad was so mad,” Riku continues, seating himself next to Sora on the makeshift rock bench and lowers his voice an octave. “ One thing, son—one thing, and you couldn’t even do that right. ”
Sora hums and folds his arms and digs his nails into his arms to try and quell the urge to punch a dead man. “Your dad was a real warm guy.”
“Yeah. Tell me about it,” Riku snorts, and he sets about putting the fish on the spits. “Still. Sometimes I wonder if he was right.”
“You did a lot of things right. Perfectly, if you ask me—or Kairi, or anyone on the island.”
“A lot wrong too,” he murmurs, refusing to meet Sora’s eyes.
“Riku,” he says warningly, brandishing his own stick, less threatening due to the presence of skewered fruits. “Don’t make me use this.”
“Sora. That’s a stick.”
“Yeah, and I will use it.”
“Okay, okay. I give,” Riku says with a little shake of his head that sends Sora’s heart to fluttering again.
“Anyway. Do you remember—you told me to dunk it in the ocean? The burn.”
Sora smiles around the memory. “Yeah. I told you that if you asked really nicely, the ocean would definitely heal you.”
Riku is already snickering a little. “You told me—you told me to—“
Sora is laughing too as the words flow back into his head. “I told you to kiss it. The water. Because the ocean Goddess would kiss it better in exchange.”
“ God ,” Riku gasps out. “I did it, did you know that? Leaned so far over during low tide that I face planted into the sand during the festival.”
Sora is so fond at the image it splits his chest, and he has to wring his own hands to keep from reaching out, folds his hands around the spits instead.
“Yeah, but did it work?”
Riku raises his hand, watches the flickering through the translucent skin of his hand, like flames licking under his skin. “I mean. It healed, so I guess it did.”
He glances at him sidelong. “For some reason, your crazy schemes usually do.”
The way he looks at Sora like this feels like a promise , something full of words in the space between heartbeats, and he thinks—hopes—he’s not alone in this, in the feeling swelling around their little campsite and swaddling it in warmth and memories.
He moves his hand closer to Riku’s, presses right to his side despite the warmth burning through him now, and he presses back. There’s no wind, so the fire is already climbing the wood with creeping fingers, high and hot, the coals glowing nearly blue already and spitting. It’s so warm that he closes his eyes against Riku’s side, burrowing into his shoulder, feeling the steady rise of his breath, afraid to break the moment.
Eventually, Riku shifts to slip the spits onto the wooden structure above the fire, and Sora is mesmerized for a moment by the way it seems to swell to reach for him, light looking for light.
“Hey, Sora. Whatever happened to that iguana you had?”
Sora gasps like he’s been hit physically, his arms going around Riku’s automatically. “Oh my god. I haven’t thought of him in forever, Riku! Is that terrible?”
Riku sighs. “You were really young when you got him, so not really. I was just...reminiscing.”
There was an Iguana—-a mean, emerald-colored spitting mad demon of a creature who had been missing half of a functional tail and was lying injured in the road on their way to school.
Of course, Sora loved him fiercely, immediately, and with enough feeling that his parents were forced to look the other way as they rehabbed him or risk a meltdown.
“You know what? I don’t know. We nursed him back to health and then one day I just...let him out and he never came back.” Sora hums and reaches forward to turn the fish over on the spit, watching the flames play across the iridescent shimmer of the scales. “Island life just wasn’t for him, I guess.”
Riku is quiet. “I can relate,” he says, hands stilling on the spit he’d been packing with vegetables, laying it across his legs, his eyes soft and far away, fathomless and deep.
They still talk around this, mostly—the island, the storm, what happened between then and now. It’s too much, still—even after all of this, especially after all of this, counterbalanced against so many sacrifices, and Sora knows no amount of convincing or words will fix it, as much as he wants to—fix, and smooth the lines between Riku’s brows, and bend to carry that hurt for a while, whatever is tracking his footsteps. But he would be a hypocrite: he has his own.
They’re both...learning to live with that, with being haunted. Maybe that’s enough.
“It wasn’t all bad,” Sora says, nudging him, playing his fingers back up his arm, subtle and swift. “Right?”
