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Riku was seven years old when his grandfather took him aside and gifted him with a jar of sunshine.

“This is a very special gift, Riku,” Yen Sid solemnly told him, who, when crouched, was as tall as the boy when he was standing. Riku had a hand planted on the old man’s shoulder, eyes wide, expression an echo of Yen Sid’s as he gazed sombrely at the jar. It was the size of a pickle jar, made of heavy-bottomed glass, with a silver lid screwed tightly in place. The glow of light within was bright and warm, undulating between yellow and white. When Riku reached out a cautious hand to touch, the glass was cold, Yen Sid softly urging him, “Be careful, now. The sunshine will fly away if the jar is opened or broken. You must take excellent care of it.”

“Doesn’t sunshine belong in the sky?” Riku asked, after a moment’s contemplation, lifting a foot to scratch his leg while holding his grandfather for balance.

“Ordinarily, yes. But this is special sunshine. One day, we will set it free, but until then we must keep it safe and sound. This is a task I leave to you.” Riku met his eyes, filled with childlike seriousness, seeming to search the old man for confirmation that something so important was being left to him. “I trust you, Riku,” Yen Sid told him, holding the jar out for the boy to take.

After a hesitation, Riku reached for it, small hands pressing carefully but firmly around the sides of the glass. His arms dipped a little as Yen Sid slowly withdrew his hands, until Riku was left cradling it. The light within filled it completely, unmoving but in motion even so, as if it blinked slowly in and out of existence.

Yen Sid remained crouched, his intense eyes fixed upon the boy, who curiously turned the jar and peered inside, looking at it from different angles. When at last he seemed satisfied that Riku was treating it with the appropriate care and reverence, the old man straightened, patting a hand gently atop the boy’s silver-haired head.

“Good boy.”

Riku glanced after his grandfather as he left, then carried the jar to where he had been drawing in a book before Yen Sid had interrupted him. He placed it down where he could keep an eye on it, returning to his former position on his belly. For several minutes, his face caught in his hands, he studied the jar, large eyes taking in every available detail. When the sunshine failed to do anything new in that time, however, he gradually lost interest, and returned to his pictures.

.o.O.o.

That night, Riku was awoken by a whisper in his dreams. His eyes slowly fluttered open, the boy sitting after a moment and rubbing his face sleepily. He blinked around the room, his gaze settling eventually on the jar of sunshine. His mother had draped a pillow case over it so that the brightness wouldn’t keep Riku from sleeping, but it still managed to gently illuminate the room, glowing dully through the fabric. Everything was still, and silent.

After a minute of nothing happening, Riku, forgetting why he had woken, lay down with a deep, tired breath, and was almost back asleep when he heard the whisper again: “Riku.”

His eyelids popped open. Twisting on his pillow, he angled his head to look around, his eyes again inevitably drawn to the jar. With a small sideways twitch of his lips, he thought for a few seconds, then pushed back his blankets and rolled out of bed. In shorts and a rumpled t-shirt, he crossed the room with careful steps, bare toes pushing into the soft carpet. Warily, he circled the desk the jar sat upon. When nothing immediately happened, he shifted closer, took the edge of the pillow case, and tugged it up a short distance, one aquamarine eye peering in at the sunshine.

It looked no different than when he had last looked at it before bedtime. His mouth formed a slight pout of confusion. He was sure he had heard someone say his name, and was even more sure that it had come from over here.

Just as he was feeling a prickle of uncertainty that risked becoming fear – perhaps there was a monster in the closet? – he felt the faintest tingle in his skin, and then, that little whisper: “Riku.”

His eyes widened. It had been the jar! Or, the sunshine inside the jar. It had spoken his name!

Blinking in surprise, he pulled the pillow case a little higher, the golden light touching his face in the darkness. “Hello?” he cautiously said. “My name is Riku.”

“Riku.”

The tingle in his skin came again, almost like the exhaling push of a summer’s breeze, and he nodded, hair falling across his eyes, needing to pushed out of the way as he continued to hold his head sideways. “I’m Riku,” he repeated.

“Riku.”

“Yes.” He considered, then asked, “Do you have a name?”

There was a long pause. Maybe the sunshine was called Riku, too?

“Sora.”

His interest piqued, the boy straightened and slid the pillow case away entirely, the whole room lighting up with the sunshine’s gentle radiance. “Sora?”

“Sora.”

“I’m Riku,” he said.

“Riku,” the sunshine responded, the whisper gaining a little strength.

“What’s your name?” he prompted.

Another short pause followed, then, to Riku’s delight, the sunshine said, “Sora.”

“You can talk!” He snatched the jar up and ran back to his bed, sitting cross legged on the pillow with the jar nestled in his blankets. “Is it true that you’re sunshine?” the boy asked inquisitively. “I’ve never heard of talking sunshine before.”

“…Sora.”

“Sora.” Riku nodded, smiling. “So you’re sunshine, but you’re also Sora.”

To a seven year old, this made as much sense as anything. After all, if a jar of sunshine was talking, and telling him its name, who was he to disagree? He already knew his grandfather was a clever and powerful sorcerer – that he should gift Riku with talking sunshine wasn’t surprising so much as it was pride-worthy. Maybe Riku would grow up to be a powerful sorcerer, too – maybe the sunshine would help him along the way.

He talked a little longer with the sunshine, but couldn’t get anything further out of it than their names. That was okay, though – maybe it was just sleepy. Riku was sleepy, too. Before long, he had dropped back into slumber, the jar clutched to his chest, finding no difficulty, after all, in falling asleep despite the brightness.

.o.O.o.

The next time Yen Sid visited, some days later, Riku came running up to him, breathless with eagerness. “Grandfather! It talks! The sunshine talks and its name is Sora!”

“Ahh. Is that so?” Yen Sid smiled slightly, bending to look as Riku reached around to a cloth bag slung over his shoulders.

“Mom made me a bag to carry him in,” the boy said, Yen Sid noticing the effortless way he switched between thinking of the light as an ‘it’ and a ‘him’.

“Sora is a boy?”

“He says he is,” Riku answered, swinging the bag around to his front and parting it to let the old man look inside. “He’s been learning more and more words. Sora, this is Grandfather Yen Sid!” He spoke into the bag, the light shining strongly from within its depths.

After a moment, a whisper touched Yen Sid’s mind: “Grandfather…”

Riku nodded quickly. “Grandfather Yen Sid.” He said the last two words loudly and clearly down at the bag.

“Grandfather… Yen… Sid.”

“See!?” Riku’s head snapped up for him to grin at the old man, who shook his head with an impressed smile.

“Very well done, Riku. I can see you’re taking very good care of Sora. I’m very proud of you.”

The boy brightened at the praise. “Can I keep taking care of him?”

“Of course,” Yen Sid answered. “As long as you and Sora continue to get along, he is yours to care for.”

Riku looked pleased, glancing down at the jar in the bag. “Sora, you want to go play? Or do some drawing with me?”

The murmur that passed through Yen Sid’s head was, “Drawing with me…”

Happily, the boy twisted and set off to gather his book and pencils. Yen Sid watched him go, a pensive expression in place, but one that was ultimately satisfied. He would continue to keep an eye on both Riku and the entity calling itself ‘Sora’… but he was confident in his decision to allow the boy to act as its guardian.

Things were turning out well.

.o.O.o.

From then on, Riku considered Sora a friend. Not only that, but Sora was his most special friend – nobody else had a jar of sunshine that could talk and play games. He wasn’t allowed to take it to school, because his mother told him the jar might break, and Riku gravely agreed that keeping Sora at home was for the best. Besides, he didn’t necessarily like the idea of having to introduce Sora to the other children, and have them try to make him a friend of their own. Grandfather Yen Sid had trusted Riku with the jar, and nobody else was allowed to think they were equal to him in Sora’s estimation. His was the first name that Sora had ever spoken, and that meant that Riku was the most important.

Whenever he wasn’t at school, he toted Sora around either in his bag or in his arms. It seemed that he never tired of laying his head down on whatever surface Sora happened to inhabit, be it the floor or a countertop or desk, and watch with fascination the gradual ebb and swell of Sora’s light. It was the most soothing thing Riku could ever remember, except for his mother’s arms during a thunderstorm. There was something about Sora that made him feel safe, and loved – a persistent warmth, despite the coldness of the jar, and a sweetness in the voice that touched his thoughts that made him feel like nothing bad could ever happen; as though as much as Riku was taking care of Sora, somehow it was Sora who was also taking care of Riku. And that’s what friends were for, right?

It didn’t occur to Riku to question the nature of Sora’s existence for a long time. Sora was Sora; Sora was sunshine. Sora was the voice in his mind, and his friend.

.o.O.o.

One day, at age eight, while Riku sat out in the back yard, Tidus arrived unannounced. Riku was in the sandbox, Sora planted inside a shifting yellow hill, while Riku busily dug a moat around him, exchanging occasional words with the light inside the jar. Sora’s vocabulary was growing gradually larger, the words in Riku’s head occasionally having a playfulness to them.

“Will I sink?” Sora asked, when Riku told him he was going to ultimately pour water into the moat.

“No,” the boy answered, “I won’t let you. The water goes around you. You won’t even get wet.”

“Will I sink?”

“No, I said.” His strident response was met with a derisive laugh. With a slight gasp, Riku swivelled on his knees, peering through his hair at the source of the sound.

Tidus stood at the edge of the yard, barefooted on the green grass, a wooden sword in one hand and a ball under the other arm. His head tilted to one side, blond hair a mess, he demanded, “Who’re you talking to?”

Riku’s lips pressed thin. Rising to his feet, brushing off his knees, he stepped out of the sandbox and crossed the yard halfway. “Who invited you in?” he asked, the rudeness of his tone causing Tidus to scowl.

“I let myself in. I can reach your gate, you know. I stood on a bucket.” Taking a few steps closer, he asked again, “So, who’re you talking to? I heard you talking.”

The word ‘Nobody’ was poised on the tip of Riku’s tongue… but Sora was within earshot. He didn’t want his sunshine friend to hear him talk about him like he didn’t exist. With a hesitant glance over his shoulder towards the sandbox, he answered, “I was talking to – I was talking to myself.”

Tidus scoffed. “Do you have an imaginary friend, Riku? That’s baby stuff. Come and play sword fights instead.”

Riku glared. “He’s not imaginary. Sora’s real.”

With interest, Tidus asked, “Sora? Who’s that?”

Riku gritted his teeth, angry that he’d let it slip. This was his big secret, the responsibility that Grandfather Yen Sid had trusted him with. Behind him, he heard, with dismay, “Sora.”

He turned towards the sandbox as Tidus leaned to the side to peer around him, mouth dropping open. “Who said that?” He started towards the play area, quickly cut off by Riku, arms thrust wide.

“No! You’re not allowed!”

Snorting, Tidus shoved a shoulder into the shorter boy’s chest and pushed past, trotting over to where Sora sat in the sand. He looked around, then twisted and called to the livid Riku, “There’s no one here! It’s just a shiny jar!”

“Shiny jar,” Sora echoed, and Tidus visibly jolted, whirling back towards the sandbox.

“Wha – who said that!?” He stepped into the sand, demanding loudly, “Whoever said that, come out! I’m not kidding!” Dropping the ball to roll across the lawn, he readied his wooden sword.

Alarmed by his aggressive stance, Riku hurried over towards him, as Sora mimicked, with a burst of mischief, “I’m not kidding! I’m not kidding!”

With a small cry, Tidus looked around frantically, well aware he was being mocked but entirely incapable of figuring out where it was coming from. “Stop that!” His gaze settling on the uneven sand, he shrilly announced, “I know you’re hiding in the sand! I’ll find you!” With that, he started stomping, driving his heels into each mound, sending the sand puffing out in clouds. Riku saw Sora’s jar start to tip and felt a burst of panic. No! He was supposed to be protecting him!

He snatched hold of Tidus’ arm, the boy shaking him off, Sora singing out, “I’ll find you, I’ll find you, I know you’re hiding in the sand, I’ll fiiind you. Shiny jar, shiny jar, shiny jar!”

At last seeming to understand that it was the glowing jar that was the cause of all the trouble, Tidus sent it a wild stare, then shifted his grip on his sword and made as if to swing at it. That was when, with a roar, Riku tackled him to the ground. The two boys fell out of the sandbox and hit the grass hard, Riku swinging small fists packed with all his might. They rolled, Tidus struggling to free himself from the assault, eventually managing to slam Riku in the eye with the butt of his sword.

With loud cries, they flung themselves apart, breathing hard, Riku clutching his eye while Tidus touched his bleeding lip. At the sight of the blood, the boy burst into noisy tears. Scrambling to his feet, he wailed, “Who ever heard of a talking jar!” He snatched up his ball and scurried halfway back towards the gate, turning once he was at a safe distance and yelling, “Jars aren’t supposed to talk, and you’re mean.”

“Sora’s not the jar!” Riku screeched furiously back. “He’s the sunshine inside!”

With an almighty sniff and an even bigger breath, Tidus howled, “Well, who ever heard of talking sunshine!? There’s no such thing! There’s no such thiiiing, otherwise the whole sky would be talking!”

With that final lashing opinion imparted, Tidus turned on his heel and fled the yard, the gate slamming in his wake. Panting, Riku took several steps after him, hands balled tight at his sides, trying desperately to muster up a suitably cutting response to put the blond in his place… but his head was blank. He’d never thought about it like that before. If Sora was sunshine, and Sora could talk, did that mean that all sunshine could talk?

He tilted his head back, squinting up into the bright sky. For a long moment, his chest heaving as he continued to try to catch his breath, he listened carefully. Then he said, “Hello?” He glanced around, wondering if the sun’s light would answer.

Then, from back in the sandbox, he heard, “Hello! Riku, hello.” He turned, gazing over at where Sora’s jar sat crookedly in the sand after Tidus’ attack. Shuffling back to him, fighting back the tears that wanted to come from the pain in his eye, he climbed back into the sandbox and sat next to Sora’s jar. “Hello, Riku,” Sora said softly, bright inside the glass.

“Hello, Sora,” Riku brokenly answered, lifting his knees and wrapping his arms around them. “Sora, does the sky talk like you talk?”

“Does the sky talk?” Sora asked.

The boy sighed shakily, and shook his head. “I’ve never heard it talk. Have you?”

“I’ve never heard it talk.”

“Sora?”

“Riku?”

He felt a flash of relief. Sometimes, he wondered if the sunshine was just copying him – but Sora was in there, after all. Sora still knew his name. “You’re my best friend,” Riku told him, and, the pain in his eye too much to bear after the angry confrontation that caused it, he lowered his head to his knees and wept a little.

“You’re my best friend,” Sora sweetly said, and, through his tears, Riku smiled.

.o.O.o.

When Riku was eleven, and losing some of his innocent, youthful naivety, he confronted Yen Sid about Sora’s true nature.

“You can’t expect me to believe that he’s really sunshine,” he stated, standing cross-armed in front of his grandfather’s regal desk. Yen Sid studied him over tented fingers, his gaze as focused and unsettling as ever. Those eyes saw everything, a fact of which Riku was becoming more aware the older he got.

“Where is Sora now? Did you bring him with you?”

“I didn’t.” Riku didn’t explain that it was because he didn’t want Sora to hear him talk like this about him, didn’t want to admit to the stab of guilt he’d experienced at leaving him behind. He’d been leaving him behind a lot, lately. “You need to understand that I’m not a child,” he defiantly went on, “and I can’t keep having an imaginary friend. It’s kid stuff.”

Lifting his chin slightly, Yen Sid asked, “You think of Sora as imaginary?”

Riku hesitated, unable, after a stretching pause, to maintain eye contact. “…Well, it’s not like he’s real,” he answered, with some frustration. “There’s no such thing as talking sunshine, Grandfather.”

“Yet it was you who came to me,” Yen Sid calmly pointed out, with rising brows, “telling me that the jar of sunshine I gave to you to watch and protect was speaking, indeed had a name. And it was then that I, too, discovered that Sora was more than I had first assumed.”

“I was seven!” Riku objected. “Seven year olds believe in anything.”

“And now? Where does your belief lie, Riku?” Yen Sid leaned forward only slightly, but it was enough to make Riku feel like he’d been pierced by a pin, a feebly flapping butterfly under the old man’s gaze.