“No,” Riku says quietly. “Being with you and Kairi made it better, though.”
“Sorry,” Sora laughs to himself, and it’s a little hollow. “This trip was supposed to take your mind off of...the islands and all, but everything here is just...reminding me of it, all of a sudden.”
He’s realizing now how ill-thought out this was--admittedly he was just thinking of how they used to play pirates on the beach, using driftwood as swords until they’d gotten the real thing, using palm fronds as flags in opposing ships, Riku and he fighting incessantly over who claimed the coolest historical pirate to play.
No matter how far away they went, taking Riku to an island was probably meticulously digging up exactly what he’d tried to bury. Death was an island, too, of sorts--it felt too small and too big all at once, until you walked your way right off the edge of it into the sea and had to swim back to meager land.
“Sora,” Riku says. He puts down his knife and frowns in Sora’s periphery. “You know the raft wasn’t just about...leaving, right? It was about...seeing the world, with you guys. Having adventures, out there. I was looking for something else—doesn’t mean I never want to think about home ever again.”
“Did you find it? What you were looking for.” Sora is a little afraid of the answer.
There’s a long beat of silence, and his heart skips a little as Riku looks to the sky, away from him and the island and land, before catching Sora gently on soft green. “Yeah. Think so. Funny I had to go around the world to figure it out, though.”
“Where was Jack’s compass when you needed it?”
“Yeah,” Riku huffs a laugh, them goes quiet, contemplative, resting his chin on his steepled hands, turning over words in his mind. “I think that... home lives in our memories, even when it’s not the same anymore, and that’s okay too. It has to be, because we have to keep moving, even if home stays the same.”
If Sora wasn’t aware that he was profoundly, irreversibly in love with Riku before, he knows it now, in the urge to cross the ravine before them, press Riku to his heart until the cold left him, in the way he plucked what he was feeling from his own heart and laid it bare before him, understood at last.
“Yeah,” he chokes out instead. “I think... home is the people we keep in our hearts, so it can’t ever be that far away.”
The silence stretches between them, nothing but the crackle and smell of burning wood against the cool salt air, the stars above them, and sand below, and the taste of the ocean and verdant greens on his tongue as they eat their makeshift meal, both of them lost to dreams.
Both of them go slowly, between small bites and small movements, sneaking glances at the other above hands full of scales.
Finally, both finished, Sora shifts to kill the fire, freezing on the ground as he hears Riku’s exhale.
“Sora. When did we grow up?” Riku finally speaks into the silence, and it sounds a little helpless, Sora’s heart lurching with it, with the need to stop him from saying it.
Sora has wondered the same, between year long sleeps and resets and memory reboots he half-remembers as vicious nightmares, in between sacrifices that weigh on his heart and the bodies he’s carried back himself, between memories of a meteor shower and this memory, right now, being crafted in every second in their hands.
“I dunno,” Sora tells him instead, leaning back to look at him. “We’re still kids, I guess. Sort of.”
“We’re not,” Riku says, eyes like steel in the dying embers. “You know we’re not.”
He knows , knows that’s part of the price of being dead, probably. Another thing on the pile of things they share.
He licks his lips, rises to lay his head on Riku’s shoulder instead, fisting into the shirt—and says “Maybe we can be.”
The tilt of Riku’s head grounds him, and he feels the other boy’s chest rise and fall as he heaves a sigh. Sora closes his eyes, dark on dark. “What do you mean?”
Sora says, “I want to show you something.”
Maybe it was stupid, to think he could outrun time on a pirate ship, sail away from one island and take Riku and run to another and expect that to bring back everything that was lost, haul in the heavy anchors they all dragged in their wake in the course of a day.
“Sora?” Riku asks, like a question.
But he’s Sora, and he’s done more impossible things than this. So he’s going to try.
“Come on,” he tells him, extending a hand that Riku’s already moving to take. “Follow me.”