“I…” Could he dismiss Sora’s existence so readily? With a glare, he met Yen Sid’s eyes determinedly. “That’s why I came here. I want to know the truth. ‘Sunshine’ isn’t the truth, Grandfather. If sunshine could talk, the whole sky would be talking.”

Yen Sid inclined his head faintly at this. His hands relaxed somewhat from their stiff position. “That,” he supposed, “is a fair observation.” His gaze remained steady. “However, I am quite sure I told you at the very start that what I was giving you was something special. You were the only one I trusted to take care of it… and you have.” Stroking his grey beard, he went on, “Thus, because of this, because of the excellent care you have shown towards Sora, I shall tell you more than you could have comprehended when you were seven.”

Riku felt a sweeping shame at the man’s words; lately, he hadn’t been taking care of Sora at all. He had been neglecting the bright jar, with its oftentimes parroting, sometimes sentient inhabitant, more and more of late. He wanted to play sword fighting games, and swim in the ocean, and have fun without lugging around a jar that nobody else could possibly understand. Even Riku himself didn’t understand it anymore.

But Yen Sid was going to fix that, right? He was going to tell the truth – the real one, not the sunshine crap. Riku was ready to know. He needed to.

“Sora is…” Yen Sid stopped for a moment, eyeing Riku closely, as if making sure, one last time, that he would be capable of understanding. “…a human soul.” Riku blinked once, but gave no other indication, just yet, that the words had registered. Yen Sid continued: “He was a boy of eighteen years of age who was cut down in his prime. His body was taken by the darkness that lingers at the edges of the world.” Yen Sid slowly raised a hand, forming a cage with his thumb and fingers. “I was there, and managed to catch his soul before it could dissolve into the ether. I placed it in that jar so that it might remain in one piece, so to speak. And I gave that jar to you because a child’s light was necessary to keep the soul from forgetting itself, and simply fading away.”

With a constricting of insides and a sharp intake of breath, Riku blurted, “Could that still happen? Would it – would he fade away without me?”

Grimly, the old man said, “Now, more than ever, that risk exists. You have demonstrated to me here, today, that you are losing that childlike light. You are getting older, Riku, and part of becoming a man is to question one’s surroundings, and turn one’s back on fantasy. Were you any other boy, now would be the time that I took the jar from you and gave it to another young person to protect.” At Riku’s stricken expression, he relented, just the slightest bit, sitting back in his chair. “However, the bond that you share with Sora causes me to hesitate. I had not expected the two of you to communicate. I had no inkling that a soul even could. But something about you drew the Sora part of that soul to the surface, and gave him a voice. I am reluctant to remove him from your presence, since you have practically shared a childhood together. What say you? Would you agree with this assessment?”

Never before had Yen Sid’s gaze been more concentrated.

Almost incapable of drawing enough breath to answer, Riku’s thoughts flashed over the years he had spent with his ‘jar of sunshine’ so far. His withdrawal from Sora had been a recent thing, but even so was enough to terrify him with the idea that the being that he had called his best friend, who had named him thus in turn, might simply cease to be with enough neglect. The words almost bursting from him, he begged, “Please, Grandfather – don’t take him away.” Squeezing his eyes shut, he beseeched, “Don’t give Sora to someone else!”

He was breathing raggedly. When he eventually cracked his eyes back open, he found Yen Sid looking pleased behind his desk, his fingers back in their tented position. “If it is that passionately that you ask it of me,” he said, “what kind of grandfather would I be to refuse?”

Nearly sagging with relief, Riku asked, “So I can keep him?”

“You may continue to watch over him,” Yen Sid allowed. He then raised a long, thin finger. “However! Sora is not a pet, you understand. He is a living soul under your care. You were right to question his status as ‘sunshine’, but that makes him no less easily lost. A jar of sunshine… if you were to be somehow capable of catching it, the instant the lid was lifted, it would escape and spread across the atmosphere as if it had never existed in a condensed state. It is much the same for a human soul. Riku, if Sora is ever let loose, he will be forever lost.”

With wide eyes, the boy silently nodded. Effectively terrorised, through one thing and another, into several more years of guaranteed quality care of his charge, Yen Sid dismissed Riku shortly thereafter.

Riku positively sprinted home. He thumped upstairs to his bedroom, sprang desperately across to the closet, and opened the door carefully. Staring down at the floor behind his shoes, he saw the dull luminosity beneath the trappings of a tightly-wrapped pillow case. Lowering to his knees, gently, more gently than he had handled anything in his life, the boy reached in and picked it up. He drew it out, cradling it close, and parted the fabric from around Sora’s jar.

“Riku…”

Tears welled in his eyes. “…I’m sorry,” was all he could say, before wrapping the jar in his arms, nose pressed to the glass, salty trails sliding single-file down his cheeks.

“You’re my best friend,” Sora said, and the warm tingle through his skin, Riku realised, was something he had sorely missed.

“I won’t ever let you fade away,” he promised in a whisper.

“I won’t ever let you fade away.”

With a small laugh, rubbing the heel of his palm against one wet cheek, Riku answered, “Okay. It’s a deal.”

.o.O.o.

At the age of fifteen, Riku was summoned by Yen Sid. It was requested by the old man that he not bring Sora with him, so Riku had left him on the corner of the desk in his bedroom, in a patch of sunlight. Sora always seemed to react positively to the light, seemed to swell brighter and sound more peaceful in Riku’s head.

He stood, once again, before the old man’s desk, in the large circular room at the top of the tower in which Yen Sid practiced his trade. The man sat in his large chair, hands resting on its arms, gaze as scrutinising as ever as Riku, arms by his sides, waited for his grandfather to speak.

At last, Yen Sid asked, “You did as I requested, and left Sora behind?”

“Yeah. Why? I take it this is about him,” Riku answered, feeling an edge of protectiveness towards his friend, made slightly uneasy by the fact that he was the focus of their conversation. After their meeting when he was eleven, Yen Sid had once again left Sora to Riku’s care, never questioning. That he was suddenly here for another meeting after four years had him wary, if not outright fearful, somewhere deep inside. Would today be the day that Yen Sid told him he was too old to keep Sora from fading? Would Sora be taken from him, given to a child who had no idea of the truth of his nature, or the years he had already spent with Riku? And if that were to happen… would Sora recognise it? Or would he simply – transfer his affections, disconnected and rambling as they could be, to another?

The thought brought a pang to Riku’s heart. He steeled himself for an argument. He readied himself, even, for the inevitability of having to give Sora up – after all, as precious as he was to Riku, if the alternative was that he disappeared from inside the jar… Riku wouldn’t hesitate to hand him over. Even if doing so would be like handing over a piece of his own self.

And so it was that his hardened resolve and thinned lips were surprised apart by Yen Sid saying, “I feel that the time has come to let you join the restoration effort for Sora.”

Riku stared, caught off-guard and confused. “‘Restoration effort’ – Grandfather, what are you talking about?”

Sitting straighter, Yen Sid explained, “In the years since Sora was lost – in the time that you have been caring for him – I and others have in fact been working to return Sora to his body.”

Utterly flabbergasted, Riku reeled for a moment, then exclaimed, “Grandfather! Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Is that even possible? You said his body was taken by the darkness!”

“You were too young, before now, to be allowed in to the project,” Yen Sid said, answering only his first question. “It has been the work of eight years at this point. We began as soon as I gave Sora to you for safekeeping, but you could not be trusted to know of it. Sora cannot be made aware of it until the very last moment. If he begins to question his existence, for whatever reason, his tenuous grasp on this reality may be all too easily lost. From the start, his self-awareness was not something any of us anticipated.”

“Us? Who is ‘us’?” Riku demanded. Yen Sid pushed himself with a sigh from his chair, rising elegantly, gazing down at the boy.

“That depends on whether you would like to join the effort. The project is far from finished, Riku. If you join us, you would be a valuable addition; however, you would spend much of your time between school and sleeping at home here, working extremely hard. If that is not a lifestyle you feel yourself capable of committing to, then our conversation goes no further. With my respect, you would leave here and likely not return until I summoned you again some years from now, to bring Sora to us.”

“And what if I agree?” the boy demanded, almost interrupting the end of Yen Sid’s speech. His grandfather smiled slightly, approval in his expression at how impatiently Riku treated the first option.

“If you agree,” he said, lacing his fingers together, “you will join us. As I said, the life will not be easy – it will be long, and difficult, and you will not see much of the outside world. You will work as we all have, over the last eight years: tirelessly. That is what Sora is worth to us.”

“He’s worth it to me, too,” Riku said, almost snapping the words out. The thought that all of this occurring behind the scenes without his knowledge, of other people caring so much about Sora that they would dedicate so much of their lives to somehow rescuing him from his light-based state, made him sting with sudden jealousy. “You should have told me sooner.”

“As I said, you could not know, for fear that you would tell something of it to Sora and disturb his fragile awareness. Any more than this, I cannot explain until you agree to join us.”

“Then, I agree.” Riku didn’t hesitate. Before Yen Sid could begin droning more cautions, he heatedly forged on, “Sora’s my best friend. I’d protect him for as long as he needed me, I’d be an old man carrying around a jar of sunshine if he lasted that long – but considering the fact that he could end up vanishing, if just the jar coming open would mean the end of him, then if someone is trying to – to ‘restore’ him, I want to help. I have to help. That’s what a best friend does.” His words were so sure, so true, that Yen Sid accepted them without any further discussion. Riku had made up his mind, and nothing would sway him. Sora needed him, in a way that he hadn’t realised until now, and there was nothing on this world or the next that would prevent him from doing what was required to save him.

“Very well,” the old man said, and with a simple gesture, rounded his desk and commanded, “Follow me.”

Still agitated by the new information, Riku did as he was told but wore a scowl while doing so. Yen Sid led him down the spiralling stairs of the tower, then down further still to the basement. Riku had visited this part of the tower only twice in his lifetime. It was a cluttered area, filled with ensorcelled items and rows of shelves near to bursting with magical ingredients and collected curios. It was far too sensitive an area for a child to bluster about, which Riku had learned during the first of his two descents, when Yen Sid had discovered him down here and half-terrified him with the scolding he’d received. The second time, it had been in the old man’s presence, when Yen Sid had required an extra set of hands carrying things up to his study, a trek so exhausting that Riku had prayed to never have to go near the basement again. Being down here, therefore, gave him mixed feelings.

Yen Sid strode confidently along, weaving through the controlled chaos with the utmost familiarity of every section of his surroundings. Riku followed with more care, wary of bumping into something, until they were at the back of the room, facing a wall of bookshelves. Yen Sid trailed a hand over the mismatched array of spines until he stopped at no particular one that Riku could see as being different from the rest, and tugged it. With a sharp click, the entire bookshelf popped out an inch.

“Huh,” was all Riku uttered, receiving an arch look from his grandfather that said he was well aware that he had surprised the boy, who was simply too stubborn to be anything but casual about it. Riku gazed coolly back, and it was with the faintest of snorts that Yen Sid swung the hidden doorway open.

“It closes on a hinge,” he warned, just a little too late to prevent Riku from getting knocked forward by it as he followed him through. Riku could’ve sworn he saw the old man smirking. With his head held high, expression stubborn, he continued on without comment, making a mental note about the hinge for the future.

They followed a granite tunnel along a decline, lit by sconces of magic flame. Riku itched to know where exactly they were going, but knew better than to ask; Yen Sid would have said already if he’d intended to before they got there. Riku would simply wait, and see for himself.

It took a full fifteen minutes to reach the end of the tunnel, which opened up into a vast subterranean laboratory. At this point, Riku lost his ability to appear unfazed – he openly gaped at his surroundings. Large tanks of viscous green and blue fluid cast an eerie glow over the myriad steel and mesh surfaces, connected by tubes to a collection of machines filling the space, all centred around a great, white pod in the middle of the room. A large monitor covered most of one wall, with a wide switchboard beneath it suggesting that it was some sort of industrial computer.

Most startling to Riku, though, were the people dotted throughout it all. They glanced up as Yen Sid entered, then became suddenly very focused on Riku when he came into view.

“This,” Yen Sid announced, “is my grandson, Riku. Riku,” he turned to the teenager, “welcome to the restoration chamber. It is here that we combine ancient magic with modern technology in the hopes of recreating a body for Sora to someday return to.”

As Riku struggled to take it all in, visually and intellectually, the people within the chamber left their tasks and approached. Riku blinked, shifting his attention to them as they gathered before him, and for a stretching moment, nobody spoke. The expressions of them – six in total, Riku quickly noted – ranged between awed, approving, and, curiously enough, almost tearfully happy. It was the woman whose face held the latter emotion that moved first, her boots moving quietly across the floor, hands reaching out to gently close Riku’s between her own, her pink dress shifting around her calves. With eyes that shimmered with moisture, she beamed.

“Riku. It’s so good to finally meet you. You’ve been – taking good care of him, haven’t you? Yen Sid has kept us updated.”

Him? Sora? “You know Sora?” he carefully asked, and as one, the collection of people nodded.

“He’s one of us,” a tall, dull-voiced, dark-haired man said. “Or, he was.”

Riku looked around at them slowly. “These are the members of the restoration effort,” Yen Sid told him, placing a hand upon his shoulder. Indicating them in turn, he introduced them as, “Aerith, Leon, Cloud, Yuffie, Cid, and Merlin.”

“We’ve been working all these years to try and get Sora his body back,” the woman called Yuffie said, regarding Riku with wonder. “And you – you’ve been taking care of his soul, right?”

“Yen Sid tells us,” the old man, Merlin, said with interest, “that the soul speaks with you. That from virtually the moment you received it, it developed awareness.”

Riku met his gaze coldly. “Not ‘it’. Him. And yes, he’s always talked to me. We’re best friends. We have been since I was a child.”

“Ah, naturally. My apologies, I’m sure. It’s just…” Merlin trailed off, pushing a small pair of glasses regretfully up his nose.

“We all consider Sora a ‘him’, kid,” Cid said, leaning against one of the coloured tanks, chewing a soggy toothpick. “But we ain’t been as lucky as you. The bit of Sora we got our hands on doesn’t talk back.”

“The – bit of Sora?” Riku glanced uncertainly at Yen Sid, who inclined his head slightly.

“Sora’s soul was not the only part of him we were able to save. His body was taken, but the pieces we managed to snatch back were his soul… and his heart. It is his heart that serves as the anchor for the restoration.” Nodding at Cloud, who sat on the edge of a control panel, the man turned and flipped a couple of switches.

With a smooth mechanical sound, and a slight vibration through the floor, the white pod in the centre of the room shifted, before the opaque panels surrounding it slowly lowered, unfurling like petals, to reveal a clear shell within. Inside that, there hung a small but bright light, and all at once, Riku felt a shiver of recognition pass through him. He was heading towards it before he realised his legs were moving, until he stood before the pod, gazing up in wonder.

Sora…

It wasn’t as large as his soul, but it was bright. It was a concentration of light, like a pinprick of purity, rather than the hazier, larger, pulsing entity that made up the Sora that Riku had grown up with. The feeling, though… it was the same. Riku could feel Sora within the pod. This… was definitely his heart.

“But – why is this all there is?” Riku turned to the others, his previous attitude gone; mollified, somehow, by the presence of Sora’s heart. “Haven’t you been working at this for eight years?”

“It’s slow going, kid,” Cid told him.

“Much of what we do here,” Yen Sid said, “is something that has never been done before. As a result, more often than not, we fail.”

“It’s all simulations,” the monotonous Leon explained, indicating the massive screen on the wall with a jerk of his thumb. “We’ve been inventing methods and running simulations this whole time, trying to find the one which will work.”

“We only get one chance with this,” Aerith gently contributed. “If we make a mistake with Sora’s heart, we risk losing it forever. We won’t try the restoration in practice until the end of the project.”

“If we can find the right way to do it,” Yuffie sighed. “I mean, eight years, right? It’s a long time.”

“It’s worth it.” Riku’s sharply spoken statement, an echo of his conversation with Yen Sid, caught their attention, and gradually they each nodded. “If he wasn’t, you wouldn’t have kept going this long. And he…” He looked back at the heart in the pod. “He’ll appreciate it. He’ll definitely thank you for it, when the day comes.”

“…How is he?” Leon asked quietly.

“He’s safe,” Riku answered. “I’ve been taking care of him. He’s… he’s sweet, and innocent.”

Cloud chuckled slightly. “So, nothing much has changed.”

Aerith wiped her eyes, Cid pinching the bridge of his nose with a suspicious sniff, while the others simply smiled a little. Riku looked at Yen Sid. “I want to help. You have to let me help. I have to be here when he wakes up… and he has to know that I did everything I could until that moment.”