They walk in silence, the only accompaniment the soft sounds of waves Sora leading them around the beach, away from the fire and the warmth and into the rocky cove. Occasionally Sora lets a bit of fire play over his fingers, but It’s mostly for show—Sora has been here enough times he could pick his way through in utter darkness, and had, but this time he had precious cargo, Riku’s calloused hand warm in his own.
Finally, at the deepest point of the horseshoe shape, he stops. The bay stretches out before them, ringed by sand on the far sides, and Sora knows they’re in the right place; had even placed a massive rock at the apex to mark the spot.
He sets the oil lantern he’d handed to Riku to carry on the rock and lets the tiny flame from his thumb light it, cups his hand and blows a little as it catches, watches as it comes to life and cuts the dusk into pieces, dim in the gathering dark but definitely enough to navigate by. Riku looks on with a faraway expression, and Sora knows why; knows he’s thinking the same thing.
There is a legend on the Destiny Islands that souls returned to the ocean, at the end--funerals were held at sea, as far out as you could walk, on little wooden rafts festooned with flowers and a single, star-shaped metal luminary--sometimes it looked like an ethereal parade, bobbing along on the dark waves, lights that dimmed as, eventually, they chased the horizon and disappeared. He wondered if anyone was planning a parade for them, once they’d been gone long enough, he wondered if they were technically the first people who made the journey to be spit back out.
Truth be told, he may never have the heart to ask.
Where to, Sora?” Riku says softly, an echo of how they started the day. The stars are winking into life overheard, and he’s glad he chose the perfect night for this, that he’d asked the the locals weeks ago about the weather and they’d showed him how to read the tides for storms.
“We’re almost there, c'mon.” Sora’s hand finds Riku’s again, curling the smallest bit around his wrist to tug him along, listening to the sudden exhalation of his breath.
They turn towards the gently lapping waves, and Sora stops them in the step before the surf, his back to Riku to gather his nerve, crawling around his stomach and up into his chest, his pulse beating rapidly in his wrist, and this last step feels like a beginning.
“Close your eyes,” He hears himself saying, and Riku does, unquestionably, the marker of trust earned between a lifetime of moments, a gesture so immediate it makes Sora’s heart push against his ribs, the fondness he kept flooding down to his foes. Sora adjusts their hands, reaching to take both of Riku’s in both of his, locked securely as he glances behind him to begin walking backwards into the sea.
Sora takes his first steps into the water, and it’s cool against his ankles, and the way his toes sink into the welcoming sand under the gentle waves feels like home in a way that lurches his heart forward.
Soon , he tells himself. We’re almost there.
The Caribbean water is warm to the touch, and it’s almost a relief to sink into it, Sora carefully picking his way backwards, bare feet feeling out the bottom for trippable rocks and sharp stones, a lifetime spent walking precariously close to coral reefs and dangerous wildlife guiding his way.
Riku is silent but his brows are furrowed, white eyelashes tight against his pale cheeks—he looks like starlight himself, and Sora knows he has a thousand questions, and the idea he trusts Sora enough to not ask them makes his chest clench painfully. It takes a particularly hard bite to his cheek to stop him spilling out with all the things tied up in his heart, with the need to touch, slide his hands up to that face and show him how much he means to Sora.
Not yet .
Their clothes are sticking to their skin already, Sora’s vest weighing heavy on him, Riku’s shirt nearly transparent under the sky.
They pick their way through the calm waves, lapping at their calves and then thighs and waists as their hands stay clasped above the water, until finally Sora drops them and says, “Okay. Open.”
Riku blinks his way back to reality, squinting around in the dark, and it is dark—there’s no moon tonight, Sora had checked that in advance—but the stars paint the sky in large swathes where the few clouds aren’t covering, the sight so reminiscent of home his vision swims a little. The only light is one dull glow on the shore, where he’d left the lantern to guide their way back.
There is no line visible between horizon and sea, just an endless expanse of sky, the sea a mirror to the night.
It’s breathtaking. Sora knows, because the first time he found this place, he fell asleep here, unable to move beneath the curtain of unobstructed stars.