Yen Sid looked proud in that moment, nodding firmly. “Then, you shall join us. The only rule is that talk of this project must never leave this room. If Sora, as he is now, learns that he is incomplete…”

“I won’t,” Riku quickly promised. “I won’t let him disappear.” To the others, earnestly, he swore, “I won’t.”

Aerith and Yuffie caught him in a startling hug, Cid flashing him an approving thumbs-up, while Merlin dabbed at his cheeks with the hem of his blue robes. “Well, then,” the old man sniffed, “Yen Sid, old friend, shall we continue our theory while the young ones show your boy around?”

Yen Sid answered, “Of course.” To Riku, he said, “Familiarise yourself with this space, Riku. It will be as a second home to you before long. You will help Aerith, Yuffie, Cloud, Leon, and Cid with the technological components and theorising. Merlin and I will continue to study the intricacies of hearts, and strive to learn magicks that will aid the restoration effort.”

The boy nodded. “Okay.” Before Yen Sid could move away, Riku caught his sleeve. Meeting his gaze, putting every ounce of sincerity into his expression, he said, “Thank you, Grandfather. I think… I think Sora would want me to be part of this.”

Yen Sid smiled faintly. “I agree.”

As Yen Sid and Merlin headed off to a wide table covered in scrolls and surrounded by piles of books, Riku turned to the others. Leon beckoned him with a twitch of one finger. “Hey, kid. Riku. Over here.” When Riku hesitantly stepped over to him, he asked, “Want to see a picture of Sora?”

The breath caught in Riku’s chest. Eyes flaring wide, he wordlessly nodded. All this time, Sora had been a light in a jar; for so many years that had been the entirety of him, as far as Riku knew. When he had learned that Sora was once in fact a person, he had, of course, wondered about who that person was, what he’d been like… but he’d never imagined he could ever see Sora. Sora, with a face? Sora as more than sunshine?

He hurried to Leon’s side, the man leading him over to the industrial computer, turning on the monitor with the tap of a button. With little production, he tapped a few more different keys, and the screen shifted, showing, suddenly…

Blue eyes were the first thing Riku noticed. Bright, smiling eyes like spotless ocean pools. Beneath that, an outgoing, affable grin that could defrost even the chilliest of hearts. Brown, spiky hair above it all. Sun-kissed skin. A strong body.

Everything in Riku seemed to grind to a halt. “He’s…” Beautiful. He couldn’t say it out loud. Not with everyone listening, watching on with wide smiles. He was… overwhelmed. Overcome with emotion. He was shaking, couldn’t stop staring up at the image, a photograph someone had taken at some point of Sora with his arms crossed.

Sora.

This – was his jar of sunshine in the flesh. Swallowing, Riku lowered his head at last, a hand on his chest. The gratitude he felt to Yen Sid for including him in this was beyond anything he’d ever known.

He wouldn’t let him down. Not any of them. And especially not Sora.

With a deep breath, he muttered, “Show me what to do. However many more years it takes…” He dragged his eyes back up to Sora’s static image, determination swelling. “I’m in til the end.”

.o.O.o.

Riku spent his sixteenth birthday in the restoration chamber, and then, the year following, his seventeenth. As Yen Sid had warned, the work he was required to put in was tireless, but there wasn’t a second of it in which he wasn’t burning with resolve. Any time he might have felt himself faltering from how long it was taking, or how many simulations failed – and how much it still hurt to watch that happen on the big screen, to have months of work result in Sora’s heart or soul disintegrating in front of their eyes – all it took was a trip home and some time spent with Sora to find his purpose again. As exhausted as Riku was, almost all the time these days, there was still nothing as soothing and regenerating as curling into bed with Sora’s jar on his desk, falling asleep with the glow on the backs of his eyelids.

When he graduated high school, albeit barely, he threw himself even harder into his work. Yen Sid officially employed him as an arcane assistant, to keep his mother happy and any nosy friends at bay, and Riku all but moved into the restoration chamber from that point onward. There was a pile of blankets in the corner that he occasionally curled up on to grab a few hours of sleep before waking up and continuing, pencil scratching, keys tapping, pages turning. He quickly became the hardest working member of the project, arriving the earliest each day and leaving the latest.

If he was honest with himself, the only reason he ever went home was because Sora was there. As much as he longed to rebuild his body and restore him to true life, he wasn’t going to blind himself to the Sora he had now, not to mention the fact that Sora needed him to keep from fading away. Riku’s entire consciousness, one way or another, revolved around Sora.

Late at night, when he was sure no one was around, Riku would sometimes take a break and pull Sora’s picture up on the big screen, then simply sit and stare, thinking of what once was and what would be again. There were other pictures, too – some taken of the boy while he was unaware, busily occupied, others taken with the group, posing with a grin, all of them part of a life Riku had had no idea about when he was just a child. These people, though, Leon, Cloud, Aerith, Yuffie, Cid – with Yen Sid acting as their master, and Merlin as an advisor – had been acting to hold back the darkness at the edge of the world for years. That was how Sora had been taken; a simple misstep, a miscalculation on the boy’s part, and before their eyes he had been snatched away. It made Riku ache inside to think about – the thought of how close Sora had come to simply being removed from all existence was enough to make him shudder. He had already decided, as he’d learned about this life of keeping darkness at bay, that once Sora was back, and the restoration project finished, he would join them. He, too, would fight to keep the world from being swallowed.

And if Sora returned to the fight, Riku would be there to keep this from ever, ever happening again. He would be there, for the rest of their lives, to snatch him from the jaws of the void, each and every time.

.o.O.o.

It was a few months shy of Riku’s eighteenth birthday that the calculations, magical study, and intensive research finally came together. After nearly eleven years, the restoration had a viable method for restoring Sora’s body and returning his soul to it. For Riku, it had been a mere two and a half years, but Sora had been part of his life since he was a child; nobody considered him a lesser part of the restoration effort simply because he hadn’t laboured in the laboratory with them the whole way through. If anything, Riku was considered something of an unofficial head of the project, due to his unmitigated zeal and dedication. There was no denying that his significant contribution in man hours and intellect had helped them along to this point.

When the simulation went through from start to finish without triggering the failure alarms on the computer, for several hours they refused to believe in it. They ran it again, and again, Riku front and centre, hunched over the main control panel, introducing small changes to deliberately result in failure before running the original parameters to successful completion.

Slowly, it sank in: they had found the correct formula. The exact sequence of actions, components, and magic to result in the return of Sora’s physical form around his heart.

As the celebration began, Riku withdrew to the basement, feet dragging along the long passageway, until he could crouch in the silence of Yen Sid’s storage room and clutch his head, heart pounding. He needed time to process this. The others were delighted, but for Riku they were now embarking upon a time of intense fear, for now they had to face to prospect of actually doing the thing. No more theory, no more running it through the computer – this was going to happen. And if anything, anything at all, wasn’t quite right – hell, perhaps even if it all went according to plan, with something occurring they hadn’t anticipated – Sora’s heart would be lost forever. The dream would die, and all that would be left was sunshine in jar. Sora had lasted this long… but how much longer could a soul go on like this? And what if the only thing really keeping him present wasn’t Riku, but the existence of his heart? If that was gone – would the soul be soon to follow?

He felt sick. He was filled with terror, and dread. When the gamble was his best friend’s survival, could he truly be part of this?

“What have you been working towards all this time?”

He leapt in his skin at the sudden voice, standing and whirling to face Yen Sid, who had followed silently and stood, for who knew how long, watching Riku agonise. Breathing hard, Riku gripped his hands into fists, voice strangled as he asked, “What if we’re wrong? What if we kill him?”

“What,” Yen Sid deliberately repeated, “have you been working towards all this time, Riku?”

Face contracting, he shook his head uncomprehendingly, then, when the man’s gaze stabbed into him, forced himself to calm down and think it through. What have I been doing?

“I’ve been working towards… restoring Sora,” he said at last. “Giving him his body back.”

“And, what else?”

Riku’s brow furrowed. “What else? What else is there?”

“Perhaps,” the old man quietly suggested, “you should head on home, and think about that.” He turned back towards the door to the restoration chamber. “Rest up, Riku. We will be performing further tests over the next three days. You should spend that time with Sora, and when we call you… you will bring him.”

Yen Sid returned through the bookcase, leaving Riku alone again, the old man’s words echoing in his head.

When we call you… you will bring him.

Three days. He had… three days with Sora, until the end. One way or another.

.o.O.o.

When Riku left Yen Sid’s tower, he found that night had fallen. Time lost all meaning within the restoration chamber, where natural light couldn’t touch. Magical flames didn’t give a good idea of the time of day.

He hurried home, his parents out for the evening judging by the absence of their car from the driveway. His sneakers slammed the stairs as he headed up to his bedroom, plainer than it had been the day that Sora had first come to him. Where once it had been cartoon characters and stuffed toys, now Riku’s room was nearly sombre in its emptiness, a lack of character to it that suggested his time was generally spent elsewhere. This was little more than a place to pass out for a night.

The one thing that made it his was the presence of Sora. That was all he needed to feel like he’d come home. The jar was where he’d left it, bathed in moonlight. Without eyes, or ears, it was by some other sense that Sora noticed him and said, “Riku,” when he entered the room. There was happiness in that singly uttered word, he was certain. With a heavy breath and a smile, feeling some of his disquiet settling, Riku approached the desk and gently picked the jar up. Where once he had carried it with both arms, now it fit snugly into one hand.

“Sora.” He sank into the desk’s chair, cradling the jar against his chest, as if the warmth he felt in his heart when Sora spoke could be communicated directly back to him through the glass.

“Tired,” Sora said. When first he had started speaking this word, when Riku was still in high school, Riku had panicked, thinking that it was Sora himself feeling tired. It only occurred to him, after several frantic nights spent furthering their work in the restoration chamber, that Sora’s increasing frequency of saying, “Tired,” was in fact an observation. He could feel Riku’s weariness, and commented on it as if concerned. He had nearly wept with relief when he’d figured it out.

“Tired,” he confirmed, rolling the jar slowly back and forth across his chest. “I’ve been working hard, you know.”

“Tired Riku, working hard…” Sora’s murmur touched him with a marked increase in the vibration in his skin, an indication of emphasis. Sora cared.

“And Sora? How is Sora?” he softly asked.

“Tired Riku, working hard.”

Over the years, Sora’s manner of communication had become easier and easier for Riku to identify. When he repeated a thought, it wasn’t because he was a mindless regurgitator of words – it was because the topic mattered to him. If Riku asked Sora how he was, and Sora responded like this, then that meant, more or less, that how Sora felt was dependent on how Riku felt. He smiled faintly. “I’m all right. I just need some sleep.” He hesitated. “I’ll be home for the next three days. Grandfather… told me to take some time off to spend with you.”

“Grandfather Yen Sid.”

“Yes.” Riku gazed down at the bright light that had accompanied him for over half his life now. What have you been working towards, all this time? “…In a few days, I’ll be taking you someplace new.”

“Someplace new... with Riku?”

His chest ached. Drawing his knees up, he curled into almost a ball on the chair, Sora’s jar held in a tight embrace. “Yeah. I’ll be there,” he murmured.

“Someplace new with Riku.” Sora had no objections, sounded contented enough as long as Riku was going to be part of it. To think that Yen Sid had once upon a time been planning to take him away and give him to another child. Riku didn’t think Sora would have lasted the week… but maybe that was just what he wanted to believe. Maybe the truth was that it was Riku who couldn’t have lasted without Sora. The thought of it… shredded him inside.

“I’m tired, Sora,” he said, voice thick, “and I’m scared.”

Sora’s response was, “I won’t let you fade away.”

Riku’s eyes slid shut. He wished he still knew how to make the same promise back.

He fell asleep in his chair, leaning forward onto the desk, sunshine in a jar clasped close.

.o.O.o.

The next three days were both slow and long, yet somehow over entirely too quickly. Without work to occupy him, Riku felt uneasy and restless, moving from room to room with Sora in hand. He tried to read, tried to watch TV, but in the end nothing could hold his attention for long. He was too busy thinking anxiously about the tests being run back in the restoration chamber, and struggling with Yen Sid’s parting words.

And, what else?

He found himself spending a lot of time, oddly enough, outside in the old sandbox. It had fallen into disrepair over the years, much of the sand washed out or blown away through the seasons. There was still enough to sit in, however, bare-footed, the wrinkles of his jeans filling quickly with small, yellow grains, while Sora basked in the sunlight and prattled happily. It was a curious reversal of roles that had Sora the more vocal of the two of them, with Riku occasionally chipping in to keep him going. Sora had turned out to be a regular chatterbox. As he sat there, Riku wondered how he had ever thought to neglect him in the slightest, idiot kid that he’d been at eleven. Now, here he was seven years later, and all he wanted was to turn the clock back. If these were his last days with Sora…

“Tired,” Sora suddenly said, interrupting himself mid-sentence. He felt the weight inside Riku, and had mistaken it for something else.

“Tired,” Riku lied, voice trembling. But was this how he wanted to spend their time before the restoration? Neck-deep in angst and worries, potentially passing that negativity on to Sora? If Sora knew that Riku was afraid, if he could sense his moods this clearly, then what if he started feeling that way, too?

If indeed these were Sora’s last days, then Riku wasn’t going to let them be spent awash with fears.

With a deep breath, he announced, “Fuck it. I’m going to build you a castle and dig a moat.”

“Don’t let me sink!”

Turning his pinched expression up to the sky, Riku told him, “Relax, Sora. You won’t even get wet.”

.o.O.o.

Before he knew it, it was the final night before the restoration. A quick, quiet call to Leon had confirmed that all the tests went perfectly. The method was correct. Nothing would foreseeably go wrong.

Whatever happened next, they had done everything they could, and tried their very best.

Riku’s fears hadn’t faded. Now, more than ever, they were reaching a fever pitch. He did all he could to keep it from Sora, but they were so closely connected that he was sure that his childhood friend was more subdued in response to the storm inside him.

After Riku had prepared for bed that night, he stood before his desk in loose cotton pants and a t-shirt, staring down at the light-filled jar that he had carried for almost as long as he could remember.

Aware of his attention, Sora said, “Riku.”

Riku took the jar in his hands, rolling it slowly, watching the way the light inside rhythmically pulsed like the softest of heartbeats. “Sora.” He bit the inside of his lip sharply. “You’re my best friend,” he told the light.

“You’re my best friend,” Sora answered.

Placing him down again, Riku’s hands lingered only a moment longer before releasing the jar, turning to his bed, climbing in and pulling the blankets high.

And, what else?

What else?

Staring at the glow of light, he held his breath a long moment, then, almost too quietly to hear, told Sora, “…I love you.”

There came no response. But Riku, at least, knew the truth now. This was ‘what else’. This was what he’d been working towards. Not just restoring Sora for Sora, but… restoring him for himself, as well. He had gradually been discovering feelings for the boy in the pictures, the soul of whom he’d watched over for so much of his life. There had always been a bond between them, but over recent years it had shifted in Riku’s heart, burying deeper than ever, seeping through his entire being.

Riku loved the soul and smile of Sora. If they lost Sora tomorrow, a part of Riku’s very heart would dissolve with him, would leave a scar that might never heal. This was nearly paralysing in how frightening it was. Riku wasn’t ready for that grief, nor would he ever be. But neither could he hold on to Sora selfishly, keeping him locked away when they finally had a chance to give him his life back. Sora had never been intended to be exclusively Riku’s; this project had been in the works from the moment the boy’s body had been taken by the darkness.

All Riku could do was take him there in the morning, and… hope. Hope was all he had to keep himself going at this point.

Anything else was beyond his control.

.o.O.o.

Carrying Sora in to Yen Sid’s tower was like marching towards death. There was simply nothing that had ever happened to Riku that had been as dread-filled and petrifying as this. Yet, beneath it, anticipation vibrated. The moment he entered the restoration chamber, he felt it humming on the air, that same feeling – and it was then that he realised, at long last, that he wasn’t alone in his terror. One look at the faces of the rest of the team told Riku that they had been running the parameters exhaustively to check for errors before subjecting Sora’s heart to this. They all knew what the stakes were, and they were all afraid of failing. They had all been losing sleep, all been biting nails, and without exception each one of them had bags under their eyes and a haunted tinge to their expressions.