Riku must think so too, because his eyes are too wide and his mouth drops slightly open and he’s tracing silent words with his teeth, Sora knows—the names of constellations Riku had spent hours memorizing, spread out on Sora’s bed with star charts and telescopes. Sora could never remember them all, but Riku did, and that was okay, because Riku knew everything.
“Sora...” He says, all awe and wonder, and Sora thinks he would do anything to hear his name like that on Riku’s lips, again and again and again. “It’s...”
“You haven’t even seen the best part yet,” Sora says, and Riku turns to him quizzically.
Sora holds out his hand again, expectantly—and Riku takes it, slides his palm along it with excruciating slowness until they slot on top of each other.
“Watch this,” Sora breathes, and their eyes lock for a second, lock and hold until he brings their joined hands down, both of his on both of Riku’s, and scoops the water into them to let it tumble through their fingers.
Riku’s eyes widen. The water bursts into light, fluorescent blue streaks casting them in a dim otherworldly underglow for a few seconds before going out abruptly.
“This is what I wanted to show you,” Sora tells him, his grin already splitting his face. He brings an arm up in a wide sweep above his head, summoning the kingdom key in a flash of light so abrupt he sees spots for a few seconds.
“What are you—“ Riku starts, and Sora sends a burst of force across the top of the bay that slices the surface like a knife, leaving a wake behind that makes the bay burst into life, a long streak of fluorescent light cutting the clear water in two as it speeds into the distance.
He releases the key to sink backwards in the bay, trails like stars follow him down, and Riku is already getting it, a little delighted laugh making its way out of his throat as he watches it slip through his fingers, dip and release.
“It lights up when you move,” Sora says, swimming a lazy backstroke around Riku, leaving little trails of glowing water behind him like a wake. “But it doesn’t last that long.”
“It’s...” Riku swallows around it. “It’s beautiful,” he says, soft and incredulous, dragging his fingers and watching at the little clouds of blue he leaves behind, eyes glassy.
“How’s this for stargazing?” Sora asks smugly, eyes closed with the feeling of the water lapping at his ears and cheeks.
“How bright can it get?” Riku is asking, and Sora is already standing up, catching his drift.
“Wanna find out?”
The smirk is mischievous and boyish and everything Sora has so sorely missed about this new Riku who thinks too much about sacrifice, but then again, that was both of them.
Riku is still grinning when he winds up and slams the water with a palm, sending a massive tidal wave in Sora’s direction—he puts his hands up on instinct, but it crashes down on his head, anyway—streaking him with blue for a few seconds.
“Hey!,” Sora yells, but he’s laughing and pulling limp hair out of his eyes and he can’t see yet but summons the kingdom key again anyway, hears Riku’s protest while he uses it to send a mighty blast flying right into his smug face, the wave of blue light dying his hair for a moment before flickering out.
Riku’s glower makes Sora turn his back and run, wet clothes and water dragging him backwards as he goes, snickering and gasping the whole time as he hears Riku swing his own keyblade in an arc above the water that sends a wave that slams Sora flat into the surface of the bay. He floats there, limbs limp below him, eyes shut tight as he waits, holding his breath.
As expected, Riku’s hurried splash is at his side in an instant, hand going to shake the back of his vest. “Sora?” He says, cautiously. He shakes a little harder, and Sora bites down on a smile. “Hey—Sora, are you—“
Sora bursts from the surface, spins to drink in Riku’s surprised face—and says “Got you,” before hooking his soaking arms around the taller boy’s neck and pulling him down too. Riku resists, and it becomes a tussle, both of them trying to force the other under in a dunk, the spray going bright blue and flickering out over and over again. Sora feels drunk on it, the feeling between them, his throat hoarse with salt water and too much laughter, lungs aching with the need to breathe, the exhaustion giving way to peace and silence in his bones.
It ends with them pressed right together in more of a embrace than a hold, forehead to forehead, nearly panting into each other’s mouths—Riku seems to realize first, his eyes wide with unshuttered feeling— and pulls away a little too quickly, nearly dropping Sora in the water in his haste, wide and afraid. Sora’s heart does an unpleasant thump against his breastbone. He looks so scared , scared of what this was so clearly becoming, what Sora hopes it is.