But underlying it all… hope. This was it. This was the day they found out if it was truly possible to return and heart and soul to a regenerated body, for better or worse, and every one of them was praying for ‘better’.

Once Riku entered the room, there was a pause, everyone but Yen Sid and Merlin stopping in their frenetic preparations and last-minute equipment tests to swivel towards him. Him – and Sora.

He had brought Sora in the bag his mother had made when he was a child, not wanting to risk dropping the jar at this point. Reaching into it, Riku slowly drew it out, small gasps leaving his friends’ mouths at the sight of the bright glow within. Aerith took a few steps towards him, a hand fluttering to her mouth. “Oh…”

“That’s… Sora?” Leon asked.

Riku looked down at the jar, but Sora, even though his name had been spoken, wasn’t responding. “I think… he senses something,” he said, glancing over at the pod. “He hasn’t spoken since we entered the tower.”

There was a brief silence, before Cid said, “Well, y’all know what we have to do then. Let’s get him back – then we can talk to him all we like.”

As one, they all nodded, Riku included. The work continued. Riku lowered Sora’s jar gently into the bag, and went in search of Yen Sid. He found the old man and Merlin poring over their magical texts, muttering to each other. At Riku’s approach, Yen Sid turned his head a little. “You’re here,” he observed.

“Sora’s gone quiet, Grandfather,” Riku said, allowing some of his anxiety to rise to his voice. “I think we need to get this started.”

Yen Sid inclined his head. “Merlin and I have been double-checking our spells… but at this point, I suppose it’s just nerves.” Looking down at the collection of scrolls and scribbled notes, he said, with quiet confidence, “We have done everything correctly. If this does not work, then the task is not possible.”

Riku’s grip tightened on the bag. Yen Sid straightened from the desk and folded his hands together within his voluminous sleeves. His kindly gaze finding his grandson, he bowed slowly to Riku. “My boy, you exceeded my expectations. We, and Sora, have been lucky to have you with us. Now – let us see the fruits of our labour, at long last, and return your best friend to this world.”

Handing Sora over was the hardest thing Riku had ever had to do. He had spent long blocks of time away from Sora, especially of late, but he had never felt a distance between them that gaped as it did now. Before Yen Sid could draw away, Riku cried, voice strained, “Wait!” He grabbed for the bag, pushing it open to look down at the glowing jar within. “Sora,” he said, with gentle urgency, “Sora, something big is happening, and I don’t know if you find this scary and that’s why you’ve stopped responding, but… whatever happens, I’ll be here. Okay? I’ll be waiting for you at the other end. You’re not doing this alone. You don’t have to be afraid.”

When Sora failed to respond after several moments, Yen Sid carefully pulled the bag away. “I’m sure your words reached him,” he said softly. Riku swallowed and nodded, hands forming fists at his side. Yen Sid swept along through the laboratory with Merlin close behind, Riku trailing, his eyes never leaving Sora’s bag. “All right,” the old man announced, voice ringing in the metallic space. “That’s enough. We have run every conceivable trial. Is the machinery operative?”

“Sure is, boss.” Cid gave a loose, two-fingered salute. “Good as new, the whole lot.”

“And the programming?” Yen Sid demanded, turning to Leon.

“Everything is set,” the man responded, his tension evident in the stony set of his face and the stiffness of his shoulders.

Yen Sid’s eyes passed over them one by one, taking in the strain on each face, combined with raw hope. “…After eleven years,” the old man said, “it is finally time.” There was – so much else to say, Riku could see it all running through Yen Sid’s head, yet in the end, he could stand here giving speeches til the sun went down, but they all already knew it all. Nobody needed to be told anything.

“Begin,” Yen Sid said, his hushed command hanging in the air, Leon’s hand moving to the control panel, where it hesitated.

“Riku.” The boy blinked as Leon spoke his name, gaze intent upon him. “Would you like to do the honours?” He indicated the controls, ready to step aside. Riku’s eyes widened, his heart jolting in his chest. But when he thought about it… No. He couldn’t do it. He shook his head, well aware that it was cowardice that stayed him, but… if Sora didn’t survive this, in whichever form he took, Riku didn’t want his memory of it to be his own hand on the master button.

Leon nodded his understanding, and without further delay primed the main switch, glanced at Yen Sid one final time for confirmation, then triggered the restoration.

The true restoration.

The machinery rumbled as the computer set the process going, performing thousands of calculations per second and sending them to the pod in the middle of the room. The pod was programmed to interact with Sora’s heart, essentially writing him as data into the walls, using the heart as a focal point. Meanwhile, the blue and green fluids travelled through thick tubes around the laboratory, passing through various chambers where they encountered magical deposits and underwent chemical transformation before continuing on. When the fluids reached the pod, they poured into it, the clear shell slowly filling, turning a thick, dark blue as they reacted to one another.

As the pod steadily filled higher and higher, the viscosity reaching for the heart that glinted within, Yen Sid approached, lowered himself onto one knee, and removed the jar containing Sora’s soul from the bag. Riku started forward automatically, a strong hand pressing against his chest to stop him – head whipping sideways, he found Cloud at his side, the man shaking his head minutely at him. Turning back to Yen Sid, Riku’s teeth grated together at the sight of the old man inserting the jar into the base of the pod, twisting it at the last moment to loosen the lid, which hadn’t shifted once in eleven years, before touching a button to make the pod’s solid, white panels start to rise. They closed over the shell just as the liquid within was coming level with Sora’s heart…

…and with a low, loud sound, the panels slid shut, interlocking firmly.

Yen Sid seemed to be counting inside his head. After an interminable silence, he raised a hand and ordered, “Now. Finish it.”

Leon rapidly tapped the final commands into the control panel, and executed them. There was a low hum from the pod – then a bright, sharp flash of light that made everyone blink, a split second of time seared onto their retinas.

Everything stopped. The liquid ceased to flow through the tubes, the tanks sitting half-empty. The machines fell quiet. Riku’s fingernails pierced the flesh of his palms, his heart pounding deafeningly in his ears. His whole body, numb by now, seemed to pulse with it. He could scarcely draw a breath.

Stepping back, Yen Sid studied the closed pod, as they all watched on. Eventually, he said, “Open the outer layer.”

Leon rapidly complied, entering the command into the control panel, the pod’s panels lowering again, hanging towards the floor and stopping. The shell within was filled to the top with the dark blue fluid, and, it seemed, that was it. There was no – glow, no light, no indication of Sora’s heart… no sign of his soul.

Riku felt himself starting to shudder, body out of his control now, hands shaking, knees quivering, muscles twitching and jumping. He couldn’t – inhale. Blue, nothing but blue – just thick, dark liquid with nothing stirring within. And Sora? Where was Sora?

Where was Sora?

Cloud’s hand, having shifted to his shoulder, squeezed tight, whether he realised it or not being another matter entirely. The man’s grip was like a vice. In pure silence, they all stood there, staring endlessly at the pod, in varying states of haggard anticipation. Yen Sid was circling the pod, as if trying to find a different angle to view it from that would show… something. Anything. Any part of Sora.

Anything that didn’t turn this whole thing into a nightmare.

Then, suddenly, there was a surge within the deep blue, and a hand slammed flat against the inside of the shell. Everyone leapt and started moving at once, Riku lunging forward as Yen Sid stepped back and called, “Drain the shell!”

Leon’s hands flew across the control panel, the tubes connected to the bottom of the pod starting to suction the fluid out. “Faster!” Riku commanded, hovering at the edge of the shell. Turning, he barked, “Faster, Leon! He’ll drown!”

The hand within the shell slid across the hard surface, seeking release, followed by a second hand, a fist, trying to pound against the barrier.

“This is as fast as it goes,” Leon responded with frustration. Riku pressed his hands to the outside of the shell, frantic for the body inside, for aching lungs.

“Come on,” he muttered, staring desperately at the lowering line of the fluid. As it dropped, a shape emerged: a head, at first, hair plastered down by thick blue matter, a face that turned up into the new space and seemed to gasp, but found little in the way of fresh oxygen, due to the shell being airtight.

Riku bellowed over his shoulder, “Come on!”

Yen Sid snapped, “Merlin, with me!” and the two old men moved forward, raising their hands for a poised moment, then lowering them with purpose. The liquid in the shell started moving faster, forced down into the tubes by magical energy. The figure within sank along with it, evidently unable to stand without the fluid buoying it.