He figures has to be brave.
So he catches Riku’s slippery palm before he can go too far away again, catches his eyes and, wordlessly, he sinks back into the surf, pulling Riku with him.
They float, side by side, heads tilted up towards the sky, and Sora looks over, drinks in the sight of Riku, his hair splayed in silver waves around him like a creature who belonged there, the red of the bandana almost purple in the twilight—bathed in warm water and cold sky, and he knows what he has to say.
“Riku. You know... It’s...okay to be...what we are now.” No longer kids. No longer best friends. Different, but more, changed, but the same.
Riku’s face looks heartbreaking, and Sora wonders if he’s judged wrong, but instead the back of his palm comes up to brush Sora’s cheek, soft as a butterfly before it disappears, dark eyes flickering.
“Why do you think they sent us back?” Riku gazes resolutely at the sky, brows drawn up, pale skin a stark contrast to the black water lapping at his face, hiding most of his limbs. “Death, I mean.” Ghostly is the word Sora wants to use for him.
“Why does there has to be a reason?” Sora says, watching the little rivulets of light pass over his fingers, little trails of stars to hold in the palms of his hands. That was the answer he finally accepted for himself, because sometimes that was all he got by way of conclusions.
“It just. It feels heavy .” Riku’s hand presses to his eyes, palm up, like he’s expecting a star to fall into it. “I feel it all the time .”
That explained a lot—his silences, the way he stared off in the middle of training, eating. How he didn’t sleep anymore, and Sora knows what he isn’t saying, all at once. The puzzle clicks into perfect clarity, and leaves him cold.
“Riku. Did you...not want to come back?” Sora watches him carefully, guarded, fearing the answer.
“I was going to follow you wherever you went,” he responds immediately, which isn’t an answer, but then he relents, tilts his head back further until both his hands come up to massage his temples, his eyes. “I always will.”
“But…” Sora encourages, low and careful.
“But I’m...this last time...I’m so tired , Sora.”
It was true. Sora had wondered how many times he could pass through that world before the temptation to stay, to sink into those arms like a blanket, beckoning him to leave everything else behind—would win.
If not for Riku, it would have.
They were probably the same. They had matching sets of exhaustion that sunk into bone and skin and dragged, made it so cold was a normal state of being, a price shared between them like an invisible pair of shackles.
He swallows around the guilt, tucks it under the rug with the rest of it, because he has to be the strong half, now, he has to try and...do something .
“What if...we’re supposed to be happy?” Sora tries weakly, and he knows Riku’s face without having to see it, knows it in his terse silence, and smiles. “Too lame for you. I get it.”
“No—it’s just. How could it be that simple ?” Riku rises to stand, to make him understand—Sora does too, and the fluorescence collects around them, huddled close in the middle of the bay with no end. “All that, everything we did and—that’s all ?”
“What would you do if it was that simple ?” Sora asks him carefully, a promise threaded through the words, a tapestry of meaning. He takes a cautionary step closer, tilting his head.
He’s not good with words, but he hopes Riku knows what he’s trying so hard to say. The words settle around them like a curtain, heavy and drawn.
No answer comes, the older boy staring pensively into the distance.
Sora sighs, heart quivering because it was time to be brave one more time. “Do you know why I wanted to show you this place?”
Riku shakes his head, a quiet, slow exhalation accompanying it.
“Because the whole time I was here, seeing all these amazing things—in my heart, I was wishing you were here too.” He raises his chin, sets his jaw, exhales a shaky breath. “I told myself it was okay, that—we weren’t together, but we were under the same sky, and maybe that was enough, but. It’s not,” he licks his lips, chanced another step—closer— touches Riku’s bare arm, his thumb pressing in, the slightest brush on the skin, and he feels the shiver through his own. “Not anymore. I was wrong. It’s...way better with you here.”
“I’m...glad we came back. Because I have so much more I want to show you,” Sora finishes, knowing he’s flushed pink and glad Riku isn’t looking at him while he tries to say what’s in his heart. “I don’t... need more reason than that.”
Riku’s back is turned to him, watching the stars, and when he rotates it is slow and deliberate and magnetic, the stars backlighting his hair in a glorious halo of light, the glow in the water like a spiral of stars.
The sight steals the breath from Sora’s lungs, his heart set to hammering like waves on his ship.
Sora reaches for him, finally—powerless to stop it—and Riku goes willingly, of course he does—wraps his arms around Sora’s shoulders in the lightest touch he can, enfolding him entirely, and Sora wants to crush him, hold and hold until the shadows leave his eyes.
“ God ,” Riku breathes against his hair, shaky and unsure. Slowly, like he wants to give Sora time to run—where would he run, he had run with Riku this entire time, to Riku—he brushes the hair back to press a warm kiss to his forehead, just one, and Sora’s pulse leaps like a rabbit.
“The world doesn’t deserve you,” Riku whispers. “But I’m glad you’re here.”
Sora winds his hands around Riku’s, cold on cold, and looks up into those beautiful green eyes, soft and unsure. “People aren’t things you earn , Riku,” he says, and Riku is suddenly much closer, his hand hovering around his cheek until Sora leans in to complete the motion. “Chances, either.”
“Yeah,” he whispers. ”When did you get so wise?”
“I’m always wise,” he says. “S’just that nobody listens to me,” he says, placing a finger to Riku’s lips, pressing in just slightly to make sure he got the message, the softness making this mouth dry.
“So— listen. Riku. I’m here with you, because I chose to be, like you chose to come after me.” He smiled. “So don’t look so scared . I would choose you every time .”
Even over death. They had chosen each other.
That counted for something, surely, it had to.
“How can you just— say —“ Riku cuts himself off, abruptly, forgets to breathe and then jolts back away from Sora’s hands as his chest heaves again, blinking too fast, a caged in animal.
Riku makes to pull back further, but Sora has his hands and that isn’t happening if he can help it, Riku won’t run from him again, from what he wants or away to darkness or into death or across the worlds without him.
“Riku. You’re still not listening .”
“Sora—I don’t think you know what you’re—“
He puts a thumb on Riku’s lips this time, trying not to laugh at the comically large eyes that almost cross to stare at him, because knows the fear there is genuine. “Yeah, I do,” he breathes, and leans up, up, up , crosses into Riku’s space and feels him go tighter and rigid, the line of his shoulders fit to cut glass. “I really, really do.”
Sora brushes his nose against Riku’s, asking and soft, because as impatient as he is he knows Riku needs this, needs the space and the gentle touch, and gives it to him, presses minutely forward and curls his hands in Riku’s sopping shirt collar, breathing with him, long and slow, head already titling to the side with expectation, waiting as Riku brushes Sora’s face with the backs of his knuckles and trembling hands. “Because I should have done this a long time ago.”
“Is this real?” Riku asks him, open, wild half-lidded eyes with wider pupils, trying so hard to suck in light pouring into his, and Sora whispers “ It better be ,” with a pointed glance down to his lips, and Riku finally lets his eyes close and pulls them together.
Kissing Riku feels like breaking apart, galaxies behind his eyes and a current ripping through him stronger than the riptides in the islands, and it makes him press forward, seek more contact, pull his hair out of its braids—he had missed the long hair, really—swallows a groan from one or both of them as he buries his hands in it, seeking that heartbreaking closeness, scared of Riku pulling away again and leaving him here, a shivering mess of raw feeling, electric and uneven.
He’s fought hordes of heartless before but it didn’t prepare him for this—Riku’s palm against his cheek, still cold from the water, a point of focus on his burning face, Riku’s arm around his waist, his back, his neck—keeping him steady and grounded as they move against each other, slides his hands to Sora’s bare elbows and tilts his jaw up to deepen the kiss, and that’s when someone’s knees give out, both of them stumbling.
He doesn’t have time to do anything like warm Riku—hands still tangled in his hair—so when he starts to collapse he tangles his hands in Riku’s soaking shirt and takes Riku with him, muffling a noise of surprise as he barely avoids knocking their teeth as they hit the water together with an unruly splash.