“Leon, that’s enough!” Yen Sid cried. “Open the shell!”

Moments later, the shell finally cracked apart, splitting in half, a gush of blue splashing out of it onto the metal floor. The front of it lowered towards the floor, the body within rolling down the sudden decline. Riku was there in a heartbeat, catching it before it could slither out. He clutched it tight, trying to keep his balance on the slippery ground. When his feet threatened to slide right out from under him, he instead simply lowered to his knees, pulling the body with him, onto his lap.

Cradling it in his arms, he felt it twitch and gasp, a mouth opening in amongst the adhering goop to cough for air. Riku pushed a hand across the obscured face, wiping away what he could… and there, struggling to catch his breath, was Sora. His eyes were stuck shut, his expression twisted, but there was no doubt about it.

The restoration was successful.

Riku held Sora tightly, almost unable to believe it. Sora, Sora, Sora, Sora – every part of him seemed to sing. His heart could have burst.

After eleven years of effort and care, Sora was returned to life.

.o.O.o.

For Sora, existence had been a long, hazy dream.

He had an impression, somewhere in his consciousness, of shadows – of a foot slipping, and something large and smothering reaching out to consume him. But it had been so brief, like a breath blowing out a candle flame. After that…

After that, there had been silence for a while. He had drifted, connected to nothing, knowing nothing, a single disembodied speck with no being, no awareness.

Then, something warm had touched him – something inquisitive. In the midst of darkness, a light had awakened, and Sora heard the words that began a universe: “Doesn’t sunshine belong in the sky?”

Sunshine…

Sora remembered sunshine.

“I trust you, Riku.”

Riku? What was that? A name? A place? Was it sunshine?

Sora reached out towards the light, a single thread that longed to find an anchor. He brushed against a consciousness that was not his own, and wondered, “Riku?”The consciousness stirred, sought him, and for a moment, they seemed to regard one another across a gulf. Sora whispered, losing certainty, losing… self… that word that he didn’t know, one last time. “Riku…”

And that’s when he heard a voice. “Hello? My name is Riku.”

In a rush, the warmth blazed through Sora again, direct, gentle, curious, and, at long last, he knew something.

He knew ‘Riku’. And in knowing Riku, he knew himself. Sora. Where he had been a nothing, now he was a something. He knew existence.

He listened keenly, from then on, for Riku, at all times, and Riku was never far away. Their minds touched again and again, Sora slowly learning, awareness swelling little by little. The dream continued, endless and soft, but at no point did Sora feel afraid, or alone, because Riku would always come and speak his name, and remind him, all over again, that he was Sora, and Riku was Riku.

He did, at one point, feel an edge of coldness insert itself between the two of them, and during that time Riku was heard only at a distance. Throughout this period, Sora simply waited. He knew, by now, the measure of the heart that was his constant companion, and knew, without wondering, that the warmth would return. And it did; when the waiting was over, Riku was near again, his voice in Sora’s consciousness loud again, all-encompassing again. Riku, who was the universe, who was knowledge, who was a ‘best friend’ and wouldn’t let Sora sink, or fade, would never let the cold arise again.

Once more, the dream went on. Sora hung in place, suspended in emptiness yet full on the inside, aware that darkness existed but that it couldn’t claim him, because the light that was Riku was always close at hand. Even when Riku’s presence started to shift and change, even when the light changed with him, dimming yet somehow becoming more powerful, Sora knew he was there, and that he was safe.

As the dream progressed, though, Riku’s voice became patchy – fading in and out, Sora sometimes flickering, hearing Riku as if through a tunnel. There were times… when he couldn’t feel Riku at all, and something cold seemed to sniff its way closer to where he hung. Riku’s voice would inevitably break through again, coax him back towards the light, and Sora would forget, for a while, that the darkness was seeking. He would bask in Riku, and know himself. But that shadow was there, hovering in the background, seeming to wait for him as he had once waited for Riku – with a sense of inevitability.

Then came the time when Riku was hardly near at all, and Sora almost came to know loneliness. Had it not been that when Riku did return to him, it was always with a burst of some emotion that Sora could not identify but which cradled him nonetheless, creating something akin to joy within him, he might have, around this time, drifted away. He felt it – the effort required to remain with Riku. He felt it developing the longer the dream stretched on, as if at some point it might end, and Riku’s voice would be gone forever. Sora resisted, but as the effort to stay grew more demanding, so too did his ability to remain start to waver. He could… feel… the end of the dream. It stood somewhere in the distance. If Sora allowed it, it could have occurred at any moment.

But – Riku.

He didn’t want to forget Riku, and return the emptiness that had existed before Riku’s voice. He didn’t want the world to change

But then… the world changed anyway. The world was changed for him. He heard Riku’s voice twice, just before the end: the first time, it was to utter words that Sora failed to comprehend. “I love you.” Sora couldn’t figure this out, and so said nothing. He did not know the word ‘love’. He knew of ‘best friends’, he knew of ‘fading’ and ‘sinking’, he knew of ‘Grandfather Yen Sid’ and a whole host of other words, names, and things connected to the warmth and the light – but ‘love’ was new. It sat like a rock inside Sora’s consciousness, as something that he was certain he had known, once upon a time, but could no longer find within himself.

The second time Riku spoke before the end, it was to break through a terrible crushing weight that had come over Sora. He knew not where it came from, or why, but it felt like being torn apart. It took every ounce of his energy to hold his being together. Every second was a struggle that seemed to last an eternity, and within it, Sora knew fear, because he couldn’t sense Riku anymore. He wondered, at this time, if Riku had abandoned him, if the cold that had once existed had split them apart. Sora wondered, for the first time, if Riku was lost to him, and darkness had won.

But then Riku broke through, one final time, voice weak and distant, and told him, “You’re not doing this alone. You don’t have to be afraid.”

And so, Sora listened, and didn’t fear. If Riku told him he wasn’t alone, then he wasn’t alone.

With that, the universe ended, and was reborn.

For several days, the dream seemed to continue – he knew haziness, he knew disconnection, he knew confusion. Not only that, but Riku’s voice was there, making Sora wonder if anything had changed, after all. But Riku was different, somehow, now; his voice was clearer, and while it didn’t connect with Sora’s mind and appear to him as a light anymore, it did start a heat in his chest, a strange throbbing that he had forgotten entirely until now. Heart, his mind whispered to itself. When he felt pain, in his head and in his throat, it told him, body. Body – he remembered what a body was. He remembered flesh, and fingers, and toes, and hair, and eyes, and shoulders. He remembered slipping on a crumbling edge and falling into darkness. He remembered dreaming.

Bit by bit, Sora climbed the layers of his consciousness, remembering, with each plateau, just how it all worked. Remembering that existence was more than a dream.

At the second to last layer, Riku’s voice became like a beacon, a constant drone in the background, saying words Sora didn’t quite understand but providing a point of reference, so that he knew up from down, inside from outside, knew that he was sleeping but no longer dreaming, knew that wakefulness was within reach.

And, at long last, he knew what Riku had meant when he’d spoken of love.

With a breath, Sora opened his eyes, and found himself in bed in a small, circular room. He saw a window, through which the sun was setting, sending piercing light through the glass panes. When Sora followed the light with his eyes, turning his head slowly, he found that it stopped on a long-haired figure on a chair beside his bed, a young man with his eyes cast down onto a book, from which he read aloud, without much expression but with a sense of determination, as if he would not stop until he had run out of pages. The sunshine looked warm against his skin.

Clumsily, feeling like it was the first time in a very long time that he was doing so, Sora moved his hand, creeping it along the blanket, the motion catching the young man’s attention from the corner of his eye. He turned his face to Sora, expression freezing, the words dying in his throat. His eyes were wide, and lovely. He was the first person in Sora’s universe twice now, once by sound, once by sight.

His hand completed its trek across the bed, reaching out towards the boy, who, with a stricken expression, extended a hand of his own, holding Sora’s tightly. He seemed unable, now that he had stopped reading, to find the words to say out loud, but after so long of listening to Riku, so long of dreaming, Sora felt that it was his turn, anyway.

The first words that Sora spoke into the new universe were, “I love you, too.”

And, at long last, rather than feeling the warmth of Riku’s voice, he was now able to know the soaring joy of seeing him smile.