They go under and there’s definitely salt water all the way up his nose now, and what feels vaguely like shells in his back, and Riku is both crushing him and definitely trying to stand again, untangling his legs from Sora’s—but Sora is on him again in a second, pressing up into his mouth, the tingle of Aero passing between them as he casts it, uncertain if this will work but hoping it does, he’s good at quick thinking.
Riku pulls back enough to wince out of half-open eyes against the salt, a question or maybe exasperation in his eyes—and he releases a little puff of bubbles as he frames Sora’s face with his hands, green eyes widening comically—and Sora sees, now, because Riku’s almost luminescent himself, the disturbed water glowing bright blue and casting him in its light like a natural halo. Around them, the world is alive—small silver fish dart past their ears and trail starlight in their wake, and a little farther out, a line of coral sways in the gentle current, everything cast in glowing, winking blue light, and it’s even better from under the waves, surprisingly clear even at this time of night.
He’s treated to another one of those slow-blooming, awestruck smiles, spreading all the way across his face and making him look ten years younger—ones Sora is sure he will find a hundred ways to give him, however long it takes—and Riku is forming the words how? and that’s when he realizes he can breathe, places two fingers to his mouth like he can’t quite believe it, and then Sora pulls him down by his neck and kisses him again, water be damned.
He’s waited too long, and he wants too much, always has.
It’s a little less romantic than he hopes because focusing on supplying oxygen while Riku does that with his teeth against his bottom lip is a little more taxing than he thought, so he has enough time to tug urgently at Riku’s shirt—he’s buried his hands in it at some point—until he peels himself off and surfaces, dragging Sora by the hand until both their heads break the line of the waves.
He’s not sure what to say , so he stalls and starts to half-swim, half-walk back to shore, following the yellow glow of the lantern— trailing blue the whole time, hears Riku doing the same behind him until they’re both sprawled out on the sand. starfishing was what they called it when they were kids, after long days of playing in the sea and sore muscles and sunburn.
Sora is pink from head to ears, despite the drag of his heavy, wet clothes, and he wrinkles his nose with the feeling, wants to shed all of it but can’t find the will to move because his heart is fluttering outside his body somewhere in the stratosphere, and he knows he’s wearing a stupid, absent grin because Riku kissed him and they are alive.
Riku speaks first. “Eugh,” he says. “I’m wet .”
Sora releases a hysterical giggle, because that’s the only thing he can do. “Yeah, Riku, That’s kind of the point of the ocean.”
Riku smacks him on the leg, and the wet sound echoes across the island and makes them both snicker like children until they fall silent.
Riku rolls his head right to look at him, hesitant and unsure, and Sora is already looking back, a mirror image. “ Hi ,” he says, like a question.
“ Hey ,” Riku responds, like an answer, and he brings a hand closer like he wants to touch, so Sora grasps it and brings it to his own face, despite the wet.
He’s trying to speak but Sora knows he needs time, so he shuts his eyes and focuses on the pump of his heart, of Riku, of them here, finally, breathing and panting and alive, the sounds a counterpoint to the low buzz of insects and the waves. Riku licks his lips and Sora follows the motion with his eyes, stares too long as kiss-swollen lips, and thinks that’s actually a great look on him; maybe his new favorite.
“Sora,” he tries, then stops. “You...”
Sora raises to an elbow to see better, rapt.
“You...do you…” Sora has never been more grateful to read him, this beautiful boy who feels so deeply and powerfully it’s hard for him to speak around it, he wants to tell him it’s okay—but—
“Yeah,” he breathes, and scoots over to bring their foreheads together, Riku puffing warm air into his face, still holding his hand captive. He feels his tremors through the skin. “Yeah,” he says again, then, quieter: “You?”
The sigh of relief blows warm ear past his closed eyelids, and this close Sora can feel him gulp, the stutter of his breath. “Yeah,” he says, choked up. “For a...long time.”
Sora wants to cry too, kind of. Instead he leans down and lays a wet, cold smack of a kiss on Riku’s cheek.
“Sora!” He says, affronted, And Sora goes for another, already grinning, when Riku’s palm comes up to shove him away. “Ugh, you’re cold —you’re like a fish or something—“
“You weren’t complaining ten minutes ago,” Sora says, eyebrows wiggling the whole time, light and buoyant, he’s afraid he’s going to float away, in this moment between them.
“Shut up,” Riku groans, but he’s smiling stupidly too, and slips a hand to the nape of his neck to pull him down again, Sora laughing as he goes, and of course he goes.
“ Whatever—You love me,” Sora says unthinkingly, and they both freeze, electric blue and widened green. Sora’s tongue feels too thick in his mouth, and too dry, as his whole body freezes.
Riku brushes bangs out his eyes, the gesture so gentle it tickles, and he opens his eyes. “Yeah,” he says. “I do.” Sora doesn’t have time to react because Riku flips them, heedless of Sora’s indignant squawk—and says “And that’s why I’m going to enjoy this,” and presses his own icy lips to Sora’s exposed throat and blows the loudest raspberry he’s even done.
Sora valiantly shoves at his chest but he’s pinned so Riku he only does it again, lower. “Riku—god you’re so fucking— gross, stop —“ but he’s laughing, little helpless peals of laughter making it hard to speak, and Riku is too, stops harassing him to press his nose into Sora’s wet shoulder and giggle until he’s crying, for real this time, and it’s okay.
“D’you think that counts as kissing the ocean?”
Riku goes silent, wide-eyed, and his lips are trembling at the edges, like he’s trying not to cry, and Sora loves and loves and loves , thinks he would kiss the ocean a hundred times to keep Riku looking like this.
“Maybe a few more,” he says, finally, thickly, and Sora is already fighting another grin, tugging him down to kiss him again. “Just to be sure,” Sora agrees amiably. “In case we missed a spot.”
Later, on the ship, changed into warm, fresh linen clothes Sora had unearthed from a chest and tangled in a pile under thick blankets in the (shared) bed, Sora thinks this was maybe the best day ever.
Riku is puffing his bangs out of his face, and Sora is content to lie there forever in stupefied joy, gaze locked on the ceiling and an elaborate painting of a horizon at dawn. The sun will rise soon--they stayed up late into the night, talking like a dam had broken something between them, whispering all the way through a sudden storm that sent the gentle sounds of rain to lull them into sleepy silence.
“Maybe it is that simple,” Riku says into Sora’s collarbone, the sound tickling all the way up to his ears. “I’m kind of...tired of destiny, anyway.”
Sora absently runs his hands over the notches in Riku’s spine under the loose shirt, up to his neck and into his hair and down again, a pattern of reassurance, a rhythm to match his heartbeat.
“Yeah. They can find somebody else the next go around,” Sora agrees. He pauses to begin running hands through silver hair, Riku’s answering sound like music. “At least for a year. No. Five years. Actually, let’s just hide out here and be pirates until they send someone to drag us back.”
“I like the sound of that ,” Riku mumbles, but he’s already slurring all the words together in a way that makes Sora squeeze him tighter for all the times he had to sleep alone when Sora was gone.
“Are you suggesting playing hooky ? Maybe you really are a pirate, Riku.”
“I had a good teacher,” he mutters, arm reaching across Sora’s chest to tuck around him, like they did when they were kids.
“Dork,” Sora says fondly, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth.
“Love you too,” Riku responds unthinkingly, sighing it into Sora’s skin, and for a second it fills his chest with so much warmth it drives out all the other things, makes him burn with quiet longing, makes him blink against tears that this is real.
“ Love you so much ,” he whispers into silver hair, his hands coming up to cradle his neck, his shoulders, anywhere he could reach to sink into the corporeality of Riku--like it could ever be enough to say it, to thank him for everything he’s done, a lifetime of chasing, of dying, of everything but living .
Riku curls his fingers against Sora’s shirt in response, already sinking into sleep, the smallest of peaceful smiles blooming on his face.
Sora figures they can stay a few more days before Yen Sid gets mad enough to call them home. They deserve a vacation.
Besides—he doesn’t want to leave, just yet.
For the first time in a long, long time, they’re home .